plus que ca change...

So, I guess I called everything. You would think I would be happy about that, but it's sort of a hollow victory because it means the show was much less exciting than I had anticipated. There was no long march to victory like Lord of the Rings's last year, though. When you think about it, it really is weird that The Aviator won in so many technical categories but was shut out of the big ones. I guess my analysis was correct: people recognized that Aviator is a very accomplished film, but they couldn't love it, whereas M$B had heart.

Here are some thoughts:
  • Chris Rock was the best thing about the broadcast. Two of his showpiece bits were priceless: contrasting George Bush's job performance with an employee at The Gap and the video segment where he interviewed black moviegoers at a downtown L.A. theater. What was so refreshing about material like that was the way that it provocatively, but entertainingly, called our attention to the great divorce between the Academy and the world outside, the gulf between white and black culture, etc. On the money, socially relevant but never preachy. The Bush jokes were great becuase the comparison itself spoke so much about American unfairness. Why isn't the President of the United States held to the same standards as an entry-level retail employee? It's the Bush economy that forces people into those jobs anyway. Rock was great, too, for smaller bits, like the bold way in which he would announce the presenters ("The only woman in Hollywood to breastfeed an Apple--Gwyneth Paltrow" etc.) Bring him back again!
  • I was prepared to be angry at Gil Cates for forcing people to accept awards in the aisles and to stand like fools on the stage as the winner was announced, but somehow my ire was never raised. Maybe because the nominees themselves didn't seem to mind. Yes, it made the show a bit shorter (when I looked at my watch after Best Picture had been announced it was a good 30-40 minutes earlier than usual) but the show didn't necessarily feel shorter. Even though all that time had been shaved off, some things still seemed interminable -- like the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award presentation. And why did they have Scarlett Johansen and the Technical fogeys up in the balcony? Those guys had already recieved their awards earlier in the week -- and still they weren't allowed on the stage? Call me a traditionalist (often!), but it just didn't seem like Oscar Night to see Cate Blanchett striding through the theater and stopping halfway down the aisle to deliver her remarks. It made the presenters look out of place. Find some other way to make it shorter.
  • Speaking of Ms. Blanchett I'm glad she's receiving the recognition she so definitely deserves but I'm a bit sad that her first Oscar is a supporting one and that it's for a stunt performance (albeit a great stunt). Her acceptance speech? I'd give it a B -- she had poise, but none of Emma Thompson's well polished wit and wisdom. I know some people find ET's style precious but I love a well-prepared speech and Cate kind of dropped the ball. If, though, as she wished for, her career can have anything like the 'longevity' of Hepburn's, we should see her up on the stage (and hopefully not in the aisle) again.
  • Jamie Foxx, on the other hand won me over. I'm was pretty much unfamiliar with his acting, but his speech was great (and he's sexy). The singing bit at the beginning, but most of all the Poitier impression, which was both a big risk and incredibly precise. What a "gay" thing (and I mean that in the best possible sense) for a straight black actor to do when winning an Oscar! (That would be like me doing my Emma impression when I win. Sort of.) Yeah, he fell back on the traditional black-actor-thanks-God-and-his-Mama schtick but it was good. Overall, I loved how the ascendency of black people at this year's awards was woven into the fabric of the ceremony rather than commented upon every few minutes (as it was when Denzel and Halle won). A sign, I hope, that black nominees and winners will become much more common (assuming that they keep getting good roles).
  • God, Sean Penn must be a really tiresome person to be around! He looked all rebellious without a tie but his little "yeah, you wanna fight?" remark to Chris Rock about his gentle mockery of Jude Law was reminscent of old school Hollywood thuggery of the kind once practiced by arch-conservatives like Sinatra. (I'm thinking of when Frank and Bob Hope almost challenged the anti-Vietnam documenary winners to a fistfight in the 70s). As far as on-stage verbal dissing goes, Penn's remarks were pretty lame. Gone are the days of Paddy Chayevsky's public putdown of Vannessa Redgrave. Alas.
  • The Best Song nominees were an incredibly eclectic bunch, which made the overproduced numbers somewhat more tolerable. I left like Beyonce's three-songs-in-three-different-outfits routine was like an audition for a leading role in a new movie musical, and I'd love to see her do it. Somebody (other than Andrew Lloyd Weber) write it for her, please!
  • As most of attendees of my Oscar parties know, my favorite part of any Oscar show is the "necrology" (better known as the Dead-person-montage) and this year they tried the highbrow route with a live cello performance by Yo-Yo Ma. Sorry, but the bathos of that only works if they play tear-jerker Hollywood music (Terms of Endearment works best, but I'll settle for, say, Legends of the Fall). And for those who questioned why Marlon Brando didn't get his own montage? Well, Oscar voters are old and they have long memories. Most of last night's viewers might not remember Sacheen Littlefeather but you can bet that Gil Cates and crew do. (In fact, weren't you amazed that one of the prodcuers of M$B, Al Ruddy, had also produced The Godfather? There are a lot of old people out there in Hollywood. Esther Williams, we love you!). You spurn Oscar and it does not go unpunished. Which is why Marty will definitely receive an honorary award someday. He has trotted himself out there too many times to pay tribute to people like Stanley Donen or that film preservation guy to be completely shut out. He's too well-behaved to never get nothin.' (As, for snubs, how about no mention of Arthur Miller in the montage? True none of his plays was ever made into a successful movie, but he did write The Misfits and he got a nomination for the screenplay of The Crucible. Attention was not paid.)
  • What would I have preferred? To tell you the truth, I would have loved more old-fogey bullshit like Oscar's Family Album from the 2002 Awards (which still get my vote for the most entertaining telecast in recent memory). I have contradictory tastes: I want to see Chris Rock again but I also want to see Julie Andrews and Olivia DeHavilland. Maybe they could all host it together. As Olivia might say, "Oh, why not!"

