On Oscars, Gimmickry, & “The Artist”

Oscar was good to director Michel Hazanavicius and his (mostly) silent film “The Artist” at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.  The film left with five awards, including top spots for Picture, Director and Actor.

I think most post-ceremony analyses are nonsense, so far be it from me to make sweeping conclusions based on Oscar distribution.  But there is at least one thing to be said about the particular trophies “The Artist” took home.  Unlike, say, “Crash”, this year’s Best Picture winner was no fluke.  Something about this film resonated with Oscar voters.

Eventually whatever that intangible element was, whatever spell the film put on its vote-casting viewers – all of that will fade.  That’s my prediction.  There will come a moment when the audience who lauded “The Artist” to the stage five times on Sunday night will realize they handed those awards over to a gimmick.

I said it – a gimmick.  “The Artist” walks a precarious line between homage and gimmick, and though it is a film filled with homages, it ends up being about that very thing.  The film knows it’s silent and black-and-white (and this is very different from the filmmakers knowing the same thing).  It knows it’s being watched by a modern audience.  “The Artist” is about as self-aware a movie as has ever been made.  It winks at the audience almost the entire movie.  Sometimes literally.

“The Artist” is charming and there are some praise-worthy moments in it, but it has nothing new to say. Its plot is straight out of “Singin’ in the Rain”.  It’s a people-pleaser to a fault, so much so that it tries to appease both a generation of film-lovers longing for the silent era and movie-goers with modern sensibilities.  So even at its most nostalgic, “The Artist” won’t fully commit to its own aesthetic convictions, evidenced even by its credits.

I have no doubt the makers deeply love the movies.  They didn’t intend to make a gimmick.  And even if they did, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.  Even Hitchcock did it.  But for Hollywood to award its highest honor to a gimmick is concerning.  My hope is that eventually the hubbub surrounding “The Artist” will fade, that it will take a humbler place in movie history as a film that had several good sequences in it, some that reminded us of its bygone setting.

My hope is that Hollywood won’t try to capitalize on the film’s dark horse acclaim.  I can see it now.  “From the makers of ‘Scary Movie’, ‘Epic Movie’, and ‘Disaster Movie’ comes….’SILENT MOVIE’ “.

Paramount Releases “Hugo” Making-of

No doubt this little making-of doc is a bit of Oscar politicking, but the movie is worthy.  “Hugo” is a Martin Scorsese love letter containing layer upon layer of cinema parallels so organic that one can’t imagine it coming to fruition in a way less perfect.  Screenwriter John Logan explains some of these parallels beautifully at 4:55 in the video.

Scorsese famously lost out during Oscar season year after year for pictures now seen as important and iconic – “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “GoodFellas” to name a few.  The curse lifted when “The Departed” took home Best Picture and he won Best Director in 2007.  That’s certainly a well crafted film, but it still feels like the Academy was compensating for poor choices in the past.  How ironic and wonderful would it be to see Martin Scorsese find victory with a “children’s film”.

Solitary Men: The King, The Nerd & The Perv

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD, SIR!

The Oscars are swiftly approaching and, from several of the critics, bloggers and strategists I’ve been reading (Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, and others) the race for Best Picture has come down to “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” (although some dark horses may be gaining momentum).  These are two of 2010’s best films, so it is a hopeful sign that the Academy is recognizing their worth.  But what is more remarkable are the film’s themes.  (Ebert has some fascinating albeit brief notes on the two film’s links on his Best Films of 2010 essay.)

I’d like to throw another film into the stew, one that was totally ignored by the Academy.  It’s Brian Koppelman’s and David Levien’s “Solitary Man”, which stars Michael Douglas as a formerly successful car salesman who loses his business, reputation and part of his family because of his fiscal and relational infidelity.  I add this movie to the discussion for two reasons.  It’s an exemplary film – written and directed and acted to near perfection – and it’s uncommonly insightful in its treatment of loneliness.

What “The Social Network”, “The King’s Speech” and “Solitary Man” all have in common are its lonely leading men.  For “Network”, it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who flings away his closest friends for the love of power.  In “Speech” it’s Colin Firth’s Bertie, who isolates himself out of shame of his disabling stammer.  And in “Solitary Man”, Douglas’ Ben Kalmen hides ugly selfishness under the guise of suaveness and relevant advice.  These are the epitome of solitary men, but I find the reasons – which are diverse – to be fascinating.

