Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Grammy Schmammy

Such is the power of the Hollywood spectacle that even an opinionated parrot was moved to doing mea culpas and post hocs and caveat emptors... and parrots don't even speak Latin! Didn't I underestimate The Departed? Isn't it great that Marty final won one? Wasn't I just a bit unfair to Helen Mirren? Did I fail to recognize the strength of Jennifer Hudson's debut performance? Oh, I am so embarrassed, and I put this out on a blog for all the world to see...

There's just one word I can think of for these sentiments... resist! Let's start with the strongest case, Helen Mirren's performance in The Queen. First of all, my main point was that films with nothing special to offer are being raised to the level of great cinema because of one great performance, and that remains a serious problem with the tone of this year's Grammies. But let's talk about performances, anyway. If you saw The Queen, you know what Helen Mirren did: she subtly altered her facial expression to express a range of emotions from stern and rigid to, what shall we call it, softening up (?), and in one notable scene she shed a tear or two. Now that scene was perhaps a great one, but not particularly because she cried; every professional actress can cry on demand, regardless of how rigid a personality she is playing. What was great about it is that, as I said before, the stag is identified with Diana, through the medium of her children, and the Queen's awe at the stag's unexpected and imposing presence represents her final, hard-won identification and dignification of what her grandchildren had lost. If anything makes this a memorable film, it is the unfolding of that theme towards this moving climax.

But all this has little to do with altering one's facial muscles. It is a well known and perhaps remarkable fact that in cinema, as opposed to theater, it is the subtle gesture before the camera, rather than the grand movement, that dominates. Nevertheless, I am not particularly inclined to think of facial expressions as enough to constitute a great performance. And in this performance there was little else. (It's not a criticism of Helen Mirren, BTW; she did what she was called on to do, and maybe more. I said that the whole point and tenor of the film left me cold, and that's a problem for the producer and the writer, not the actress.) I did not see The Last King of Scotland, but from the clips I've seen, I'm quite sure that Forest Whitaker's performance there consisted of a lot more than twitching his upper lip. There is, perhaps, a difference between male and female film stars as far as the range of motion they are expected to have; but it's not as dramatic as "you guys move around, ladies just stand there and alter your facial expression". This role did not give enough scope of action to permit an all-round great performance, much less a great film.

The Departed was an enjoyable movie, albeit a remake of the Hong Kong (not Japanese!) film Infernal Affairs. I have no issue with remakes, though it is difficult to think of very many that are as good as the originals. I have some issue with mob films but not enough to fail to appreciate truly great ones like The Godfather, Donnie Brasco and Scorcese's own Goodfellas. The Academy was doing the thing that the Nobel and the Pulitzer and a million other Committees do, recognizing that a major artist has been slighted for his greatest work and playing catch-up because the failure has come to reflect more on the Committee than on the artist. (Think of Saul Bellow getting the Pulitzer for the cardboard novel Humboldt's Gift after being passed up for Herzog.) Thus he lost the Best Director award for Raging Bull to Robert Redford (Ordinary People), which is a bit ridiculous; and Goodfellas lost to Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves). He was not even nominated for Taxi Driver (though that year sported an illustrious bunch of nominees, including Ingmar Bergman, Lina Wertmuller and Sidney Lumet, and the film had to compete with Rocky, for which John Avildsen won Best Director). Maybe it was just circumstance rather than disrespect, but it definitely looked like time to do right by one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. But honoring him for a remake, with one dubious premise (Matt Damon's bred-for-moledom character) and one been-there-done-that idea (mob infiltrator becomes a bit too believable as mobster) must be slim recompense for failing to win the title for his best efforts. (Raging Bull was picked as the best film of the 1980's by Sight and Sound, acording to Wikipedia.)

What else? Babel! At least it won Best Original Score, losing six other nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, and two for Best Supporting Actress), all of which it richly deserved. Actually, it was not the score, but the soundtrack that was so amazing. For example, never was a few seconds of absolute silence used to more dramatic effect. And you thought someone goofed at the end of the disco scene? So did I, briefly. Talk about point-of-view shots; how about point-of-hearing sounds? What was so shocking about it is that we never notice until that moment how different it all would be to a deaf person. Anyway, big-time dis for this film, and my opinion remains that it stands head and shoulders over the rest of the bunch in almost every way.

Dreamgirls - okay, Jennifer Hudson, not bad, though frankly I thought there were plenty of better supporting actress roles around this year (Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza both deserved it more). But what about the best song award? After all that Dreamgirls bruhaha, not one of those songs won the award! That's a dis if ever I saw one! The music may have been better than the film, but I'm glad in a way that it did not get the award. Why? Partly because of something that has nothing to do with this or any particular film. Look at Broadway lately: we're treated to one after another spectacle based on this pop star or that one, and everyone from Dylan and the Beatles to Billy Joel gets their chance at being the Next Big Show; virtually all of them falling off the stage quickly, and not a minute too soon. If someone wants to make a serious popular music film, be it The Last Waltz or Walk the Line or even La Bamba, I'm all for it, but this formulaic crap is made with the prayer of waltzing into a bit of cash by way of audience identification with someone's music. And this has got to go.

Okay, I'm done. The Parrot repenteth not. Hollywood recognizes itself in the Academy Awards, not as the built-on-sand spectacle that it is but as the Holy Woods of cinema, and the rest of us have to live with that, respect it to some extent, and resist it when necessary. Speaking of which, what do you think 2005 will be remembered for, Brokeback Mountain, or the Best Picture of the Year winner, um, what's it called? Oh, Crash, the film about the stock market in 1929, I mean, a car wreck in Los Angeles. Well, that's two years in a row that a really notable film was passed over so that the big H could take care of its own. Like I said, the artists and the artworks will outlive this spectacle. Orson Welles won nothing except Best Screenplay for Citizen Kane, often considered the greatest and among the most innovative films of all time. (John Ford won Best Picture and Best Director for How Green Was My Valley that year.) And so it goes.

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