It Ain’t Cool

The other night my wife was grimly washing the dishes. When I asked what was wrong, she smashed a plate on the floor with both hands and screamed, ”EVERYTHING!“ . . . No wait, that was Sissy Spacek‘s big moment from In the Bedroom, which was shown so many times during the Oscars run-up that I began fearing I’d turned into Tom Wilkinson.

Sunday‘s latest edition of the Academy Awards didn’t merely mark the ceremony‘s return to Hollywood Boulevard but its first attempt to become good TV instead of lousy cabaret. The show waved goodbye to the tacky triumvirate of ’80s war horses -- Gilbert Cates, Debbie Allen and Bill Conti (not Tom, Ms. Roberts) -- and replaced the usual club-footed patter with nifty montages put together by Errol Morris, Penelope Spheeris and Nora Ephron, whose cinematic love letter to New York was actually far better than any of her real films. The producers can no longer afford to count on even a flicker of live-theater spontaneity, for stars know that any display of spunk or pizzazz -- such as Bjork‘s swan dress -- can unleash a kennel’s worth of bitchiness. Gwyneth Paltrow ventured forth in an unflattering dress, and ABC‘s post-ceremony fashion commentator Tanya Hart ridiculed the actress’ ”sagging“ boobs, then added -- ”Poor baby, she hasn‘t even started breast-feeding yet.“ And this from a gal who looked like the Missing Link’s first wife.

The show was packaged to the teeth -- it came framed by the two iconic Toms, Cruise and Hanks -- and you instantly understood why once the winners started claiming their awards. Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Connelly earned my vote as the World‘s Dullest Living White Woman by ticking off thank-yous with all the verve of a student conjugating verbs. She set the tone for the soporific lineup that followed: Jim Broadbent, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and uber paleface Robert Redford, whose earnest plea for the industry to ”embrace risks as well as sure things“ makes you wonder why his last four big projects were The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Last Castle and Spy Game. Aside from Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, the only interesting winners were wry foreigners and shambly, droll Randy Newman who, after 16 tries, evidently wore down the voters (”Maybe if we finally give this one the Oscar, Randy’ll write a different song next year“). I kept wishing that Jeffrey Katzenberg had accepted the award for Shrek so he could tell us who he thinks that midget king is supposed to be.

While it was cool to see two black actors nab top prize in the same year -- Denzel Washington finally copped the statue he deserved for Devil in a Blue Dress -- it‘s creepy that an African-American winning an Oscar remains such big news. (”A Change Has Come“ trumpeted the L.A. Times, whose slavish coverage tactfully photographed Paltrow from the back.) For all its renowned liberalism, Hollywood even lags behind the troglodytes in college sports, where, on Friday, black coaches from Kent State and Indiana faced off for a trip to the Final Four -- and nobody deemed it noteworthy. Despite Whoopi Goldberg’s presence as host and big prizes for Washington and Berry (whose touching meltdown quickly descended into the bathos of thanking lawyers), the Oscar telecast was still shot through with the industry‘s unconscious attitudes: Each time Goldberg made a racial or racy joke, the director cut away to Washington, Samuel L. Jackson or Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. The Academy managed to get Woody Allen to fly from New York to wring his hands and trot out his vaudeville-era shtick, but it didn’t manage to put any white people in the film praising ”American hero“ Sidney Poitier.

As Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind didn‘t merely prove a worthy successor to Gladiator, it reminded us that the Academy’s taste runs to banality, so long as it offers inspirational uplift and rakes in plenty of dough. Still, things could be much, much worse. The March 22 Wall Street Journal ran an article quoting theater owners saying that the Academy Awards matter far less than they used to because they‘ve lost touch with the heartland audience. There simply aren’t enough hit pictures among the nominees, and who the hell is Tom Wilkinson, anyway? Now here‘s a scary thought. We’re living in a time when the Oscars may have become too hip for the room.

