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.

Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.

The Beautiful Struggle

In a year of ugliness, hatred, division and dread, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight arrives as a bulwark of beauty, love, compassion and hope.  Following a presidential election in which the forces of deceit and bigotry prevailed—calling our whole national creed into question—here is a movie about a boy (and, in time, a man) who struggles against those very same forces to understand his own identity in a universe that seems determined to make him someone else.

Truly, there has been very little in 2016 to assure us there is any beauty left in the world.  At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner—an affair that was largely (and blessedly) politics-free—we agreed that, through the darkness of the next four years, a great deal of light is likely to come from artists—a community of eccentrics with the boldness and optimism to create outsize the box, allowing us to escape our narrow window of existence and be exposed to different points of view.

Great art doesn’t always make us feel better—often, by design, it makes us feel worse—but it does expand the parameters of what it means to be fully human.  Outside of religion and science, it is our only mechanism for achieving transcendence.

Moonlight is great art, which is a rarity even among great films.  In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott wrote, “From first shot to last, ‘Moonlight’ is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.”  I’ve now seen it twice, and Scott was not exaggerating.  You could play Moonlight with the sound turned off and still be unable to look away.  Indeed, you could print and frame dozens of randomly-selected screenshots and wind up with the most galvanizing photography show in New York.  Setting aside plot and character, Jenkins’s movie is an aesthetic triumph—a marvel of visual virtuosity.

Yet, in the end, you can’t separate the film’s beauty from its subject matter any more than you can separate the beauty of “Imagine” from John Lennon’s fantasies of socialism and world peace.  To experience Moonlight—specifically, the travails of its young hero, Chiron—is to be elevated to a level of consciousness about other people’s lives that only movies can attain.  Roger Ebert famously described the cinema as “like a machine that generates empathy,” and it has been quite some time since a film has lived up to that lofty ambition as deeply and as movingly as this one.

How so?  First, by adhering to the No. 1 rule of storytelling:  “Show, don’t tell.”  Second, by showing us exactly what we need to see, and nothing more.  And third, by providing us a leading man whose existence is at once unfathomably complex and wholly, tragically comprehensible.

For point of reference, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed its protagonist, Mason, from age 6 through the end of high school.  By the end of that journey, we felt more or less like we knew everything about Mason, even as we conceded that a great deal of the movie consisted of fairly mundane events—going to a ballgame, getting a haircut, etc.

The audacity of Boyhood was its very conceit:  It was filmed piece-by-piece over a period of 12 years, so that the actors aged in concert with their fictional counterparts.  Arguably the film’s greatest flaw—although many considered it a strength—was the relative ordinariness of Mason himself, a middle class heterosexual white man whose cumulative coming of age was more compelling than any particular moment along the way.  Mason wasn’t exactly the poster child of white privilege, but nor was he particularly deprived, as far as American childhoods go.

Not so with Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), the centerpiece of Moonlight, who through a series of genetic accidents begins life as everything that Mason is not.  Born and raised in a depressed, heavily African-American section of Miami known as Liberty City, Chiron is a diminutive, moody, soft-spoken outcast with no siblings, no father and a mother largely dependent on the friendly neighborhood crack dealer.  To complicate things, that very same kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes a liking to Chiron and, with his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his de facto guardian angel.  By the end of the movie’s first act, it falls to Juan to confront Chiron’s unexpectedly pointed question, “Am I a faggot?”

The answer is yes (in a manner of speaking), and the implications of this realization—namely, that he is young, black and gay in a cultural milieu that cannot abide all three at once—sows the seeds of doom for the remainder of Chiron’s adolescence.

I shan’t say anything further on the details of that painful sexual awakening, other than to note how—as with Boyhood, in its way—the details are everything.  How extreme tenderness in one moment leads, inexorably, to extreme cruelty in the next.  How one wrong word, look or impression—propelled by centuries of repression, prejudice and fear—can irreparably alter the course of a person’s life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

However, sometimes there is.  If the first two-thirds of Moonlight are a slow-burning human tragedy about the price and meaning of black masculinity in 21st century America, the final act suggests that if you manage to survive the crucible of your teenage years, there’s an outside chance you can begin life anew with whatever scraps are left over.

This is not to say that Moonlight is principally a film about hope, or about the inherent moral rightness of the universe.  There is much more to a fulfilling life than simply not getting shot or overdosing on cocaine.  No one with an upbringing like Chiron’s would (or should) ever consider himself lucky—and certainly not grateful for whatever Valuable Life Lessons those hardships might’ve imparted.

