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When Will They Remember They’re Putting on a Show?

independent film, entertainment, film festival, film events, film reviews

By Ron Merk

It’s been quite a while since I published either a rant or a rave, but the recent orgy of award shows prompted me to get out my sharpest pen, and poke a few holes in The Film Independent Spirit Awards and that other holier-than-holy cow, the annual Academy Awards.

Let’s start with a few basic facts. They call it show business because it’s about the business of putting on a show, whether that be a feature film, TV program, stage presentation, circus or magic act.

The Spirit Awards just seem to be lacking in professional spirit to me, but I understand the need to be hip, cool, a band of outsiders who think that being indie is a badge of courage. I get the part of doing it in a tent on the beach at Santa Monica. It’s kind of a cool idea, in step with the whole independent filmmaker thing as being a shoestring operation. And it’s great that everyone shows up (hoping that an award here will somehow guarantee one of those shiny statuettes at the Oscars the next day?!). But independent or not, could they just act with a little more class? I am so tired of the “grunge aesthetic,” and that certainly is an oxymoron (look it up in Webster’s dictionary, if you have one, or online if you prefer.) Showing up in clothes that look like they were slept in, or not washing your hair, or just not using any sense of style, may seem cool to some, but to me it’s just sloppy.

Patton Oswalt as the host was not particularly funny. I’ve seen much of his work and have previously laughed at his jokes. But the material that he was handed (I’m assuming by the show’s “writers” – yes, notice the quotation marks) was lame at best. But the dumb-ass audience laughed, as if their chairs were rigged with little electric buzzers that goosed them each time Oswalt let loose with what was supposed to be funny. And he went on forever. Whatever happened to people having some sense of proportion, of knowing when to finish their schtick and get the hell off the stage before we’re sound asleep from boredom? Anything longer than three minutes just bores the hell out of me. Edit the script before it’s performed. Did these writers ever hear of the backspace key? Or maybe that ancient invention, erasers? Putting on a show is about choices, informed, educated and artistic.

Remember when songs were three minutes long, had melodies and good lyrics, and stayed with you as something you could hum? Now we have people singing the same 10 words, over and over, for five minutes or more, to no discernible melody… just scales in my mind… well, that’s what Oswalt’s set sounded like to me if we want to draw some parallels.

Then there is this whole “indie” grunge factor that not only is reflected in the wardrobe (okay, second hand store gems) but also in their speeches. Jared Leto was nearly incoherent in his acceptance speech, and it was a far cry from the eloquent verbiage he would deliver the next evening when he won the best supporting actor Oscar. Was it that he thought the audience at the Spirit Awards would “expect” that kind of speech? Or was he just incoherent from the apparently plentiful beverages that were being served to the guests? Maybe he was just saving up his beautiful words for the one billion people who viewed the Oscars, and the definitely more upscale and erudite (look it up) crowd at The Dolby Theater.

Then there was the over-reaction of the crowd to the presence of Indie-Icon John Waters, looking particularly happy at the reaction, and dressed in a studied off-center look, with his signature pencil-thin moustache, and taking it all in as if he deserved this kind of applomb (another one of those dictionary words). Now I’ve met John several times, and he’s a really terrific, talented person, but he’s certainly not a god, and if he is, I think the indies are certainly worshipping a lesser deity than the Academy members. I would love it of John would step down from his throne in the pantheon of indie gods and make some more movies that would make us laugh our butts off.

Okay, okay. We know everyone loves their mother, father, spouse, latest squeeze, agent and lawyer, but we don’t know any of them, and I frankly get sick and tired of hearing how these people “helped” the winner get the job done and win the prize because of their support. The fact is that anyone who wins an award is an “A” personality who works 20 hours a day, and has little time for anyone but themselves. So, I just see this as a reaction to the guilt they must feel for not spending much time with their “loved ones.” But mostly, it’s just a boring waste of time. I’d frankly prefer if they would cut the speech in half (leaving out all these references) and say something beautiful, profound or political. Am I asking too much to expect “indies” to be literate and well-spoken, or would that betray their streetwise coolness?

Now let’s talk about the show, because after all is said and done, TV audiences are expecting something that more or less entertains them, informs them, and is, in fact, a SHOW! With all due respect to everyone involved in putting on the Spirit Awards, all I can say is “hire some professionals next time.” The stage set wasn’t bad, with its multiple large video screens. But the director kept zooming into those screens when someone was being discussed. Didn’t the director see how the images just went to total garbage resolution when zoomed in by one of the cameras?! Oh, I guess you’d call that an “indie effect” – all grungy and cool. Sorry, but after watching so many wonderful faces “disintegrate” in the digital realm, I kept asking myself, “didn’t this poor bastard know it looked bad, and why didn’t he just go to the frame in the switcher frame-store instead of subjecting us to this piece of bad directorial “vision?”

This gets me to my point… they’re supposed to be putting on a show. They’ve got the barn (okay, tent), the lights and the costumes (even if they are second-hand), but they haven’t got Mickey and Judy. Yes, that’s a reference to those wonderful old MGM movies (you can look them up, too) in which the neighborhood kids, led by two very talented performers, put on a show that thrills us all, not just the people in the show. If you Spirit Awards people want to have a party and just celebrate, that’s fine, but next time just don’t invite the rest of us, unless there’s seating for us, good food and an open bar.