As usual, Oscar Night was most memorable for the wonderful (and plentiful) guests who came over for bean dip, quips and fellowship. I love you all -- and I love my far-flung friends in California, Oregon, Arkansas, Denver, Paris and England who were with me in spirit. Maybe some year I could devise some kind of a simulcast system and we could all feel a little bit closer (like Natalie Portman and Clive Owen).

It turned out that I, by guessing every major category correctly, won my own Oscar pool (a whopping $23), which may seem a little tacky, but what can I say? Everybody else got one wrong! I'll give the money to charity (maybe I'll use it to promote film preservation and then I can someday win the Jean Hersholt Award). I love the collective mania that comes over the party as we watch the awards, I love explaining references to treasured telecasts in the past ("Tonight, my Golden Boy, you got your wish!"). There was very little on the TV screen this year that will enter into the lore (Barbra calling out for her reading glasses was about as close as it came), but I don't think I'll ever forget the vision of the Menno House living room filled to the brim with people from every different sphere of my life (cue Terms of Endearment). There are fewer and fewer people around who appreciate the old stars and the old stuff (the honorary awards will soon be going to 70s directors like Altman and Scorsese). Times change and so do awards show formats, but some things never fade. See you next year!


no more fingernails

I have a blog and it's Oscar Night, so I have to bite the bullet and make some FINAL predictions. Of course, if I'm wrong my choices are here for all the world to see, but I think I'm mature enough to handle that.

This is an extremely hard year to call. Prognosticators all over the web are providing caveats and alternative choices, warning that they're very likely to be wrong. I have the distinct feeling that there will be some kind of an upset tonight (don't take your eye off Imelda Staunton), but you can't invoke the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in cases like this. A smart man once told me to always go with the conventional wisdom when making Oscar picks because you can't predict the unpredictable. So here we go:

  • BEST ACTOR: Jamie Foxx
  • BEST ACTRESS: Hilary Swank
  • BEST DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
  • BEST PICTURE: Million Dollar Baby

It's gonna be a nailbiter. Pay attention to some key awards: if M$B wins for Editing or Adapted Screenplay, then it's a shoe-in for Best Picture. The Aviator could win a bunch of technical awards and still come up short (as I predict above). Tonight is the show-down between Marty and Clint and we won't know the results until the bitter end...


E-Z 4 who?

