February 25, 2010

Oscar thoughts: are film professionals qualified to judge their own kind?

The concept of Oscar voting is simple, at least at a basic level: people vote for their own. Directors vote for the directing category, editors vote for the editing category, makeup artists vote for makeup (the exceptions are Best Picture, which is voted on by everyone, and some of the other "best film" categories, which have committees). It makes sense in theory: people in that line of work should be able to recognize a job well done. But I'm starting to wonder - can they?

Certain trends emerge. The win in the costume category always goes to a period piece with gowns if there is one. The editing award more often than not goes to the nominee with the shortest average shot length. Sound editing/mixing goes to the loudest movie. And acting, well, it's quite well-documented that there are basically four types of wins: The Underdog/Cinderella Story/Comeback Actor, The Historical Figure/Biopic, The "So and So Doesn't Have an Oscar Yet? Let's Give Them One," and the Caricature (extreme physical transformation or a particularly histrionic role). If these are truly the people most informed about their craft, wouldn't they be the first to break these patterns and be vocal about the fact that those are not the only ways to excel in that field? Where are the costume designers standing up and saying that it's just as hard and creative to design costumes for The Devil Wears Prada or Milk as it is for Marie Antoinette? Or that in editing, sometimes the art is in having long shots? Cinematographers this year apparently don't even know the definition of cinematography - they nominated Avatar, of which more than half is completely animated and apparently the other half just looks lame (see my boyfriend's analysis of that weak move here).

And actors. Oh, actors. Acting is a very subjective thing to judge, don't get me wrong. But 20% of the Academy is comprised of actors, over 1000 people. And of them, how many have formal training? How many are actually huge movie lovers? How many are just paycheck actors, who discovered that people throw money at them when they grace a screen? The Academy doesn't disclose its full list of members, but from press releases of new members I can glean that their ranks include such names as Seth Rogen, Hugh Jackman, Paul Rudd, Jet Li, Jennifer Aniston, and Dakota Fanning. Now before you scream at me and start listing off great roles by these people, let me state that I find them all quite affable - hell, Paul Rudd is my number one celebrity crush - but they are not Brandos or Streeps. And for that matter, what does Streep know about acting? Not about doing it, which she's obviously very adept at, but judging it in someone else is really a different skill set. It's a similar story with directors - how many actually know what they're doing and can recognize talent in others? From the same press releases, I can see names like DJ Caruso, Peyton Reed, Peter Berg, David Frankel and Mark Waters, who work almost exclusively in the genres of generically lame action or romance movies that are ironically siphoning viewers away from Oscar-nominated fare. What do they know about the craft of directing?

This is my point. I feel that perhaps when people vote on their own kind like this, they're limited to viewing candidates through the prism of their own skills, weaknesses, and experience. Having a talent doesn't automatically make you able to recognize it in others. That's why I often find awards from critics' groups and hell, even the Golden Globes to be more dynamic, varied and well, accurate - because they come from people whose sole job description is to study and critique film. They're also distanced enough from the Hollywood game to not be swayed by its politics - how many people won't vote for James Cameron because they think he's a jerk, or will vote for Sandra Bullock because gosh, she's just such a nice person and she should just win by now? I don't mind the Oscars existing - it's fine to have an awards show voted on by your peers - but it seems strange and unqualified that it became the definitive award.

Also, actors and film people are some of the most absurdly busy people imaginable. They never have time to see all, or even half of the nominated films or performances. So we're asking the group least likely and able to see all these films to vote on them. And finally, having everyone vote for Best Picture? Most of the Academy works on such a small and focused sector of production that they may not be good at judging what makes a good film on the whole. Like, what qualifies a makeup artist to help select the best film of the year over someone in another creative field, like a graphic designer? I understand the mentality that if you get everyone together who is involved in making a movie and have them vote, you'll hear all the voices of production and have a well-rounded outcome. But does it actually work that way, or do you just get a lot of input from people limited to their own expertise? And did you know that PR people and other executives who cannot vote in any other category are allowed to vote for Best Picture? Um, conflict of interest much? Wouldn't they just vote for the films from their own studio so they get more money?

I still watch the Oscars with great interest and will continue to do so. While I don't whine and call the ceremony "just rich people congratulating themselves" as many do, I no longer consider them the last word, the authority in cinema. It's more of a bizarre sociological experiment, and I predict winners on my ballot by way of convoluted psychological explanations. The Academy Awards aren't concrete, they're symbolic. They're given for careers, personalities, or as a sign of the times. And rarely do I get really worked up about any one nominee, but this year that symbolic nature can be used for good in giving Kathryn Bigelow the statue for Best Director. It can kickstart the mountain of reparations that Hollywood owes women, and it couldn't be for a more deserving candidate.

