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Why I Loved “Boyhood”

Entertainment 150The 87th annual Academy Awards were last night, and it was a big night for Birdman. Alejandro Inarritu won Best Director for what was admittedly an incredible movie that seemed like one long take over most of its two-hour running time, and the movie itself won Best Picture. A cynic might say that of course Hollywood loves movies that reflect itself more than anything, but that would be diminishing Inarritu’s achievement. Birdman is a tightrope-walk of a movie; it stays with its actors through long, complicated scenes; it dips between natural, honest dialogue and winking meta-text and hilarious slap-stick set pieces and surreal flights of fancy without taking a breath. It really is something, and I see why it’s getting the recognition it did.

That being said, I have to admit that I’m bummed Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture last night. Taking nothing away from Birdman, I would have loved to see Linklater get rewarded for another, different feat in film-making. He rounded up a number of game actors (and children) for a grand experiment in long-form storytelling, the likes of which we may never see again. While it’s true that there are other movies that allow us to see people growing up right before our eyes (hello, the Harry Potter series! I see you, Michael Apted’s Up series!), the episodic nature of Boyhood‘s narrative allows us to look at the process of childhood and parenthood from a bird’s eye view. It shows us simultaneously what it was like to grow up in the 2000s and the timeless challenges that face families across generations.

The more I think about Best Picture winners, the more I want them to serve as something of a time capsule. The Best Picture winners that really stand out are the ones that either serve as a timeless example of its form, or give us a snapshot of what life was like during a particular time frame. That’s why I’m content with say, The Hurt Locker winning in 2010; it was a great snapshot of a particularly thorny time in our country’s history and helps us remember the incredible emotional toll that war can take on a man. I’m not sure too many Best Picture winners do that — offer something timely or timeless.

I love Boyhood because I think it does both. Linklater ties Mason’s arc to a very specific point in time, anchoring us to a place where the idea of family is morphing into something else; in addition to the people who’ve given birth to us, there are all sorts of people who enter our orbit, affecting us strongly for a time. Sometimes they stay with us, and sometimes they leave our orbit and go elsewhere, but the connection changes us just the same. Mason’s contact with two stepfathers (who turn out to be difficult, overbearing men) encourages him towards the more erratic but lighter touch of his biological father and infuses him with a deep distrust of authority figures later on in life. Things that mean an awful lot to us in the moment are consciously forgotten but spin us in different directions, while the constant, mundane contact of those who we’re closest to either encourage those diversions or gently, steadily course-correct us back to who we are. It’s fascinating to see all of Mason’s major experiences lead him to the next thing; the things he sees and observes burrow deep, and sprout later on in the film once he’s able to own the lessons he’s learned.

The broken family, the difficulties his mother faces as she tries to find love and career satisfaction, the earnest and misguided attempts at parenting from a father who’s still maturing speak to something that’s very much happening now. The boundaries of the family and community are expanding and blending and more than ever I think children are seeing their parents not as people who have their shit together, but fragile, frightened human beings who are just doing the best they can. I think it’s important to capture that, to immortalize the nebulous shape of our most fundamental relationships.

At the same time, we see Mason go from a (sort of) blank slate to a young man, with all the ego of youth and the inklings of who he’ll grow to be over the next decade. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up, and it’s fascinating to watch his mother struggle to find her place while she’s trying to provide her children with good and stable lives. While these issues have been shaded by the complexity of our times, they’re still the same issues every parent and child have faced for so long.

Linklater takes these universal problems and expresses them in ways that are thoroughly modern. At the same time, he doesn’t cast judgement on any of the characters throughout their lives; he merely allows them to express themselves as naturally and realistically as they can. At the end of Boyhood, I felt content, compassionate, connected to my fellow man in ways that generally only happen with great stories. While Birdman is a great film, it didn’t quite give me that feeling. Both are great movies; but I think Boyhood is the one that I’d love for people to remember ten years from now.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen either Boyhood or Birdman, please go see both! But…see Boyhood first.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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An Outrageous Deconstruction of Shocking Comedy

