Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Nature of Art, Part 2, as well as other things

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

If you click to get to our home page, and scroll down a few stories, you'll see that on May 23rd, I wrote "Part 1" of this essay, in which I discussed what art is, what all art aims at, and very briefly, a method by which one one can evaluate how well a particular artwork achieves its goal.  This article concludes the essay.

And I also have a few things on my mind, which I'll share at the essay's conclusion.
The Nature of Art, Part 2

My critical method is tripartite--split into three parts.  These parts are:

  1. Argument
  2. Theme
  3. Form
Boiling it down, what I do is extract the essential argument of the artwork, and evaluate its soundness; then I look into how the artwork's themes support the argument, and evaluate how well they do so; finally, I analyze how the forms employed by the artist evoke the themes supportive of the argument, and evaluate how well these themes are evoked.

The best works of art have (a) sound, profound arguments, (b) consistently supportive and non-detracting themes, and (c) properly evocative, non-muddled forms.  

The worst works of art have certainly (a) unsound arguments, and also might have (b) inconsistent and detracting themes, and (c) muddled forms.

Works of art that are in between have sound arguments that are lacking in profundity.

My point is this: it's absolutely crucial for an artwork to have a sound argument--as in, it makes an ultimate statement and has good reasons for making the statement.  If the artwork fails in this regard, it must necessarily fail as a whole.  That is because since the ultimate goal of a work of art is to embody truth, it must then embody a statement that is true and arrive at this statement from true and relevant reasons.  Thus, if the artwork embodies a false statement, it has irrevocably failed at reaching its goal; also, if an artwork embodies a true statement but on the grounds of faulty reasoning, it thus only embodies a true statement by pure accident, and embodies it in an untrue manner, thus this artwork irrevocably fails as well.

Analyzing themes and forms simply allows one to understand how well--e.g., how consistently, how powerfully--an artwork expresses its argument.  In other words, the argument is the 'what' of the piece--i.e., the substance--while the themes and forms are the 'how' of the piece--i.e., the ways that the substance is expressed.

To further express how my critical approach works, I'll use an example from Dead Poet's Society, which is probably my favorite film (bear with my highly simplified analysis here; I do it simply to illustrate my critical method).

Dead Poet's Society (SPOILER ALERT)
Argument: There is an eternal essence to life's meaning, and one comes in contact with this meaning by living passionately, honestly, and compassionately.  The evidence for this argument is that many dead poets wrote about (in their lifetimes) love, life, meaning, experience, loss, etc. in ways that resonate with the characters who are still living, and when the passion, compassion, and honesty are cut-off from one of the protagonists, he no longer has the will to live. MY ANALYSIS: The statement is true, and the evidence is very strong to support it (sound).  Moreover, the statement is about the very nature of human existence (profound).
Themes supportive of the argument: Youth, the eternal nature of meaningfulness, inevitable decay and death in humanity, the importance of new experiences, the importance of love, of honesty, of compassion, the importance of freedom, and courage.  MY ANALYSIS: The themes are consistently supportive of the argument; they detract slightly only because they rely on some cliches about old age meaning unoriginality and grouchiness, as well as tradition meaning arbitrary and stifling rules.  It's slightly inconsistent with the film's other theme of the eternality of meaningfulness in human life.
Forms evocative of the supportive themes: The film employs symbolism: standing on the desks at the end of the movie signifies both the students' courage to stand up for truth, as well as courage and thirst for experiencing life passionately and freely.  Poetry is an art form that is very explicitly about beauty and truth and compassion, all themes that the film intends to evoke.  MY ANALYSIS: Again, the film relies on some cliches here--such as the Romantic authors all portraying beauty, while the Realist authors only portray depravity--but overall, the forms employed properly evoke the themes.
Overall: The film's argument is not only sound, but also ultimately profound. High marks here.  Although the themes and forms are slightly detracting and/or muddled, they are mostly successful.  Thus, due to the soundness and profundity of the argument, and the generally effective themes and forms, this film is highly successful in its goal of embodying beauty, thus it is a great work of art.

I hope this clears up lingering uncertainties about my approach.  Of course, I understand that my approach stems from a worldview anchored in objective truth and ultimate accessibility of this truth to human beings, which is at the very least a controversial philosophical worldview.  But it is one that I believe that not only is true, but also important to realize as true.
other things

-Since it always seems to be a longer and longer time between my posts, I don't know when I'll post again.  So I'd like to say, in the upcoming months, please see films, open yourself up to the beauty of art in its many forms, and keep a watchful eye out for works of art that only masquerade as profound.

-Isn't it hard to believe we're already halfway into the 2012 Oscar season?  I know The Savant must be excited.

-My list of favorite movies?  I feel like sharing some of it with you (not in any order).

Dead Poet's Society
Friday Night Lights
Annie Hall
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Garden State
Wings of Desire
The Departed
The Seventh Seal
Little Big Man
Edward Scissorhands
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Disney's the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Crimes and Misdemeanors
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Phantom of the Opera

-Until this half jew posts again, this is The Good-Looking One, saying have a great life and enjoy the arts, audience members of the world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wait…Did We Watch the Same Movie? (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

By: Alex “The Savant” Heisman

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve written a piece in this series but I felt it was finally time to return as I just saw one of the most iconic films ever for the first time: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I feel no shame in admitting I had never before seen this infamous film as what I understood the themes to be never seemed truly approachable. What I have to say, however, will undoubtedly offend some people, most notably The Older Good-Looking-One, The Good-Looking One’s sister, as I understand that this is one of her favorite films.

It must be understood up front that I’ve never accepted the massive appeal and legend that is Audrey Hepburn. Everyone seems to go gaga over her, I guess from her performance in this film, but I’ve always found her a waifish actress whose sing-song voice greatly distracts from her uninspired line readings. I’ve only ever enjoyed one performance from her, the magnificent Wait Until Dark, but her characterization of the free-spirit Holly Golightly embodies everything I find off-putting about her as an actress. Hepburn’s incredibly exaggerated facial expressions betray the authority Holly so desperately attempts to show the world. The FABULOUS and underrated actress Rosalind Russell so breathes an abundancy of life into her free-spirit character in Auntie Mama a mere three years earlier that Hepburn should have taken a page from her book on how to play such a character.

The only thing thinner than Hepburn’s performance is the plot of the film. Indeed, there is so little narrative that it is essentially presented in vignettes of differing theme stretched over its two hour running time. For one 15-minute section, the movie relies on director Blake Edward’s infamous comedic flair while the next 15 minutes oddly switch to heavy drama without warning. The viewer can tell which emotion they’re supposed to be feeling by the abrupt change in style of Henry Mancini’s oft-lauded score. By the time the ending finally rolls around, the score swells to such bombastic heights as to mirror Hepburn’s completely over-exaggerated and false facial expressions.

Credit where credit is due, however- the film is otherwise very aesthetically pleasing. Blake Edwards’ tight and clever direction harnessed the power of the camera’s lens in conjunction with the cinematographic glow of the overhead lights quite effectively. The well-known, Academy Award winning song Moon River, which actually benefits from Hepburn’s light voice, is one of the best ever composed (although, it seems slightly out of place and a little too epic for this film). Also, two of my favorite actors, Martin Balsam and Patricia Neal, assuredly deliver insightful performances in their small, cameo appearances.

Notice that I have not commented on Mickey Rooney’s unusual, racist performance as the Asian landlord of Holly’s building- I’m still not completely sure what to make of that one.

