Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obviously, Tuesday was an historic day for the United States: the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. It was an all-day telethon, with all the networks devoting hours to the inauguration, the swearing-in, the balls, etc. Obama's speech actually was very judicious: no real rhetoric, and an attempt to keep expectations realistic about the future.

On Tuesday, i went to the press screening of "Panic in Needle Park"; turns out i'd never seen that film (though i caught bits and pieces of it on the Fox Movie Channel); with the recent screening of "Puzzle of a Downfall Child", i'm catching up with Jerry Schatzberg's early work. What can i say? Trying-to-be-gritty, down-and-dirty junkie movies aren't exactly my thing. There's no narrative arch: once the heroine (Kitty Winn) gets hooked, it's a constant regurgitation of getting high, not getting dope, getting strung out. Yet it's well-done for its type. Schatzberg (a photographer prior to becoming a movie director) does like to find avisual style that suits each movie: the gritty, semidocumentary look of "Panic", the glossy, fashion-mag sheen of "Puzzle", the dusty, Southern feel of "Honeysuckle Rose". And today, went to the press screening of Chiara Clemente's "Our City Dreams", a documentary portrait of five women artists: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero. The "city" is New York City, and the movie was well-done. However, i had a problem: two artists that i'm practically allergic to are Kiki Smith and Marina Abramovic. And sure enough, when Kiki came on the screen and started yapping, i fell asleep... and didn't wake up until near the end of Marina Abramovic's section, when she goes to the Philippines to do a performance that was supposed to be some sort of... what? comment? elegy? stupid imperialist bullcrap? about the tsunami. Just because she's a woman, when she makes piggy statements about Asian people, i'm not supposed to notice? But the Nancy Spero section was a delight, though much abbreviated: it was the one section that really felt like it should have been longer. Nancy Spero is one of those people whose life has been full of intriguing turns, and she talks about some of them, such as her marriage to Leon Golub, and their decision to move to Paris in the 1950s because the type of art they were doing (figurative) at a time when abstraction was the rage in New York City, but their decision to move back to the U.S. in the early 1960s and the way their art became "political" as the Vietnam War escalated and they both were involved in antiwar activities and their art became emblematic of the antiwar movement.

On the way back home, i stopped by the NonImperialist Bookstore, and bought a copy of Marcia B. Siegel's "Howling Towards Heaven", her study of Twyla Tharp. I read it on the subway home. A good, solid book, but there's something missing. That something is very simply this: of all the people i've met in my life, Twyla Tharp is probably among the top ten most miserable, nasty, vicious people i've ever met. Yet i love her work, i think she's a great choreographer, and "The Bix Pieces" ranks among the top dozen or so theatrical experiences of my life. Why is she such a bitch? What's her problem? No one i've ever met has ever been able to explain her problem to me. As an artist, she is totally defensible; as a human being, there is no excuse for Twyla Tharp.

Today was the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. For the last month, the various guilds (Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild) had nominated this year's choices, and it looked like it was going to be: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", "The Dark Knight", "Frost/Nixon", "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire". Well, today's big surprise was that "The Dark Knight" was shafted in favor of "The Reader" which wound up with all the big nominations: Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress.

The nominations are what they are, but i'm tired of people saying this was not a good year at the movies: i thought there were many wonderful films released in 2008. I don't go to tentpole movies (is that what they're called?), and i haven't bothered with any of the franchise movies. So: i've never seen a Harry Potter movie, i saw the first Bourne movie but none of the sequels, i only seen the Spiderman series in sections on TV. And what i've seen hasn't made me want to rush out to see the rest. But i do know that "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" (that one, i saw) were both popular and well-done enough to get good reviews. But the Academy Awards are not about what's "popular", nor are they really about critical values: they're an exercise in what a relatively small "community" thinks of itself.

In the 1960s, Stanley Kauffmann noted that a new generation of directors had been in power in Hollywood; in his review of "Bonnie and Clyde", he discussed this situation: "Changes in America have, inevitably, changed the tone of the film industry; a college-bred generation of producers and directors (and screenwriters and publicity men) has come into being - quite different in self-estimate and status hunger from the first few generations of American film workers.... This latest film-making generation that has come to power (to power - as opposed to small independent or "underground" film makers) operates comfortably within a cosmos of intense commercial pressure in which these men have nicely adjusted their ambitions for intellectual prestige. But this reconciliation prevents them from making the sheer entertainments, comic or serious, of the palmy Hollywood days - the "sincere" days, as Jean-Luc Godard once described them with peculiar accuracy; and of course it also prevents fidelity to art and intellect." It's been some 40 years since Stanley Kauffmann wrote that, and the situation of Hollywood has, if anything, gotten more schizoid.

And people in Hollywood are split, but the Academy Awards always reflect this. However, some very nice nominations: Richard Jenkins for "The Visitor" and Melissa Leo for "Frozen River" among the Best Actor/Actress nominees. However, it should be noted that Leo took the "indie" slot, and that left Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky") and Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy") out of the running. I think Melissa Leo is a brilliant actress (unless i'm mistaken, she was my choice for Best Actress in the Village Voice/LA Weekly and the IndieWire polls), but i wish that Michelle Williams and Sally Hawkins had been recognized with nominations.

Of course, the minute that the nominations are announced, and posted on various blogs, such as Anne Thompson's Variety blog (, or Carrie Rickey's Philadelphia Inquirer blog (, there are always people who have to express an opinion. (It's like yesterday, Carrie posted an item on her blog about Oscar snubs, and, as usual, the "Saving Private Ryan" should have won over "Shakespeare in Love" debate comes up again. Well, i remember talking to Pauline when that happened, and she laughed, and said, thank God, i'm glad that people voted for something they actually enjoyed. Pauline felt that "Saving Private Ryan" was the kind of bucking-for-glory snoozefest that talented filmmakers go for when they think they're ripe for prestige, hence the quote from Stanley Kauffmann. And she also felt that, spectacular as the battles scenes may have been, the script was an atrocity of half-baked notions culled from movies like "Battleground" and "A Walk in the Sun" and "The Story of G.I. Joe" and "Air Force". And the cliches extended to the characters: it was the old bomber-crew cast again, with different ethnicities, etc.)

But people don't care about the script (not really): if they did, why would anybody think "Lawrence of Arabia" (which has one of the most obscurist scripts of all time) was a great movie? Robert Bolt's script can't clarify the conflicts of Turkey and Greece during World War I, and it doesn't make clear Lawrence's views or his beliefs or his convictions. (Yet T.E. Lawrence was very clear: all that's needed is to read what the man himself wrote, and then you wonder why the movie couldn't be as clear.) But that's just me.

And by the way, a movie which is a brilliantly witty gloss on the man who is supposed to be the pillar of Anglo-American culture, the man who had been acknowledged as the greatest playwright in the English language (it used to be said the greatest playwright ever), co-written by one of the acknowledged "great" English-language playwrights of the 20th Century (Stoppard is up there with Shaw, Beckett, Harold Pinter): this movie is nothing? But an impressively done, pasted-together rehash of those damned World War II movies that most of us should have seen already: this is better?

The other day, i watched part of "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" (it was showing on TCM) and... it was virtually incomprehensible! Because the entire Cinerama experience, where the screen(s) literally overwhelmed you, can't be duplicated on TV. No matter how big the screen. The action seemed... you couldn't really see the performers, because there were no real close-ups in most of the movie. And the reason was the Cinerama screen was so big that what seems like a long shot looks like a close-up when it's all around you!


Post a Comment

<< Home