Perfect People and a Sense of Humor

So yesterday we finished watching the movie Nine Queens in the two sections of my language course. One of the sections enjoyed the film. People laughed, one student clapped, another student made enthusiastic “woo-hoo” noises, everything went great.

In the other section, however, as the credits started to roll, I perceived a gathering tension.

“What could possibly be wrong now?” I wondered. “There is no sex, no nudity, no politics, and there’s a happy ending. Why are the students uncomfortable?”

“So did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Nah. . .”, was the response.

“Why didn’t you like it?”

“We thought Juan was a good person but he turned out to be dishonest.”

“Well, the only person he tricked was a con man who had hurt a lot of people,” I tried to argue.

“But he lied,” the students drawled.

“He only wanted to restore to a young woman and her teenage brother the inheritance that was rightfully theirs.”

“But he lied.”

“And he was desperate to help his elderly father,” I persevered.

“BUT HE LIED!” the students chanted.

So now I’m looking for a movie where fully clothed angelical human beings go around being perfect all the time. Any suggestions?

P.S. No, I’m not inventing these stories. If I had that kind of imagination, I’d already be a bestselling author.

Oscars Devalued Even Further

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has come up with a very weird way of choosing documentaries that it will consider for an Oscar nomination. Now, only those films that have been reviewed by The NY Times or the LA Times will be considered by the Academy. We all know that these newspapers review only the most mainstream, boring, innocuous kind of movies anybody can imagine. As a result, the entire category of documentary films will be gutted.

I have always used the Oscars as a guide to movies I need to avoid. The only category that sometimes offered some good films on its shortlist was that of the documentary. And now that’s been shot to hell. The Academy has explained its decision by saying that there are too many films coming out and it’s hard to watch them all. So it decided to relegate the decision-making to the film critics writing for two papers selected in an arbitrary manner.

Womanly Women and Manly Men

The beauty of Internet is that a couple of ill-advised clicks can transport you into a completely different universe. This is how I stumbled on an article that discusses Hollywood’s loss of popularity by a passionate character called John Nolte.  Instead of discussing Hollywood’s ills, the article’s author engages in a very entertaining public fit of hysteria about actors who do not conform to traditional gender expectations:

We The People love Sandra, Will, and Denzel for a reason. She’s gorgeous, smart, womanly, classy and approachable, and the fellas are masculine, confident, classy, and non-neurotics who take charge. They also make films that deliver. Not all the time. But most of the time we the customers know that if they’re in it, there’s a better chance than not of bang for the buck.

What they are not and what no movie star has ever been is a child playing a grownup (the exception, of course, is comedians like Adam Sandler or Lou Costello). The Orlando Blooms will never be movie stars. Neither will the Michelle Williamses. And don’t get me started on Shia Le-what’s-his-name.

Look at your history, both recent and long past. Hollywood may have changed over the last few decades, but the people — the customers — have not. The human animal simply doesn’t evolve that quickly. Furthermore, stars shouldn’t represent who we are; we don’t want to see ourselves on the screen. Stars should represent who we want to be. Men want to be John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Women want to Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck.

Masculine men.

Womanly women.

Who knows why in the strange imaginary life of this rant’s author Sandra Bullock, whose only more or less memorable role was precisely one of a “manly woman”, has transformed into a paragon of femininity.

What I wanted to draw your attention to, instead, is the italicized confession John Nolte makes in this piece. His hysteria over the bad, horrible Hollywood stars who do not fulfill the traditional

Will Smith, Nolte's favorite manly man, actually looks great as a woman.

gender expectations is driven by a realization that he himself does not measure up. He tells us very clearly that he is not one of those masculine men, which is precisely why he wants to see them on a screen as often as possible. If he could see one in a mirror on a regular basis, he wouldn’t be bothered by not encountering him in a movie theater.

And it’s always like this, people. The greatest partisans of strict gender roles, the worshipers of womanly womanhood and manly manhood are so obsessed with gender for the simple reason that they feel they never can catch up with this elusive, non-existent category. If only somebody were kind enough to tell them that manliness and womanliness are highly subjective, that they mean entirely different things to different people, that searching for the gold standard of gender in real life is futile. Maybe then they would be able to go to the movies and simply enjoy a film.

Keep reading the article. There is a hilarious discussion of how commie-pinko-unpatriotic-anti-American Hollywood actors “insult” the profoundly conservative American audiences with their partisan movies. And then read the comments because, seriously, it’s a glimpse into a different world. There are folks who actually say that Hollywood actors “hate the troops.” Priceless.

A Scandal Around Oscar Nominations in Russia

I know that nobody will have any interest whatsoever in this post, except maybe my 3 staunch and long-suffering Russian-speaking readers. But since this is my personal diary, I will still write about this story because I find it fascinating. In any case, this is Saturday, the day when the smallest number of readers accesses the blog, so I will not bug anybody excessively with it.

As I mentioned before, anti-American sentiments are strong in Russia today. Stories of “those stupid Americans” are constantly invented, shared, and celebrated. The Russian government does all it can to stoke these feelings of superiority towards the “idiotic Americans” and their silly way of being. In the artistic circles, it is fashionable to ridicule the United States as the home of philistines and ignoramuses who are completely incapable of understanding art, a place where nobody ever reads any books at all, and where only complete rubbish is produced and consumed in terms of culture. (For my Canadian readers, I want to clarify that this wave of anti-American propaganda only concerns the US. Canada simply does not register at all for most Russian people.) American movies are referred to as horrible garbage that can in no way compete with the beautiful traditions of the great Russian cinema.

