Meta-Post: 2016 Oscars and Progress Report

Confession time (which is maybe fitting considering my next theme will apparently be Catholicism): I didn’t watch this year’s Oscars ceremony. None of it. Not even the highlights reels that get posted on Facebook and everywhere else. Maybe I’ll check out Chris Rock’s opening bit, or listen to Dave Grohl’s In Memoriam performance of “Blackbird”, but then again, in another week, most of it will be forgotten.

I almost never watch the Oscars anyway. As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m not that into movies, and even less into movie stars, so the idea of watching a three-hour-plus-long awards show is even less appealing to me than watching the epic films that always seem to win.

I did, of course, take note of this year’s Best Picture, which I’ll be adding to my list – and hopefully will be reviewing in a post soon. Before committing myself to one of the nominees for Best Picture, I decided to wait and see which one won. As a consequence, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t see a single Oscar-nominated film this year, unless the third Hobbit movie was nominated for something like Best Costuming or Best Beard Maintenance.

In the meantime, I have been keeping busy watching films from the past nine decades. At the end of two months, I’ve seen fourteen movies, including at least one from each of the decades in which the Oscars were awarded. I’ve done that intentionally, in an attempt to catch a broad swath of the best pictures through the years. (I also want to avoid watching, say, all the movies from the 1940s in a big clump at the end.) If you’re interested, I’ve been tagging my posts by decade, so you’ll be able to follow along even as I write about the films out of chronological order.

Out of the movies I’ve reviewed for this blog so far, four are films I’ve seen before (Wings, The Artist, Dances with Wolves, and Shakespeare in Love – though the last should only count up to the point where I fell asleep). The other ten are totally new to me, some of which are considered classics. I’ll admit that I probably could have survived in this life without having watched a few of those movies, but ultimately I’m glad I’ve taken on this project. I expected to get bored quickly and move on, but so far it’s been kind of fun. The only drawback is how much time this thing is taking away from me binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.

Finally, I wanted to point out an interesting ranking list I found on Buzzfeed. Someone out there decided not only to watch all the Best Picture films, but to rank them as well. I’ve tried not to read too much about the movies I haven’t seen yet (and don’t know much about ), so I only browsed this list – but I’m bookmarking it to look back on later. Of course, ranking lists are always a little bit arbitrary and a lot bit subjective, so I look forward to coming up with my own ranking at the end of this. I can already see some significant contrasts between this ranker’s tastes and my own.

Since I’ve been doing so well, and keeping on track, I’m taking a quick break from movie-watching but I’ll be back soon with more thrilling blog posts!

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Hamlet (1948)

 

 

He’s totally about to make out with that skull.

As I mentioned in my last post, I got the chance to tour the Globe Theater in London last summer. One feature in the museum portion was a series of audio clips from famous performances so that you could get a sense of how different actors throughout history (audio-recorded history, anyway) performed some of the most familiar soliloquies. I wish now that I’d spent more time in that section, but it appeared close to the end, and there was a group of teenagers hanging around and I was probably hangry, so I only gave it a cursory listen and moved on. I’m sure Laurence Olivier’s “To be or not to be” speech was included, against other famous versions on film and stage. It’s such a neat comparison to make, and it’s too bad we can’t hear how actors read lines in Elizabethan times.

I’ve always liked Shakespeare – but maybe not loved him. At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ve never been great at parsing and comprehending the language. On the plus side, that means that each time I read or watch a play I’m already familiar with, I notice something that went over my head the last time. But then, what if the way Shakespeare writes was just how everybody talked back then? All their conversations just played out in perfect iambic pentameter, with clever use of metaphor. Maybe we’ve been giving ol’ Willy too much credit.

Hamlet is one of those plays that I think have the basic storyline down pat at this point, but even after a several readings, and probably several performances, I am still fuzzy on certain subplots. Like, for example, Ophelia and Laertes and, why not, Polonius. What’s their deal? I would probably have a better understanding if I hadn’t dosed off a couple of times during this film. I mean, honestly. It’s in black and white, and quiet as hell, full of murmuring in a not-quite-foreign language.

Olivier’s Hamlet starts out with this portentous voiceover: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Which somehow comes off as a bit heavy-handed or awkward. Why didn’t Shakespeare use that in his subtitle? The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who was Indecisive (Get it?). There are a few places where he made creative use of voiceover and condensing to get the film under three hours – and for that, I thank him. But in the process, we lose everyone’s favorite pair of minor characters that later get their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. <gasp!>

One of my old friends from MFA school used to talk about writing a story concerning what happened to Hamlet during the interlude where he gets hijacked by a pirate ship on his way to England and then just rolls with them for a while, NBD. I still think that’s an awesome idea. Pirates were basically the superheroes of the 1600s. Throw a few in your play and you’ve got a guaranteed blockbuster.