Audrey Hepburn was most certainly a humanitarian of the first order and had a level of sex appeal surpassed only by Elizabeth Taylor. It is still no small wonder that a mere human being could be as classy as she was. That being said, however, both she and Truman Capote, the author of the original short story, felt she was miscast as Holly Golightly and I have to agree. Indeed, the distinct elements of the character of Holly in Capote’s text (her young age of 19, her bisexuality, her abortion) were sacrificed in the script in order to attract Hepburn to the role and let the studio rely on star power for profit. Go ahead, vilify me in the comments!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dearest Nora

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

Dearest Nora,

Nearly every single tribute composed towards your magnificently giving life has emulated your comedic gift and been some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever read. Forgive me then, in articulating a slightly more heartfelt, less witty piece. Certainly nothing against those who base their obituaries in humor, I’m sure you would be immensely proud, I just find it very hard to try to mimic your style when you were so far above the rest of us that anything less may just appear inadequate.

The pain and shock of losing you and the disappearance of your presence in the entertainment industry has still not yet settled in my being. I’ve come to realize that I took you for granted- I always expected another incredibly hilarious, yet deep, musing on the position of life from you every few years. You were, after all, the one who ultimately brought the very important question of “can a man and a woman truly be friends without sex getting in the way?” to the forefront.

You pushed through the pain of your own personal life to reflect and create some of the most delectably apt coverage on infidelity and divorce ever published in Heartburn. You made countless swoon as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were unconventionally brought closer together in Sleepless in Seattle. You created an unflinching and daring expose on whistle blowing in Silkwood. You afforded us a reason to not feel guilty about over-gorging ourselves after Julie & Julia.

Hell, you gave us one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard in my entire life: “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on… Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

The question then remains- how do we ever begin to push through the pain of losing you?

I thank you for your wit. I thank you for your grace. I thank you for the three projects you and Meryl were involved with- Silkwood, Heartburn, and Julie & Julia. Although the Academy never awarded you a trophy through your three unsuccessful bids, they never truly needed to- you still more than proved your place in the hallowed pantheon of inspirational and genuine filmmakers. Your passing resembles a Peter Sellers, a Madeline Kahn, a Belushi or a Radner- humorous geniuses gone before their time that left a void that can never be filled.

To slightly alter Carrie Fisher’s immortal, repeated line from When Harry Met Sally… “You’re right, you’re right, you were always right”.

Say hi to the big guy for me.

From- one of your infinite and admiring fans

(Nora Ephron- 1941-2012)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Meryl!

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

As I have certainly let more time elapse than I should between parts 1 and 2 of my Meryl opus, please allow this short piece to be submitted as evidence in the interim instead. Today, June 22nd. 2012, marks the 63rd year of Mary Louise Streep’s glorious existence on this Earth. No words I have in my vocabulary can even begin to pay tribute to both the immense impact Meryl has had in my life over the past decade or so and her achievements in the entertainment industry.

I merely want to note this occasion and say- thank you Meryl, from the bottom of my heart, for being exactly who you are. For over thirty-five years you have led a completely flawless, scandal-free career that has forged massive ground and shown to what heights and depths actors are capable of achieving in the medium of film. Thank you for being the reason I have the strength to get up every morning. When life becomes overwhelming, I retreat into your masterful Clarissa Vaughan, your sublime Joanna Kramer, your shattering Sophie Zawistowska. I very humbly put forward that if you could even begin to grasp the depth to which you have influenced just this one fan’s life, I’d hope your own self-acceptance as an actor might be validated. No one in my life so far, including those closest to me, has really been able to understand my utter devotion to your legacy, but, in choosing to live my life strictly by your set of ethics, I have found some semblance of the inner peace we search for all our lives. God Bless You, Harry and Mary Streep for fusing your genes into the being that arrived in this world on June 22nd, 1949 in Summit, New Jersey.

“God bless you, as you have blessed us, and as he has blessed us through you.” – Jim Carrey to Meryl Streep at her 2004 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award

See you front-row, center on August 10th for Hope Springs!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moonrise Kindgom Rises to Kingship!

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman and Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

The Good-Looking One's Rating- 4/5 stars
The Savant's Rating- 5/5 stars

Believe it or not, this is the one movie where Bruce Willis has hair and it doesn't destroy the whole film! -The Savant

Sure. -The Good-Looking One

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Legacy

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

In eager anticipation for the release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the prequel to his seminal 1979 masterpiece Alien, and the video recording about the movie from The Good-Looking One and I, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the Alien quadrilogy and the subsequent defining legacy.

When Alien quietly premiered at the end of May in 1979, it was intended to be just another B-grade science-fiction monster movie. As extremely positive word of mouth began to ripple outwards from the few who initially saw it, more and more patrons flocked to the theater to see what all the fuss was about. Although actor John Hurt was a previously minted Oscar nominee from the year before, the cast of seven was led by largely unknowns in the industry- most importantly, Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley in a performance that launched her massive career. Alien shifted the function of the genre in a whole new direction as it proved that anyone, no matter his or her station in the film, was expendable and that danger lurked down every darkened hallway of the starship Nostromo.

Seven years later, James Cameron took the reigns of the franchise and created a sequel, Aliens, that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Once again, Ripley finds herself battling the alien creatures with the help of some new, fan-favorite characters in the quadrilogy such as the friendly android Bishop and the unassuming Corporal Hicks. Ripley also finds herself taking care of a young, orphaned girl whose parents were slaughtered by the alien race. In one of her most fully realized performances, Sigourney Weaver became one of the very few actresses in a horror film ever nominated for an acting Academy Award. In analyzing the relatively weak competition that year, it’s a wonder she didn’t win.

Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are really only worth mentioning because I’m obligated to as they’re part of the saga. Neither movie is very good and both actually diminish the importance and impact of the franchise. Aside from driving the chronicles of Ellen Ripley further towards the critical final battle between human and alien, Alien 3 is most notable for being the directorial debut of respected filmmaker David Fincher while Alien: Resurrection quite blandly features Winona Ryder (Remember her? She used to act!). There is also an infamous and severely divisive moment towards the end of Alien 3 that alters the course of the character of Ellen Ripley and her journey that still remains a hot point of contention 20 years later.

As the days inch closer towards the dawning of the future of the Alien franchise with the release of Prometheus many questions are raised. Two MASSIVE questions left unanswered since the release of Alien 33 years ago are “What’s the deal with the crashed ship the crew explores?” and “What, indeed, is the purpose of the legendary Space Jockey?” The trailer for the film teases very brief shots of what promises to be answers to these questions, as well as many others. Notably, Prometheus will be heavily featured in the annals of film history as having one of the best marketing campaigns ever employed. Aside from Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien film, returning to direct this prequel, literally nothing about the plot is known outside of its basic connection to the Alien franchise. Maybe Guy Pearce, appearing as Peter Weyland- co-founder of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that ordered the Nostromo to investigate the mysterious signal emitted from the downed ship in the first place, can answer our questions in just a few days…

This is Alex “The Savant” Heisman, last survivor of the starship Nostromo, signing off.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Nature of Art, Part 1

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Today, I’m going to write very briefly on a topic that requires an extensive discussion.  But it seems to me that in writing this short article, I’ll be able to gain greater clarity on this topic—really, the topic underlying Alex’s and my blog.

What is the basis for evaluating art?  That is to say, why is good art good, and bad art bad?  Now, many months ago I wrote an article entitled “What Makes a Good Movie ‘Good’?”, and while it had some decent insights, I think that really, I missed the big picture.  In that article, I identified several aspects that viewers typically say helps to make a movie ‘good’, but I failed to say how these several aspects can be unified under the term of ‘good’, and also how movies are subsumed under the larger category of art.

My task in this article is to briefly explore both the nature of art and a method by which, I believe, one should critique art.

