Sunday, February 26, 2006

New Reviews

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse - ***1/2 - I saw previews for this last summer, getting my hopes up for a proper release - oh! folly! Lately, I have been seeing previews for the American remake. I despair. But happily, I despair too soon - for here it is! For a grand total of 6 shows, I should note. And having sampled 33% of those 6 shows - rather sparsely attended 6 shows. It might be time to gin up another post about the Death of Cinephilia.

The movie itself - is a horror film, more generically so than most of Kurosawa's films. (That I've seen.) It's got ghosts in the machines, from the internet - Ur@Nus Online, it seems - who haunt 2 groups of kids. The first thread follows a group of kids working at a greenhouse - one of them comes to grief, the others see strange images in his computer disks, and start getting mysterious phone calls... The second thread follows a student who tries to go online, but instead, the internet comes to him - asking if he wants to meet a ghost. He takes this to a pretty computer science student, who tries to help him - she in turn introduces him to a grad student who made a model of human relationships - ghostly dots floating around, avoiding each other but drawn to each other. This grad student offers some theories about ghosts spilling into the world of the living - and sure enough, ghosts start appearing, and people start disappearing. Then it gets strange. It's apocalypse in slow motion, but as much about trying to connect and failing to connect, and about death itself, then about ghosts or horror. No one ever exactly answers the question posed by the pretty computer scientist - how are we any different from ghosts? Stylistically, Kurosawa does not go for the big shock - he doesn't use shock cuts or reveals very often. He is more likely to slide things into the back of the frame - a figure appearing in the background, walking through the frame without any sense of urgency. We aren't surprised - the characters sometimes are. The effect is to create a sense of inevitability and dread, and to give us time to think about the poignancy of the ghosts' situation... It's a fine film - maybe less masterful than his best films (Cure, Charisma, Doppelganger), mostly because it is less glorious looking than they are, and there's not enough Koji Yakusho... But it is a powerful work, about mortality and solitude and the internet (all those ghosts sitting in front of their computer screens), how technology keeps us apart... about the necessity of other people, and the difficulty of connection...

C.S.A.: Confederate States of America - *** - written and directed by Kevin Wilmott, an alternative history of the US, in which the south won the civil war - told as a British documentary, interrupted with contemporary ads from this imaginary CSA. It's not a pretty picture, what with the CSA invading South America and staying out of the European half of WWII, and with Canada getting all the decent artists and musicians (not to mention dominating the Olympics). That stuff is very funny, but what really bites is the way Wilmott uses this alternative reality to critique real history, from the fake ads for real products (the gold dust twins, niggerhair cigarettes, black sambo axle grease and so on), to the white-washing of the reasons for the Civil War war. The film talks about how history and art soft-pedaled the north's position on slavery, and the role of slavery in the war - in exactly the terms that real literature and history and art soft-pedaled the south's position on slavery (and the north's, really), and the role of slavery in the war. As a film, it's rather crude, but it is very funny, and it is a first rate essay. The clips from imaginary films made in this CSA are probably the weakest point of the film - they look truly awful - though Wilmott gets around some of that rather cleverly, with the suggestion that art in the CSA would develop into straight propaganda. (The fake movies also get off one of the best jokes of the film, in a scene showing Jefferson Davis' slave telling him him to reintriduce slavery in the north - the slave is played by a Shakespearean actor in blackface, of course, and he does a perfect Stephen Fry as Jeeves bit to solve the problem. A capital joke.) This idea - the rotten art of the CSA - also illustrates another of the film's devices. There's nothing in the film about communists - the USSR disappears completely - and the cold war is replaced by a cold war (complete with a wall) with Canada and the abolitionists. The CSA, meanwhile, comes to be a lot like Soviet Russia - the socialist realist art, the repression and paranoia, the political violence...

