Tag Archives: the hurt locker

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.

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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.

This is What a Film Critic Does

Manohla on The Hurt Locker.

You Know I Love You, Manohla, But…

By now, I’m sure people of all sexes have had a good, long look at yesterday’s Dargis.

To those who haven’t: Manohla Dargis, The New York Times’ great and worthy defender of great and worthy movies, and one of today’s cleverest and most erudite critics, has let crack her mighty whip on the back of, with all due respect, the wrong adversary.

Observe:
The usual line on Hollywood [she writes] is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. [Kathryn] Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).

What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.

While it is true that Hollywood could benefit from more women behind the camera, the dearth of female directors has less to do with women and men, as she attests, and more to do with grosses and opening weekends.

The reasons Michael Mann continued to get deals despite Ali’s $22 million deficit are less reductive, and, I’m happy to say, less mysterious (or insidious) than Dargis would have it. First of all, Mann, unlike Bigelow, had a recent history of hits at the time of Ali’s commercial disappointment. The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999) were all either reasonably or substantially successful at the box office, whereas Bigelow’s recent record, which included The Weight of Water (2000) and Strange Days (1995), would not have helped her much when the time came to get a movie made post K-19. What would she have argued in her defense? If the studios wanted a return in their investment, Michael Mann had – and continues to have – a much better case.

Also, it should be said that, his filmography aside, Michael Mann had Tom Cruise (in Collateral) and Jamie Foxx (in Miami Vice), and to an ambivalent executive unsure of the director’s immediate bankability, their names were surely a comfort. If, in the years following K-19, Kathryn Bigelow had managed to interest stars of Cruise and Foxx’s caliber in her projects, she would have unquestionably gotten the kind of studio attention Mann got in his. And with names like that attached, if one pig-headed executive turned her down, another would have snapped her right up.

Of course, it could be asserted that Bigelow didn’t get stars because of a longstanding stigma against women filmmakers. Maybe. But I don’t see Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep turning down Bigelow for that reason. Nor do I see executives denying a financially solid entity the opportunity return the investment once more.

The days of producers making calls based upon personal predilections – be they constructive or prejudicial, artistic or sexist – are, alas, over. The proof is in the pictures: studio executives don’t have jobs because they get to make the movies they want to make or because they can reject the movies (and/or the filmmakers) they want to reject; they have jobs because they know what pimply teenage boys want to see at 7:30 on a Friday night. How do they know? The receipts tell them so. And if Kathryn Bigelow had those receipts in her favor, she’d be getting all deals in the world.

So why couldn’t I let this one fly? Why couldn’t I – as my girlfriend advised me – not make this my first-ever blog entry, but wait until I had a few more posts under my belt before I dipped into such problematic waters? Because Dargis, I’m afraid, is fighting the right fight the wrong way. We don’t need more female directors in Hollywood, we need more female directors outside of Hollywood, where voice matters, and where, beyond the flattening forces of big-budget filmmaking, it actually stands a chance of being a) heard by the public and then b) inculcated into the Hollywood system.

That’s how Bigelow did it. As Dargis points out, she financed her latest film, The Hurt Locker, with French money, and now it’s a lead forerunner in the incumbent Oscar race. That’s why her next film, Triple Frontier, has been set up at Paramount. You see? Hollywood doesn’t play favorites. It’s just a gigolo trying to make its rent.