First, the all-important question must be asked: what is art—what is the overall definition by which all things come to be known as ‘art’?  Although this is a question requiring tireless effort, I’ll simply state the conclusions that I’ve reached thus far in my short life.  Art is any thing whose meaning is inherently invested in its medium of expression.  Now, that’s a confusing and convoluted phrase, so bear with me.  By “meaning”, I mean whatever evocations are essentially important to the thing under discussion.  By “inherently invested”, I mean that this meaning is inextricably tied to this thing’s medium of expression.  And by “medium of expression”, I simply mean the way in which this thing expresses itself.  For instance, let’s consider as our piece of art Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”.  This painting’s meaning might be as simple as a statement on the physical beauty of women, or something more complex, along the lines of the mysteriousness many people hold behind their faces.  Now, what makes this a piece of art is that the meaning one may get out of this painting is inherently invested in its medium of expression—that is, the various techniques that da Vinci employed in order to create the image, the various aspects that make it a painting.  Essentially, what I’m saying is this: the meaning of the painting can most fully be found in analyzing its nature as a painting.

Another example might be, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The meaning of this novel might be that human interaction is largely determined according to the social class in which one grows up.  But what makes this novel a piece of art is that its meaning can most fully be understood not only in analyzing the expressed philosophy of the book, but also the techniques Fitzgerald employed to express it, its method of expression.

I know this is still somewhat unclear, but if you’re still reading, then you’re either related to me, vaguely understanding what I’m saying, and/or hoping this article gets better.  So I’ll move on from the nature of art itself to how art may properly be critiqued.

Critique is essentially an evaluation, a statement on the merits and/or flaws of something.  So if we’re trying to develop a basis for critique, then we’re trying to understand the criteria according to which something can be said to be better than another thing.

What’s perhaps most important in developing a basis for critique with respect to any category is the goal that all things in this category aim at.  For instance, since all sports players aim (or at least, should aim) to above all else win games, therefore the best sports players are those who most contribute to wins.

In aesthetics (aka the study of the nature of art), it is typically said that art aims at the beautiful.  Not only do I agree with this statement, but I’ll go one step further: all art aims at the beautiful.  Of course, this begs the question: what is beauty?—yet another discussion that requires a lengthy treatment.  But I’ll give you my shorthand: beauty is profound truth.  This might seem counterintuitive to some, but I believe with deep thought on the subject, it will become clear that things are more beautiful as they embody deeper and deeper truths.  Thus, for me, all art aims to embody profound truth, and thus the best art embodies the most profound truths.

Now the question is: how does beauty manifest itself in art?  Once again, (A) considering the nature of art as a thing whose meaning is invariably tied to its mode of expression, therefore (B) beauty must manifest itself in an artwork's mode of expression.  Thus, the profound truth at which some work of art might aim must be expressed both as a result of its mode of expression and within its mode of expression itself.  That is to say, there must be a harmonious link between the truth an artwork expresses and the way in which it expresses it.  And that is to say, the particular aspects that make this thing a work of art and not simply a philosophical verbal statement must combine to make this truth more fully expressed in the former than the latter.  For instance, if the truth of the “Mona Lisa” is, stated verbally, ‘people hide great mystery behind their faces’, then if the “Mona Lisa” is to be considered a great work of art, then it must, as a painting, embody this stated truth more fully than the simple verbal statement of it.

This is much of the preliminary work to my coming discussion (in part 2) of my critical approach to art.  But it seems to me that, in brief, there are three aspects of any work of art:
  1. Argument
  2. Theme
  3. Form

In a great work of art, the argument must be sound and profound, the themes consistent and contributory to the argument, and the form/style properly evocative of the themes.  The greatest beauty in art, therefore, might be said to be the profound and harmonious interrelation between these three.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Zorba the Gross

By: Alex “The Savant” Heisman

Dear Readers,

The Particularly Good-Looking One and I do apologize for our lack of recent output towards our site in the past three weeks or so. We have no excuse outside of the fact that completing our classes and studying for finals has taken up nearly all of our waking hours. Never fret, however, as all the skills deemed “necessary” towards proficiency that I learned in my English classes this year have thus far, and will continue to, certainly make us “more gooder” writers in the future.

Everyone’s experienced those moments in life where, say, a familiar song comes on the radio and you’re enthusiastically jamming out in the car but after a while, by the sixth chorus, you’re just good and ready for the song to be over. I recently rented the highly famous and acclaimed movie Zorba the Greek to watch for the first time, as I had heard nothing by exemplary references on its behalf. I must say, with all due sincerity and acerbity, that Zorba the Greek remains one of the five worst (most disappointing) movies I’ve ever seen, hands down. It pains me to think that the reason Paul and I began our series where we examine a culturally significant movie we have not yet seen for one reason or another was to broaden our horizons, but has now turned into me essentially ranting about how I just can’t fathom the importance of a particular work or two- such negativity was never meant to pervade our site.

I bring up the song analogy to emphasize that Zorba is just the movie that literally keeps on giving. It’s two and a half hour runtime (I know there should be connecting dashes somewhere in that time stamp, I’ve just never figured out where. Look at me being a more gooder writer!) drips, oozes like molasses until my father actually got up from the couch he was so bored with the film. The movie is literally a series of unfunny, and worst of all, uneventful vignettes where ambition changes from scene to scene and that are barely tied together by the adventures of the wanderer Alexis Zorba- apparently expertly played by the Greek-as-his-name Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca, Stage Name- Anthony Quinn. (Now I’m doubting myself that I’ve used too many dashes…). Each time I check how much longer remains in the film, ninety minutes…. thirty-four minutes…. thirty-two minutes, I can’t help but wonder how this protracted film from 1964 was held in high regard against other classics from that year like Dr. Strangelove or Becket.

The three main acting performances must be singled out- I expected a tremendous, powerhouse performance by Anthony Quinn after understanding him to be the catalyst for the film’s lasting integrity. Indeed, the entire film rests on his shoulders. It is with a bewildering gaze that I then viewed the film, as Quinn’s place in the film is so hammy he’s too busy using one of the logs so important to the plot of the film as a toothpick to remove from his teeth the Greek scenery that he’s been chewing the entire damn runtime. I hold Alan Bates, who played Zorba’s best pal, Basil, in the utmost regard as an actor but he is just essentially too out of his depth in these surroundings. It is not Bates’ fault, however, as the script does little to truly serve the development of the character. Lastly, and most importantly as I get to mention Oscar at least once in this post, I TRULY expected to be blown away by Lila Kedrova’s performance as she earned the award for Best Supporting Actress this particular year of 1964. One word: ghastly. Two words: oh god. More words: As much as I rib my good buddy Paul as to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Russell Crowe’s questionable place in the pantheon of Oscar winning performances, I would take them handedly any day over this absolutely gothically abhorrent performance. Please, someone, make a comment in the comment section below defending this selection just so I can be made wise towards the opposing argument- that’s how awful the acting is.

As is only fair, and as I did with my Taxi Driver post, I will comment upon one item I enjoyed. The music in the film serves the picture exquisitely well. Switching between a blend of diagetic source music and non-diagetic typical Greek fanfare, the score parallels the action without completely detracting from the plot…I mean the “plot”. I guess that in some perverse way, if you also look at the group of very elderly women as those Jub-Jub creature things from Star Wars that run around in the desert making excruciating cawing noises, then you might have some fun there.

