Month: September 2013

Oscar Season Diary #2: Is America Watching or Seeing?

prisoners

Venice and Telluride came and went, and now Toronto is a thing of the past.

It’s that time of year again; the beginning of Oscar season, a time when a stern focus is placed on the finest films of the year. A variety of perspectives come together both onscreen and off, and it’s an invigorating season filled with a celebration of one of the most incredible industries in history.

While we often disagree on which films are the best of any given year, no one is complaining that for 6 months out of the year we have a legitimate excuse to talk about movies every single day on a larger-than-usual public scale.

Two things are certain at this point in the race:  three black filmmakers have films vying for legitimate recognition (that is, beyond technical or minor categories) from The Academy (when was the last time–if ever–this happened?), and one of those films emerged as a race-wide frontrunner at the close of Toronto.

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, seemed to sweep all three major precursor festivals with near unanimous praise. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show is being hailed as the best film of her–and director Alfonso Cuaron’s–career.

While we have our surefire Oscar hopefuls distracting us in one corner, it’s often that we find other, less-expected gems to creep up and find their home in the awards season race. One such film to come out of the festival circuit this year, Prisoners, at one point held a somewhat decent standing as a light Oscar contender. And while the awards circuit might be in tune with mature films, is the general public ready to invest in watching versus merely seeing?

From Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was nominated in the Foreign-Language category, Prisoners similarly explores dark subject matter in a way that American audiences simply aren’t used to. It’s the story of two families dealing with the kidnapping of their daughters. Each parent takes a drastically different approach, coming to terms with their own guilt, sorrow, and anger in a narrative which becomes an emotional, character-driven journey than a crime-solving procedural.

The theater I saw the film in was comprised of your typical mainstream crowd–the only problem is that I could tell half of them were prepared for Taken 2. At two hours and thirty-three minutes long, Prisoners isn’t popcorn-flick fare. Its weighty themes and brooding atmosphere do little to comfort, and that’s the exact opposite of what contemporary American audiences want.

It’s part of my job to get audience reaction after these pre-screenings. Most of the comments I got for the film were positive, but the rest were negative for one reason only: the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that the film does not spell everything out for you. It ends abruptly on poetic note that requires mental backtracking. It truly pulls you to all extremes of the film, and beckons your analysis in its stark simplicity. It’s complex, challenging, and wants to get under your skin. It forces you to think, and that’s something I’ve come to realize American audiences simply aren’t willing to do.

“It was fantastic up until the end. The end ruined it! I wanted to see what happened!” A woman shouted, and it pained me to write it down. I fear that the American public has grown far too impatient to enjoy mature films anymore, and it’s even more unsettling to think of the broader implications this has on our society at large. All this film asks of us is to think. For five minutes out of your day, to really think about what you’re seeing onscreen versus passively accepting it. Can it be chalked up to laziness? Sure. I’m only 23-years old, but I remember when laziness was a descriptor that stood out; it meant something to call someone lazy. It meant that their inability to function individualized them, but when that same sentiment can be applied to an entire group of people–and entire society, even–and mere competence becomes the standout–is where the issue becomes disturbing.

Yes, that’s it: we’re not just talking about films, here. We’re talking about competence.

Some of the comments for Prisoners were positive, but for the wrong reasons. “Great action, really violent and disturbing!” I heard a man say. “Total blockbuster,” another yelled. I remember asking myself if he was even aware of what a blockbuster truly is? I thought back to the 1970s, when Star Wars and Jaws introduced American audiences to the blockbuster. The term is a physical descriptor for a film whose presence takes over popular culture in key ways. Is it playing on a vast majority of screens across the country? Is their multi-channel marketing? Merchandising? A simple high concept? Compare yesterday’s Jaws-es to today’s Fast and Furious 6-es, and the cultural shift is clear. In his (and many other) eyes, “blockbuster” means “quality.” This is how much we’ve been conditioned to big-budget studio trash, and while we have the 1970s to thank for that, it’s also an era worthy of extreme praise for conditioning the public to the opposite of the blockbuster.

The 70s were about making movies for adults. The highest-grossing films of the year weren’t sequels, or based on comic book heroes, or budgeted at $100 million for the sole purpose of tripling that number for bragging rights. We saw experimentation in mainstream film. We saw ambition and creativity. And, as in any business model, the customer determined the product. We were smarter and patient. Today, we just want our $10 popcorn and escapism in spandex and a cape. Easy to digest, easy to process, and easy to feel good about ourselves at the end, and that’s NOT what cinema is about.