The other day I was trying to get a bunch of State and Federal tax returns to birng to the building where I work and distribute them to my tenants at a Tax Information Session. Like all good citizens, I knew that you could pick up 1040s at the Post Office. I went to two post offices to no avail and was informed, "The Post Office doesn't give out the forms anymore. If you have a computer you can print them off the website."

The advantages of e-filing are numerous: it's more environmentally friendly, it cuts down on the time you have to wait for your refund to be sent to you. Clearly, the government is trying to encourage everyone to switch to this new method. But I was viewing this process through the prism of my tenants' experiences. Where can a low-income person, who doesn't have an internet connection, e-file? There are free Internet connections at many public libraries but signup lists are long, time is limited and one is not usually allowed to print off large numbers of pages. People who have filed taxes in the past have a paper copy of the forms mailed to their most recent address, but how does that help transient people, like the chronically homeless, who move from one address to another?

It turns out that (at least in New York City) there's a pretty extensive network of sites where free tax preparation occurs, where volunteer tax preparers help people to access the Internet, teach them about the Earned Income Tax Credit and make the whole process easier. But the situation got me thinking about a larger cultural phenomenon.

In even the past couple of years, use of the Internet has expanded rapidly. The hot new businesses in New York these days are Netflix and FreshDirect, which deliver DVDs and groceries right to your door. The Internet is revolutionizing the way you make purchases, file your taxes, conduct your banking -- but the revolution is a bourgeois phenomenon. Internet commerce is based entirely on the use of a credit card and there are not many tenants in my building who have one.

As this Interet revolution continues, as it becomes less and less of an elective luxury and more of a way in which all business, including civic business, is conducted, who will be looking out for the people left behind: the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill? Remember the flap last year about the new Medicare bill, about how all the information about the different plans was available on websites that few senior citizens had the skills to access? As we become a cyber-culture, what programs exist to give everyone access to the Net and the skills to navigate it?

Thinking about all of this, and about the proposed Social Security reform package, makes me realize just how many people will inevitably be excluded from President Bush's "ownership society." As we march ever faster towards a future of individualism, the title of the "Left Behind" book series takes on a whole new connotation.


what's there and gone

For a little less than a year, I've been aware of Jonathan Lethem. My life keeps circling around his work and connecting unintentionally with it. I was first conscious of this when I started falling in love with his recent novel The Fortress of Solitude (if you've seen me since last summer, I probably lent it to you). When I read one passage in the book, about a young boy going obsessively by himself to see screenings of Star Wars in the summer of 1977, it reminded me of a short personal essay I'd read two years before in The New Yorker and been so moved by that I saved the issue. I went back and checked -- the essay had indeed been by Lethem.

So now, Jonathan (it's pronounced Lee-them, by the way, which I don't like as much as the other option) has written another "Personal History" in this week's New Yorker (I'd give you the link, but it's not on the online edition). It's called "Beards" and anyone who's read Fortress will recognize Lethemesque tropes: an obsessive catalogging of works of popular art, grief at the loss of a mother. He can be an ungainly writer, especially when he's going on and on about some Brian Eno song you've never heard (that, in fact, is how this essay begins), but there's such heart in what he writes, and it tends to swamp you at certain moments, that you end up loving it the way you love a member of your family, annoying tics and all.

Though he's Jewish, thirtysomething and straight with an encycolpedic knowledge of both drugs and popular music, he sometimes feels like my alter ego. (I feel an even stronger connection to him after seeing him read in person at the Brooklyn Public Library.) I think it has to do with the "death of the mother" thing, which is apparently only recently emerging into the forefront of his fiction. My mother's death, or more specifically the noticeable lack of her, her ever-present non-existence in my life, has always been a hidden subject in my writing. It has been a sort of key that unlocks riddles about me generally. In this New Yorker essay, Lethem writes that all of his novels are "fuelled by loss." "I find myself speaking about my mother's death everywhere I go in this world," he says.

This New Yorker essay is almost painfully self-analytical, picking apart not only his family history but his own writing style and process. He even seems to assume of the reader some previous knowledge of his biography, or else just doesn't think it needs to be explained. I don't know if anyone who hasn't read his other work is likely to push through to the end of this one, but the last several sections (beginning with the one entitled "Fear of Music") are splendid. As in Fortress, one has to take the flat parts with the rich ones -- that's the way it works.

