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Friday, March 5, 2010

Consensus and the Oscars

Let me begin by saying that I have been ignoring my movie-reviewer responsibilities for a little while, both in that I haven't been watching many movies and the ones I have watched I haven't reviewed. (I've been watching Mad Men Season 2 on DVD, is one excuse.) Since this isn't a review either, let me just say that I found The Hurt Locker to be tremendously over-hyped, surprisingly formulaic with one-note characters and unremarkable writing. Shutter Island started slowly but turns into an enjoyable thriller. Now on to my main topic.

The Oscars are on Sunday, and I usually find myself watching more of the telecast than I plan, if only because I like to be conversant on the big topics of the day, and for whatever else you might to say about them, The Oscars have maintained societal relevance despite all their mistakes and their tone-deaf snootiness. This year, I've actually seen six of the ten Best Picture nominees, and thus feel unusually prepared.

There's only one thing stopping from paying special attention to the awards this year: the prevailing notion that so many of the big awards are locked up already, with no reasonable person expecting any surprise choices. Why is this the case? Did these movies and actors blow away the competition? Possibly, but an alternate explanation may be found in the culture of consensus that unfairly encompasses these awards and shuts off the debate that could make these awards more meaningful and interesting.

One thing that has always bugged me is that people place entirely too much emphasis on who they think will win the Oscar as to who they think should. This promotes the flawed idea that there are "Oscar-type" movies of an easily recognizable pedigree. The Oscars become less a contest of merit than an effort to keep the positive hype up and delay the inevitable backlash until after the ceremony. Several times in the recent past you could feel the backlash nipping at the heels of the winners as they walked off stage. Did anyone really think that Slumdog Millionaire was going to withstand the test of time and remain highly-regarded through the years?

When everyone starts talking about who will win, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and any possible discussion of relative merit becomes impossible. Granted, such a discussion is extremely difficult for a number of factors, most notably that many of us non-industry types have only seen a few of these movies, which leads to many picking their favorites based on past associations or emotional storylines. (See: the career Oscar, the comeback story, the "it's their turn" Oscar, the bright and bubbly newcomer, etc.)

Why don't people just talk about which movie or performance they thought was the best? A lot of it, I believe, comes down to fear of being somehow proven wrong, as though the popular choice must be right and you must be defective if you disagree. This is why I like Roger Ebert so much, even though I often can't understand his take on movies. On his best of 2009 he listed TWO Nicholas Cage movies, one of which was the widely-panned Knowing. There's a man who's not afraid to stand by his own thoughts.

Let's be brave and voice our own thoughts. Who cares if everyone knows The Hurt Locker is going to win Best Picture? I thought it was over-blown and poorly written, and Jeremy Renner's character in particular unbelievable. I like Inglourious Basterds best of the 10 they nominated, with A Serious Man right on it's tail. I can't believe Michael Stuhlbarg didn't get nominated for A Serious Man, or even Sharlto Copley for District 9, a movie I otherwise didn't care for. I didn't see any of the Actress nominees, but I don't know if any of them could top Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds. I liked Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air, but admittedly I missed Precious. Christoph Waltz deserves his runaway favorite status.

I know I may not have an expert opinion, but film critics and Academy members presumably do, and I have to wonder if a large number of them are simply going along with the flow and subsuming their personal tastes in an effort to get it "right." I just wish there was less of a cloud of inevitability surrounding the proceedings.

The Manual of Detection

Jedediah Berry shows intriguing promise in this detective story tinged with magical realism, but eventually the debut author lets the bizarre elements of his story surpass his ability to corral them into a sustainable narrative.

The novel is set in an unnamed city where the dutiful but pathetic Charles Unwin labors as a clerk for a Detective Agency, handling the cases of the renowned Travis T. Sivart, officiously recording the details and titling each adventure imaginatively (The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker; The Man Who Stole November 12th). As the book starts, Unwin is unexpectedly, and undeservedly, promoted to detective. Knowing this must be a mistake he sets out to correct it, but as he does so he becomes inextricably involved in the mystery of Sivart's disappearance and the death of one of the Agency's "watchers", shadowy figures supervising the detectives.

For awhile, the misadventures of the bumbling new detective, as he tries to figure out how to proceed and who he can trust based on the advice of the reference volume of the title, make for an interesting read. Unwin seems like someone Peter Sellers might have played in a movie. The details of Sivart's old cases are also exceptionally well-written and humorous.

It is here that the novel takes it's first dip into the realm of the unusual. We're introduced to the Agency's arch-nemesis Enoch Hoffmann, a carnival magician famed for his mastery of impersonation. Hoffmann somehow managed to get the entire city except Sivart to believe that it was November 13th instead of the 12th.

It's an intriguing premise, but in explaining it Berry gets caught up in a byzantine explanation of "dream detection." That's right: Hoffmann can insert himself into people's dreams. What's more, the watchers at the Agency can do it too! And they can run into each other in other people's dreams while they're both asleep, and things they do in dreams have real world consequences! And Hoffmann's new plan involves stealing all the alarm clocks in town so he can keep everyone asleep long enough to take total control!

