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Oscar, adjective. (UPDATED)

It’s Oscar night – the one night of the year when we can all look forward to four-plus hours of Hollywood celebrating itself with one overblown musical number, self-congratulatory speech, and poignant cutaway to Mickey Rooney in his nosebleed seats after another. This year, the field of Best Picture nominees was expanded to ten, signalling two things: 1) the Academy needs an excuse to include popular fare like District 9 in its marquee category, for ratings and marketing purposes; and 2) the Academy’s going to have its teleprompter writers working overtime thinking up pithy ways to (over)praise these ten nominees. In other words, expect flattering adjectives to abound in tonight’s telecast.

Recognizing this, we at Wipe have decided to offer our own version of “Oscar predictions”: instead of predicting the winners, we predict the adjectives mostly likely to be used on teleprompter screens in praise of the nominees (limiting ourselves to the Picture category, in the interest of brevity). And as an added bonus, we offer our own adjectives in response to the Academy. (I know what you’re thinking, but no, we’re not only out to piss on the Oscar parade.)

Call it our Oscar round-up – or “Wipe-up,” if you will.

The Ten Best Picture Nominees are:

Oscar says: “Heartwarming”

Wipe says: “Republican”

Oscar says: “No Holds Barred”

Wipe says: “Overdone”


Oscar says: “British”

Wipe says: “Pedo”


Oscar says: “Tender”

Wipe says: “Mushy”


Oscar says: “Soaring”

Wipe says:  “Clooney”


Oscar says: “Groundbreaking”

Wipe says: “Techno-horny”


Oscar says: “Unflinching”

Wipe says: “Unsubtle”


Oscar says: “Innovative”

Wipe says: “Techno-racist”


Oscar says: “Jewish”

Wipe says: “Philosophi-coen”


Oscar says: “Heartstopping”

Wipe says: “Heartpounding”

Check back after the ceremony to see how well we scored in our Oscar predictions!

*UPDATE: Stymied by the teleprompter! By our count, we only correctly predicted one adjective: presenter Charlize Theron used the word “unflinching” to describe Precious. Other than that, zilch. They didn’t even use “Jewish” to describe A Serious Man, which is baffling. Oh well, at least we all had fun, right folks? (But seriously, talk about a snoozer.)

-Wipe

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Why the hell are you shooting it in that?

Bear with me folks, I’m an old projectionist so this is what I daydream about when I’m not dawdling on about hockey or a hermetic life spent in the Seychelles. My column today concerns the importance of choosing the right aspect ratio for your future cinematic masterpieces along with a brief look at the advantages of shooting in film and digital. Hardly barn-burning stuff you may think, but stay tuned for porn and explosions!
(Please note: neither ‘porn’ nor ‘explosions’ will take place below.)

When to choose 1.85 : 1 Aspect Ratio
You want to tell an intimate story–for example the struggles of half-Job, half-schmuck Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009). The story resonates with the Coens’ own Minnesota childhood and because Larry at no point fights a polar bear on top of the White House or saves the Third World, the film remains in the smaller, more appropriate ratio of 1:85 (aka “flat widescreen”). Another example is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which never stretches the borders of a 1:85 screen nor the demands of the viewer with its zeitgeisty romance, because if you expand the frame you’re also expanding the viewer’s expectations. The flat screen ratio has been adopted worldwide by filmmakers over the standard 1:37 that was once de rigueur for documentaries and fictional work grounded in reality, with 1:37/1:33 ratios still being used for certain projects (Alan Clarke’s  Elephant [1989] and later Gus Van Zant’s own version [2003] spring to mind with their particular unsettling realities).

Below is an example of a 1:85 widescreen ratio:

When to choose 2.39 : 1 Aspect Ratio
If you’re gonna do a “larger than life” film (see: Tarantino’s WWII fantasies in Inglourious Basterds [2009], or PTA fulminating against capitalism with There Will Be Blood [2007]), you don’t want your epic fighting for breathing room in the frame, hence the longer image of 2:39 to match a larger subject matter. The Man with No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns was an iconic character in an iconic setting, therefore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be shot/viewed in anamorphic widescreen–the alternative to a shoddy pan-and-scan world lacking perspective on the mythical gunslingers in the Wild West (via the high plains of Spain). This can also apply to gritty films with an immense worldview, say the international scheming of Syriana (2005), or the canonization of the 9/11 passengers in United 93 (2006). Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) worked in 1:85 because it had common ground with the reality of cinema-vérité documentaries, but it also would have been entirely acceptable to have been shot/screened in anamorphic with its scope of characters and events.

Below is a 2:39 aspect ratio:

Film vs. Digital

Celluloid has existed for over three centuries, and along with persistence-of-vision remains the closest claim to alchemy that civilization has achieved. Digital is the steadily-popular method for filming blockbusters, indie flicks and everything in-between, for very good reasons: flexibility, durability, ease of shooting on set and transfer time in post-production. My thoughts on shooting film vs. digital go beyond the technical limitations and financial reasons behind both formats and towards the psychology of WHY you should choose a certain format. If celluloid and photography have deep roots in our history over the past 200 years and digital points to our present and future, should that thought process not apply to the format with which you choose to film a Mumblecore short, a 3-hour Custer bio-pic or any sci-fi extravaganza?

Michael Mann chose digital to bring John Dillinger’s brief life to screen in Public Enemies (2009) with the intention of immersing the audience in 1930’s Americana and it worked up until the slo-mo climax stretched the demands one could place on the format. Digital has yet to find a solution to its awkward appearance in slow-motion, and this undercut otherwise excellent reasoning for more period pieces to be shot digitally. Another offender is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which allowed the filmmakers an easier time of shooting in the Mexican jungles than 35mm film yet in any scene involving fast-cutting movement, digital ‘pixelation’ occurred–thus taking me right out of the realm of the Mayans. Now if pixelation were to occur in present day settings such as Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) or the futuristic Avatar (2009) I would readily except the digital look as a reflection of our modern times and the years to come. My point being if you want to capture the essence of the past perhaps you should put down the Red One camera and pick up a Super 35 camera with a fine grainy stock, and vice-versa if you’re making the next Terminator popcorn muncher.

There you go, those are my thoughts on the matters, I hope they can be of use to you.

Thanks to the images section of Blu-ray.com and dvdbeaver.com for the examples used above.

-B.A.S.

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Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire (2009)

Director: Lee Daniels

Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher

Novel: Sapphire (1996)

That I caught up with Lee Daniels’s Precious late in the game (i.e. this past Monday), following its run of resoundingly successful festival appearances (major awards at Sundance and TIFF; standing ovation at Cannes) and hyperbolic critical notices (both gushy and censorious), clearly influenced my perceptions of it, and not for the better. It’s no secret that hype can be a wickedly distracting thing; but it can also tell us a lot about a film.

Oscar talk™–which Precious has been receiving since well before its domestic release last November–is high on my list of warning signs that a movie secretly has no integrity. Part of what’s so ruinous about awards season—and perhaps the very idea of handing out awards for films in the first place—is that it invites and rewards fawning: in most instances (not to say always), the films that emerge as “award-hopefuls” at year’s end are those custom-designed to flatter voters’ tastes, their sense of self-importance and awareness of “important” subjects (people like Kate Winslet and Stephen Daldry devote their entire careers to making these kinds of films). I couldn’t shake the impression while watching Precious that every “raw,” “powerhouse” moment in it was calculated to appease (liberal-minded) award-voters–perhaps because, from my vantage point mid-way through awards-season, I can see how well the film has succeeded in doing just that.

