24 January 2014
Patsey has a small part in the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) compared to so many of the others. But here’s one thing the Academy Award nominations got right: Lupita Nyong’o should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
If you see a photo of Nyong’o at an awards ceremony, you’d think she was a supermodel: everything about how she carries herself and uses her eyes and face stands in sharp contrast to her acting as the enslaved Patsey.
Patsey picks twice as much cotton as any other slave in Mr. Epps’ field, and withstands his periodic rapes of her, too. (Let it also be said that, unsurprisingly, Michael Fassbender is a terror in this role.) Her face amasses scars inflicted by Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who seethes for the lack of power to change her husband. But if those actors let their acting show, Nyong’o is so good in burying herself in this role that she outshines everyone — and, to my eyes, could have stolen the film from the equally wonderful Ejiofor had it not been for her tinier part.
She starts out inscrutable. What can we make of the fact that Solomon can’t pick even two hundred pounds of cotton in a day, but Patsey regularly tops five hundred? What do we make of her face as Epps caresses it in front of everyone, showing how much he favors her — clearly above his own wife?
But my favorite scene of Nyong’o showing her acting chops is with Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the Black mistress of the neighboring plantation, who invites Patsey over for tea. The older woman sees her own success in moving from slavery to the role of mistress as a lesson for the younger girl. Patsey is a quick study: just see how she watches every move Mrs. Shaw makes. That performance of emulation becomes all the more tragic as we feel through Patsey’s quick eyes that she will never, ever, become mistress.
Every year I cry and rent my garments when the Academy Award nominations come out, and this year was no different (Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor?! but no Oscar Isaac?!) — but at least they got this one right. Nyong’o is Patsey, in a way that builds throughout the final act of the film. She tears your heart not for cheap pathos but because her experience captures the complex horror of slavery. And in a year full of terrible roles for Black women, thank you for getting this one right. Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the best film ever made about slavery in large part due to the way it captures the role of women in slavery — as mistresses as well as slaves.
I’m looking forward to seeing what else Nyong’o can do. When you see the film, you will too.
8 January 2014
I’ll admit, I clicked through … only to find that the real story (set at the National Board of Review ceremony last night, at which Meryl presented an award to Emma) is not Meryl’s “attack” on Disney, her line about Emma as a man-eating feminist, or even Emma’s line about how getting a perm for the role of P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks “meant no sex, of course, for months on end. And then only with animal noises accompanying it.” (Also: yes, we three are now on a first-name basis.)
The real story here is that these two women displayed something we almost never see in the media: true affection and huge respect for each other, expressed eloquently (and tartly) and underlined by the pleasure of seeing one another get roles despite the pervasive sexism of Hollywood.
So you see: the story is about two amazing women, and the headline writers still manage to get a dude in there.
If you’re going for a whoa! did Meryl Streep say something she shouldn’t have? response, well then write a headline that mentions her disdain for Disney. But that’s not the real story. In fact, Disney’s only the tip of the iceberg. Their speeches (click on the first link above for a full transcript of both, which are absolute must-reads) are great pleasures to read in part because they’re so full of the very best little zingers. When Emma thanks writer Kelly Marcel for creating a lead character “who’s so relentlessly unpleasant,” for example, she speaks of how delightful it was to torture her fellow male actors, including Tom Hanks. “He’s always looked like he needed a good smack,” she explains.
So write your stupid headlines that miss the point if you insist. But let’s not miss the lead, which is that it’s way more entertaining to listen to women when they’re singing each other’s praises, when they’re showing off their verbal talents at the height of their powers, and when they’re telling it like it is. You know what I want? To be at a dinner party with M & Em. Yes please.
16 June 2013
Look at those old photos of your parents, when they were young and trim and beautiful. Mysteries inhabit those images. Were they as happy as they appear, before the children came? Were they compatible back then? Were they self-conscious of the camera?
Sarah Polley’s brilliant film Stories We Tell doesn’t try to answer those questions. Rather, she lets her own family tell stories to the camera, stories full of wishful thinking and contradictions — all told by the charming members of her family, expert storytellers all, even if they’re a bit nervous and self-conscious before her camera.
This is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It might be better than everything I saw in 2012, too.
Polley specifically focuses on her mother, who died from cancer when Sarah was only eleven. Diane Polley was lovely and vivacious and is captured in an almost too perfect series of super-8 home movies (later, we learn why so many of those perfect home movies exist). Diane dances through those scenes so quickly and magically that we can hardly get a glimpse of her except to feel drawn to her like moths. No wonder Sarah, blonde like her mother, is so riveted.
