Wednesday, February 29, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: IN PRAISE OF SPIKE LEE


I always knew, embarking on this Race In Cinema Month project, that in order to do the job right, Spike Lee was going to have to be part of it, because no filmmaker in American cinema has contributed more to the national discourse on race and racism as Spike. His movies are bold, and more often than not brilliant, examinations of particular facets or persons of importance in the history of race in America. This, of course, has led to Spike pissing lots and lots of people off; one can argue that his command over the medium of pissing people off is the equivalent to that over the medium of cinema. And that's what I so dearly and passionately love about Spike: the man does not give a fuck about pissing people off.

What I hadn't realized before going back and revisiting his movies, though, is how aesthetically central that is to his work. Starting with his first feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986), Spike's style was one that simultaneously employed the kind of Brechtian alienation effect that Jean-Luc Godard introduced to mainstream cinema in the 1960s, reminding the audience that they're watching a movie, while employing as many meticulously precise details that the experience is of a recognizable reality. In She's Gotta Have It, the characters spend as much time talking to the camera as they do to each other, with the entire movie shot in grainy black-and-white with the exception of one dance sequence (which in terms of strict film grammar, felt kind of Bollywood, speaking of non-naturalistic cinematic traditions). This style, distinctly and defiantly in contrast to the smooth, soothing, naturalistic techniques employed by many mainstream Hollywood movies, forces audiences to watch the movie more actively, and promotes more thought about what they're watching. Which, considering that She's Gotta Have It is challenging conventionally held positions on race, gender, and the interplay between the two, makes it an extremely effective way to tell the story.

Of course, if not for the fact that it's a wildly entertaining, funny, and charming movie, She's Gotta Have It would just be a lecture, which would make it less effective as that thing, much in the same way that Tracy Camilla Johns' Nola Darling is a compelling character for her sweetness and sincerity rather than because she's beautiful and voraciously sexual. Spike himself, as Mars, is an amiable Everynerd, charmingly relentless, and given to impassioned monologues about the supremacy of Bernard King, which certainly sounds familiar, even if nowadays you need to substitute Jeremy Lin for Bernard. But the point is, he's relatable and real in a way that Nola's other two boyfriends are only to lesser degrees. There are moments, as in every Spike Lee joint, that are simply breathtaking reminders of how fucking good cinema can be, just as there are a couple things here and there that don't work. Such is the life of a director who swings for the fences.

She's Gotta Have It both established a lot of what would come in Spike's career, but remains apart from the rest of it, kind of like a prologue that sets the scene for what's yet to come. The career it preceded has had its ups and downs, but a certain degree of inconsistency is inevitable with that level of ambition. Spike's career, at this point, falls into a few discrete strata: there are the ones where it's like, “that's a good idea, but it all falls apart at a certain point,” the ones that are pretty much awesome but there are a couple (occasionally really glaring) things that didn't work, the absolutely sublime works of transcendent genius, and then a subcategory that's a slightly separate discussion: the mainstream commercial work-for-hire pictures. All are linked by their Spikeness: often great, always interesting, never boring. (Note: I never made it all the way through Summer of Sam or Miracle At St. Anna, though I'm given to understand that, in their entirety, they fall under the first category as listed below.)


“Good idea, but falls apart”: Examples—She Hate Me, Girl 6, Mo' Better Blues

None of which are entirely bad, mind you. She Hate Me, in particular, provoked an interesting conversation this one night when I was in grad school, where the consensus was that the stuff Spike was trying to say with Anthony Mackie's character getting fucked over by the system and how he's a symbol of the problems black professionals in general face in corporate America being almost completely overwhelmed by the fact that the most memorable thing about the movie is that he fucks a bunch of lesbians. Now, there is a movie in there about capitalism, blackness, and sex. And it's not like Spike completely fucks it up, but he does kind of shoot himself in the foot by setting things up so all anyone remembers is “Anthony Mackie shtupping lesbians,” leaving himself open to accusations that he's making a jerkoff fantasy. It's especially disappointing because Spike proved in his first feature that he was empathetic and understanding toward gay women, and here he is twenty years later apparently fapping about femmes craving dick, which he wasn't, but he also could have used a couple more drafts on the script; most of Spike's pictures that don't quite work can eventually be traced back to this as even at his best he's a better director than he is a writer. Girl 6, also about sexuality and sex work, doesn't quite have the same fantastical bullshit problem, but's still a little rickety on tone and pacing and doesn't quite work, though it has its moments.

Mo' Better Blues is an entirely different kind of picture, and is an example of Spike's admirable willingness to try new things, but it's a little too preoccupied with being cool, and it suffers from a weird, and uncharacteristic, slowness. But Denzel's great in it (when is Denzel not great?), as is a young Wesley Snipes, and the music's fucking killer. It's important to remember, even slightly-off-his-usual-standard Spike is still awesome.


Pretty much awesome but for one or two things here and there: Examples—School Daze, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, Bamboozled.

All of these are just straight up fuck yeah. Lumping them all together feels a little reductive because while you can always tell a Spike Lee joint a mile away, no two are ever exactly alike, and all contain multitudes. Bamboozled is a magnificent bit of provocation, about which I wrote a bit here (scroll down til you see the relevant story). He Got Game is really quite excellent, and of course Spike makes sure all the basketball is perfect—in particular, the look the camera captures on Ray Allen's face when Denzel, as his father, tells him that he was named not for Jesus Christ, but for someone much greater, basketball legend Earl Monroe, says everything the movie needs to say about how special basketball is—although at times the music seems to undermine the action onscreen in a way that doesn't seem intentional, unlike Spike's customary alienation techniques, as there's no apparent purpose to it. Still, it's a terrific movie; the music thing only pops up like twice.

Jungle Fever handles the relationship between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra compassionately and well (the fact that Spike makes her such a sympathetic character without making her implausibly perfect is the clincher), if pessimistically, and the way everyone goes apeshit over their relationship absolutely fucking nails the way interracial couples were perceived in the early 90s (my dad and his girlfriend frequently had people openly stare at them, and me, in public). Ditto the less progressive elements among Bensonhurst Italians, collectively my bete noire when I was in high school (to wit: “Hey, faggot, why the fuck you readin' books all the time, eh? Smattawitchoo, I'll show you a fuckin book, I gotcher book right here, arright?” etc etc). The only thing keeping that movie from being perfect is the Samuel L. Jackson digression. Spike was a bit of an early adopter in that regard, realizing that more Samuel L. is better years before civilians did, but the movie gets swallowed up a bit by the Samuel L. crackhead subplot. Not like it's not still good, but that third act does get a little wobbly.

Crooklyn and School Daze I haven't seen in much longer, though I remember liking the former, and come on, the latter's a musical. That's just fucking awesome.


“Knicks courtside season tickets don't pay for themselves.”: Examples—Clockers, 25th Hour, Inside Man

You gotta hand it to Spike. When he goes and makes a movie at a studio, he makes really fucking good ones. For these, Spike dials down the overt artifice to the point where it registers as normal run of the mill flash, for the most part. All three of these are fucking great, especially Edward Norton's mirror image to that one part in Do The Right Thing with that brilliant montage in 25th Hour where he tells everyone in New York to go fuck themselves, and the guy in Inside Man with his New York accent telling the cops to give him his fucking turban back. That's the thing about Spike: being from New York, there's at least one moment in every one of his movies where anyone who's from here fucking stands up and salutes. More than anyone else, including Marty and Woody, Spike makes me fucking proud to be from New York. This comes out a lot more in pictures like 25th Hour and Inside Man, where the more commercial cinematic vernacular (reactive viewing experiences as opposed to proactive) means the audience has more time to chill out and enjoy shit, like how vividly and passionately Spike clearly loves New York even when he's not literally saying it.


He Got Game (i.e. Spike operating at the peak of his powers): Examples—Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get On The Bus, all his documentaries

There's a limit to what I'm able to actually say about Get On The Bus and his documentaries (4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise) other than just watch and listen. The technique employed by Spike in each case is intended entirely to impart information, and what he's saying is important. So watch and listen.

Do The Right Thing is a huge, ambitious, stylized, righteously angry masterpiece. It's a little beyond my abilities to describe it succinctly and still do it justice. But holy shit is it good. It's also aged extremely well for a picture that was so heavy on references to current events of the time it was in production. And, if anything, Danny Aiello and John Turturro seem more realistic and less like cardboard villains now. Ah, Do The Right Thing. If anyone ever questions Spike's genius, plunk them down in front of this and tell them to shut the fuck up.

Still, it's a toss-up whether Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X is my favorite picture of Spike's. Malcolm X might be the best biopic ever made, and I say that knowing full well that its competition is stuff like Lawrence of Arabia and Raging Bull. What it has in common with the former is the sense of truly being epic (a word that gets tossed around a little casually these days, including by me, I can't lie), and with the latter a fierce and passionate personal connection between director and subject. One of the most brilliant choices Spike could have made was casting Denzel as Malcolm; Denzel doesn't look anything like Malcolm at all, but Denzel is Denzel, and Spike was smart enough to know that gravitas is a universal language in film acting, and something that can't be taught, and something Denzel has coming out of his pores. His losing to Al Pacino that year at the Oscars was the final lesson I needed about the Oscars not really having anything to do with justice. Also, coincidentally, one of my favorite dance scenes in cinema is in this: toward the end (right before Malcolm gets shot, actually) there's a dance where Junior Walker's “Shotgun” is playing that's just fucking stunning. Like the movie itself (whose epilogue, by the way, is something that it's perfectly acceptable to pretend doesn't exist; it only works in certain moods).


