Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Obligatory Oscar Post Part 2: The Real Meaning of Awards


            Like any annual celebration, the Oscars come with a few traditions: the bitter, media-fueled rivalry between two Best Picture contenders, minor political controversies blown way out of proportion, Armond White insulting someone at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner, think pieces contemplating how the Academy has lost touch with the public and/or reality, and so on. But perhaps the most obnoxious of these rituals is the inevitable surfacing of awards misanthropes – you know, those people who proudly proclaim (usually via the Internet) that the Oscars are meaningless and self-congratulatory and they don’t care, so anyone who does is clearly an idiot. Isn’t it just another excuse for a bunch of rich celebrities to pat themselves on the back?

            Well, I guess if you boil it down to the fundamentals, yes. Despite the hullabaloo that surrounds the ceremony and the hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at campaigns each year, everyone is well aware that the Oscars are petty and arbitrary. They’re by no means an accurate, definitive barometer of quality, because that doesn’t exist; like all art, film is subjective, so no matter what wins Best Picture, someone’s always going to be unhappy, and the notion of comparing radically different works in the first place is kind of nonsensical. Parading around your disdain as if you expect a trophy or something doesn’t exactly make you original or clever. Besides, if you really didn’t care about the Oscars, you wouldn’t be commenting on them in the first place. As it is, you just seem like those people that show up every once in a while on pop culture message boards to ask why the writer of such-and-such article isn’t discussing [insert urgent political issue here] or, even worse, to simply say, “Slow news day, eh?”

It’s not like the Super Bowl is some earth-shattering event, yet you never hear football fans derided for their choice in entertainment.

            Personally, I have mixed feelings about the Oscars. On one hand, it can be frustrating and disillusioning to know that the whole thing basically amounts to an expensive, over-hyped P.R. stunt that stretches from one February to the next, and with all the speculation preceding the actual awards, the winners are rarely all that surprising. But every year, I still find myself getting genuinely excited to watch the tacky-glamorous ceremony, to see who gives the best speech, who accidentally lets loose an F-bomb on network TV, who wears the dress I most wish I could afford, etc.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TV and the Question of Racial Diversity


        Over the past week, the television industry has gathered in Los Angeles for the winter Television Critics Association (or TCA) meetings, which are essentially an opportunity for both broadcast and cable networks to show off their upcoming projects to the press. No show so far has caused more of a stir than HBO’s Girls panel, perhaps not a surprise given that the Judd Apatow-produced dramedy has been a controversy magnet ever since it debuted in April 2012. While the majority of the media’s attention has focused on the panel’s antagonistic response to a clumsy, bordering on offensive question about creator and star Lena Dunham’s proclivity for onscreen nudity, an inquiry regarding the show’s racial diversity – or, more accurately, its lack thereof – is arguably more deserving of widespread discussion. The responses were telling not only of this particular show’s attitude toward race, but also of how urgent the issue still is in the TV and entertainment world as a whole.

        A refreshingly considerate Dunham allowed that they were still grappling with how to adequately address such concerns within the show and said that she has learned a lot, thanks to the conversation that Girls has helped open up. Unfortunately, her clear willingness to listen and learn was overshadowed by Apatow’s much more dismissive answer, which boiled down to not wanting to feel pressured into including a more racially diverse cast and looking for ways to make it feel “organic”. Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what he said, it’s a disappointing display of ignorance and white male privilege. Of course someone with no personal stake in the matter would see increasing diversity as cool but optional, something subject to the whims of artistic desire and inspiration. I can only wish someone had asked him to explain the difference between organic and inorganic POC inclusion; it’s not like we’re talking about whether they should incorporate dragons into the show, though that would also be awesome. What Apatow and, sadly, too many of his colleagues in the entertainment industry don’t understand is that diversity isn’t about being politically correct or not alienating different audiences, though the latter is important, but rather about reflecting the world we live in more faithfully and acknowledging that people have wildly different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. They should care about diversity because it’s good for art and will open up a wide range of new creative and storytelling possibilities, not out of a resentful sense of obligation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Obligatory Oscar Post Part 1: American Hustle and Crowd-Pleasers


              The arrival of the New Year can be many different things to many different people, from the promise of a fresh start to another reminder of the transience of life and inevitability of time, but for a pop culture junkie like me, it means three things: top 10 or “best of” lists, disposable action flicks and horror sequels and, as if to compensate for the second item, the Oscars. As far as award seasons go, this one is shaping up to be quite interesting, boasting an unusually strong field with no obvious frontrunners, at least in the main categories (Gravity might as well accept its Best Visual Effects trophy right now). Of course, things might and probably will change once the Golden Globes and Guilds reveal their winners, but for now, the competition remains happily wide open.

