Saturday, March 11, 2023

Works in progress: Lane J. Lubell, "Three Thoughts on the Oscars"

     This week's guest writer is someone special. I have known Lane Lubell his entire life — his parents, Larry and Ilene, are longtime family friends; my wife went to high school with Larry. I've watched Lane, a little younger than my older son, grow into that rarest of individuals: someone you can have an intelligent conversation with. We talk about books. I recently read a fascinating Harlem renaissance detective novel, Rudolph Fisher's 1932 "The Conjure-Man Dies," based on his recommendation. We talk about the arts, particularly movies. He studied film at Northwestern, knows of what he speaks, and as a teacher, also knows how to convey it. With the Academy Awards Sunday, I invited him to write something to share here, and he did not disappoint. Take it away, Lane:

     Thanks for the invite, Neil. I’m honored to contribute. For clarity’s sake, I have decided to split my thoughts into three sections.

Part I: Predicting the Oscars   

     I love predicting the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean I care about them. I couldn’t care less about what designer Ana de Armas may be wearing or whether some talented hunk brings his mom as his date. I have never paid any attention to the red carpet and I never will. Similarly, every ceremony has been disappointing since Seth MacFarlane’s controversial hosting duty. Moreover, I regularly disagree with two-thirds of the Academy’s decisions. And that’s okay. 
     For me, predicting the Academy awards has the appeal of tracking on-base averages. Like baseball stats or March Madness brackets, the fun is in predicting — looking at results from the cavalcade of previous local awards & fests and their respective correlation percentages to prior ceremonies, tracking Academy membership, averaging the predictions of others (GoldDerby serving wonderfully to this end), and determining the impact of box office numbers and a movies’ mass appeal. It’s a nearly scientific endeavor. Last year, I managed a rare perfect score at the ceremony, (a victory overshadowed by ”The Slap”).
     However, I’m not going to talk about my predictions. (If Neil is feeling generous, he’ll link you to them here). Instead, I’m going to tell you the good news. 

Part II: The Academy Sells Out…in a Good Way 

     Back in August and September, Sarah Polley’s "Women Talking" was the mathematical front runner for the top prize. I hadn’t seen it yet, so I went along with the stats. Now, I have.
     For those of you who haven’t seen it (which you probably haven’t because Orion, the film’s distributor, is clearly at a loss as to its promotion), the film is effectively a Socratic dialogue in a barn with sad Mennonite women debating whether they should or should not leave their sexually-assaultive community; Polley puts theme and message before character in this “should-have-been-play” tale. However, I know why people believed it would win. It’s “important.”
     For the past 25 years or so, the Academy has been … pretentious. Movies that fill seats get passed over like they have lamb’s blood above their doors. Anything without systemic social injustice and grit get hidden under the bed before mom comes in to check on you. Sometimes, you need to put your toys away, but other times, you want to see the toys on the floor; it means your kid is having fun. Instead, they’re reading with Dostoevsky and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the work, but we go to the movies to have fun. 
     Oscar viewership is down significantly. Many blamed the rise of the cable-cutters and media diversification for these woes; others point the finger at a generation less interested in the pomp of celebrity, while some argue that they just haven’t had the right hosts. While I agree that all of those factors could affect tune-ins (certainly, Kimmel’s return will not help), these pundits miss King Kong in the room. People aren’t watching the ceremony because they don’t have a vested interest. They have had little to root for. There was a time, not long ago, when nominated films were widely seen. Look at ‘94. "The Shawshank Redemption,"  "Forrest Gump," "Quiz Show," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and "Pulp Fiction." Now, we have Andrea Riseborough (an actress you’ve seen many times but can’t quite place) nominated for "To Leslie," a film with a box office gross less than a private school tuition. How can you root for or against Riseborough? You haven’t seen her performance. No one has!    
     By only calling self-serious indies the industry’s best, voters alienate their viewers. Only a select few try to see all the nominees. “You love Marvel movies. Is it Black Panther related? No? Then it’s crap that we will never give a major nomination.” (To date, "Joker" and "Black Panther" are the only superhero films nominated for best picture, while "Joker" and "Logan" are the only two to receive writing nominations (which "Logan" should have won). Last year’s humiliating attempt to let Twitter choose the film of the year (the four hour reedited garbage fire, Zack Snyder’s "Justice League") to pacify these criticisms only made matters worse. 
     But here’s the good news. This year, things have changed. For once, the front runner is a box office success, making over $100 million. "Everything Everywhere All at Once' is one of the most imaginative and inventive films ever made, but it’s also a lot of fun. If it wins, it will be the first ever action comedy to do so, despite it being the most popular genre of the 21st century. It would also become only the third ever fantasy film to claim the title following "Lord of the Rings Return of King' (2003) and the hybrid period romance, "The Shape of Water" (2017). 
     Moreover, in what is likely the 3rd spot flies "Top Gun: Maverick," 2022’s highest grosser and arguably the best straight action movie since "Mad Max: Fury Road." Even James Cameron’s just fine "Avatar" sequel (which somehow grossed $2 billion) made it in. This year, it seems the Academy is starting to remember why people love movies in the first place. 

