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.

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Lights, Camera, Racism

For all the folks who are outraged and depressed by how thoroughly black people were ignored in this year’s Oscar nominations, there is at least one useful piece of data to keep in mind:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always ignored black people among Oscar nominees.  So, to this season’s snubbed:  Don’t worry, it’s not you.  It’s the Academy.

Yes, the near-total absence of color across the 24 categories in next month’s Academy Awards is lame, weird, troubling and shameful (really, no Samuel L. Jackson?)  However, as we take a measure of the AMPAS’s diversity problem here in 2016, we should view it in the context of the entire history of the Oscars, which—sad to say—has been utterly consistent in not recognizing great work by filmmakers who are not white.

Care for some numbers?  Of course you would.

Not counting this year, there have been 87 Oscar ceremonies to date, amounting to roughly 435 total nominations in each of the two dozen categories.  In that time, black male actors in leading roles have been nominated on a grand total of 20 occasions.  Meanwhile, leading black women have been nominated 10 times.  Among supporting performances by black men and women, the numbers are 17 and 19, respectively.  Crunching all of that together, we find that African-Americans have accounted for 3.8 percent of all acting nominations in history.  This despite the fact that black people comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

(In case you were wondering, the proportion of African-American winners in the acting categories is 4.3 percent—slightly better, but not by much.  As for black representation in Oscar’s remaining 20 categories:  You don’t want to know.)

Since it’s insane to argue that black people are any less talented at acting than white people, the explanation for this discrepancy is that either a) black actors have not gotten the same opportunities as white actors, or b) Academy voters—who, themselves, are overwhelmingly white—simply don’t value performances by black actors as highly as they do those by white ones.  (That is, if they even bother to see them.)

Common sense indicates that the answer is a combination of both factors.  And if common sense isn’t sufficient, the documented history of Hollywood racism should keep you busy for quite some time.

While one might be tempted to dismiss the above as ancient history—and therefore irrelevant to the present crisis—now would be as good a time as any to summon the old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”

In fact, understanding racism in Hollywood is no different from understanding racism anywhere else.  It’s the sin that keeps on giving.  (Or taking, as it were.)

As with racism in sports, in government, in housing and on the streets, the biases in the film industry were already deeply ingrained when the art form began—possibly as a byproduct of two and a half centuries in which one race was the legal property of the other—and if there’s one thing we know for sure about institutional biases, it’s that they are a royal bitch to get rid of.

It’s the nature of large organizations to change at a glacial pace, if at all.  Once people get it into their heads that some outfit or other “looks” a certain way (read:  disproportionately white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), the impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, at which point the whole culture conspires to maintain the status quo—including those who stand to benefit from a sudden evolution in thoughts and practices.

Consider the words of Michelle Wu, the 31-year-old Taiwanese American who was just elected president of the Boston City Council.  “When I was growing up, I never imagined running for office,” said Wu in a recent interview, “And I think a big part of that was not seeing anyone who looked like me in government.  I was told all the time to consider figure skating, because Michelle Kwan was such a popular and nationally-known figure and Asian-American woman.”

There you have it:  If you think a certain organization or profession is off-limits to someone with your background or genetic makeup, you will be far less likely to ever associate with it, regardless of your actual abilities.  As a consequence, stereotypes will be reinforced and segregation will continue to rule the day.

This is not to remove one iota of blame from those who instituted white supremacy in the first place.  Rather, it is to observe how white supremacy was designed to be self-perpetuating—how the system of black disenfranchisement not only hindered the advancement of an entire class of American citizens in the present, but also created the conditions whereby racial discrimination could persist across all subsequent generations as well—even after passing laws intended to prevent such a thing from happening.

So when we ask, “Why isn’t there a single black face among the 20 Oscar nominees for acting?” we must begin with the fact that Hollywood was established as a discriminatory industry—creating the most stereotypical of black characters and hiring white actors in blackface to play them—followed by decades of studio-backed films whose black characters were either non-existent, subservient or (again) utterly and crudely one-dimensional.  Logically, this would have led to a great many promising black actors to direct their gifts elsewhere (or nowhere), further discouraging writers and directors from anticipating such talent in the first place.

For the most part, filmmakers have since forged past all of that, and black characters today—like gay characters today—are not marginalized or pigeonholed into specific types of roles (except when they are).

