Saturday, February 25, 2006

OSCARS.....what's it all MEAN??!!!



Looking For Purpose In The Oscar World
It's looking like The Bookend Oscars this year... tune into see who gets Best Supporting Actor, take a 3 hour nap, then wake up to check out Best Picture. Nothing else seems terribly interesting... with due respect to the many whose hearts will be leaping out of their chests all day on Oscar day, regardless of how locked in many of the winners seem to be.

The odd thing that is occurring to me lately is that the reality of Oscar is slowly reverting back to the good old days, where there was more diversity, where campaigns mattered less (at least after the field was set), and it really was a bit of a bore for the non-industry audience. EDITOR'S NOTE: I DON'T AGREE. I THINK IT'S VERY INTERSTING. OF COURSE, I DON'T REALLY HAVE A LIFE, BUT STILL......With due respect, Reese and Joaquin are not Jack and Diane. The political power of a Crash cannot begin to compete with the political movies of the 70s and early 80s. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the great actors of his generation... but don't expect any Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino or Marlon Brando moments from him on Oscar night. Jesus... we don't even have Michael Moore to kick around anymore. EDITOR'S NOTE: WHINE WHINE WHINE. I INGEST SO MUCH NUTRASWEET, THAT TODAY IS ALWAYS THE BEST DAY...AND THE ONLY ONE I CAN REALLY REMEMBER. ALL THIS 'THE GOOD OLD DAYS WERE BETTER' STUFF IS FOR PEOPLE WITH MUCH LONGER MEMORIES THAN I. (AND FOR OLD CRANKS)!

Meanwhile, as the Academy brings itself in line, the media is going out of its goddamned EDITOR'S NOTE: WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE! mind with coverage. At MCN, we have had no fewer than a dozen requests to link to Oscar contests, video of awards photo shoots, and internet chats... and that is just from major outlets that write in hope of expanding a audience that really doesn't exist for this stuff. We did an Oscar contest ourselves and though the response was great, it was not many hundreds of thousands. And that is what mass media needs to float these boats.

This same phenomenon has occurred in the last two years at Sundance, where coverage continues to grow, and content continues to get more simplistic, not less, while the powers at Sundance try to find a way to get not just the festival, but the perception of the festival back on track. Even in this internet age, the media seems forever a year or two out of step.

But there are fewer and fewer events that get real penetration in the media and even as entertainment niche plays give us a chance to successfully target our audiences. Sundance (barely), Super Bowl, Olympics, Oscars, Summer Movie Season (and the hits within it), Toronto Film Festival (barely), World Series, the launch of Oscar Season, Christmas/Year End. And it just keeps getting worse.

In the greatest irony, as movie costs get further out of control and people start talking about trying to pay less for stars, real stars are more valuable than ever. And not just movies stars.

You can see it in the Olympic push, as there is a desperate effort to make the next celebrity happen. Is there a cross over basketball star left? A baseball star who everyone loves? Football? Boxing? And of course, what about the movies? As they would have said in The Godfather, could they have gotten to Tom Cruise like this a few years ago?

Passions are deeper than ever, it seems. But fewer people are getting the zeal for each bit of entertainment. The effect of endless access is endless choices, which means a lot fewer chances to sell anything to all four demographic quadrants.

But that brings us around to a surprisingly dispassionate Oscar season... if you aren't in it.

I'm not sure what prospect is scarier to me, Brokeback Mountain winning Best Picture and watching a wave of journalists foolishly pronounce the climate for Gay America via Hollywood to be greatly improved or to see it lose to Crash and to listen to the same people whine about homophobia in Hollywood... even though whatever happens on Oscar night, the film industry will remain the industry with the most wide open gateway to the gay community (at least behind the camera and in closeted reality in front of the camera) outside of the fashion world. (Gays are very close to catching up with Jews as the most powerful unseen minority in the industry, I would surmise.) EDITOR'S NOTE: IGNITING ANOTHER STORM OF 'JEWS CONTROLLING THE UNIVERSE' HYSTERIA. THANKS SO MUCH.

And if Crash does win, what does that represent, aside from a few more DVD sales? I don't mean that as a slam on Crash, but it is a movie that doesn't offer a target that calls people to action. It says, to its credit, "Do unto others..." But I don't think it's going to get a lot of people to really embrace that credo by winning an Oscar.

That brings up the real question, which is, "Does it matter anyway?" Or, "Has everyone lost their damned minds?!?!?!"

The prayer, of course, is that Amy Adams and Bennett Miller and Josh Olsen and Terrence Howard and even vets like Rachel Weisz and Phil Hoffman make great hay out of this opportunity... that the next time they all get nominated that the ratings will be through the roof because they are Redford and Streisand and Dunaway and Hoffman and Pacino and Coppola.