Part III: Screw you, F#¢% 
    Finally, I want to congratulate the Academy for saying “screw you” to F#¢%. And yes, the grawlix (the use of non-alphabetical characters in place of letters in profanity) have a purpose. 
     For the first time in a decade, the majority of the best picture nominees are not rated R. Only "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Everything Everywhere All at Once," "The Banshees of Inisherin," and "Triangle of Sadness" have R ratings. And best of all, each of them deserve their ratings. "Banshees" desperately needs its profanity, "Triangle" needs its nudity, "All Quiet" needs its brutality, and "Everything "needs its … I’m a middle school teacher so let’s just say, paraphernalia. Meanwhile, Polley and Tár’s Todd Field have been able to tell difficult stories of sexual misconduct with PG-13s, proving that you don’t need to pack your movie with graphic violence or frontal nudity to be taken seriously or tackle difficult subjects. 
     Indeed, over the past five years, 64% of best picture nominees were rated R, with 36% receiving a lower rating. Moreover, an R rated film won every year between 2006-2017 save 2011’s pick, "The Artist." This year, 60% are rated PG-13. These numbers represent a marked improvement that I hope to see continue. But, let’s add some G and PG to that list.  
     Thanks, Neil. Back to you!


  1. An interesting, well thought and enlightening assessment.

  2. I hope Lane is an English teacher. He is so easy to read.

  3. Way to say things clearly, understandably and with conviction so that even a reader who has nearly no knowledge of the subject matter can be thoroughly engaged and entertained. An excellent skill

    1. What a fun person to talk movies with and such a good writer. Why couldn’t you have been my children's English teacher?

  4. Welcome to Saturday Lane. Thanks for the excellent piece. Hope to see more from you.

  5. Bravo, Lane!

    Now if you could explain why I should care in the least about any GCI-based superhero story (Wakanda, Justice League, whatever), where anything can happen because nothing is real, and the conclusion is never in doubt, I would like that.

    1. Actually, yes! I’m sucker for Marvel but he’s some reasons others should be too:
      1) they are a lot of fun. Even the lesser ones are filled with likable characters fighting evil.
      2) Marvel is currently engaged in the most ambitious cinematic experiment of all time: connecting nearly 30 movies together and interweaving them with television series; it’s unlike anything that’s ever happened before.
      3) Some of these films are made by our most interesting directors: “Jojo Rabbit’”s Taika Waititi helmed Thor:Ragnorock; James Gunn led “Guardians of the Galaxy”, while Chloé Zhou of “Nomandland” took “Eternals”. So there’s a lot of cinematic flair in there. And that’s only MCU films. You also get Christopher Nolan helming the Dark Knight trilogy and “Ford V Ferrari” helmet James Mangold leading the incredible and highly unpredictable “Logan”.
      4) It’s not about the plot. The plot in a marvel movie is just a vehicle for charismatic heroes. If you like the character, you’ll usually like the movie. Some are better than others.