But those shots are intercut with interviews with her siblings and her father, Michael Polley (a British-Canadian actor I know from the wonderful series Slings & Arrows), interviews that reveal not just contradictory views of their home life but also some secrets only half lurking in Diane Polley’s history.
In fact, Sarah lets her father tell a goodly portion of this story; knowing very little about the film, I was nevertheless surprised to see it open with him in front of a microphone, reading his own prose about his wife’s brief and complicated life.
This is surprising because (and I’m not really spoiling anything here, I promise) a goodly portion of the story ultimately revolves around the question of whether Michael really is Sarah’s father.
But let me assure you, you’re not going to see this film out of prurience. Rather, it’s because ultimately 1) Sarah’s family can tell some fucking stories; 2) her family’s history has the most wonderful, literary twists and ironic turns that it’s downright better than fiction; and 3) she ultimately crafts a film that gets at something larger than the truth of her parentage.
If it sounds pretentious to say that she’s more interested in the stories we tell, let me assure you it isn’t. Maybe because I come from a family of storytellers; maybe because my academic work is preoccupied with stories; maybe because I’m fascinated by family stories in particular — for all these reasons the film entranced me. I thought simultaneously, “I’ve got to show this to my students” and, “I’ve got to show this to my family.”
But in the end, I found Sarah Polley’s own place in the film to be the most interesting. On the one hand, the story is very much about her parents. But on the other, she removes herself as an emotional character, stepping back and appearing only to show herself crafting the film, making decisions about its narrative, and asking her father to repeat a line for emphasis, or to give it a nicer reading. That restraint (modesty? honesty?) is so beautifully conveyed that it feels like a masterful work of analysis. She even allows Michael Polley to read one of the best lines (his own prose):
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
[Updated, 8:47 pm: Aldine reminds me that this isn’t Michael’s prose — it’s lines from the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace. This is what I get when I neglect to write about a film until 2 weeks after seeing it!]
And you know in your most gut level how hard it must have been to sit in her position during the creation and telling of this story. What a smart, delicate film this is. The bar is very high.
26 May 2013
CANNES — Child rapist and film director Roman Polanski, who has evaded sentencing and punishment by living outside the U.S. since 1978, has wowed audiences with his defense of sexism while at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
“Hearing his wise comments on gender relations has utterly won me over,” offered one Hollywood producer, who asked that his name not be released. “It makes me feel so much better about supporting an Arnold Schwarzenegger project that we’re tentatively calling ‘Booty Call With a Vengeance’.”
Polanski left few topics untouched in his wide-ranging
rant commentary on relations between the sexes. Female equality is “a great pity”; “trying to level the genders is purely idiotic,” he continued. The pill has “masculinized” women and “chases away the romance in our lives.” He further opined that women cannot pull off comedy, and complained that sending a “lady” flowers is now seen as “indecent.”
“You gotta give him credit,” said one female attendee emerging from viewing Polanski’s new film, Venus in Fur, which draws on the notorious novella by Baron von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the term masochism is derived by a 19th-century sexologist seeking to define various sexual perversions). “Lots of 79 year olds who’d pleaded guilty to rape of a 13-yr-old and who’d lived in exile for 35 years might think to themselves, ‘Maybe I could keep my views of sex to myself for, like, ever.’ Not Polanski!”
The vast majority of film critics also raved about both the film and the director’s views of women. “I was riveted during that press conference,” said one U.S. film critic. “I just kept thinking, ‘With views like this, we could eliminate laws that allow wives to keep their own wages! Even the right to vote might not be secure for women!’ I tell ya, it was amazing.”
Critics interviewed admitted that their views might be skewed, given that 78% of top film critics are men.
Although he failed to win the Palme d’Or (the highest prize awarded a film at Cannes), Polanski and his fans remain hopeful that his heartwarming sexism and mission to reinstate a pre-Pill world for women will have vast effect on the filmgoing public.
In the meantime, he remains closely tied to the film festival, which featured a whopping one female director (out of 20) in its main competition this year.
Further storm clouds dimmed the bright sunlight of sexism this year with the arrival of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK, as he likes to call himself) and the ensuing hubbub over that alleged rapist/pimp’s new girlfriend. Strauss-Kahn, who gave a financial settlement to the New York maid who accused him of attempted rape, has left his popular wife (the journalist Anne Sinclair) and arrived on the arm of a new woman, all in the midst of the investigation into the charges that he procured prostitutes for sex parties in both Europe and the U.S. The complaints about DSK by cranky, unfeminine feminists made his arrival less glorious at Cannes than one might ordinarily expect.
But DSK fans should not be alarmed: one of the most exciting pieces of news to emerge at the festival was that a film about DSK is now in the works, starring tax evader/ drunk driver/ now-Russian citizen Gérard Depardieu, whose recent antics include peeing in the aisle of an Air France plane. Joy, indeed!
