Academic Writing

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Be Careful or You'll Turn into Your Father!

During the 1950s and 1960s youth rebellion and counter culture flourished in this country. Throngs of young people were revolting against their parents and other adults during the post-war economic boom. They hated the older generations focus on material wealth. From universities to communes young people were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. And guess, what? It’s happening again today. The youth are rebelling against the adults, but doing it in an entirely different way. And the irony of the whole thing? They are rebelling against the same people who were of the generation who rebelled against their elders half a century ago. Its just human nature, or youth nature I should say, to revolt against conventional wisdom and practices.

It must be noted that their revolution is slightly different. The implicit irony with the YouTube culture is that the people posting their videos are all hoping to get rich, and quick, banking on the reliability of our celebrity obsessed culture. So, while in the 1960s youths rebelled against material wealth, today’s youth are striving to achieve it. Their rebellion lies in the way in which it is obtained. It’s a well-known adage that if you rebel too much against your parents you’re going to turn into your grandparents. That holds true, to a certain extent, here. Just like their grandparents, the stuffy adults in the 1950s, today’s youths want money. However, unlike their elders, they really aren’t willing to work for it. They look to this new technology to gain instant popularity and immediate fame.

Nevertheless, there are blatant similarities between this generation and their parents. The parallels are in the need for individual expression of self versus the abhorrence of big corporations with strong material values. With YouTube, On-Demand television, and blogging, young people of today are reclaiming social media and making it their own. They insist on instant gratification with content, as they want to see it, not as someone else dictates. Nontraditional platforms are becoming more popular than conventional arenas for displaying content while "old-media" moguls struggle to catch up. Jeff Zucker, the recently appointed head of NBC Universal, has placed conquering the digital world at the top of his "To Do" list. Mr. Zucker probably has a strong understanding of television content and its cultural implications given his close relationship with television production. I hope he understands this youth-centric rebellious trend. The thing with trends, though, is that they are fleeting. Once big corporate America takes over, the youth will find another way to create their own counter culture. It is not a coincidence that people’s first stop on their digital viewing tour is going to be YouTube before or any other network’s website. YouTube is a place for the younger generation to express their individuality; it is the new commune, if you will. Void of adult influence, concern over FCC regulations and advertising needs, it is a place where individuals can express what they wish without external repercussions. It is the lack of corporate influence which makes it such a popular haven for youth identity.

Young people want to rebel; they want to feel like they are getting away with something. Mr. Zucker, in a company-wide town hall after his promotion to CEO (jacketless, in a very non-old world CEO manner), announced that he wanted to find a way to make money off of the NBC clips that become popular in digital formats. There is also constant talk of removing licensed material from the sight. That in it of itself might not be such a problem because it is their property to begin with. Furthermore, given its popularity with original programming, I’m sure the site doesn’t need licensed material to stay afloat. However I worry about the larger cultural implications of co-opting a medium such as YouTube. Yes, it is owned by Google, but Google is about as youth-centric and non-traditional as big business comes. And given the abundant supply of "alternative" programming, it remains untainted by "Big Business." During the 1950s and the 1960s when the youth were forging a new cultural identity, they did so independent of adult influence, and when the adults tried to come in and co-opt their ideas that pushed the rebellion even further. In universities when administrations attempted to negotiate with students, students refused and more often than not law enforcement was brought in to ease the tension. This of course sparked violence rather than subduing the uprising.

It must be mentioned that NBC does have its own, in house "rogue" digital studio which have come up with a number of "subversive" popular clips such as "The Easter Bunny Hates You." For the most part their "viral" videos for external sites (YouTube, MySpace and the like) don’t need a stamp of approval other than from the senior producer. Their funding does not come from NBC, which gives them a little freer reign than if their money did come from the company.

Individuals going to these alternative viewing sites don’t want their creativity and hard work to be moneymakers for big business. People have realized that they can take control of their viewing habits. DVR and TiVo allow people to avoid commercials, when they watch movies On Demand they don’t have previews to sit through, and when they watch the latest SNL clip on YouTube they can avoid all the non-funny content that the show provides at weekly at 11:30 PM.

