Errors, omissions and general hilarity: it’s Awards nomination time again

Appalling to discover what it takes to get me back here, isn’t it?  Nominations morning. Kiss and cry time.  So much real, consequential stuff came down during the last months of 2013, yet, mostly, I hung back from writing.  Omit a few names on the Academy Award ballot and I’m fired up, ready to go. I fear it’s simply the mark of the beast, so better get to it. The less frivolous stuff is TK, I swear. .

First the outrage, then the love.. It seemed to me that three actors absolutely held their films together and at least two of them, Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her.) did the best work of their lives. Unfortunately, the Actors branch didn’t agree.(Churls among us might even call it Redford’s first unmannered performance, but you know churls.) 

I would have put Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips as the hard pressed, resourceful freighter captain on that list too, except that, idly, I started to watch Philadelphia on TCM the night before the nominations, and after Hanks appeared, I couldn’t stop. No matter how that film sits with you, then or now, watching it cleared up one thing fast for me. Captain Phillips isn’t a career best for Hanks, it’s simply what he’s been doing all his acting life, working with a strength, integrity. delicacy and — within limits — range that has only intensified with time.

If there’s an irony to Hanks’ lack of recognition, it’s in the supporting actor nomination for the terrifyingly good Barkhad Abdi as Captain Phillips’ chief adversary among the Somali pirates. Guess who Abdi is shoulder to shoulder with for 90% of his scenes? You have to have flint to strike sparks.

Before we leave Captain Phillips, its editing nomination (for Christopher Rouse, in his third film for director Paul Greengrass) seemed virtually inevitable, but how could there not be one for Greengrass himself?  Shades of Ben Affleck and Argo, although that didn’t turn out too badly, if anyone can remember back to the 2013 Awards.  

I am going to hold the fierce good thought that Fruitvale Station’s complete shut out for director Ryan Coogler and actors Michael B.Jordan and Octavia Spencer only gives Independent Spirit award voters a clear sense of what they can do to right some big oversights. The Indie folks love stuff like that; it makes them look less like panting wanna-bees and more like Spirit voters.of old, free thinkers who gave Best Director awards to Lodge Kerrigan, Everett Lewis, Whit Stillman, Nick Gomez, Carl Franklin and, oh yes, David O. Russell. Those were the days.

L. to R.: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, director Ryan Coogler

And while we’re in Omissions vein: I really hope it didn’t look too much like Jonestown over at the T Bone Burnett scatter Thursday. To call attention to Burnett’s immaculate round-up of folk songs which gave the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis its very backbone, CBS Films sent prospective voters everything but an Inside Llewyn Davis scratch ‘n sniff. You may have noticed the double-truck ads. For this massive effort they got two nods, for Bruno Delbonnet’s rapt, incisive cinematography and for the trio who did the sound recording. Entirely worthy but well short of high CBS hopes. Harsh, Academy, truly harsh.

What might be called the Inside Llewyn Davis Situation has not gone unnoticed close to home, either. Tucker and Lily feel keenly the lack of recognition for their orange brethren (all 3 of them) who gave character, attitude and certainly legs to Llewyn Davis himself.

Before we leave film music, you won’t hear more heartfelt American bluegrass than in a gem hidden among the five Best Foreign Film nominees. The Broken Circle Breakdown, from Belgium is a stunner, an intimate contemporary love story whose brilliantly fractured narrative carries a genuine gut punch. It may take a minute to adjust to a bluegrass lead  singer whose other mode of expression is her artful and ever-expanding tattoos, but this is a case where her ink is beyond decorative, it’s her message to the world. (Great good news: Scarecrow,Video, invaluable and essential as ever, tells me that Broken Circle has a March 11th DVD release.)


We should all have known Sally Hawkins (a supporting actress nominee for Blue Jasmine) years ago, after her effervescent, many-faceted Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008).  As I remember (a dangerous phrase), a broken collarbone on another shoot, before Happy Go Lucky’s U.S. release kept her from doing the intense NY publicity push Leigh’s film needed. Her performance became a cherished, “minor” prize-winning open secret. She picked up awards from stateside critics’ groups, a first at Berlin, even a Golden Globe during that group’s more louche era, but for Academy voters she might not have existed. As of Thursday morning, she does. She’s in one of the most densely packed major categories, still. . .she’s there, at long last. (And what did Hollywood find for Hawkins first, for her quirky, lean-in-closely unique fizz?  Godzilla.)

I’m glossing over armloads of favorites mainly because, with the exception of Gravity, which mercifully I saw before House Arrest began, I’ve watched almost everything else on screeners. Each time I do, I imagine sharing the room and the moment with the film’s director, sleepless after weeks balancing the sound, correcting the color, getting every finicky detail tuned to perfection. . . . Oh the horror, the horror!!!

Now that they’re rushing so many films back into theatres,  I am looking forward to getting my fill of repeats on very big screens (12 Years a Slave, Gravity — Yes again. And again —. perhaps even another fling with The Grandmaster) before they all go away, March 2nd, and only the winners survive.  .

Let me finish with a Kite Day update. First: I can say absolutely that I walk better than Bruce Dern.  I always did.  As of last week, however, I can now get up the stairs to our bedroom — and all my clothes, and while you might not want to see my knife-work from up close, I’m cooking again.  Next is our car’s stick-shift, which is still a bit beyond me, although the day can’t come soon enough in some quarters. My husband has taken to calling me Miss Daisy. He says all he needs is the cap.

