Friday, January 28, 2005

A Child of War

I just finished reading Zlata's Diary (© 1994, Penguin Books), the journal of a Bosnian girl who was in her pre-teen years between 1991 and 1993, as her city of Sarajevo was engulfed in the Balkan Wars. I read the diary because I will be teaching three movies in the coming weeks that attempt to represent the horrors, the personal dramas, and the absurdities subsumed within the Balkan conflicts and the international (non)-responses to that crisis: the Macedonian film Before the Rain, the Oscar-winning Bosnian film No Man's Land, and the British war-journalist drama Welcome to Sarajevo (in which a young girl of Zlata's age plays an important role). All of these movies had significant critical pushes but still failed to catch on with audiences—continuing the American trend of incomprehension and seeming indifference to the crisis in the Balkans.

For better or for worse, the bestselling Zlata's Diary, rather sentimentally marketed (and self-consciously written) as a counterpart to Anne Frank's WWII journal, was the one cultural artifact that seemed to connect with American audiences. The book is still inspiring people, especially young children, to think and learn about the daily violence that confronts so many people in the world. And since the experience of war seems depressingly consistent from location to location, reading Zlata's Diary today gives some impression of what the passing days must feel like for any number of children in Iraq or Afghanistan, Sudan or the Congo, and in any zone of any country where either state violence or street violence continues to run rampant. Zlata Filipović may not say anything remarkably profound (she is eleven, after all), and reading her diary is not an excuse for ignoring the deeper facts about the Balkans or about the other wars that her journal may put you in mind of. Obviously, there are many other books that cut much deeper and say much more. But if you have two or three hours (it's a short book), it's not a bad way to remind yourself of what millions of children her age are experiencing, and it might well incite you to donate to UNICEF or any number of other charities and NFPs that are working to reduce the number of Zlatas in the world and take better care of the ones we already have.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Screenings: Secret Things and Sex Is Comedy

If you've been struggling with the recent low temperatures, thank goodness there's always French cinema to warm things up. Who needs a fireplace when you can hold your hands up to the TV?

Both of these films were produced and released in France in 2002 but just made it to urban American screens last year. Both manage to be about a variety of things at once, though sex is never far from their minds—and in the case of Secret Things, sex occasionally clouds its mind. After beginning with the most authentically erotic stripshow performance I've ever seen a film, Secret Things continues to pursue its sociological and primarily sexual theses about power, capital, and curiosity. Basically, two down-and-out women devise a LaBute-like plan to use their own sexual wiles and the whole bewildering complex of confusion around female sexuality as strategies for grabbing high-powered jobs at a French bank. The film's conviction is both its strength and its folly; serpentine plot-twists and elaborately concocted sex scenes occasionally maroon the viewer and compromise the seriousness of the film's ideas. But that seriousness is sharply achieved elsewhere, and the film manages some surprising laughs and some real heat on its way to what we'll call its memorable climax. Performances are sharp, especially from Coralie Revel as a humbled provocateur and Roger Mirmont as a victim of the women's plans. Any film with a "victim of women's plans" is bound to raise some eyebrows, but Secret Things is smart, sexy, and serious enough to answer back.

Sex Is Comedy gives off much less erotic charge, primarily because it's about the remarkably unsexy process by which a film director has to coax two young, mulish, and uncomfortable young actors through a key sex scene in her film. When the film in question is an undisguised reprise of the centerpiece deflowering in Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, and when Anne Parillaud, the original femme Nikita, is giving a fussy, mercurial, and perversely passionate characterization of Breillat herself, the stakes go even higher. Miraculously, though Sex Is Comedy is itself directed by Breillat, the film is stylistically and intellectually distinctive: it's actually about what it's about, and nervily so, instead of just self-indulgently returning to the scene of Breillat's own cinematic crimes. Unexpected doses of humor, as in Secret Things, do a great deal to enrich the tone, and again the performances win the day—not just Parillaud's but the casually reptilian work of Grégoire Colin as the inflexible actor giving Jeanne so many headaches. Secret Things is available now on DVD; Sex Is Comedy will be on Feb. 22. Rent them both. Smoke a cigarette after.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Philosophical High

All this Oscar-watching can make a person feel a little shallow, especially in the midst of international disarray, the looming "deadline" for Iraqi "elections," the Senate Democrats' debates over Condi, the contentious anniversary of Roe v. Wade (marked by new, severe, and unprecedentedly perverse laws being introduced for discussion in state and federal legislatures), and any number of weightier topics of conversation. And then, since it always comes back to me—it's my party, and I'll self-obsess if I want to—I've still got a dissertation to finish, somehow, someway, amidst wondering whether Cate, Virginia, or Natalie will be declared the year's Best Supporting Actress. (My money is currently on Virginia.)

