Thursday, March 05, 2015

In Memoriam: Daniel von Bargen

Late in Season 8 the writers of “Seinfeld” made a curious choice to have George Costanza lose his job with the New York Yankees. It revolved around an outlandish plot development, the kind that earmarked those final, not-as-stellar seasons, in which our portly, balding anti-hero is “traded” to a chicken company in Arkansas. It never made sense. Not even rationally so much as creatively, because it meant the iconic caricature of George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David, portrayed with his back always to the camera by Lee Bear) would no longer have a place in the show. How on earth could you supplant Steinbrenner? Who in the world could you employ to equal such substantial comic genius? The show itself didn’t seem to know. They started Season 9 – the last – with Mr. Thomassoulo (Gordon Jump) and almost instantly realized he didn’t have that vital sitcom je ne sais quoi. A few episodes later George had taken a different job with an Industrial Smoothing company whose CEO, Kruger, was played by Daniel von Bargen.

Von Bargen was a “that guy” actor. “Oh! That guy!” He routinely appeared in thrillers playing supplementary roles. His IMDB page is littered with law enforcement appellations. Lieutenant Nilson. Lieutenant Kearney. Chief Olson. Police Chief Yardley. Sheriff Cooley. Sheriff Jackson. Sheriff Tate. His well-known role on the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” made him a “Commandant.” Even though he doesn’t get an actual name, Jury Foreman in “Philadelphia” sounds like a relief. Still, he always had an indelible presence, evinced in “A Civil Action” where despite a staggeringly skilled cast he appeared late in the game as Mr. Granger, the witness who could turn the tide, and nails it in a one-scene walkoff, glowering with simultaneous hesitancy and willingness. And he even took one of the worst lines of movie dialogue I’ve ever encountered, “Ride, postman, do you hear me?! I said, ride!” in Kevin Costner’s exceedingly lamentable “The Postman” (1997) and gave it absolutely everything he had, a quality which I respect to the nines.

Yet now it’s virtually impossible to not view him, whatever the role may be, through the prism of “Seinfeld”. To wit, on Oscar Sunday, as I waited for the show to begin, I watched bits and pieces of a “Crimson Tide” re-run and there he was screaming doctrine as Vladimir Radchenko, a Russian ultranationalist inadvertently predicting Putin. “That's Kruger,” I thought.

Von Bargen only appeared in four episodes of “Seinfeld” but the shadow he cast makes it seem as if there so many more. What’s sort of incredible is how he didn’t try to steer away from Steinbrenner’s daftness and instead cultivated a daftness that was all his own, a daftness that was, in many ways, more humorous and more human. The Steinbrenner of “Seinfeld” was a totalitarian eccentric, an egotistical goofball, so consumed by his own thoughts and desires that George could literally leave the room without being detected while Steinbrenner rambled on and on. But Steinbrenner still held firm to his empire whereas Kruger could not have cared one iota less about industrial smoothing. He possessed the air of a man who had been through life’s wringer and, more or less, given up. When he locks himself out of his office he does not express frustration nor even confusion, just mutedly joyous resignation. “All right,” he says to no one as he saunters off down the hallway, “I’m going home.”

Though Kruger and Costanza possessed similar philosophies toward “work”, a fundamental difference still lingered. Even as they both did everything in their power to not do anything, the latter felt hostility toward everyone, toward the whole world, while the former had made some sort of peace through complete indifference. This is exemplified in the one truly glorious episode from the final season, “The Burning”, when Kruger enlists George and only George to assist him with some sort of massive project. Kruger does nothing, forcing George to do everything, which understandably infuriates George, and when George expresses fear that they won’t finish this “project” on time, Kruger merely replies “I’m not too worried about it.” It was a remarkable reversal. A character with less inner drive than Costanza seemed unthinkable, but von Bargen made that notion convincingly, and hilariously, come true. In the infamous Festivus episode, when Frank Costanza airs the traditional grievances and turns them toward how much Kruger’s company “stinks”, von Bargen hardly reacts. Why would he? His character knows his company stinks. He seems ready for it to implode. He seems to want it to implode.

“The Burning” also centered around the attempts of everyone to go out on a “high note”, which Kruger does, cracking a joke and subsequently turning his back on the “project”, and on his own company building’s sign which has apparently fallen into disrepair, and exiting the room, arms aloft. Von Bargen died on Sunday, aged 64, from a long illness, per reports that began to emerge yesterday. It would seem safe to assume this long illness related to his battle with diabetes, a battle that became terribly, notoriously public when he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head and failed. That was February of 2012. Considering such an act, I cannot even attempt to imagine what sort of pain, physical and emotional, he must have been in for the ensuing three years, and it’s a dreadful reminder that in this life so few of us ever actually get to go out on a high note.