The Quilt Room — and beyond

More than high time for some fresh news, clearly it’s Fall at our house.

Fall in Seattle 2013 Made it to the second visit to the Orthopedic Clinic in our own car.  Everyday stuff for you, I know. You weren’t along for our first Yellow Cab wheelchair van experience, where a strong and patient driver helped Herman lock and load me into the very back of his van. Barring the part where both arms came off the wheelchair as both men tried to lift it, I’d say it went well.

Herman was in the van’s middle seat and I was behind him, in the well created to hold wheelchairs. And, I noticed, whatever hadn’t been chucked out from the past few meals, stuff I could see because I was wearing my glasses. So I was able to watch the progress of a roach which appeared on my husband’s headrest, and sat there for a minute, judging whether it could make the leap into the back of Herman’s thick hair.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly someone will move, at the hissed syllable, “Roach!” It moved my husband into the safety of the middle of the van and gave me time to watch the large-ish spider which popped up next. Spiders!  Pffft! As nothing, compared to relocating a roach. Don’t know which one of us the spider clung to, but once we got to the nice shiny white floor of Treatment Room 2, he decided all was safe, and started across the floor.  Splat! End of our wildlife saga.

So, that was Visit 1.  Visit 2, under our own power, was bliss. For this, I learned to go down three steps to get me out, via the garage, and into the alley and our car.  God-like surgeon doesn’t want to see me for 3-4 more weeks (we chose 4); new bone growth in the shoulder hasn’t yet shown up on the new x-rays, but he’s confident that it’s beginning.  And so we settle in for the wait.

We’ve moved into the Quilt Room right on the ground floor.  Usually it’s where we put up   two guests: bathroom right next door. My office at the end of the hall. Cozy. Companionable, I’ve always thought, since there’s a main bed and a trundle below that can be pulled up to nestle next to it, or separated, as we have things now.

The bookshelves here are floor-to-ceiling along one wall and its corner. (“Books!” a visitor once commented, facing this collection in Los Angeles. “Such good sound bafflers!”) Lying on the trundle, trying to square myself away for a night of lying with as much movement as a tomb effigy at Westminster Cathedral, I line myself up so I’m at a crisp right angle to the books. It seems to bring a little order to the randomness of our days now.

The cats, who hang out here a lot of time anyway, seem agreeable to sharing. Lily now owns the utterly unused wheelchair each night; I can barely break the news that it’s going back any minute now. Tucker likes my husband’s bed, but he ‘s good about sharing when I unexpectedly crash…

Tuckerand SB on bed

I adore this room, especially its pumpkin colored walls which make the small space glow, but truthfully, I don’t usually come in here to read. I head for a small chair with lots of natural light, at the end of our long, railroad car of a house. As a result, I’ve almost forgotten some of the stuff on the Quilt Room walls.

At the time when, like Jane Austen ladies, “we” were all beavering away doing handwork of one generally useless kind or another, I made this timid box. The main reason it has survived is that each one of the three daughters has forbidden me to chuck it.

Collage soloI am painfully aware of its deficiencies, but there is one bit in there which has also kept me from heaving it.  It’s this postcard, written 102 years ago and postmarked on my birthday..  It was sent from Pearl, in Dell Rapids, South Dakota, to her sister, Minnie (Mrs. Minnie Herrick, in Onaga, Kansas.)

Pearl wrote:

Dear Sister:

I got your letter together with Edward’s. I went to Episcopal Church tonight and to the Catholics last Sunday.  I wanted to know what some other people believe.  I certainly  found out last Sunday night.


Now I ask you, with all its searching mystery, could you have thrown it out?

More, when there’s more to tell.  Thank every single one of you who have hung in there and stayed in touch. You cannot know what it has meant. And you can see for yourself how well things are going:

SB selfir

Kite Day

Because September 22nd was a beautifully windy Sunday, my husband and I, and my dear, visiting brother, Jerry, went to exercise Herman’s big, wonderful rip-stop nylon two-handed kite, sort of a rainbow-colored flying wing, at Gas Works Park.

He was doing so nicely with it that he offered me the reins. I took the left hand wrist-strap reins, took the right ones. . . and a good gust took me — until in disgust at how useless I was as a kite steward, it slammed me to the grass.  (I was only dragged, my feet never left the ground.) Cracked my pelvis in a couple of places, and my shoulder in a whole lot more, at the point where ball and socket meet.  As bad luck would have it, both on the same side. And I am right-handed.

hhwithkite2From then until today, as Herman and I start the sixth week of rehab here at home,  I have …umm  fallen in among the most extraordinary, gifted, generous, scrupulously careful, funny and caring gang of professionals, from rescue teams to healing ones, working in one city, and in one hospital,  Seattle’s UW Orthopedics.

Part of the trick of getting me to the UW was protecting that shoulder, while we all hoped it might still just be out of its socket. The odd, ungainly inflatable cushion that one of the five Fire Dept. rescue crew came up with looked like a pteradactyl that had settled in for a bite of my shoulder, but it protected perfectly.  It was at that point that movies began to float in and out of the next 5 days.

Somehow, I learned that my ambulance attendant’s wife’s name was Brie.

“Oh my.  THAT’S a great movie name,” I said.  “Bree Daniels.”