Here's a particualrly beatiful section, that certainly applies to a lot of other people I know who write:

Since then, I believe it would be fair to say, I've been in a hurry. Writing is another meditation that's also a frantic compenstation. As if wearing headphones, I'm putting myself to sleep, rushing to the end of my days: there's a death wish in reducing life to the twitching of one's fingers on the alphabet. I'm as pathetic as that kid watching double features alone, but also as vain. Writing's an aggression on the world of books, one reader's attempt to make himself known to others like him.

He talks in another section about the books and music in one's bedroom seeming like an "externalization" of one's brain (and then goes on to subtly complicate this idea). It reminded me of my own embarrassment about the books that currently line my shelves. Any of the people out there lucky enough to have been inside my lovely little room know it is not large. I have one small bookcase, filled mostly with the books that I've read recently, not with the books I treasure most. Looking at it now, in fact, I'm shocked by how un-representative it is of all the works I care about and the ones that have influenced me. A couple of exceptions: the First Folio is there and a volume of Caryl Churchill. And to that I can now add Fortress and The Known World.

But I get sort of uptight thinking that people who don't know me well but visit this bedroom (and there have been more and more of them recently) might get the wrong idea about that bookshelf. They might not understand the practical constraints it imposes. They also might look at my video/DVD collection and think that I don't really like movies. I'm obsessed with them, of course, but my video collection doesn't reflect it. It stopped growing somewhere around sophomore year at college. And as for DVDs, almost all of them have been gifts, since I made the digital transfer relatively recently. Can I really be reduced to Talk to Her, the Boston Red Sox 2004 Season Commemorative disc, and Volume One of Are You Being Served?

It's funny how websites like Friendster encourage this kind of reduction. Such a huge proportion of what you present about yourself comes from your movie, book, music tastes. When scrolling on Friendster looking for a date, I'm innately suspicious of anyone who's lists include one of the following: David Sedaris, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Six Feet Under, among many many others. Why? I'm not sure exactly. But anyone who likes those things seems to fit into a template too easily. Really, we're all trying to present ourselves according to a template -- with little outcroppings of individuality.

What is a list of favorite books or movies? What can it be? If I were to take my visitors through a teleportation device to my childhood home in Milton, MA, where most of my books are, they still wouldn't get the complete portrait. Yes, those are all the books I've owned and read and some of them have been formative. They'd find Chekhov and Stoppard, Kael, Durang, Nicholson Baker, Henry James and more. But now most of those are historical. That's what I did read. And the books I have now? They're only what I've been reading lately. The fact that I possess these books sort of cheapens them, makes them more like commodities. Chattel.

Because there are other influential books that I don't own or never did: ones that I read for school in library copies or obscure Thomas Middleton plays that are out of print. Or that copy of Beckett's Three Novels that got stolen from my backpack or the copy of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I gave to Ben in Arkansas. Do you hold on most to the things that have gone away?


this cultured hell

Ah, the picture palaces of Times Square! Where once hordes of sailors could be found in attendance at pornogrphic epics, we now have corporate movie mansions showing overpriced advertisements on countless screens.

I was at the 10:15 pm showing of Million Dollar Baby last night (which I liked more than I thought I would; sentimental, for sure, but it consistently pitches itself just below bathos). Who goes to see a movie like that at that hour on a Tuesday night? Quite a few people, apparently! Including a middle-aged black woman with her ten-year-old daughter in tow. I'm not quite sure why the woman thought her daughter would enjoy a turgid, somewhat violent melodrama of broken dreams, but here they were.

