Best Picture Winners 1929-1932

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In which I continue to watch the Best Pictures in order:

The grand irony of a “talkie” like All Quiet on the Western Front is that its best moments have no dialogue whatsoever. Yet without the requirement of repertory music or a score, it is allowed to use silence to its greatest effect, punctuated by intense bombing. If Wings is about the way the glory of battle is interrupted by mindless tragedy, in All Quiet it’s pure FUBAR. Even the impressive-for-its-time realism of Wings looks hopelessly romantic by comparison. The battle scenes still hold up: they’re jarring, disorienting, and mostly, loud. The film contrasts the quick and chaotic clash of battle with the intense and long stretches when soldiers are starving and waiting. Watching this in a movie theater must have made audiences want to duck for cover. Lewis Milestone, another director who made a whole lot of movies (including the original Oceans Eleven!) is at his best in these “foxhole” scenes, which don’t seem stagy even with the static camera, but hauntingly claustrophobic.

The most celebrated scene is its ending, but I was most moved by a moment when Baumer, the protagonist, kills a Frenchman and must wait out a gunfight with the corpse. It’s here that contemporary audiences could see the “realism” that dramatic movies could aspire to. Yet the scene is almost ruined by the constantly yapping Baumer, whose dialogue seems to exist to remind audiences that the audio was working. Watching the movie now, the flaw of All Quiet on the Western Front is that it gives over to preachiness and polemic, to having mostly unsophisticated soldiers spell out all of Erich Maria Remarque’s unsubtle themes. The opening, in which a professor shouts “Dulce et Decorum est” to his schoolboy soldiers, is embarrassing and unnecessary. Yet I concede All Quiet its “masterpiece” status, as its power still resonates among the best and most provocative anti-war documents.

Both the second and fourth Best Picture winners, Broadway Melody (1928-29) and Cimarron (Best Picture 1931-32) feature stuttering characters, as though the new technology is showing off its ability to not only present noise, but also nuanced, scattered, realistic noise. Broadway Melody uses music to produce very limited song and dance numbers; they lack the excitement of the “Let’s put on a show” musicals that would come later. As its poster declares: “TALKING SINGING DANCING” – which pretty much covers all of the things that happen in Broadway Melody. It’s baffling that a slight film like this impressed much of anyone, even if it’s occasionally fun to watch the quirky female leads. Yet the movie is maddening: even though the vibrant women are the only interesting characters in the film, they’re still at the mercy of men. When “Queenie,” the really talented one, abandons show business for marriage, it leaves a really sour taste. It’s anyone’s guess why this fairly typical backstage drama ends on such a weird downer note. Yet here’s a case where the Academy does what it still does best: sneaking a middling film into longevity by giving it an award. There’s more about it here.

“It’s men like him who build the world, the rest of us just come along and live in it.” That’s an actual line of dialogue from 1932 Best Picture winner Cimarron, and it became the more complicated subtext of a number of much better westerns. More of a historical epic than a western, Cimarron wants to capture the way great men bring the savage frontier kicking and screaming into civilization. This contemporary review from the New York Times says it all when the first paragraph notes the “stupendous undertaking in view of the time that is covered and the hosts of persons in its scenes.” But stupendous in this case translates to kind of stupid, and that’s not merely our inability to adapt our sensibility toward this kind of entertainment: the film turns a 336 page book into a two hour movie and feels like its missing three hours of character development. Edna Ferber (Giant) wasn’t exactly John Steinbeck, but she was good at this kind of epic of Manifest Destiny that the movie truncates to baffling incoherence – the key feminist plot of the novel, of a virtuous and long-suffering wife who becomes a congresswoman, is made ridiculous through this grand sweep of time.

To watch the movie now is to witness a different breed of acting, so bereft of the kind of naturalism we’re used to that it seems designed as parody. As fist-punching, newspaper-paper writing, do-gooding Yancey Cravat, Richard Dix is a grinning, strutting he-man caked in make-up. Comically handsome and wooden, Dix’s exaggerated baritone and swagger makes the Super Golden Crisp-craving Sugar Bear seem like a method actor. Yancey is a Wyatt Earp figure, the kind of restless soul who leaves one town he’s saved and then goes to start another. His bolo tie is, I assume, supposed to affirm his intense masculinity. He’s a bit like Poochie: whenever he’s not on screen, everyone asks, “Where’s Yancey?” Yancey’s exploits are pure tall tale – he shoots the hilariously unthreatening outlaw “The Kid” and dies while somehow saving everyone else in an oil rig explosion only to reveal that it has somehow also left him scarred with terrible old-age makeup.

