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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 21, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Lavatory Art, Oscar Songs and Scores

Just when you think you've seen everything, somebody comes up with an entirely new genre of art. What Nina Katchadourian thought of was airplane bathroom art.

Actually, the airplane bathroom is her studio. Starting in 2010, she has locked herself in the airplane lavatory and, using materials at hand (paper towels, toilet paper, the blanket provided at her seat), she poses in imitation of Dutch masters' paintings and snaps her own picture.

The results are both wonderful and hilarious. It helps that she has an expressive, sharply featured face. It would be insane if she actually paid for airplane tickets solely to take these pictures, but as a way to pass the time when you're flying anyway, it's quite a wonderful hobby.

See it for yourself at Airplane Lavatory Self-Portraits .

*

It's Oscar time this Sunday. As usual, I'll be shunning the fancy Hollywood shindigs to which I'm always invited (but really, how many new things does Gwyneth have to say?) and will hold my own Oscar party.

The Oscars matter -- they can transform an screen artist's career and provide permanent validation; they can also make really bad films weirdly important. We know that the Oscars often "get it wrong" -- the winner may not have half the staying power as a film the same year that wasn't even nominated.

But the Oscars aren't about staying power -- or, rather, they are an attempt to create staying power. Still, they're a product of their time.

The dreadfully simple-minded Guess Who's Coming to Dinner gave Katharine Hepburn one of her Oscars, when the truly enduring performances that year came from Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.

But it was 1967, and the Civil Rights movement was very much on people's minds. Of course, since it was Hollywood, the official racial-intermarriage movie wasn't made until after all the hard work was over; if it had been made in 1963, that would have been something! Hollywood follows the trends, rather like a bloodhound following the elusive trail of the Next Big Thing and rarely finding anything but the Last Big Thing.

Yet there is a kind of perverse courage here and there. Hollywood never really challenges the culture at large, but it does sometimes challenge its own provincialism. The case in point is Argo, Ben Affleck's movie about the rescue of the non-hostage Americans who hid out in the Canadian ambassador's home until they were brought out by pretending to be part of a film crew.

On one level, of course, it's a standard self-celebration: Look, Hollywood pitched in to help fake a movie project in order to rescue Americans at risk!

But step a bit farther in, and you find that this is a movie that doesn't toe the politically correct Hollywood line. The CIA aren't bad guys. Neither are the political bigwigs. Neither, for that matter, are the Iranians -- their anger is shown as being justified, even if their actions were outrageous violations of international law.

Argo does follow some Hollywood formulas, too -- a somewhat artificial sense of urgency juices up the last-minuteness of the getaway. But it's a smart use of the formula, because it depends on the fact that the events took place before the instantaneity of the internet. No way could these events happen today -- but they happened then.

Argo is playful and smart, and defies Hollywood political groupthink even as it uses stock Hollywood tropes. Ben Affleck is, of all things, a grownup.

With ten films nominated in the Best Picture category, we can assume that the winner won't be a majority pick, or even much of a consensus choice. In fact, it might be very nearly random.

So I'm not going to try to outguess the results. I do have opinions, though, and because the Rhinoceros Times is such an open-minded newspaper, I am allowed to voice them in print.

Because I'm a member of both the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, I got a lot of screeners -- DVDs provided to voters in the various award-giving groups. I don't vote for the Oscars -- you actually have to have achieved something in film in order to become a member of the Academy. But I had a chance to see everything.

Yet I didn't see them all. Why? Because life is short, I'm busy, and there are movies that I couldn't bring myself to watch. Lincoln is the main one.

I actually revere Lincoln too much and know too much about the Civil War and the political questions surrounding it to be willing to subject myself yet again to the smug stupidity and dishonesty of Steven Spielberg. Especially since the screenwriter was the equally smug and dishonest author of Angels in America.

Spielberg has shown us again and again -- Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Munich -- that he has utter contempt for historical figures and will lie about them as readily as Oliver Stone.

When you add to that his penchant for the cheap pandering ending, I know exactly what Lincoln is. They will pretend that Lincoln wrestled with issues about which in real life his vision was clear; they will pick villains and lie about them; they will pretend that the Right Thing happened in spite of the people who actually brought it into being; and at the end we will be expected to respond with cheers and tears.

Every time a new Spielberg project is announced, I shudder at the realization that millions of people will watch his work and think they're seeing something close to the truth, when in fact his treatment of history ranges from the reckless to the malicious.

