"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Oscars: Beyond the Eye-Candy

Writing on the night of the 84th Oscars in 2012, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times seemed to wonder "aloud" as they analyzed the 5,800-member Academy’s cultural relevance. They had found most members to be “overwhelmingly white, male and 60ish.” Such a rarified persona is presumably enough to relegate the Academy to oblivion. Coming during “Black History Month,” Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Sammy Davis, Jr.—a character sketch that had gone unscathed many times in the 1980s—functioned as a lightning rod for people otherwise bored with the lack of surprises in the announced winners (or the host). Lest “let’s go kill Hitler” had become too politically incorrect for Crystal’s Sammy Davis character to say (like Crystal, Davis was Jewish) at the Oscars, one might take a gander at the excellent film, Inglourious Basterds. This brings me to the main point. According to the New York Times, the Academy may not be relevant because the award-winners did not do well at the box office. I respectfully disagree.

The New York Times points to the “generally weak box-office performance among the year’s nine best-picture contenders—only one of which, [The Help], amassed more than $100 million in domestic ticket sales.” The best picture, The Artist, had amassed only about $32 million. Cieply and Barnes contend that film’s win underscores “the Oscars’ growing detachment from the movie-going public at large.” Indeed, only about one in ten of the Oscars’ viewers had seen the film.

The classic cinema look must have reminded some Oscar viewers and attendees of the grandeur of the big screen.    (source: The New York Times)

Providing another perspective, I submit that the Oscars is not a popularity contest. The awards are not about telling the public what most titillated it over the past year at the movies. The existence of the technical categories, such as art direction and sound mixing, points to something else—a chance for the experts to award talent. Whether we like it or not, the general public is not the best judge of the talent of a sound editor; we go to the movies to become absorbed into a world, rather than to resist this by critiquing each technical function that went into the making of the film.

So while many people saw the last Harry Potter movie and may have enjoyed it (I passed on the last three in the series), art design and cinematography went instead to Hugo, a film that far fewer people had seen. Whereas every member in the Academy can vote for best picture, the other categories are voted on only by their respective practitioners. While this allows for politics and bias (e.g. James Cameron not getting best actor for Avatar due to his personality), the method also enables people in a position to recognize skill to be decisive in the selections. A director watching another director’s film, for instance, can pick up on good directing much better than we could as viewers. I suspect the general viewer’s opinion becomes more valid when a particular technical function is bad (e.g. a scene is out of focus, or certain sounds can’t be heard). I suspect that practitioners in a given field are necessary to discern between five cases, each of which looks good to the rest of us.

Therefore, I think there is great value in having something more than The People’s Choice Awards. Moreover, the ancient Greeks were on to something when they defined virtue as excellence, and modern society only shows its banality in viewing such a conception of virtue as not relevant simply because not many of the public have seen specific instances.

While I found the storyline of The Artist to be formulaic (the “punch-line” is actually in some classic films about silent-era stars), the selective use of sound was interesting, as was the decision to have the film mostly silent in a sound era. I make this observation from the standpoint of the art and science of film (as well as from the vantage-point of film history), which is not necessarily that of the general public. The film’s technical functions were fine; that those awards were spread around to other films may testify to the imprint of practitioners of the respective functions. In other words, one film might have had the best sound editing while another had the best art direction (though in 2012 Hugo got both of these).

Hugo deserved to win for its art and cinematography, as much of “that world” of the film is essentially art. The screenplay is also notable—even if many more people went to see Harry PotterHugo is not only a movie for kids; it contains, or isa commentary on functionalism (and machines, and indirectly, technology). The screenwriter backs this up with a theology that is historically associated with functionalism (i.e., Deism, or God as clock-maker).

Even so—and this is where having experienced screenwriters voting—the screenplay of The Descendants may have been even more decisive (i.e., excellent) because the protagonist’s (not the actor’s!) choices having to do with character (i.e., virtue) are key to the film itself and especially its narrative. Specifically, how far the protagonist decides to go against one of his antagonists is vital because anything would have been justified. In making the nuances of the protagonist’s choices, the screenwriting is vital to the film in saying something about being human. The general life and death theme means the story is ultimately about being human. Relative to the screenplay of The Descendants, that of The Artist is rather formulaic—even predictable. Watching the ending, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen that before.”

