#OscarsSo Statistically Accurate, Unfortunately

I won’t for a moment suggest that there’s not a problem with the Academy being overwhelmingly white, or that it’s not a shame that for the second year in a row, there haven’t been any minority actors recognized in the twenty slots available to actors. But I will suggest, as Whoopi Goldberg does, that we ought to redirect our boycotts to where they rightly belong: on the studios that do not deign to fill their major dramatic pictures (or even their smaller indie flicks) with a more diverse and representative cast of actors. As Viola Davis said, while accepting her Emmy Award–and I’m paraphrasing slightly–you can’t win an award (much less be nominated) for roles that don’t exist. Given that the Oscars have no control over the quality or casting of the films that come out in a given year, it seems naive to blame them for not doing a better job recognizing minority actors. It’s that whole correlation/causation issue: yes, these results indicate the results of years of systemic racism (not only because the easiest way to become an Academy voter is to be nominated for one of its awards), but they don’t demonstrate that the Academy is to blame for the lack of nominees, even if you can name one or two subjective choices who just had to have been snubbed purely out of sinister spite.

Assuming that no legal bylaws about new inductees or the loss of membership rights existed and we could correct for the makeup of the Academy overnight to reflect, say, 2010 values (basically 63% white, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 16% Hispanic or Latino), this means that to balance the existing 6,000 or so voters, 94% of whom are white, you’d need roughly 3,000 new members, all of whom are minorities. And because I doubt that you can name that many film-industry professionals who qualify, you’d have to expand the scope beyond those who are in Hollywood, at which point, what even are the Academy Awards celebrating? It’s meant to be an insular, self-congratulatory affair–we’re the ones who assign it a value by tuning in to the awards, as if they actually matter to anybody. (At least the Golden Globes are honest about how subjective and meaningless they really are.)

But let’s ignore that. Continue reading

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The Extinction of the Event Movie: “Jurassic World”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Jurassic World isn’t as good as Jurassic Park, not by a long-shot: but then again, how could it be? In 1993, effects like those were uncanny and literally awesome: the movie was as much about the wonder and novelty of the theme park as it was about the terror of rampaging dinosaurs. In 2015, that’s just another bit of the spectacle that Hollywood is known for, and it’s easy to read the parallels in the film between B. D. Wong’s scientist explaining how focus groups and executives forced him to genetically modify the dinosaurs in order to make them look more appealing and the sort of discussions that occurred between director Colin Trevorrow and producers like Spielberg.

My mother took me and my brother to see Jurassic Park at the midnight, Thursday premiere, despite the fact that we were eight and nine years of age; the line wrapped around the block, and faux souvenir newspapers were handed out to all in attendance that bragged of the newsworthy opening of a dinosaur-populated theme park. It was something special, the sort of event that, the next day, made you the coolest kid in school, not the person everybody has to avoid at the watercooler, lest they inadvertently spoil something. When my girlfriend and I saw Jurassic World last night, at 11:00, there had already been multiple screenings (starting as early as 7:00), and the theater was sparsely populated: the event had given way to convenience and family schedules, and with everyone’s entertainment-packed scheduled, no pressing need to see Jurassic World.  Continue reading

“The Loneliest Planet” Makes the Loneliest Point

Art for art’s sake has its purpose: after all, The Loneliest Planet is an absolutely beautiful travelogue, one that Julia Loktev has filled with long, languid looks at the Georgian countryside (Georgia the country, not the state). It feels slight as a film, however: an hour is spent establishing the relationship between two young and invincible lovebirds, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), as they wander through the wilderness (along with a terse yet colorful tour guide, played by an actual tour guide named Bidzina Gujabidze), only so that a momentary encounter with an armed stranger can shake them up with a dear old brush with mortality. There are none of the survivalist extremes (or delusions) of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours; because it is so isolated and straightforward, it feels less affecting than the non-linear Into the Wild. Ironically, the no-nonsense approach, in which everything speaks for itself, makes The Loneliest Planet feel more real than either of these two other films (both of which were based on real stories), and yet far less interesting. After all that wandering about, in which the viewer wonders what the film is about, to then have to spend another hour watching Bernal and Furstenberg cope with their close encounter . . . the performances are fine but flimsy. We get it, we get it, we get it.

