Tag Archives: oscars

Thinking about Mike Figgis

The work of director Mike Figgis has always been of particular interest to me.

From more traditional films, like his adaptation of The Browning Version, through his looser, more playful experiments in video technology (i.e. Timecode and Hotel), Figgis never seems to have touched the same ground twice. But his films are his throughout.

I could point to any number of patterns. My personal favorite, a quality that continues to pop up in these films again and again, is Figgis’s deep investment in sensuality. I don’t mean sex (though that surely is a part of it), I mean a voluptuousness of sound, color, and cutting – especially cutting – that pervades even his starkest pictures. Figgis rarely needs a dissolve; his pictures seem to dissolve all the time, like thin wafers on a hot tongue. And there is no better example than those of Leaving Las Vegas, the centerpiece film of his career, and arguably one of the defining films of the 90s.

No other indie feature of the era started with so little to go so far, beginning with a budget of a few million dollars and Super 16mm film, and ending at the Oscars. Other pictures started with less, and some went farther, but none spanned the entire range like Leaving Las Vegas. Add to that Figgis’s renaissance-man approach to filmmaking, which transcends the confines of the regular old auteur (more than the film’s writer/director, he scored the film, edited, operated, and invented camera equipment specifically for his cinematic needs), and you have the poster child of successful DIY filmmaking.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing Figgis for something I plan to write for the 15th Anniversary of Leaving Las Vegas (yes, that was fifteen years ago), and because I know pretty much everyone interested in motion pictures has something to say about the film, I thought I’d throw out the line a little early and see what thoughts were tossed my way.


Jason and the Argonaut

I saw a sad thing this weekend.

Jason Reitman, who has every reason to hold his head high, who has made two half-movies and one hearty, honest-to-god, fully-realized romantic comedy, and who has already been compared to Preston Sturges, and whose best work, I’m sure, is still ahead of him, took the stage several evenings ago, and conducted a brief interview with Kathryn Bigelow. Poor Reitman was discomposed throughout.

By the end of their conversation, his distress turned sour and I regarded him, as I did Jude Law’s Hamlet, with an equal mix of pity and nausea. (Bigelow remained poised, however; a tower of grace and earthy virtue, like a pretty Virginia Woolf come to Hollywood.)

It was a revealing piece of movie-town theater. I wish I could say the boy was overwhelmed, that facing a presence as physically imposing, endearingly kind, and irrefutably talented as Kathryn Bigelow threw him off balance. But that would imply humility. Because he framed it against his own Oscar-losses, Reitman’s deference, which he punctuated with press-release style clichés about how “tense” The Hurt Locker was, read less like genuine awe than the kind of passive-aggressive cry for attention I used to pull on girls in high school when I suspected no one was going to make out with me.

Bigelow would be ambling her way to a point and Jason would cut in with a joke – about a remark she made some time ago. Had he spent the intervening moments, I wondered, polishing the perfect punchline? Or did it just come to him right then, and he couldn’t hold it back? In either case, he was uncomfortable ceding the stage, so much so that Bigelow, out of a kind of saintly beneficence, often seemed to be ceding it for him. That is the only way to explain the number of times she changed the subject from The Hurt Locker to Up in the Air, which, naturally, was met with waves of obligatory (though earned) applause, and a lot stern nodding on the part of Jason. Soon, he was answering her questions.

In light of the recent (and very public) business of Up in the Air’s WGA arbitration debacle, I suspected Reitman would have taken greater pains to represent himself as judiciously as possible. But it seems he can’t help it. (There is something of Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington about him.) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Reitman asserted his draft of Up in the Air represented substantial changes from its predecessors. “When it came time to allot credit,” wrote Steven Zeitchick in his L.A. Times blogpost, “Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with [Sheldon] Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit.”

Up in the Air becomes even more interesting when it’s considered in the light of Reitman’s apparently merciless ambition. Did he make the film as warning against the bulldozer life or as an approbation of the Ayn Randian instinct? It’s tough to say. But that’s what gave Up in the Air its color. With Clooney as his pilot, Reitman made ego look as compelling as ever. But the other night, Kathryn Bigelow, with a single touch of her magic wand, had him in the kind of chokehold he may never get out of. I sincerely hope he does.



Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.



Oh boy it was a grim Oscars. So grim I’ve put off writing this.

