This was the year that the Holocaust film cohered as a genre. Fifteen years after the watershed Schindler’s List, the number of films about the Holocaust has grown so large that recurrent images have turned into conventions or even tropes. NY Mag offered a helpful chart for seeing which Holocaust movie was right for you and Slate published a Taxonomy of Holocaust films, crudely laying out the occasional simplicity of the films in a way that recalls the description of a wrestling film given to Barton Fink:

“Well…usually they’re simple morality tales. There’s a good wrestler and a bad wrestler whom he confronts at the end. In between, the good wrestler has a love interest or a small child he has to protect.”

While it’s redundant to adnumber texts on the formulaic nature of films (including my own review of The Great Debaters), I chose to cite Barton Fink because of how strange the movie is, how unclassifiable. Taking place at the outset of American intervention in World War II, the Holocaust is a theme of the movie: anti-Semitism is a current throughout, with Fink regularly called “kike,” and John Goodman’s character offers a “Heil Hitler” as the movie turns utterly surreal. The film even captures the reluctance of the Hollywood Jews to talk about what may be happening in the old country.

Barton Fink is a challenging film, the type that an A.O. Scott would endorse (though he may not put it in the category of Holocaust film). For Scott, the danger of Holocaust movies is not that they’ve become a permanent fixture like Westerns, but that they’re simplistic in their moralizing

It seems right that movies about a difficult subject should themselves be difficult. But the fate of difficult movies with subtitles, usually, is to slip in and out of American theaters without leaving much of a trace. The big Holocaust movies of the big movie season will make more of an impression, allowing audiences vicarious immersion in a history that they nonetheless keep at a safe, mediated difference, even as they risk bathos and overreach in the process. We don’t have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us. more

Scott’s treatise was well-reasoned, and insightful, and it’s not at all surprising that it cut through and made the impact that it did. No one else had come close to ever articulating the discontents we feel with the genre, with capturing the repetitive and often troubling moral reasoning that categorizes so much Holocaust film. Certainly no one had ever done it as cogently and respectfully as Scott.

Sadly, his piece promises to be as topical in a year’s time. With The Reader nominated for Best Picture, I can’t help but worry about Eternal Return.

The Reader is not a terrible movie, just a mediocre one. The premise of the movie is actually quite intriguing: the onset of adolescence is retrospectively discovered to have meant something else as we learn more about the life of the other participant. It’s also one of the rare (only?) English movies about the experience of Germans who grew up with both guilt and mystification over what had happened. Some amazing novels have been written about the topic (anything by W.G. Sebald), and there will certainly be a great film made about the vicissitude of German experiences after the War. But this isn’t it.

It’s major problem is its shocking timidity. Winslet is naked for a good portion of the film, but the scenes are neither erotic nor traumatizing. She’s simply nude. Daldry, trying not to be sensationalist, veers too far in the opposite extreme. Yes there is the delicacy of depicting a relationship between a minor and an adult, but the film plays down all emotions attached to their lovemaking. Their love affair is muted to the point that Fiennes character’s repression is incomprehensible. We may understand the premise of why he becomes traumatized, but we don’t see it on film. There is no sexual politics, simply sex. This was the part of the film that had the greatest chance of doing something new and making an impact, and it was here that it’s failure is most disappointing.

It’s another example of a film limited in its scope.

On a final, different, note Ty Burr has some good thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire over at the Globe’s Movie blog. Burr’s blog is definitely one of the best film related blogs out there. My own thoughts on Slumdog here.

Nominations are in. For the third straight year, Yesterday’s Salad goes 4/5 picking Best Picture nominees. That sounds good, but it’s also disheartening. No matter how many numbers you crunch, you can never be exactly right. The Dark Knight, what we thought was the best picture of the year, failed to be nominated. Congratulations, you’re now the 4th movie to score over 3.5 on our scale not to be nominated for Best Picture. And congrats, Academy, on having picture and director match 5/5: you’ve made things easier on me and Nate, but at the expense of an individual talent like Christopher Nolan.

I feel pretty good about identifying The Reader as the movie most likely to sneak in:

Over the last 8 years, no movie nominated for Best Picture has been outside of the top 10 in our rankings, so we’ll restrict ourselves to those movies.

So what movies in the top 10 have directors with multiple Best Director nominees?

The Reader (1.69; 7) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Daldry was on the outside looking in in 2000, but Billy Elliot was nominated for director, and he was nominated again for The Hours. The Reader got a new shot of buzz when it was nominated by BAFTA last week, and this being the year of the Kate could help it immensely.

So, when all is said and done, I feel … more confident in picking The Dark Knight for the 5 slot, but if you gave me really good odds–really good–I might bet on The Reader.

No, my confidence wasn’t rewarded, but I think we’ve struck upon a good way to pick Best Picture upsets: films in our top-10 with multiple nominee directors. It sounds pretty intuitive, but it’s not. Gran Torino was everyone’s favourite to upset and sneak in, but we knew it was too low to get the nomination. Likewise, this system keeps us from betting on critically acclaimed upstarts (The Aronofskys of the world). At Best Picture time, the life of the reactionary is the life to lead.

