Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Loved it. The Coens, yet again, show that they know what they're doing in a way that almost nobody else does. Still haven't seen The King's Speech, but my ranking of the other, principal Oscar nominees is as follows:
TG > TS3, WB >> TSN, I, BS
Monday, March 28, 2011
Have now seen Black Swan, and it's utterly ludicrous. Maybe if you know nothing at all about dance, and you haven't any experience with movies about madness and obsession, e.g., The Piano Teacher and The Tenant (or even the Ellen Burstyn segments of Aronofsky's own Requiem), then BS might be impressive, but otherwise....
BS shares one of The Social Network's key problems: except for a striking opening sequence (which, in the light of recent controversy, Aronofsky has clarified is all Portman - well done Ms P.!), BS never really shows us what a top dancer or dance company does that's so very cool (Altman's overlooked The Company is vastly superior in this regard - somewhere out there Neve Campbell is firing darts at an image of Natalie Portman!). Indeed, the dancing is poorly photographed and tepid from what we see of it (although some painful-looking, en pointe close-ups are spectacular). We're told repeatedly that Nina wants to be 'perfect', but we have so little sense of her enjoying dancing or of her relishing gaining fluency and 'getting' new things in her performance, that that perfection feels completely abstract and contentless (not to mention literally risible at the end of the film). Compare with The Red Shoes (you knew this was coming): there we have a powerful sense of how Vicki Page's (Moira Shearer) madness flows not just from her svengali's cruelty but from the intoxicating, addictive powers of dancing and the stage themselves. And whereas the final fall in TRS is the kind of heart-stunning moment that no one ever forgets (and just is dance and death together), the final fall in BS is almost motionless, is clobbered by the plonking last line, and provokes distracting, practical impossibility thoughts: 'Huh? So she really had stabbed herself through? But then how was she able to dance Act 4?'
The scene of Nina clubbing with Lily could have helped flesh out Nina's relation to dance and this ideology of perfection she spouts. It could have been used to show us something about Nina's relation to her own body that maybe the rigidity of the rehearsal studio and her home life has stifled. Ideally we might see something on that dance floor that would make us think something like: 'Oh, so that's why that girl became/is a ballerina. Perfection would be if she can bring something of this out-of-control/out-of-ones-head/Dionysian dancing back to the studio...'. Unfortunately Aronofsky and his DP Libatique butcher the scene into a strobing nightmare so that we don't know who or hardly even what we're seeing. Opportunity squandered. [Update Sept 2011: someone has pulled out all the clubbing scene's subliminal imagery from the blu-ray of the film here. Wow, but it's hard to see the point if we can't see this stuff in real time (rather we just know that something funny is going on). And I stand by my view that Aronofsky and co. would have done better to make the clubbing scene explanatory of the perfection stuff (which needed explanation!) rather than use it to restate the insanity stuff (which didn't need to be restated, not even subliminally, given that we were repeatedly bashed right between the eyes with 'Nina's nuts'!]
Relatedly, the film's Balanchine-figure (a wasted Vincent Cassell) never does or says anything to show us what his talent consists in and why he might be a genius worth following unto death. We're told he's going to 'strip back' or rethink Swan Lake from the ground up, but everything we see after that looks pretty standard, and we certainly don't see any of the dancers protesting at or recoiling from any radical innovations, rather the basic vibe is 'Business as usual'. Indeed, as least as far as I noticed, the film never lets the audience in on the fact that fusing white swan/black swans = Odette/Odile roles is optional - that originally they were separate (a return to that could be our quasi-Balanchine's innovation: building on that, a separate Odile could hover/flicker onstage much of the time apart from the main choreography!). An opportunity is thereby missed to use the director/choreographer's refusal to even consider splitting the roles, certainly if there's any evidence that a new lead dancer might be experiencing a breakdown, as evidence of his mania/demonicness. But perhaps the film doesn't mention this possibility because it would suggest a deflating resolution of the crisis in the film: if there's going to a big problem with fusion, split the roles, and let Lily dance Odile.
