"The Ghost Writer": Summit Entertainment's Latest Delicate Flower
Last Friday I went to the opening-night showing of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” at the Egyptian Theater about a mile from my home. It’s a fun movie, smart and adult, and so of course it’s only playing in 42 other theaters around the country. Not even one per state.
Will it go wider? It’s being distributed by Summit Entertainment L.L.C. (as opposed to L.P. (R.I.P.)), the minor studio responsible for both the “Twilight” movies and “The Hurt Locker.” Last November Summit opened the “Twilight” sequel in over 4,000 theaters and who knows how many screens. Last July it opened “The Hurt Locker” in four theaters and probably that many screens. During its entire, six-month run, “Locker” wound up making $12 million domestically, which the “Twilight” sequel most likely made by the first showing of the first day.
This isn’t an argument against “Twilight.” I’m not arguing against making money. I’m arguing against losing money.
Here’s the history of Summit since it became an L.L.C. in 2006. Sorted by U.S. gross:
||U.S. Gross / Theaters||Opening / Theaters||Open|
|1||Twilight: New Moon||37%||$296,023,000||4,124||$142,839,137||4,024||11/20/09|
|5||Never Back Down||16%||$24,850,922||2,729||$8,603,195||2,729||3/14/08|
|7||Fly Me to the Moon||22%||$13,816,982||713||$1,900,523||452||8/15/08|
|8||The Hurt Locker||97%||$12,671,105||535||$145,352||4||6/26/09|
|10||Next Day Air||22%||$10,027,047||1,139||$4,111,043||1,138||5/8/09|
|15||The Brothers Bloom||48%||$3,531,756||209||$90,400||4||5/15/09|
|16||The Ghost Writer||75%||$1,129,000||43||$183,009||4||2/19/10|
* Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics only
Look at those theater totals at places 9 through 14—compared with "The Hurt Locker" at no. 8 and with "The Ghost Writer," which just opened. I’ve been railing against this kind of thing for years. A.O. Scott railed better last August when he critiqued the general direction of movies:
Middle-aged actors and critically lauded directors look like extravagances rather than sound investments. Forty is the new dead. Auteur is French for unemployed. “The Hurt Locker” — the kind of fierce and fiery action movie that might have been a blockbuster once upon a time — is treated like a delicate, exotic flower, released into art houses and sold on its prestige rather than on its visceral power.
“The Hurt Locker” was Summit’s delicate flower last summer, and, because they released it delicately, they made money from it delicately. Now they’re treating “The Ghost Writer” the same way.
Again, the problem isn't that “The Ghost Writer” is released into 1/100th the number of theaters of “Twilight." It’s that it’s released into 1/50th the number of theaters of “Push” or “Never Back Down” or “Sorority Row” or “Sex Drive": Crap that nobody wants, nobody goes to, and which lose money. But at least these movies are given the chance to lose money. "The Hurt Locker" and "The Ghost Writer" aren't even given that chance.
Quality film, in other words, isn't just treated as its own genre. It's treated as a genre 50 times less important than the others.When the others lose money.
It's a greater mystery than the one the ghost writer solves.
Gopnik on Salinger
If you didn't read Adam Gopnik's postscript on J.D. Salinger in The New Yorker a few weeks, back, do so now. I know how difficult it is to write about Salinger's writing, and Gopnik gets to the heart of what made him unique and necessary. Some excerpts:
- “...his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with its matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm.”
- “...it was Salinger’s readiness to be touched, and to be touching, his hypersensitivity to the smallest sounds and graces of life, which still startles.”
- “He was a humorist with a heart before he was a mystic with a vision...”
Quote of the Day
"You're not so nice and polite in your fiction," he said. "You're a different person."
"I should hope so."
—E.I. Lonoff talking to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," an underrated classic.
Review: “Robin Hood” (1938)
WARNING: ROPE-SWINGING SPOILERS
Whenever the film industry develops a new technology they tend not to scrimp. Sound? How about SONG! Color? We’ll make every red as succulent as a marichino cherry! 3-D? Let’s throw shit in your face for two hours!
“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which was originally to be filmed in black-and-white and star James Cagney, was one of the first films shot with the three-strip technicolor process, and it shows, because the color really, really shows. Robin Hood was never so green, Will Scarlett was never so scarlet, and Sherwood Forest never looked like such a merry place to live.
Why is the movie still so good? Because it lives up to its title. These are adventures. They’re fun. Against a backdrop of oppression and tyranny, famine and regicide, everyone takes things about as seriously as little boys on a neighborhood caper. No one bleeds, the best fights are with friends, and you get to swing on rope swings. Grit hasn’t clogged the works yet.
Then there’s Errol Flynn. Douglas Fairbanks may have been more graceful, and subsequent Robins may have been more realistic, but no Robin Hood was more charming, romantic, or seemed to have more fun. Ironically, it was not the kind of role he wanted. He was after serious drama, Paul Muni roles, such as “The Life of Emile Zola” or “The Good Earth,” that won Academy awards and respect. Instead he got stuck playing the most famous film version of one of the most legendary characters of all time. We should all be so stuck.
There’s no fat here. It takes the Fairbanks version an hour, and the Costner version 45 minutes, to get us where “Adventures” gets us in five minutes: Robin Hood in Sherwood messing with the bad guys.
You know the backstory: King Richard’s away at the Crusades, he’s left Longchamps as Regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)—with the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) along as comic relief—plot, scheme and steal. When Richard is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, John and Guy drink to a bright, evil future, then spill the wine and watch the red liquid drip on the floor with metaphoric delight. In quick order their men take meat from Saxon butchers and torture Saxon landowners. Then Sir Guy is about to kill Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin), for violating Forest law, but Robin of Locksley (Flynn) and his squire, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), appear on horseback and Robin shoots Guy’s mace from his hand. Now Robin has an enemy (Guy) and a follower (Much).
In every film version of the Robin Hood legend, the outlawed “merry men” are already in Sherwood Forest, either leaderless or led nominally by Little John, when Robin finally appears to offer true leadership. Except here. Here Robin appears first. He has a plan. He's so sure of this plan he saunters into the palace with the king’s deer over his shoulders, and, after annoying Sir Guy, amusing Prince John, and flirting with a put-off Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), lays out his entire plan—the entire story, really—before his enemies:
Robin: I’ll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death. And I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
John: Have you finished?
Robin: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I’ll use every means in my power to fight you.
Cue swordfight against a multitude, bows and arrows, escape into the night.
Why is this movie still so good? It’s exceptionally well-paced—mixing longer, memorable scenes with shorter, necessary exposition. After the above, for example, we watch the following:
Exposition: Robin is declared outlaw, his lands taken.
Long scene: The introduction of Little John
Exposition: Words spreads among the townspeople: “Robin in Sherwood.” “At the gallows oak.”
Exposition: The merry men, gathered together for the first time, take an oath to fight their oppressors to the death.
Exposition: Three examples of same: oppression of Saxons followed by a black arrow, Robin’s arrow, into the chest or back of a Norman knight.
Long scene: Intro of Friar Tuck.
At the end of Tuck’s intro, Will rides up to inform everyone that Sir Guy and the Sheriff are riding through Sherwood with a caravan of gold. And we’re ready.
The movie was initially directed by William Keighley (“Each Dawn I Die”), but Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. thought the Sherwood scenes, filmed on location in Chico, California, lacked vitality, and they replaced him with Michael Curtiz (“Angels with Dirty Faces”; “Casablanca”), who added just that. He filmed additional scenes of the merry men prepping for and then attacking the caravan, and all of that climbing, running and jumping, sometimes directly at the camera, feel like primers for the masculine energy of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The caravan includes, nonsensically, Maid Marian, which affords Robin the opportunity to woo her. Up to this point she’s believed the Norman lies about Saxons. But when the merry men display loyalty for Richard, and, more, when Robin shows her the Saxon poor and the sick that Prince John’s laws have created—living 10 yards from where his men are feasting and whooping it up—she’s won over. I wasn’t. It’s always dangerous for adults to critique the plot points of children’s stories, but the one thing that never made sense to me watching this movie as a child was this Sherwood Forest segregation. “How come the poor and sick haven’t been invited to the feast?” I thought at age 10. “How come they’re stuck in this cold, dark place, while the merry men are living it up over there? Seems unfair.” Thus are critics born.
Afterwards, the Sheriff, proving he’s not just comic relief, comes up with the plan for the archery contest, Robin Hood splits Philip of Arras’ arrow, and, in winning, is revealed, captured and sentenced to hang. It’s Marian, traveling to Kent Road Tavern, who nonsensically provides the escape plan. Following its success, we get a Romeo-and-Juliet-ish balcony scene between the two. Despite closed-mouth kissing and Hays Code proprieties, Flynn and de Havilland are still able to generate a great deal of heat.