So, to the rescue comes Ian Buchanan's Deleuzism, a monograph from the Duke University Press that attempts to make an "-ism" out of Deleuze the way people already have out of Marx, Freud, and comparably copious philosophers. Holding Deleuze on a level with those thinkers is already an implicit value claim on the book's and the subject's behalf, and one of which I totally approve. If you're new to Deleuze, he was a French philosopher and critic who virulently opposed transcendental systems like Freud's or Marx's that attempted to construe all of human history and activity through a single model of behavior, psychology, or politics. Deleuze, in his own work and in several scholarly collaborations, focused his ideas around the paradigmatic figure of the "schizophrenic" (as opposed to Freud's Oedipus or Marx's worker), not just in the medical-diagnostic sense of a divided personality but in the sense most of us understand of moving through a world of profound divergences, irregularities, and discontinuities, even within our everyday thoughts, routines, and world impressions. Deleuze's system emphasizes the ceaseless iterations of difference in the world, believing that they supersede any false ideas of the stable personality/subject or of massive Marxian or Freudian-type systems with which we falsely attempt to bring a sense of order and conformity to a world of infinite and tumultuous variation.

For that reason, Deleuze opposed the whole notion of his work as a system, even a self-disrupting one. What Buchanan does so nicely in this book, however, is to situate Deleuze as both a predictor and a participant in postmodern theory and as an intellectual compatriot (despite lots of denials, including Deleuze's own) of Hegel, Benjamin, and other dialecticians of history. The implications of Buchanan's reading not only help to explain Deleuze to readers who struggle with his work, but it elucidates several ways in which Deleuze's work might helpfully serve or "apply" in other critical, analytical, or intellectual projects, even though there's no single method or ideology imposed by Deleuze's work that seems to make this possible. I love the book and plan to draw on it extensively in my own dissertation. If any of y'all reading this blog are into a good scholarly head-exercise every now and then (esp. a 200-page, fairly quick read), I hope you'll consider this one.

Oscar and Deleuze. Schizophrenia indeed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

(and I almost forgot...)

A good thing: Internationalism! Whatever their respective merits, both Les Choristes and The Sea Inside managed to rack up nominations outside of the foreign-film category. Meanwhile, outside that category altogether, The Motorcycle Diaries and A Very Long Engagement both scored twice, and House of Flying Daggers got a Cinematography nod. Nice to see Oscar spreading the multilingual wealth around.

A bad thing: Where the hell is the Birth score???

Here's the Skinny on the Naked Guy...

By which I mean Oscar. Obviously.

So, I correctly predicted 65% of this year's nominees, which my friends tell me is impressive, but everyone who cares about this stuff knows is not all that good. Dang it. But, hey, the nominations are always a great excuse for a champagne brunch (special shout-out to Max's, the restaurant/bar of the Holiday Inn in Ithaca!), so I'm feeling happy.

As for the nominations, here's what I have to say. They are all personal estimations, cause you can get the facts and figures anywhere.

Best Reasons To Be Delighted
  • Kate and Catalina in Best Actress—Whew!
  • Vera Drake having such a good day. Plus, I've been saying all along that Imelda was going to win this, and all of a sudden, that doesn't sound quite as stupid.

More Good News
  • Marc Forster justly ignored for Best Director
  • The Polar Express stiffed for Animated Feature, even with three other nods (even if it means nominating the crappy-looking Shark Tale). Fie on you, Tom Hanks and Bob Zemeckis!
  • John Williams deserves his compulsory Scoring nod much more than he usually does, esp. since it wasn't for The Terminal (fie on you, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg!)
  • Nice job including the Collateral editors
  • Also in the Score category, James Newton Howard deserves his mention for the otherwise dismal The Village...and I'm always happy when voters remember how to isolate distinguished elements from lame vehicles
  • Luis Mandoki, perpetrator of Angel Eyes and When a Man Loves a Woman, denied a Foreign Film nomination for Mexico's Innocent Voices; even if the film is good, as it is rumored to be, this guy isn't done repenting in my book
  • I didn't get suckered into thinking the Alfie songs were going to work out.
  • I don't have to see The Notebook!

