In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.
To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.
But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.
Since you wrote “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema” in 1999, the cinema has changed, the world has changed, and Godfrey Cheshire has changed.
It’s been interesting how that piece has stayed alive in people’s minds. Last year, I received a number of calls from writers who were working on articles about changes in the industry and film culture. They had read my article and found information that was valuable in terms of what they were thinking about.
When I wrote that article in 1999, it was prompted by the fact that there were the first displays of commercial movies in digital projection here in New York City and other cities. That made me consider what this change of technology would mean to Cinema and Movies as I defined them for the purposes of that article. I predicated my timeline on what people in the industry were all saying, which was that this changeover in movie theaters from celluloid technology to digital technology, from analog to digital, was going to take about three years. It sounded very comparable to the changeover from silent to sound, which depending on your definitions took anywhere between 18 months to three years—a fairly rapid change.
It turns out, of course, that the digital changeover didn’t happen so fast. There were economic and technological factors, but the most important reason was that the industry could not agree on the technical standards and the financial considerations for this change. The whole thing got slowed down for a while.
However, there are two things to say about that. One is that right now it seems like we are on the verge of the actual changeover that I talked about as something that would happen before 2002. The second thing is that since I wrote that article, a number of things have changed in film culture, and to the technology of film. The biggest example is DVDs. All of a sudden they took off as this enormous factor in the earnings potential of movies, to the point where a lot of movies make more money on DVD than they do in the theatrical realm. There’s a whole cultural dimension to DVDs, too. DVDs have the presence of books, in a way. They package film history in a literary way that wasn’t happening up until then. VHS is much different. It doesn’t feel like a book, it’s disposable, and you just watch it and throw it away or take it back to the store. But people actually take pride in building libraries of DVDs. They now come annotated with all this commentary and such.
It has an impact on the way people perceive film. DVDs have been in some ways very positive in the sense that people have an idea of film culture with the kind of presence and precedence that literature has. They can look at Carl Theodor Dreyer as a great artist; they can purchase the Dreyer box set and have it on their library walls, so maybe even their kids will watch it with that idea in mind. There’s a way film history is being packaged now that definitely has a positive educational value. Incidentally, when people ask what film criticism I enjoy reading these days, almost the first thing that springs to mind is Dave Kehr’s column in the Times about the DVD releases of old movies. It’s great to know which choice bits of our cinematic past are resurfacing thanks to this new medium, and Dave does such a great job discussing, evaluating and contextualizing them.
DVDs give you an immediate history lesson about film, but it’s a double-edged sword. You can pick up M and learn about German Expressionism, or the Val Lewton box set to find out more about the development of excellent B-pictures in Old Hollywood. That is certainly a very good thing for film culture. And on the other hand—
Yes, the other side of the sword is that it can easily turn into the rock ’n’ roll museum, where we induct Keith Richards and the Sex Pistols, but all this packaging of the rock ’n’ roll from the past does nothing for the vitality of rock ’n’ roll in the present. It is putting the tombstone on top of a corpse, memorializing something rather than contributing to it as a present tense art form.
In your articles “The Death of Film” and “The Decay of Cinema”, you were able to provide useful definitions of Cinema, Movies and Film. But now it feels like there are even more definitions, and it is almost difficult to keep up with it all. If you read J. Hoberman’s article about the cult surrounding The New World, it proposes that the Internet and the so-called blogosphere are a way to level the playing fields, where a movie like “The New World” can have a small but fiercely loyal audience. The community sprouting up around the film is unique. I’m sure there are other precedents throughout cinema history where people have gotten behind a cult movie, but this is unique to the Internet where a grassroots support system has been created to support the film through new technology. It’s a way to discuss and promote a film that could not have been considered back in 1999. That is not specific to celluloid, but fits within the landscape of film and how it has been evolving.
That’s a very good point. The thing we’re doing this interview for, Matt’s blog, is a part of a new evolution in film culture that wasn’t there a few years ago. In that way, it is parallel to DVDs. I think the Internet has changed the perception of movies and the way people relate to movies and understand them in enormous ways.
I’ll give you an example. Last year, I spent a few months in North Carolina working on this documentary [to be discussed in part two of this interview]. While I was down there, I was asked to teach a course about the history of film at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I was very happy to do this. It’s a survey course that I took myself when I was at UNC. Actually, it was the same course, same classroom, same everything, except that now I was up there as the teacher. I had never taught undergrads before, and was very curious about what these undergrads were like now. The first day I was there, I gave out a questionnaire that I made up, asking them what were their five favorite films, their three favorite films of the past year, the films they bought most recently on DVD, what film critics they read, and where do they get your information about film. I discovered they were very smart, perhaps smarter than the students I was in the same class with many years ago. They were very motivated, hardworking, and interested. But I also learned through the questionnaire that most of their knowledge of film history was very thin. In my class, way back when, you would have had people into Eisenstein, Truffaut and Godard. There was very little of that depth of interest in this class.
These young people grew up on the Internet.
