#0118 - STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND - It's easy to sympathize with the NY Times' A.O. Scott, who's utterly at a loss when he's asked - in his expert capacity as the film critic at the "Paper of Record" - to predict the winners in every Oscar race. "The race is on," Scott writes, "and movie critics must step aside to make room for tipsters, handicappers, inside dopesters - or else try our hands at soothsaying."
The fact is that critics (hopefully) make their pronouncements based on their perception of skill and quality, while the Academy selects and votes for winners based on some strange combination of politics, popularity, self-interest, box office, and the subtle psychological currents that flow through the industry every winter, a river of sentiment and persuasion thick with every factor I've mentioned, crudely channelled and dammed by full-page ads in Variety, mailing and whispering campaigns, and the media, the most visible yet the least influential of all the forces working on voters.
For me, the most bewildering category every year is the foreign-language Oscar, which inevitably seems to include a handful of nominees that I've never seen, and an often-confounding choice for a winner. A first glance at the list of nominations always elicits the same reaction: "Who chooses these films? And why haven't I heard of them?" I'm a movie critic - I see a lot of films every year, most of them made outside the Unites States, so I have a pretty good idea of what's made it onto screens, or gotten notice at festivals and short-run engagements in New York or London. But once again, like every year, the Academy has presented me with a short list of films that are a near-complete mystery to me.
Of the five, I've heard of two - Mexico's El Crimen del Padra Amaro, which opens here this month, and China's Hero, which I've read about - a controversial epic which is apparently popular with China's government apparatchiks. The other three - The Man Without a Past, Nowhere in Africa and Zus and Zo - come completely out of left field. Where's Talk to Her? Well, Almodavar has a best director nomination, which smacks of politics - an inclusive gesture (he doesn't stand a chance of winning) made in the context of his film's absence in the most appropriate category.
In Slate, June Thomas explains that Almodovar's film wasn't even presented to the Academy's nominating committee, since Spain - perversely, to my mind - decided to submit another film, Mondays in the Sun, instead. Similarly, Mexico's nominating committee decided on El Crimen del Padre Amaro over a hit film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, which was disqualified on a technicality, and which was overlooked the previous year for another film, Perfume de Violetas, which didn't even have a US distributor.
"I don't like to talk about the polemics of the Spanish Academy," Almodovar told USA Today. "It's a group of people with a secret vote. I have to respect what they decide, whether or not I agree. Maybe they're bored or tired of me. But, they should send the film with the best possible chances to win."
Carlos Cuaron, who co-wrote Y Tu Mama Tambien with his brother, director Alfonso Cuaron, is less unwilling to acknowledge the politics at work: "We had the exact opposite experience in Mexico that we have had everywhere else in the world," he told Lorenza Munoz of the LA Times. "If we were ever nominated for something in Mexico, we would always lose." His brother left Mexico six years ago after "several high-profile arguments with members of Mexico's government funding agency," according to Munoz.
The politics that run the nominating committees around the world are familiar enough to anyone who's spent time in the negligent embrace of a bureaucracy: influence-peddling, favoritism, the tides of government-mandated political fashion in more authoritarian countries, or the contrarian attitudes of committee members in more democratically open ones.
The rules set forth by the Academy don't help. There was a furor late last year when it was announced that Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention was ineligible for nomination since Palestine, by Academy rules, is not recognized as a country. As Thomas points out in Slate, this is absurd, since "non-countries" like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Puerto Rico regularly submit films. That there's no Palestinian nominating committee is another reason; that a film has to be screened for a week in its home country is yet another - working theatres in the Palestinian authority willing to devote a precious week of screentime to an art film are understandably scarce.
The Academy's language rules are just as confusing. The Warrior, a British film with a Hindi script, was disqualified because the Academy deemed Hindi a language not "indigenous" to Britain. The British second choice was Eldra, a Welsh-language film. There are three times as many Hindi-speakers as Welsh-speakers in Britain today. To confuse things further, Sweden's nomination, Lilja 4-Ever, was filmed mostly in Russian. The only rule, it seems, is that there are no rules.
Munoz in the LA Times recounts one of the most controversial decisions ever made by the Academy, the 1995 exclusion of Krzystof Kieslowski's Red - a French-language film made in Switzerland by a Polish director - from nomination. Miramax executive Cynthia Schwartz, whose company distributed Red in the US, is still incensed: "One of the best foreign language films of the year was not eligible because it was not sufficiently French or Swiss or Polish. If you have the system where every country submits a film, then it would be nice if there were more latitude in allowing that country to determine if the film is sufficiently from there."
