Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Winners Behind the Scenes

The film editors of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, were so shocked when they were named as this year's Academy Award winners that they had no speeches prepared. That may have been because they are among those people in the world who are accustomed to being overlooked. 
Think about what they did: They took miles of film that director David Fincher shot among a variety of locations, set ups and even different countries. Then ,they gave it form and continuity, and they made a complicated story understandable. This film went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. Yet few people would know the names of these men, nor do they know the names of others who make similar contributions.
Who are the people in your orbit who do so much yet receive such little recognition? It may be administrative assistant who sets up the lunch that you so generously offer to another. The receptionist who greets every visitor with a smile and a kind word so that you can be praised for how friendly your company is. Or, closer to home, the life partner who cleans the house, cooks the meals and pays the bills to leave you free to follow your dream.
It is nice at times to read the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book. You'll probably never meet the people named, but it is humbling to see all the people behind a successful person who do not know the warmth of a spotlight.
Polls and surveys show that more people leave a job for the recognition than for money. There is a lesson in that when we have finished a project or reached a similar milestone. We do not climb these mountains alone.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

All We Need to Know

I am preparing for an assignment with a major education-related company, helping them as they create a test for professional school counselors. Here is just a sampling of their desired characteristics:
  • Is familiar with basic methods of analyzing student behavior
  • Knows major theories regarding physical development, cognitive development and emotional development throughout the human life span
  • Understands their own biases that may affect their counseling relationships
  • Knows how changes in major public policy and laws affect student rights 
Think of how much we need to know to perform our own jobs at a high level. If you write, do you know the various style guides available? If you're in construction, how much have you studied local codes? Police officers need to know the rights of the accused and the definition of "reasonable force."

Such burdens are on all of us, and it illustrates why we need to be lifelong learners. If we stop learning, we stop growing, and there will usually be someone there who can do the job better than we can.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ranking the Oscar Nominees

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated nine films as their best of the year. We’ll learn the winners soon, when they are announced on Sunday, February 26. But this year, my enthusiasm is a bit dampened. Of the nominees, I am enthused by four at the most, and I really love only my top two. And the public apparently agrees, given the downturn in the 2011 box office receipts.

Furthermore, many better films were overlooked by the Academy. Where is 50/50, an emotional, nuanced and finely acted film about dealing with cancer? Beginners told a unique story about the grief and freedom that can spring from the death of a loved one. And the Academy could have done worse than nominate Bridesmaids as best film; in fact, they did do worse by honoring several mawkish films rather than recognizing well-earned laughs. (At least Bridesmaids got a screenplay nomination, though this looks like a consolation prize when you consider the seeming inevitability of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.)

Here is my take on the nine nominated films, ranking them in ascending order. While I loved my top two, I hope Oscar does a tad better next year. First, let’s look at the first three films that make up the bottom third of the list.

9. War Horse Early in this tearjerker about a lovable horse sent into battle, there is a scene filmed with much drama, vivid camera angles and triumphant John Williams music. What has the protagonist done? Why, he plowed a field! Such is the overwrought emotion contained in this film by Steven Spielberg. (Really, would this film have been nominated if it were attached to a different director?) Yes, I got teary at the end, but I felt I had been emotionally bludgeoned in the process.  Someone told me that she believed Spielberg didn’t trust his audience, so he had overplayed his hand. Point taken.

8. The Tree of Life — “You either love this film or hate it,” a respected friend and fellow cineaste told me. Well, count me among the haters. Yes, the elusive and reclusive Terrence Malick’s film has beautiful sweeping images set to music, but so does a screen saver. And both of these lack an element crucial to good filmmaking: a narrative. Why was Sean Penn, apparently a son of the abusive Brad Pitt character, moping around the film? Why did Jessica Chastain’s character of the mother appear not so much as a person but as some idealized vision of maternity? I give Malick some props for at least trying to tell his tale in a unique cinematic voice, but in the end neither I nor the audience with whom I saw it understood him.

7. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — This film completes our trifecta of works that seem to seem to shout, “This is an emotional film! Pay attention to the cues I’m giving you!” Lead character Oskar Schell has suffered an unimaginable tragedy, losing his father, played by Tom Hanks in flashback, in the 9/11 attack. But instead of heartbreak, we get little Oskar traveling at breakneck pace from one New York City locale to another, trying to decipher a posthumous message from his father. He encounters characters that are unlikely (read: unbelievable and illogical), such as the mute known only as The Renter, and an estranged couple, played with more conviction by Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis than this film deserved. The fatal flaw here is the unrelenting quirkiness, which distracted me from the message. I found this movie extremely idiosyncratic & incredibly pretentious.

6. The Help —The Help centers on a group of African American women in the mid-20th century South who took one of the few jobs accessible to them — that of domestic help — and fulfilled it with conviction. One day, their lives, and those of their employers, are turned over and around by a book that uncovers their hidden feelings. Of all the vivid characters, perhaps the two who best anchor the film are the mischievous but strong Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), who is more reserved, but wears her pride, dignity and fatigue visibly on her passive face. Though The Help doesn’t break any cinematic ground, it is the most superbly acted film of the season.

5. The Descendants — As he did in 2004 with Sideways, Alexander Payne strikes gold once again with this offbeat movie that offers well-defined characters in an unusual setting (Hawaii? Really?). Two years ago, I called George Clooney “this generation’s answer to Cary Grant” after his performance in Up in the Air, and damn if the guy just doesn’t keep delivering. He is ably assisted by a wonderful supporting cast (Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster), most notably Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s deceptively wise young daughter who alerts her father to her mother’s betrayal of him, while she lies in a coma. While The Descendants doesn’t give us any cinematic fireworks, I expect its perceptive and witty script to pick up Best Adapted Screenplay.

4. Midnight in Paris —Woody Allen has his best box office in 45 years, and I suggest that he did so partly by borrowing from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Midnight in Paris is about Gil, a struggling writer (played by Owen Wilson as an Allen stand-in), who discovers that when the clock strikes 12 on a Parisian side street, he is whisked back to the 1920s, the so-called “Jazz Age.” Not only does he escape his shrewish fiancé and her overbearing parents, he finds inspiration in the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and others.  Like Almodóvar, Allen incorporates magic realism to achieve this bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Allen the director works thriftily, bringing the movie in at a tidy 90 minutes. Midnight in Paris shows that the Woodman still has a good film in him and he should receive a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it.

3. Moneyball — Boy, did I not expect to like this movie. It seemed destined to be talky, describing the arcane mathematical principles that manager Billy Beane used to build a winning baseball team in Oakland, California. But Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian whittled the source material (a book by Michael Lewis) down to its essential elements. Then director Bennett Miller added much needed of economy, moving the film along at an entertaining pace, which made even a mundane winning streak exciting to watch. In the end, Moneyball is anchored by an intelligent and deceptively easy-going performance by Brad Pitt as Beane. By giving us less, we got more, especially compared to the bloat that is evident in the films that rank at the bottom of this list of nominees.

It was tough to pick my favorite film from these last two. As it turned out, it came down to movies that appeal to my love for movies themselves. But here goes…

2. The Artist — This movie begins with us as part of a theater audience. The films in The Artist appeal to our wonder by stripping away basic technical developments—color, visual effects and sound.  Director and writer Michel Hazanavicius helps us remember how, in a dark room and using persistence of vision, we get magic. Hazanavicius’s work, I truly believe that the film ultimately succeeds atop the broad, athletic shoulders of Jean Dujardin. He portrays the mature titular star, George Valentin, with a smile and a charm that belies his age. (Valentine resembles the crusty Warner Baxter of 42nd Street, but out of character, actor Dujardin is much younger.) It appears that the film and the director will walk away winners, but if there is any justice, Dujardin will also be crowned Best Actor.

1. HugoThe Artist stripped movies down to their original silence, and that single conceit helped make it an excellent and memorable film.  But in the end, Hugo works better for me because master Martin Scorsese used so many more elements into it. First, the director used 3-D for the first time, and it was a storytelling tool for him, not just a cheesy gimmick. He also incorporated superior production design and animatronics. Second, Hugo is Scorsese’s first film for children, and who would have guessed that after Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and other such violent works. Finally, look at the message of this film: Scorsese states forcefully that films are magical, very largely because of the work of pioneers like Georges Méliès, who saw the possibilities in this novelty item. He also makes his case for film preservation, warning us in an entertaining way that this vanishing legacy needs to be preserved. For this expression of a personal vision by a master craftsman who is still at the top of his game after many years, I found Hugo to be the best of this year’s Oscar nominees.

I welcome your comments. In the meantime, this is our annual reminder to enjoy the movies, which remains one of our most accessible art forms. Enjoy the ceremony on Sunday night.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So What's Your Question?

I met with a friend today who is much younger than I am and facing a "decade" birthday. He asked my advice on dealing with age. I talked about maintaining your health, getting regular check-ups, determining the conditions you can control and those you cannot, and more.
He told me, with much sadness, about a friend of his  — the proverbial "picture of health" — who died suddenly of esophageal cancer, leaving behind a wife and two kids. It was then that I realized he was talking philosophically about mortality and not about the aging process.
When we are speaking with each other, it is important to know the real question behind the question, the subtext of what we are being asked. If someone asks the question, "Who are you," they could be asking your name, what is your essence or what you stand for.
I usually dig into the questions I am asked and did not do so today. It wasn't fatal or even damaging, but it sure wasted a little of our time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Awards or Rewards

The favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend is "The Artist." That is fine recognition, but let's look at it another way:
The film has grossed $61 million worldwide so far. The number one grosser of 2011, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," earned $1.33 billion -- about 21 times as much as "The Artist."
Similarly, the 1977 Oscar went to Annie Hall, which earned $38.3 million over time. The first "Star Wars" was released the same year, and that has earned $797 million, nearly 20 times as much. Furthermore, "Star Wars" changed the dynamics of the film industry, both in how films are made and how they are marketed.
When we measure our own efforts, what are our yardsticks? Are we looking for applause, financial payback, fundamental change, or what?
Any measure you choose can be the right one, but be honest about the value.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Creating Our Legacies

Watching "Sunday Morning" on CBS this morning was a haunting experience, as two stories unintentionally, coincidentally and accidentally juxtaposed  to make me think about our mortality and our legacies. 
The first piece was predictable. Today we mourn the death of Whitney Houston and ponder her life, both over its entirety and in the most recent years. I made sure to catch the show early. I guessed from the news the night before that the show would be devoting time to her, and there it all was: The MTV-era clips that would conveniently serve to chronicle her rapid rise in the 1980s. The snippets of her soaring vocals that seem extra-human at times. (My God, could a person really sing that beautifully AND so powerfully?) The accounts of her troubled times, including her marriage to the sure-to-be-vilified Bobby Brown, and her descent into drugs and alcohol. The diminishing of her prodigious talents, marked most recently by her inability to scale the record charts again and a humiliating concert in which she could not remember her lyrics or hit the notes that were once so effortless. It was all there, all so sad.
But the second segment threw me for a loop because, rather than a tragic and definite end, it was a hardship in progress that we will be able to witness sadly. The popular country-pop singer Glen Campbell is on his last tour. These are not his final performances because he is retiring willingly, but because he is receding from the world around him. At age 75, Mr. Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. While Mr. Campbell, like Ms. Houston, also lived a wild and woolly and sometimes reckless life, it is this wretched disease that is bringing him down.
Fortunately, as the segment showed, Mr. Campbell is not on the last legs of his journey alone. Several of his children are there, performing with him, gently guiding him to the stage, but most importantly, helping the man maintain his dignity in front of the audiences that have come to say goodbye. The results are mixed. He launches into his familiar and highly expert guitar riffs, as though his fingers are acting independently of his psyche. Teleprompters help him remember his once-familiar lyrics. But then he will launch enthusiastically into a song that he has just finished, and he stands revealed, solitary in his own perceptions and ultimately depending on the kindness of friends, fans and family to exit the embarrassment gracefully. 
Ms. Houston's fate seemed predetermined by a life on overdrive. Even her singing was white hot, seldom nuanced. Deep down, you could somehow sense that it would be impossible to maintain both the intensity of her performances and, later, of her life choices. On "Sunday Morning," commentator and music critic Bill Flanagan asked compassionately that "Whitney Houston be allowed to rest in peace." As an admirer, he is naturally afraid of the onslaught of salacious news that is sure to arise from a variety of sources, such as her autopsy, eyewitness reports of her increasingly erratic behavior, and more. Of course, Ms. Houston's reputation will not be spared, and given our 'breaking news" culture and social media overload, it is naive to think otherwise.
Still, as I look at Glen Campbell in his final days, I am reminded that we can have much more control over our legacies than we often allow. It is wise to remember that every act, every word uttered, every kindness offered all stand as testimonies to who we are. Tweets, Facebook posts and, yes, even blogs like this one are ephemeral. Resumes may be impressive, but they are only paper; people are much more likely to remember us for things that are more substantive, whether it is as monumental as a building or a bridge, or as accessible as a pathway or a garden. We have opportunities to change the lives around us and leave people with a material contribution, a piece of advice and maybe even a song. 
David Bowie once pointed out that he was lucky to have been afforded so many years in his career to make an impact, while the great blues artist Robert Johnson lived only to age 27, his reputation resting largely on one recording. I think that is great advice, which resonates so much more clearly to me as I get older: We get only so much time and only so many opportunities, so let's choose our actions wisely.

Note: I am indeed a big admirer of Whitney Houston, so I would like to direct you to this tribute to her that has already popped up on YouTube. God bless her.