Oscar Elitist

The Academy Awards are this Sunday.  If you’re not excited, it’s your own damn fault.

The Oscars are perennially the most-viewed TV entertainment event of the year—more popular than the Grammys, Emmys or VMAs—yet they are also, unfailingly, the most criticized.  People carp about who was “snubbed” the moment the nominations are announced.  The show itself is derided for its bloated length and nauseating air of self-importance.

And again and again, the Academy is scorned for being out-of-touch with the typical American moviegoer, ignoring most (if not all) of the year’s biggest blockbusters in favor of low-grossing independent films that, in many cases, never even open in theaters outside major U.S. cities.

Rarely has this been truer than this year, and never have I been happier for it.  This has been a great year for the Oscars.  It’s just a shame more Americans don’t have the good sense to realize it.

It is very curious, indeed—and more than a little depressing—that 2014’s eight Best Picture nominees comprise one of the strongest fields in memory, yet also one of the least-seen.  Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is far and away the most lucrative in the group, having grossed more than $300 million in the United States alone.  However, the remaining seven nominees have earned less than $300 million put together, dragging the per-film average in this category down to its lowest figure in nearly a decade.

In truth, this economic fact does not bother me all that much.  To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea how any of the Oscar movies have done at the box office until I looked them up.  Except to write this column, I really couldn’t care less.

And why is that, ladies and gents?  Because there is absolutely no correlation between how much money a movie makes and whether that movie is any good.  I’ve never once inferred a movie’s quality based on how many people go to see it.  I don’t understand why anybody would.  As a strategy, it would only begin to make sense if all of America had similar tastes and could distinguish, as a group, between worthwhile entertainment and utter dreck.

It’s an absurdity on its face.  It would be like conducting a nationwide poll to determine which type of salsa to put on your tacos, or asking ten random strangers at the mall what you should get your wife for her birthday.  Are you really that susceptible to the whims of the masses?

This is not to suggest that gazillion-dollar commercial behemoths can’t also be excellent films from time to time.  Nor would I ever want to deny someone an enjoyable evening at the movies.  After all, it is equally true that a great many small-budget art house offerings are every bit as boring and stupid as they look.  When I say there is no relationship between money and quality, I mean exactly that.

All I want is to rebuke this idea that the Academy’s apparent disinterest in box office success is inherently a bad thing.  It’s not.  I’m positively thrilled that the Oscars take themselves seriously enough not to care whether all—or any—of America agrees with them about what constitutes great cinema.  I’m delighted that this has made the Oscars as “irrelevant” as they’ve ever been.  If it means honoring a slew of films like the ones under consideration this Sunday, I hope the trend continues indefinitely.

For instance, buried among the more talked-about works on this year’s roster is a little movie called Whiplash.  It was filmed in 19 days on a $3.3 million budget by a little-known 29-year-old director named Damien Chazelle, and it’s one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve seen in years.  It’s a simple story about a teenage conservatory student who wants to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world, and a teacher who knows virtuoso talent when he sees it.

The twist—and the film’s mad stroke of genius—is that the instructor is a raging psychopath who conducts band practices like the CIA conducts interrogations.  He is played by J.K. Simmons as a petty tyrant who justifies his extreme behavior as a way to weed out the true, committed artists from those who “don’t have what it takes.”

But what really makes Whiplash so exciting and so frightening is how the drummer, played by Miles Teller, shows that he may well be the diamond in the rough that Simmons has been searching for, and is prepared to endure the abuse—physical and psychological—that is required to prove it.  The movie’s final sequence—a compression of raw kinetic energy of jaw-dropping skill and intensity—brings all its threads together in a manner that is simultaneously funny, absurd and altogether electrifying.

Whiplash is clearly one of the gems of 2014 cinema, yet hardly anyone has seen the damned thing.  It’s as satisfying a theatergoing experience as one can hope for, yet precious few are even aware of its existence.

What a shame that a movie with such potentially broad and deep appeal has been relegated to the fringes of the national consciousness.  And what a tremendous relief that Academy voters nominated it for Best Picture anyway, thereby assuring it a considerably higher visibility in the long run than it otherwise would have had.

