Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

The O. Russell Factor: Why Fewer Oscar Contenders are Not the Wider Best Picture Field’s Problem, and Maybe Even a Good Thing

January 25, 2014 By: Colin Low Category: Commentary

In a recent Grantland article, Mark Harris argues that the widened Oscar Best Picture field has shrunk the number of movies contending in the major Oscar races (namely the picture, director, acting and screenplay categories). As proof, Harris cites a “jarring statistic”: the past two years’ major-category nominations are spread among the fewest number of movies—12 this year, 14 last year—that we have seen in the Academy’s past 30 years. For Harris, this trend is cause for alarm: “A drop in the last two years… represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has… been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”

Such alarmism is surprising to witness from Harris, who has intervened with inimitable sharpness at many a time when others’ paranoias about the Oscar race have gone too far. In my assessment, Harris misleads us (and himself) in this case by focusing merely on the Oscar years of 1984 to 2013. This focus is misleading for a simple reason. Before the 2012/13 Oscar races, the last time a movie was nominated in all four acting categories was in 1981—just three years shy of the range Harris has chosen to consider.

Straddling the acting categories
Put another way, it has been 31 years since we last saw a movie that hogged at least seven of Oscar’s precious 40 to 45 major-category nominations. We’ve now seen this happen two years in a row: first with Silver Linings Playbook, and this year with American Hustle. The common factor is David O. Russell, now the only director ever in Academy history to have twice directed a movie that garnered a nomination in each acting category, let alone in back-to-back years. This singular record might reassure us that the past two Oscar years have been an anomaly to be marveled at, rather than a worrisome trend.

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Review: Sex, or the Unbearable (Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman)

January 01, 2014 By: Colin Low Category: Book Reviews

The dialogue between critical theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman in Sex, or the Unbearable is crucial for anyone who, like me, just doesn’t get Lee Edelman. Edelman has gained notoriety in critical circles for his radically antisocial position in his 2006 book No Future, but it’s not that I don’t get his relentlessly hammered point about the exclusionariness inherent in any account of social order, even an avowedly critical or inclusionary one. Rather, I don’t get why he wants to keep making it. The most eye-opening thing about this book is that Berlant, his compatriot in negativity, doesn’t get it either. For her, articulating the negativity/nonsovereignty inherent in any relational encounter is helpful for herself and others in shifting the atmospheres around which such encounters take place, allowing for movement beyond a pointless (because inevitably failed) struggle with negativity. When Edelman insists that even a hope such as this is rife with negativity, Berlant asks him what he sees as the implications of his work. To her, his work makes him just as complicit in the kinds of pedagogical optimism to which she is self-professedly committed. Why else would he bother articulating it?

Among other things, this book’s portrayal of Berlant and Edelman’s live, embroiled disagreement has helped me to escape being rendered mute by my fear of mischaracterizing Edelman’s argument, which has proven so endlessly mischaracterizable by so many smarter people than me, if his multiple MLA rebuttals of them are any indication.* But those mutual rebuttals have unfolded in the slow time of monographic work and conference Q&As. By contrast, the structure of the dialogue between Berlant and Edelman, which opens with their joint avowal of the negativity/nonsovereignty inherent in all encounters, at least makes their ensuing disagreements feel like a proper engagement with each other rather than a consistently one-sided conversation with an oppositional strawman. Not that there aren’t strawmen in this book, since one of its pleasures is watching Edelman continually recast Berlant as a reparative/naïve theorist, and Berlant in turn calling him out for mischaracterizing her claims. However, having Berlant as an interlocutor forces Edelman to come the closest he has yet to stating his optimisms outright. He confesses that flourishing for him involves engaging in a realistic, continual struggle with negativity, and that part of this engagement involves taking up the position of devil’s advocate against another’s position even if, for instance (and this is mostly implied), he is a lot more aligned with Berlant’s belief in helping others into a realist relation to negativity than he admits.