  6. According Terry O'Reilly's Under the Influence 6:30 a.m. show on WBEZ today, when the Depression threatened the survival of movie theaters, in order to attract customers, sex and violence increased until the Hayes Code put the kibosh on that. What ended up saving the movie business was free dishes.

  7. What an unexpected change of pace: movie day at EGD. Happy to see it (as well as that fun poster atop the blog). Like those commenting above, I thought this piece was quite interesting and well-presented.

    While I pretty much agree with II and III, I couldn't care less about predicting the Oscars. Though, heaven help us, we watch the freaking show every year.

    Before the plague, we would try to see as many of the Best Picture nominees as we could (or cared to -- there were some rare films that we would skip on purpose), but we haven't been in any kind of theater since we went to the Steppenwolf to see "Bug" precisely three years ago today.

    Since I largely feel about superhero movies the way Neil feels about sports -- the same thing happening over and over -- I don't need to see any more of them nominated just because they've completely taken over the business. I appreciate most of the "pretentious" films that get nominations, though I do agree that they can get to be a bit much. Sometimes, indeed, "we go to the movies to have fun."

    Of course, I have a few other thoughts... We happened to watch "Women Talking" last night. (If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream it for free -- for about one more day.) While it certainly COULD have been a play, I thought it was compelling and extremely well done. I wouldn't pick it as Best Picture, but I thought it was a fine film.

    And, while I have nothing against nudity, as far as I've been able to tell almost the only movie that actually "needs its nudity" is "The Crying Game." (Though we haven't seen "Triangle of Sadness", so I've got no business making that remark in this context.) The necessary brutality may well keep us from ever pulling the trigger on "All Quiet on the Western Front," which we could have watched ever since it showed up on HBO. After all these years, we may have seen enough gritty war movies at this point.

    While I'm at it, "Banshees" was a huge disappointment to me. The scenery and acting were outstanding, but the story was just preposterous to me. Marketed as a "dark comedy" -- yeah, right. I'll concede that it "desperately needs its profanity," however.

    1. Correction to my above comment, not that many will have bothered to wade through it: "All Quiet on the Western Front" is on Netflix, not HBO. D'oh!

    2. I did and yes it is. With three sons now 22, 24, 26. I hope everyday they will be spared such horror.

      Very difficult to watch . Couldn't finish it .
      Excellent book.

    3. I also read the book and watched the 1930 version of the movie, quite a while ago. Though not as soon as it came out! : )

  8. I’m well aware that millions probably still care about the Oscars, and watch the presentations, but I do not. And I have not done so since at least the mid-Seventies, when I wrote off Hollywood and “the Industry” for their pretentiousness and arrogance. Over the last decade or two, I’ve given up on their product, too.

    Their values are no longer my values. Their music is not my music. I despise the gratuitous brutality and sex and violence. They cater mostly to a much younger demographic, not to male Boomer geezers, so why would I want to pander to them? TCM is my cup of tea, and it has been for some time.

    I find even the pre-Oscar buzz unwatchable. I don’t care about designer clothes or who is or isn’t a couple, and what the participants Gucci loafers and slippers may tread upon. And were I still into all of that wretched excess, I simply can't stand Jimmy Kimmel. That alone is a turn-off…literally. I’m just a Colbert kind of guy.

    But overall… an extremely well-crafted Saturday guest column, despite the subject matter. As the postal workers each his zone.

    1. "Zippy" commenting, Mr. Mailman!

    2. Fun to read this but I can't see why this awards thing still exists. 'Best' anything is subjective...friends have walked out of Everything all at once...Women Talking was a work of art but in no way an enjoyable one. If you really want to have a fun time at the movies, go seek out the Oscar nominated Live Action, Animated and Documentary features. A few theaters are kind enough to screen total 15 short amazing gems of film making.

  9. “ a film with a box office gross less than a private school tuition” is a line worth the price of admission to EGD. (Yeah it’s free, but if it weren’t, I’d pay for this line).


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