Now for the big enchilada, the Oscars. I could be really facetious and say, “ditto on all the above,” since many of the same issues apply. But I won’t. Clearly the Academy is extremely serious about the show, its reputation, and the integrity of the awards. But that wasn’t enough to save the recent awards show from being its usual dull three plus hours.

While it did have a few shining moments, most of them had to do with the past of the motion picture industry. Sad, but the segment about the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, with two songs by Pink (she was super!), was the standout set piece of the whole evening, but even this was marred by a director making with choices of camera shots when Judy Garland’s children were introduced. They were barely on screen for a second. It could have been a grand emotional moment, not only for them, but for all of us. Unfortunately, the director chose to switch to other shots. Speaking of annoying shot choices, why did a Warner Bros. executive get more screen time than anyone else in the theater audience? And big close-ups every time! Sure, he was an important person to many in the audience, but did he deserve more screen time than Judy Garland’s children?

Let’s talk now about Ellen Degeneres. She’s talented, intelligent and usually quite funny. Like poor Patton Oswalt, she was saddled with some of the most lame writing and “comic set ups” that the show’s writers have come up with in years. Her costumes all seemed ill-fitting, and made her look like she just grabbed them off the rack. The attempt at looking like Billie Burke in the only gown she wore in the whole show (and probably the whole year) looked so totally dumb on her, I was actually embarrassed for her. What the hell was Ellen doing out in the audience in an overlong segment serving pizza to some of the star-studded audience? Apparently the pizza company has experience gigantic sales since then. I wonder if the company is owned by that same Warner Bros. executive? Okay, maybe that’s a bit paranoid. Who’s dumb idea to serve pizza to a group of people dressed to the nines? And why didn’t Ellen object or suggest some other bit of nonsense as she wandered around in the audience? I felt sorry for her as she struggled to be funny, always straining against the stupid material she had to work with. At one point, I thought she just looked lost and wondering to herself “why did I accept this gig except for the one billion people in the TV audience seeing me?”

On the recent Grammy Awards show LL Cool J really had some great material to work with, and was fun to watch. His introductions and comments were intelligent, funny and cool. The Grammy broadcast also had more entertainment than awards, and that just made it a better show. The Oscar telecast by comparison had very little “entertainment” despite putting together a number of film clip montages on different subjects and genres. These segments would have been so much more interesting if they used the same format as they did with the Wizard of Oz tribute, with live entertainers on stage singing appropriate songs. And getting back to Garland’s children, why didn’t they have Liza Minnelli sing something?

The Tony Awards are another shining example of an awards show that’s entertaining and enjoyable. Of course, the folks on stage during the Tonys have the advantage of being good on stage, unlike many film stars and other nominees who just don’t seem very comfortable in front of a live audience.

One thing that always surprises me is that people think they have to lean down and talk into the microphone. Didn’t anyone on the production staff tell them that the mikes are sensitive enough to pick up their voices in an upright standing position?

Okay, my last comment on awardees: Either prepare something to say in advance, time it for the 45 seconds you’re allowed to speak, and if you can’t memorize it, just read it. If you’re too uncomfortable in front of a crowd to give a speech, just be gracious and say, “I want to thank the Academy and everyone who helped make this award possible for me,” and get the hell off the stage before you lull us to sleep.

Of all the acceptance speeches I’ve ever heard, the most dignified and clearly well-thought out, and of course, classy speech was given by Vivien Leigh when she accepted the best actress award for “Gone with the Wind.” You can find it online. This should be shown at the rehearsals for the Oscarcast so that everyone knows what classy looks like, and can prepare appropriately.

One last (MAJOR!) pet peeve. The red carpet shows which precede most awards shows are getting completely out of hand. There were three hours of this nonsense before the Oscars. And where do they find these “TV personalities” who host these exercises in excess and moronic comments about wardrobe? The recent sketch on Chelsea Handler’s show which did a send up of these red carpet shows was hysterical. Essentially, these shows are about NOTHING. Okay, it’s a big advertisement for the designers and jewelers who supply the female stars with glittering outfits and accessories. But why can’t the hosts ask “Whose design are you wearing?” instead of “Who are you wearing.” And the stars respond, “I’m wearing so and so.” I think Chelsea missed one funny opportunity in her sketch. Wouldn’t it have been hysterical if they had the stars naked, with the designer clinging to them to cover up their more private or intimate parts?

I know I have gone on and on with this rant, but I feel totally justified. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Academy Awards. I’ve watched them since I was a 9 year-old kid in Newark, NJ. But I miss Bob Hope and Billy Crystal, Jerry Lewis and Johnny Carson, and being actually excited about who wins. I know they can get that back. Hollywood is home to more talented people per square mile than any place in the world, and most of them would love to help make the Oscar show a great show. As for Santa Monica and the Spirit Awards, I think they should fold the tent, and do a major re-think about doing something that audiences can respect. Fun under the big top should be reserved to Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey. At least their clowns can make us laugh.