Buddhism 150In my opinion the best comedy is almost always surprising. A really great joke takes a well-worn premise and drives it off a cliff when we’re least expecting it, or connects two places we never knew were even close to each other. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I think we like to have our expectations subverted in a relatively safe way. It keeps our brains nimble, always looking for new or overlooked connections — after all, it’s our ability to adapt that’s driven our success as a species, and play often serves the purpose of sharpening skills that are necessary for our survival. I admire comics who are constantly testing the world around them, looking for ways things fit differently than they should or don’t fit at all. It’s that perpetual, witty inspection that both inspires and exhausts me. It’s not all that’s required to be a good comic, though. You have to be able to read an audience, work with the mood of the room you’re in, figure out how to manipulate and control it. The best comics are quick on their feet but patient and stubborn; they work hard, are constantly perceptive, and test their own material with the same fervor they test the world around them.

Myth 150One of the ways comics work to surprise their audience is through shock humor. This is a very specific subset of a comedian’s bag of tools, and it’s a son of a bitch to use. You’re surprising your audience by saying blatantly offensive, politically incorrect things; this either exposes the flaws in those thoughts or allows us to release the tension we generate when WE have those thoughts. Good shock comics (again, only my opinion) tell us “It’s OK, other people think this way. It’s stupid and awful, but we’re only human. Let yourself off the hook, you’re not that bad.” It can be cathartic to hear someone saying the worst things and being allowed to laugh at them; with that lingering shame or tension surrounding sensitive topics gone, it can free us to give them a fresh look, to talk about them openly. Shock humor can make unsafe topics a little bit safer by dropping our defenses around them. It’s an incredibly useful thing, but only if handled in a shrewd and sensitive way.

There’s been a couple of controversies recently around shock humor that got me thinking about just why it’s so tricky to pull off shock humor, and how easily it can be done wrong. There seems to be an increasing tide of opinion that certain subjects should never be joked about, are never safe for comedy and that making light of those topics in any context is disrespectful or dismissive. I consider myself a pretty sensitive guy, and I definitely sympathize with the perspective of the beleaguered minority. I’m gay, black, Buddhist, and spend far too much of my time expressing my inner lapine nature on the Internet. I run up against the dominant culture quite often, and in ways that most people who land in the majority just a few other ways can’t really grasp. In other words, being a gay black Buddhist is harder still than being a straight black Christian.

Still, I recognize the miraculous way a good racial joke can lower the tension in the room whenever race comes up and pave the way for an honest, meaningful conversation. Never underestimate the power of laughing at yourself; it tells the room that anger and judgement doesn’t come swift, that it’s all right to make mistakes while trying to figure out the briar patch of racial relations. And trust me, people WILL make mistakes with this stuff. But it’s OK. Most people are well-meaning and ignorant of the reality of being a minority in any way. And most of us in the minority are still struggling with learning how to express our perspective in a way that they’ll understand. There will be a lot of mistakes on both sides, and we have to be patient with each other as we make and learn from them.

But sure, you might say, it’s all right for you to make a joke about black people. You’re black! Good point, I say. Is it ever all right for someone in a position of cultural power to make a joke about someone in a minority? I may be a gay black man, but I’m still a man. Could I make a shocking joke about a woman and expect to get away with it?

That’s a thornier issue. As we all know, there are no hard and fast rules for comedy. Comics will get called out one day on a joke they’ve made countless times before, for no other reason than the fact that someone got offended and voiced that offense in a way or platform that allowed it to catch fire. I think it’s very easy for the comic to be confused by the sudden backlash; it’s something he’s written and tested, by himself and with other comics, with countless audiences, and it passed with a variety of audiences. Why is it suddenly not OK?

I think it’s easy for a comic (or anyone who’s being attacked) to say “Chill out, relax, everyone else can take a joke, why are you so sensitive?” I don’t need to tell you that this is the absolutely wrong thing to say, but I’ll do it anyway. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY THE WRONG THING TO SAY. Shock comics work with material dangerously close (or probably over) the line with a lot of people as a matter of trade. The law of averages states that one of these jokes, no matter how well you proof for it, is going to go too far. When it does, you’re going to catch hell for it. And when you do, it’s important to understand that the person/people giving you hell are individuals with their own histories and stories that contribute to their reaction. Dismissing their offense as ‘over-sensitivity’ IS disrespectful, far more so than the original joke.

