Tuesday, March 01, 2005

REV: Oscars . . . more thoughts

After a Day of Reading the Post-Mortems

[WARNING: I can no longer resist so, in order to deal with some garbage, i am going to spoil everything there is to spoil about Million Dollar Baby. I strongly recommend not reading this piece if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Come back and read this later, because i’m about to drop everything here.]

Several things to comment on/deal with:
The Oscar fashion critics strike me as ultracaricatures of the film critics. No matter what people are wearing, there’s something wrong about it – too anachronistic, too ahead of its time – too blue, too dark, too white -- not enough flesh, too much flesh -- where’s the hats, ugly hats – too falsely preserved, too many wrinkles.

And so i revel some in all the goofy critics (and there are plenty, even among those i trust) when their picks – unassailably predicted pre-show – do not win. Oh the noses raised (i waited to raise mine until AFTER the show, thank you).

Here’s some things i know – there's no committee rounding up the studio opinions, or critics lists being consulted like the Bowl Championship Series. From the various critiques you'd think "The Academy" was a Trump-style boardroom with 12 ancient white men being schmoozed into their choices by studio lawyers and press agents. It’s not, it's an election, in some categories by thousands of people voting on things that they do themselves for a living. All of which, of the many silly things pawned off on the all-voracious naifs of the world, makes the talk of "Academy" consolation prizes and certain films "getting" technical awards to assuage their bigger losses not only completely ignorant of the process, but insulting to the members who vote to honor their peers.


Am i to suggest that the multimillion dollar studio gladhanding doesn’t draw in some voters? No. But do i think there’s out and out bribery? No to that either. Which leaves me thinking that in all these votes, say actors for actors, that people might actually be voting for the performances they actually thought were the best. May there be some criminals voting? Sure. Some dishonesty? Sure. But hundreds, thousands? I don’t buy it. I think people are most concerned that the things they really liked got their votes.

Perhaps the most bizarre complaint, and a nearly universal one by critics, was that there were no surprises among the awardees. Whoa, no surprises? Does that mean the nominees that should have won did. Fathom that.


If there WERE several surprises, no doubt the critics would be carping about those – ‘how could such and such have lost when they were the overwhelming favorite’ it might go. The fact that nearly every category was awarded to who “we” thought it should go to is, in itself, a watershed. A year in which the Oscars actually went to whom we thought they should. Hmmm.

And further dissembling this argument is the curious double-edge of most (and i say that robustly) critics missing many of their predictions, often in the six major categories, and then complaining that there were no surprises. ???. Excuse me – you thought Sideways was hands-down the best picture, PREDICTED IT to win, and then it’s not a surprise when Million Dollar Baby won? Then why didn’t you pick MDB?

Okay, i know most critics “picked” who they WANTED to win. That’s what i did. But i labelled mine that way – 'Who I Would Have Voted For' (i.e., my favorites, my choices as the best; not my predictions). When the show rolled around i picked the ones in some other categories that i thought would win (based almost entirely on buzz in some categories). Most critics however clearly labelled theirs as predictios – and did terribly poorly at predicting.

Next (and i have blogged on this elsewhere on film blogs already, but wanted to more fully absorb it and clarify my own thinking on it), i think the whole series of lines and putdowns about the “big stars” and “just people” by Chris Rock last night was totally misunderstood – by the crowd (maybe), but mostly by entertainment “writers,” critics, and fans (at least the many that have blogged about it in various forums from film blogs to national news syndicate forums).


I think, and i’d be willing to listen to Rock if i’m blowing this completely, that the entire riff was a parody of the studio system on the value of certain people. That it’s the studios dictating “who” can carry a picture, “who” can carry a blockbuster, who gets A-list salaries, etc. Am i completely bonkers or was he not raising, not the bar, but the appreciation for Colin Farrell and Jude Law? Was he not saying, “Hey, you mean Jude Law is in everything, but he’s not good enough for XYZ picture?” I am still having some difficulty putting my tone and and context into words here to get my point across. Let me just say that i think Rock was parodying the subjective judgment of the machine, and NOT he, Chris Rock, making judgments about the talent of various actors. That the backstage encounter between he and Penn turned out peaceful i think may indicate this. Perhaps Chris Rock was better able to make the point face to face than he did with the ill-taken parody (and better than i feel like i'm doing here). Else i believe Penn would have punched him out, or said “I’ll see you never work in this town again.” Rock didn’t seem too miffed by any of it.

