It begins with the best of intentions and should be every Oscar telecast’s most sincere moment: the ‘In Memoriam’ segment, when poignant music plays over a stream of images of those luminaries that Hollywood lost in the year since last the Titans gathered to celebrate their own greatness. But inevitably and without fail, a montage candle goes unlit for some of those lost souls.
It happened in 2010 when Farrah Fawcett (1976′s Logan’s Run) was not included. It happened in 2011 when Betty Garrett (1949′s On the Town) was not included. It happened to Jeff Conaway (1978′s Grease) in 2012 and to Andy Griffith (1957′s A Face in the Crowd) in 2013. It happened to many others in those years and it happened many years before that; I offer only a sampling of past – as they are called – snubs. It happened at this year’s Oscars, too.
It happened to character actor Dennis Farina (1995′s Get Shorty) and to 2013 Oscar-nominated biopic topic Nelson Mandela and to the last of the female munchkins from 1939′s The Wizard of Oz, Ruth Robinson Duccini. (This last name carries with it a certain irony, given that the Oscar telecast actually paid tribute to The Wizard of Oz.) As I said, inevitably and without fail, a montage candle goes unlit for some of those lost souls.
And for that there is hell to pay.
The fire from the torches of an angry Twitter mob lit the night sky when this year’s ‘In Memoriam’ segment faded to black and went to commercial. People cried foul over the names I’ve mentioned and others, with sentiment ranging from disappointment to snark:
@RusselHFilm: I wish Alain Resnais could’ve been in the In Memoriam reel too, but they had to set up the Mani-Cam, so y’know, priorities. #Oscars
@ShiftingPersona: I’m sorry, but excluding Dennis Farina from the In Memoriam montage is not okay. One of the finest character actors we’ve ever had #Oscars
@phil_rosenthal: When many deserving foks are left out of the #Oscars In Memoriam segment for time, savor the memory of selfies and pizza
There are thousands more tweets like those. In my own tweet last night, I suggested the following:
@ScribeHard: They should drop IN MEMORIAM entirely. It’s SO thankless. Maintain it online (w/archive content) where people can visit. @TheAcademy #Oscars
I still think this is the way to go. I still think that as industry members pass, The Academy can pay homage to them online by offering their vast archives as something of a digital tribute. If someone is genuinely overlooked, a few keystrokes can solve the problem. Each memorial can stay up for one year, and the Oscars telecast can offer a quick shout-out to the link, or maybe even plug it throughout the evening. Either way, everyone is memorialized with more than a five-second snapshot, every fan is satisfied that the proper respects are paid, and telecast producers save a good five minutes of stage time they can use for something else.
(NOTE: The Academy has – albeit weak – an online presence with their In Memoriam Gallery, which includes one still picture for each of the 77 people in the gallery.)
And then I read a story in The Hollywood Reporter about this year’s snubs. The story delves into a little Academy inside baseball and includes this statement: “The names included in the segment are compiled by an ‘In Memoriam’ committee that puts together a list of 25 to 30 people who will be highlighted during the ceremony. They are asked to focus on people who have made significant contributions to the industry and people from a variety of different sectors of the industry.”
So it seems The Academy doesn’t forget people on each year’s telecast, it intentionally omits people from it. Why? If The Academy has no intent on the televised ‘In Memoriam’ list ever being all-inclusive, why bother having it? The short answer is that it helps them sleep at night because they give their fallen one last chance to shine. But that’s the wrong answer. Also wrong is to put 1/3 of the deceased on TV and relegate the rest to online head-shots. That move doesn’t honor the dead; it creates one last casting call, a call that family and friends and fans must wonder if their loved one will get.
Even in death, you must be “on the list.” Even in a pine box, you must cross a velvet rope. It’s time for The Academy to bury the televised ‘In Memoriam’ segment because it isn’t a really segment after all. It’s one more category where there are winners and losers.
