Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Global Hollywood

Much is being made right now about the fact that, for the first time, all the Oscar winners in the acting categories happen to not be American. Although two of them play Americans (convincingly, I might add), Javier Bardem is Spanish, Marion Cotillard is French and Daniel Day-Lewis and Tilda Swinton are both British.

This is significant perhaps only in context: it seems that the Academy may finally be embracing the fact that Hollywood is truly a global place, even when it comes to acting.

Certainly, many foreigners have been nominated before and several, especially the Brits, have taken home awards left and right. But we only need to look back to the year I graduated from college to see an example where this wasn't true.

We could debate left and right whether or not Marisa Tomei really deserved the Oscar for this film based on her performance. At the time it happened, I was as outraged as many, particularly since I believed Judy Davis had been robbed for her incredible performance in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives; I also thought this because, quite honestly, I hadn't bothered to see My Cousin Vinny. Years later, I did and her performance is actually quite good. Tomei has since proven herself several times over, including fantastic turns in In the Bedroom (where she deservedly picked up a second nom) and last year's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (where she might have picked up a third, had the field not been so incredibly overrun with really prime performances). I still don't think it's better than Davis', but maybe it's not so bad either. Besides, comedy is harder to play than it looks, so maybe we should be happy that at least this time it was rewarded.

And yet, as time has gone on, it becomes evident that one of the main reasons why Tomei probably won was that she was the only American that year. The other three nominees were all British: Joan Plowright in Enchanted April, Miranda Richardson in Damage and Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End. (Davis happen sto be Australian.) That year the field was clearly also tight: these are fine performances all and may have served to cancel each other out. That Tomei got as many votes as she did, however, speaks something to the age and overwhlemingly American composition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In many ways, Tomei represented the home team -- and my guess is that many voted for her out of a sense of nationalism more than anything else.

It seems strange now to consider that, given how global we now take our movies. I am thrilled, for one, that this aspect has come through: that one can make it here from an international perspective. All of the winners this year still work in some of the smaller, crazy cinema projects back in their home countries (save Day-Lewis, who simply doesn't make many movies at all these days), so perhaps some attention will be drawn to those cinemas as well; certainly the Spanish is quite vibrant and deserves more attention.

Naturally, my only gripe about all of this is that the year that Oscar finally showed the love for overseas acting happens to be the one year when none of those actors were from Latin America. Maybe next year, Gael.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wallflower no more

I have a colleague at work who also has a nearly-three year old son. The kids met at a summer get-to-know-each-other departmental party for what I called "the underclass" (i.e. the untenured, the folks still on one-year-contracts, etc.) at our house, where we discovered that our kids were both, miraculously, followers of sorts. Each stayed in his respective dad's arms, eying the other with a mixture of curiosity and concern, waiting to see what the other would do. This lasted until a 4-year-old boy showed up and took charge, turning the two 2-year-olds into versions of tie-fighters flying in formation around him.

The other day during my evening class' break, I found this colleague in his office with no students. We exchanged pleasantries and at some point I asked him about N, his son. "Oh man," he said, "I have no idea what to do. I have to get him ready every morning and he just throws this ridiculous fit. It happens every morning. And I don't know what to do."


And at this point I turned into Dear Abby, offering advice on how to traumatize your child into submission so you can get his pants on. I have to say that it still works: the other day he was resistant and I calmly said, "Would you like me to bring you outside with no clothes on?" He looked at me and said, "No, I put on my pants now."

Here's the sadistic part: I can't wait to hear how N will take to the smackdown. Bwahaha: tormented fathers of the world, unite!


I haven't written much lately for a few reasons. Primarily, it's because I fell behind in my writing and other work due to some illnesses (both mine and Xan's) that set things back a bit. (Indeed, my last posting notes the beginning of this spiral.) But the revisions are close to being done indeed, and the Oscars are actually happening no matter what (hooray!) so I just have to KEEP ON GOING. Come mid-March, I may actually be caught up with all the writing, which would be novel.

