Sunday, January 31, 2016

it raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions

(A note before I get going: I finished yesterday's entry before the film was over and even before Craig was kicked out of Malkovich after months of living inside him. I mentioned the piece of wood Craig uses but thought it just some random piece of wood. It is not. I noticed it was the edge of a frame when he held it up alongside that New Jersey Turnpike last night and I just confirmed what frame it was tonight as the earlier scene came again. The board is not some random piece of wood. It is the right side of the door frame outside the portal. It comes off the frame when Craig pulls away the board that has presumably been nailed in place over the whole door and frame to hide them.

The first thing Craig does when he finds the portal is break it. I don't know if that means anything, but I find it interesting.)

I'm reading Dan Hobart's metaphilm review of Being John Malkovich and it's the usual stuff--the film is about "living your life vicariously through other people" and all that. There's some info about the original script--if you know the film, the Flemmer of the Mertin Flemmer building is actually the devil (in the film, I almost wonder if Maxine is the devil) and he's involved with Lester and his ilk. The film makes everything a bit more arbitrary (especially if we dismiss the story about Mertin and the woman he marries, as Maxine dismisses it). But that doesn't make it pointless, or as Hobart terms it, "heartless." Seriously, he calls Being John Malkovich "one of the most heartless films" he's ever seen. I'm not sure how to take that.

No, that's not it.

I know how to take that, and I take it to mean this is a film lacking in feeling, lacking in humanity. Other parts of Hobart's review suggest that he thinks otherwise, but how else can "heartless" be understood?

(Returning to Maxine, she wears solid white when Craig first meets her. Solid black when he guesses her name and convinces her to go out with him (and while out with him). White Maxine was indifferent to Craig. Black is more like a deliberately resistant temptress, coming on to Craig even as she rejects him. I wonder if this will hold up as some sort of devil on one shoulder, angel on the other sort of thing.)

Whether I'm reading Hobart correctly or not, I think that Being John Malkovich has a lot of heart. Take that moment when puppet Craig in the opening dance looks up and sees human Craig and then dances his dance of despair. Take the conversation between puppet Craig and puppet Maxine about wanting to be someone else. This is not just a metaphor for the moviegoing experience or our parasocial relationships with celebrities. This is about how when our own lives are not going as we want them to go, we would rather imagine packing it all up and becoming someone entirely different than to fix what's wrong.

(Talking about "the puppeteer" telling her that he loved her (and then when Craig tells her about the portal), Maxine wears white and black. And later on the phone it is her idea to exploit the portal for money.)

We want the quick fix. We want the fantasy. All too often, it's easier to watch reality television than to live. Which is an idea both amazing and disgusting. That too does not mean that we lack heart.

 

 

 

 

 

(Placing the ad, and meeting Lotte, Maxine wears grey over black. Maybe it is not about her wearing black or white in any given circumstance but that she just doesn't wear colour. Everything is black or white for Maxine.)

I'm not sure I'm making the point I mean to make. Think about it like this: wanting to be someone else does not make you not you. I have contended all along with this blog that watching movies can help you become you. It is not about change. It is not about transformation into something new. It is about filling out the gaps in what is already your self.

Malkovich recites into his tape recorder (the second time Lotte is inside him) a monologue from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. (In a copy of the script online, he reads from Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets.)

(On her initial date with Malkovich, Maxine wears black again but with a bright red skirt. Perhaps I am grasping at straws.)

He is cut off before he gets to what I see as the important line at the end: "But wherever I have been, every minute, day and night, my should has been full of mysterious anticipations. I feel the approach of happiness..."

(At the apartment of Craig and Lotte, Maxine wears black with a red blouse open over it.)

Earlier in the monologue, before what we hear from Malkovich, Trophimof asks Anya to think about how her "ancestors were serf-owners, owners of living souls. Do not human spirits look out at you from every tree in the oral card, from every leaf and every stem?" Do you not hear human voices?"

(Next date with Malkovich/Lotte, Maxine wears all black.)

He's talking about the orchard like a haunted thing, but I imagine the line as being about anything really. About trees, about houses, about books, about movies. Not to imply some pantheist notion about everything in the world having life in it, but that everything we experience, or rather our experience of every thing can be like an echo of every human voice, of every other experience...

And, maybe that's the point to Being John Malkovich. Or another point on top of the rest, anyway.

(Maxine tells Craig that she's fallen in love. She's wearing white again. And he calls her evil.)

That every experience is about something like empathy will other humans. No experience means anything but for the opportunity to share it with someone else. I don't mean that we all need to be coupled to live. But, that the things that we keep trapped away inside our heads just don't matter as much as the things we tell to others.

(White again when she comes to Malkovich in the theater and has sex with Malkovich/Craig.)

Just look at Floris (Mary Kay Place) and her inability to communicate clearly with anyone else or the neighbor that exists only as a disembodied voice telling Craig and Lotte and their menagerie of animals to shut up. Or the parrot that can only repeat; it says "shut up" and "sorry, honey" which it must hear often, but Lotte has also recently taught it to say, "Help, she's locking me in a cage." This is only training. Not actual expression...

Of course, in a film about puppetry and control, maybe one is the the same as the other.

(Layers of black when Lotte tells her that Craig was in Malkovich.)

(All black when she accompanies Malkovich to see his agent. Malkovich wears grey over black.)

(Cut to eight months later and Maxine wears a little black still, but her skirt is white, her shirt pink (and she wears other colours in the documentary). She is pregnant. Malkovich now wears grey stripes (and all black in the documentary about him). She has become a little less Maxine, him a little less Malkovich. Light blue also comes into play here. Maxine and Malkovich wear matching blue in one part of the documentary, and the cake he brings home has blue flowers decorating it.)

(Final scene, Maxine wears black and white and grey again. The color is gone. Her daughter wears red.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

i knew who i was

Two things:

1) When Craig first enters Malkovich's head, he has a piece of wood in his hand. On the one hand, I'm not sure why some random board was sitting in the file room. On the other hand, as Craig points out, that board disappears. On a third hand, the board actually shows back up at the end of the film when Craig is kicked out of Malkovich's head for the last time.

2) There was a piece published on rogerebert.com the other day--"Unfathomable Life: A Writer Grieves for Her Father, Through Five Movies." The title gives it away. Jessica Ritchey writes about her grief and her grieving process by reviewing five movies through 2015. It's remarkably succinct in how big it is, how encompassing of so much of the human experience but also entirely isolated to Ms. Ritchey's experience. It's the argument I make time and time again in this blog--movies can evoke so much, pull us out of our selves, or push us into ourselves just when we need it. Groundhog Day can inspire you to be a better version of yourself. Adaptation. can inspire you to write... I was looking at my screenplay Fugue, by the way, and noticed that the date I completed it was just twelve days after Adaptation. was released in theaters. I know that in 2003 I wasn't running out to theaters every Friday like I have some years when money for conspicuous consumption was more readily available, but I know I saw Adaptation. its opening weekend. Saturday, probably--that was February 15. I went home and told my wife that she needed to see it as well. Drove her to the theater and dropped her off for the next showing. The film excited something in me. I wasn't writing every day anymore. In fact, it occurs to me that I only managed. To write fiction daily from maybe late summer 1996 to fall 1999. Just over three years. It seems like such a longer time. Of course, I'm sure I conflate all the various, standalone writing projects in the years before or since with that three-year spurt and it feels like more. I mean, I've written fourteen novels, but only half of those in that three spurt. (I write quickly, and I don't rewrite; again, that's why blogging works for me.) The opening scene of Fugue had existed in prose form for years, but it was really just a scene with no direction. Mysterious girl, an amnesiac, wanders out of an alley and a man she doesn't recognize points a gun at her. That was it. The guy with the gun would end up sliding farther back in the story and the girl would wander into the street and a car would hit her rather suddenly. (That sort of thing had not become a movie cliche just yet.) This version of the opening scene owed something to the car crash in Punch-Drunk Love a few months early. So, maybe part of the screenplay version was already written by the time I saw Adaptation. I don't quite remember. But, memory is tricky in how it re-forms every time you access it. If I were writing a memoir--and I sort of am--I would have me with a half-written script, stuck, suffering from a bout of writer's block. I'd see Adaptation. and, thankfully, not just jump to inserting myself into the story like fictional Charlie Kaufman does. Instead, the meta- approach, the story wrapped around itself, would inspire me to finish my script by, instead of just having Persy get away from (or probably kill) the private detective who is pursuing her but would confront the author of the story who--this is where it almost doesn't make sense even to me after all these years--had... changed her life. I wanted to say ruined. You, dear reader, have not read the script, of course. My ex is the only person beside me who has read the thing all the way through. It's even been a while since I looked at it so I'm going on my memory of it. And, I remember Persy--who has been living in a literal fantasy land--tracking down the author of a series of novels set in that fantasy land, ostensibly because she blames the author for how her life has gone badly. But, in retrospect, I realize that can't be it because it's the fantasy part of Persy's life that goes well. If anything, she should have been there to thank the author. But then the story went to an extra level, and Persy confronted... Not me, her other author. But, the audience of the film this screenplay would be. That separation of the realities, the tone of it--that came from me seeing Adaptation. when I did. I finished the script February 26.