I do not believe that the general public is in a position to judge between the best of the art and science of film-making. Indeed, film-making itself, including its various technical functions, is not like cooking—something that most people can do (or even judge). Whereas having taste buds makes anyone a potential expert on whether a dish is “good,” we cannot assess sound mixing or art direction, or even period costumes, simply by watching the finished product. Even in regard to acting, even though bad acting is rather obvious to the viewer, discerning between good actors must surely be difficult for a viewer who has not studied and practiced the stills of acting. Knowing the “tricks of the trade,” only an experienced actor could discern the nuances that distinguish good actors from the best. We, the general public, already knew before Oscar night which films had been popular and thus “good” in terms of popular opinion. Left unknown until "the envelop please" was which films were the best as judged by the practitioners according to standards forged out of specialized training and years or even decades of experience.  

If standards sourced in expertise are indeed irrelevant in modern society, Hollywood's output might reduce to what we think we want: more meaningless but tasty eye-candy. As the old adage goes, be careful want you ask for; you might get it. Lest we get what we think we want, we might want to view the Oscars as something more than a rubber-stamp of the People's Choice Awards; we might deign to acknowledge without feeling humiliated that the typical viewer is not the best judge. This lesson is lost on Hollywood itself to the extent that producers and directors chase the "top grosser" prize for the first weekend. 

Arthur Abbott, the renowned retired screenwriter in The Holiday, has the obsession that has come to grip Hollywood in his cross-hairs as he addresses the crowd at the WGA event to honor him with a lifetime achievement award. "I came to Hollywood over 60 years ago," he says. "When I first arrived in Tinseltown . . . there were no cineplexes or multiplexes. No such thing as a Blockbuster or DVD. I was here before conglomerates owned the studios. Before pictures had special effects teams. And definitely before box office results were reported . . . like baseball scores on the nightly news." As subtext, Malcolm Lee, the film's screenwriter, was undoubtedly sending Hollywood a message: Things have gotten out of hand and the quality of films has suffered as a consequence.   

Karl Jung would say Arthur Abbott instantiates the "Old Man Wisdom" archetype of our collective unconscious. The viewers are thus inclined to respect Arthur's points. (Youtube: Jacky Huang Szu Han) 

Film-making need not be led by polls and focus groups like a dog chasing its tail. There is still such a thing as talent, which comes from intuitive aptitude, training, and experience. Such expertise is not always reflected in the first-weekend numbers, or, moreover, readily observable at a distance. Chasing that distance is an exercise in futility (or self-destructiveness) for any aspiring or veteran film-maker who values outstanding quality in the craft.

Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “’Hugo’ Wins 2 Early Awards at the Oscars,” The New York Times, February 27, 2012.

Going to the Max: The IMAX Experience

Despite being more expensive, going to see a movie being screened on an IMAX screen has been leading the industry’s rebound in revenue and attendance. Through the first six weeks of 2012, IMAX ticket sales were $55 million in the U.S., a 45% increase over the same period in 2011. According to USA Today, the “surge outpaces the industry’s overall rebound of about 20 percent. The key is that the IMAX experience, which is predicated on screens up to 60 feet tall, cannot be reproduced on ipods, laptops, television screens, or even home "theaters."

The IMAX screen. Anyone considering getting one installed at home might want to consider adding a few more floors and a cathedral ceiling first. (Wikimedia Commons)

IMAX is “fulfilling the promise that 3-D didn’t keep, that it would be unlike anything you’ve seen,” says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations, “(a)nd unlike great sound or 3-D glasses, you can’t replicate IMAX at home unless you have a six-story screen.” It is principally because IMAX is only available in theatres (and museums) that the number of IMAX screens tripled from 2008 to 2012. This has major implications for the sort of films that theatres will want to show, as not all films are equal with respect to the advantages of the large screen.