I did mention before that i thought Rock went too far on Law – but in hindsight i think that’s only because the bit somehow was being processed incorrectly by the crowd. Seen in the light that i think was intended, it seems to me to be a major endorsement of Law, rather than a critique. Enough of that soapbox – i wish Rock would clear it up.

The next issue is the sudden ubiquitous slamming of Million Dollar Baby, a media darling until it won. People are, of course, free to either like or dislike the picture. It was a rarity for me. I went into it (after being unable to find a theatre with a time-appropriate showing of Hotel Rwanda, Steve Zissou, or Bad Education – the films i really wanted to see) not expecting to like it – liking neither Eastwood nor boxing. I came out with a new choice for best picture, and a new appreciation for Eastwood (i still dislike boxing, but the movie was distinctively brilliant in its scenes of the sport and wasn't, for that matter, really about boxing).

The issue, as i see it, is the ridiculous panning of the film for it being formulaic or cliche. It is neither. Critics using that excuse are preying on folks who have not yet seen the film (Why? Who knows? Cantankerousness over Sideways having been ignored? Aviator/Scorcese fans? An attempt to limit box office receipts? Whatever), or possibly have not seen the film themselves (which seems ludicrous to critique something you haven’t seen) and are relying on all the many stories that seem to make it look like a version of Rocky while not sending out any message at all about what really happens in the film.


In a way i think part of this is admirable – that so many stories and critiques held the secrets of the story close to the vest, in many, many cases not even suggesting that there were any tragedy involved, or many of the other oddball twists. Because of that, and having read dozens of reviews i was still completely oblivious that there was anything but a rags-to-riches story involved, albeit with a “girl”, when i walked into the theatre and was then so abruptly blown away.

So let’s talk about this cliche/formula thing. I say, to start, that it’s only formula IF there’s a new formula, and the new formula is about not following the formula. I’m sure there will be those who will correct me on this.


First, yes there were some cliches in the film if you define cliche as a theme that is overused. Perhaps any Horatio Alger story is cliche before you even begin. But i think you transcend cliche when you put a fresh coat of paint on it. For instance, not once have i read someone complain The Aviator was cliche. Yet, even though it started with riches, it was that same old story with the “overcomng” part being Hughes beating his critics, beating PanAm, beating the US Senate. Cliche? I don’t think so, but i might argue it was, if someone wants to argue it for Million Dollar Baby.

So lets look at the parts of the sum that have led folks to declare it so.

Rags-to-riches? Well, yes. But it doesn’t end there, Rocky-like. It returns to rags, if a life destroyed can count as such. Has it been done before – Raging Bull, it could be argued -- but we don’t consider that one cliche, and one previous turn hardly relegates the second film to the cliche bin.

Boxing? Well, for rags-to-riches stories, boxing has been a ripe sporting medium. But the issue here is also that a new face is involved – the “girl” (quite the woman actually).

Washed up trainer/promoter? This is an interesting charge. What’s washed up about a guy who’s training the next heavyweight champion of the world? Which is exactly what Eastwood’s doing here (and potentially two of them if you throw Maggie into the mix). He’s no washed up trainer, and he’s got a legitimate champ on his hands. And to add another twist – Willie gets what he needs and walks out on him and never looks back. Where’s even the obligatory cliche “I owe it all to . . .” Not there.

The 'buy a home for momma' cliche vs. the 'squandering all the money cliche?' Well, i guess you could make a movie about a boxer winning hundreds of thousands of dollars and somehow completely ignore the effects of the transition from rags to riches. I guess. But that’d sorta stick out wouldn’t it? There’s only so many variations on this particular theme possible – they went with the 'taking care of momma' version and then slapped us hard with it. And i’m not talking about the end of the movie scene where they try to steal money from the dying daughter/sister (that scene could have gone and not hurt the movie), but i’m talking about the gut-wrenching scene where Maggie picks her mom and sis and nephew up to take them to see the house. If that’s cliche, then i give up my sentimentality meter and my Hastings rental card.

And the big championship, triumphing over all odds? Looked good for a moment there didn’t it? But the movie was just beginning at that point (narrative thirds be damned). And here’s where i began to love the movie – when it turned out to not be a movie about boxing at all. Boxing was simply a ticket to get on the big ride.