In a just world, Whiplash would not need an Oscar boost in order to garner the wide popular acclaim that it deserves.  Nor would Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, an utterly delightful confection whose lead performance by Ralph Fiennes is one of the funniest you’ll see.  Nor would Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which deftly and compellingly shows how the particular racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., can be traced at least as far back as the Deep South in 1965, leaving us to wonder how we will resolve our present conflicts without a figure like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the way.

But we don’t live in a just world, so instead we depend on the Academy to tell everyone which movies they should seek out.  (We also depend on critics and bloggers, but who ever listens to them?)

The Academy does not always do this job well.  Those who are still sour about this year’s omissions of, say, DuVernay for director or The Lego Movie for animation can rest assured that worthy films and performances have been overlooked every year since the dawn of cinema, often inexplicably.  As widely noted, this year’s nominations contain an appallingly low number of non-white people, but then again, this has pretty much always been the case.

But on the curve on which Hollywood must always be graded, this year’s Oscar harvest is markedly stronger than usual, and a validation of the Academy’s worth in anointing the year’s best movies, even if the rest of the country disagrees with them.

The purpose of the Oscars is not to be popular.  It’s to be right.

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Cheese Head

Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin.  He wouldn’t be worth the time of anyone outside his home state, except that he is probably going to run for president in 2016.  And at the moment, at least, he is doing rather well in the polls in early-primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  This means we are duty-bound to take his presence seriously, even though—as the evidence will prove—we have every reason to regard him as a joke.

OK, maybe not every reason.  He was, after all, just elected governor for the second time.  Before that, he served eight years as a county executive, which in turn followed a nine-year stint in the State Assembly.  Indeed, he has not lost an election for anything since 1990, he is the only governor in history to survive a recall vote and, perhaps more to the point, he has proved a shrewd political operative at key moments in his public life.

However.

Last week in London, during an appearance for a think tank that mostly concerned trade issues, Walker was asked, “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution?  Do you accept it?”

Walker’s response:  “I’m going to punt on that one […] That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other.  So I’m going to leave that up to you.”

In a just world, that answer would signify the end of his presidential campaign.  It is both an embarrassing and disqualifying thing for someone with national ambitions to say, and the fact that it won’t hurt him one whit in the Republican primaries is all the more reason for us to yell about it now.

Yes, it’s true that Walker did not outright deny the validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  His official position, apparently, is that it doesn’t matter and, to that end, is none of our business.

He is not the first presidential aspirant to strike this pose.  Two election cycles ago, Mike Huckabee asserted more or less the same thing following a GOP forum that queried each candidate’s view on evolution.  “I thought the question was utterly silly to be asked in a presidential debate,” Huckabee told Real Time’s Bill Maher, adding, “None of us are running to be an 8th grade science teacher. […]  It’s really not, to me, a proper ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”

Wrong on all counts.

True, a president is not a science teacher, and we don’t expect our commander-in-chief to be an expert on subjects that are not immediately relevant to the job, nor to have ready-made opinions of the same.

But here’s the thing:  The theory of evolution is not a matter of opinion.

To the contrary, Darwin’s inkling that species of animals (including humans) slowly change their biological makeup over the course of millennia is as close as the scientific community has yet come to a consensus.  It’s a “theory” in the strictly scientific sense of the word.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a fact.  As plain as the nose on your face.

As such, to be asked whether you “accept” evolution, as Walker was, should be no different than being asked if you “accept” that two and two make four, or that heating a mixture of flour, sugar, butter and eggs yields delicious cookies.  It’s not a matter of knowing why or how.  It’s simply a matter of acknowledging a truth that has been firmly established by people much smarter than you and me.

So when I hear someone refuse to give a direct answer to this question, I see a person who is either unwilling or unable to see something that is staring them directly in the face.  For the leader of the free world, when has that ever been a good thing?

The claim of irrelevance is equally lame, and for many of the same reasons.

Saying that “a politician shouldn’t be involved” in discussions of evolution, Walker implies that his view—whatever it is—has no bearing on his policies as an executive, and we are therefore wrong to even ask.

