A great mind once said: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Granted, we're not exactly sure who that great mind was, but the sentiment seems to hold up under scrutiny. I had plans to only talk about the Oscar nominations this week, but there were just too many updates and addenda to recent installments of News and Notes that I felt compelled to touch upon. So, here they are, all conveniently collapsed into one section, where each one gets equal short shrift:
Last month and we discussed the rumored plan for the Trump administration to propose giant cuts to federal arts funding (including completely axing the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). To those artists out there that confidently assured me that I was just being alarmist about this and it wasn't actually a serious proposal from the haphazard assembly of slapdash mediocrity that Trump calls his closest advisors, I have to tell you that, nope, this is now totally a serious proposal. Like every other godawful proposal that Trump bandied about during his poo-flinging-monkey of a campaign it has become a disturbing reality. Last week I talked a bit about the funding disparities that the NEA has traditionally helped foment (and I also agreed for a moment with conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, which still makes me feel itchy and uncomfortable). This week, I would like to direct you to David J. Loehr at 3AM Theatre for his take on the situation. Loehr makes lays out his reasons why cutting the NEA may not make much of a dent in big city theater; instead the real repercussions may be a hollowing-out of theatre and arts in the rural parts of the country.
A few weeks ago, we talked about the changes in theatre spaces coming to the Twin Cities. Some of those changes were good. Some of them were bad. All of them contribute to the overall theatrical ecosystem that we all inhabit. I just want you to know that if you're really intent on carving out your own new niche in our local habitat, there is a theater for sale in Minneapolis. If you have $775,000 burning a hole in your pocket, then get ready to do some habitat reclamation.
About a month ago, we talked about the demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the general state of circus arts in this country. In that article, we touched on the then-pending fire sale of the bankrupt Big Apple Circus. In one of those feel-good stories that might make for a compelling Netflix documentary someday, Big Apple Circus was bought up by an investment group and will, in due time, be returning to performing. Fear not, you clowns and roustabouts, circus arts are still alive in this country, albeit in new and changing forms. In this mode of thought, I would like to direct you to a column by Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune, in which he discusses the recent tragic accident that struck the famous Wallenda family of circus high-wire performers. Even though five members of the famous Flying Wallendas were sent to the hospital with serious injuries, the rest of the family went on to perform the next day.
In Jones' words:
I've come to think of this family, whose work I deeply admire, as an inspiring metaphor as well as a real American family — metaphors for resilience, faith, determination, passion and, above all, action. We often hope that our older loved ones will not waste away and become something other than themselves, but will go out in the middle of the high-wire act of their choice — arms outstretched, smiles on their faces, living life to its very fullest.
Oscars not quite so white?
It's that time of year, friends, when the Oscar nominations get announced, and we all go about reading the tea leaves to see what this means, never stopping for one moment to consider the fact that this means absolutely nothing useful to your lives whatsoever. Actually, if you really want to delve into the complete meaninglessness of the Oscars, please allow me to direct you to the Bucks County Courier Times and their annual obsessive breakdown of the most meaningless Oscars trivia. Have you ever stopped to think about how many movies with the word "sea" in their title have won an award? The Bucks County Courier Times has.
If there's one thing the Academy has proven in this decade, it's that they really, really, really like the chance to give the big award to films that that celebrate or examine the movie industry itself. Birdman (2015 Best Picture) featured a main character trying to overcome his past film glory and make it on Broadway. Argo (2013 Best Picture), told the story of a hostage extraction operation in Iran done under the guise of a filming a movie. The Artist (2012 Best Picture) was an obnoxiously blatant nostalgia piece romanticizing the silent film era.
So, it's no wonder that La La Land, a deliberate throwback to peppy, technicolor, 50s-era musical movies, featuring pretty, earnest white people trying to make it in Hollywood (and also saving jazz in the process) is at the top of almost everyone's betting pool for winning Best Picture. After all, it appeals to the personal stories of the people who actually vote on such things: that is, people who made it in Hollywood. La La Land raked in 14 Oscar nominations, tying the record set by Titanic, which, under normal circumstances, would be a damn good sign that it will earn some little gold statues for its producers very soon.
