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Daily Reads: Oscar Pundits Loved and Loathed; A Night at the ‘Nerd Oscars’, and More

Daily Reads: Oscar Pundits Loved and Loathed; A Night at the 'Nerd Oscars', and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. A Night at the Sci-Tech Academy Awards.
When the Academy Awards air this Sunday, glamor, glitz, and celebrity will take over the air waves, and the silly spirit of artistic competition will reign over households everywhere. But a couple weeks ago, the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards were held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. At Popular Mechanics, Tim Grierson explores the night that celebrates the film industry’s technical innovators.

Though the Sci-Tech Awards could be viewed as merely an appetizer or opening act before the big show, its earlier placement also suggests that, in order to properly appreciate the movies that are celebrated at the Oscars, you first should acknowledge all the behind-the-scenes technical marvels that go into their making. Jason Segel, who ably hosted the Sci-Tech Awards alongside Olivia Munn, made that point clear in his opening remarks, noting that after a director comes up with an initial vision for her film, the real work actually starts. “She walks out of the production meeting, leaving everyone else to figure out how the hell they’re going to do any of that,” Segel said from the stage. “And that’s when they call in the magicians, the ones who can bring those visions to life. They call the people in this room, the people we are honoring tonight.” The breezy, laid-back evening was a constant study in contrasts, a playful friction between Hollywood pizzazz and geeky knowhow. For instance, the Sci-Tech’s modest red carpet only attracted a handful of camera crews — the night’s winners are mostly unknown to the general public — until Munn and Segel made their brief appearance, the gathered press finally snapping to attention, excited at the prospect of honest-to-god movie stars in their midst. And as the ceremony got underway inside the hotel ballroom, a video reel showed effects-heavy moments from Oscar-nominated blockbusters such as “The Martian” and “The Revenant.” But the awards themselves were usually given out not for stunningly showy feats but, rather, the crucial but often invisible technical achievements that have advanced modern cinema in significant but unheralded ways. The two hosts quickly fell into their roles: Munn mocked typical awards-show solemnity with her sarcastic line deliveries, while Segel was her amiable straight man, quietly playing off her faux-enthusiasm with imperceptible winks to the audience. One of the Sci-Tech’s yearly treats is that because it’s not televised — a brief highlight reel plays during the Oscar telecast — there’s an agreeable looseness in a room filled with men in tuxedos and women in elegant gowns. (Also, because a committee announces the winners in advance after a lengthy vetting process — nominees submit proposals months earlier — there’s no drama about who’s going home with a prize.) Whether it was Munn getting comically overexcited about the arrival of the men behind the award-winning Dolby Laboratories PRM Series Reference Color Monitors — “They’re here?!” she screamed in phony disbelief, “They’re here?!” — or Segel giving good deadpan when another of his lame teleprompter jokes died in the room, the Sci-Tech Awards were like a classy, polite roast of Oscar season itself.

2. Oscar Bloggers: The Most Important, and Most Loathed, in the Oscar Race.
For most people, Oscar predictions are a fun exercise played by family and friends on the night or weekend of the awards ceremony. But for some, it’s a full-time, year-long job. The Globe and Mail’s Calum Marsh profiles the Oscar bloggers that make their living on awards show predictions.