Late in 2013 I became a member of Film Independent. One of the great privileges of that membership is the opportunity to vote in the Independent Spirit Awards. This is my chance to support and celebrate the industry I so enjoy, and to be an active participant in a way that writing reviews could never allow me to. I’ve opted to publish my votes (now that voting is closed) because I’m of the opinion that voting for this sort of thing should be transparent. Besides, I’m vocal with my opinions on social media, so why wouldn’t I be equally so here?
Below are the categories and nominees. My votes are as indicated, along with an image from the film. Certain selections are linked to my reviews.
12 Years A Slave
All Is Lost
Inside Llewyn Davis
My vote: ALL IS LOST
Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Jeff Nichols, Mud
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
My vote: J.C. Chandor, ALL IS LOST
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Gaby Hoffmann, Crystal Fairy
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
My vote: Cate Blanchett, BLUE JASMINE
BEST MALE LEAD
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All Is Lost
My vote: Robert Redford, ALL IS LOST
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now
John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave
My vote: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater, BEFORE MIDNIGHT
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Yolonda Ross, Go For Sisters
June Squibb, Nebraska
My vote: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 YEARS A SLAVE
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Will Forte, Nebraska
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Keith Stanfield, Short Term 12
My vote: Jared Leto, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Lake Bell, In A World
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Jill Soloway, Afternoon Delight
Mike Starrbury, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
My vote: Bob Nelson, NEBRASKA
Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years A Slave
Benoit Debie, Spring Breakers
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Frank G. Demarco, All Is Lost
Matthias Grunsky, Computer Chess
My vote: Benoit Debie, SPRING BREAKERS
Shane Carruth & David Lowery, Upstream Color
Jem Cohen & Marc Vives, Museum Hours
Frank G. Demarco, All Is Lost
Matthias Grunsky, Computer Chess
Nat Sanders, Short Term 12
My vote: Shane Carruth & David Lowery, UPSTREAM COLOR
20 Feet From Stardom, Director/Producer: Morgan Neville, Producers: Gil Friesen & Caitrin Rogers
After Tiller, Directors/Producers: Martha Shane & Lana Wilson
Gideon’s Army, Director/Producer: Dawn Porter, Producer: Julie Goldman
The Act of Killing, Director/Producer: Joshua Oppenheimer, Producers: Joram Ten Brink, Christine Cynn, Anne Köhncke, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Michael Uwemedimo
The Square, Director: Jehane Noujaim, Producer: Karim Amer
My vote: 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, Director/Producer: Morgan Neville, Producers: Gil Friesen & Caitrin Rogers
BEST INT’L FILM
A Touch of Sin (China)
Blue is the Warmest Color (France)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
My vote: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (France)
BEST FIRST FEATURE
Blue Caprice, Director/Producer: Alexandre Moors; Producers: Kim Jackson, Brian O’Carroll, Isen Robbins, Will Rowbotham, Ron Simons, Aimee Schoof, Stephen Tedeschi;
Concussion, Director: Stacie Passon, Producer: Rose Troche
Fruitvale Station, Director: Ryan Coogler; Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker
Una Noche, Director/Producer: Lucy Mulloy, Producers: Sandy Pérez Aguila, Maite Artieda, Daniel Mulloy, Yunior Santiago
Wadjda, Director: Haifaa Al Mansour, Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
My vote: WADJDA, Director: Haifaa Al Mansour, Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
I do not hail from a traditional “military family,” but my family has proudly served its country in the military. Across several generations, on both maternal and paternal sides, and by blood and marriage, I have relatives who served in all four branches of the United States Armed Forces during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and/or The Gulf War. I am so very fortunate that despite the action they may have seen – in some cases to the degree of being unable to discuss it after returning home – no one was killed or physically injured in battle. I mention all of this as my way of expressing that I understand what it means for loved ones to leave their families and these shores to face death in the name of liberty.