Mark Johnson, chairman of the Academy's foreign language selection committee, pleads that "We have never known how to modify our rules in a way that is fair," an admission of failure that's a hopeless as it is honest.
Scanning lists of past winners of the foreign language Oscar is a fascinating trip down film history. 2000's winner, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was probably the most populist choice in the history of the award, and the only winner that made over US$100 million at the box office, but it seems, even now, like a loaded win, by a (wildly talented, to be sure) director with an established Hollywood career. Some of the recent winners are patently lightweight films (Life is Beautiful, Belle Epoque, Mediterraneo, Cinema Paradiso), easy to use as ammuntion by anyone intent on accusing the Academy of hopelessly timid, middlebrow taste. Others (All About My Mother, Fanny & Alexander, The Tin Drum) are undeniable classics. Yet others seem like unaccountable obscurities (1997's Character, 1990's Journey of Hope, 1984's Dangerous Moves), likely the result of two or three decent films splitting the votes, though two of the three are Swiss entries, raising the dubious spectre of confidential deposits into numbered accounts.
Going back decades, these anomalies seem rarer - with exceptions like 1948's winner, The Walls of Malapaga, and 1963's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. For most of the 50s and 60s, the foreign film Oscar reflected a justly famous period of filmmaking, with winners like The Bicycle Thief, Rashomon, La Strada, Mon Oncle, Black Orpheus, 8 1/2 and Closely Watched Trains. And yet, where's Tokyo Story, The 400 Blows, Contempt, The Conformist or L'Avventura? The list of directors who never won - Rohmer, Godard, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Kiezlowski - must be cold comfort for anyone locked out of the nominations or consigned to the losers' list thanks to clumsy regulations, local politics, or the indifferent tastes of Academy voters.
A diary kept by a voter in this year's foreign film nomination screenings is sobering reading. It begins inauspiciously, with the first screening stopped when it turns out that Bangladesh's entry had been accidentally put in the filmcans for the Chad entry, and that Chad's film can't be found. Afghanistan's entry, Firedancer, doesn't improve the mood: "24 years on this committee and I've never seen a more incompetently made film." To be fair, it's unlikely that the murder of the director by the producer helped much.
For the director of Hungary's entry, Hukkle, the diary would be a crushing read: "the film has no chance of a nomination", despite the voter's use of words like "nifty ... spectacular ... dynamic ... uniquely alive." The voter spends a lot of time second-guessing the committee as a whole, dismissing the critically-acclaimed City of God as "too violent and difficult a film for this committee", despite its similarity to Gangs of New York and "resonances with doings here in the U.S."
Croatia's Fine Dead Girls is "one tough cookie of a movie ... probably too controversial for this committee." Korea's Oasis was "a great film in my opinion, but not one that stands much chance with this committee." Lilja 4-Ever is another favorite, "but I fear that is was too much of a downer for most of the attendees." Columbia's The Invisible Children is "ultimately too light an entertainment for a nomination", while Tunisia's The Magic Box "was probably too subtle for a top-five consensus from this committee."
Devdas, a huge hit in India, didn't stand a chance: "Many on the committee walked out at intermission." A chest cold keeps the voter at home for two nights of screenings, missing both Hero and Canada's entry, Un Crabe Dans La Tete. Back in the saddle, the voter fears that El Crimen del Padre Amaro "was too controversial to get enough points for a nomination." Earlier, the voter cautiously wrote off Zus And Zo, judging that "too many on the committee are turned off by the film's uniquely Dutch sexual politics".
A foreign film, apparently, can be too foreign. After Bulgaria's entry, the voter reflects that "it would help if I had an understanding of the history of this Macedonian ground which apparently has been ruled by Serbia, Bulgaria, Nazi Germany, Yugloslavia, and his its brief independence..." The Bangladeshi entry invites a baffling response: "I think the film will be downgraded by this committee since the issues raised are foreign and obscure and lack resonance for our culture." The Lebanese entry prompts an admission that "I'm doubtful that this committee was sufficiently attuned to the cultural diversity to give the film its due." In a review of Russia's entry, "Chechen" is spelled "Chichan". Perhaps it's churlish to point this out, but taken as part of the whole, it's a depressing kind of mistake to make after nearly a quarter century of professionally watching foreign films.
