some thoughts on hollywood

Well, I suppose we should start with the numbers. I got 16 out of 24 right. Just about 2/3. In a year of quite a bit of unpredictability, that's pretty good, I'd say. (The best I saw on any of the major Oscar blogs was 18.) This was the year that proved you should go with your gut on those tricky smaller categories; when I did that (in Foreign Film and Sound Editing, for instance) it paid off, but when I went along with the Conventional Wisdom (Costume Design, Song etc.), it didn't.

More important to note, though, is that S and I somehow miraculously tied again!! I was not feeling very competitive this year, but still there could have been tears (or worse) had one of us bested the other. More than one party guest said, "This means you were meant for each other!" and I tend to think that that's true.

And major props to my friend Emelie who also got 16 out of 24, thus tying the hosts for best guesses at our party. Good work!

The Park Slope party was wonderful. Just the right size, just the right amount of food, and some very lovely people. But what about the ceremony itself? Ellen DeGeneres was fine. She barely seemed to factor into the telecast. As a host she reminded me most of Johnny Carson -- dapper, no ideological axe to grind, not trying to steal the spotlight, genial but not hilarious. Very old school.

There was not a single great acceptance speech. Not even a really good one. Forest Whitaker improved over his Globes performance but his speech was all over the map. And how come he didn't say anything about the political context of his film? You can't play Idi Amin and not comment about that... On the other hand what was up with Helen Mirren waxing all monarchist about Elizabeth Windsor's "consistency"? Sure, we can have some respect for the woman, but seriously do we really still need to genuflect in front of this outmoded institution? I expected more from Helen (but I guess she is a Dame, after all).

It seems to me that there was a much higher standard of acceptance speech 20 years ago. You had wit, sentiment, panache. I mean these people are supposed to be ACTORS for goodness' sake! Nowadays everybody just cries, thanks God, or rattles off a list of names. Maybe they should hold a special training session showing the great acceptance speeches of the past -- S and I would be happy to design the curriculum.

Overall, even if you didn't love the movies that won, the winners were a likeable bunch. It's hard to begrudge Forest and Helen, two very talented, very classy performers overdue for an award and who never exude any air of entitlement or snobbery. You couldn't really complain about oldtimer Alan Arkin or newcomer Jennifer Hudson either -- both were underdogs in their own ways and both were very humble. (That's probably why petulant badboy Eddie Murphy didn't win in the end, he's just not as nice as the other ones.)

And, of course, who wasn't rooting for the Most Overdue Man in America -- Martin Scorsese? It's interesting to note that the man commonly considered to be our greatest living film artist had lost in the past to three different celebrity actors-turned-directors: Robert Redford (1980), Kevin Costner (1990), and Clint Eastwood (2004). That alone should show you the Oscars aren't really about art. Marty's finally won (both Best Director and Best Pic) but it's for what is undoubtedly his least personal (and highest grossing) film ever. Other directors of his generation, like Spielberg and Oliver Stone, have interspersed their pet projects with much more commercial fare, but not Marty. I've said many times that Martin Scorsese has never made a perfect film, they're all gloriously flawed -- but their flaws result from too much passion (he's without a doubt our most Catholic filmmaker). The Departed is close to a perfect piece of entertainment (if pressed, I could have done without Leo's accent and the shot of the rat at the end), but it is almost completely lacking in passion of any kind. Even when Marty made a movie like The Age of Innocence, you could sense in it his love of William Wyler and classic Hollywd costume drama. The movie was an object of devotion.

He's said that with this latest picture he wanted to make an updated Warner Brothers gagster movie, the kind that used to star James Cagnery, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson. There's a sense of that in the wisecracks that get traded among the film's talented male ensemble, but the whole thing seems an empty exercise in style (Leo's and Matt Damon's roles are empty figures in a convoluted equation of double-crosses, rather than real characters). Marty did what he had to do to make a commercial movie and, as compromises go, it came out pretty good. He reined in the tendency towards chaos that overwhelmed Gangs of New York and delivered a tight little genre picture. If only more of our entertainment makers could give us more of those more regularly, we'd have a much more palatable movie-going environment (though I did think that Devil Wears Prada and Casino Royale were pretty damn good genre pics this year).

Which leads me to broader concerns. I'm still somewhat amazed that my favorite mainstream movie of last year, Children of Men, was so completely overlooked by Oscar (losing even its well-deserved nomination for Cinematography). Children of Men was a stunning example of a filmmaker taking a genre (the dystopian thriller) and making something truly unique and poetic out of it. Everything about the film is different than you expect -- though it is a big action film with violence and explosions and special effects, the scale of the film feels small, quotidian. Though it presents a vision of the apocalypse, its attitude could be hardly less bombastic. Where other films would make you dizzy with fast-paced cutting, Children of Men quietly astounds with some of the most stunning sustained shoots in recent cinema. Central characters (played by big movie stars) are abruptly killed (and not all at the end, Marty). There are absolutely no distracting subplots and a minimum of overemphatic psychological detail.