Meanwhile, a disguised King Richard returns to England and allies with Robin even as Prince John tries to coronate himself. Marian is imperiled (though not, for once, her virtue—Hays Code again), and there’s the usual final assault on the castle and a duel between Robin and Sir Guy on the castle steps. Check out the long take, where, with Curtiz’s camera gliding back, the two men duel around a thick column and out of camera range but we continue to see their shadows clashing swords; then they come back on the opposite side of the column, foils still clashing. It’s dynamic and mythic, and surely influenced the light-sabre battles between Luke and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not many directors have used shadows better than Curtiz.
Question: Was the Norman-Saxon angle, absent from the Fairbanks version, a comment upon “master race” talk and events already eminating from Nazi Germany? The Crusades, on the other hand, so prominent in the Fairbanks version, are downplayed here, reflecting isolationist sentiment that was popular in the U.S. at the time. When a disguised Richard asks Robin how an outlaw who poaches the King’s deer can be a loyalist, for example, we get the following exchange:
Robin: Those I kill die from misusing the trust that Richard left with them. And the worst of these is Richard’s own brother.
Richard: Oh! Then you blame Prince John.
Robin: No, I blame Richard. His task was here at home defending his own people instead of diverting it to fight in foreign lands.
Richard: You condemn Holy Crusades?
Robin: Aye, I’ll condemn anything that leaves the task of holding England for Richard to outlaws like me.
In the end, with Sir Guy skewered and John and the Sheriff banished, King Richard commands Robin to take the hand of the Lady Marian; their friends all gather round to congratulate them but they slip out of the circle. It’s a replay of Robin slipping out from under a hogpile of Prince John’s men earlier in the movie. Here, he and Marian wind up by the door, where Robin, smiling, shouts: “May I obey all of your commands with equal pleasure, Sire!” Then they leave, the door closes, The End.
It’s what you’d call a Hollywood ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
From PC to Protests: How the Right became everything it despised in the Left
A week ago Friday I was walking through downtown Seattle on my way to work when I noticed, from 6th and Olive, a small group of protesters standing with signs over on 6th and Stewart. I wasn’t wearing my glasses so I couldn’t tell what exactly they were protesting, and gave a momentary thought to checking them out, but kept going my usual way. At 5th I saw two of the protesters talking to some folks. One of the them held a sign I could now read:
Lord, I thought.
So: Engage them? Ask them where they’ve been during the last eight years—when our national debt more than doubled from $5 trillion to over $10 trillion? Ask them if they voted for George W. Bush, whose policies and lack of foresight and accountability brought us to this place? Did they double-down in 2004? Instead I continued on 5th Avenue, where, under the monorail, I saw a few cops, then a few more, then a larger contingent. They were there to protect the protest, or the march, or whatever it was—I didn't see any reports on it. Then I noticed how much traffic was backed up. I thought of the time lost and the tax dollars and oil wasted for these 50 or so protesters. And I thought this of members of the tea party:
“Get a job.”
Has the right-wing become everything it used to despise? They’re all whiners and protesters now. They attack authority—judges, Congress, Democratic presidents. They’re politcally correct, scouring media and movies for signs of the slightest offense. (Some even objected to “The Blind Side,” a positive story about a white southern Christian family, because there's a quick W. joke in the middle of it.) The recent Conservative Political Action Conference called itself "Woodstock" for conservatives. Remember “Easy Rider”—the hippie-biker film from 1969? Its tagline: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere." That’s how these guys feel. They keep wondering where their America went. They keep talking about getting it back.
But they’re repeating history as farce. The marches of the civil rights movement were borne because a group of people had no voice in government and second-class status everywhere. The tea party protests—at least the wing of it most concerned with fiscal responsibility—seem to have been borne because the voice they had in government led to a place they didn’t want to be: with the country overwhelmingly in debt and foundering on the brink of economic disaster. In this way they could be like anti-war protesters of the 1960s, who most likely voted for LBJ over that nuke-loving extremist Barry Goldwater and wound up in a place they didn’t want to be: in a full-fledged war in Vietnam. The difference? These folks protested LBJ. They took to the streets in ’66, ’67, ’68. They didn’t wait for Nixon to get into office. The Tea Partiers were silent for eight years while their guy wrecked the country, then took to the streets as soon as he left.
Last week before going to bed I read Ben McGrath’s piece on the tea partiers in the Feb. 1st New Yorker and got so angry I couldn’t fall asleep until after 1 a.m. I guess I was mostly angry at McGrath and The New Yorker for giving deluded, potentially dangerous people a prominent place to air their views. Fanning the flames in the piece was U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, 4th district, Kentucky, who says cap-and-trade legislation would be “an economic colonization of the hard-working states that produce the energy, the food, and the manufactured goods of the heartland, to take that and pay for social programs in the large coastal states.”
Jesus. Can we have a discussion in this country? Can we have a back-and-forth? The above is like Reagan’s welfare mother with her Cadillac: an urban myth that won't go away. Time and again, statitistics show that the states who get more tax dollars back than they put in tend to be the quote-unquote heartland states. For the last year available, 2005, Davis’ Kentucky is at no. 9 on this list. Kentuckians got back $1.51 for every $1.00 they put in. For which they're complaining. Or Davis is. Here are the big winners in the federal tax game, as per the conservative, anti-tax Tax Foundation:
1. New Mexico
5. West Virginia
6. North Dakota
8. South Dakota
Meanwhile the states that get the least bang for their tax buck? The ones who get screwed in this game? Those awful coastal and liberal Midwest states:
42. New York
47. New Hampshire
50. New Jersey
The tea-partiers actually have a legitimate gripe—about the power of corporations and government—but they're not griping legitimately. Some of them are just plain nuts. They’re “we didn’t land on the moon” nuts. John McCain is a communist. All political parties bow down before George Soros. And many believe in Edgar Cayce? Really? So the tea partiers are full of discontented New Agers? Who were, what, discontent hippies? No wonder they seem like hippies.
This is even nuttier. From McGrath:
An online video game, designed recently by libertarians in Brooklyn, called “2011: Obama’s Coup Fails” imagines a scenario in which the Democrats lose seventeen of nineteen seats in the Senate and a hundred and seventy-eight in the House during the midterm elections, prompting the President to dissolve the Constitution and implement an emergency North American People’s Union, with help from Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and various civilian defense troops with names like the Black Tigers, the International Service Union Empire, and CORNY, or the Congress of Rejected and Neglected Youth. Lou Dobbs has gone missing, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh turn up dead at a FEMA concentration camp, and you, a lone militiaman in a police state where private gun ownership has been outlawed, are charged with defeating the enemies of patriotism, one county at a time.
The final straw for the left was domestic terrorism, the Weather Underground, etc., which pretty much destroyed any progressive movement in this country for decades. Is that where the right is now? Anti-tax proponents emulate al Qaeda by flying planes into federal buildings, killing innocent people. Their actions are sympathized with by Republican congressmen. Republicans running for president condone such violence.
I don’t want this. I really don’t. I want a strong, smart opposition, and the right is becoming a dumb, dangerous farce. And all the while our country suffers.
J.D. Quote of the Day
"A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing. It takes me at least an hour to warm up when I sit down to work. ... Just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more."
—J.D. Salinger, in a letter to Lillian Ross, and quoted in The New Yorker, Feb. 8, 2010
Review: “The Last Station” (2009)
WARNING: WAR AND SPOILERS
It’s odd scribbling critics’ notes while watching Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which is based upon Jay Pirini’s novel on the last days of Leo Tolstoy, since several characters on screen are also taking notes and it’s not exactly positive. More like the scuttling of rats. You want to apologize to other audience members for doing what you’re doing. I’m not a bad person; I’m just a critic.
I was never a Tolstoyan in believing exactly what he believed, or going through the crises he went through, but for a time, in my early twenties, I read him thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Not only was he one of the great 19th century writers but his writing gave birth to the better part of the 20th century: the non-violent movements of Gandhi and King. He’s so identified with the 19th century, in fact, that it’s startling to see the date at the beginning of the movie: 1910. Did Tolstoy really live that long? He did. Long enough to be filmed at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he was born, lived and was buried. He died elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead.
The movie opens with that most awful of 20th-century encounters: the job interview. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is being interviewed by Vladimir Chertkov (a perhaps-too-smarmy Paul Giamatti) about becoming private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Valentin is a Tolstoyan through and through. He’s both vegetarian and celibate, he says. He’s read Tolstoy’s philosophy and wants to live it completely—which is to say: narrowly. He’s been shown the path and wants to stay on that path, and no other, and when he gets the job he tears up from joy, and afterwards continually breathes out from repressed joy, scarcely believing his luck, even though Chertkov makes it apparent that he’s hiring not just a secretary but a spy. He warns Valentin that the Tolstoyan movement has many, many enemies and lists them off: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Tsar’s police, and the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife. This last one is key. He gives Valentin a diary. “Write. Everything. Down,” he says.
Valentin has the peculiar (and dramatically facile) habit of sneezing whenever he’s nervous, and at Yasnaya, which is divided between a commune of workers and the estate of the Tolstoys, he sneezes a lot. At the commune, where he sleeps, he meets a 20th century girl chopping wood, Masha (Kerry Condon), who stares at him boldly, amusedly, and not without interest, and encourages him to speak his mind, despite Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the tight-assed man running the place. “This is a place of freedom,” Sergeyenko says after listing the rules. “We are all equals here,” he says without joy.