So let’s go out on a high note right here. Let’s observe that Mr. von Bargen was able to lift himself out of a career of being “that guy” by becoming, simply, Kruger, forever and ever, amen.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Red Army

The vaunted Soviet Union hockey teams of the 70's and 80's were funded and maintained by the Central Moscow Army - or, the "Red Army - and, as such, their considerable skill and staggering won-loss record became a mouthpiece for an entire nation, for a way of life, for communism. It's seems so simple to view it in those terms, of course, to view it as legendary American hockey coach Herb Brooks, proprietor of The Miracle On Ice, viewed it, seen in a quick snippet during Gabe Polsky's film, speaking by phone to Jimmy Carter when he proclaimed their astounding victory over the Soviets as a referendum on their way of life. ('merica, bitches.) Yet, what "Red Army", a swift-moving but all-encompassing documentary so ably chronicles, is just how much that Soviet hockey team really did come to symbolize the country it represented; its strengths, its weaknesses, its downfall.

Polsky chooses to make legendary Soviet defenseman Slava Fetisov our foremost guide through this cruel, joyless, still occasionally joyful world. He was a remarkable player on the ice and an almost gleefully taciturn man off of it. The film's opening shot is him essentially hushing the director with a wag of his finger, communicating that he'll answer when he's good and ready. And when he does answer, then and throughout, he is blunt, as are all his former teammates. "Why do you keep asking the same question?" one asks, irritated, hardly even looking at the camera. When a fallout between Fetisov and is best friend, Alexei Kasatonov, is addressed, the best friend refuses to recount the facts, simply stating "It's a long story" and "Now is not the time." One (an American?) might be tempted to query, if not now, when? But that's his business. He knows what he knows, why do you need to know? Still, the glistening tears in his eyes say it all.

The turning point of the Soviet hockey era, "Red Army" reckons, was the coaching switch from Anatoli Tarasov to Viktor Tikhonov. The former was an incredible innovator who developed a style of play that focused on, in the film's words, "the collective". It quietly re-inforced Soviet nationalistic principles even as it allowed for a fluid, fast-moving game that was beautiful to watch and nigh impossible to beat. But if Tarasov's style emblematically effused the good of Communism then his successor Tikhonov's dictatorial style emblematically effused its bad. He was cruel and calculating, locking his players away for months at a time, not even letting one go home to bid farewell to his dying dad. (Tikhonov declined to be interviewed for the film and of course he did. What would he have said anyway? Generic boilerplate that illuminated nothing, I'll bet.)

Even as the Red Army continued to win Gold Medals and resoundingly beat NHL stars, the entire system was beginning to crumble, mirroring the nation it represented, morphing into an ice rink version of perestroika. Fetisov and his colleagues wanted the chance to play abroad in the National Hockey League, to earn what they were worth, to express the idea that they had already satisfied everyone's needs with their play for a decade-plus and that it was time to stand up to the system and get theirs.

The last stanza of the film features Fetisov and his countrymen finding their way to North America and discovering not simply a different world but a different game. It was rougher and uglier and more individualistic. They struggled to fit in. They became pariahs to people who saw Russian and immediately assumed "Red". And it's simply an incredible juxtaposition. The society that stifled individual expression allowed for an expression of #sport so pure and beautiful that it will likely never be replicated. But, of course, the society that stifled individual expression turned men into tyrants and the men below those tyrants into servants. Again, that's the film's words, "servants." "Servants," it is stated, "of the puck." The man with the puck is the servant of the other skaters.

Alas, "Red Army's" conclusion is strange to the point of nearly upending all the speaks-for-itself complexity of the preceding eighty minutes as it assumes an oddly optimistic view of modern day Russia. Fetisov, we learn, has become Minister of Sport at the behest of Vladimir Putin, and Fetisov makes mention of the Sochi Olympics as a victory without mention of, say, anything that went into attaining that victory or what the victory's aftermath has wrought. It's as if this same person for whom we have developed such affection in the name of fighting back against the tyrannical Tikhonov has essentially transformed into a version of his own worst enemy, looking the other way while his nation grows restless. And rather than pressing him on these issues, Polsky caps the film with an awe-inspiringly exasperating scene of self-indulgence in which he cracks an off camera joke, a coda that functions as a tragically comic Potemkin Village.

The hockey played by the Red Army was glorious, of that we can be sure, but it didn't boost a country's pride so much as it offered temporary relief from a country's shortcomings, a distraction from its wiles. The end of "Red Army" falls into the same trap, unwittingly proving its whole point.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Rewrite

One of the more hackneyed phrases in relation to screenwriting is this: Write What You Know. As in, take what you know in your life and apply it to the page and voila! You’ll have ninety pages and a pitch meeting with TWC. “The Rewrite” takes Write What You Know as gospel. Its star, Hugh Grant, is Keith Michaels, a screenwriter turned first-time teacher of his chosen discipline. He discusses structure with his eager students, yes, in fairly vague terms, but it mostly comes down to each kid Writing What They Know. And as they do, they begin shaping their lives in the ways they wish, almost like a less mischievous “Delirious.”