If that sounds cool to you, well than hell, have at it, and try to decipher what the hell is going on as Berry tries to write himself out of an impossible mess. As the rules get more complex, and the characters and settings more tritely bizarre, you'll probably find yourself caring less and less about the solution and just hoping for the end. The fun of the first half is gone, and the book becomes a slog. It gets 4.9 out of 10, even it's early promise can't justify pushing this over 5.

How I Became a Famous Novelist

Steve Hely deserves kudos for doing something I've long considered extremely difficult. He has written a novel which incorporates quite a lot of our present-day technological and cultural touchstones without (too often) slipping into ridiculousness. How I Became a Famous Novelist is the first novel I've read that was recognizable to a person of my generation. That's a long-winded way of saying that the book references reality-television, gmail, Netflix and a whole host of other contemporary ephemera. Some of this goes to far (I question the wisdom of name-checking Mario Batali, of all people) but Hely is to be commended for incorporating real life into his book.

The book itself is an oddity, almost admirably slight. It seems to be making a case for earnestness in fiction, and against the stuffiness that pervades so-called "literary" works. The narrator of the book is one Pete Tarslaw, a pathetic twenty-something still reeling from the dual tragedies of college graduation and breaking up with his college girlfriend, Polly. He's dangerously ignoring the basic rules of diet and hygiene and spending his days writing people's application essays for money. After Polly e-mails to let him know she's getting married (his first reaction is to make fun of her e-mail address, pollypizzazz@gmail.com) Pete decides that he needs to be the more successful of the two by the time the wedding rolls around.

The title tells you how he plans to do it; by writing a best-selling novel. Inspiration strikes when he realizes that the mega-selling authors, especially the ones whose books are read by smart-cure girls on subway cars, are basically full of shit. In several funny scenes Tarslaw reads through a satirical New York Times bestseller's list and watches one of his new role models interviewed glowingly on the news. A large part of the fun is trying to figure out who Hely is taking shots at in these passages. Tom Clancy and Dan Brown are clearly being mocked, as are to differing extents, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Jonathan Safron Foer, and a whole host of literary authors.

Tarslaw aims for literary pretension, but of the easily digestible sort. He comes up with many rules for writing while observing the people buying books in a Borders. For example, most readers are solitary types, so obviously clubs and secret societies appeal to them. Throw in some exotic locations, some sage elderly people, whirlwind romance, and fluff it up with unnecessary verbiage and you have a bestseller.

Tarslaw's creation is the hilariously plausible-sounding The Tornado Ashes Club, about a man on the run from the law with his grandmother, who wants to throw her old lover's ashes into a tornado.

Hely provides several passages from the Tornado Ashes Club at the start of many chapters, and it seems clear that he is possibly talented enough to have taken his own character's path to notoriety. If so, his rejection of such chicanery is a testament to him. How I Became a Famous Novelist is a breezy read, a fact which belies its forceful statement on the way novels should be written. It gets 7.6 out of 10.

Then We Came to the End

Joshua Ferris's 2007 debut novel made a big splash mainly due to its unconventional narrative style. The book is set in the office of a struggling Chicago advertising agency and is seemingly narrated by a collective consciousness, aware of the thoughts and feelings of each separate person. It can take a little to get used to this "we" (or you might never really get used to it at all) but Ferris sustains it admirably, and even manages to justify the choice.

The "we" adds a level of meaning to what otherwise might have become just a series of comedic, indeed even occasionally hilarious, anecdotes. With the we Then We Came to the End points out the uncomfortable truth that for so many millions of people this office environment, that which we will rail against at every opportunity, actually defines us to a large extent. Ferris uses the narrator to emphasize the near universality of disaffection, disillusionment, and also complacency. The men and women in this office are largely capable of radically changing their existence, but are too comfortable or cowardly to do it.

Instead they engage in childishness and idiocy. Ferris seems to believe that the office culture exacerbates these all-too common faults. His characters mercilessly torment each other, engage in gossip and rumor-mongering, and avoid work as much as possible without being fired.

They are starting to fail at avoiding the ax, though. Bad business is catching up with them, and the introduction of real world problems puts the ridiculousness of stealing ergonomic desk chairs in perspective. More dire tragedy also intervenes in some character's lives, but as it does these characters become more separated from the collective consciousness of the office; they are more talked about than talking. The woman who loses it after the death of her daughter, the man who keeps showing up to work after being fired, and Tom Mota, the irresistibly deranged copywriter whose possible madness and violent temper threaten to throw the universe of Then We Came to the End wholly out of whack, until Ferris reveals the deftness of his touch and the subtlety of his wit with a turn of events that will have readers exhaling as they laugh their asses off.

Then We Came to the End is a clever look at the way most people spend at least one-third of their lives, and the implications that can have on their personalities. It gets 8.3 out of 10.