Sunday, January 30, 2011

This past week, there was a "mystery" in the art world: by last Sunday, there were "rumors" about Dennis Oppenheim's death, but there was no confirmation. And because of that, the New York Times refused to publish an obituary. Could this be an elaborate hoax, the ultimate in conceptual art? Or was this real? Finally, by Wednesday, the circumstances and the actuality of Dennis Oppenheim's death proved to be true, the funeral was held that day, and the obituary was promptly printed in Thursday's Times (which we never saw because there was another snow storm and that messed up delivery of the New York Times). But the obituary was online. The whole situation was very bizarre. In this era of instant communication, with e.mails and texting and the internet, there are still so many areas of miscommunication.

And right now, we're watching as Egypt explodes, as the young people in that country are demanding (among other things) the right to access to electronic communication options. And we are getting so many images from these new devices, like cellphones with built-in cameras. But the United States is in a curious position, since the protesters are pro-democracy, and the US interests are tied to the current dictatorship. Capitalism isn't democratic: it's always aligned with the most repressive regimes, which can provide a cheap labor mass and non-competitive rates.

Enough with the unpaid political announcements. Back to obits. A while back, i was asked why i kept posting about the deaths of various people (Blake Edwards, Ellen Stewart, Susannah York, et al) and it's because, after a certain age, the people one encountered and/or admired during that period when one was becoming interested in the arts are now at the point where they're dying off. Someone like Ellen Stewart, or Dennis Oppenheim, or Milton Babbitt (whose obit just appeared in today's NY Times), played such a crucial role in the development of off-off-Broadway theater, or post-Minimal art, or new music, and so many people were influenced by them. The interconnectedness of the American arts in the postwar expansion, from 1946 to 1990, made it impossible for anyone to be immune to these influences.

As i mentioned about Ellen Stewart, i was not someone who was part of the La Mama circuit, but since i toiled off-off-Broadway, i certainly was acquainted with her. Dennis Oppenheim was an artist who knew many of my friends: he was an artist who liked to surround himself with younger artists, and he'd often show up at openings, as if he were checking out the competition. Though Milton Babbitt came from the generation of American composers (see also Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, et al) whose seriousness often resulted in a kind of obscurity, his teaching at Princeton turned out to be incredibly influential; one of his students would be Stephen Sondheim.

But i remember going to concerts in the 1960s and 1970s of music by Babbitt, Stefan Volpe, Brown, or seeing Dennis Oppenheim at the various art openings and art parties, or (of course) seeing Ellen Stewart at La Mama.

But there's a lot of other things to write about, since the past few weeks have brought about a lot of events. This week brought the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. Unlike other years, when the choices ranged from the grossly popular ("Avatar") to the unfortunately obscure ("The Hurt Locker"), this year the nominees included movies which (surprise, surprise) actually connected with audiences, as witness their (relative) box office success. I use the term "relative" because a low-budget movie (such as "Black Swan" which was reportedly brought in for about $13 million) which is now on track to break $100 million at the box office, just as "The Kids Are All Right" (budgeted at about $6 million) went on to a box office of about $50 million. The fact that these movies are hits, that there proved to be ways of marketing these movies, of getting them into theaters across the country, and of getting audiences to show up for these movies, is amazing. And this year, there are any number of movies nominated which people have actually seen: not just blockbusters like "Inception" but movies like "The Social Network", "Black Swan", "True Grit", "The Fighter" and "The King's Speech".

Going into last week, the momentum seemed to be with "The Social Network" but all that has changed: last Sunday, the Producers Guild announced their awards, and their winner was "The King's Speech"; yesterday, the Directors Guild announced their awards, and the winner was Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech". That's two for two in two of the most important races before the Academy Awards. So it's going to be a real horse race.

If "The King's Speech" wins (which i have a feeling is a strong possibility), then it will represent the fact that, no matter how much "younger" the Academy gets, it will always skew towards sentiment. Which is fine; what i hate is people whining about it. In 1941, it seemed obvious that the vote would go to "How Green Was My Valley" over "Citizen Kane": "Valley" was a big hit box-office-wise, as well as a deeply emotional drama, while "Citizen Kane" was a box-office-flop and was "cerebral" besides, and movies that are in any way reflective are not exactly Hollywood's strong suit. What Hollywood? A majority of moviegoers aren't exactly reflective.

"The Social Network" is a movie of-the-moment, a movie that, with all its flaws (and many of the flaws are remarkably similar to "Citizen Kane", such as the cheap-jack melodramatics of the motivation, comic-book Freud as even Orson Welles once acknowledged), is a contemporary movie in the same way that movies like "Bonnie And Clyde" and "The Graduate" seemed to be contemporary in their time. And it's indicative of the fact that we're so unused to movies connecting in that way now, that people are hostile and suspicious of it, as if there's something wrong with a movie that's smart and a hit. Right now, i'm watching "The Lost Weekend", which was another movie that, in its time, seemed up-to-the-minute, with its serious-problem dramatics and its on-location shooting.

In terms of the Academy Award nominations, there are some obvious recommendations: if you're a micro-indie and you've got some critical momentum to your film, get your screeners to the Academy membership. Don't think that these people are going to seek out your little movie, which may not be playing anymore, or, if playing, may be in some obscure little art house which nobody goes to. Make sure these people see your movie. This is the way the "Winter's Bone" people are operating. The result? Nominations for Best Film, Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini). When Debra Granik came out with "Down to the Bone" a few years ago, she operated on the indie-filmmaker assumption that her little masterwork was so important that the Academy membership would seek it out. As if! Even with something like the Independent Spirit Awards, you can't assume that people will seek out your movie. In many cases, how can they? Make sure that your publicity budget includes the cost of making DV-Rs and mailing them out. This winter, for example, is brutal, and it's making traveling in New York City difficult, so attending the special Independent Spirit screenings isn't really easy or feasible. This is especially true for minority filmmakers. A movie like "Night Catches Us" needs that little push that can come when you send out your screeners. But since they're not bothering, "Night Catches Us" will be one of those movies that will get overlooked. That's all i'm saying.


Blogger Michael O'Sullivan said...

I certainly agree with these sentiments - now in late middle age I am at the stage when people I grew up admiring and/or met like Susannah York are departing the scene at relatively young ages, so one feels the need to comment and mark their passing.

7:48 AM


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