As I write this, I'm unlikely to see more than one or two of this year's nominees before Oscar night, unless release schedules are accelerated to accomodate the curious. But there's no point; the crucial Academy voters - all of whom have to sign affadavits saying that they've seen the nominees on the big screen - will be attending exclusive screenings over the next few weeks. Unlike almost every other major category, there's no chance that the vast majority of the audience, waiting for the winner to be announced on Oscar night, will feel anything like the same suspense that the best picture, directing, acting, or even special effects awards inspire. The foreign film Oscar has become as marginal as the foreign film market in the English-speaking world, as clear a marker of the mental and physical limits of "globalization" as I can imagine.
(posted 12:21pm | 02.12.03)
#0117 - THE NEW, IMPROVED DEATHSTAR - Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits website is unimpressed with George Lucas' decision not to release the original theatrical version of the Star Wars films on DVD, preferring instead to wait until he's finished with his digitally-tweaked "super-special editions". This isn't really news - Lucas has been threatening this for so long that it was the subject of a South Park episode, but Hunt, whose site is probably the best up-to-the-minute survey of the DVD business, is livid.
"How can that make any Star Wars fan anything but sad... and absolutely, downright, steaming, pissed-off angry," Hunt writes. "Given the almost complete lack of charm the new prequels have compared to even the first edit of the rough-hewn, original film, the fact that Lucas would fail to preserve the original experience of Star Wars shows how utterly and completely he's lost sight of the point over the years."
Hunt isn't just miffed - he's livid, transfixed with a sense of betrayal that's common among Star Wars fans, especially those who discovered the films in the emotional lowlands just before adolescence began:
"If you have the gall to tell me that these films that were so much a part of my childhood don't exist as I remember them anymore, that's just fine. But then I want a refund for every movie ticket, every poster, every T-shirt, every book, every piece-of-crap action figure and every single God-damned bubble-gum card I ever bought as a kid. I'll send you the bill."
There are, I know, thousands, maybe even millions of fans who've managed to leave both of Lucas' dreary, overdesigned prequels certain that it was worth the wait to re-visit the Star Wars universe. Maybe they even believed it, but among Star Wars fans of my acquaintance (Starries? Warkies? Is there a name for these people as catchy as "Trekkies"?), the overwhelming sentiment is that of an old friend suffering through the almost ritual abuse and exploitation of their friendship by an increasingly out-of-touch old pal. Hunt, for one, has reached the end of his tether:
"I'll tell you this: I WILL NEVER BUY A DVD OF THESE FILMS THAT DOESN'T INCLUDE THE ORIGINAL VERSIONS. I WON'T EVER REVIEW IT. I WON'T EVEN GIVE IT SO MUCH AS A GLANCE."
The last eruption of aggrieved consumer protest about movie re-issues I can recall was when Ted Turner, prime among culprits, started colourizing classic black and white movies. Turner insisted that a dubious marketing trope - that casual viewers were "confused" by monochrome prints of old films - made it imperative that they use then-new digital technology to give every actor the skin-tone of a Barbie doll and render the sky the same tone of cheery blue, every blade of grass the same crayon-green hue. Today, VHS versions of those "colourized" films reside either in landfill or in the libraries of third-tier local TV stations, where they're trotted every now and then to sour some insomniac's memories of The Big Sleep, turning film noir into film rouge and bleu and jaune.
Still, the black and white versions persisted. At first, you were given a choice by Turner, and I suppose the overwhelming sales of the originals convinced him that he was, for probably not the first time, being misled by clueless and cynical MBAs. Today, Turner Classic Movies has based ad campaigns on the quality of their black and white prints, and works to restore deteriorating film stock onto definitive new digital copies. Lucas, on the other hand, feels no such obligation, assuming - with some justification, it has to be said - that he can do what he wants with his own work.
What Lucas doesn't understand that his films are only considered classics by the huge, vociferous, fan base whose sole link - whose article of faith - is some distant, shared memory of watching Luke stand in the long, amber shadows of a Tatooine sunset, on the verge of a great adventure. Cheapening that memory, either by "improving" the film or by releasing a series of baroque but joyless installments in the prehistory of those characters, isn't going to alienate anyone but those fans. The rest of us, whose memory of Star Wars is either indifferent or downright hostile - there's a strain of film scholarship that blames Star Wars in particular for killing the late 60s/early 70s golden age of American film - could give a damn if we ever have to sit through another one of Lucas' hypertrophied tales from a world that combines adventure serial, comic book, and sci-fi fantasia on 15th century Mediterranean dynastic squabbles and trade wars. Star Wars is a lot of things, but the only cinematic milestone it represents is a box-office one, and the quicker Lucas alienates fans like Bill Hunt, the sooner it'll be understood as such:
"I've been a fan of Star Wars since I first saw it in 1977 as a fresh-faced, 10-year-old. It's been much more than a movie for me - it opened my eyes and fired my imagination. But I am SO done with it. What charm was left for me is finally gone. Lucas has officially killed it. I've been trying to hang with these new films, and have even defended them in my reviews of the DVDs. But now... you can count me out."