Reading that New York Times review, however, reveals the excitement of the critic and that anticipation of the “spectator” to see the grand spectacle of such a “stupendous undertaking.” Indeed, the movie does manage to capture some of the chaos of these earlier outposts, which is probably not that dissimilar to the experience of being on a film-set in the early 1930s. Yancey might almost seem as a stand-in for the directors who were trying to legitimize film in the eyes of critical audiences who didn’t see its value as a form. The move from chaos to order that’s inherent in western narratives might be a popular theme for just this reason, though John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann would challenge this trajectory brilliantly. Cimarron treats it with a solemnity that makes it pretty easy to make fun of.

Watching Cimarron and Broadway Melody suggests that if these were the best movies of the early talkie period, things must have been pretty grim indeed. But that’s certainly not the case. Broadway Melody beat out one of Buster Keaton’s best, most entertaining films, Steamboat Bill Jr. And in 1931, Cimarron rode its epic trappings to victory over definitive and groundbreaking classics like City Lights, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar. Yet the fledgling Academy Awards weren’t going to give its highest praise to a silent film by Charlie Chaplin, nor were they going to reward the values of gangster heroes played by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were light years removed from the upright moralism of Yancey Cravat.

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WINGS – The First Best Picture Winner

My wife and I recently decided to watch all the Best Picture winners. I’m reminded of Liz Lemon’s quest to watch all the movies on the AFI Top 100 list but “I only have ‘Star Wars’ and ‘’Tootsie,’ so we just keep watching those two over and over.” I think the in-the-moment Best Picture winners are more fun than the retrospective, obligatory AFI list: they reflect the odd mix of public and critical sentiment from the years they were produced. They’re better indicators of what kinds of films were “important” and also what was “popular,” as well as who was important and popular. And also, those AFI lists have the gift of hindsight in reflecting canonical and enduring sacred cows, some of which weren’t appreciated in their own times, while many of these Best Picture winners have been long-forgotten. This may be a fools mission, or a wild success: we may never make it to Broadway Melody of 1929, or I may have to suffer through Crash again.

But we did watch the first Best Picture winner: 1927/28’s Wings (for the first six years of nominations, they gave tem bi-annually). On any scale, Wings was an insanely big movie. In addition to featuring the hottest star of the moment, Clara Bow, it had revolutionary visual effects. It would have been like if Titanic starred Julia Roberts. And yet, in 1997, we were seasoned movie-watchers; we could have seen (but probably didn’t) Speed 2 earlier that year, and been weary of heavy out of control cruise-ship action. What makes Wings compelling in retrospect is that most of the middle-class audiences watching had probably never been on a plane, or seen this kind of aerial footage before:

Even today, that’s pretty impressive stuff for a time when CGI indicated just three random letters thrown together. Director William Wellman was one of those guys that made about seven movies a year in a number of different genres, yet Wings was special to him since he was an experienced combat pilot. As the award indicated, Wings would manage to grab the dual honor of being (then)  the best movie ever made about flying, and the best movie ever made about World War I. The flying scenes are still particularly exciting because they’re recreating something that happened only ten years before, so the technology isn’t nostalgized or reinvented through a modern eye. It’s a bit like going to the most awesome air show ever.

And the plot? It mainly fills the gaps when guys aren’t shooting at each other in bi-planes. Clara Bow’s role as a daffy, lovelorn ambulance driver might seem egregious, but it probably put butts in seats. Even if underwritten, it’s impressive that Wellman wanted to show women’s roles in the war, as she gets to exhibit heroism of their own. Bow is delightful and winning, perky and sexy, while virtuous and brave; she gets her screwball moment in an overlong scene involving a drunken pilot and bubbles – lots and lots of bubbles:

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The plot centers around Jack and David, two rivals in love (though not for Bow, who becomes an interloper of sorts) who becomes comrades in battle. It’s all pretty standard stuff until the end, when the film became unexpectedly moving and complicated. David, who has grown increasingly morbid, and gets shot down behind enemy lines. However, he heroic steals a German plane and shoots down several “Heinies” before they can take off. It’s a grand act of heroism, but when he tries to fly back to his own turf, he does so flying a plane with German insignia. In a tense moment, he’s spotted by Jack, and tries to wave him down. But Jack is a good soldier and competently and unhesitatingly shoots him down. At this moment, a movie that has primarily been jingoistic about a predictably masculine heroism questions the values that it promotes. Considering that Wings had the support of the War department, this was a particularly subversive move. And to follow that, Wings has this erotically charged death scene – it was the first movie to show two men kissing.

Watching Wings is admittedly somewhat exhausting:  two and half hours long and its everything and the kitchen sink plotting is often poorly paced. There are setups without payoffs, and it takes too long to get to the flying. Yet if you can put yourself in the perspective of a 1927 audience, it’s magical, and rewarding, like many silent films are. There’s an awe here that’s lacking because we know that big summer movies are the creations of skilled people on computers, rather than visual innovators figuring out how to film an aerial battle around all the clouds, or how to film a battle using 3500 extras and timed explosions. If time has proven that it’s not the best movie of 1927 and 1928 (Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise would win that easily), Wings is definitely the biggest and most exciting. And you can be forgiven for confusing that with the “Best.”