Spike Lee, author of some of the most vividly alive cinema the medium has ever known. Genius. Shit-starter. Overgrown kid. Fierce advocate for justice. New Yorker. Auteur. Here's to you, you unique and wonderful artist.

Monday, February 27, 2012

TEN FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE 84TH ACADEMY AWARDS

Jessica Chastain, a much nicer subject for contemplation than the awards themselves

“A fucking low-budget silent black and white film wins best picture, and everyone's like, 'UGH, how annoyingly predictable.'” —Bastard Keith

There was always something a little off about the Oscars this year, and nothing more so than that The Artist, which is, as my good friend Bastard Keith observed in the above quote, a fucking low-budget silent black and white film, being the anointed Best Picture winner. Since the beginning of the awards season. Which started in fucking September this year. Whether or not the movie was good, this decision was made a long time ago, and has little apparently to do with The Artist as a movie.

When you get down to it, this year's whole Oscars had nothing to do with 2011 in movies. The true theme of the year, to me, was well- and intelligently-done genre filmmaking. My favorite for the year, Attack The Block, was that. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was that. Drive was that. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Moneyball (which is a sports movie.) Relax the quality standards a little bit, and Fast Five qualifies (it was certainly wildly entertaining and brought off with great skill), as does The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a marvel of technique and polish, which obfuscated its manifestly stupid story. Relax the “genre” qualification and you can make a case for Midnight In Paris as SF. Of those, only Midnight In Paris ever had a chance of winning an Oscar (which it did, for Woody's terrific original screenplay.)

For non-genre pieces, there was the gorgeous (and, naturally, doomed in terms of wins) The Tree Of Life. And the splendidly observed drama The Descendants. And David Cronenberg pulling one of those Scorsese Age of Innocence “hey, I'm going to make a period drama that's just fucking seething with intensity, except mine's going to have BDSM in it” acts with A Dangerous Method. And Shame (oh, Shame . . .) And Martha Marcy May Marlene. And Take Shelter. Of these, The Descendants was the Midnight In Paris, as above, winning only for Adapted Screenplay.

With all those movies, across a spectrum with “worthy of an Oscar nomination or two for some particularly notable aspect” on one end and “legitimately great” on the other, the three most talked-about movies of the year were The Artist (more talked about than seen), Hugo (same), and The Help (widely talked about and widely seen; The Artist and Hugo combined did about a third of The Help's business.) The Artist and Hugo were both about really interesting things (actually the same interesting thing: the early days of movies) and didn't hold up to close critical scrutiny, which is kind of fitting actually, since they're both more about loving the movies than thinking too hard about them (though, in Hugo's case, Martin Scorsese is, it goes without saying, someone who also thinks very hard about movies.) And The Help is a fucking disaster, but it's an extremely well-acted disaster that raised the profile of two wonderful actresses, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. Yet, those three pictures dominated the Oscar race and all the discussion thereof. And they're set almost completely apart from any of the other movies listed above. (Ed. Note: do not bring Midnight In Paris into this. I know I wrote about all three of them in the same post a few months ago, but Midnight In Paris is notably apart, not only for being a Woody Allen movie, but also for being set in the present and coming firmly down on the side of “living in the now” rather than romanticizing or overly dwelling on the past.)

The Oscar show itself was fucking weird. Here's what I learned, took away from it, observed, and so forth:

1—Billy Crystal sucked. It wasn't just that he didn't have a single funny joke all night. It's not even that he alternated between a kind of listless plodding and laughing at his own terrible jokes (when he wasn't outright fucking them up) . . . all right, fuck it, the blackface really did not go over well. I know he was famous for his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation (thirty fucking years ago . . .) but seriously, dude? It's fucking 2012. If you really wanted to relive your youth, Billy, why couldn't you have just told Jessica Chastain or somebody “you look MAH-velous”? Take your blackface and shove it up your ass, if there's any room in there with your head.

2—Viola Davis . . . wow. It's hard to remember an actor who was that much of a favorite, I mean universally considered a lock, not win. There she was on the red carpet beforehand, in her own hair, talking about the speech she had prepared. She had to be fucking certain she was going to win. And then she didn't. It's important to remember that this was not a deliberate slap in the face, or a rebuke for overconfidence, or a reminder of her place. It was a bunch of dumbasses who don't think about their votes (I had a real eye-opener of a conversation with a SAG actor I know about voting in the guild awards recently. The individual in question had seen a grand total of one of the nominated movies and proceeded to simply check off that movie in all categories. I've had it confirmed for me by someone else who Knows Things that Oscar voting in the categories where you don't have to prove you've seen all the movies is exactly the same) voting for Meryl Streep instead. And not even out of outright racism. I think it's just name recognition. But goddamn do I feel bad for Viola Davis. I fucking felt like I'd been punched in the stomach and it wasn't even me. And I didn't even fucking like the movie. Ugh.

3—The blog Big Hollywood officially has to shut down now. There is no way a sane person can accuse Hollywood of liberal bias on a night with blackface routines, people winning Oscars for playing Margaret Thatcher, and the entire motherfucking night was about the fucking past.

4—It's not all bad. Those dudes who won for editing Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were awesome; they got up there and started talking and then they got scared with all the people looking at them and instead of doing something embarrassing they acknowledged that they were nervous and couldn't think of anything to say and took off. I liked those guys. As I did the high-off-their-motherfucking-asses dudes who won for Animated Short. They were just like “faaaaaaar fucking out, we're at the Oscars, dude, and we're kind of gay except maybe we're just high as tits, even we're too high to tell!”

5—In a related note, I liked that Robert Richardson got up on stage and was awesome for fifteen seconds and then just tipped the fuck out, even though—awesome as Hugo looked, and as much as RR was responsible for that—it's just not right that Tree Of Life didn't take that. The whole movie in Tree Of Life, even the parts when you're not supposed to, you're like “Wow, this is some excellent cinematography.” With Hugo a lot of it's the FX, the production design, Marty, Thelma, but with Tree Of Life it's just Terry Malick telling Emmanuel Lubezki “I want it to look like this,” Emmanuel Lubezki going, “Sure thing, sir . . . okay, how's this?” then Malick going, “Perfect. Thanks.” and then Lubezki going, “You're welcome.” Still, if you're going to lose to someone, it might as well be Robert Richardson.

6—Christopher Plummer was awesome. And now we no longer have to be like “why the fuck hasn't Christopher Plummer won an Oscar yet?” and retroactively try to give him one for Star Trek VI (a fine piece of cinema.)

7—Alexander Payne's (credited) co-authors on the Descendants script doing that brief sight gag about Angelina Jolie's dress was the second funniest thing that happened all night. Chris Rock's entirely-too-brief bit introducing Animated Feature was the funniest. Twitter erupted with people going “PLEASE, CHRIS, STAY AND HOST THE REST OF THE SHOW!” the second he was gone. Both had an air of “I do not give a fuck” that was extremely welcome.

8—I am extremely happy that A Separation broke the unfortunate streak of “if you've heard of it, it won't win” in the Best Foreign category. A Separation is a legitimately great movie, and its director, Ashgar Farhadi, gave what if you were paying attention was a pretty ballsy speech, with all kinds of “fuck you” signifiers to the Iranian ruling regime, while having nothing but love for the people themselves. Because, ya know, they may not have nuclear weapons but they do throw directors in jail. If it comes down to it, some country should give Farhadi auteur asylum (France is good like that, then he can have lunch with Abbas Kiarostami sometimes) so he can keep making movies because damn. A Separation is really, really, really fucking good, and I'm really glad it won.

9—Whoever was mixing the sound needs to be bashed repeatedly in the nuts with a cricket bat and given a refresher course in not fucking ruining three-quarters of the evening with that digital gurgling and that horrible harsh ring the main microphone had whenever anyone talked into it. Just about the only time all night when that fucker wasn't feeding back at a frequency that probably ordered every dog in America to activate plan Alpha and kill us all was when it cut out in the middle of the Documentary Feature guys being excited. Which was a total dick move, because they totally cut it out on purpose to keep those guys from talking. I mean, seriously, everyone saw it and knew exactly what you were doing, fuckface in the control room. You didn't fool anyone.

10—Did I mention how fucking terrible Billy Crystal was? He was AWFUL. Even the one notorious David Letterman year wasn't this bad, because aside from the infamous “Uma, Oprah” thing that Dave didn't let die, the rest of the night he was funny. The only funny thing Billy did all night was kiss George Clooney, and Clooney was the one who sold that bit. But, thankfully, Billy may have sucked but he didn't suck for long: it was one of the quickest-feeling Oscar shows I can remember, and apparently only ran long by 20 minutes. So there's that.