Films such as Titanic are literally tailor-made for a huge screen. In general, action films, such as John Carter, and animated films, such as The Lorax, take most advantage of the big screen. Dramas, on the other hand, are less well-suited, with the caveat that a cinematography that includes sweeping landscapes can come off as vistas when shown on IMAX. Even so, it might be that as the technological means to watch films proliferates, only screenplays particularly suited to the IMAX will be oriented to theatres. Obviously, this is a generality; it would likely still be in the theatre owners’ interest to retain the traditional screens, and thus continue to show dramas. Even so, the demand for them—unlike the films that play well on IMAX—is likely to be stagnant or decline.

The implication for screenwriters is that the type of venue should be more salient in the writing. If the story is apt to be particularly well suited to be shown on IMAX screens, this could be reflected in how the characters look as well as what they do. It might be that the elements that play so well on IMAX are such that the narrative itself is diminished. If so, additional attention to the story elements may be advisable. In John Carter, for example, viewers may be so captivated by the large characters that the plot could fall by the wayside. Making the major story elements (e.g., critical event) more salient could counter this effect of the big screen. Regarding stories not so inclined to IMAX, the screenwriter might want to consider how the writing could take into account the small screen (e.g., ipod or laptop) format. It might be more difficult, for example, to follow a lot of action.  By implication, directors should also consider the impact of the format (e.g., filming action at a distance in a drama to be viewed mostly on ipods and laptops). In fact, the editing process could even take into account the viewing format by putting out two different versions (sort of like the theatrical and director’s cuts now).

In short, if cinemas are to survive, it could be because they can proffer something that no other venue can have. IMAX is a case in point. This does not mean that all films are equally well suited to the format. Even for the film genres that take particular advantage of being shown on a large screen, theatre owners should encourage screenwriters, directors and editors to take the format into account. It could even be that some types of story (and even some elements, such as the climax) are particularly well suited to being shown on IMAX (as well as in 3-D). Moreover, the relationship between technology and narrative warrants more attention. Indeed, it may be that the twenty-first century may be known to future historians for how technology told stories.


Scott Bowles, “IMAX Is Delivering What 3-D Couldn’t,” USA Today, March 22, 2012. 

Titantic: Film Chasing History

James Cameron’s Titanic was released in 1997—twelve years after the wreck had been found in the icy north Atlantic. By 2013, there had been enough empirical study on how the ship actually broke apart and went down that we could look back at the depiction in Cameron’s film as at least in part erroneous. Interestingly, Cameron himself sponsored and was actively involved with the studies that would effectively “semi-fictionalize” his own depiction. Rather than trying to protect his depiction by getting the studies to confirm what his best guess had been at the time of filming, Cameron engaged in a determined effort to get to a definitive answer as to what really happened. This in turn lead to some interesting questions.
According to Cameron's documentary in 2012, the back end of Titanic only reached 23 degrees, far less than depicted in this picture (and in the 1997 movie). Source: fxguide.

In any historical piece, the “film world” is not the same as what really happened. The sad truth is that the world of the past is forever lost once it is past. Seeing Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln (2012), I could not but think that the former president must really have been as depicted. However, much of my image of what Lincoln must have been like has come from the myriad of stories. As a child, I had seen his log cabin in Salem, Illinois, and his law office and house in Springfield, and I had watched other portrayals of the man on television. Even as I marveled at Lewis’s depiction of the man, I found the screenplay itself too idealistic. For instance, Lincoln represented large railroads as a lawyer in Illinois, and he overruled his own Secretary of the Interior in agreeing to pay the transcontinental railroads mountain rates for building track on flat land in the West. It is odd, therefore, that in trying to get votes on the anti-slavery amendment, he is depicted in the film as being so concerned that no bribes be paid. In short, Hollywood seems hardpressed to completely expunge the accumulated mythos element even when trying for historical realism.
To take advantage of having access to Titanic’s wreckage before it is completely eaten by bacteria, Cameron did not rest with what had been theorized at the time of his film-shoots. He sponsored additional studies, bringing the experts together and turning that meeting into a documentary in 2012. In doing so, he knowingly risked making his own depiction obsolete, or at least partially flawed. As shown in his documentary, he was more interested in getting as close to what really happened than protecting his depiction. The issue for him was whether to reshoot the ending. Seeing a potential series of such changes as more and more is grasped  or theories change, he decided to keep his original ending.
His decision is in line with highlighting the dramatic, even if at the expense of new knowledge. I have in mind the scene in which the back of the ship is standing vertical in the air. The two protagonists “ride” the ship down until it submerges. As of Cameron’s documentary, the studies postulated that the steepest angle was 23 degrees, with the ship splitting in half at that point. The back end sank into the water, turning over as it did so. Of course, this too must be taken as conjecture. There was no video taken at the actual scene, and the eye-witness accounts differ. The frustrating truth is that we will never have a flawless picture of what really happened. This is not to say that progress cannot be made, and Cameron should be applauded for being so determined on this task even though his depiction in the film stood to lose ground. Indeed, after watching the video depiction that Cameron made in his documentary, I view his film differently—at least the now-rather-extreme vertical position of the back end of the ship.
In his documentary, Cameron points to the hubris that when into the ship “that could not sink.” The preoccupation with size got ahead of itself. Put another way, systemic risk was ignored. Similarly, he points out, we did not see the iceberg coming in 2008 as the economy hit an unknown quantity of mortgage-backed derivatives and insurance swaps. Even after that, he goes on, we were headed right for a global-warming “iceberg” with a “rudder” too small to avoid the obstacle in time. Just today, the Huffington Post ran a headline concerning climate change, “Its Happening.” At the end of his documentary, Cameron suggests that too many people holding power are making money in the status quo for a sufficient amount of change (i.e., rudder) to occur before “it hits.” It is as though Titanic’s captain could see the iceberg far out in front yet was too invested in the ship’s course to deviate.
Even in assuming back in 1997 that Cameron captured on film what really happened (I made that assumption), there is hubris. Even the updated graphic in Cameron’s documentary in 2012 should be taken as provisional. As stated above, we will never be able to know what really happened. Whether in what we think we know about a bygone world, building a ship that cannot sink, leaving new financial instruments unregulated, or putting off legislation that would counter global warming, we as a species presume we know more than we do. We naturally get ahead of ourselves, and thus ironically risk our own progress and indeed even our very future as a species.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Greed as Excess

Greed is indeed a major player on Wall Street. Perhaps this is why films on the financial world embellish the behavior; film-goers might otherwise fall asleep. It is much more difficult to see greed fueling the embellishment highs in the process of film-making. Perhaps both Wall Street and Hollywood are glitz on the outside, but supercharging the inside hardly does justice to either venture. In this essay, I discuss Jordan Belfort, an actual financier on Wall Street and the main character in the (fictionalized?) Wolf of Wall Street (2013) so as to flesh out the different ways in which sordid greed manifests in modern society.

