Monday, February 16, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Our English Cousins

Today is President's Day—that strange amalgam of Washington's Birthday February 22, and the nearby Lincoln's birthday on February 12, moved to the closest Monday—and that lead to a thought about the play that Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.

Wiki summarizes Our American Cousin, by English playwright Tom Taylor,  as "a farce whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish, but honest American, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate."

It is notable that the last thing one of this nation's  greatest leaders ever saw before he was shot in the head was a story about what a bunch of rubes we are in relation to our aristocratic forefathers, who, as it is a farce, are played broadly, for laughs.

It also popped into my head because the Oscars—which I consider a distinctly American institution, like Disneyland— offers two films that focus the cultural conversation on two extraordinary Englishmen and their surrounding worlds: Alan Turin, who "broke the German Enigma code" during World War ll that helped the Allies win the war; and Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who defied all odds and has lived five decades of immense accomplishment beyond the "two years" he was given at his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, motor neuron disease to the Brits),  in his twenties.

When you are telling a story about a real person and historical events, there is of course that extra layer for how does it stack up again "real life" from every angle possible.

But there is no uninterpreted data. All of history is storytelling, with varying degrees of "evidence" and a natural crowd-sourcing to support the narrative. So I am not judging these films based on their accuracy. The Civil War was a very complex, historical event, and Gone With the Wind, which did not capture that entire reality, is a great film.

That said, our English Cousins themselves, as presented in these films,  could not be more different: while both are men of maths/science, Turing struggled with all levels of human contact, and the enormous burden of homosexuality being a crime in England in his lifetime; while Hawking seems to have been born with a permanent twinkle in his eye.

The Imitation Game
I saw this film first of the two.

I knew only the barest of who Alan Turing was going in, and that was the general knowledge line above: he broke the German Enigma code that lead to the Allies winning the war.

I did not know at all that in 1952, following a burglary, Turing was charged with "criminal indecency"--homosexual acts were a criminal offense until 1967!!—to which he pled guilty on the advise of counsel and his brother. He chose chemical castration over imprisonment, and died 2 years later, at the age of 41, under suspicious circumstances concerning an apple and cyanide.

The Imitation Game is not a good film because its overall tone is too unsophisticated. A few examples:

The Scooby Gang
The early scene where Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) bounces in to where Turing is holding a test for crossword solvers was one painful cliche after another: she is repeatedly told where the secretary's room is, yes,  because it's the 1940s and sexism reigns supreme, but also partly because her demeanor shrieks assistant, not the serious of mind intelligence of someone with her ability.

The "turn" when chess champion Hugh Alexandre goes from disliking Turing, to fighting to support him was hookey, not the emotional arrival point it should have been.

When Turing has an epiphany and recalibrates the machine with the breakthrough move, the team effort and celebration feels like the Scooby gang finishing up their latest case.

It's the tone that's off.

In comparison, there was a BBC drama called The Hour that followed the beginnings of a BBC news magazine show around 1956, the time of the Suez Canal crisis. Written by Abi Morgan, it captured the distinctive post-war time with a completely believable seriousness of purpose.

The characters—played by Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Gara—believed in the importance of this new kind of news program, and everything about the script, direction, and performances supported that gravitas without ever dulling it down. In fact the gravity enriched the entire experience. It was a fully realized world limned with an economy of strokes.

There's no question of the seriousness of purposes surrounding the Allied efforts of World War ll, and yet The Imitation Game stayed very flat, and on the surface for me. And I have no more insight into the complexity of Alan Turing the man than when I entered the theater.

There are some compelling moments from Benedict Cumberbatch, particularly with Keira Knightly, but no best actor awards from me.

The one exception was the performance of Alex Lawther as the teen-aged Turing. He conveyed every nuance of a young emotionally crippled genius just trying to decode the world and his own sexuality. I would see the film again to see that portrayal.

For the Record:
As I said, I'm not judging the film based on its connection to reality. But, here is my understanding of some of the big picture:

•The Germans developed the Enigma code at the end of WW1 to encrypt important communications.

•Three Polish cryptologists/mathematicians first cracked the code in 1932 and built the first machine (bomba, bombe). They shared their work with the French and the English.

•The Germans then did something more to the code, which meant that the existing machines could no longer decode the messages.  And that's what Turing did: he saw the next generation of machine/code-breaking that needed to happen and the breakthrough to get it done.

•Queen Elizabeth gave Alan Turing a posthumous pardon. For his homosexual "crimes." In 2013. And that effort was lead in part, by Stephen Hawking. The Guardian, December 13, 2012.

The Theory of Everything
I had a general cultural awareness of Stephen Hawking. Brilliant. English physicist. Confined to a wheelchair. String theory something.

I have not read his book, The Theory of Everything, but I appreciated his cameo on The Big Bang Theory.

I enjoyed this film more than The Imitation Game. Its world is more fully realized and with a deeper conviction.

I found myself resisting the conscious beauty shots at the beginning of the film. Like the May Ball [corrected 2/17]  at Cambridge, with the intellectual elite in their best traditional black tie and tails, dancing under summer mood-setting fun fair lights.

Maybe it was the class thing. I haven't read much about class in these two British films, but it is a constant companion to each.

But by the time of the Hawkings' wedding, the film had convinced me to go along with the Instagram Early-Bird filtered wedding video and pictures, evoking the Polaroid coloring of pictures from the 1960s along with determined optimism.

And that's exactly what I want a film to do: convince me along with the way of its truth, make me shed some of the baggage I bring into the theater.

The story is really Scene from a Marriage, English genius style; with a glimpse at the extraordinary difficulties of the a degenerative disease; plus a testament to the human spirit of never. giving. up.

