[This is the third of a three-part dialogue between R. Kurt Osenlund, Managing Editor of The House Next Door at Slant Magazine, and Kevin B. Lee of Fandor’s Keyframe, in response to the Oscars 2014: Video Evidence series produced by Kevin Lee on Keyframe.]
Kevin: Kurt, now that we have spent two hefty chats on the Actors and Actresses, I’m relieved that we can draw our attention to the rest of the field for our final back and forth. But how can we possibly cover the twenty non-acting categories in one post? I have a couple of ideas.
The first idea is patently ripped off from Sam Adams’ latest Criticwire survey on Indiewire, where he asked participants to pick their favorite nominee to win an Oscar, and their least favorite nominee to kick off the ballot.
My own choice for a guaranteed victory is Her for Best Picture, though my phone and I have already gushed about Spike Jonze‘s career-to-date masterpiece at length. I also wrote a video love letter to my second most desired win, Rithy Panh‘s The Missing Picture for Best Foreign Language Film. So here I’ll offer a fresh endorsement for Before Midnight to win Best Adapted Screenplay. Never mind how thrilling it would be to see Richard Linklater win an Oscar at the twenty-five-year mark of one of the most singularly accomplished careers in American cinema today. Before Midnight simply blows away the competition in this category.
Jim Ridley’s script for 12 Years a Slave reduces nearly all of its white characters and even some of its black characters to didactic caricatures, upon which Steve McQueen adds his highbrow sensationalist aesthetics to plow through his tricked-out PBS high school history video. Even Billy Ray’s action-oriented Captain Phillips script has more complex racial dynamics, though Paul Greengrass’ grabby directorial shock tactics render them incoherent. The Wolf of Wall Street’s screenplay is basically variations of James Franco‘s line from Spring Breakers, “Look at all my shit!” played on repeat for three hours. It’s garbage compared to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s subtle handling of class issues and balancing of tragic and comic moments in the script of Philomena.
But I place Before Midnight above them all because it’s the most attentive to its characters, with an intense concentration on the cinematic moment that reads as if every line were written in real-time. The ultimate proof of this is that you don’t need to have seen the previous Before films to be pulled in from the first scenes of Jesse and Celine with their kids in medias res on their Greek odyssey of a day and a night. You don’t need to have witnessed their previous flirtations to be instantly seduced by the intricate intimacy of their banter. If you’ve never seen them on screen before, I imagine their inside jokes offer a different kind of revelation: one of watching two characters who know each other so well that it makes couples in other movies seem like total strangers.
This script is the one that’s most attentive to life’s natural flow, and the role that conversation plays in that flow. It either stems the flow with reflection (and there are such lovely moments, like the close of that that epic dinner conversation), or it speeds the reckless pitch of other moments, like the hotel room seduction gone horribly wrong. And then there’s that ending. How better to describe that ending but as a testament to screenwriting as a philosophy for life: of authoring your own destiny, and all the stakes involved in doing so? I doubt any of this will cross the minds of the Academy voters, but one could always hold out for a miracle. Linklater’s filmography is full of them.
Whew! Having the wonders of Before Midnight reeling in my mind, spending words on the worst nomination feels like a petty waste of time. Besides, you already did the ultimate hatchet job on my least favorite nomination: Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club. I’ll just use this space as an opportunity to thank you for awakening me and many others to a heightened awareness of the politics of trans identity and performance in movies, and what light that sheds on Leto’s performance in particular, as well as the cascade of praise he’s received from the mainstream. Also thumbs down on The Wolf of Wall Street for Best Picture and Captain Phillips for Best Editing (unless by Best we mean Best Job at Generating False Urgency at the Expense of Thoughtful Handling of a Culturally and Politically Charged Scenario). But that’s enough negativity from me for now.
Oh, and the second option: I’m super intrigued by what you said in our first chat about American Hustle, especially given that you love the film as much as I do. How do you think its themes of what’s real vs. theatrical about people might have escaped David O. Russell’s control? At least your remark got me wondering about the extent directorial control matters in the overall greatness of a movie. Like, I’m not entirely sure Spike Jonze is even consciously implanting half the stuff I found cool about Her; the attempt at a happy ending at the end especially seems to suggest he’s trying to tie things up with a bow, when everything he’s done up to then has opened a pandora’s box of profound metaphysical questions about humanity’s technologically transformed destiny. But that doesn’t detract from the movie for me one bit.
Overall, I’m wondering to what extent each Director nominee helped or hindered their film, and whether we can use that to distinguish the difference between awarding Best Picture and Best Director in the instances they overlap. I’m also wondering what else you may be wondering about. And so, over to you!
[Watch Kevin’s video on why Her deserves to win Best Picture:]
Kurt: Many thanks for the hat-tip regarding the Dallas Buyers Club piece, which opened my eyes as well, given that the response revealed so many nuances of viewer interpretation, queer and non-queer alike. Jared Leto’s is my least favorite nomination too, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that this is the one Oscar result that will truly reflect poorly on the culture at large.
