Feeling the blahs

The night before the Oscars, I became light-headed, then feverish. During the night, I alternated between feeling like my body was about to burst into flames, and then shivering under every blanket in my apartment. By the time I finally fell asleep, the sun had been up for hours. In about 9 hours, folks were coming over for the Oscars, and if the phone hadn't been so far from my bed I think I would've called it off. I had visions of myself at my Oscars party, suddenly passing out and crashing through a glass coffee table, and then the screen would go dark and cut to the opening credits of House, with the cool theme music by Massive Attack.
Sometime during the night, my radiators stopped working, for no apparent reason. It was about 30 degrees outside when they stopped, and it was about 30 degrees inside my apartment by the time I dozed off.
It felt as if the door buzzer rang the instant I slipped into slumber. It was the FreshDirect delivery guy, dropping off all the groceries I'd ordered to use in preparing my Oscar spread. After putting all the stuff in the fridge, I tried to slip back into bed for one more hour of sleep, but it was done. Once my body sees sunshine, it's tough to force into sleep mode.
Usually, I try to prep food related to the best picture noms, but this year had me stumped. Should I pass out packs of Camels so we could all smoke through the night like Edward Murrow? Pop pills like Johnny Cash? No, that would fail to distinguish this night from any other night out clubbing in NYC. The only food that came to mind were the canned beans from Brokeback Mountain, so I settled on a main of Chicken and White Bean Chili. For this recipe, I had to char eight Anaheim chilies. I'd never even heard of this type of chili before, but fortunately Whole Foods had exactly ten of them left on Saturday afternoon.
While charring half the chilies on my gas stove and the other half in the broiler, my smoke alarm went off. As old as that sucker looks, it puts out an earsplitting, panic-inducing noise, like a robot screaming in agony. I was certain I'd woken up everyone in the entire building, and everyone on my block for that matter. I ran to my windows, but they were sealed for the winter so I couldn't pry them open quickly. I brought my air filter into the kitchen and turned it on high. All to no avail. Finally, looking at that smoke alarm, which, by the way, I couldn't reach because it was fourteen feet off the ground, I saw that it was hard wired into the wall. So I flipped all my circuit breakers, and it the smoke alarm went silent.
It was now that I recalled that the super had once told me I probably shouldn't use the broiler. Now I knew why. I stood there reveling in the silence, then went back to charring the chilies, in total darkness.
On to the Oscars, the show everyone complains about and yet still watches. With everyone bashing the Oscars, I feel sheepish admitting I look forward to the Oscars every year, though some of it has to do with the fact that there's always an Oscar pool on the line. It's the same reason March Madness is so popular. In fact, if no one gambled on March Madness, I wouldn't be surprised it lost over half of its appeal.
I don't know about that billion viewer claim for the Oscars. Who came up with that figure, and how? Even if everyone in the United States watched, and these are folks in the right time zones, that still leaves some three quarters of a billion viewers to backfill. And this year, the number of U.S. viewers looks to have been roughly 39 million. Maybe that billion is not the figure for people watching live.
The red carpet interviews, I concede, are dull. While laying out food, I stopped to listen to one or two of Isaac Mizrahi's interviews on the red carpet. He was so amusing in Unzipped, but he's a terrible red carpet interviewer. He loves the sound of his own voice too much and always seems locked in a battle for attention with his interviewee.
This year's production was one of the shortest I can recall, clocking it at just under three hours and a half, and yet it felt sluggish. Jon Stewart came out nervous in the opening monologue, a few jokes failed to kill, and awkward silence seemed to grab a chokehold. I enjoy Stewart, but this crowd, a subdued one, is vastly different than the fratboy audience on The Daily Show, the one which whoops and hollers every time the Applause sign lights up. On The Daily Show, Stewart can simply show a clip of Bush speaking, then wait while laughter pours in. His material was solid, but the audience's tepid reaction to much of it dampened his mojo and the show's momentum.
The Oscar crowd likes to drive in the center lane, which is why Billy Crystal is such a popular and successful host. You can take your jabs at the arm, but don't leave a bruise, and take too many shots at the folks in the crowd and they will stop laughing with you. The type of humor that works well at the Oscars is not the brand that is Chris Rock or Jon Stewart specialty. The Bjork-Dick Cheney joke was just right. It was political, but only tangentially, and poked fun at the entertainment industry, but only their clothing. Contrast that with, say, the joke about pulling down the giant Oscars statue so democracy could bloom in Hollywood. Or the joke about Scientology, which probably didn't get laughs from John Travolta and company. Johnny Carson was the prototype for the perfect Oscar host, but I can't think of anyone like him out there today.
