Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brief Oscar things

Light pollution was actually a concern back in the day.

Sean Witzke’s article on Grantland Thursday about Steven Spielberg was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First off, I knew that I would agree with his summation of Spielberg within the first couple paragraphs. I’m betting that there are a lot of film fans out there who wished that the early Spielberg- innovative (even by mishap; see Jaws), energetic, a storyteller seemingly suffused with boyish enthusiasm –had never become the later Spielberg- safe, straightforward, an entertainer constantly aware of his impact on middle America. The interesting thing about him is that both versions made money, hand over fist. Money is frequently the dividing line between the auteurs and the stars. I know many writers who are convinced that it’s more important to be original in one’s methods even though said methods will never sell, rather than become successful. It’s the living definition of trying not to “sell out.” Spielberg never had to sell out because even when he was trying new things, they almost always turned into massive successes.

Not that Jaws
Jaws is the pristine example in that it wasn’t intended to be anything other than a summer shocker film, at which it succeeded, but it also ushered in the era of the “summer blockbuster” upon which the major studios are now utterly dependent. In that way, the ‘auteur’ actually worked against the very label that Witzke (and others) apply to him. If you couldn’t make a (ahem) splash with a wide audience, then your road as a major film director/producer/whathaveyou became far more difficult as we progressed into the 80s. But blockbusters are very rarely innovative and almost always are far more about entertainment than story. Witzke suggests that E.T. and Poltergeist are two sides of the same Spielberg coin and I don’t dispute that. But what really stuck out to me was where Witzke pointed out that Spielberg’s habit of releasing two films alongside each other and his subsequent domination of that summer of 1982 did swamp two other films that were story-driven and forward-thinking: Blade Runner and The Thing, both of which I’ve written about before (or their directos, at least.)

If only you could see what he's seen with your eyes
Now, certainly there are other factors involved in that scenario. Blade Runner was released with the studio’s cut, which detracted from a great deal of the thoughtfulness behind the picture and Scott’s careful focus on the visuals. The Thing suffered from being a horror film; a genre even more disdained than superheroes until the last decade. But, of course, Poltergeist was nominally a horror film and that was a smash. I don’t deny that my own biases are at work here, since I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of both Scott and Carpenter’s early work and I still consider the director’s cut of Blade Runner to be the finest science fiction film ever made and The Thing to be among the best horror films ever made. But that little note in a well-written analysis managed to highlight the overall point: spectacle over story rules the day and it’s unfortunate that Spielberg has, in large part, given himself up to it.

Oscar stuff-

This year, I’m in the unfortunate position of not being able to comment reasonably on most of the award slate because I didn’t see around half of the films in question. Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wild, Still Alice, Selma, Theory of Everything, etc., etc. Just haven’t gotten to them. Now, some of those are because of simple disinterest. I have zero compulsion to see American Sniper, despite my appreciation for Bradley Cooper. One more example of America’s military fetish is a sure recipe for a nap from me. Likewise, The Imitation Game strikes me as kind of a re-hashing of many Masterpiece Theatre-like films before it. It’s The King’s Speech, except with Turing/Cumberbatch in the place of George/Firth. But many of the rest have simply been casualties of time. I’m a Wes Anderson fan. I’m a J.K. Simmons fan. I’m definitely going to see both GBH and Whiplash at some point. I just haven’t gotten there. All of that said, it was kind of reassuring to know that I’d seen the two massive frontrunners: Boyhood and Birdman, but had also seen two that were largely overlooked, Nightcrawler and Inherent Vice, probably because they remain outside the parameters of what are normally considered “Oscar-worthy.” Does being an auteur now even remove you from the realm of “serious film”? In that respect, it’s open to question whether looking down the Oscar list or watching the ceremony is even useful anymore, given the accessibility of the Web and my changing tastes in what qualifies as “good” (read: interesting; I liked The King’s Speech. I just don’t think I need to see it again.) Simple entertainment still doesn’t win out. I can watch enough self-congratulatory exercises on C-SPAN.

That said, there are a couple interesting notes to append to some of them. Whiplash, for example, has had a ton of coverage based on the amount of time it has spent in the public eye (first seen at Sundance in late 2013.) But it was this opinion, again on Grantland, by a former music student that really caught my eye. Concepcion is a fan of the film, even though he immediately dismisses its central premise: that of a ridiculously savage music teacher driving his charges to succeed. Concepcion's assertion, that most music teachers wouldn't even bother to expend the energy on someone that needed to be driven, is really interesting. The idea that real musicians need to have something to say (even after a 10-minute solo) should be central to the concept, but it rarely is, especially when so many popular acts are entirely constructed by studios, in that the music is written and composed for them, so that they "only" have to perform it while their image is built as a "musician" or singer. It's interesting how far we've come, with the roots of rock music so firmly embedded in jazz, that rock performers can be so removed from the people in jazz that were genuinely idolized as geniuses because they could say something different over lengthy periods and were often encouraged to do so or even challenged to do so by the bandleader.

But... but... history!

But those are the choices you have to make, distinct from reality, to tell a story. It's not ridiculous to think that there could be a music teacher who finds it useful to essentially assault his students to push them toward greatness. That's a trope of Western storytelling in the first place. However, it's also conceivable that depictions of historical figures could be somewhat different than many would like to think. The flap over Selma's portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is one such instance. I was pretty amazed that so many people were writhing in anguish over how he was shown as a political opportunist, rather than a dedicated champion of civil rights. What histories have these people been reading? LBJ was a champion politician. That's how he got to be vice president! He knew exactly what public image meant and the ramifications of same. This is the man who stated: "We've just lost the South for a generation." when he signed the Civil Rights Act. Why anyone would be concerned that he was shown weighing the effects of his various actions and those of Martin Luther King is completely beyond me. The fact that Selma fell under a cloud because of it could be just one more example of "Not all whites!" or it could be because the film just didn't measure up. I guess I'll be better able to say when I see it. I do know that I won't really give a shit if LBJ is shown as the calculating politician that he was.

In the end, I have no predictions. I thought both Boyhood and Birdman were excellent films and either could win the Oscar for best film, although given a do-or-die choice, I'd probably pick Birdman, simply because it left me thinking about more than Boyhood did. But that's the opinion of someone who can't stand to be "just" entertained most of the time.