Note: A surprising amount of this satirical essay is true. Follow the links for information about Polanski’s press conference (all quotes are true), DSK, Depardieu and the new film about DSK, and the number of female directors at Cannes. Quotes from attendees are the one aspect I invented.
Five documentary films were nominated for the Oscar and, as far as I can tell, the worst one won. Don’t get me wrong: I quite liked Searching for Sugar Man. But I’ve now seen 3 of the remaining films and they’re brilliant and important films. Sugar Man is a great story, for what it is.
So why didn’t one of these three films win? I suggest because they’re so hard to watch, so grueling.
Start with The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, and you’ll see what I mean. I could only watch 20 minutes or less at a time — it took me 6 separate viewings — to make it through this wrenching story about the astronomical rates of rape in the military and the institutional culture of permitting those rapists to continue, unabated. Most of the victims fighting against this institutionalized rape are women, but some men have come forward as well. I could say much more about how this film made me think about how institutions are incapable of policing themselves on all manner of ethical and legal matters.
Despite all the commanders’ own claims that they have instituted a zero tolerance policy, this documentary shows with absolute clarity that sexual assault and trauma in the military is ignored except in a tiny number of cases — not least because the victims’ commanding officers are so often either friends with the perpetrators or the perpetrators themselves.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw this film, and two days later he changed the military rule determining who gets to determine whether a rape charge gets prosecuted. Look: this film is impossible to watch — but it calls for action (from the military and from us) to change how these soldiers are treated.
Then you can move on to Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras, about a self-described “peasant” in a small Palestinian village who begins filming the Israeli encroachments onto the land of his fellow townsmen. Backed up by the Israeli military and allowed no recourse to protection, the settlements continue to come. And when the Palestinians protest, the Israelis burn their olive trees — their sole source of income. And when Burnat shows up to film the actions, they destroy his cameras, one by one.
This film is so heartbreaking because at the same time, Burnat shows his youngest son’s earliest years — a child growing up angry, watching this world closely, asking his father questions about the violence. It took me 2 viewings to finish this one; I just got so angry after the first 45 minutes that I wasn’t sure I could continue, but it gets more compelling and nuanced in its later minutes. An amazing document.
And finally there’s How to Survive a Plague, David France’s brilliantly curated trove of footage from ACT UP’s early actions and activism during the most grim years of the AIDS crisis, roughly 1987 to 1995. For most of those years, as the bodies of dead AIDS sufferers continued to pile up, the US government and international drug companies acted as if ignoring it might make it go away. “This is a plague!” Larry Kramer booms out during one particularly difficult moment in the film.
You cannot watch this film without thinking about the first time you screamed, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” at a rally — and you really believed it, and you really believed that the officials you were screaming at would believe it too. You can’t watch without remembering the first person you saw with a KS spot on his face, or the first friend who died, or the time you realized how massive the AIDS quilt would be (and hence its impact). The only thing that allowed me to watch this all in one go was the fact that this is a film about fighting back.
So yeah, Sugar Man was a film that was a pleasure to watch; these films are impossible, enraging. I totally get it: something we just want to feel good at the end of a film.
But I’m sorry, members of the Academy: the category of Best Documentary is designed to reward exceptional journalism or storytelling about real-life events. And in comparison, Sugar Man looks like a puff piece — a great central question, with weak journalism surrounding it.
These films are hard to watch. Get over it. One of them should have won for Best Documentary to acknowledge that all is not right with the world.
25 February 2013
1. Beards. So many of them! George Clooney, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Jackman, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones. I can’t remember an Oscars with so many. (Dear Friend: can it be…?)
2. Seth MacFarlane.
But what you get when you care more about youth, good looks, and fame is an offensive dickwad who made as many racist, homophobic, sexist, and anti-Semitic jokes as he could possible squeeze in. He gave voice to hostile white people — the exactly kinds of people who run the Academy Awards and showcased people of color and women primarily as presenters or in special categories of their own. He represents truly the ugliest, meanest aspect of American culture.
Heads out of asses, please. Next year please tell me that you’ll choose Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
I hadn’t seen this film that won Best Documentary Short (look! it’s here, so I will watch it). But the filmmakers’ acceptance speeches about the importance of art makes me a little teary-eyed even now. Also because they brought the 15-yr-old undocumented artist, Inocente Izucar, who was the center of this film up to the stage with them and insisted that she appear with them in photographs backstage.
Did you know that Inocente was crowd-sourced through Kickstarter? I like the whole idea of this film.