Sasha Stone started writing about the Oscars online in 1994. She was an early raconteur of the Internet, prattling avidly on Usenet and AOL chat rooms, where the movie buffs tended to gather. “I spent about five years completely immersed in it,” she recalls. They would exchange opinions, pen reviews, furiously debate. And they would predict the Oscars. “I remember the ‘Titanic’ year. I was so sure ‘Titanic’ was going to win best picture. Everyone else said no, it’s going to be ‘L.A. Confidential.'” Stone was right, of course. This victory inspired in her the confidence of expertise. Stone soon parlayed it into a legitimate platform: Oscarwatch, the website she founded in 1999. She didn’t know anything about running a website – at the time hardly anybody did. “I taught myself HTML,” she says. “I put together little stories. I manually built the jump page. There were no comments. There still weren’t bloggers.” She credits her success to the rise of reality television: If “suddenly anyone could be a star,” maybe anyone could be an authority, too. “And who am I? I’m just a single mom with a baby and a modem.” Today, the baby is an 18-year-old, and Awards Daily, as Oscarwatch is now called, is a flourishing enterprise. Its purview might strike the ordinary moviegoer as trivial: It covers all things awards-related virtually year-round, from early spring festivals to the late-winter arrival of the Oscar ceremony itself. No matter how frivolous a news item may seem – “Official Photo From The 2016 Academy Luncheon” was a recent headline on the site’s front page – Awards Daily will run it. And the Oscar-insatiable will read it. Scrutinizing the minutiae of the awards race is no longer a hobby for Stone. It’s a vocation. And she is among an elite group whose job it inexplicably is to write about the Academy Awards full-time. They’re known as Oscar bloggers. Few people in show business are quite so attentively followed – or so vehemently loathed. “There’s a certain trainwreck entertainment value in reading Oscar pundits like Stone and [Jeffrey] Wells,” says Glenn Kenny, a film critic for The New York Times. (Kenny lambastes Wells on Twitter regularly, and describes him as “like William F. Buckley crossed with Daffy Duck.”) “There is no doubt that they coarsen the discourse. It is a little sad.” It isn’t difficult to understand the source of the animosity. It derives from the nature of the job, which seems to combine the qualities of several distinctly odious fields: tabloid journalism, pseudoscience, punditry. More to the point, they make a comfortable living – a Vulture profile from 2014 described Stone’s annual salary as in the “low six figures” – obsessing every day over an event most people think about only one night a year. The bitterness is a byproduct of the question everybody wants to ask: How is this a job?

3. Why Anohni Is Not Attending The Academy Awards.
This year, the Oscars nominated the first transgender performer ever in their history. Though Anohni was nominated for Best Original Song and was set to perform it at the ceremony, her performance was cut due to time constraints. At Pitchfork, Anohni explains why she won’t be attending the Academy Awards at all despite her nomination.

I want to be clear — I know that I wasn’t excluded from the performance directly because I am transgendered. I was not invited to perform because I am relatively unknown in the U.S., singing a song about ecocide, and that might not sell advertising space. It is not me that is picking the performers for the night, and I know that I don’t have an automatic right to be asked. But if you trace the trail of breadcrumbs, the deeper truth of it is impossible to ignore. Like global warming, it is not one isolated event, but a series of events that occur over years to create a system that has sought to undermine me, at first as a feminine child, and later as an androgynous transwoman. It is a system of social oppression and diminished opportunities for transpeople that has been employed by capitalism in the U.S. to crush our dreams and our collective spirit. I was told during my 20s and 30s there was no chance that someone like me could have a career in music, and this perspective was reiterated by so many industry “professionals” and media outlets that I lost count. I almost gave up. Thankfully, fellow artists like Lou Reed advocated for me so intensely that I got a foothold despite the worst intentions of others. In that sense, I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I enjoy that wild and reckless exhilaration that comes from naming my truth as best as I can; it is what Nina Simone might have called a “boon.” The truth is that I was not groomed for stardom and watered down for your enjoyment. As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream. I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy. At the age of 35 I was awarded the UK’s Mercury Prize. All the nominees were invited to perform that night. They lifted me from obscurity and celebrated me, setting off a chain of events that changed my life forever. Now ten years later, I have sung for millions of people in some of the most beautiful theaters in the world, from the London Opera House to a tiny shed full of Aboriginal women elders in the Western Australian desert. I have accomplished so many of my dreams. I have collaborated with musicians and artists whom I deeply respect. I have held space for feminism, eco-consciousness, and trans advocacy for two decades. I have been afforded a platform to participate in the cultural conversation. I brought my earnings from around the world home to New York City and paid my taxes. That money was spent by the U.S. government on Guantanamo Bay, drone bombs, surveillance, capital punishment, prisons for whistleblowers, corporate subsidies and bank bailouts. In the United States it is all about money: those who have it and those who don’t. Identity politics are often used as a smokescreen to distract us from this viral culture of wealth extraction. When we are not extracting wealth from nature, we are extracting it from the working and middle classes.

4. The Real Horror at the Heart of “The Witch.”
Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” has captivated critics and a certain strain of horror fans with its Puritan-era folklore. But though it’s tempting to limit the film’s historical power to the 17th century, it actually reaches into our present time. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen examines the real horror at the heart of “The Witch.”