“Jane Fonda,” he said,.  We both took a minute of reverie.

“And that dress that unzipped all down her back.”

“Umm hmm.”

Then we both tried to remember the name of the movie with Bree Daniels.  The driver couldn’t help, she was roughly Jane Fonda’s age when she made the picture.  We two memory-wrapped fans were useless.

We arrived at the hospital, I got straight into the doing-something-about-this-situation-fast  room, the ambulance crew waved and left. . . when, as they had almost pulled away,  my attendant friend reappeared in the doorway, shouting:


“Klute! Of course! Thank you!”  And I finally relaxed.

The luck which has surrounded me and my whole family, lifelong, hadn’t left.  Scanning my dozens of x-rays was the best possible “provider” for me:  a smart,  bemused orthopedic surgeon who read my background history, and decided that at 82, it made a lot more sense to let the bones heal on their own, rather than opt for a surgery involving pins, nails , and who knows what-all.  He delivered this opinion, omitting nothing:  it was very possible that I’d get a range of shoulder motion back, but all would not be as before.  I probably will not be able to raise that arm above my shoulder.

 “So, from here on, it’s the John McCain wave?”  I asked.

I saw his mouth curve nicely.  “Afraid so.”

“Could be a lot worse,” I said.

Then, in one all-seeing measure of alertness and goodness, this young god at the top of my UW pyramid, listened when I said that, as a demi-claustrophobe, if they planned to save me from blood clots with knee-to-ankle plastic pneumatic stockings which squeezed and released, rhythmically, all night long and most of the day, I would take manicure scissors to them.  He wrote me a pass, good for the whole five nights I was there, that excused me from them.

So, with Herman “sleeping” nights in a corner of my room, we both embarked on an intensive five days of learning: how to get from bed to portable biffy; how to begin to get a tiny bit of strength back; how fortunate I was that the right (bad) leg is still, somehow (OUCH!) weight-bearing, plus all the skills I’d need if — as we were determined to do — I came home, instead of being sent to a rehab facility.  So we began a campaign with any staff who would listen.  They were plentiful.

My teachers came to the UW from all over the world: Franklin, well over 6’1″, from Nigeria, who was security and gentleness itself at 2 ayem, as he helped me navigate to the biffy by my hospital web belt . (If I’ve lost SO many names and remembered his, it’s because Franklin is a name that threads through my family. Well, that and his pure sweetness and strength, there in the dark.)

There was the nighttime RN, who somehow always seemed to get the joke, no matter how arcane; the magically gentle pre-dawn phlebotomist, also from Nigeria, whose headwrap was secure and spectacular, all at once.  The crowd grew to include an fourth-generation Japanese-Chinese RN and a matinee-idol handsome Persian.

Then there were my spark plugs, the Occupational Therapists, who taught me the daily nuts and bolt of the new normal, and the Physical Therapists, who covered all the rest.  And it became clear that, in order to be allowed to go home, we had to persuade both  of them that Herman and I could manage.  (We had, after all, managed after my 2 major/3 minor eye surgeries, and then back surgery.)  Herman, they had no doubt about; with me, the learning curve was a bit more steep.

As for that strain of the movies: day before they finally said I could leave, the OT announced that I could have a shower.  ????   Who knew that the inside of my very own bathroom had two lovely, wooden pull-down seats and a long, lovely shower head.

Or that J. , a fresh-faced 27-year old son of the Bronx, would be my shower buddy?  I tried to spare him.

“This is nothing for your eyes, believe me.”

“I’m a Health Care Professional,” he said, with a grin.  We’d had other, long conversations before this. Somehow, I learned about his passion for really old movies.  Black and white, he said.  The 40’s.

All went perfectly, except that I needed a shower cap.  J. decided to improvise with a white towel, which he tried to put on my forehead and knot at the back.  Wouldn’t hold.

“J., J!”  I said, “Lana Turners turban in The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

The movies never let you down.

They let us go home. We’re safely settled.  After their initial shock at The Bruise pictures (home day #2) all three daughters came to believe that all will be well .   (Caitlin, most recent in the rotation of daughters, just left after 4 days here, having flown from her current FS posting in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.)

caitlin Medicare now gives me an OT and a PT, sometime two a day.  And a gentle woman who tosses me into the shower.  My only complaint is exhaustion.  Since I cut out the hard drug, three nights ago, I can now read AND comprehend, and even try a bit of email. Mostly, we are healing hermits.

That luck I mentioned has also given me my friend Janaki, who has made it her business to see both of us through this.  She’s my trainer, sink hair-washer, she’s even made us multiple dinners with our borrowed crock pot (thank you, Elaine!)  She has put up with my inclination toward melodrama, and seen that there are snacks on my tray. . .er Command Module, that trails me everywhere. And crucially, she is a fresh and avid fan for my sacredly saved 13-episodes of Rubicon, which somehow she missed, all those years ago.

The rock-solid hero of the day is, of course, this person.

hhoncouch When we had our 31st anniversary just last month, I somehow believed I knew a lot about my husband, but I don’t think either one of us knew the depths he was capable of, until he went into action and stayed there, every single blessed day since the 22nd of September.

Somehow, the droll edge to his wit has never disappeared, certainly his tenderness hasn’t. He has managed resilience and a measured, honest look at what each day has brought us — and he makes it all seem like progress.

What neither one of us could have dreamed was how much his deep political savvy could lighten the day, as we watched the wanton savagery and limitless malice of those Tea Party fools, who cannot accept two elections and a Supreme Court decision.  If you like great ad hoc political commentary, you don’t get better than HH, in full voiced outrage..

As he copes with shopping, cooking, the dishes, the laundry, a few details of recovery have been cruel and unusual — waking up with me the necessary three times each night left him as sleep-deprived as any new father. . . and he is at the same time, working downstairs in his office every day as Pace and Hong Auctions rises and expands.  (Prolonged cheers!) Now — ahem — I am up and down again, without waking him. At this point, I call anything progress.

So, that’s us, these days.  However, lest you think that this unusual event has left either one of us with  anything against kites, take a look at this for the sheer beauty of their airy lives.  (If you feel the need to skip, do NOT miss the ending.)

Oscar p.s.

Oh crumb buns! This should teach me always to crib from my betters.

I just did read Tom Shales’ nifty Oscar piece, and realized to my horror that I had left out three of the night’s highlights: Shirley Bassey and her full-throated reprise of Goldfinger; Adele, and what turned out to be her Oscar-winning performance of Skyfall, and Barbra Streisand, whose tribute to her friend and long time collaborator, Marvin Hamlisch, with The Way We Were, was everything she must have wanted it to be: shimmeringly perfect.

Apologies all around!

Oscar shows us its boobs: MacFarlane & Co.

God love Tom Shales and this Tweet last night:  “For the first time ever the Oscar show is worse than the Red Carpet crap that preceded it.”

For anyone who does not regularly rejoice in the work of the  former Washington Post TV critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, he blogs here.   For fear of suddenly sounding a whole lot smarter than I have a right to, I haven’t yet read a word of it, beyond his blog headline and this Tweet. Soon as this is posted I plan to luxuriate in Shales’  gentle, dove-like tones, since we seem to have seen the same show.

One of the hundreds of tidbits the Academy chummed to its ravenous readers was an interview with the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, The Bucket List, Footloose) who confessed that for years, they’d been dying to stage the Oscars since they’d  knew exactly what they’d do, “But no one asked us.”

Then, for better or worse, they were asked.

Let’s go with the best first.  The awards themselves, over which they had no control, were wide-ranging and generous (if your name isn’t Steven Spielberg.) It seems almost impossible not to love Ang Lee, people seem to beam in his presence, and he returns the favor. The whole theatre seemed to love his winning Best Director for Life of Pi, a seemingly impossible-to-pull-off, spiritually charged and breathtaking film.

The next most popular favorite, David O. Russell had gathered armloads of awards for Silver Linings Playbook on Saturday, over at whatever they call the Independent Spirit Awards these days, and Jennifer Lawrence was, eventually, on the podium in a dress that was 5′ across, to represent the team, so he could hardly complain.

(Oh, how I would have loved to see and hear Emmanuelle Riva with that Oscar in her hands, but ask yourself how many voting members saw Amour — and how many will rush out to fix that situation after the particular clip they chose to show? Sheesh, guys!)

That left out her co-star, the very good Bradley Cooper, but he could have had no illusions about his chances against Daniel Day-Lewis, and besides, he has The Place Beyond the Pines up his sleeve in March. Oh my!  And, as my astute film companion points out, he’s a movie star.

Day-Lewis himself was there to get his due, and to remind us all why you just cannot beat the Brits at acceptance speeches, unless you’re old enough to remember Laurence Olivier’s at the 1978 Oscars — which  unfortunately, I do.  It is a piece of work, but you be the judge.

Finally — I’m skimming here — there was the Best Picture win for Argo, and the generosity of Ben Affleck’s fellow producers in letting their director have center stage (to the point of co-producer George Clooney’s having no mike time at all. Doubt he’ll brood over it.) It’s worth checking out his speech at YouTube.

The Oscars producers also had a nice way with this year’s Roll of the Dead, which actually included some of the industry’s worker bees in addition to the more high profile names, and gave a hint about what any of them did. 

Now: to the horror, the horror, which began with the Zadan/Meron choice as the host.  If I seem to be tap dancing around Seth MacFarlane, I am, because revisiting his crude, ugly, witless, racist view of the world is almost as bad as being in it the first time.

An opening number bringing tired old Captain Kirk down to tell Seth how badly his jokes were tanking?  Repeatedly?  Anyone, at home or in vast Dolbyville could have told him that. A musical number called “We Saw Your Boobs,” a handy list for teenage boys of movies in which an actress’s breasts could be glimpsed. Really??  How old is MacFarlane anyway?   Racist date-rape jokes, with Django Unchained as their springboard? Cringe-worthy jokes about not understanding Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayeck, because of their accents?

Who was it, MacFarlane or the Zadan/Merons who thought how hilarious it would be to have presenter Dustin Hoffman paired with Charlize Theron, in her highest heels, and why did Hoffman let them? (Because he’s a class act among the classless, that’s why.)

Enough. This is making my head hurt. No one needs to trudge through sludge more than once.

Here are two unassailably great things to take away from the Oscars — and the Independent Spirit Awards the day before.

One:  Indie voters know a wrong when they see it, so even if it meant crushing the supposed front runner, Bradley Cooper’s only chance at an acting award for the weekend (see above), they gave their Best Actor award to John Hawkes’ sublime performance in The Sessions. Way to go, Spirit folks!!

