Race And The Oscars

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Over the last decade or so, the Academy Awards have received a long-deserved thrashing for their sameness. The people all look the same, the names all roll off the tongue with the same ol’ thump, and — at least for the more discriminating among us — the films, themselves, are pretty much identical, year after year. Nor does it help things that the winners are overwhelmingly white, and part of a medium that, more than books, television, or music, utterly forges people’s conceptions of art, relationships, and our day-to-day human drama. It is (rightfully) assumed, then, that the life depicted on screen is NOT the life ‘we’ lead: a trite point, really. More relevant, however, is the fact that those who end up constructing this screen-life, from the sound-people to the actors, the directors, technicians, and apparatchiks, aren’t drawn from reality either, but a tiny slice of it, and can, therefore, give very little back to us. Enter thus the ‘race’ that is race and the Oscars.

Now just ignore, for a second, that a cursory look through the Oscar wins from 1929 on will leave most filmgoers confused. Indeed, just as with the Nobel Prize for Literature — another trendsetter for ‘serious’ artistic work — most of these names are now unknowns, probably for good reason, in the same way that best-selling books from a century ago are but missing quanta today. This is because awards are, by their very nature, popularity contests, and whimsical ones at that. But while some things are better left to mass perception, art is, historically, best evaluated (and leveled!) by time. These days, I hear very little of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, or even Slumdog Millionaire, despite the fact that they’re fairly recent wins, and seemed to utterly control people’s conceptions of cinema only a decade back. You’d see articles, analyses, and academic discussions, even, of nothing in particular, yet still providing so much small-talk for the parties and the after-parties that those on the outside wished to be a part of, if only to joke with the stars, to hobnob with bad directors, to get the taste of, if not outright caviar, then downright shit: because when art is reduced to a mere vote of confidence, it all looks the same from such a vantage, anyway. For too long this cocktail party — of politics, wealth, and now, the human image — has tended to the same guests. It is predictable, then, that the rest of the world, the real world, perhaps, wants in, if only to do the same ol’ shit, to entertain with the same idiotic tricks, that everyone else has done, hoping for the same reaction.

And, ok: that’s fair enough, I guess. My issue, of course, is not with racial justice, but with a few, ah, human tendencies that have not been properly addressed, by ANY side. Blacks, recall, got tired of getting beaten up by cops, but when they finally joined the … Continue reading →

Review Of Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer”

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Although the Eliot Spitzer scandal elicited 3 responses — support, hostility, and puritanism — Alex Gibney’s excellent 2010 documentary, Client 9, hammers home how idiotic all 3 really were, revealing, as it does, how such extremes arise in the first place, as well as the costs of norms that stray too far from the mean. Yes, Spitzer is in the middle of it all, but in a sense, the film’s periphery shows men and women exhibiting precisely the things hated in him and that Spitzer hated in turn: selfishness, hypocrisy, single-mindedness, and the way that culture, on all sides, tends to refract such. And while Spitzer is painted as an extremist, in ways necessary, in ways not, he is also revelatory of the things around him, something that the ‘middle’ — in its  dilution of itself — often cannot do.

Client 9 begins on such a note, with a Spitzer ad extolling ‘right’ bore alongside mock advertisements for the scandal, as if New York is celebrating both the man’s importance and his downfall. Spitzer is immediately apologetic, calling his story a “classic tale of hubris,” which is nicely paralleled with the paintings of New York artist and former pimp Hulbert Waldroup, who muses on human beings’ dual nature. None of this is particularly deep, but still sets up a controlling metaphor for the film’s remainder, ensuring that Gibney has much opportunity to play with images and ideas as the film goes on. Spitzer then gives a brief ‘in’ to his childhood, noting how his father “cruelly” beat him in Monopoly to teach his son a lesson. This leads to Spitzer’s distinction between violent and white collar crime: that while violent crime is glamorized, and visible, white collar crime is neglected but just as important (in fact, I’d argue it is worse overall, for feeds and enlivens the former). And, indeed, for the film’s many examples of white collar crime sum to trillions in damage, millions of cumulative years shaven off of workers’ lifespans due to the related stressors, and other abuses that — rarely punished — point to a discrepancy that favors one class of thug over another. This offers an informational edge for those that want illumination. More importantly for the film’s narrative, however, its focus on real, named criminals props up a number of characters, many of them interesting and mysterious in their own right, that will serve as antagonists to Spitzer and offer some hints to the ‘how’ of his eventual downfall.

As the film progresses, these names come fast, reminding one of the jigsaw-like quality of Gibney’s earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. There is Henry Blodget from Merrill Lynch, whose fraud — while merely a scapegoat for a much bigger problem — shows how ingrained the thug mentality really is, with Blodget privately poo-pooing the criminal investigation since fraud was so prevalent, and, therefore, a kind of entitlement. Then there’s Richard Grasso, former chairman of the NYSE, who received a Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very suburban types it featured, replete with a sprinkling of ‘artsy’ moments that … Continue reading →

Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →

On The ‘Lost Films’ Of John Cassavetes

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In preparation for my John Cassavetes panel discussion from a couple of weeks back, I decided to look into the director’s less-celebrated and/or actor-only efforts, just to see if I’d missed any lost gems. Now that the much-lauded Love Streams is simply out of the run as a potentially great work, perhaps there’s something else out there that qualifies?

Saddle The Wind (1958)

Directed by Robert Parrish and written by Rod Serling, Saddle The Wind is an odd little film that, in 1958, was notable for starring Robert Taylor, but today is strictly remembered due to the names Rod Serling and John Cassavetes. The titled lured me in with its sense of poesy, and with Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) as writer, I was hoping for a neglected classic. Yet the film is poorly scripted, cliched in parts, features a bad, tacked-on ending, and mediocre acting from all involved, except John Cassavetes. In fact, from the first shot of Nick (Cassavetes) in the sun, the viewer simply sees a different caliber of acting that subtly predicts Nick’s character arc without giving too much away. The way Nick blinks, or moves his hands nervously; the tiny, easy-to-miss gestures; the disappearing smiles or slight shifts of mood — these are all hallmarks of character realism, and present Nick as a real entity with an accumulating, psychotic streak as opposed to a mere symbol of this or that. There’s little Nick can stand for, and despite the script’s issues, it’s a credit to Serling that Nick is simply a villain transplanted to the Old West, as opposed to the heavy-handed ‘commentary’ that the Western genre had become known for by this time. Sure, the decision also strips the film of depth, but a few subversions of genre tropes, like this, keep Saddle The Wind from being in worse company. An OK work, overall, but one of Rod Serling’s minor efforts, even as it’s one of Cassavetes’s best performances from the 1950s.

Too Late Blues (1961)

Of all of John Cassavetes’s ‘meddled-with’ productions — these include A Child Is WaitingGloriaBig Trouble, and 1 or 2 others — this is no doubt his best, and retains more of his characteristic style and vague character resolutions that manage to keep a few possibilities open. It begins with a jazz musician, Ghost (Bobby Darin), and an aspiring singer, Jess (Stella Stevens), seemingly falling in love, then trying to figure out what to do about their careers. Ghost is idealistic while his band-members are ready to compromise, but, as with so many other artists with potential, Ghost’s personal lacks (physical cowardice, irresponsibility) feed into the art, as well, thus stripping it and ruining both his chances with Jess as well as art. He leaves the band, makes some money as a sell-out (via a patron who sees right through him), and finally returns to his band, only to realize they’ve sold out even more than he has. One gets the feeling, … Continue reading →