One of the interesting by-products of the creeping crud that invaded our house a couple weeks ago was that Xan suddenly turned into Mr. Obstinate. He would yell all day at us, "No! You to do that. No, no, don't say that!" Very insisting, very forceful, refusing to be nice for any reason whatsoever. (Apparently, something invaded many little boys around this time, since I wasn't alone in wondering what the heck happened to my sweet little child.) Within a week, he returned to a version of his normal self, but one day I lingered at his school and watched an interaction with his classmates. He sat down at a table doing some crafty thing and got up to move a chair for some unknown reason. As he was doing this, the girl next to him grabbed all of his craft material to put on her tray. Xan returned, discovered his stuff was gone and started to throw a minor fit. "Give me my stuff back!" he started yelling at the girl.

I was talking to one of the teachers and my first response was to stop him, but before I even said anything, the teacher turned to me and said, "Let's see how this plays out." The girl ran off with his stuff and he chased her, managing to get some of it back but not all. The teacher -- who saw more than I did -- eventually stopped the two of them and actually berated the girl: "Did you take his stuff when he wasn't looking?" "Yes," she said. "Well, you need to give it back. You don't like it when someone does that to you, do you?" She did, Xan was happy and all was well." The teacher turned back to me. "I think that went well," she said."

"I'm impressed," I said. "I was just going to say that he's been pretty willful this last week and was concerned that he was transferring back to school."

The teacher looked at me. "Well, you know, it's been a goal of ours to actually get him to stick up for himself."

And at that point she fleshes out the details that she mentioned in our parent-teacher conference but that I had forgotten: indeed, when he first arrived at school (at only 2 1/2, the very youngest there), he had been a doormat. A kid would take his toy and, in his relatively good-natured way, he would shrug and find something else to play with. The teachers had apparently been concerned that he wasn't asserting himself enough. Lo and behold, this may have been part of the reason he got snippy with us: testing the waters to see whether he could also rule over us.

Today, however, more news, and this actually worries me slightly: when she picked him up today, Angela got word from the teacher that Xan is now teasing the other kids.

As someone who has all sorts of traumatic memories of elementary school, I almost couldn't fathom that this was happening. Apparently, it makes sense: the other kids did it to him and now he's trying on that particular hat for himself. Tomorrow, when I bring him in (provided we don't have a snow day), I'm planning on asking if there's anything we can do at home.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Garbo, reincarnated

Two minutes ago, with me still up late writing, I heard Xan start to cry. "Are you OK?" I asked.

"I want to be alone," he said sleepily.

And just like the Baron von Geigern, I quickly scampered away.

A.M. UPDATE: Actually, he turned out to be lying. Waking up a couple hours later, he had a fever. So we're home today.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

How have I NOT damaged my child in the past week?

(a) This morning, I took him out in the cold rain, forgetting to put on his rain boots. Naturally, the first thing he does is splash in a large puddle outside. Naturally, this is also the day that I don't have the car, having dutifully brought it in to be serviced. Naturally, we have also missed the bus. "My feet are wet," he says. Naturally, he is the only one who doesn't have rain boots when we get to school, so I have additionally committed a fashion faux pas.

(b) Last night, upon taking him to bed, I accidentally bump his head while getting his pajamas on. "You hurt my head!" he says. "Don't do that!" I ask for forgiveness. I get it only after many kisses and a few tickles for good measure.

(c) On Monday, I deny him the opportunity to see Barack Obama in person. In DC, I explain, disenfranchisement happens early and often.

(d) In the process of (c), I have to bring him in to school much earlier than we usually get there. As such, instead of being late for snack when everyone is already there, he is only the second person, and the other kid is significantly older than he is. After taking off his coat, he looks around, looks at me with wide eyes and, very seriously with an extremely cute voice, asks, "Dada, where are all my friends?" (Thankfully, the twins his age -- who also usually arrive very late, actually usually right before us -- come within a minute, since their mom also has an early meeting.

(e) Late last week, I go through the daily motions of getting him ready for school. Usually, this involves much bellyaching and a chorus of "I don't want to [x]" with [x] being either "have breakfast," "get dressed," "put shoes on," "go to school," "put coat on," or, you know, "breathe." This has occasionally devolved into mild tantrums -- and, lately, not so mild. On the day in question, I am running late (as usual) and trying to put clothes on, which leading to complaints and thrashing as described above. This, after I've given him a LOT of extra time to play and after he has agreed to get dressed without a fuss. "I DON'T WANT TO WEAR CLOTHES! NO! NO!!!"

At some point, I give up. I remember that apparently I had this problem as a kid and my mother made me go to school in my pajamas for a whole day. I decide that perhaps it's time to bring out the big guns. "Really?" I ask. "You don't want clothes? Fine." I pick up his clothes and shoes, put them in a bag, grab my coat and his lunchbox and drag him out the back door to the car.

He is wearing only a diaper and a pair of socks.

The temperature is about 16 degrees above absolute zero outside.

I then proceed to put the howling boy ("I DON'T WANT TO GO TO SCHOOOOL! I DON'T WANT TO WEAR CLOOOOTHES!") into the car, strap him into the car seat, start the car and drive off. To cover up the howling, I put Annie Lennox's "Coloured Bedspread" on the CD player at a relatively loud volume. I then pray to God that a cop doesn't drive by, since I'm not entirely sure that what I am doing is legal. Only when I get to the other side of town do I finally hear a small voice in the back seat say, "Dada, may I please have some clothes?" And after an apology and a huge hug, I put them on.

Wracked with guilt, I confess all this to his teacher at school. "You're better than I am," she laughs. "I probably wouldn't have even turned on the heat in the car." I look at her. "What makes you think I did?"

(f) I gave my son a fat lip.

Funny enough, he gave himself a fat lip at school. Later telling us that it involved "riding tricycles around and around and around and around and then CRASH," he actually manages this by simply running with a plastic toy in his hand and then falling on it, giving himself a nice bloody cut. By chance, Angela and I both arrive only minutes after this happens and are thus able to document the aftermath, snapping photographic evidence with the incriminating evil toy, still in his clutches.

"I'll show you, Evil Squiggly Plastic Blue Toy!"

Friday, February 01, 2008

"This is a one-shot thing we got going on here."

I haven't written about Heath Ledger until now. The reason is perhaps obvious: everyone's already written about Heath Ledger in some form or another and I wasn't quite sure I had much to add that wasn't said more eloquently elsewhere.

That said, from the moment I found out about his death, the fact that I happen to be teaching a class about stardom (and, randomly and separately, am screening Brokeback Mountain in my grad seminar) this semester jump-started the academic in me. Quite frankly, I'll admit to being utterly fascinated at the phenomenon of Ledger's somewhat posthumous stardom. I'll admit my utter shock at finding out about his death while picking up some movies at the library 10 minutes before class -- and then somewhat puzzled why I seemed to have such an empathetic response. It's not like I've fawned over him incessantly; indeed, I have only seen three of his films, two of which were supporting turns in Monster's Ball and I'm Not There. As talented an actor as he was or potentially might have been, I had no idea he was this big of a star -- and I have a feeling many people felt the same way, surprised at their own emotions toward him.

This week my class is reading some considerable theorizing about the confluence of actors and roles that make up stardom. For me, the outpouring of emotional wringing around Ledger's death solidifies something nearly every sane cinephile has been saying for two years now: that as both a film and a cultural touchstone, Brokeback Mountain endures. Perhaps this is because BBM was really more of a throwback to the most memorable melodramas of Hollywood's classic periods. As such, we viewers (caught in the cultural zeitgeist of the film) easily and unknowingly transformed the actor into the star that matched that kind of performance. As obsessed as some of us are about the Oscars (and hey, I'm the one with the party and trademarked drinking game!), it no longer bothers me as much that what amounts to a lightweight film like Crash won that evening. Heck, Singin' in the Rain doesn't have a Best Picture Oscar and Around the World in 80 Days does: you tell me.

If this sounds like I'm gearing up for a possible article on this subject, I just might. The last time I got really this interested in stardom, I wrote a great piece on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that I now regret not publishing; indeed, I was planning on returning to that piece instead (and still might). But once the manuscript is done done done (which will hopefully be soon), maybe a detour into the current phenomenon might be worth examining.

(This actually started as a comment on a post on Heath Ledger at The Film Experience -- so thanks for the inspiration, Nathaniel!)