And two: in a sea of froth and trip-inducing Oscar dresses, one smoky silvery gown which seemed to be channeling cinema art itself, was unparalleled.  The dress is by Indian designer Naeem Khan, the poise and ebullience are entirely Michelle Obama’s.

Michelle Obama Wears Indian-American Designer Naeem Khan's Dress to Oscars

Oscar detritus and a mad Academy Award daydream

Waded through many double-page newspaper ads lately? Checked any late-night talk shows? With Academy balloting closing today  it’s last ditch stand time for nominees, who’ve suddenly popped up on every flat surface to remind Academy voters of their existence.

It’s not just the ballots. . .although it IS, of course. But also, all those end-of-the-year movies have just been released on DVD – and, bien sur, Blu-ray – and their reappearance has given their stars a chance for one last chorus of “Hey, big spender, spend some time with me.”

The results have been. . .informative. You might imagine after The Hunger Games and especially her nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook  that Jennifer Lawrence was a peppy thing, but who could have predicted she’d throw in a mention of anal leakage to David Letterman?  Bet you he didn’t.

Helen Hunt’s Letterman moment was calibrated to a nanosecond. She’s gorgeously naked for a good deal of The Sessions, slipping between motel room sheets in her role as a sexual surrogate, so she and Dave kicked that one around to a fare-thee-well. She got to rap him on the knuckles for taking the low (i.e. leering) road with his questions, which only made him. . ummmm, aim lower. Big surprise, huh, Helen?

The really electrifying thing about all their merriment was the name that never once came up: John Hawkes.* He’s the actor in the other half of that bed, Hunt’s un-nominated co-star.  Hawkes’ deeply soulful playing of this wry, shy Berkeley writer and (partial) iron lung patient, anchors The Sessions and gives the film its greatest depths.

A great many people were in disbelief over Hawkes’ omission on nomination morning. White hot fury just about covers the mood around here: “What is this nonsense? Would they nominate Thelma and not Louise?  Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain and not Jake Gyllenhaal? ”

Wildness got the better of me. Helen Hunt already has one Oscar (won the very hard way, opposite Jack Nicholson.) Suddenly, I could see the steps she should take, that very morning, that would endear her forever to every actor living.   In full, impassioned Vanessa Redgrave octaves, she should say,

“I’m sorry, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I cannot accept this honor. This was a duet, not a solo; without equal recognition for my fellow actor John Hawkes, my nomination is a travesty and a shameful artistic miscarriage.”

(“Sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” may have been in there, too.)

I called my Oscar savant, Chuck Wilson ( with this stunning idea. He knows the why of such outrages, based on a lifetime study of runes and press releases.

“Not a chance in the world, “ he said, instantly.  “No actress would ever. . . Besides, Sheila, he doesn’t have a moment.“

“A moment!?! He has the whole bloody movie!!!!”

“Remember her sitting, alone, in her car? She breaks down. We see his effect on her. She fights for control.  She has a moment.  He doesn’t have a moment.


You live, You learn.  From your betters.

And yes, I did see Emmanuelle Riva and her equally un-nominated costar, Jean-Louis Trintignant, in lockstep throughout Amour.  What can I say.  They’re French. It would simply never come up.

Well, in less than a week, the air will be filled with the sound of snapping Spanx; limos will gum up the Hollywood streets, and a great many far-too overdressed folks will mill about, exposing too much make-up to too much sunlight, until they’re finally allowed into the rarified gloom of the Kodak. . . .Oops! dead technology, , , DOLBY Theatre.

I don’t mean the actors. Unless they’re Meryl Streep, all that hair-and-make-up stuff is what they live for. I’m talking about the comfortable wives of nominated Sound Mixers, the tetchy girlfriends of nominated Screenwriters, the put-upon wives of nominated Editors.  This is their sweetheart’s moment and these partners have gotten all dressed and made-up to meet the challenge full on. . . And???

The assembled yobs of TV all but stub out their cigarettes on these best beloveds, as they speed off to exchange a sound bite or two with the Youngest Nominee ever. Or the Oldest.

I was one of those hangers-on myself, when I was about 10.  I knew that my upstanding screenwriter-mother meant it as a treat, and that dressing up meant you wore white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes.  In those unenlightened days, they let photographers into the auditorium, pre-show, and what I clearly remember is one of them, expertly canvassing one row after another, including ours, before telling his assistant, “Nope. Nobody.”  I remember patting my hands and arms, thinking, “Noooooooo, there’s somebody here. I can feel her.”  Hah! Shows you what I knew.

The most deft reporting I’ve seen on this 85th Oscar extravaganza came from the estimable Doree Lewak at the NY Post. In a moment of deadpan inspiration, she tracked down lifelong Academy members Rita Gam and Arlene Dahl, collecting their opinions about the show, its hosts, past and present, the cost of keeping one’s ballot, and a few picks for Best Picture – and a Best Director.  For balance, she also interviewed screenwriter Walter Bernstein, now 93 and holding his own in a more recognizable universe. (Personally, I’d say who needs balance, but that’s just my mean streak.)      

*Yes.  Helen Hunt did mention John Hawkes in the most appreciative terms when she was on Leno. She just didn’t say anything that could have suggested that the Academy, you know, blew it.