All this dismissal of the Write What You Know phrase might sound hypocritical coming from such a fervent admirer and intense defender of “Shakespeare In Love”, a film which, more or less, reduced the man generally considered to be Earth’s Bard For Life down to writing what he knew. Yet in that film writing what you know took on a whole different air than the typical banality the phrase implies. The Joseph Fiennes’ version of William Shakespeare couldn’t have what his heart so desperately wanted and so he wrote what he knew in an effort to make that romantic desire real, to keep it alive once it was gone. Pollyannish perhaps, but then I’m something of a Pollyanna. While there is sort of a Pollyanna streak to “The Rewrite” – it’s a cheesy rom com after all – it is, for all its lecturing on the concept of film writing, more or less, a case of connecting the dots. A great script can’t merely connect the dots; it needs to write in the stars. Alas, Marc Lawrence’s script only hovers barely aboveground.

Keith was once an Academy Award winning screenwriter, and in one of the film's clever flourishes his entire backstory involving an ex-wife and estranged son is compressed into his whole Oscar speech, but now finds no one will buy his pitches, leaving him unable to even pay rent. As a last resort, he takes a job as professor of screenwriting at Binghamton University in upstate New York where, as an unhappy fish out of water, he’s dismissive of his surroundings and those surrounding him. He immediately sleeps with a student before he even teaches a class (a Set-Up which will yield a Payoff) and promptly puts his foot in his mouth upon meeting the faculty chair (Allison Janney), putting them at odds (one scene shows him writing Protagonist on the blackboard, so after this scene he could have written Antagonist) and demonstrating his loutishness so he can fashion a classic case of redemption. Inevitably he grows into his job, and by the end each note he gives his pupils on their classwork doubles as prophetic life advice. He’s not just a script doctor, he’s a guidance counselor.

Yet in spite of my cynicism, “The Rewrite”, for all its formula, has a refreshing aversion to a few familiar traps. The storyline involving the obligatory primary love interest, played with her as-usual incredible smiley-face maelstrom of charm by Marisa Tomei, is not forced through patronizing hoops to ensure it has a Beginning, Middle and Happy End. At the same time, if a screenwriter is struggling to concoct an idea and is suddenly being handed all these screenplays by different pupils, what are the odds he steals one and attempts passing it off as his own? High, of course, but Lawrence admirably resists. He allows a more natural progression to play itself out in order for his protagonist to get on solid footing, emblemized in the sequence where Keith takes a student, Clem (Steven Kaplan), who has authored a particularly fine script on a meeting with some bigwig producers and graciously steps aside, self-aware enough to understand the need for his own existential edits.

That might not be enough to lift the film to the smallish hilltop of “Music and Lyrics”, never mind the mountain summit of “When Harry Met Sally”, but it’s sufficient to at least provide worth for the more risible moviegoer. Still, seeing as how Clem’s screenplay is the only one in Keith’s class free of Writing What He Knows, an unintended lesson onto which no one latches, I’d like to have given him a crack at re-writing “The Rewrite.”

Monday, March 02, 2015

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

We need to talk about Spock, of course, but before we talk about Spock, we need to talk about "Going Down To Liverpool." That was a song by Katrina and The Waves but The (immortal?) Bangles covered it in 1984, and for the song’s video on MTV they chose to film it as limo ride – The Bangles in the back, singing, with a seemingly irritated, my-time-is-too-valuable-for-this-horseshit chauffeur. The chauffeur was played by Leonard Nimoy. Why him? The trivia masters will tell you it’s because Susanna Hoffs was friendly with Nimoy’s son, Adam, but over-analyzers know better. It takes a lot to play annoyed in the presence of Susanna Hoffs, one of the 80’s grandest divas, and who had more experience playing irritated compatriot to a diva than Leonard Nimoy?

It’s one of those never-ending eerie cosmic coincidences that the venerable Interwebs domain Grantland ran a "Second Banana" Tournament the exact same week the man who played Spock passed away (Friday, aged 83) but that’s exactly what happened. Spock advanced all the way to the Final Four, the semi-finals, before being dispatched by Canada. Grantland’s resident Trekkie was enraged by this development, and how can you blame him? It robbed us of a Spock vs. George Constanza showdown, which would have been incredible. It would have been incredible because, in fact, Spock and Constanza were polar opposite second bananas. Seinfeld was the straight man to Constanza whereas Spock was the straight man to Kirk. And while Jerry and George viewed "The Wrath of Khan" as the pre-eminent "Star Trek" film (though Kramer was partial to "The Search For Spock"), I admit to having a place in my heart for the fourth film in the series.

We need to talk about "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home", of course, but before we do we need to talk about the opening passages of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” set in Yosemite National Park. The scene, if you don't recall, finds Kirk free climbing El Capitan and Spock flying in on some sort of foot-jet pack doohickey, allowing them to have a colorful give and take, right there on the side of a freaking mountain. "Twelve hundred points of interest in Yosemite and you pick me," says Kirk, and that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Wherever they were, whatever place, whether on futuristic Earth or out there in the far-flung reaches of the place called space, what really mattered was these two, their friendship, testy and loving, their emotional push and logical pull, and their banter. They were a comedy duo with semi-philosophical tendencies.