So no, I couldn't bring myself to see Lincoln. It also didn't help that Daniel Day-Lewis's makeup looked almost as rigid and masklike as the hideous big-face makeup Dustin Hoffman wore at the end of Little Big Man. Day-Lewis is as cold an actor as ever existed; Lincoln himself was a warm and funny man, even in the midst of adversity.

Except for a vague physical resemblance (obviously you can't cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lincoln), I can't think of many worse casting decisions. People say he's brilliant in the part, but knowing who created the script, I fear that the more convincing his performance, the falser the understanding of Lincoln in the minds of people who watch the movie.

If Lincoln wins the Oscar, it will be evidence, not the cause, of Americans' abysmal ignorance of and contempt for their own history.

I didn't see Django Unchained because Quentin Tarantino is a vain and terrible director and the subject matter leads me to assume the movie is yet another self-indulgent trip into "forbidden" (i.e., cliched but repulsive) territory. As far as I can recall, I have never found even five minutes of any Tarantino movie or performance to be tolerable. Why should I prove this to myself yet again? If it wins the Oscar, it'll be yet another example of Hollywood's self-loathing.

I didn't see Beasts of the Southern Wild because it wasn't among the screeners that I got, and I'd never heard of it until it was nominated.

I didn't see Zero Dark Thirty because, even though Bigelow is a superb director, her ruthless honesty means that watching the movie would be a darker experience than I could ever bring myself to choose on any given night. If I were paid to review movies, I'd have watched it. I'm not paid, and so I do get to decide that I just don't want to spend a couple of hours going through a certain kind of tension, when I already know the outcome.

Still, if it wins the Oscar, I will assume that it is a perfectly just and appropriate victory.

Amour might be wonderful. I look forward to seeing it.

Life of Pi we attempted to watch. In the first five minutes, the condescending tone of the movie and the bad production values and the self-conscious writerliness of it made us yawn and switch away to watch some series television. Since the book was in the Jonathan Livingston Seagull category of Philosophy for the Ignorant, I assume the movie is, too.

If Life of Pi wins, I'll feel very smug, and superior to the Oscar voters. Which, come to think of it, is how most reviewers feel every year.

I did watch Silver Linings Playbook, which turned out to be mostly smart and mostly real. The performances were superb, the writing was smart, the directing clear and unpretentious. It is hard for me to decide whether Silver Linings Playbook or Argo is more deserving of the label Best Picture; a victory by either would make me happy.

But I think what would both please and surprise me most is if Les Miserables won. Since it's the best film adaptation of a stage musical ever (Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were original musical films, not adaptations from the stage), there is no question that it deserves an Oscar. So do most of the cast. So do the screenwriter and the director.

Yet I will be surprised if it wins, if only because most Academy voters, though they are in the business, have no idea of what's actually hard to do and worthy of an award. Look at how they keep giving shallow but showy performances the "best actor" and "best actress" awards, while far more difficult achievements in acting go unnominated.

And because the actors sing almost everything that's said in the movie, there are idiots who will assume that they're not acting. No, kids -- they are still acting, it's just harder to do it well because their words are sung instead of spoken. So the achievement of a powerful, moving, real performance is all the greater.

Outguessing what will win is profitless. Saying what should win just sets you up for disappointment.

Yet I will mark my ballot at our Oscar party and then watch dolefully as Andy Lindsay and Kay McVey duke it out with their stratospheric totals of Right Guesses.

Meanwhile, let me just point out that the movies I loved best this year were not even nominated -- as is usually the case. For me, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Looper were more moving and powerful films, and far greater achievements, than any of the nominees, with the obvious exception of Les Miserables.

Other films that are better than most of the nominees (though not all) were ignored because of the kind of movie they are. Think of The Dark Knight Rises and Hunger Games.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had its flaws, but it was better than many on the list, and it makes me happy just remembering the wonderful moments and great performances in the movie.

The real question is whether the Oscar winner is ever the "best" movie of any particular year. Even if it isn't, so what? We benefit, as an audience, from the fact that filmmakers aspire, not only to make money, not just to make "a movie," but also to make a good movie.

Even the truly awful filmmakers like Spielberg and Tarantino (and there are so many others on that list) think they're making "good" movies, on some level. They can't help having no integrity. Well, they could help it, but they apparently don't associate with people who regard that as a serious standard in artistic choices.

*

Best Song used to be a hard-fought Oscar category. Movies had the power to introduce hit songs -- but that was back when good songs could become hits. (They still can, but it's rare outside of country music.)

Still, in handicapping the Oscars, it's one of the hardest categories because we've rarely heard the songs. The only Oscar song that actually made Billboard's top ten was Adele's very good "Skyfall" from the James Bond movie of that name.