But yeah, I'm ready to be done with all this shit. Only 10 of my 20 picks were right, and the only award all night that really bugged me was Viola Davis losing. I sincerely hope that this is the last time Billy Crystal is invited back, as well as the last time Viola Davis has to get kicked in the ass like that. And may I never the rest of my days see such a disconnect between what actually happened in movies in a given year and what Oscar thinks happened in a given year. People need to start playing with the Harvey Weinstein playbook. It's not his fault that he has the magic formula, but monopolies inhibit progress. The Oscars, having taken this trip back through the looking glass, would best be served by moving on. And with that, so shall I.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

YOUR GUIDE TO THE LAST OSCARS BEFORE THEY ABANDON ALL PRETENSE AND JUST CALL THEM THE HARVEYS

“Holy shit am I glad I decided not to host.”

Despite the weary tone of my picks post, I'm determined to have fun with the Oscars this year. Of course, there's more to it than who wins—most casual moviegoers don't even really give a shit most years, not having seen more than like one or two of the movies, and those rarely ones that are set to win anything—and in that spirit, it's time to speculate about goofy bullshit that has nothing to do with the competition at hand. Because, as Crash Davis put it so well, “It's fun, goddammit.”


---The all-important Cameron Diaz/Jake Gyllenhaal Memorial Golden Giraffe Ass Award, given to the presenter who's so stoned they can barely read the teleprompter: it's extremely tempting to go with Zach Galifianakis here, because, I mean, dude. But I beg to differ. Not only is it a loaded field (double entendres so hot they're pornographic, that's the Movies By Bowes ™ way), but this is the lone hope for any real entertainment value this evening. While Halle Berry reliably always seems half in the bag at these things, I think the Giraffe Ass (as in, “higher than”) goes to Christian Bale this year. I think he's just awkwardly Method enough to need to blaze before appearing in public as himself. Angelina Jolie is going to seem like the runaway winner (she's been looking alarmingly wan of late) but after she tests negative for any recreational substances, Bale will go home the triumphant winner. Though Bradley Cooper is a dark horse candidate, as are the Bridesmaids gals (they seem like the sort who would build a gravity bong just for the fuck of it, don't they? I mean that in the best possible way, of course.)

---Christopher Plummer's acceptance speech is going to be pure class. Christopher Plummer's the fuckin best.

---Tina Fey will be funnier in ten seconds than Billy Crystal will be all night.

---Which brings me to something I want to address, because back in the day I loved Billy Crystal, and when he was on point he was the best Oscar host there's been in my lifetime. But there was a point a few years ago when he suddenly and irrevocably became Old. Since that probably sounds ageist, I should clarify that being Old and being regular old aren't the same thing, as, for example, Clint Eastwood is old but he's not Old because he still fucking owns, not to mention he could almost be Billy Crystal's dad. I'm mainly worried because of something Billy said in Entertainment Weekly, about how his centerpiece bit is going to be this long-ass thing about how much the Oscars have changed since he first hosted them. And I hate to say this, much as I loved When Harry Met Sally and even Running Scared back in the day, but Billy: nobody gives a fuck. Prove me wrong and be funny, please. I want to be wrong about this.

---Sacha Baron Cohen will be mildly amusing, and the entire media is going to have a gran mal seizure freaking the fuck out about how “controversial” he was, FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER. Dudes, lighten up.

---Over/under on Harvey Weinstein jokes: an assload. Take the over.

---Elizabeth Taylor is going to bat cleanup in the death montage, and get the most applause. Whitney Houston will be close, as will Sidney Lumet, but this is Hollywood. Vegas probably isn't even taking action this year. (And yes, I know that's morbid. But people do bet on this; I can neither confirm nor deny having won $20 on Heath Ledger beating out Ingmar Bergman that one year, but I can confirm I was not proud of myself.)

---Best dress: Viola Davis. She has to look right when she wins.

---Worst dress: I'm afraid some stylist is going to fuck Jessica Chastain up. Not much basis for this, but with her coloring, thing's can get precarious. All right, now I have to stop before I have to rename this Movies By Mr. Blackwell.

---And, finally, this is vague as shit, and probably wishful thinking, but I have an odd feeling something really weird is going to happen at some point that's going to overshadow the whole evening. Something in the same event genre as that streaker who tried (in abject fucking failure, of course) to overshadow David Niven in the 70s, except I think it'll have something to do with politics. Maybe this is just because I'm so desperate for something memorable to happen.

Anyway, that's all I got this year. I'm going to go to the fancy beer store and get a moderate amount of something good, which is more my speed these days than a lot of something shitty. I'll be livetweeting at @moviesbybowes, so follow me if you don't already, and get ready for an unbumpy ride.

Friday, February 24, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: THE SURREALISTS WEIGH IN (WARNING: EXTREMELY NSFW)



Yes, the Future definitely will be Odd. Tyler, The Creator (the centaur who does all the blow in the video) may be a pretty decent rapper and producer, but he's a pretty spectacular director of music videos. What this has to say (other than fuck you), I couldn't tell you and wouldn't dream of trying. But it's something else, for sure.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

C'MON OSCAR, LET'S GO FOR A RIDE, VOL. III: 2011-12 PREDICTIONS

Spoiler alert: this movie is going to win most of them.

The 84th Academy Awards draw near. This year's theme is “let's get this shit over with.” For a number of reasons, this year's Oscars arrive under a cloud of grumpy “fuck this shit”ness from large portions of the critical community. Normal people (no faintly condescending “civilians” talk about the Oscars; being a non-civilian Oscar watcher is hardly a badge of honor) are like “oh, the Oscars, yeah, let's get a couple bottles of something tasty and look at the dresses and stuff” and you know? I'm starting to really come around to that way of thinking. There've been years when I'd have let stuff like Albert Brooks not getting nominated for Drive bug me for months and would occasionally rant about it unsolicited for years.

But ya know what? Sometimes something has to happen that's that retarded to really open people's eyes to the lovely, relaxing life afforded to those who don't give a fuck. So much nicer this way. Cuz I mean holy shit. We shouldn't be having Oscars this year without Albert Brooks being nominated. Drive, while not a picture that should have really won anything other than one for Brooks, deserved at least as many nominations as The Tree Of Life (and Tree of Life deserved three times as many as it got). And yet, here they are. Even Led Zeppelin realized that what is and what should be are two different things, and they were on so many fucking drugs a couple songs later on that same album Robert Plant was taking his girlfriend to Mordor on a date. So don't let's stress. Instead, may we all enjoy ourselves Sunday. And now, in the immortal words of Clarence Williams III, “This . . . is what's gon' happen!”:


Best Animated Short Film: no idea
Best Live Action Short Film: got me
Best Documentary Short Subject: fuck if I know
Best Documentary Feature: something about Very Serious Things

Honesty is the best policy. No one knows who the fuck's going to win these. But these are always the ones that have the best speeches, because the people who make these kinds of pictures are nerds who are thrilled as fuck to be there, and kinda crazy to boot, both of which the Oscars need more of.


Best Visual Effects: Hugo

Hugo may have had a wonky structure and may not have given us a reason to care about any of the characters until past the halfway point, but it sure did look cool. And, while if this was an award given out to the movie with the best visual effects, Rise of the Planet of the Apes would win as decisively as Caesar won the revolution, but that's not how things work in Oscarville, so it's Hugo. But this is no tragedy, because Hugo was quite the technical achievement, and for all my bitching about what's wrong with it, it's the work of a master filmmaker and a meaningful work of art.

Best Film Editing: The Artist

This was a tough pick, actually, and I went back and forth on it a bit before realizing that a) I was daydreaming, b) the reason I was daydreaming was because I was cranky that this category wasn't Drive, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Tree Of Life, either Tintin or War Horse because Spielberg, and Hugo, and c) dude, it's going to go to The Artist because The Artist is going to win everything it's nominated for with two exceptions. It's winning this one because people are oohing and aahing that they managed to cut without sound, which I'd find more impressive if that wasn't exactly how I learned how to edit. If all those hours I spent watching 16 mm films of sunflowers expressing the incomparable pain of being an upper-middle-class teenager mean I get to win an Oscar for Best Editing someday, it'll all have been worth it.

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Cuz Dujardin's tuxes and Bejo's dresses were pretty bangin'. Also, The Artist is winning almost everything this year.

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

It'd be nice if this was the Harry Potter franchise's token Oscar for the fact that it made almost $8 billion. (Ed. Note: Holy fuck, the Harry Potter movies grossed almost $8 billion. That's fucking insane.) But the only people in the industry who like the Harry Potter movies are the people at Warners backstroking naked through cash and British actors, every single one of whom appeared at some point or other in the franchise. So, I guess The Iron Lady people win for keeping Meryl Streep from getting rusty? I don't know, I only care about Best Makeup because makeup nerds give fun speeches.

Best Cinematography: The Artist

Again, if meaning existed in the universe, Lubezki would win for Tree Of Life, but because the assignment of meaning is arbitrary and purpose is widely assumed in the absence of any supporting evidence, he will not. The Artist is winning almost everything this year.

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Here's why I've been prefacing “everything” with “almost” when talking about The Artist. This award was fucking invented for work like what Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo did on Hugo. So it wins.