Needless to say, too, nobody gets to be prima ballerina at a Lincoln Center ballet company who's as tentative and generally freaked out as Nina is. At that level, if you make it, you've been on a soloist track from an early age. That track selects at every point for bravura/swagger as well as for basic talent/training/movement quality. The biggest (rising/risen) star in ballet right now is Natalia Osipova. Here she is still in school at age 17, soloing her heart out and blowing people away. This is just before she joins the corps of the Bolshoi, where she was immediately given some solo parts. It was 4 years of ever-increasing attention in that role that led to her being promoted to leading soloist in 2008, then finally becoming principal dancer for the Bolshoi in 2010. We're supposed to believe of Nina in BS that she jumps directly from being a relatively unheralded corps member/occasional soloist to being the face of the company in the leadiest lead role ever: fused Odette/Odile. Not gonna happen.
A final note: 'ludicrous' may be a little harsh on my part. Substantively, I agree with almost everything that David Edelstein says in his review of BS, especially this:
[Unlike Altman] Aronofsky isn’t remotely interested in celebrating the Dance. Black Swan is full of scary-looking emaciated women, their dark hair severely pulled back, twisting and cracking their limbs and toes—puppets of a tyrannical male deity. Even before Nina begins to unravel, the dances are shot by a camera that seems to be shuddering in horror.But Edelstein still ends up sounding softer overall than I do here. His tone is, I suppose, more likely the correct or appropriate one. So, some concessions: while I'm deeply dissatisfied with BS, a lot of people put a lot of work and love into it. It's not the sort of dreadful, slapped-together Hollywood nonsense that there's always a surfeit of at local cinemas. And it's impressive and even fabulous that a small, artsy film allegedly about dance is on track to make $300 million world-wide. See, I can make people happy: I'm the Magical Man from Happy-Land, in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane!
 The scene doesn't work as a deafening club alienation scene a la Lynn Ramsay's Morvern Callar either. This was the scene/point at which I gave up on BS, when I realized that it was never going to come close to the standards set by its obvious influences.
 Metacritic scores Edelstein's review as 100/100. That's bizarre!
Friday, March 25, 2011
It'll be interesting to see whether these guys blow up. They're playing big festivals this year; if they can bring it live, and if they have a ton of good songs including something with a bit more crossover/pop potential, we'll all know it by the end of 2011.
It feels to me like a bit of demand for a slightly darker and rawer pop-music, something a little less euro-disco-ish has built up of late. Florence Welch has benefited from this in my view, but it seems to me that there are other slots open for somebody to step into. Rock and Mood out a bit more: The Pierces, Zola Jesus, Warpaint, Glasser....for you, opportunity knocks.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
I like David Fincher a lot, but I finally got around to seeing his The Social Network, and... I was underwhelmed, even bored by it. I can imagine someone liking TSN more than me, but I fail to see how anyone could think that the film's a complete triumph. I therefore simply don't believe (or believe that anyone else really believes) that TSN's losing the big Oscars this year resembles situations like Raging Bull losing to Ordinary People, Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves, or Pulp Fiction being Gump-ed.
One caveat: I did spoil a lot of TSN's best lines for myself by reading reviews and paying close attention to ads, etc.. Still, TSN struck me as silly and superficial enough that I doubt that virgin ears for 4 or 5 key lines would have made that much difference. Indeed, I'm sufficiently unimpressed with TSN that it in fact hardly feels worth the effort it would take to figure out what's really wrong with it. Nonetheless, this note is a quick first stab in that direction.