That mountainside verbal hoedown leads into the incredible scene around a campfire where Dr. McCoy says of a squabbling Kirk & Spock: "You know, you two could really drive a man to drink." Maybe it's because my first experience with "Star Trek" wasn't "First Generation", or even "The Motion Picture", but re-runs of the original series on our old black & white TV in the kitchen that often came across more like a sitcom than drama. And that leads me to "The Voyage Home", the greatest time travel movie ever made, the time travel movie that understood justifying the means of time travel was so much less vital than what the time travel wrought. And in "Star Trek IV", it wrought something less logical than Warner Bros. live action Looney Tunes.

In many ways "The Voyage Home" foreshadowed film's overriding and ridiculous importance on my absurd existence. It was Christmas Day 1986 and presents had been unwrapped and the meal had been consumed and all I wanted to do in my official capacity as College Football Fanatic was watch the Sun Bowl. My parents, however, decreed that our family would be going to the theater for a showing of "The Voyage Home." I rebelled, but I lost. I'm glad I lost. God, what a marvelous Christmas Day, and viewed through the prism of time I wonder if that's the moment when in spite of worshiping at the pagan altar of college football I sub-consciously realized the film de cinema was truly my bag, baby.

America's 1987 box office champion, "Three Men and a Baby", was directed by Nimoy, a delightful choreographing of comedy, but he outdid himself a year earlier with "The Voyage Home." In her original review for The New York Times Janet Maslin knocks around Mr. Nimoy's supervision of special effects and while her assessment is not invalid, well, in spite of "Star Trek's" space opera origins the effects are less the point than the comedy. Perhaps Nimoy struggles in the get-go, tying up loose ends from the previous movie and setting the table for the current one. Yet once the film goes back in time to then-present day San Francisco, he demonstrates a breezy professionalism. This isn't sci-fi, this is screwball.

It's a fish out of water comedy that finds the crew of the Enterprise going back to 1986, forcing these futuristic characters to try and fit themselves into a "primitive and paranoid" culture where they don't belong. The film's comic timing, never harried, is built with notably formal elegance to all manner of extremely polite payoffs. So many of it jokes are cornball, yes, but nevertheless effective, not so much middlebrow as totally accessible, an approach that in this day and age feels wistfully old-world.

Screwball comedies, however, of the golden era often had a socially conscious tinge to go with all that repartee, and "The Voyage Home" is no different. It packs a pro-environmenetal message into its narrative as the crew's quest involves rescuing a pair of humpback whales to bring them forward into the future, a place where they have gone extinct, quietly yet forcefully indicting mankind for its ecological idiocy. Yet simultaneously it takes an extra-terrerstrial - Nimoy's Spock - and makes him come to grips with his humaneness, and do so in a Reagan-era habitat not outwardly lending itself it to civility.

To my admittedly non-Federation approved eyes that was always the spiritual center of "Star Trek" - the yin & yang of emotion and logic, embodied in the kindly combative relationship of Kirk and Spock. And I will confess that in re-watching "The Voyage Home" the whole way through twenty-four afters after Mr. Nimoy's passing I found myself profoundly moved by a passage late in the film between Spock and his father.

It's no secret that Leonard Nimoy had a complicated relationship with the role that made him an icon, and how could he not? The part took him to a celebrity stratosphere that transcended most. Everyone mourned his passing, Trekkers, Trekkies, Federation of the Planet part-timers, neophytes, etc. And I think that's because the eternal inward battle of thinking with our heads and thinking with our hearts is one thing that will for certain exist in the twenty-third century the same as it existed in the twentieth. The key is to find the place that Spock found by the end of "The Voyage Home", which was the same place Nimoy found by the end of his long life.

Spock's father asks his son if he has a message for his mother. Spock replies matter-of-factly: "Tell her...I feel fine."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday's (Not So) Old Fashioned: The School of Rock (2003)

In writing about the tenth anniversary of Richard Linklater’s “The School of Rock” for Esquire, Michael Hoinski referred to a specific scene, the one in which Dewey Finn (Jack Black), an aspiring hard rock axeman masquerading as a private school teacher acts out the theoretical live performance of his own composition, “Legend of the Rent” (“when the legend of the rent comes due”), to his musically-gifted students whom he's yearning to enlist in a brand new band. Hoinski explains that “Linklater wanted to shoot the scene just once: one shot, with a slow pull-out. Black was nervous, self-conscious. He wanted to break it down, do some close-ups, capture multiple angles — just in case he beefed it. But Linklater was steadfast. He envisioned the scene as a centerpiece. It ended up one of Black's favorite moments.” It speaks wholly to the idea of live music, one that is not created in a studio with extra takes and overlays, but a spontaneous eruption of the soul.

