Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

Happy National Poetry Month! This year, I thought I'd go with an unconventional pick. Michael Collins, one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, died this week at the age of 90. In a short interview for the Smithsonian in 2016, he was asked about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), and put in a plug instead for STEAM, which adds the arts, and praised poetry in particular. Collins was a self-effacing guy with a good sense of humor, and the whole thing is worth watching, but the part I've transcribed starts around 3:16:

Interviewer Marty Kelsey: Tell me about the importance of STEM.

Michael Collins: Well, I am very much in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math, but I think that's a rather incomplete description of what should be STEAM. S-T-E-A-M, with the emphasis on English. Perhaps I've known too many inarticulate engineers in my time, but I think a firm background in English is important no matter what particular career field you're in. And I'd even push it one step beyond just English and just say poetry, for example. I mean, I like so much poetry – John Milton comes to mind. Paradise Lost, you know it? You know the plot?

Kelsey: Barely.

Collins: Okay, well, what the plot was in STEM language, it's: some guy fell off a cliff, and maybe God pushed him. In STEAM, it is – you know what it is in STEAM?

Kelsey: No.

Collins: Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal [Skie]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

So. See I like the second version better than the first version. But that's my story; that's my anecdote.

Collins substitutes "heights" for "skie," but I really enjoy his spirited rendition and that he memorized this. Interviews are sometimes rehearsed and somewhat planned, but if this was off the cuff, Collins' clever STEM plot summary of Paradise Lost, contrasting the power of Milton, is all the more impressive. I do like science and math, but favor a broad and deep liberal arts education (let's not forget history and the social sciences), and my strongest love is for the arts. I'm often frustrated that the arts are not only underappreciated in the United States, but often under attack. Americans tend to treat artists very well if they become famous and successful, but are less supportive of general arts funding, and conservatives since at least Ronald Reagan have threatened to defund the arts and sometime have. The miniscule budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are a disgrace. Certainly during this pandemic many people have devoured films, TV shows, music, books, and other creative works at a greater rate than usual, and those did not magically spring up out of the aether without considerable labor. I appreciate that Collins, who carries gravitas in the STEM world, puts in such a great plug for the arts in this interview. I hope he got through to some people who might not have absorbed this wisdom otherwise.

You can read more of Milton's Paradise Lost here.

My past posts on poetry feature some more extensive pieces.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

2020 Film Roundup: The Oscars

This is the first year since I started watching the Oscars that I hadn't seen any of the nominees. (I probably started watching at five years old, not that I was allowed to stay up for the whole event.) Normally this post is also "The Year in Review," linking my reviews of all the films I've seen for the year in question. Because of the pandemic, I didn't see many films in theaters before everything closed in March 2020, and I didn't spring for specific streaming services or pay-per-view screenings. I did watch a ton of movies and TV shows on disc.

I thought some of the speeches were nice, although this year none of the winners were played off and some tended to go on too long. The most charming speech for me was from 73-year-old, South Korean Yuh-Jung Youn, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Minari. (This article gives some good background on her, but does give away a key plot point of the movie.)

Harrison Ford had a funny bit presenting the Oscar for Best Editing, reading negative feedback from screenings of Blade Runner. (He almost certainly skipped rehearsal, though, because he read from a crinkly paper and all that text could have been fed into the teleprompter instead.)

The montage of death (in memoriam segment) is normally very well done, and a moving highlight of the ceremony. This year, it was the most rushed I can remember – each person was shown for only one single second (I counted) until the montage finally slowed down a bit at the end. Perhaps, due to the pandemic, more people died and have to be included in this installment. Or because the audience was smaller than usual, the usual applause wasn't going to be audible, so the show producers opted for this approach. But I thought it was a shame.