None of this is accidental: the film is meant to be repetitive, with a parallel structure to that of The Scarlet Letter, in which there is a transitional moment at the center that warps and reflects all that follows. The long tracking shots and the decision to shoot from far away is meant to emphasize their isolation and smallness (against the wild), and the film successfully captures a series of small and subtle shifts in complex emotional states. After spending so long waiting for something to happen, we’re meant to then wait for a follow-up, because in real life, things simply occur (or don’t) and then continue to occur (or not). It’s as much a subversion of our expectations as the scene in Funny Games in which the antagonist pauses and rewinds the action, demonstrating the control that we have ceded for entertainment; here, the film demonstrates just how dull and deadly life can be . . . by being dull. But again, so what? This is a slight, singular point to make: we get it, we get it, we get it.

Perhaps I’m biased. I was mugged a number of years ago, held up at knife-point in the lobby of my building, so I understand the sensation of being lost and adrift after such a sudden, potentially deadly situation. I get how devastating it is, especially when you’re young, to have your illusion of invulnerability pierced, to realize that your sense of order means nothing; no matter how nice you are, it could easily, suddenly end. (To this end, it seems useless to be paralyzed by a terrorist attack or incidence of domestic violence; you could just as easily be hit by a car, a falling meteorite, a stray bullet.) This is perhaps an important concept to realize, and perhaps it is helpful to see it reflected through the perfect relationship of two other people (Bernal and Furstenberg are terrific actors in this piece). And yet again, what does it accomplish? Those who know they are mortal don’t need to spend two hours watching actors come to this realization; those who do not most likely will not understand (or sit through) this two hour public service announcement and/or Georgian tourism promotion. The film is not likely to have much of an effect on anybody, which makes you wonder why it was made in the first place. I’d continue, but I think you get it, you get it, you get it.

 

A Long Time Ago, We Used To Be Friends . . . And Veronica Mars, Apparently We Still Are!

The video game Torment: Tides of Numenera broke records on Kickstarter last week when it more than reached its goal of $900,000 in–according to CNN’s reporting–roughly seven hours. Over the course of thirty days, and currently holding the number ten spot on the list of most successful Kickstarter campaigns, the video game Elite: Dangerous raised $2,405,511 (1/4/13). A film revival of the ahead-of-its-time-and-therefore-cancelled-before-its-time Veronica Mars (2004-2007) has raised $2,117,773 as of yet, hitting the $1M mark in 4 hours and 24 minutes (according to CNN.com) and, in the time it’s taken me to write this single paragraph, going from having raised $2,096,134 to $2,120,638. And I assure you, I am not a slow typist.

Veronica Mars (season 1)

Veronica Mars (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In less than a day, they’ve reached their goal, and they’ve still got 29 days to go. Out of the 2,150,000 viewers who watched the series finale (which was not its all time high, and does not factor in the countless people who have cultishly tuned in since), only 34,013 have actually given money to the show ($2,129,273, as I live and breathe). Including my own $50 contribution, which’ll get me a T-shirt, the film on DVD, and a documentary of the making of the movie, which–if Rob Thomas’s personal Kickstarter campaign video is any indication–should be hilarious. Whereas yesterday the prospect of a Veronica Mars didn’t exist, the question now isn’t even whether this campaign will rake in more than the Pebble: E-Paper Watch’s record-setting $10,266,845, or if it will outperform Torment: Tides of Numenera, which is currently at $2,575,028 (with 22 days to go), but what exactly Veronica Mars: The Movie will look like, or if Warner Bros., which owns the property, will be content to sit back as a mere distributor now that they’re starting to see how piranha-like the fans have grown. What can we learn from the current $2,167,816 total?