(posted 11:47am | 02.09.03)
#0116 - WHO'S SUNDANCE KIDDING? - The wrap-ups for this year's Sundance Film Festival aren't happy reading; the biggest news overall was Park City, Utah's Main Street getting shut down so Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez could do some shopping. I can see why it was news - it's downright perplexing that, with the shops of Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London and God knows where else at their beck and call, J. Lo and Ben desperately needed to check out the wares on offer in a second-rate mountain resort town, hoisted to fame largely thanks to a vanity film festival started by an aging Hollywood golden boy. Surely they were warned to pack parkas and chap stick?
I'm being uncharitable, but not as uncharitable as old festival-goer Manohla Dargis, who leads off her Sundance post-mortem in the L.A. Times (pointedly titled "Death Dance for the indie") with the question: "Is independant cinema dead in the United States - or, is it just playing possum?" She began pondering the question, she tells us, while watching an "earnest, if reductive" documentary on nitwit 60s terrorist group the Weather Underground, the sort of zombie radical chic event that quasi-counterculture film festivals like Sundance burps up every now and then.
Onetime Weathermen and "fugitives" Bernardine Dohrn and her husband William Ayers were applauded enthusiastically, and asked by a woman in the audience: "What advice would you give to a young revolutionary?" Dargis bristles: "Be born privileged and stupid, I fumed to myself."
Sundance, along with "alternative" institutions like the Independent Film Project and the Spirit Awards, are the maypole around which most of American independent film circles, but Dargis wonders why, with all of this attention and industry support, she isn't seeing anything as interesting as Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise or Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche or Betty Gordon's Variety, films that "rock(ed) my movie world" back in the days before Sundance became just another destination on the celebrity calendar.
"Like the year before, I returned from Sundance with the feeling that the juice had been squeezed out of American independent film. Not that you'd know it from the crowds that thronged Main Street during the day and the screaming drunk kids who broke out in spring break fever a night." From her lukewarm tone, you get the impression that the festival's big buzz films - American Splendor and The Station Agent - didn't make much of an impression.
She recalls that, in 1993, Robert Redford said that "he didn't think there was 'anything to be gained from expanding the festival because I think it serves the filmmakers pretty well.'" Since then, attendance at Sundance has grown fourfold.
There were corporate sponsors (American Express, Skyy Vodka, Adidas, Chrysler, Levi's) and star-studded concerts by Beck and De La Soul and George Clinton and Slash backing up Gina Gershon, which makes Sundance sound like the the groundwork for a really great summer oldies festival, due to pass through your town in about 2010 ("Do you remember grunge? Do you still remember where you were the first time you heard 'Bring the Noise'? Capital One and Altoids presents FlannelFest! This Saturday at Six Flags. Where 1991 is forever.") Poor Beck apparently had the acoustic portion of his set drowned out by the nonstop chatter of networking, complaining snippily - and getting just as curtly ignored.
"They came because in today's consumer culture independent film is cool, hip, edgy," Dargis writes about the corporate presence. Such as Chrysler, which apparently set up its tent at Sundance as an exercise in cross-branding, according to Bob Berney, a production exec Dargis interviewed: "The kids aren't buying their cars anymore, they've got to seem hip," Berney explained. "'Independent' means something to them, it just does. It's almost generic, some lifestyle thing." As irreverent as his critique sounds, Dargis points out that Berney, while in marketing at IFC Films, helped turn My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Y Tu Mama Tambien into hits. The latter film had its virtues, but Dargis writes that "what often went unsaid amid the blather about the numbers is that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a big fat lousy movie. It may have been made outside the studio system - if partially bankrolled by Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson - but the only thing independent about this feature-length sitcom was its money."
In the NY Times, Rick Lyman sees Sundance becoming "as much of a launching film festival as a film market, the sort of event at which a distributor might unveil a film coming out in the next few months in hopes of attracting attention and publicity." How else to explain something like Confidence, with Dustin Hoffman and a premiere that cost US$100,000, Miramax's People I Know with Al Pacino, or Bob Dylan showing up for Masked and Anonymous? And, yes, just what the hell were Ben and J. Lo doing in Park City?