What do you think? Is the Academy qualified enough to vote for itself?

February 20, 2010

Context-free delights! #1

So sometimes when film bloggers can't think of something to write about, they post a great movie clip. That's totally fine, but I often find that the clip is either too long, doesn't work out of context or spoils things in movies that are just worth seeing in full. Not wanting to be left out of a lazy but rewarding type of blogging, however, I've devised my own system: post musical numbers that are under five minutes long and can be enjoyed completely out of context. What better way to brighten your day, or take a study or work break? Some of these movies I will have seen, others I'll have just seen the clips. I call them context-free delights. Let's begin!

For the inaugural clip, I've chosen the "Steam Heat" number from The Pajama Game (1957), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by the inimitable Bob Fosse. While this is not necessary information, it's fun trivia: the redhead woman in the number is Carol Haney, who was in the original play on Broadway. When she fell ill at one point during the run, her understudy filled in, who happened to be Shirley MacLaine. Hal Wallis was in the audience and gave her a contract on the spot. If you want to see Haney's other talents besides inadvertently launching careers, enjoy the clip below.

February 19, 2010

What are the weirdest Best Picture nominees in history?

While doinking around on the internet, I found an article called "Is A Serious Man the weirdest movie ever nominated for Best Picture?". I expected to find the piece comparing ASM to nominees of yore, but instead it was just a straight review/analysis of the movie's weirdness, which is fine. But it got me thinking...what other truly weird films have been nominated for Best Picture? The Academy has a reputation for playing it safe, but every once in a while something will slip through the cracks (and I'm talking about movies that are intrinsically weird, not "isn't it weird that it got nominated?"). Below, some of the great weird nominees, some of which are so canonized you may have never stopped to think how weird they truly are (in chronological order):

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
All fantasy films are inherently a little kooky, because they can make up their own rules of reality. But what makes this seem stranger than, say, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films is that the world is decidedly less cohesive, probably because it's all in a young girl's subconscious (SPOILER ALERT!). Tin men, scarecrows, lions, midgets, witches, flying monkeys, ruby slippers, and a "wizard" with a strange complex sound pretty nonsensical on paper and, well, it's pretty nonsensical on screen too - but it's so charming and captivating that it became a classic anyway.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder was Lynchian before Lynch was. It's a self-referential, gothic comedy of decay...can that phrase be used to describe any other movie ever made?! In being a part of the Wilder canon, which includes the sparkling, madcap comedy of Some Like It Hot and the bittersweet wistfulness of The Apartment, audiences can forget how truly strange this film is. I mean, when we first meet Norma Desmond, she's having a funeral for a monkey. A FUNERAL FOR A MONKEY. Like A Serious Man, people often have no idea what to make of this film's tone, or have vastly differing interpretations. That, to me, is a sign of truly dynamic cinema.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I recently saw this film for the first time (no use berating me...I saw it, didn't I?) and for the first 25 or so minutes I absolutely could not believe it was considered a classic. It's certainly not unworthy of that distinction, but what I mean is how did something so out-there become a must-see of American cinema unquestionaly endorsed by everyone (even the stuffy and polite suits at the AFI)? It becomes distinctly less bizarre after the beginning, but that sets the mood for an unparalleled psychadelic and ultraviolent journey. The only thing that could have made it weirder is if the menage-a-trois scene was shown as originally filmed - an unbroken, 28-minute take!

Cries and Whispers (1973)
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I have not seen this movie. But I did see a clip. And even if the rest of the movie is a formulaic romantic comedy (which yes, I know it's not), that clip alone guarantees its inclusion here. Any film featuring a heavily arranged soundtrack of screams and heartbeats is usually way too out-there for Oscar. Maybe the prestige factor of Bergman secured the spot?

Taxi Driver (1976)
Movies that can be accurately classified as "feverish nightmares" don't usually score too well with the Academy, but the 70s were a different time, I guess. What solidifies the weirdness most of all is the false-note happy ending that resonates similarly to the ending of Blue Velvet - is he dead? Dreaming? What just happened, exactly?