Nightwatch - ** - Speaking of Russia, specifically, post cold war Russia - here's an apocalyptic fantasy from Moscow... the first in a three parter - the idea is this: there are "others" living among us, light and dark, who have been battling throughout history over the - over something. They were at the point of massacring one another in 1342, but called a truce - doomed to last until a virgin is cursed and a Great One is born. In 1992, a schlep tries to curse his estranged wife and her unborn child, but changes his mind at the last moment - and in come the cops! 10 years later he's a cop... He's trying to save a kid from some vampires - then he's trying to do something with the virgin before a vortex of damnation opens up and sucks something.... it isn't awful. Moscow does look pretty ghastly - the light and dark Others seem like some kind of allegory for the government and gangsters in russia (that's how they act anyway) - there are some neat images among the mayhem, and some nice character turns. Unfortunately - it sort of lurches around, flitting between bits of Blade Runner, a gloomy version of Ghostbusters (from which it steals about 70% of the plot, actually), and, I don't know, Highlander maybe... and whatever other filsm the director has seen. It's got enough going for it that it's kind of a shame it's so tiresome.

Springtime in a Small Town - *** - Tian Zhuangzhuang's return to filmmaking, 10 years after Blue Kite. This is a remake of a Chinese classic - set at the end of WWII in a house in an almost abandoned town. A young man with a cough, his wife, his lively little sister, and one old servant live there - then an old friend arrives, who happens to not only be the man's old pal, but the wife's old flame. Melodrama ensues, but very politely, until the wine starts to flow, and they start singing to one another. All of this is done quietly and slowly, with simmering passions. Tian keeps distance - telling the story from a neutral point - not getting too close to any of the characters, etc. Shot by Mark Li Ping-bin, Hou Hsiao Hsien's regular DP, and one of the best - this looks a lot like Flowers of Shanghai, with the constantly circling camera, though without the penetration of the space Hou used. Here, the camera stays behind the line, as it were - which theatricalizes the material a bit, which in turn tends to (very subtly) defamiliarize it. The characters are flattened out a bit. It is an astonishing looking film, even on DVD, and the material rewards the approach.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Don Knotts Has Died

I just saw this news. What a shame. Barney Fife is indelibly implanted in my mind.

I'll leave you with a reminder of this wonderful piece of editing: Dubya The Movie. A film that should have been, and now, alas, will never be. (That's going to take a while to load - I imagine it's getting some traffic tonight.)

I'll be waiting for Steve Buscemi in John Waters' Don Knotts biopic... Now they'll have to do it!

Late Late Late, but

It's not Friday anymore, is it? Hasn't been for a while. So why bother with a Friday Random Ten then? Because it's Saturday! That's a good enough reason, I should think.

This isn't exactly random either, as I went back to the not-recently-played list....

1. Preston School of Industry - Encyclopedic Knowledge of
2. Kings of Leon - Joe's Head (kind of a murder ballad, isn't it?)
3. Wipers - D-7 (hey - why is this off some Mojo collection? I have a perfectly good Wipers' CD on there! I'd have more if I had more luck finding them; a fine, mostly forgotten band.)
4. Big Boi - D-Boi (interlude)
5. Beck - Novacane (which, as it happens, flows absolutely perfectly out of the previous piece)
6. PJ Hervey - The Wind
7. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
8. The Flaming Lips - God Walks Among Us Now (I like this record (priest driven ambulance); I don't know why but I don't particularly like the Flaming Lips, these days. Strange, huh?)
9. REM - Man on the Moon (of all the REM I have, why this song? it's dull, mediocre... I don't know. Why not Life and How to Live it? damned computer!)
10. Cibo Matto - Le Pain Perdu

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Altman Weekend (March 3-5)

In honor of the man's lifetime achievement Oscar, Matt Zoller Seitz has announced a weekend long blogathon for Robert Altman. All very loose and impromptu, but somehow that seems appropriate. (Seems, I say...) I suspect something on this score is likely to appear in this space....

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Week of Films

Let's see if we can get this rebooted, shall we?

