Time for Your Meds, Oscar
by James Killough @James_Killough
Since I started living with a psychic medium, I’ve been reminded that there is no such thing as coincidence. It’s all synchronicity: everything has a reason, a purpose, a place in the Great Algorithm of Existence, which is why it cannot be mere coincidence that the Academy Award nominations came out during Mental Health Awareness Week.
If you have any doubts about the mystical Order of Things in the Universe, I invite you to screen Tree of Life, the subject of one of my reviews from last year that I had a good chuckle writing. Despite the fact it isn’t properly speaking a narrative film because it entirely discards every Aristotelian principle of dramatic form, TOL was not only given a Best Picture nod, it also received one for Best Director, Terrence Malick.
I am being cruel. TOL doesn’t entirely discard Aristotle’s wise, eternal, correct breakdown of how a drama should be presented. Malick has kept the chorus, the one element of theatrical presentation from Ancient Greece we have dispensed with. Malick’s is a Chorus of Great American Trees, lots of them, endless amounts of them, shot from below with flares of sunlight seeping through like God’s grace. Snooooore.
Note to AMPAS voters: awarding Malick or his pseudo-spiritual pabulum an Oscar is the same as giving Paul Coehlo a Nobel Prize for Literature. But wait: most of you are in LA. You might actually think that’s a good thing to do.
There are always a couple of categories in every nomination roster that are the most interesting from a bookie’s standpoint because it could go a few ways, narrowing the odds, and this year one of them is Best Actor. In typical fashion, I believe I managed to review A Better Life without ever once mentioning the performance of its lead, Damián Bichir, namely because he disappeared into the role so convincingly as a Mexican gardener in LA, which means a lot to someone living in LA who interacts with Mexican gardeners all the time, if only to swear at them from the window when they are interrupting my writer’s block. It’s okay: they can’t hear me over the noise of the leaf blowers.
If this were down to merit and not Harvey Weinstein’s dark powers of persuasion, behind which there has to be some nefarious corruption, the Best Actor race would be a choice between Bichir and Brad Pitt—I have already waxed disdainful about Clooney’s bug-eyed performance in The Descendants, which hopefully only impressed the alcoholic European journalists who awarded him a Golden Globe.
It will probably go to Jean Dujardin for The Artist, because AMPAS seems to yearn for the “golden” days of the Silent Era, when acting technique was moving from the presentational to the representational style we enjoy today. Yes, I put “enjoy” in bold because presentational acting is archaic, as it should be because it is fake and annoying. It is performance as pretending, grandstanding, puppeteering.
Turning the spotlight back to me, this was the greatest challenge I faced working in Bollywood, where the lazier, hammier presentational style is still employed, and is one of the reasons Indian films seem so camp and kitsch, aside from the sets, the wailing music and general jiggling buffoonery. I think they’re downright awful, all of them. When a Westerner says to me, “Oh, I love Bollywood movies,” I feel like winding up the conversation so he can go play with his Barbie Dolls. Instead I look at him lizard-eyed, exhale a plume of smoke and grumble, “Can’t fucking stand them.”
I had a sort of scam going in Mumbai when I lived there because I was working for a prestigious director and all of these swell-headed Punjabi directors had grandiose dreams: to make a film in English, ideally for the American market. But they were all too afraid to take the plunge and actually shoot a film like one of ours.
The challenge was always the same with these bucket-list fantasy projects: to minimize risk and make it palatable to the Indian market as well, the film had to be in Hindi and English, two versions, to be shot side by side, scene by scene, with the exception of the dance sequences, which only went in the Indian version. To do this, you finish the shot in one language, then you have the actor go back and do it in the other.
It never works. I know this because I’ve seen it never work.
I was standing behind the camera one day in Kashmir on the first film I wrote to go into production, Zooni, tanked to the gills on tranqs because between civil war breaking out in the Valley, the insanity of this production and my own addictive personality it was the only way to get through the shoot. The makeup artist was pouring glycerin drops into my buddy Dimple Kapadia’s eyes. Yes, the star of my first feature was named Dimple. Her sister’s name was Simple, but we didn’t get along as well — Simple was too snarky, even for me.
I turned to the writer of the Hindi version of my script and said, “Asghar, why is she crying in this scene? She’s not meant to be crying in this scene. I specifically told you guys that over and over. She’s resolved, strong, going to fight back.”
“It’s the Hindi version, what to do?” Asghar shrugged. His poison of choice to get through the production was whisky.
As much as I love Dimple, and she did really try hard and did an amazing job, the fact is Bollywood actors aren’t properly trained; they are born into the profession, cast by nepotism, usually. And the directors, also usually born into it, have even less of a clue. In any case, not even Meryl Streep could move so easily between a Silent Era-style presentational style and her normal representational acting, of which she is master.
The little scam I ran to dupe Bollywood directors into paying me to write their Hollywood dreams didn’t last long once word got around that I wouldn’t allow even a single song in a script about a little girl dying of a heart defect. Indians might be archaic in their acting style, but they ain’t stupid with their money.
As I said in my review of Iron Lady, in theory it should be a lock for Meryl Streep as Best Actress, but this is not only Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s also Emperor’s New Clothes Year with praise being slathered on undeserving naked tomfoolery, so all bets are off. Plus you have to factor in lifetime achievement in some of these categories, which means that Glenn Close could pull it off for Albert Nobbs, which I have yet to see—poor Glenn gets extra sympathy votes for having languished like Gollum under Meryl’s Lonely Mountain: six nominations, never a statuette.
The same longevity reasoning could give Christopher Plummer a win, even though he has made some enemies in The Biz over the years, and fellow octogenarian Max von Sydow has also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Even though it is a silent role, which as we know is de rigeur this year, the fact that von Sydow doesn’t deliver a retro-presentational performance like other artists might cancel him out.
Being the film geek that I am, the technical awards for below-the-line talent are always more interesting to me than above-the-line (actors, directors, writers, producers). Thelma Schoonmaker is nominated for editing Hugo, which is outrageous because, most glaringly, bad editing is what Hugo suffers from. That and a thudding script by John Logan, likewise nominated.
While I know a few people who just loved The Artist and think it deserves to win, I don’t know anyone who gets this fuss over Hugo, but maybe I just travel in the wrong circles. It would seem that producer Graham King has learned the same fat-boy voodoo mass-hypnotizing tricks as Weinstein because while I’d give Hugo a few technical nods for special effects, art direction and costumes, I would never have thought it anywhere near the race in the above-the-line categories.
The real best film of the year, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, received not a mention, despite the fact it has swept awards in Europe, and prompted rapturously geeky articles such as the one in The New York Times breaking down the opening sequence shot by shot. That is a story Aristotle would have found worthy of a classic tragedy: one of the world’s great directors creates his masterpiece, which should by rights have swept every award from Cannes to the Oscars, only to cause his own downfall by opening his fat mouth at a single press conference and calling himself a Nazi.
Again, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so go out and hug a schizo, or groom a narcissist, or help an OCD tidy up. And if you run into an AMPAS member, strap him down and run a few dozen volts through his brain until he snaps out of it.