Although it wasn’t the most exciting movie, I did really like the setting of this Hamlet. It actually takes place in a castle, full of winding steps and bleak seascapes. I actually believed they’d found some medieval castle on the coast of England or something, but that would be too perfect; the movie seems to have been filmed only in studios (according to IMDB). One odd quirk of women in film is that Olivier, at the time of filming, was 41 years old, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Queen Gertrude, was 30. Curious, and maybe also explains why Hamlet makes out with his mom so much here.

This is the only Shakespeare adaptation that has won Best Picture. I haven’t looked it up, but I suspect other versions have earned actors and actresses a win for particular roles (including Olivier, for his only Best Actor Oscar win – pay attention, trivia nerds). I suppose Shakespeare is the gold standard of acting, but most of us would still rather watch something a little easier to understand, and maybe with more pirates.

 

Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? Yes, at least this particular version of the play.

Final Verdict: Ay, there’s the rub.

Marty (1955)

 

I’ve just realized this cover is in color, even though the film is black and white.  Curious.

Ah, love. When mid-February hits, our thoughts turn to romance, dreaming of the Valentine we have, or wish we had. If Oscar celebrated holidays, he’d probably have us watch Marty on Valentine’s Day.

I’m not entirely sure what it is I associate with Ernest Borgnine, but romance is certainly not it. And yet, he gives an endearing performance here as a guy luckless in love who finally finds it. Somewhere I saw this movie described as one about ordinary people falling in love, and I think that’s what I find so charming about it.

Borgnine is the eponymous Marty, a guy who is 34 and has essentially given up on finding the girl of his dreams. (If this were a slightly different film, you might wonder why Marty is so suspiciously uninterested in ladies, but I guess that’s for the remake.) On some last-ditch effort, he meets Clara, a schoolteacher who has somehow reached the ungodly age of 29 without getting hitched. They’re like the last two lepers at the colony. Meanwhile, in a subplot, Marty’s cousin finds living with his wife, new baby, and mother a tad agonizing.

As I’ve suggested in the past, I don’t know much about playwriting in the 20th century, but Marty really feels like its foundation rests on the stage. There are limited scenes and locations – Marty’s house, the dance hall, the late-night streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx (apparently this story falls somewhere prior to the eras of rampant crime and hipsters on the streets). The story itself takes place over the course of about 24 hours. That container gives it a sense of an enclosed world, in a good way. I’m a little unsure how much of this film depends on Italian immigrant culture and how much is 1950s courtship culture, but either way makes for an interesting anthropological study.  I also loved the dialogue in the movie – the little tics of working class New Yorker speech, the subtle humor of some of the lines.

To be fair, the message of the movie, if you think about it too hard, is a bit bleak. Everybody refers to Marty’s love interest – and I’m no expert, but she seems to be on the pretty side of normal to me – as a dog.  It’s a strange, unconvincing plot point.  His friends try to convince him to move on to something better, his mother and aunt reject her (one of whom says, in one of the best ironic-today-but-unclear-how-ironic-then lines in the film, “College girls are one step from the street.”). But will he listen to them, or follow his heart?

Fortunately, it’s Valentine’s Day, so we can believe that love conquers all.

 

This woman is constantly described as a “dog” in the film.

Theme: New York romance

First Time Watching? First time I even heard of it.

Final Verdict: Not such a dog as it thinks it is.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

 

A few years ago, my coworker related a funny scene from a movie she liked – I can’t remember what it was – and asked me whether I’d seen it. I answered, off-the-cuff, “Oh, I don’t watch black movies.” It sounded pretty bad, and she didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. Later, the line became a bit of a running joke between us, in those moments when the topic of race came up in conversation.

Of course, what I meant was something along the lines of “I don’t watch movies at all, really, including but not limited to comedies predominantly featuring black actors of the sort you’re describing, maybe in part because I don’t get some of the jokes.” But I suppose I also meant “I don’t watch black movies.”

What makes a black movie, anyway? Is 12 Years a Slave a black film, because it stars black actors, or was directed by a black man, or because it tells a story that is distinctly and uniquely a Black American experience? (That director, incidentally, is also British.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is amazing in this role. Some of the most powerful moments are those with no dialogue or action; we’re left only to contemplate the shock on Solomon’s face as he tries to recognize the reality of his situation, the absurdity of it. We linger long on his near-lynching, see the background as people gradually resume their activities in the background, not daring to approach the man dangling on the end of the rope. It’s a frightening world, with little compassion or humanity – even sometimes among the slaves, who are themselves clinging to survival however they can.