Going to movies in New York City has made me appreciative of the audience participation dynamic. People in Boston definitely do not talk at the screen as much (at least white suburban people in Boston do not). It can be surreal, for example, to be watching Zhang Yimou's Hero and to have your neighbor exclaiming "Oh, no he didn't!" when the Ming dynasty warrior does somehting particularly surprising. Audience reaction at The Passion of the Christ was interesting: sniggers during it's more outrageous, extra-Bibclical gambits -- such as when the raven poked out the thief's eye on Golgotha. And at The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, audience laughter provided a virtual running commentary on the film's (considerable) homoerotic subtext [Remember that scene with all the Hobbits frolicking in bed while Ian and Orlando looked on paternally?]. New Yorkers will talk back to anyone, so why not the twelve foot high flickering shadow of an illuminated piece of plastic?

But it was weird to consider what kind of mother took her daughter out (on a school night) to see this movie. When we were introduced to Hilary Swank's trailer trash family, my neighbor said loudly "Those are some country-ass people!" Other times she would explain jokes or plot points to her remarkably well-behaved (and un-sleepy) daughter. I wanted to dislike this woman and think she was an "unfit mother" (like Hilary Swank's mother in the movie) -- and she probably was -- but it was too colorful an experience to arouse that kind of self-righteousness. Something about New York -- the crowdedness, I think -- promotes, or rather coerces, you into a grudging toleration of other people. There are just so many opportunites to become disgruntled with the people you're pressed up against that you couldn't possibly maintain that level of rage without snapping. You learn to live with it.

I just discovered this passage from "America," a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (Hey, my first link! I'm really sophisicated now!), who was an immigrant from Jamaica to New York:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!



There's just a week left until the Oscars, and the excitement is building to a fever pitch. It's a very strange year this time, where a lot of the traditional rules don't seem to apply. I for one am pretty much up in the air about a lot of these categories and I thought that writing out my thoughts might help. At the risk of giving away Grandma's secret recipe here's my take on the major contenders one week before the telecast:

  • There is one (and only one) absolute lock: Jamie Foxx as Best Actor for Ray. That this should be so is absolutely amazing to me. Foxx seemed to become established as a serious actor in the short space of a single year. When Collateral came out this summer I was saying to myself, "Wasn't that the guy from Booty Call?"
  • Best Actress: Everyone on the Web is now saying Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby (or M$B, to use the Variety abbreviation). I haven't yet seen the film but I find it hard to imagine that even the most fearless of performances could garner this woman a second Oscar. If she wins, we'll have a total Sally Field situation -- where a woman wins two Oscars for basically the only two roles she's ever had that have been good. I mean, come on! What has Hilary done since winning for Boys Don't Cry? The Affair of the Necklace? Maybe Hollywood wants to reward her for returning once again to being butch after she did those Calvin Klein ads. Her main contender is Annette Bening; if Annette wins, we'll have a total Jessica Lange situation -- where a woman wins for a movie that no one has seen because she's Hollywood royalty and the movie was designed purely to showcase her. Anyone who's seen Being Julia (I'm one of the six) comes away with a greater appreciation of Bening's innate radiance (and I thought she was a cartoonish harridan in American Beauty). If she wins, it'll be mostly because people in Hollywood love her for taming Warren Beatty, for being a dedicated Mom, for being a middle-aged actress who's still got it. Don't count her out. And don't count out Imelda Staunton, who could pull a female Adrien Brody, walking off with the Oscar when the vote splits between two bigger contenders.
  • Best Supporting Actor: I had been going with Thomas Hayden Church but now all the sites are saying Morgan Freeman. Seriously? I guess I really have to see M$B. The reviews barely mention Morgan. What role does he play exactly? Sage friend and advisor to Clint? Doesn't he narrate the movie, too, just like in Shawshank? You wonder why a man as talented as Freeman squanders his ability away like that. And not just on those Ashley Judd moives -- even in "serious" films, he's always playing a glorified sidekick. Well, if he wins for this it will seem quite hollow (I think he has a biopic of Mandela in the works, right? Surely that film would be more deserving of a lifetime-achievement win.) The main other contender remains Church, who's very funny in Sideways, but the Academy didn't seem to like that film as much as the Globes or the critics. Dark horse: Alan Alda, as the slimy Senator in The Aviator, but despite being a familiar face to most of us, this is his first ever nomination and The Aviator has very little momentum.
  • Best Supporting Actress: People have got their money on Cate Blanchett and it's not hard to see why. It's a dazzling, fun, technically astounding performance that also has heart. If you didn't already think she could do anything (and I did) her protrayal of Katherine Hepburn should convince you. She's just about the only purely great thing about The Aviator (except maybe the editing). However, Aviator backlash may work against her and it's not the kind of role that typically wins a supporting award (think of other bold stunts like Frances MacDormand in Fargo). I'm going against the grain and saying that you can discount Virginia Madsen -- too understated in a movie that's losing momentum. If anyone challenges Cate it will be young Natalie Portman, who won the Golden Globe. Oscar loves starlets for Supporting Actress.
  • Best Picture and Best Director: these awards are (as per usual) joined at the hip. None of the five Best picture nominees is a universally admired film. The Aviator looked like a good bet a few weeks ago, but the tide seems to be turning towards M$B. Which makes sense. It's hard to imagine that enough people actually enjoyed The Aviator enough to give it Best Picture [I, for one, thought that the equally flawed Gangs of New York had a lot more passion with which to recommend itself.] In another year, Clint's movie would be the serious-this-one-will-win-awards-for-actors-movie (i.e. it would be Mystic River), but this year it could win Best Picture due to a lack of real competition. The Aviator is an epic without the fun of an epic (compare it to Titanic, Gladiator, even The English Patient and it comes up lacking in the enjoyment factor). Which seems to indicate that Marty will be shut out again for Best Director. Which makes sense. I will even go so far as to guess that should The Aviator win Best Picture, Clint might still beat Marty for Best Director. There are certain people that Oscar loves to see suffer and Martin Scorsese, with his Catholic martyr complex, is one of them. If only he'd directed The Passion of the Christ. Oh, wait, I think he already did...