God bless you Alan Bates for being the single thing that prevents me from giving Zorba the Greek zero out of zero stars.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Analyzing the Efficacy of Graphic, Misogynistic Violence in Hitchcock’s Frenzy

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy—one of his last—is also one of the most graphically/misogynistically violent films composing his prolific filmography.  Thus, in watching the film, two related questions spring to mind: (1) why does Hitchcock display graphic violence in this film, when he refrained from doing so previously? and (2) what, if any, purpose does this type of violence serve in the film?  Within this essay, I’ll attempt a brief answer at (2).  It’s my contention that throughout the film, Hitchcock effectively uses graphic, misogynistic violence as a means to desensitize his audience, allowing it to view the film from a detached, objective standpoint, and thus freeing it to perceive the film’s omnipresent cynical, dark humor.  In arguing this overarching thesis, I’ll first argue why the film conveys an overall darkly humorous/ironic tone, before analyzing the function of some of the various graphically violent scenes in the context of this dark humor.

The most glaring evidence of the film’s overarching darkly humorous tone is the numerous overtly humorous moments in a film that’s about a deranged, serial, sex murderer.  The detective’s wife’s dinners function as the most obvious examples of these.  The repulsiveness of the dishes that are so elaborately prepared, that have such high-sounding French names in-itself is an example of irony.  The detective’s obvious displeasure upon seeing such meals—displeasure to which we’re privy, although his wife is not, due to his pretense of enjoyment—functions as a dramatic irony as the audience is compelled to wonder whether the wife will ever discover how displeasing her meals are.  And the cartoonish depiction of the detective’s wife is perhaps the scene’s most humorous aspect of all—floating airily, unaware of her disgusting meals and annoyingly shrill jabbering.  In fact, women are on the whole (with the exceptions of Brenda and Babs) represented cartoonishly .  They are too overdrawn to focus as sincere, identifiable characters in the film; rather, they are often objects of humor or pity.

The film may reasonably be seen as ultimately ironic.  Indeed, such irony presents itself in the film’s opening scene.  As the title credits appear onscreen, joyous music blares while the camera careens hither and thither over the sunlight-reflecting waters of Britain on a pleasant afternoon.  But this joyful opening is curiously muddied by the unexpected dark imagery of smoke billowing out of a passing ship.  The juxtaposition of the pleasant day and the joyful music against the black smoke conveys a curious, foreboding irony.  Moreover—and more obviously—the fact that a film centrally focusing around serial murder opens with grand, celebratory music is in-itself irony of the first order.  But even still, irony presents itself in the opening scene: as the public official discusses and declares his success in cleaning up the city’s waters, a naked, murdered girl floats to the shore.  Thus, in the first scene alone, the film is filled with irony.

In explaining Frenzy’s pervasive dark humor, I’ll finally turn to the conversation between the two older men at the bar in the early part of the film.  In this conversation, the men discuss this phenomenon of “the necktie murderer” and what it means for the city.  But contrary to a frightened hatred of the murderer—a ‘find him and get him’ mentality—they seem approving of his murderous deeds.  They say that all this frenzy about the murderer is good for the city, bringing tourists and money.  This disconnect between the audience’s likely expectation—that the citizens of London are frightened and hateful of the murderer—and the reality that these citizens are in fact thankful for the murderer creates heavily dark irony .  Thus having outlined the film’s pervasive darkly humorous tone, I’ll discuss below how Hitchcock effectively uses graphically misogynistic violence to further such.

Brenda’s rape and murder at the hands of Rusk is the most glaring instance of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy, and indeed sets the tone for all following instances of graphic/misogynistic violence.  What’s most interesting about this scene, however, is that it ultimately compels the audience towards a feeling of detachment/desensitivity to the scene and its chief players, rather than identification with the victim and an ensuing personal hatred of the rapist/murderer .  Considering how this display of graphic violence contributes to the film’s tone of dark humor, it seems to me that in objectifying a situation of such intense emotion and victimization, Hitchcock therein creates another irony: such scenes, from a moralistic perspective, should be shown with the murderer obviously displayed despicably, so that the audience can properly identify with the subjective experience of the victim, condemning the murderer as an instance of evil that must be stopped; thus, there is an ironic disconnect between audience expectation and film reality.  The humorous effect of this scene might be seen from another angle: in order to laugh at something, one must be removed from it, able to view it as an object apart from oneself.  Thus, in showing such an emotionally fraught scene with such cold objectivity, Hitchcock objectifies it—thus allowing his audience to view it all as an object, including its murderer and victim.  And in displaying it and its parts as objects, Hitchcock thus allows his audience to find the humor/irony in it.

The recurring images of beaten, strangled women function along the lines of Brenda’s rape.  They are displayed unflatteringly and straightforwardly, devoid of horrifying affects.  One might say that they are displayed objectively, without any directorial tricks compelling the audience to identify with them.  Indeed, their attributes—all topless, bruised, wide-eyed, with the tongue protruding out from the mouth—only further this notion.  Their toplessness objectifies them as sex objects.  Their bruises and wide-eyes objectify them as objects of violence and lifelessness—a lifelessness that leaves them devoid of subjectively identifiable humanity.  And their wide-eyes and protruding tongues objectify them as objects of ridicule, as these looks are archetypal for stupidity/helplessness .  Thus, once again objectifying the victims of terrible crimes, Hitchcock allows his audience to view them with detachment, as objects of irony, pity, and/or humor.

Rusk’s potato scene is perhaps the best illustration of Hitchcock’s humorous use of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy.  First, Rusk’s intense struggle with a corpse for a tiny pin is in-itself mildly humorous; one wouldn’t expect a dead person to put up such a fight.  Second, in filming this scene from Rusk’s perspective, the audience is compelled to seek out—as Rusk does—a resolution to his quandary.  In regaining his pin, Rusk is forced to break Babs’s dead fingers—each accompanied by a gruesome cracking noise.  The irony herein is that the audience identifies with a murderer—someone whom an ordinary person would be loath to identify with—and even wills that Babs’s dead fingers be so gruesomely broken so that Rusk may resolve his problem.

The last instance of graphic/misogynistic violence that I’ll analyze is Richard’s crowbar attack at the end of the film.  Although Richard (and the audience) is led to believe that he’s striking a sleeping Rusk, it turns out that he is beating an already-murdered woman in Rusk’s bed.  Again, here’s an example of irony in the disconnect between audience expectation and eventual film reality.  Moreover, the fact that Richard is soon caught by the detective beating a dead woman, when the very reason he escaped from prison was to avenge his wrongful conviction for murder, functions as an instance of irony, as well.  And despite the fact that Richard unknowingly beats this woman, his violence in the scene undermines his already thin credibility as the story’s hero; he’s shown to be violent and capable of murder just as Rusk is.  In thus undermining the sympathetic appeal of his film’s protagonist, Hitchcock further detaches his audience from any sort of subjective identification; once again, the audience is compelled to view the film through a coldly objective lens.  And only through such a lens may one perceive something as an object, or an object of humor.

Thus I have argued on behalf of Hitchcock’s effective use of graphic/misogynistic violence as a means to create irony and detach his audience, allowing it to view the film with a cold objectivity and thus perceive the film’s overarching cynical, darkly humorous tone.  But the question remains as to why Hitchcock wanted such dark humor in his film—what purpose does dark humor serve in this film, which has a plot centering around a serial sex murderer?  A possible answer might be gleaned from the above-mentioned conversation between the men at the bar.  As noted, they surprisingly claim that murder is good for the economic well-being of the city, because it appeals to people and attracts them as spectators.  Perhaps this conversation is meant to implicitly parallel how Hitchcock has made so much money off of films dealing with sex and murder.  Indeed, Frenzy followed a string of critical and commercial disappointments in Hitchcock’s career—films that dealt with topics other than murder.  Might Hitchcock have intended this film to function as an implicit critique of both the film industry and the public?  One can clearly see, when viewing the bar conversation from this lens, how the film would function as such.  Its dark humor and cold objectivity would undermine and parallel how the film industry has objectified murder in order to make money and satisfy its audience’s base drives.  Such is only one possible explanation.  A much deeper discussion on the topic must be untaken before solid conclusions can be reached.  But the central focus of my paper as expressed above is simply to provide a reasonable explanation of how the film’s graphic/misogynistic violence contributes to its overall tone of cynical, dark humor.