This is a difficult movie to watch. It’s heart-wrenching, and even though it kind of has a happy ending, at least in the sense that Solomon returns home, the viewer is left with a sense of nausea at the idea of all those slaves who suffered this life. Maybe the hardest thing for me to fathom was the sheer resilience that kept them alive despite the hopelessness of their life. I recall reading something recently about modern-day plantation tours, where (white) tourists often asked, “But they treated the slaves well, right?”

Well, we even get a look at that question, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is great as Sherlock, but I had no idea what to make of his accent here). BC plays Ford, Solomon’s first slaveholder, and he’s portrayed as almost benevolent. He takes Solomon’s expertise into account, and praises him for his work. You’d almost think he’s one of those kindly slaveowners. When Ford sells Solomon, he portrays himself as stuck in a system beyond his control. He has debts, he protests, and so as much as he’d like to keep Solomon, he has no choice. In the end, Solomon is still just property to discard.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ongoing controversy around diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Something in it also forces me to question my decision to focus on Oscar-winning films for a year. By choosing to watch these movies – not only, but realistically, how many movies can you watch in a year? – I am also choosing to not watch others. And if the Oscars has excluded minority artists throughout much of its history, then what else am I missing? I do still feel that it’s worthwhile to watch canonical movies, but also recognize the value of delving deeper to appreciate things outside the mainstream, which are often also outside white culture.

My last blog post drew an interesting reaction (interesting, for starters, that I got a reaction at all). Somebody reacted negatively to my critique of Dances with Wolves, or not so much the movie itself, but in context with the Oscars diversity issue. He suggested that great art will find its audience, which is a nice sentiment – but I don’t think history supports it.

Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the cleaning crew at the gallery made a grave mistake. Art is made by people, and exists in conversation between its creator (who carries a history of his/her own experience and interpretation) and the audience it finds. Engaging with art requires asking questions of all kinds, probably starting with, “Why I am reacting to this the way I am?” You do a disservice to yourself to limit your encounters with art (of any kind – writing, fine art, music) to things that resonate with your own experience.

When watching this film, I asked myself, what audience is this meant for, and for what reaction? It’s a difficult movie to watch, filled with white characters that are loathsome. There’s a sense of distance that I feel as a white person watching these figures, who are so blatantly racist and cruel. And yet, I can’t help seeing parallels in our present day. How many of us white people are well-intentioned and yet still blind to many of the painful realities of living as a Black American today?

This post, as it turns out, isn’t really about 12 Years a Slave much at all. It’s an incredible film, and certainly worth looking at in greater detail, but I think others have probably done that better than I can do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a disservice to the movie that I’ve spent my time discussing the context in which I’ve experienced it. Maybe I don’t watch black movies. But maybe I should try harder to do so and see what I can learn.

Theme:  Plantation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it – Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last

Dances with Wolves (1990)

 

Speaking on behalf of white people, I can say that if there’s anything we white people love, it’s pretending to be just like a non-white person but without any of the inconvenience of actually living their lives. The Oscars seem to be particularly big on the white-person-being-non-white narrative. I’d say that choosing this as my theme this week was random and unrelated to the controversy around this year’s nominations – but to be honest, any two Best Pictures could as easily illustrate the lack of diversity in Oscar history.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, non-white characters – even those with some degree of development – exist primarily as tools for the white man to find some sort of deliverance. Lawrence’s tribal leaders essentially ceased to exist for us once he left the desert. And do we know anything about Wind in His Hair now except that he will always be Dunbar’s friend? No, because he is not Kevin Costner.

I first saw Dances with Wolves in an anthropology class in college called “Native America Today.” One component of the course was to watch a series of movies spanning several decades and discuss how Native Americans were portrayed, and how that differed over time. I don’t recall most of the films besides this one – except that most were Westerns because that is the only acceptable genre in which a Native American can appear.

At the beginning of the semester, we were assigned an essay in which we had to describe our impressions of Native Americans based on our encounters with them in the media – movies, TV, whatever. I really struggled with the assignment, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because I recognized that we were being asking to be reflective about stereotypes and acknowledge that real Indians weren’t like Chief Wahoo, which seemed too obvious a thing to say. I knew that I should admit to having perceptions in defiance of reality, but I couldn’t find the “right” way to reflect on that idea.

I grew up in upstate New York, where there are small reservations made up of Iroquois tribes. I’d learned about the Five Nations of the Iroquois in school, and was actually interested in learning about their history (hence, why I was taking that class), but I didn’t know any Native Americans personally. Was my interest nothing more than a fetishized fascination with whatever I’d constructed as a modern Native American, that mystical figure who held a special bond with nature?