So it was like that — the usual whiplash of the Oscars, as one’s head whips between disappointing choices and surprise triumphs. Why do I watch, again?
Every year I lose in Oscar-night ballot-offs with my friends. Good thing I don’t bet actual money. You see, I insist on voting with my heart. To wit: last year I voted for Demián Bichir for Best Actor, in part because it suited the We Are the 99%/ Have-Nots vs. Haves mood I was in.
Do my choices amount to mere whimsy? Not at all, particularly considering the context. On schedule, the Academy disappointed us with its lists of nominees — overlooking terrific films, shutting Kathryn Bigelow out of competition for Best Director. Moreover, we all know from those “for your consideration” ads that the studios are pushing hard for their own films to get votes…because, yes, lobbying helps win votes. Moreover, the voting at this stage always entails voting against certain films almost as much as it’s a positive process. In sum, presented with a deeply problematic selection/ voting process, my methods of choosing What Should Win at Sunday’s Oscar Awards Ceremony are better than most.
Best Actor(s) in which I opt for emotion over restraint (and the long shots over the bookies) by rooting for Emmanuelle Riva and Joaquin Phoenix.
The odds-makers tell us these two don’t have a chance. Nor do I have a beef with the likely winners; of course Daniel Day-Lewis was great, and you know how much I love Jennifer Lawrence.
But Riva and Phoenix did things in these roles that I can’t shake from my mind. They took risks they’ve never taken before; I still have memories of the naked, helpless Anne (Riva) being washed by a home health care worker and crying out (“it hurts! it hurts!”); and the emaciated, twisted Freddie (Phoenix) happily pouring various toxins and photographic chemicals into a cocktail shaker for yet one more night of blankness. These are the actors who should win.
These are dicey categories for me, as I haven’t seen some of the most relevant films (Django Unchained; The Sessions; Les Misérables). And yet I have opinions anyway!
No one with Jones’ accent has any right playing a senator from Pennsylvania, but he was so good here. And oh, Sally Field walked that fine line between despair and self-consciousness so beautifully.
I haven’t written about the film here. My overall take on it is that it was a beautifully acted and written piece that was marred by ham-handed directing at the beginning and end — I’m sorry, folks, but Spielberg needs to step back from the swelling violins moments. Anyway, speaking of directing ….
In two years we’ll look back and see the hubbub that shut Zero Dark Thirty out of serious competition and wonder what the hell people were thinking. In two years we’ll catch Argo getting recycled again on one of those cable channels and think, “Okay, it is a great story, but I can’t believe Hollywood was so utterly fucked that this film won a Best Picture Oscar.”
Hence I’m voting for Haneke for Best Director, as that was the second best film of the year.
It’s the editing that made Silver Linings Playbook such a terrifically crackling comedy — I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the editing that stands out the most to me in making this so watchable. I just don’t even see there being any serious competition here, even as I have lavished so much praise on clunkier editing jobs in Zero Dark Thirty and other films.
And on Cinematography: you know what’s likeliest to win? Life of Pi! 90% of which was filmed before a green screen so that special effects could be inserted later!
Now, I understand that such filming can also be exquisite; and indeed, this was a beautiful film to watch. But I’m so exasperated that the eloquent filmmaking of Amour wasn’t nominated (and in that apartment!) as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild that I just want to spit.
I’ll admit it: I’m rooting for Beasts simply because it’s one of the few times a woman was recognized in this year’s Oscar ballot beyond the acting categories. Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin might not have written the best script in the bunch — that might have to be Tony Kushner’s Lincoln — but I’m sticking with my choice for political reasons anyway.
And Moonrise Kingdom. It was just so weird and creative and delightful; just thinking about it makes me want to see it again right now. Lovely.
And finally: Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Film: the only categories in which my choices have a pretty good chance of succeeding with Brave and Amour.
Let’s just summarize this by saying, I can’t be wrong all the time. I’d be through the roof if Brave pulls this off.
A few closing choices:
Short Film/Animated: please let it be Head Over Heels, the one true independent in the bunch (and a really great, creative short); see it here!
Costume Design: the one way I want Snow White and the Huntsman to be remembered.
Original Score: the one way I want Argo to be remembered. (Or, rather, the king-ification of composer Alexandre Desplat.)
We’ll see whether I can catch up on the other short films (live action, documentary short subject) by the end of the afternoon via some creative web searches. And I’ll see you all at the red carpet tonight — during which you can laugh hilariously at my near-complete shutout.
Can we also collectively hold our breaths that emcee Seth MacFarlane isn’t as misogynistic, racist, and otherwise offensive in person as he is as a filmmaker, and/or that better human beings wrote the show? yeah, maybe not.