TSN is at bottom a surprisingly by-the-numbers biopic (including beginning with an allegedly psychologically probative flashback that gets called back to repeatedly but most annoyingly with a pat quasi-moral at the end), albeit it's somewhat unusually focused on just a year or two of relatively young lives. For that to work at all, we need the cluster of young people the film focuses on to be incredibly interesting or attractive (recent films that do this sort of thing relatively well, albeit often with considerably less biopic-y baggage, include Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, Boogie Nights, and Good Will Hunting; a more classical example is The Paper Chase). But the characters of TSN aren't especially interesting people - as the film itself seems to realize - there's lots of unattractive whining in TSN (!) and there's precious little in the way of interesting creativity or insight on display (as opposed to shark-like pursuit of main chances). But then why are we watching the film?
The answer seems to be that the film relies upon on us being titillated by Harvard, fast-money-making, maybe hype about social media, and the like. But if you're immune to all that (as I am) then the film falls surprisingly flat, and fails to address even the most prominent lacunae in its own story-telling. E.g., we're led to believe that one of Zuckerberg's key insights (not to mention his own lizard-brain-level motivation) is that the (vaguely Groucho Marxian) exclusivity of clubs matters: that the most desirable of social networks are those that are hard to get into, that might on another day of the week not have you as a member. But while Facebook began with that sort of exclusiveness in mind (you had to go to an Ivy or Ivy-wannabe to be on it, etc.), it very quickly became entirely open and in fact all about scale and inclusiveness and network effects and 'building the user-base without worrying about how to make money off it' - all ideas that are pure .com/Web 1.0, etc.. The movie shows this change happening, but doesn't really draw attention to it or explain its significance, presumably because doing so would (i) undermine the film's narrative about what drives Zuck. (and what his key special insight was), and (ii) constitute an unhelpful-to-the-film narrative of Facebook as conceptually indistinguishable from what other people were doing at the same the time. If the difference with Facebook was just execution/timeliness etc., which is to say a completely standard, business success story, then again there's nothing movie-worthily interesting here.
There's also a kind of meta-moral to be drawn from my last two paragaphs: the showing and telling in TSN is everywhere out of whack. At the level of character we're told stuff that we need to just see, and at the level of ideas (about company development, etc.), where we need to be told stuff so that what we're shown can then be meaningful, the allegedly great script is silent.
After seeing TSN's superb trailer ('...and the Oscar for Best film at failing to live up to its own trailer goes to....' presented by Spike Jonze) I anticipated that rather than a simple (and, as I've explained, somewhat misguided) bio-pic, that TSN would be in addition an ambitious, generally skeptical look at (or x-ray of) 'how we live now', esp. at the new forms of sociality that Web 2.0 tech has enabled and the older forms it is destroying. But there's almost nothing of that in the film, hence TSN feels minor compared to what it could have been (and to what its promotional materials suggested it would be). Too bad.
Moreover, neither the script nor the score for which TSN won Oscars struck me as especially remarkable. Both felt like stuff I'd heard before and better from their respective authors. Indeed, Reznor's score builds so directly on his previous work, including large chunks of The Slip and of Ghosts I-IV that I don't quite see how it retained eligibility as original material, given how strict AMPAS has been about that in recent years. Deep down, too, it's a bummer that, say, Paul Thomas Anderson and Clint Mansell don't have writing and music Oscars respectively while Sorkin and Reznor do (not that I've got anything against the latter two guys, I'm a fan of both, but seriously....).
Nice acting tho', esp. from Andrew Garfield, who appears to me to be the real deal after seeing him play two very different characters in TSN and in Red Riding 1974.
I've still yet to see True Grit, Black Swan, or King's Speech, but of the Best Picture nominees that I have seen I'd definitely take Toy Story 3 and Winter's Bone over TSN. Finally, too, TSN isn't nearly as compelling to me as Zodiac was (in 2007, unfortunately for Fincher one of the greatest years in movie history).
 I take no position about King's Speech, my point is just that the analogies break down because TSN is no RB/G/PF. Indeed, in my view, TSN is more Gump than Pulp Fiction when you get down right down to it. Let's hope that this and Benj. Button don't represent a trend in this regard for Mr Fincher.