On the most basic narrative level, “The Witch” is the story of a Puritan family who break from their New England community for unclear theological reasons, venturing out to the edge of the wilderness, where they attempt to survive alone. When their infant son disappears, the family begins to suspect the devil is to blame — and direct those suspicions to the beautiful, eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), just on the brink of womanhood. Things quickly start to go to hell. Director Robert Eggers describes “The Witch” as an “inherited nightmare”: a palimpsest of the images, like those depicted in the scenes above, that have terrified us for generations. Those images are potent moments of abjection, which functions as the major chord in the grand symphony of the horror genre. The abject, most famously theorized by Julia Kristeva, is best described as the things that have historically grossed society out, either because our brains force us to see it as gross (pus, rotten food, cadavers) so we don’t get sick and die, or societal forces tell us to see it as a gross (incest, sexual deviance, women in general and powerful women specifically) because it threatens societal order. These gross things often excite curiosity — you want to pick that scab, or look upon a dead body, or experience female sexual empowerment — so they must be repeatedly disavowed: We must be told, until it becomes common sense, that to live a good and safe and righteous life is to reject these things. Obviously, there’s good reason to be scared of corpses and festering boils and rotting meat. Our bodies revolt because they want to protect themselves. It’s slightly harder to convince the mind to be disgusted by things (like, say, women) that threaten the status quo, in part because it requires half of the population to be essentially grossed out by themselves. And yet! Historically, there have been two ways to achieve this remarkable feat of maintaining patriarchy (and, oftentimes, a particularly white supremacist brand thereof). The first, and most explicit, is religion, which uses the threat of the great unknown afterlife as a motivation to hedge accepted mores and practices of a society. The Jewish tribes wandering the desert before the birth of Christ looked to the commandments of Leviticus — which were not “published,” but passed down orally — as the be-all, end-all on the word of God, who would judge them according to their adherence. To touch, consider, or desire the abject was to sin against God. Religion is particularly adept at making the terrifying unknown tenable, and one of the ways it does so is by offering a straightforward path to salvation: Don’t mess with mysterious and dangerous things like menstrual blood or women and power, and you’ll avoid sin.

5. On the Nonfiction Films of Spike Lee.
Last year, director Spike Lee released the controversial “Chi-Raq,” a film that had its fair share of champions but ultimately received mixed reviews. But he has a new documentary out called “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off The Wall” currently airing on Showtime. For Dig Boston, Jake Mulligan examines the nonfiction films of Spike Lee.

One can’t help but ascribe the aesthetics to the director’s voice, given the revolving chair of collaborators who’ve been involved in these movies (the editor credit alone has been passed back-and-forth among Samuel Pollard, Mark Fason, Barry Alexander Brown, Geeta Gandbhir, and Ryan Denmark, for instance.) Lee’s structural strategy is formed solid even in “4 Little Girls” and “All-American,” which were produced for HBO in 1997 and 2002. The first segment of the former film — which matches Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” against images of the girls murdered on that day, then fades into the voices of the people who knew them — establishes an approach that recurs throughout all six: Lee is always looking for ways to connect archival objects to direct interviews, creating multimedia-fueled histories both expansive and inclusive. Though he’s working with the same ingredients as your typical talking-heads social-issue documentaries — the testimonials, the archival footage, the stirring score music — Lee rearranges the doses. Works made in this form are all too often marked by a single mindedness, if not by outright didacticism. Those movies talk. Lee, contrary to his boisterous reputation, is more of a listener. He’s also an egalitarian. In each of the six, you notice a concentrated effort toward diversity among the primary-source interviews — in terms of race, gender, class, and professional background. In “All-American,” he’s conversing with Jim Brown’s childhood friends, his coaches (from high school to the pros,) his Hollywood collaborators, his family, and his fans too, crafting a bio-doc that spins and jukes as often as its subject. One segment hears the sources position Brown as a revolutionary actor (given his status as a highly-sexualized black man), another aims to investigate whether or not there was any legitimacy to domestic abuse charges levied against him (specifically one where he was accused of throwing a woman off a balcony.) In many ways “All-American” looks forward to the two Lee-directed Michael Jackson films: all three work to map the effect and influence fostered by their central men while simultaneously reclaiming their oft-damaged reputations, positioning them once again as black pop icons. “4 Little Girls,” in turn, looks forward to the two-film New Orleans cycle: it re-contextualizes a politicized tragedy with personalized accounts. In these nonfiction features Lee often credits the interview subjects as “witnesses,” and it’s in these three films that the phrase is most emphatically justified. It’s telling that we only hear Lee’s voice when he’s asking a question, as the pictures don’t have a specific thesis to present; the director is willing to follow his sources’ leads instead, no matter where their comments take his movie (that’s how “Journey” ends up with an extended segment concerning roller blades.) As such “4 Little Girls” – which is ostensibly focused on the simultaneous murders of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — features a highly-discursive structure. Lee follows the history given in the interviews, creating distinct chapters on the following topics: the black experience of Birmingham in the 60s; the formation of the SCLC; the first assassination attempt made against Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; accounts of experiences had with former police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and former governor George Wallace (white supremacists both); the use of the 16th Street Baptist Church as a civil-rights-movement meeting ground; the decision to station children alongside adults during marches; the history of conflict between police and citizens at Kelly Ingram Park; and the day of the bombings themselves; all before documenting the funerals, court cases, and trauma that followed. And the egalitarian tenor has been formed already, too — playing the journalist, Lee always affords the opposition a rebuttal, regardless of his own slant. (No less than George Wallace himself is present to defend his reputation.)

