Oscars 2009

I have now seen pretty well all of the contenders for best picture, best actors, and best screenplays.

Here’s my take. Best Picture is a mystery. This is a very weak category. Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” should have been a shoo-in, but he went mainstream, played it safe, and Penn’s performance is weirdly unmoving. “Frost Nixon” isn’t big or spectacular, but it is a fine film. “Benjamin Button” is disappointing and boring. “The Reader” is terrible, terrible, terrible. Self-indulgent narcissistic sophomoric…. “Slumdog Millionaire”– take away the exotic location, and it’s really kind of a pot-boiler, as well as implausible. I think “Milk” will win but it shouldn’t. My personal choice: “The Wrestler”.

“Revolutionary Road” and “The Wrestler” were both better than any film in this category. For that matter, so was “Stellit Licht” and “Doubt”. “Milk” will probably win: it is comfortably respectable and provides the academy with the usual fig-leaf of substance and importance, if not originality or artistic risk.

Best Actor is easy: Mickey Rourke. And this was, easily, the best, most consuming performance by a male actor this year. Frank Langella was pretty good as Nixon, and it would be fun to give it to Richard Jenkins, but Rourke was not only great, he was real. Brad Pitt? Don’t make me laugh. I suppose I should be grateful DiCaprio wasn’t nominated.

Best Actress: this is the worst assembly of candidates for a major Oscar in quite some time. The fact that Angelina Jolie has a good chance at this award tells you how unremarkable the other performances really were. If “Frozen River” hadn’t been such a weak film artistically, I’d be tempted to root for Melissa Leo, but I am afraid that Kate Winslet, a good actress, is going to win it for an uncharacteristically weak performance in a very poor film (“The Reader”). She should have been nominated for “Revolutionary Road”.

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger. After all, he died. He was very good, and he died. Case closed. This may be the strongest category this year: Hoffman (Philip Seymour), Shannon, and Brolin were also deserving.

Best Supporting Actress: I don’t quite buy the raves about Viola Davis’ brief appearance in “Doubt”, and Amy Adams is always wonderful but this is not the role that is going to win her an Oscar and if she doesn’t smarten up and start choosing more interesting parts– or maybe she isn’t offered interesting parts– she never will win one. Marisa Tomei might well take it– she’s very good in “Wrestler” and Hollywood respects actresses who play edgy characters– but I think Viola Davis will take it for “Doubt”, which is going to need an Oscar after being shut out elsewhere.

Best Director: Darren Aranovsky. “The Wrestler”. Again, why isn’t “Revolutionary Road” in this category?

“Wall-E” will win best animated feature.

Best Screenplay: please, please, please let it not be “The Reader” or “Benjamin Button” or “Milk”. I hope for “In Bruges” for original screenplay, and “Frost/Nixon” for adapted, but “Slumdog” will probably take it.

And the Contestants are:

(* will win)
(# should win)

Best Picture –
Slum Dog Millionaire
The Reader
Frost Nixon
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

[Revolutionary Road#]

Best Actor
Sean Penn (Milk)
Mickey Rourke (Wrestler)*#
Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button)
Richard Jenkins (The Visitor)
Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon)

Best Actress
Meryl Streep (Doubt)*
Anne Hathaway (Rachel)
Angelina Jolie (Changeling)
Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
Kate Winslet (The Reader)

[Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road#]

Best Director
Stephen Daldry (Reader)
Danny Boyle (Slumdog)
Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon)
David Fincher (Benjamin Button)
Gus Van Sant (Milk)*

Best Supporting Actor:
James Brolin (Milk)
Heath Ledger (Batman)*#
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt)
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)
Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder)

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams (Doubt)
Marisa Tomei (Wrestler)#
Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona)
Tarajii P. Henson (Benjamin Button)
Viola Davis (Doubt)*

Pardon Me

I thought for sure that George Bush would issue a large number of pardons during his last few days in office, eight years after Republicans expressed dire outrage at Bill Clinton’s last minute pardons. He did not. I’m guessing he thought it would look hypocritical. He deserves credit for that, if not for much else.

Apparently, VP Cheney lobbied long and hard for a pardon for “Scooter” Libby, reflecting the more traditional Republican approach to justice: severe punishment for the poor and minorities for even minor crimes, and bottomless generosity and grace towards our friends.

Libby was convicted of perjury by a trial jury and the fact that he was buddies with the VP should not have played any role at all in the consideration of a pardon– and the fact that Bush resisted it is a little amazing, but was clearly the right decision. Libby likely lied to cover up the role played by Cheney and Rove in the outing of Valerie Plume. To pardon him would be a clever way for any president to lie at will, induce lower-ranking aides and officials to take the blame, and then issue pardons to them. Bush was right in every respect to withhold the pardon.

All Libby had to do to avoid any punishment at all was reveal who lied and who leaked. The Bush Administration tried to discredit political opponents who knew the truth about the doctored intelligence on Iraq. The tragedy is that Cheney and Rove both walked away.

