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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 24, 2010

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


500 Days, Crazy Heart, Phone Books, and Yale

I'm trying to catch up with this year's Oscar-bait movies. It takes a lot of fun out of an Oscar party if you haven't seen most of the nominated films and performances -- and last year I had seen almost none of them.

What keeps me away from a lot of "serious" movies is that they tend to fall into certain categories:

1. Artistic pretension. I'm annoyed, not impressed, by show-off cinematography, mannered writing, and over-the-top acting, which are easy to achieve, banal in effect, and always come at the expense of clarity and emotional involvement.

2. Dark, dark, dark material. I'm old enough now that I've seen a lot of darkness in real life. I should pay a fine to watch fake darkness that some writer dude thinks is "tragic" or "ironic"?

3. Irresolution and inclarity. If you're not going to tell me a story clearly enough that I know what happened, and you're not going to go to the trouble of ending it, why should I put myself in your hands for two hours in the dark? Real life is irresolute and unclear, and I can get that for free. Fiction exists to make sense of things. Any idiot can tell a story that makes no sense, and most do.

Now, all of these attributes of "serious" movies can be -- and are -- defended with a lot of fancy verbiage. But I've heard all the arguments and they're twaddle. "I'm holding a mirror up to real life." Great -- so you turn everything backward. What have you contributed? I've got my own mirrors, thanks, if I want to invert reality.

"I'm advancing the art." No you're not. Every time I hear some claim about "advancing the art" I find myself watching just another iteration of fifty-year-old "experiments."

"I'm pushing the envelope." What envelope? Oh, you mean that pile of shredded paper over in the rubbish heap? What you really mean is that you're getting credit for "bravery" by insulting the few remaining citizens of the old civilization that was jettisoned as of 1968.

You're offending the people that it is completely safe to offend -- like religious people and people with good manners -- because they dare not complain.

The people that it's dangerous to offend, you tiptoe around them and never do a thing that will bother them, because you know their wrath can hurt your career.

The envelope consists of the stupid, self-contradictory, and vicious dogmas of the extreme Left -- and most of these "serious" filmmakers never, never offend them at all. Why? Because that's the team they're playing for.

You don't get credit in the real world for "experiments" and "bravery" and "reality" that became cliches by 1975 in film -- by 1935 in fiction. You're just another echo of an old revolution -- like Brezhnev tottering around mouthing the words of Lenin.

So yeah, I'm skeptical of movies that are being touted for Oscars.

Take, for instance, 500 Days of Summer. Written by a couple of newbies and directed by another, they came up with the really clever and original idea of messing with the timeflow of the story.

Wow -- telling a story out of order so you can withhold key information until the end! Who has ever done that before!

Oh, wait -- practically everybody.

It makes sense when the story is about disruptions in timeflow -- like Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Memento, in which the brilliance of the films came from the effective ways the writers and directors found to make the story clear despite the fact that there was no rational timeflow in the tale itself.

But there is no such necessity in 500 Days. It's the story of a relationship that lasted 500 days, between the viewpoint character, Tom Hansen (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who once played the kid in Third Rock from the Sun), and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).

So each scene begins with the day number flashing on the screen: Day 287, Day 15, and so on. We start with their breakup in the middle of the 500 days, we see their cute relationship when they're still in love, we see his depression after each breakup, we see his moments of hope that things might still work out, and so on, and so on, all told out of order.

It's all a cheat. Almost the first thing said in the movie is "This is not a love story." But it's a love story. From beginning to end, it's a love story. What in the world did they even think they meant by pretending that it wasn't? Do they merely mean that it doesn't have a happy ending? Well, duh! There are plenty of love stories like that -- they're called "stories of unrequited love."

Besides, they want to have their cake and eat it, too -- because the ending of the movie absolutely promises that everybody will live happily ever after.

Even the title is a cheat. "Summer" is just the name of the girl. And guess what? The new girl at the end is named "Autumn." That's, like, symbolic -- she's the season that comes after Summer! Get it? Get it?

(Oh, did I spoil it for you? Naughty me. But if the biggest thing they bring off at the end of a movie is a bad punchline, they've got nothing.)

All of this might have been forgiven if the love story were really interesting. And maybe to some viewers it will be. But I've seen this woman before. Summer is a "free spirit" whom the boy falls in love with, only to discover that she can't commit to anything, so he breaks his heart. (See Breakfast at Tiffany's and about a hundred other movies about whimsical free spirit women.)

I've even met this woman -- and in every case, it was a complete fake. "Free spirit" is an affectation. It consists of pure self-love: the "free spirit" is consumed with admiration for her own free-spiritedness. Does the word "narcissism" mean anything?

And all the "free spirit" stuff is annoying. People who act like that make terrible company. You are always tagging along, trying to catch up with their improvisations; no matter what you do, they are the star of every scene.

And that's what this movie is about. Except that she's kind of easy, it's hard to see what he sees in her. When they break up, it's hard to see why he doesn't just pull himself together, get back to work, and cope with it like grown-up people do.

In short, she's a jerk and he's a twit and it's really, really hard for me to care.

The only thing going for this movie is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are very good actors -- the film coasts on their charisma. There are also some very good supporting actors.

Most unbelievable thing: The hero supposedly works at a greeting card company, and during the early days of his affair with Summer, she inspired him to write "brilliant" cards. But none of them are brilliant. They have to stretch to rise to the level of cliches.

And then, after he has behaved for months in a way that would lead any normal boss to fire him five times over, he quits with a big speech about how phony and hypocritical greeting cards are.

