Thursday, February 22, 2007

THE SLIFR-TLRHB OSCAR CLUB: Venus and Other Songs, plus Those Little Round-Headed Dreams

On the red carpet, up the stairs and into the Kodak Theater, Hollywood, California

Below: The view from Hollywood Boulevard

Hmm, an animated variation on E.T. at Todd Browning’s house with Tim Burton hiding under the stairs-- sounds like a movie I would want to see, all right! (You can skip The Goonies, however, and so, I think, did Monster House.) Movies in this genre often do become standard, run-of-the-mill action movies in their second half, usually due to a failure of imagination on the filmmaker’s part as to what constitutes the line between horror (or the intimation of it) and noisy, flashy action. I think this is a fate that Monster House sidesteps by humanizing (to use an overused word this Oscar season) the house and darkening the back story of Nebbercracker and his ill-fated wife, by making the motivation of the house if not exactly ambivalent, then at least understandable, particularly to these kids who feel sorrow for Nebbercracker’s loss, and his monument to it, as well as total fear. And I must say that your point about nobody noticing a giant rampaging house tearing up the neighborhood did occur to me—but this is the kind of narrative slight that you can, I think, get away with without a serious markdown simply by the fact that it is animation, and therefore a stylized universe where some things we know should happen might not. It would be a much harder sell if the movie were live-action, true. But then I can remember thinking similar thoughts at the end of both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind-- Jesus, these giant ships are landing in the middle of the desert night, or in a forest behind someone’s house, and not one innocent bystander gets a glimpse? Yet those moments of real-world awareness didn’t puncture the magic the movies had already spun. And in the same way, with its attention to detail regarding the behavior of the kids, the quality of the kids’ performances, and even the degree to which the house itself has been realized—what trick-or-treater hasn’t imagined the rickety porch of a scary old house rearing back and swallowing them whole?-- Monster House earns a certain suspension of disbelief because it honors the purity and giddiness of a kid’s chilled spine. It’s a child’s treasury of terror, and it has plenty of heart… and lungs and a uvula too.

I keep thinking how difficult it must be these days to sustain the reasoning behind keeping the Best Song category around. It is almost always the focus of derision—Beyonce sings all five tunes; the performance art car crash behind Crash’s nominated song last year; Debbie Allen choreography; and the topper of all toppers, Ann Reinking singing the theme from Against All Odds while the writer and performer of the top-10 radio hit, Phil Collins, sat glowering in the audience—take a look at me now, indeed. And, my God, unearthing even three nominees that would be worthy of the honor in any given year seems a task more appropriate for The Descent’s intrepid and careless spelunkers than the members of the august Academy, whose taste in this category is most often found in their ass. But here we are again—one nomination that actually comes from the original body of the movie in question (Cars) whose themes address or expand those that concern the movie. Then you have the afterthought Melissa Etheridge anthem from An Inconvenient Truth, and three songs from Dreamgirls. Wait, how can songs from Dreamgirls be nominated since the movie was adapted from a 25-year-old Broadway musical? Easy. You get someone to write a bunch of new songs certainly not designed to make a bloated movie leaner. No, not exactly. These songs, which continue in the same lame faux Motown style that would’ve had their writers kicked right out of Berry Gordy’s offices and onto the assembly line at Chevy, were included so they might get nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Well, the movie was a bust, nomination-wise, but I’ll be damned if the year’s songs weren’t just cruddy enough that the Dreamgirls 2.0 stuff managed to sneak in there—three of ‘em! And yet I can’t remember the melody of a single one of them. I think it was someone over at Paul C.’s Silly Hats Only who suggested that the Best Song rules ought to be amended to throw out end credit soundtrack album filler that is only marginally related (if at all) to the themes of the movie, and I would say amen to that. That doesn’t address the Dreamgirls problem—nothing short of criminalizing craven opportunism would do there, I’m afraid—but it would ensure that songs like “Your Town” from Cars, and When She Loved Me, Newman’s heartbreaker from Toy Story 2 (sung by Sarah McLachlan) would have a whole lot less mind-numbing competition. Or maybe they just ought to start admitting the dearth of quality and allowing only three nominations in the category. Gee, that’d contribute to that all important trimming down of the running time of the show too, wouldn’t it?!