What is really hilarious, though, is that those same film-makers who spend their lives publishing articles on the inferiority of American film start biting each other’s heads off for the privilege of their work being nominated as the best foreign-language film by the Oscar committee. At this very moment, a huge battle is being waged by the leading Russian film-makers as to who will be nominated by Russia for the Oscars. The level of pre-Oscar hysteria in a country that keeps repeating how little it cares about the stupid entertainment of the stupid Americans is nothing short of fascinating.

The roots of the scandal go back to the Soviet era. Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the greatest Russian film-makers of all times, belonged to a very important, connected, and rich Soviet family. This means, of course, that today he is the all-powerful and authoritative overlord of everything that is related to movie-making in the country. (Remember that there was absolutely no transfer of power when the USSR supposedly met its end, and the same people are in power today who were in power during the Soviet times.)

Sadly, Mikhalkov lost his film-making talent a while ago (I hear that he is a very heavy drinker, even by the Russian standards.) The last time he made a good movie was in 1994. I’m talking, of course, about his Burnt by the Sun, a film that won him an Oscar.

So Mikhalkov decided to get himself another Oscar this year. He got a huge amount of money out of the Russian government and filmed two sequels to his Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun. The film is heavily ideological, extremely patriotic, and very pro-Russian Orthodox Church, which is why the government sponsored this expensive movie in its entirety.

The sequels flopped completely, even though the Russian government forced groups of people (especially school students) to watch them. As bad (for Mikhalkov) or good (for everybody else) luck might have it, this is also the year when the Russian film industry seems to have become extremely successful. Some really great films have been made in Russia this year, like, for example, Faust, a film that won the Golden Lion in Venice. And there are two other films that people say deserve to be nominated a lot more than the long, convoluted and cheesy melodrama filmed by the son of a Soviet boss.

The funniest thing is that Mikhalkov’s movie (which, admittedly, is no work of art) has a much better chance of actually winning the Oscar than any of the other movies people are saying deserve to be nominated over his. One of those films deals with very Russian realities that I can hardly imagine anybody outside of the country caring about. I can barely make myself care about them, so I don’t believe the Academy folks will give a rat’s ass about the film. Another one of these supposedly more deserving movies sounds like it’s beyond pretentious. And it was filmed by a director known for pretentiousness. (He is the guy who filmed this horrible Russian Ark crapola that graduate students love to watch to feel worldly and sophisticated.)

The scandal around the Oscar nomination, however, has long stopped having much to do with who has a chance of winning the award. It is now being used by film-makers, film critics and actors as an opportunity to vent their grievances against the dynasty of Communist party bosses who just can’t be pushed out of their positions of power and authority.

OK, now I have gotten this off my chest and I can promise not to treat my readers to any boring Russian gossip for a while to come.

Movies I Actually Love, Part I

I have mentioned time and again how much I dislike cinema. It pretends to be art but almost always fails to live up to the claim. As entertainment, it is too authoritarian for my taste. There are, however, several films that I love and consider to be as close to works of art as any movies can be. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Before Almodovar sold himself out to Hollywood and started churning out idiotic tear-jerkers of the Hable con ella and Todo sobre mi madre variety, he was actually a great movie-maker. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) is, in my opinion, his greatest work. Every frame, every move of every actor, every single word are absolutely amazing. I really wish we could have the early Almodovar back, but obviously that’s not going to happen.
2. Before Javier Bardem sold himself out to Hollywood and became the new favorite lap dog of the egregiously untalented Penelope Cruz, he was one of the most gifted actors of his generation. Mondays in the Sun (2002) is so professionally and beautifully made and Bardem is so incredibly good in it that I can’t stop watching this film. I’m now on my second DVD because I watched the first one so many times that it became useless.
3. El verdugo (1963) or Executioner by Luis Garcia Berlanga is a classic of Spanish cinema. It is a very quiet, low-key portrayal of how easily and casually one can slip into performing acts of atrocity in the most mundane way possible. In many ways, this film is very symbolic of what the entire XXth century has been like.
4. In case you think I only like Spanish-language movies, you are wrong. Crash (1996) by David Cronenberg (not to be confused with a 2004 film by the same name) is a brilliant movie. It has been criticized by prissy viewers and film critics. Nevertheless, it is one of the most insightful cinematic analyses of sexuality that I have ever seen. The movie’s tone is subdued to the point of being flat which is precisely what makes it standout against the background of regular Hollywood concoctions that attempt to deal with sex. Hollywood film-makers and audiences are so terrified of sexuality that they talk, cry, babble and prattle it to death.
5. As I said many times before, nobody knew how to make movies like the Russians. It’s very difficult to choose one film that I consider to be the best among the incredible production of the Soviet filmmakers. I guess, Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1978) has got to be the winner from the Soviet epoch. The film is based on a play by Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is obviously a genius and making a film based on his work is a huge challenge. Nikita Mikhalkov, the director, used to be so good that he created a version of Chekhov which is better than the original. This is also the only film where Mikhalkov delivers a great performance as an actor. (His acting talents are extremely limited but here he was really good.) Forget about the plot of this movie, just observe how beautifully the director creates the ambiance. The actors are phenomenal, as usual in Soviet movies.
6. From the post-Soviet era, I recommend Heart of a Dog (1988). This movie is based on a novel by one of the greatest Russian writers of the XXth century, Mikhail Bulgakov. Once again, as amazing as the novel is, the film manages to be almost as good. Unlike the previous movie I listed here, I don’t think this one exists with English subtitles. Which is a shame because non-Russian movie-lovers are losing out on something huge here.
(To be continued. . .)