At the movies

Before this sees print, the world will come to a screeching halt to watch this year’s Academy Awards.

Okay, that’s not true.  The world came to a screeching halt after the second plane hit the Twin Towers.  And when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon.  And when the news flash came in from Dallas.

Mostly, the world rolls right along, while the small fraction of its population most susceptible to media hype pauses to contemplate some made-for-TV event:  the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the Oscars, etc.

Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon, but I won’t be watching Sunday evening’s Academy Awards.  Just as I didn’t watch this year’s Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics.  

In candor, I wanted to watch the Super Bowl.  I was visiting a friend in Seattle that weekend, and she doesn’t have cable.  Her TV is reserved for watching DVDs, so we had a choice of movies, mini-series, and classic television series – but not the Super Bowl.

I hear I didn’t miss much.

The Olympics is another matter.  By choice, I’ve only watched a few hours of any Olympics in a decade – and that was, as I recall, Sweden vs. Norway in women’s beach volleyball.

I eschew the Olympics because I don’t like the feeling of constantly being sold something.  If you have to hype it for months before it happens, that’s a sign it probably isn’t that great.  

The Olympics – winter or summer – involve two kinds of hype.  First, the promotion of an event consisting largely of sports no one cares about except once every four years.

Second, the excessive promotion of the American team – which seems to me to miss the point.  The Olympics ought to be a celebration of all those incredibly talented, dedicated young people – from all over the planet – assembled to do their best on a very big stage.

Rooting for the ones who happen to wear a particular uniform doesn’t seem all that important.

In a war, I will absolutely root for the young people wearing America’s uniform.  But the Olympics aren’t war.

Super Bowls, of course, must be hyped, because the games themselves are usually disappointing.  It amazes me, truly, that so many people watch the Super Bowl – which is usually a bust – while so few watch the World Series, which is almost inevitably both competitive and exciting.

But then, I’m an actor who doesn’t watch the Oscars.  

There’s a reason for this.  As I’ve gotten more involved in the process, I see how absurd it is to treat film-making as a competitive sport.  A good movie – like a novel, poem, or painting – creates its own world.    

It’s certainly possible to enjoy one movie more than another.  It’s even possible to say that, on some level, a movie is great, or just okay, or pretty bad.

But to compare the work of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, or actors – or to compare entire movies – seems vaguely ridiculous.  And to sit through four hours of horrific gowns, adolescent jokes, and endless self-congratulation for the sake of learning who won – when the list will be on the internet next morning – is a pure waste of time.

That’s particularly true this year, when the Academy will choose its winners from an undistinguished field.  2013 was a good year for good movies,  but a very bad year for great ones.  

This year, I saw a number of worthwhile films, including Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Twelve Years a Slave, Philomena, The Dallas Buyers Club, and the unheralded Prisoners.

If any of these plays at Carytown’s grand old Byrd Theatre – as Saving Mr. Banks is now – I’d strongly suggest catching it.

True, they’re all out on DVD and streaming media, but movies were meant to be watched on a big screen.  And when you have a venue like the Byrd, showing second-run movies for $1.99, why not go?

That said, if some of last year’s films are worth seeing, few will be long remembered.  The great movies, almost inevitably, involve at least one central character who undergoes a crisis of self-recognition – what the Greeks called anagnorisis – followed by personal transformation.

Last year’s movies, by contrast, mostly focused on characters who survived.  

To be sure, a struggle to survive can be riveting – but it’s seldom memorable.  The great movies are about personal evolution – and of last year’s films, the only one I saw which dealt seriously with that theme was Saving Mr. Banks.

This week, I’ve been watching DVDs of great films from the 1950s, including Picnic, Stalag 17, and Suddenly Last Summer – timeless films with towering performances by Elizabeth Taylor, William Holden, Montgomery Clift, Katherine Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and others.  

Movies about self-recognition, transformation, and – dare I say it? – redemption.

Hollywood should give us more of that.  More hope – and less hype.


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