What’s kept Argo’s flame burning brightly

I have a hunch about what’s helped keep Argo’s awards slowly, stubbornly piling up inside Hollywood: Benghazi and its seemingly interminable fallout.

Argo opened one month and a day after that murderous attack. It was a month that reshaped what we knew about the realities of  “diplomacy” when, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of State, the bodies of our Ambassador to Libya and three men who tried to save him were returned to their families and to a largely uncomprehending country.

And as we began to think about what it is that diplomats do, Argo arrived to show us. It was deadly-real and it was Hollywood-real; it had the look of newsreel footage and a grand, bogus bigger-than-life finale, and at its core were six, human, identifiable characters – diplomats all.

At its most deadly serious, Argo was sound for sound, action for action, what happens when an American embassy (consulate, mission) is overrun in a decidedly unfriendly country. Even when Benghazi became political attack fodder, Argo’s resonance of resilience under fire lingered.  Last week, the film got gold-standard corroboration from Hillary Clinton, during her day-long testimony about Benghazi to both houses of Congress, when she said,

“Marine security guards, as you know, are very much a presence on more than 150 of our posts.  . . If you saw the recent movie Argo, you saw the Marines in there destroying classified material when the mob was outside in Tehran.”

Having your movie taken as a point of reference by the Secretary of State  must have given Ben Affleck a not-bad day, although he’s been having a lot of those recently (the Producers Guild Award, back-to-back with the Screen Actors Guild Best Cast win, on top of all those other odd-shaped awards Argo has collected for all its artists along the way.)

But I think that Argo does something well beyond winning awards: it connects us to that soaring, exuberant, embarrassing emotion, patriotism, in the same way that the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir did when they took “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to pure lump-in-your throat, tear-stained national pride at Obama’s Inauguration.  For every one of Argo’s artists, its portrait of American patriots, in Hollywood, Tehran and even Washington D.C. may have come at exactly the right moment.

From Abraham Lincoln to Eiko Ishioka, wot a year it has been

Well, here we are again, friends.  The Academy Award nominations are upon us. For voting members it opens the sluice-gates to six weeks of more “friendly” persuasion than the NRA at that Tucson gun buy-back.

The rest of us can expect a deluge of guesses and pronouncements from folks not vastly smarter than we are about an event roughly as predictable as an earthquake. (See: Marisa Tomei’s Best 1992 Supporting Actress Oscar win over Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. I know. It was a long time ago. Some folks recover slowly.)

To wade in at the top: what was the Directors Guild up to on Tuesday — that’s just two days ago’s Tuesday —  when it nominated Ben Affleck and Katherine Bigelow for two of its five Feature Film Director slots?  (Tom Hooper, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg rounded out their slate.)

The DGA slate is supposed to be the solid gold, take-it-to-the-bank standard of who’ll be nominated by the Academy. Were they simply giving two hard-working directors a good night’s sleep before Announcement Thursday, when they might reasonably expect to find themselves in nomination?  You don’t think Affleck and Bigelow were being set up for a sucker punch, do you? The Guild loves you, just not the membership of the Guild, the ones who vote in the Academy?  Don’t look at me.  I’m as stunned as they are.  Well, relatively speaking.

BAFTA, the British film academy, released their nominations at virtually the same moment as our Academy.  Will it make Ben Affleck feel any better to go to the London celebration, where among Argo‘s seven nominations, including best picture and best director, he also picked up one as best actor?  Probably not.

I liked the Guardian’s description of the BAFTA best five pics: “Lincoln,  Argo, Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Life of Pi, pluckily bobbing in their wake.”

What makes me personally happy?  To see the many ways humanism was defined by this year’s nominees: in utterly different ways throughout Life of Pi and Argo; in so many of the personal exchanges in Lincoln; by the tenacity of Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and by the unforgettable face of Emmanuelle Riva in Amour. And please, throw in your own choices, this is such a perfunctory armful..

I had the same astonished intake of breath as my critic-buddy Chuck Wilson, to see not one tiny special effect or what-you-will nomination for Rust and Bone, let alone an acting nod or two. We shared an eerie, did we really see it? moment of bewildered loss, not only for the rapturous generosity of Marion Cotillard’s work, but for the lacerating but equally abundant performance of her co-star, Mattias Schoenaerts.

Personally, I’m thrilled that members of the Costume Design branch have good long memories in addition to their collective eye for breathtaking work, since it resulted in their recognition of Eiko Ishioka’s final gasp-inducing costumes for Mirror Mirror, released early in 2012.  Seemed to me that the sumptuous wit of Eiko’s costumes spurred Julia Roberts on to fresh heights of delicious bitchiness as the Queen in this Snow White re-working – or perhaps they were just a bitch to move around in.  (When Eiko designed a cage headpiece for Jennifer Lopez in The Cell, Lopez mewled that it was uncomfortable. So the designer clarified things for her:  “You’re supposed to be tortured,” Eiko said.)

Take a look here at Mirror Mirror’s wildest flights of fancy and the consummate glory that was Eiko Ishioka, who died January 21, 2012, and to whom the film is dedicated. (Sorry about that ad, small price to pay, is how I look at it.)

Deadliest reading every year are the toe-in-the-sand responses from nominees, a thrilled, stunned, over-the-moon, humbled and ecstatic crowd who probably shouldn’t be allowed near heavy machinery for at least 24 hours.  The nice departure from all that was the final bit of Tony Kushner’s gracious words in the wake of his Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Lincoln. 

