The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Earlier this week Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe became only the fourth film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, after Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 1975), Stephen Hunter (Washington Post, 2003) and Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal, 2005).
A few other movie critics have been named as Pulitzer finalists -- Stephen Schiff (Boston Phoenix, 1983), Andrew Sarris (Village Voice, 1987), Matt Zoller Seitz (Dallas Observer, 1994), Stephen Hunter (Baltimore Sun, 1995), Peter Rainer (New Times Los Angeles, 1998), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post, 2008), A.O. Scott (New York Times, 2010) -- and I've read and admired many of them over the years.
I was first impressed by Morris's writing when he was in San Francisco, where he wrote for both the Chronicle and the Examiner, in the late 1990s. With him and Ty Burr on the movie beat, the Boston Globe now has one of the best critical teams around. And that's saying something: The New York Times team of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis is far and away the finest in that paper's history.
The Pulitzer submissions from Morris (who's only 36) covered films and subjects such as "The Help," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," "The Tree of Life," "Drive," the "Fast and Furious" series, "Scream 4," "Weekend," "Water for Elephants," Sidney Lumet and Steve Jobs. A few excerpts to give you an idea of what earned him the prize:
I'm at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder this week, honored to be continuing the 40-year tradition of the Ebert Cinema Interruptus with "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and participating in panel discussions with some really smart, really swell people from all over the place. This morning I was on a panel about science in movies with Seth Shostak, Sidney Perkowitz and Michael Fink, a member of executive committee of the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and one of the key people in charge of the dinosaur sequences in Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
So, when we were done with our 10-minute presentations and it was time for the panelists to ask questions amongst themselves before turning the Q&A over to the audience, you know what I had to ask Michael Fink, after the discussions we've had here: Since, as he acknowledged, the CGI dinosaurs are painstakingly created from 0s and 1s and therefore has to be meticulously planned in every detail, what was the intent of the pivotal scene in which the one dinosaur stomped on, and then seemed to caress/stroke, a smaller dino who was lying in a riverbed?
"The number of people blogging television online -- it's ridiculous. They don't know what we're building. And by the way, that's true for the people who say we're great. They don't know. It doesn't matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn't mean anything until there's a beginning, middle and an end. [...]
I do have a certain amused contempt for the number of people who walk sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along. It's selling more DVDs now than when it was on the air. But I'm indifferent to who thinks Omar is really cool now, or that this is the best scene or this is the best season. It was conceived of as a whole, and we did it as a whole. For people to be picking it apart now like it's a deck of cards or like they were there the whole time or they understood it the whole time -- it's wearying. Because no one was there in the beginning, or the middle, or even at the end. Our numbers continued to decline from Season 2 on.* -- David Simon, creator of "The Wire," "Generation Kill," "Treme"
I've heard some very good film critics make this argument before, too. Of course, a movie has a beginning, a middle and an end (although, as Jean-Luc Godard reminded us, not necessarily in that order). That's the fabled "three-act structure" all the screenplay manuals talk about. Wim Wenders and other great directors have observed that they always make at least two movies: the one they set out to make and the one they discover while they're trying to make the first one. Same goes for watching a movie or TV series: there's always the show you watch when its destination is unknown, and the one you reconsider after you know how it ended up.
April 5 would have been Bette Davis's 104th birthday. I was reminded of this interview I did with her in 1988, which appeared on my CinePad website 10 years later:
When my former Seattle Times editor called me, a few months after I'd moved to Los Angeles, to say he wanted me to interview Bette Davis, I wasn't as thrilled as I probably should have been. I realized it was a rare opportunity -- she was giving only three interviews to promote the paperback version of her book about recovering from her stroke -- but Bette Davis had never been my glass of lemonade.
I just never really got the whole Bette-Davis-As-Icon thing. To me, she was a movie star, a part of Hollywood history (I admired the way she took on the studio bosses when they -- and she -- were at the peak of their powers), but with the exception of All About Eve (where she really used her movie-star mega-wattage as part of the role), I hadn't regarded her as a great actress. I mean, she was no Barbara Stanwyck, who was equally adept as a screwball comedienne, a tragic heroine, or a femme fatale.
But of course, I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to interview a screen legend; there just weren't that many of them left. I remember thinking it was kind of funny and appropriate that she was living on the outskirts of West Hollywood (in the Century House on Havenhurst), mecca to the gay men who really worshipped her. But why did they? Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn't aged well? Or was it that she was Larger Than Life, a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both...