Every time a comic walks into a room with a new audience, he’s walking into a new minefield. It’s like playing an entirely new game of minesweeper, every time; you never know when you’re going to step in something that sets off an explosion. While you might be aces at minesweeper, and have never lost yet, there’s bound to be one time where something blows up in your face. And that’s because people are individuals, with their own experiences and history. They interact with that history in different ways, and you never can tell when something is too raw for someone to laugh at. If you’re dealing with touchy subjects, or shocking humor, the chances of you stumbling across a fresh wound dramatically increase.

These people aren’t being over-sensitive when they call out a comic on a joke that’s more offensive than funny. They’re just being themselves, and for the most part that deserves a measure of sympathy and thought. These people should be dealt with honestly and respectfully; comics should be secure enough in themselves and their material to resist the temptation to discount someone’s offended reaction. This could be the door to speak openly about these topics, just presented in a different way. In an ideal world, the comic would engage with criticism, discuss the joke and the reaction without ego, remove himself from the equation entirely. Unless the comic really believes what they’re saying, the reaction isn’t against the person (no matter how personal the response gets), it’s against the things the person said.

I think that comedy should be inclusive, like any other form of storytelling. When someone uses shock to surprise the audience, it’s important to set a tone of “we’re all in this together; let’s see what’s on the other side of this line of decency.” Even if the comedian is making jokes at the expense of a group that’s in the room, there should be an atmosphere of camaraderie. This is incredibly difficult to do, and not everyone can manage to simultaneously engender good will while essentially making fun of an entire group of people. The shock comic can’t be lazy with his humor, or let too many false notes drop. He must constantly engage with the temperature of the room, and adjust his material to suit it.

At least, that’s my platonic ideal of shock comedy. Most comics who deal with shock for laughs don’t do this, or they make frequent mis-steps and find themselves in trouble. Unable or unwilling to deal honestly and respectfully with the people they offend, they end up cultivating the attitude that “I’m just telling jokes, you don’t have a sense of humor, this fun-bus is leaving without you.” And that’s a shame; it makes the comedian look more like an asshole with a genuine disrespect for the groups he’s telling offensive jokes about, and it makes it that much harder for them to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere when they’re telling them. It’s why, say, Seth MacFarlane generated this groundswell of outrage over his Oscars stint last month; he brushes off criticism, fails to engage with legitimate grievances of a group who feels marginalized and excluded, and makes them believe that his party is not for them. His shock humor has the exact opposite effect that it should — it divides when it should unite, and it hardens our thinking when it should make our opinions more pliable, subject to scrutiny.

Yet, I don’t think MacFarlane or most other shock comics are actually callous, dismissive people. I think there’s only so much outrage you can legitimately handle before you start to get worn down, and the reactions of most shock comics to a seemingly endless chorus of offense is to dismiss it. Legitimate grievance or no, it all starts to look like the same after a while. There are some corners of the public who simply live to be offended, and to express their feelings as loudly and as often as possible. I think a lot of people who feel marginalized by public figures assume that these celebrities don’t have feelings and reactions of their own, and should be treated as something other than a person doing a job. Think about it; if you were called up publicly for a risque joke you’ve made, called a coward or a monster and had your talent questioned, wouldn’t your first instinct be a defensive one? Why should it be any different for another person, no matter how famous, rich or successful?

That’s one thing that our culture of outrage has taken from us; the ability to see one another as people, to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If a comedian is sometimes guilty of dismissing their audience as overly sensitive or politically correct, then the audience is also guilty of dismissing a comic as heartless or arrogant. People of all stripes will make mistakes when they’re trying to open up honestly about touchy subjects, and the best response they could be given is a patient and graceful one. If you feel affronted by what someone says, the key to convincing them to change their opinions or apologize for what they’ve said isn’t railing at them and making personal attacks. It’s to attack the ideas represented by their words and actions, speak about the effect they’ve had on you and how it prevents you from laughing about it. Because, really, honestly, I believe that’s what most comedians actually want you to do. No one goes on stage, or posts a joke, or makes a comment, with the idea that they want to alienate a large percentage of the people who might be listening.

And if they do, they’re genuinely not worth your time. They’re most likely bad people who thrive on attention more than anything, so the key response there is to not give them what they’re asking for.