The transformative power of music never ceases to amaze me. A couple weeks ago I had plans to go see a show but it was across town at my least favorite music venue in the city and it was, like, four degrees outside and I had to wait for a bus – and wait, and wait, and wait – and the show didn’t start ‘til 9 even though it was a school night and I’m old and yada yada, more whining, etc. Then, the show began. And there but for the grace of Nikki Lane’s twang went I. Shivering in the cold before and only getting a few hours of sleep with a slight whiskey hangover after? Fughetaboutit. The concert, like so many concerts I've attended in my time, altered my mood, and allowed me communion with that beautiful place – the ever present now.

Richard Linklater has always been a filmmaker interested in music. More than that, though, he has been interested in how music relates to time. In his seminal “Dazed and Confused” he memorably marks the end of the Moon Tower party with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone”, a song, not coincidentally, about moving on. In his astonishing “Before Sunrise” he plants our darling Jesse and Celine in a listening booth with Kath Bloom's “Come Here” and then doesn’t cut, lingering on them stealing looks of one another, music momentarily freezing time. In last year’s “Boyhood”, a movie made and set over the course of twelve years, he employs pop songs as a means to both convey the passage of time and transport us to a particular place, the nifty trick that music itself is always able to manage. But never was music was more integral than in “The School of Rock”, his 2003 family comedy semi-musical in which drifting misfit Dewey Finn, needing to make quick cash, takes the place of his academically inclined pal who's been asked to substitute at a prestigious school only to instead find himself transforming the children in his charge into a rock ‘n’ roll super group.

At first blush “The School of Rock” and “Boyhood” may not have a lot in common, but what they share most precisely is a conventionality of form. Yes, the latter was filmed over 12 years, but its narrative is completely linear, one touching on many of the more unremarkable moments of a child’s rearing, snapshots, like moving photos from the family album that a stranger doesn’t want to see and yet, somehow, is drawn into anyway. It is virtually resistant to the set-in-stone McKee-ish screenwriting principle of Dramatic Conflict. Consider the sequence, mentioned by many, where Mason Jr. and his pals are messing around with a circular saw blade. McKee would demand that blade “pay off” in some way. Linklater leaves it alone, which is the payoff. Yet it also adheres to a McKee screenwriting rule, the one that goes “Every scene is a story event”, it just doesn’t adhere in the way McKee necessarily intends.

You could, as many have, dub the plethora of scenes as mere “ennui”, and you would not be wrong, yet that two-and-a-half hours of “ennui” subtly add up to something whole. Not something concrete, per se, not a resolution so much as a realization. “It’s like,” says Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) sitting with his brand new lady friend at film's end, “it’s always right now.” It comes across simplistic, sure, because, duh, of course it’s always, like, right now. But so what? If it's so simple, why does no one appreciate it? Why does no one grasp it? It’s taken him the entire film to realize it and makes him, and us, go back every other event in the film where “nothing’s happening” to appreciate it for the way in which each and every one is always right now, and how it just slipped on by, undetected, like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, to quote some dude.

Not only is “School of Rock’s” form conventional, so is its execution. As a teacher, Dewey enlightens his mighty-mite protégés to real rock history and teaches them to play their instruments with a flair becoming Keith & Ronnie to win The Battle of the Bands, but with Dewey pretending to be someone else, he is always in danger of being exposed. That exposure, of course, arrives like clockwork, forcing him to leave school in shame, ruining their shot at music-making glory. The kids, as they must, bust out of class to “kidnap” their favorite fool, Dewey, and make it to the gig late but still on time, just like a true rock band, while their parents and principal and give chase.

Formulaic as it comes, right? Yet the screenplay, which was written by Mike White, is doing some incredibly deft things. It uses these rote reversals to intrinsically embody the rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Even better, rather than having than turning it into a showdown of Parents & Principal vs. Dewey & The Kids, it lets all the conflict fall away once the concert commences. Everyone looks up, shuts up, and simply gives themselves over to the ministry of rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, they realize “it’s like, it’s always right now”. The movie ends in the middle of the encore, which is apropos because that's the ultimate dream of every magnificent concert - to extinguish suffering and desire and consciousness and just be.

“Time,” wrote Indian philosopher Jidda Krishnamurti “is transcended only in the stillness of the present.” That's the ineffable place magnificent live music takes us; that's the ineffable place Richard Linklater and his Richard Linklater-y protagonists are always striving to find, and sometimes, even if they don't realize it, they do.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Post Oscar Recalibration

I’ve never been shy in acknowledging my adoration for the Academy Awards, and I never will be. Yet as much as I cherish Oscar Sunday, I have come to despise the apocalyptic Monday After, the insufferable day when editors enlist all manner of writers to unleash journalistic cow chips on the masses about how everything is awful while social media belches forth relentless mounds of its patented I Don't Know What We're Yelling About invective. This grating conveyor belt of self-righteous gasbags and their gaspingly obnoxious snobbery expelled from the conceited spot atop their high horses......OH MY GOD!!! I'M FALLING INTO THEIR TRAP!!!

Enough. Let's tamp down that fury. Let's shut down that TweetDeck. Let's get lost in the deep beautiful la la land of the motion picture.....

Monday, February 23, 2015

Logging the 87th Academy Awards

You might recall that Ava DuVernay was snubbed by the Academy in the Oscar category of Best Director. Was she really "snubbed"? Who the hell knows? Everyone thinks they know but no one really does. Because no one really knows what goes on in the mind of an Academy member. Scrutinize all you want, Oscar bloggers, but there is no empirical analysis when it comes to the whims of Academy voters, and the whole ordeal would be less interesting, anyway, if you could break it down by metrics. Which is precisely why I so desperately loved what Ms. DuVernay said in an interview with Gillian Orr for The Independent. Of her supposed snub DuVernay said: "I think what’s nice is the conversation about diversity, inclusion, and representation [that arose]. We need to challenge the industry, to challenge the studios. We need to acknowledge that films should not be told from one point of view and not only one point of view should be celebrated." Hear, hear.

"But," Orr noted in her article, "DuVernay is not bitter. She’s looking forward to the Oscars, which she says will be a 'lovely celebration of the film' and she plans to be there 'in a pretty dress, having a good time.'" So cool your jets, you angry birds of Twitter. Don't get yourself in a CinemaScope lather if your favorites don't win. Ya know why? Cuz in 1998 I got myself in an immature frenzy when Julianne Moore didn't win Best Supporting Actress for "Boogie Nights" (Amber Waves 4Ever) and look! It's 17 years later and that (not really at all except in the deranged catacombs of my mind) egregious robbery is about to be rectified. It all evens out eventually. So put on a pretty dress, or your finest pajama pants, and have a good time. It's Oscar Night. It's the most wonderful night of the year. And remember, the only people who say the Oscars take themselves too seriously are generally people who take themselves too seriously.

In keeping with Michael Keaton's speech at the Independent Spirit Awards where he referenced Narcissus and his presence on the awards trail, the part of the traditional Oscar night Entire Bottle Of Wine will be played by a wine that shares my name.
5:32 PM (CST) - I'd planned on watching  Lady Gaga on DVR during "The Sound of Music" tribute. Then I found out Lady Gaga was singing as part of "The Sound of Music" tribute.

6:49 - The show hasn't started but several precincts are already reporting that Marion Cotillard has won the night for her "getting ready" selfie, one in which she's apparently fronting a fake electronica quartet that she really needs to turn into a real thing.

6:58 PM - On ABC Jess Cagle just announced that the Best Picture category will come down to "'Birdman' and 'Boyhood.'" Trenchant analysis.

The show begins......

7:30 - Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage and the very first star reaction shot goes to.....Nicole Kidman. Because duh.

7:31 - "Best and whitest."

7:35 - I confess, I really liked the opening song & dance number by Mr. Harris, with a crucial assist from an as-ever spirited Anna Kendrick. It cops to a belief in the phrase that grinches eating gruel despise and the Academy adores - Magic of the Movies - with equal parts earnestness and wonkiness, and then gets Jack Black out there to point out a few of the more significant flaws in the business model at the same time.

7:37 - N.P.H. stares down Oprah and doesn't blink an eye when she tries to blow off his joke. Respect.

7:39 - Best Supporting Actor. It's like 1984 Election Night in America and everyone that ain't J.K. is Mondale.

7:42 - True story: I watched "The Rewrite" on Saturday night and in it J.K. Simmons plays the dean of the Binghamton University English Department as a gruff if warm-hearted family man who can't help but tear up at absolutely any mention of his wife and kids. And then his entire Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech revolved around his wife and kids and the importance of parents. As a friend who watched with us texted my girlfriend as this was happening: "J.K. is his character in 'The Rewrite!'" And that speaks to Mr. Simmons' entire career - "Whiplash", "The Rewrite", anything, whatever, he always delivers. A consummate professional.

7:49 - Neil Patrick Harris made a Chris Kyle joke but tied it back to Harvey Weinstein which isn't offset by the "It's a requirement" addendum. We needed Chris Rock to tell the Chris Kyle joke. He would've gone there. You know where. And I say that as someone who liked "American Sniper."

7:58 - Best Costume Design. A friendly reminder that Cinema Romantico's Best Costume Design of the year goes to "Still Alice" for Kristen Stewart's Snoopy t-shirt.

8:01 - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" wins said award and so an ancient Oscar narrative emerges - it's winning all the "little" awards because it won't win the "big" award. Never mind that Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling is integral to whatever wins the "big" award but that doesn't fit the narrative so SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

8:03 - What is up with this Bellboy on stage schtick? Is this The Grand Budapest Hotel?