Best Sound Mixing: War Horse
Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Lumping these two in together because most people who don't really pay attention to the particulars of sound design do too. Which is why, as Mark Harris pointed out, War Horse wins because cannons. (You'll also note a lot of my picks are the same as his because he's really smart and knows a lot of stuff and even such a sage as I knows when to listen to superior wisdom.) It takes both because no one gives a fuck except sound people. Though it would have been rad as tits if The Artist was nominated for these so it could win both these too and the TV could just cut to Harvey Weinstein giving the finger and laughing his ass off.


Best Original Song: “Real In Rio,” Rio

Everyone's picking “Man or Muppet” because it's a better song, but that's not how this works. And someone needs to be kicked repeatedly in the balls for there only being two nominees and for “Life's A Happy Song” not being one of them.


Best Original Score: The Artist

Everyone who noticed that massive chunk of the Vertigo score that Ludovic Bource ganked is going to shit kittens all over again (full disclosure: I've seen Vertigo, Vertigo's great, and the music in Vertigo is great, but I had to have it pointed out to me that The Artist straight up Puffysampled it [Puffysampling, if you remember 1997-9, is when you take a whole fucking song and call it a sample] because I am not, contrary to what my many lovers and copy editors may protest, perfect.) And while I feel for their blood pressure, I'd just like to calmly propose we either drop the “original” from the title of this category or add a second one that's just “Best Music” or “Bangin'est Tunes” or “Damn, That Shit Was Dope” or some such, that covers music that existed prior its use in the given movie. Not that anyone's ever going to do this, because it makes too much sense. But it'd sure solve the kitten-shitting epidemic in the critical community.


Best Foreign Language Film: In Darkness

I forget whether my winning streak in this category is four or five years long (which probably means it's ending this year) but in layman's terms, the reasoning goes like this: the picture you've heard of in this category never wins. And this year, A Separation is the movie everyone's heard of, and whoa baby is A Separation good. It's tremendous. But its chances of winning are about .00000001% this year because a) anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian fucktardery but more importantly, b) everyone's heard of it and a lot of people have even actually seen it, which is the death knell for a Best Foreign Language Film nominee. Remember how in Hitchhiker's Guide, they realized that the one guy who was making the decisions about literally everything in the entire universe was an Asperger's case living alone on a deserted planet with only his cat (or was it his dog? it's been a while) as company? Some time in the next five years we're going to find out some eccentric old person in Los Angeles is the only eligible voter in this category (there's a complicated procedure by which you have to prove you've seen all five movies by the voting deadline to even cast a vote) and has been deliberately fucking with us ever since Luis Buñuel died, out of grief. Just watch. Oh, and by the way, when one of the four movies no one's ever heard of is about the Holocaust, it's the prohibitive favorite. Also it'd be nice if Agnieszka Holland wins because she directed a bunch of episodes of The Wire. Not that that has anything to do with anything, but it's the same kind of thinking Academy voters do when voting, so it's fitting.


Best Animated Feature: Rango

The sleeper pick for the most secretly lulzy dramatic subplot in Oscar history: they're going to have to give an Oscar to the guy who directed the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Oh, that's gonna be great. Gore Verbinski should just read his resume as his acceptance speech: “Who'd have thought the guy who directed The Mexican, the American remake of The Ring, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies would ever win an Oscar? America's the greatest country in the motherfuckin' world!” At which point Morgan Freeman should join him on stage and say with a huge smile to the universe in general, “You have been trolled.”


Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants

Of all these picks, this is the one of two that's most likely to be wrong. So instead of fucking around, I'll “show my work” as they used to say in math class: Moneyball is the best adaptation in the bunch, because even though it wasn't easy and Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and director Bennett Miller put that fucker together like Frankenstein's monster, they still managed to put together a pretty damn good script (the fact that none of the stuff with the daughter had anything to do with anything, and her presence being actually a net loss for the movie because that damn song she kept playing on the guitar hadn't even come out yet at the time the movie took place, was ultimately forgivable; think of Hollywood like an addict, and things like giving the protagonist a superfluous kid as like a former smoker having one late at night while drunk) from one of the most apparently unfilmable books like ever. But no Oscar voters read books, so scratch that. And scratch Hugo, because if it was winning a bunch of other Oscars it would get this one too because all the Hugo voters would just be going Hugo Hugo Hugo all down the line, but they're not because Hugo's only going to win two. If I was voting for any of these five, I'd have gone Tinker Tailor because Tinker Tailor was tits and if you don't like it you can blow the mole on top of the circus who's been there for years. This one:


But The Descendants winning ain't no problem at all, because The Descendants was great. Anyone with a stick up their ass about Alexander Payne at this point, just knock it off. Seriously, just don't even. When you dis Alexander Payne, you dis yourself. Motherfucker.


Best Writing – Original Screenplay: The Artist

The Artist is taking almost everything this year, volume 5. They're not giving this to Woody because they know he's not going to be there (which is dumb, because Midnight In Paris was awesome), and they're not giving this to Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo because girls don't write, you silly (which is also dumb because Bridesmaids was also awesome, and moreover fuck Hollywood in the face for its sexism). A Separation is the best-written movie in the category, but it's not getting the Almodóvar lose-for-foreign-win-for-Screenplay Talk To Her treatment because Iran is scaaaaaaaaaaaary (seriously, it'll be to the entire world's benefit once America is toilet-trained . . .) That leaves Margin Call and The Artist. One movie that's about how a bunch of Evil White Guys In Suits crashed the economy, and one movie about a really handsome guy who looks good in a tux and is a really good dancer and the plucky drop-dead gorgeous girl who looks good in a dress and is also a really good dancer and how they both are adorable. QED byetches.


Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help

I'm a little confused as to how Bérénice Bejo slipped through the cracks of The Artist's near-sweep, but these things happen. Also, Octavia Spencer put in a tremendously charismatic performance with a bunch of different layers, each one of which she executed marvelously. So, no complaints here. And, in any case, none of The Help's problems were anything to do with the cast. It helps (Ha! See what I did there?) that the Oscars have so little to do with movies, because as infuriating and painful as The Help was to sit through, I like being able to openly root for Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis to win Oscars for the sake of their careers (and because they were both legitimately awesome) without it being an endorsement of the movie they're winning them for. To clarify, I'm both rooting for her and rationally think she's going to win, although there's considerable precedent for weird shit happening in this category. Don't be surprised if Melissa McCarthy pulls off an upset, or if Bérénice Bejo makes it a clean sweep for The Artist, but the odds-on favorite (call it like 5/2 or thereabouts) is Octavia Spencer.


Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Speaking of infuriating and painful movies. But I come not to bitch about Beginners, I come to praise Christopher Plummer. Sure it's a “for services rendered” Oscar, but they give those out all the time, and to far less awesome actors. So what if this should be Albert Brooks' victory lap? “Should” doesn't count for much with Oscars, and it's a shifting quantity anyway. Of these five dudes, there's no overwhelming reason anyone other than Plummer should take it, so just sit back and enjoy the awesome speech that's virtually guaranteed when he wins.


Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Along with her castmate Octavia Spencer, this is why it fits nicely that the Oscars are during Race In Cinema Month here at Movies By Bowes ™. Viola Davis should win Best Actress because she's awesome and has “paid her dues” (which is dumb but a real thing in Oscarology, just like the belief that Billy Crystal is still funny) and her performance was so good it made a movie I didn't like completely engrossing whenever she was on screen. That's why she should win. The fact that she'd be only the second black Best Actress is cool concomitantly. But it's still really cool. I think she edges Meryl Streep, in no small part because of the secret Masonic oath the Academy apparently took in 1983 that Meryl Streep would never win an Oscar again after her first two.


Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Brad Pitt is the victim of people in the Academy being lumpen little fucking assholes about The Tree Of Life. If it had gotten 15 nominations like it should have (yes, I know this is stupid, I'm at least kind of kidding), he would have been the runaway favorite because Jesus Hieronymous Christ was he good in that movie. In Moneyball, he's great and he holds it down and, sure, if he won it would be fine, but he's not going to. George Clooney was tremendous in The Descendants, and if it was the movie that was winning everything this year he'd be a shoo-in. But it's not. Demián Bichir, I can't tell you about, because I haven't seen that movie, but neither have most of the voters. Scratch. Would that the reason I listed the nominees in this order was because I had any kind of basis for saying it was between Gary Oldman and Jean Dujardin, but no. Gary Oldman has no shot, despite being soooooooooo good as Smiley. Nothing would make me happier than Gary Oldman finally winning an Oscar. (Okay, that's hyperbole, but it would own.) But don't get me wrong, I have no beef with the fact that Jean Dujardin is going to win this. Dude's a straight-up for-real movie star, and he was great in that movie. And his acceptance speech is going to fucking rock. Fuck the Francophobes.


Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Meh. Not thrilled about this one, but it's inevitable. If only Terry Malick won and he sent the dinosaur to accept it for him. Then again by this point I'll be drunk enough that I'll think that's what's happening anyway.