 In one scene Zuck. hails his own and his team's intellectual and creative capacities compared to those of his accusers. But too much tell not enough show! By that point I certainly hadn't seen anything that looked so amazingly creative or intellectually explosive. I mean, one could imagine a film about the amazing rise and reign of Pixar and the interaction of Lasseter, Doctor, Bird, et al., frickin' geniuses all I'm prepared to believe, but then show that genius and what they got and can do that their competitors didn't and can't, OK? Or if you want to make a movie about loopy Grigory Perelman and his proof of the Poincare Conjecture then you're well advised to give us a sense of how his mind works (so that he could solve problems that no one else could solve), and you're probably going to have to devise ways of cannily representing holes in space to do that. If you don't do that then you'll just be asking us to take the 'genius' stuff on trust, which will pall. And, for especially positive instances, think of what a great job fashion documentaries from Unzipped through to The September Issue do of just showing the audience that Mizrahi, Wintour, et al. really are extraordinarily gifted, as well as being superhumanly hard-workers.
 Compare too with cases in which something in science became a pure horse-race, so that the only questions to be resolved are (i) who gets the prizes and (ii) who was prepared to bend the rules to make sure that they do: think Venter vs. the NIH over sequencing the human genome, or Watson, Crick, and Wilkins stealing Rosalind Franklin's x-rays to pip Pauling on DNA. The spectacle of street-fighter, animal cunning being decisive even in this most esoteric, rarefied, intellectual, supposedly bloodless environment is inherently amusing and dramatic. Still, in my view, if you want to make a successful movie about any of these cases, you do well to either explore the underlying content and its importance in detail, or have some specific gripping personal angle in mind so that it's not just the horse-race we're focusing on (or both). We discussed content a lot in fn. 2. For examples of 'gripping personal angles', consider Franklin, sexism, her tragic early death and non-Nobel in the DNA case; and consider the overkill, Randian/Teddy Roosevelt-ish swagger of Venter in the genome case. For me, then, TSN neither went deep enough into content nor developed characters that were vivid enough, that had enough at stake really, to make for a strong film.
 See this piece by Tom Ewing, talking en passant about Google and Facebook as providing competing objective and subjective prisms/vortices, for more interesting thought about Facebook and its place in the modern informational ecosystem than anything TSN manages. Vaguely relatedly, note how odd it is that Google is never mentioned in TSN. Indeed, the film kinda, sorta insinuates that Facebook/Zuck. is the successor to Microsoft/Gates, and that nothing and no one of note happened between them in computer software, which is laughable. That said, there's evidently a case to be made that Facebook is the new Microsoft in that, like MS, it makes software that's genuinely irritating, indifferent-to-poor in many ways, but that network effects nonetheless force everyone (quite resentfully) to deal with as the borderline dysfunctional standard.
Friday, March 11, 2011
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Sunday, March 06, 2011
A perennial brain-teaser for the chattering classes is whether awards such as Best (Supporting) Actress [or Best Performance by an actress in a leading (supporting) role] have any real merit or legitimacy. Dennis Dutton argues that they do, a key Irish film/media blogger disagrees.
The latter author suggests, in effect, that we should break the question down into two sub-questions, and finds (unsurprisingly!) that this steers us towards his own negative result. I agree with the suggestion but not with the subsequent finding: both sub-questions can be answered, leading to a positive result overall.
Q1. Why should there be sexed acting awards but not sexed directing, writing, etc. awards?
Rough Answer 1: Because actors' sex is part of their performances/job in a way that directors' etc. sex isn't.
Q2. But race/age etc. are also part of actors' performances/job (in a way that directors etc. race/age etc. isn't), why not have separate awards in those cases too?
Rough Answer 2: For a mixture of practical and principled reasons, sex is a more fundamental division within performances than the others.
In both sub-answers I suggest that the awards should take clues from the actual structures of competition in performance industries.