And yet—as both critics and actors have attested in recent days—black actors have hardly achieved equity when it comes to achieving the Hollywood dream.  If I had to settle on one culprit above all, it would be the implicit assumption among far too many members of the Academy that, deep down, they just don’t deserve it.  On the basis of the Academy’s newly-proposed remedies for its racial gap—including tougher voting standards for its older members—it would appear there is some credence to this view.  Someday maybe we’ll know for sure.

In the meantime—if we could end on a slightly optimistic note—I have one more data point to convey.

At the moment, the smart money is on Alejandro G. Iñárritu to snag the Oscar for Best Director for his arresting work on The Revenant, which would make him the first back-to-back winner in that category since 1950 (he won last year for Birdman).  As you may know, Iñárritu was born in Mexico, as was the most recent previous winner of the director prize, Alfonso Cuarón (for Gravity).  Before that, Best Director went to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech—respectively, men born in Taiwan, France and the United Kingdom.

That’s right:  For five (and possibly six) years running, the Academy has given its award for directing—arguably the most prestigious trophy bestowed upon an individual—to someone who isn’t even from the United States.  This pompous Hollywood gang—so “pure” and old-school that it can only see white—has nonetheless summoned the imagination to repeatedly honor work helmed by foreigners—people Donald Trump would be perfectly happy to deport.  (Ang Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen, so he would be safe.)

Is this open-mindedness toward non-Americans a portent of an open-mindedness toward non-whites?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it just means the Academy is so racist that it will scour the entire planet to avoid honoring a person of color.

In any case, it indicates that the Academy is cognizant enough to recognize that the world does not end at the corner of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, that its values represent America’s values (or so it would like to think) and that it might as well enter the 21st century at one point or another.  Sooner or later, people are going to talk.

Oscar Soapbox

Would it be considered a lost cause to complain about the mixing of politics and the Oscars?  Is it just too late in the game for us to do anything about it?

Probably.  But every losing issue needs somebody to argue it for the last time, and on this occasion, that person might as well be me.

From this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast a week ago Sunday, arguably the most admired moment came from Patricia Arquette, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, who devoted the final chunk of her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women.  “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” said Arquette.  “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  The remarks yielded howls of approval inside the Dolby Theatre and wide support on the interwebs in the hours and days thereafter.

Indeed, I can’t say I have any quarrel with the substance of Arquette’s remarks.  While I think the specific issue of wage equity is slightly more complicated than it appears—not every case is a matter of out-and-out discrimination by an employer—it’s just about impossible to dispute the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Here’s my question:  What does this have anything to do with the Oscars?

In theory, the Academy Awards are nothing more than the recognition of the film industry’s best work in a given year, as determined by members of the industry itself.  Acceptance speeches by the winners are meant to be exactly that:  A show of gratitude for having been singled out by one’s peers.  And—as has become the practice—an opportunity to thank everyone who helped get them there in the first place (which, as we know, tends to be everyone the honoree has ever met).

As such, Oscar speeches, at their best, are exercises in humility—ironic as that sounds, considering that the speakers are effectively being crowned kings and queens of the universe, or at least of the American culture.

To that end, my own favorite moment from last Sunday was Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Although I thought Michael Keaton slightly more deserving of the honor for his work in Birdman, I sort of hoped Redmayne would win, anyway, because I figured (from his previous wins this year) that he would react exactly as he did:  By jumping up and down like a giddy schoolgirl, completely overwhelmed.

There’s a certain feigned modesty that many British actors have turned into a shtick, but with Redmayne—33 years old, with no major starring roles until now—you sense that the gratitude is real.  That he works hard and takes his job seriously, but never in a billion years expected to wind up on the Oscar stage, and knows precisely how lucky he is.  That in a Hollywood overstuffed with jerks and prima donnas, Redmayne is one of the good ones.

That’s what the Oscars are all about:  Giving a moment in the spotlight to stars whose very existence elevates show business to something pure, noble and joyous.

And joy, it must be said, was oddly hard to come by during the balance of the Oscar telecast.  We had Best Song winners Common and John Legend lamenting the continuing racial injustices in the American legal system (and elsewhere).  We had Dana Perry, producer of the documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, invoking her son’s suicide in a plea for more public discussion of the subject.  We had Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore citing his own brush with suicide and begging today’s tortured young people not to give up hope.

Sheesh, what an unholy string of letdowns.

Surely, these are all deathly important issues that deserve a thorough public airing, as they all surely have in recent times—albeit some more visibly than others.