Again, there really aren’t hard and fast rules for comedy, but I think that this is a good guideline for navigating the thornier aspects of the relationship between a comedian and his audience. I could be wrong; I’m not a comedian. And really, this all comes down to assuming more of the people you have a disagreement with, not just dismissing them with your worst ideas of who they are. If we could all just check that impulsive reaction and consciously change it for something better, the outrage would die down a little and actual conversation would spring up in its place.

 

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My Wildly Inaccurate Oscar Predictions 2013

Entertainment 150As almost every cinephile knows, the Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, capping off a few months of hype and speculation about which movie will be crowned the best movie Hollywood made all year. Whichever film takes the honor will have quite esteemed company, joining the ranks of Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lamb, and others. We’ll honor the actors, actresses, directors, technical wizards and other behind-the-scenes guys who worked tirelessly to bring us stories that entertained, provoked and amazed us. I love this time of year. It’s the movie lover’s Super Bowl.

And just as sports writers prognosticate on which teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and why, movie buffs make their guesses about who’ll be carrying home those Oscar statues at the end of the evening. It’s fun to test your knowledge of not only the movies being nominated, but the political game behind Oscar — it’s a curious, fizzy mixture of sheer talent, personal perception and industry buzz. To me, the perception of the nominees is almost as fascinating as the work they’ve done to get to the big dance.

I thought I’d take a moment to write down who I think will win and who I think should win in the major categories this year. Keep in mind that these guesses aren’t based on any sort of expertise or insider’s knowledge. I haven’t even seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and much of my perception is based on picking up what’s in the echo chamber and throwing it back out there. Don’t use me for your office Oscar pool, whatever you do.

BEST PICTURE
Should Win Life of Pi. Though it wasn’t perfect, Life of Pi was certainly the most ambitious of all this year’s nominees. It told a spiritual fable in a way that was accessible, engaging and beautiful, and hit all of the right notes at the right time. The story was long thought to be unfilmable, and three different directors gave it a shot and passed before Ang Lee hammered it into shape with extraordinary patience. While most of the other nominees this year have a bit of emotional distance built into them (with the exception, perhaps, of Django Unchained) Life of Pi encouraging engagement as well as a more intellectual pondering. It’s the perfect blend of storytelling, and a worthy entrant into the ‘time capsule’ of movies that have won Best Picture. It tackles age-old themes in a thoroughly modern way, creating a snapshot of the way we think and feel in this day and age.

Will WinArgo. It’s been riding a wave of good will ever since the perceived snub of Ben Affleck for Best Director, and I see no reason why it won’t ride it all the way to the end of the evening. It looks like it’s shaping up to be a two-way race between Argo and Lincoln, and people just seem more passionate about this movie. And that’s fine, I guess — it’s engaging and very competently directed. Affleck has come a long way from his string of flops, but I think The Town and Gone Baby Gone were both more gripping.

BEST ACTOR
Should Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. Hands down, one of the finest actors working today, if not the very best. He makes Lincoln seem alive, to use the cliche — there’s humor, anger, wit and weariness all written across that craggy make-up of his. A lot of the movies best moments come down to Day-Lewis’ delivery; he knows when he really needs to sell a scene and when he needs to pull back. All in all, it makes for the most accessible, humanized Lincoln I’ve ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix comes close for his role in The Master, but Daniel Day-Lewis quite simply stands head and shoulders above even that.

Will Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m not sure there’s even room for a “dark horse” candidate. In a weaker year, Bradley Cooper could have charmed his way to the award for Silver Linings Playbook, and again Phoenix can’t be ignored for The Master. But no one expects them to upset. Day-Lewis has got this locked.

BEST ACTRESS
Should Win — I’ve only seen two out of five Best Actress nominees, so this is the major category I know the least about. Of the two, I can only imagine Jennifer Lawrence being a serious contender; Quvenzhane Wallis is just happy to show up. And everything I’ve read says that Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts and Emanuelle Riva all turned in incredible work. I probably won’t have much of an opinion on who should win until I catch up on Zero Dark Thirty and Amour this weekend. Sorry to cop out on this one, guys!