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Prisoners represents a reality that’s still tangible in the film world. We’re still seeing studios invest somewhat in small, independently-spirited, adult-oriented features. I don’t have a problem with the public dictating what a business does. That’s how it works. I have a problem with the downward spiral of the public’s intelligence having an effect on the quality and types of films that are produced. We’re seeing less and less investment in “riskier” projects (like Prisoners) and it’s killing creativity in the mainstream. There’s no reason that “mainstream” and “trash” have to be synonymous. It’s ingrained in our minds now because that’s what it has turned into, and that’s why we see Best Picture winners like Argo. We’re complacent with the fuzzy, tickly, sugar-coated happy ending that can only come with escapist fantasy. We’ve got soft stomachs built on titanium foundations of yesteryear, and it’s hard to tell what went wrong.

Was it the failure of big-budget films in the 1980s? When we saw the reality of failure could exist in Hollywood fantasyland? Heaven’s Gate couldn’t have caused that much of a shift, right? It takes more than one film to instigate a shift in collective cultural tolerance.

By all means, Prisoners is a mainstream film for a mainstream audience that isn’t quite ready for it. They’re still here, albeit not as abundant as they were in the days of Heaven’s Gate. I noticed the audience growing increasingly frustrated at around the two-hour mark of the film. Conversations were happening, phones whipped out, and trips to the concession stand increased by the minute. At one point, I even heard people cheering Jackman’s character on during one of the most disturbing sequences in the film. Everyone around me was missing the point, and it made me ashamed to be a part of a generation that sacrifices intellectual curiosity for disrespectful superficiality.

There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the film, it’s merely people’s tolerance levels have deteriorated to the point where mere self-induced distraction is blamed on the film for being “boring,” when in fact it’s one’s own failure to invest that’s the issue.

It gives me some hope, then, that 12 Years a Slave (Audience Award-winner, Toronto’s top prize) and Gravity have sustained their Oscar buzz throughout the festival circuit (with Prisoners plateauing with the critics this week, it’s unlikely to garner Academy recognition unless it smashes at the box-office). I’ve yet to see either film, but from what I’m hearing they’re pretty straightforward, linear films with big-budgets, studio backing, and undeniably mature, complex art-house flair that retain their viewer appeal in a fresh way. Sort of like Jaws and Star Wars were breaths of fresh air in their own right. It’s in the Academy’s best interest, in a year they’re desperately seeking to diversify themselves beyond their male-dominated member base, to choose films like these going forward, as they represent a glimmer of hope not only for the film industry, but for the culture consuming them.

No one wants to see mature cinema disappear and all it takes is a little thought on everyone’s part, no? Films like Prisoners deserve audience support, because we can’t let the creative side of the film industry disappear.

Is that really a ridiculous thing to ask of people? For them to use their money to think? It goes far beyond being interested in film or being a cinephile; it’s merely asking people to use their heads.

Top 10 Films of 2013 so far:

1) Prisoners
2) Blackfish
3) Blue Jasmine
4) Stories We Tell
5) Stoker
6) Frances Ha
7) The Place Beyond the Pines
8) The Bling Ring
9) The Grandmaster
10) The To-Do List

The Evils of Passivity; “Blackfish” and Viewer Duty

blackfish

We’re so very good at viewing.

It’s in our nature. Our eyes desire motion for consumption, drawn to kinetic energy in a magnetic bond too powerful to describe. It’s an ugly truth that what fascinates us is most often something elusive to our grasp. Mystery equals wonder, and wonder equals desire.  As humans, it’s also in our nature to actively seek out that which beckons our interest, even if it’s dangerous. Killer whales, like the ones at the heart of the rousing Blackfish, fit into a dangerous mold; they are a combination of spectacle and overwhelming power we cannot–and were never meant to–control.

The recently-released documentary by Gabriela Cowperhwaite, Blackfish, shows us how SeaWorld parks around the country have removed an essential part of the equation of spectacle. They’ve made it easy for us to view these animals as nothing more than 12,000-pound toys, ripping them from their homes in the wild to display them for our sense of bewonderment. SeaWorld marketing has conditioned us to accept them as larger-than-life plush dolls living happily ever after in the dream that is by all means simply a concrete jail cell for our entertainment.