Detailed Answer 1:
(i) Follow the lines of competition: female actors are overwhelmingly in competition just with one another for one pool of roles, and male actors compete with one another for an almost completely disjoint set of roles. The sexed awards then just preserve and extend the actual, bifurcated structure of competition that’s prevailed the rest of the year, as it were, as part of normal business. Directors, writers, editors etc., by way of contrast, all compete for the same jobs, regardless of sex.
(ii) Compare: fashion designers, choreographers etc. are sex-neutral but models/dancers etc. are sexed. Film isn't anything out of ordinary - performance generally is sexed, production/creation isn't.
(iii) One can always ignore all sexed competitive sub-structure if one wants to or for certain purposes, e.g., one could try to rank the top models or top ballet dancers from 1 to 10 regardless of sex. But those sorts of overall comparisons are done relatively infrequently and feel artificial when they are done. Within-sex comparisons and rankings, by way of contrast, are commonplaces and feel routine and well-judged precisely because that's the level at which close competitive comparisons are made every day in performance industries. Sex-neutral Best Thespian awards at the Oscars in addition to Best M/F awards have little appeal for this reason I believe. (It's interesting, however, that people can find sex-neutral only award regimes rather more tempting notwithstanding that they pose the same not-rooted-in-actual-competitive sub-structure problems.)
Detailed Answer 2:
(i) Sex is more fundamental - relatively non-arbitrary and relatively stationary (see below) - than the other divisions, so any proposal for other performance award partitions would tend to have to be ‘in addition to’ M/F. But then on one level the answer can be strictly practical: that would be too many acting awards (‘and the Oscar for best white actress over 50 goes to….’).
(ii) The vexed case of race. Does anyone really understand it? (e.g.: Are Jews or Roma a race? Is Asian one race or ten? Is Charlize Theron an African-American? and so on) Don't the huge numbers of people in indefinitely many intermediate and overlapping racial categories make the idea of a legalized, administrative partition of people into racial categories a complete fantasy? Assuming yes and no answers to the foregoing, no racial partition will, except as a v. rare empirical fluke, equally partition the pop.. Sex ratios, by way of contrast, are (normally/almost always) 1:1, hence there's a natural basis for equal numbers of awards. Given that racial blocs can be any relative size and can vary a lot over time there's no natural basis for equal numbers of awards per race. Wanna have 1/n of all acting awards go to a group that’s 1/n of the pop.? Be my guest. But which pop.’s ratios set the base-line: the Academy’s? SAG’s? the US’s? the world’s? And how often do we remeasure this? Remember that unlike the M/F partition there’s no species level invariant that settles things once and for all, so you have to keep measuring and adjusting if things are to stay proportionate.
(iii) Age categories are more stationary and well-formed than race categories (hence junior and senior tournaments and tours in sports) and with a bit of care one could make something like that work in acting awards. Still, it wouldn’t be that easy to settle on a partition that would seem just and natural. Life-spans vary quite a lot, some people age well and some don’t, etc. (Tommy Lee Jones and Bill Macy would have had to go straight onto the senior tour out of college, as it were!)
(i) It's been objected that much of my second answer is more practical than principled. The truth is that I’m happy to postpone principled argumentation discussion as much as possible. Principled/moral reasoning is necessarily fairly abstract and is normally inconclusive. Moreover, while I do think it's important to say something at that sort of level eventually, in my experience people tend to delude themselves all too quickly at that level. They're *so* sure that such and such is immoral but then it turns out that they're relatively easily flipped, and that behind the sanctimony is often little more than insubstantial, unreflective bravado and emotional tension. Practical and quasi-practical considerations by way of contrast are often more stable and effectively decisive (letting the chips of principled rationalization fall where they may).
(ii) At any rate, some of my argument in the race case is only semi- or quasi-practical.
