Archive | February, 2013

My two cents on the Oscars. And my wife gets in three zingers.

26 Feb

1.

Panning the Academy Awards has become old hat. The show has felt anachronistic for thirty years. But the show this year was even by the meager standards of past Oscars a big disappointment. The proceedings were creaky, ill-conceived and strange.

The Academy Awards is an industry awards show, like an insurance retreat or a real estate brunch. A teachers’ luncheon, only for the rich and pampered. Yet we watch. Movies still matter, and the awards feel like a stand-in for our values and tastes. But they aren’t. It’s a business paying homage to itself. And yet we gaze, transfixed.

Normally Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Jack Black, Ben Stiller or someone else will provide something memorable amidst the endless drag[1]. But this year it was the Seth McFarland show, he of The Family Guy. And the result was . . . demeaning to watch. I felt lessened by it.

McFarland tried to balance his act between the vaudeville of Billy Crystal with the stand-up of Ricky Gervais. So he sang and danced and mocked and smirked. But the songs were weak, and the jokes were bad.

McFarland represents much of what’s wrong with the show, as well as with aspects of Hollywood. He’s offensively self-congratulatory, cloying, smarmy and smug, with an overemphasis on style. He’s youthful but not young, talented but not sophisticated. He’s immature, snide, and seemingly unaware of the rest of the world. He’s sinned but he’s not interesting enough to be the sinner.

"No, no, Seth, baby, Seth. Seth. Seth. Seth. Seth. Just stop. You suck."

“No, no, Seth, baby, Seth. Seth. Seth. Seth. Seth. Just stop. You suck.”

Like the perfect post-modern host, he hid behind irony, calling attention to his jokes and the machinery behind them. He said sexist things, but cloaked them in a lazy wink. I’m not really sexist, am I? He praised bad films for making money (The Avengers, for instance) and made safe jokes that appeared to be edgy (such as poking fun at Rihanna and Chris Brown). He even made a joke about John Wilkes Booth, acting snotty when people didn’t guffaw[2].

The show conquers most talented people, as the demands of making it relevant, and yet retaining the cheesy traditions, are often at cross-purposes. But McFarland didn’t just do a poor job; he had to comment on the poor job he was doing. He was too uncomfortable in his own skin, too self-aware. He kept cutting into the laughs of the jokes that worked and dismissing as stupid the ones that didn’t. “That joke, really?” he would say to the teleprompter over and over, as if the jokes were being written by unknown slobs toiling away in some unfunny comedians’ rubber room, as he was reading them. He practiced the show for weeks. They wrote those, “That joke, really?” lines into the show. They started the whole thing with a skit about William Shatner from the future coming to stop him from being the worst host ever. Were they being ironic then? Did they realize that the audience would subliminally believe that Shatner had failed?

What McFarland lacked—what Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg and all the other lame Oscar hosts have had—is integrity. There was no integrity to his performance. For all his braggadocio and over-exposure, McFarland’s a rich, handsome, witty coward.

’Tis a pity, for 2012 was a very strong year for American films. Rampart, Coriolanus, Friends with Kids, Moonrise Kingdom, Prometheus, To Rome With Love, Lawless, Arbitrage, Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Cloud Atlas, and The Master, to name a few, not mentioning the very strong nine best picture nominees or the other nominated movies. And the performances this year were top notch. We’re in a golden age of acting. What other year would have Richard Gere in Arbitrage not nominated for anything?

2.

My wife had a running commentary on McFarland. I’ll share just a few gems here.

She said, “McFarland is making the audience feel like chumps for watching. He’s supposed to deflate the self-importance of the show with the audience, not deflate the audience itself!”

And, “Shame on your, Seth McFarland. You can’t be funnier than Daniel Day-Lewis?”

And, finally, “I hate that guy’s face. I want to kick him.”


[1] Credit where credit’s due: Catherine Zeta-Jones was amazing with All That Jazz.

[2] He should have retooled the joke, focusing on Booth as a mediocre actor. Now that would have been funny.