Now here I am and I feel like the Underground Man from Notes From the Underground or that guy from Camus (or was it Sartre?) who begins his book with “my mother died today, or was it yesterday?” What, I wonder, is the point of going on? It seems almost silly to ascribe significance to a ceremony in which Taylor Lautner makes it to the stage, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman are only allowed to wave from the audience. Yet therein lies the significance.

In trying to appeal to the young, in trying to stay fresh and relevant, and in trying to keep the show moving at the pace of contemporary attention spans, the producers of the 82nd Academy Awards turned what could have been a meaningful evening into a bloodless night of dinner theater. They made it Weekend at Bernie’s. The Kodak Theater was Bernie.

Admittedly, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been old too long; they’re right to want to try a new tactic. If their members do not reach out to young people, serious film awareness could and probably will become a thing of the past, and the Samuel Goldwyn Theater will become an adjunct of Cedars-Sinai. But tread lightly, good people of Mantilini: to revoke history is to revoke the very essence of your establishment. Giving Oscar a facelift isn’t going to make him seem any younger; it’s just going to make him seem not himself. Attend the tale of Sweeny Kidman.

The very thing that gives the Academy its gravity is, like the British Empire, the sense of tradition that once fortified the Oscar ceremony. Imagine what coronations would be like if Westminster Productions decided to bring in young royals and cut out all that old fashioned business about God and Country and the Henrys and Elizabeths. England would become a role-playing game, with Parliament instead of a twenty-sided die.

I love James Taylor, but the “In Memoriam” segment should not be a music video, no matter how somber the accompaniment (I couldn’t help but think, “Karl Malden is dead and James Taylor will collect swag.”) Nor should the necessary rundown of the year’s Scientific & Technical Award Winners be dashed off like a homework assignment in the moments before class. (This segment will forever feel irrelevant if it is constantly treated as if it is. In truth, the Sci-Tech Awards are just as relevant, if not more relevant, than many other Oscar categories. These are the people who make film work, literally work.) Want to make the Scientific & Technical Awards fun? Then tell us the truth about the amazing things these gifted artists have achieved.

Why were people dancing to film music? Michael Giacchino should not have to compete with flipping. Why Neil Patrick Harris? He’s fun, I know, but how is he relevant to motion pictures? And why such a long tribute to John Hughes? No doubt about it: his influence on teen culture of the 80s was as formative as Salinger’s was on the 50s, and he should be honored in kind, but when Bergman died three years ago, I don’t recall seeing him in more than a few images in the “In Memoriam” reel. Do you see what I mean? Something is terribly, tragically off. Perhaps the Academy could make up for it by financing a Bergman revival. Perhaps they could get hot young actors to introduce the films. But what would they call the series, Girls Gone Wild Strawberries?

Of course I know Bergman won’t keep people tuned to the television sets. I know that’s not a practical solution. But without the great legacy of film in attendance, the Academy Awards will become just another Bar Mitzvah-looking award show. And God knows we already have The Golden Globes.

P.S. I was there for the whole thing. As my date and I left, we saw Michael Haneke lingering outside. He was holding court in a circle of three or four people and he was laughing. He was laughing.

The Problem with Precious

People are still talking about Precious.

A few days ago, Ishmael Reed suggested that the general response to the film fell largely around racial lines. As passé as his claim sounds, he may in fact be right. At least my own field research says so. Most white people I know have basically come down in favor of the film, and the few black people I know are mostly ambivalent. I’m not sure this is because, as Reed suggests, Precious flatters white audiences in its perpetuation of the “merciful slave master” stereotype, so much as it uses the Black experience as a punching bag/battle cry. Mrs. Lichtenstein, for instance, the most merciful white character in the film, is as Jewish as she is white, and “merciful Jewish slave master” is not a stereotype in wide circulation. To Lee Daniels’ credit, Mrs. Lichtenstein is merciful because she is merciful, not because she is white.

It seems more likely that the bifurcation stems from bad filmmaking masquerading as “authenticity.” Responding to certain clichés meant to register as “realistic” (ugly people, sweaty brows, hand held camera work, etc), white people – to continue the bifurcation theory – seem to have fallen for the picture’s social awareness agenda, the righteous sense that something must be done, while Black people, with a keener sense of the Black experience, seem to have sniffed out the objectification lurking beneath the massacre. Perhaps it was the relentless cruelties Precious doled out on its characters, combined with the awful feeling that one was meant to leave the picture changed, that lent Precious that certain Riefenstahlian something.