Cuaron takes one central idea from P.D. James's novel -- a world without children -- and extends it to miraculously support an entire film. The film consists of one single metaphor: childlessness as a representation of all the ways that the present generation ignores, screws over, and decimates the future. The film could be said to be about war, global poverty, environmental disaster. It is about all of those things, though none of them explicitly. It's sweep is grand without any need to announce its comprehensiveness (take note, Sr. Gonzalez Inarritu). The world of the future it presents is not exactly like our own, instead it exists on a continuum with it. Step outside the theater and you expect to find that the filmmaker's vision has spilled out into the streets.

Hollywood rarely lets viewers write anything into its movies. It rarely lets us choose where we should look in the frame or decide on our own how to make sense of the patterns of detail that its films offer us. It rarely asks a viewer to do any work at all. Instead, it serves up textbooks passing for works of art. Hollywood is beholden to the literal and the obvious.

The night after the Oscars, I watched United 93 on DVD. This film, the first cinematic recreation of the events of 9/11, did quite well with the critics and also with Oscar, snagging nominations for Director and Editing. It was widely praised for its realistic detail and its absence of "Hollywood" trickery. The film definitely aspired to a documentary level of verisimilitude, which was richly textured and quite convincing (reminiscent in many ways of Children of Men). What I liked most about it was learning (a bit) about how air traffic controllers work. When the movie kept cutting between shots of various flabby white men staring at computer screens, I respected them for their itegrity. I love it when movies show us how systems work.

Inevitably, though, we find ourselves in the cabin of Flight 93 with four crazed terroorists and a planeful of normal people. What ensues is a string of violent acts, perpetrated first by the terrorists against the passengers in order to gain control of the aircraft and then by the passengers in order to fight back, all of which results in a plane crash. And then (except for some title cards) the movie is over. Every one of these very ordinary people perishes senselessly. We are meant to understand their bravery in seizing control of the plane and presumably stopping it from hitting its intended target (the Capitol building?). If the film has any agenda, it is that the government failed us on 9/11 -- they were unable to coordinate their response in time to save the people on the planes and in the buildings. But a group of ordinary people (not even the flight crew, they come off as particularly ineffectual) were able to band together and do something. That's a story of American ingenuity and volunteerism that would ring true for Tocquville.

To me, however, the movie only served to underline the utter meaninglessness of 9/11. A couple of years ago, the 9/11 Commission apportioned out its recommendations for how our intelligence services should be re-organized in order to better respond to that type of situation in the future. That is good (and practical) and strikes me as a suseful response to the events of that day. Recreating the experience from a "you-are-there" perspective strikes me as antithetical to any insight.

I can't tell you how troubling the film's glorification of "realism" is. Maybe it does present us with as accurate a depiction as we'll ever get of what happened in that plane. But let's step back and ask ourselves, "Why do we need such a depiction?"

A documentary on the DVD extras further confirmed for me that the film is intended as a fetish object. This featurette goes to great lengths to show how the families of those who died were involved in the making of the film and supported it. In scene after scene we see the actors who played the passengers meet with the families. Inevitably, the relatives hug them and say things like, "Oh my God, it's just like seeing him again!" In one visit, a mother says that she's going to introduce the actress to the dead girl that she portrayed and proceeds to take out an urn of ashes and speak about it as if it were a person. What is it that makes excruciating rituals like this necessary? What goes on in the mind of a man who wants to see a filmmakers graphic recreation of his wife, an airline stewardess, getting stabbed to death by terrorists? That's supposed to offer "closure"?

I found it curious that so much energy had been put into representing a plane crash that happened over five years ago when we have people (Americans and Iraqis) dying in comparable numbers every day in Baghdad. Where are the Hollywood films meticulously recreating the details of those deaths? The Department of Defense does even attempt to track Iraqui civilian casualties.

Maybe it's the Marxist in me, but I look for art to help me re-organize the world, or at least to re-organize my vision of it, rather than to dump on me a leaden representation of past events. If Hollywood is going to create meaningful art, it needs to start challenging us more, not only in the ways that we view films but the ways we view the world. United 93 is a "difficult" film because of the amount of gut-churning violence it inflicts upon us. I await a new spate of films whose "difficulty" lies in the challenge they pose to us to make the world anew.


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