But, we live for the spectacle of their performance. To consume spectacle is to be human, and harnessing the power of spectacle inflates our egos that much more. It’s not like they were modestly-sized in the first place. To assume that, as we see in the first twenty minutes of Blackfish, we are entitled so much as to pluck these beautiful creatures from their homes in the wild in the first place is a moral sin in itself. We see grown men, hardened from years of regret, crying onscreen as they recount the sounds of wild Orca wailing for their young. Regret is a testament to evil, and SeaWorld has a lot of explaining to do for their despicable actions.

Blackfish does its best to remain a barrage of facts and firsthand testimony versus a sledgehammering of an angled agenda. We’re given the facts. We’re spoken to as straightforward as possible. We’re presented evidence to refute our pre-conceived ideas about happiness as as synonym for SeaWorld and its various parks. If you can think for yourself, you’ll see that there are two villains at the conclusion of Blackfish; One is obviously SeaWorld management. Park officials covered up the bloody track-record of Tilikum, a massive breeder Orca, before he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010 during a routine performance. He’d killed two other people prior to Brancheau’s death, yet SeaWorld management sees it beneficial to keep him around, literally milking him for sperm to produce countless offspring for their other parks. They fudge facts, feeding their visitors bullshit about Orcas living longer in captivity than in the wild; that dorsal fin collapse is normal; They even strip young whales away from their parents, though Orcas are known to be some of the (if not the most) socially-dependant creatures on earth. In fact, if there ever was a scene that has the potential to haunt those who see it for the rest of their lives, it comes about halfway through Blackfish when a mother whale’s cries for its daughter, whom SeaWorld management chose to move to another park thousands of miles away. There’s no skimping around what SeaWorld is doing. It’s cornering the market on abuse, and we’re eating it up all so Jimmy and Susie can be entertained for ten minutes while on vacation.

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It then becomes clear that our inactivity–the world’s inactivity, at that–is largely responsible for filling villain slot #2. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable watching a film, because as rousing as it is, Blackfish is a disturbing chronicle of the world’s ignorance, and it must be massively-consumed. It’s the exact opposite of the picture-perfect paradise SeaWorld wants you to believe in.

When a film like Blackfish comes along, it begs us as heralds of film to do something about the subjects it depicts. There’s a different edge to a film like this. We’re coming to it because we want to be educated about things going on in our world. It’s not entertainment. It’s not about making us comfortable as viewers in our cozy little theater chairs shoveling our faces with popcorn. It’s a shared experience of pain, made for us to look back at ourselves for letting this kind of irresponsible behavior go on.

We must champion these films that inspire action, because that’s where the power of the medium of film shines, and essentially transcends merely being about whatever it is we’re watching onscreen. A movie is a movie, but a movie can also be an agent of change. To inspire emotion and escapism is one thing, and fiction is a powerful tool for that. Narrative fiction is beautiful, but when a lens becomes a sword, the topic tangible, and the subjects implicating, is when film becomes more than just a popcorn experience. Emotion is a powerful thing that film can inspire, but something like Blackfish becomes more than just a movie for the causes it sheds light on. It inspires what movies can and so rarely do outside of the individual; collective action to right a wrong. As consumers, we have the power to eradicate the evils we see in Blackfish, and it’s here that the importance of film shines. Films which beg us for–or almost require–activism MUST be pushed forward. So I beg you: See this film. Because, while we’re experts at viewing, we’ve come to forget that action is a far more important duty than our own self-service.

Blackfish shows us how our hungry eye can lead to unimaginable evil; how a corporation can manipulate our desire to learn about the world around us–to become closer to the nature we’ve continuously grown further away from–and turn it into a virtual monopoly on cruelty. SeaWorld has removed a sense of accomplishment that comes from viewing an animal in the wild. The final shots of Blackfish show us a typical pod as it swims peacefully. We’re transfixed by the natural beauty, of being so privileged to see something so naturally complete. Film so often wants to indulge our yearning for this type spectacle by festering as a desire to passively consume. Blackfish is that idea’s antithesis; let us actively create a spectacle of change that exists far beyond the borders of a movie theater.