Will Win — Emanuelle Riva. I have a hunch. People really feel like this one goes to Chastain or Lawrence, but there’s a very strong undercurrent of praise for Riva’s work in Amour. Both of the other front-runners are great actresses with long careers ahead of them, so I believe they’ll get another shot. Riva is my pick for the “surprise” of the evening.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Should Win — Tommy Lee Jones. He was having such an obvious blast in Lincoln, he nearly walked away with the movie. He anchors the scenes in Congress, serving as a fiery, wonderfully crotchety senator that’s Lincoln’s best worst ally. The nomination field is full of similar roles this year, and this one worked best.

Will Win — Robert De Niro. As good as Jones was, it feels like the wind is blowing De Niro’s way. He’s been getting a lot of buzz for his role as a dad with OCD (maybe?) in Silver Linings Playbook, and many people see it as a welcome return to form after a decade of paycheck movies.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Should Win — Anne Hathaway. Have you seen her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”? It feels like Les Miserables was building up to that moment early on in the film and the rest was just interminably long denouement. It was a searing performance that came out of nowhere to basically rip your heart out, much like Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls. Amy Adams was excellent as a severe, zealous wife in The Master, and Sally Field was quite good in Lincoln, but no performance this year was as indelible as Hathaway’s. I was crying every time she appeared on screen. The look on her face when Valjean tells her he’ll take care of her daughter? Her return at the end of the movie, radiating love and peace for an elderly Valjean? Forget about it.

Will Win — Anne Hathaway. Almost as much a lock as Day-Lewis; she’s pretty much swept every award she’s been up for until now, though that might mean that Field could sweep in and take the award. She has plenty of respect and admiration, and people love to root for the underdog.

BEST DIRECTOR
Should Win — Ang Lee. While I definitely admire the work all of the nominees did this year, I don’t think anyone’s had it harder than Ang Lee. The production of the Life of Pi had to have been a circus, and he was a dedicated, extraordinarily patient ringmaster. Dealing with the complexities of the metaphysical story, a cast of unknown actors, an incredible amount of CGI while making sure everything was not only understood but connected on an instinctive, emotional level is no small feat. It’s a minor miracle that Pi is as good as it is, and it’s all thanks to Lee.

Will Win — Steven Spielberg. This is another ambitious production, and there’s a lot of admiration for what Spielberg has done with Lincoln. I’m thinking they’ll split the prizes this year and give Lincoln the Best Director statue as a consolation prize for losing to Argo.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Should WinWreck-It Ralph. Why are we even having this conversation? It was everything you could want in a cartoon — sly, sweet, with a fan’s knowledge of the video game world created around the story. It’s so good, it’s hard to believe it didn’t come from Pixar.

Will WinWreck-It Ralph. Brave was good, but it didn’t have the heart, joy and je ne sais quoi of Ralph. It has a lot of things going for it — it’s from Pixar, there’s a lot to like about the heroine, the other three films aren’t quite as Oscar-worthy — but unless people just vote for the Pixar movie out of habit, it’s hard to imagine it winning.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Should Win — I have to say, I really have no idea in this category. I’ve only seen one of the nominees, and I think it’s the one that will win. Hopefully I can see two more by the weekend!

Will WinDjango Unchained. Tarantino’s latest film wasn’t nominated for very much, and the dialogue is his usual mix of snap, crackle and pop. (Whatever that means.) It might be too vulgar for the Academy voters, though, in which case it might go to Zero Dark Thirty instead.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Should WinBeasts of the Southern Wild. This is an indie darling that garnered a few nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) but will more than likely go home empty-handed, which is a shame. But if Beasts of the Southern Wild takes home any trophy on Oscar night, it should be this one. The movie is a strange mix of mythic folk, near-future dystopia and downright fairy tale, and its initial inscrutability dissolves into a complex, breathing story with plenty to say. Ryan and I had a great time discussing it after we saw it, and Life of Pi was the only other movie we could have that kind of conversation about among this year’s nominees. I really admire David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, but in my dream world, this would win.

Will WinLincoln. Tony Kushner cobbled together letters, accounts of the time and passages from Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin to create a fascinating account of the passage of the 13th Amendment. It makes politics seem as messy and muddled back then as it was today, which is somewhat relieving if you ask me. Still, it’s great work that deserves to be recognized, and I think it’ll be one of the statues Lincoln takes home on Sunday.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how wrong I am on Sunday evening. In the meantime, have a good weekend folks!

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Movies, Politics, Pop Culture, Television

 

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