And, that was a bit of a ramble, wasn't it?

Too much of me and not enough of Jessica Ritchey. Of course, if you want her, you can just click that link above and read her piece. A particular line jumps out at me right now, though. At the end of the section about Mad Max Fury Road, she writes: "[L]ife never returns graciously, slowly letting you find your bearings. It returns demanding and hungry and thirsty. You have but time to grab your coat and follow." Many times, not just after watching Adaptation., I've come out of the movie theater inspired to write or dreaming of being a director or an actor, having some suddenly all-encompassing notion of who and what I could be that was different quite fundamentally from who I felt I was already. Movies change you just like being John Malkovich changes Lotte. After thinking about her first venture into Malkovich, she proclaims to Craig that she's a transsexual. She wants to go into Malkovich again to be sure. Malkovich is a story. Malkovich is a movie. Malkovich is an epiphany. Like seeing Birdman and wanting to write (or star in) a play, for example. Like watching Interstellar or Space Camp or 2001 or The Right Stuff and wanting to be an astronaut. Like watching one of my favorite films ever (which I have yet to include in this blog), The Zero Effect and wanting to be a private detective. Like watching The Empire Strikes Back and wanting to be a Jedi. Or watching any incarnation of Batman or Superman or The Avengers or Spider-Man and wanting to be a superhero. I mean where else do we get our ideas but as fractions or amalgams of the ideas that are already out there. Sure, at some point, going backward through human history, through lingual history, you'd get to a point where the imagination for such things came into being, became complicated enough to really imagine being something else, something more. But, fathoming that moment is a complex and complicated process. Imagining it, imagining how it triggered a string of wants and urges that has been passed down from prehistoric man to modern man to me is as simple as writing this sentence. There are no original ideas. Maybe there are some unique ways of detailing an old idea, but the ideas still remain pretty basic. Like Being John Malkovich--the details are unique but the basic idea, the fantasy of being someone else, of stepping into someone else' shoes for a while... this is an idea that has got to be as old as whenever we became conscious enough to identify not just self but other.

And, I imagine--coming back to #1--that maybe that board that Craig lost inside Malkovich's head is like an anchor. No matter how much Craig wants to change, no matter how much he wants to manipulate his way into not just temporarily but permanently being John Malkovich, there is inevitably a piece of Craig that remains utterly untouched, the same that it has always been. A core self still holding onto that board because he's too afraid to just let go of who he is and crawl into that dark hole in the wall without any fear. That board is caution. That board is like his soul. Or his conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

Ritchey, by the way, takes her title from a poem called "Utopia" by Wislawa Szymborska. A pair of lines in the poem remind me of a movie theater, of sitting and watching the flickering of light in the dark twisted as if by a prism into images that make sense even when they do not. Szymborska writes:

Echoes stir up summoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

As if a single film could shine a light on everything.

Friday, January 29, 2016

gimmicky bastard

The Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) does awesome puppet shows in Being John Malkovich. Like his author, Charlie Kaufman, he embraces all that his medium is capable of but uses them to tell intimate, and often very internal, stories. There's plenty of room for big stories in movies, spectacles like Mad Max Fury Road (though that certainly has its intimate moments) but sometimes my favorite films are ones like, well, any of Kaufman's. Existential. Personal. And, however much the fictional version of Kaufman in Adaptation. might want to avoid it, they find profundity in the mundane.

Craig also gets inside someone else's skin, as he puts it. Which is effectively what any of us get to do when we watch a film.

 

 

 

 

 

I'm not sure if Kaufman could write a normal story. Being John Malkovich, before it even gets to the portal into Malkovich's head, involves an oddball reality like--I don't know--Joe Versus the Volcano... or a Wes Anderson movie, maybe. Craig cannot make a living off his puppetry, but on the TV we see that at least someone else is making a living off puppetry. (Interestingly, in Adaptation., Amelia mentions the puppetry scene in Prague, as if there's a puppetry scene anywhere.) It's a legitimate career in the reality of this film.

Adaptation. (1 2 3) could be a simple story based on The Orchid Thief but instead breaks down the structures of film itself, attacks, deconstructs and reconstructs the trappings of the Hollywood film.

Synecdoche, New York (1 2 3) deconstructs... What doesn't it deconstruct? Life. Theater. Love. Mortality.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) tears at the fabric of how we understand memory and love and the way both affect our lives.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind--which I haven't watched for this blog--takes literally Chuck Barris' claims of being not just a TV show host but a CIA operative. Which is almost normal relative to Kaufman's other scripts.

It's been a while be since I'e seen Kaufman's Human Nature but what I do remember is a complicated love... Quadrangle? that the one in this film--Craig, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), Maxine (Catherine Keener) and Malkovich--reminds me of.

And, then there's is his latest film--Anomalisa (1 2 3 4). Using puppets to tell a story about love, about attraction, about depression, about failed relationships and life.

These stories are not normal. And yet, they are more normal than many a story put to film.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

i've been on this planet for forty years and i'm no closer to understanding a single thing

I can relate a bit too well to the fictional Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.. The awkwardness, the nervousness, always being stuck in my own head.

Laroche as well. His obsessions. His movings on.

And Susan Orlean. How she wishes she could end things as abruptly as Laroche is capable. How she wants to want something as much as "these people want flowers." This week two new episodes of The X-Files aired after more than a decade without. I used to have a copy of Mulder's I WANT TO BELIEVE poster on my wall... You can see it in this photo of my small, cluttered bedroom in circa June 2000.

The other X-Files poster there was signed by a few actors (including Gillian Anderson) and several of the writers of the show at a couple X-Files-specific conventions. Thinking about this conventions just now I found it interesting how I could waiver between different versions of myself in just one day. Awkward and alone through most of the day then happen to be in line with, as you might expect, someone with similar interests and similar affectations, and we strike up a conversation. We have a good time. Then we go our separate ways. Life as it was returns.

You can also see the stack of VCRs on my TV that I used before, you know, TV shows were regularly released on VHS or DVD or Netflix. I must've had hundreds of tapes. Now there are only several dozen left, ones with shows that never came out on tape or disc, or that I have been unable to find online.

Charlie just fantasized about the Caroline reading his script and marveling at his genius. I know that fantasy... Well, not the sex part of it. But that notion that you finish the thing you're writing--the poem, the essay, the short story, the novel, the screenplay... the comic strip, even... hell, even a simple little sketch scribbled on some random 3x5 card--and you want someone to see it, someone to see its brilliance--that's a feeling I've had so many times that I cannot count them. In retrospect, even right after that notion I just described, I could tell that some things I had written just were not that good. My novel DemonAngel Catharsis, for example, was full of awesome ideas and deliberately had no structure to it to ground its supernatural elements in the mundane details of real life, but it was a little too sprawling. A little too big. And, I've never been good at editing. I don't really rewrite. That's a big part of why the blog format works for me, I think. A blog entry doesn't need to be perfect. It doesn't need to be polished. It doesn't need structure. It can be perfect. It can be polished. It can have structure. But, those are secondary to it simply being an echo of the time and place and circumstance of its creation. Most of these entries are written as a movie plays nearby. If a movie is brand new and I saw it in the theater, then I write about it later at home, but mostly the circumstance of this... thing is that I have a movie I've seen (probably more than once) playing nearby and I write as it goes, like some stream of consciousness catalogue of my thoughts as it plays. Other times, it is like a two-hour research paper. Less structure than a proper academic paper but serving the same end.

Charlie just told Donald that he wrote himself into his script because he can't talk to Susan Orlean. He's enamored with her but cannot bring himself to talk to her. (Ultimately, Donald will stand in for him to go ask her some questions.) And, I mentioned my novel DemonAngel Catharsis above and I thought of a moment in that book, or the writing of it anyway. See, the main character was very much autobiographical, if I happened to have an angel and a demon attached to me. And, he had the same problems I did, the same antisocial behaviour. But, the story had him close to pairing up with a girl. And, there was this moment in writing the story where I decided to give him. something I didn't have in my own life. (I mean, aside from the demon and the angel and his eventual telepathic and telekinetic abilities.) I let him get the girl, as it were. I gave him a chance at happiness I didn't have at the time. With the supernatural stuff, as well, he had more of an obvious purpose to his life now that I had or expected to have. I was a college dropout with an office job but he got to be more than that.

I'd bend realities in other stories of mine--my screenplay Fugue that I mentioned yesterday, the novels The Empress of Time and Lion Horse Tree and the unfinished Song of Fellfaraway. But I would never write myself into a story. Not explicitly, anyway. I was always there in the characters, bits and pieces of me in them, bits and pieces of them in me. Briefly, I toyed with a veiled autobiographical story about me and the girlfriend I lived with for a few months in Tennessee and Arkansas. The characters were what TV Tropes would call us with the serial numbers filed off. But the ex husband that kept coming between us became here a ghost of a sort actively inciting us to arguments and what probably would have been a very violent climax had I gotten past the first few pages. What stopped me, actually, was that it wasn't autobiographical enough; I was trying to give her some of my traits and the fictional version of me some of her traits and that was ruining my ability to tell the story. Plus, there was far too much exposition in the opening. I just didn't like it.Too much of nothing, and not enough action. It needed some help from Robert McKee or Donald Kaufman.

(Actually, I've never read McKee. I've got some Syd Field books on screenwriting, but I never got around to McKee's Story. I'm more of a mind with Charlie than Donald; I don't write to rules or even principles. I just write. Of course, in recent years, I don't much write.

Fiction, at least.

I write a lot. A lot. I average well over a thousand words each day in this blog. Too long for a blog, by the way. Shorter entries mean more readers. It's a statistical fact. But, I a) don't care because I'm wordy or b) really like to self-sabotage or c) both.

I have a habit of writing things how they shouldn't be. <Fugue, for instance,, is about a girl who escaped into a fantasy world than escapes back into reality, but most of the action is conversation, dialogue. And, in the end, she breaks the frame of the film itself, and she refuses to participate any longer in a plot that causes her pain. It's a story that should be very action-oriented, but I ground it in a lot of talking. More like a stage play than a screenplay.

I wrote a stage play once that was very much structured like pieces of a novel, but a narrator telling the story of the action as she stands on stage rather than the audience seeing the action.

It's something more han me being eccentric or me having a habit of sabotaging myself.

At least, I hope so.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

good for you to get out of your head

The thing that really fascinates me about Charlie Kaufman sometimes is how mundane his early writing credits are. A couple episodes of Get a Life--not the most normal of sitcoms but not as strange as Kaufman's films--a sketch comedy show that I cannot remember if I ever watched (The Edge), eight episodes of The Dana Carvey Show, two of Ned and Stacey, and then Being John Malkovich. Like suddenly he had free reign and he embraced it.

(Adaptation. was supposed to be Kaufman coming back around to normal and he both fails and succeeds at this.)

I don't know if I ever had that moment when I was writing fiction regularly. I think I actually had the opposite in a way. I started by writing fiction with bits of the supernatural in it. My first novel--the writing of which is awful, but which I would love to rewrite now if I had the time--started as an attempt to take the idea of the virgin sacrifice seriously in a modern context. I think I was picturing the stone sacrificial table in House 2, but in the end, The Man with the Holes in His Hands never got that far. No table, I don't think. It's been a while since I've looked at the book and the last time I did, I barley made it through the first chapter. The interesting thing then was that what had taken pages and pages in the original draft (written almost two decades ago, now) could be covered in a page or two if I rewrote it. Main character Jacob (the title character) wakes up from a dream and his hands are bleeding. Thing is, I establish later that this is a rather regular occurrence for him but I wrote that opening chapter like he was freaking out over it and didn't know what was happening. But, this was normal to him. I think I'd even read Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by then and should have known better; he's got a great anecdote about starting this story about this guy who dies and is resurrected on a regular basis. His initial impulse was to deal with the origin story, the first time this guy dies and discovered he would resurrect. Then he hit on the better opening, in which this character dies twice on the way some place and it happens inside a few sentences on the first page of the story, no explanation; it just is. This is what I would do if I rewrote that first novel now; Jacob would wake up with his hands bleeding, throw back his covers, swing his legs out of the bed and then shuffle his way to the restroom where he's got a good supply of bandages waiting because this is common. He wouldn't freak out. He would just wrap up his hands then shuffle back to his bed and go back to sleep. No big deal.

But that wasn't my point. Second novel, Bridges was mostly realistic fiction but it hinged on the presence of a ghost and a supernatural link between three time periods. Third one, Grazers, or Into the Mouth of the River of Time embraced the supernatural elements, including references to aliens, Bigfoot, demons, Native American gods, and a bunch of other things. Structurally, it was a mess. But, it had some good characters, a few that came from a screenplay I had written a while before called Rats, a few who would survive into supporting or lead roles in other stories of mine later. Everything I was writing at this point was connected, the short stories, the screenplays (well, two of them), the novels. I was aping Stephen King in this regard. A lot of my writing style came from him as well. Some of that style survives still in the way I write in this blog--

(Like when I interrupt one thought with another in a parenthetical like this--not saying King invented it but I stole it from him.)

--and the way I fit quotations into my academic work as well. Everything was tied to the supernatural, the two screenplays I had finished at that point were horror films. But, within the stories, within the novels, I kept taking time out for more serious stuff. An example--from a later novel, though--would be a debate about government in the middle of my first fantasy novel, The Empress of Time. My writing was better by then, but a little excessive. By the time I wrote The Empress of Time, I'd written a children's novel, two sprawling supernatural novels.

Then came my turn--that one opposite to Kaufman's that I mentioned above. I wrote a third screenplay and while it did involve a ghost, the story was in no way driven by that ghost, nor did it have the plot of a supernatural story. It was structured like a revenge plot, but a little discordant with its flow of time. In terms of its actual content, though, it spiraled in around a married couple dealing with the murder of their daughter. Emotionally more than vengefully. Despite the ghost--which was actually more of a figment of one character's imagination anyway, the story embraced the painful mundanity of living with grief and a broken relationship. It was called The Evolution of Grace.

My next screenplay introduced the fantasy world that would come into my novels later, but rather than doing the obvious thing of dragging regular folks into a fantasy world (though I would do that in The Empress of Time) I dragged a fantasy character into the "real" world and then into the real world. It could have been my weirdest story but I anchored it in the real stuff, some relationship drama. It was called Fugue. I've mentioned it in this blog before because of its ending, how the story came out of the trappings of the screen.

Next screenplay was entirely set in the real world, and by then I'd also written the novels I mentioned in this blog a couple weeks ago--Seeing Her Naked, Twice Into the Same River and Clubhouse Blues. While the middle one in this trilogy includes a ghost and an angel, they might just be figments of a delusional narrator's imagination. The trilogy was about putting the supernatural stuff behind me. But, with Twice Into the Same River, I got desperate, clung to old writing habits when my life was going badly.

I would return to fantasy and the supernatural but either by my overall page count or because writing stories set in the real world, my writing style had changed and my writing ability had changed. Clubhouse Blues is probably the best novel I've written, and I should make some effort to get it published again. The sequel to The Empress of Time--Lion Horse Tree--was a much better novel than its predecessor. It could really use an edit, though; it's a little too long and rambly in parts. The thing is, writing about real things exercised something inside me that writing horror and fantasy did not. It made me a better writer.

A few years ago I lost the momentum on the fantasy stories and the shared universe I had put together over the years. I managed a few new stories. They were very short but they were also pretty damn good. (You can read them if you like: Masks, Feelings, Maurice the Turtle Who Wanted to Be Human and An Offer of Violence.)

And this blog began, and grad school began. And, I haven't really written fiction in a while.

I'm stuck in the real world.

If you can call movies that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

it's self-indulgent. it's narcissistic. it's solipsistic. it's pathetic.

It's also what I do in this blog every day.

(Moving on, in this blog at least, from the Oscars.)

Adaptation. starts with the fictional Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) ranting inside his own head, worrying. Then, we cut to billions of years earlier, and time speeds back to the present. The context--Charlie's problems and the history of the world are side by side. Then, we're with Charlie, meeting with Valerie (Tilda Swinton) about adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and he's thinking too much again, but we're with the story. Charlie's muddled thoughts are part and parcel of the story, just as Adaptation. is not just an adaptation of Orlean's book but a film about the idea of adapting the book, adapting book to film, nuanced story to Hollywood, a harried life into something... better if you're lucky. Charlie isn't lucky. But the movie keeps coming back to how we adapt to things. Even one orchid, as Laroche (Chris Cooper) explains to Orlean (Meryl Streep), has adapted to a specific moth that pollinates it.

The second best thing about Adaptation. is Donald, the imagined twin brother to Charlie Kaufman, also played by Nicholas Cage. He's a naive foil to Charlie, an inexplicable plot device early on but vital to the Hollywood ending. (He's also useful for discussion of screenplay structure.)