In 1991, Robert Shearin could only repress his frustration as brokers at Stratton Oakmont unloaded their own shares in penny stocks while ignoring the sell orders of Shearin and other investments. "By the end it was constant screaming matches with these people," Shearin recalls. "They would just ignore my sell orders."[1]
The “suck and dump” scheme ran from 1988 to 1996. Twenty years later, the investment firm’s founder and CEO, Jordan Belfort, was still wheeling and dealing. After 22 months in prison followed by a period probation until 2009 during which half of his income had to go toward the $110 million in restitution, he was brazenly holding the remaining restitution ($98.4 million) owed to his shafted clients as hostage in negotiations with Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Since the end of the probation, Belfort had paid restitution of only $243,000 on income of millions from his two memoirs, the sale of the film rights, and motivational speaking fees.[2]  Although legal, the post-probation skimping effectively nullifies his claim of being a changed man. "I was not such a good guy back in the day. But I'm a good guy now. I am. I live my life with such integrity," he told the New York Daily News in October of 2013.[3] Yet at his speaking engagements, he would repeatedly quip, “Hey, at least no one got killed.”[4] Hearing about this crafty way of evading questions, Diane Nyggard, the attorney who represented Shearin and twenty-four other investors whom Belfort fleeced, replied, "I guess you could say no one was murdered. But a lot of lives were ruined, and many of the more elderly investors never recovered."[5] Poverty, especially that which comes out of treachery, is a sort of death that gradually saps the body and abruptly snuffs out the the spirit, leaving in its wake walking corpses who cannot afford even to haunt the bewindowed towers.
At the end of 2013, Belfort was still trying to weasel out of paying the remaining 90 percent of the restitution still owed to over a thousand former clients, including Shearin (who had received only 20 cents on the dollar as restitution). To be sure, Belfort had some leverage in the negotiations, for the 50 percent of income stricture had elapsed at the end of the probationary period so he could legally continue to pay scraps until his death, after which the restitution would abruptly stop. Among other acts, he had spent five years after being arrested in 1998 on securities fraud and money laundering charges wearing a wire, “ratting out friends and colleagues from Stratton Oakmont and testifying against them at trial.”[6] Besides stabbing friends in the back, the founder was essentially making the people whom he had trained and ordered to rip clients off take the hit in his place.
True to form, in the negotiations in 2013 on the remaining $98.6 million, the unchanged man offered to pay all the money from the film and books into the restitution fund if Lynch will substantially reduce the rest of his obligation. With almost all of the $11.4 million having come from sales of Belfort’s properties, the unrepentant swindler was clearly trying to keep the restitution judgment from touching the fortune he had saved from his swindling enterprise.
What lesson can we take from this case concerning the nature of greed? Most principally, it has not only unlimitedness as a salient quality, but also an in\mperviousness to the restraint that comes out of conscience. Put another way, greed does not recognize should. Instead, the desire for an even better deal, ad infinitum, views the external world as potential props that are themselves perceived only in so far as they can potentially be manipulated for gain. Because the last deal is never good enough, as it does not satisfy the desire, the wealth one possesses, including in property, goes practically unnoticed unless it can be manipulated for still more. That is to say, what was once vividly in focus as the aim of the best deal so far is naturally dismissed by greed as it moves on to getting still more for even less.
Going too far, in never being satisfied with enough, can apply to film-making too. In The Wolf of Wall Street, which is based on Belfont's memoires, the credo of film-making that even a story based on a “true story” must push the truth to dramatic exaggeration to hold an audience's attention reduces Belfont and his second in command to a contorted mass of drugged-down humanity on the floor of Belfont's kitchen and side room. Having already provided over-the-top eye candy in the scenes of the office celebrations, Martin Scorsese apparently felt obliged to "kick it up a notch" on the emotional intensity meter by having Leonardo DiCaprio flop around on the floor, tangled in a phone cord while shouting and foaming at the mouth.
DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort. The character reduces from this realistic image to a floundering fit of over-drugged and over-dramatic human mess. (Image Source: AP)
It is as though film must push its own adrenalin highs, each one more intense than its predecessor, in order to maintain the attention of a hyperactive audience, itself on popcorn laced with speed. With what costs to the story and, ironically, the integrity of the characters does serial exaggeration in a screenplay come? According to Shearin, the audience skates past the grounded gravitas of the characters as real human beings, whether fictitious or based on real people. "Jordan Belfort is not a fictional character, but when DiCaprio plays him he becomes one for the audience," he said. "We like our scoundrels as entertainment, but it's easy to become disengaged from the real harm this guy did."[7] Watching the fun-loving, theatrical Belfort motivate his brokers onscreen does not begin to reveal the man behind the character, who stabbed his friends in the back in order to save himself from the consequences of what he himself had engineered and gotten others to do for him.

[1] Paul Teetor, “How the “Wolf of Wall Street” Is Still Screwing His Real-Life Victims,” LA Weekly (Blogs), December 16, 2013.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.