Hoffman and Pacino might be explained by another trend, where "as Hollywood moves toward making more sequels and franchise pictures oriented toward teenagers, actors who want to do more serious, stretching work - even some of the biggest stars - will have to migrate to independent film."
At a festival founded by a movie star, the presence of stars isn't anything new, but Lyman notes that "for the first time this year some of the visiting big names have begun to act as if they were at the Golden Globes." Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore was alarmed: "I like it when the stars show up," he told Lyman. "What I don't like is the scene when they arrive, and it's not just the six stars in the movie but a dozen other celebrity friends and their celebrity girlfriends, and there's all this strutting and posing for hundreds of photographers." As soon as the festival was over, Gilmore promised, he would get his staff working on "plans to tone down the celebrity entourages and paparazzi scenes", but you can't help but wonder if he's trying to shut the door on an empty barn.
Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe writes that, despite the spectacle of old movies stars slumming in "indie" projects, the tone of this year's Sundance was suspiciously youthful. "After 19 years, America's maverick film festival seems afraid that its iconoclastic root have gone gray and this its edge has been dulled by the onset of middle-age angst - which might explain the obsession with youth in this year's lineup."
He notes films like Levity, with Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter and Morgan Freeman as the elder witnesses to "that Sundance staple: the potentially fatal turf war", one that features Kirsten Dunst as a rich girl in need of rescue "from self-destruction and nightclubbing." The moral, according to Morris, is a sample of the usual, rueful boomer finger-wagging dismay: "What's wrong with these kids? Well, they're being raised by single mothers."
There's a rural gothic called The Mudge Boy with Emile Hirsch, The United States of Leland with Ryan Gosling, Pieces of April with Katie Holmes, and Thirteen, a "leering, simplistic account of girls gone wild", which gets its cred from a script co-written by the film's 13-year old star, Nikki Reed. In all of these films, the kids definitely aren't alright, and seem less like films for a youth market and, to paraphrase Morris' review of Thirteen, more like "horror flick(s) for any parent with a daughter who lives to annoy them."
In a Village Voice piece, Anthony Kaufman gets into the numbers behind the business of American independent films, and discovers that it's running on an economic model not too different from the tech bubble. He traces the route to the theatres taken by the 16 films bought a last year's Sundance, of which less than a third broke a million dollars at the box office. Tadpole, another "troubled youth" film, made just under 3 million, while Personal Velocity, bought by United Artists for about a million, made less than US$800,000. On the other hand, a film that gained little critical attention at its premiere in Park City, the "fatal turf war"drama Empire, has made almost $18 million.
This year, United Artists paid a reported $3.5 million for Pieces of April, and Paramount Classics paid around $2 million for United States of Leland. Thirteen was sold to Fox for another $2 million, so it appears that, despite disappointing returns, the boutique arms of the major studios are willing to risk even more for the indie film blockbuster that entertainment lawyer Steven Beer, interviewed by Kaufman, calls "the exception, not the rule."
Mark Urman of ThinkFilm, talking about Miramax's purchase of The Station Agent for $1.5 million, isn't encouraged by all the money getting thrown around at the festival: "Once upon a time, a well-considered drama about a dwarf in New Jersey would have ended up with a company such as ours. But when a film like that is the center of a bidding war and ends up going to Miramax, it's just an indicator of how things are out of whack at Sundance."
Nick Fraser's Observer account of the festival - written from the perspective of a buyer for the BBC - is the only one I've read that calls Party Monster, a Manhattan club scene black comedy with Macauley Culkin as real-life promoter/murderer Michael Alig, an "immediate success". Fraser's report was based on a clamorous audience response that apparently wasn't shared by buyers, at least according to Kaufman in the Voice. Outside the premiere screening of Oliver Stone's Comandante, his fawning portrait of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Fraser overhears an audience member's succinct critique of the film: "One goddamn monster meets another."
"Sundance is the festival of festivals," Fraser writes, perhaps explaining why Toronto's own film festival recently changed its name, "the ultimate refuge for films buffs and celebrity junkies, an experience that is bizarrely intense, draining and rewarding." It's a description that obviously appalls old festival hands like Manohla Dargis, and Fraser knows it, writing that the festival has changed, "becoming part of the mainstream scene from which it was once so earnestly detached." Talking to festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, Fraser finds a (probably debatable) note of triumphalism: "Like it or not, minority tastes have become more accessible - the mainstream and the independent scene are part of each other nowadays. And we at Sundance are responsible for this coming together."