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic! part 5: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

24 Feb

1.

No posts for a while. The stomach flu whipped through our house, snagging Beth first, then Simone, and then me. Pearl remained half-sick throughout; her MO is to carry a cold eight days a week. She’s a happy, toothy, snuffly baby who doesn’t cry[1].

Fever, chills, the shakes and aches, ignominy, retching, and delirium times three; there’s little room for dignity in a household under the banner of sickness. Too sick to read, too miserable to watch movies, too uncomfortable to enjoy other people. Simone bore her burden well. She kept shaking her head when we would tell her it’s okay to get sick. Her response: “No! It’s too stinky!”

Despite the nausea, Simone was pretty happy; she went on a movie binge, watching My Fair Lady; Meet Me in St. Louis; Singin’ in the Rain; and Hello, Dolly. She’ll be an expert on movie musicals by the time she reaches kindergarten. Which has been my plan all along.

The only good thing to come out of it is the return of my appetite and my first cup of coffee in three days. And a major itch to get back to writing. Of course, I also have to return to work.

Back to life. Back to reality[2].

2.

I have plenty of half-written essays soon to be posted, including a lengthy essay on The Master, and an essay on Downton Abbey[3]. I (mostly) ceased caring about the Oscars a long time ago, but I’ll be disappointed when Hoffman, Adams and Phoenix are passed over for the acting awards, despite the fact that they should all win the top honors. (Here’s another prediction: my gut tells me Silver Linings Playbook—which to me was mediocre, although it looked great—will run away with most of the awards. That and Argo.) I also have a multi-part history of black cinema, “Little Ben and the Gnostic Christ,” and “Soccer-skate-surf-punk Pensacola.” That’s a preview, however, not a promise. Don’t know what will make it here or when.

The imagination can be a mercurial thing. My thoughts slip and slide. I don’t procrastinate, I lose interest. I sometimes have difficulty focusing my attention. I write in manic bursts—always have—and then slide into a lonely stupor.

Since Christmas, I’ve been on a reading tear. The Twenty-Year Death (a neo-noir three-part novel written in the styles of Georges Simenon, then Raymond Chandler, then Jim Thompson and it’s excellent); The Natural (Bernard Malamud is superb, my nominee for the most underrated writer of the last fifty years); Tenth of December (worthy of all the attention it’s getting, and more so); The Big Screen (David Thomson’s history of the movies and it’s just great); Somebody (a marvelous biography of Marlon Brando, and I’m only a quarter of the way in); Little Big Man (a very fine romp of a western, I liked it, but ten years ago I would have loved it) and The Ginger Man (one of the best novels I’ve read in years, funny, complex, beautiful, moving, squalid, yet easy to read). I’m also re-reading Sandman for the umpteenth time and finding it to be as rich, satisfying and rewarding as the first time I read it. It’s a milestone, and alongside The Invisibles and Promethea, a reminder of how tame and un-ambitious most comics series are.

I also re-read Heart of Darkness, a few pages a week here and there, and it still holds a disturbing, dark magnetism, and plenty of surprises. There’s a scene near the end when the narrator first sees Kurtz’s house, and it’s ringed by decapitated heads stuck on poles, and the heads are all facing Kurtz’s house. A throwaway detail that explains so much. It’s such an appalling, dense and rich work. Why they teach it in high school is a mystery to me. I despised it when I was eighteen, loved it just two years later.

3.

Finally, the real reason I’ve been posting less: I’m back in the submitting game, with a novel manuscript (which I’ve worked through three drafts), an excerpt that (mostly) works as a stand-alone story, and a short story. I’ve sent the novel to three places. I’ve sent the short story to six or seven. I’ve sent the excerpt just to one place: the New Yorker. Fail big, my friends. That’s my motto. Any neo-friends in the digital ether who want to help a stranger, I’m here.

More to come.


[1] Except in the middle of the night.

[2] I doth quote En Vogue freely.

[3] Prepare to have your mindgrapes blown.