All That Jazz (1979)
A jazzy, autobiographical musical about death. Yup. Again, that phrase describes exactly zero other movies.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
If this film seems pedestrian now, it's only because it spawned a million imitators and its style became the norm. Let's add up the elements: man-rape in a torture dungeon, soliloquies about cheeseburgers and foot massages, a hitman finding God, a man called in specifically to teach two formerly-tough hitmen how to clean a car. It's nuts!

And that's just what I know of. The 20s or even the 80s have many now-obscure nominees that may contain volumes of weirdness. So it looks like A Serious Man has some pretty awesome company, and it goes to show that sometimes, when the stars align, the Academy will recognize great films outside the usual comfort zone.

What Best Picture nominees do you find weird? (If you need your memory jogged, the full list of nominees and winners is here.)

February 17, 2010

What made you first realize the potential and/or power of film?

For today's post I'm going to dive into a bit of personal history, hopefully encouraging others to do the same and share. I'm talking specifically about when I first learned that movies could be more than flickering images and fleeting entertainment.

As a kid, I didn't really care about movies - at least no more than other kids. I dug the classic Disney fare and such, but strangely, I was at no point in my childhood or adolescence exposed to the movies considered nostalgic staples of my generation. I'm talking Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, ET. I don't know how this happened. I don't take any personal responsibility (for that time) because those are the films that your parents or peers sit you down to watch. And they just didn't. The closest I came was sort-of watching Back to the Future II at a sleepover while drifting in and out of consciousness.

I think the first step to discovering greatness in cinema is discovering awfulness. I remember starting to think somewhere in the 11 or 12 year old range that some of the goofy comedies I was seeing with groups of friends were objectively bad. I didn't dare voice this out loud, of course.

But the movie that opened my eyes and changed everything was The Royal Tenenbaums.

Before that, it didn't occur to me that movies could have style. Movies were just vehicles for things happening and people doing things. They were a contained dojo where characters went to fight and fall in love. But the idea that some hand of God (the director, I later learned) could guide these proceedings and imbue them with a unique perspective? Revolutionary!

Watching it on DVD alone in the basement of my newly-divorced dad's house, age 15, I was entranced by the bizarre cast of characters with their strange affectations, interspersed with dead-on inserts of objects and people. It was like nothing I had ever seen. And yeah, I understand it's not exactly Eisenstein or Godard, but you gotta start somewhere.

When my dad casually asked what I thought of whatever that movie was that I watched, I literally lacked the vocabulary to describe it. I remember my reply very distinctly, for two reasons: 1) looking back, it was kind of silly and 2) my dad mocked me mercilessly for it (in a mean-spirited way). What I said was: "The cinematography was very...crisp."

Crisp. This was all I could muster to describe what I had witnessed. Sharp, dead-on shots...I mean, I suppose it's not a terrible description from someone who doesn't know any better.

A less influential but still memorable footnote in my cinephile development was when I discovered realism in filmmaking. This happened when I watched Soderbergh's Traffic, which I was forced to watch by my dad so I wouldn't do drugs. (Where the perceived risk was in a straight-A student with straitlaced friends, I don't know.) I remember being struck by the verite style, and delivering this rather poorly stated verdict after viewing: "For the part that was supposed to be rich soccer moms hanging out, it REALLY SEEMED like there were rich soccer moms hanging out." That's actually kind of a big revelation after you get used to the strange rules of the cinematic dojo, where you just accept that every kiss is accompanied by an orchestral swell and everyone is strangely articulate and on-the-nose.

From there my fate was set. I started to seek out indies voraciously. There were four major obstacles to that goal: 1) I lived in the suburbs and the closest remnant of culture was a mall and multiplex a 25-minute drive away 2) I didn't have a car 3) my parents were not remotely interested in any of these films or facilitating me seeing them and 4) neither were my friends. Thank God for DVD. I started watching now-forgotten indies like The Good Girl and Pumpkin, finding out about them from the newspaper. I was almost more open-minded then, because in my desire to devour as many indies as possible I was less snobby about how good they were rumored to be. It was okay as long as they were trying. My father responded to this newfound interest by saying things like "Oh, we'll be in here watching Armageddon, but you'll hate it because it's not artsy." This is a challenge I continue to face for my tastes. Now, however, I at least have a kindred spirit in my boyfriend, who not only is a fellow cinephile but also attributes his love of film to the first time he saw The Royal Tenenbaums. Awww.

So, what's your story? When did you realize / what made you realize the potential of film beyond the formulaic fare at the multiplex?