But is the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night really the proper setting for them?

Can’t the Oscars just be the whimsical, frivolous, bloated Hollywood orgy we all think we’re tuning in to on the last Sunday of every February—curled up, as we are, on the couch with a tub of microwave popcorn and a cosmo?

We deal with the discomforting horrors of real life at all other moments of the year.  Why can’t the Oscars, of all things, be a temporary respite?  Arguably the single central function of movies, after all, is escapism.  Shouldn’t the event that celebrates movies follow suit?

Movie stars can, and do, stake out public opinions on any issue that interests them.  But must they do so at the very moment when most of us would just as well not be reminded of the fraught and complicated real world to which we must return in the morning?

I know this is a line of reasoning with holes large enough to drive a tank through.  I know movies are not only about escape.  I know the Oscars represent the largest audience that any artist will ever have.  I know that the Academy is, itself, a highly political organization and that Oscar voting is subject to the same cynical political maneuvering as any presidential election.  I know that the gripes about sexism and racism are as germane to the film industry as to any other.

And I know that, barring a totalitarian freak-out by future Oscar producers, winners are going to continue to say whatever the hell they want when they get up on that stage, even if it means talking over that infernal orchestra and harshing the buzz of everyone at home.

There is no escape from facing the hard facts of life—not even at silly award shows, which you’d think would be immune to them.  Apparently they’re not.

So instead, we are left with the second-best option:  Awarding trophies only to artists intelligent enough to climb on their political soapboxes in an articulate and entertaining fashion, as (it must be said) nearly all of them did last week.

Or we could just give everything to Eddie Redmayne.

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.

Pizza Pizzazz

Love brings people together.  But not as much as pizza.

There are several reasons why Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza delivery stunt at Sunday’s Academy Awards was such a big hit.

(If you missed it:  Halfway into the telecast, the host asked if anyone was hungry.  A few segments later, a pizza guy turned up and everyone in the front row chowed down.)

For starters, as widely noted, it playfully underlined the way that Hollywood stars effectively starve themselves in the days leading to big awards shows—and, in many cases, on every other day of the year as well.

Further, it served to puncture the Oscars’ infamously hoity-toity self-importance and provide a moment of cheeky irreverence of which the annual TV ritual is always so desperately in need.

And perhaps most noteworthy of all—thanks to how gamely most of the would-be targets of this bit played along—it brought Hollywood’s most glamorous kings and queens back down to Earth, allowing them a flash of authenticity that came across as endearingly, well, authentic.

Sure, the regal show business life of champagne and caviar may be every bit what it’s cracked up to be, and that old chestnut about how celebrities “are just like you and me” is mostly nonsense.  But when you’re locked in a theater for four hours and the rumbling of your stomach threatens to drown out the orchestra, nothing hits the spot quite like a greasy, gooey pile of tomato sauce and melted cheese.  Vanity be damned!

Such is the democratizing effect of America’s favorite food—a food that, according to a study released this week, is consumed by some 13 percent of Americans on any given day.

We are a country and a culture divided as severely as ever between haves and have-nots—a world in which the lives of the rich and the poor have less and less in common and seemingly exist in separate, alternate universes from each other.

But pretty much everybody loves pizza.  No amount of money or prestige can efface its bubbling, artery-clogging allure.

And why should it?  What is there about pizza to which one could possibly object?  It’s simple to make; it’s extremely cheap (although it can also be expensive, if you prefer); it’s available for takeout or delivery in every town in America; it comes in all shapes, sizes and varieties; it can be eaten elegantly in a fancy restaurant or scarfed on a street corner while you wait for the lights to change; and it can be served hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Because pizza is so manifestly irresistible—so universally beloved and consumed—we become deeply suspicious of those in public view who seem resistant to its natural charms and, when pressed, try just a little too hard to blend in with the crowd.  Can you ever truly trust someone who has to pander on pizza?

Case in point:  Bill de Blasio.  In January, the newly-inaugurated mayor of New York City was caught at Goodfellas Pizzeria in Staten Island eating a slice with a knife and fork—a mortal sin within the five boroughs.

Interrogated by reporters on his way out, de Blasio offered an explanation so labored and elaborate (and clearly untrue) that it only made things worse.  As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote at the time, de Blasio “sounded like a parody of the self-serious New York liberal, convinced he’s right about everything.”

The point isn’t the silverware.  People should be free to transfer their food from their plates to their mouths however they see fit.