Oscar Season Diary #1: Punditry and Responsibility

Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender

Is it appropriate to use the word “responsiblity,” in this case?

After all, it’s film we’re talking about. Not international tension or foreign policy, right?

In a way, though, is Oscar punditry not unlike a sort of international operation? Filtering the chaos of Toronto, Telluride, and all the guilds and critics’ circles to come into a streamlined, easy-to-digest pill for those non-endowed with the knowledge of such a particular competition? I think of HitFix, IndieWire, Awards Daily; each reports in a personable manner, speaking to readers versus at them. It’s all stuffed with pretension here and there, but we’re used to that. This is Oscar Season, after all.

Awards Season blogging/punditry discourse is, for the most part, a way for the knowledgeable to be at-bat with the rest of their team at the same time, fighting for the same chance to strike the Academy’s pitch. No one asks them to, but that doesn’t stop the sensationalized coverage of this year’s September festivals from forcing their way into casual Oscar discourse.

I think immediately of Alonso Duralde (film critic at The Wrap) and Adam B. Vary (film reporter for Buzzfeed) and their Twitter spat this weekend after the former expressed his distaste with press oversensationalizing the quality of films for the sake of self-starting awards season buzz. Vary insisted the praise–specifically, that for 12 Years a Slave–was genuine, while Mark Harris (writer at Entertainment Weekly) chimed in, adding that those insisting the Best Picture race is already over aren’t doing the film any favors.

I see the side to each point. It seems that though as power and sway is taken away from critics during awards season (did we have the amount of guild awards, SAG awards, and online buzz 20 years ago? I think not) as anyone with access to the internet now wields the power of broadcast. The onslaught of praise for 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride and Toronto is almost knowingly self-fulfilling. What Duralde is getting at, I assume, is that the praise seems more like a wank to their individual ability to find the diamond in the rough and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The awards race has transcended mere quality. It’s about buzz, marketing, studio pushes, and (most importantly) making a splash at these game-changing early-season festivals. Voluminous praise spreads like a virus, and soon everyone is on the bandwagon, an individual part of the machine that turns appeal into gold (Blue is the Warmest Color swept Cannes like wildfire in a similar fashion).

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Perhaps the praise is merely that: praise. It’s ridiculous to judge someone’s enthusiasm for a film, especially in an age where art takes a backseat to blockbuster. I’m all for championing films that break the mold of what studios deem marketable, and 12 Years a Slave certainly looks to live up to the hype. But hype can often kill a film’s chances at the Oscars. Jumping the gun and declaring the race over when Toronto hasn’t completed is ludicrous. There were those who latched on to Argo at this point last year, but that did little good. The film, after all, was left out of the Best Director category, and only then did it become the clear frontrunner (or, colossal sympathy vote) for Best Picture. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated followup to Shame, I just hope its chances aren’t killed thanks to foam-mouthed bloggers expending its welcome too soon.

It was almost as if the desire to love 12 Years a Slave preceded it. Like a shaken bottle waiting to be uncapped. The desire to praise something different, something from a filmmaker widely ignored for superior work two years ago. That’s why the praise for films like Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto seems more legitimate, at least in my eyes. Both seem unexpectedly fantastic, and the reviews truly reflected that. You can tell that critics were stunned by their impact. That’s not to say that quality wasn’t expected, it just didn’t have nearly as much chatter surrounding it as the buzzier flicks did. For one, they weren’t shown at Cannes, and Cuaron’s track record has been 0 for 0 for the past seven years. Surprise passion trumps informed expectation.

Alas, Toronto is nearly over, and we still have other contenders (arguably) to sift through (August reviews should begin pouring in shortly, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have yet to screen anywhere, Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips are making leaps and bounds to the forefront of Oscar discussion), and all of that only leads to the conclusion that we still have three months until nominations are announced. Sensation and accessibility to underqualified, over-shared opinions only leads one of two ways, neither favorable: building buzz (The Artist) or dying a slow death thanks to over-sharing and over-saturation of “it’s a guarantee, so lets talk about something else” (Lincoln).

Though no one asks for their opinion, bloggers an informed voice is often the best candlelight to follow in a sea of darkness. But, for once, it’d be nice to find the footing on my own.

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Current Big 4 predictions after Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and pre-screening buzz:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lee Daniels (The Butler)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – If she remains Lead, which apparently she is
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)