February 15, 2010

Great performances by actors outside of their peak years

I'm always intrigued by actors who have great performances in films that come years or even decades after their "prime." Sometimes they're doing the exact same thing, just a little older and wiser. Other times they have to learn completely new acting styles. Here are some of the most impressive examples I can think of, whether it be continuing a persona or inventing a completely new one.

1. Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This was the performance that gave me the idea for the post. Seeing Peter Yates' long-lost treasure for the first time, I was stunned at the transformation Mitchum had made. A stock tough guy of 40s and 50s noirs, his trademark was his cool aloofness. He was hardly "method" by any means, and though he was always a magnetic screen presence you could never quite tell if he was playing detached or was just bored. As the title character in Eddie Coyle, however, he transmutes that into a totally naturalistic, world-weary character with a bit of warmth. Instead of playing a cool guy on top, he's now at the bottom being kicked around by life.

2. Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)

Temple pretty much wrote the book on child stardom, being the top box-office draw for three years in the 30s. She started acting at age 5 and was essentially done at age 21. Most will always remember her as a bouncy little girl, but if you want a glimpse at what could have been if she stuck with Hollywood, check out this screwball comedy. As a lovelorn teenager, Temple demonstrates alarmingly good comedic timing and holds her own opposite Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. But then she simply had to go and help the world or something...lame.

3. Cary Grant in Charade (1963)

Cary Grant never truly stopped being Cary Grant - but there were a few different degrees. Take Classic Grant and subtract about 50% of the roguish flirtatiousness, because he's older now and that would be gross, and you get Older Grant. In earlier drafts of the screenplay, Grant's character was much more aggressive with Audrey Hepburn, so he only agreed to take the role if she was made to be the aggressive one. It worked. Grant still has every ounce of charm, just in a more refined way.

4. Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952)
The transition to sound ruined a lot of careers, but Chaplin's was not among them. He clung to silents well past their general extinction, but when he did give sound a whirl (or rather, dialogue - Modern Times was playing around with sound effects in 1936) with The Great Dictator, he proved to be every bit as effective. TGD still relied heavily on physical comedy, however, so the real surprise was his delicate acting style of the two films mentioned above. Hearing Chaplin speak seems almost blasphemous at first, but once you get used to it he appears to operating in a distinct British comedy style - think Oscar Wilde. In Verdoux he is the title character, a soft-spoken Bluebeard who marries and murders rich women for their money so he can support his "real" family. In Limelight, he goes self-reflexive to play an aging vaudeville star in a downright melodrama. The weariness of years of clowning hangs from his face, and his gives his ballerina protege sweet advice about life. You can't really say you know Chaplin until you've seen his later roles in addition to his manic early ones.

5. Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Faced with casting the role of Irene Hoffman, a woman who became infamously wrapped up in a case of "racial pollution" for having alleged relations with a Jew during WWII, someone thought to cast Judy Garland and that someone was brilliant. Known in the 40s for her super-bubbly, virginal roles in musicals, she packs a huge punch to the gut as an old, beaten-down woman who, though not Jewish herself, was another of the Holocaust's many victims. Acting-wise, this was probably much less of a stretch for Garland than her cheerful roles, due to her miserable, drug-addled personal life. Whatever the case, it's a knockout.

6. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Okay, admittedly I haven't seen Swanson in any of the films from her peak years in the silent era. But I don't have to in order to make my point - it's a simple fact that during these years, Swanson almost always played a sexy vamp. The profound inversion of her persona that results in Norma Desmond is one of the more genius moves in the history of cinema. Is she playing herself? Does Gloria Swanson really sit around all day and watch her old movies in a decaying mansion? Maybe! She was astoundingly prolific during the silent era, but struggled for roles afterwards. This movie could be a virtual documentary for all we really know.

7. Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Typical blustering and pathetic Jack Lemmon character + time = more blustering and pathetic. Where he was just kind of a pitiable nerd in The Apartment, by GGR the years added to his persona make him a full-fledged sad sack. Not that that's a bad thing - few do sad sack better than Lemmon. His performance punches your heart in the face.

What are your favorite post-prime performances?

February 13, 2010


I redesigned the blog! By redisgned, I mean picked a new Blogger template and scooted stuff around. I got all cocky from reading some hacks on the internet but it turns out I'm not destined to be a programmer, so this is about as fancy as it will get. I also added a banner up top with images from some of my favorite movies, and anyone who guesses them correctly wins...bragging rights. Enjoy what I hope is a more aesthetically pleasing blog experience!