At the estate, where Valentin works, he’s greeted by another woman, yelling down at him from the second floor. “You!” she says. So much for equality. This is Tolstoy’s daughter, Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff), who, after he apologizes and sneezes his way into an explanation for his being, tells him to wait in the library. Nothing, of course, could make him happier. Tolstoy’s library! Tolstoy’s books and papers! Then Tolstoy himself arrives, welcomes him, engages him, causes him to cry with happiness. “I am no one and you are Lev Tolstoy,“ Valentin says. ”And you ask me about my work.“ As do all great men. It may be the definition of great men.
Yasnaya is not only divided between workers’ estate and the Tolstoy's estate but between those who believe in the movement (and see Tolstoy as a prophet), and those who are less enamored of equality and fraternity (and see him as a man). The former group includes daughter Sasha; Dushan the doctor (John Sessions), forever scribbling in his notebook; and the initially absent Chertkov, under house arrest elsewhere. The latter group includes, well, the Countess. Tolstoy is caught between groups. Our man, our eyes, Valentin, intellectually sides with the movement but has an open heart. It’s what saves him from the absolutism of the others.
Mirren, by the way, is amazing: annoying yet sympathetic, haughty yet fragile, comic yet tragic. She’s afraid her husband will sign away the copyrights to his work (which he does); she’s afraid that he’s moving away from her (which he is), so she clings, cajoles, seduces. She upbraids him for dressing like a man who tends sheep, then calls herself “his little chicken” and calls him “her big cock” and gets him to crow happily in bed. She reminds him that she bore him 13 children and wrote out “War and Peace” six times and how could he betray her like this? With Valentin she’s equally blunt, telling him he’s “rather handsome in a sort of peculiar way.”. She asks him, while they walk, if he’s a virgin, and when he stutters and sneezes and begins to quote Tolstoy to her, she says breezily, “You know, when he was your age he was whoring in the Caucasus.” Then she gives him a diary and tells him to write down what he sees. “What. You. See,” she says.
Valentin goes for walks with Tolstoy, too, and when Tolstoy asks him the deep questions of life, Valentin quotes Tolstoy to Tolstoy, which is the last thing Tolstoy wants. “I know what I say,” he says pleasantly, “but what do you say?” Valentin admits he doesn’t know. Tolstoy replies, with a touch of helplessness, “Neither do I.” It’s a poignant scene.
Things come to a head (a headier head) when Chertkov is released from house arrest and arrives at Yasnaya. From outside he greets his nemesis, the Countess, who’s on the second-floor balcony:
Chertkov: I’m happy to see you.
Countess: And I’m happy to make you happy.
Chertkov (wearing the tightest of smiles): Ha ha ha ha.
But the tighter she tries to hold onto Tolstoy the more he slips away from her. Meanwhile Valentin is the passive and nervous and then joyful recipient of the advances of Masha, who, like in an adolescent male fantasy, comes to his room at night, silently climbs atop him, and removes her gown. Basically she knocks him off his narrow path and widens his world. Condon, mousy in the HBO series “Rome,” where she played Octavia, the innocent daughter of the villainess, Atia, is stunningly sexy here. Bravo for boldness. McAvoy is also a surprise. He was forgettable to me in “Last King” and “Atonement,” for which he won raves (and BAFTA nominations), and unforgettable here, where every emotion reads visibly, humanly on his face. (Put it this way: He didn’t need the sneeze—except for comic effect.) Yet no one’s mentioning him and the awards season has already passed him by. So it goes.
“The Last Station” is straightforward, enjoyable storytelling, with great performances, that is, on a personal level, whollly evocative. I kept thinking of the last chapter of Philip Roth's near-perfect novella “The Ghost Writer,” entitled Married to Tolstoy," on the difficulties of living with a writer. As Tolstoy gets more and more fed up with his wife, threatening to leave her and Yasnaya Polyana, I also flashed back to my college roommate, Brian M., reading about this incident and laughing uproariously at the image of Tolstoy basically running away from home at the age of 82. It’s less funny here. He only makes it as far as Astopovo, the last station of the title. One feels, as the world gathers to hear of his death, that he’s simply an old man being used.
All of this takes place exactly 100 years ago. As the 20th century progressed, Tolstoy’s views, via Gandhi and King, became more and more important, even as his station in life, the writer’s station, became less and less so. He was born the year after the French government patented the fountain pen, he was 45 years old when the first typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard became commercially successful, and by the time he died, well, he was one of the most famous men in the world. Writers mattered. As the century progressed it became easier to write, and easier to publish, and so more people did, and so it mattered less. And now we’ve got what we’ve got. The egalitarianism Tolstoy sought has played out in the craft he perfected—to the craft’s detriment. We're all equals here.
Scott on Streep
There's a nice piece in the Sunday New York Times by A.O. Scott on the career of Meryl Streep and her 16 Oscar nominations—for which she has won exactly two, and not since 1984 (for a 1983 movie)—and he asks the question that probably shouldn't be asked: “Has she received too much recognition or too little?” Then he sheds that awful journalistic ambiguity and gets out with it: “Meryl Streep is the best screen actress in the world.” There we go.
He talks about her progression: “The movies that established Ms. Streep as a formidable, even intimidating on-screen force were marked by heavy themes and deep, dark dramatic moods: Vietnam, divorce, the Holocaust, missing children, nuclear anxiety.” He suggests she's improved: “She began to reveal a playful, mischievous side, an anarchic impulse that, joined to her formidable timing and technique, has blossomed in the past 10 years or so.” I agree. I particularly agree with “anarchic impulse.” That's a nice turn of phrase. But Scott really hits his stride while talking about '80s movies in general:
Sandwiched between the endlessly mythologized Golden Age of ’70s New Hollywood and the now almost equally sentimentalized decade of the American Indies, the ’80s are comparatively bereft of nostalgic movie-fan affection or revisionist critical love. And yet the respectable films of that era may represent the last gasp of a noble middlebrow ideal. They were ambitious, unapologetically commercial projects intended for the entertainment and edification of grown-up audiences, neither self-consciously provocative nor timidly inoffensive. Some of us grew up on movies like “Sophie’s Choice” and “Out of Africa,” and our fondness outlasts the sense that we eventually outgrew them. Nowadays “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “A Cry in the Dark” would be scruffy little Sundance movies. “Out of Africa” would be in French. “Silkwood” would be “The Blind Side.”
He should've excised that last example. I like the others. The “Kramer vs. Kramer” reference reminded me of what I wrote about “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” two years ago (“...by the end of its run, 'Cuckoo’s Nest,' a dark film about mental patients—that today would probably get a limited release in art houses—finished second only to 'Jaws' in annual box office”); while, yes, the French still make their nostalgic, dull, magic-hour epics, such as “Un long dimanche de fiancaille.” But the “Silkwood”/“Blind Side” comparison is jarring. Both focus on heroic women but one's very liberal and gritty and anti-corporate and has a sad, ambiguous end, and the other's very conservative and family-oriented and pro-business and has a Hollywood ending that isn't less Hollywood for being real. Scott needed a better editor there.
But noble middlebrow ideal? He's exactly right. See the above link and this post from last year's Oscars that I'd all but forgotten about until I ran into it yesterday. Apologies in advance for the Jeff Wellsian “he's right because I agree with him and I was there first” riff.
As for Streep? Scott's words are good but not as good as Morgan Freeman's in this NY Times video in which various actors talk about the best performances of the decade. Some go obscure. Jeff Bridges picks Mike White from “Chuck and Buck.” Some don't even remember names or movies. Then we see Morgan Freeman, unamused, and he tells us: “Meryl Streep in anything she's done in the last 50 years.” You think he's going to expound but then he looks back at the camera, unamused. End story.
- Powerful Ash-Wednesday piece from Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, on Marc Thiessen, another Catholic, and former chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, who defended waterboarding on a Catholic cable channel. The host never challenged him. Sullivan does: quoting the Catechism and some guy named Pope John Paul II:
...whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity ... all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.
- Russell Shorto's New York Times Magazine cover story, "How Christian were the Founders?," about fundamentalist Christian activists on the Texas Board of Education influencing textbooks for most of the country, can be an annoying read—less for the fundamentalists than for Shorto, since he does a bit of the following: 1) Things aren’t the way you think (Read on!); 2) This is how things are; 3) OK, things are the way you think (Thanks for reading!). Specifically, Shorto says that, despite what you might remember, the founding fathers were overwhelmingly Christian; then he goes on to dissect this in the way we remember. They may have been Christian but most were also enlightened rationalists wary of relgiion and interested in keeping the spheres of reason and faith separate. At the same time the piece made me realize, or re-realize, that the opposition is doing the opposite of what they should do. Rather than pull back from including religion in textbooks, they should push forward and try to include as much religious history as possible. This graf in particular is instructive:
IN 1801, A GROUP of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Conn., wrote a letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, congratulating him on his victory. They also had a favor to ask. Baptists were a minority group, and they felt insecure. In the colonial period, there were two major Christian factions, both of which derived from England. The Congregationalists, in New England, had evolved from the Puritan settlers, and in the South and middle colonies, the Anglicans came from the Church of England. Nine colonies developed state churches, which were supported financially by the colonial governments and whose power was woven in with that of the governments. Other Christians — Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers — and, of course, those of other faiths were made unwelcome, if not persecuted outright.