What’s lovely about this exchange is that Berlant and Edelman’s mutually locked horns don’t make us feel as though a cleverer person has already figured things out and we’re simply not smart or qualified enough to piece together the unspoken counterarguments they would have to our doubts. But as Berlant and Edelman admit in the preface, their focus on continually clarifying their positions in the face of each other’s skepticisms and misrecognitions keeps the book on the lean, succinct track of explaining negativity’s relation to optimism, reparativity and living from two different perspectives, all in a highly abstract and general register. This means that the book can only remain a prelude to all the different directions in which its theory of negativity can be put to productive thought, including about sex itself. For example, the book never directly tackles the sex pastoralists that might be their obvious interlocutors, e.g. those sex-positive liberals who worship at the church of consent, a term denoting a sovereignty that cannot hold within the risky, negativity-ridden space of the intimate encounter. But perhaps to call such interlocutors “obvious” is unwise, if we are to absorb Berlant and Edelman’s point, which is that we should ever leave ourselves open to the surprise of how others (and even our selves) might be affected by what we have to present and take that in turn into new, surprising and often unbearable directions.

* For samplers of Edelman’s MLA parries against utopian theorists, see summaries of the panels “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory” and “Theories of Close Reading in Socially Motivated Criticism”.

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago, and the author of Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University, and the author of No Future and Homographesis.

Best Shot: The Wizard of Oz

March 05, 2013 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

I did not grow up with The Wizard of Oz. Sit on that for a second: like Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz feels like one of those movies that stands in for an entire mythology entrenched within the American childhood imaginary, rather than a movie that produced that mythology in the first place. How could one escape it? Yet not growing up in middle-class America meant that I wasn’t exposed to that rite of passage where Oz screenings roll around at the same time each year, permeating the holiday atmosphere. It meant that I had to make the deliberate choice to seek the movie out.

When I came around to watching The Wizard of Oz, what surprised me most was how deliriously stagebound it looks. This wasn’t a painstakingly populated Lord of the Rings or even one of those studio-set concoctions of the 80s that have become the fixture of Universal’s theme parks. Oz prides itself on painted backdrops, plastic flowers, candy-colored costumes and sets barely thirty feet wide. There aren’t even that many locations, if you consider that much of the screentime gets spent on wayside encounters with the three “friends of Dorothy” that our protagonist bumps into. But the movie barrels forth with such gusto and fairytale conviction that it’s hard to turn down.

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Anticipated Movies, Fall 2012

October 12, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Announcements, Capsuled Thoughts

I couldn’t help myself. Below is my list of anticipated movies (or not) released through the end of this calendar year, filtered from Nick Davis’ far more comprehensive equivalent. I’ve dropped all the movies I haven’t even heard of, which goes to prove my brand of noncommittal cinephilia. I’m also disregarding strict release dates, since I just moved from a city which might not see half these movies till the new year to another which has already seen some past it by. Jetlag at the movies!


Give it to me:
Les Misérables: Sucker for this score, musical epics. Hooper, actors, anti-99% plot… eh

Some stirring takes, but also under-motivated fast-forwarding, furious close-ups, actors straining against their limits

Zero Dark Thirty: Chastain, Bigelow, gorgeous cinematography, an absurd early critics’ sweep

Textured (if generic) procedural pays off in magnificent title sequence. Chastain not the “killer” required by script

Amour: An arthouse version of Hope Springs by a filmmaker who pulls no punches? Sign. me. up.

Wallows in the thankless ordinary of watching a lover die. Yields toughest surprises when anyone is crabby, clear-eyed, resolute

Holy Motors: Sounds so thoroughly bizarre, I can’t help but be intrigued

Synecdoche, Paris. Picaresque tour of sublime images and absurd scenes. Balmy scifi love-letter to a cinema of the future

Skyfall: Trailer looks handsome, as do actors. Promises better Bond-M payoff than Quantum

Denied! A premium light show at its most abstract/high-contrast. Flabby script has its innuendos, but a bad case of Prequel Shoutout

Keep the Lights On: The latest acclaimed out-couple indie. Need my post-Weekend fix

Clipped vignettes from a tender but wearying relationship. Nails how periphery falls away as the (drug, love) relapses persist

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Malick aesthetic, stellar young lead? Gimme.

A kid’s earthy, elemental mythmaking. Herzog’s absurd realism, Campion’s tactility fuse. Wallis astounds

Have it come my way:
The Paperboy: Efron and Kidman under gonzo actor’s director. That rain scene. Yes
Like Someone in Love: Kiarostami always welcome. Likely elliptical, but that’s the joy

Cheeky, bracing ways of bumping bare acquaintances against each other, with payoffs tough and tender

The Master: Phoenix acts up a storm. Greenwood scores. That pristine cinematography
The Turin Horse: Sátántangó was a blast: tireless takes, apocalyptic visions
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Actors yet to prove themselves, but I’ve heard it’s sweet

Heart-clenchingly assured filmmaking. Evokes adolescent isolation, longing better than most teen indies

On the Road: Star-making for Hedlund? Actors I wouldn’t mind hanging out with

Mildly interested:
Bernie: Soderbergh’s other 2012 triumph?
Footnote: Cannes Best Screenplay; director Joseph Cedar visiting
Rust and Bone: Still an Audiard virgin. Notices for Cotillard intrigue

Convince me, critics:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Fear Jackson’s bloat, but looks grander than hoped
Anna Karenina: Still a Knightley fan. Need to know Wright isn’t self-indulging again
Django Unchained: Sick of QT’s vengeance lust, Waltz’s consonants. Sloppier than Basterds?

Firmly B-side. No one’s unlike what they seem, save when Django steels his heart. Slopped with blood and lazy riffs

Life of Pi: Can it avoid hurdles of green-screen fakery, New Age nonsense, too-diplomatic Lee?

Best CG Actor: That Tiger. Novel’s twist doesn’t translate well, but still a poignant take on the beliefs that get us by

Lincoln: Kushner, Day-Lewis need firm directorial pushback. Can Spielberg deliver unstodgy?
Silver Linings Playbook: Not a fan of mental-illness comedy; still unsold on Lawrence

Manic Pixie Dream Girl crap, with a charming but sphinx-like Lawrence. Cooper nails the manic restlessness

Cloud Atlas: I don’t trust Wachowskis, esp. since fans seem to expect emotional material (ha!)

Get it away!
Hitchcock: Makeup-artist vehicle + acting tics + domestic sentiment (c.f. Iron Lady). Why?
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part II: Oh, end it already
To Rome with Love: Allen never had his comeback. Not holding my breath

Stuff I missed
Moonrise Kingdom: That cast! Anderson’s first leads whose age matches their immaturity?
Rock of Ages: Cruise doing meta. I’ll take messy, if it’s a hot gaudy glitter-choked mess

Fascinatingly dramatized scifi, meticulous worldbuilding, deft camerawork/editing, moral standoffs up the wazoo. A doozy.

Pitch Perfect:

Compressed Glee season with similarly broad characters and moments. Really an excuse for drama-lite musical numbers

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:

Canned epiphanies for everyone! British thesps lend a smidge of dignity. A Juno-colored cartoon India

Best Shot: Sherlock Jr.

August 09, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

It’s almost a given that Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), springing from the head of one of early cinema’s foremost slapstick geniuses, is a choreographic delight. What’s more surprising, given our continual fallacy about human advancement, is how many self-reflexive and frame-breaking gestures abound in Sherlock Jr. that haven’t been far surpassed since. The classic example from this film, of course, is the delicious sequence when a dream-state Keaton walks up into a movie screen and gets ambushed by the cuts from one scene to another. (It’d be my pick for best shot, if only that sequence weren’t the painstaking product of numerous match cuts.)

Instead, my pick is the movie’s very ending shot you see above, for various reasons:

Buster Keaton’s stony face is part of his eternal charm, and here he even scratches his head to accentuate his adorable bafflement;

Learning romance from the movies isn’t a new thing, but it’s so rarely deliberately choreographed as part of the joke (as it is in this scene);

Frames proliferate in Sherlock Jr., not just in the movie-screen crossing sequence but also here, and multiple times elsewhere: inexplicably bolted front doors, theatrical curtains obscuring a desired lover and a competing suitor, etc.; and

As a projectionist, I love that it doesn’t seem like the projector has a space to project the movie through. The stars are more important!