Worst Nomination, By Leaps and Bounds
  • Best Cinematography for The Phantom of the Opera, which has the most plodding camera and the fakest, most emptily "aesthetic" setups in recent memory

More Reasons to Kvetch
  • Alan Alda instead of David Carradine, who officially gave the best un-nominated Hollywood performance of the year
  • The Song performances look to be tough going, and where on Earth is Wyclef??
  • The inevitable Neverland nod in Best Picture
  • The inevitable Sea Inside nod for Foreign Film
  • Ray's mysterious entry in the Editing race
  • History may continue to mis-remember Jamie Foxx as a supporting actor in Collateral
  • Giamatti's missing perf wiped the floor with Depp's and DiCaprio's (as did those of fellow un-nominated contenders like Jeff Bridges, Gabriel García Bernal, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, and especially Sean Penn)
  • The Day After Tomorrow deserved a Visual Effects slot
  • Sophie Okonedo's perf is hardly Oscar-worthy, but I doubt anyone she bumped (Winslet in Neverland, Warren, Leachman, Streep, etc.) would have deserved the spot, either
  • This is unfair to complain about, but the mini-surge for Vera Drake makes me wish it had been a major surge (Art Direction and Cinematography at least, if not some of those stellar supporting actors. Who actually were supporting actors, Mr. Foxx.)
  • The nods for The Passion—even though I tolerated the picture more than many, I still think the Cinematography and Score mentions are bogus.

Films that Did Better than Anyone Expected
  • Vera Drake
  • Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Films that Did Worse than Anyone Expected
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Kinsey

Irritating Trend
  • The Roger Avary Maneuver of pork-barreling story developers onto Screenplay nods, just so the non-essential members of the team can get a nod. Gondry deserved a nomination, but for directing. Kim Krazin deserved one, too, but in 1995, for Before Sunrise.

Most Appealingly Modest Post-Nomination Reaction
  • Virginia Madsen's live phone call on Good Morning, America. When asked who had been the first to phone their congratulations, she said, "Antonio, the father of my son." That's world-renowned hottie Antonio Sabato Jr. to you and me, but no flaunting. And when asked, rather dumbly, if she'd yet contemplated what to wear to the Oscars, she answered, "I've been contemplating what to wear since about 1972." Good luck, VA!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Oscar Is a Punk

There is no good reason why a diluted, inveterately mainstream, persistently dubious, and politically compromised little movie award—what Addison DeWitt dismissively and fabulously calls "those awards presented annually by that, uh, film society"—should obsess me so. But in the days leading up to the nomination announcements, I really do find it hard to concentrate on other things. Which is bad enough. (Though, hey, Addison DeWitt himself didn't scoff when Oscar came calling.)

Worse, I start not being able to recognize myself. Oscar makes me do crazy things. I just came back from Hollywood Video, where I was frantically trying to rent The Notebook, seemingly a lily-white piece of schmaltz that I wouldn't go near during its summer release, despite the ameliorating presence of Joan Allen. Now, because Gena Rowlands and James Garner are being whispered about as possible spoiler candidates in the Supporting races, I'm in a tizzy at the notion that something might get nominated that I won't have seen. Then I find out that The Notebook doesn't debut on DVD till Feb. 8; frankly, they're probably waiting to see if they can flag "Nominated for # Oscars!" across the display box. So now I'm preoccupied by not being able to see a movie that I didn't want to see at all when it was everywhere around me. And if it doesn't get nommed, I'll probably never consider it again. What's my problem?

To help me relieve my own dawning dementia, here is a list that should put me back in my right mind and Oscar back in perspective. It's hard to muster surprise when Oscar ignores the Bergmans and Bressons and Godards, the Wongs and Sembènes and Makhmalbafs that have been pinnacles of world film culture at various times but, as if for that very reason, have no chance at love from the Golden Guy. And obviously experimental stuff never even registers, and documentaries are totally ghettoized to their own, infamously fickle race. But Oscar also has a nasty habit of passing over some of the best English-language narrative films that pass right under his nose. What follows are 20 inexhaustibly brilliant English-language movies that didn't score a single Oscar nod. I even limited myself to one film per director.