(You can watch Wings for free with an Amazon Prime subscription)

Waiting for the Next NORTH DALLAS FORTY: on Sports movies

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Disney has been in the business of making sports movies for quite a while, but it’s only in the last fifteen years that they’ve ventured into what might be called the “prestige sports movie.” In the 1970s, the Mouse made such day camp favorites as The Love Bug series, The World’s Greatest Athlete, and Gus, about a field goal kicking mule. In the 1990s, they veered more toward kid-themed somehow-classics like The Mighty Ducks, Air Bud, and Angels in the Outfield (though Cool Runnings remains the best sports movie ever made by Disney). These movies survive on internet-fueled nostalgia, as most of the people who were nine when they came out now write for Buzzfeed. That changed first with 2000’s Remember the Titans, and then with 2002’s The Rookie, a modest hit based on a true story about a middle-aged nobody who finds out he has a 96 mph fastball. Since then, Disney has thrived on safe, family-friendly, inspirational “true” stories with all the complexity, competence, and celebration of a coach-pitch post-game speech. Similarly, you fully expect someone to pass out popsicles and juice boxes after the movie.

As the trailer for Million Dollar Arm reveals, these movies define themselves as celebrating sport at its purest, primarily through its presentation of professional sports as a place where inspiration happens. Every one of them deploys the underdog narrative in the exact same way, every one features an obligatory romance, and every one of them wants very badly to be “the next Hoosiers.” Since they all come with the glowing endorsement of the leagues that support them, they’re pretty much propaganda. Chances are if you’re watching a movie that features a St. Louis Cardinals logo, it’s because you’re watching exactly the kind of story that Major League Baseball wants you to see. You leave thinking that the NFL and MLB are the kind of benign institutions that their commercials suggest. They affirm all the values of Roger Goodell and his anxious marketing department, or otherwise they wouldn’t exist.

I realize my cynicism is apparent, but it’s because I’m in mourning. With the exception of perhaps Moneyball, it’s been a while since we’ve seen the kind of sports movie the 70s were very good at making. Instead of seeing the individual or outsider assimilated by the system, the sports movies of the 1970s pit them against each other. The Longest Yard is my favorite of these, and one of my favorite movies of all time: Burt Reynolds, cooler than he’s ever been as Paul Crewe, first defies professional sports and then professional imprisonment. We get the sense that Crewe finds more value and community in the psychos and weirdoes he’s coaching than the organized sports that made him famous.

Slap Shot might be even better, as besides being a very funny and foul movie, it’s essentially about the troubling relationship between players, owners, money, and communities. When Paul Newman’s minor-league hockey lifer Reggie Dunlop tells his team to beat the holy hell out of their opponents, it’s because he think he’s rebelling against the ownership who wants to sell the team. But when the team becomes a grand success, he’s actually just filling their coffers. Slap Shot also has the audacity to take aim at the fans, which extends the critique to the audience who watches it. You like this stuff?

And yet, The Longest Yard and Slap Shot have a more intense love of sports than the Disney movies. As in Bull Durham, they’re usually filled with cynical lifers whose pure passion and love for the game keeps them going. A movie like North Dallas Forty wants to show how professional sports eats up and corrupts the players who live for it. The Bad News Bears does all this on the small scale of Little League, and I can’t think of a better representation of the distance between the “values” that sports are supposed to produce and the apparent joy of playing them. Even The Natural and Major League clashes players against the owners who want to sell them.

What happened? I blame garbage that nobody wanted to watch like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday or that ESPN show Playmakers that only wanted to sensationalize the most seedy and sordid aspects of professional sports. Along with my guilty pleasure featuring my favorite actor Anfernee Hardaway, Blue Chips, they sacrifice character and story for polemic. In the case of 90s films like Blue Chips and The Program, their messages were NCAA and ESPN approved from their logos to their explicit messages, showing cases of isolated rather than systemic corruption. Overblown, overpopulated, and full of speechifying, those movies aimed for the fences and hit into a broken-bat fielder’s choice. It was only natural to go the other way.

But to close on a positive note, a recent antidote to the potential treacle of Million Dollar Arm is Sugar. Sugar follows the titular Dominican knuckleballer as he is transplanted to a Single-A team in Iowa. Even as Sugar shows its protagonist eaten up and spit out by a system that only cares about one of his arms, there’s still an obvious love for the sport he’s playing. And even though it puts a dark spin on the underdog narrative, it still possesses an optimism toward Sugar as a human. Unlike Million Dollar Arm, which promises to be yet another story of a virtuous white person who makes some kind of racial equality possible, Sugar puts an intense focus on its displaced, often hopelessly confused protagonist.