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Sure, that’s one way to look at it: well, that and the fact that many of the people who grew up watching Veronica Mars are eight years wealthier. Like collectors like Chris Kohler, you buy every single Nintendo cartridge ever released in America, not because you especially want to play any of them (though I say you should give the underrated Clu Clu Land a shot; that got me through chicken pox as a kid), but because you can buy them. Only in this instance, you actually do want to play them, because unlike the comic book traders who hope that their collections will appreciate in value, you’re investing in a product that doesn’t yet exist. If Voltaire were around today, you know he’d be a fan: “If Veronica Mars: The Film didn’t exist, we would have to create it,” and voila, we did.

Sidebar

When I started writing this piece, it was with the rule that if I was still writing a sentence that had a number from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter page in it, I’d update it. After hypnotically re-re-re-re-replacing numbers, feverishly attempting to finish the sentence in the seconds of downtime between stock-ticker-like updates, I changed my policy and just let them stand as they had only seconds ago. You know, seconds ago in this fast-moving digital age when the prospect of a Veronica Mars film didn’t exist; when Arrested Development hadn’t uncancelled itself (as Futurama and Family Guy once did; bring on Dinosaurs!); when we were still hammering away at rocks, not keyboards; when fire, not electricity, not high-speed Internet, was literally the hot new thing. Anything was possible: $2,191,326.

Or Maybe It’s Not Absence So Much as Presence

Right, because when you were a kid, you had to bargain with your parents to watch television bartering away chores for the right to watch GI Joe before school and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers at the Saturday morning breakfast table (boy, does that seem like a raw deal now). Because when Eureka’s Castle and David the Gnome ended, there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. But now, after suffering the indignities of seeing Farscape scrapped in its prime (while Stargate SG-1 soldiered on . . . by cannibalizing members of the Farscape crew), after realizing that fan campaigns and influential television critics (and cunning product placement) could save shows like Chuck, and after seeing new media aggregates revive shows as long gone as even, maybe, Jericho, you realized you had a presence. The Internet gave you a voice, on- and offline conventions pooled that voice into an Occupy Wall Street-esque Digital Megaphone, and you could beg for more.

Or Maybe I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Veronica Mars (season 3)

Veronica Mars (season 3) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then again, though we’re at $2,234,122, maybe none of that’s the takeaway. After all, this is Veronica Mars‘s moment–finally–and we shouldn’t start trying to crowd-finance new episodes of Farscape, even though there’s still nothing like it on television and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s soon likely to have some time on his hands. As I was writing in my last post, do we really want to force creators to monetize their own work as well, and to do so by going directly to fans, cutting out the middlemen who would, in profiting from it, also help to subsidize the costs? Granted, we’re all meaninglessly titled “associate producers” in our own special way for this “joint” production of Veronica Mars, and that’s cool, but just because we can kick The CW for letting our favorite heroine bite the dust, don’t we also have to thank her for introducing us to her in the first place? Inventing God entirely from scratch is lazy; why do you think so many religions share so much in common?

I also think we ought to stop and take a good look at the people who haven’t, but easily could have, jumped on this bandwagon. Joss Whedon funded Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog on his own during the writer’s strike and his most recent film, Much Ado About Nothing, reminds me of the scrappy and creative early works from Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Kevin Smith (Clerks), though Whedon may be pulling a Benjamin Button in that he’s going from massively funded films like The Avengers to genuinely inventive, small-scale cinema. Studios might not finance a sequel to Serenity, but might fans? If so, however, what control would he be giving up to appease those viewers who would now literally have a stake in the film? If one producer is already too many (from a creative “cooks around the fire” standpoint), how about inheriting forty thousand highly opinionated ones? Would this just end up being a “careful what you wish for” situation, with Rod Serling stepping out of the fourth wall (and the grave, I guess) to introduce very expensive, incredibly creepy, featuring-the-original-cast fan fiction?

I’m thrilled–thrilled–that we’re at $2,254,204 with 30 days to go, and that I can say “we” because I’m one of the smallest parts of it. I’m sure I’ll be checking the Kickstarter page on a daily basis just to watch those numbers fly higher and higher. (Like the good old debt clock, but less depressingly!) But I won’t get ahead of myself: the film–assuming it remains just that–still has to be shot . . . more importantly, it still has to live up to expectations without pandering to them. Then again, I’m ready to dispense with cable, especially since I’ve just now calculated that I spend roughly $1,176.36 a year on it: that’s crowdfunding for roughly 24 shows, or the number that I actually give a shit about each year. So Veronica Mars, ever the societal rabble-rouser, let’s do it. Let’s solve the mystery of how a show that could raise this much money so quickly ever managed to get cancelled in the first place.

