Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Oscars Post-Mortem Rant"

I watched the last hour of the Oscars. Before that, I was at a yoga class. This particular practice is called “Restorative Yoga.” You do an hour-and-a-half of poses without ever standing up. When I originally took “Restorative”, I characterized it as napping with strangers.

(This is a tiny glimpse of me in a nutshell. I make fun of something; then I end up loving it. Which is one reason I could never be a movie critic. I’d have to write my review of every movie twice.

The First Review: I wanted my money back.

The Second Review: It could be my favorite picture.)

The Oscars don’t mean anything to me. For one thing, I wasn’t nominated for anything. (Apparently, to get nominated, you have to actually do something in movies, aside from just going to see them.) Secondly, I don’t see violent pictures, which, I think, rules out every “Best Picture” nomination this year.

I did make the mistake of seeing “Best Picture” winner, Slumdog Millionaire. The reviews said it was cheerful. It was, except for the torture of the main character, the selling of the girl of his dreams into prostitution, and the blinding of a little boy’s eyes with acid. I wanted my money back. (I am not planning to see Slumdog again.)

My favorite movie that I saw last year? The Wizard of Oz. I saw it on television. I also enjoyed, among others, Lawrence of Arabia, All The President’s Men, Singin’ In The Rain, Red River, High Noon, Double Indemnity and Casablanca. Ditto on where I saw them.

The Oscars mark “on the curve.” It’s “Best Picture” this year. If it weren’t, the above pictures and other indisputable classics would be nominated over and over.

They don’t do it that way. The Academy chooses five of what they consider the best from that year. They never say, “The best pictures of 2008? Well, none of them were that great. We’ll see you next year. Good night, and drive carefully.”

Instead of more than three hours, the Oscars telecast would be over in twelve seconds.

By now, I imagine, anyone under a certain age is pretty much sick of me, though my contemporaries may be more forgiving. Here we go again. Another round curmudgeonly grumbling. A tedious reprise of, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”.

How about some perspective, huh? When it came out, Casablanca was considered standard fare. The Wizard of Oz didn’t get all raves either.

There’s no place for any of that! Not while enjoying our nostalgic look through the rear-view mirror. Sing it, Baby. The old is great; the new is garbage. Blah-buh-blah-buh-blah-blah-blah.

No.

Or, more emphatically,
No!

Listen to me. I know it’s an unpopular thing to say. I know art’s supposed to be subjective. But, I’m telling you,

It isn’t.

There’s good and there’s bad.

And everything in between.

As a writer, I can tell good writing from crap. I can tell if a story holds water. I can tell if it omits essential steps in its development, or it doubles back on itself, repeating the same series of moves over again. I can tell if it builds organically to its climax. I can tell if that climax pays off. I can tell if the movie resolves itself smoothly, or stumbles on its way out the door.

I can tell if the characters are heart-beatingly multi-dimensional or stereotypical stick figures I can tell if the movie made me think, or moved me emotionally in a disturbing but illuminating way.

Wait a minute. You don’t have to be a writer. Anybody can be sensitive to these elements. You may not articulate them that well. (I may not have articulated them that well myself.) But if you’re open, you can feel them in their kishkas (Yiddish for “your gut”).

I realize there are movies that scored huge at the box office which are totally lacking in these aforementioned considerations. But in my view, no movie ever made less money because it happened to made sense.

Another wild assertion? Movies that make sense stand the test of time.

“Special Effects” are constantly being topped. But you can’t “top” logical believability and emotional truth. Certain values are timeless. Cave men could get The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, some issues are generational. Some values have changed. It would be hard to do a contemporary movie whose “big, dark secret” is, “He’s gay.” A response by today’s audience would be, “So?”

Judd Apatow married horny with introspective, generating comedies that are hilarious, and feel new. The old movie standards wouldn’t have allowed such shenanigans. Though the exploitation of “no standards” can be wildly uneven, when the liberating freedom is used skillfully, the results are shockingly refreshing. Or to younger audiences, just funny.

Today’s movies offer a speeded-up tempo, a nod to the familiar (to the young) fast cutting of MTV, commercials and video games. But “faster” needn’t mean, “The story doesn’t make sense.” Why can’t a movie move quickly, but remain logical? I don’t know. But invariably, they don’t. (Mission Impossible. Any number.)

On the other side, moviegoers who’ve been around a while are often brought low by a debilitating dose of, “We’ve seen that already.”

They’re trying to get the antagonist to “break on the stand”. In Frost/Nixon, it’s Frank Langella. In A Few Good Men, it was Jack Nicholson. In The Caine Mutiny – it was Humphrey Bogart.

It’s exactly the same scene!

By its third incarnation, people who are familiar with those movies are like, “Are they doing this again?!

For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, it feels to me like movies have lost something. Maybe it’s the glamour. Sean Penn ain’t Cary Grant. Maybe…well, you know this stuff. The Youth Market. Language sacrificed to international distribution. The robotic attention to the bottom line. Maybe even, they’re running out of ideas.