At the same time, Sundance has become an exclusive club, Cannes with snow, and inevitably inspired anti-Sundances like Slamdance, Slamdunk, Tromadance, and one-off events like the Park City Community Church screening of Bonhoeffer, a documentary about the Nazi resistance leader who was executed just before the end of WW2. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, it's a nice anecdote about the local religious community banding together to respond to what, to some, might seem like the annual hijacking of their town.
Duncan Campbell writes in the Guardian about the explosion in tiny, sub-Sundance film festivals all around the U.S., perhaps as many as four or five hundred. "The standard of films shown is uneven," writes Campbell. "Some are just badly made and derivative, but there are also some original marvels, comic or serious, that five a far broader picture of the state of the nation than the rather narrow view presented by Hollywood or 'Indywood', as the high end of the independent film is called."
There's the Lost Festival in west Philadelphia, which director Scott Beibin takes on the road after the Philly event, "showing a sample of the films in warehouses and clubs, on rooftops and campuses; he introduces the films, takes questions afterward and then usually ends up crashing on a couch wherever he can before hitting the road again." It's the garage rock band model of film festivals and, fittingly, one of its small handful of success stories includes Heavy Metal Parking Lot - hardly a Stranger Than Paradise or Reservoir Dogs, but a model of the kind of films made well outside either Holly- or Indywood.
In Los Angeles, the LA Filmmakers' Cooperative recently moved into an old powerhouse after spending years in an old school bus, and founder Tao Ruspoli gives a fairly reductive description of the kind of work being made out on the fringe of American cinema: "There are some gems and of course some awful ones but no more awful than some of the mainstream films." LAFCo's motto is by Jean Cocteau - "Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pen and paper." - and for the first time since Cocteau said those words, it may become possible, at least for anyone who thinks a decent computer, a working digital video camera, and an unlicensed suite of editing software is the equivalent of pen and paper.
The mini-festivals run by people like Beibin and Ruspoli are the Gnutella and Kazaa of the film world, the only method of transmission for work made below the fiscal radar of any sort of studio or distributor, and the challenge for anyone interested in this kind of work is still a physical one - getting to the festival, figuring out what's worthwhile, passing the word on. While the next few years will be telling for the fate of the music industry that still, amazingly, doesn't know what to make of the digital revolution, the movie industry probably has more time, a decade maybe, to cope with any challenges from beneath its radar, if those challenges are serious at all.
In the meantime, it's a tough world outside of Sundance; Campbell's Guardian piece talks about "Doboys", a weekly coffee-bar screening series in South Central L.A., which is struggling to keep going after the Christmas suicide of its founder, Eugene "Doboy" Williams. The fact is that most of the small films I'll be watching and reviewing this year were brokered into the theatres by an appearance and Sundance, while I can't imagine how I'll see work from Doboys or the Lost film festival. Until films are as easy to distribute - to audiences as well as critics - as an unsigned band's CD, the gap between making a film and getting it seen will always be as deep and wide as the mountainous landscape surrounding Park City, Utah.
(posted 11:54am | 02.08.03)
#0115 - LORD HELP THE SISTER - Celebrity interviews, at least from the perspective of this sometime toiler with tape recorder and camera, are most often like climbing the Matterhorn to dine on a meal of crackers and water - after all the effort, there's no there there. Emma Brockes of the Guardian was a bit luckier with her interview with Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn for the British release of The Banger Sisters.
"They are in full battle-dress for a day of TV interviews: boots and bangles and hard, sheer varnish." It's as perfect a set-up for the experience of celebrity interviewing as I've read in a long time. That they come off, in their mid-50s, like a pair of smart girls on the fringe of the popular set in some affluent public high school is another depressingly expected detail; what surprises and devastates anyone who spends time in the onscreen talent side of the movie business is how perfect an evolution of teen emotional dynamics it all is, like adolescence left to culture in some overripe petri dish.
Remarking to each other that two years have passed since they started work on The Banger Sisters, Hawn plays up her affable ditz image by noting that she has "a very vague appreciation of time. I've realized that recently. I never notice time passing.
"Like Richard Gere when he gave that speech at the Globes," drawls Sarandon.
"Oh, God, yeah," screeches Hawn. "It was like, 'Wrap it up wrap it up!'" They pitch forward in their seats and hoot with laughter.