The best thing is that this is a film that actually deals with writing. The way ideas mix and mingle and get in each other' sway. The way a writer's voice can get lost or discovered in story and vice verse. Some movies about writers are great movies--Misery, for one--but don't really deal much with what it is to be a writer. Einar Wegener's (Eddie Redmayne) painting the same image over and over in The Danish Girl, or Gerda Wegener's (Alicia Vikander) attempts to capture women through her husband in her own paintings--these things convey the process better than most films about writers. Capote does a good job of showing the work if not the process. Wonder Boys deals in the ownership of it but not the process. Finding Forrester tries to be profound but misfires, in my opinion, telling us almost nothing about writing, instead offering platitudes about finding one's voice. I think I've conveyed that idea in this blog more than once better than that film does. It's like most films just can't be about what they're about. Debate movies never really deal with how debate actually works, for instance. Indiana Jones doesn't deal much in realistic archaeology, and so many more.

My blog entries are rarely about the movies anymore, either. Not too specifically, anyway. They drift and they flee. Like the past week, eight days, eight (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) Best Picture nominees, and I maybe had a couple paragraph's worth of writing specifically about those films. I got sidetracked... No, that implies that it was accidental or merely incidental, when in this case it was quite deliberate. I didn't set out to properly examine those eight films and subjectively, if not objectively measure them against one another. I went in with an agenda--the #OscarsSoWhite thing--and even that I let drift a little this way and a little that. Because, that is how my mind works. That is how this blog works. Do what I want as an excuse to watch movies is the same things as watch movies as an excuse to write on a regular basis. Because, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to write strange and interesting stories. I've written numerous novels and short stories, have written more than 900 of these blog entries now. And, a couple hundred pages (so far) of academic papers as well. Yet, I still feel like there is more to get out. More to say. Always more to say.

(And, having said that, I will cut this entry a little short.)

we're never anywhere but here

I'd like to talk about something else--and I will try tomorrow--but I am stuck. Deliberately stuck, but stuck nonetheless. I could write about Room again; I didn't really say much about it before, not specifically. I could make a good comparison between the "room" section of the film to Groundhog Day, take this blog back to year one. All Groundhog Day, all the time.

(If I were coding this entry for my thesis, that would be code 6--reference to another film besides today's film.)

 

 

 

 

 

(There should be a code for neglecting to write while I watch the movie.)

I feel like there is something more about the Oscars and specifically #OscarsSoWhite that I need to say. (Tomorrow, I hope to have something done outside of this blog related to all that.)

Like people who say that black actors (because people on both sides of this issue keep neglecting other people of colour) should get better roles and, you know, act better if they want to be nominated. Nevermind that the first part there--getting better roles--is missing the point; they a) have better roles already and you just don't notice or b) they can't get better roles because all the good roles are written for or are defaulted to white actors. I challenged someone on Facebook about this topic and asked about the notable "black" films like Straight Outta Compton, Concussion, Chi-Raq, Tangerine and Beasts of No Nation. The person said she hadn't seen anything Oscar worthy in those films. I asked for confirmation that she had actually seen those films but she offered none. I don't think she had.

I was reminded of this angle a few days ago while reading Jill Leovy's Ghettoside.

(That's code 7, because I'm reading that book for school. When I quote it in a moment, it's code 9 for an outside source. 9A, actually, because there's no link and I'm not going to offer a references list below.)

Writing about the idea that black people might be naturally violent, and what some cops think about that notion. Francis Coughlin, a detective says, "Maybe the stereotype is true... I don't know! I like to think it is a choice. Even in this environment, you have a choice!" Leovy's adds detail: "His voice betrayed a touch of anguish--the whole issue so delicate and painful." Then, there's this:

"Choices" rhetoric helped officers ascribe the violence of Watts to individuals and thus avoid explanations that felt like group generalizations about black people. But talk of "choices" also inevitably raised questions of blame. And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims for the "choices" they'd made. (p. 65)

Some people want to blame black filmmakers and stars for not being good enough or not making films that are good enough. As if "choice" were entirely free. Of course, some textbooks are being changed so slaves are called workers, so it's not as if we as a society are headed toward an actual open dialogue about this topic. Race--I mean. Not the Oscars.

Take Room for instance. Jack has spent his whole life in a single room. He doesn't know how the world is supposed to be, how he's supposed to act. Circumstance, unfortunately, dictates circumstance; meaning, one's past leads to one's present. The whole movie industry has been dominated by white actor and white filmmakers for... well, since it's beginning. Some people, I'm fairly sure, are perfectly okay with that. I don't like those people.

(There would be a code 1 somewhere here because I'm talking so much about myself. But, at this point, I'm fairly sure that I am supposed to talk about myself. I've said many times that I do not write reviews.. Rather, I write... responses to films. I write essays, if you will, inspired by films. I write blog entire,s journal entries, a public diary about my obsession with movies, or something like that. But, the point is that this blog is as much, if not more than, about me as it is about movies. But, even there... there's the rub, as Shakespeare might say. The rub is that I am shaped by film as film is shaped by me. You are shaped by film as film is shaped by you. When we celebrate only certain films, it says something about us, about who we are. When it comes to film, I will try most anything. There are few movies that I have turned off and given up on rather than watch to then end. (If you must know, two that come to mind right away are Greystone Park and Ultraviolet.) I am open to a lot of types of films--though it's no secret that I don't make an effort to watch modern romantic comedies very often. And, I don't watch nearly enough documentaries...

Near the end of Room, Jack in voiceover says. (And you should forgive his phrasing), "There's so much of place in the world. There less time because time has to be spread extra thing over all the places, like butter. So, all the person's say, 'Hurry up! Let's get going. Pick up the pace. Finish up now.'" I know these lines were written by an adult but I find it a strangely apropos use of this child's understanding as to the way the world works. So many of us are in too much of a hurry to get through the day that we can't be bothered to fix anything. Let things remain as they are because that's easier. White people in charge. Men in charge. Heterosexuals accepted. Christians accepted. And, well, fuck everything else. Like some two-dimensional notion of a three-dimensional world. We just cannot fathom the Other quite right. so it remains the Other. It remains something else, not human, nor normal. Challenge the status quo and we don't have to stomp you down with force because there are millions of us. Like some reverse "light as a feather, stiff as a board" game. Get enough of us pushing you down with just a finger, or just a word, and it's the same as one of us beating you with a club, shooting you with a gun. You will not amount to anything as long as we remain, en masse, against you.

(That's code 5 for argument, by the way. It may sound like a catch all but it's deeper than that.)

I'm wary.

I'm weary.

I want to move on.

But, I will not. Not as long as the world refuses to.

Unlike some people, though, I have film to carry me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

everything to lose

Opening shot of The Revenant: Hugh Glass and his Native American wife and child. That's one white guy, and two people of colour. Suck it, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Or, you know, watch the rest of the movie, which focuses quite a bit on the white guys. Plus, that wife and kid are soon dead. But, that sort of anecdotal evidence is all the rage among the... Whatever you would call the anti-#OscarsSoWhite crowd. Republicans?

There's a list going around among the crazy conservative groups I follow on Facebook, a list of something like 56 people of colour who have won Oscars in the past 16 or so years. I went after the list on Facebook with some math pointing out that 56 out of 1840(-ish) nominations--

And that thought got interrupted by the opening battle sequence in The Revenant. If Inarritu wins the Oscar, this is why. Not the somewhat gimmicky thing of only using natural light so his shooting time per day was reduced but a sequence like this, dozens of actors and extras, practical special effects as well as visual effects, a moving camera that is right in there with (primarily) Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) but also drifts away with a horse and rider, follows different bits of the action, then floats up and away to come down in a nice hidden cut to the same location later. Awesome stuff.

Anyway, I calculated the number of nominations (approximately) in 16 years, and 56 wins is only about 2% of that total. But, I was too quick with my math. Because, of course, a) there are 24 categories, not 23, b) there were other people of colour nominated that didn't win, c) I should have calculated 56 out of the total number of wins, not nominations. 384 wins. That brings the 56 wins up to about 15% of the wins, which is... better. But, still not representative of America or the world. The United States is approximately 63% white right now. There's still a gap. But, I inadvertently exaggerated that gap because I was rushed, because I was pissed off because posting this list of people of colour who have won sounded to me like someone insisting he's not racist because he's got one black friend. Like my own use of the opening scene of The Revenant above.

Because I care about more than just the appearances, more than just the acting or directing categories, I at least appreciated that this list delved into other categories. Of course, they had to delve into other categories to make a list that seemed significant.