All in all, history does repeat itself and any given generation’s youth will rebel against those who came before them. That rebellion generally comes in the form of gaining independence from an older generation they see as old-fashion and out of touch with their reality. Given that technology has become such a fundamental part of popular culture it is now a conduit for that rebellion. That being the case, it is imperative that that connection remains in the forefront of the minds of those in charge if they want to see their content continue to be a central part of pop-culture.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Oscar Predictions

Here is the exchange on oscar predictions between my friend Eli and myself:

Eli's opinion:

Where to begin? Well the obvious place to start would be WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?!?! Leaving Dreamgirls out of the Best Picture nominations, and then giving it the most total noms (granted, 3 of them are for best song- which, BTW, Beyonce wasnt nominated despite having written at least part of it- she was nominated for the Golden Globe, after all). I will grant you that I didn't think Dreamgirls would actually WIN the Best Picture Oscar, but I think it should have at least been nominated. As for the other movies nominated, no real surprises there. I'd say it's really anybody's game at this point, but I'd go with 'The Departed' for Best Picture- unless Scorsese actually wins this time. In that case, look to 'Babel'.

On to the acting categories:
Lead Actor- I think they did a great job picking these. Though I am highly surprised that Leo wasnt nominated for The Departed- not even in a supporting role. I'm glad that Ryan Gosling was nominated. He seems to be very talented, but hasn't yet gotten his due. I think he could be a major player in the future. I would love to see Peter O'Toole win seeing as he has been nominated, (what, 8 times now?) and never won. And I would have loved to see Cohen nominated for Borat (at least he is nominated for adapted screenplay- which is strange considering a lot of it wasn't written. And what was it adapted from? The Ali G Show?). The probable winner will be Whitaker who has taken almost every major prize, tho at this point I would not be surprised if there was a major upset in this category- possibly O'Toole, but more probably DiCaprio to upset.

Lead Actress- This is a tight race too. The clear frontrunner for this category is Mirren, having won an Emmy 2 Golden Globes for playing queens, she certainly knows how to portray royalty. I am happy for Cruz, who has finally broken out of her usual 'sexpot' roles into something (supposedly) more substantial (I say 'supposedly' because I haven't actually seen the film yet). Each of the other three ladies nominated are amazing in their own rights. Kate winslet is something like 31 and has 5 Oscar noms? That's pretty amazing. Won't somebody just give her a damn Oscar already?! She will win it eventually, but not this year. Judi Dench is also supposed to be excellent in 'Scandal', but she's already won and Mirren's buzz is seemingly unstoppable. In my humble opinion, the only one who may stand a bit of a chance against her is Streep. She is just amazing- in everything she does. FOURTEEN OSCAR NOMINATIONS!! Unfortunately only 2 wins....She is due. It's been almost 25 years since she won last, and she turned a potentially throw-away role into something of substance. It's very rare for an actress to be nominated for Lead when the movie was a comedy (Diane Keaton in 'Something's Gotta Give' was the closest I can recall- and that's 2004- so that's 1 out of the past 15 nominations not including this year). Look to Mirren to win, Streep to upset.

Supporting Actor- I was completely and pleasantly surprised by the major changes from the Golden Globe awards. I'm sure you were not happy to see Nicholson not get a nom, but frankly, I didn't find his performance especially deserving of one. It's the usual Nicholson character- nothing new there. I kinda felt like 'been there, done that" while watching him. I am shocked that Brad Pitt didn't get a nom. He has been Hollywood's golden boy for a while now, and he delivered a wonderful performance. I'm glad that Mark Wahlberg was nominated- he was very good. However, I doubt he'll win the award. I haven't seen 'Little Children' and haven't heard anything as far as Haley's performance goes. In my mind, this is a 3-way race. Hounsou was amazing in 'Blood Diamond' and is certainly worthy of a nomination, as is Alan Arkin as the druggie-advice-giving grandpa in "Sunshine'. They are both wonderful in those movies, but I think Murphy's pulling off a dramatic role while most ppl only considered him a comedic actor could clinch the Oscar for him. He was wonderful as James 'Thunder' Earley in 'Dreamgirls' and definitely deserves to win. I think he'll win, though look to Hounsou as the possible upset.