Somewhere, Richard Gere's ears are burning as he opens his locker and reaches for his letterman's jacket, struck with a faint but frightening intimation that high school won't last forever.
"The women's differences are mainly superficial," Brockes writes. "Both are smart and liberal and have resisted the worst excesses of the industry they work in - although a forced comparison like this is a weird way of measuring them." They are also, it seems, paragons of the sort of boomer character cliches that we see in movies too often, at least for my taste. As Sarandon sums it up:
"We came of age at the same time, at a time of music and drugs and spirituality and searching, and empowerment. That really was an area where you felt that you could make a difference as a person. We both went to college in DC, we hit New York at about the same time and we both married early."
"And our first husbands were both Greek," says Hawn. "Weird, huh?"
"What else?" says Sarandon.
"Ice hockey," says Hawn. "We're both into ice hockey."
It's too easy to goof on wealthy boomer solipsism, but mostly because it's so depressingly easy to stumble across yet another example, like Sarandon talking about raising kids in Hollywood:
"I'm not interested in normalcy," says Sarandon. "I think it's highly overrated, and I wouldn't pretend to my kids that they're not privileged. But my approach is to tell them that they are privileged, and let them take responsibility for it."
Sarandon, of course, has been notable for her outspoken opposition to war against Iraq, a stance that she seems to assume is naturally shared by, if not the whole of the country, then most of her industry. Which is what makes the not-so-subtle tension between Sarandon and her co-star so palpable, as well-observed as a short story in Brocke's piece.
"It's difficult to be political in the United States," Sarandon says. "It was made very clear in the beginning that you're either with us or against us and if you have a different opinion, or you even have questions, you're anti-American. The emotions surrounding the 11th have been hijacked by this administration for their own agenda."
Hawn leans back into the sofa and ostentatiously closes her eyes.
To me, the most annoying aspect of celebrity war protest isn't the second-hand pacifism, or the implicit assumption that the actions of a Republican administration are more worthy of opposition, but the tone of grievance, the high dudgeon of a fabulously wealthy person acting as if they're a particular target of persecution. If some novel argument, or alternative course of action that doesn't rely on the assumed virtue of the UN were proposed, perhaps the protests of someone like Sarandon would be more tolerable, but most of the time I feel like Hawn, leaning back and closing my eyes whenever I hear someone complain about how "difficult" it is to be political.
Brockes, perhaps seeking to shove Sarandon off her soapbox, mentions to Hawn that "there's a man waiting outside who wants her to sign his anti-war in Iraq petition. Will she sign it?" Hawn declines icily, saying that "I have my own private views." Those views are interesting, terribly confused, and probably hew a bit more closely to the middle of the American opinion road than Sarandon's, expressed as they are with a dash of daytime talk show pop-psych profiling:
"I think there definitely should not be a war. I think Saddam should be taken out, as I think Hitler should've been taken out. I mean, Saddam Hussein has the same kind of psychological profile as Hitler. The same kind of family, same kind of lack of love, a father who left him. He's damaged. What do you do with that? We shouldn't do anything unless they find weapons of mass destruction."
Sarandon looks diplomatically at the wall. "Well, we gave it to them in the first place. All we have to do is look at the receipt."
"Yeah," says Hawn. "But we also gave it to Afghanistan. We've made a lot of mistakes. And so has everybody else. We're right now, trying to work out, how to make a safe world for our children. We're at a crossroads right now."
Sarandon goes back on the offensive, recalling America's cordial relationship with Iraq in the years before the Gulf War as if implying that it would - how dreadful - hypocritical to topple Saddam's regime now. As if hypocrisy were the worst thing we have to worry about. "We know there are cells in Canada, and we're not going to bomb Canada. You have to come up with a new, more intelligent way to solve these problems." It's interesting that Sarandon's political calculus makes Canada and Afghanistan somehow equivalent. But that's not the limit of the political fantasy world the actress inhabits:
"I'd like a regime change in the United States," says Sarandon, "but I would really resent Iraq coming in, throwing out Bush and then telling us who to have. If we react unilaterally, I think it's going to set a very bad precedent. We have to go through the legal system. We have to have an international body that governs the world. I worry about the destabilization of the world with this invasion."
Hawn's eyes are shut again. "There's a lot of repression going on and I don't like it," she says. "It's scarey." She opens them and winks at me. Sarandon smiles indulgently.