That is why this horse race is still worth watching.

So perhaps it is more than The Bookends this year. Perhaps it is like sitting front and center in the world's most lustrous bird sanctuary, taking the chance and the joy of discovering the new and beautiful and heart stopping talent of the new generation. Most of them will not win shiny awards. But hey, being nominated is better than some buckshot in the side of your neck.

In the great North Dallas Forty, a coach gets on a player for not being serious enough and he responds in passionate, muscular words, (that I paraphrase), "When I say it's a business, you say it's a game. And when I say it's a game, you say it's a business!"

The Oscars is, first and last, a business. But for the new generation, it still must feel a bit like a game. I, for one, will try to embrace that innocence as the next few weeks float by, a tonic to squelch my cynicism. EDITOR'S NOTE: GOOD LUCK WITH THAT CYNICISM SQUELCHING THING. I THINK YOU'RE GOING TO NEED ALL THE HELP YOU CAN GET, BUB.

'Brokeback Mountain': Milestone or movie of the moment?
By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
It has yet to win an Academy Award. It has never been the No. 1 film in theaters. Not that many people have seen it.

Yet Brokeback Mountain already is The Movie. The film is the punch line of jokes, the subject of Internet parodies and the front-runner for the Oscars on March 5. Oprah plugged the gay-cowboy drama on her show. Howard Stern gave it a thumbs up. "Have you seen Brokeback?" has become a dinner-party Rorschach test of gay tolerance.

Brokeback also is freighted with expectations not foisted on a film in years. It leads a raft of social-issues films that are dominating the awards season. Some hail the picture as the one that will change not only how Hollywood portrays gay characters but also how gay men and lesbians are accepted by mainstream America. Those are mighty claims for a $14 million Western seen by fewer people in the three months since its release than who saw Dancing with the Stars on television last week.

Admirers say the film is erasing Hollywood's homosexual stereotypes and raising consciousness of gay rights. Critics say Brokeback's destiny is to be remembered more for its marketing than its artistic achievements.

"It's brave to do a movie like that," says Terrence Howard, an Oscar nominee for best actor for his work in Hustle & Flow. "Sometimes you've got to say, 'To hell with audience reaction. We've got something to say.' We could be at the start of a cultural revolution."

Others maintain that Brokeback has become a tool of the political left and evidence of Hollywood's disconnect with middle America. Some in the film industry wonder whether the attention surrounding Brokeback isn't more the result of canny salesmanship than a seismic shift in sexual attitudes.

‘Brokeback’ leads the pack
Brokeback Mountain hasn’t hit the$100 million mark in ticket sales,which defines a blockbuster. But it has earned more than the other films up for the best-picture Oscar:

Brokeback Mountain: $72M
Crash: $53.4M
Munich: $45.4M
Good Night, and Good Luck: $29.3M
Capote: $22.1M
Sources: Nielsen EDI, Box Office Mojo

"It's ridiculous," film critic Michael Medved says. "Everyone knows about this movie because of relentless publicity, not great controversy or popularity. I have to remind myself it's a good movie."

No one seems more awestruck by the attention than Brokeback director Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born filmmaker who says he's rattled by the reaction to his take on the Annie Proulx short story that inspired the film.

"It's a little overwhelming," he says. "I was worried about it just making its money back."

The story of two cowboys who struggle with their love for each other has been seen by about 12 million Americans and has taken in about $72 million. It leads all films with eight Academy Awards nominations and is widely regarded as the favorite to win the Oscars for best picture and director.

More important, Brokeback "is zeitgeisty," Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger says. EDITOR'S NOTE: OH DEAR. 'ZEITGEISTY'? I GUESS HE HAS TO DIE.

The movie's oft-quoted line "I wish I knew how to quit you" is making the pop-culture circuit, a staple of the Lenos and Lettermans of late night. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been plastered on spoof posters. The title also has become a derogatory term: Students at Gonzaga University in Spokane were reprimanded by the school this month for chanting "Brokeback Mountain!" to opposing basketball players, suggesting they were gay. EDITOR'S NOTE: GONZAGA U. THEY HAVE ISSUES...STARTING WITH THE FREAKY NAME OF THEIR SCHOOL.