So, Steven Soderbergh Is Quitting Cinema Because People Are Stupid (And the Oscars Prove It)

Mary Kaye Schilling catches the always candid and often eloquent Steven Soderbergh on the eve of his retirement in an article for New York‘s February 4, 2013 issue, and for me, the most interesting takeaway is the thought of just how much audiences — both those producing and those watching films — have shifted since the man’s career began in in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape. I feel his pain: though I’ve got nowhere near as much experience as the man, especially within the industry, the statement that “when I see a movie that’s doing the obvious thing all the time, it’s frustrating” resonates with me, and reminds me of what I said earlier this week when I noted that whether a piece of art makes sense to me or not, I want it to at least stand distinct from other things. How can you not admire Soderbergh for the variety of cinematic styles he’s tried in the last two years alone, or for the fact that when he worked on Contagion, he cut almost an hour of material because he wanted to “take advantage of what that subject had to offer while avoiding disaster-movie cliches,” which made him “think laterally, which was good.” Obviously the man’s frustrated with a world that apparently rewards the lazy unoriginality of A Good Day To Die Hard, or an industry that appears to no longer to respect those who make great movies, only those who make financially successful ones. No wonder he no longer wants to make films for an audience that’s bewildered by ambiguity: “I remember during previews for [Contagion] how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.’ People were really annoyed by that.”

The conclusion he reaches is similar to the one I’ve arrived at:

I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people . . . Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that there really aren’t all that many exceptions to the rule, even on the Oscar shortlist. Life of Pi loses much of its effectiveness in the shift from being within the author’s head to a visual medium; Django Unchained is undeniably beautiful, but not really all that revealing; Les Miserables does one risk-taking thing over and over again until it’s driven into the ground; Beasts of the Southern Wild only feels as if it’s something new because it’s covering an overlooked environment in a magical style but I’d rather watch In America or The Fall Zero Dark Thirty and Argo are both taking varying degrees of flak over their fidelity, though this seems fairly forgivable in the latter’s case; and while I haven’t yet seen Lincoln, I’m not quite sure of its cultural impact, though I’ve high hopes given the actors and director that it’ll be a somewhat penetrating look into a specific point in history. (Silver Linings Playbook and Amour are the two films I’m most looking forward to seeing, but still; that’s two films in an entire year?)

Of course, while films may not matter as much, the act of watching films is apparently bigger than ever. If you don’t watch the Oscars tonight, or at least attend a party about them, your friends may mock you. Live tweeting the awards is just one more step removed from the meditative way in which one once lost themselves in the flickering cinema lights. The cultural impact of a film is less in the way it affects us personally but in the way it affects our self-identity; how many people on their first date inevitably fall back not on discussing a film but on films they happen to like, films that they think reflect positively upon themselves. (Requiem for a DreamRatatouilleAlmost Famous, if you must know.) This gets back to the superficiality that Soderbergh is fleeing in the cinemas, and which he rightly despises in critics, who he believes to be “easily fooled” and who “praise things that [he feels] are not up to snuff.” Here’s a chilling statement about criticism (and, on a larger scale, the everyone’s-a-critic implications):

I find critics to be very facile when they don’t like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue tied.

If we can’t explain what we like, and often simply dismiss what we don’t, is it no wonder that bad films are proliferating the market? Overwhelming an audience before it can respond seems to be the best way to make a profit, and so perhaps Soderbergh’s correct in shifting attention to television, particularly shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that take a deeper, long-form narrative response, and which, because they give audiences the chance to tune out with each passing week, must do more to earn back viewers than any other medium. Here’s hoping that AMC and HBO were reading this interview and are savvy enough to lock Soderbergh up in the development of a new television series while they’ve got the opportunity.

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