Short on actual predictions, I know. Give me some more time to narrow it down to one choice per category. I'll write again this weekend.


hard won rest

When you're a kid, you don't appreciate the value of a day off. It's like getting an extra scoop of ice cream or something -- it's nice but you take it for granted. When you work forty hours a week, though, you become acutely aware of the federal holiday schedule. Little oases of relaxation carved into the calendar. Carved, fought for after long years of struggle by labor unions. I don't think any of us ever really stop to think about how much we owe to the labor movement: eight hour days, overtime pay, vacation days, benefits. These ideas were once utopian, now they're standard practice. Why? Not because these rights were given to us from on high by the government, but because people came together collectively to demand decent treatment. The profit impulse must be curbed occasionally if people are to be treated like human beings.

Anyway, it's a shame that no one these days seems to think that sort of collective action is possible. Think what we could accomplish for inner-city communities, for the poor, for the public schools if people only believed that change was actually possible. The death of the Left in contemporary politics is a failure of imagination (I stole that phrase from the 9/11 commission). Numbed by our oversaturated media culture, we have a narrowed sense of what's possible, what individuals or small groups can accomplish. If we want to reverse the conservative ascendency, we have to embrace dreaming and idealism. We have to start training a new generation to have expanded hopes.

Wow, all of that prompted by one day off! What is Presidents' Day exactly? An occasion to commemorate Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays? An excuse for a sale at Macy's? Really it's just a chance to give working people a break. If anyone out there reading this doesn't get Monday off, I apologize if it seems like I'm rubbing it in. But long weekends have such a different feel from standard ones -- the elongation releases the pressure. I've slept past 2pm for the past two days! Thanks to the AFL-CIO.


ensnared again

I'm still trying to understand the significance of it, but I've basically stopped writing in my journal. At one time, I recorded all the minutiae of my thoughts and emotions in painfully self-analytic detail. About three years of my life are chronicaled in page after page of tiny, cramped black script, bound in five tasteful volumes, eventually to be published by Simon and Schuster. Or perhaps Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Anyway, I haven't been writing in my journal much. Months have gone by. I think New York has altered me. In fact, I know it has, and I'm still trying to figure out exactly how. But I woke up this morning knowing that it was time to record my thoughts again and this time -- in this city of self-exposure -- to share them with the world.

For old time's sake I thought I'd start with a quote from Nietzsche:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you said Yes, too, to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you willed one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!" then you willed all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe, too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wills—eternity.