Best Picture: The Artist

So, okay. Here's the deal. I can't speak for every film critic, blogger, or pundit out there, nor would I dream of doing so. All I can say is that the way I read the situation is this: the reason all those people are bummed out about The Artist sweeping this year is that we were never given a choice. This isn't like last year when The Social Network was all good in first place and the Academy went “waaaaaaaitaminnit” and remembered there was a Weinstein Company picture in the race and gave everything to The King's Speech, a mediocre movie at best. The Artist actually is good. And, at least formally, it's a little adventurous, being an almost entirely silent movie. It is the kind of movie to which it's paying homage: a big, emotional crowd-pleaser that doesn't entirely hold up to close scrutiny.

Which is the thing about the Artist bitching in the blogosphere: the kind of people who scrutinize movies closely and found the handful of things wrong with The Artist are flummoxed as to how anyone could possibly vote this as Best Picture. The thing about The Artist is, and this is backed up by a lot of anecdotal evidence of people I know who've seen it, when you just sit back and watch it, it washes over you and it's an absolute delight. The people who told me this are people who love movies, who see a lot of them, who know a lot about them, but who don't necessarily approach movies analytically all the time. They fucking love The Artist. And, to a certain degree, I went to The Artist back in November as one of those people. I wasn't on the hook to review it for anyone. I could have decided to review it for this blog, but I just wasn't feeling it that day. I went to BAM for like a 2pm show or something, and it was me and six or seven old gay couples and we spent the hour forty happily crying our eyes out and not giving a fuck. I enjoyed that experience of seeing the movie enough that I don't want to go back and go over it with a fine-toothed comb, because I'll just notice more ways in which Hazanavicius blew the pastiche and things like the “natives” in the jungle movie-within-a-movie would annoy me—as my pal Isaac Butler so aptly put it, they're literally spear-chuckers—and I'd end up being all pissed off and disillusioned and probably mad at myself for being a sucker for not giving a fuck the first time. But why do that if I don't have to?

This (obviously) isn't an artistic justification for The Artist to win Best Picture. But there's a fine line that needs to be drawn, that explains a LOT about the Oscars: they're not about film. They're about The Movies. Film is a medium that affords ambitious artists opportunities to make profound personal statements through the confluence of moving visual images, the juxtaposition of those images, sound, and the interplay between image and sound. The Movies are things people go to to laugh and cry and be awed. Film is something experienced proactively. The Movies are things experienced reactively. Both use the same equipment and techniques, and there's plenty of overlap in the resultant motion pictures, but the Oscars are about The Movies. This is why it has to be The Artist, in a triumphant landslide, because it's a movie about The Movies that is The Movies. It doesn't even really have all that much to do with Harvey Weinstein. The Artist is exactly what this whole Oscar thing is about.

So have fun on Sunday. Suspense about who's going to win is not, by any means, the whole show.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: MY NAME IS KHAN AND THE PROVERBIAL LIBERAL MESSAGE MOVIE

Shahrukh Khan as Rizwan Khan in My Name Is Khan. Don't be a wiseass and ask what his name is.

Continuing on the theme of the last post, I want to talk about a peculiar variant on unintentional racism: the Hollywood liberal message movie. This is a very specific thing, as there are plenty of movies with progressive political themes, and they can be great, but a Liberal Message Movie (or, as they should probably be called, LIBERAL MESSAGE MOVIES because the all-caps is proportionate to their subtlety) is frequently really fucking embarrassing. This is because of the “awwwww, wookit the cute widdue culture that we don't weally undastand, SO CUUUUUUTE” tone that these pictures tend to take. Even in LMMs that manage to keep their levels of condescension down, there's a tendency to grossly oversimplify shit. Irony of ironies, the liberal tendency to not want to offend anyone ends up being the most offensive thing in the movie.

Weirdly, when I was trying to think of the most annoying example I could of this tradition, the one I came up with wasn't a Hollywood movie. It wasn't even from America. But much like one sees one's one flaws most clearly in others, it took a foreign picture trying its damnedest to be a Hollywood liberal message movie to really shine a light on how staggering the fuckups can be therein. The picture is called My Name Is Khan, directed by Karan Johar, and starring Shahrukh Khan.

It's not a total disaster, and its heart—as with all LMMs—is in the right place. Shahrukh Khan stars as Rizwan Khan, a Muslim from India who has Asperger's Syndrome (thus making it a near-stereotypical “PLEASE I'M DESPERATE FOR AN OSCAR PLEASE GIVE ME ONE I'LL SUCK YOUR DICK” role, though it's one that SRK does a creditable and sympathetic job with; he's never quite as annoying as he could be, even though the accuracy of his portrayal of someone with Asperger's is slight at best). The story is told through heavy use of flashbacks, but what's eventually revealed is the following: In typical LMM fashion, Rizwan has a savant-like ability to repair just about any mechanical object, and a tendency to utter Great Truths. He encounters, first in India and then when he emigrates to the United States, a good deal of anti-Muslim prejudice that basically takes the form of people marching up to him and going “I AM PREJUDICED AGAINST YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE A MUSLIM. HAVE YOU ANYTHING TO DO OR SAY THAT SHALL REVEAL ME TO BE FOOLISH IN MY PREJUDICE, MR. KHAN?” And when it's expedient for the plot, he does.

In San Francisco, Rizwan falls in love with a pretty Indian hairdresser, Mandira (Kajol). It's love at first sight, at least for Rizwan. (The first picture Shahrukh and Kajol made together, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in 1995 is an all-time classic in Bollywood, and is so largely because Shahrukh and Kajol blaze when they're on screen together. Anyone who's ever cried at the movies and hasn't seen it is advised to stop reading this immediately and rent DDLJ.) So a bit of mildly (but not terribly) embarrassing cutesy “I'm autistic and awkward but I love you” business out of Shahrukh—not the world's subtlest actor at the best of times—and Kajol triumphs over the fact that there's no way Mandira should plausibly fall in love with yutz Rizwan and falls in love with Shahrukh. (Or, more simply, real movie stars don't let dumb scripts get in their way. They know what people are there watching the movie for.) They get married, and Rizwan's brother manages to get past the fact that Mandira is Hindu, and everyone's good and happy and it's the American dream, and Rizwan adopts Mandira's son Sameer and yay!

Then 9/11. One thing I do have to give MNIK credit for is a straightforward anger at how fucking stupid Americans got about Muslims after 9/11 (which has eased slightly in the decade since, but not anywhere near enough). This comes to a head when Sameer's white American BFF, having snubbed him out of post 9/11 racism, and a group of bullies set upon Sameer (who, being brown, was clearly responsible for the attacks) and call him “terrorist” and rough him up a bit. Sameer makes the mistake of fighting back, and they really stomp the piss out of him. I mean, they fuck him up good. But (and this is where MNIK did an irreversible plausibility swandive and faceplanted straight into an unforgiving concrete floor of “get the fuck out of here”) the way the bullies kill him is when Sameer gets back up and is talking shit, the alpha bully kicks a soccer ball into his chest. And that puts him out. Yes, that happens, you hear about kids getting hit with baseballs and just dropping dead, but come on.

Mandira goes into deep shock, and in her anger blames Rizwan for Sameer dying, by being Muslim. Rizwan, having no other sense of the world than the absolutely literal, says, “but I am not a terrorist,” to which Mandira, rhetorically, says “Go tell the president 'My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist'” in a “get the fuck out of here you Forrest Gump motherfucker” kind of tone. So Rizwan packs a bag and sets out to go find the president to tell him “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist,” his refrain for the whole movie, introduced in the first scene.

In Rizwan's travels, he meets a bunch of people, some good, some bad, but all are overshadowed when he finds himself in Georgia, and a young black urchin wipes out on his bicycle and asks Rizwan for help. Rizwan takes him home and . . . well . . . there's no way to accurately convey how unfuckingbelievable this is if you haven't seen the movie, but anyone who has can tell you, I'm not exaggerating at all when I say the kid with the bicycle lives in a village that's like the fucking Shire in Middle Earth but instead of Hobbits it's Gone With The Wind-esque black people. Again, that's not an exaggeration at all. The bike kid's mom is literally named Mama Jenny. And Rizwan calls the kid, Joel, “Funny-hair Joel” for the whole rest of the movie because he's got a 'fro. Yeah.

Like, okay. American movies fuck stuff up all the time. I'm sure at some point some American movie set in another country and committed fuckups of this or similar caliber. I'm sure thirty of you could name the worst example and come up with thirty different answers. It's just . . . until someone comes and does it to your country you don't really realize how bad it is (and I know it sounds like I'm whining about people being mean to America, that's not it at all, it's that I'm like oh fuck this is how it feels to everyone else when we make shitty movies. . . ) And to compound things, in the mutual agape for all things Hollywood middlebrow shared to varying degrees by Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan, they do it in a really earnest Hollywood middlebrow kind of way, which means not only does it suck, it's so melodramatically treacly that it's just like . . . fuck.