The one thing that took me out of this convincing world: Harry Lloyd, as Hawking's roommate and friend, Brian.  I always recognize the Doctor Who actors where ere I see them.

Lloyd played Jeremy/Son of Mine in the top-tier Tenant 2-part episode written by none other than Paul Cornell, Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

At a dinner party, the conversation turns to something about "he's now a doctor", to which Lloyd answers, "Who?" and everyone laughs. In the film's time period it's after 1967, because baby Robert is on the scene. The series Doctor Who started in 1963, so the gang could have been early fans. The line would have been funny with any English actor, but it's really funny given how good Lloyd was in the classic episode.

Everything should not get best picture, but Eddie Redmayne is deserving of Best Actor.

Now on to the American biopics, Selma, and The American Sniper.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Birdman Does Not Fly Me to the Moon

“It reminds me of that old joke. You know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs."

― Woody Allen, Annie Hall

Woody Allen's end-of-film direct address to his 1979 Annie Hall audience popped into my head the moment Emma Stone smiled as she gazed up into the sky at the end of Birdman.

YES. THERE ARE SPOILERS. Stop reading if you haven't seen the film.

Her dad, the Birdman character and washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, had just jumped out of the window of his hospital room.  But all sense of reality stopped when Riggan opened the window, because hospital windows do not open in NY. Doubt they open anywhere.

Which is part of the film's conundrum.

Richard Lawson explains it very well in Vanity Fair:  "Riggan’s descent into madness is played as madness, until it isn’t. The fantasy isn’t real until it maybe is. The film can’t seem to make up its mind about its reality. Which is allowed, certainly. But that inexactness muddies the scrappy truthfulness the film works so hard for in other scenes. "

So her father could not have jumped out the window.  We see that he's not in the bed, so he must have just walked out of the room, perhaps as a similar occurrence when we first saw Birdman fly through the air, but we then glimpse a shot of the actual taxi that brought Riggans back to the theater.

The film shows us Sam looking down to the ground, and then up into the sky, as though the Birdman is flying again instead being a blood splat on the ground. Oookaay.  We know Riggan can't fly, but we're asked to go with the story--interwoven amid the cinematic verisimilitude of reality & not madness---because, many argue, we need it, we need the eggs from this magical chicken. Just like we need the offerings from the complete artifice of theater itself. Humans have always created, and needed, art.

The Gump Affect

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a front-runner for best picture.
This isn't only a "love it or hate it" movie. More interesting (as a critique) than hate is boredom:  There are tons of comments out there, on multiple sites, that people found the movie boring. For others, the relentless references, technical achievements, and cinematic quotes are pure catnip, leaving the viewer exhilarated. The film is dividing audiences like back in the days of Gump (thanks Lee Lorenz and The New Yorker).

I didn't love the film, and experienced a little of the boredom. Which is strange because I like Roland Barthes  references as much as the next ex reader-response critical theoretician, but the overall feeling I got from the film is we are all fools: for being onstage, or in the audience. Tell me something I don't know.

I'm a TV girl at heart, so here are some recap points:

•The drumming. Often a sound that bleeds into a scene relates to another reality. Here, it's actual hallucinatory madness, so in a way,  Iñárritu is messing with our heads.

•I like the subhead, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." It's an excellent nod to Alexander Pope, who coined "a little learning is a dangerous thing" in his masterpiece Essay on Criticism . . . "drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." The film takes direct aim at critics as the coward piranhas who feed off of the courageous artists, but is there anything actually more devastating than a well-targeted heroic couplet? I think not.

"'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging Ill.
But, of the two, less dangerous is th'Offense
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense."

The subtitle also summons Pope because he used a subtitle for his parody of Longinus' Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime): Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry. So very clever there all around,  Iñárritu and team writers.

•I liked The Shining homage. The hallways & carpet evoke the hotel, and with the celebrated camera work I absolutely felt  I was on my big wheels, rolling through the St. James Theatre. John Powers in Vogue also called out Andrea Riseborough's Shelley Duvall hair, and "the barroom as a truth-telling place." Yes.

•I did not like the conscious, insistence of Riggan that he "make art,"  be "an artist." For me, the worst cliche possible. The narcissism that is needed to act, either in film or the theater, is unpleasant to experience in any mode.

•But that is all topped by the crazy street person, whom Riggan encounters when he goes to the liquor store, who is spouting MacBeth: I think I heard it from "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" but it was the "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" that made me cringe. I mean, really?

(Side note: The building/construction/scaffolding that Riggan shoves the crazy guy up against reminded me of 30 Rock's "The Tuxedo Begins" episode. When Jack Donaghy goes back to a similar sidewalk scaffolding where he was mugged, and enters his own magical realism, complete with Mr. Met. At the beginning of the episode, Tracy Morgan says, "I have an Oscar, now I get to do real art." Hmm.)

For Iñárritu to drag Shakespeare in here tells us again:  All of this time, effort, anxiety to produce a play, and a movie about producing a play, is just loud (check, we've got the drums) and means nothing (check, unless you're Roland Barthes).

The emptiness of the film is another common comment. There are flashes of emotion and humanity within, amid all of the solid acting performances that have been well documented, but no conviction about the performing arts or the audience except that we are all idiots.

I once studied critical theory with Walter Benn Michaels. He commented that it's an intellectually vibrant field, but ultimately sterile. Sometimes he'd rather be inhabiting the world of Pride and Prejudice full on, rather than pondering the theories of relating to it.

For all of its affects and heady references,  Birdman left me with that sterile feeling. I do enter and enjoy the world of magical realism in various ways. I just want to do it with conviction of feeling, like Chagall's "Lovers Above the City." That kind of flying makes complete sense to me.  No primal drumming or madness required.