Tristram Shandy: or, A Cock and a Bull (***1/2) - one of the local critics referred to the novel, Tristram Shandy, as being of interest only to graduate students. If that is true, I should say, it more than justifies the expense of taking an MFA. Sure, at this point in history, it probably requires some Work to figure out what is going on, and why, in the book - but the rewards, the rewards!*... In the meanwhile, there is now this film to tide you over until you can find a suitable grad school, and it does the job pretty well. They have followed the logical course in adapting a book that is emphatically written, emphatically an object made of words on paper, and made it emphatically filmed. So we get the actors arguing about teeth, talking about the film, the book, their shoes, and Steve Coogan's child and ego. It may not be quite so innovative as it might seem**, but it is very well done. The metafiction is used to good effect - using the relationship between Coogan and Brydon to echo that of Walter and Toby, (who are, in the end, the real stars of the book); making Coogan's relationship to the Shandies analogous to that of Tristram to his father (and the book). It is all about birth, says Cinemascope. Clever too in how it handles characters - some get dropped from the adaptation (though they are as likely as not to show up anyway), while others - namely Jenny (a significant character in the book, who never actually appears in it) - are added (more than once, actually.) And finally - all this formal juggling never detracts from the comedy - which, as in the book, runs the gamut from straight on slapstick through elaborate word play (and words on paper - or pictures on film) to subtle and often moving character driven comedy. The film is very funny, sometimes uproariously so, and always satisfying.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold - *** - it's hard to rate concert films. They depend on the music, and then - if the music is good enough (or bad enough) it can trump the filmmaking. About all the filmmakers can do is get in the way. Jonathon Demme does not get in the way - he films songs in their completion, he shoots in a plain, straightforward way, he cuts unobtrusively, to knit together the musicians on stage, or to focus on the person taking a lead... It's hard to improve on it. This is Neil Young at his most country, acoustic, quiet (though he can get worked up when he wants) - this was shot right after his brain aneurysm, about the time of the release of Prairie Wind, and contains that record, plus a greatest hits. It would be edifying, I think, to see it in a double bill with Year of the Horse. It is amazing how well Neil stays in character - he never slips, he plays these songs straight, plain - the contrast with the sprawling blare of the Crazy Horse material is fascinating. It's not just the different style - it's the whole performance attitude. These songs are played straight - not much variation from the instrumentation and sound of the records, nothing flashy, nothing really improvisational. The Crazy Horse stuff - he can't seem to find the end - this material, this performance, everything is pretty well defined. There's not much to say - it's a superb performance, Neil's acoustic side done to perfection. It's a reminder of just what a body of work the man has - that he can do this, play like this, leaving half his career untouched. I admit I have a soft spot for the wankier, Like a Hurricane, Cortez the Killer Neil Young, but I can't complain about this side of old Neil. What I do think is that he's at his best when the two sides come together - the Live Rust model is unbeatable...

Charisma (on DVD) - **** - this might be Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece. Koji Yakusho plays a cop who after screwing up a negotiation is sent on vacation - he hitchhikes into the woods, then sets out on foot - things start to get weird. There is a tree, that is dieing, but also might be killing the forest. There is a kid protecting the tree - a scientist and her sister trying to destroy the tree - a variety of comical environmentalists trying to study the tree or kill it or sell it - hard to say what. It isn't necessarily important. Like the rest of Kurosawa's films, this is spooky and strange, funny, quiet but with bursts of deadpan violence. It is full of ideas - doubles, parallels, metaphors, allegories, that come in and out of phase with each other. They are engrossing and beautiful movies that haunt you... They are also very hard to part with - when I get his films from Netflix, I watch them - and then keep rewatching them. I had Doppelganger for a month or more, and ended up watching it three times... I suppose I should just buy them, if I can find them...


*A fact anticipated by Mr. Sterne, of course:

Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader ! read, -- or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon -- I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work !) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.
**Or as the book was, and is, even now - even without the 18th century language and sensibilities, it's a more radical deconstruction*** than all but a few 20th century works.

***Which is, for once, not really an affectation but a fair description of the way it examines the process of writing, the formal properties of writing and books, and, actually, living, thinking, etc.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Friday Comes on Saturday...