8:11 - "Ida" wins Best Foreign Language Film and director Pawel Pawlikowski gives my favorite acceptance speech of the night. "We made a film in black and white, about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation. And here we the epicenter of noise and world attention." And then he stared down the playoff music and won and kept speaking. Because maybe if they scrapped Adam Levine songs they could let these people talk a whopping thirty seconds longer. God, what a concept.

8:17 - I'm pretty sure Steve Carrell just dared Neil Patrick Harris to talk to Edward Norton and Harris didn't take it. And why would you? I'm 65% sure Edward Norton would have punched him in the face. Cheerily punched him in the face, but still.

8:29 - "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" wins Best Documentary short and producer Dana Perry, speaking as the playoff music kicks in, mentions that her son, a veteran, committed suicide, automatically prompting the playoff music to cease (thank God someone behind the scenes has decency). An unspeakably affecting moment. A half-minute before you could see Internet memes firing up regarding her pom-pom dress and then she, bravely, took it to the most personal place imaginable. And then she leaves the stage and the camera goes to Neil Patrick Harris and he makes a joke about the dress and you know what? Perhaps (most likely) it was poor taste, but I don't even fault him. I think he was totally knocked for a loop and didn't know how to react. Maybe it would have thrown the entire telecast out of whack but screw it.....they should've just faded out and gone to commercial. No one should have been asked to try and follow up that moment.

8:33 - Harry Belaftonte: "After all, Paul Robeson said, 'Artists are the radical voice of civilization.'"

8:34 - Neil Patrick Harris talking about how things sound better in English accents. If that's your angle then, for God's sake, at least talk to Keira Knightley.

8:35 - "My friend Tim McGraw." Jesus effing Christ, Gwyneth. And I was still, like, one-seventieth on your side.

8:43 - All right. That Miles Teller reference in the "Birdman" homage was pretty damn good.

8:45 - Sienna Miller just took the stage to "Take My Breath Away." Am I suddenly conductor of the orchestra?

Cinema Romantico's Best Dress of the Night goes to Sienna Miller. Because this blog doesn't hide its biases.
8:48 - Best Sound Editing goes to "American Sniper", prompting the left to condemn the sound of said film as including "too many subtle whispers of American flags waving in the wind" and the right to praise the film for including "so many noticeable booms of 4th of July fireworks" to which the actual sound editors replied "what the hell are you idiots talking about? Did you even watch the movie?"

8:51 - Was every cameraman in the building purposely trying to keep Jared Leto off of theirs? Seriously, how did I not know Jared Leto was wearing that until now?

8:55 - Patricia Arquette's Best Supporting Actress coronation for "Boyhood" is complete. And then. She said a bad word, she put on her reading glasses and she unloaded. And you know what? Nothing I could say could communicate or express proper reverence for what she said. So here's what she said: "To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America." 

Shaking the world.
9:03 - Chole Grace Moretz quotes William Goldman, one of Hollywood's most legendary screenwriters, as a means to set up the Visual Effects. Which is, like, the most succinct summation of modern day movies ever. Writers set the table and then all the utensils and napkins get shoved aside to make way for the Visual Effects.

9:12 - That scream from who-knows-who from the cheap seats for the guys of "Big Hero 6" was so righteous.

9:18 - Anna Wintour sitting next to Harvey Weinsein. Which is ironic because Anna is the only one who could order a shivving against Harvey and get away with it. Each one is also actually more powerful than the President of the Academy, who's currently speaking.

9:20 - Neil Patrick Harris's ongoing schtick with Octavia Spencer has taken on the air of one of those David Letterman callbacks that he keeps hammering at specifically because he knows it's dead air. At I least, I think Harris knows it's dead air. Look close and you can start to see the flop sweat. That's what hosting the Academy Awards does to even the most charmingly composed man.


9:25 - Emmanuel Lubezki wins for Cinematography for "Birdman." The real question, however, is this: was Roger Deakins actually in the audience (this was, of course, his 63rd consecutive loss) or was he drunk at a bar in Cabo San Lucas.

9:37 - The Memorial Segment. 1.) Half of society doesn't understand why certain people weren't included. 2.) The producers decide to trot someone out there to sing a power ballad at the exact moment every rule of decorum and common sense stipulates you just fade to black. How does the Academy consistently screw up the one thing that should be utterly resistant to a screw-up?

9:46 - "How far would you go to help someone find the greatness in himself?" Wait, are we sure that's what "Whiplash" is about?

9:47 - God, to be Terrence Howard's PR rep on Monday morning... "Well, Terrence had a bad reaction to some sushi in the green room. Plus, he always gets emotional when he sees Oprah..."

9:52 - "Citizenfour" for Best Documentary. A supremely political moment somehow only feels like the fifth or sixth most incendiary moment of the night. But then the whole auditorium is pretty much under surveillance with or without the government. Hey-o!!!

