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The Envelope, Please . . .
by Lucius Shepard
January 31, 2004

I used to live close by the landward end of a short dock on a saltwater inlet in Florida and every once in a while my neighbor would catch something off the dock that he couldn't eat—a stingray or some piscine mutant with deformed scales and flesh permeated by mercury—and leave it lying there to rot in the sun. Each time the Oscar nominations are announced, I have a flashback to those whiffs of weird spoilage. This year—whoo-eee!—it's extra pungent. Not that there aren't a number of worthy nominations. To mention a few: Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro for 21 Grams; Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connolly for House of Sand and Fog; Peter Jackson for technical wizardry, if nothing else; and it's always good when Sean Penn, hands down the best actor of his generation, gets short-listed, even though on this occasion, it's for the wrong movie. But there are so many terrible nominations in 2004, if the list were actually a fish, it would weigh about a quarter-ton, have melted-looking skin (sort of like Charlize Theron in Monster), six or seven inflamed rectums, and a single horrid eye resembling a fried egg the size of a tractor tire.

The Best Picture category is especially putrid (though we should all cheer the omission from the list of Anthony Minghella's British All-Star, Southern-accent-impaired, romance-novel take on the Civil War, Cold Mountain). Leaving aside The Return of the King, which is less a movie than a three-hour tour of a Tolkien theme park, we have, to begin with, Lost in Translation, a not altogether incompetent existentialist parfait that effects a celebration of the soulfulness of two shallow and rather aimless people who are (1) isolated (more like imprisoned, we're supposed to believe) in a Tokyo luxury hotel; (2) suffocating in the grip of privilege; (3) too enervated to do other than indulge in self-pity; (4) terminally bored. The lead performances by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are fine, even admirable, but the script plays like a pastiche of John Updike having a really bad day and, although we are persuaded by director Sofia Coppola's manipulative narration to share the characters' ennui and to mist up when they part—because, golly, they're just like us, you know, only richer—once the credits roll, the entire experience dissipates like a perfumed fart in a hurricane.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is the best of the lot, a big ol' Boy Scout adventure that would have knocked my socks off when I was ten. Rousing PG-rated fun. Then there's Seabiscuit, a horse-racing biopic that has as much to do with the sport of kings as a can of Alpo has in common with Secretariat. It surely must have earned its nomination on the basis of the nostalgia factor, since it's almost indistinguishable from every other pile of heartwarming underdog slop we've had poured into our bowls since Rocky staggered up off the deck and clobbered Apollo Creed. It's comfort food of a particularly nutritionless variety. An inspirational sermonette expanded to two hours, brought to you courtesy of Cheez Whiz and the good folks over at the Republican National Committee. Featuring Toby McGuire as a very large jockey and Jeff Bridges reprising his Tucker role as the Eternal Optimistic Spirit of Good-For-You American Commerce. My recommendation? Save your empty popcorn bag and keep it handy for when the violin section starts to soar and Seabiscuit comes pounding down the home stretch toward glory hallelujah, with every fiber of his equine being devoted to making America smile again and forget all about that nasty Depression, and this encourages you to think, by God, if that little horsie can overcome the odds, am I gonna let global warming and the Seven Plagues of Osama hamstring my hopes and dreams? Hell, no! So you rush on home, read The Little Engine That Could to the kiddies, then sit out on the back porch with your arm around your sweetheart and watch the evening sun decline though clouds of poison gas, with part of you saying, Lord, that is such a beautiful sight!, and the other part going, Yeah, but suck up too much of that crap, it's bound to make you hurl.

Which is why you need to hang onto that popcorn bag.

Last and most assuredly least, we have the sluggishly flowing, cliché-polluted Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's vastly over-praised tale of murder and retribution among the blue-collar Irish criminal class in Boston. Tedious and tensionless, the film is an exemplar of uninspired storytelling, having none of the leanness and vigor of superior Eastwood pictures such as Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josie Wales. If it were to be discovered that Clint has developed something incurable, I suppose that might explain River's Best Director and Best Picture nominations. A little parting gift from the Academy. But how to explain its three acting nominations? Tim Robbins (Supporting Actor) once again exhibits the emotive range of a Lincoln penny, and Marsha Gay Harden (Supporting Actress) basically pops in for a cameo as Robbins' wife and does a fidgety-flighty thing that never alters its pitch. As for Best Actor nominee Sean Penn's eye-rolling, mane-tossing portrayal of a grieving father bent upon avenging his daughter's murder, it would have been more suited to the title role in the aforementioned Seabiscuit. In 21 Grams, collaborating with talented young director Alejandro Innaritu, Penn's gift is on full display, beautifully nuanced, but here, apparently under orders to go for the overacting record, it's like he's performing in a Mr. Olympia pose-down, flexing every freakish muscle.

River is, plain and simple, a bad movie, and while it utilizes superior source material (Dennis Culhane's novel) and is far more atmospheric than Eastwood's recent crime movies, Blood Work and True Crime, it's no more spirited or accomplished. Many of the main characters lack a consequential plot function. As cops, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne do interviews, crack wise, and look despondent. Marsha Gay Harden blithers on to no appreciable effect and, as Penn's wife, Laura Linney seems to have no purpose other than to wear dresses, until the final five minutes when, with nary a hint of foreshadowing, she morphs into Lady MacBeth. The screenplay, itself Oscar-nominated, doesn't telegraph the ending, it trumpets it, and there is ample reason why the film failed to be nominated for best cinematography: attempting to create a feeling of oppression and gloom through the incessant use of blue filters has all the evocative subtlety of a child crayoning a black cloud over Mommy's head to signify that she's sad.

My favorite stinker of a nomination, however, has nothing to do with Mystic River, but derives from a movie that will doubtless earn the golden prize for its star.

If a used car salesman tells you the Beamer you're looking at was never driven over seventy, you can bet your body parts that the only time it ever dropped below seventy was when it was pulling into a parking garage. By the same rule, when large numbers of critics fall all over themselves in telling you that Charlize Theron's turn as Aileen Wuornos, the bottom-feeding hooker who serially killed seven of her johns along the blue highways of central Florida, is oh-so-much-more than a mere impression assisted by thirty extra pounds of Charlize and a Halloween Hall of Fame make-up job complete with a full set of snaggly brown teeth, well . . . what you're getting here is the standard-issue wave-your-hands-in-the-air-and-proclaim-the-miracle PR that always attends a beautiful actress donning a fright wig and a prosthetic device or two and laying on the histrionics until everybody shouts, Oscar! Oscar!, because they don't want to listen to her whine if they don't. It's the same-old, same-old. It's Nicole Kidman and her award-winning fake nose. It's Halle Berry impersonating a minimum-wage waitress. It's Hillary Swank disguised as a boy. Theron plays Wournos as she was not long before her execution, an unsightly caricature of a human being given to outbursts of fury and staring at the world through wide, unseeing eyes. The difficulty one has with that portrait is that Monster purports to show Wuornos at earlier stages of her life and it's tough to swallow that she was as thoroughly whack during those stages as she was at the end, that her madness didn't evolve from some slightly less dysfunctional state. It's not that Theron is awful—she's about as good as Berry and Kidman and Swank.

Which is to say, she's okay.

But Monster Ball and Boys Don't Cry were decent movies that supported their lead, and though The Hours was spotty at best, Kidman had some heavy-hitters giving her a leg up. Monster, on the other hand, is a tepid exploitation rape-and-murder flick that the Lifetime Network would be proud to give its television premiere, maybe leading off their Dangerous Woman Weekend during the May sweeps, where it'll fit in nicely with a couple of dozen less-expensive movies whose heroines are also driven into a life of degradation, pushed to the moral brink, steeped in a soul agony, and finally lash out at the evil men who have debased them, flaunting themselves naked and blood-spattered before our eyes. Such, more-or-less, is the picture Aileen Wuornos painted of her life and, though she changed her story often and ultimately came to recant everything she had said, this is also how director/scripter Patty Jenkins has chosen to depict her. The movie is an appeal for us to understand Wuornos, to feel her pain and acknowledge that she was molded into a monster, as if this would be somehow exculpatory. I suppose the case can be made . . . and I suppose a similar case can be made for most serial killers. That's scarcely a news flash and does nothing to elevate Monster above the level dictated by the lame-ass women-as-victims agenda of its script. The irony of the exercise is that Theron, who served as a producer on the project, did all that dog work and went through the whole Oscar-bait makeover thing in order to validate her credentials as a serious actress, to overcome the oppressive Hollywood masters who forced her into debasing hot-babe roles, and once she's completed her ritual transition from teary-eyed catatonic to award-acceptance elation, the chances are good she'll go back to making romantic comedies and devil movies and caper flicks and maybe become the new Bond girl, sinking back into the pack as have Berry and Swank.

I watched the Golden Globes the other night when Ms. Theron rehearsed the spontaneous reaction she'll perform again on Oscar night, because I enjoy observing the emotional rush actors get on seeing a plucky young millionairess cast off the vile chains of stereotyping that always ensnare great beauty and put herself in the way of earning even higher paychecks. My goodness! Meryl Streep was close to tears of joy and pride, and several other ladies were grabbing for their hankies, overborne by thinking about how poor Charlize suffered for her art, the trials she must have undergone in order to reach this blissful moment when she could be jumped into their sorority. (All that ugly fat she had to gain and those horrible teeth they made her wear! Her plight should have been brought to the attention of Amnesty International!) Looking around that glowing room filled with the painted, the dyed, and the surgically enhanced, I asked myself how in the hell could we have become so enamored of these self-absorbed mental defectives, and then, after answering my own question (sinister marketing forces, the dumbing down of the populace as a result of an insidious class war, etc.), it struck me that we shouldn't be passing out golden statues to these Hollywooden stiffs, but rather to those who are making the movie of the world, who energize the forces that have perilously retarded our culture and reduced our common focus to the superficial, who have transformed news into entertainment and vice versa, whose post-modern sensibilities have erased the lines between the fictive and the real. We should officially anoint the Bush Administration to be a major studio and award them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Every Damn Thing for their thrilling blockbuster Operation Freedom (Best Score to CNN for their stirring theme), whereupon George W, our living national sequel, would rise thunderstruck and gaping from his seat, hands clasped to his head, unable to believe the generosity of the Academy, and then would rush onto the stage to accept the Oscar from Kevin Costner, who's had his forebrain removed so as to free up more hairy scalp to cover his bald spot. George would hold the statue down at his waist for a long moment, unable to tear his eyes away from it, like a boy staring at his first erection.

"My God!" he would say in an awestruck tone; then, with that familiar simian twinkle in his eye, he'd brandish the statue and add: "Talk about your weapon of mass destruction!"

This gets a nice laugh.

George shakes his head in wonderment. "There's so many people . . . I know I'm gonna forget 'em all. Dick Cheney. Dick, you're a mean ol' man! Yes, you are! You scared me sometimes. You really did . . . but I needed it. And John!" He points to John Ashcroft who's sitting down front, cradling the Best Supporting Actor Graven Image in his arms, trying to teach it the Ten Commandments. "You took so much pressure off with that loony-godboy act, John ol' buddy. Dressing up those statues out front of Justice was brilliant improv, man!" He puts a hand on his chest as if to calm his racing heart and blurts out the next few names. "Tom Selleck, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris . . . Arnold. You made me believe I could swim in this ocean. Weezy Wright, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz. When I talked about making a film in which we actually overthrew an evil empire and killed a buncha people, you didn't start throwing deficit figures at me; you said, W, follow your vision, we'll get you the money. I love you for that." He draws a deep breath, lets it out slow. "The boys over at the CIA. Sure, you took a big hit with Nine-Eleven, but you came back strong! And I'm proud of you. America's proud. And Colin Powell. Your testimony about Iraq's nucular capacity . . ." He grins broadly and winks. "Hey, you almost sold me!"