- Teach this. When activists say the founders were Christian, say "Which denomination?" and "What did they think of other denominations?" and "What did they do about it?" and "What parallels do we have to this today?" The first words of the first amendment to the U.S. Consitution are these: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." Why? The fundamentalists want religion in textbooks? Give them religion in textbooks—just not the absolutist version they demand. They've been praying for this a long time, but we all know what St. Teresa of Avila said about answered prayers.
- According to Bloomberg News, the 400 highest-earning households averaged $345 million each in 2007. That's before the Big Fall, of course (although during the Big Slide), but, more importantly, Bloomberg also reports (with italics from me): "The top 400 earners received a total of $138 billion in 2007, up from $105.3 billion a year earlier. Adjusted for inflation, their average income rose almost fivefold since 1992, the figures show." Taxed Enough Already. Right.
- Apparently they're going to make a movie about Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, the wife-swapping Yankees of 1973, with BoSox fan Ben Affleck attached to star. According to Deadline Hollywood's Mike Fleming (an avowed Yankees fan, and thus now on my list), the highly touted screenplay "has the feel of a Hal Ashby movie." Sounds good! Of course these days that means a release into...500 theaters? 250? Do I hear 100? "Sugar," a great baseball movie about a Dominican pitcher coming to the U.S. to pitch in the minors, and dealing with the inevitable culture clash, and the stangeness and whiteness of this vast world, was distributed last spring by Sony Classics. Its widest release? 51 theaters. Three theaters less than "Dil Bole Hadippa!" (Although one better than "L'heure d'ete," my favorite film of 2009.)
- The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is finally going too far for Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience. He didn't mind past acting winners introducing, and talking to, the candidates at last year's ceremony (I did). He was for, or at least wasn't against, the doubling of the best picture nominees from 5 to 10 (I was agin from the get-go). But now the Academy is... 1) forgoing music; 2) snubbing Lauren Bacall; 3) limiting all those great, teary speeches to 45 seconds. He's written a piece about it for Tribeca Films but his shorter version on his blog is better since his personality is in it. (Nathaniel, I'm sorry. I couldn't get past the first sentence of your Tribeca piece.) Make sure you read the comments field, too. Film Experience is one of the few sites where the comments field doesn't make you fear for the fate of the species. Jimmy, in particular, has a great thought on classic-movie-pairing presenters: Dunaway and Beatty; Redford and Streisand; Thelma and Louise. You'll never get Woody Allen, Jimmy, but you can pair Diane Keaton with Al Pacino. Or with Warren Beatty. How about Beatty and Dunaway and Keaton and etc. and etc.? If I could pick one classic movie couple it'd be Allen and Keaton. But many others come to mind. Hoffman and Voigt. Redford and Fonda. Redford and Hoffman. Fonda and Voigt. What about you? Who would you like to see presenting Oscars?
Meant to mention this a couple of weeks ago but we've updated the Movie Reviews section on the site, so now you can sort by year or by genre as well as by title. Much better. At the same time it made me realize what a mixed bag of reviews I have. For the first half of this decade I was a back-up critic at The Seattle Times, which mostly meant reviewing 1) foreign films, 2) documentaries, and 3) Hollywood crap. Give or take a foreign film or doc, it was mostly forgettable stuff. For the second half of the decade, I wrote longer, opinion pieces for MSNBC rather than reviews of individual movies. 2009 was really the first year in which I consistently reviewed the big movies. Of course the pay suffered.
We've also posted the "Three Stories with J.D. Salinger" piece on the General Articles page.
Why Harry Can't Read Rights
So the main argument in yesterday's post was that the product of Hollywood, far from being liberal, is actually conservative, and, despite cries from the right about Hollyweird, on the left coast, being run by—as Sean Penn humorously put it in his Oscar acceptance speech last year—“commie, homo-lovin' sons of guns,” the movies have actually helped conservativism. The movies, which are often simple and absolutist (good vs. evil), help conservatives, who are also simple and absolutist, more than they help liberals, who are sometimes simple but rarely absolutist.
A good example is how the right frames the left's response to terrorism. If you're against torture, and in favor of putting terrorists, or alleged terrorists, on trial instead of holding them indefinitely or forever, you're impugned as wanting to “read the terrorists their rights.” Three days ago, in fact, the Obama administration announced the capture, in a joint raid by the ISI, Pakistan's Secret Service, and the CIA, of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's no. 2 man and main military strategist. That's huge. The fact that the Pakistani Secret Service is involved is huger. And the right's response? From Powerline:
That's great, and we sincerely congratulate the administration on this accomplishment. We can't help noting, though: why didn't they pay for a lawyer and read Baradar his rights?
Google “Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar” and “read him his rights” and, as of this morning, you'll get 161 responses. Google “read the terrorists their rights” and you'll get over 33,000 responses.
And where does this sneering attitude about reading people their rights come from? The movies. Liberal Hollywood. The most famous example is in “Dirty Harry.” Scorpio, the giggling homicidal killer based upon San Francisco's Zodiac killer, says it first:
Scorpio: You tried to kill me.
Dirty Harry: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field. Now, where's the girl?
Scorpio: [cries] I- I have rights.
But when Harry brings him in, the evidence is inadmissible:
District Attorney: You're lucky I'm not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
Dirty Harry: What?
District Attorney: Where the hell does it say that you've got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights.
Dirty Harry: Well, I'm all broken up over that man's rights!
It's not just “Dirty Harry,” either. No modern action movie about cops dealing with killers would take anything less than a hardline attitude toward Miranda rights. The phrase has become a code for being soft on crime.
The right-wing's “reading the terrorists their rights” sneer is effective, in other words, because it's already embedded in U.S. society... through the movies...which the right-wing attacks as Un-American. It would be laughable if it weren't so hypocritical.
What Liberal Hollywood?
I’ve been listening to right-wing culture critics complain about Hollywood for decades, ever since Michael Medved’s unreadable book, “Hollywood vs. America,” was published in the early 1990s during the heady days of Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown. I owned Medved’s book for years, and every so often I’d give it a go, but I could never get 10 pages into it without wondering how the man got the book contract in the first place. Horrible writer. One of his main early points of attack, I remember, was Peter Greenaway’s film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover,” which he found thoroughly disgusting, but which became a critic favorite in 1990. And what did Hollywood have to do with this film? Nothing. It was a joint British/French production, distributed in this country by upstart Miramax out of New York, and its widest release was 239 theaters. It did gross $7.7 million domestic, though. That made it the 108th highest grossing film released in U.S. theaters in 1990—only $278 million behind “Home Alone.” No wonder Medved ran around like the cultural sky was falling.
Since then the din from the right about Hollywood and movies has only gotten worse. There's always some movie they've got complaints about. “Million Dollar Baby.” “Munich.” “Avatar.” Hell, they even complained about “The Blind Side”—in which a white, southern Christian family opens its doors and hearts to a homeless black kid and turns his life around—because one character, and not a major character, and not even a sympathetic character, makes a reference about George W. Bush. Talk about touchy. Talk about politically correct.
Before I jump into this mess, let me concede that, yes, most people in Hollywood are probably of the left. Most people in cities are of the left, most artists are of the left, and L.A. is a city full of artists. Makes sense.
Let me also concede that every so often a filmmker sneaks a liberal point of view into a movie. The classic example for me is in 1983’s “War Games,” when misinformation leads us a step closer to nuclear war, and, shifting from one defcon to another, we see Ronald Reagan’s smiling portrait in the background. The right sees this kind of thing as the power of liberal Hollywood but I see it as its impotence. They have so little power they have to sneak this shit in.
And the reason they have to sneak this shit in is because regardless of who lives in Hollywood, and regardless of their political persuasion, the movies themselves are ultimately conservative. Most movies promote monogamy, family, patriotism. They did so in the early days of Hollywood and they do so today.
I’ll go further. This is the essential Hollywood storyline: A lone man using violence to achieve justice.
From silent westerns to the latest action blockbuster, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Zorro to Batman to Spider-Man, this is the story Hollywood tells us over and over again.
It’s easy to see why this is the essential Hollywood storyline, too, and it has nothing to do with politics. Since most movies are wish fulfillments, you need a) a hero, and b) a happy ending (justice). And since violence is more dramatic than diplomacy, you need c) violence to resolve whatever the conflict is.
But violence can be off-putting to some so Hollywood rigs the game further. They make the violence necessary by leaving out nuance. The good are super good and the bad are worse. And those who attempt diplomacy do so out of naivite or purely for political gain—thus further justifying the use of violence as the only possible solution.
And all of this plays into the hands of political conservatives, who tend to dismiss nuance and diplomacy, and ridicule those who assume there’s complexity in the world.
