Monday, February 27, 2017

Why The Oscars Are Worse Than Useless

Above: Joanne Woodward admires her Oscar while husband Paul Newman regards his "Noscar" during his decades-long Oscar losing streak

MOONLIGHT might actually be my favorite movie from last year, which would make it the rare winner of the Oscar for Best Picture that lines up with my own taste. Having said that, and looking past the instantly legendary screw-up last night wherein Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope before taking the stage to hand out the award--I can't help but expressing my disgust at the whole Oscar thing.

Here's why the Oscars are worse than useless: Giving out competitive awards for art reduces art to a horse race. "The Oscars" is just the world's biggest reality game show, turning every film except one into a "loser." MOONLIGHT won, so LA LA LAND lost, but why in the name of all that is holy are these two films in a competition with each other in the first place? Was LA LA LAND the better film for the few minutes that its creators were on stage thanking their families and coworkers? Did it suddenly stop being the best picture released in 2016? Did MOONLIGHT suddenly become the best? No, because one director's love letter to the Hollywood musical and the other director's poignant exploration of race and sexuality were not trying to do the same thing. They are separate works of art, and though some people have tried to make them into proxies for larger cultural arguments the truth remains that the films themselves are self-contained works, both years in the making, and neither attempting to capture the current zeitgeist.

If MOONLIGHT won because Academy voters wanted to send some vague message about inclusiveness, then it really only proves the point that the Oscars are bullshit. MOONLIGHT is a great work of art. It didn't need a shiny gold man to be a great work of art. 

At this point, the most notable thing about the Oscars is how wrong they are. We could add up all the great films that didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture and we'd have almost all of the greatest movies ever made. Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar, and neither did Judy Garland. Since they might be cinema's two greatest performers, does this make sense? After years of not winning, John Wayne and Paul Newman finally did win Oscars, but does anyone really regard TRUE GRIT and THE COLOR OF MONEY as their greatest performances? Do many people consider SCENT OF A WOMAN to even be a passably good movie, much less Pacino's best performance? Is TRAINING DAY really the keeper from all the leading performances that Denzel Washington has given?

The answer to all these questions is no, yet the Oscar myth creates a counter-narrative in which competing marketing campaigns decide which work of art had more merit, all for the benefit of a flashy television event, the real purpose of which, like the Super Bowl, is to sell soap and beer during the commercial breaks. The awards themselves have a longer history, with their roots stretching back to a promotional scheme cooked up by Louis B. Mayer, a scheme that first morphed into a status symbol (industry bragging rights in a one-industry town) before becoming modern television's biggest waste of time.

Like I said, though, the awards show is worse than useless, it's reductive. It diminishes, for the sake of money, artists and works of art. The movie business is already volatile enough mix of art and commerce (of "movie" and "business"). How about we just skip the show next year and go to the movies? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's the Difference?: Some Thoughts on Books and Audiobooks

I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:

"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"

I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.

These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.

One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.

Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.

Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio.  Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.  

Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Brief Words On Simenon

I've been commissioned to write a piece on the film adaptations of one of my favorite authors, Georges Simenon. This is exciting because it gives me a reason to go back to one of noir's deepest wells. The romans durs of Simenon are some of the richest works of the 20th century--tight, muscular stories that move rapidly and yet often tell stories of loneliness and sadness, isolation and despair.

The impetus for this piece on Simenon's film adaptions is the recent re-release of Julian Duvivier's PANIQUE, the 1946 movie version of Simenon's 1933 THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE.

While I've got Simenon on the brain, I thought I would link to a fun photo essay over on Crime Fiction Lover. "Maigret's Paris" is a look at the locations that inspired Simenon's most famous creation, the police commissioner Jules Maigret. Simenon's Paris is one of crime fiction's richest locations, like Chandler's Los Angeles or Doyle's London. Check out the photo essay, and see if it doesn't make you want to curl up with one of the good detective's adventures.

Maigret is a quiet creation, not as flashy as Marlowe or Holmes, perhaps, but no less endearing. For me, though, the real Simenon is found in the "psychological novels" like THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE, a book about a lonely scam artist who becomes the focus of a murder investigation. It's a tragedy, as so many of Simenon's books are, but it's also got humor (even farce) and moves like a locomotive.

That's all for now. I'm off to dive back in.