Take Zuckerberg for instance.  In the beginning of David Fincher’s film, Zuckerberg apparently has only one real friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and several friendly acquaintances.  Correction: he has a girlfriend at the beginning too, but in the film’s razor-sharp opening scene, he quickly remedies that problem as well.  Indeed, relationships in general are a problem for Zuckerberg.  All the people in his social sphere pose a major threat to him – namely that they will all become unmanageable.  He will no longer be able to control them with his untamed tongue.  To lose that sovereignty is to lose everything.  Facebook, then, is his deified solution.  To remain “social” without the possibility of the sphere falling apart.  Within the written code, all his friends become 1’s and 0’s, just a thumbnail picture lined up perfectly with everyone else.  Throughout the film, Zuckerberg is a conversational tyrant.  He throws words around with what, at first, appears to be precision.  But his words are carelessly chosen and delivered.  And on Facebook, his tyranny reaches its pinnacle.  It’s a costly exchange and he uses his one friend as currency.  “The Social Network” brilliantly paints Facebook as another major step toward massive communication breakdown.  At the film’s end, Zuckerberg tries to regain the girlfriend he spent the film’s beginning ridding himself of, but he must resort to adding her as a friend on Facebook and hoping she accepts his request.  Over this image, we read that he eventually became the world’s youngest billionaire.  Rich, powerful, surrounded by friends… and totally alone.

Meanwhile, there’s Bertie, who will become King George VI of England by the time the movie is over.  Bertie seems to be disabled by a stammer.  He can barely tell a story to his young daughters without stuttering, let alone complete a speech to the entire nation.  One speech therapist after another is called in and each one fails.  So Bertie pushes everyone away.  He’s only comfortable when he is alone.  Only there is he safe.  Only there can he communicate with his mouth the words in his head.  Unlike his modern counterpart, Zuckerberg, Bertie resists any kind of sovereignty and control.  He cannot handle them.  Bertie can’t talk; Zuckerberg can’t stop talking. There are several heartbreaking conversations Bertie has with his new speech coach, Lionel (played by Geoffrey Rush), in which he describes his upbringing.  Away from the working class, isolated in the walls of royal life, Bertie grew up terrified of the spotlight his royal name automatically placed on him.  He disappointed his father and drew mockery from his brother.  The more he divulges – through stammers, don’t forget – the more we realize his stammer is barely the issue.  The stammer is merely symptomatic of the true disability: fear.  The rest of the film, Bertie fights that fear with everything he’s got, and that fight produces a true and close friend.  This solitary man begins alone.  He ends with one true friend.  Rich and powerful by default; unafraid by choice.

And finally there is Ben Kalmen.  “Solitary Man” opens with Kalmen, at the top of his game, at the hospital for a routine checkup.  The doctor is “not happy” with a few of the test results and suggests he return for further testing.  Ben quite literally tunes out.  Somewhere in those opening moments, he plans it all out without even realizing it – the money schemes, the adultery, the lies.  Six years later, his wife has left him, his business has fallen apart, and his community reputation is irredeemable.  The name Ben Kalmen is synonymous with “cheater”.  What caused it?  Those opening moments are key.  Ben did not suddenly become capable of lying, cheating, and stealing; he was capable of that the whole time.  But in that doctor’s office, faced with the possibility of death, he realizes he very well might have nothing to live for.  To work and love well when your whole life is ahead of you is one thing, but people who have nothing to live for begin to focus all their energies on living exclusively for themselves.  So he indulges.  Ben doesn’t understand that his sins have community-sized consequences.  He even disguises his actions as good advice, imparting it all to his new girlfriend’s daughter and a college freshman at his alma mater.  (By the way, that college kid is played by Jesse Eisenberg.)  Ben can’t keep his moral decay to himself!  He shares it; he passes it around; and tries to perpetuate the cycle on younger people.  And yet, the more he shares with others, the more others flee.  All except an old college friend, Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito).  Jimmy never reached the heights Ben did, but never experienced the fall either.  So Jimmy is essentially the only character on stable enough ground to tell Ben what he must hear.  Ben begins with one friend and, after some epic shuffling, somehow manages to end with that one friend.  The closing shot of “Solitary Man” is a perfect mix of closure and mystery.  Ben has to make a choice: either he continues with his lifestyle of alienating indulgence or he quits pretending he will live forever and enters back into a life of community.  The movie doesn’t tell us what his choice is.

I can’t recommend these three movies to you enthusiastically enough.  “Solitary Man” and “The Social Network” are available now (“Solitary Man” is currently on Netflix Instant Play).  “The King’s Speech” is still playing in some second-run movie theaters.  Watch them with friends.