Barry Jenkins, the director, is not about to let us off that easy:  Along with his co-creator, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Jenkins adapted the screenplay from McCraney’s original stage play), he understands that a hard life is undesirable on every level, and Moonlight is finally about the struggle that awaits every gay black man who dares to carry himself with honesty, dignity and pride—and, most of all, the awareness that mortal peril exists on both sides of the closet door.

It is to the credit of everyone involved that such an ugly ordeal has been made into one of the most achingly gorgeous movies of our time.  In this political moment—as we find ourselves staring into the abyss in search of the tiniest shred of humanity to get us through the next thousand-odd days of America life—Moonlight provides cinema’s first answer to how the darkness might be endured, and it’s the same answer W.H. Auden gave in 1939, on the eve of another global cataclysm:  “We must love one another or die.”

Ode to a Lost Boy

As of today, Robin Williams has allegedly been dead for exactly two years.

I say “allegedly” because, in a sense, I’m still in denial about the whole thing.  Robin Williams can’t be dead, because how could life go on without him?

It actually can’t.  He was one genie we couldn’t just put back into the bottle, and anyway, why would we want to?  As a comedian and movie star, he enriched our lives in a manner that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, and his abrupt departure from Earth in the summer of 2014 created a void too upsetting to confront head-on.

Of course, we’ve never actually needed to confront it as we would the death of a close friend, since Williams’ presence in our lives existed entirely on a screen.  We’ll never see him again in the flesh, but then most of us never saw him in the flesh while he was alive.

Except that’s a rational way to approach the loss of Robin Williams when, in fact, his connection with us was entirely emotional.  That he died on purpose, by his own hand, somehow made the blow even more personal.  It felt almost like a betrayal—an acknowledgment that his duty to us, his adoring public, had been subsumed by a private agony that he couldn’t bring himself to share with us.

As it turns out, we didn’t know him quite as well as we thought.

Looking over his credits recently, I was a bit surprised how few of his movies I’ve actually seen.  That is, until I realized how few of his movies are worth seeing at all.  As a rule, I follow the advice of my favorite critics unless I have an extremely compelling reason not to, and the unfortunate fact is that only a fraction of the projects Williams attached himself to were worthy of his enormous talents.  I don’t know about you, but I find it rather depressing to subject myself to mediocre work by otherwise great artists.

So I’ve never bothered with Death to Smoochy—the 2002 comedy about which Roger Ebert wrote, “In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant”—nor have I followed up on his Teddy Roosevelt impression in all the Night at the Museum sequels.  Life is short, and I’d hate my mental image of Williams as Armand Goldman or Mrs. Doubtfire to be polluted in any way.

On the other hand, I did catch 2006’s Man of the Year on cable in recent months, and was intrigued by how it both confirmed and defied this theory.

As you may or may not know, Man of the Year is a political farce, directed by Barry Levinson, with Williams as a comedian who is elected president of the United States on the strength of his straight talk and, presumably, his wit.  If the conceit is a bit of a stretch, the character is not:  Here, Williams is basically playing a more civically-engaged version of himself, saturating his few serious thoughts with a bottomless supply of jokes, impressions and idle observations about the absurdity of the world around him—and of course everyone in the room eats it up.

It should work, yet it doesn’t.  For all the promise of its constituent parts—the cast also includes Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and my other favorite comic, Lewis Black—Man of the Year is not great cinema.  It’s lame, uninspired, unfocused and, well, just not terribly clever.  Like those lesser Marx Brothers movies that spent far too much time with inane romantic subplots and far too little time allowing Groucho and company to let loose and turn the joint upside down, Man of the Year plays like a stand-up special with all the interesting bits left out and replaced with a whole lot of fluff.  It’s the sort of production that fails the old Gene Siskel test, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”

And yet I can’t hate it—and I’ll put it on for a few minutes in between changing channels—because, dammit, it’s still Robin Williams.  The fact that everything around him is junk doesn’t negate the joy of his very presence on the screen.

Indeed, Williams was among a small, elite group of performers whose humanity enabled him to transcend lousy material.  For all the misfires in his career—most of which were patently obvious at the time, perhaps even to him—he never really left our good graces, since it was plain to all—through his words and his actions—that beneath the vulgar, often drug-induced zaniness, he was a decent, generous, big-hearted person who wanted nothing but to be loved.  And boy, did we love him.

History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

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.