Works Cited

Allen, Jeanne T. "The Representation of Violence to Women: Hitchcock's ‘Frenzy’" University of California Press 38.3 (1985): 30-38. JSTOR. Web. 9 Mar. 2012.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Magnum Opus…I mean, My Meryl Opus, Part I

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© 2011

Attempting to transcribe my Meryl Streep…addiction?, obsession?, fixation? just text cannot, in any significant way, truly establish the vast amount of respect and love I have for this woman. Perhaps that may be due to the taming down of the adjectives we are so familiar with- when one reads that something is “outstanding”, that does not immediately conjure the elements of grandeur as it should, simply because we are so used to the word. In fact, this will be the most challenging piece I will ever have to compose- both in personal or academic tones- as I am trying my hardest to not come off simply sounding quite pathetic and over the top. Those that know me can surely attest to the fact that I am even more infatuated with this particular actress then I will be able to convey, and, to certainly not appear completely crazy, I will only comment on Meryl Streep’s professional career and not how deeply she has affected me personally. (Although, the birthday parties I throw every year, the effort with which I strive to know every single last detail of her life, and the choice to live my life by the codes and ethics most important to her may give you some idea). While by no means exhaustive of the complete importance of her legacy, the sheer amount of films I wish to touch upon means this post must be divided into two parts. This first part can almost be dubbed her “Golden Dramatic Age”.

Kramer vs. Kramer- 1979  (Winner- Best Supporting Actress)
Streep’s first Oscar win proved how adept she was at emphasizing so much emotion with so little screen time. Here she plays Joanna Kramer, a very conflicted woman who leaves her husband and young son before finally asking for a divorce. It is then up to her partner, Dustin Hoffman, to pull his fatherly skills together and raise their son on his own. It is a testament to Streep’s prowess in only her third year of film acting that she manages to convey such divergent emotions while being interspersed throughout the film in only a few short scenes. It is also worth noting that while she was dismayed with the female monologue during the climactic divorce trial scene, the director actually allowed Streep to rewrite her part in the moment to better reflect a mother’s sympathies and defenses, as Streep has just recently given birth to her first child.

Sophie’s Choice- 1982 (Winner- Best Actress)
Here’s where my obsessive love for the woman may sound like it’s coming into play, however, I say this completely honestly and, yes, it is documented: scholars agree that Meryl Streep is the greatest actress in the history of the medium- scholars agree that Sophie’s Choice is her best performance- therefore, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice is the single greatest performance in the history of the medium (I can deduce that thanks to the logic class I took last semester!). Streep’s performance of a tormented Holocaust survivor exceeds any other in an absolutely devastating manner. The final plot reveal at the end of this somewhat long film quite literally broke my heart the first time I saw it but to say any more would be to say too much. The emotional depths Streep is able to plunge into here, combined with the massively complicated Polish accent she adapts, cement her place as the apex of the pantheon of film actors, and led to one of the greatest Oscar wins of all time.

Silkwood- 1983 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Streep’s third consecutive nomination (after The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie) is her first for portraying a real life character. Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoman fuel fabrication plant worker, discovered unhealthy and morally wrong working conditions at the plant and attempted to bring the matters to light before she was mysteriously murdered by unknown figures. Streep did something many actresses are loathe to do, and de-glammed her entire persona to create quite an unsympathetic character- for Silkwood had many more enemies than friends in her efforts. Sporting a Southern-Midwest accent and typical 80’s mullet, Streep delivers her most raw performance- most notably in the scene where she is excruciatingly (both for the character and the audience) scrubbed down in radiation baths due to her exposure to the element. One of her slightly more subtle performances, Streep’s first collaboration with director and good friend Mike Nichols established a powerful team that will be investigated upon further in this series.

A Cry in the Dark- 1988 (Nominee- Best Actress)
Notice how every picture I’ve touched upon so far has been one of her nominations…that pattern continues on throughout her career as she is presently at an unsurpassed record of 17(!) nominations. That’s not to say that her films for which she has not been nominated are lesser for any reason, however. In A Cry in the Dark, Streep adopts an Australian accent (another pattern!) to play the real-life victim Lindy Chamberlain, whose newborn baby was eaten by a dingo during a camping trip to Ayres Rock. The subsequent trial, which accused Lindy of fabricating her story and actually murdering her child, captured the nation and divided responses. Streep’s emotions were fine-tuned that much more acutely as she, as Chamberlain, was actually pregnant with her next child through the process. Streep perfectly encapsulated the cold, dismissed demeanor the real Lindy Chamberlain presented during the trial and sported an unfortunate, indescribable haircut to further delve deeper into her portrayal. It is unfortunate that due to length I cannot also touch on her excellent role in 1985’s Out of Africa, but all these films so far, as well as Out of Africa, certainly contribute to Streep’s first decade or so in film with heavy dramas and spot-on accents.
Streep looks as excited as we are to be here!; image ©

Postcards from the Edge- 1990 (Nominee- Best Actress)
The final selection in Part I, Streep again portrays a real-life actress under the guise of a resemblance of Carrie Fisher and her trials and tribulations with drugs and growing up in the shadow of a famous mother (Debbie Reynolds as played magnificently by Shirley MacLaine). The wildly comical Fisher herself adapts the hilarious screenplay which lets Streep expand her comedy chops for the first time. The chemistry between Streep and MacLaine is fierce and powerful, perhaps due to another excellent pairing with director Mike Nichols, and really allows both actresses to hit the high notes of a range as of yet unexplored. While establishing a biting commentary on the entertainment and film industry, Postcards is notable for being the first instance where Streep masterfully sings a full-blown number on screen- she did, however, also provide a beautiful a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace at the end of Silkwood.

Postcards from the Edge is a great place to end Part 1 of this article as it retains the elements of heavy drama for which Streep was famous in the late 70’s and 80’s, while straddling the line into her new birth of comedy that begins to consume some of her films in the 90’s.  There is always more I wish I could say for each film I’ve listed, as well as just literally writing a short blurb as to why EVERY movie in her catalogue is impressive, although if you aren’t already tired of hearing about the fabulous, tremendous, exemplary, stellar, wonderful (there’s all those adjectives again!) Meryl Streep, do stay tuned for Part 2 of the opus!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ethos, Misogyny, and Redemptive Violence? in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

© 2011

I recently watched Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs.  Above all else, it stimulated my mind into thinking: what is the true point of this film—what does Peckinpah really want to tell us?  How does the film really deal with women?  What code of ethics guides David’s actions?  How was the film received at its release?

I’ll take the last one first.  It seems (in my brief glancing over Rotten Tomatoes) that the film was generally positively received upon release, but generated immense controversy and polarized its audience.  Some see it as a powerful statement of manhood, others view it as a compelling thesis undermining the morality and heroism of violence, while others think of it as dangerously misogynistic, and still others find it simply clichĂ© and poorly conceived.  Thus, it’s safe to say that the film’s reception was divided; and indeed, it remains so to this day.

I loved it.  It’s probably one of the ten or fifteen most brilliant films I’ve ever seen.  Below, I’ll analyze several elements, ultimately seeking to clarify my perception of what makes this film to distinct and so distinctly brilliant.


“Ethos” can be variously defined; but among its definitions is ‘one’s code’, as in, the code by which one lives.  And this is the sense in which I use the term in this essay.

In watching the film, the question arises: What is the code with which the film’s main character acts in accordance?

