Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hard out here for pundit

Here’s a joke. Please, just go along with it.

Me: What do you call a gay guy riding a horse across the range?
You: I don’t know. What?
Me: A cowboy, you homophobe!

I have thought that this was a brilliant joke from the very first time I heard it, when the profession and the minority group employed were completely different. The target/listener of the joke is set up by expectations engendered from ages of jokes about minorities that are not only politically incorrect but downright offensive. Drawn in by this expectation, the target becomes complicit in the prejudice and has it turned against him when the teller of the joke unexpectedly convicts him of a thought crime.

Something similar seems to have happened in the immediate wake of the Academy Awards. Americans (or some portion thereof) spent more than $75 million buying tickets to see Brokeback Mountain, awarded it four Golden Globes, including Best Picture (drama), nominated it for eight Oscars and awarded it the Oscars for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. Director Ang Lee, who gives every indication of being an absolutely lovely man, was nothing but gracious in accepting his award. But Americans might feel a bit suckered by some of the reactions to how the awards played out. Larry McMurtry, who got an Oscar for his work Brokeback’s screenplay grumbled after the fact, “Perhaps the truth really is, Americans don’t want cowboys to be gay.” On behalf of Americans, Larry, you’re welcome.

But it’s worse than that, Larry. Americans apparently also don’t want their authors of celebrated non-fiction novels to be gay either, since Capote didn’t get the Best Picture statuette either. In fact, those terrible bigoted Americans also don’t want crusading journalists to challenge commie-hunting bullies in the U.S. Senate or to have Israeli hit men to start having moral questions about their revenge missions, since Good Night, and Good Luck. and Munich didn’t win either. Gee, America is just a terrible country. How do we put up with it? We should all just emigrate. Oh, wait, I already did. Anyway, it wasn’t “Americans” who voted on the Best Picture Oscar. It was members of the Motion Picture Academy, which is a very different, and much smaller, group.

I don’t mean to pick on Larry McMurtry. I mean to pick on a few other people as well. The Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan wrote, “In the privacy of the voting booth … people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed ‘Brokeback Mountain.'” Well, if I am ever doomed, I hope I can go out with as much cash profit, critical accolades and awards from my peers as Ang Lee’s movie. Predictably, real-life gay cowboys weren’t happy either. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Brad Bruner of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association as saying, “It’s an outright sign of homophobia in our country … It makes me sick.”

Excuse me, but I think Brokeback Mountain dodged a bullet here. Some of us would argue that most years (the past two being notable exceptions) getting a Best Picture Oscar is a sure sign that a movie is not the best movie of the year. Only in the American movie business could you expect to hear voices spinning Brokeback’s enviable awards performance as some kind of homophobic conspiracy. What planet do these people live on? Obviously one in which the Best Picture award is an entitlement, if you want it bad enough, and the people who do the actual voting are a morally flawed obstacle. Anyway, for everyone who had their heart invested in this movie getting the nation’s very top movie prize but feel it was denied purely because of its subject matter, let me say something on behalf of science fiction fans everywhere: Welcome to our world!

Now, this doesn’t exactly make a great lead-in to the argument I was aiming to make, which was that George Clooney had a valid point when he accepted the first Academy Award last Sunday evening. Set up suspiciously well by host Jon Stewart, who had just finished spewing a catalog of conservatives’ worst impressions of Hollywood (well, Stewart and Clooney did start the evening in bed together), Clooney pointed out rightly that Hollywood has often been ahead of the social/cultural curve in embracing noble causes like civil rights and AIDS awareness. It is easy to lampoon Hollywood bleeding heart types (as I personally know full well), but really their hearts are often in the right place and they do have a unique platform to raise awareness of serious issues.

But as the evening progressed, I was reminded of why even those of us who are sympathetic and in agreement with many of the causes espoused by some of Hollywood’s most visible entertainer/pundits shake our heads in wonder. We got more of Chuck Workman’s wonderful montages. I have always loved his montages, but even I am starting to get a bit of montage fatigue. Jon Stewart caught this phenomenon perfectly when he joked that we would shortly be seeing a tribute to montages and, in mock panic, that “we’re running of out film clips!” Some of the montages were okay, like the ones saluting films noirs and big screen epics. The comical one, carefully selecting bits from old cowboy movies and making the whole genre seem gayer than gay, was hilarious. (That montage, which gave The New York Times an opportunity to reprise its American-culture-is-replete-with-homoeroticism riff, should probably make me rethink my recent defense of the essential heterosexual-ness of the cowboy movie, but I think that particular montage really says more about our current popular culture, i.e. the way we perceive those images and sound bites today, than it does about old movies.) The montage highlighting topical issues portrayed on film was interesting and appropriate, given the themes of the movies in contention this year. And the one that highlighted real-life people portrayed in movies was also pertinent this year, but as we saw everyone from Alexander Graham Bell to Lou Gehrig to Charles Lindbergh to Gandhi played by actors, we started to get an uncomfortable insight to the Hollywood ego. Do these people actually know that making a movie about racism or AIDS or liberating India is not the same as actually solving the problem? They probably do, but I think we ordinary people can be forgiven for sometimes asking the question. And that is part of the reason that the much-maligned Hollywood liberals are seen as freaks by a lot of people. (Ang Lee further emphasized Hollywood’s questionable grip on the line between reality and fiction when, in his acceptance speech, he actually thanked the two main characters in his fictional movie.)

But back to those montages. The urge to montage is so prevalent anymore that even the very funny opening sequence was essentially a montage of living ex-Oscars hosts. And why stop there? Given the existing technology available, I predict that we will at some point see a similar skit in which the host interacts not only with living ex-hosts but deceased ex-hosts as well. If compositors can bring Chicken Little and Abby Mallard to the Oscar ceremony, then why not Bob Hope and Johnny Carson?

Some more random, flow-of-consciousness thoughts:

I never thought I would say this, but Dolly Parton was robbed. I guess it’s just hard out here for a cross-over star whose personality is refreshingly real and whose body is disturbingly synthetic. In a broadcast that has thoroughly succeeded in squeezing the spontaneity and controversies out of a live event, the best moment was the joint introduction of Robert Altman by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. In a completely natural way, they managed to evoke the inimitable Altman style in a live performance masquerading as improvisation. Good to see the lone Irish nominee, Martin McDonagh’s live-action short film Six Shooter get its award. I’ll confess to a bit guilty pleasure, however, that the actor Ruaidhrí Conroy (who, as a child, starred in Into the West) wasn’t there, as the incorrigible Irish penchant for playing fast and loose with U.S. immigration rules caught up with him. The story could have only got better if he been caught smuggling sausage. Anyway, there’s a fair chance that the talented Conroy will one day get another chance to attend Oscars. I know a lot of people (including the Missus) find Reese Witherspoon a pain, but I was so relieved that she didn’t break down and cry her heart out before delivering her polished acceptance speech. I know her husband, Ryan Phillippe, appeared in the Best Picture winner Crash, but why do I have the nagging feeling that he is headed for the Chad Lowe Institute for Husbands in Their Wives’ Shadows? And was it my imagination or did they deliberately set up the microphones on the Kodak stage too low so that women would have to bend over to be heard, allowing the camera to stare down their cleavage?

Finally, I just want to thank Rupert Murdoch for putting this year’s live broadcast of the Oscars on Sky Movies with that boring woman with her boring guests to chat during the commercial breaks. That left plenty of time for bathroom breaks and for mixing another martini. Back when the BBC had the broadcast, hosted by the often-amusing Jonathan Ross chatting with people I had actually heard of, I would go hours during the night with a full bladder and an empty glass.

-S.L., 9 March 2006

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