There are certainly some issues about which this is true.  I doubt, for instance, that there is anything substantive to glean from a presidential candidate’s favorite movie.  Nor should anyone care whether he prefers Coke to Pepsi or boxers to briefs.

There are also components of a politician’s life that are legitimately private and need not be scrutinized by a ravenous press, such as where his children go to school or whom, other than his wife, he might be sleeping with.

Another in this category is a candidate’s religion.  Here, as ever, is where things get complicated.

A public servant, like all of us, is free to believe in any god that he wishes, and to craft a personal moral code accordingly (or not).  His beliefs are his beliefs, and he can keep them to himself if he wants.

But evolution is not a belief.  Like gravity, it exists whether you believe in it or not.  You can affirm or deny the existence of God, and no one can definitively say you’re wrong.  But you don’t have that same privilege when it comes to settled science.

To deny evolution is to deny reality, and a presidential candidate is not at liberty to create his own reality.  If he thinks he is, then we, the public, have every right to know about it before entrusting him with the keys to the Oval Office.  If you think a president comfortable with crafting his own reality is not something to worry about, I present the Iraq War as Exhibit A.

Of course, there could be something much simpler going on here:  Scott Walker actually does believe in evolution, but he doesn’t want to alienate the apparently sizeable chunk of GOP primary voters who do not.  And if that’s the case, it means that he has no integrity.  Would this be a fair price to pay for the assurance that he is not, in fact, a man with no sense of reality?  As someone once said:  I’ll leave that up to you.

Kanye and Me

I can’t say that I’ve ever given much thought to Kanye West.

I know he’s a significant figure in the world of hip-hop, but I don’t listen to hip-hop.

I also know that he is—as President Obama once observed—a jackass.  At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West famously stormed the stage to protest the awarding of Best Female Video to Taylor Swift, insisting it should have gone to Beyoncé, instead.

Smash cut to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where West came this close to repeating himself, creeping toward the podium as the trophy for Album of the Year went to alt-rocker Beck.  West paused and returned to his seat before reaching the mike, but the point was made:  Once again, this was a prize that should have gone to Queen Bey.

The following day, West explained himself thusly:

The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us.  We aren’t going to play with them no more. […] Beck needs to respect artistry; he should have given his award to Beyoncé.  At this point, we tired of it.  What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.

West has been roundly criticized for this and related comments, presumably for the way they seamlessly combine selfishness, arrogance, condescension and want of tact in a single thought.  West later clarified that his dig was directed not at Beck, per se, but at the Grammys themselves, saying, “Beck knows that Beyoncé should have won.  Come on man, I love Beck, but he ain’t have album of the year.”  So that clears that up.

We could dismiss this whole episode as yet another eye-rolling instance of Kanye being Kanye.  Yet I am somehow inclined to run with it and take it semi-seriously.  The truth is that, however childish and inappropriate his series of rants was, I understand how he feels and I think the actual ideas behind the bluster are worthy of our attention.

All that he means to do, after all, is take the Grammys seriously as not just a TV show, but as an institution that judges the value of popular music.  Music artists spend 364 days per year pouring their souls into their work, and the Grammys represents the one moment of official recognition by the music industry—a means of determining which works rise above all the others.  It is not something to be taken lightly.

I confess I do not share West’s passion on this point about his industry—perhaps because my own tastes in music are not particularly well-represented by the Grammys in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s another trophy-leaden TV event next Sunday that I care about very much:  The Academy Awards.  In a good year—and as a consequence of spending far too much time in dark auditoriums—my feelings about the Oscars mirror Kanye’s about the Grammys, and I’m not going to apologize for them.

For reasons too complicated to explain, there are eight movies up for Best Picture this time around.  Word on the street is that it’s anybody’s game, and the final vote is expected to be very, very close.

It shouldn’t be.  So far as I’m concerned, the year 2014 in film can be divided into two groups.  There was all the usual fare, and then there was Boyhood.

Richard Linklater’s gloriously engaging film—originally called, simply, The Twelve-Year Project—accomplished nothing less than showing what it was like to grow up in the first decade of the 21st century in America.  Which is to say that, for the generation now coming of age—along with innumerable members of other generations, it would appear—it will stand as the definitive film about growing up, period.