... so here then is your random 10, or so....

1. System of a Down - Lost in Hollywood (oh the shame, to be exposed as owning a System of a Down record. I'm not sure why I own them, but - I find myself almost liking them... the shame!)
2. Neil Young - Are You Ready for the Country (speaking of whom - tomorrow, I think, I shall see the new concert film. Today is Tristram Shandy of course.)
3. Gary Strivent - Something (oh yeah. I believe I downloaded this from James Allenspach's fine blog, Empty Handed. This is a fine piece of bad music - the singer wrestling with the notes and trying to channel Sinatra, but never finding the beat, never quite getting the concept of phrasing - and I love the little handclaps that come up toward the middle!)
4. Modest Mouse - Might
5. Pavement - Mercy Snack: the Laundromat
6. Shonen Knife - Insect Collector (live)
7. Big Country - One Great Thing
8. The Wipers - Messenger
9. John Cale - Wall (bonus track on Vintage Violence) (a drone - and a good one, actually)
10. Bill Frisell - Billy The Kid (Mexican Dance and Finale)
11. James Brown - Think (live at the Apollo) (I mean - who would stop at 10 when 11 is James Brown?)
12. REM - Auctioneer (and why stop at 11 when you can add some train whistle guitar?)

Accidents will happen

I have been generally avoiding the whole Dick Cheney shot a man in the face topic. (Of course no one would know I was avoiding it on purpose, given my recent lack of posts... but hey.) Still: this headline, shown at Talking Points Memo, deserves a link: Shooting Victim Apologizes to Vice President. That says so much....

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Code Inconnu Blog-a-Thon Notice

I should have posted something about this yesterday - a carnival of bloggers, devoted to commenting on Machael Haneke's Code Inconnu. A fine film - I wish I were up to saying something about it, but... anyway - check them out. Girish Shambu has the links, along with his own contribution.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Listen the Snow is Falling...

I'm here to admit - I have almost nothing. Boston gets a foot or more of snow - that's nice. But between that and nothing new in the theaters to see, I barely left the house... I did watch 9 Songs on DVD - I don't quite know what to make of it. It is admirable for trying to make a sex film that's not only not pornography, but isn't the kind of politicized provocation that the usual high-brow smut films are - not that there's anything wrong with politicized provocation (I'm thinking of Last Tango in Paris, In the Rhealm of the Senses, Catherine Breillat's films, even things like The Brown Bunny), but it's nice to see an attempt to make a movie with explicit sex, that isn't a moralizing lecture.... 9 Songs is a bit of a strange film, though - it has a story - characters - but these things are elided. It is quick and minimalist - sex and music - though quite a bit of other stuff creeps in. Actually, the problem might be that more stuff creeps into the sex parts than the music parts. Nothing happens at the concerts - we see band footage, we sometimes see quick shots of the lovers - nothing else - no dancing, waiting in line to get into the pisser, no contact with other people, good bad or indifferent... Still - it does linger in the mind. It's cool the way the sex scenes work - the way they get the mix of routine, habit, and occasional moments of revelation that sex is really like... It's also kind of cool for telling this story, a fairly common, undramatic seeming one, and not insisting on finding some big ending for it. 2 people meet, fuck, fall in love kinda, but not so much, and then part. And then...

I did see Why We Fight in the theaters. It's okay. About the military industrial complex. It was okay, but nothing revelatory. So - that's all there is tonight. That and Yoko, by way of Galaxie 500.

It's that time of year - nothing going on in the movie world. Next week, though - Tristram Shandy opens (speaking of Michael Winterbottom - who's kind of the English version of Steven Soderburgh, isn't he? skipping around from style to style?) - Manderlay opens - the Neil Young movie opens... things should get better.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Five Star Friday

The Friday Random Ten is a fine tradition, but it's nice to mix it up now and then. So today's selection was drawn from my 5-star playlist - making for a very happy commute....