So, Rizwan stays in the Shire for a little while before moving on and getting into trouble for trying to barge up to the president while saying something about the word “terrorist.” Eventually, everything gets cleared up, but then a fictional version of Hurricane Katrina hits, and Rizwan has to race back to the Shire and singlehandedly try and save everyone. This makes national news, and finally gets Rizwan his audience with the president (the guy they got to play Barack doesn't look much like him but does a fair vocal impression, though they cover for this by not naming him, he's just “the president”) and finally gets to tell him “my name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.” And Barack is like, “I know.” Because Barack is awesome. (Well, also, Barack kills the fuck out of terrorists. You know what I'm saying? Like, he doesn't just kill them he kills the motherfucking fuck out of them. The Seal Team Six raid that ended up with Osama bin Laden getting murked was so fucking awesome they needed to get Kathryn fucking Bigelow to direct the movie of it. So, if Rizwan had been a terrorist, Barack probably would have crushed his nuts with his fucking mind. Anyway, sorry, that's me not being a terribly good progressive, but hey, them's the bricks.)

The thing to remember, is that like all good Liberal Message Movies, My Name Is Khan doesn't mean any harm. It doesn't have a mean bone in its body. Even the little shitheads who kill Sameer are immediately remorseful. It's just . . . dude, that bit with Mama Jenny in the Shire is just flabbergasting. My Name Is Khan is an atypical Bollywood movie in a lot of ways (paramount among which is that it's distressingly light on songs) but one way in which it holds true is in the sense that when Bollywood movies go there, they Go There. When they're good they're damn near the best thing there is. When they're bad, holy shit do they suck. I'll take the bad if it means we also get the good, but fuck a duck when you mix the way Bollywood swings for the fences with the kind of guileless schmaltz of Hollywood Liberal Message Movies the result is a serious cautionary tale. Because My Name Is Khan came out in 2010. It shouldn't leave its audience floundering for a cultural frame of reference more recent than Gone With The Wind.

And the great shame of that bit is that it undermines a lot of the things K-Jo and SRK got right. There's a subplot about how Rizwan's in a mosque praying and overhears a bunch of guys who have fucking Had It and are about to resort to terrorism. Shahrukh plays Rizwan's freakout really well. He just flat out tells the guys, you're wrong and you shouldn't do this, in a way that would have been horribly on the nose and basically the filmmakers getting a bullhorn and shouting “TERRORISM IS BAD YOU GUYS” at the audience, if Shahrukh didn't get it just right. Which makes up for the seven or eight scenes when you just want to strangle the fucker for overplaying the Asperger's.

I guess the point of all this is, Liberal Message Movies are annoying, but there's a limit to how pissed off at them one can get, because they are trying to do the right thing. (Speaking of Do The Right Thing, a celebration of the cinema of Spike Lee is coming in a couple/few days, so Race In Cinema Month won't all be scolding and complaining.) But there's nothing worse than seeing a movie try to be good and fuck up. And it's especially unfortunate when it comes at the expense of the things the movie does well. Oh well.

As a counterexample of this kind of bullshit, I caught In The Heat of the Night on TCM the other day. That was the same year Sidney Poitier was also in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, which spends its entire running time shrieking about how important it is (and poor Spencer Tracy looks so horribly uncomfortable the whole movie, I felt bad), but In The Heat of the Night takes a different tactic, which is basically, “Sidney Poitier is fucking awesome.” It's shot by Haskell Wexler, it's cut by Hal Ashby, people like Rod Steiger and Warren Oates are in it and rule, and most importantly holy shit Sidney Poitier. He's waiting for a train in a small town in The South when he gets arrested for existing while black after a guy gets killed, and because he's smarter and more badass than everyone in three states Sidney Poitier solves the murder. Not only that, but he manages to do it without the benefit of any modern advances in forensic science. In The Heat of the Night is pure ownage, great filmmaking and holy shit Sidney Poitier. See? That's how you do a movie about how racism is stupid. All you need is a good script, talented filmmakers, and really good actors. But most importantly, know who the people are who are in your movie. Caring isn't enough.

Friday, February 17, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: 5 TYPES OF (PRESUMABLY) UNINTENTIONAL RACISM

This, of course, is #6

I know these posts have been a little less frequent and substantial than we all would like, but sometimes life (specifically employment) gets in the way, as was the case the last couple weeks here at Movies By Bowes™. So, in the spirit of this unintended delay, today's topic is unintentional racism.

Nothing gets a more affronted reaction out of people than bringing their unintentional racism to their attention. They immediately (and melodramatically) deny it, and may huff and puff about the fact that they have a black friend and how absurd it is that you could think they're a racist. Part of this is because the popular definition of racism has gotten so narrow that nowadays you're not a racist unless you call a black person the n-word to his/her face while wearing a Klan robe, and in the absence of all those criteria if you bring someone's racism to their attention they'll tell you you're overreacting. At which point forget explaining institutional racism and privilege to the person in question, you won't even be able to convince them that it's okay that we don't have a White History Month.

Even worse, in a way, than the dumbasses, are the people whose hearts are in the right places who try and make tone-deaf noble gestures without thinking through the implications, or simply working from the wrong set of assumptions. These people, when you point out their fuckup, tend to be more hurt than pissed off, but still are probably just as beyond convincing.

Both these types of bumblefucks make movies. The number of intentionally racist movies in the history of cinema is greatly outweighed by the “derp, I had no idea anyone could be offended by that” genre; for every Birth of a Nation there are twenty movies where when you stop to think you realize “whoa, fuck, that may be subtle but that's not good.” So what I'm going to do is highlight five of the most prevalent tropes. I should be clear about the fact that some of the movies mentioned below are ones that I like as movies and think are well made. And I don't think any of them are racist on purpose. But, as the man said, shit happens. Let us to the list:


5—“Wait, just because there are no black people in the movie doesn't mean it's racist!” Example: Hoosiers.

This is, admittedly, a Hoosiers-specific category. And most of the queasiness wrought by Hoosiers is basketball-related rather than being anything in the movie's text. I'll keep this as brief as I can (and non-ball fans bear with me, there's a point to the following), but basketball is a game whose practice is almost exclusively influenced by black players and whose theory is just as exclusively influenced by white coaches. By most reasonable and objective measures, the five greatest players in the history of the sport (Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson) are all black. The two white players who crack the top ten, Larry Bird and Jerry West, are both extraordinary talents, to be sure, though the way the game is theorized and coached is built entirely around their skill sets: passing, jump shooting, and an ineffable quality most frequently called “heart” and attributed almost exclusively to white players. Michael Jordan, in spite of being able to do everything Larry Bird could just as well or better with one exception—outside shooting—and who was possessed of a competitive spirit and desire to win that almost no human being in any other endeavor has ever possessed, in or out of basketball, is remembered primarily for his athletic skills. Or, at least, until two white coaches, Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, “taught” him team play. Which is infuriating bullshit, but it's the accepted wisdom in basketball, to wit: hustle, desire, and old-timey strategy will always win out over superior athleticism. Make no mistake, those opposing forces are code words. The former means “white,” and the latter means “black.” And this ethos has never had a more popular expression in cinema than Hoosiers.

Hoosiers is undeniably a very well-made movie, and Gene Hackman is fucking awesome in it (a redundant statement if there ever was one, but what am I supposed to say? He's fucking awesome in it.) As a movie it has a genuine passion for basketball, but an extremely specific variety thereof. When Gene Hackman assumes control of the Hickory High basketball team, he has to deal with a couple mild cases of fuckheadedness and a general feeling of defeatism stemming from the school being so small and even by early 50s Indiana standards in the middle of fucking nowhere.

The principal complicating factor is that the team's best player, the transcendent Jimmy Chitwood, has ascetically resigned from the team for personal reasons. Philosophically, Hoosiers is torn between idealistic old-time-y “teamwork and hustle” hokum and the pragmatic reality that in order to win a goddamn thing, a basketball team needs to have one spectacularly talented gravitational center. (Also, in one almost certainly accidental touch, Jimmy Chitwood is the only white person in the movie who shoots modern-style jump shots; one fascinating bit of 50s basketball esoterica I learned recently was that, at the time, jump shots were considered extremely, shockingly, terrifyingly “black.” Having Jimmy Chitwood be the impetus by which Hickory shocks the world and wins is thus a gleefully unintentional confirmation of the very thing the movie purports to oppose philosophically within basketball, in accidentally proving that having a flashy “black” guy score all his team's points while his teammates stand around and watch is the way to win. Jimmy Chitwood is Allen Iverson. This makes me deliriously happy.)

But note: it took me 25 years to catch all those weird accidentally subversive subcutaneous signifiers in Hoosiers. Its intent is to be a movie about a how a bunch of (white) underdogs prevailed through pure grit, hustle, and purpose over the prohibitive favorites. Whose big stars were black. The fact that the audience is supposed to get caught up in Hickory High's triumph is, in intent, independent of the fact that they're all white and the big favorites from the big city are all black. But, as the great Rasheed Wallace once said “Ball don't lie,” or in other words, evidentiary reality trumps intent. And with that, we move on from basketball.


4—The movie that's all about black people but needs a white protagonist. Example: The Help, Mississippi Burning, Glory, numerous others.

This one is a little more straightforward. Take The Help. (Please.) It sets out to be a look at the lives of domestics in the Deep South, and the shit (get it?) they have to deal with. And you know what? Fine. I can't speak to the experience of only seeing people who look like me in a movie when they're playing maids, so I can't speak to the resultant “not this fuckin nonsense again” feeling that nine out of every ten black people I ever heard talk about The Help had. That baggage gives a movie on that subject a bit of a difficulty curve, but it is theoretically possible to make a good movie on the subject. Casting Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer helps too, and I'm damn glad their respective profiles as actors have been raised so this awards season. And I'm rooting for them both on Oscar night.