Encouraging discussion
Meanwhile, gay-rights groups are embracing the film in much the same way churches embraced The Passion of the Christ. EDITOR'S NOTE: I THINK THAT IS A VERY APT ANALOGY....THAT THE ISSUES RAISED AND THE CONNECTION TO THOSE ISSUES AND AFFIRMATIONS FROM THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE ABOUT THOSE ISSUES BECOMES A SEPARATE THING FROM THE FILM (AND IT'S QUALITY) ITSELF. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has established an online Brokeback resource guide with links to articles and support groups for gay cowboys and farmers. The Human Rights Campaign is issuing "Oscar party kits" with posters of Brokeback and cards that read "Talk About It" to encourage discussion of gay rights.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin expects Brokeback to prompt people to reconsider homosexual relationships in much the same way that The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner raised the consciousness on race relations in the late 1950s and '60s.

"The movie is in some uncharted waters, because it shows what it's like for two men to feel that kind of longing and passion for each other, and people aren't used to that," Maltin says. "No one movie is going to turn things around, but they can be building blocks. That could be this movie's legacy."

It will take some help from moviegoers. Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for portraying a serial killer who was also a lesbian in 2003's Monster, says audience support for challenging fare, whether gay-themed or politically charged, is the key to a shift in Hollywood.

"People are always pointing the finger at Hollywood and saying, 'Hollywood isn't writing female leading roles, or they're not making socially relevant movies,' " she says. "The problem is that studios tend to lose money on these films. Why? Because audiences don't go. We've got to get the audience to see these films so studios don't feel a high risk in investing in them."

Felicity Huffman, who received a best-actress nomination for her transgender character in Transamerica, is concerned that Brokeback is facing resistance .

"I don't know if the red states have embraced it as much as the blue," she says. "If they did, it would speak to, hopefully, the inclusiveness that America is moving toward. I know there's a movement against that, but ultimately I think those things that unite us far outweigh those that divide us."

Other movies have explored conflicted sexual themes and found Oscar success. William Hurt won a best-actor Oscar for playing a gay prisoner in 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman. Tom Hanks won best actor for portraying a homosexual lawyer in 1993's Philadelphia. Hilary Swank won her first Academy Award for her transsexual character in 1999's Boys Don't Cry.
One difference between Brokeback and those films, critic Emanuel Levy says, is that Brokeback attaches contemporary issues to a Hollywood archetype.

"It's a sweeping Western with tough cowboys, telling a time-tested love story that's simply about unrequited feelings," says Levy, author of All About Oscar. "On the other hand, it shows two men having intercourse, which is a first for a mainstream Hollywood film. That's what has people talking."

The time for message movies?
The film also benefits from its timing. George Clooney, who is nominated for an Oscar for directing Good Night, and Good Luck, says Brokeback represents a crop of movies with "something to say. Some people in Hollywood feel it's time to speak up about politics, or race or the media."

The result on the Hollywood product, Levy says, could be a shift away from the fey gay characters in TV shows such as Will & Grace and films such as The Producers and Rent.

"I think we're going to see gay characters portrayed in a new, more complex way."

Not everyone agrees. Robert Knight of the conservative policy group the Culture and Family Institute points out that Brokeback's box-office tally is modest compared with Christian-themed movies such as Passion and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

"I don't think this movie means that Americans have accepted homosexuality," Knight says. "It's just the product of two decades of a pro-homosexual agenda by Hollywood and the media that's made it no big deal for something like this to be on TV or in the movies." EDITOR'S NOTE: PHEW. HE ONLY MENTIONED THE 'PRO-HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA'; USUALLY WE JEWS GET THROWN UNDER THE SAME BUS BY PEOPLE LIKE THAT. (YOU KNOW..... I'M THINKING I MIGHT NEED TO GET AN 'AGENDA', IN CASE ANYONE ASKS. I'D HATE TO HAVE THE CULTURE AND FAMILY TYPES COME CALLING, AND ME WITHOUT AN AGENDA).

Some in the industry question what Hollywood believes. At the Berlin Film Festival last week, actor Ian McKellen said he doubts Brokeback will open doors for openly gay actors. "It is very, very, very difficult for an American actor who wants a film career to be open about his sexuality," says McKellen, who is gay. "The film industry is very old-fashioned in California."

Gay actor and writer Bruce Vilanch says that though he applauds Brokeback's illumination of a "new kind of gay person in Hollywood," the industry "is hardly out of the closet. I don't think you're going to see openly gay leading men or action heroes until you see openly gay football and hockey players. It's the last plateau of macho. But at least it has people talking."

And that, Judy Shepard says, might be all the movie needs to do. The death of her gay son, Matthew, in 1998 stirred a national debate over violence against gays. The murder is referenced vaguely in a scene in Brokeback.

Shortly before his death, her son gave her a copy of the story that inspired the film, Shepard says.