All I know is,

The movies aren’t as good.

“Best Animated Feature” – Wall-E?

Dumbo.

Please. The jailed mother, touching trunks with her big-eared baby through the prison window bars? The quintessential alcoholic fever dream – “Pink Elephants on Parade”? A flock of hipster crows chirping,

I’ve seen a peanut stand

I’ve seen a rubber band

I’ve seen a needle that winked its eye.

But I think I’ve seen about everything

When I see an elephant fly.

Oh, my.

And if that’s not the best, try Lady and the Tramp.

8 comments:

Rich said...

You had me until Wall-E, Earl. Have you seen it? I can assure you, it has some very touching moments. No real violence to speak of either.

JED said...

I was prepared to not like Wall-E. Too much hype. No dialog. The hero was ripped off from Number 5 in "Short Circuit". But my 12 year old son wanted to see it so I went.

It was wonderful. It wasn't "Dumbo" and it wasn't "The Man Who Planted Trees". It was a different wonderful. Cave men wouldn't have understood it but anyone since H. G. Wells or Jules Verne would.

growingupartists said...

You're probably right about the glamour missing. The tabloids make too much money to keep the allure alive. Now, stars can "add on" glamour by becoming world peace ambassadors and adopting loads of children. Tearing up hotel rooms simply doesn't cut it anymore.

I'm bored by both movies and tv, except for cutting edge animation, that's always somewhat exciting. It's more entertaining to watch self-made videos online, depicting odd and unrecognized talent, I guess that's the reality genre.

Still, I love Public Radio, so storytelling without pictures has still got a chance. Otherwise, I'm analyzing the tech-graphics on CNN all day, watching for secret messages about Armaggedon.

growingupartists said...

Btw, I thought they did a sensational job with the Oscars. Every moment was captivating, I really was entranced by the teamwork and effort, it seemed everyone brought forth the best of their individual talents. Highly entertaining, and I hope for the same theme next year. Only thing that would've made it better, free heart-healthy popcorn (no fake butter) sent in the mail. A few lucky winners getting POPCORN BOWLS! And of course elite status for bragging about it on their blogs.

Carry on.

moopot said...

Benjamin Button wan't violent. Nor was Frost/Nixon. Frost/Nixon was basically two people talking for two hours. I do not see why that would be offensive to you.
Also, you like Westerns. That is maybe the most violent genre there is.

Work In Progress said...

Wall-E is sickly sentimental. I can't believe anyone liked it. It would give Bambi cavities. It was also derivative and boring. The film that should've won was Tropic Thunder. A nice, brutal satire of the movie business with some incredible acting, and brilliant dialogue. They never give Oscar to a comedy, but this one deserved it. Next to that Lars and the Real Girl. The Transiberian - brutal but good. Another interesting experiment is to get the recent release of 3:10 to Yuma with Russel Crowe and compare it to the 1950's black and white with Glenn Ford. There's no comparison.

Joseph said...

I've liked every Pixar feature (though I haven't seen Wall-E yet), but I think I'm with you on Dumbo. It's still my favorite animated movie.

Does anybody else think they ought to eliminate the whole category, and let animated films compete in the Best Picture category? Seems like I read somewhere that animated movies aren't actually restricted, but as long as the separate award exists, it seems really unlikely that an animated picture would even get nominated. Lots of people thought Wall-E was the year's best film. The last animated movie I remember getting a best picture nomination was Beauty and the Beast. I thought it was the best film of that year; certainly better than the winner, "The Silence of the Lambs."

Anonymous said...

It's similar to music. Sometimes in attempting to write songs, I would record and get a lot of "layers" and cool parts, instruments, overdubbing (all the musical version of "special effects") and end up with a song that "seemed" good but was not.
Then I hit upon..."if I can't sing it with an acoustic guitar and have it be interesting, it isn't good enough", if I can, I can add some "spices" to it, but not get in the way of the song.

I think too many movies today forget about the characters. When I get halfway or a quarter even through a movie (that I watch because I liked the concept) I HAVE to CARE about someone (usually the main character) or else...why am I watching this?
Some movies try and get you hooked, by actually being like a documentarie...like all this action is taking place ona plane, but you don't care if they live or die because the script and characters are so wooden but you find yourself thinking "oh...so that's where they store food, down a little elevator on the plane...wow.."

It's a lot easier to do the technical than human characters we care about. Some of the older (70's) movies explored "reality" a bit too much...watching everyday things like someone eating for 5 minutes, or wandering around thinking, or...was a trend and is hard for modern moviegoers, young, to sit still for...just like they can't sit "bored" on a train for 10 minutes without having to call someone on their cell...but some of the70's stuff is a little too...relistic, and yet not.


I think the best new Animation to come out..."Horten hears a Who".