So, really, the only question left for the 2017 Academy Awards is: will sound mixer Kevin O'Connell finally get an award after his 21st nomination?
Ha ha! Kidding! Nobody in Hollywood cares about technical awards, unless they can be used to prop up otherwise objectively terrible films. (For example, the phrase "the Oscar-nominated Suicide Squad" is now a reality that you have to grapple with.)
First off, let's set aside the well-worn fact that the Oscars have a horrible track record for rewarding the films that actually stand the test of time. It's practically a given at this point that the Best Picture winner will be largely forgotten within a decade. When was the last time you said to yourself "You know what was a really great movie that I should watch again? The Artist!" That time was February, 2012. I guarantee you that you have not had that thought since. That dusty DVD copy that you bought five years ago is still sitting there on your shelf, mocking you.
But, even with that in mind, maybe La La Land isn't such a sure bet. Remember the whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy from last year? The producers behind La La Land are sure hoping that you don't; but I am going to remind you, mostly because any film that so heavily features jazz music in the 50s, but somehow glosses over the fact that black people had a fair amount to do with jazz music in the 50s (like, for example, inventing it), should quietly be moved to the the "Oh, I forgot about that movie; yeah I guess it was alright" bin next to The Artist before it has a chance to pull a bunch of major awards away from films that have a better chance of actually being remembered. It doesn't matter how goddamn pretty and charming Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are (and, yes, I admit, they are very goddamn pretty and charming), La La Land is hitting a very particular moment in the American psyche that may not be so conducive to another white-washed nostalgia piece walking out with all the Oscar pie.
Last year was the second year in a row that the Academy Awards nominated no black actors whatsoever, and the resulting #OscarsSoWhite campaign was enormously damaging to the Oscars' reputation. This year, the Academy nominated a record number of black actors for awards, including Denzel Washington in a movie adaptation of an August Wilson play. That follows on the heels of major shakeups in the makeup of the voting Academy and the elevation of the first black women as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
More importantly, Samuel L. Jackson openly admitted that he only made it through 20 minutes of the film before bailing on it. How many of you are going to fuck with Samuel L. Jackson? I didn't think so.
The Academy Awards are very rarely about picking the actual best film or actor of the year. Only time can really do that, and the Oscars happen so quickly on the heels of the movies they are judging, that there is no way for the Academy to actually sit in sober thought and objectively choose the script, director or performance that we will genuinely remember years from now. Does anyone actually believe that Crash was the best film of 2004? Has anyone even thought about Crash since then, except as an example of how weirdly wrong the Oscars can be? In the meantime, a film like RoboCop, which was largely considered trash in its day, can gain a weird sort of prescience through the passage of time. And let's not forget that Stanley Kubrick, now widely regarded as one of the best, most innovative directors of modern cinema, never won an Oscar, despite making films that people are still watching up to 50 years after they were first released.
The Oscars are not about selecting the best films. They are, however, about demonstrating what the movie industry values at a particular moment in time. This year offers a stark choice: fall back on forgettable, feel-good, white-bread nostalgia; or recognize the enormous breadth and depth of minority talent just waiting for America to actually embrace it. You may have noticed that this maybe has some possibly relevant reflection on the current political climate in the country.
So, good members of the Academy, before you watch your screeners and vote (or, alternatively, don't watch your screeners and still vote anyway, as may well be your prerogative), I want you to think about something carefully. I want you to watch this very powerful internet short in which actor Michael K. Williams has a conversation with himself about being pigeonholed in his career because of what he looks like. If that doesn't move you to reconsider your past voting habits, then I want you to read this article about how movies featuring diverse casts make more money. if I can't hit your in your heartstrings, I'll hit you in your pocketbooks. I know how Hollywood works.
It's a weird living
Are you a white actor who thinks that the recognition of other ethnicities is somehow damaging your career? Have no fear! You can make a very nice living in China being hired out to lend legitimacy to questionable deals as a token minority. Enjoy your lucrative, yet confusing, new career! If you need some advice, black actors have been doing it here in America for decades.