1. U2 - All I Want is You - the edge at his jangliest
2. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - Tracks of My Tears - if there's a step beyond 5 stars, this is it. This might be the best song of the last 50 years, when you get right down to it.
3. The Stooges - 1970 - ooh, it's a Detroit thing! Why didn't they get the stooges to play the superbowl?
4. Rocket From the Tombs - Ain't it Fun - hey, it's a midwestern thing!
5. Captain Beefheart - Moonlight on Vermont - cubism in rock, those guitar lines coming in from different angles, different pieces of the melody overlapping... it's very cool
6. Charlie Parker - Koko - nice change of pace, sort of - about as aggressive as classic jazz gets, though...
7. Mercury Rev - Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp - somethign fairly new!
8. John Lennon - Working Class Hero
9. Beatles - Norwegian Wood - couple tunes from Mr. Lennon...
10. X-Ray Spex - Germ Free Adolescents - an a nice wrap up... of course, everything is going to be a nice fit here - that's the point! on Five Star Friday!

Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That

[I have been trying to publish this for the last 2 days without luck - if it comes out 15 times - blame Blogger!]

Here I sit, consumed with guilt, since I have not blogged in a whole week! I missed my weekly movie week date - not from lack of movies (I should be commenting on Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada [a very interesting movie, though one that I find it hard to write about without starting at the end; the reason is that it starts out looking like one kind of movie, and then somewhere in the middle becomes a different kind of movie - the real story of the film bercomes something different than you thought it was going to be. That should not be a surprise - it was written by Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote Alejandro Inarritu's first two films (3 actually, since he's written Babel as well), which also shift meaning midstream, as well as - other things in common with this one. In fact, these three films could make a fine exhibit for the Schreiber theory - if not that the writer is more important than the director (since Jones and Inarritu have their own identities), certainly that writers have personalities that can be as strong as any director.] - or adding to my comments on L'Intrus, which I saw again [you can change "appears to be a masterpiece" to "is a masterpiece" - it didn't so much hold up to a second viewing as demand a third... but I think it is gone now.]... I also saw the new Harry Potter film, which was a reasonable diversion, but one in which the absurdity of the plotting in this book (in all the books) is particularly exposed to the light), but from sheer distraction and indolence. (You probably had forgotten that that was a parenthesis! ha! fooled you!)

I did not choose to blog my plumbing issues - clogged drains and all that. Because frankly those things would shatter the illusion that I live in a world of pure Thought and Contemplation of the Good and the Beautiful, placing me in the terrible mundane world of backed up pipes and soap scum. We wouldn't want that. We'll skip a discussion of what I ate for supper for the same reason.

So what is left? Danish Cartoons? (So very last week.) What is there to say? 1) the original stunt looks like a shameless provocation, worthy of the college republicans. 2) The protests are an excuse for various factions to rile up support for themselves and distract religious-minded dissidents from domestic politics. (See Juan Cole's piece in Salon.) It's something of a going trick - to direct Islamic anger away from the tyranny and corruption of Islamic governments by raving against Israel or the evil westerners. It comes of rather like an update ofMarx - religion is less the opiate of the masses than the crystal meth of the masses.

What else? Vanity Fair maybe? We got naked girls! We got a guy in a suit! We got Hollywood in a nutshell - girls to be looked at, men to look. The Guardian's blog rather neatly skewers the awful thing:

We can debate the semiotics of soft-core titillation until the cows come home. That doesn't alter the immediate, unedifying spectacle of a pair of chalky, corpse-like creatures being mauled by their "artistic director". Apparently there is still more of this necrophilia-chic inside the magazine, with one photo showing Angelina Jolie in a bath-tub. Perhaps she will be depicted as bloated, bedraggled and as white as a fish's belly, like that ghost-woman in The Shining.

There's actually not much to debate about the semiotics of that shot: a clothed man leering over 2 naked women who appear to have been coated in flour - who sit and lay there motionless, nude, subservient, staring at the camaera, while he leans over them, looking at them.... Has the principal of the male gaze - women as the object of the look, men as the bearer of the look - women as objects (looking very statue or doll-like here), men as subjects - ever been so clearly portrayed? And lest anyone miss the point - the big title attached to this bit of cheesy cheesecake is, "Tom For'd Hollywood." They belong to him! God.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Music Random Friday List

No need for much intro - here it is - the Friday Random Ten!