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) acts, throughout the first part of the film, by a code resembling thus: leave each to his/her own.  Such manifests itself in how he keeps to himself through much of the film.  He’s reluctant to socialize amongst the locals, he’s reluctant to confront his hired handymen when he knows they’re working far too slowly, he’s reluctant to confront them when he finds his cat hanged in his closet.  And conversely, he’s irritated at his wife’s (Amy Sumner, played by Susan George) every interruption of his astrophysical work, and he doesn’t hesitate to confront Reverend Hood (Collin Welland) when the reverend—in Sumner’s home—attacks Sumner for his field’s responsibility in developing the atomic bomb.  All this points to a kind of ‘live and let live’ attitude that Sumner seems to hold in his daily life.

But what drives Sumner in the film’s essential segment: the attempted break-in of his house?  One could say that indeed it’s this very same ethos that drives him to fight back, and eventually kill all his attackers: he only fights back—as in, when others violate his own personal space and freedom.  They aren’t letting him live his own life, and thus he fights to preserve his code’s fundamental tenet.  On this view, he chiefly fights out of a natural inclination to defend his personal space and freedom.  Such is supported by his frequent statements like ‘I won’t tolerate violence against this house’ And while such is indeed part of Sumner’s overall ethos in acting against his prospective intruders, does it compose the whole of it?

Another reason for his actions might be his wish to protect Niles (David Warner)—a man who, for all Sumner knows, is innocent, and in any case doesn’t deserve to be beaten to death.  As he states to Amy when she insists on giving Niles to the intruders in order to appease them and stop them from destroying her home, Sumner is aware of Niles’s certain death should the intruders get their hands on him.  And he can’t tolerate this inevitability.  So it might seem that he really values protecting innocent life.  But even this act may be seen through the lens of the above discussed code.  The central tenet of that code is that one’s man own freedom is what’s most important, and Sumner believes in (1) Niles’s right to life as an innocent man, and (2) his duty to protect that which is within his care, that which he freely chose to take into his territory.  And Niles is something that is within Sumner’s care of those things.  Thus it seems that, ultimately, the ‘live and let live’ code discussed above might be David’s only code.


One of the certain critiques levied at this film is that it’s misogynistic.  And for the most part, I can’t deny that.  There are really only two decently-large female roles in a cast dominated by males: the aforementioned Amy Sumner, and Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett).  Neither is fully-dimensioned nor sympathetic.  Their being unsympathetic is especially jarring when considering that both deal with highly traumatic events in the film: Amy has an unavailable husband, deals with mental torment from the villagers working at her house, and is eventually raped by two of them; Janice either dies or passes out (the film is ambiguous) from being choked by Henry Niles.

While certainly neither of these women deserves what happens to them, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions, and their actions directly placed them into vulnerable circumstances.

Very few women would be so stupid as act like Amy or Janice.  And yet, the only two women in Peckinpah’s movie indeed act in just these ways.  Thus, in this instance, women certainly aren’t portrayed favorably in the film.  But furthermore, in the film’s most controversial sequence (the rape scene), Amy is portrayed as . . . well, enjoying it.  Or at least after initially resisting Charlie’s advances, she seems to give in and embrace him.  It’s indeed hard to not view this scene as a depraved reinforcement of the ‘rape myth’—the false belief that all women desire to be raped.  But although this scene is incredibly unsettling in that regard, I do think Peckinpah actually gives some empathy to Amy’s character in filming this and subsequent sequences, in which Amy has painful flashbacks to the rape.  I think that, in fact, Peckinpah shows the true brutality and violation of rape.

Instead of creating a stock scene in which the woman is steadfast in her feelings and hatred towards the man raping her, Peckinpah’s Amy has to deal with even further suffering: her confusion as to how she felt and still feels about what happened.  The fact that she had a previous relationship with Charlie, and remains physically attracted to him muddles her feelings about what happened.  Not only, then, does she deal with the humiliation of being violated, but she must also deal with confused and conflicting feelings towards the situation.  Rape is brutal because of the psychological damage more than the physical.  Peckinpah portrays that through Amy.

But as a last note here, it’s important for me to say that a man’s and a woman’s opinion about Straw Dogs likely vastly differs; indeed, in talking to a girl in my film class after we watched this movie, I was struck at how differently she perceived David, Amy, Charlie, and the film as a whole.  Considering how sparingly and unsympathetically it portrays women, it might be fair to say that this is truly a masculine film, and that female viewers may be left alienated from it.

Redemptive Violence

This last aspect I’m analyzing deals with the question of whether or not David’s violence at the film’s end should be seen as an act of cathartic redemption, regrettable animalism, or something in between.  My view is that it’s somewhere in between, although trending towards redemption.

But some (who think that his final acts should be seen as a sort of regrettable animalism) argue that David is the film’s villain—saying, essentially, that he subconsciously brings the violence of the villagers upon himself as an excuse for exorcising the repressed, violent demons within him.  There is a whole theory supporting this view, and one that should not be ignored.  But for space saving purposes, I’ll refrain from spelling it out.  I’ll simply express my objections to this position, which I believe are virtually insurmountable.  First, since David runs over Niles with his car, it subsequently becomes David’s moral duty to keep Niles safe until appropriate medical attention arrives.  And since David is unaware that Niles might have killed Janice Hedden, for all he knows, therefore, Niles is an innocent man.  David also knows that the villagers will surely beat Niles to death should they get their hands on him.  Therefore, he is faced with the proposition of either (a) letting a man whom for all he knows is innocent go to his certain death, or (b) risking some household violence in order to protect this presumably innocent man.  The moral thing, in most people’s minds* is certainly (b). 

When David hears the villagers shoot the magistrate (again, we have to get into David’s head: he doesn’t know that they only accidentally shoot the magistrate), he comes to the realization that they are now violent to the point of killing unselectively.

So again, we have to think: what are David’s options?  Either he should (a) send Niles—a presumably innocent man—to his certain death, or (b) do whatever is in his power to protect innocent life, even at the expense of the destruction of his house.  Once again, most moral theorists and everyday people would agree that the morally correct option is (b).  And thus, David does just that, and retains his claim to the moral highground.

And once the intruders actually break into the house, with the intent to kill, carrying deadly weapons, it is absolutely within David’s rights to mortally defend himself, his innocent wife, and his presumably innocent tenant.

Thus, I believe, sufficiently answers the question as to whether David is morally justified in his actions or not.  But another question remains: should they be seen as heroically redemptive, or tragically inevitable?  Well, the short answer is ‘both’.  They are redemptive in that, once and for all, David asserts himself and his manhood, and defeats the evil forces attempting to invade his life.  But Peckinpah’s brilliance here lies in his refusal to champion the villagers’ slayings as wholly praiseworthy.  The film ends in a void, depressed and tragic, where the violence and destruction lies bare; David has done what he had to do, but sometimes what we have to do still is tragic.  And when he leaves the house with Niles, it seems clear to me (and many other viewers) that his marriage with Amy is ruined beyond repair.

Thus, Peckinpah creates a story which’s brilliance hinges on the multi-dimensional views and emotions created by violence, misogyny, an ambiguous ethical code, and, ultimately, his ability to fully captivate his audience, bringing us with him along this terrifying, thrilling, and subtle ride.

*--In my initial post, I claimed that Kantian ethics would justify David's actions.  Upon further review, that claim is dubious: Kantian ethics might actually condemn David's actions.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post 84th Annual Academy Awards Recap (Video Review)

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman and Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

We prepared a video for this discussion as our thoughts are more stream-of-consciousness as opposed to the rigid, quick structure of our past videos. The Two Half Jews truly come out in this slightly longer clip as we decided to act more as the best friends we are instead of our previous official personalities. Thanks, Paul, for not actually watching the ceremony and leaving me to carry this whole thing by myself :) Put on your beret, grab a baguette, and settle in!