She doubts the movie will have an immediate effect on gay rights "because some people are ashamed to go see it. Even some of my friends — my friends — say it's just a gay cowboy movie and are afraid of something like that."

But when people can rent it privately, "I think they'll see it how I see it: as a story that's trying to say that you can't help who you fall in love with. If it opens just a few eyes to that, then it's done a good thing."

Contributing: Anthony Breznican

And - Why Don't Messages Movies Say Very Much Anymore?
And so the question of small demands on movies that speak to the great issues of our day...
It would be so easy to simply say, "Most people don't like to be challenged." But perhaps it is as easy as that.

Art history is loaded with great talents who were unappreciated during their lives. There is a romantic notion about Van Gogh's ear and Basquiat's addictions and even the accessibility of Shakespeare's work. Was Shakespeare the Steven Spielberg of his time, so unappreciated for the flowery prose and melodrama of Romeo & Juliet that he sought to push for greater critical triumph in Titus Andronicus? ("That scene where Titus makes his adversary eat the flesh of her own children... well, let's just say it... it's an embarrassment... it's so over the top!" Toddius MakCathius I, Variety.quill) Was Van Gogh misunderstood or perfectly understood and simply disliked? The arguments about whether Basquiat (and Warhol, for that matter) was a great artist or simply a showy charlatan continue to be had.

Personally, I am suspect of anyone telling me what qualifies as art. And I am equally suspicious of anything that has been lionized and put on a pedestal. Is "A Million Tiny Little Pieces"actually a different book because James Frey made a lot of stuff up? Is Oprah upset because the book isn't as good because some of it was fictionalized or is she simply personally embarrassed? Is the amalgamation of many stories, including Frey's own, any different than any film interpreted from true events? Is this book less important? And, most importantly, what does it say about the audience when we get so narrow minded about the aesthetic of any artistic endeavor? If you think what you read in the paper is Absolute Truth, you better not look too closely or you'll end up writing to Oprah to expose that unreality too.

How much of film - and the commercial part of the medium is unique in the arts because of the expense - should be about satisfying the audience, how much is about the artists' goals, and is there any room left for having the "right" experience, except for in a single-digit portion of the filmgoing community, much less the larger community for whom movies are only a miniscule part of their entertainment experience?

Personally, I have always been, and been encouraged to be, one of those people who will buy a book after seeing a film that moves me... will look for other films by the filmmaker and about the subject... and will seek to be challenged in my thinking in the most intense way possible.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek (and now, vs. Battlestar Galactica) is certainly very important to a lot of people... not that there's anything wrong with that. But with due respect both to those who don't care and to the filmmakers of the film I am about to denigrate, shouldn't more of us be pissed off that Hotel Rwanda is the gold standard of Rwandan genocide movies in the American culture?

At least one often-very-commercial director, Michael Caton-Jones, saw that film as he was prepping one of his own, and was pushed to even greater lengths to make a film that more accurately represented Rwanda and what the country had been through. The film is called Shooting Dogs... and it still doesn't have a distributor in the United States. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO HE SAYS HE'S SUSPICIOUS OF ANYONE DICTATING TO US 'WHAT IS ART', AND THEN HE TURNS AROUND AND TRIES TO SHAME US FOR LIKING "HOTEL RWANDA"? (AND STAR WARS?)

People wonder why I have issues with Brokeback Mountain being called a breakthrough film. Well, it's because I saw Taxi Zum Clo 23 years ago... and it taught me more about the agony of being in the closet and the fear of being dragged out of it, and even though I am still a little disturbed by some of the remembered graphic images of golden showers and such, it stamped into my head the reality that people (gay and straight) have all kinds of passions and judgment is far too easy when the passions are not your own. (My standard has been, and i,s that the line stops at the inclusion of others who are either unable to make informed decisions about their choices, are easily manipulated, or are forced into participation. Aside from that, if you want to want to challenge yourself and/or your fully consenting partner in pretty much anything, you have my blessings... even if hearing about it makes me wince.) EDITOR'S NOTE: THANKS. YOU ARE VERY ENLIGHTENED. AND YOU SEE A LOT MORE MOVIES THAN I DO. BRAVO. NOW SIT DOWN AND LET ME ENJOY MY "LOVE ACTUALLY" DVD, OK!?