Even though it was one of the best movies of 2009, Sugar came and went with little attention; it had only a small release and then went quickly and quietly to DVD even though its directors had just made the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson. Because of all the trappings they have to recreate, sports movies are expensive to make, and therefore only the most audience-friendly are going to be made. Sadly, that’s a difficult model to upend.

Best Movies of 2013

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It’s April, so of course I’m finally posting my top ten movies of the year. 2013 was my favorite year for movies in a long time, probably since 2007. So here we go

Didn’t Like as Much as Everyone Else: Spring Breakers (hated), Gravity, Nebraska, Room 237

Haven’t seen: Before Midnight, Blue is the Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, Mud,

Honorable Mention:  The Great Gatsby,Enough Said, Star Trek Into Darkness, Dallas Buyers Club, Short Term 12

  • No. 10: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s least ambitious movie is still a pensive and often beautiful look at domesticity. I’d be happy if he made one of these a year. Though the suburban spaces try to suppress the lyricism and poetry typical to Malick’s film, they still find a way to exist. If the houses and communities these characters inhabit are built for economy rather than beauty, the movie is not. As Roger Ebert said in the last review he ever wrote, “Snatches of dialogue, laughter, shared thoughts, drift past us. Nothing is punched up for dramatic effect . . . There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” I agree.

  • No. 9: American Hustle

A joy to watch. David O. Russell smartly turns this complicated con-artist story into a movie more interested in who these strivers, dreamers, and schemers are. It’s as though Russell knew there were two movies that could be made, and choose the better one. So what if you don’t know how ABSCAM worked, when you get Louis CK and Bradley Cooper yelling at each other? Russell returns to a group of actors he’s handled before (other than Jeremy Renner), and they’re all typically great. They have amazing scenes together and apart. Each of them attempts to win the movie, and that scene-stealing is appropriate for a movie that’s essentially about stealing. Also, any movie that begins with a freshly fat Christian Bale putting on a hair-piece, followed by a slow-motion walking sequence set to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work is going to earn my favor.

  • No. 8: Drinking Buddies

The breakout mumble-core movie of 2013 works because of aimless, articulate, but likable characters – the genre’s best contribution. It’s the most accurate title of the year: Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are drinking buddies and would-be lovers, and everyone around them either tries to elevate them or is disappointed by them. They’re kind of happy but not really. The characters make bad decisions because they don’t know what they want. Joe Swanberg has always made the most sexually explicit mumble-core movies (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends), but here there’s rarely a moment of intimacy and a lot of awkward encounters. The Dissolve called it “aggressively inconsequential,” but I don’t find anything aggressive about this at all. The characters lives are inconsequential, but they’re finely drawn and examined without strong judgment but with compassion. My fear has always been that mumble-core will escape its gritty trappings and get lost in ambition and money, but Drinking Buddies gives me hope for these grander possibilities.

  • No. 7: The Counselor

The hatred for The Counselor might be understandable, since its trailers made it look like a John Grisham movie instead of a typically elliptical and dark text written by Cormac McCarthy. This one offers none of the economy and clarity of No Country For Old Men, even though its plot trapping seem more familiar (lawyer and the mob, etc.). As a movie about ambition, it’s almost Shakespearean, right down to the revealing and literary monologues. It’s a tragedy populated by people we don’t really even like or know that well. I was entranced. My only complaint is with Cameron Diaz’s performance (though not the character as written): other than the one scene where she has, er, fun with a car, the film only further elucidates her weaknesses as a dramatic actress. But Ridley Scott brings the right amount of gloss and competence to a movie that resists easy interpretation.

  • No. 6: Frances Ha

If there were any fairness in the Academy Award nominations, Meryl Streep would not have gotten nominated for existing and being in a movie and Greta Gerwig would have been a serious contender (Cate Blanchett probably should have won anyway, but still). For some, this was their introduction to Gerwig as a serious talent; for the rest of us, this is further validation of her presence as the brightest young actress working. As the aimless and irresponsible Frances, Gerwig dances, fake-fights, gets bored, works as a secretary, rooms with two dudes, and runs around with her arms flailing. She never stops showing the loneliness of this character, even when she’s crazy energetic. And even though the movie is about a woman wandering and often failing, it’s a really happy move, largely because of that spirit. Gerwig co-wrote with her director and new boyfriend and normally sad-sackian Noah Baumbach, and it has the same style and energy as its protagonist.