February 8, 2010

The power of the face in cinema

In film school, one of our required courses was called "Media Criticism and Theory." I had it with arguably the worst of the professors teaching it, a guy so inexplicably consumed with white guilt that he had us read all these weird and highly irrelevant essays about how white people were ruining everything. But one thing stuck with me, and that was from critic/writer/essayist Walter Benjamin in his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Essentially, the bit was (or so my professor summarized) that in this wacky industrial age of art, the only thing that can maintain an "aura," or captivating presence, is the human face. I went and re-read the essay today and am actually having trouble finding where it says that (you can slog through it yourself here). The closest it comes is talking about the aura emanating from old-timey photographs of dead people. But even if both my professor and I interpreted it wrong, I stand by it as the truth.

It makes sense that human faces would be universally captivating. Faces are essentially the first thing that babies recognize. A study found that babies, MINUTES after birth, preferred looking at pictures of human faces over other subjects (side note: where do you get the babies for this research? "Excuse me, ma'am, may I borrow your newborn? It'll just be a moment..."). Personally, I've always been drawn to faces in art and photography - I just find it more interesting, as something I feel fundamentally connected to. It's a living person, not a bowl of fruit (which isn't to belittle still life).

So what does this have to do with cinema specifically? Well, I tend to think that the human face is the first and last great spectacle on the screen. What other object of focus can make you laugh, cry, shudder, or experience virtually any other emotion? (And not the movie as a whole - just a shot of something.) I'm not even involving words or sound in the equation - just the image of the face. Any number of comedians have elastic faces that can make you laugh, dramatic actors have emotional faces that can make you cry, and a range of people have faces that are frightening by themselves or with a little help from makeup. Think how powerful that is.

The reason this popped into my head recently was from watching two very different performances directed by two directors who just "got" the face thing. The first is obvious; the second, less so.

I saw Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc for the first time last week and was blown away. Here is a silent film from 1928 that features mostly close-ups of makeup-free faces to tell the story of Joan of Arc. Renee Jeanne Falconetti, as the title character, gives what Pauline Kael called "maybe the finest performance ever recorded on film," all without speaking a word. How? Well, Joan of Arc was alternately thought to be crazy and schizophrenic or a saint, the daughter of God. Falconetti communicates all this and more with her bleak, frenetic, fearful, tear-stained, hysterical, pious face. It has more impact than a thousand on-screen explosions or sex scenes. It was art, but also a spectacle in its own way. I was transfixed like I haven't been for much more complex visuals.

I also watched the little-known film Love Me or Leave Me last week, which stars Doris Day and James Cagney and tells the true story of 1920s singer Ruth Etting. I highly recommend it, since it blasts open the 50s, the biopic, and Doris Day's persona to show a bickering, loveless marriage and a moral conundrum of fame where no one is right. Naturally, being a film about a singer, there are many scenes of Day singing (not in the style of a musical - more the straightforward depiction of a Walk the Line or Ray). This was the first Doris Day film I had seen, and I know she's considered a bit of a lightweight actress but definitely not in this one. The director, Charles Vidor, could have really spiked up the musical numbers and made it more musical-esque (and there are a couple of those, but only because they take place at the Ziegfeld Follies), but mostly he just lets Day speak for herself. I'm not a big fan of concerts and usually for me watching someone sing is about as worthwhile as listening to a painting, but I was entranced. From the jubilance in her eyes for "Stay on the Right Side, Sister" to the mournful and self-protecting stance of "Ten Cents a Dance," she imbues every song, no matter how standard, with a deep meaning.

I must be in the minority on this one, otherwise blockbusters would be more in the style of Bergman than Bay. But sometimes, the power of the face catches on with the general public. Even the fanboys and/or Middle America connected to Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that relied heavily on dialogue and body language but was also fairly face-oriented, I would say (beyond the makeup,too - the crazy eyes, the tics, the restless mouth). And what about one of this year's breakout roles - Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa? Sure, we love to hear him dissect and prance about his dialogue, but would the performance be half of what it was without his facial gymnastics? Tarantino, for all his cuts and mayhem, left the camera pretty stable on Landa so he could just work the audience. If you still don't understand what I mean, think of it this way: I could watch those performances on mute and still find them pretty compelling.

Maybe, someday in the future, when we've exhausted all the possibilities for car chases and blowing things up, there'll be a sort of reset and we'll come to embrace the ultimate spectacle again. I can dream, right?

What are some silver screen faces you've been drawn to?