See, here's the thing. There are people of colour nominated for Oscars this year. This is not the SAG awards or the DGA; we should be looking beyond actors. (Looking at that visible side of things, not to mention the Best Picture category, is important, of course, because most people don't notice the other stuff and are bored by the Oscar telecast every year. Me, I like all the categories... even if Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are a little hard to differentiate.

And then there's a beat attack and I'm drawn to the screen again.

The obvious example: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of The Revenant.

Then there's Alé Abreu, director of Animated Feature nominee Boy & the World is Brazilian (not sure if he'd identify as Hispanic or Latino, but he's not white). The makers of When Marnie Was There (another Animated Feature nominee) are Japanese. (The voice cast of those films are also from their respective countries and are (presumably; I haven't checked the entire list) not white. They aren't nominated, of course, but I have a feeling that if Straight Outta Compton had gotten a nomination for Best Picture, the #OscarsSoWhite noise wouldn't be so loud.)

Ciro Guerra, who directed Foreign Language Film nominee Embrace of the Serpent is Columbian. You might think it's unfair to pull out the Foreign Language nominees, but they also include white folk; A War is Danish, Mustang is French and Turkish. Son of Saul is Hungarian. We don't always consider Arabs white. Naji Abu Nowar, director of Theeb, is an Arab.

Nominated for The Danish Girl, costume designer Paco Delgado is Spanish. Nominated for Original Song, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd, is Canadian but ethnically Ethiopian.

Asif Kapadia, director of Documentary Feature nominee Amy is ethnically Indian. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, director of Documentary Short nominee A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, is Pakistani. The makers of Animated Short nominee Bear Story are from Chile.The director of Sanjay's Super Team is Indian.

One hundred twenty one nominations this year. At least nine, by my shallow count--

(Shallow, because I was basically profiling nominees by name or film to decide if I'd search for information on them. Didn't have time tonight to research every single nominee, unfortunately. And, I cannot count the Mexicans central to documentary Cartel Land or the Indonesian people (I'm not sure of their more specific ethnicities) in The Look of Silence because the primary filmmakers seem to be white. I also cannot count What Happened, Miss Simone? because, despite its subject, it's filmmakers were white also.)

--are not white. That isn't great--only about 7% of the nominations (and even less of the nominees, since many of the nominations involve multiple people). It is better than zero.

Oscar remains very white.

we'll print that story when we get it

To think, I only managed yesterday to get through the first three paragraphs of Mary McNamara's Los Angeles Times piece--"Oscars 2016: It's time for Hollywood to stop defining great drama as white men battling adversity." And the first paragraph was just one line.

Meanwhile, I've got a screener of Spotlight playing right now. Immediately, I notice the music. Spotlight isn't nominated for Original Score. It is nominated for Best Picture, of course, which is why I'm watching it again this week. It's also nominated for Film Editing, Original Screenplay, Director Tom McCarthy, Supporting Actress Rachel McAdams and Supporting Actor Mark Ruffalo. I've seen a few people and at least one of the articles in this stack in front of me (but I'm not seeing which one at the moment) complain that Ruffalo just puts on an accent. I'm more impressed by his performance, I suppose. It feels like much more than just an accent. He's got a different demeanor, a bit of the awkwardness that Christian Bale puts into Michael Burry in The Big Short (but not as much), a nervousness about him that is palpable; his sentences are short, his movements abrupt. If one wasn't familiar with Ruffalo, I could see that it might not be that noticeable. But, that sort of subtle, but complete, transformation impresses me more than the more obvious beats of, say, Matt Damon in The Martian or Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. The showier roles get more attention, of course.

McNamara says, "Though our demographics and attitudes continue to change, Hollywood's definition of great drama has remained stubbornly attached to standards and expectations set back when men were men (if they were white) and everyone else needed to just shut up and listen." This description troubles me. I will say up front, that the idea that we're stuck on stories about white men makes sense to me... Though, really, I think it is not deliberate exactly but more that the default is white. Everything else is secondary. But, McNamara throws in the "white" thing as a parenthetical, like it isn't her main point. I'm not that bothered by her main point, that we look to white stories before we look to black stories. But, reading this piece I have trouble with the idea that, separate from race, the stories are somehow the same. I already argued this yesterday, but when I've got a page of notes scribbled over McNamara's piece, I feel inclined to continue in this direction. Plus, as I mentioned yesterday, I'm arguing the race side of this throughout the day on Facebook. I want to get into why we (the Academy, rather) pick the Best Picture nominees we do, why certain films stick with us...

There are eight films nominated for Best Picture this year. Their box office (currently) is as follows:

The Big Short - 6 weeks - $51,760,423 - 8.6
Bridge of Spies - 14 weeks - $79,768,035 - 5.7
Brooklyn - 11 weeks - $25,129,611 - 2.3
Mad Max Fury Road - 19 weeks - $153,629,485 - 8.1
The Martian - 16 weeks - $227,228,785 - 14.2
The Revenant - 3 weeks - $95,702,988 - 31.9
Room - 14 weeks - $6,236,212 - .45
Spotlight - 11 weeks - $31,045,328 - .28

That last number is a rounded off per week total, in millions of dollars. The obvious big ones there, the ones that have hit with a wider audience, are The Martian and The Revenant. Plenty of people in the past week have been vocal about the Oscars and I wonder with each person which of these movies they have actually seen, which of these films they care about. Another couple days and I will have seen all eight twice (Mad Max three times). I also saw Concussion, Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq, Tangerine--the oft mentioned films involving actors of colour. Plenty of other films as well. McNamara says the first four films there "fit the 'classic' definition of literary conflict. They just didn't fit, apparently, academy voters' ideas of a classic best picture." With the preferential voting system, they would literally have to be a voter's idea of the best picture, not just something they listed because it was worthy of a nomination.

At one point in her piece, McNamara steps away from the race thing entirely and writes:

Obviously, plenty of films have challenged this sensibility, telling a wide variety of stories from many points of view. But when it comes to Oscar bait, the default remains too often set at literally reading of the four essential categories of conflict: Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society and man versus himself.. As many have already pointed out, the characters in the lead actor category were a writer [Trumbo], scientist/astronaut [The Martian], tracker [The Revenant], inventor [Steve Jobs] and artist [The Danish Girl]. The characters in lead actress? Homemaker [Carol], mother/rape survivor [Room], inventor [Joy], wife [45 Years], clerk [Brooklyn].

I honestly don't know what film McNamara thinks doesn't fit those "essential" categories. Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, man verbs himself. Throw in man versus technology and you have every story that we ever bother to tell or to listen to. Listing this categories doesn't actually mean anything. This isn't about Oscar bait. This is about every single film that is ever in any theater. Creed, for example--man versus man, man versus himself. Straight Outta Compton--man versus man, man versus himself, man (men) versus society. I could list all the nominated (or supposedly snubbed) films, but it will just be reiterating the point.

As for McNamara's characterizations of the characters in the lead categories... Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is not just a writer; in fact, his role as husband and father is integral to the emotional core of the story. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a scientist (botanist, specifically) and an astronaut. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is more than just a trackerl the film begins with him with his wife and son and it is his son's murder more than himself being left behind that drives him. A big part of Steve Jobs deals with Jobs' (Michael Fassbender) relationship with his illegitimate daughter. And, the implication here that artist is, I don't know, some stereotypical, and stereotypically masculine, film character in some... inappropriate way--I don't even know how to respond to that. But, bigger than Einar Wegener's (Eddie Redmayne) occupation is the idea that he is, you know, a woman. As for the lead actress nominees, I had to double checked my list to remember what McNamara meant by homemaker. I saw Carol and didn't really think of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) as a "homemaker." That makes her sound like some stereotypical housewife, at home all the time, taking care of her kids. But, in context of the that film, she is, yes, a wife. But, I can't even remember if we even see her husband. Carol is a love story, and Blanchett's predatory character is the title character, it is Therese Belivet (Mara Rooney) that meant the most to me. Rooney is nominated for Supporting Actress. Then there's Ma (Brie Larson) in Room; yes, she is a mother and she has been held captive and raped on a regular basis. McNamara seems to be--but is not explicit about it--drawing some division between stereotypically male roles and stereotypically female roles while also suggesting that they are all fitting with those very limiting "essential categories" of characters. I don't know what it is that she wants outside of that. But, to continue, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is, as McNamara identifies her (which seems to contradict her point) an inventor. She is also a mother, a daughter and a wife. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is a wife, but 45 Years is a very small-scale story about an old married couple; Kate and her husband (Tom Courtenay) are probably 90% of what's on screen. What else would she be?Hell, the problem here is not that Rampling was nominated for playing a wife but that Courtenay was not nominated for playing a husband. Finally, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a clerk because that is one of the few jobs she could have in 1952 New York. In fact, that she has this job (a job Therese Belivet in Carol has as well) is actually a progressive part of the story because of its setting. But Brooklyn is not about Eilis as a clerk. It is a romantic story. Like 45 Years or Carol, this is a film that requires a small scale...