“The Social Network” – opening scene

“The King’s Speech” trailer

“Solitary Man” trailer

Oscar Nominations 2011

Last Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the upcoming ceremony on February 27.  Of the all the superfluous entertainment award shows each year, the Oscars is the one I get excited about.  There’s a sense of cinematic tradition involved with the Oscars – it’s a show that connects modern filmmakers to the past through a mutual regard for greatness in film.  So, in this sense, I enjoy Oscar season.  The hype gets even Joe Schmo to participate in the discussion about film art and entertainment.

This year’s nominations had several surprises.  Like most years, I am displeased with several omissions and hopeful justice will prevail in some of the categories.  Here are some thoughts on that:

My biggest qualm is in the Best Supporting Actor category, where Andrew Garfield of “The Social Network” was snubbed the nomination.  Garfield’s performance is nuanced and powerful; his performance elevates Jesse Eisenberg’s in many ways.  Who would I eliminate from the category?  That’s tough.  I saw all of the other films nominated in this category, except for “The Kids Are All Right”, and the performances are very deserving.  The two surprises were Jeremy Renner in “The Town” and John Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone”.  Both are superlative supporting performances, so by default, I wish Mark Ruffalo would not have made the cut.

Another omission that does not sit well with me is in the Original Screenplay category.  One of the most overlooked movies of 2010, “Solitary Man”, has a script rife with intelligence and sensitivity.  The dialogue rivals even Aaron Sorkin’s in “The Social Network” and its themes are provocative and clearly communicated.  Brian Koppelman’s script should have won over the script for “The Fighter”.  Hands down.

There was hardly a chance “The Book of Eli” would be considered in any major category, but the film was a tour de force in cinematography, music and editing.  Shame on the Academy for totally overlooking it.

In the Best Original Score category, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are favored to win for “The Social Network”.  (It’s notable that Ross was one of the composers for “The Book of Eli”.)  This would be well-deserved and something of a history-maker for the Oscars.  The score mirror’s Reznor’s electronic/industrial rock flavor and, to listen to it by itself, it is hard to believe how well it accompanies the film.  It reminds me of another risky nomination from the past – Jerry Goldsmith’s half-orchestral/half-electronic score for “Hoosiers” (which did not win).  Next on my list would be Alexandre Desplat’s score for “The King’s Speech”.  That film has so many dynamic emotions that pulling off a cohesive score must have been quite a challenge for Desplat, so in that sense, the score is a wild success.

And then there’s the whole controversy about Christopher Nolan’s absence on the Best Director ballot.  He was mostly considered a shoo-in in that category.  The surprise came from Joel and Ethan Coen for “True Grit”.  I wouldn’t oust the Coens in exchange for Nolan because their hallmark directorial command is on full display in “True Grit”.  It’s David O. Russell whose nomination here should be questioned.  What about Russell’s skill as a director (which I don’t deny) was on display in “The Fighter”?  The movie is a visual and emotional mess.

So why do I hold to Nolan?  Hasn’t his “Inception” been debunked for all its apparent plot holes and overly literal imagery?  Don’t those things legitimately disqualify him from the nomination?  No.  “Inception”, though it has some faults, is a thrilling and engaging film.  The movie is a visual wonder.  Story-wise, I compare it to the Philip Seymour Hoffman drama “Synecdoche, New York”, one of the most difficult narrative films I’ve ever seen.  For the small group of moviegoers who actually saw it, the responses were nearly apocalyptic.  Most watchers left the movie consummately frustrated and I’ve talked to several who were straight-up angry.  “Inception” is almost as risky a story line, but Nolan’s instincts are usually very astute to bring his audience on the ride in an entertaining way.  At it’s most basic level, it is absurd to think “Inception” was a major studio wide release.  Nolan’s direction should be commended for making his movie accessible – not by dumbing it down (for the most part), but by directing with clarity.

My hopes are high for “The King’s Speech”, what I think to be the best film from 2010, but the buzz surrounding “The Social Network” is so high right now that I think it’ll win Best Picture.  And rightfully so.  It’s a masterful and culturally important film.  “Network” will also take Adapted Screenplay for Sorkin and most likely Director for David Fincher.  As it stands, I hope “The King’s Speech” sweeps the acting categories.  It is such a beautifully acted film.  Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush all should win.

We’ll see it all unfold in just about one month.

Until then, here are a few videos to remind us to chill out about all these movies:

Several nominated films acted out by children:

http://tv.gawker.com/5744041/adorable-kids-reenact-five-best-picture-nominated-films