(posted 11:44am | 02.04.03)
#0114 - SHOAH BUSINESS - (Yes, it's a tasteless title, I know.) We have, for unknown but somehow appropriate reasons, been treated to a small boom in Holocaust films lately. Last fall, films like Werner Herzog's Invincible and Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone were released, to no particularly notable box office response. Closer to year's end, films like Menno Meyjes' Max and Roman Polanski's The Pianist. The former - perhaps just because of its unique take - was a critical hot spot for a couple of weeks, while The Pianist did very well in the year-end critics' polls. Still to come is Costa-Gavras' Amen and the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary.
None of these films, with the exception of The Pianist, which might win a few Oscar nominations, have made much of a dent on the public consciousness. Once again, as in the cultural valleys before the "Holocaust" TV miniseries, and in the years before the release of Schindler's List, the contemplation of the Holocaust is an art film kind of business, the preoccupation of a small group of people - like many people reading this, I'll assume - whose idea of a night at the movies or at home in front of the set includes films like Night and Fog or The Sorrow and the Pity.
For Thane Rosenbaum, writing on the Opinion Journal site, everything changed with Spielberg's film. Once, Rosenbaum writes, "to speak of the Holocaust demanded great humility, which almost everyone exercised - artist and layman alike... But Schindler's List slowly domesticated and democratized what had once been forbidden." I would probably add that two Meryl Streep vehicles - "Holocaust" and Sophie's Choice - softened the ground for Spielberg's film, but the point is true enough, if only because Spielberg made the Holocaust a subject worthy of Capital-E cinematic Emotions and production values, and the simple fact that his film was by far the biggest critical and box office success in the then-modest history of Holocaust movies.
And yet, there were many people - myself included - who hated Schindler's List, and Rosenbaum does a nice job of explaining precisely why the film, skillful as it was, rang so false: "The problem with Schindler's List is that the Holocause is not about rescue and redemption, while the movie is... You can't claim to make a Holocaust movie if an audience leaves its seat feeling hopeful about humanity. The impulse to honour the good in man is noble, but disingenuous and misapplied when depicting an atrocity.
"Unfortunately," Rosenbaum writes, "we live in an age where people learn their history from feature films." The new spate of Holocaust films "are each largely original, ambitious undertakings", but each is based on some subtly revisionist imagining of history that ring as falsely as Spielberg's film.
Herzog's Invincible, set in the period just before the Nazi assumption of power, imagines a quasi-historical figure , a Polish-Jewish strongman, who realizes at the last moment that militancy and strength, not assimilation, are what Jews need to survive the horrors that lie ahead. It's Moshe Dayan in the shtetl, and the motivating energy behind the film is Herzog's fervent and palpable desire that such a thing could have happened, a stymied sort of "what if?".
The Grey Zone, a taut and powerful piece of acting, is set in Auschwitz, where "a group of street-hustling, foul-mouthed" Hungarian Jews, who have compromised themselves by working with the Nazis as part of the death camp's human machinery, are planning a final, doubtlessly futile rebellion. It's a bleak and brave piece of work, "shifting the moral choices away from the Germans, and onto the Jews themselves." Dramatically, it's a gripping, unprecedented coup, but its moral weight is hopelessly, even irresponsibly skewed, concentrating on "what would you do to survive?" while ignoring the overwhelming question: "Why would anyone do this?"
Rosenbaum doesn't have much time for Max: "...anything that humanizes Hitler and his prior friendships with Jews is like fictionalizing Osama bin Laden as a former struggling waiter in Windows on the World, waiting to get home to his MTV." As for The Pianist, while Rosenbaum admires Polanski's skill in depicting Wladislaw Szpilman's nightmare life in occupied Warsaw, he thinks the film cuts too much moral slack to non-Jewish Poles, "most of whom were either complicit or indifferent to the fate of their Jewish neighbours".
Costa-Gavras Amen, which has yet to open here in Canada, gets a bit more credit. The story of two religious men - an SS scientist and a Jesuit priest - who try, and fail, to protest the extermination of the Jews, also concentrates "on the redemptive, heroic rescuer... but at least the film doesn't sugarcoat the ultimate result."
"Authenticity and history is a hard sell in a motion picture," Rosenbaum writes, suggesting that the Holocaust, while proving more of a tempting setting with the passage of time, will never inspire anything like a truly, morally satisfying movie. Schindler's List "widened the lens", making it possible to dive in and explore aspects of the Holocaust. "The question is whether that is such a good thing."
(posted 11:10am | 01.30.03)