  • No. 5: The Wolf of Wall Street

Many loathed the way Martin Scorsese made us sympathize with robber baron Jordan Belfort. But I find it key to his deployment of one of the most classic elements of American mythos – the Horatio Alger story – and the familiar narrative constructions of Goodfellas and Casino, to which this film ends (although hopefully not) a trilogy. With the same rise and fall structure, the same stylistic excess, Scorsese equates the junk bond-hawkers with the mafia. If we like Jordan, it’s because we like this kind of story, and Scorsese invites us to identify with him only to question and be challenged by the way this narrative works when it involves such reprehensible dealings. The best argument against the movie comes from my friend Porter, who claims that the FBI’s plot against Jordan is a fantasy of good ol’ Federal containment at its best – here comes the cavalry! – and he has a point. But we have to be reminded that this is Jordan’s story: unlike Goodfellas and Casino, the narrative never shifts. He’s telling us how he got away with it and how he can be caught, and the awkwardly rhetorical and confessional nature of his story gets carried away with all his bragging and posturing. Remember that the title “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes from a Forbes article about him. This is Belfort’s attempt to control the story, which he often fails to do. It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year: at times, the visual language recalls and DiCaprio’s physical performance recalls the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.

  • No. 4: Her

Wistful, sweet, and visually inventive, Her is the movie for our technological moment (just as Computer Chess is the movie for our technological past). Spike Jonze takes the concept seriously, rather than constantly reminding us of the cleverness. In addition to Theodore Twombly and “Samantha,” the film meditates on all kinds of relationships, not merely with technology. After all, Theodore writes letters not only out of obligation, but also because it allows him a virtual window into a meaningful connection. The characters are not vehicles for philosophy or the high concept, but are finely drawn and often interesting crack the narrative and visual framework. Her presents a largely clean and aseptic utopia in which we’ve all accepted that computers can solve our problems, then turns that on its head by giving computers emerging problems of their own. In that way, the movie it should be compared to (and never is) to The Terminator: in both, we see the clash between controlling and being controlled by non-human forms of consciousness. Its sweetness comes from the great Arcade Fire score, Joaquin Phoenix’ toning down his manic force into shy neediness, and Amy Adams’ warmth.

  •  No. 3: 12 Years a Slave

Attacked by some as Oscar-bait; they couldn’t be more wrong, even if it dominated those awards discussions. This is an intense, provocative look at a subject that isn’t usually filmed. As a film subject, slavery often gets unfairly lumped with civil rights era movies, of which there are many. But the last significant movie to address slavery seriously (other than Django Unchained, which is an action movie) was Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Beloved. The film doesn’t pull punches on the brutality, and captures the powerlessness of slaves. In fact, a consistent criticism of the film is that (spoiler) a white man ensures Solomon’s slavery. But that’s part of the point: Solomon’s escape doesn’t come so much through his own courage or agency as endurance and even participation in these senseless and indefensible conditions. His only chance at freedom is through someone who isn’t defined as “property” – this comes straight out of Northup’s book. The movie avoids speechifying or overly virtuous representations. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the right mix of stoic resolve and suppressed anger to Solomon. As the movie ends, we’re told more grim facts about his life and failed attempts to bring about justice to those who sold him into slavery. Part of me wishes McQueen had filmed this too. This is a dark, necessary movie.

  • No. 2: Computer Chess

Mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski took a risk with this loopy, often absurd, frequently hilarious look at a bunch of nerds in the early 80s playing chess through their computers. I’m reminded of that bit in the Simpsons bit with the “Grand Nationals of Sand Castle Building Preview” where an announcer, says, “You know, this year, everyone’s abuzz about one thing: the absence of Mark Rodkin . . . oh wait, there he is.” In a way, Computer Chess is like turning that line into a movie. The result is that Computer Chess has the dramatic urgency of a sports movie, which is made all the more compelling once we accept the sense of seriousness and inevitable celebrities that can only exist within this weird culture. But the like Her, it’s a meditation on mediation and identity and the way all that changes when we explore and attempt to think about technology on a deeper level. The film’s DIY style meshes perfectly with subject; this is no art movie, it’s the one of the most entertaining movies of recent memory.

  • No. 1: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ best work in years (which is saying a lot) once again captures a milieu with a mix of artificial regionalism and naturalistic realism. Its bleakness is offset by the hopefulness of the music, and the Coens show the way it became a part of business and commercial interests and could not be contained by it. Played by Oscar Isaac in what I think is the year’s best performance (he sings!), Llewyn is kind of a jerk, but he’s also floundering and lost and trying to make a life through the integrity he refuses to give up. Even though the Coens make him suffer, they still like him. All the performances are great, and the film is a funny and loving pastiche of beat and folk cultures. This scene might be my favorite and the funniest of any movie this year:

The aesthetic riffs on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the glorious style extends to road-side diners and academic’s apartments. The mix of hope and misery made it seem schizophrenic to some, but I was compelled every step of the way.