10:02 - John Legend and Common and a no-nonsense, we're-in-it-to-win-it choir takes the stage to sing "Glory", the Best Original Song nominee from "Selma." It's incredible. It's majestic. It takes the whole damn room up the mountain. The amazing moments and meaning in this Academy Awards are, frankly, overwhelming N.P.H., and it's totally not his fault. What's he supposed to do other than give Oprah a bullhorn and let her take over?

10:04 - John Travolta brought out with Idina Menzel to atone for last year's Adele Dazim sin and somehow, through the grace of L. Ron Hubbard, only proceeds to make it even worse. Are he and Terrence Howard going out on the road together?

10:06 - After that performance, if "Glory" hadn't won for Best Original Song they would have needed to instantly conduct a fake recount and announce it as the winner.

10:16 - I love Lady Gaga as much as anyone. I have a picture of her (with Bruce Springsteen) on my refrigerator. But this "Sound of Music" moment is totally blunting the emotional impact of the previous few minutes......

10:19 - ......until Stefani Germanotta brings the effing house down again and then introduces Julie Andrews herself who somehow brings the effing house down in the midst of already being brought down. I can barely form coherent thoughts at this point. I mean, I'm sure the pre-eminent Internet trolls and professional contrarians and doubting Thomas's will roll their eyes but the hell with 'em - I love this Oscars!!! I do. I.Love.Them. Who needs more wine?


10:30 - Eddie Murphy to present the original screenwriting awards. Could he throw out an Afrim reference? Anyone? Anyone??? No one? No one. ("Because Afrim here is a damn fine screenwriter, as well as accountant and part time receptionist.")

10:32 - Birdman. Screenplay. Don't you want to imagine these four dudes holed up in a hotel writing that movie?

10:35 - "The Imitation Game" wins Best Adapted Screenplay. And look...I am on the record as possessing immense disdain for that screenplay, and I stand by it. I stand by it because it's the truth and I have to be honest. And because I have to be honest I have to say that Graham Moore's acceptance speech and his sudden admission that when he was sixteen he wanted to commit suicide floored me, moved me, made me reconsider all the snarky things I wanted to say in this space (and had literally typed). The Oscars for reasons that I both completely understand and totally can't grasp spark so much social media vitriol and yet......these Oscars. So many people spoke from their hearts. Be a pollyanna once in awhile. You'll feel better.

10:43 - "But the paradox is that true art, true individual expression," Alejandro González Iñárritu upon winning Best Director for "Birdman" says, "can’t be compared." Ha! Tell that to Twitter, Alejandro!!!

10:51 - Eddie Redmayne. Best Actor. "The Theory of Everything." Welp. "Birdman", it seems, is primed to sweep all the big awards......except for Michael Keaton as Best Actor. A friendly reminder that Hollywood really digs movies about themselves but actually prefers performances where actors play other people.

10:53 - To me, the 2014 Best Actress race has never more succinctly crystallized the Oscars. I wanted Marion Cotillard to win for "Two Days, One Night." Desperately. My favorite female performance of the year, and it wasn't close. I hooted and hollered - literally - when Matthew McConaughey drawled her name. But you know what? When Julianne Moore won for "Still Alice", like every human being who cares about the Oscars (or pretends not to care) knew she would, I still smiled and applauded and got emotional. And the standing ovation and slightly extended applause right there at the end told the whole story why - because she's Julianne fucking Moore. She's one of our greats, and has been for a long, long time. She deserved it. It was time. It was past time. Seeing her standing on that's where she belonged.

11:01 - At this point, no one wants to go to the Vanity Fair party as much as Octavia Spencer. "Why won't he stop talking to me?"

11:02 - Neil Patrick Harris, oddly, manages to trivialize a few of the evening's most significant highlights with his Oscar "predictions". God, didn't he have someone in the wings telling him "Seriously man, just it let it go."

11:03 - I hope that if anything other than "Boyhood" wins Best Picture that Matthew McConaughey crashes the stage to demand the victor hand over his Academy Award to Richard Linklater. "My righteous amigo, my fellow Texas troubadour, Rick Linklater, should be up here hoisting this little dude, this signifier of creative aptitude and taquerias of the soul. Give UP your Oscar, you imitators, you wannabe carpetbaggers, you assembly line manufacturers of hackneyed Hollywood claptrap, for genuine Lone Star art. Somebody, say amen!"

11:04 - "Birdman" takes Best Picture for 2014. And you know what? "Best", not the "best", whatever ("Land Ho!" anyone?), I think it's right. And I think it's right because the Best Picture is voted on by the Academy, and the Academy is the Movie Industry, and the Movie Industry goes back to that opening song & dance number where we view the movies through the gauzy filter of Neil Patrick Harris and Anna Kendrick even if we are aware of and admit to all the flaws pointed out by Jack Black. And even as the rest of us standing outside the Academy whine and moan and kvetch you know where we'll end up next year (this year)? Like Emma Stone at the end of "Birdman", looking up at the illusion, smiling, giving ourselves over to it, whether we like it or not. The movies always win.