Supporting Actress- The only change here from the Golden Globes was Emily Blunt from 'Prada' was passed over for Abigail Breslin in 'Sunshine'. It's unfortunate that 6 actresses couldn't be nominated, because I think Blunt deserved one for her witty performance in 'Prada', but I am very happy Breslin was nominated. She was excellent in 'Sunshine'- the one character which people cared for throughout the movie. I'm still deciding it that was because of her portrayal of the character or just how she's written, but either way it was a superb job. Though I'm glad she got nominated, I doubt she will win. Blanchett is great as usual, though I don't think the movie is big enough to earn her another Oscar. Both of the 'Babel' ladies were also wonderful- Kikuchi was fearless and Barraza was heart-wrenching and I think the nominations were well-deserved. As far as winning goes- I'd have to go with Hudson for her incredible DEBUT PERFORMANCE as Effie in 'Dreamgirls'. I have been listening to the soundtrack practically non-stop since I got it and I can't detect one false step she made. She still has work to do to become a major Hollywood player, but there's definitely potential, and nobody else pulled off nearly as moving a performance in the category. I'd say it's Hudson to win, with a minor chance of upset from Blanchett.

Director- If Scorsese doesn't win for 'The Departed' I don't think he'll ever win. The movie was very well directed. It's hard for me to decide this category since I have only seen that and 'Babel'- which rightly earned Inarritu a nom, but probably won't earn him the award. Paul Greengrass was a surprise, though I guess they wouldn't nominate Eastwood twice in the same category. I doubt Greengrass will win, though 'United 93' is supposed to be excellent. It's still too fresh for me to watch the movie, and I think that will affect at least a couple of Oscar voters as well. From what I've heard of 'The Queen', it is really Mirren's performance that stands out in that movie- nothing especially amazing aside from that. Doubtful he'll win. Eastwood, however, has proven to be an Academy favorite- having won 2 awards for 'Million Dollar Baby' and 'Unforgiven'. He out did himself by making 2 complimentary movies. I doubt that this will be overlooked. The only hesitation I have is that neither of his movies were major box office hits, whereas 'The Departed' was. Look to Scorsese to win, Eastwood to upset.

My opinion:

Leading actor: Forrest Witaker is probably going to win the oscar, giving the immense buzz about his performance. I think his only real competition is Peter O'Toole, who has been nominated 8 times but never won. The academy have not traditionally given sympathy oscars (the aviator is the best example I can think of). If they dont think the performace is worthy, they wont give it the award no matter how old or accomplished the nominee is. Plus, they usually give the neglected an honorary lifetime acheivement thing instead. HOWEVER, that being said, O'Toole is an incredible actor and even though I havent seen Venus, Im sure he is amazing in it. I hope to see it before feb 25! I also think Leo might have a shot because he did such a good job in both of his movies so they might reward him for that, but unlikely.

Leading actress: Its going to be Helen Mirren, no doubt. Like you said, Meryl might get it, but given the award success she's already had, I am going to bet on Helen to win.

Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy, no doubt. He was great in Dreamgirls and he probably deserves it, but I would LOVE to see Alan Arkin win - he really stole every scene he was in. He brought an extra flair to Little Miss Sunshine, and while all the actors were fantastic, I think he was the strongest performer of the lot.

Supporting actress: Ok, so here is where we are going to disagree. I don't think Jennifer Hudson deserves the Oscar. There, I said it. I think she has an AMAZING voice and her singing was flawless. However, she is not an actress. Whenever she had a talking scene, especially the ones with Jamie Foxx, she made them all awkward. Whenever she had to kiss him it really just didnt work at all. During her songs she gave it her all and her emotion was there, but otherwise I don't think she was particularly outstanding. I would LOVE to see Abigail Breslin win the award, she was simply amazing and she was so intense in that role, especially during the difficult scenes. I think she should win, but she wont.

