Why James Cameron is no Cecil B. DeMille.

Why James Cameron is no Cecil B. DeMille. (photo)

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We’re approaching the awards season home stretch — the Golden Globes are done, the Oscar announcements are in two weeks.

Some previously surefire contenders have fallen by the wayside since critics’ associations started putting out their lists in December. “Precious” — which I wasn’t alone in thinking a “Slumdog Millionaire”-esque Best Picture contender — has topped off at just under $45 million at the box office, and no one but Mo’Nique seems to be still gunning for Oscar glory (though a friend of mine enmeshed in graduate school academia assures me black studies will be grappling with the film for years, so there’s that).

The biggest Globes news (beside the fact that host Ricky Gervais was funny but inexplicably poorly reviewed) was that “Avatar” appears on track for Best Picture, though its Golden Globe victory hardly makes that a certainty. As Xan Brooks at the Guardian points out, in the last five years only “Slumdog” got Best Picture both at the Globes and Oscars.

But you can sense the buzz around “Avatar” as an indicator of a major shift in awardsland, thought what it means depends on where you’re standing. For the cranky Brooks, the win “tarnishes” the Globes (um, they can be tarnished? I thought we just tuned in to watch the drinks manifest themselves onstage) because it’s a Hollywood circle-jerk. You really can’t win sometimes. Complain about the awards being out-of-touch with ordinary filmgoers, get awarded a populist victory and what happens? People start complaining about the self-congratulatory speeches.

Closer to home, people are thrilled — none more so than Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times, whose victory lap pretty gave me hives. Using the fact that Scorsese got the Cecil B. DeMille award as a starting point, Sharkey concludes that the awards exemplified the spirit of DeMille: “forever the populist, never the auteur.” Which is a good thing: unlike those huffy snots “De Sica, Welles, Hitchcock and the like” (the like? Would you like to try to group together three less similar filmmakers?), DeMille didn’t “push the artistic and intellectual boundaries of film.” Instead, he “never lost sight of his audience, mostly hardworking folks.”

Sometimes you have to wonder if it isn’t a good thing that the newspapers are dying; Sharkey’s language here is inadvertently pretty close to the worst kind of demagoguery. But what’s more interesting is the way the comparison becomes weirder and more instructive if you follow it. DeMille was so intensely conservative that while on the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, he tried to push through a bylaw requiring all members to sign a loyalty oath. Reflecting the climate of the ’50s, he conceived of “The Ten Commandments” as a political statement (Judeo-Christian values vs. the Communist threat) and had Ten Commandments monuments spread all over the land, as promotion and a proclamation of principles.

Cameron is the biggest showman of our time, and nothing if not an unapologetic populist. But he’s as liberal as DeMille was conservative — if you want to push that comparison to its logical conclusion, that would mean that Hollywood is every bit as liberal now as it was conservative 50 years ago. (Which, well, duh.)

Even more, DeMille’s early work (particularly the silents) has been enthusiastically reclaimed by avant-garde enthusiasts as pure, unfettered insanity, inadvertently deranged in its gonzo scale. As spectacle films decay with technological advances and the cracks start to show, excess starts to look downright surreal. So keep that in mind before blathering about populism — yesterday’s spectacle is tomorrow’s novelty.

[Photos: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009; “The Ten Commandments,” Paramount, 1956]

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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