All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

Advertisements

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.

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.