In the documentary “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood,” Ben Stein, actor, conservative and Hawley-Smoot Tariff Bill advocate, crowed about all of this:
In recent years, the obsession that young viewers have with the action movie has helped the political conservatives. Because it’s basically saying all you braino, pointy-headed intellectuals, you’re all wimps and losers. It’s the action guy, the military guy, the police guy—he’s the real hero of society, the real man, and he’s the kind of guy you should be like.
So at the same time the right attacks Hollywood for being unAmerican it uses this very Hollywood playbook, takes advantage of this very Hollywood storyline, to gain power and change law. The way Hollywood gets moviegoers to cheer in theaters is the way Republicans get Americans to vote for them on election day. Life is simple. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad. Compromise is for suckers. And only through violence (the war on terror, the war on drugs, the death penalty, torture) can we achieve justice.
This is not an argument against the essential Hollywood storyline. This is not an argument against the essential right-wing storyline. Not yet anyway. I'm simply suggesting that Republicans have a peculiar way of telling Hollywood “Thank you.”
- What does James Cameron think of conservative critics who dissed his $2.2 billion (and counting) movie? “Let me put it this way: I'm happy to piss those guys off. I don't agree with their world view.” Keep reading. It's fun.
- Via Hollywood Elsewhere: Great story from Quentin Tarantino on how Brian DePalma, in 1980, in the midst of shooting “Blow Out” (one of QT's favorite films), and feeling pretty good about himself and the movie, went to see Martin Scorsese's “Raging Bull.”
- Speaking of “Raging Bull”: Richard Schickel has a good piece on its making in the March “Vanity Fair.” I'd link to it but it's not online. To which I say: Good for them! Someone's got to pay for this shit. Here's an excerpt. Buy the mag:
There are a lot of words in Raging Bull, but there are only four that really count—“I'm not an animal”—muttered in that jail cell in a tone so choked that you can barely hear them. Until that moment, Jake is, as the title implies, jus an animal, without any real consciousness, any sense of morality or mortality. It's not a blinding revelation; sainthood is not suddenly on offer for him. But he is, as Scorsese says, “more accepting of himself. He's more gentle to himself and to the people around him. ... It's the old line from The Diary of a Country Priest: 'God is not a torturer. He wants us to be merciful with ourselves.' And Jake kind of gets there.”
- Matt Zoiller Seitz's video of some of the great kissing scenes in movies is late for Valentine's Day but not for its declared purpose: getting you laid. It's also a good beginning if I ever decide to do a follow-up to my kissing article. Or am I already late for that party? Words words words. Show us pictures! By the way: Good work, Matt. The first half in particular (before “Sid and Nancy”) is particularly, squirmingly sensual.
- Finally, a baseball question as pitchers and catchers report. Which players do we know took steroids? And which might we guess didn't? Joe Posnanski creates his Fair Play list, puts Griffey, Maddux and Moyer on it, along with “Every Royals hitter since 1985,” then includes Frank Thomas, and makes a deeper argument in favor of Frank Thomas as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He begins with the stat that seven players, whose careers are complete, have a lifetime .300 average and 500 homeruns, then goes through them one-by-one:
Ruth, Foxx and Ott all played before integration. Williams might be the greatest hitter in baseball history. Mays might be the greatest all-around player in baseball history. Aaron might be the most consistent player in baseball history. And Frank Thomas — well, he was perhaps the most vocal non-steroid user of the Selig Era.
Happy Valentine's Day
Like any guy I'm poorly prepared on Valentine's Day—these things do sneak up, don't they?—so, checking the cupboards, I offer you this old, hopefully not too stale box of chocolates: My 2006 MSNBC piece on Hollywood's most memorable kisses via the following unscientific categories: the desperate kiss, the kiss in the rain, the manhandle kiss, the woman takes charge, and the wow kiss. Also this nearly 200-year-old poem from Leigh Hunt:
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.
Enjoy the day.
Stuck in the rut of their perfection.
Movie Review: Robin Hood (1922)
WARNING: YOU’VE HAD NEARLY A CENTURY TO SEE IT, SO DON’T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT SPOILERS.
The title cards of silent films are fascinating for being overwrought—“All of England fell under the pall of John’s perfidy,” etc.—but one of the most startling in Douglas Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” (1922) is rather straightforward:
From the mysterious depths of Sherwood Forest came whispers of the rise of a robber chief.
Why is this startling? Because it takes more than half the movie to appear.
Does any film genre age worse than action-adventure? You watch the quick-cut, world-traveling, big-explosion James Bond movies of today and then check out the first one, “Dr. No,” and it’s as if Bond has his feet propped up on a desk the entire movie. And that’s from 1962. Imagine an action-adventure movie 40 years before that. Before sound and color. When movies told us stories the way adults read to children: first the words (the title card), then the picture (two men dueling).
At the time, Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” was the most expensive movie ever made ($1.4 million), included the biggest set ever assembled (Richard’s castle), and was the first film to have its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It also starred the biggest movie star of the era. Not only is the official title of the movie “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood,” but when the man who will become Robin Hood is first introduced, the title card reminds us further who he is:
The Earl of Huntingdon,
Most Robin Hood stories begin with Robin returning from the Crusades, but this one begins the day before he and others leave for the Crusades. First there’s a jousting tournament: Huntingdon vs. Guy of Gibsourne (Paul Dickey). The latter cheats, loses, is bitter in defeat. Huntingdon, meanwhile, is wary of the prize: the veil of Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett). “Exempt me, sire,” Huntingdon declares, “I am afeared of women.” King Richard (Wallace Beery) laughs this off, Huntingdon receives his prize, then is chased by a multitude of women (like he’s a movie star), until he winds up in the moat.
Love between Robin and Marian blossoms that night. Initially Huntingdon is involved in rugged drinking and wrestling games with the men, and Richard objects:
Richard: Why hast thou no maid?
Huntingdon: When I return.
Richard: Nay, before you go, my good knight.
At that moment, as luck or chivalry would have it, Prince John (“sinister, dour, his heart inflamed with an unholy desire to succeed to Richard’s throne,” and played by Sam de Grasse) makes unwelcome moves toward Marian. Huntingdon intervenes. He wins the standoff but loses his heart to Marian. “I never knew a maid could—could be like you,” he says, holding both hands over his heart and descending to one knee. One wonders how long before that maneuver got corny.
The next morning, as the Christian soldiers move onward, Huntingdon leaves behind his squire, Little John (Alan Hale, who would play Little John twice more in the movies), whose job is to look after Marian. King Richard, less wise, leaves no one to look after Prince John, who, with the help of the High Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery), immediately sets about taxing and torturing. Marian, equally unwise, sends Little John off with news of Prince John’s perfidy, leaving herself unprotected. She winds up faking suicide to save her honor, while, in France, Huntingdon is suckered by Sir Guy, doubted by Richard, and he and Little John wind up in prison towers as the others head to Palestine. Little John subsequently frees them by bending prison bars with his bare hands; then they head back to England, where “sturdy men, rebellious to Prince John’s tyranny, sought refuge in Sherwood Forest... These lusty rebels only waited a leader to weld them into a band—an outlaw band destined to live immortal in legend and story.”
At this point, even for someone interested in cinematic history, the movie’s been a slog. I don’t know who needs Robin Hood more: the poor peasants of England or us. But then, an hour late, we get a fine introduction: 1) A boy brings coins and food to his starving parents; 2) the Sheriff of Nottingham is frozen in place by an arrow; 3) ditto “the Rich Man of Wakefield.” Finally Prince John orders a decree and a bag of gold to whomever can bring him this Robin Hood, but 4) an arrow pierces the throne and Robin Hood himself, in full gear, swoops down, takes the bag of gold, and leads the prince’s men on a merry chase through the castle. Fun!
When I first saw Douglas Fairbanks in a movie (“The Mark of Zorro” a few years ago), I was startled that he wasn’t Hollywood handsome—the way his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is Hollywood handsome. His face is somewhat fattish, without much of a jawline. But he is amazingly athletic and graceful. Even now, 88 years later, some of the stunts in “Robin Hood” are impressive, such as scaling down a castle corner by pressing himself against the adjoining walls. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackie Chan got his falling-down-the-curtains stunt from Fairbanks, either.
Sherwood Forest looks cool, too, even by today’s standards. This was the age of the Hollywood extra, so dozens, maybe hundreds of Merry Men dot the landscape, while clumps of arrows stick out of nearly every tree. At one point one of the Merry Men shoots an arrow into a piece of wood tossed high into the air and dares Robin to match it; he does. He shoots two arrows into his piece of wood before it lands. That’s the great arrow stunt for this movie. No splitting arrows yet.
Sherwood Forest, back in the day of the cheap extra
The most aged aspect of the film, besides Huntingdon’s heart-holding, may be Robin’s “merriness.” He bounces. He prances. He skips like a little girl. It’s pretty funny to watch. Sometimes his merriness verges on the insane. He picks up a baby, who cries, and he laughs in its face. A reminder that recent portrayals of Robin Hood have toned down the one adjective associated with him. Wealth redistribution is serious business. Anyone anticipate Russell Crowe skipping?