I wish I could say I’ve seen and could therefore agree (or disagree) with you on Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect (all 452 parts), but I can’t. I have no trouble imagining that you’re right on the money as to just how good she is in it, though. I’ll have to settle for her work as QE in The Queen which, as you say, is pretty top drawer as boring locks go. It’s amusing to me to see Mirren, who for a kid like me growing up with as much British film as I could get my hands on in college, finally getting Academy love for portraying a woman who can’t even see through her own masks of public personage any longer (or that they are even masks), who is unable to correctly gauge even the most obvious signs of her public’s real loyalties and emotional investments. My own first memory of seeing Mirren on screen was in John Boorman’s Excalibur, where she played a carnal whirligig of a Morgana, witch intimate of Merlin who dug fucking her own son Mordred as she pushed him toward a bloody and unsuccessful coup on Arthur’s kingdom. I would soon catch up with her in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972) and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and much later in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990), roles which would never lend to the thought that she might be the actress who could burrow so thoroughly into a woman so polarized in temperament and familiarity with her own body as a sexual instrument as is her Queen Elizabeth. I loved every minute of watching Penelope Cruz take over the Panavision screen in Volver, Meryl Streep was captivating and enjoyably showy, and Judi Dench gave me insights into loneliness and desperate spinsterhood that went so far beyond cliché that they seemed too good for the melodramatic narrative she existed in. But Helen Mirren is in a different class altogether. Anything other than her ascending the stage on Oscar night to drop her fries would have to be counted as one of the greatest upsets, if not the greatest, in Oscar history.

As for the boys, don’t get me wrong—I like Forest Whitaker just fine, although I’ve never seen a movie he directed (in addition to the one you mentioned, I just never had time for Hope Floats or First Daughter.) But again, if you found his portrait of Amin compelling, and it’d be hard not to, I would vigorously direct your attention to Barbet Schroder’s General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, one of the most genially disturbing recordings of fanatical demagoguery and terror ever undertaken. Schroeder’s is not a documentary in the talking-heads sense of the term, but an actual self-portrait—Amin is allowed to shape his own image here much as he did during his violent eight-year reign, and he paints an unconsciously revealing portrait indeed. I just came away with less a sense of who Amin was from The Last King of Scotland despite Whitaker’s unflinching mainlining of the man’s obvious appeal. My experience was that the doctor’s story, and what he felt, and how desperately important it was for him to escape Uganda, was what was being emphasized, and for better or worse that’s what I took away from it. (That and just how great Gillian Anderson looks without a ton of makeup on.) Whitaker’s portrait is scary, all right, but it could have been scarier in the hands of a more confident filmmaker, perhaps, but surely in the hands of stronger material that this novel from which that filmmaker could adapt. (And I agree with you, Whitaker was robbed of a nomination for Bird.)

Peter O’Toole, on the other hand, I think single-handedly transcends the kind of Miramax-style weepie you describe with his work in Venus. Much credit should probably be given to director Roger Michell, who is a hell of a lot better director than his most widely known credit, Notting Hill, would ever lead you to suspect (and despite the speciousness of that movie, even it’s not that bad). Michell uses the frame to create spaces and worlds for O’Toole’s aged, “somewhat famous” actor to move about it that have their own beauty but also subtly emphasize, without overselling it, his fragility within them. And there’s no aural tonic I can think than listening to the mellifluous tones of O’Toole’s voice wrapping itself around even the soggiest of dialogue, which is definitely not he variety provided in Hanif Kureshi’s script.

One of the things I found so magnificent about O’Toole here is how he manages to keep us on his side even as he lusts as after this unattainable young woman, mainly by allowing himself as an actor and a character to deal quietly with the ways in which his lust rages against his propriety and his understanding that this love truly never can be—all without reducing the emotions to a Hallmark card. You said last time out regarding O’Toole, “His performance was just a faint outline of the O’Toole of old.” I put it to you, sir, that O’Toole is a faint outline of the O’Toole of old, and he knows it, and that’s part of what makes Venus so poignant—that and the fact that he’s not going to use his frail, gaunt visage for pity points. This man, who made his career and his life out of his vanity, suddenly could care less whether he comes off like a shriveled, gossamer memory of a beloved great actor—and I’m speaking of O’Toole and his character. His only reason for being is to touch the back of this young woman’s neck and understand all the ways in which his pleasures are past, will always be denied. I would have given him Oscars for The Stunt Man, Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, hell, even My Favorite Year and maybe Creator too. And if the Academy won’t ever deny Mirren her moment, I hope somehow your (hilarious, spot-on, wish-I’d-thought-of-it-myself) observation will come true and that this Sunday night the stars of the Bob Guccione-Tinto Brass Caligula, Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole, will be reunited backstage, Oscars in hand, dropping their fries all the way from the press room to the Governor’s Ball and into the twinkling Los Angeles night.

Just a few more nuggets as we march inexorably toward the Kodak Center. First of all, what will you be snacking on Sunday evening? I could freeze-dry a piece of pizza the size of a sheet of plywood for you, but my only fear is that by the time it reaches your neck of the woods it might very well taste like a greasy piece of plywood. (It ain’t that far removed as it is.) Do you have people over to enjoy the madness with you, or will you be ever the lonely blogger firing off real-time updates while your daughter sleeps and your wife watches a good DVD in the den? I should take this time to make sure that those reading this are also aware of your great Oscar Dreams available at That Little Round-Headed Boy. Honestly, Dream Number One I could live without. Dream Number Two could have easily happened this year, had HBO not been the primary source of delivery of that mind-boggling documentary. By Dream Number Three, however, you’re really hitting your stride. (Inviting Monica Bellucci? Good idea!) Dream Number Four happily courts controversy. Dream Number Five, well, that just fucking gives me the creeps. And talk about saving the best for last-- I defy anyone to honestly tell me they wouldn't want to see your Dream Number Six come true in just the way you describe it!