I was particularly appalled that Best Actress and Best Actor were the last categories presented, after Best Picture. (I would also keep Best Directing as the penultimate award presented.) The leading theory is that the show producers thought that popular actor Chadwick Boseman, who died tragically last year, was going to win Best Actor and that would end the night on a high note. If so, that choice was full of hubris and stupidity; there's no sure thing, as Oscars nights of recent years have repeatedly shown. (Winner Anthony Hopkins didn't attend, making the night even more anticlimactic, but recorded a gracious thank you from Wales, including a nice mention of Boseman.)

Regardless of whether Boseman played a role in the producers changing the order of the categories, it remained a really dumb decision. Why highlight individual performances over the best films of the year? It reminded me of the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which ran some self-congratulatory ads that boasted it was "The only award show where every award goes to an actor." Because who cares about the other, little people who make movies? Some actors are lovely people in real life, but as a group… they do deserve their reputation as the vainest, most self-absorbed people in the film business (even if some directors and producers come close). For the love of cinema, it's a horrible idea to encourage the mentality that actors are more important than the movie itself. Filmmaking is about more than who's on camera, and although a great performance can make a film and should be celebrated, that's rarely been a problem; actors already get more recognition than everyone else involved. The best films are team efforts. In this specific case, switching the order also stole attention from a pretty remarkable story: Nomadland won Best Picture, and its director, Chloé Zhao, became only the second woman to win an Oscar for Best Directing and the first woman of color. She was born in Beijing but was mostly educated in the U.S. and lives here now, and coverage of her and Nomadland has been partially censored by the Chinese government. That's quite interesting stuff. So it's possible that Steven Soderbergh and the other Oscar producers were trying to manufacture a big moment and undercut some good, organic ones instead. I had mixed feelings about the two sound awards being combined into one. On the one hand, sound editing and sound mixing are different jobs. On the other hand, Oscar voters repeatedly did not understand the difference between the categories and even entertainment reporters would explain them incorrectly. (Most simply, the editing is the sound effects, including ambience and Foley work, and the mixing creates the overall soundscape of elements, balancing dialogue, effects, and music.) I would also say the voters botched their choices repeatedly – the nominees, which are determined by a smaller group of sound people, have been consistently good, but the majority of Oscar voters are actors and would often give best mixing to the best editing job and vice versa, or give both awards to the same film, normally the one with the most conspicuous music or loudest noises, not necessarily the best job.

The problem is that most good sound jobs are unobtrusive and not meant to be noticed; nonprofessionals will notice the grandeur of the score and spectacular sound effects for a film like Star Wars, but typically not pick up on more subtle work. It's pretty rare that a film ever won a sound Oscar for a bad sound job – as my sound mentor explained, Jaws (1975) won despite not having great dialogue work, but the award at the time was "Best Sound" and was understood to be for best use of sound, and Jaws was highly memorable on that count. Likewise, for films in 2018, I wrote that "Bohemian Rhapsody [which won both awards] featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes." I think First Man and Roma did their jobs so well nonprofessionals didn't notice the quality of the work, but Bohemian Rhapsody was a worthy winner in both categories nonetheless.

In any case, the new category seems to have expanded the nominee limit; it seems to be five now, versus three before, so the key members of the sound team can share the win, as they did this year for Sound of Metal. This Hollywood Reporter article summarizes the sound community's reaction well, and I agree the category might be better named as Best Sound Design.

I thought all five Best Original Song nominees were pretty good, which is often not the case. The winner, "Fight for You" by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas, was a solid pick. Leslie Odom Jr. did a lovely job singing on "Speak Now," which he cowrote; "Hear My Voice" has a neat vibe; "Io sì (Seen)" is a fairly typical Diane Warren ballad, albeit in Italian (and with too much reverb for my tastes), but it's nice enough; and Molly Sandén shows off some amazing pipes on "Husavik (My Home Town)."

Anyway, if nothing else the Oscars nominations and winners make a nice list of viewing recommendations. I'm planning to see Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Sound of Metal, Minari, Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Onward, Soul, Wolfwalkers, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the Borat sequel, and Mank.