Well, I'll say this: She sure knew how to be Bette Davis. She was cantankerous and flamboyant, but I also thought there was an undercurrent of playfulness to her behavior. Not that I thought she was "performing," or putting on a Bette Davis Act; I think she was probably like this most of the time. But I also think she rose to the occasion, somewhat, because she liked the attention, and liked the feeling that she was communicating -- albeit through me -- to her public.
It was a stellar afternoon...
My uneasiness about the relationship between Mike Daisey's theatrical piece "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" and its presentation as journalism on This American Life centers on three things. The first has to do with the art of storytelling. Daisey is a performer and storyteller who combines personal anecdotes, fiction and fact, into stage monologues. Nothing wrong with that; it's what monologists do. The second has to do with journalism. This American Life, the Chicago Public Radio/PRI show, also focuses on storytelling -- often personal stories -- but expects them to meet the factual standards of journalism, unless otherwise noted. As host Ira Glass said in the show's most recent episode, retracting the earlier one called "Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory": "Although [Daisey is] not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything that he was going to say on our program would have to live up to journalistic standards. He had to be truthful. And he lied to us."
And the third, and probably the most troublesome aspect for me, has to do with the media's definition of "the story" itself, which has focused on details about Apple (because it makes a better story to connect the shiny new iPad or iPhone to cheap Chinese labor), even though Apple is just one of many major corporate customers of Foxconn, the company that runs the factories. Some very good reporting has been done on the subject (by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza in the New York Times and various reporters at CNN and NPR, just to name a few). But the hook is always Apple. And while I have no reason to believe the reporting is untrue, the framing of the story can be misleading.
Rush Limbaugh's so-called "slutgate" brouhaha reminds me of a scene in Kenneth Lonergan's great film "Margaret." After a heated classroom argument about 9/11, a student says: "I think this whole class should apologize to Angie because all she did was express her opinion about what her relatives in Syria think about the fact that we bombed the shit out of a practically medieval culture... and everybody started screaming at her like she was defending the Ku Klux Klan!" Whereupon, one of the teachers says that jumping down someone's throat when you disagree with them is "censorship." Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) goes ballistic: "This class is not the government!"
Lisa's point is significant -- and it's one of the movie's many sharp insights into how Americans argue. We have a hard time separating our personal feelings from the legal system, a conflict that's goes to the core of Lisa's moral dilemma. (And for some reason we think it's a rational defense to say that someone else did something just as bad but didn't get punished for it as much.) The classroom of teenagers, reacting spontaneously and having a free discussion (even if it became raucous and uncivil) was not an attempt to prevent, modify or control the expression of Angie's ideas, but an attempt (by some, at least) to refute them. And while censorship isn't limited to government, church, commercial or social repression, the phrase "freedom of speech" (as outlined in the First Amendment) applies to government restrictions on what "the people" can say.
"Our slogan's 'Country First.' Lieberman and Pawlenty are 'Country First' choices. Sarah Palin will be perceived as a self-serving political maneuver. You may not only lose this election, John, you just might lose your reputation right along with it." -- prescient warning by McCain advisor Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) in "Game Change"
First, there's this: Austin Pendleton as Joe Lieberman. I just want to mention that casting masterstroke up-front because, even though he only gets about two minutes of screen time (and most of it is in the background) it's one of those little touches that shows the people who made "Game Change" have an eye for the telling detail. I had so much fun watching this movie. The funny thing is, it isn't exactly satire, maybe because that's already inherent in the real-life material. It's a comedy (I think), but the humor is fairly mild, certainly not as funny as Sarah Palin's public appearances actually were. I guess we're just used to her now.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed "Game Change," which goes out of its way to demonstrate understanding and sympathy for Palin, and absolves John McCain of all responsibility for his unconscionable campaign in 2008. (Spoiler alert: It was his advisers who screwed up!) Honestly, McCain and Palin should drop down on their knees and thank everybody involved in this picture for their kindness and discretion: director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Recount") and writer Danny Strong ("Recount"), who adapted the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and a top-notch cast, headed by Woody Harrelson as McCain advisor Steve Schmidt (who is really the main character), Julianne Moore as Palin and Ed Harris as McCain. It's just a shame Harris doesn't have a bigger part to play in the proceedings.