Mo’Nique’s tremendous performance notwithstanding, there is very little to recommend the film. Gabourey Sidibe is a striking screen presence, but Daniels, true to his needs as a propagandist, gives her few opportunities to breathe life, or even death, into her character. Her size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that. The proof? If leaving the film, you have difficulty coming up with a more descriptive character trait for Precious than “fat,” it’s because Daniels thinks of her less as a person than as meat. This puts him closer to Pasolini than Rossellini, and Precious closer to 120 Days of Sodom than Rome, Open City.

How to Enjoy Your Sadomasochistic Oscar Romance

Quibbling over Oscar nominations is as futile as quibbling over who left the cap off the toothpaste. No matter what you say or how emphatically you protest, you know it’s going to happen again, so either give it up, or pack your things and get out. Fighting the tide isn’t just mundane, it’s exhausting.

And now that we have ten Best Picture nominations instead of five, there are more uncapped toothpastes (and a few raised toilet seats) than ever before. An EducationDistrict 9? What is this, The People’s Choice Awards?

Perhaps. We all know the Academy Awards have ceased to be about The Academy or the Awards, let alone the movies themselves. Now, like everything else, like The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor, they’re about the numbers. Thus the ten: with more movies in the running, you have – or so the logic goes – more viewers. But there I go again with the toothpaste.

And yet, like a spineless cuckold, I keep coming back. Call it ritual or call it cockeyed hope; call it an anthropological inquest or call it masochism, but there it is. I keep coming back.

I’ve tried/am trying to make peace with the nauseating glory of it all. This morning, for instance, I hurried through the top portion of the nominees and scanned down to the bottom of the list. I saw there certain names that made my heart flutter. There was Inglourious Basterd‘s cinematographer, Robert Richardson; Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, directors of the Oscar nominated documentary, Burma VJ; and miracle-workers Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua (and James Cameron), editors of Avatar. Seeing in print these formidable figures of the movies, whose TV presence has no bearing on ratings, and whose work should win them the boost of Oscar recognition, I felt again that feeling of wholesome movie-love only the Academy Awards could ignite.

It was swell to see deserving people like Bigelow and Bridges on the list, but they were locks, and as widely recognized above-the-liners, they’ve already received their chunk of national attention. But it’s an entirely different opportunity for Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, who have been nominated for their In the Loop screenplay. Moment to moment, and line to line, here was a script that never quit, a script so ornately verbal, and so in love with language, that watching the movie, it was difficult not to imagine its writers hunched over a dozen volumes of the OED, debating every word down to its every syllable. And I do mean syllable: rhythmically, In the Loop is an astounding, almost musical feat of film comedy – one of the best in quite a while – and to see the picture gain Oscar visibility, even if it doesn’t go on to win, felt like some kind of personal vindication.

In the midst of an undertaking that invites so much cynicism, these names (and many others) are a reminder of why we care so much in the first place. So hold your heads high, Oscar lovers, because where careers are made, lives can change. And that has nothing to do with toothpaste.

The Avatardation of Hollywood

First, the good news.

A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.

At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.

I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.

Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”

However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.

You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.

To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.

I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.

These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.

Could Wes Anderson Actually Win an Oscar?

As the Oscar-speaking world delves deeper into the Avatar/Hurt Locker debate – which has to be one of the more exciting awards dramas in recent memory – I’ve begun to wonder, with the ballot deadline fast approaching, if any of the Academy’s 5,777 voting members has begun to think seriously about talking animals.

I bring this up because this year, with Up, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all in the running for Best Animated Feature, it’s beginning to look like we might have something of a photo-finish on our hands.

If the race has been less compelling in the past, it’s because Pixar, the Freed Unit of cartoons, has dominated so clearly, and indeed so beautifully, that no one could dream of getting close to them. Of the six Pixar features released since 2001 – the first year Animated Features were given their own Oscar category – each one of them was nominated, and among the nominees, four took home the Academy Award. (Did I say Freed Unit? Make that Edith Head.)

This time, though, things are different. For one, the competition is stronger. Unlike most of Pixar’s competitors in years past, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox have the advantage of being user-friendly, basically mainstream releases with a great deal of critical support behind them. To Academy voters itching to look beyond Pixar – and they’re out there – these facts alone could spell the beginning of the end for Up.