Only . . . why the fuck's Emma Stone gotta be the lead? Sure, the movie begins and ends with Viola Davis narrating, which is all fine and good because she's the most interesting character, but I swear like four hours of the two-and-a-half hour running time are Emma Stone dealing with office politics and sexism and her sick mother (though I'm never going to complain about getting to see my celeb fourth cousin Allison Janney thesp, just as I'm never going to get tired of flogging my extremely tenuous relation to her) and that douchebag guy she dates and wait a minute here he is again for another nine hours and huh ok he's not a douchebag after all and wait holy shit they're dating and seriously why the fuck is any of this shit in a movie called The Help that's supposed to be about the help?

Because white audiences need a white person as a POV character in order to maintain interest. Or so the conventional thinking goes. This presents the issue of, why black stories are perceived as being such a snore, or so alien that there's no way of comprehending them without a translator. It's not The Matrix where you need to have Keanu's perpetual befuddlement as an impetus for Morpheus and Trinity to explain all the complicated SF stuff to him. Black people (I'm focusing mainly on black people because it's Black History Month, but you can substitute “black” with any other race, conceivably) are right here. If you pay attention, you'll find they're people. They have stories. And in those stories, they play the leading roles.

I should state that this is not Emma Stone's fault (side note: I adore her in everything else I've ever seen her in), nor is it even the fault of the woman who wrote the book or the guy who directed the movie. That's the story they wanted to tell, and there was no apparent malice involved in the creation thereof. It's just, y'know, the white people are kinda taking center stage even though the title and a great deal of the intent points to it not really being about them. There's a bit of “look at me”ism involved, unintentionally. But it's still there.


3—The Black Guy Always Dies First Trope. Example: seemingly every fucking shitty movie ever.

This is specifically a genre movie thing, and good fucking God is it omnipresent. I've thus far reviewed two movies for Tor.com this calendar year, The Divide and Chronicle. In The Divide, a bunch of white assholes (the noun being operative and the adjective incidental) and Courtney B. Vance are trapped in a basement, and Courtney B. Vance gets called a faggot 95 thousand times and then dies first. In Chronicle, three high school seniors, two white guys and Michael B. Jordan. When they start realizing their powers are a little beyond their control, who's the one who's got to eat it for dramatic effect? RIP Michael B. Jordan. (During the funeral scene they used a couple still photographs from when he played Wallace on The Wire, which of course cued “Where's Wallace, String? WHERE THE FUCK IS WALLACE?” in my head, because I'm retarded.)

So, yeah, small sample size. But I got X-Men: First Class from Netflix a few weeks ago and guess who the fuck dies first? Edi Gathegi! And to really stick it in and break it off, he dies nobly, to save the fuckin white people. Come on. Even if I didn't like black people, even if I went a step further and was actually an evil little shit openly rooting for them to get killed whenever they showed up in a movie, this would be fucking boring. It's ridiculous enough that it's easier to count the genre pictures where the black guy doesn't die, and usually first. Or where it doesn't count because everyone gets killed, like Predator.

The absurdity of the institution's prevalence is such that some actors have even turned it into a kind of performance art. Case in point: Samuel L. Jackson. As we now know, Samuel L. Jackson is a dual-function cyborg who makes two to four genre pictures per year and plays golf, to the exclusion of all other things. The first function is what's led to his having been in many, many movies where he gets killed. All kidding aside, though, he may be in a lot of shitty movies but Samuel L. always finds a reason to be playing each role, and no matter how shitty the movie is, his performance is impeccable craft. And his deaths are always awesome. Two in particular stand out. The first is Jurassic Park, when at one fateful point, plot expedience dictates that Samuel L. go out and get eaten by the dinosaurs (because that's what real motherfucking dinosaurs do: they eat people). Awesomely, Samuel L.'s character in the book was both (inferentially) white and did not get eaten by dinosaurs. For the movie, both these characteristics change. What makes it memorable is the way Spielberg sets up the revelation that he's been eaten: for no other reason than it's awesome, they leave one of his arms so that it can accidentally come to rest on Laura Dern's shoulder, only to have her turn around and realize it's just his arm. This is why it actually kind of rules that PG-13 Spielberg directed Jurassic Park, because R Steven Spielberg, like the Saving Private Ryan Spielberg, would have just had the velociraptors turn him into sashimi. The off-screen offing was a good touch, and I would not be at all surprised if Samuel L. had some input into it. He's not shy, and I can totally see him being like, “Steven, let's talk, I think it'd be cool if this is how it's revealed that this movie falls into the Black Guy Always Dies trap.” And Spielberg, as a good progressive, could very easily have been like, “Well, that might offset the lameness of killing him for no reason . . .”

And then there's Deep Blue Sea. Wherein Samuel L. gets eaten by a shark, in one of the worst shark effects ever outside of that one shark movie where the guy says he wants to eat the girl's pussy. (Seriously, that's a real movie. And that's the only good thing in it.) But leave it to Samuel L., once again, to be like, “Yeah, it's a genre trope. But fuck it! If I'm gonna be a part of this bullshit, I want to go out big.” Go ahead, say that quote in your head in his voice. QED.

Sadly, Samuel L.'s attempts to turn it on its head aside, this is a pretty annoying and sad thing to still be going on to the point where literally every American movie I've watched for the first time in 2012 has had the black guy die. This is bullshit, and it has to stop, and I don't care that it's a statistical function of a unique quantity standing out from the pack and being more likely to have the writer go “oh, okay, this is who I'll kill” and not outright racism. STOP THE FUCKING MADNESS. If I go see Prometheus and Idris Elba is the only one who dies I am going to find Damon Lindelof, throw a drink in his face, and tell him the last episode of Lost sucked and then cruelly stand over him and nourish my soul on his bitter tears.


2—Jar Jar Binks, or “Hey, they're aliens, it can't be racist.” Example: Jar Jar Binks.

Actually, in spite of the fact that a few hundred words ago marked the 80 billionth time I've ranted about The Help, this was the inspiration behind this post. The original trilogy was actually pretty progressive, in that there may have only been one black person (Lando Calrissian) in the entire empire, but he was fascinatingly complex, and presented a moral alternative to the rigid Manichean Light side/Dark side spectrum in that he was ultimately one of the good guys, but if presented with less advantageous circumstances (like, say, not having a Luke Skywalker or a rebel alliance to throw in with) he'd do what he had to do. That's a lot closer to a realistic human being than you'd expect from a guy who lives in a city in the clouds, and being the most realistic person in the known galaxy makes up for his being the only black person, even if despite looking like Billy Dee Williams he has an Armenian name.

Somewhere along the line, though, George Lucas must have fallen down a flight of stairs headfirst or something because what the fuck was he thinking when he came up with Jar Jar Binks? When I first saw The Phantom Menace, I was like “ok, this only seems this bad because I'm high.” Then a couple years later I watched it straight and realized, “Oh no . . . this is . . . wow . . .” It doesn't read as deliberately minstrel-y. And lord knows Ahmed Best, the actor who voiced Jar Jar and mo-capped his physicality, is sick of taking shit for it; for actors, the “I was just following orders” line isn't an excuse, it's a reason. You have to be irreplaceable (or at least be reasonably sure you can get subsequent work if they fire you or you have to quit) before you can start making choices, and that's a truism that crosses racial lines. But holy hell. Half his dialogue sounds like he's saying massa. He shuffles. And the “but it's an alien language” thing only gets you so much slack. You can have your alien say stuff that doesn't make him sound like Mantan fucking Moreland. (Ed. Note: I'm not holding Moreland responsible, but the people and circumstances that forced him into that niche.)

Tellingly, George Lucas is apparently, to this day, confused as to why Jar Jar Binks is so unpopular. Lots of fans have different reasons. The above paragraph is the one that bugged me. It's no good getting up in George Lucas' shit about it, though. He simply won't understand what the big deal is.


1—The Magic Negro

Perhaps the most written-about type on this list, most often by black writers offended by the type as being unrealistically perfect, and how that unrealistic perfection pisses them off. Sometimes white racists will bitch about the Magic Negro, and how it's unrealistically perfect. Clearly, when two groups as opposed as these agree, something's fucked up.

The thing that pisses me off about this type is that it's so fucking boring. All the classic Magic Negro characters do is sit there smiling beatifically, saying wise things that take you a second to wade through the thick accent to understand, and even (and especially) when it goes against their self-interest, they go to unbelievable lengths to help the white people, against whom they bear no ill will at all (except the occasional villain).

Maybe it's because I'm not burdened with guilt, but the fact that this character archetype so blatantly exists as a means of assuaging guilt irks me. It's like, “Hey, here! This one likes me! I and my people are off the hook for slavery, segregation, and institutional racism! Except I deny that institutional racism exists! Gosh, that Will Smith sure is swell in Bagger Vance.” I'd have more respect for this bullshit if it was conscious. But it's a function of “oh, I don't want to seem racist, so I'm going to make him perfect.” Which ends up, irony of ironies, being the thing avoided. When creating a character, take care that that character resembles the world in which the story is set. If the movie you're making absolutely requires that your character be perfectly wise and perfectly compassionate, and act against his/her own interests for someone else's sake, you're making a bad movie.