Oh, yeah, Ennio! Here’s a thought: Morricone, on the SAP audio channel, giving his barbed assessment of all the musical selections and nominations as they’re being performed and announced. What does the maestro really think of Celine Dion? How about Beyonce, or Jennifer Hudson? And what I wouldn’t give to hear him hurl a few choice zingers Phillip Glass’s way. Seriously, the only things I can say about Morricone are the things you’ve already said, and I wouldn’t have said them as well, so I’m glad you did. For further boning up on Morricone (outside listening to the actual scores), I’ve ran across three articles over the last couple of weeks that I think get at his methods and the experience of listening to his music, and what it does for the movies in which it can be found, better than most. First, be sure to take a look at Steve Garmhausen, courtesy of The House Next Door, and his sharp essay entitled ”The Poet as Hired Gun”. Then move straight on to Joe Pompeo’s piece in the New York Press called ”Morricone Month,” which details all the tributes scheduled for the man in the month of February leading up to Oscar night. Finally, now that the wall has come down, you can read Variety’s piece, written by Jon Burlingame, on Oscar’s musical anomalies, the absence of a competitive Oscar on Morricone’s shelf being but only one example.

One of his most underrated scores, the minimalist, almost Carpenteresque thrumming of his music for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), gets at the horror that movie so viciously and viscerally provides in a way that’s almost antithetical to Carpenter’s (and makeup artist Rob Bottin’s) methods: it’s so under the radar, so near subliminal in its effects, that in thinking back on the movie after the first few times I saw it, I didn’t even realize it had a score! (Quite a difference from the orchestrated cacophony and musical spoon-bending of some of Morricone’s more recognizable efforts.) And the work he did for Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Casualties of War graces this best of all Vietnam films with a score of subtlety and power, one that provides a foundation of external beauty and raging internal impulses which glide in and out of, and inseparably from, the haunted imagery of the film. The opening strains of the disembodied pan flute may sound overly familiar thanks to how often they’ve been copied and cheapened, but in 1990 the sound was riveting, hinting of mystery and horror to come. If this man doesn’t deserve an Oscar, then no one does.

Oscar night is but three nights away! Are you ready to go on the record and spill on your predictions? I am!



cinebeats said...

I've really enjoyed reading your exchanges with TLRHB Dennis! Even if I haven't seen all the nominated movies and performances this year and probably never will.

I know the Oscars is just a lot of Pomp and Pageantry, but I really enjoy it and I have a deep sentimentality towards it. I don't think I've missed a show in at least 30 years.

My guy and I will be having our own private little Oscar party on Sunday like we have for the past 10 years. We plan to stock up on cheap champagne and maybe make some fondue. Fun times!

Sharon said...

These days I've taken to eschewing the big Oscar parties of old and watching by myself at home. Blame my TiVo. Not only does it allow me to watch multiple red carpet shows (yes, they're inane but I find them wildly entertaining. Wouldn't miss them for the world. Joan and Melissa rule!), but I can also fast forward through all the extraneous stuff and boring speeches by people I don't care about. In fact, I think I'll take a suggestion from you, Dennis, and pop in a movie at 5PM Pacific, then let TiVo do it's thing and start watching the Oscar show around 7PM. I figure I'll finish up right about the time the actual show ends.

That said, as much as I used to love this show, these days I feel like I only watch out of obligation. I haven't cared strongly about who wins or loses in most of the categories for years. My enjoyment has also been dampened because all of the precursor award shows pretty much tell you who's going to win the 'main' awards beforehand. And this year is no exception. All of the acting awards seem to have been sewn up, best director seems a foregone conclusion, and frankly I don't much care about the rest of them.

But I will say that the one win that would truly tickle me would be if Thomas Newman won for best score. I believe this is his ninth nomination and as in past years, he probably has no chance of winning. Over the last ten years he's written some of my favorite movie music and someday I hope the Academy will finally give him the recognition he deserves.

benaiah said...

I have heard in several places that this was a weak year at the movies, but I would say that the Oscar's haven't done a terrible job. 7 of my top 10 movies were nominated (Children of Men, The Departed, Borat, Letters From Iowa Jima, The Queen, Superman Returns and Pan's Labyrinth, with CSA: Confederate States of America, Idiocracy, Miami Vice and The Proposition duking it out for the other spots. I missed a lot of movies, but still, it is obvious that a lot of the best movies this year were recognized, if not as heartly as I would like.

Peet said...

Dennis, there's at least one other recent Morricone article that you have to check out: Bob Cumbow's review of the New York Morricone concert at Greencine Daily.

Here it is: