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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, February 28, 2016


Movies are the one, or at least the longest, constant in my life. 

I can easily recall movie moments from my teenage years, even early in.  I was twelve when I saw Star Wars, and know that I saw it in Monticello. 

So Oscar night is always special to me, the High Holidays of my secular religion.

But this year has an off taste for me, part #OscarsSoWhite, discussed below, and part #OscarsSoTrite, which will be discussed in another post and/or within my live blog of this year's Oscar ceremony.

A year ago, I thought Selma was a worthy movie, kind of like how I felt about Gandhi when I saw that 33 years ago, and how I've felt about quite a few biopics over the years.  With Selma nominated in the Best Picture category, with its elastic number of potential nominees, #OscarsSoWhite felt abstract to me.

But in 2015, two movies, Love and Mercy and Straight Outta Compton raised the bar for the genre of the musical biopic.  Considering how many appreciably triter biopics have garnered award nominations,  I'd like for both to be more prevalent on the Oscar ballot.  But Love and Mercy didn't do great box office, got mixed critical reactions, has too many problems staking its claim on the ballot. I can't feel sorry for Love and Mercy.

1. What's the excuse for Straight Outta Compton?
2. Why am I making the argument for Straight Outta Compton, rather than for Creed instead of or in addition to?

The second question is the easier one, so I'll tackle that first.

Yes, Creed was another highlight of the 2015 Year in Cinema.  It was a creatively driven resurrection of a series that was widely thought to have crucified itself.  The resurrector was a black writer/director, Ryan Coogler.  He oversaw top-notch creative efforts from a female director of photographer, a Swedish composer, and a brilliant young black actor, Michael B. Jordan.  And with Creed, as with Straight Outta Compton, the nominations are #OscarsSoWhite.

And yet, in the history of the Academy Awards, how many seventh movies in a series have ever been nominated for Best Picture?  To ask the question is to answer it, and it's an easy way to divert self-introspection.

The other categories where Creed could have been nominated have a cap on the number of nominees.  Maryse Alberti did an exceptional job photographing Creed, but there are five strong nominees in that category.  Even Carol, wildly overrated as it is, shines most in the technical categories like photography.  If I really really had to choose I could find a nominee to boot out of the Director and Original Screenplay categories, but it would be a hard choice.  I would prefer to see Creed in the Original Score category over Carol or Bridge of Spies.  But whatever my own choices would be, there are choices like this which can be made, rationalized, justified.  Any Oscars voter could too easily say "if only I had room for one more on the ballot, Creed would have been it."  Again, self-introspection can be avoided.

But what''s the excuse for Straight Outta Compton in the Best Picture category, with two open slots?

1. It was #19 on the box office chart for 2015.  If you look at the movies above it and provide basic screening tests like "no 7th movies in series" "no comic book movies" "no animated movies" "no 50 Shades" and feel that it would be really really nice if box office successes had some correlation with the Oscars, then Straight Outta Compton has to be your second or third choice, in a category with ten nominees.

2. It's a biopic.  A genre that mints Oscar nominees.  See Coal Miner's Daughter in the musical biopic category.

3. Is it good enough?  It has an 88% critic's rating and a 93% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.   The Revenant, a contender to win Best Picture, is worse in both categories.

4. Is it part of the National Conversation? Well, duh!  The scene of the N.W.A. members being harassed by the police outside of the recording studio couldn't be more timely if it came with a carillon chiming the hour.

I loved the movie.  Like Boyhood in 2014, it demonstrated that it's possible to have a film flirt with three hours and justify each and every minute.  That's great directing by F. Gary Gray.  Not that it should matter if I liked it or not.  Every year I have to resign myself to the fact that some movie I don't like will be nominated for Academy Awards because it is so totally part of the National Conversation or so clearly a Critics Darling or the kind of movie that attracts award nominations like fruit flies to apple cider vinegar. Straight Outta Compton is, for all reasons noted above, the exact kind of movie that forces acquiescence to its presence on the ballot, regardless of one's personal opinions.  And white as Hollywood might be, enough of Hollywood is capable of acknowledging that.  Its omission from the elastic Best Picture category is ultimately much harder to justify than its presence would have been.

In a few instances, those questioning the omission can find a scapegoat. The Oscars take cues from the studios themselves.  I have a subscription to the Los Angeles Times, which is a prime venue, especially in its "The Envelope" special sections that run frequently during the Oscar and Emmy award seasons, for award campaign advertisements.  In spite of the excellent reviews it received and the strong box office reception it garnered, I feel that Straight Outta Compton could have received a stronger, more persistent, from the word "go" awards campaign than it did. But if the Oscar campaign for Straight Outta Compton was underwhelming, it reflects decisions made by the studio, which are likely influenced by the lack of diversity in the studio and/or by an acknowledgment of the realpolitik of putting money behind this movie in advertising to the older, whiter, "maler" constituency of Oscar voters.  The scapegoat goes off with the sins, but ends up wandering right back to those wishing absolution.

So there are no good excuses.  I'm a 51-year-old white dude, and I can see this.  And so can many, many other people.

The creators of and the driving forces behind Straight Outta Compton might not have a chance at Best Picture, but there's reason to think (or at least hope) that their failure there might win a bigger prize in forcing change upon the film industry.

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