Right after this, I switched over to PBS . . . .
I AM NOT WATCHING THE OSCARS
(and You Can’t Make Me!)
By Thomas Burchfield
I said it last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
And I will say it again:
I am not watching the Oscars.
And you can’t make me.
Why should I—or anyone outside the movie business—waste three-plus hours of earthly existence watching a parade of over-dressed, half-talented, face-lifted, bulked-up, non-entities squeal tears over some gold-plated hat stand while making lame in-jokes about people we’ll all forget the next day as we suffer through songs that fornicating cats wouldn’t howl to.
No. I am not watching the Oscars.
Instead, on Sunday night, I am going to watch a movie. AND a TV show!
Further, I’m going to suggest—no, urge—no, DEMAND—that, instead of watching the Oscars, you at least consider watching one or more of the following movies (plus one TV show), whether you pipe it in over your computer, or trundle over to your local DVD rental store. (I have two in my neighborhood.)
Real movies that will feed you body, mind, and soul in ways that your fruitless wait for Angelina Jolie’s boobs to pop from her dress will not.
Even better, none of the four movies (and one television show) discussed below ever won Oscars. They may have been tossed a nomination or two—like a bone thrown to a spirited, three-legged dog—but these films were either completely ignored or went home empty handed, forgotten by the clique of cool popular kids (who, by the way, all grew up to be pimple-faced, sad-sack used car salesmen—oh, is my bitterness showing? Sorry!).
Snark aside, I’m not a bit mad none of the movies won Oscars, and don’t you be either. They all deserved better fates and met them—to be remembered as good, even great, movies, loved and admired years after most Oscar winners have been forgotten. (Come on. When was the last time you actually even considered watching Oliver? Really!)
The Oscars say nothing about whether a movie is actually good or great. It’s Hollywood’s party: If they want to award Silent Hill: Revelation 3D Best Picture of 2013, I say go for it, Tinseltown! I’ll back you all the way! To the bitter end!
When I first saw Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane on a Green Bay TV station one Sunday afternoon in 1971, I mistook it for an extraordinarily atmospheric horror film (which in a way it is).
Then, as I was transfixed, I realized just how bad those network TV series I had been watching until then were. I didn’t watch another TV series for over 20 years.
Citizen Kane remains the best movie I’ve ever seen and I’ll say that ‘til I die.
This thinly veiled biopic of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of his day) is a feast for the senses, from your eyes to your toes, and your mind and soul, too. Full of dash, invention, and energy, it has not aged a day, not in its technique, not in its writing, performances and not in its bright dancing spirit.
Kane makes all those ten-best-ever lists for the simplest of reasons: It belongs there. It earned it. The Sight and Sound ten-best-ever list may have erred in dropping it to second place behind Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but it still embraces me completely every time I see it.
The Black Book (Reign of Terror), from 1949, makes history into a perfect subject for a film noir. Set during the French Revolution (the one with powder-wigged heads rolling off guillotines), it’s a gory, exciting, eye-popping delight.
Robert Cummings plays D’Aubigny, a French patriot who dives into a whirlpool of conspiracy and bloody murder concerning a black book. The black book is full of names, names of those slated to be sentenced to the guillotine by fiendish dictator Maximillian (“Don’t Call Me Max!”) Robespierre (brought vivid raging life by Richard Basehart). This key to Robespierre’s power disappears and it must be found before it’s too late!
Save a few plot stumbles, The Black Book is a feast all the way, one of the trippiest, the most beautifully shot noir of its era, as visually dazzling as Kane. Photographed by John Alton and directed by Anthony Mann on a $40,000 budget—peanuts--it shows what can be accomplished by great talents working from small purses.
Cummings seems a little miscast, but he’s more than compensated for by the performances of Basehart, Norman Lloyd, brutish Charles McGraw, and best of all, little-seen Broadway actor Arnold Moss as the smooth-tongued devil Joseph Fouché, the chameleonic head of Robespierre’s secret police and, eventually, the Minister of Police for Napoleon.
Leonard Maltin calls it right: in Reign of Terror every shot is a painting, stark compositions of light and shadow through which weave a thrilling story leading to a wild and wonderful movie. Here, the blood runs black like the shadows of that terrible event.