Stewart's comic timing did hurt himself with a slightly mis-tuned comic timing. When a joke failed to hit, he'd fill in the silence with a follow-on comment, reaching for the bounceback laugh. "I'm a loser," he offered at one point, but the audience didn't bite. At least he tried. David Letterman got panned for his hosting effort, and he's no worse for the wear. Stewart will be fine, and he'll be able to mine his hosting gig for some laughs when he returns to the Daily Show Wednesday. They don't make comedians check all their sharp objects at the door on that show.
My nomination for the perfect host to restore some energy into the Oscars remains Jim Carrey. If they'd just unleash him, he'd be Billy Crystal but with a chance of broadening the appeal of the show to include some younger viewers.
Other thoughts during the evening, tape-delayed by a night so you can TiVo-scroll through all the bad bits I'm going to blame on my illness:
  • The opening pre-recorded montage, with intros of past Oscar hosts, had a few duds. The bits with Steve Martin's kids weren't that funny, but the Mel Gibson bit from the set of Apocalypto almost rescued it. Mel may be crazy, but at least he hasn't lost his sense of humor.
  • Half of the Oscars production lives and dies with the cutaway shots. When Stewart made a crack about piracy and how many actresses could barely afford enough dress to cover their breasts, the show immediately cut to a pregnant Rachel Weisz. Probably a coincidence, but I was taken aback. Very un-Oscar-like.
  • On the other hand, the cutaways to Clooney were priceless. Gil Cates likely had a camera trained on Clooney the entire night, a wise move on his part. With picture in picture technology, shouldn't all viewers have the choice of having one of several stars always open in a subwindow on the television screen? Where was the shot of George Clooney when Three 6 Mafia gave him thanks? Where were the cutaways during their performance of "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp"? There's one person who must enjoy the Oscars every year, and that's the person who sits in a studio and sees the feed from every camera in the theatre. That guy's got some good stories.
  • Three 6 Mafia - terrific acceptance speech, which began with them walking to the wrong microphone on stage. That was an undeniably catchy tune. The scene in Hustle & Flow, when that song finally comes together, had me grinning, and, along with "Wings" from Brokeback Mountain, "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" was the most memorable musical number from the year in movies. I wish I had a handle like "Juicy J" or "Crunchy Black." Three 6 gave props to everyone, even Gil Cates. Speaking of which, I want to give a shout out to Clooney here. George baby, you're the daddy. Let's work together, baby.
  • Another group that looked like they were having a good time were the four crazy French dudes accepting the Oscar for March of the Penguins. The stuffed penguins they were holding were dressed better than they were; something tells me those guys will be paying some damage fees on those rental tuxes. Two of them weren't wearing bowties, and another's bowtie had gone vertical by the time he spoke. They sounded like they'd had a few bottles of vino prior to arriving. Leave it to the French to know how to live.
  • One reason the Oscars always fall short of expectations are the dull thank-you lists that are most acceptance speeches. It always feels a bit political and insidery to thank producers, studios, publicists, and so on and so forth. Not all thank yous are dull, but the bar needs to be higher. A good example was Robert Altman. He noted that he couldn't possibly thank everyone he'd worked with, so he thanked only his doctor, Jodie Kaplan. That woman might be keeping him alive. She meets the bar.
  • Robert Altman had a full heart transplant?!? What the hell? How does one keep that under wraps? Amazing. Sadly, the first movie that leaped into my head when he revealed his secret was Untamed Heart. I felt bad for Altman because he'd never won an Oscar for himself prior to this, but people are mistaken when they disparate the Academy Honorary Award as a consolation prize. The Academy may get it wrong in one year on any one award, but it's tough to be wrong when you're honoring someone with a lifetime achievement award. How many people in the audience last night could even hope to win one someday? Nicholson. Maybe Streep. Possibly Spielberg.
  • At first, I thought, "How rude, they're playing music and the winner hasn't even begun his/her speech!" Then it became clear that they were playing music to accompany every speech. Not a good idea, and sure to go the way of the "awards presentations in the audience for lesser categories" from last year's broadcast.
  • If you hadn't seen Crash and just watched the interpretive dance segment occurring behind Kathleen "Bird" York during the singing of "In the Deep," you'd think Crash was a zombie movie.
  • It must be satisfying to win the loudest round of applause during the In Memoriam segment. Someone like Jack Nicholson must sleep well just knowing that someday, when he finally knocks off, he'll be the last one shown in that segment, to rapturous applause.
  • When Dolly Parton came on stage to sing "Travelin' Thru", I thought she was introducing The Corpse Bride. It's a cruel industry that won't let its ladies age gracefully. She's 60 for goodness sakes.