Robin loses this merriness when he returns holy relics to the Priory of St. Catherine’s, where he discovers Marian alive. Alas, the Sheriff of Nottingham, listening outside the Priory’s walls, discovers this, too, then overhears a nun commenting on the mystery of the great outlaw. “Robin Hood to the poor, mayhap,” she says, “but he was born, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.” This sets up our final act. Prince John seizes Marian while his men surround Sherwood. But the merry men—including a disguised King Richard—best the Prince’s men, while Robin takes the castle singlehandedly, kills Sir Guy, and holds off a dozen knights to protect Marian’s honor. For the sake of melodrama, he surrenders when he hears three blasts of a horn (signaling the three lions of King Richard), gives Marian a knife to kill herself if things get out of hand, and is tied to a stake before Prince John. He’s about to be diced by 40 arrows but Richard’s shield intervenes. The rest is mopping up. Prince John gets his comeuppance, but not in the bloody manner of today’s films. Instead Richard glowers at his brother, then picks him up and deposits him outside the castle. The drawbridge is raised and John looks around, scared. We can assume the rest: a slow death for a soft monarch or a quick death at the hands of an angry populace.
One tends to think of Robin Hood as a progressive (he robs from the rich and gives to the poor), but an argument can be made, particularly in this version, that he’s actually a religious conservative. A Richard loyalist, he fights for the Crusades and against excessive taxation. Only government men get robbed on camera. Meanwhile, both Robin and the film are devout. It begins where it begins because there’s no modern embarrassment yet over the Crusades. Far from it. “In far-off Palestine,” a title card reads halfway through, “Richard meets with victory and concludes a truce with the infidel,” after which we see Arabs marched through the streets while an English knight on horseback takes a laconic bite out of an apple. When conservative critics complain that modern Hollywood ignores traditional values, this is what they mean.
In classic pose: Showing good form and wearing a helluva long feather.
Miss Me Yet? - II
“As Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker in April 2006, Saddam [Hussein] could not bring himself to admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction, 'because he feared a loss of prestige, and, in particular, that Iran might take advantage of his weakness—a conclusion also sketched earlier by the C.I.A.-supervised Iraq Survey Group. He did not tell even his most senior generals that he had no W.M.D. until just before the invasion. They were appalled, and some thought he might be lying, because, they later told their interrogators, the American government insisted that Iraq did have such weapons. Saddam ”found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having W.M.D.,“ the study says. The Bush war cabinet, of course, clung to the same illusion, and a kind of mutually reinforcing trance took hold between the two leaderships as the invasion neared...'
”A Gallup poll conducted in May 2003 indicated that 79 percent of Americans believed the Iraq war was 'justified.'“
—from Jon Krakauer's ”Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pp. 214-15
Review: “Crazy Heart” (2009)
WARNING: UNBUTTONED SPOILERS
Generally in stories about a down-on-his-luck artist attempting redemption through a woman and a comeback through his art, the work of art in question, which everyone in the movie says is great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, is actually fairly ordinary. In “Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, the work of art is a country song, “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and produced by T. Bone Burnett. Two things: 1) it’s great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, and 2) it only turns around the life of the artist, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so much. It indicates a direction but it doesn’t necessarily get him home.
Blake, 58, is overweight and a drinker. As the movie begins, the country legend is driving the American Southwest in his ’78 Suburban, Bessie, and playing in dives. Because the first place we see him play is a bowling alley, and he arrives long-haired, dissheveled, bearded and unbuttoned, ordering a drink at the bowling-alley bar, one can’t help but think of Bridge’s most famous character, the Dude from “The Big Lebowski”; but that’s where the similarity ends. The Dude was happy in bowling alleys but Blake takes one look and says aloud to his absent manager, “Jack, you bastard.” He doesn’t get a bar tab (his reputation has preceded him), isn’t interested in rehearsing with his star-struck back-up band (including Ryan Bingham as Tony), and near the end of his set flees the stage to throw up in a back-alley garbage can. That night he sleeps with an aging groupie, one of 20 or so fans who bothered to show up, then he sneaks out of Pueblo, New Mexico. The question for the viewer: Is this bottom?
We find out he hasn’t written a song in three years. He also has a former partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s a big star, but with whom Blake refuses to play anymore. One assumes bad blood and betrayal.
The next gig is a little better, a real bar, and he arrives mid-afternoon to hear a man playing the piano and playing it well. Blake gives him a nod of compliment and the man returns the favor and then asks for another. His niece is a reporter with the Santa Fe paper. Would he give her an interview?
The niece is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they meet cute. For the interview she gives a quick rap on his motel room door and opens it... to find him sitting in a towel and watching chicas on his motel-room TV.
It’s meeting cute but it’s meeting false. Who barges into a stranger’s motel room with hardly a knock? For a journalist, too, her questions are fairly generic, as if she’d done no research at all. Who were your influences? Did you ever want to be anything else? In today’s world of artificial country music, who’s real country? His answers are good, particularly on wanting to be a baseball player until someone threw him a curve ball (“Figured I’d stay with the guitar. Sonuvabitch stayed where it’s supposed to”), but that doesn’t excuse the questions. She also sleeps with her subject, which is a whole other matter.
She becomes, of course, the love interest, and one of the sources of Blake’s redemption, but I was rarely interested in their relationship. It felt icky. Because of the age difference? Because I didn’t quite get what she saw in him or he in her? Because her journalism is questionable? Because I knew he would let her down in some awful way?
His relationship with other people, meanwhile, always intrigued me. He finally lets his manager book him as the opening act for Tommy Sweet, who used to open for him, and one expects an egotistsical, grandstanding upstart. Instead Tommy’s appreciative and admiring of his former mentor. All this time, the problem had been Blake and his pride, his old lion’s pride, which is still on display when Tommy sneaks onstage, to squeals from the crowd, 12,000-strong, during Blake’s opening number to sing a duet with the legend. There’s a frozen disapproval in Blake’s face and body language, and there are subtle tensions when the two talk backstage, and all of that is a joy to watch because it feels real; because it makes you wonder about both men. Hell, I liked the back-and-forth Blake has with the sound-man, Bear, during the sound check:
Blake: Bear, Bear, Bear! I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitar, you’re drowning out the lyrics.
Bear: Mix is good, man. You can’t hear what I’m hearing out here.
Blake: Bear, I’m an old man, I get grumpy. Humor me.
Tommy wants a longer tour, and songs, from his former partner, and after Blake gets into a car accident and winds up recuperating at Jean’s place, he begins to write the one that will become “The Weary Kind.” In lesser films he’d realize what he has and keep it and record it for himself and become a star again (that, in fact, is the story the trailer implies). In this film, he realizes what he has and mails it off to Tommy anyway, who, down the road, will make it a hit, which will make Blake a little sum of money. There’s a matter-of-factness to all this. It’s how life is.
Pride, though, was only one thing holding Blake back. The other was drink. Artistically he may have hit bottom at that bowling alley in Pueblo, but alcoholics have deeper, harder bottoms. In Santa Fe, Blake takes Jean’s four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), to the park for the day, and Jean returns to a darkened home. No Buddy. No Bad. She panics for five seconds until they walk in the door, Buddy with stories already spilling out of his mouth, Blake, looking a wreck, assuring her, “Nobody died.” This prefigures a later scene in Houston when Blake loses Buddy in a mall. Blake had a son from a previous relationship, a grown man now and understandably uninterested in his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, whom Blake last saw when he was four. The man has a bad habit of losing four-year-old boys.
Buddy’s found in the mall but Jean is unforgiving and cuts things off with Blake for good. And that, after another bender, is Blake’s bottom.
“Crazy Heart” could be subtitled “The Partial Redemption of a Country Legend.” That’s really all it is. Its appeal lies in the peformances—particularly Bridges, who is both monumental and as ordinary as any day in our lives—and in the details. I like the size of Bridge’s mangled fingers next to Buddy’s. I like how, saying good-bye in Santa Fe, Jean grimaces away from Blake’s alcoholic breath. (“Mustard gas and roses,” Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.) I like the small scene, after he sobers up and after Jean still rejects him, where he’s cleaning his place and finds Buddy’s Superman t-shirt under the bed. He picks up the phone. Then he pauses, sets the phone back down, folds the little boys’ t-shirt in his lap. It’s such a small shirt and that emblem is so big and says so much. Will he mail it back? Will he keep it? We don’t know. We just know he won’t use it as an excuse to inject himself into her life again. It wasn’t easy being Bad, but it’s even harder being decent.
The movie has some false notes but the music doesn’t. The songs this country legend sings are actually good songs:
I used to be somebody
Now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow
Is anybody’s guess
They’re as matter-of-fact and down-to-earth as the movie, which almost didn’t get distribution. Now it’s out in a handful of theaters making a little sum of money. It’s how life is.
Miss Me Yet?
