Yes it was bad and the problem is the Academy

A remarkable human accomplishment was recently achieved. In a field of very tough competition, last night’s Oscar ceremony (to inappropriately use a word) was the easy winner of most tedious, worst conceived and executed, and just plain bad shows. My roommate went to bed halfway through the opening monologue (another inappropriate use of language – it wasn’t a monologue, it was a mash up of bad ideas).

The question that screams for an answer is, “Why?”

I think the problem is the Academy itself. It doesn’t understand so many things. Let’s make a list:

Youth: they equate youth with stupidity and vulgarity. If I were I a young person, I would find this hugely insulting. Young people probably do find it hugely insulting and this is probably why they avoid watching the annual train wreck except for the opportunity it affords to make smartass comments about it on Twitter. (And that assumes anyone young is even on Twitter.)

Sexuality: they think gay means annoyingly flamboyant and an exasperating obsession with show tunes. Mind you, Hollywood is famous for trading in social stereotypes so this isn’t entirely unexpected, just very tiresome. They also think straight men have the sexual maturity of thirteen year olds and women, either lesbian or straight, are very cranky with all things male and … well, everything else too. But that’s okay because, hey there’s cleavage and ya gotta put up with the gals’ crabbiness if you want to have the cleavage. Only the desperate attempts of the Academy to be relevant could manage to be insulting to gays, straights, men, women, and everyone in between – while at the same time pretending to embrace them all.

The Academy: some things aren’t meant to be hip and it is always embarrassing when those things that aren’t meant to be, try to be. Simply put, you cannot be the lofty “Academy” you aspire to be and be hip at the same time. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes the world wants old and boring because, as much as a yawn as it may be, it is what we expect of respected institutions. You want to be a respected institution? Don’t sing denigrating and childish songs about boobs. And if you do, don’t put the First Lady in the same show. (By the way … what the hell was that about? I wanted to see Jack!)

Far from being the celebration it was intended to be, last night’s Academy Awards were simply dispiritingly wrong-headed and sad.

This cockeyed caravan: Preston Sturges defends fluff

I watched Sullivan’s Travels (1941) yet again last night because, as the main character John L. Lloyd ‘Sully’ Sullivan (Joel McCrea) says:

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The words, of course, are from Preston Sturges, writer and director of the movie. This movie is, for me, the best of Sturges — though it’s really hard to say one is better than another when you consider movies like The Lady Eve, The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek and others.

If you’ve ever seen the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? you may be interested in knowing Sullivan’s Travels is where that title came from. It’s the movie Sullivan, a Hollywood director of light, comedic fluff, a man with a well-to-do, somewhat privileged background, wants to make. It’s to be a serious movie about how tough and awful this life is with, “…Bodies piling up in the street.” It’s to be, “A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!”

As his producers point out, what would he know about it? Realizing the truth in what they say, he sets off to find out, decked out like a tramp (from the wardrobe department) and with only ten cents in his pocket.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, despite his best efforts he keeps ending up in Hollywood.

In the third act, however, when he has finally given up his quest, that’s when he actually stumbles into the “trouble” he’s been trying to discover.

A plot summary does little to communicate why this movie is so good.

To begin with, it’s incredibly funny with the humour finding two sources: visual (slapstick) and verbal (witty dialogue). For slapstick, see the chase scene with the kid driving the rigged up “go-cart.” For dialogue, see the scene near the beginning where Sullivan argues for his idea with the producers (“But with a little sex!”).

While very funny (and a romance to boot, with Veronica Lake), it’s a satire of movie makers, particularly of the Hollywood variety. Some even argue that Sullivan’s Travels is the best movie ever about making movies. I think, however, Sturges’ satire goes beyond movies to culture overall.

His complaint is that comedy, and fluff generally, gets dismissed because, being light and agreeable when well done, it isn’t serious, or what we consider to be serious. A history of comedy at the Oscars gives credence to his complaint. It’s ignored when it comes to the “serious” categories like Best Picture.

I think his argument is two-fold: 1) audiences, on the whole, prefer lighter films — comedy, action, etc., and 2) the people who make the serious ones about such topics as homelessness, have no idea, no experience, no real understanding of what they are making a movie about. For one thing, the very people those films are sympathetic to, and that they stand morally side by side with, are the very people they show disrespect to by dismissing the kinds of films they like.

There’s a fabulous speech prior to Sullivan heading out to “learn something about trouble,” meaning homelessness. It’s made by Robert Greig as Sullivan’s butler Burroughs. He says he doesn’t think the plan is a good one because Sullivan has no clue about what poverty is: it’s not some romantic condition to be discovered but something virulent to be avoided. I think this is Sturges saying there is often a patronizing, even parasitic element to serious films and the subjects they treat. That’s probably far too extreme a view, but I think there is an element of truth in it. It makes for an interesting question though: can something not truly lived, something only experienced in a kind of vacation mode, meaning briefly, truly be understood? How often do we bring our assumptions about what something is, assumptions that come from a very different perspective, into our assessments and treatments, such as a in a film?

Of course, the movie doesn’t come across as pontificating, as the above makes it sound. It’s great fun, incredibly funny and with a beautiful Veronica Lake, romantic too. And even if the overall sentiment and the closing lines sound a bit cornball to us, I think it’s a legitimate view and never more passionately expressed as in Sullivan’s Travels.

I’ll have to watch the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? again because I’m now wondering if they were not only agreeing with Sturges and his argument in comedy’s favour but doing so by making Sullivan’s intended movie, one about a serious subject as done by a patronizing, uninformed fool? My guess is yes.

Triad – Oscar, Jenkins and McCarthy

Of the various movies nominated in the various categories for the 2009 Academy Awards, I think the only one I’ve actually seen is The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins who was up in the best actor category.

This isn’t unusual. I don’t recall any year where I had seen more than one or two of the touted films. This is because, with very few exceptions, I don’t see movies when they are in theatres (long story involving epilepsy) and I don’t like seeing films in the midst of the media hype for them (it tends to establish expectations about the merits of a film).

I saw The Visitor because it was released in theatres back in April and, later, was released on DVD. It’s a very good movie – the kind I like, though perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s what is often referred to as a “character driven” piece. It’s also a subdued film, not the kind to satisfy those who yearn for action, CGI and things blowing up.

Richard Jenkins was perfectly cast in the role and delivers a pitch-perfect performance. I really would have liked it if he had won the Oscar but no one, including me, expected that. Although, if he had, it would have knocked the socks off of the odds-makers.

One other thing … The Visitor was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also gave us The Station Agent back around 2003. (That’s another wonderfully subdued, gentle film.)

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Guess I should watch The Departed now

I picked up The Departed on DVD about two weeks ago when it came out and I still haven’t watched it. No real reason why I’ve waited … Mainly, it’s not the sort of movie I’m overly enthused over.

That’s not a value assessment, just a reflection of taste. Actually, I often find that when I finally get around to watching a movie I’m not too keen on, it turns out to be great and I become a big booster of it. I certainly hope that’s the case here.

Having picked up four Oscars (picture, director, screenplay, editing), I guess it’s time to actually watch it.

You know, I’ll bet they’re scurrying madly right now to get those “Four Academy Awards!!!” stickers on those DVDs.