My professor had suggested we talk about the popular movies of the era – modernized Westerns were kind of big in the nineties – but, as you’ll recall if you’ve read my introductory blog, I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Instead, my impressions of Native Americans came from disparate sources: old comics from my dad’s childhood featuring the bright red people in feathers saying “How”; the children’s book series The Indian in the Cupboard that literally objectified Indians as little figurines that came to life; the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, where tribe members across the state gathered in some mix between authentic and tourist-trap that I still don’t fully understand. I didn’t know how to put all that into one 3-page essay.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed when we watched Dances with Wolves. Now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Dances With Wolves (the man) is this white hero figure, who even beats the Lakota at their own game. He rescues wounded women, he kills buffalo, he battles U.S. soldiers and Pawnee warriors alike (let’s not even get into the good/evil dichotomy of Lakota and Pawnee). At least there are a few Native American characters with some depth, but this is ultimately not about them: it’s about the white man who only “found himself” by adopting (appropriating?) another culture.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more disappointed by the film than I actually was. In terms of the three-hour films I’ve watched so far on this journey, it definitely dragged less than most. And it’s neat to Graham Greene in this role compared to what he’s been in recently. I’ve been watching Longmire, which has gradually been exploring interesting, nuanced characters on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Granted, the show’s still named after a white guy, but there’s some hope that we’ll continue to see more Native actors in solid roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is what I was afraid of when I first decided I would watch all the Best Pictures: that I would feel like I was wasting my time. It’s especially noticeable when you sit down to watch a film that’s three hours and forty-two minutes long, like Lawrence of Arabia. I feared the tedium of seeing through a task that I’d set for myself, to watch this movie whether I liked it or not. Of doing something without a clear purpose, only for some arbitrary reason.

Yeah, I could have given up on it halfway through, like one of those times I paused to take a break or to see how much more of it there was to get through, only to discover that I had two and a half more hours of this. But I’m stubborn that way. This was a classic, recommended to me by movie buffs, and I was going to look for the proof of its brilliance.

I don’t regret finishing the movie, but I don’t really think I appreciated it much more by the end of it. For starters, I had a bit of difficulty following the story. Truth is, I don’t know much about this period of history, in this place – the Middle East during World War I – and one positive result of watching the movie is that it piqued my interest in reading more about it: the role the Ottoman Empire played in the region, the aftermath of the Arab Uprising, how the European powers contributed to the upheaval in the Middle East in ways that clearly resonate today. Sometimes that’s the best a film can do, make you want to know more about something.

One thing that a good film can offer is simple beauty, and there’s definitely much to be found in the long, lingering shots of dunes. Sometimes the only traces you find of the people at all are tiny silhouettes of camels, or the lone straight lines of footsteps in the sand. Someone I know from Saudi Arabia once referred to himself and his nation as “desert people,” and I don’t think I fully appreciated the sense of that until seeing that expanse of space. I’m from a place where there’s not much empty space in between the parts that contain people or clear signs of civilization, so it’s hard for me to fathom living in a region that lacks so much of both.

Also, I’m having trouble deciding whether Lawrence was intended to be portrayed as a heroic figure, or if we’re meant to come out of it thinking he’s kind of an asshole. Maybe both, if the funeral scene at the beginning is any indication. All the same, I couldn’t get a handle on his character’s journey by the end of it. His actions, from his seemingly random decisions to leave the people and then to return, came off as nonsensical to me.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity given to many of the Arabian characters. My impression of a film from the sixties is that non-white characters are naturally given less of a sense of their own agency than white characters. Considering that the film was peopled by a large cast, there was an interesting range of personalities, portrayed as having their own motives. True, most of them were played by white actors, which is certainly problematic. And then there was the bizarre worship of Lawrence, resplendent in his white heroic garb. But I suppose I expected worse.

It does raise an important question, though, in light of this week’s Oscar nominations. Should I be more surprised about how much diversity exists in a film from fifty years ago, or that so little exists in Oscar-nominated films today? What sort of progress have we made in that period of time? (Answer: none.) How is this restriction of diversity in one field reflective of greater American culture, and how do we improve? I don’t know the answer to these questions. That sort of goes beyond the scope of my intentions with this blog, which was essentially: let’s write our silly little thoughts about movies.

I was thinking about a good movie to pair this with – something that addresses war in the Middle East today, of which there are several possibilities? Another cult of personality film? Or another epic (read: long) film that spans space or time. I think I found something that balances well against this one, and a theme that I’d like to think about: going native.