Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review: Perspective: Hollywood doesn't like itself

An interesting, more cynical spin on what I'm after with the thesis. Nostalgia is such a core element to storytelling, and although this piece seems to denounce it as a passing fad; a reverberation of social climate of the now, I beg to differ.

I guess what I like about this article is that in a round about way, explains the importance of what I want to touch on with the thesis. There is a reason these films are being selected to review under the 'best picture' microscope. I think the article is too hasty to dismiss the importance of nostalgia, but where it does right is that it identifies all these films as expressing some sort of nostalgia, but fails to see the bigger picture.

It's been said that a society gets more nostalgic under troubling circumstance, specifically with rough economic times. We cling to our roots; our culture that put us in the high place we are now. It reminds us who we are, and how bountiful and rich our experiences as a whole have been. There's statistical backing to prove that. An article I read months ago (too lazy to dig it up right now) reported on a study that showed increased sales in folk music during pressing economic times. As far as I see it, folk music is an offshoot of nostalgic longing. It's a cultural reflectance. It's about the common man. It's Americana. There's a correlation there.

To identify JUST this year's Oscar nominations as waxing nostalgic is near-sighted. I argue that this has been a recurring theme throughout the history of story telling, and I would be willing to say that this theme has been prevalent every year. I mean, any period film has some value of nostalgia, at the very list in its production design and romanticism of how it's told. It goes with the territory. Any story with a palpable tone to it expresses some form of nostalgia.

To the person who says that this is a new trend is keeping the blinders on. If anything, this is an indication on the importance of such themes.

Read the article below.

Perspective: Hollywood doesn't like itself -- just look at Oscars

By Neal Gabler, Special to the Los Angeles Times

February 19, 2012
This is the Oscars' year of nostalgia — or at least that has been the pronouncement among observers. There is, of course, "The Artist," a silent film set in the silent film era. There is Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which is the story of the rediscovery of one of the early pioneers of the movies, the French director George Méliès. There is Woody Allen's"Midnight in Paris" in which the protagonist slips through a hole in time into the Paris of the expatriate '20s.

There are Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," which borrows the cinematic syntax of John Ford and feels like one of Ford's 1950s Cinemascope epics, and "The Help," which has the sensibility of a 1960s social issue movie. Even "The Descendants," Alexander Payne's film about a middle-aged man whose life is shattered and who must come to terms with his disillusion, is redolent of smallish, personal 1970s and 1980s filmmaking.

But if Oscar voters are waxing nostalgic, as they clearly are, that raises the question: Why now? What is going on that makes them long for yesteryear? And the answer just might be that what is going on is a form of masochism.

One of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood is that it is full of self-loathing. We tend to think that the denizens of the film industry luxuriate in the popcorn movies they deliver to us, that they love the bombast that is now the primary reason people go to the movies. Indeed, the stereotype of the movie mogul is still a man or woman who cares more about money than prestige, and who boasts, as a writer once remarked of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn when Cohn said a movie wasn't any good because he kept wiggling in his seat, that the whole world is "wired to his ass." They are us — only richer.

But even though it is true that the people who run Hollywood love the grosses that a superhero movie or a high-tech thriller or a teenage sex comedy bring into the studio coffers, the industry has had a sense of reserve and higher purpose that goes back to the movies' early days. The very first movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox and the Warner brothers, to name a few, didn't gain traction in the business by talking down to their audience but by talking up to it. They eschewed cheesy movies for more elegant fare — pictures like the religious epic "Ben Hur" for MGM, the Dickens' adaptation "Oliver Twist" for Fox and Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" for Warners. They raised the movies' status and their own in the process.

Though it certainly hasn't neutralized the lust for money, now that Hollywood's executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates, the lust for respectability has only intensified. One can see that attitude on display every Oscar time when the industry rewards what it regards as its best, which is why British films typically fare so well. The Brits, by Hollywood logic, are a class act, and handing them Oscars is proof that Hollywood itself has taste. It may make a lot of junk, but it doesn't mistake that junk for art. Junk, not even high-grossing junk, doesn't win Oscars. High-minded movies do.