  • Lots of fake bakes in Hollywood. I can't say I'm a fan of the bronzed look. Some of the women, if they'd been naked and bald, would've resembled life size Oscar statues.
  • Not Jennifer Garner, though. She nearly did a face plant, but give her a break, she must still be adjusting to the cantilevering forces brought into play by her post-pregnancy figure.
  • All the next-day outfit analysis seems to have scared actors out of taking any sartorial risks, which is too bad. These people are gorgeous and wealthy and successful. At least let us believe, if just for a night, that they might make an occasional fashion misstep like the rest of us. The one time she attended, Bjork was adorable when she was describing in an interview how a friend of hers had made that swan dress. Now we may never have such moments again, and that's a loss for all of us. That said, after Reese won for best actress, it would have been marvelous if Charlize Theron had untied that bow on her dress last night to reveal a hawk. Then Charlize could've whistled, signaling the hawk to fly to the stage to claw Reese on the face and fly off with her statue. No one would be saying anything about Charlize's dress today if she'd done that.
  • One fun way to liven your group during an Oscars episode is to compete to shout out the names of all the movies referenced in the Oscar montages as they flash on screen. If you were able to name all the westerns and film noirs, well then you're a true movie buff. Or just old. Or probably both.
  • Jack Nicholson can read from the teleprompter and it's still entertaining. Maybe he could just come out as the presenter of every award, each time with a different partner.
  • Paul Haggis once was known as the creator of Walker, Texas Ranger. Now he'll be introduced as writer of one best picture winner, director of another. Now that's a Cinderella man.
So Crash won best picture. I discussed my feelings on the movie last year. The movie has an emotional power in many of its vignettes, and some of the cuts are quite clever, but intellectually the movie felt so facile on the issue of racism that it failed to achieve a best picture type of transcendence in my mind. A movie about racism should draw blood, but Crash felt mor
e like a comforting massage, an anti-racism message that had been spiked with sugar to to go down smoothly rather than to stick in the throat the way a breakthrough social message movie might. Perhaps it's a geographic issue. L.A.'s unique geographical layout and racial history may be adding a layer of local resonance that those of us who've never lived there can't appreciate.
Brokeback Mountain, my pick for best picture among the five nominees, manages to seize your heart without tearing open your chest to massage it by hand. It works at you from the inside out, and by movie's end you understand why Heath Ledger chokes the life out of every word, because his story isn't "that gay cowboy" story. No, as it turns out, we'd heard this tale before.
There's a brief cutaway during Brokeback Mountain. Those who've seen the movie will know which one I refer to, and so I can discuss it relatively spoiler-free. Still, skip the next stretch if you haven't seen the movie and haven't read the short story.
The cutaway in the movie leaves much up to the audience's mind. Did what happened in the cutaway truly happen? Is it a cutaway to a Ennis's imagination, or is it the work of an omniscient narrator, so to speak? I checked back in the short story by Annie Proulx to see how she handled it.
In the short story, Ennis hears the news from Lureen. She tells the story of how it happened. But Ennis disagrees.
"No, he [Ennis] thought, they got him with the tire iron."
Later, when Ennis is speaking to Jack's parents, Jack's father says to Ennis, "He had some half-baked idea the two a you was goin a move up here, build a log cabin, and help me run this ranch and bring it up. Then this spring he's got anaother one's goin a come up here with him and build a place and help run the ranch, some ranch neighbor a his from down in Texas. He's going a split up with his wife and come back here. So he says. But like most a Jack's ideas it never come to pass."
The next line refers to Ennis's thoughts: "So now he knew it had been the tire iron."
So I suspect the movie cutaway is meant to reflect Ennis's belief as to how it went down, as in the short story. We don't ever know the truth, and by that point in the movie it doesn't matter, because one way or another, they'd already broken both Ennis and Jack.
The movie that most moved me last year, however, was not nominated for any Oscars. It wasn't even made for theaters originally, but for TV, which may have disqualified it from the Best Foreign Film category. The movie is La Meglio gioventù, or The Best of Youth. The miniseries aired in four episodes in Italy, and in the U.S. it is split into two DVDs of three hours a piece. Everyone will mention the length of this movie when recommending it to you, but for good reason. We balk at the thought of sitting through six hours of any form of entertainment. But at the end of The Best of Youth, I felt the sorrow one feels after turning the final page on a long but beloved novel. If NBC's coverage of the city of Turin and Italy itself during this year's Winter Olympics left you dissatisfied, and even if it didn't, please do devote six hours of your life to The Best of Youth.
I leave this year's Oscars with this question: Is it really hard out there for a pimp? This sounds like a job for Steven Levitt.