Director: Martin Scorcese, definitely. I think this could go back to the reference I made with O'Toole. However, the movie was great, the technical aspects were great and he is due. I agree with you that Frears could be the upset win, or possible perenial favorite Clint Eastwood, but I think that the lack of commercial success for either of his films this year could work against him.

Best Picture: First, I would like to address the Dreamgirls "scandal." It should not have been nominated, it's not oscar worthy. Technically it was just ok - the looping quality was very poor - it was SO obvious that they were lip syncing, the acting was ok (Beyonce sucks...but damn, did she look good!), and the script wasnt anything special either. The direction was pretty decent, and the songs were fun. The costumes were spectacular, except what they put poor Jennifer Hudson in. It would have been nice to see her in one dress that fit her. Also, as much as I love musicals, this one felt forced when the actors broke into song in the middle of the street. Also there was too much crossover between diagetic and nondiagetic music, it became distracting.
That being said...I think the departed should win. I loved that movie! Babel might be the upset win. However, one more push for Little Miss Sunshine: no one thought it would be nominated in major academy categories, so it might surprise everyone. Clearly the voters liked it and recognized it as a great movie, so who knows, that might sweep the night.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Enough Already! - 2/11/07

Enough Already!
February 11, 2007

I know that this blog is meant to be exclusively for film reviews, but due to recent events, a different kind of cultural review is in order. The event? The sad, but ultimately not shocking, death of Anna Nicole Smith. I know, it’s tragic. She suddenly died and no one knows why. Of course I would never want to minimize the sadness of another human’s death, but I have to say that the attention the news has given it is obsene. The media have gotten to a point of ridiculousness. When the news first broke that she passed out MSNBC covered her fall for what seemed like over a half an hour. I thought that was a little over the top, but it was nothing compared to the coverage her death got. MSNBC covered her death for over three hours! I would have kept monitoring it, but I had to go home. Three hours? Are you kidding me? Was there nothing else going on in the world at the time? Had world peace suddenly broken out? Were snowstorms no longer killing people in the Midwest? Apparently there was nothing more important going on in the world that it was necessary to show the same stock footage of Anna Nicole flouncing down red carpets and hamming it up for the camera. The anchors didn’t even have any new information to offer throughout this three-hour circus. They just kept repeating themselves over and over.

One thing I did notice was that they kept saying that her life was such a public spectacle, and now so is her death. Well now, who would be to blame for that? It’s one thing if MSNBC and all the other news networks were innocent of keeping her out of the spotlight, but they are not. Clearly there is no longer a blur between the lines of news and entertainment news, and that is a sad comment on our culture. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with entertainment news. I follow the gossip blogs, the trashy mags and I also watch the shows that are entirely devoted to covering this sort of nonsense. However, when I turn into the a news network, I should be able to get informed about the presidential candidates and the latest news from the war in Iraq. Apparently I shouldn’t have set my expectations so high.

Why did MSNBC insist on running this non-story for so long? Well, the only way to really figure that out would be to call up the GM, Dan Abrams, but I’m sure he wouldn’t talk to me, so instead I am left to speculate. My guess would be because of ratings. It is clear that in television, ratings are the number one goal. In the media saturated world we live in, cable news networks need to find a way to grab viewers so the more sensational the better. Apparently, the commitment to bringing the hard news to the American people takes a back seat to the stories that carry fun and exciting images. But the problem with that theory, especially when it comes to Anna Nicole, who really wants to watch that for so long? Presumably the people who tune into MSNBC are people who are interested in following "real" news and not the fluff they can soak up on Access Hollywood. So the fact that her story has been all over the network has been extremely frustrating and disappointing.