Lone Survivor is a based-on-true-events story of a team of US Navy SEALs whose orders are to drop into the rocky terrain of Afghanistan enemy territory and surveil a small village in hopes of finding Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a leader and high-value target in the Taliban. The mission is called “Operation Red Wings,” and the four-man SEAL team is led in the field by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and consists of Matt Axelson (Ben Murphy), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg). The men make light work of reaching the point where they will be able to recon the village, but a goat herder and his sons happen upon the SEALs, creating a dicey situation.
The options the military men are left with are: kill the herders so they don’t report back to the Taliban; tie the herders to the trees and leave them for dead so they don’t report back to the Taliban; or let the herders go, call the mission a bust, and radio to be extracted. They choose the third option, and no sooner are the herders released, they make a dash for the Taliban village where Shah is located. Unfortunately for our men, technical communications problems and a lack of immediate and sufficient air support keep them trapped on the jagged Afghani hills long enough for the Shah-led Taliban to mount an attack with countless others, leaving the four US military men to face unbelievable odds.
Writer/director Peter Berg makes an interesting choice in his open to Lone Survivor: he uses actual footage of real Navy SEALs-in-training surviving grueling physical and mental rigors to become members of this elite military unit. At first, it seemed to me that Berg’s intent was to illustrate that not only are the SEALs elite, but that they are real, too; that even though you know going into the film the events of the film are based on a true story, here are some faces of actual SEALs to remind you that the dramatization you are about to witness is deeply rooted in fact.
It’s a good thing Berg does this, because the film that follows doesn’t feel real at all. In fact, the film that follows is nothing more than a 21st century video game with a 1980s action/war movie mentality.
The men are written and portrayed in the flattest of terms: SEALs united in a common goal. This very much lends to the video game/’80s movie aspect of the film, where there are good guys and there are bad guys and the good guys need to beat the bad guys and that is all they or you need to know. And that would be okay in your run-of-the-mill, Rambo-esque actioner, but this film is promoted as being more than that. This film is promoted as being about real men, it opens with footage of real men. Yet for a film that is supposed to be a remembrance of four real, four brave men, Berg shares nothing about them that is at all memorable.
Once the obligation of character introduction is met, Berg moves forward to the action sequences, where his inability to direct action sequences becomes woefully evident. The entire second act is a hail of gunfire, again reminiscent of modern war-themed video games and ’80s Vietnam War revenge flicks. But it isn’t even the endlessness of it all that is the issue; it’s how sloppily it’s shot and how poorly it’s framed and how choppily it’s assembled. (Speaking of the ’80s, there is one dreadful shot in particular where the four men must leap off a rock to avoid an impending explosion, and the whole thing looks like A-Team b-roll.)
The entire second act is summed up as a bunch of guys shooting at another bunch of guys and then those guys shooting back, while squibs endlessly pop like money shots in a frenetic orgy of random violence. I don’t shy away from onscreen shoot-em-up/blow-em-ups; I never have. But here there no sense of flow to it at all, and it glaringly shows. Tack on some of the worst dialogue since Chuck Norris‘ dark days onscreen (including the eye-roll-inducing “You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine.”) and what you get is a shoddily-directed action flick swaddled in Old Glory.
All is not lost. Proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Berg manages to pull off a couple of excellent visuals, including two of the men taking painfully perilous tumbles down steep, rocky embankments, as well as the achingly gradual demise of one of the men, culminating with an enemy bullet to his head. The real treat of the film, though, is Tobias Schliessler‘s cinematography. For all of Berg’s flaws in the countless fast-and-tight shots, he has a great eye for sweeping, wide shots of the Afghanistan terrain and especially massive aircraft approaching vast swatches of land. It’s here he lets Schliessler really shine, and every shot is prettier than the next. I had the chance to see this film on a 60-foot GTX screen and at that size, some of the exteriors were simply breathtaking.
This is not an indictment of Lone Survivor‘s subjects or their actions. Opinions about the theater of battle are best left to cable news and kitchen tables. This is a criticism of art, of the theater of film. When the artist poorly represents the subject, it is critical that the subject be separated from the artist, lest the blurred lines of reality blend with the fog of war to make a mess of history.