 

Is Margo Roth Spiegelman a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Here’s a thoroughly ridiculous example of success:

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John Green has written four significant young adult novels in the last nine years, and all four of them are still in the YA Top 10 best-sellers list (An Abundance of Katherines is Number 9). The film version of The Fault in our Stars promises to be a runaway success even if it’s bad. Green is four months older than me. Only a fool would expect this kind of triumph. And Green isn’t writing about wizards or dystopian battle royales, he’s dealing with teenagers who can adequately be described as “real.”

I’ve now read two of his books, Fault and now Paper Towns. While the former has a more deeply moving subject matter (teenagers with terminal illness), the latter is the more complex and interesting: if Fault answers a bunch of questions, Towns – like its patron saint poet Walt Whitman – mainly asks them. And one of those questions is about whether or not its beautiful, mysterious protagonist can have an existence outside of our imaginations.

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the object of many stories within the world of the novel itself. In other words, her existence is filtered through others, primarily through the at-first milquetoast narrator Quentin Jacobsen. It’s not too much of a spoiler (it’s in the summary from the NYT above) to say that Margo enters Quentin’s life dramatically and leaves mysteriously, and that the brief experience liberates Quentin. Which puts her in the realm of “Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.”

The Manic-Pixie Dream Girl came to be out of this brilliant review of Elizabethtown by pop-culture guru Nathan Rabin. He uses it to describe the regressive, but very familiar stereotype of a quirky female character whose sole existence within a story is to liberate a male protagonist. Though she’s seemingly an eccentric iconoclast – usually conveyed through her insistence on wearing silly hats – she has no inner life, exists in no conceivable reality, and yet somehow ends up being domesticated by the very dullards she was created to liberate. Instead of subjectivity, she possesses an endless series of quirks, appetites, and elliptical quasi-profound fortune cookie proverbs. She’s such a fantasy that we’re surprised that the movie doesn’t end with her saying “My work here is done,” and then walking into a spaceship.*

On Facebook, friends pointed out that Green’s work often draws this critique. In short – that his books are centered around passive male characters who encounter brilliant females who turn them into the heroes they’re supposed to be. At first glance, Margo, who climbs in Quentin’s window dressed like a ninja and demands he sneak into Seaworld, seems not merely to be an MPDG, but the most egregious example of an MPDG of all time. If you’re looking for ammunition, here’s what Margot says when she and Quentin sneak into a building so they can see the best view in Orlando:

Here’s what’s not beautiful about it: from here, you can’t see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You can see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q: look at all those culs-de-sac, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.

This is exactly the kind of thing the MPDG says, in the hopes of unshackling “Q” from his droll, “paper” existence.
But wait. There’s a moment in the book where Quentin is over at his friend Radar’s house helping him prepare for a party by putting away Radar’s parents record-breaking collection of Black Santas (Green is brilliant with these kind of details). Q says, “You know, when you see them all together, it really does make you question the way we imagine our myths.” If you read the Goodreads quote page, you’ll see a lot of quotes like this. Here’s another: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

I point this scene out in connection to what Green, who has mastered social media and uses it to engage his readers, says about this critique:

Margo is certainly presented by Q as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of PT. Absolutely. But that only acknowledges that some boys believe in Manic Pixie Dream Girls; it doesn’t argue that MPDGs actually exist, or that Margo is one . . . Paper Towns is a book about–at least in part–the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held MPDG fantasies.

This isn’t thematic retrofitting; it’s there throughout the novel. Quentin objectifies Margo, and by fitting her in this category so do we. When it turns out that Margo is full of darkness and a complexity that Quentin realizes is more complex than the complexity he’s imagined, Paper Towns reveals itself not as participating in the regressive trope, but examining, complicating, and critiquing it. Quentin is liberated, but it’s not because Margo is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but because Margo is not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl designed for his emancipation that he wants her to be.

In Sonnet 75 of his Amoretti, Edmund Spenser does something rare for a sonnet – he lets the object of the love poem talk back. In the first stanza, the speaker says he going to immortalize his beloved, but he can’t.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

In other words, “I want to immortalize you but I can’t.” In the next stanza, “she” responds to this poetic activity.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

“You can’t immortalize me,” she says, and the underlying reason is that she’s too intricate, too exceptionally mortal, to be reduced to the aesthetic object of the poet’s “pains.” And of course, the poet goes on to say he’s just going to do it anyway. Quentin’s doing something remarkably similar to what the poet is doing, and often we are too – in trying to categorize this female figure, he creates boundaries and capture her within his own profoundly self-involved vision.