And, maybe my point is not clear there. But, I think that is because McNamara's point is not clear, either. She further explains: "Film is not the only narrative art struggling with a limited notion of excellence." But, she herself has just explained how a writer, an astronaut, a tracker, two inventors, an artist, a homemaker, a mother, a wife, a clerk, the rappers in Straight Outta Compton, the boxer in Creed, the doctor in Concussion and--and here is where it gets even more problematic--a boy soldier in Beasts of No Nation are all quite different representations of what she calls excellence. (The problematic thing with Beasts of No Nation, by the way, is that the role that arguably deserved a nomination is not the protagonist at all but the Commandant (Idris Elba), the villain.) In trying to argue that stories are limited, McNamara includes 14 different films with 14 different ideas of conflict and success. This is, according to here, exemplary of "film's increasingly narrow focus." But, we had films about writers and scientists and trackers and inventors and artists and homemakers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and boxers and doctors and warlords, and even clerks before. And we will again. Film is still quite a wide field with a whole lot of variety.

Friday, January 22, 2016

people want an authority to tell them how to value things

As a screener of The Big Short plays and I must do my best not to get angry at Wall Street, I really don't want to talk about #OscarsSoWhite today. Spent too much of the last couple days arguing pointlessly about the topic on Facebook and Twitter. A little tired of it... which bothers me, actually.

Inevitably it will come up because I have decided to get into the McNamara piece from the Los Angeles Times and that hinges on the race thing. But, I want to talk about McNamara's other angle--plot.

See, she starts off with some hyperbole--"The winner of the 2016 Oscar in practically every category is ... white men facing adversity." She's making a point about it being white men, of course, but as she goes she also angles in on the "facing adversity" charge. Her take on the Best Picture nominees: "...with a few notable exceptions, follow a dishearteningly repetitive story line of white men triumphing over enormous odds." Because, of course, triumphing over enormous odds is not the fundamental center of... Let's be honest, every fucking story ever. (Well, most of them, anyway.) But, only when you simplify.

Let's break it down. First of all, the "notable exceptions"--and let's just stick with the eight nominees for Best Picture for the moment--would be Brooklyn because that is about a white woman, and, at least in part, Mad Max Fury Road for the same reason, a few women get to upstage Tom Hardy's Max. Also, there's Room, where it is a woman and five-year-old boy who triumph over enormous odds. For the purposes of the following, Rachel McAdams' Oscar-nominated role in Spotlight will have to be lumped in with the male roles there because they're all just reporters, right? A bunch of white reporters--who can tell them apart, anyway? In fact, since I don't want to talk about the race thing today, I will try to forego the gender thing as well. So, we've got eight movies. According to Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, they all have "a dishearteningly repetitive story." Great phrasing. Absolutely wrongheaded idea.

Start with The Big Short. Whatever the main characters are, this is not the story of these men "triumphing." The point is that for them to triumph we all lose. So, plotwise, I don't think it is fair to call it triumph. But anyway, let's assume it is about these men making money, and not an indictment of Wall Street. (To be fair, it can be both.) There are men on different sides of the whole Credit Default Swap thing in this film. But, basically, this is a a talky film, board rooms and offices, only a few scenes outside them. Ensemble cast. Moral conundrums. Clever asides.

I could jump to Room to make my point obvious, but I will be fair. I'm running down the list as it appears on my ballot.

Bridge of Spies comes next. Also a talky film. No board rooms, but there are offices and makeshift offices, and a couple courtrooms. There's almost an ensemble to it, but really it focuses in on Tom Hanks for most of the film. Some nice moments for Mark Rylance as the spy, of course, but this is a Tom Hanks film, not much room for anyone else to really shine. As for the plot, oh yeah, this is one white man triumphing over enormous odds, for sure. But, why simplify? The key to understanding this film is the idea of stoikiy muzhik (assuming I spelled that right). Abel (Rylance) tells James (Hanks) a story about a man who kept standing up when partisan border guards beat him down. Prior to this, this man had never done "anything remarkable" but now they called him stoikiy muzhik, "the standing man." This is a film about stubbornness winning out. The Big Short is about predators.

Brooklyn is a love story. The white woman at its center (Saoirse Ronan) does triumph over some enormous odds, at least in the third act when she goes home to visit Ireland. But, this is a story about love, about finding one's self in another person. No ensemble, just a few supporting characters here and there.

Mad Max Fury Road is a big action piece. Or I suppose you could call it a bit of social commentary masquerading as a big action piece. With a nice dose of feminism at its heart. Enormous odds? Definitely. Triumph? Yep. Of course the whole white man thing is upended by the central role of the women and Max walking off at the end. This is not his victory. He just wants to be left alone.

The Martian... Ooh, there's you're white man triumphing over adversity to be sure. Some women and men of colour in supporting roles but this is Matt Damon's show, isn't it? Of course, if you go deeper, this is a celebration of science, which is far from the politics of Bridge of Spies or the Wall Street deals of The Big Short. And, we're nowhere in the vicinity of Brooklyn.

The Revenant is right there in McNamara's thesis, though. White man? Check. Enormous odds? Check. Triumphs over them? Check. But then, this is a survivalist story with a bit of revenge. Is it at all fair to call this the same "adversity" as Bridge of Spies? As The Big Short? (I'll admit that boiled down to the survivalist terms, Max Rockatansky's throughline in Mad Max Fury Road, Mark Watney's throughline in The Martian and Hugh Glass' throughline in The Revenant are basically the same. Basically. But, how simple do we have to get to take the fantasy of Mad Max, the science fiction of The Martian and the real world of The Revenant and call them the same?

Room begins as a claustrophobic story, one room, three characters, then expands outward. It's about embracing life, regardless of those "enormous odds" for sure. But, Ma and Jack are not the white man. Not people of colour, of course. But, that's another thing here--it is not and either/or.

Then we loop back around into talky office bits for Spotlight. Different details--child molesting priests instead of CDOs and Credit Default Swaps and imaginary economics--but a bit of the same, you know, basics of The Big Short. Some white men triumphing over some other white men, with the lives of a whole lot of people we don't really get to see ruined in the process.

McNamara also brings into play Trumbo because of Cranston's nomination in the Lead Actor category. She lists the "enormous odds":

The Hollywood blacklist ("Trumbo"), the vagaries of Wall Street ("The Big Short"), Cold War politics ("Bridge of Spies"), life alone on Mars ("The Martian"), a grizzly bear attack, murderous companions and the hostilities of a cruel winter landscape ("The Revenant").

Even "Spotlight," with its supporting actress nomination for Rachel McAdams, showcases a group of mostly male journalists struggling to expose the brutal crimes committed by the Catholic Church. And though there is feminine power aplenty in "Mad Max: Fury Road," the film's titular character is, of course, Max, and its lead actress didn't even get a nomination.

I won't be a smart ass about it. I will simple state outright, the blacklist, Wall Street, politics, life alone on Mars or in the Dakota Territory are absolutely not the same thing. Boil a plot down to like three broadstrokes and sure, they all fit the same stroke, but no two-hour (plus) film with just a few broadstrokes to it is getting anywhere near the Oscars. (Except maybe in some technical categories.) On her later points there, I will say 1) by the logic of the rest of McNamara's piece, saying that Spotlight "showcases" the men when the Oscar-nominee is a woman is hypocritical, 2) Max being the titular character does not make him the lead, 3) tom Hardy got no nomination for the role (his nomination is for his supporting role in The Revenant, 4) even if he had gotten a nomination for Max, different categories are not a zero-sum game; i.e. Charlize Theron could still get a nomination for Furiosa, 5)--and this I the big one--if an Oscar nomination is the only way we can measure merit of an acting performance or a film, there is a fundamental flaw in the way we experience movies. First and foremost, what matters is our experience in the theater, or in our living room, or however we watch films with new technology. What matters is how much we are moved, how much we are entertained.

This film, for example--The Big Short--pissed me off the first time and just pissed me off again. And, it saddened me. The final hangover text:

In 2015, several large banks began selling billions in something called a "bespoke tranche opportunity."

Which, according to Bloomberg News, is just another name for a CDO.

That makes me sick. Like the whole world economy could just collapse again in a few years and I'm sitting here worrying about movies. The thing is, I don't think I've misplaced my focus. I don't think that it is wrong to worry about movies or awards when there are bigger things going on in the world. Awards mean something to movies and movies mean something to me. The big fear here at the Groundhog Day Project is that the economy collapses and we can't make anymore movies.