There appears to be an inverse proportion between the number of dollars spent on Oscar campaigns (up to $50 million this year) and the number of serious film critics who can make a living at the job. On March 29, the Orange County Register will let go one of the country‘s sharpest and most knowledgeable critics, Henry Sheehan. It is hiring no one in his place. Along with the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Register will start reprinting reviews by one Craig Outhier from the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Arizona, a sister publication owned by the ironically named Freedom Newspapers. I’m sure the Register‘s readers will be delighted to discover that their paper, the 23rd largest in the country, is now being serviced by a critic who wrote of the Houston International Film Festival, ”Forget Sundance! WorldFest is one of the best conceived festival productions on the planet!“

While syndicating film critics leads to a deadening homogenization (you get the same review whether you’re from Anaheim or Arizona), the real problem is the increasingly common belief that serious critics are like an appendix, irrelevant yet potentially harmful. Terrified that they‘ll lose their audience, print editors dread seeming passe or elitist -- The New York Times’ Howell Raines reportedly wants ”less Peking Opera, more Britney Spears“ -- and they mistrust critics who know too much film history or view movies with analytical detachment. We‘re long past the days when young people actually thought that film critics like Pauline Kael were heroes.

”In the arts,“ Kael once remarked, ”the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.“ While she herself sometimes failed to live up to this credo -- her advance raves for Nashville and Last Tango in Paris read like ad copy bound for Valhalla -- she knew that critics struggle to resist the cultural pressure to turn everything into PR. This requires more strength than you might think. When I was first hired as a film critic at this paper in the mid-1980s, I wrote several pans of big Hollywood movies -- including Prizzi’s Honor. The then-editor took me out to dinner and told me that he kept hearing (from whom he didn‘t say) that I was ”hostile“ to the industry. Was that true? I took the point, and unheroically found a movie to praise in the next issue -- just that once. We all make our compromises.

Some more readily than others. These days, the thoughtful Henry Sheehans are being overshadowed by self-promoting fanboys like Harry Knowles, the Haystacks Calhoun of movie geeks, who recently visited L.A. to promote his new book Aint It Cool? Hollywood’s Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out (written, it seems, by two other guys). Knowles appears to be an amiable sort who adores ”cinema“ (as he‘s taken to calling it) and fills his Aintitcool.com website with gush, gossip, sneak-preview reports and attacks on those who issue ”spoilers.“ Early on, studios felt threatened by his site’s habit of reviewing works in progress. But they quickly realized that Knowles is no bomb-thrower, no dissident. He‘s a starstruck hanger-on who blithely takes paid trips to premieres or movie sets, cheerfully stuffs freebies into his suitcase, blissfully does lunch with the directors he worships. In return, he promotes the movie industry with every waking breath -- endlessly dropping the names of people he’s met, promoting the movies he likes months before their release, working hard to make the no-life thing seem, well, cool. Even when it came out that he was accepting gifts that would get a real film journalist fired, his fans dug Harry for ”getting away with it.“ He‘s the Junketland Messiah.

Appearing on both KPCC and KCRW last week, Knowles’ Texan garrulity steamrolled both Larry Mantle and Elvis Mitchell, who spent their shows tossing him softballs. At one point, he said that he‘s not into the detached style of critics who do things like fault Batman and Robin for its terrible script. You see, Knowles had read Akiva Goldsman’s original script -- which was good, he said -- and he blamed director Joel Schumacher and interfering franchisers for turning the movie into irredeemable crap. Bedazzled by his ”inside“ knowledge, he didn‘t bother to explain why non-geeks should care about the production histories of rotten movies or why critics shouldn’t continue to do what they‘ve historically done -- treat a movie as a finished artifact and examine its form and meaning. Hearing Knowles give his take on film criticism, I was reminded of the enthusiastic dwarf in Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White who explains that, when you live in a culture that‘s overwhelmed by rubbish, ”the question turns from a question of disposing of this ’trash‘ to a question of appreciating its qualities . . . because it’s all there is.“

By the way, Harry will sell you Ain‘t It Cool boxer shorts for just $12.99.


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