If 12 Years a Slave loses Best Picture, or Lupita Nyong’o loses Best Supporting Actress, we both know there will be ample inflammatory reaction pieces calling for justice, and declaring that Hollywood continues to have a serious race problem. I’m not about to argue with the latter point, but I don’t think those potential losses for Steve McQueen’s film would indicate, as Leto’s win will, that the Academy, and by a certain extension, the populace, are complacent and insufficiently concerned with progress. I think they’ll simply indicate that the majority of voters liked Gravity or Jennifer Lawrence more—or, at worst, that the majority of voters responded to the more accessible contenders.But Leto’s win will feel so profoundly regressive, rewarding a portrayal and character that, despite the few compelling moments for which I’ll gladly applaud the actor, are head-to-toe archaic. Add to that the shockingly clueless and uncomfortably transparent speeches Leto has given thus far, which suggest he’s too smitten with himself to bother empathizing with the human beings he’s playing, and my TV will be equivalent to a roadside car wreck on Sunday, daring me to peek between my fingers before the band plays Leto off. The Mark Harris piece I cited in our first round of chatting observed in detail the ways we should and shouldn’t relate the Oscars to real life, and how much credence we ought to give to the notion that the winners (and losers) will somehow capture the zeitgeist. However much the Academy might like to believe they’re achieving this, I don’t think that’s their job or their reality. But when I look at our current state of queer progress, and, specifically, the transphobia that’s plaguing everything from New Orleans nightlife to Katie Couric’s interview skills, I’m afraid Leto’s victory will indeed point out a very lamentable truth: the queer community is a good ways away from ideal, admirable representation in mainstream popular culture.
I’m going to shift gears now and soak up some of that wonderfully positive energy you directed at Before Midnight, a priceless film that your words do great justice. I don’t think there’s a lover out there who can’t be affected by what Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have achieved, even, as you observed, in this chapter alone. On a personal note, what I found most surprising and amazing, particularly in this culture so quick to tell you what “type” of person you are (I’m looking at you, Facebook quiz-takers), was that I kept shifting from Jesse to Celine in terms of which character I identified with, particularly during that spectacularly well-sustained fight. I am Celine in that I insist on gray area and object to black and white. I am Jesse in that I am terminally selfish, yet want to love with every molecule I can muster. The genius is that these collaborators somehow skimmed the surface of all of us and found these universal kernels of truth, and still managed to craft two characters who feel unmistakably specific. So, yes, I am right there with you in my adoration of this richly deserving Original Screenplay candidate, and since Spike Jonze’s Her is my second favorite film of last year (behind Xavier Dolan’s transcendent Laurence Anyways), it is my pick to take the Best Picture prize as well. But I don’t want to bore readers by simply concurring with everything you’ve offered, so I best dig up a Sam Adams-style nominee who’d be my favorite to nab a prize.
I’m going to perhaps raise a few eyebrows and say that, as much as I admire Alfonso Cuarón, I’d be giddy as hell to see David O. Russell win Best Director, which I guess allows me to touch on your point about directorial control. My earlier note about American Hustle “escaping Russell’s grasp” basically comes down to the fact that, when I hear Russell discuss this film, even in a press conference I attended, I feel like I’m listening to someone discuss a different movie than the one I saw. Fully taking into account the actors’ and screenwriters’ respective achievements, and that truth can be found in even the smallest pocket of a scene, or a glance, I in no way walked out of this film thinking it was about “real people” of the world, as Russell contends. I walked out thinking it was a camp-tastic, unruly expression of anything, everything—truth, lies, innocence, guilt—and that it was so goddamned good that I didn’t care that there was virtually no moral takeaway.
Maybe that was just my twisted reading. Maybe Russell is so used to playing the campaign game that he’s grown accustomed to saying the right things to convince the right people. Or maybe his film just grew into something beyond what he created. One of my favorite things ever said to me in a director interview came from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the pair behind Sound of My Voice and The East. They’re filmmakers with much room for growth, but they’re wise, and humble, and they both insist that their films no longer belong to them once they’re released—they belong to us, the viewers, and we can take from them whatever we’d like. This idea, really, is Film Criticism 101, but it was so refreshing to hear it, without irony or pretense, from the mouths of filmmakers. And if what I loved most about American Hustle is beyond Russell’s intentions, I’m not about to hold it against him, because I still think he created something great that came spouting from his id.
Elsewhere, I’d like to note that I think the Documentary Short lineup is very possibly the strongest of all twenty-four categories, as even the weakest contender, Facing Fear, has something of great value to offer in the ongoing fight against intolerance (I’d nearly go so far as to say the other four are unmissable). Next in line would probably be the Cinematography nominees, each of whom I found stunningly accomplished and unique (when reviewing Nebraska, I never even once mentioned its lack of color, as I was too busy admiring Phedon Papamichael’s capturing of lines, vanishing points, and American iconography). I could have Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty occupy a wall in my home and play on loop forever, like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel. I could watch the performance of “Let It Go” from Frozen ad nauseum (because, ya know, I swear I haven’t already). And, obviously, I could talk about the Oscars until wigs fly, or until we put a beauty queen in space, or until Jonah Hill, an old lady, and a Jackass cast mate all get invited to the Dolby Theater after flashing that genitals. But all of that already happened, so I guess I’ll stop.
R. Kurt Osenlund is Managing Editor of Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door. Critic & contributor for Slant, Filmmaker, Details, Indiewire, Esquire, Time Out NY, RogerEbert and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.