- That racial ideas aren’t well-formed or well-understood enough to make for a legalized partition structure tells us that racial distinctions are relatively insubstantial/ephemeral compared to sex
- That the vast majority of roles are sexually specific (so that it’s almost certain that, say, Streep has never competed with Pacino for a role) whereas only a small minority of roles are racially specific (Will Smith and Larry Fishburne and Denzel compete every day with Keanu and Clooney and Crowe etc. for roles, e.g,, Crowe turned down the part of Morpheus in the Matrix movies before Fishburne got it; reportedly everything gets offered first to Will Smith these days) is telling us that in a very wide range of cases race really does drop out, that it mostly doesn't make for incomparabilities in casting). Roles that aren't sexually specific - famously Ripley in Alien - are the exception, whereas racially non-specific roles are the norm. The metaphysics of race is lousy and diffuse enough that the implications of race for acting is obscure in most cases, and isn't cast for. Race-based acting awards would require us not only to chose one from among the many possible racial schemes, that choice would be fateful in that it would entangle us in a project of erecting, and making visible, and policing that scheme's set of boundaries - boundaries that the industry itself had little uncoerced interest in. Charming.
- (some) single-sex schools, prisons and hospitals
- all manner of age-restricted institutions (can’t be president until 35, can’t pick up social security until 65, and so on)
- Green & left-wing political parties around the world that require male and female co-leaders
- Political systems that require party candidates to be alternately male and female
- many important awards classifying by age, e.g., Fields and Bates medals for mathematicians and economists under 40
- awards for performance that are often age- and sex-specific.
(iv) Directors, writers etc., like choreographers and fashion designers compete directly with each other for glory – those jobs aren’t sexed any more than being a mathematician or an engineer is – whereas performing tends to be strongly sexed. That women might be under-represented in these very prestigious, non-performance areas doesn’t change that (although it might show that lots of sexist forces are still in play). No woman has ever won a Fields medal in mathematics, but all a woman has to do to win one tomorrow is to do sufficiently stellar work. Prove an important result that anyone else could in principle have proved, that many have tried to prove but that all have failed....and you're in, regardless of sex. The first female Fields Medal winner may indeed have to overcome lots of sexism en route, but that will be as nothing compared to the effort and satisfactions involved in topping an intellectual summit that had eluded everyone previously. All conjectures and theorems from the Riemann Hypothesis down are her oysters, just as they are for everyone else. Similarly, Bigelow won her big award fair and square against all-comers, directing a film that, in principle, anyone could have made, but that only she did: end of story. Performing – acting, dancing and modeling doesn’t work that way. Mirren is a great actress. Turn Prospero into a woman – bring Propero to her – and she’s front of the line for the role, but if the role stays a man then Mirren is out of luck. But that’s the same lack of luck that almost all actors share almost all of the time. Except perhaps for a few hyper-androgynous types (who'll tend to be out of luck for ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine roles - no one really gets to 'do it all'), they’re sexed/gendered just as much as they are whatever age they are (except perhaps for a very few true Peter Pan-types), and so are most roles. If a role doesn’t come to them along those basic dimensions, they aren't right for it (under any normal competitive conditions) and effectively it just isn't open to them. If you haven't played Juliet by the time you're 30 then you're probably out of luck. And if you are man then (again, under any normal competitive conditions) Juliet is almost certainly out of reach at any age - rewrite to Julian and you're in business. Sexed acting awards reflect these sorts of realities.
(v) The Guardian had an interview with Mirren this weekend headlined 'I want to play Hamlet!'. This occasioned heated discussion almost all of which was wrong-headed, and about which I had to say the following:
When Mirren says 'I don't want to play Gertrude, I want to play Hamlet' she isn't talking about herself now, she's talking about herself over her whole career, i.e., a female Hamlet would have been a great role for her back in the day. (I'm guessing that Mirren would agree that male Hamlet would only be open to super-androgynous types like Tilda Swinton, again not to her now, but, as it were, back in the day.) The headline for the article misleads - more grist to Mirren's lifelong mill about The Guardian - but readers/commenters do need to read more carefully.