Archive for February 2013
…continued from yesterday…
3. Kramer vs. Kramer
You’re aware that divorce is a serious problem in this country, right? You realize that every marriage in the last 40 years, except for about a half dozen, has ended in divorce, right? And you realize that the process of divorce routinely ravages children beyond repair, robbing them of all sense of love they feel and rending them into psychopathic sociopaths who have the good fortune to get twice the number of Christmas presents each year, right? Of course you know that, because divorce had become so prevalent by the late 70s (and still is) that it is a mundane fact of life in families nationwide. But none of that stopped the Academy from gushing over this film. The basics are that Dustin Hoffman is caught in a divorce battle with Meryl Streep, who has left him and their son in order to “find herself.” The film was perfectly timed to illustrate the changing perspectives on family and the role of women in society, making it spot-on relevant to a lot of social issues of the day. Furthermore, the courtroom scenes rank among the best ever–the film rests at #3 on AFI’s list of best courtroom dramas. Furtherfurthermore, Hoffman and Streep were kicking some serious ass with their acting. Both took home trophies for their starring roles. If that isn’t enough, the screenwriting was lauded for portraying of both sides of the story with equal effectiveness. Well done, Academy. You finally got it right, right?
So What’s the Problem?
Unfortunately, Vietnam is still the problem. The competition in 1979 included a little Vietnam epic that you may have heard of: Apocalypse Now. And when we say “little Vietnam epic,” we mean what is probably the greatest film made about Vietnam, filmed by the man who practically owned the Academy Awards in the 1970s courtesy of his Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola. We mean a film that features some of the most tripped-out performances ever to come out of some of the best Hollywood talent around, including Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall. We mean a film that featured a twisted helicopter attack on a peaceful village that was so intricate and so epic that it took a full three months to edit (the film was nominated for its editing, and it did win for its cinematography). We mean a film that was post-modern before it was cool to be post-modern (which is actually a defining characteristic of post-modernism). We mean a film that took excellent source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not only kept it as a huge influence, but transcended it, thereby elevating the status of both the book and the film in their respective mediums. We mean a film that had a shoot so fraught with disaster that behind-the-scenes footage was crafted into a respectable documentary of its own. We mean a film that captured the Vietnam experience—all its insanity, savagery, and futility—better than anything that came before it, including The Deer Hunter, and most everything that has come since, especially including Operation: Dumbo Drop. But since the Academy bungled their handling of celluloid renditions of the Vietnam War and its aftermath about as badly as the U.S. government bungled the actual Vietnam War and its aftermath, maybe they decided it was best to focus on safer dramas that dealt with white upper-class angst and family discord. That might explain why they favored Kramer vs. Kramer, and why three years later, they went with…
4. Ordinary People
After phenomenal success as an actor in the late 60s and early 70s, Robert Redford decided it was time to put his face behind the camera before it became complete rawhide and was too painful to look at on a movie screen. He found Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People, and it proved to be the perfect vehicle. It was a simple story to deal with, which allowed Redford to draw incredibly powerful and complex performances out of his actors. One of those performances was delivered by Donald Sutherland as the head of the Jarrett family. The lack of a Best Actor nomination for his work is still considered one of the all-time greatest snubs in Academy Awards history. Elsewhere, Mary Tyler Moore was nominated for Best Actress as the unfaithful queen bitch Beth Jarrett, only to be outdone by Timothy Hutton, who won Best Supporting Actor for playing her emotionally damaged son Conrad. And what kind of heartless bastard wouldn’t be emotionally damaged after seeing his brother die right in front of him in a boating accident, especially if it was his older, stronger, handsomer (and presumably more well-hung) All-American brother who epitomized everything that as right with the affluent north shore suburbs of Chicago? That’s the premise of the story, which picks up shortly after Conrad’s time in the nut house. The family falls apart, and never quite gets its shit together again. It’s a heart-rending portrayal of dark side of domestic life in the contemporary United States, ripe with commentary about the shallowness of suburban bliss and the importance of sustaining facades of success and happiness in a materialistic world. It was a quiet, expertly-crafted film that was widely received as one of the elite films of 1980.
So What’s the Problem?