A big laugh erupts from the audience. George waits until it subsides. He's feeling it now, he's working the crowd. "Thanks to Sol, Rudy, and Sonya over at MCA. Ted Turner, Laura, Jesus, the Illuminati. Of course a huge thank-you has to go to the folks in black ops. I'd mention you boys by name, but that might get me suddenly un-elected, you know what I'm saying?"

A nervous titter ripples across the gathering and once it fades, George adopts a somber face and says, "The largest cast of extras in the history of motion pictures. You gave everything to your roles. Our victory here tonight is most of all your victory. We will never forget your sacrifice."

Cue standing ovation.

Cue Freedom Theme.

Standing in the front row, clapping his enormous hands in a ponderous mechanical rhythm redolent of a wind-up toy that has almost wound down, Governor Schwarzenegger beams. His perfect teeth resemble a row of tombstones in a mouse cemetery. Beside him, the once-beautiful Maria is openly weeping.

Where's that damn popcorn bag?

It's amazing what's happened to the real world, whatever the hell it used to be. Amazing that you can now give pretty much the same speech after winning an election as you do after being handed a small androgynous statue. Amazing that putting on and taking off weight has become a surefire track to the awards stand. Amazing that we can sit in our living rooms and be convinced that we're watching a war on the TV when all we see is an embedded reporter standing by a pile of dirt and telling us that nothing is happening. Amazing that the administration hired a marketing expert (the same who came up with the idea of embeds as a means of pretending to show us the war, as beautiful a sleight-of-hand as has ever been pulled on the American public) to handle their Pentagon briefings. Amazing that coherent story and well-defined character are no longer considered integral to the success of a motion picture . . .not if you've got enough cool CGI. Amazing that singers no longer need to sing well in order to gain fame and fortune; that novels are often written by the pre-literate; that Ben Affleck has a career other than in sales. Amazing that the truth can no longer set us free, because the truth doesn't grab good enough ratings. Amazing that Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, or Martha Stewart can lead the evening news. Amazing that yuppies are not an endangered species and that reality shows are not designed to cause their deaths. Amazing, the amount of crap we've been conditioned to swallow; amazing that we still say, "Yum." Amazing that . . .

 . . . Well, at the moment I'm sitting on my sofa, glass of vodka in hand, and I'm watching MSNBC. Onscreen, a beautifully tailored Miss America-level brunette in a red sweater that's just a wee bit tight is standing by a display board upon which has been painted the crude representation of a racecourse. Velcroed to the racecourse are five cartoonish figures—the Democratic presidential candidates. They're mounted on red-white-and-blue donkeys. Their photo-real heads are too large for their bodies. A sign affixed to the top of the board reads DEMO DERBY. In the right-hand corner of the screen, there's an inset enclosing a live shot of some doofus wearing black-rimmed glasses and a bad suit. Every so often his mouth moves and, each time that happens, the brunette adjusts the position of one of the candidates' figures, moving it slightly forward or back. This is what currently passes for political analysis. I am not particularly amazed. I find myself becoming interested in the Demo Derby. I am content to watch the brunette reach like a fate onto the board and nudge the candidates in turn. Perhaps, I think, she's the one who's truly in control. Perhaps a spell has been cast and the world has become a magical place in which actors are gods and anchorpersons are their instruments and presidents are showbiz humps and all our troubles can be cured by topical remedies such as Viagra, Propecia, Rogaine, and smart-bomb surgical strikes. Perhaps ignorance has at last been proven to be bliss. Perhaps nothing should be thought of as amazing now that everything has come to smell like Oscar.