And that is where the self-loathing comes in. There aren't too many executives in Hollywood who love wearing the label of panderer, not too many who like being regarded as money-grubbing boobs. As the critic Richard Schickel once put it, American movies are made only for teenagers or for Oscars, and most execs would probably prefer the latter. Alas, those teen movies are what keep them in their offices and keep Hollywood purring. But it doesn't mean that they like it that way.

As true as that was in the past, this dichotomy seems to have been especially true last year when the teenage movies weren't very good and didn't exactly set the box office on fire either. One could say that they even reached a tipping point in 2011 — a point where the bombast turned to noise, the special effects to exhaustion, the plots to unimaginative confusion. So the Oscar nominees may not be just a demonstration of a sudden burst of nostalgia. They may be a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself and of the movies that have defined it for two decades. This doesn't mean that they will retreat from teenage blockbusters. It just means that they are using the Oscars to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make.

The proof of what one might call "anti-blockbusterism" is not only the form of these movies or their setting but their subject. "The Artist," which was praised upon its release and then scolded for being a big stunt, is not just a silent film. In telling the story of a silent movie star who becomes an anachronism when sound is introduced, "The Artist" is, among other things, a movie about innovation and limitation — essentially about the limitations of innovation. If one takes sound to be a metaphor for every technological change in the movies, "The Artist" speaks to our obsession with the new and our casual dismissal of the old, though it also addresses how technology transforms the very cosmology in which we live. Honoring this production — made by the French, no less — is Hollywood's way of giving itself the finger.

Similarly, "Hugo" isn't just a Jean Renoir wannabe set in 1930s Paris where people love the movies. It is a film about the magic of the movies — especially the old-fashioned magic that could be conjured through the simplicity of costumes and sets and stop action rather than through computer-generated images, and it is about how quickly we forget the past in the sweep of the present. Like "The Artist," it attempts to rediscover the past, a stripped-down, nontechnological past in which the connections to film were emotional or spiritual and not just physical. In effect, in celebrating early movies, it is also a rebuff to contemporary ones, its own 3-D notwithstanding.

One could say the same thing about "War Horse." This is a decidedly old-fashioned movie in which even the palette resembles the Technicolor of the 1950s, and it is clearly meant to replicate the emotional tonality of those old films as well as their look. But Spielberg has also made a film about very primal communions — between boy and horse, between boy and father — that belie so much of modern blockbuster filmmaking where action supplants feeling. His nostalgia, oddly enough, is for the kind of movie his own movies helped destroy.

And in "Midnight in Paris," while the seduction of the past certainly expresses nostalgia for a bygone era, that nostalgia is for the sparkling vivacity of that era compared with our own predictable and dull one. Not for nothing is the protagonist a numb Hollywood screenwriter searching for inspiration. Allen may finally be skeptical of the idea that the past is always better than the present, but the film is nevertheless a tribute to art that mattered — to art that did more than diddle. It too rejects Hollywood.

This is, then, a special kind of nostalgia — the nostalgia of retribution. These movies are less about a lost past than they are about an unsatisfactory present. In modern Hollywood, it is easy to hate what you do. This year the Oscars are giving folks there a chance to say so.

Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and other books is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC; he is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

From The Margin to The Imagination

After bursting out the gate of the new year, I have already penned four un-produced short films all using my thesis as the foundation.

I've been juggling my free time lately between researching for a feature screenplay I'm aiming to write, and delving deeper into the dark, unexplored territories of my thesis. Both activities have caused me to slingshot myself into academia and plow through my never-ending stack of books I've set aside for these particular projects.

It always feels good to strike another text off the list, but out of this I've discovered a smaller, simpler pleasure.