-The Savant


Thursday, February 23, 2012

84th Annual Academy Award Final Winner Predictions

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

Final predictions are always such a tricky thing. One’s mind churns rapidly before settling on a semi-coherent ultimate list of selections that you just can’t help but second-guess. Even then, a contender you wrote off before appears to be gaining steam in other’s minds. To be able to discern one’s own thoughts from the groupthink is the mark of a true Oscar prognosticator. There is also a level of pressure on my end as this is the first public instance of my give and take with Oscar.  I will probably, nay, definitely change my mind about something in the day or two between the posting of this article and the actual ceremony, although, once posted, that probably will not be reflected here. It must be stressed that these are the rankings of the strength of the contenders, not my personal preference. I apologize if this article becomes quite long, but that is par for the course. (All predictions listed in descending order of chance of winning- crappy design to list them, but it saves a LOT of space).

Best Picture

The Artist, The Help, Hugo, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse

How long has it been since the film that truly deserves to win is actually going to? It sure seems like a long time, although, The Artist is going to right that wrong this year. No other film has garnered enough momentum to stop that train as nearest competitors The Help, Hugo, and The Descendants will just have to settle for their big wins in acting, techs, and writing, respectively. In the good old days, Midnight in Paris would be the fifth spot, the also-ran. The Tree of Life, gaining massive steam as of late, has started to rise way too late. While many bloggers cite Moneyball as their favorite movie of the year, it just doesn’t seem like anyone would actually vote for it. Extremely Loud and War Horse are non-starters.

Best Director

Michel Hazanavicius- The Artist, Martin Scorsese- Hugo, Terrence Malick- The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne- The Descendants, Woody Allen- Midnight in Paris

In a field of four masters and one newcomer, look for the previously unknown Frenchman to take it and match up with the expected Best Picture win. Scorsese, once a very close threat, has fallen recently. Malick, our favorite recluse, has turned in the most “original” directing accomplishment of the year but half are calling the film genius while the other half cries foul and declares pretension. Such a divisive split will be hard to overcome. Payne and his movie peaked way too fast, way too early. Allen’s nomination is a “welcome back!” to the category from which he has been absent since 1994.

Best Actor

Jean Dujardin- The Artist, George Clooney, Gary Oldman- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Brad Pitt- Moneyball, Demian Bichir- A Better Life

I just don’t get how many are still finding this hard to call. Dujardin stars in the Best Picture frontrunner, charms the pants off everyone, and signaled a massive shift his way when he picked up the SAG award last weekend. Clooney, who was once destined to add a Lead Acting trophy to his Supporting one, must settle for second. Some, who am I kidding- ALL, would call me crazy for putting Oldman before Pitt, yet, the overdue Oldman, with his first nomination, actually turns in a damn fine performance while Pitt ------------------------ (censored, because I really just abhor Moneyball and how awful Pitt and Hill are in it). I personally found Bichir’s performance a smidge too calculated and self-conscious, but hopefully this nomination will allow the man many more choice roles in Hollywood films.

Best Actress

Viola Davis- The Help, Meryl Streep- The Iron Lady, Glenn Close- Albert Nobbs, Michelle Williams- My Week with Marilyn, Rooney Mara- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

My logical head says Davis while my emotional heart says Streep. If the Academy had just given Davis the Oscar for her stellar performance in Doubt instead of that tacky Penelope Cruz performance, we wouldn’t be having this problem now. Close and her film are dead in the water, yet it is so hard to believe that she has never won that she becomes the surprise snake in the grass contender if Streep and Davis split right down the middle (See- Best Actor 2002 when Adrien Brody pulled a huge upset and snuck right past dueling frontrunners Nicholson and Day-Lewis). Williams, once a fearsome threat, peaked with her Golden Globe win as “The Punisher” Harvey Weinstein threw all his chips behind his other, stronger contender in Meryl. Hey, Rooney! You snuck past Tilda for that fifth slot. Good for you! If you didn’t come across so arrogant and uncomfortable in interviews, maybe more people would respond to your performance.

Best Supporting Actor

Christopher Plummer- Beginners, Max von Sydow- Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Kenneth Branagh- My Week with Marilyn, Nick Nolte- Warrior, Jonah Hill- Moneyball

Plummer’s had this in the bag since his film premiered in June, as Captain Von Trapp earns his second nomination after a six-decade career. In a silent performance that’s not, repeat not, featured in The Artist, von Sydow also earns only his second career nomination. If his poignant character was in a few more scenes he might actually have a chance of upsetting here. Branagh has been comfortably settled in this category for a while but he hasn’t actually won anything. In a weaker year, surprise nominee Nolte could actually have won here, while I’m required to mention Hill, my favorite “comedian” working today, because the Academy nominated him for something.

Best Supporting Actress

Octavia Spencer- The Help, Berenice Bejo, Jessica Chastain- The Help, Melissa McCarthy- Bridesmaids, Janet McTeer- Albert Nobbs

Spencer wins here for lack of a strong enough rival. Bejo cements a high standing on the coattails of the strength of her film. Chastain, who exploded into the film community with six films this year (including fellow Best Picture nominee The Tree of Life), is now well respected enough, but won’t be able to eventually overcome her co-stars’ appeal. McCarthy’s nomination is a mixed bag. Half venture that she’s the next coming of the Lord and place her in second, while the other half, myself included, feel the performance gimmicky and the nomination reward enough. Janet McTeer fought very hard for that last spot so it’s nice to see her here, yet this second nomination for her will have to suffice at just that level.

Best Original Screenplay

Woody Allen- Midnight in Paris, Michel Hazanavicius- The Artist, Ashgar Farhadi- A Separation, Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig- Bridesmaids, J.C. Chandor- Margin Call

Another tough call. The best place to reward Allen’s movie would be here. He won the Globe in a semi-surprise and this film is truly his return to form. On the other hand, The Artist is gaining so much steam, it’s hard not to predict that it would take Screenplay too. Farhadi will win over in Foreign Language Feature so the nomination here is just a reassurance of how strong the film is in that other category.  There are many flaws with the screenplay of Bridesmaids (I won’t act bitter as I have already done so with Moneyball) so the nomination must suffice. Lastly, I’m very happy to see Chandor’s timely script make the final five, but it’s ultimately too small of a film to win.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash- The Descendants, Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chervin- Moneyball, Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Logan- Hugo, George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon- The Ides of March

As we are expecting Clooney to lose Best Actor, Screenplay becomes the best, and probably only, place to reward the film in which he stars. Payne is a respected storyteller with a win already under his belt for Sideways. The next closest contender, Moneyball, is something you know I don’t like so no use commenting on it. Tinker Tailor is the wordiest and densest of all the choices, and might win due to the sheer task of whittling down the original source novel. It's unfortunate, and vulgar, to say, but widower, Straughan, lost his wife, O'Connor, to cancer before the movie was released so perhaps a sympathy vote may pull of a win. The script is not the first thing one thinks of when it comes to Hugo, as the visuals overpower it and the pacing of the film needed to be tightened. Clooney and Co. just can’t win as their film only has this one nomination.

The Rest of the Field

Animated Feature- Rango
Documentary Feature- Tricky! Erm, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory? Not my specialty, anyway
Foreign Language Film- A Separation
Cinematography- Anything but The Tree of Life would be a scandal
Film Editing- If Hazanavicius loses Director and Screenplay, he still wins of his three nominations here
Costume Design- Really wide open category, any could take it. I select Jane Eyre, as period pieces are favored here...although, The Artist may take it in a sweep
Art/Set Direction- Hugo’s rich visuals should support a win here
Makeup- Please, please, I beg you, give Meryl’s personal makeup designer his first Oscar for the outstanding aging work in The Iron Lady
Visual Effects- Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Original Score- The Artist relies so heavily on this I can’t see it losing
Original Song- Man or Muppet, The Muppets
Sound Editing/Mixing- Some combination of Hugo and War Horse? Massively difficult and odd categories that few predict correctly.
Live Action/Animated/Documentary Shorts- Notoriously hard to predict, most experts still get them wrong anyway. I abstain.