1. Waterboys - And a Bang on the Ear
2. Norman Blake - You Are My Sunshine
3. fIREHOSE - Too Long
4.The Feelies - Decide
5. Madvillain Featuring Lord Quas - Shadows of Tomorrow
6. Grateful Dead - High Time
7. fIREHOSE - Anti-Misogyny Maneuver
8. King Crimson - Easy Money
9. Runaways - Cherry Bomb
10. Blondie - Sunday Girl

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oscars Etc.

I am usually not a big fan of the Academy Awards. There's usually not much overlap between films I think are important and films that win at the Oscars - whether it's because I'm a snob, or the Oscars have gotten stupid I don't know, though I have opinions. There are plenty of Oscar winners (and losers) in the 70s (and before) that I like - it seems to me that the market changed, and the academy changed, about 1980.... But leave that.

Sort of. I wanted to comment on a couple things. (Rather late to the party, since these are both a couple days old - hey, what can I say?) First, an enjoyable thread - Scott Lemieux at Lawyers Guns and Money asks: "if Brokeback Mountain wins, will it be the best film to win Best Picture since Annie Hall in 1977?" Lemieux says yes. My answer? No. Why? well first - I don't really think Brokeback Mountain is the best film nominated (I'd probably vote for Good Night, and Good Luck). Beyond that, while this year's nominations are all pretty good (except Crash - that's embarrassing; I haven't seen Munich, but will eventually, and it sounds reasonably deserving), they aren't that good. It doesn't seem much better than last year's slate - another pretty decent, if a bit dull, list of nominees. None of this year's nominees are any better than Million Dollar Baby or Sideways, or maybe The Aviator (depending on who you ask.) The truth is, being inoffensive is a bit of a triumph - the Academy Awards have not covered themselves in glory since Annie Hall, if you ask me. The nominees (let alone the winners) have almost never been the best films available in any given year (even sticking to fairly mainstream American films) - but there have been a few pretty good winners, for all that. Lemieux anticipates Unforgiven, Schindler's List and LOTR 3 being named - he says Brokeback Mountain is better - me, I think at least the first 2 are better than BBM. (The LOTR films don't do it for me. I don't dislike them - just find them long and completely pointless - the books serve the purpose perfectly well.) But beyond that - Silence of the Lambs got some play from his commenters, and I agree with that. I'd also say Platoon and American Beauty are better than any of this year's nominees. Now - none of these winners would make the best five nominations since Annie Hall - the 90s and 00s alone prove Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, The Pianist - all better than any winner since the 70s. Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull and Atlantic City, Apocalypse Now - same deal. All better than anything that has won in that interval....

Meanwhile - comedy! or something. A couple days ago, TBogg linked to another of Townhall's "film" commentaries, this one from Jason Apuzzo. Since then, Apuzzo's column has made the rounds - gotten the attention it deserves while I've been worrying over this post. I can't add much (not to the Kung Fu Monkey's evisceration certainly), but I wouldn't be much of a blogger if I let that stop me. So on we go.

Unlike the Virgin Ben, Apuzzo actually makes some pretense of knowing something about films - his home site is Liberty Film Festival, which purports to look at films from a conservative perspective. He tries, but this is not a very encouraging effort. The gist of the piece is the usual natter about liberal Hollywood, combined with sniffing about indie films, adding up to this rather bizarre thesis:

Nonetheless, a new trend is developing in what ‘indie’ films the Academy honors. This year the Academy is hot for left-leaning, ’social issue’ films: “North Country” (sexual harassment), “The Constant Gardener” (evil pharmaceutical companies), “Good Night, and Good Luck” (evil Republican Senators), “Syriana” (’it’s all about oil’), “Brokeback Mountain” (gay cowboys), “Munich” (the ‘cycle of violence’), “Transamerica” (sex change operations), etc.