I believe that George W. Bush, contemplating the legacy, the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan that Cheney had pushed him into, left office in a rueful state.  He stood up to someone who had pushed him into bad decisions as his last act as President.  That was almost honorable.

Two Submarines Bumping Into Each Other: Excuse Me Excusez-Moi

“It is MOD policy not to comment on submarine operational matters, but we can confirm that the U.K.’s deterrent capability has remained unaffected at all times and that there has been no compromise to nuclear safety,” a ministry spokesman said. NY Times (Feb 15, 2009)

So two subs, one British, one French, collided in the mid-Atlantic, and we are supposed to be relieved that U.K.’s “deterrent capability” remained unaffected. Which of course makes you wonder, who exactly is an imminent threat to the U.K.? Who is threatening to launch their nuclear missiles (that is what a “deterrent” is for) at London and Liverpool? Why is Britain spending so much money to keep these floating doomsday devices out there?

But the most interesting thing is this. Think about it: these two subs are absolutely loaded with the most sophisticated, powerful technologies available to mankind. We have spared no expense to provide them with every tool imaginable to ensure that they can reliably murder millions of their people if someone dares to murder millions of our people. Their crews have been trained by our most experienced, wisest, and ingenious scientists and leaders.

And they couldn’t keep from running into each other on the open seas.

And they are supposed to have “fail-safe” systems in place to keep the bombs from going off by mistake. But all their resources couldn’t keep them from running into each other.

The subs look very solemn. They are huge and weighty and black. They are coated with materials to hide them from sonar. They are powered by nuclear reactors. They can go under the arctic ice. The men on them wear uniforms on land and salute each other reverently when passing. For all the costumes and show, they are like little tin soldiers marching back and forth, back and forth, under the delusion that they keep the sun shining and the stars from falling with their little ministrations.

Obama’s Helicopters

Apparently, Obama has inherited some kind of project to replace the aging presidential helicopters, those old Sikorskys, with something new and more powerful. How powerful? About $11.2 Billion powerful.

The program was initiated by the Bush Administration after 9/11, and it should symbolize to all of us everything that is wrong and stupid about government today. Firstly, $11.2 Billion dollars is too much to protect anybody, even Obama. Yes, I am a fan of Obama, but that doesn’t mean I believe he is some kind of divinity who is so valuable and so important that we must spend an infinite amount of money to keep him safe. In fact, there is only one word for the idea of spending $11.2 billion on presidential helicopters: obscene. It is obscene in every respect, in the idiotic belief that technology can make us invulnerable, in the deeply offensive idea that the President is so phenomenally amazing and important and irreplaceable that we cannot countenance the slightest hint of a threat to his continued existence, in the way government functionaries behave as if they live on some magical planet with infinite money to spend on toys and gizmos and uniforms and parades.

The truth is that if Obama died tomorrow, the sky would not fall, the economy would not falter worse than it already has (while the previous administration was all safe and sound) and life would go on much the same as it has before.

As far as I am concerned, Obama should take public transit. Better yet: one secret service agent should drive him to the airport in a Prius. Another one should follow behind on a moped, in case anything happens.

Wings of Desire: the Best Film You Will Never See

There is a German film by Wim Wenders called “Wings of Desire”. The title is a bit of a salacious interpretation of the German “Der Himmel Uber Berlin”, which is more like “Heaven Over Berlin”, of course.

It’s about two angels who observe people going about their humble little lives. The two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, can “hear” people’s thoughts.  One of their favorite places in the library (an incredibly beautiful building in this film) where people think (aloud, to them) about regrettable actions, disappointments, loss.  It is suggested that their awareness of these thoughts provides some kind of comfort to people.

One of them, Damiel, after watching some people who have a real passion for things, like acrobatics, or smoking, or coffee, decides that he wants to become human. Cassiel warns him that he will have to give up his immortality. Damiel  believes it might be worth the sacrifice.  He wants to know what it is like to be constrained by time, to have to relish every moment as if it might be your last, because it could be your last.

I ran across this film in a motel in Orangeville one night long ago.  My wife had gone to sleep and I was channel surfing.  I hit this black and white movie and here is what I saw:  Peter Falk on an airplane sketching some of the passengers with a pencil and pad.  The “angels” high over Berlin.  Peter Falk acting in some film.  Peter Falk playing Peter Falk acting in a film.  Peter Falk buying a coffee as one of the angels comes closer to watch.  Peter Falk saying, in a line that just blew my mind, “I can’t see you but I know you’re there.”

Explain the contrivance of this film to me?  It made no sense, but it was beautiful.  Of course I continued to watch and it has become one of my favorite films of all time.

It is one of the most sublimely beautiful films I have ever seen.  It altered my perception of drinking coffee for months afterwards.

There was, of course, a terrible, terrible American remake called “City of Angels” set in Los Angeles and starring Meg Ryan as– ready for it?– a brain surgeon. Nicolas Cage is the angel who wants to love her.

For mass American audiences, most of the poetry has been removed in favor of cheap, mawkish emoting, contrivance, and antiseptic middle-class moral ambiguity: we wish to be titillated with suggestive possibilities without ever being mortally offended by the idea that someone might actually act on those feelings. The kind of stunted emotional state that produces beauty pageants for tykes, mischievous nuns, professional wrestling, by the kind of people who get hysterical when it is revealed that Michael Phelps smoked pot.

Why is anyone even concerned, in the slightest, about the fact that Michael Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana? Marijuana is no more or less harmful or truly immoral than most alcoholic beverages or fast foods or high performance automobiles or skate-boarding.

What if someone had posted a picture of him eating a Big Mac instead?

What if Meg Ryan had taken a sublimely beautiful German film and turned it into a trite, shallow, grasping little Hollywood contrivance? What if there was a photograph of Meg Ryan doing just that? Shouldn’t she be banned from all Hollywood movies for fifty years for that crime?


If you are convinced that you have enemies in the world and that they hate you and that they are coming after you, you will eventually convince the world to hate you and come after you. And indeed, you will have enemies in the world. They will hate you for your paranoia and your defensiveness and the way you always lock your doors and the way you constantly plan revenge for some outrage that has yet to happen. Christ said, turn the other cheek. No wonder they crucified him. He didn’t even do them the comfort of striking back at them. He offered them the quintessential liberality of: they don’t know what they’re doing. I say kiss the other cheek, because that covers just about everyone: they don’t know what they are doing.

We claim that our virtue is offended by some action by some inadequate human being out there, somewhere, but the real offense is that we thought anyone should take our virtues seriously or that anyone would think that we actually believe in them for their own sake. Nothing is more external to the soul than virtue, for it is precisely the only thing protecting your soul from the uncomfortable insinuation of others’ mortalities. We would rather die than have them kill us. We would rather kill than have anybody think we were killers.

If it is a conceit to pretend to be smarter than anyone else, it is an even bigger conceit to believe that intelligence is something to be ashamed of. Who do we prefer to kill: those who refuse to bow to our insights, or those who confront us with undeniable evidence of our inadequacies?

Lost and Lost: Marianne Faithful

Has any performer ever looked as uncomfortable and confused on stage as Marianne Faithful in 1965? Here she is awkwardly lip-synching on some television show or another. “What am I doing here?”

What you are doing is helping Mick and Keith promote a song (they wrote “As Tears Go By”).

There’s a hell of a movie in her life, much of it not pretty. Partly descended from Austro-Hungarian nobility, her parents divorced when she was six and she spent time in a convent school. She was “discovered” at 18 by Andrew Loog Oldham– what a great name!– and propelled to stardom. By “propelled” I mean, it was all arranged. I mean, she was hot looking, and connected, so it all could be arranged. You will be on TV. You will be on the cover of magazines. You will learn to sing.

She married, had a baby, left her husband to live with one of the Rolling Stones– she tried three before settling on Mick– was arrested wearing only a fur rug at a scandalous party at Keith Richard’s house, lost custody of her son, declined into cocaine addiction, broke up with Mick…. Some time during those lost years, her mother attempted suicide, and Marianne Faithful disappeared off the radar screen, except for one eerie appearance with David Bowie, singing, of all things, “I got You Babe”.

But it is that first video I’m mainly interested in. This was an era in which powerful men who controlled the music industry made and broke stars. Marianne Faithful was never a particularly good singer, but she was strikingly beautiful. In the first video, you can see that she doesn’t have much of a stage presence either. It feels painful just to watch her sitting there, looking like she was petrified of losing her timing. The audience was not expected to notice or care that she wasn’t actually singing or performing– she was lip-synching.

Brian Epstein mismanaged the Beatles around the same time. He steered them into signing horribly disadvantageous contracts, but wasn’t shy about paying himself extremely generously. It was part of the music industry culture of the time. The artists had one thing in common. They were young and they knew nothing about how the music industry worked.

The music companies lavished cash and luxury on them– the cost of doing business, which was the business of ripping off the talent– and the law did not protect their interests then and it doesn’t protect them today.

In fact, it’s far worse.

Sometimes, as in the movie “The Wrestler”, real personal history and artistic expression intersect in surprising and intriguing ways.

Marianne Faithful started out her career with a breathy little alto, singing delicate little folky love songs and mournful ballads. Then came the years of drug use, the scandals, and the disappearance. Ten years later she reappears… and sounds like Tom Waits:

Could have come
through anytime,
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for ?
Its not my security.

Broken English is an amazing enema of an album, a purging of all the demons of the 1960’s and 70’s, and a profound statement that this woman was no longer the doe-eyed naïf of those painful appearances on Hullabaloo– it features the most caustic and bitter break-up song ever: “Why D’ya Do What Ya Did”.

One of the better album titles of the last fifty years: Marianne Faithful’s “Broken English”, 1979.

Songs allegedly written about or influenced by Marianne Faithful:

Wild Horses, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones)


Just for fun:  In the Year 2525

The video is great, of course: it’s from the movie “Metropolis”.  It’s genuinely horrifying.