I’ve seen most of the Academy Award nominee films this year and talked to friends about them often. My friends know I’m a movie geek and that I occasionally write about films so they like to know what I think or tell me why they disagree with my opinions. (I’m not naming my Oscar winners here, but I may let something slip in this essay.)
Most of these films I’ve seen with friends and their reactions are often quite interesting. If they find the major characters unappealing or boring, they decide they don’t like the film, no matter how excellent it is in every way (including the performance of the disliked character). This puzzles me.
For instance, in the late 2014 film Mr. Turner, JMW Turner is depicted from mid-career on as he becomes recognized for his magical, almost mystical, seascapes and landscapes. He’s not upper class, he’s a man of the middle class at best. His father, a former barber, acts as his assistant in the studio. Timothy Spall portrays Turner as crude and rough, both in speech and actions. He’s unkind to his employees and probably not pleasant company. But his paintings are gorgeous and the Mike Leigh film is insightful and beautifully made. It received outstanding reviews and a Metascore of 94 out of 100 on metacritic.com.
The friend I saw the film with hated the Turner character and didn’t care for the film much either.
Another film I loved (and have seen twice) is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. After I first saw it in July, I wrote that it’s “a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential.”
A friend who also saw the movie thought it was boring. She found the boy unappealing and none of the characters interesting.
In the first place, I don’t agree with that view of Boyhood. And I don’t think whether you happen to “like” the characters has anything to do with the nature, quality and excellence of the film.
In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, JK Simmons plays a jazz band coach, who is blunt, unkind, even physically brutal to the teenaged musicians. A despicable character, surely? But that doesn’t mean the film and Simmons’ performance aren’t Oscar-worthy. (Whiplash received an 88 Metascore.) Take a look at Simmons with the teenaged drummer played by Miles Teller.
Birdman was another brilliant film, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Although it’s nominated (and may well win) best film and has received excellent reviews (88 on Metacritic), it seems to really divide viewers. Many people I talked to about Birdman said they hated it and hated Michael Keaton and his character. I just don’t understand what that has to do with your opinion of a film. The premise and plot of Birdman is brilliantly creative, the acting is superb and it’s astute about ego and aging—plus the cinematography is outstanding. (Yes, I would be happy if it wins best film.)
The Third Man. I just watched The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, for the fifth or sixth time. (I’ll write about this gorgeous early noir film in a later post.) Harry Lime (Welles) is a thoroughly despicable character and Holly Martin (Cotton) is an ineffectual American writer in Vienna just after World War II. Neither of them is likable or admirable. But how could that possibly change your view of this epic film?
The art is what it is
I’ve written about this topic before: Love the art even if you don’t love the artist. My point is that the work of art deserves to be viewed on its own, separately from the artist. In April, I wrote about the documentary on photographer Vivian Maier, which depicts her (through interviews) as controlling and mean to the children she cared for. I said that I don’t care about that. I appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity.
And I added a comment about Woody Allen, who some believe is a horrible, perverted, child-abuser. And he may be that. Or not. Either way, that doesn’t affect the nature of his films or whether I want to see them or appreciate them. The art is what it is.
And finally, there’s Bruce
Of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen corollary. (Isn’t there always?) Springsteen does not hide his political views; he’s a committed blue-collar liberal. He expresses his views in his songs (especially in his recent albums, Magic and Wrecking Ball). In every concert he takes a few minutes for what he calls his PSA, where he criticizes the current administration (especially under Bush 43), demands punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and help for those who are in need. This drives his conservative fans crazy. (I know because I’ve gone to plenty of concerts with some of them. And I love them anyway.) But those fans love his music—his stories, his lyrics, his melodies, his performance, his band. They appreciate his art for what it is.
Here’s Bruce singing about “Death to My Hometown,” brought about by the banksters. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings, to the cheers of this huge crowd at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012.
On two consecutive days last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in the right place for amazing dramatic experiences. You’ve probably read a lot about one—Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood. But probably not much about the other. Both are exceptional works.
The Jungle at Oracle Theatre
Matt Foss’ play is adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. It’s set in Chicago in 1906 and focuses on the immigrant families who came here to find jobs and a better life than they could hope for in their European homelands. They found work—and a good deal more—in Chicago’s stockyards. Sinclair’s book, while focusing on the grim lives led by these immigrants, also described the conditions of the stockyards in gruesome detail. To his chagrin, it was the stockyard images that people focused on…possibly because they were appalled to think that was where their meat came from. Like other muckrakers of the time, he hoped to focus public attention on the needs of the people and bring about government action for change.
Oracle Theatre is presenting the world premiere of this play, directed by Foss, who also developed the ingenious stage design that I describe in my Gapers Block review. The play is 100 minutes and will remind you why Chicago theater is great. In your face? Yes. Focused on a message? Absolutely. And tragically, exuberantly dramatic.
Oracle Theatre is committed to free art for all and so their tickets are free (but you should reserve a seat). I write a little about their business model at the end of my review. So far, they seem to be operating successfully with no “earned income.” They deserve your support, not because they’re free, but because they tell great stories.
Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s film about growing up
This film is having a gradual nationwide rollout, and Chicago is in the first wave of releases. You can see this beautiful film at River East 21 or Landmark Century Centre right now. Here’s what I said in my brief Letterboxd review:
Boyhood is a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential. Linklater’s felicitous choice of a 6-year-old boy who would continue to be interesting for the next 12 years is amazing. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the boy’s divorced parents, also change over the years; they both give terrific performances.
Two years and counting
Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, Chicago stuff, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.
I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, where I’ve written 113 posts in the last 15 months—reviews of theater, art, architecture and design. You also can find my writing at culturevulture.net, an online arts magazine, where I review theater and other Chicago culture, and at theandygram.com, where I post new Chicago theater reviews.
Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.
I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, reviewing theater and art.