The Oscar nominations are out (or are they “in”?), and reading them leads me to believe I have officially become a fossil. If this were baseball I’d be oh-for-the-Oscars. My batting average is .000 because I haven’t seen any of the movies nominated for best picture. Used to be I’d have seen at least half or more likely three quarters of them.
But I don’t totally blame myself. By my calculation, I had my best chance with these three: Gravity, Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street. (In other words, George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.) They’ve hung around my town. The other six, from American Hustle to Philomena, have been fickle guests – unpredictably coming for a weekend or never coming at all.
The movies that have played and stayed here include the top five box office hits of the past year: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (aka Hunger Games 2), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (aka Hobbit 2), and Fast and Furious 6. Besides all being sequels, there is something else afoot here: each of these is either animated or lives in that shady space between animation and live action known by the initials CGI. Computer generated imaging has provided the sort of cinematic leap forward last seen when color took Dorothy from Kansas to Oz. Today’s blockbusters aren’t about character and story as much as they are adrenaline rushes of sensory experience. I’m not likely to see Fast and Furious 6, but I have a feeling it is more video game than cinema. This week we have The Legend of Hercules in 3D. I saw the previews and honestly couldn’t tell if it is animation or live action.
A lifetime ago I listened to a speech by the man who brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s work to the big screen. I’m talking about Ralph Bakshi, not Peter Jackson. Bakshi made cartoons for adults and released an animated Lord of the Rings in the late ‘70s. When asked if Tolkien’s work would ever be done in live action he said no, that it was impossible. It’s easy to laugh now at how short-sighted he was. But was he? The line between live action and animation has become negligible. Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, and a whole slew of other comic book characters have become primary cinematic leads.
The Oscar nominations prove that movies centered on story and character still get made. But generally their audiences have to wait for them to show up on Netflix. We tend to go to the movie theater to be dazzled, not to watch someone deal with a mid-life crisis.
If you want story and character, turn to television. We are living in the golden age of television drama. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Downton Abbey, Lost . . . that’s the start of a very long list of well-written, wonderfully acted shows.
My guess is many of the readers of The 12 are recovering television snobs. I am. We all imbibed the words of Newton Minnow, former chairman of the FCC, when he said that television is a vast wasteland. Television programmed to the lowest common denominator.
That still happens to some extent — after all, we have a show on TV these days called Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. But not all television is a waste. Miles of cultural difference have been spanned between Jed Clampett and Don Draper or Gomer Pyle and Walter White. It’s okay to admit to watching television, because much of the most intellectually satisfying and challenging work in our culture is being done there. I read the other day that Bryan Cranston’s work on Breaking Bad is considered by many critics to be the finest performance ever by an American actor. That’s territory that used to belong to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
I did see the latest Hobbit movie and delighted in the interaction between Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the Dragon. Although Smaug is all CGI, someone had to voice him. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect, and he has great chemistry with Martin Freeman as Bilbo. That chemistry was forged on the small screen, where Freeman plays Dr. Watson to Cumberbatch’s Holmes on the BBC’s Sherlock. It’s a fantastic series. In preparation for season three’s debut last night, I recently watched the first two seasons of Sherlock on Netflix. The $8.99 I spend on Netflix a month is more or less what I’d spend for one ticket to the movies. I consider Netflix a blessing of the modern era. No wonder I’m oh-for-the-Oscars. There’s too much good stuff on TV.