Sylvester Stallone is a good starting point. A mere four years earlier, Stallone’s underdog boxing saga Rocky took home some serious Academy hardware, including Best Picture. It was the first sports-themed movies to rank so high in the minds of the Academy. So what’s an Academy supposed to do when another sports-themed film comes along a so soon afterwards, and it too is about boxing? Is an Academy supposed to recognize it, too, and run the risk of saying, “Hey, we’re all about the jock straps here in Hollywood!”? Well, apparently, what an Academy is supposed to do in this situation is to tip its hat to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull by nominating it for Best Picture, but otherwise ignore it. What’s the harm, right? Sheesh… they just said Rocky was the shit… now they have to say another boxing film is, too? Well, hindsight is purportedly 20/20, and we’ll guess that if the Academy had it to do all over again, they’d perhaps give the Best Picture Oscar to another film in 1976, and then unload all their hardware on Scorsese’s biopic masterpiece in 1980. That would save them decades of embarrassment from not recognizing what has gone on to be considered one of the 4 greatest films ever made (American Film Institute), was placed on the National Film Registry a mere 10 years after it was released (which is the absolute fastest a film can make the registry), and is widely recognized as the greatest film of the 1980s. But maybe film critics, respected film directors, film-goers, and most everybody else having anything to do with film thinks Scorsese is way better than he really is. Maybe the Academy knows some things about Scorsese’s films that make them totally suck. Or maybe they have a vendetta against the man. That might explain why, ten years later, they went with…
5. Dances With Wolves
Remember back in the late 70s, when Hollywood thought it was alright to recognize films that portrayed certain non-white populations as little more than savages (read: The Deer Hunter)? Well, it took a few years, a few more socio-political trends, and a man with a huge conscience and enough financial backing to finally say, “Enough of this bullshit!” As such, Kevin Costner wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a film that finally portrayed a marginalized population with dignity and beauty. It happened to be an epic western, and Hollywood loves epics, and has a hard-on for well-made Westerns (8 had been nominated for Best Picture up until 1990). In this one, Costner’s character John Dunbar emerges from the horror of the Civil War, and lights out to the savage frontier. He encounters Indians, and eventually realizes that they’re livin’ large. They are relatively peaceful, beautiful people who live in perfect symbiosis with the land. He becomes one of them, bangs their prettiest squaw, and leads the rest of the tribe through tough times—most of which have to do with the white man trying to kill them or otherwise fuck with their land. Costner used a cadre of Indian actors, and even had the balls to use the Lakota language throughout the film, figuring we should all have us some subtitles with our popcorn. Costner was lauded for portraying Native Americans in a sensitive, thoughtful, sympathetic manner that had never really been done before. Costner won Best Director, and his film won Best Picture. All in all, it wasn’t a bad night for a first-time director.
So What’s the Problem?
Remember that part about the novelty behind portraying Native Americans as sensitive, thoughtful, and sympathetic? Bullshit. It had been done before. Dorothy M. Johnson called it “A Man Called Horse” when she wrote it in 1968, and Eliot Silverstein kept the name when he put the story to film in 1970. The idea of a soldier immersing himself in a foreign culture, going native, and leading the population into battle against tyrannical invaders wasn’t even new. Ever heard of T.E. Lawrence? David Lean sure had, which inspired him to make Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture winner of 1962, AFI’s #7 greatest film ever, and their #1 greatest epic). Some people referred to Dances with Wolves as Lawrence of the Plains because of the similarities between the two stories. Others have remarked that Dances With Wolves is a decent film (and we agree), but that it won mostly because it was sooooo politically correct, and political correctness was a social topic du jour at that time (and is still a considerable social movement). It marked an early major victory of the Politically Correct movement in film awards. Costner had the good fortune to make the right film at the right time, much the way Michael Cimino had done with The Deer Hunter. What else is wrong is that there was another Martin Scorsese film out in 1990, a Mafia epic called Good Fellas. But wait, hadn’t the Academy already done their due diligence in recognizing Mafia epics way back when they were tripping all over themselves to shove every Oscar possible into the hands of the production team behind The Godfather films (deservedly so, we might add)? It shouldn’t matter. Scorsese had a genuinely excellent film on his hands, one that has gone on to be named the 92nd best all-time by the American Film Institute, and #2 on their list of greatest gangster films (behind The Godfather). Not only that, but it dominated critic circles all over the country in 1990, falling at #1 for the year in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. It seems that the only people who didn’t like it enough were those voting in the Academy. Given all this, and the previous hose job the Academy delivered to Scorsese in 1980, Marty was probably calling Stanley Kubrick long distance to discuss ways they could tell the Academy to eat a dick.
I’ve written in these pages before about being rejected by Cracked.com. I can’t quite seem to adapt to their ironic voice, or craft a list they seem worthy of publication. No worries, though. The practice of trying to do all that has been worth the effort and somehow made me a better writer, so I don’t mind so much. Around about this time last year, I was working on another article for them. Whereas they responded to the first article I pitched, they never even got back to me about this one. No winks. No raised eyebrows. Not even a “thanks, but no thanks.” Like I said, though: No Worries. I happen to have a blog, and sometimes I like to post rejected writing on it just for funsies. So here’s another rejected piece. I’ll continue it tomorrow. ~ Jeff
5 WTF? Academy Award Best Picture Winners
Way back about 85 years ago, Louis B. Mayer, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, wanted to create an organization that would manage labor issues for the movie industry and give the whole institution a good name, because the straight-dealing, moral, righteous people who had made movies for just a few decades had somehow gotten a bad name. Mayer gathered his peeps, one of whom was Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Fairbanks became president of what was at first called the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, before everybody said “Fuck other countries!” and dropped the “International” from the name. Dougy immediately set to creating a series of “awards of merit for distinct achievement” in filmmaking. We’ve come to know these awards as the Oscars, and it’s widely accepted that winning one is one of the highest honors in all of filmmaking. It all sounds great until you consider the Academy has honored a number of films as Best Picture winners that had a bit too much “stink” for a “distinct achievement,” and that would have been better categorized as “also rans.” It’s not uncommon to find these boners in the world of the Oscars. You can start by flashing back to…
And the winner in 1968 was… a musical take on the classic Charles Dickens story Oliver Twist, about a street orphan in 1830 England who must suffer a hard-scrabble existence. It wasn’t too big a surprise that a musical was selected as Best Picture—up to that point, there was a rich history of musicals winning the award, dating pretty far back in Academy history. Before Oliver!, both My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music won in back-to-back years (1964 and 1965, respectively). Three years later, and Academy members either still had musical fever, or the Academy was being run by tidy, flamboyant, well-dressed men who think nothing of belting out show tunes as they walk down the street. Thusly, Oliver! was declared the winner. And who could blame the Academy? After all, Oliver! was not only a big-time British musical with all the typical trappings of a big-time Hollywood musical, but it accomplished it all with a slew of mostly unknown actors. The source material was one of the most acclaimed books by one of England’s most-acclaimed writers, and the score was chock full of unforgettable songs. It was a lead pipe cinch.
So What’s the Problem?
Oh, nothing, really… unless you happen to be Stanley Kubrick, and you’ve co-written a screenplay with Arthur C. Clark, one of the greatest science fiction minds of all time, and it happens to be his story you’re adapting, and you capture your vision of the next millennium so vividly that most people associated with the art and craft of filmmaking who have seen the film over the last 44 years have remarked at how spectacular it is. Or if you can even slightly appreciate a philosophical space epic that can be interpreted on about a thousand more levels than the story of a lice-infected street urchin begging for more porridge. Yeah, that’s the problem—2001: A Space Odyssey was virtually ignored by the AMPAS. It wasn’t even a Best Picture nominee. Never mind that it was the most epic space epic ever filmed, is considered by the American Film Institute as the greatest science fiction film ever made (not to mention currently being their 15th best film ever), used an untold amount of innovative filming techniques, and was the top world-wide box-office draw of the year. Still not convinced? Then take a look at the influence of the film—it helped shape the films of future Academy Award winning directors such as Danny Boyle and Ridley Scott. It also boasts canonical influence, leaving its fingerprints on everything from Star Wars to Close Encounters to E.T. to Sunshine to Moon. All this might explain why the National Film Preservation Board deemed 2001 to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and put it on the National Film Registry in 1991. And if you’re feeling bad for Kubrick, well just go right ahead. Despite being one of the greatest film directors ever, none of his films ever won Best Picture. Right now, Kubrick is probably laying in his grave thinking “Suck it, Academy.” He’s probably thinking “Suck it, Musicals,” too since his Cold War masterpiece Dr. Strangelove was beaten out by My Fair Lady in 1964. At least that musical is considered an all-time Hollywood classic and not a forgettable musical that never appears on lists of great films or even on AFI’s list of the 25 greatest movie musicals.
2. The Deer Hunter
Hollywood was feeling pretty glum about itself back in 1978. Movie executives, directors, and producers were fully aware of our country staggering in the failure of the Vietnam War. It had been over for several years, but it would not soon be forgotten. So how was the Academy going to give attention to this socio-political issue? There weren’t a whole lot of Vietnam-themed movies coming out, and those that were proved to be of middling quality. The Academy couldn’t exactly ignore the Vietnam issue, either, because the Academy loves to address socio-political issues. Not to worry, though. Some geniuses soon thought, “Hey, there’s an epic war film out about how Vietnam totally fucked up the lives of a group of steel-worker buddies in small-town Pennsylvania. It has flamethrowers, helicopters, cripplings, grenades being thrown into bunkers full of women and children, suicide, Fredo from The Godfather again doing his mopey and whiny shtick, and plenty of political and social commentary about the war! Plus everybody who watches it wants to pop anti-depressants about 30 seconds after it’s over!” Other geniuses in the Academy replied with their all-too-typical “Harrumph! Harrumph!” Not only did the film shed light on an important socio-political issue troubling the country, but it was also an epic—and Hollywood loves epics! Before you knew it, The Deer Hunter was dragging home a boatload of Oscars. Besides Best Picture, Christopher Walken won Best Supporting Actor for a harrowing portrayal of a soldier who cracked under the stresses of combat, the film racked up a few technical awards, and Michael Cimino was named Best Director. AFI has since placed The Deer Hunter at #53 on its all-time greatest films list, and the film made the National Film Registry in 1996.
So What’s the Problem?
To answer that question, all the nominees, directors, producers, and paparazzi had to do was look out the front door of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see people protesting the film during the Academy Awards. According to the Los Angeles Times, police arrested 13 people. They were a might pissed off about Cimino’s film being “racist” and a fantasy realization of the Vietnam War. And they weren’t wrong. The film’s signature scene depicted Vietnamese soldiers forcing POWs to play Russian Roulette. Too bad there is no record of that happening during ‘Nam. Not to mention that the continued use of Russian Roulette throughout the remainder of the film is impractical to character motivations and makes all the Vietnamese look like savages. This is in addition to wide-spread thoughts that The Deer Hunter doesn’t represent consistent, high-quality film making. It’s bloated for one, coming in at a hair over three hours. Plus, the style is inconsistent. Some have compared Cimino’s style to Robert Altman’s through the first part of the film, but Cimino himself has claimed that parts of the film are supposed to be surrealistic. He has even implied on a DVD commentary track that the inaccuracies were forgivable because he was making a representation of Vietnam and not actually going for the truth. So what’s the Academy to do? How about looking at Coming Home, another Vietnam film that dealt with the tragedy of soldiers coming home to feelings of alienation and disillusionment, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the government denying responsibility for things such as Agent Orange, veterans themselves protesting the war, and a country full of people who were spitting on them. The performances were good enough to win Jon Voight and Jane Fonda Best Actor and Best Actress awards, and Bruce Dern a supporting nomination, so why not steer towards something more realistic to the socio-political issues of the times by also recognizing it as Best Picture? It wouldn’t be the first time the Academy recognized a film that depicted the horrible after-effects of war—they recognized The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. However, if Coming Home didn’t fit the bill and they still wanted to recognize the impact of Vietnam on our national conscious, they only had to wait a year. But instead, they recognized…
This happens on occasion when you’re writing: You start writing something, and you start like a house on fire. You’ve got extravagant plans for what will no doubt become a masterful piece, and you work for a while getting it there, or taking those first few steps. There’s joy and exuberance, and it’s coming relatively easily to you. And then you drop it. There’s something in the writing that you don’t want to get at, can’t get at for lack of ability, or just don’t get at for a million different reasons. That’s where I’m at right now.
I’ve had this idea for a story for well over a year now, but didn’t start on it until last semester’s Creative Writing class was drafting their final exam project. I tried to start it earlier, and even pitched the idea to a group of students I was working with, but they favored a different story, a piece of fiction that I wrote the pitch for in about 30 seconds. Their interest was so unexpected that I decided to write that different story. And I did. I’m still waiting to hear back about it being picked up for publication.
The story under consideration right now, though, is nonfiction, which I haven’t really been writing much of in the past few years–at least not narrative nonfiction. I grew tired of narrative nonfiction a few years back (probably when I was writing my thesis), and decided that I needed to work on learning fiction so I could use that more in my Creative Writing classes. So that’s what I’ve been doing. In fact, I’ve come to pretty much loathe one particular form of narrative nonfiction: Memoir.
When I started at Northwestern, it was all about memoir to me. I dug the idea of telling my own stories as I learned how to write. I was mystified for a while about why I couldn’t get them published, though, and I really wanted to get things published. Pretty soon, I started to understand that memoir all too often is masturbation. Who the hell cares about your particular story, unless you are a person of some renown? I sure as hell would read Bobby Knight’s memoir, or Pete Townsend’s, or Quentin Tarentino’s, or dozens of other people who I find compelling and who have no doubt had significant experiences in their lives that I would find interesting and want to learn more about. Hell, Frank McCourt cranked out a damn interesting trilogy of memoirs, most of which had to do with teaching, and I ate those up.