By no means is Boyhood the first movie made about the infernal Millennials, and certainly not the first about the joys and horrors of adolescence.  However, it is the first such film to follow its protagonist through the entirety of his life from age 6 until his high school graduation, while also charting the travails of his mother, his father and his older sister.  All these people are allowed to age at the pace at which they actually did.  As you have surely heard by now, the movie was filmed, on and off, over the course of 12 years.

Granting itself such breadth—unprecedented for a non-documentary—Boyhood suggests the ways in which people change and grow over time.  How a deadbeat dad can eventually become responsible and mature, or how a single mother can weather several dead-end relationships while earning a graduate degree and securing a good job.  Not to mention how a young boy who spray-paints graffiti on the underside of a bridge can develop into a serious-minded photographer who embarks for college with confidence but also a nagging insecurity about where his life is headed.  You know:  Just like the rest of us.

Lacking a formal plot, Linklater’s experiment amounts to a collection of small moments that add up to something quite big, indeed.  After four viewings, I sense I am still only beginning to understand precisely how to account for its seemingly effortless (and bottomless) appeal.  In a way, I feel about this film as Roger Ebert did about the documentary Hoop Dreams—a four-year chronicle of two promising young basketball players—of which Ebert wrote, “It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

On Oscar night, the Academy should respect artistry by giving its top prize to Boyhood.  It’s a monumental achievement of cinema, and for Best Picture to go to anything else would diminish the form.  Seriously, Academy, don’t be disrespectful.

However, I won’t rush the stage if they go and give it to Birdman instead.  After all, I’m not a crazy person.

Olympic Dreams

The most terrifying thing about having the Olympics in Boston is that it could actually work.

It’s certainly not what most of us envisioned when the subject was first broached sometime in 2013.  Indeed, when residents of the greater Boston area were first informed of their city’s interest in hosting the Summer Games in 2024, the notion that it would, or could, happen barely crossed our minds.

Maybe this was because we were preoccupied with the self-effacing jokes that (let’s be honest) pretty much wrote themselves.  How, for instance, the whole Boston Olympics idea presumably came to someone ensnarled in rush-hour congestion on I-95, thinking, “If only I could sit in this traffic jam for two weeks straight.”  Or how the city’s pitch to the International Olympic Committee would inevitably begin, “From the folks who brought you the Big Dig…”

The Hub does many things well, we thought, but squeezing lots and lots of people into small areas with minimal disruption is very, very low on that list.  It’s not just that we shouldn’t try it.  As the city is currently laid out, we literally couldn’t.  So for a long while, we dismissed the prospect of a New England-based five-ring circus as a preposterous pipe dream.

But then something weird happened:  The United States Olympic Committee selected Boston as America’s bid city—over Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—and suddenly the question of “if” has shifted perilously close to “when.”

Not that it’s a done deal.  The IOC’s final decision won’t be made until September 2017, and the international contenders will likely include Paris, Rome and Berlin—stiff competition for any American city, let alone one whose subways close at 12:30.

And yet, there is undeniable momentum in Boston’s favor.  It begins with the basic fact that the U.S. hasn’t hosted the Summer Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta—“It’s about time” presumably will figure into the official pitch—and ends with Boston’s ongoing transformation from a provincial 18th century hamlet into a cutting-edge, high-tech metropolis that could soon legitimately lay claim as (to use the Olympic boosters’ nauseating phrase) a “world-class city.”

In short:  It could happen.  And that leaves us, for the next two-and-a-half years, with only one question:  Should it?

For the moment, the people of Boston are divided, in both senses of the word.  A recent poll showed 50 percent support among city residents, with 33 percent opposed.  In a separate question, 48 percent said they were “excited” about the possibility of a Boston Olympics, while 38 percent were not.  A full 75 percent agreed that, in any case, the issue should be put to a vote before the city formally enters its bid.

Taken together, these numbers suggest a populace that is potentially welcoming to the idea, but also highly ambivalent, ever-so-aware of the components of Olympic hosting duties that could make the whole thing a terrible mistake.

That list of factors is, of course, far too long to consider all at once.  Here, instead, I would suggest stepping back to the big picture and pondering Boston’s Olympic gamble in terms of what it really is:  A political campaign.