The question is:  What kind of a weirdo manages to make eating pizza sound complicated?

In the name of all that is good and holy, if you have to B.S. your way through a pizza party, as though you’ve never attended one before—well, either you’re an alien or a liar.  And if a man is prepared to lie about pizza, what won’t he lie about?

Is this not how our minds work when it comes to our public officials?  We want to know that they are men and women “of the people,” and for whatever crimes they might commit while in office, we are prepared to forgive and forget so long as they prove themselves human and, therefore, relatable.

Back in 1998 during “Monicagate,” for instance, America faced the prospect about its commander-in-chief, “If he’ll lie about sex, he’ll lie about anything.”  Yet the public ultimately gave Bill Clinton a pass, and today he is as popular as ever before.  After all, the only reason Monica Lewinsky was in the Oval Office in the first place was to deliver a pizza.

A World Without Oscar

What do I think of this year’s Oscar nominees, you ask?

Well, my favorite movie of 2013 received a whopping one Academy Award nomination.  My second favorite garnered none at all, as did three other entries on my personal top 10.

That’s what I think of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Actually, I think this year’s lineup is just fine.  The year 2013 produced many excellent films with many exceptional performances, and a commendable number of both turned up among the Academy’s honorees at the annual nominations announcement on January 16.  Some of the esteemed film society’s selections caused many analysts to scratch their heads, but plenty of others were well-deserved and, dare I say, inevitable.

You know.  Just like every other year.

In truth, in the movie world throughout January and February, the only thing more fashionable than the Oscars is complaining about the Oscars.

These critiques take a dizzying number of forms, each one more predictable than the next.  Some folks gripe about the media’s intensive focus on fashion and the red carpet, while others bitch about the ceremony’s boring hosts and self-indulgently long running time (the last telecast to run less than three hours occurred in 1973).

The more pointed dissents, however, cut directly to the institution’s original primary objective, which is to bestow the title of “best” onto a given year’s assortment of motion picture releases.

After all, when it comes to movies, what does “best” mean anyway?  Isn’t weighing one movie against another—movies with utterly disparate subject matter and purpose—the ultimate exercise in comparing apples to oranges?  Was Humphrey Bogart not onto something when he mused, “The only honest way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win”?

Even more so than other awards shows—at least the Grammys divides its categories by genre—the Academy Awards is a patently absurd attempt at applying some sort of objective standard to an inherently subjective art form.

This year, then, let us take this curmudgeonly thought a step further and pose the following query:  What if we got rid of the Oscars once and for all?  What if there wasn’t this annual gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest congratulating themselves on a job well done, with the rest of us following along for the ride?  How would the movie industry change, and would such a scenario produce a preferable environment to the one that currently exists?

The upsides are certainly tempting to ponder.

For starters, the abolition of a movie awards season might engender a more evenly-distributed release schedule (qualitatively speaking) compared to the lopsided, bottom-heavy one we have now.

With no Academy voters with whom to curry favor, studios would not be tripping over each other to release all their high-quality “prestige pictures” in the final weeks of December while spending the year’s remaining eleven and a half months churning out utter cinematic dreck.  There would be little reason not to unload Important Films by Important Directors about Important Subjects at any old time of the year.

Studio executives would still care about nothing except profit, of course, and would still employ careful strategery regarding when (or if) a particular project might see the light of day.  (Don’t expect future installments of Star Wars and Star Trek to ever open on the same weekend.)

But these considerations would no longer be tethered to some gold-plated grand payoff that so often comes at the expense of the very consumers whose dollars these executives seek in the first place.

Per contra, minus Oscar’s sinister allure, the relationship between producers and consumers would become considerably more direct, and a bit more honest as well.  For the film industry, the only real point of the Oscars is to sell more tickets and DVDs.  In its absence, moviemakers would no longer be able to rely on a political, drawn-out, behind-the-scenes marketing campaign to reel in unsuspecting viewers.

Instead, any such scheme would need to be directed squarely at those viewers themselves.  The message would shift from, “Watch this movie because it won a bunch of shiny trophies,” to, “Watch this movie because you just might enjoy it.”

And that directs us to the real question in all of this:  Is it useful to turn the experience of watching movies into some sort of competition?  Does it finally do more harm than good to reduce a medium that many still regard as a form of art into a horse race?

So long as great movies can be seen and cherished for their own sake, shouldn’t we stop pretending they require anything more?