“I don’t want the monster to die!” a friend said.
Most critics point to 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein as the best of the James Whale/Boris Karloff trilogy, but my heart goes to the first one, released in 1931. In fact, Frankenstein may well be the best film from those early years when Hollywood was clumsily coming to grip with the emergence of sound, for one of the strongest impressions left by the film is a lonely, scary quiet.
With Whale at the helm and Karloff behind the makeup, Frankenstein is stark, bleak, and touching. Its haunting images reflect the humor, horror, and sadness at its heart and seem to be an influence on films as diverse as The Seventh Seal and, most obviously, The Spirit of the Beehive.
The absence of a music score, I believe, is a strength, giving its fantastic story a somber verisimilitude.
Especially memorable are the opening sequences in the cemetery as Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, also excellent) and Fritz (indelible Dwight Frye) hunt for body parts and the brain that will bring Henry’s vain dream to dreadful fruition. The creation sequence is classic and the monster’s first encounter with the sun is one the most tender, beautiful moments in all film. The final confrontation between Henry and his Monster at the top of the windmill still brings tears.
“I don’t want the monster to die!” a friend cried when I showed it to her for the first time.
As for Boris Karloff, it is impossible to praise his performance too much. That it has survived decades of parody and has overwhelmed all other comers, is the highest compliment I can pay.
Whatever you think you know about James Whale’s ground-breaking horror classic, when you see it you’ll realize that you know very little. Frankenstein is a film that needs no monument, no statues, but itself.
You’ll have noticed that this list, so far, as shown a distinct prejudice toward black and white movies made before most of you were born.
Yes, I am being thoughtless and insensitive to my younger readers. To make it up to you, I will compromise and actually recommend a movie shot in color from just a few years ago.
So it is, I think you should watch Into Great Silence, a transcendent two-and-half hour documentary about the lives of Carthusian monks in their faraway home high in the Swiss Alps.It’s a movie about people who choose to live quiet lives far apart from the clangorous grime and jittery bustle of the modern world, in the faith that they are drawing closer to something larger.
The most thrill-packed sequence comes when the monks are taken on their annual afternoon ski-shoe trip on a small hill a short drive away. The men seems so happy with this small pleasure, it left me smiling for days.
It’s said that the Divine is best encountered in stillness. This lovely movie proves it. It also shows how critics who refer to Die Hard movies as “meditations on masculinity” or whatnot haven’t the slightest idea what “meditation” means. This movie does.
Now, for that TV show (because, these days, TV is where the Art can really be found).
Girls, the funky, controversial HBO cable series, may not be the absolute best of this Golden Age of TV we’re in right now, but it’s on at the same time as the Oscar telecast, so, when that moment finally dawns on you—and it will, trust me--that oh-my-God, you really are bored . . .
(Note: In case you are concerned, I watch Girls under the strictest supervision, namely my wife’s, who stands ready to rip the remote from my hand the second I start breathing hard; say, when I start rewinding to the sex scenes “so I can see how good the acting is.”)
Honestly, this really is a very good show: sharp, witty, and poignant; well-directed, and very well acted by its entire cast, including show creator Lena Dunham, who plays dilettante writer Hannah. (Am I the only one in the world to cop to the idea that Hannah is no writer at all? Discuss!)
Though this comedy of rude manners focuses on a narrow slice of the world—wannabe twenty-something artists in a Brooklyn neighborhood—it resonates, even with a pair of 50-somethings a continent away. It even creates suspense: after all, what are these foolish people going to do with their lives? Even this grayhair recognizes the overwhelming confusion and terror experienced by many characters from his twenties. (Sorry, high-minded do-gooders: their foolishness is what makes it a comedy.)
Girls is not as innovative as some critics think—its roots in Seinfeld, Frasier, and, of course, Sex in the City, show everywhere. (The second Hannah finds her Ricky Ricardo, those roots will really show.)
Girls is one more sign that feature movies have lost their power, their edge, and their innovation. Most all the artistry has moved to television.
What other excuse do you need for not watching the Oscars?
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio