I grew up in a pretty rural area. The town I lived in (and do once again) had no movie theater. The next town over had one and another town twenty minutes away had two. There was a drive in theater across the Hudson river but you had to really want it to make the trek. Probably my earliest memory of going to a movie was seeing The Spy Who Loved Me at that drive in, followed very closely by Star Wars.
The VCR only started becoming an accessible thing during my teen years, so for a long time I was limited to that tiny smattering of theaters and whatever came on TV (we had four channels) for movie watching. But I loved movies dearly. Each visit to a theater was a precious thing. Somewhere in this part of my life I discovered the show Sneak Previews, featuring the film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I was completely fascinated by the show and watched it every chance I got. For one thing, I loved the bickering between the two. But most important, they opened up the world of movies to me in a way that wasn't possible in my tiny corner of the world. Most of the movies they talked about would never come to our theaters but I was able to know about them because of Siskel & Ebert. Their passion and knowledge made a lasting impression, acting as a bridge to a time later in life when I would be able to start watching a broader selection of movies. They showed me that movies were more than just a way to pass the evening. Movies were art. They could be trashy and shabby or thoughtful and refined but either way, they were art.
In the late nineties, now living in Charlottesville, I started this site as a bit of a joke. It was a collection of snarky comments made by friends and coworkers at our weekly trip to the movies. Slowly my comments grew into actual written pieces. Most notably, I wrote a lengthy (for the time) review of Patch Adams, defending it against Ebert's less than kind review. It was the first time I really opened up and wrote at length and with a purpose. In retrospect, I was going after Ebert because he seemed to be trashing the idea of acting goofy to make sick kids in the hospital feel better. My dad, a magician, used to do just that and it seemed a cheap dig from the critic. He was probably right about the movie though. But Ebert had served as inspiration for the second time in my life, this time kicking me into gear as a writer.
A year later he came to the Virginia Film Festival to host one of his famous events where he and an audience would spend three days watching a movie and discussing it. The movie was The Birds and the idea was simple. We watched the movie and anyone in the audience could yell stop and the movie would be stopped. That person would then comment on something in the movie and the entire group would discuss it. Often Ebert was the one to yell stop and would then talk about Hitchcock's style and quirks. Even though I was a pretty serious movie fan, I was amazed at how much I wasn't noticing in a movie. It was eye opening and hugely educational. As a bonus, Ebert would get there early every day and talk about movies in general, answering questions from the crowd as he went. I can still clearly remember him talking about Ozu quite a bit, which was the first time I had heard of that filmmaker.
After one of the three sessions, I went up to talk to him in person. He was very generous with his time and recommended several books that I could read to learn more about movies. I thanked him and left the auditorium, proud of myself for not getting tongue tied and goofy in the presence of a guy I considered a bit of a hero of mine. My next stop was the bathroom. Normally, I'd leave a detail like that out of a story. But as I stood at the urinal, taking care of business, Ebert came in and did the same, right next to me. We didn't talk or acknowledge each other in any way, because men have rules about these sorts of things. But I was intensely aware of who I was peeing next to. And, strangely enough, it was a bit of a lesson as well. Prior to this film festival, my experience with meeting anyone connected to the movie industry in any way was exactly zero. In the course of a week I got the chance to talk to Stan Winston about The Lost World, shake Anthony Hopkins' hand after a screening of Silence of the Lambs and have a really ordinary moment with the great film critic. The first two left me a bit star struck. The third told me that no matter what these guys did to blow my mind with their work, they still had to pee like a normal person. I've never been particularly goofy around a famous person since.
All of this comes to mind as I learned this evening of Ebert's passing. Usually when a famous person dies I have a minor moment of sadness and move on. I may have enjoyed their work greatly but I didn't know them personally and that keeps a level of emotional distance. Occasionally, I feel real grief and a sense of loss because that person's work was a serious influence, something that helped shape me as a person. People like Jim Henson, Charles M. Schulz, Douglas Adams, George Carlin or Neil Armstrong. When they passed away, it hit me hard, almost like losing a close friend. Now I'm adding Roger Ebert's name to that list. His was an important voice in my life, one that pushed me, inspired me and always intrigued me. I'm going to miss that voice in my life.
Goodbye Roger. And thanks.
Clearly the experiment to write here every day was a massive failure. Here's the problem. It was a combination of boredom and chickenshittery that brought me low.
The boredom part is simple. I can only write so much about my own writing before I'm ready to lop off my own fingers to make it stop. I have no idea how any of you manage to read it. Actually, judging from the traffic numbers, you don't. Look, I love writing. I think about it all day long. I listen to podcasts about writing. I read other writers' blogs to hear about their writing. I'm obsessed. But that obsession has limits when writing about my work.
It's not hard to understand why. I'm hypercritical of anything I do. So to try and speak about it with any level of authority makes me feel like a damn phoney. No part of me feels like I know what the hell I'm doing as a writer. Other people tell me otherwise, which is what kept me going long enough to fall in love with doing it.
I'm often not even aware how much I put myself down. At the screenwriting lab last year another writer called me out on it. Immediately I agreed that I was like that but the unsettling part was that I hadn't even realized I was doing it out loud. It's such a part of me that it seeps out without trying.
The other problem was being a chickenshit. I'd love to write about other things but over time I've grown so worried about offending people that I've curtailed my opinion giving. Which is odd considering the glee with which I once threw bombs around this place. Odder yet, the folks I respect most in this world never hesitate to share their opinions.
This is a bad habit that started the day I decided not to be a film critic. The decision came slowly after I made a documentary. Making that movie convinced me that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I loved the process and showing it to its intended audience was intoxicating. But knowing how much of myself I put into that film made me uncomfortable with reviewing movies. Ripping into another filmmaker, knowing how hard they worked to get that movie made, just didn't feel right anymore. To be clear, that doesn't mean I think critics are now the enemy or wrong to do what they do. It just means that I am no longer comfortable doing it. I still enjoy film criticism greatly but it's best done by someone else.
At the same time though I've somehow convinced myself to shut up about all manner of topics. I don't talk politics because virtually everyone sounds like an asshole when they do it and I think we have plenty already. Music? I don't have any confidence to talk on that subject. Race? Gender issues? Way too scared to be openly wrong.
See the trend forming? The worst part is that it's not my style to keep my opinions to myself. In person, I'm not shy about letting go with both barrels on any topic I have an opinion on, which is most of them. The difference is that in person, I know who I'm talking to. I can see how they're reacting. So there's a chance I'll be able to reign myself in before things get ugly. Online, I have know idea who might read this. That little knowledge gap stops me cold.
Writing online often feels like screaming into space. You get overwhelming silence in reaction. The percentage of readers who bother to comment or email their thoughts in reaction to an online article is gobsmackingly low. That's what causes most blogs and websites to run aground so soon after launching. The silence is unnerving. I've lost count of the number of writers who complained to me about the lack of reaction to their articles. You look at the logs and see that people are in fact reading. They just aren't responding. We tend to take that as a failure of some kind. And why not? Look around the web and you see lengthy comment sections full of passionate debate. "Why don't I get that response?" is the natural reaction.
Go to the New York Times web site. Pick an article about politics. Look at the comments below. There should be a few hundred. Now think about the approximately 35 million people reading the Times site monthly. Do the math. Pitiful, isn't it? So the question for me (or anyone writing a blog I suppose) is what the hell am I afraid of? The most comments I recall an article on this site getting was about 200 for a pretty nasty review of Serenity. I can deal with that.
Perhaps my biggest hero in the world is Penn Jillette. No, that's not a joke. Penn likes to say "Don't be afraid of being wrong, be afraid of being quiet." I need to follow that advice.
My best year predicting the Oscars, I got 21 out of 24 right. Usually I average around 17 right. This year? An abysmal 9 correct picks.
That was just all kinds of ugly.
That said, I enjoyed the show a lot more when it wasn't being completely predictable. I've said for years that I enjoy the Oscars the most when things are going off the rails. Bizarre choices for the show, weird clothes and inexplicable winners make me happy. Sadly, the fashion on display was really tasteful. The show was riddled with too many musical numbers and a bizarre fetish for Chicago, so that was good. Host Seth McFarlane did just fine, which was a disappointment. He's no Franco/Hathaway meltdown. So by my standards, 1 out of 3. Meh. By rational thought, it was a pretty good show.
Random thoughts. Playing off the VFX winners with the Jaws music after just a few seconds? Really shitty. You could find several minutes for that Chicago number but couldn't spare two minutes for guys who gave us phenomenal artistry? Bullshit. Jennifer Lawrence and Daniel Day-Lewis had great acceptance speeches. Lawrence was even better with the press after the show. Roger Deakins not winning for cinematography? Again? What the fuck Academy? Loved Ben Affleck's high speed speech after winning Best Picture. Loved seeing Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino win.
Usually I go through the awards in some sort of a review. Not this year. I'm going to go lick my wounds instead.
I'm a little distracted these days. Keeping up the blog and working hard on the rewrite is proving difficult. So just assume that every time I say I will write something tomorrow, I mean 2-3 days from now. At least until this draft is done.
So, the rest of my Oscar predictions.
- Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Les Miserables
- Life of Pi
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Zero Dark Thirty
Argo will win. It has all the momentum in the guild awards and is a big crowd pleaser. It was an unlikely pick since Affleck wasn't nominated for director, but it seems hard to bet against right now. Three weeks ago I would have bet everything on Lincoln.
For the rest, I'm just going to blitz through this because I don't have a lot of time.
Original Screenplay: John Gatins for Flight
Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner for Lincoln
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Cinematography: Roger Deakins for Skyfall
Costume Design: Elko Ishioka for Mirror Mirror
Makeup: The Hobbit
Production Design: Anna Karenina
Doc Feature: How to Survive a Plague
Doc Short: Inocente
Original Song: Skyfall
Original Score: Alexandre Desplat for Argo
Editing: Dylan Tichenor & William Goldenberg for Zero Dark Thirty
Animated Short: Adam and Dog
Live Action Short: Curfew
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
Sound Mixing: Skyfall
Whew, I sure forgot to keep up on this the last week or so didn't I? The previous week was just super busy with travel, car stuff and massive cleaning of the house. This week wasn't busy at all. Our kids are on winter break and traveling with their grandparents, meaning the house was empty and quiet. And I took advantage, catching up on my sleep and my writing. For instance, yesterday I wrote eleven pages of Joe Bob the Messiah. Not bad at all.
Not so good for updating here though. Which means my Oscar picks are way behind with only a couple days to go. So let's catch up a bit, shall we?
Best Supporting Actress
- Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
- Amy Adams, The Master
- Sally Field, Lincoln
- Helen Hunt, The Sessions
- Jackie Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
We can eliminate Jackie Weaver right off, because most people aren't sure why she was nominated. I liked her performance a lot but it's mostly non-verbal, so people tend to forget everything she did. Amy Adams, Sally Field and Helen Hunt are all great. But. The most buzzed about performance belongs to Anne Hathaway. Oddly, it's the only one I didn't see. But I learned not to vote my heart on these things. Vote based on the buzz you hear. Anne Hathaway is the easy choice here.
Best Supporting Actor
- Alan Arkin, Argo
- Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
- Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
- Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
This one is a beast to predict this year. The weak link is Arkin, not because he was bad, and he most certainly wasn't, but because he gave the classic Arkin performance. It was delightful, sure, but not different. De Niro hasn't been nominated in a while now and it's great to see him back. More please. Hoffman is always great but this might have been a hair too subtle for the award. Waltz is a pleasure to watch, but not radically different from his Inglorious Basterds turn. Which leaves Tommy Lee Jones. His character is the conscience of the movie so I think he'll carry the most weight and win the award.
- Michael Haneke, Amour
- Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Ang Lee, Life of Pi
- Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
- David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Another tough one. Usually this pairs up with Best Picture, but noticeably missing is Ben Affleck for the front running Argo. That leaves us in a bit of a wilderness this year. Haneke was masterful but that movie is a brute to sit through. For as many people who will find it powerful and wrenching, there will be people who find it dull and torturous. Benh Zeitlin, it's an honor to be nominated. Keep up the good work. David O. Russell showed a very deft touch but the movie is ultimately a rom-com, so it won't be taken as seriously. Ang Lee produced one of the most visually entrancing movies in a long time but that damn bookend puts people off. That leaves Steven Spielberg. Up until the last couple weeks, I thought Lincoln was a shoo-in for Best Picture and thus Spielberg for Best Director. His movie might not win but he will.
- Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
- Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
- Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
- Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
- Denzel Washington, Flight
Daniel Day-Lewis. 'Nuff said.
- Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
- Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
- Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
- Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Naomi Watts, The Impossible
I agonized over this pick quite a bit. Jessica Chastain is easily my favorite in this category but unfortunately, that stupid backlash against Zero Dark Thirty over the torture issue has poisoned the well, reducing her chances rather significantly. If you were one of the people bashing the movie, trying actually watching it and paying attention. You might learn something. Emmanuelle Riva was devastating and incredibly vulnerable in Amour. Add in her age (85) and it's really hard not to vote for her. But the buzz seems to be with Jennifer Lawrence. I loved her performance but not as much as the other two I mentioned. But again, don't vote your heart. Jennifer Lawrence it is.
That's good for now. Back later with some more picks.
What makes a GoPro such great fun is it all but begs you to think of odd things to attach it to, hoping to discover something cool. Which is exactly why I strapped it to my snow shovel before going out to clear the driveway after our recent snowstorm. The results are fairly giggle inducing.
Yes, I know, I haven't written for a few days now. But I have a valid excuse. Travel. The last few days were spent traveling to and from Ohio to visit family.
That out of the way, let's open a new topic around here. Something that doesn't have to do with my emo musings on my writing habits. Even I get bored of that topic eventually. It's time to talk Oscars.
In the past I've put up one giant post a day or two before the big day with all my predictions. This year I want do this a bit differently. I've been working my way through the nominated films and have now seen enough to speak intelligently about certain categories. So I'll do them one at a time, saving the categories I haven't seen all of yet to the end.
Up first is the category I closed out first, animated feature. I have two young boys, we go to see all the animated movies, it wasn't hard.
The nominees are:
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Two trends pop out here right away. Three of these movies are stop motion animation. And three of these movies are made by Disney.
3D computer animation has been the dominant form for years, so it's a pleasant surprise that the quirkier form that was often called claymation was such a big player this year. I don't think this represents a long term trend but anything that gives us variety is always welcome.
Disney's dominance is less of a surprise. The Mouse House is a long time giant in the field and has been growing steadily better since Pixar chief John Lasseter took over their animation department. The big question is which movie the studio wants to get behind. Studios know that Oscar wins tend to inflate a movie's income. So they will lobby voters in hopes of collecting a statue. With three of their films nominated, it doesn't make sense for Disney to push all three. That amounts to competing with themselves.
My guess is that they'll pick Wreck-It-Ralph to push. Pixar has shelves of these awards already, Disney not so much. And since Wreck-It-Ralph was their biggest hit with audiences, it stands the best chance of winning.
Now, the two non-Disney movies are my favorites in the category. But experience has told me that my tastes don't tend to match those of the Academy's. Which is almost enough to knock them out of the running. Except for one thing. The Pirates! was made by Aardman Animation and the Academy had long been fond of the creators of Wallace and Gromit.
So it would appear the race is down to The Pirates! and Wreck-It-Ralph. One of which would be my first choice and one of which would be my last choice. The game is correctly picking what the Academy will select, so the obvious choice is Wreck-It-Ralph.
So if I'm working on a script but not actually writing, my mind just churns constantly, trying to make the story work. The side effect is that I don't sleep well because my brain is in overdrive. But if I do start writing, then I get wrapped up in the story and lose track of time until I realize that the sun is coming up.
Either way, my sleeping habits are atrocious. Which is to say, I've been doing the writing and losing track of time thing every day this week and now I'm wiped out. So I'm going to bed early. By which I mean 2:30 AM.
The insomnia bug bit hard last night. And the phrase "last night" is used pretty loosely here. It wasn't until about 9:30 AM that I finally drifted off to sleep. Which left me about two and a half hours in which to get in a full night's sleep. I'll wait while you do the math.
It wasn't the most productive of days. Writing was almost nil. The only useful thing I did was take in the play Almost, Maine at the Ghent Playhouse. It was a killer show, funny as hell and sweet natured. The cast was a mere five actors, playing something like twenty roles. I've caught a lot of great stuff at this little community theater but this was one of the best. I am actively working to get as many of this theater's regulars into my short film No Big Deal as I can manage. That last sentence was deliberately a bit vague. I'll elaborate down the road.
For now, bed. I'm exhausted.
I wrote eight pages of the script today. Four at work and four more after I got home. Eighteen total. I'm off tomorrow but have a play to see, a couple movies to watch and of course, the Super Bowl. I'll squeeze some writing time in somewhere. Probably in place of sleep.