6. Women In The Films of Abbas Kiarostami.
Legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has made some of the most indelible modern classics, such as “Close-Up,” “Life, and Nothing More…,” and “Certified Copy.” For TIFF, Tina Hassannia explores the women characters in Kiarostami’s films.

Look at the recent films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and you’ll find many prominent women characters. “Shirin” is an experimental exercise in which we watch women (mostly Iranian actresses) watch a film — a classic Persian love story that we can only hear off-screen. Filmmaker Mani Akbari plays one of several characters in “Ten” whose personal struggles, shared freely in the private space of a car, depict a contemporary cross-section of what it’s like to be an Iranian woman. Kiarostami’s films made outside of Iran focus on non-Islamic heterosexual relationships: “Certified Copy” shows the very different stages of a relationship, presented paradoxically within the same afternoon that supposes James Miller (William Shimell) and his lover (Juliette Binoche) have just had a meet-cute, and/or are embittered ex-life partners. “Like Someone in Love” illustrates the many forms of love one can find via an old professor who seeks tender companionship from a troubled young prostitute, Akiko (Rin Takanashi). But the film is more uncanny in its sympathetic depiction of Akiko, whose relationships with her suave pimp and territorial fiance present a disturbing picture of gendered dependence. If you look further back in Kiarostami’s oeuvre, however, you’ll find a stark contrast, and at times, virtually no women. Kiarostami’s earliest films were funded primarily by a government organization called the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, also known as Kanoon. As a result, many of them, like “Where is the Friend’s Home?” and “The Wedding Suit,” are child-centred with young male protagonists, frequently stubborn and tenacious boys whose simple, childhood problems become spiritual journeys. Women in these films are few and far between; when they do appear, they’re almost forgettable, like the sanctimonious maternal figures in “Friend’s Home,” or the unseen girl Mamad crushes on in “The Experience.” The nagging wife in “The Report,” which Kiarostami made independently, is kept in the film’s background, playing neither antagonist or protagonist. And so, as Iranian cinema scholar Negar Mottahedeh asked in a 2004 essay of the same title: “Where are Kiarostami’s women?” The essay appeared in “Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film,” and noted the gender difference between Kiarostami’s post-2000s films like “Ten” and his earlier work. It’s not an accusatory question, really; as Mottahedeh points out, Kiarostami’s representation of women in his films is strongly correlated to the censorship rules of the Islamic Republic. After the 1979 revolution, filmmakers grappled with the depiction of women to avoid getting into trouble. One rule was clear from the beginning: female characters had to wear the veil. It didn’t matter if they were at home, on the street, or traveling abroad. This was an unrealistic depiction, of course, because many women in Iran take off their chador or hijab upon entering private spaces. Kiarostami referred to this specific censorship when asked why he had so few female characters. But it’s more a convenient excuse than a concrete limitation. The fact is, Kiarostami was making films centered around young men for years before the Islamic Revolution. When “Ten” came out, Kiarostami changed his tune: “I think I’ve come very late to this exploration of women’s issues…Leaving women out of my films was not a very intelligent decision. I made this discovery rather late, but there it is, I have made it.”

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