"Jessica Lynch dominated the news for weeks. The details of the incident provided by military public affairs officers made for an absolutely riveting story that television, radio and print journalists found irresistible: a petite blond supply clerk from a flea-speck burg in West Virginia is ambushed in Iraq and fearlessly mows down masked Fedayeen terrorists with her M16 until she runs out of ammo, whereupon she is shot, stabbed, captured, tortured, and raped before finally being snatched from her barbaric Iraqi captors during a daring raid by American commandos...
"Subsequent reporting by investigative journalists revealed that most of the details of Lynch's ordeal were extravagantly embellished, and much of the rest was invented out of whole cloth. Because her rifle had jammed, she hadn't fired a single round. Although her injuries had indeed been life threatening, they were exclusively the result of her Humvee smashing into Hernandez's tractor trailer; she was never shot, stabbed, tortured, or raped. After she had been transferred to Saddam Hussein General Hospital, her captors treated her with kindness and special care. And when the American commandos arrived at the hospital to rescue Lynch, they met no significiant resistance.
"The spurious particulars did not come from Private Lynch. The bogus story was based on information fed to gullible reporters by anonymous military sources. The government official who arranged for reporters to interview these sources—the guy who deserves top biling for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch, in other words—was a White House appparatchik named Jim Wilkinson. Although his official job description was director of strategic communcations for General Tommy Franks... actually Wilkinson served as the Bush administration's top 'perception manager' for the Iraq War."
—from Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pp. 180-81
Picture making the rounds on conservative blogs.
Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
WARNING: CUSSIN' SPOILERS
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a joy to watch because it’s both a Wes Anderson movie and a George Clooney vehicle.
Its Wes Andersonness is obvious. It gives us deadpan humor, father-son conflict, characters associated with one absurd and outdated mode of dress. It tosses up chapter titles (“The Go-For-Broke Mission”) and tosses in a tinkly soundtrack and bouncy-but-obscure, British-invasion-era music (“Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller Four). In 2007 I wrote the following about the essential Wes Anderson lesson: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution. That’s still true for his films—whether we’re talking Fischers, Tenenbaums and Zissous or foxes, badgers and weasels.
Where “Fox” differs from a typical Wes Anderson movie is in its hero. Anderson’s protagonists generally pretend to be something they’re not: great playwrights, great oceanographers, caring patriarchs. Eventually their true nature is revealed and they’re excluded from where they want to be. Only in returning, chastened and wiser, do they become the very thing they were pretending to be.
The movement for Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the opposite. His persona is basically the George Clooney persona—the hyper-articulate, know-it-all whose charm resides in not always knowing it all but mustering through with grace and style anyway—and this persona, Mr. Fox’s persona, hardly changes during the course of the movie. For a time he denies his true nature, but he does so for others, not himself, and it’s a mere blip of screentime. It’s not the Anderson cycle of pretense/exclusion/genuineness. It’s the Clooney promise: Get on board, boys, we’re going for a ride!
The reason Mr. Fox is forced to deny his true nature is the reason many of us are forced to deny our true natures: he starts a family. One moment he and his wife are stealing squabs from a nearby farm, the next they’re trapped by a cage. Before they can escape, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant, and elicits a promise from Mr. Fox that he’ll settle down and never steal squabs and chickens and the like again.
Out of one trap and into another.
For two years (12 fox years, we’re told), Mr. Fox works as a newspaperman and lives with Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), in a comfortable hole, until one day he says he’s tired of living in their comfortable hole. He’s got his eye on a tree that they can’t afford. Except he really wants the tree because of it overlooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farms producing, in order, chickens, turkey and cider, and run by “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley,” according to Fox’s lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), who counsels against purchase. Fox ignores him. He tells himself he’s after one last job, by which he means three last jobs, one for each farm. For the first two he drags along Kylie, the passive, not-bright, handyman opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), who is essentially the Pagoda of this film, and both jobs go off, give or take an electric fence, without a hitch.
For the final job, at Bean’s cider farm, Ash tries to tag along but is sent home; instead Fox relies on Ash’s cousin and rival, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson), a meditating, martial-arts-training natural athlete who is staying with the family. Again, give or take a rat guard (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of the very masculine-looking Mrs. Bean (Helen McCrory), the job goes off without a hitch. The problem: of the three nasty farmers, Bean (Michael Gambon, brilliant here) is the nastiest of the bunch. Also the smartest. And he organizes Boggis and Bunce into bringing the fight to Mr. Fox.
Thus begins a war of escalation. First they attempt to shoot Mr. Fox but succeed only in blowing off his tail (which Bean wears as a tie); then they destroy the Fox’s tree home with bulldozers (shades of “Avatar”!), but discover the Foxes have dug down to safety. When they try to dig them out, the Foxes simply dig deeper, and further, and eventually back into the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, from which they steal everything. By this time, other animals have been swept up in the war, and they all gather at a large underground dining table to celebrate. But just as Mr. Fox is delivering his toast of triumph, a rumble is heard. The rumble of cider. They’re being flooded out of their homes and into a sewer, from which there appears no escape.
But there is an escape. Earlier, when Mrs. Fox learned of her husband’s treachery, we got the following dialogue:
Mrs. Fox: Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Meanwhile, Ash, who likes to wear a cape, and who doesn’t even have a proper bandit mask but uses a reconstituted tube sock, is dealing with others’ perceptions, and his own perception, of his difference.
And that’s their salvation. They’re all wild animals and they’re all different. Mr. Fox, calling everyone by their Latin names (Oryctolagus Cuniculus! Talpa Europea!), uses the talents of each species for their final plan of attack, their final salvation. Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is delightful on many levels—it’s funny, quirky, tender, adventurous—but it resonates long after you leave the theater for the following reason. The convention of children’s stories is to have wild animals talk, wear clothes, and engage in human professions, and “Mr. Fox” certainly adopts those conventions. Then it upends them by having the wild animals realize the absurdity of not being what they are: wild animals. Wes Anderson, in other words, dresses up his animals as people so the people watching can realize that they, all the lawyers and high school coaches and newspapermen in the audience, are animals. All of us, in small ways, in the clothes we wear or the jobs we have, are denying our true natures. The joy of “Mr. Fox” is that Vulpes Volpes gets to reveal his true nature. The bittersweetness of Homo Sapiens is that, generally, we don’t.
Writin' is Whitenin': Ishmael Reed's Racial Assumptions about "Precious"
Apparently media outlets are still giving Ishmael Reed, racial curmudgeon, a forum. Last Friday it was The New York Times.
Reed's op-ed is about the film "Precious," and, big surprise, he's not a fan. Neither was I but the two of us are not-fans for different reasons. Actually we may be not-fans for the same reasons but it's hard to tell from Reed's writing. As I mentioned in The Seattle Times in 2003 when I reviewed Reed's book, "Another Day at the Front," if writin' is fightin' (the title of another Reed book) then Reed is one of our great literary flailers. He comes at everyone without landing a solid punch.
He begins with this premise about "Precious": white people love it, black people hate it. Maybe, but his evidence is anecdotal. He also misinterprets the film's director, Lee Daniels, post-Oscar nomination. On Feb. 2, the Times, reported:
Speaking by telephone, Mr. Daniels said he hoped the nomination would bring more viewers to a movie — about the abuse and triumph of an overweight ghetto girl — that has been only a modest draw at the box office. “That’s what these awards do,” he said. “A lot of middle-class white Americans haven’t seen the film yet.”
In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more 'middle-class white Americans' to his film."
Reed's biggest problem, as ever, is one of racial assumption. He quotes Barbara Bush: "There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets." He quotes Oprah Winfrey: "None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible." Then Reed asks this question: "Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?"
Jesus, I get tired of this. Look, I'm hardly color-blind, but it's seems the group Precious represents for both Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey is: "victims of physical and sexual abuse." To Mr. Reed, it's: "black girls." Who can't see past race here?
Reed adds that shame doesn't fall upon the white community for such films as "Requiem for a Dream," yet "Precious," he writes, casts "collective shame upon an entire community." But that's only true if we see the characters as representatives of the black community. Do we? Does he? Either he can't see past black and assumes no one else can, or he assumes the white community can't see past black so he can't, either.
How unclearly does he see race? He writes:
Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help.
There's a general truth to this but not as applied to "Precious." After all, what do the white people in the film, as mild as they are, do? They pass the buck. And that's all they do. It's black people—albiet light-skinned black people—who save Precious.
Reed saves his worst comment for the end:
It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.
Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.
Once upon a time Ishmael Reed said that writin' is fightin'." Now he says it's whitenin'. I can't imagine a more harmful lesson.
Next time the Times op-ed has extra space they should give a forum to Jill Nelson. She didn't like the movie, either, but at least she was smart about it.
Quote of the Other Day — Republican Incoherence and You
“On every single major issue of the day, [the Republicans] are incoherent. They have no workable plans to insure the uninsured and no practical way to contain healthcare costs; most deny climate change even exists; most seek to prolong wars because ... er, we have to be tough; their response to the massive debt is to defend Medicare and call for tax cuts; their position on civil rights is that gay people need to go to Jesus; their position on terror suspects is to detain them and torture them, violating domestic and international law; their position on immigration is to round up millions and force them to go home.