Sound off with your own predictions or thoughts below, friend us on Facebook, and tell us how you think we are doing. I'd just quickly like to thank my buddy and co-founder of this site Paul Goldberg, my parents for taking me to all the R-rated movies when I was too young, and those fellow pundits of mine (most notably- Sasha Stone, Jeff Wells, Kris Tapley, Brad Brevet, Nathaniel Rogers, Scott Feinberg, Tom O'Neil, and Chris Beachum) that have analyzed and obsessed over these awards with me for the past six months. Through ups and downs, it's truly been one hell of a season. See you all after the fracas this Sunday night!

Friday, February 17, 2012

(Glenn) Close but No Cigar: When Stagnation Turns Ugly

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

I figured it best that I at least chime in one more time on the Oscar race before my final prediction piece for the ceremony on February 26th. It seems unbelievable to me that a time usually so vibrant with life and ruthless campaigns can be so anticlimactic and droll as this year is playing out to be. It’s actually rather unfair more to our readership than myself as, instead of a month where I personally feel my writing can really take off in covering the race, I am forced to write monotonous pieces with a somber undertone of slightly morbid finality. I promise, readers, that The Savant will truly emerge and become as ruthless as some of the studio campaigns during next year’s Oscar coverage when I take sides, argue my points, and regain the understanding and love for the sport that has begun to falter this year.

I have no particular theme for this article, as, indeed, I am basically forcing myself to write it. There are a few things, however, that I wanted to touch upon so that one may be aware of them in leading up to the ceremony:

The Battle for Best Actress Heats Up
The only real tension this season does, in fact, lie in the one place destined to give me a heart attack. Close friends Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Viola Davis (The Help) are essentially tied 51/49- favoring Davis- for the win in the Best Actress category.  When Meryl Streep won the Screen Actors Guild award in 2008 for her role in Doubt, she begged the moviemakers in the room to please “give (co-star) Viola Davis a leading role soon!” Little did she know that “soon” meant just three years later in a role that would provide for her stiffest competition towards the Oscar. Both women are massively talented- and I promise I will actually compose the “Why I Love Meryl So Much” piece after the Oscars. If Paul can write his magnum opus on Crash, it’s time for mine- so a win for either would certainly not be a negative thing. The Help is better received than The Iron Lady, although The Help did miss extremely crucial Directing, Writing, and Editing nominations that can hurt Davis. The precursors also give us no discernable frontrunner as Streep hauled the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards whereas Davis took the SAG and Broadcast Film Critics Choice awards. Many factors including her age in a industry that values young ingĂ©nues, her previous two wins, and not being an African-American woman seem to signal that Streep must AGAIN sit this one out while voters progressively tick off the box next to Davis’ name. Either way, I will be anxiously awaiting this particular category all night!

Can Sound Mixer Greg P. Russell Finally Pull Off a Win?
An affable looking man, going off of his IMBD photos, Russell earns his fifteenth
nomination this year for his work in mixing aural elements for the flick Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Even though they aren’t household names, Russell and his friend and co-sound mixer Kevin O’Connell are actually pretty famous within the Academy…. for a disturbing reason. O’Connell has twenty Oscar nominations, with Russell now earning his fifteenth, without a win between them. They are the two most nominated individuals in the history of the Academy Awards without a win. While O’Connell is not nominated this year, Russell must face off competition from the mixing teams from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, and War Horse. Shall we expect to see Greg P. Russell finally anoint the stage with his presence and thus be anointed by the golden man in the process? Smart money says unfortunately not. Hugo, with regards to the sounds emanating from the locomotives, and War Horse, for all the do-to about the war elements, stand a better chance here than the third entry in a stale, poorly received summer blockbuster franchise.

Terry George is Nominated WHERE?!
Famous Irish filmmaker Terry George earns his third career nomination with a placement in the Live Action Short category. With two previous failed nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, George, along with his daughter Oorlagh (there’s a name!), are in the running for their 29 minute film The Shore starring Ciaran Hinds, Conleth Hill, and Kerry Condon. Usually both being a named filmmaker and using big-name actors is enough in this category- famous directors and actors Walt Disney, Taylor Hackford, Christine Lahti, Peter Capaldi, Susan Seidelman, Kenneth Branagh, Ray McKinnon, JoBeth Williams, Jeff Goldblum, Andrea Arnold, David Frankel, and Martin McDonagh have all won or been nominated for Oscars in this category- is enough. In a simple maneuver, if voters tick off the right box in this instance, the world can add one more name to this stellar list and say Academy Award Winner Terry George. Most pundits agree that George will probably not win in this category, although shorts are somewhat harder to predict. I personally will be rooting for him and his daughter.

Will Woody and Terrence Actually Show Up?
No they will not. The skittish Woody Allen has never attended the Academy Awards, save once, a couple months after 9/11, when he told a few jokes and gave a speech pleading filmmakers to come back and make films in his beloved city before he introduced a package of film clips put together by Nora Ephron, quickly left the stage, and exited the auditorium altogether. This appearance, known only beforehand by host Whoopi Goldberg and the producers was one of the craziest things to ever happen at the Oscars. Allen has been quoted as saying immediately after he won two awards for Annie Hall, “I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things- or who doesn’t win them- you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.” Allen has never collected any of the three Oscars he has been awarded over his career, instead electing to play his clarinet at his favorite jazz club into the wee hours of the morning.

Likewise, publicity shy and super-recluse Terrence Malick will also not be there. Malick has only made five films over the course of his thirty-nine year career, as he prefers to write hundreds of pages, and shoot and edit over a million feet of film in a massive and time-consuming process. Only one photograph of him is known to exist, as Mr. Malick is probably the shyest person in the world. He has it written into his contracts that no interview can be taken with him, no photo of his can be used in promoting the film, and that no one may speak on his behalf or about him. Often misunderstood as arrogance or indifference, Malick caused quite a stir when it was rumored that he was in the building when his film The Tree of Life won some big awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While Malick did not, in fact, grace the stage, he was waiting backstage nonetheless. Rumor has it that he is actually somewhat thrilled at his nomination this year and maybe, perhaps, could be, pondering, weighing the pros and cons, thinking about attending. He might even be able to pull of a surprise win in Best Director, however, the only other time he was nominated (twice in the same year), and did not attend, he did not win. This may signal that the Academy wants to honor someone who will actually show up and act grateful for the honor of winning. Of course, Malick may not actually exist after all and could be a conspiracy orchestrated by the powers-that-be!

*It must be noted, however, that Malick’s longtime producers broke the cardinal rule last time around in promoting The Thin Red Line and spoke on his behalf in an interview about the Oscars. Malick was reportedly so incensed that he flat-out refused to attend and wanted invitations rescinded for the two men who were in error. Malick finally relented when the Academy agreed to place the men and their wives in the middle of a row at the very back of the theater. The information regarding his possible attendance this year comes from, you guessed it, these two men. So, take that with as large a grain of salt as you want. Either way, Malick ACTUALLY showing up would be tantamount to a Bigfoot sighting, if not even more elusive and radical.

Godspeed fellow Oscar watchers as we plunge into the abyss that is less than two weeks before the ceremony. By the time this article is posted my birthday will have passed (so I wanted to plug my own birthday- sue me) and there will be even less days till the shindig. See you around for my final prediction review!