Should that be the case, the question then becomes which way will they go? Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox?

I liked Coraline, but I sure hope it’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Unfortunately, there appear to be roadblocks ahead. We can only wonder what the name Wes Anderson means to the Academy’s 5,777, mostly senior, voting members. It has been almost ten years since he received a Best Screenplay nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums, and in the interim, his popular appeal has only begun to fray. Whatever one’s reaction to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, they were too mannered to register on the Academy’s taste radar, and caused many voters to wonder if Anderson could ever renew the promise of his first more approachable features. Oscar, after all, loves classical with a twist; films like Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, which take a well-worn formula and subvert it, slightly, tend to win the day. And yet, no matter how conservative its voting record, or traditional its predilections, the sensibility of nearly six thousand people can’t be reduced to a single epithet.

Into this tenuous atmosphere comes Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it’s a wonderful movie, Anderson’s best since Rushmore. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that stop motion was the ideal venue for a director so attuned (sometimes distractingly so), to the strange dollhouse quality that all people, being strange people, come to adopt. Far from hindering him, it seems the painstaking one-frame-at-time technique – slow, expensive, deliberate – might have forced Anderson out of his world of decadence, and ushered him toward a more economical, barebones approach to story. At least that’s what I hope, because as a one-time fan frustrated by his recent work, I’d love to see Wes Anderson repeat the kind of discipline he has recovered here, in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps then that old promise – the promise of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore – will be fulfilled.

Midnight in the Garden of Madison County

From the middle of March to about September, people in Los Angeles are happy – no, delighted – to talk about Clint Eastwood. In those months, before Oscar season kicks in, you’ll hear about what a magnificent movie star he was and still is – the last, maybe, of the great generation. You’ll hear about Rawhide and Leone and his illustrious career, and about how amazing it is that a man of his eighty years can still get a movie made, not just often, but regularly, at the rate of at least one a year. And you’ll hear about that incredible year when he made two movies, Flags of our Fathers and the Japanese one.

But starting around October, that changes. As the leaves fall over Little Santa Monica and the studios send out Oscar screeners, a certain group of progressive (i.e. old-fashioned) movie folk don’t want to talk about Clint anymore. It makes them quiet. It makes them nervous.

Yesterday, I casually mentioned Clint’s name at a party off Abbot Kinney and about two-dozen heads turned down to the floor. One of those heads belonged to my friend John, who, once the party resumed again, grabbed hold of my upper arm and drew me into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “it’s the middle of fucking January already. You can’t do that, Sam.”

Of course. I should have known better. Now is the time when we have to stop thinking about Clint-the-Acting-Legend and start thinking about Clint-the-Director. And it’s a hard transition for a lot of people, myself included. Hard because we – and I hate saying this – we don’t really love Clint-the-Director as much as we love Clint-the-Acting-Legend. Well, I mean, of course we love him – we’ll always love Clint no matter what – but after October, that love loses its luster and begins to feel more like the love one has for a cousin, or Robert Wise.

John threw his arm around me as we made our way out of the kitchen. “It hurts me as much as it hurts you,” he said. “Believe me, after I saw Mystic Pizza –

“River. Mystic River.”

“Right. After I saw Mystic River, I thought, ‘Wow, now I get it! Clint’s making old movies. He’s the last Classicist!’”

“I know. I thought the same thing.”

“We all did.”

“Somehow it made it seem okay.”

John reached for a bottle and refilled my glass. “Well, it’s not okay anymore.”

“But what about Unforgiven?”

He looked up. “Stop it, Sam. Don’t do this.”

Play Misty for Me? What about Play Misty for Me? What about High Plains Drifter or The Outlaw Josey Wales? You’ve got to admit – ”

“Jesus Christ, pull yourself together.”

“But – ”

“No, Sam.”

“But – ”

“I said no.”

We were quiet for quite a while before John muttered, “Space Cowboys…” That was the last thing we said to each for the rest of the party.

On the walk back to our cars, I slipped and said something about Morgan Freeman. I knew it was a mistake the moment the words “Miss Daisy” left my mouth. There was a stillness in the air, and I sensed John wanted to say something about Invictus. But he didn’t. I guess he knew it would be better for both of us if nobody said anything at all.