James Bond movies have a history of introducing hit songs -- which are usually, but not always, better than the movie they came with. Think of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" (1973), Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" (1965), Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" (1977), Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only" (1981), and Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name" (2006).

Adele is hugely popular, her song was a top-ten hit, and that would ordinarily mean she'd be a shoo-in for the Oscar, except that there's a song from Les Miserables.

If you doubt the influence of the Oscars on filmmakers, look at the song "Suddenly" from Les Miz. It stops the action cold; it has no business being in the film. It adds nothing to the story that we don't already see in other ways. It's not even a particularly good song.

It exists only because there had to be one new song introduced in the movie for the film to get a best-song Oscar nomination. The songs from the Broadway musical wouldn't be eligible.

And if Les Miz is treated by the Oscar voters with enthusiasm, "Suddenly" will win. Even though it's not the best song, either in its movie or in the category.

I had no interest in seeing Ted, but "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" is a clever song in the tradition of the Great American Songbook. Hearing Norah Jones sing it is a pleasure. But the song is ultimately slight -- it seems to have been written almost as a tribute to upbeat songs. Yet it works and I liked it better than either "Suddenly" or "Skyfall."

"Pi's Lullaby," from Life of Pi, is lovely; it must mean a great deal if you liked the movie, but if you didn't, then it's merely a pleasant song sweetly performed.

My favorite -- and I admit it's just a matter of personal taste -- was "Before My Time" from Chasing Ice, a movie I had never even heard of. The song is dreamy in almost a Julee Cruise way, and Scarlett Johanssen's and Joshua Bell's rendition, from the movie soundtrack, is moving and memorable.

Even as movie songs have diminished in cultural importance, soundtracks have grown ever more significant. With "serious" music having abandoned tonality and, along with it, the audience, the public now finds the tradition of beauty and power in music from movie soundtracks.

Elmer Bernstein may have been the first movie composer to rise to individual fame with the general public; since then, John Williams and Howard Shore have dominated the big epic-film category.

But there are other favorites doing brilliant work as well, and I think that in a hundred years, when "serious" composers are mentioned only in essays about how twentieth-century music completely lost its way, the composers we celebrate will include names like James Horner, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Alan Silvestri, Nino Rota, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman.

And Max Steiner, who wrote the scores to Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and A Summer Place, wrote so memorably that his scores are quoted in -- and he gets credited for -- dozens of movies made since he died in 1971.

This year, the films nominated for best musical score are Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli), Argo (Alexandre Desplat), Life of Pi (Mychael Danna), Lincoln (John Williams), and Skyfall (Thomas Newman).

John Williams is always the favorite in the category whenever he's nominated, and if you download the eleven-minute symphonic poem "The Peterson House and Finale," you'll see that it's no fluke. This is beautiful music by any standard.

Both Desplat and Marianelli rely on music from foreign times and places, and do a wonderful job, in each case, of adapting traditional Iranian and Russian music to fit the sensibilities of a western-trained ear. I could listen to both soundtracks again and again.

Thomas Newman's work on Skyfall is a worthy entry in the tradition of great James Bond movie scores.

But for me, the standout is the work of Mychael Danna for The Life of Pi. Danna is young, and much of his work has been for films that are dominated by pop music tracks, with the original composer playing catchup. But he did fine work in (500) Days of Summer and The Time Traveler's Wife, so it's no surprise that he's nominated for an Oscar.

Life of Pi may have been too arch for me to watch, but Danna's score is worth listening to instead. I especially like the eight-minute track called "Back to the World." What I understand is that when Pi's ship sinks and he loses everyone, there is no music at all; only as he comes back to the surface and calls out for his drowned family do we get musical underscoring, and if I guess right, this track is that passage.

Whether it is or not, it's beautiful and moving.

But John Williams will win, especially if Lincoln does not win Best Picture. You never feel like a fool voting for John Williams's music, because it's always good.

Fortunately, our ballots allow us to note what we think will win and what we want to have win. For me, Danna is my want-to-win, with Williams my prediction. But I'll be listening to both soundtrack albums often.

When you go on Amazon looking for the Oscar-nominated songs and scores, you should be aware that there's a downloadable album called And the Nominees Are ... Oscar Nominated Songs for 2013.

These are performers I haven't heard of, which is not to say you might not have. They do a credible job of setting all the songs on an equal footing, so you separate what's performance from the core of the songs themselves.

I still think it's best, though, to go to the trouble of finding the original tracks themselves, as they were performed in the film or on the soundtrack album, if only because this is presumably the best, most film-appropriate performance; or if it isn't, it should have been, and that would be a mark against it.


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