              Personally, I’ve never been all that invested in seeing what wins Best Picture, largely because, as anyone even remotely familiar with how the film industry works knows, it’s about as meaningful a title as “executive producer” (more on that in Part 2). But each year, I still find myself getting irrationally defensive about at least one movie, often one that I would readily acknowledge is far from flawless. Like any other topic covered by the media, from politics to pro sports, the Oscars acquire a set of narratives –storylines contrived to help the public follow, process and interpret events. In 2009, for example, we had the faux-rivalry between directors/ex-spouses Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron, and last year was the completion of Ben Affleck’s redemption arc. We’re only just reaching the heat of this year’s race, but you can already see the narratives materializing. The Wolf of Wall Street is the movie that’s too dark and edgy for the unadventurous Academy. 12 Years a Slave is the Big, Important Film that everyone wants to win. And, for whatever reason, American Hustle is the bland, inoffensive “crowd-pleaser” that’s probably going to win even though it’s not Big and Important.

 Maybe because it’s kind of/sort of similar to Argo (a movie that also gets routinely over-simplified)?

              For the record, American Hustle isn’t my favorite movie of 2013 (that honor currently belongs to the poignant Before Midnight) or my personal choice for Best Picture (I’m being cliché and rooting for 12 Years a Slave, though I’d also be delighted to see Gravity come out ahead). But I still liked it a lot, and it’s disappointing to see the dismissive, even condescending attitude many critics have toward it. I shouldn’t feel the urge to root against a film I thoroughly enjoyed just so I won’t have to tolerate the barrage of hyperbolic outrage that will inevitably greet its victory.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Finding Love in the Age of Digital Reproduction


        Every so often, there comes along a cinematic voice so distinctive, so brazenly talented you can’t imagine what the movie world would look like without it. Despite having only four feature-length films under his belt, Spike Jonze has made a persuasive argument that he deserves a place within that elite group, emerging as one of the best directors of the past decade. His past work has been characterized not only by its originality and a preoccupation with existential musings, but also by rare emotional sensitivity, a keen eye for the nuances of human thought and feeling, and his newest effort is no different. Unfurling like a sublime, whispered daydream, Her uses the story of a depressed, soon-to-be-divorced letter writer who develops a close relationship with his newly-acquired personal operating system to explore the thrill of falling in love, the pain of letting go, and the ways in which technology has changed how people connect with each other and understand themselves, for better or worse.

        Meet Theodore Twombly. He’s a middle-aged writer for a company that composes personal letters for people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to do it themselves. With a thick mustache covering his upper lip and a pair of large, plastic-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, Theodore displays such acuity and honest affection in his letters that a colleague (played by Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, endearing as always) regularly compliments him on his work. Yet, when it comes to understanding the intricacies of his own life and relationships, he’s at a complete loss. One of the reasons his wife Catherine left him is his inability to communicate and open up about his innermost thoughts and fears. Joaquin Phoenix, his uncannily clear gray eyes constantly caught between a smile and tears, slides into the role with such apparent ease that it’s tempting to overlook just how impressive his modestly soulful performance really is. Frequently the only person occupying a scene, he carries the movie on his hunched shoulders and serves as the audience’s chief human connection to Jonze’s sleek yet distant futuristic world. The director regularly shoots him in tight close-ups, allowing us to appreciate every facet of Phoenix’s embodiment of quiet, aching loneliness. Instead of cutting himself off and wallowing in the self-pitying moodiness that too often characterizes cinematic loners, Phoenix becomes an open book and makes each thought and emotion accessible, an almost painfully relatable Everyman.