After carpet-bombing thanks to just about everyone ever connected with the film, Kushner said, “I heard that I’d been nominated while waiting to take off on a plane from JFK to LAX. James Gandolfini, who’s sitting in front of me, gave me a hug and a kiss, so I’m about as happy as can be.”

Finally, as a public service – and to prove that it’s not really all that hard — here (thanks to The Wrap) is how to pronounce the name of the youngest Best Actress nominee, Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s almost irresistible Quvenzhané Wallis, from her very own lips.

Argo and me — the back story

I started to describe why Argo struck me as brilliant and almost unendurable, all at once, but that’s silly. Just drop everything and go.  For such a full-throttle, gripping, movie-goer’s-movie, it has depths that linger — certainly at this house.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  Even before the September 11th attacks in Benghazi, with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, I’ve been reading, almost every day, reports from a world that I am intimately connected to, yet necessarily apart from, our Foreign Service.

Most of my friends know that the most far-flung of the three daughters joined the Foreign Service just over three years ago.  She began working in Bogota, came back to D.C. this Fall for training as a Consular Officer and when that’s finished, she goes to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  With, of course, her husband and their three cats, the Tabbies.

At the same time that I followed every test, every setback and surge forward on her blog, I began to browse over at the Tabbies’ lower right-hand column, where she lists other FS blogs she follows.

They are the damndest mash-up imaginable: blogs so dense with acronyms that I don’t venture across their threshholds; ones fuming at a bureaucracy that seems to make things harder, not easier, and ones with pretty imaginative examples of coping calmly with what you and I might see as staggering obstacles.

Among all these voices — who’ve become my unvarnished, behind-the-scenes FS reporters – I’ve come to think of Life After Jerusalem by “Digger,” as the most straight-talking, passionate, intelligent and vibrant guide possible to the core of Foreign Service life, by one of the very best writers for the job. Very frankly, she’s my hero.

Digger is in no way neutral. In Jerusalem she served under Chris Stevens, not yet a full-fledged Ambassador, yet virtually functioning as one at that post.  If you read Digger’s piece in September, “Who Chris was to me,” you’ll get a picture of the man that only a co-worker could draw. Those memories end with Digger’s clear as a bell definition of foreign service; it cannot be bettered — and in this context it may bring tears to your eyes, too.

And this was her entry for October 14th:

It has been just over a month, but the attacks on our embassies and consulates and the deaths of four diplomats including one friend are never far from my mind. And the dangers friends continue to face continues to worry me.

The politicizing of this situation, however, including the blame game going on, is infuriating.

That the very people who have repeatedly slashed our security budget would then try to find scapegoats within the State Department, the people who have tried their best to “do more with less,” is unconscionable.

We know we sign on for dangerous tasks when we join the Service. It is a risk most of us gladly take for the privilege of serving the country and the feeling that we get to make a difference and help keep America safe.
*                            *                       *
Since I last posted on this topic, there have been a couple good pieces I wanted to share with you on what we do and the choices we make to do it.

Most riveting among those pieces is this one, from another blogger who writes as Four Globetrotters. She’s a Foreign Service Officer at post in Tunis with her 3 kids and this excerpt following is her first-hand, hour by hour account of an attack on their Embassy, Sept. 12, 2012, a hairsbreadth after the deadly Benghazi raid. The Tunis attack, which got scant attention in our press, counts as a “relatively minor” event (FS families safely evacuated, no lives lost.)  Among its other qualities, her account gives some of Argo’s most terrifying moments the context they deserve:

All employees are ordered to the safe haven. Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone. Reports continue to come in. The motor pool is on fire. The rec center is on fire. The employee parking lot is on fire. Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery. We immediately begin to do what we know to do. Destroy classified. I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material. The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate. Find out that sound isn’t coming from within. The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in. They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire. My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior. I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I’m sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying. I’m trying very hard to project calm and confidence. The fire alarm goes off. Someone decides to go get everyone’s cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones. I sent three quick emails from my blackberry — to my ex-husband: “In safehaven. People are on the compound, on roof. Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don’t let them forget me.”, one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person. I’m worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

Compare this account with what director Ben Affleck was able to create on a vastly magnified scale, as he staged the takeover of our Embassy in Tehran in 1979 by radical Islamist students.  Down to the sounds of metal on metal as sledge hammers break up classified equipment, he seems not to have made a single false move or left out a step in orchestrating the escalating panic inside and the bloody-minded crowds at their gates. At times it doesn’t seem possible that this isn’t archival footage.

Argo is a lot more than its diabolical suspense, however.  It’s a bemused salute to the world-wide power of The Movies (this was 1979, after all, and Princess Leia’s kingdom was universal. Intergalactic maybe.) At the same time, screenwriter Chris Terrio is having a field day with movie-making’s other abiding art form: the great flim-flam. (That would be Alan Arkin’s mega-producer, tenaciously in on the CIA’s con. It’s Arkin’s unabashed claim on a second Oscar, although he may have to wrestle John Goodman for it.)

But see if you don’t catch another undertone beneath the brash and breathtaking CIA plot to walk “the Canadian six” safely out of Iran: the clear  sense of dedication within each of these Americans, even in their most wobbly moments. That conviction gives a soaring quality to Argo’s most lasting afterword, the onscreen title says (roughly):

All six of these diplomats chose to remain in the Foreign Service.