Ironically, Todd Haynes made a film, Far From Heaven, about sexual repression just a few years ago and the outed gay husband had a more fulfilling existence in expressing his sexuality than the wife or her potential black lover in the film, than either character in Brokeback Mountain is allowed. The repression in Brokeback Mountain of any joyous expression of gay life aside from sex... and even that is mostly repressed in the film... makes it a regressive gay film in my eyes. It is kind of horrifying to me that the gay experience that is being touted as a cinematic revolution can accurately be reduced to "two men have sex every few months over 25 years, destroy their marriages and families, never come out... one ends up alone and the other ends up dead, perhaps in a hate crime, but at the very least an endless loop of a hate crime in his surviving lover's head." Is that progress? EDITOR'S NOTE: INTERESTING THAT HE WOULD BRING UP "FAR FROM HEAVEN". I THINK IT SHARES SOME OF THE SAME...ACTUALLY MORE SO...MELODRAMATIC ASPECTS WITH "BROKEBACK". ONE OF MY ONLY COMPLAINTS ABOUT "BROKEBACK"...THAT OUR INTELLIGENCE WASN'T ALWAYS RESPECTED IN TERMS OF HOW HARD THE TWO-BY-FOUR HAD TO COME DOWN ON US.

Well, in a world desperate for even remotely images of gay men on the big screen, yes. I do understand that. But I find it sad.

Ironically, Jeffrey Wells' love of the film at least has led him to an honest analysis of it. If pushed, he will acknowledge that the reason he loves the film is because he sees it as a movie about a miserable man who cannot move forward in his life in any way... a beautiful loser... and Jeff admits that he identities with that. But he is a rarity.

If people are engaged by a drama about someone who is stuck and can't move forward, that is an aesthetic that I can live with others loving. But what concerns me is that the standard for the revolution, so tightly connected to gay self-empowerment, is set so low by this film.

Yes, there was a time when coming to dinner was a big deal for a black man. But even Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, which seems a bit dated now, demands a lot more from the audience because it challenges people who see themselves as liberal to consider just how liberal they really are. The same was true of one of Stephen Sondheim's most quote-from flops, Company, which was really about the New Yorkers who were filling the seats for Sondheim and the revolutionary shows on Broadway at the time, like Hair and __________. The narrow cast of the Broadway audience rejected, to some degree, the reflection of Company.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was a hit, in great part, because it was soft and couched in the powerful presences of Tracey and Hepburn. But the Oscar that year went to In The Heat Of The Night, in which Portier challenged a racist society and not a liberal society. I love In The Heat Of The Night, but which film demanded more from the audience?

In an odd way, Crash is this year's In The Heat Of The Night. The targets are easy. The moneyed, white Angelinos are the least formed participants in the story. There are, as someone pointedly noted recently, no jews in the movie. For the most part, it is a movie about "them." And it is very well intended, very well delivered, very well acted... but is it very challenging? I suppose if you walked into the theater already disposed to the anger that Sandra Bullock's character engenders after being assaulted, it might piss you off and getting past that would be a feat. But the artistry of filmmaking is greater than the power of the messages. It is a snack that feels like a meal.

Capote is a more aggressive, more complex look at a gay American, in great part because the film is not about being gay. There is a romantic subtext within the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith and there is Capote's long-time relationship. I don't know whether Harper Lee was gay or not. But the challenges of going to a small town, of being "the way I am," as Capote puts it, are not primarily about being gay, but literally about being the way Truman was... which included, but was not exclusive to, being gay. Capote is not an important film about being gay - any more than the far more overt and grotesquely underrated Breakfast on Pluto is - but like Gods & Monsters, it is a far more complete portrait of being a gay American in a more challenging time for anyone who was different than the norm.

Good Night, And Good Luck is smart, sumptuous, important, and completely Black & White in every way. I am glad the film was made and I am completely respectful of George Clooney's intentions... and it is an entirely unimportant for the Hollywood community, where there is no "other" answer to the questions that are posed. It is a wonderful historic document, like a good Holocaust movie that reminds us to never forget. But no one is going to be rooting for the Nazis.

I am very proud of the Academy foreign language committee for embracing Paradise Now, a film that is ultimately in agreement with what most liberals believe, but still challenges in subtle, complex ways along the way.

The doc nominee Street Fight is another film that challenges us to reconsider our well-intended predispositions, following the political battle between the younger black candidate of the future and the veteran black survivor who has held on to the mayorship of Newark, NJ for decades. The film certainly leans to the young, for all kinds of legitimate unbiased reasons, but as viewers, we must consider the value of the ground onto which this young man walks, tilled by the scrappy vet.

So... I'm not sure I answered my own question. And I dragged myself into another discussion of Brokeback Mountain for which I will be attacked some more. But if you don't crack some eggs, what is the point of starting the conversation? We can always push a little harder. And thank goodness some filmmakers and some distributors and some marketers and some audiences still do.

But if it does well on March 5, the investment could pay off with higher DVD sales.


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