Every word he said sounded to me like a review of the movie he was in.

*

But not all the news is bad, folks. Crazy Heart seems at times to be a remake of Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall's lush 1983 indie film "a broken-down, middle-aged country singer" who finds love and remakes his life.

In fact, that log line fits both movies equally well, only Horton Foote, the writer of Tender Mercies, definitely got there first.

But part of the curse of imitation is removed by the fact that Duvall himself is one of the producers of Crazy Heart, and he plays the broken-down middle-aged country singer's best friend -- a bartender, naturally.

Jeff Bridges has been shamefully overlooked for the Oscars for 26 years -- ever since he was passed over for a brilliant performance in Starman in 1984. (F. Murray Abraham won that year; he was good, but the voters cared a lot more for the pretentious film-about-art Amadeus than for the real best movie of that year, because Starman happened to be science fiction.)

He has given a lot of good, effective performances since then, notably in The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Jagged Edge, but this is his first performance since Starman that shows the raw power and charisma, the honesty and intensity of his acting.

I'm not going to spoil this movie for you. Let me say only this: Its ending is in some ways the opposite of Tender Mercies', yet it is every bit as real and satisfying. Sometimes things work out the way you want, and sometimes your own demons betray you once too often and some of the damage can't be repaired. That's the truth.

But there is no pretentious, arty irresolution to the ending. We know how it all turns out. And ... we like it. It's the right thing. Everybody did the best they could, and they can live with their choices. It is not tragic or ironic, it's simply beautiful and true.

The music, by T-Bone Burnett and his associates, is first-rate -- we can believe that these are hit country songs. Moreover, we can believe that Jeff Bridges's performances of them are huge hits, and that he is a star. And while Colin Farrell, as Bridges's young protégé and rival, is no Jeff Bridges, he does a decent job of singing and a good job of acting.

I haven't read Thomas Cobb's original novel, Crazy Heart, and Scott Cooper, the screenwriter and director, has the kind of track record you often see in independent movies -- that is, nearly none.

But I'll tell you, Cooper's script and Cooper's eye and Cooper's work with his actors is outstanding. At every stage, the director is supporting the actors' performances instead of competing with them.

It helps that he's working with some of the finest actors around. Maggie Gyllenhaal is what most other actresses only aspire to be. She isn't just another pretty face -- she makes herself as beautiful as the script requires, through the quality of her acting.

It's a little-understood secret that beauty on screen is the result of the performance, not the face. It helps if you don't have any visible scars or a current flare-up of acne, of course, but the actresses that convince us they're beautiful do it by the way they present themselves, not by what nature endowed them with.

And, like Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air and Claire Danes in Me and Orson Welles, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes us experience her character the way a man in love experiences the woman he adores. It's only one of the effects a great actress is able to bring off -- but it's hard to tell an idolatrous love story if the lead actress can't do it.

(Idolatrous love story: The kind of love story in which the man is more worshiper than friend or companion or partner; the kind of story in which the woman, however real she is, functions for him as a dream.)

Crazy Heart earns an R through bad language and grown-up themes; it is not pornographic or violent, but it ain't no Disney film. 500 Days of Summer is rated PG-13, but has an IQ of about 70.

*

Some things to check out on the web

You really should go to http://snipr.com/phonebooksculpture and see the phone book bas relief sculptures of Alex Queral of Philadelphia.

His gimmick -- because "serious art" today usually requires a vaudevillesque gimmick -- is that he carves his sculptures into phone books. That's right, he cuts down into those thick sheaves of very thin paper, then shellacs them so they can be hung on a wall.

Look, the sculptures aren't brilliant. They're more along the lines of pretty-good fan art, especially since all the portraits are of famous people. The point is not that he's revisioning art or doing anything profound, it's that he's doing it with phone books.

So it's fun to look at these pieces and see if you can recognize whom they're of -- but would you really want to have one hanging on the wall of your house?

(The full URL is http://www.cracktwo.com/2010/01/unbelievable-celebrity-phone-book.html)

*

Then head over to http://snipr.com/YaleRecruitmentVideo and see the best college recruitment tool I've ever seen.

Written, produced, directed, recorded, and performed by students at Yale, it's not so slick as to be intimidating -- it feels honest. The singers are good but not great; the film is sometimes funny, mostly entertaining, but it's definitely about Yale and the experience students can expect if they go there.

Now, let's begin with reality here: Yale is already famous as a world-class university. Its intellectual reputation is impeccable. So they don't have to spend more than a few seconds touting that. It's a given.

If you can get into Yale, you're probably not choosing between it and, say, UNC-Greensboro or Michigan State. So the students (and some alumni who advised them) spend most of their time showing what makes Yale a happier, warmer, kinder, gentler school than, say, MIT or Harvard or Stanford or Duke.

So they show you the on-campus life, where their residential colleges promise a community where you immediately feel known and can be assured of finding like-minded friends.

I never had any interest myself in attending an Ivy League school -- I figured I was in charge of my own education and as long as I had access to any book I wanted, I'd get a superb education. But then, I was heading for careers in which academic credentials were irrelevant -- in theatre and writing, who really cares where -- or whether -- you want to school? It's what you do that matters.

But most high school seniors don't have that luxury. In many fields, the school you attend does make a difference in starting salary and job placement, or in the quality of graduate school that admits you with benefits. And if I were a high school senior with the chops to get into a school like Yale, this video might well make the decision easy.

The full URL is: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Yale-the-High-School/20565/


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