But my own story? No, thanks. Too self-serving. Too much of using the page as therapy. Plus, I can’t deny an interesting circumstance: Once I stopped writing about myself, I started getting published.
This issue came up a few weeks ago when I attended a workshop led by Ana Castillo, herself a memoirist of some renown (it’s worth noting, though, that she’s a multi-genre writer). I even posed the question: Why memoir? Who the hell cares about my story? What ensued was a long discussion about the purposes behind writing memoir (not everyone does it to be published), and the differences between writing memoir and personal essays. The discussion was worth the price of admission (it was a free workshop, so I can’t complain). What I came to realize (and I suspect I kind of knew this already) was that my latest piece is really a personal essay, which can certainly be included under the umbrella of narrative nonfiction but is markedly different than memoir.
So having settled on the fact that I’m NOT writing memoir, I’ve given myself clearance to do some more work on the story. Somehow, this hasn’t resulted in me doing any more work on it. Myabe what I’ve realized, then, is that it’s not the mode of nonfiction that is nagging at me, but that there’s something in the writing that I’m not wanting to get at.
Still, I’m blessed with being able to teach a pair of Creative Writing classes each school year, and have been pretty pleased with my results of late when I’ve been writing along with my students. They’re ramping up to some long-form writing right now, so maybe if I ramp up along with them, things will start to take off again with this piece. Who knows? Maybe it will sit in mothballs for a while until I uncover it and say to myself, “Hmmmm… that’s not half bad…” and then begin writing it again. That’s been a fiction writing pattern of mine for some time now. Maybe that virulence has seeped into my nonfiction practices.
Maybe I should stop pissing and moaning about things and put some words down on paper.
It’s a funny thing, writing.
Last year around about this time, I was writing about a fiction workshop I was attending. One of the first things I did in the workshop was to follow the leader’s advice and start using a seed journal. I wrote about it in one post, and have been doing it on and off since… sometimes really on; sometimes really off. I was flipping through it the other day and thought it was worth posting.
The idea behind a seed journal is to keep yourself on consistent alert to capture bits and fragments of conversations, street scenes, images that flash through your mind, unexpected occurrences or whatever triggers your mind. Write them down, of course, and revisit them as necessary to generate some writing. I have to attest to the overall effectiveness of the idea since one of the first things I wrote down was the seed idea for story that is going to be published this coming fall; I supplemented it with something later in the seed journal.
Here are some things that have landed elsewhere in the seed journal:
Feb 25: The birthday boy is 30, and at the surprise party are his wife, 1-year old daughter, and dozens of family and coworkers. His college roommate comes, too–a trucker’s hat on throughout the night, a bottle of Jägermeister, and a 4-pack of Red Bull.
Mar 12: When I bought pretzels at the gas station last night, a one-armed man named Ernie took my cash at the register. He had one of those pincer prosthetics attached at his left elbow.
April 8: “Somebody farted.” It was a simple proclamation form the 8-year old boy standing behind me on the packed escalator down from the 400-level seats at Miller Park. It was Easter Sunday, and the Brewers has fittingly laid an egg against the Cardinals. The boy was right, and in his 8-year old mind 100% rightness meant there was no need to ignore the fact or spray it with perfume. I know he was right because I smelled the fart, but my 33-year head start on brain development and impulse control kept me from blurting out the fact of its existence, despite the absolute certainty of the fact. Damn you, adulthood. Damn you, maturity. Damn you all to hell.
April 19: Squirrel Boobs.
April 28: Akrasia–the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgment. Used in Ian McEwan’s short story “Hand on the Shoulder.”
May 30: Behind me in traffic this morning, a plump woman in a white minivan popped zits on her neck while she waited for the light to change. I saw it all in my rear view mirror.
June 22: Pareidolia–when the brain arranges random stimuli into a significant image or sound. Used in Ben Lerner’s short story “The Golden Vanity.”
July 2: The new girl in class doesn’t shave her legs. She has a pink My Little Pony lunchbox, and a thermos to match.
Jan 3: The cashier at Walgreen’s called over the PA: “I need more Catalina tape,” which is the name of the paper on which they print receipts. I comment to her that I thought it was a girl’s name. It could be a stripper’s name.