It is not only the cable channels that are to blame. The network news programs are also at fault for sensationalizing it. While the story wasn’t the first one mentioned by NBC, CBS, or ABC, more time was devoted to covering it than was the Iraq war. Maybe they figure that people are sick of hearing about the war and they need something else to spice up their nights, but whose fault is that for the people being bored with hearing the news? Maybe if we were given an all encompassing understanding of what was going on and not a fragmented picture of the news we might be more interested in hearing about it. We would be able to understand it and be interested in learning more about it. When you have to cut down the amount of time to talk about the war, politics, economy, health and education so we can fill up time with a piece about Anna Nicole, someone famous just for being famous, you know there is something wrong with your culture.

I know that there has been a lot of negative backlash against the news coverage, and I can only hope that the outcry has trickled over to the news rooms and they tone down the coverage of Smith’s death. I also hope that they realize that they should not pander to sensationalism and acknowledge that their viewers are interested in real, hard hitting news stories that will ultimately affect their lives.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Queen - 1/2/07

Royal Treatment

In Stephen Frear’s The Queen, he explores the relationship between the British people and their monarch during the week that followed the death of Princess Diana. The film follows the royal family, and specifically Queen Elizabeth II, as they refused to leave their vacation at Balmoral to return to Windsor to be with the mourning public. The movie includes many conversations between the Queen and her inferiors as they plead with her to return to London and appease the British people.

The strongest element of this movie is Mirren’s performance. Her depiction of The Queen has the strength to carry the entire film. She dissolved into her role, blurring all lines between the actress and her character. The conveys a sense of regality and urgency of her dilemma. The audience gets a real sense of her struggle between her traditions and remaining a relevant personality to her people.

Something important to note is that the title of the movie is The Queen, not Queen Elizabeth. In the closing credits Helen Mirren is listed as The Queen. This is very telling as conveys the sense that the movie is about the monarchy, not one monarch. As the Queen, Elizabeth is upholding the long standing traditions of the royal family and not pandering to a culture that lets all of its emotions hang out. Conversations between Elizabeth and the Queen Mum show that she would have done the same thing. The Queen Mum confirms that the role of the monarch is to be a constant force of uprightness and civility that won’t conform to changing social behaviors.

I found myself deeply absorbed in the movie, but afterwards I couldn’t help but think, other than Mirren’s performance, what does this film add to the cinematic landscape? All of the conversations are fictitious; we don’t actually know what happened behind closed doors. The audience watches Prince Charles argue with his mother about wanting to return to London, but there is no evidence that those conversations took place. Charles comes across in this film as completely useless and unable to stand up to and influence his mother, clearly traits not suited for a future king. But ultimately no one can be sure that these were his reactions to the death of his former wife and the mother of his children. It was almost frustrating at times because you expect this to be an "inside look" into a time that was so emotionally tumultuous, but you aren’t.

Another of the movies strengths, however, is how beautifully it highlights the struggle between old British stiff upper lip and the new sense of openness Diana exuded, both to her benefit and detriment. Diana’s fans wanted to see their monarch morning her the way they were and expressing her feelings the way Diana would have. Despite this, The Queen was simply unwilling to outwardly express sorrow or alter her traditions to fit the changing culture.

One particularly interesting cultural comment that this film makes is about the people’s potential power over the decisions over their leader. I did like the film’s depiction of a nation coming together to change the actions of of their leader. This movie is very much allegorical to the political atmosphere here in the US. Americans are constantly protesting President Bush’s war in Iraq and nothing seems to be changing. For The Queen to go against her traditions she would be breaking a centuries-old chain of customs, yet she acknowledged the importance of public opinion and values and ultimately acted on that realization. When it does come to convincing The Queen, the newly elected Tony Blair does it best. He appeals to her sense of country and her sense of duty by saying that her people need her in this time of need. Ultimately The Queen returns from her vacation home in Balmoral to her palace in London and is met by her grieving public. At this point she acknowledges their devotion to Diana (despite her protests that she was stripped of her HRH title) and that they wanted to see royal acknowledgement of her death. It is truly gratifying to see the power the people can hold over its leaders, and it is particularly moving to see it in this day and age.