I buy all of my books used through Amazon and other resale shops for purely economic reasons. I get a lot of books from libraries with their logo stamped on the inside cover, or straight off the shelves and out of the homes of academic-types who for whatever reason have decided they could afford to abandon these pieces of literature and part ways with them.

By the time I get them, I normally just put the new arrival on my shelf and get to it once I'm ready for it.

Well, for some reason, the last four or five books I've gone through, there's been extra gifts inside. The previous owners have left, like a footprint in otherwise-perfectly untouched snow, a mark of their own. A signature of their behavior, their history, and their personality on their journey through this text.

As the inside cover of this particular memoir reads "Christmas '93-- Kurt! Have a very Merry! -E" It made me wonder about Kurt and E's relationship, how they know one another and why E was in such a hurry to write the message that she would have forgotten to write 'Christmas' and the end of her message. And why would Kurt abandon this book? Was E hasty in everything she did, which was the eventual downfall of their relationship? "Have a Merry!" Kurt reads. He smiles at E for thinking of him and giving him a gift in the first place, with this kind, although not quite thought out personal message inside. Years later, Kurt would decide to sell some of the stuff he'd accumulated over the years and find a box labeled BOOKS in the attic. He'd open it, find the book and read the inside cover. "Have a Merry! -E" A wave of all the bad memories would sweep over him and that ill-written phrase would suddenly become the symbol of what their relationship was; a series of failed expectations and misunderstandings. "That bitch. She couldn't even write this message without screwing it up," he thinks to himself. He tosses it in his 'sell' pile.

Maybe I'm over analyzing it, but it's certainly intriguing to retrace the steps of the previous reader. Empty back pages of the same book are defaced with pen scrawlings by Kurt, of words that are obviously foreign to him. The list reads 'Epistomology, embrosse, hermeneutic, prologomenon, peroration, tropes, funicular, desuetude'

"I'll write these down and look them up later," Kurt most likely thought. Kurt's a life-long learner, just like me, you see. But I doubt as he was writing these vocabulary-expanding terms down that years later this stranger out of Chicago would be reading the intimate process of admitting defeat. It's exposing and truthful-- to write down such a thing. It's a practice encouraged in elementary school, and although I'm guilty of the same, it's a painful thing to examine.

Had he known some stranger would be reading the list of words he wrote down to learn, and most likely forget again, I have high doubts that he would have written them down so with something so permanent as pen. Your secret's safe with me, Kurt. I won't tell.

Other things I've stumbled across are these small reminders to the reader; scribbling ideas in the margins, circling phrases, or simply just a check mark next to a favorite paragraph, as if to say "AHA! This is EXACTLY what I was hoping for out of this book!" What I like is examining these particular bits of text and asking why this particular text might have been important enough for someone to choose over everything else.

Oftentimes it makes sense what their train of thought was on the note, and you may even connect with this great ghost reader and share the same idea, but the odd ones are the truly intriguing puzzles. It's like trying to play that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, trying to connect the dots of this person and try to understand their thought process.

I just think it's a fascinating little subplot of someone's life that you only get with reading a used book. It's like finding someone's journal and reading their deepest darkest secrets, or voyeuristically observing someone's actions. The markings of used books can be a goldmine for these little incites into the human condition and I just love that.

It's the difference between admiring a young face, and really appreciating an old weathered one. A young face can be beautiful-- but lacks any depth. It is what it is. It hasn't cried enough tears or smiled enough to tell any other tale.

An old weathered face is much more interesting to look at. If you can get past the culturally-engrained mindset of judging things based on their beauty, and really force yourself to examine the terrain of their face-- every scar, every wrinkle, every imperfection, you'll start to see a tale of where this face has been and what they've endured. That, to me, is much more intriguing.

So to all the Kurt's out there, I hope that this is never read by you and that you stay naive enough to keep scribbling away in the margins and then casting your messages off to drift in front of the next pair of eyes that is lucky enough to read them.