Tuesday, February 26, 2008

No More Russert-Williams + Oscar Notes

A modest request to MSNBC: would you please never have Tim Russert or Brian Williams moderate a debate again? Please?

Instead, why not draw up a list of 100 experts in a range of fields, and then have a computer randomly pick 5-10 of them to ask questions at one of these debates? 5-10 average citizens, also randomly selected after submitting questions, could also press the candidates. How much do you want to be that all 10-20 of these people would be more informed and less prone to quoting right-wing websites and asking "gotcha" questions than the dunderhead multimillionaire TV "journalists"?

As for the debate, I challenge anyone who claims Senator Obama doesn't have "concrete plans and he won't state them" to say so now if they watched it. (And please, friends, do not send me mass emails repeating or restating this particular bit of ignorance, I beg of you.) How he's going to pull some of them off remains a question. You and I might not agree with them. But he has "concrete plans" and more than "calls for hope" or whatever the knock is. As for Senator Clinton, she was evidently seething at Odreamy, who was cooler than he's ever been, even during the ridiculous Farrakhan question, throughout the entire event. I won't psychologize her, but it's clear to me that she really felt this was her moment, and it's slipping away. I wonder if she ever asks herself what might have happened if she had chosen the political career and Bill had remained the corporate lawyer, if she'd led Arkansas for several terms, and then attempted to become president, say in 1992, or now? How different might things be? Lots of counterfactuals there, but I wonder if it runs through her mind? She's dazzling smart and does have formidable political skills, but the Clinton baggage, so much of not of even of their making, is weighing her down. I don't think she's out, but from the media stories I read after the debate, they're already writing her epitaph.


I sat through the Academy Awards, after having to turn off my favorite TV show, The Wire, because I've been following C's example and viewing it via On Demand early in the week, and I could not bear seeing Omar Little (played by the inimitable Michael K. Williams), one of the most original and compelling characters ever to grace television, capped in the back of the head by one of Marlo Stanfield's mini minions again. Once was enough. It took me an entire season to get over the death of Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), and given how the series' creator David Simon hews to life's contingencies, ironies, and complexities, I knew Omar, as close to a latter-day fiction Robin Hood as you might find on TV, was probably going to get knocked off, but I still wasn't prepared for it. I asked Reggie and Bernie in an email if they thought another of Omar's fans, Mr. Obama, shed a tear as well. None of know, the verdict's out.

So back to the Academy Awards: I was bored to tears. John Stewart wasn't particularly funny, hardly any outrageous people acted or even stood out (except Tilda Swinton and Diablo Cody, see below), all of the actors presenting appeared to be striving really hard to look as bohemian as possible, while the actresses seemed to have been given strict rules about what to wear and how dazed to look when they took the stage, the Halle Berry gag went on too long, and those montages were like visual Lunestas.

One thing I did note, though, was how awful or lackluster so many of the films winning the Best Film award over the years were. The Life of Emile Zola, which won in 1937 over The Awful Truth and Lost Horizon? How Green Was My Valley, which won in 1941 over The Maltese Falcon, The Little Foxes (!), Suspicion (!), and Citizen Kane?? Around the World in Eighty Days, which in 1956 defeated Giant, The Ten Commandments, and The King and I? Of course there were some years, like 1950, where there were multiple great films, like All About Eve, which defeated Born Yesterday, Sunset Boulevard, and Father of the Bride, all excellent films, and the 1950s in general appear to have been a high point, but then you get decades like the 1960s or the 1980s--and the 1990s were the absolute bottom of the barrel, really--when it's as if the Academy had no criteria but box-office take or bluster in awarding the Best Film prize--but then I guess I should add that the nature of and changes in the American and global film industries perhaps is key to understanding how things played out.

Also, why did they leave poor Whoopi Goldberg out of the Oscar winners montage? She's now one of the stars of The View, so they really have got to stop their hating. (Pssst: W is at 19%, and still sinking!)

The show probably would been less of a snoozer if I'd seen more (any) of the movies, but of the two I most thought should get Oscars, the first didn't win (Persepolis!) and the second wasn't even nominated. My brilliant film-scholar colleague told me that the Academy (of Motion Pictures, that is) will be restructing the process for submitting foreign films in part because of what happened to the Romanian film I raved about the other day, 4 Months, though I thought a similar drama a few years ago was supposed to have changed things, but I could be wrong.

The highlight, as I told C, was seeing Cormac McCarthy in the audience. Yes, Cormac McCarthy. The same Cormac McCarthy who for decades has been notably reclusive, rarely giving interviews or readings. There he was, with a child or grandchild, grinning (all the way to the bank, but also with astonishment, joy and pride) at the victory of the Coen brothers' successful film translation of what is arguably his weakest novel. I credit Oprah Winfrey for his presence at the Oscars, because it was Oprah who picked The Road, his reader-friendly recent novel, for her Book Club, ensuring it millions of (new) readers and him millions of dollars, which might be enough of a motivator to get Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger or Gayl Jones to make a public appearance I'm sure. And it's been nothing but great news for McCarthy since. A Pulitzer (two decades after the books that deserved it), lots of public adulation, and now an Oscar-winning film to top it off. (I hear that The Road will be a film soon, but it is too good, save for the ending, to resist butchering, so let's cross our fingers and knock on wood.) And the Coen brothers and the movie's producer, who thanked his male partner (go Hollywood!), paid tribute to McCarthy in their comments.

