Feb 24, 2014

Doctor My Eyes Don't Look Back and I'm Not There

Note:  Over the coming weeks I will be writing about the Oscars, giving you my personal, sometimes very idiosyncratic, picks on who or what should win (whether they were nominated or not), and then give you my opinion on who is likely to win from the nominees.  Today I am going to talk about  Best Actor and Best Documentary Feature

Are not all rock stars actors, actually? Certainly some more than others, and, of course, there are also a great many rock stars that have legitimately trudged Broadway's boards (Bowie), and Hollywood's sound stages (Bowie again, Leto, Sting, etc, ... ), but aren't they all actors, really?

One of my all-time favorite rock star performances would have to be Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back.  Don't Look Back was a cinéma vérité masterpiece, directed by DA Pennebaker, that documented Dylan's controversial and tumultuous UK tour in 1965.  The film showcases Dylan's 'acting talents' in a number of ways.  There is a monumental and masterful 'music video'; Dylan, naturally, is seen performing his music; there is the backstage documentary footage; and there are Dylan's enigmatic, elliptical, and sometimes hostile press conferences.  Three of those four types of film performance just mentioned are actual 'acting performances'.  The only one that would appear to not be would be the backstage chatter.  The getting in to limos, talking in hotel rooms, typing on the typewriter stuff, and whatever else have you.  But I suggest to you that even cinéma vérité (and nearly all 'reality' television) is actually really a performance.  Once the red light is on, and once the camera is rolling, as long as the 'actor' is conscious of the camera, it becomes a performance.

But can you not even take this cinema suggestion a step further? Are not interview subjects of documentary films ultimately just performers? Actors


I will come back to this question later. 

In the meantime, I would like to talk about the severely disturbing documentary, The Act of Killing. I had been extremely eager to see this film, which is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category for the Academy Awards, and eventually bought it on iTunes.  I have seen it, and while recognizing its profound subversive ugly importance -- and admiring its repulsive beauty -- it is not a film I would 'push' or recommend for anyone to see, least of all my wife, Renee.  

In fact, the film is so upsetting to me, that I may never watch it again.  The Act of Killing tells the story of the butchers of an Indonesian genocide.  The filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, not only elicits confessions from these murderers, but also -- as the killers are all huge Hollywood fanatics -- gets them to restage and re-enact the bloodbaths, complete with cheap make-up and effects.  

The filmmakers' irony is nearly completely lost on these villains, who swan through busy city streets as heroes.  And, there is something so unseemly and revulsive about the filmmakers story telling here, that almost makes them complicit in these atrocities.  I barely made it through the film, to be honest.  It is that nerve wrenching.  

As 'good or important or great' as The Act of Killing may be, it is certainly not my type of film. And not one worthy of such a prize as Best Documentary Feature.  It is a cheap trick played on the thousands that died -- the dead were considered commie pinkos, of course, and deserved to die for that alone -- and on us, the audience.  The Act of Killing is an ambitious effort to bring to light the 'banality of evil', but yet falls so horribly short of its goal as to make it a cypher, a film no one wants to see.  (Watch Hannah Arendt instead.)

As unsettling as the film is, however, it does play with the notion of 'actors' in a documentary. These extremely unreliable narrators are without a question actors in this gruesome tale of murder.  

It is possible that The Act of Killing might win the Oscar.  But, I do not believe it will.  The Academy will give the prize to The Square, a documentary about the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt.  I would have absolutely no problem with this decoration, even if it is not how I would parcel out the prizes.

If I were King Academy Award, I would have two films share the award, West of Memphis, and The History of the Eagles.  The former,  was directed by Amy Berg, and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh; and the latter,  was directed by Alison Ellwood, and produced by Alex Gibney.  

West of Memphis tells the tale of the West Memphis Three finally being released from jail for murders they did not commit.  It has been a very long, tough journey for not just the three inmates, but for all those who took up their struggle.  And, it is wholeheartedly one of my finest experiences in film gazing this year to see their release in to the world.  It also has some of the most breath taking and thrilling filmmaking I have seen in ages, building up to its climax as masterfully as Hitchcock would have done.

Obviously, The History of the Eagles is an extremely idiosyncratic choice, but one I make with no regret.  This aptly lengthy film, which also contains a fantastic precious document of the band at work at the tail end, is an excursion in to a land that I barely thought possible for me.  Before I saw this film I thought these guys were sell out poseurs.  They are not.  There is a reason these guys are amongst the greatest selling rock artists of all-time.  Even if I do not particularly care for much of their music, I came to appreciate the extreme dedication and passion that they brought to becoming the beloved legends that they are.

Everyone in the band has to sing.  You party after the show.  Everyone has to do their 'party piece' in concert because you owe that to the fans.  Everyone has to be fully committed to the band at all times.  No slacking.  No half assed attitudes.  Changes to the band are all carefully considered and weighed amongst the group.  (My favorite was them considering adding Joe Walsh to the group.  The positives were the Rock Attitude and Style he would bring; the negatives were his limited singing ability and his hotel trashing lifestyle.  They made the right choice.) The film does a wonderful job of showing how fucking hard it is to write a song.  How being a rock star of that magnitude is such hard work -- believe it or not -- and that it is not just groupies and eight balls all the time.  

The Eagles will never be one of my favorite groups of all time, or even close, really.  They are too earnest.  The things they write about are not my cup of tea.  Plus, they wore their politics only in public life, and not in their art.  Not my thing at all. And, although I love the singing and their dedication, and admire their songwriting craft, they are just not my bag.  But, that a film could make me appreciate a buncha rock star millionaires is pretty damn impressive to me.  


Which brings me back to the top of this post.  If I were King Academy Award, I would give the 2014 Best Actor Oscar to Glenn Frey.  I can not tell you the presumptive perjorative and cynical notions I had going in to watching The History of Eagles.  And, yet, coming out of it, Glenn frickin Frey had convinced me what a great, dedicated, passionate, hard working, honest man he was. Are you kidding me? He is an interview subject on his own band.  And, he was still able to charm and convince an old Rock Snob like me.  Now that is a flipping performance worth a bushelful of awards, as far as I am concerned.

Now, Matthew McConaughey is most likely to win Best Actor for his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club.  I am all in favor of this coming to bear, and will root heavily for him next Sunday. (And, like my friendface friendie, Scott S, has pointed out, it does not hurt that McConaughey has a weekly advertisement of his acting abilities running every Sunday on HBO in the brooding True Detective series.)

(My five favorite History of the Eagles moments:
  • Their first producer, Glyn Johns, telling them to forget going in a more rock direction, because The Eagles were not a 'rock band'.  "The Who," Johns said, "Were a real rock band.  Not you guys."
  • Frey, infuriated at fellow band member, Randy Meisner, when Meisner balked at singing his 'party piece', Take It to the Limit one night.  Frey told him, "Think of all the thousands of fans you would be letting down tonight.  Some of these folks came just to hear Take It to the Limit.  How do you think I feel? I am sick to death of singing Peaceful Easy Feeling every night, but I do it!"
  • Frey, infuriated (again) at fellow band member, Don Felder, who had snubbed California US Senator Alan Cranston at a fundraiser the Eagles had headlined, counted down the songs on stage until the end of the show when he would presumably beat Felder up.  Felder split in a limo before that could happen.  The band broke up and did not play live together again for fourteen years.
  • Just the absolute joy and excitement of Frey's face during his freedom from the Eagles, pursuing acting and solo music careers.
  • Frey telling the story of living beneath Jackson Browne, and hearing how he wrote songs.

Yowza, that is it, y'all!
Have a great great Monday,


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