There are plenty of movies about dying, and lately about choosing to die (even this year’s Oscar-winning The Sea Inside; which oddly enough i’ve now seen labelled as cliche too – what, two movies with similar motives in one year, the spell is broken and now they go on the video rental shelf labelled “cliche self death-wishes”?). What raises this one, i think, above all others is the external manifestations, for once, of the extreme conflict involved in making choices about life and death. They are real, i’ve been there, and this one flick brings it to life.

Other things that i can't really match (or contrast) to cliches or being part of some formula, but that add some freshness to the story: the character Danger, the character Willie, Maggie's shunning of the big-dollar manager (for that matter Dunn's setting her up with him), and Dunn disappearing after her death, no note, no return, no goodbye.

So pardon me for springing to the defense of a fictional Hollywood vehicle for making money. But for once, i thought the vast 'academy' of somewhat independent, perhaps occasionally slightly jaded, potentially dishonest, people voting for their peers knew what the critics seemed not to be able to see through the forest of their nitpicks – that this film was anything but cliche or formulaic.

From a non-Eastwood, non-boxing, fan thanks for picking the right movie for the right awards.

[And i realize that, in an attempt to prove me wrong, a number of cinephiles will come up with various previous examples of everything i've called fresh. I will not waver, i will not buckle, i will smugly eat my ice cream and laugh.]

Some other random final comments
About the critics (and okay, i don’t make a living at it, but since i critique i guess i am sorta one too): i thought, of the presentation innovations for the show, that the lining up of nominees on stage was excellent (and, in fact, think it would be great to see ALL the awards done that way – a lineup of the big-timers on stage) and the presenting in the audience poor and classless. It seems that 90% (not a scientific poll) of the pros are on the completely opposite end of the like-dislike meter from me. I should have seen this coming in the Million Dollar Baby and Chris Rock things. What’s funny is the few who agree with me on these things are the younger critics and claim the others are old fuddy duddies. But wait, i’m old, and pretty fuddy myself.

I thought Beyonce’s best song was the Josh Groban duet, and the Counting Crows performance abysmal (not the song necessarily, but the terrible rendition). Yet folks are beaming about the Crows and dissing on Beyonce in general except that she was so astute on the song in French (which of course is being hailed by folks who know no French). I do agree that it seems 'un-right' that Beyonce sang three of the five nominated Best Songs. Just odd.

Okay, i was focused on Santana, wouldn’t know Antonio Banderas from some hermaphroditic Almodovar character, but thought, AFTER learning of the snub of the writer/singer Jorge Dexler, that his singing of the acceptance was perfect.

Little has been said about the Anna Wintour animatron handing out the Costume Design award with Pierce Brosnan. It seemed remarkably well-timed. At our party though we (Roy with the observation actually) joked that Brosnan should have handed her the envelope just to see what they’d do with that!

I’ve been glancing through some of the reviews and live-blogs i've traipsed through today as i type this, in order to be reminded of some things i wanted to say. I want to say that i find amusing some of the ridiculously trivial things people will pan. Then i remember i’m critiquing critics.

Once again, for the last several years, i have not read a professional critic who LIKED the Oscars, yet now they all seem to pine for the not too recent past as though something wonderful is lost from their childhoods. It’s a shame that folks can’t just sit and enjoy something anymore – it has to be dissected, and amongst all those bloody parts will always be some bile. Was it a perfect show? No. But it was a good one. In many, many ways. What most critics need most i think is a memory.

One final thing, i tried to avoid critiquing individual critics, most of whom i just disagree with. There is an exception: live-blogger Ann Althouse took Jamie Foxx to task over “romanticizing child abuse.” Please. I worked many years with abused kids. Some people with no handle on reality need to just take a breath and calm down. She made hay of her dislike of politics on the broadcast and then denigrates her own credibility with this misplaced and misjudged 'politically-correct' rant. Why do critics feel the need to establish their own humanity credentials? Jamie Foxx was doing no such romanticizing, and to accuse him, when it’s clear he does no such thing himself, is just bizarre. (Although not much more bizarre than her own blow-by-blow rating of actress’s breasts while simultaneously asking folks to think beyond their actual words – what was that about objectifying women?). Please.

The Althouse rant, along with her detailed Michael Jackson-style riff on what’s beautiful, is here: http://althouse.blogspot.com/2005/02/morning-after-oscars.html

P.s. i am certainly not oblivious to all my own contradictions in this long rambling trip.


But while you're here, check out this idiot:
http://www.ew.com/ew/article/commentary/0,6115,1029468_1_0_,00.html

I'd post the entire article here but i don't want his sludge soiling my blog.

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