I kid.

Sort of.

They're all the same plot anyway, so we can just turn it into a single oral-history kind of story and tell it to each other again and again forever when we sit around our campfires after hunting game all day or whatever the fuck we'll do with all our spare time and no terrorists to kill.

you have to think like an american

Outside of the #OscarsSoWhite problem, there's always folks labeling the snubs. Not just Will Smith for Concussion or Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation or Kiana Kiki Rodriguez for Tangerine but, you know, what about Tom Hanks or Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, or Helen Mirren for Trumbo? People talk about Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight but no Walter Goggins? Not Kurt Russell? Michael B. Jordan for Creed but no Jake Gyllenhaal for Southpaw? How about Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina? And what about Gunes Sensoy for Mustang or Geza Rohrig for Son of Saul? Why must the role spoken in English to matter?

And, where's Ex Machina in the Best Picture list? Hell, where's Krampus in the Production Design category? Where's It Follows for Cinematography?

Those last couple might seem silly, but that's my point. The nomination process is not only complicated but subjective to start with. If all you saw this year were the Marvel movies and The Revenant, of course you're going to think The Revenant was the best. If you don't usually watch documentaries but really like Michael Moore's politics, maybe you went to see Where to Invade Next and you're rooting for it. And, you're going to care. For example, personally I was not as impressed by, say, DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant. And, I mean his performance in it. I get why the role was a big deal, how much harder it would have been than a film like, say, Spotlight, a bunch of scenes of people sitting around talking. I understand why the acting branch of the Academy would nominate him. And, I'm okay with him winning. Some people reduce the roles that don't impress them into putting on accents. If you didn't like it, this was Will Smith's role in Concussion, this was Bryan Cranston's role in Trumbo, or Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, or Christian Bale in The Big Short or even Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation.

(I considered jokingly suggesting that Saoirse Ronan's accent was put on in Brooklyn, which I've watched again today, but somebody might have been confused by the joke. Instead, I will take this moment to point out that I like this movie more the second time. The background actors, for example, really make the film in the scene where the guy sings the old Irish song. The film has a fantastic sense of time and place. It tells a story that in its broad strokes could happen anytime, anywhere, but it nails it down to this particular time and place.)

It's especially fun when someone who has never acted and barely cares about movies complains because these are millionaires whining about whether or not they might be in the running for a gold statue. Let us skip right past the idea that all of these actors are automatically millionaires. An Oscar nomination, let alone a win, can make a career. Can give an actor the clout to choose good roles.

Of course, if an actor deigns to whine about something important like politics, he or she will surely get dinged for that too.

And, in case I haven't made it clear in previous entries, I am not one to diminish the race issue here, either, by comparing them to numerous other "snubs." My point is that there is no objective to this. People defend the Academy, saying it is supposed to be the best, it's about quality, and maybe no actors of colour were that good this year. And sure, that's a possibility in any given year. And the Oscars should not be about quotas. And tradition. And, what about the BET Awards? And, I cringe. The problem, simply put, is that in a society that is only 63% white, how is it something worth defending that an organization can be 94% white and make a habit of only acknowledging white performers and filmmakers? Why is the idea of upgrading to a membership more representative of the world around it a bad thing?

Because, asking why change is scary is so profound.

The thing is, what makes a good performance? There are certain objective standards, of course. But, there are subjective things, too. If you cannot relate to a character, it is going to be harder to connect with the performance sometimes. Also, with, say, a villainous character, maybe that lack of connection will be the thing that makes the performance stand out. Same with the film itself. If you pay attention to the #OscarsSoWhite talk, it's all about the acting, and the directors gets mentioned sometimes too. But, does anyone talk about what the performances actually meant? Does anyone talk about how Will Smith not only put on an accent but also put some real emotion into it? Does anyone talk about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance at all, or do they just talk about how he got naked and slept inside a horse's carcass and ate raw liver even though he's a vegetarian and he's due for an Oscar because he's been doing this so long? I'd ask if anyone said anything about Bryan Cranston's role but I fear I may have been about the only person who watched and loved and was angered by Trumbo. Why are we more excited by crawling through the woods or talking to a camera on Mars over something more subtle, more real. I mean, Emory Cohen as Tony in Brooklyn, when he thinks Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is going to break up with him and the conversation goes, well, better--that is an adorable, and real moment. But, most people don't see films like Brooklyn. Most people don't care about films like Brooklyn. They go to movies to escape mundane stories like this.

I don't.

In a New York Times piece, I've cited before, Wesley Morris cites the 2010 nominees for Best Picture--that first year they went back to having more than just five nominees. Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air. A mix of genres, a mix of styles, big and small, and a few of those probably almost no one saw. Except for The Blind Side which I watched on video, I saw them all in the theater. I don't mean to brag but to point out that the variety is what makes film so powerful. It can tell outlandish stories about aliens or alternative history stories, personal stories... Hell, a few very different personal stories there. It can be animated, it can be grounded very much in reality with no special effects to speak of. It can inspire. It can entertain. It can anger. It can depress and impress and it should do anything and everything if you watch enough movies. I almost want to survey everyone who offers an opinion on the Oscars on what films they actually saw this past year. Not that--as I've already suggested above--I will hold it against someone for rooting for the films they actually saw versus obscure pictures. But, I like information.

The thing is, I think we can only benefit from the variety. See more types of films, see more types of characters, learn to identify with different kinds of people. The Academy can also benefit from a little more variety than it has. Tradition has its place. But, filling out the membership rolls with a younger, more diverse crowd will make things... Better is too simplistic. My take on it is this: in our everyday lives, we are better off if we have the chance to interact with more and different people. In producing films, Hollywood would be better off employing more and different people. In inviting new members the Academy would be better off employing more and different people. It doesn't matter if you nominate performers and filmmakers based just on quality if a) your idea of quality isn't restricted by your own prejudice and limited experiences and b) you are not just a bunch of old white men.

We tend to trust our old white men a little too much, I think. In time, I think the problem will take care of itself. But, why wait?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

that's what makes us americans

Robin Thede made a point I liked last night on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore; she said, referring to black people of course, "You can't say in one breath how proud we are when Hale and Mo'Nique and Denzel and all those people win but then when we're not in there say that we don't care."

On the one hand, I agree, it's a little two-faced. On the other hand, they should care all the time. And, so should we. So should everybody. As I said yesterday, the racial makeup and the racial prejudices in the Oscar nominations and the Academy membership do matter. Mary McNamara explains it well--and this was why I didn't get into critiquing her yesterday. She writes in the Los Angeles Times:

...a growing chorus wants to know why anyone really cares. With all the troubles in the world, do we really need to worry that a bunch of relatively rich and privileged filmmakers are mad that their movies didn't get an Oscar nomination?

So what if the nominees for Academy Awards continue to be overwhelmingly male and white; professional basketball is overwhelmingly male and black. What does it matter?

Well, it matters because film is art, and art matters.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the images we choose to create and share reveal who we are--our hopes, our fears, our secrets, strengths and shortcomings.

When we praise and reward certain stories or images, whether by big box office or gold statuary, we reveal what we as a society value, the kinds of people we find interesting, the characteristics we revere and revile. We show the paths we hope to choose or avoid and the lessons we have learned, or not learned, from history.

#OscarsSoWhite matters because there is reason for one portion of our society to think that people like them are being dismissed, automatically relegated to the bottom of the ballot, if they are put on the ballot at all. And not just when it comes to nominating actors or filmmakers for awards. Metaphorically, it's the same treatment they feel on the streets, in workplaces, everywhere.

#OscarsSoWhite matters because we--you know, the WASPy Americans who have consistently held the positions of power since long before this was a country--recognize those most like us first. It is natural. Unfortunately, the world in which we live is not one where everyone around us is like us. Some would lament this. I do not. I feel, we are better off for having differing people and types of people around us, whether it is those of different races than our own, different ethnic or national backgrounds, different religious upbringings, people from different neighborhoods, people from different states, and they might as well be from different worlds the way we relate between us sometimes. One side angry because the other doesn't see them. The other angry because that side is angry. And, all too often it comes to violence. But, it doesn't have to go so far to matter. It doesn't have to involve the loss of life or limb to mean something.

#OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter are echoes of one another, two sides of a coin that has far too many sides.

It just became oddly appropriate that I have a screener of Bridge of Spies playing as I write this because what it seems like we have sometimes in this country is a Cold War between (to simplify terms) the races. Black versus white. White versus black. The Cold War turns into a Hot War sometimes. Ask Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Oscar Grant, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Emmett Till, and so many more.

Too many more.