This is challenging, problem-posing stuff for young adults, and I hope that Green’s novel initiates a lot of conversations. I think they can handle it. I’m teaching this in my Fall English 105 class, and I plan to use the MPDG issue as a discussion starter, and as avenue of talking about representations of teenagers and women more broadly. As the novel ends, we’re denied some of the satisfactions we hope we’d get, just as the questions about Green’s female characters have no easy answers.

* – (If someone ever makes the case that E.T. is the ultimate MPDG, I want to be cited.)

Black for Jailer!

blackforjailer

I’ve been seeing a lot of signs around for the election for Jailer in several different counties. I didn’t even know Jailer was something you ran for, so I’m throwing my hat in the ring. Our county jail needs a fresh face, not one of those politicians from Washington. Vote Andy Black for jailer.

Experience: I’ve watched a lot of prison movies and I was once invited to a charity event in which I would spend the night in jail.

My six point TOUGH ON CRIME policy:

  1. I will not spend the state’s money on alcohol for a fully stocked bar for the prisoners. My jail will be strictly BYOB.
  2. I will not repaint the cells merely because a prisoner requests a color change, unless the prisoner gives two weeks notice and assists with the painting.
  3. There will a dramatic improvement in the quality of the jail’s annual theatrical production. Next year’s performance of West Side Story is not to be missed!
  4. I am tough on crime, but I am tougher on toilet grime. I will dedicate at least ten percent of my state budget to Scrubbing Bubbles. My goal is to have the cleanest toilets in the state!
  5. Upon incarceration, each prisoner will receive an egg which he or she will have to treat as though an infant child.  If after two weeks, the egg is still unbroken, the prisoner will receive a full pardon.
  6. Finally, the prison will be will be run on the honor system. This includes all vending machines.

blackisthenewblack

Alternate Oscars – 1976

I’m going to start picking what should have won the Oscar in a given year. At first, I thought I should provide a lengthy description of why I’m doing this, but that seems pointless: I’m doing it because I think it’s kind of fun to think about. The Academy Awards are pointless and infuriating, but their existence prompts conversations about movies, which is basically what this is. These are argument starters. Here are some criteria:

  • I choose the year using this random number generator. I’m starting with 1970, just because, and it’s unlikely I’ll go any further back.
  • I’m limiting myself to the big three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, though I might mention an oversight here or there.
  • I’ll be referring to (and in some cases will be inspired by) Danny Peary’s wonderful but sadly out of print book Alternate Oscars, in which he does what I’m doing only in detail and better. All of Peary’s choices are listed here.
  •  I’ll be sticking to five nominees in each category, no matter how it actually played out. I still insist this is the best way to do it, and Mark Harris offers a more persuasive argument than I can.
  • My choices will be neither entirely objective or subjective. I might pick something because it captured the zeitgeist, or I might pick something because it’s an unquestioned classic. Or not. The academy has whims and so do I. But time has shown us that Out of Africa and Gandhi are boring but “important” movies that no one talks about anymore while Dazed and Confused and Memento are awesome and increasingly relevant, so I’m in a better position to judge that than they were.
  • In other words, I have hindsight – as I do below, I might be political in giving the award to someone who gives a knockout performance over someone who will be frequently nominated.
  • Just to narrow things a bit, I’m going to stick to American or English releases, and keep “foreign film” in its own category. The Academy is weird about this, as you’ll see below, in which two actresses from foreign films were nominated, and one of those foreign films (Face to Face) clearly could have been a favorite for best picture. I don’t really have a rationale for doing this, it just seems like it makes things less complicated. If a film has American or British actress or an American or British production company/distribution (like The Artist or Life is Beautiful), I might reconsider.

With that said, here’s my first year: 1976

Best Actress

  • Their pick: Faye Dunaway, Network
  • Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousine, Cousin), Talia Shire, (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)
  • My pick: Sissy Spacek, Carrie
  • Nominees: Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Faye Dunaway (Network), Audrey Hepburn (Robin and Marian), Talia Shire (Rocky)

carrie_1976_7

Dunaway’s power-tripping and amoral programming genious Diana Christiansen takes her sly sexiness as Bonnie Parker and turns it up to eleven. She’s at once intensely masculine, hopeless neurotic, and dangerously feminine. Yet while it’s a career-defining role, its as much a product of the meaty dialogue she gets to deliver and the world she inhabits as Dunaway’s performance itself.  Dunaway was best at roles that required to be loud and theatrical, and she would never have a role like this again; Mommie Dearest would present her most magnificent piece of over-acting. In this case, she’s a close second. I choose Spacek because it’s so much the opposite: she invests the wilting flower protagonist of Carrie with equal parts silent strength and immature confusion. Spacek seems so out of place in the “scream queen” world of contemporary horror movies that Carrie can be viewed as a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. In the years since, with several attempts to remake Carrie, all have existed in Spacek’s shadow.