"Game Change" is patterned on redemptive Frank Capra and Preston Sturges archetypes (a dash of "Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington" and maybe quite a lot of "Hail, the Conquering Heroine" -- minus the hero's moral torment over misrepresenting himself), even if the screwball energy is missing. Although, things get fairly dark (as they often do in Capra and Sturges) when Palin shuts down and goes catatonic, overwhelmed by the advisers who are trying to make her into someone and something she is not (neither a conventional politician, nor a credible candidate for Vice President of the United States), she finally snaps out of it, drawing strength from her love of family and state and country, and "goes rogue" in the third act, rediscovering her unique voice and her true spirit. That's a generous assessment of her character, but it's left up to you to decide whether the Real Sarah Palin is someone who oughtta be in politics.Above: The Real Thing
Yeah, you saw "The Artist" so you know it was a big deal when sound technology took over the movies. (Except that really you don't, because "The Artist" is only interested in the arrival of talkies as an obstacle to its love story. You'll learn more about the ramifications of the transition from film to video in pornography from P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" than you will about the technological and aesthetic consequences of the shift from silents to sound in "The Artist.") David Bordwell concludes his awe-inspiring, in-depth series on "Pandora's digital box: From films to files" with some observations about the myths, realities and possibilities of digital projection (something the vast majority of moviegoers have yet to notice, I'd bet, although it's having a huge effect on distribution and exhibition) and finds a fantastic quote from "hacker historian" George Dyson:
"A Pixar movie is just a very large number, sitting idle on a disc."
That's not to diss Pixar, it's just a vivid statement of digital reality.
The ongoing switch from analog to digital movie projection is indeed a big deal, but I was struck by this observation from DB:
As far as I'm concerned, that's the sub-head of the year -- for the first section of Greg Ferrara's perfectly observed (and, for me, exhilaratingly cathartic) Cinema Styles blog post, Five Years, Five Peeves, Five Reasons to Go On. It's so sharp (and not just when I happen to share his point of view) and funny that I feel like offering an annotated response. You should read the whole thing (I couldn't even get past the first item without stopping to leave an enthusiastic comment), but I will refrain... sort of. There's a lot to consider here. Lemme just hit some of the highlights:
I have a problem with a lot of modern cinema. I don't like the way most of it looks, I don't like the way it's edited (too choppy and frenetic) and I don't like the way it's acted (so painfully naturalistic that a wide range of performances are thoroughly interchangeable). And I have that feeling with a frighteningly high percentage of modern movies. But mostly, I have a problem with the way the movies look. And when I say I have a problem, I mean even with movies I like. We all know I don't like CGI very much (I even do a series on special effects before CGI took over) and this is a big problem because it's now everywhere, in practically all movies. Take "Hugo," directed by Martin Scorsese. I use this movie as an example because it was a movie I liked and thus, I can assure you it is not me reacting to a movie I hate or using it as an excuse to hate the movie. No, I liked "Hugo" but I hated most of the look of it.
For months, even before it was released, I found myself feeling a strange reluctance to see "Hugo." I still haven't seen it, but I plan to do so in the next week or so -- though I'm surprised to find that I am not looking forward to the latest Martin Scorsese Picture. Why? I hadn't quite put my finger on it until I read Greg's piece. It's because I hate the frothy, cotton-candy look of the stills I've seen. I compared the look of "Avatar" to Thomas Kinkade and Thai restaurant fiber-optic flower lamps (remember Michael Atkinson's priceless protest: "What, am I a forest animal, unthinkingly hypnotized by shiny objects?").
I was floored by Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" the first time I saw it, though (as is usually the case for me, even with movies that don't negotiate complex plots in slyly evasive/elliptical styles), I couldn't have told you exactly what happened. That didn't concern me at all, however, because like its central character George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the movie is so meticulously observant that I never felt I was missing out on anything important, even when I wasn't sure exactly what was going on. It kept me in the emotional moment, and I knew I could figure out the details later on.
The stories behind the relationships at the Circus (nickname for Britain's covert intelligence agency) were tangled -- and yet clearly delineated -- enough to deliver a cumulative emotional payoff. And the more I lived with the vivid memory of the movie (it has stayed with me, unshakably), and the more times I've seen it (thrice, so far), the more my appreciation of it has grown. It has slowly climbed up my list of 2011 favorites, and by the second time I saw it, I was absolutely sure it had eclipsed any other English-language movie I'd seen during the year.
(For gaffe squadders who enjoy those fits of righteous indignation that only award nominations can truly provide, let me suggest that the most egregious oversight in this year's Oscar batch is the lack of acknowledgment for "Tinker Tailor" in the categories of best picture, supporting actor (anyone), supporting actress (Kathy Burke), cinematography, art direction, editing, costume design, and so on down the line. Screenplay, actor and music -- all well-deserved, though.)
First-rate movies often inspire first-rate criticism, and it's been thrilling to read some of the year's best writing inspired by one of its best movies. Here's a sample of some of the finest stuff I've read (all of it after I saw, and wrote a little about, the movie -- so beware of spoilers), with links to the full pieces, which I strongly recommend you follow.