(I was extremely plussed by the fact the Academy nominated Richard Jenkins for The Visitor, a YS favourite that “suffered” from early release syndrome)

Salve, o loyal readers of the finest fakest fulsome fawning felicities! YS has in many ways grown without tirades and there are those who seem to believe that the greatest days of YS are long past. The question of true greatness is one that requires much caution and a mind not untouched by the brilliance known to the stars alone. Shall it not be said that in an hour in which a man who appears great to the masses, to the huddled ones lurching around on the lawns, drunk on their own power and misled by a foul band of miscreants that call themselves the political elite, that YS, a bastion of oligarchy and wit and whimsy, with a touch of snark, did not stand against these encroaching forces of populist joy? DS wishes us not to be an imagined community of right wing fantasy, but can we afford to be anything else? Will all these deliberative questions eventually be answered?
The question that brings us here tonight is one of slight. YS staff held a conference about various things of salady nature, such as movies, Obama, and inane literary criticism. While such things are inevitably not interesting to a Republican such as myself, I resent not being invited. But indeed who would wish to gather with such a clucking mob, salivating over such slight scraps? Well, perhaps I would, for I was at one point a haruspex myself and could doubtless have contributed to such a conversation. I can truly watch for birds and dismember livers in ways that are too great and shining to really express through even the glowing rhetoric to which I am accustomed. So, indeed, I was slighted and my invective shall not cease to ring until a formal apology is issued from those parties who perpetrate ills against their star orator.
Some surprise came upon me this day, when I heard commentators speaking about the unprecedented nature of the American handover of power. We did, after all, have the Civil War (Does it bother anyone else that the Civil War is capitalized as if there were no other civil wars? Clearly, the Union needs to vote on a better name. It could perhaps be more aptly merged with the Reconstruction and we could have just one long period of Northern restructuring of the South.) This is, like most things American, stolen from the Romans. Our inauguration was originally in March, patterned after the bizarre Roman calendar, in which the consuls took office March 15. This is possibly the result of Romulus’ strange construction which had only the months from March to December (Why December, November, October, and September are 10, 9, 8, 7). More convincingly, quite a bit of work, most noticeably Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, has remarked on the biological nature of the Roman war machine. Consuls came to power March 15, because crops would already be planted and it was time to kill. A law in 158 BC changed the assumption of consular duties to January 1st. We have gone through a similar shift, from March 4 to January 20th since the Twentieth Amendment. From now on, you can expect biting rhetoric combined with useful parallels between ourselves and the Romans which are not to be pushed too far, as well as some overcompensation for personal insecurities. I leave with the stunning statistic which illustrates the profound gap between our own nation and that great Republic of the Romani, it took 4 farmers to feed 1 urban dweller in the Roman empire. In America, the ratio is 1 to 70.

Blog stats are always depressing. Posts that make serious statements on the world around get little traffic, while those that are entirely inconsequential and happen to mention porn stars or cartoon redheads get loads of traffic (see here if you’re interested in la royaume des gros seins, Brandy Taylor, and here for posts about her cartoon counterpart, Jessica Rabbit).

Yet knowing this didn’t quite prepare me for the fact that the top post on YS today is Mandrake’s “2008 Watch: Why Barack Obama Will Not Be President,” a humor piece written about a year ago. There’s nothing serious about the piece, it’s more an assemblage of witticisms and not-quite witticisms. Nor is there anything topical about it; the jokes are a year old, and it’s premise is bunk.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from googling “Barack Obama is not president,” or “obama not president,” and being sent here. I’m really not sure what these people expect to find. I don’t have proof that he’s not president, nor do I think that proof exists. On the contrary.

I love conspiracy theories. But even if you don’t believe he’s eligible to be president, he was still inaugurated. And even if today was nothing but simulacra, it was pretty good simulacra, at least third order, to the point where it doesn’t matter any more. The reality and fictionality of this situation would have merged and he’d still be our president. No, not even YS at our most Baudrillardian will endorse an Obama not president hypothesis.

So for those hoping to make YS an imagined community of Obama denialdom: sorry. He is our president and hopefully will be for a long time.


January 20, 2009

We’ve got the first part of our inauguration podcast up.

But is it really about the ascendance of a new president?  Or did we just miss the spell checker and mess up a perfectly good conversation about hepatomancy?

More on life, the oscars, obama, and lyrics next episode.

Over the weekend, I spent some time going through the best picture algorithm. I refined the algorithm to make sure that the values were the same for every year, and the same things were being counted. I also added a few more historical studies and more variables to each year. In short, I tried to make the numbers consistent and better. I then took a look at the last 8 years to try to learn why certain films are not nominated despite all appearances to the contrary. Here’s what I found:

31/34 movies that have a score of 3.5 are nominated for Best Picture.

32/38 movies that score higher than 3 are nominated for Best Picture.

Here are the movies that earned over 3 this year:

1. Slumdog, 7.89

2. Benjamin Button, 5.55

3. Milk, 5.241

4. Frost/Nixon, 5.09

5. The Dark Knight, 3.665

In short, things look pretty good for The Dark Knight as only 3 movies in its place have failed to be nominated in the last 8 years.

But what are the factors that cause movies over 3.5 to lose? Are there any commonalities?

Let’s look at the occasions: Read the rest of this entry »