When you look at this roster, and you imagine for even a moment that the AMPAS voting body might conceivably honor The Notebook where these films were forbidden to's instantly difficult to care quite as much. Or, it's at least easier to sit out the two weeks till that DVD appears. (I'm insane.)

1. Modern Times (Chaplin '36)
2. His Girl Friday (Hawks '40)
3. The Scarlet Empress (Von Sternberg '34)
4. Touch of Evil (Welles '58)
5. New York, New York (Scorsese '77)
6. Safe (Haynes '95)
7. Holiday (Cukor '38) - read my review
8. Marat/Sade (Brook '67)
9. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick '99) - read my review
10. Dead Ringers (Cronenberg '88)
11. The Wind (Sjöström '28) - read my review
12. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock '38)
13. Daughters of the Dust (Dash '91)
14. This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner '84)
15. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls '48)
16. 3 Women (Altman '77) - read my review
17. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jarmusch '00) - read my review
18. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch '32)
19. Opening Night (Cassavetes '77)
20. Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle '94)

Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Teaching Life

Later today, I'll teach my first session of my newly designed seminar, International Cinema and Global Politics. Especially now that we've got the A/V equipment dilemma worked out for the classroom, I'm really looking forward to this new course. It feels like the right time for me to teach it, and it's my first chance to attempt anything like it. I hope the students are jazzed, and I hope they don't mind doing a lot of work if the rewards (hopefully) involve making them better writers, more globally aware citizens, and better readers of different kinds of movies.

Anyway, as the hilarious and worldly-wise fecundmellow knows, the first day of teaching is always a nerve-rattler, even when you know in your mind that you're well prepared and psyched up for the task. So I'm going to try to get some sleep and be all fresh-faced and high on life for tomorrow afternoon. It doesn't help that we're at T-minus 30 hours for the Oscar noms. How many reasons to be restless do I need in one weekend? It's too bad that, almost invariably, the Academy nominees for Foreign-Language Film won't take any of the political or aesthetic risks of the movies I'm teaching—though, from the group on my syllabus, The Official Story and No Man's Land did manage to win, and Woman in the Dunes, Before the Rain, and Amores perros all swung nominations. So it's not always impossible to get nominated, even if your movie isn't about a race-car driver who falls in love with a pretty lady, or a darling cherub who melts the heart of the world.

If you're curious what the nations of the world are producing these days, even beyond the crossover hits that have made it to your local arthouse, definitely take a quick (or long) tour of Nathaniel R.'s annual and invaluable index of all the movies submitted by their home countries as possible Oscar nominees. (That's how Oscar works in this category: a committee in every nation picks one, and only one, movie is the officially eligible contender.) After Tuesday morning, all but five of these movies will instantly be treated as yesterday's news, and even Oscar's anointed aren't guaranteed of US distribution...but doesn't this list make you wish you could see all of this amazing-sounding work?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Oscar Nom Predix

My full rationales for picks in Oscar's lead categories are available here, but here's where I've wound up—in advance of the nomination announcements which will take place this Tuesday, at 8:30am. Tune into any of the morning "news" shows like Today or Good Morning America to see Academy prez Frank Pierson and boho-ingenue du jour Adrien Brody read the lucky names.

PICTURE: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby, Sideways

DIRECTOR: Eastwood/Million Dollar Baby, Gondry/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Payne/Sideways, Scorsese/The Aviator, Zhang/House of Flying Daggers

ACTRESS: Bening/Being Julia, Sandino Moreno/Maria Full of Grace, Staunton/Vera Drake, Swank/Million Dollar Baby, Winslet/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

ACTOR: Cheadle/Hotel Rwanda, Depp/Finding Neverland, DiCaprio/The Aviator, Foxx/Ray, Giamatti/Sideways

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Blanchett/The Aviator, Madsen/Sideways, Portman/Closer, Warren/Ray, Winslet/Finding Neverland

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Carradine/Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Church/Sideways, Foxx/Collateral, Freeman/Million Dollar Baby, Owen/Closer

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: The Aviator, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles, Kinsey, Ray

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Closer, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, The Motorcycle Diaries, Sideways

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Aviator, Collateral, House of Flying Daggers, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Passion of the Christ

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: Les Choristes/The Chorus (France), House of Flying Daggers (Hong Kong), The Sea Inside (Spain), A Touch of Spice (Greece), Whisky (Uruguay)