Speaking of Gayl Jones, an idea: Oprah, please use your considerable influence and wealth to start making movies of major African-American and Black Diasporic literary works of the 20th century. Please. Why not start with Corregidora, then try Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Things Fall Apart, Dessa Rose, Nervous Conditions, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Vanishing Rooms, Salt, Soul Kiss, The Bride Price, and take your pick from The House Behind the Cedars, The Flagellants, Banjo, White Boy Shuffle, or Oreo? You singlehandedly could have directors like Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Arthur Jafa, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemons, and so on, and the vast array of actors out there from across the Diaspora really burning up the screen! They'd have to give Oprah a special Oscar if she could pull this off, don't you think?

Back to the Oscars: the Coen brothers fascinate me. Always have. I love how they're continue to be so intensely idiosyncratic, which comes through in their aesthetic, and how they've been able to maintain it, to the extent possible in Hollywood, and get rewarded for it over the years. I also think it would be so cool to have a very smart, interesting, and equally strange sibling who utterly understood and whom you could do all sorts of projects with, over a lifetime. But then I know almost nothing about them and they could be at each others throats, though that wasn't the impression I've gotten whenever I've read about them or seen them on TV. I'd like to spend a week on set with them, just observing how they work together. And then maybe spend time with the Dardenne brothers, and see how they compare. (These two make an Oscar-worthy movie every time they call it a wrap.)

Among the actors receiving awards, I was surprised Julie Christie didn't receive the Oscar for Best Actress, but my colleague, mentioned above, said that Marion Cotillard really shone as Edith Piaf. I haven't seen that film, but her win only confirms my view that the Academy values mimicry and biopics, especially ones about foreign figures, over everything else. It does take talent to play someone else, but then isn't that what acting is in the most general and basic sense? And isn't it harder to realize a totally fictional character than one whose tics and mannerisms you can study? Tilda Swinton, of the boy-toy and menage à trois, received the Best Supporting Actress award, and cut the most unique figure. She often looks like the alien that I and a friend are convinced Nicole Kidman actually is (Tom Cruise, you know, we think is also one). Swinton's comments also had a nice spike, as opposed to the usual rambling and incoherence. If you have any clue you might be nervous, write out those thank yous on a sheet and tuck it. And above all, don't forget the loved one who's stood by you through thick and thin!

Poor Cate Blanchett, all that talent, all those great performances, twice playing Elizabeth I, and still no Oscar. I guess Kate Winslet decided to pass on the proceedings completely, since she's been dissed four times in a row (or is it five?).

I also liked how unnerved, spastic and thoroughly herself Best Screenwriter from an Original Screenplay Diablo Cody appears to be. I'd been repeatedly told that she was a former erotic performer with a distinctive personal voice and vision, and I'd imagined an utterly confident creature taking the stage, but she struck me as a quirky and delightful person who probably spends a lot of time staring at a computer screen and has an imagination that probably encompasses worlds.

I figured they weren't going to let Michael Moore anywhere near the stage, given his outburst a few years ago, but Sicko was one of his stronger efforts.

The rest of it, other than Ruby Dee, who has found the Fountain of Youth and isn't telling anybody, Javier Bardem, who looked so happy he was about to float off into the rafters, and Denzel Washington, who was sporting a hot Quo Vadis and barked out his words as if he was a drill sargent, was a blur. So many pale gowns and upswept hair. So many musical numbers whose singers sounded flat. So, so, so long. I hope they bring back Whoopi Goldberg or Chris Rock back as hosts, or perhaps try out Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, or someone along those lines. Dana Carvey. Mo'Nique. Someone with a sense of humor and enough zip to keep things lively.

Maybe the writers just needed a little more time. I'm glad they're back and got a workable deal, though.


  1. I think Mo'Nique has a permanent gig on BET re-doing Beyonce, arguably, out-doing Beyonce.

    As a vulgar wanna-be luddite, I don't watch any movies. But, I did see Bamako recently. I'm still trying to process it.

  2. Keguro, I've heard good things about Bamako, so I'll check your blog to see if you post your thoughts on it.

    (Weren't the Luddites, at least in Thompson's view, opponents to the depradations of the free market? I think they did enjoy their amusements, as all people do, even poor and working-class folks who see their livelihoods destroyed by the state, elites, and capital itself, in its various and elusive forms. Hmmm, had there been TV and a pharmaceutical industry in the early 19th century, perhaps they could have seduced and tranquilized even the Luddites not to go smashing industrial looms and so on, and to focus on the personal dramas of whoever were the leading popular cultural figures of that era....)

    And you telling me Mo'Nique is now singing and shaking? Or just trying to get up in Jay-Z's grill? :-0

  3. Oprah's 4 interviews with Jill Bolte Taylor were the first that Oprah did after Eckhart Tolle and they take everything Tolle talks about to another level. Oprah's copy of Jill's book, MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, was dog-eared and all marked up and kept reading from it the way she read from A New Earth and recommended it highly.

    Oprah's recommendation was enough for me. I read My Stroke of Insight and I loved it too. This story is as inspiring as The Last Lecture or Tuesdays with Morrie - and even better, it has a Happy Ending!

    I bought the book on Amazon because they have it for 40% off retail and they also had an amazing interview with Dr Taylor that I haven't seen anywhere else - Here is the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/My-Stroke-Insight-Scientists-Personal/dp/0670020745/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211471755&sr=1-2

  4. I read "My Stroke of Insight" in one sitting - I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it's a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her TED.com speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I've ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.