My favorite subversion of this type is Scatman Crothers in The Shining. We're introduced to him as a literal Magic Negro: he can communicate telepathically with the creepy little kid. Taking it to that extreme is funny enough, but then when he shows back up later in the movie, he's sitting watching TV down in Florida like a totally recognizable regular old guy. In other words, like a non-magical real person. And then when he talks to the snowplow guy in Colorado, there's this perceptible tone of “Stupid white people are fucking up the haunted hotel again” to their interaction that's awesome, and further makes him seem like a real guy. He's totally not a Magic Negro at all anymore! So Scatman Crothers heads on up to the Overlook to save the day, and what happens . . .? He gets axed in the fucking chest by Jack Nicholson, thus making him trope #3. Godfuckingdammit. Just can't win in this game.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: TALKING ABOUT THE HELP

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.


The theme of this month, in a way I could never hope to encapsulate. A must-watch.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: THE 5 ROLES ONLY WHITE ACTORS CAN PLAY


This month we're going to do something a little different here at Movies By Bowes ™. February, which as you may or may not know is Black History Month in the United States, will mark the first ever themed month here at MBB ™, where for the whole month, each post will have something to do with race in cinema, culminating with the annual Oscar coverage, which this year is very much a related topic, with The Help having a Best Picture nom, as well as Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer being up for Best Actress and Best Supporting respectively. Noble attempt to elevate the discourse, or the dumbest fucking idea I've ever had? YOU BE THE JUDGE.

I'm not even going to blame this on RVCBard, even though she did threaten to revoke my “one of the good ones” status. The idea behind this first post came out of a discussion she and I had about the kinds of roles only white actors could play. Color-blind casting has been an institution for years in school plays because when the pool of potential actors is limited to the kids at the given school, sometimes there simply aren't enough actors (gender-blind casting is another common thing under these circumstances). At any level higher than maybe college, color-blind casting is a political decision no matter how much you want to whine about how difficult the casting process is. You know what else is difficult? Life. Nut up.

Anyway, I'm not talking about roles where the race isn't specified in the character description. Those are fair game. But that production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherfucker With The Hat where no effort was made to find Latin actors to play the specifically Latin characters in the play, and the cast was all white, or the thing more recently in Texas where some featherheads decided to do a production of the Hairspray stage musical with an all-white cast. Both these instances are bullshit, the former more so than the latter since if you can't find Latin people when you're an afternoon's drive from New York City it's because your head is up your own ass, whereas trying to find black people—let alone enough to cast Hairspray—in Plano, Texas is a slightly iffier proposition, but ya know, dudes, you could have done a different show. Especially when the one you want to do is fundamentally all about race.

But, as per the discussion I mentioned above, some roles absolutely have to be played by white people. Racial privilege being what it is, almost no one ever puts “white” in a character description, because that's the default assumption. Like any assumption, the Broken Clock Principle (to wit, it's right twice a day) dictates that occasionally the non-specified character does have to be white. Among them are these 5:


1—The Evil White Guy In A Suit

We'll get the obvious one out of the way first. I should correct something I said in one of my end-of-the-year wrap-ups for 2011, where I identified David Oyelowo in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cate Blanchett in Hanna as being examples of an EWGIS not necessarily having to be white or a guy. Obviously I was mistaken, having failed to process a couple important bits of nuance. Namely, Oyelowo in Rise may not have been white, but he was English. And also, with Rise being about how Caesar needed to lead the Left against all of humanity, having what would ordinarily be the Evil White Guy In A Suit not be white underscores that point. Or, in other words, Rise was not an EWGIS picture. (Ed. Note: yet another reason why Rise was transcendentally awesome). And as for the Hanna example, well, that's just silly. Hanna was too weird to adhere to any rational criteria, as it was essentially a Chemical Brothers video about Saoirse Ronan killing people with an interlude about a bunch of English hippies on a road trip. Does that sound like a normal movie? No.

Look, it's really simple. Evil white guys in suits are plotting to kill every last one of us. They have all the money and power. They are the true 1%. Remember how in King Lear it was the Fool who knew what was up? Why else do you think it fell to Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2 to reveal the great truism of our age? “Every big crime has a rich white man waitin' for his cut.” If you roll your eyes at that and go “Oh please, you expect me to take Chris Tucker seriously?” then YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO SEE THE EVIL WHITE GUYS IN SUITS COMING. You're as good as done.


2—Skinhead/KKK guy

Self-explanatory, of course, but a little explanation beyond the obvious about why it's such a powerful signifier is necessary. A white person with a shaved head has a lot more whiteness visible. More so than the insane bullshit rhetoric and Nazi salutes, that simple touch may be the reason for this being such a powerful signifier. As for the exclusivity of this, a simple example: a white guy with a shaved head saying the n-word is terrifying. A black guy with a shaved head saying the n-word is Samuel L. Jackson (unless he's wearing a rug that picture). And Samuel L. is only scary if you're the one who fucked up.


3—Landed gentry

A discrete category from the Evil White Guy In A Suit, because while there can be overlap, it isn't inherent. Old money landed gentry ancien regime types can be kind of all right sometimes, even if they rarely have any connection to modern reality and occasionally say offensive stuff because they just don't know any better.

But why, you may ask, does this character have to be a white guy? Surely there are rich dudes in Africa, Asia, and South America who've owned shitloads of land for generations? Well, the three c's—colonialism, capitalism, and cronyism—mean that even there a significant percentage of the super fuckin rich feudal lord types are still white guys. Or, in countries where skepticism about the free market pervades (which is to say, where commies and theocrats run shit), there simply aren't those super fuckin rich feudal lord types at all.


Basically, this character archetype was personified to perfection by James Fox in Remains of the Day (left). James Fox may very well be the whitest dude ever; nota bene his under-seen Evil White Guy In A Suit sans tie in The Mighty Quinn, where the whole purpose of his role is for him to get his ass handed to him by Denzel, but the argument could be made that Denzel movies exist for him to hand people their asses, be it verbally, sociopolitically, or (recently, especially) the old-fashioned way, with violence. That James Fox was a flat-assed straw man is just the way things go, but the profundity of his whiteness is infinite. If you need to picture this character archetype, picture James Fox.


4—The girl in the horror movie who just fucking has to open That Door.

We've all been there. Buncha pretty young people in a house where the slasher/monster/ghost is fixin' to fuck some shit up, and right after the first person (usually the one black person) randomly gets iced the rest of the pretty people start wanting to know what's going on. So, the chick with the nice tits (aka the second one who gets killed, provided she's the one who the second-to-last person was shtupping; the virgin makes it out alive, as per regulations) goes up the stairs as the music gets louder, and she finds a door that's bleeding green shit with “THIS IS THE ROOM THE SLASHER/MONSTER/GHOST IS IN! ENTER AND GET KILLED HORRIBLY!” written on it at eye level, and what does she do? Opens the door. RIP.

There are slight variations. Sometimes she doesn't get killed immediately, sometimes it's just that opening That Door unleashes the evil that kills the rest of the pretty people. Sometimes she's a guy; vide Daniel Craig in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo immediately pre-Enya. But you'll notice Daniel Craig isn't exactly walking around in a bowtie selling copies of The Final Call. And that's the important thing, more than gender, here. If you have a character who can't leave well enough alone, or who alternatively just ain't got no fuckin sense, and you want to really sell that point, accept no substitutes. Cast a white actor.


5—“Goin' native!”

By which I mean Kevvo in Dances With Wolves, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and most recently Sam Worthington in Avatar (side note: Sam Worthington is never going to fucking make it with that many syllables in his last name; he needs to change his name to Rock Barkley or something.) So here's the deal: white man is giant dick to non-white man. Dickery consists of oppression, genocide, dehumanization, the industry standard “we're assholes and you have land and/or other resources we want” package. For the movie, since the audience needs a POV character they don't have to feel ugly about identifying with, an anachronistically sensitive and progressive lead character appears!

While having the sensitive white dude get all gaga about the profundity of the culture with which he—somehow—assimilates is an easy way for the movie to get its “aren't they noble” message across, it's a horrible way to discuss things like the Native American genocide, the forced Westernization of Japan, or when we nuked the Smurfs. It's like “oh yeah, the ruling classes of my culture imposed their will on this other culture by force, but those oppressed peoples would like me! Fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap.”

That's why the lead in these pictures needs to be white, because these movies are specifically about deflecting and assuaging oppressor's guilt, which is itself a uniquely Western thing. There aren't big, lush, massively budgeted movies in Japan where the lead is the one guy in all of Japan beating his chest and going “The Rape of Nanking was wrong! I was not in favor of it!” Does that hypothetical movie sound reductive, dumb, and wildly insensitive? Well, you win a prize. So is Dances With Wolves.


There may be others, but these are the five clearest-cut cases of roles only white actors can play. I'll entertain suggestions for others in the comments, and will be following up my month-long project of tap-dancing on the third rail with other meditations on race in cinema. I'm taking suggestions on other topics as well. And, well, we'll see how this all turns out.