Even if the decision to bid does not ultimately go to a vote, Boston 2024, the organization in charge, has every incentive to persuade the region’s residents to climb aboard.  In a close race, high morale could prove decisive with the IOC, and could help supplant the sorts of protests and accusations of unscrupulousness, already underway, that could cause the whole enterprise to crash and burn.

Accordingly, what we have now, in this early stage, is a PR campaign by Boston 2024 that very closely resembles a highly ambitious political operation like, say, Barack Obama’s first run for the Oval Office.  There are lessons from the latter that we can, and should, apply to the former.

Like the now-president circa 2007, the idea of what a Boston Olympics would entail is exactly that:  An idea.  A dream.  A concept that exists on paper but nowhere else.  A city adequately prepared for an onslaught of worldwide media attention and several hundred thousand spectators is no more real now than Obama’s vision of a post-partisan America was in 2004, when he first planted himself in the national consciousness.

What we have instead is a series of promises and assurances that, at this moment, we can only take on faith.  As Obama vowed to change the tenor of lawmaking in Washington, D.C., and restore America’s reputation abroad, Boston 2024 has envisioned a City of Beans with state-of-the-art venues and facilities, matched with a refurbished public transit system that will run like a Swiss watch.  Never mind how far removed this vision is from reality, we are told, for we have nearly a decade to make it work.  Besides, what’s wrong with dreaming big and thinking outside the box?  Isn’t that what America is all about?

It all sounds great, just as candidate Obama struck millions of Americans as the perfect and indispensable tonic to the malaise of the Bush years.

The problem, then—as we found with the president and might eventually find with Boston 2024—is what happens with the other shoe drops.  How the highest aspirations (say, a bipartisan Congress) tend to give way to the deepest disappointments (the most polarized Congress in history).

Although many of Boston 2024’s aims are purposefully vague and tentative, there is a handful of concrete, unambiguous figures on which it must deliver.  Most crucial among these, unsurprisingly, involve money.

As outlined yesterday in the Boston Globe, Boston 2024 has calculated that a Boston Olympics would require $3.4 billion for construction, $4.7 billion in operating costs and between $1 billion and $2 billion for security.  Further, it has vowed that every cent of those funds—including overruns—would be raised privately or through the federal government, and that Massachusetts taxpayers would not, under any circumstances, be put on the proverbial hook.  (Exceptions include infrastructure projects that are already underway or are otherwise not essential to hosting the Games.)

As far as campaign promises go, this one is about as cut-and-dry as they come.  No public funding, period, full stop.  This means that one of two things will happen:  The city will succeed in securing the necessary cash privately, or it won’t.  If it doesn’t, it will then need to explain itself to every resident of the commonwealth, who at that point may well have no actual means of reprisal except to seethe.  Unlike Obama, whom voters could’ve thrown out in 2012, Boston 2024 won’t necessarily face a moment of accountability should their aspirations fall short.

It is a simple matter of fact that every recent Olympics has cost far more than the host city initially thought—sometimes two or three times as much.  As it stands, the estimated Boston budget is well below the historical average.  Backers insist this is realistic, owing to the relatively small scope of their proposal (compared to, say, those of London or Beijing), but prevailing economic trends seem to argue otherwise.

What scares me—about this and every other consideration—is that history will ever-so-predictably repeat itself, and that the high hopes ginned up across the region will dissolve into disappointment, disillusionment and debt.  That the transition in the Olympic-building process from conception to execution will be one giant mess after another, and that the payoff won’t be worth it.  That the skeptics will be vindicated.

I’m a longtime Bostonian.  I would love to see my home town pull off such a monumental task, particularly if it means creating a modern subway system and a whole bunch of shiny new buildings and roadways.  I’ve seen the renderings of the Fort Point Channel connecting Boston Harbor to Olympic Stadium, and I think they’re breathtaking.

I just hope, if the IOC gives us the go-ahead, that our dreams won’t be crushed by reality.  That yet another “change” agent won’t end up just giving us a whole lot more of the same, or worse.

I am willing to take a leap of faith that everything will turn out fine.  It’s just that I’ve lived long enough to know to be very careful what I wish for.