Taken together these films embody an important new Hollywood trend I’d like to call: The New Triviality.

Yes - he claims socially conscious, political films are trivial.

In fact, he doesn't claim much of anything. It's kind of tied to the Oscars, but he doesn't linger over the big awards, or the awards that might illustrate something like a political slant if there was one. Best picture, the screenplay awards - the categories that reward films for their stories, themes, that kind of thing. He spends most of his time whining about acting awards, since that's where he can find films that he can call "partisan" and sort of make a case for it. Syriana - North Country - that kind of film. Though he doesn't so much make a case and make a bunch of jokes, pretending that acting awards are voted by constituency groups. It's very silly.

Nor is it worth pursuing. The simpler point is - when did the Oscars ever not reward socially conscious, political films? Take a couple years plucked without too much calculation from the past: 1967: In The Heat of the Night won - Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner lost. Plenty of social consciousness there, left leaning if it's leaning anywhere.... Here's another: 1985 - Out of Africa beating The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi's Honor, Witness; or 84 - Amadeus over The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier's Story; or 82 - Gandhi over E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict. Plenty of politics, plenty of social issues, some broad, some relatively narrow, some more personal, some more political... I'm not really cherry picking years - my point is that you'll find social consciousness almost everywhere....

Now - I have a theory about this. I think the Oscars have come back to about where they were in the mid-80s. The 80s is when my idea of the "Oscar picture" was formed. To me, films like Gandhi and Missing and The Color Purple and Out of Africa were perfect Oscar pictures - films on historical subjects, biopics, social problem films, serious book adaptations, movies about artists. It meant a certain style - handsomely shot, conventional, well put together, focused on star turns. That describes most of those mid-80s films, it describes this year's nominees (last year's as well). They're socially conscious, but not exactly political (contra Apuzzo and company). (Though Good Night and Good Luck is political.) They are well written (except Crash, which is really awful, when you get down to it), well directed (even Crash has this), handsome looking (even extraordinary looking, for Good Night and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain), though conventionally looking. This year's nominees are also (the 4 that I've seen) essentially actor driven films - they are all star turns (Crash for an ensemble), as much as any of those 80s films were. They are, in short, very good middlebrow films. Reassuring, not terribly inventive, classic prestige pictures.

Those were the films getting nominated in the 80s - the genre flicks (comedies, action films, science fiction and fantasy, blockbusters, and obviously Art Films) were on the outside. (No nominations for, say - Blade Runner, Brazil, This is Spinal Tap, Better off Dead, The Sure Thing, Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Terminator, Die Hard, Evil Dead or any other horror film, Blue Velvet, Full Metal Jacket, Something Wild, anything by Scorsese from Raging Bull to Goodfellas, any Jim Jarmusch film, Do the Right Thing, etc. - a list that might very well be better than anything other than Platoon that was even nominated from 1982 (say) to 1990.) In the 80s those prestige films were being made in the studios - by the 90s, that was less the case. Hollywood slowly shed that part of the industry - leaving the blockbusters and the worst kind of bloated crap, like Forest Gump or Dances With Wolves in the studios. So they got the nominations, though in the late 90s, the Academy seemed to catch up again - they started nominating indie films, or auteur films made in odd corners of the studio system (like Million Dollar Baby or The Aviator.) But not before embarrassing themselves with some of those 90s nominations, and a few last flings with some genre pics in the 00s.

So does this all mean anything? It means, I think, that Oscar nominees will be easier to predict again - look for middle of the road dramas with serious social themes, maybe a hint of politics. Probably fewer blockbuster nominations - but not a return to the 70s, when the oddball stuff had a chance. Just more safe, polite, "serious" films. I suppose it's better than seeing Titanic winning, but think about 1974: Godfather II won, over Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and the Towering Inferno. Or 75: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest beating Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon. Things were different then - it's not so much that there were better movies being made - there are still good, fascinating films being made. It's that the interesting films were getting nominated, one or two a year.