Saturday, January 31, 2009

And the loser is --

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's that time of the year again.

2009 Oscar nominees

Some notes:

Mildly surprised they didn't nominate Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight for a dozen statuettes--it dabbles in current events, it has the heft and pretentiousness (with a message sufficiently grabled that voters might think it's a pro-civil rights, anti-terrorism cautionary/inspirational tale), and a beloved dead actor's final performance to capture the nostalgia vote, and best of all, it's a boxoffice winner. Hell, film and statue deserve each other; neither has a sense of humor or of shame, both are free of the taint and stench of art, or of artists striving for greatness.

I'd written about David Fincher's Benjamin Button already. Suffice to say, I think Button with a script by Gump-ish writer Eric Roth is populist enough, with a wistful enough message ("nothing lasts") that the voters thought it Oscar-worthy. They're apparently too thickheaded to suss out the film's true theme, the majestic passage of time, and the enduring variety of the world and its seasons.

Have not seen Gus Van Sant's Milk (but will, this weekend). Yes, he's done conventional work (Good Will Hunting, and To Die For) same time he's done more interesting fare (Elephant; the Psycho remake (what can I say? Don't knock it till you've seen it, especially screened side-by-side with the original)), so I for one remain hopeful that it was nominated by mistake, and that there's more to it than its ostensibly liberal (if nevertheless important) message.

As for Slumdog Millionaire, my position is this: why waste perfectly good money watching some tourist of a Brit filmmaker steal story ideas from his Indian betters? Slumdog's entertaining, and especially in the scenes of the pickpocket ring it has a gruesome energy (So why is the man and his minions picking up homeless kids? The answer makes one think of an episode of Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror series (not so much that it doesn't happen--apparently it does--but that Boyle insists on filming it in a pulp-horror manner). But--fantastic premises (a street kid as finalist in a million-dollar TV game show)? Outrageous coincidences (kid and his love interest keep bumping into each other with little trouble in Mumbai, a city of over thirteen million people)? There's nothing here we haven't seen done before, and done better, in the films of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, and many others.

As for shamelessly melodramatic climaxes, the one employed here implies a hundred and eighty degree turnaround on the part of a major character. I know, I know plausibility is not the picture's strong suit, nor was it meant to be, but said character is consistent, was dramatically plausible, despite everything; it would have been easy to rewrite him to follow his true, piratical yet generous, nature.

Give me instead the equally shameless yet to my mind far more effective climax to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, even if Eastwood does for a few grating moments croak the words to his own song. Slumdog's ending just drops in out of nowhere; Gran Torino's (a lovely act of theatrics and mindfuck psychology) is carefully prepared from the film's earliest scenes, feels true to the character he plays, and is still courageous in its outlandish convictions. Fact is, I wonder why didn't the Academy nominate Eastwood's film? It's the kind of high-quality soap Hollywood used to be good at churning out in its olden days, with a generous dose of politically incorrect humor (leavened with unspoken sensitivity) tossed in for flavoring, and it's Eastwood's cleanest, simplest, least pretentious film in years.

Do the Academy voters feel they have to be serious now? Do they feel they have standards to keep, artistic merit to reward and uphold? From where I'm sitting, they have no standards; the Oscars are a whorefest, a badly dressed one at that, long and dull and totally pointless (the career statue they gave Robert Altman is a capstone insult to the career of a great artist, the competition statue they gave Martin Scorsese a consolation insult to an artist still growing and developing and working in so many interesting ways). Altman and Scorsese are too tactful as human beings to tell the Academy where they can really stick their goldplated doorstops; I for one wished they were not so gracious.

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