Promises, Promesses: A great film returns

Here again so soon?  I know, and it may never happen again, but just as I was posting Wednesday’s  CQF, this urgent piece, The Legitimate Children of Rape, turned up on the New Yorker’s website. It’s a devastating, factual corollary to the conjecture and imaginings of that last CQF post, and as such it’s real required reading.

The writer, Andrew Solomon, whose multi-faceted credits are a digression all their own, has been researching a book, “Far from the Tree” which deals in part with women – worldwide — raising children conceived in rape.

He opens this article with the figure from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that in America we have an estimated twenty-five thousand rape-related pregnancies each year.  Not all of them will result in live births, but any percentage of that figure that represents women raising children conceived in rape suggests the enormity of the situation.

Solomon writes, “One of the few groups founded to address this population, Stigma Inc., took as its motto, ‘Rape survivors are the victims. . .their children are the forgotten victims.’”

You may want to erase details that Solomon records from your memory; dis-remember the actions and the daily emotional turmoil of these unwilling mothers whose lives are  “the living reproof to Akin’s remark.”  I did, but I can’t. In the face of the extremism of Akin, the newly anointed Paul Ryan and their comrades in office, they are stories we may need to remember.

*                               *                             *

The mail today wasn’t all bleak.  Criterion’s August releases are a lovely mixed bag, which includes, to my great joy,  La Promesse, the first film by Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

It not only marked them as artists to be watched, but stamped the beginning of their remarkable working relationship with actor Jérémie Renier, which has continued and deepened through 14 years, 4 films and international honors. Among those are the wrenching L’Enfant and the 2011 prize winner The Kid with a Bike.

Here’s the way La Promesse looked to me at the time. (Pace Cinemania)

La Promesse, a merciless, modestly made and utterly unforgettable film by the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne has finally made it out of the film festival circuit and into theatres, thanks to Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films.

Optimistic in the face of corruption, tender despite its grimy setting, La Promesse, watches the birth of a moral center in a 15-year old boy, fight it though he might. Igor (Jérémie Renier), blond, likeable, still a virgin, is accomplished in the layers of lies it takes to smuggle illegal immigrants into present-day Belgium, and get away with it.

He’s learned the tricks from his dumpy, chiseling father Roger (Olivier Gourmet), to whom lying comes automatically. (Rather than wait in a line, Roger bullies his way to the counter with a story that his son has been hurt in an accident.)  An unemployed factory worker, like nearly all the men in this Liège suburb, Roger now smuggles in men from Africa, Turkey, Romania, wherever, puts them up in cold and literally stinking flats, uses them as cheap labor and charges them for every necessity.

Lonely himself, Roger’s relationship with his son is creepy and explosive. He calls Igor “his best friend,” gives him an expensive present, then whacks him around.  He’s already taken the boy out of school, the better to follow the family business, but because of Belgium’s strict schooling laws, Igor is in the apprentice program of a garage. He might even be picking up a trade, but when his father whistles, Igor runs.

The current crop of workers includes the African-born Hamidou  (Rasmané Ouedraogo), a lean, middle-aged man with great presence, and his newly arrived young wife Assita (Assita Oedraogo, no relation.)  Tall and striking, Assita carries with her their infant son, whom Hamidou has barely seen since he came to Belgium to work.

Igor gives that promise to Hamidou after the frail laborer has fallen from a scaffold in the wake of a labor department raid.  Horrified, cradling the mortally injured man, Igor swears to the desperate African that he will look after Assita and her baby.

Roger gives one stony glance at Hamidou and refuses to take him to a hospital – too many questions. At his father’s orders, the stunned Igor helps him “bury” (that is, cement-over) Hamidou’s still warm body. Then the two begin a chain of lies to Assita, suggesting that her husband may have run off because of gambling debts.

Igor tells no one about his vow, not even his father whom he loves and fears equally, but the enormity of what they have done weighs on him more each day. It’s made heavier as he begins to see Assita, now frantic and despairing, as something more than a faceless, expendable immigrant.  Before our eyes, we see this boy, on the knife edge between cynicism and grace, turn toward the light.

It’s this astonishing moment of hope, growing like a flower up through cement, that makes La Promesseso heartening – and so rare.  At first, with its hand-held immediacy and the realism of its streets and claustrophobic flats, it seems utterly naturalistic. It’s not, although Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who write and direct jointly, come to features after years as documentary filmmakers.

La Promesse has a furious vitality; the camera – and the editing – drives forward, darting, ranging, and propelling us into the action. It also contains one blood curdling moment that is the purest Greek tragedy: Assita, pursuing a chicken to slaughter it for a truth-telling ritual, grabs it – as it runs onto the very boards which cover her husband’s body.

The cast mixes non-actors with theatre professionals: Olivier Gourmet, the father (a memorable blend of fear and corruption), is from regional theatre; the extraordinary Renier as Igor, is virtually a beginner, Assita Ouedraogo is a schoolteacher from Burkina Faso.  Clearly, the Dardennes are masters at achieving honesty, not “performances.”

#   #

Check Criterion’s snippet from their long interview with father and son, Gourmet and Renier, and a tantalizing piece on Acting for the Dardennes here.  I cannot wait to see the DVD.