”My worry, however, is that there are enough Americans perfectly happy to live with this nihilism indefinitely, and to perpetuate the policies of spend-and-borrow and invade-and-occupy that any serious attempt to address our problems is impossible. And their response to that will be to blame all those problems on a Democratic president, if there is one; and if there's a Republican president, to simply deny that any of the problems exist at all.
—Andrew Sullivan, “Tactics Over Strategy”
Top 10 Kid’s Movies from 2009! By Jordan
After all the blather earlier this week from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the following is a breath of fresh air. My nephew, Jordy, age 8, disappointed that he hadn't seen more of my top 10 movies, recently sent me his top 10 kids' movies of the year. Third-generation movie critic! How about that? Looks like I've got some movies to see, too...
Top 10 Kid’s Movies from 2009! By Jordan
- 10. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs! – Because it has a great story from a book I know.
- 9. Where the Wild Things Are – Again, a great story from a book plus great dialogue.
- 8. Ponyo – Because my Dad said this has to be on the list.
- 7. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – Because it has a great plot and is different from other Potter movies.
- 6. Avatar – Great Graphics but may not be for kids.
- 5. Planet 51 – It’s a good story and funny.
- 4. Aliens in the Attic – Because it’s just funny.
- 3. G-Force – It’s good dialogue and it’s like an action movie for kids.
- 2. Monsters vs. Aliens – It’s a great story with great characters like Bob.
- 1. Up! Because it’s funny.
Jordy knows what he likes; and knows what he doesn't.
Lancelot Links (RIP JD edition)
- My sister forwarded this Washington Post article on the unintentioned heartbreak we caused the publisher of Orchises Press, Roger Lathbury, who was all set to publish J.D. Salinger's "Hapworth 16, 1924" in January 1997 when I discovered it on amazon.com in October 1996, wrote about it briefly for a Seattle Times publication, then told my sister, who wrote about it, more prominently, for The Washington, D.C. Business Journal. Her article was picked up by The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, etc., and the ensuing publicity caused Salinger to withdraw permission to publish. I wrote about my experience in the matter here. The Wikipedia version is here. My apologies to Mr. Lathbury—and to myself, since I would have loved reading "Hapworth" in book form, no matter what I ultimately thought of it. According to the article, it took Salinger eight years to agree to let Lathbury publish "Hapworth." If it had taken him six or seven, the book probably would've happened. Unfortunately, by the time he said yes we were in the dawn of the Internet age. And there are no secrets in the Internet age.
- Don't miss the Times' "Walking in Holden's footsteps" literary map of Manhattan.
- Here's Le Monde's version of the Salinger obituary.
- And here's my friend Andy's poignant take on the influence of The Catcher in the Rye.
- I also like this New York Times' piece on how "recluse" is in the eye of the beholder.
- I linked to this last week but it's worth linking again: Steven Lomazow's post on the early, uncollected Salinger stories that I wrote about here. The post comes from Lomazow's blog on "the history, importance and joy of magazine collecting."
- Finally, Charles McGrath did a nice job on Salinger's obituary for The New York Times, although I would've changed the lead to read: "J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II, at a time when writers, American or otherwise, were thought to be important, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91." That's part of the tragedy for Salinger and us. Apparently he couldn't stand all that attention on his writing; but if he'd simply waited a few decades his writing would've received all of the lack of attention he wanted.
Their Oscar Noms
The assumption has always been, my assumption has always been, that the increase from 5 to 10 best picture candidates is the direct result of low ratings, which is the direct result of the increasing divide between box office and the Academy, but an argument could be made that the problem is less the Academy's unpopularity (as measured by box office) than its predictability (as measured by Hollywood insiders).
I thought of this as Tom Sherak, president of the Academy, and Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews impersonator extraordinaire, announced the nominees this morning at 5:40-ish a.m., Pacific coast (my coast) time. Actor: Bridges, Clooney, Firth, Freeman, Renner. Actress: Bullock, Mirren, Mulligan, Sidibe, Streep. Director: Bigelow, Cameron, Daniels, Tarantino, Reitman. It's everyone that everyone has been predicting. So how nice to hear, you know, “A Serious Man” and “Up” nominated for best picture. On the other hand, how awful to hear “The Blind Side” and “District 9” nominated for best picture.
There were some surprises in the other categories. Maggie G. taking away Julianne Moore's spot in the best supporting actress category. Matt Damon actually getting nom'ed for “Invictus,” and Tucci actually getting nom'ed for “Lovely Bones.” Damon's nom, for his duller performance in “Invictus” rather than his much more fun performance in “The Informant!,” is reminiscent of last year, when Brad Pitt got nom'ed for his duller performance in that Netflix favorite, “Benjamin Button,” while being ignored for his standout comic turn in “Burn After Reading.” Plus ca change.
The big question about the 10 nominees (which, again, I'm agin), will be whether the sheer number of nominees will make the final winner harder to predict. Somehow I doubt it. My early picks for March 7:
- Picture: “Avatar”
- Director: Katherine Bigelow
- Actor: Bridges
- Actress: Bullock
- Supporting Actor: Waltz
- Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
- Original Screenplay: “Inglourious Basterds”
- Adapted Screenplay: “Up in the Air”
- Foreign Language: “The White Ribbon”
- Animated: “Up”
Surprises shouldn't matter, of course. Quality should matter. At the same time, Hollywood, if anyone, knows that once you stop surprising, people stop showing up.
Full list of nominees here.
ADDENDUM: After looking over my own choices from yesterday, the big dark-horse disappontments, those actors that actually had a chance in hell of getting nom'ed, include supporting actors Alfred Molina in “An Education” and Christian McKay in “Orson Welles and Me” (once again, the Academy gives Orson Welles the shaft), and Cotillard getting no love for “Public Enemies.” (But if Ms. Cotillard needs love, or just wants to help me with my French, I'm easy to find.)
Screenplays were interesting. I agreed with the Academy on four of the five for Original (I chose no-chance-in-hell “Funny People” over haven't-seen-yet “The Messenger”), while we agreed on only one of the five in Adapated (“Up in the Air”). I was on the fence for “An Education” anyway, and “In the Loop” is inspired for a change. But I'm not a big “Precious” fan; and “District 9” is way, way overrated, for all of the reasons I stated back in August. How much harder to adapt “Where the Wild Things Are,” which is, in book form...15 pages? Twenty? And kids' pages? And where was “Wild Things”? I picked it in six of my nine categories. The Academy picked it in zero of theirs. I guess, in the end, that's not much of a surprise, either.
Zero noms? Time to roar our terrible roars and gnash our terrible teeth.
My Oscar Noms
The Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow morning by Anne Hathaway, and the following aren't so much predictions as preferences. I tried to stay in those categories where I didn't feel too out of my element. Feel free to post your own picks, or protests, in the comments field below. Oh, and the pictures don't necessarily indicate preferences, either. Some are simply dark horses. Some are horses so dark no one can see them.
Best Picture (assuming a U.S. production)
- “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
- “The Hurt Locker”
- “The Informant!”
- “Inglourious Basterds”
- “A Serious Man”
- “The Soloist”
- “Up in the Air”
- “Where the Wild Things Are”
Best Director (assuming not)
- Olivier Assayas, “L'Heure d'ete”
- James Cameron, “Avatar”
- Joel and Ethan Coen, “A Serious Man”
- Spike Jonze, “Where the Wild Things Are”
- Steven Soderbergh, “The Informant!”
Best Actor (assuming Bridges; I haven't seen “Crazy Heart” yet)
- Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
- Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
- Robert Downey, Jr., “The Soloist”
- Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
- Max Records, “Where the Wild Things Are”
Best Actress (assuming nothing)
- Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
- Penelope Cruz, “Broken Embraces”
- Yolonde Moreau, “Seraphine”
- Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
- Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”
Best Supporting Actor (caveat: I never saw “The Messenger”)
- Tom Hollander, “In the Loop”
- Christian McKay, “Me and Orson Welles”
- Alfred Molina, “An Education”
- Benoit Poelvoorde, “Coco Before Chanel”
- Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
Best Supporting Actress
- Marion Cotillard, “Public Enemies”
- Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
- Catherine Keener, “The Soloist,” “Where the Wild Things Are”
- Mo'Nique, “Precious”
- Julianne Moore, “A Single Man”
Best Original Screenplay
- Judd Apatow, “Funny People”
- Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker”
- Joel and Ethan Coen, “A Serious Man”
- Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy, “Up”
- Quentin Tarantino, “Inglourious Basterds”
Best Adapated Screenplay
- Wes Anderson and Noah Bambaugh, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
- Scott Z. Burns, “The Informant!”
- Susannah Grant, “The Soloist”
- Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, “Where the Wild Things Are”
- Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, “Up in the Air”
Best Cinematography (Caveat: I only know so much)
- Barry Ackroyd, “The Hurt Locker”
- Lance Acord, “Where the Wild Things Are”
- Roger Deakins, “A Serious Man”
- Robert Richardson, “Inglourious Basterds”
- Dante Spinotti, “Public Enemies”
Best Documentary (Cavet: I only saw so many)