Especially in contrast to the bold, socially adept teenagers around her, Spacek seems out of time and place. Without Spacek’s grounding performance, the movie completely gives itself over to Brian De Palma’s trademark stylistic excesses and leering voyeurism. So many of Spacek’s scenes are silent, which means she creates her character through scared glances and scary reactions, particularly in the bloody finale. As the film is careening and split-screening wildly around her, her sensitive take seems at odds with the movie she’s in, yet still stands out.

Best Actor

  • Their Pick: Peter Finch, Network
  • Nominees: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)
  • My Pick: Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
  • Nominees: David Carradine, Bound for Glory; Robert De Niro, (Taxi Driver),William Holden, (Network), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears)

rocky-i-poster

Whenever Peter Finch’s Howard Beale appears in Network, he eats the movie – everything changes because of his prophetic, raving pronouncements. Yet Finch’s performance is clearly a supporting one (William Holden gets much more screen time); the Academy clearly elevated it because Finch had just died and they wanted to reward what was an iconic role. In my alternate universe, Finch wins Best Supporting Actor (sorry Jason Robards, who was great), and we get one of the closest races in the history of the awards – Sly Stallone vs. Robert De Niro. Both actors have roles of a lifetime as outcast losers who figure out a way in, though to drastically different effects. Both were New York actors in gritty, urban dramas. It could go either way, and I’m tempted to give it a tie. But while De Niro is obviously the better actor, I’m going to do a little politicking for Stallone. Also, in retrospect, De Niro would have several more opportunities to win this, and had won a supporting Oscar before in both a real and alternate universe for The Godfather Part II.

At this point, critics were comparing Stallone to Brando and Tango and Cash was years away – part of that was because of the way Sly was so understated and sweet. He lacks the lazy, slurring bombast that he would bring to “Cobra.” We like Rocky because he’s nice to caged dogs, sings along with street singers, and is a terrible loan shark. His scenes with Talia Shire are terrific; he would never have this kind of chemistry again with anyone, male or female. The final fight scene is so rewarding simply because it’s impossible to think of a character we’d rather root for. Part of this has to do with the fact that Stallone wrote the movie and refused to let anyone else play the role. Even in the later Rocky movies, Stallone would never again be this good; most of those performances are something of an increasingly ridiculous parody of this one. But what remains one of the most satisfying sports movies ever made is almost completely due to the success of its writer and star.

Best Picture

  • Their Pick: Rocky
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
  • My Pick: Taxi Driver
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, The Bad News Bears, Network, Rocky

taxdri

As I’ve argued, Rocky was the product of its writer and star, and I realize this downplays the achievement of director John G. Avildsen, who would only re-approach this success when he remade the movie as  The Karate Kid. But Rocky recycles urban tropes in an adequate way more than does much interesting with them: the film succeeds because of winning performances, a great soundtrack, and a great final fight. The nomination should have been the award. Of my five nominated films, The Bad News Bears is superior as a sports movie.

Therefore, I’m going with Taxi Driver. As great as De Niro is, it’s Martin Scorsese’s vision that captures a city, a moment, and a character. Whether with obvious visual language, such as when Travis hopelessly woos a girl on the phone and the camera veers to an empty hallway, or in the subtle moments where Travis is watching television and thinking God-knows-what, Scorsese films the ugly underside as no one ever has. Filtered through Travis’ madness, it’s a dark place that needs saving. We’re never sure how to deal with him – hope for his salvation, or turn him into the cops. Taxi Driver exemplifies the “new cinema” of the 70s in its darkness. The key to Travis’ madness is not that he looks in the mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” It’s the next line – “I’m the only one here.” Taxi Driver captures that here, the scary milieu that either stimulates Travis’ madness or is a product of it; it’s to Scorsese’s credit that we’re never quite sure.

Other awards

  • B.S Actor – Them: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men Me: Peter Finch, Network
  • B.S. Actress – Them: Beatrice Straight, Network; Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
  • Stallone’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could have been nominated for B.S. Actor for his warm performance in the underrated Stay Hungry. So could Richard Pryor, in his best comedic performance in a movie for Silver Streak. But this was a strong year for supporting performances (Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith – Beatty is the only one I’d boot, just because he’s only in the movie for five minutes.)
  • While Haskell Wexler deservedly won Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory (a sadly forgotten movie), it’s ridiculous that Gordon Willis wasn’t even nominated for All The President’s Men.
  • As good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen was, it should not have beaten Bernard Herrmann’s for Taxi Driver.
  • It’s just plain silly that Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which is why don’t even consider it as at a category.

They said

  • Danny Peary: The Front, De Niro, Spacek
  • Golden Globes, Drama: Rocky, Finch, Dunaway
  • National Society of Film Critics: All the Presidents Men, De Niro, Spacek