The Academy Accepts This Award on Monday Movies’s Behalf
Last night, an old friend of mine walked up on the Oscar stage. Seth Gordon produced the movie “Undefeated”, about a coach who takes on the challenge of a poor, neglected North Memphis high school’s football team. I didn’t even know that the movie existed, much less that he’d had a hand in it. I was so surprised that I assumed it was someone else named Seth Gordon. (Why, there’s even another one involved in high school sports!) But there he was, a head taller than the rest of the directors and producers. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person in my wide circle of friends who had a connection to them. A few of their names turned up in tagged congratulations in my Facebook status feed.
I remain outrageously fond of the first movie by Seth I ever saw. I’m not talking about his first commercial feature, Four Christmases, which contains two hilarious sequences — the Rube Goldberg destruction of the family home via rooftop antenna, and the destruction of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon’s senses of superiority via a game of Taboo against Vaughn’s bonehead stepbrother (Jon Favreau). Nor am I talking about the from-nowhere documentary that jump-started his career, The King of Kong, in which the documentarian’s monastic patience paid off in the form of Billy Mitchell, a fermenting anti-hero who seemed to have been lying in wait for his close-up. Nor his first theatrical release, New York Doll, which he produced and edited, a sad and beautiful walk in the evening with a Dionysiac androgyne aged into cronehood.
The first movie I saw by Seth, he made when I was sleeping and showed me the next morning. We were at a retreat for our college improv group in the woods in New Hampshire. We’d been taking turns noodling with his video camera all night–I’m sure there were some action-movie somersaults on the tape, shots of us hurtling over the floral-patterned vacation-home couch making guns with our fingers the cool way. After everyone had gone to bed–or possibly just when no one was looking–Seth staged a ballet on the dining room table. With the camera resting on the table and his hands out of view, he shot salt and pepper shakers and Coke cans and red-and-yellow plastic squeeze bottles past one another and right up to the camera. It was very, very funny, and it wasn’t clear why, because it was also very original.
This is maybe a you-had-to-be-there story. But I was there. And I remember it, because I wanted to watch it a couple of times over and over, like children and their shows. I do not claim that I saw it and thought, “wow, this guy is going places!” But I did think about the movie now and then, and talked about it plenty of times when the hook of the story wasn’t “I knew him when” but just “I know this guy.”
I don’t mind connecting this to a larger theme, although that’s not the part that excites me about it. I watch the Oscars the way I’m supposed to watch the Oscars. With lightly suspended disbelief. With the assumption that better movies were made and overlooked, (and beginning more and more to overlook them). With $10 in the pool, which I won this year by betting a straight GoldDerby.com prediction ballot, preferring cynicism in the aggregate to my own. (It would have been a wash — I would have bet on Agnieszka Holland for Best Foreign Film per the Rule of the Holocaust, but I also would have called Meryl Streep. Maybe Hugo for Cinematography.) Laughing at the funny stuff, which last night consisted of Christopher Guest’s focus group sketch, at least one but no more than three of Billy Crystal’s gags, and Zach Galifianakis’s correct pronunciation of his name. Adoring Emma Stone, though wishing the bit was a bit less written. Being properly gobsmacked by Cirque du Soleil from the opening North by Northwest scene, and taking advantage of the opportunity to let people know that Arizona Dream exists, and that Canadian acrobats aren’t the only people who understand intertextuality.
But mostly being bored, and bitching about it, in a way that is fun around friends and tiresome in public:
The Oscars are mostly always terrible, and there are mostly always good parts. There are rarely great parts. The king crowns the fool for a day, but mostly it’s the palace fool. There is a bizarro performance of meritocratic democracy, validated by PriceWaterhouseCooper and a membership selected by “achievements in the field”, or perhaps a tail-eating suitability for membership. The Hurt Locker, a war movie wrapped around a mission of protection and detection that’s not only a failure but was never necessary to begin with, beats Avatar, a movie that causes audiences in Los Angeles to applaud for the money it has earned (I have seen this. It’s not pretty). Art creeps in around the edges, but most of what you see is anxiety about art–whether it’s too commercial or not commercial enough, whether we remember or forget the past quite enough.
Seth’s movie of tilting cans isn’t going to be recognized by the Academy (I suppose there may be exceptions in Best Animated Short. Did you see them?). It’s probably even odds whether someone with that sharp vision will recognize himself in the lumbering golden ogre. But they exist in the same world, the same industrial ecology.
Like I said, the thematic connections aren’t really what I’m groovin’ on this morning. My friend got on stage at the Oscars!
How did you like the show?
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