Maybe it’s unfair to place the blame on the filmmakers for the hype Precious has generated; they may have originally had only the best intentions in mind. (Besides, could the Oscars have possibly been in their sights when they debuted at Sundance?) All I can say, for my part, is that the award fever surrounding the film, and integrated into its marketing/campaign strategy (no doubt with the complicity of Lee “Monster’s Ball” Daniels), has significantly deadened the actual emotional experience of watching the film. I find it very difficult to be moved by a film when all its dramatic peaks–including the heart-tugging dialogue between Gabby Sidibe and Paula Patton, and Mo’Nique’s tearful climactic monologue–come straight out of the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times. Hyping Precious in their own right, these emotion-soaked clips have become the Oscar-jockeying equivalent of the f/x “money shots” in previews for summer blockbusters. Again, the calculation shows the more the hype grows.

Perhaps I digress. Aside from my above complaints–which all seem external (though, I think, not inconsequential) to the film in some sense–what else can I say about Precious? Most of you should know by now that the film is about an obese, illiterate black teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) from Harlem who struggles daily with poverty and an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), as well as the trauma of being raped and twice impregnated by her biological father, until education and the efforts of a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) transform her life. Being a “liberal-minded” viewer myself, I found that the film did make a lot of concessions to my particular biases, and it didn’t always feel like a ploy: I especially appreciated the film’s attempt to imbue nearly every character–even the monstrous Mo’Nique–with a measure of self-understanding and humanity (more than can be said for the potential Best Picture-winner Avatar). And it is a rare film indeed that allows you to see the beauty and inner-consciousness of an overweight, African-American female character, not to mention a film that deals so directly with incest, abusive parenting, and class and racial issues.

But (another but!), just because Precious addresses the latter issues directly, doesn’t necessarily mean it does so adequately, or responsibly. I’ll tread lightly here and reference other critics, since I’m definitely out of my area in discussing some of these topics. As glowingly as the film has been praised by some critics (Peter Travers composed a love poem or two, calling it the best film of 2009), other critics (Armond White most famously) have attacked it as racist, demeaning in its representation of inner-city black life, and particularly problematic in light of its critical standing with the majority of (white) critics.  Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Oregonian perhaps frames the anxiety about Precious best: “I am skeptical about a movie that seems so heavily steeped in black pathology, yet is so embraced by the mainstream. Of course incest and illiteracy occur in the black community, as [they do] in all communities. But with so few black dramas on the big screen, I also know ‘Precious’ presents this view in a cinematic vacuum.” You begin to see what Hannah-Jones and White mean the more Precious relentlessly piles on the un-prettiness of inner-city life (e.g., Mo’Nique’s pathetic attempt to appear presentable for a social worker by throwing on a wig and smearing on lipstick; stylized flashbacks that highlight the sweat on Precious’s father’s belly as he unbuckles himself to rape her; a late appearance by the AIDS virus). Why are so many (white) critics eating this up, without compunction? Why is Precious the only film with black themes to emerge as a contender this awards season?

The other major problem, touched on by White and several other critics, is that the film casts only light-skinned performers (Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey) in the sympathetic, kind saviour roles. This is particularly alarming given that, as Latoya Peterson points out on the excellent blog Racialicious, Patton’s teacher character is darker-skinned and wears dreadlocks in the original novel. With a light-skinned actor occupying this role, the character seems to join a long line of predominantly white teacher/saviour figures in films about inner-city education (in the same blog posting mentioned above, Peterson provides a hilarious clip from MadTV to illustrate the prevalence and ridiculousness of this phenomenon). Further compounding this problem is the film’s depiction of Precious’s shame at her own skin colour; she speaks of desiring “a light-skinned boyfriend” and even envisions herself a skinny white woman while fixing her hair in front of a mirror. I don’t doubt that a black girl could have such self-consciousness about her skin colour; I am merely troubled by the fact that the film takes it for granted that Precious desires to be white (it’s almost offhandedly treated), and never comes to terms with where this identity issue stems from (could movies like Precious, with their light-skinned angels, be partially responsible for perpetuating this self-image problem?). In the absence of any deeper reflection on skin colour, Precious’s self-hatred in the film appears as just one more element to flatter critics’ sense of “raw truth” in this telling of an African-American story.

[For a fine summary of the debates surrounding Precious, see this article.]

-Cam

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