That has done nothing to dull their intelligence, and may have stimulated it in some ways. However, it’s also made them graze the surface of things rather than go in-depth. I discovered that most of them read critics online. There’s not the culture of the local critic that there was when I was [a student]. Of course, I still write for The Independent Weekly, and I’m in that market. The thing that shocked me was when I asked, “Where do you get your information about films?” Which is basically what films are playing, what’s opening this weekend—and none of them said The Independent, which is the alternative weekly for that area, which is where you would think that most people their age would go for information like that. They get that online. There used to be a certain factor of localism in film criticism, which was very much tied to print, newspapers and journalism. You read whoever was in your market. Of course, you might buy The New Yorker if you lived in North Carolina to see what Pauline Kael had to say. But you read the writing in the local paper, because that was for a local audience. Now, there isn’t that presumption at all. The position of critics tied to local publications is being continually eroded.
The other side of the coin is people can look all over on the Internet for the kind of criticism that is agreeable to them.
True, but based on this experience with my students, I wonder if many of the people searching out film reviews on the Internet are reading with the kind of depth that people read the long reviews you saw published in the 1970s and 1980s. You see things like The Village Voice cutting back the space that their critics get. Even really good critics who write for that publication don’t have the opportunity, given the way the format has changed, to go into depth or relate one film to another film. The film reviews are cut up into these little capsule-like segments. All of that is to the bad as far as I’m concerned.
If you’re reading something on a screen, it’s quite different. I’m sure reading “Moby Dick” on the Internet is not going to be the same as reading it on the page.
I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick on the Internet. That seems self-contradictory.
I consider it the same mindset, though. If you read something on the Internet, you are going to read it very quickly.
Sure, probably the first paragraph or two to see if the critic liked it or doesn’t, and move on from there to the next review.
But one can assume the roots of the way we respond to the Internet stem from the way we regard television. One could argue that television created many of the habits we incorporate into our lives that go way beyond the simple act of watching television, and that it creates a kind of attention deficit disorder. When you reviewed Crash and Syriana, you referred to their storytelling approach as being filtered through the “atomization of attention.” It is no mistake that Paul Haggis and Stephen Gaghan started in television, and that a TV mindset has crept into their movies.
The success of films like Crash and Syriana represent the creeping erosion of cinematic values by television values. [Judging by the Oscars,] the filmmaking community considers those films artistic. But to me, Crash is the opposite of artistic. Somebody on the news pointed out that on the Village Voice Critics Poll it was #66. It was so far down. It’s not like the Hollywood community said, “Look, the critics have embraced this film!” A lot of critics cried bullshit on it. Nonetheless, that kind of value is overtaking traditional cinematic values just in terms of very basic entertainment terms Hollywood is used to dealing with. That is a terrible phenomenon, too, but it is not a matter of a fluke this year. It’s an ongoing process and the more you see this validated in forums like the Oscars, the more that will become the definition of film art.
When you reviewed Syriana, you said, “A real political movie is one that presents an analysis so persuasive and precise that it inspires you to action.” Could one create an argument for Munich as a political film?
I come at Syriana as a film that sees itself primarily at a political film. I come at Munich as a film I see as primarily a work of art with philosophical dimensions, and political dimension as well, but it does not have a narrow focus. With “Munich,” its virtues are so tied to its complexity. It forces questions back on the viewer. Part of the problem has been people rallying around one of two political views of the film, both of which greatly simplify the actual complexities of the situation, and both of which don’t lead toward helpful or political thought or action. Spielberg’s very intelligent artistic examination of all this, primarily its political effect, is to make viewers stand back and reflect on all of this, and their relationship to it, but it is not a banner for people to rally around.
It has the viewer go internal and ask, “What is my relationship to this media war, or this televised war?” Certainly, that is something we can reflect on in our culture now. Regarding 9/11, one of the more chilling things said over and over again was, “It was just like a movie.” That’s quite a disturbing thing to hear. But it does bring a cultural interpretation into a major and shattering global tragedy. They filter the event through the movie experience.
You have to factor in 9/11 to where movies fit into the culture right now. Within a week of 9/11, Hollywood people surveyed in a New York Times article said that movies would turn themselves away from all the problems that might be indicated by this event and that they’d be a valid form of escapism. I immediately wrote that if that is the case, then we will have forfeited any claim that we are using art for the broader purpose of attempting to show a sense of understanding of the world. We will deserve whatever bad fate is visited to us if we stick our head in the sand like ostriches. Well, I didn’t think that pronouncement they made was going to be true except in the very short term. [Indeed,] ever since 9/11 people have gone to movies that in some sense give them the feeling that it deals with the changed world we’re living in.
That deals with films like The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, which were of course compared because they came out around the same time. They are about as different as any two films could be. One is extremely topical and political, and the other seems not to be either topical or political at all but everybody responds to it as if it were. Those are Category One Post 9/11 movies. In the last year we have seen people really get interested in films like the ones nominated for the Oscars, which is exactly why they were nominated: Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Jarhead, The Constant Gardener, Crash, all of these in some way are communicating to audiences that they are dealing with the society we’re all embroiled in now. People look to movies for meaning, to make sense of things. That is a truly valid function and an important one. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these movies fulfill this function very well, but I would rather have someone out there trying. Hollywood, in its very dim way, is responding.
Special thanks to John LaRocca for the illustration of Cheshire that appears at the top of this interview. To read part two, click here.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.
Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.
Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.
No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.
On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.
Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy
Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
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