That “The Hurt Locker” is only marginally better than “Point Break” is a fact that becomes clearer on repeat viewings of both films. This is not a knock against “The Hurt Locker,” the Best Picture contender for which Kathryn Bigelow is justifiably considered the favorite to win Best Director; rather, consider it a vote of confidence in “Point Break,” a cult film most famous for having bank robbers don rubber masks of ex-presidents (Patrick Swayze’s Reagan is particularly chilling).

The theme of both movies is “to thine own self be true.” Jeremy Renner’s character in “The Hurt Locker” needs to arrive at a greater understanding of his self in order to be at peace, never mind the social consequences, and both Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Swayze’s Bodhi (short, of course, for Bodhisattva) need to reach their inner selves in order to find enlightenment. Reeves’ search for his self is expressed on film via his love for Lori Petty’s Tyler. The two are made to look nearly identical, and the romance shifts from an expression of Utah’s narcissism to an embrace of a totally different persona. Meanwhile, Bodhi’s spirituality is increasingly contrasted with his destructive actions.

The presidents masks, then, are not just rejections of consumerism and pithy critiques of politics, but invitations to look below the beautiful exteriors. Bodhi lives up to the symbolism of his name, though perhaps not in the ways we expect. Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves wears no mask while undercover. He hides in plain sight, behind his old identity. Like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”, he rejects the mask or giant protective suit. Theirs is a sort of open-key encryption. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Picture Standings

January 21, 2010

With the BAFTA nominees just announced, it’s time to update our Best Picture rankings.

1. The Hurt Locker, 8.867

2. Up in the Air, 5.682

3. Avatar, 5.502

4. Precious, 4.984

5. Inglourious Basterds, 4.07

6. An Education, 2.964

7. A Serious Man, 2.816

8. Invictus, 2.664

9. Up, 2.068

10. The Hangover, 1.923

11. Star Trek, 1.898

12. Nine, 1.795

13. (500) Days of Summer, 1.343

14. District 9, 1.168

15. Julia and Julia, .963

Things are generally unchanged from our last update, and there isn’t anything big on the horizon to shake up the race. This current version includes our “prestige” bonus, newly added to try to identify the next “The Reader,” and accounts for “The Hangover”‘s GG-Comedy/Musical win. I don’t see anything sneaking into the top-10 at this point.

Except….as Sasha Stern reports, nobody has any clue what ten movies to nominate! Academy members are struggling to come up with ten movies! Non-schocker of the day. Given that the Academy regularly had trouble finding 5 very-good-to-great movies to nominate, why did we think they’d find 10? Why not just add a 6th nominee? As it is, Best Picture and Best Director generally match 4/5, meaning that one of the 5 (supposedly) best directed movies isn’t nominated for the biggest prize. Ten just cheapens things.

Unless it makes this totally unpredictable. Maybe a movie like “The White Ribbon” comes out of nowhere to be nominated for best picture. I wouldn’t be totally shocked, and I’d be pretty amused. It’s unlikely, but it did win the Palm D’Or, giving it some prestige.

Here’s hoping that my rankings are totally wrong.

Philip Lopate‘s Notes on Sontag is one of the best works I’ve read on a literary figure. Short though muscular in its contentions, Lopate introduces us to Susan Sontag: critic/novelist/bette noir and, above all, a woman trying not to be defined as any of these things. There’s a deep ambivalence toward Sontag here, a clear belief that she was important and her work powerful, coupled with the nagging suspicion that her work might not really matter much any more; an artifact from a pre-post-modern world (Yes, I’m going to stand by that odd circumlocution).

At her best, she spoke to the 1960s, created a new language for her era. Though even here Lopate’s praise is undramatic:

“She was consistently able to diagnose the moment and prophesize the immediate future–which goes some way toward explaining her relevance as a public intellectual.” (26)

At her worst, she was blinded by ideology. Or a novelist; in the words of that great critic, Crash Davis:

Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

(That JFK argues for an alternate Kennedy scenario is here meaningless. It’s not as if there’s some Tommy Westphall Hypothesis for Kevin Costner movies)

Lopate, too, minimizes Sontag’s fiction career. If anything, he implicitly argues, her success with The Volcano Lover and In America reveals a problematic distancing from her critical writing championing the avant garde. Her only successes are in the realist tradition she so maligned (and that Lopate champions).

As he himself has admitted, Notes on Sontag is more a defense of the essay as form than a defense of Sontag (though there’s plenty of that too). It’s a tremendous work, an excellent start to Princeton University Press’ new Writers on Writers series.   Read the rest of this entry »