Not to mention all the times we cross the street to not walk past a suspicious character because his skin is dark. The times we pulls our shopping bags closer in the mall food court because a black family is sitting at the next table. And, I could go on. I could go on to ridiculous lengths, describe every damn instance where we act differently because of the colour of the skin of the person nearby.

Years of slavery created a nearly intractable system of economic disparity. So, white people, on average rose. Black people, on average, got left behind. But, the Protestant Work Ethic tells us--and we Americans love ourselves some Protestant Work Ethic, even if we have never heard of it by name--that being poor is the fault of the individual failing to, well, try hard enough. Poor means lazy. Poor means criminal. And, we set up people of colour to be poor. Then, we blame them when they cannot manage to rise to the standards we decide are appropriate.

If you allow people to be badly brought up and their habits to be corrupted little by little from childhood, and if you then punish them for crimes to which their early training has disposed them, what else is this, I ask, but first making them thieves and then punishing them for it? (Thomas More, Utopia)

That we promote white films over black films is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. That we vote for white actors over black actors is not the problem but a symptom of the problem.

The problem is far larger.

But, I am hopeful in this instance because, as McNamara says, film is art. Art can inspire. Art can change the world. If the Academy can change its membership and be more inclusive--and really, I think recent years have proven that this trajectory is already in place--and Hollywood can follow the same trajectory and make more films that are not just, as McNamara simplified it in her previous piece--"white men facing adversity"--maybe more of us will see these films, more of us will start to empathize with more people that are not like us.

Blasco and Moreto (2012) demonstrate that movies fuel empathy. And, I believe it. I've felt it. I've lived it. To identify with all of the various characters of the various films I have seen, I have had to... I almost said that I became someone closer to them. But, that is both entirely false and entirely true. I have argued before in this blog that every film, every viewing, changes who you are, who I am. But, the optimist in me would like to assume that the better you (or me) that awaits on the other side of a good film... or a bad film, was there all along, like Flik's rock in A Bug's Life, just waiting to become a tree. To mix several metaphors.

There will be more on this topic tomorrow, and I will stay with the Academy through the coming weekend (future readers, today is Wednesday), but the short of it for now is this: boycotting the Oscar broadcast will not do much. The time to act is this summer when the Academy moves to invite new members. It has been inviting a diverse crowd each year of late, but the numbers need to be higher. As Tom O'Neil at Gold Derby points out, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (they hand out the primetime Emmy Awards) has some 16,000 members. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (they do the Grammy Awards) have some 20,000. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only has about 6261 members. Flooding the Academy with new members would overhaul an aging organization and make it more relevant to a world that has changed faster than it has.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

do you realize the shit storm that is about to hit us?

#OscarsSoWhite continues. Jada Pinkett Smith (married of course to Will Smith, who is one of the oft cited actors of colour who could/should have been nominated for an Oscar this year) put out a few tweets and then a video about boycotting the Oscars. Spike Lee joined her. So did Michael Moore. One person that specifically spoke out against Jada was her husband's old costar from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Janet Hubert. But, she had to go and start with a somewhat sexist--

I'm getting ahead of myself.

How about Jada's tweets first, set some context beyond just the fact that in the past ten years worth of acting nominations (just to narrow it down to one field), the Academy had only nominated 26 people of colour and 174 white people. Colourless people, if you will. Because the Academy was last reported as being 94% white and 54% over the age of 60 (with an average age of about 62), so this is an organization of, you know, old white men.

Anyway, Jada's tweets:

At the Oscars...people of color are always welcomed to give out awards...even entertain, (pt. 1)

But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together? (pt 2)

People can only treat us in the way in which we allow. With much respect in the midst of deep disappointment. J (pt 3)

Lots of folks responded in lots of ways. I won't get into all of it. I've got a dozen or so articles bookmarked (and will reference some below) and several printed out. Google it, you'll find plenty. (You'll also find Jada's followup video and the Janet Hubert video referenced below.)

But, I wanted to focus in on one response for the moment--Janet Hubert.

Tonight, I've got The Martian playing, by the way. I never really wrote about it because I was busy dealing with horror films that month, Hellraiser that day in particular. I might not say much about it today. It does include some actors of colour in notable roles, notably Oscar nominee from two years ago Chiwetel Ejiofor. Lot of white folks, though. I mentioned yesterday why The Martian is an easy nomination for Best Picture. Given today's topic, I'd venture that since acting nominees are picked by actors, they were impressed (as they were with Leonardo DiCaprio, surely) how Matt Damon has to carry so much of the film while utterly alone in his scenes.

But, I was talking about Janet Hubert and her sexist opener: "First of all, Miss Thing, does your man not have a mouth of his own with which to speak?" At least, I think it's a bit sexist to a) call Jada "Miss Thing", b) to suggest Jada cannot have a voice of her own, or c) even (however accurate it may or may not be) to suggest that Jada must only be concerned because her husband was not nominated. And, that's before Hubert proceeds to dismiss the entire subject because there are more important things going on in the world. That is one line of argument I just don't like.

Like Kevin Fallon's Daily Beast piece--"Another All-White Oscars? This Is Bullshit."--in which Fallon dismisses Trumbo because it was (meant to be read sarcastically, of course) "a movie about important things like White Movie Writers Who Have Been Mistreated and not something like African doctors attempting to change the world's minds about the value of an entertainment institution that could possibly be killing people." That's Concussion, if you don't know. But, if you don't know that, I'm not sure what you're doing here reading my blog. You are welcome here. I just don't know what you are doing. Thing is, yeah, chronic traumatic encephalopathy destroys lives, takes lives. Or, I hope, took, past tense. So did the Hollywood Blacklist destroy lives, take lives. Fewer lives, I'm pretty sure, but I don't necessarily operate under the notion that it should be a numbers game when it comes to lives at stake. A story about a single life at stake--say, The Martian or The Revenant (mostly)--is just as valid a dramatic story worth telling. Hell, how about a story like Brooklyn? No one's life is on the line--though a character with very little screentime does die, for the record--only, well, living. Love. Happiness. Even I, yesterday, referred to the topics of some movies as "important" but really, I think of importance as more of a tiebreaker when movies are equally(-ish), for lack of a better term, good.

My point is, yeah, there are more "important" things going on, but so what. Life still happens, day-to-day. We cannot all just be stuck on important things all the time.

Plus, this assumes that the racial makeup of the Oscar nominees, the racial makeup of the Academy, the racial makeup of Hollywood and its output, the racial makeup of America, the racial makeup of the world and the conditions in which the races deal with one another is somehow unimportant just because, in this instance, we're talking about movies, about a bunch of rich people giving each other pats on the back as some are wont to describe it. Not one part of that is unimportant.

I came into this week with the Oscars prepared, among other things, to get into a serious critique of one piece in particular--Mary McNamara's Los Angeles Times piece, "Oscars 2016: It's time for Hollywood to stop defining great drama as white men battling adversity." Seriously, if you've been with this blog since year one, and you were here for the many days I spent picking apart Benesh's (2011) dissertation on Groundhog Day you could imagine. Many handwritten notes, from simple nitpicks about here definition of "recent" to a serious critique of her characterization of pretty much every one of the eight nominees for Best Picture. Hell I might still get into some of it, but that will be another day. This entry has gotten long enough.

And, I didn't even get to tell you the actual numbers game of how the acting nominees get picked. Short version: it's a variation on what I explained yesterday about best picture but there are (probably) just shy of 1400 actors (1377, taking a Los Angeles Times calculation in 2012 that the Academy is 22% actors and the current membership is reportedly 6261) in the Academy's acting branch. So, take your total number of potential ballots down to 1377. Divide by 6 because there can only be up to 5 nominees for any particular acting category. So, the "magic number" of ballots an actor or actress needs to be a nominee is 230. This means, that the first nominee needs (if the system works efficiently) to be the #1 choice on 230 ballots. (And, I'll reiterate the nifty little possibility that a particular actor or actress could be the #2 on every single ballot that gets turned in (1377, if everybody votes) and still not be nominated if the #1 choices are evenly distributed.

Bring this back around to an organization that is 94% white, and 54% over the age of 60, and you can probably imagine why the #1 choice on many ballots just will not be a person of colour unless a particular film has gotten a major push, is (probably) popular, and (often) deals in an "important" subject. On that last one of course, Manohla Dargis makes a good point in the New York Times--the mass of old white men in the Academy didn't grow up listening to the likes of N.W.A., so they just cannot relate to Straight Outta Compton. Hell, I was 12 when that album came out and I don't relate to the group or the music, necessarily, but I absolutely understand the messages of both and of the film. It was not one of my favorite films this past year but as the Oscar nomination day approached I rather hoped the Academy would nominate the film, not because it's important that we nominated films with "black themes" and black actors (though that is important) but because the film can be and has been an inspiration for its audience. It's, you know, important.