Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

I first saw Miyazaki's Spirited Away during my senior year of high school. It was a weekend night shortly before I graduated, and I was tired of chasing after my friends as they partied up and down the coast, so I cozied up at my dad's house, burned some Nag Champa, and popped Princess Mononoke into my PS2. I remember being amazed, but in a quiet way that I've since experienced with Miyazaki's other works as well. Mononoke energized the eighteen year-old me with its moments of raw emotion and beautifully-rendered violence, plus no teenage boy can resist badass lines like: "Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him."

However, beyond its adolescent-approved coolness, Princess Mononoke won me over with its strong mythic themes, universal characters, and emotional impact. It's a film filled with equal parts intensity and thoughtfulness, and these are the qualities that have caused me to have equally strong memories of my first viewings of Miyazaki's other films. Few other filmmakers produce work that leaves me both slightly sleepy and completely satisfied by the time I finish watching. And I definitely mean that in a good way.

I had avoided Kiki's Delivery Service for years because it seemed so childish, especially when compared to war epics like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. Much of this is no doubt due to Disney's horrid American marketing campaign, though, to be fair, the film is definitely friendlier than some of Miyazaki's others (no decapitations or bloodthirsty demons). My aversion of the film is unfortunate, as it shows the extent to which I have bought into that bad American prejudice that animated films must necessarily be children's fare unless they contain sex and violence.

Kiki is a thirteen year-old witch who leaves home in order to hone her magical skills in a new town. She settles in a sleepy port town that seems to mix facets of sparkling 1950's exuberance with quaint European charm, and from here she establishes a delivery business so that she can put her broomstick-flying skills to good use. The film maintains a domestic focus and revolves around preparing food, running errands, and going to parties. This is a world run by women, as the film features plenty full of strong female characters, while the only men all end up as lovable doofuses. The only prominent, multi-faceted male character is Kiki's cat, Jiji, who also happens to be the only character to possess any kind of sexual impulse. Even the pregnant Osono barely seems to acknowledge her husband/creepy male companion.

On the one hand, I think it's great that Miyazaki has crafted a world with such strong female characters. However, it's also a little disappointing that their lives seem to revolve entirely around cooking, cleaning, and throwing parties. Even though Kiki is an adventurous misfit, her rebellious desires center around finding a home, saving enough money to afford beautiful clothes, and performing household chores to gain the good graces of others. The film therefore exists at a curious crossroads as it simultaneously reinforces traditional female domesticity while empowering its women as active, hard-working agents of change.

Unlike many of Miyazaki's other films, Kiki's characters also primarily occupy themselves with the mundane problems of the real world. Kiki struggles to keep appointments, balance her work load, and overcome her own self-doubts. The film's climactic episode sees her working against an accident that has resulted from poor municipal planning. In a sense, Miyazaki might be too in love with the charming little world he has created, as he never creates any threats or challenges that might fundamentally upend the town's permanent order. This sets Kiki apart from other Miyazaki works, in which characters must regularly confront altogether calamitous situations. The result is that Kiki feels sleepier, cozier, and less philosophical than other films like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it would have been nice to see Kiki's characters confront problems with a bit more weight than figuring out how long to keep a pie in the oven.

Also, beware: the American DVD is set by default to play a Disney-recorded English language voice-over. Not only is this really annoying, but it will also cause you to miss the film's really amazing Japanese retro 50's pop opening song.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

And the Losers Are... (#2: Shorts, Documentaries, and Animations)

Curiously, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not choose to present any award for Best Feature Length Film. Or for Best-Live Action Film (i.e. non-animated). Or for Best Narrative Film Based Upon a Screenplay. Why? Because it's pretty much taken for granted that the film that wins Best Picture must necessarily be a feature length, live-action narrative fiction film. Any film that does not posses these characteristics is instead labeled as "special", which of course really means not special enough to be the best film of the year. Handing out awards in these special categories allows the Academy to pretend like it cares about film diversity, but the Hollywood elite who run the Oscars are actually more concerned with manipulating viewers into believing that the major studios' stale, overwrought dramas are categorically superior to films produced outside of the Hollywood power structure.

To date, there has never been a short, animated, or documentary film to win Best Picture. Short films are relegated to their own categories, with separate divisions existing for live-action, documentary, and animated shorts. This all contributes to one the Oscars' great unspoken messages: short films are not as good as their feature-length counterparts. There's no good reason to blindly assume that any film running under 60 minutes must necessarily be inferior quality to a film that is over an hour long. However, for Academy voters, this is a golden nugget of truth, and this bias speaks volumes about the Academy's business-based values. Feature-length films generate immense profits, whereas shorts are neglected by the major studios and tend to find find receptive audiences only at specialized film festivals. The profitability of longer films therefore confirms their "greatness", while short films are seen as junior projects made by silly people who foolishly care about things other than making millions of dollars. The Academy places these films to a separate category, claiming that doing so honors up and coming filmmakers. In reality, however, these categories exist for the Academy to belittle filmmakers who choose to work outside of the Hollywood business paradigm.

This relegation of short films ties into another unrelenting trend that has developed in Oscar voting: length bias. Most Best Picture nominees extend well beyond the 2 hour mark, which effectively broadcasts the message that "epic length" is the same as "epic quality". In fact, no Best Picture winner from the past two decades has dipped below 110 minutes, and films running over 150 minutes have made off with the top prize eight times during the same period. Ironically, this trend cuts against one of the greatest strengths of traditional Hollywood storytelling, as rewarding "epic" pictures often favors bloated, poorly edited films over those crafted with narrative conciseness.

The Academy likewise marginalizes animated films, labeling them as specialty kiddy projects that have little to do with serious cinema. Disney's Beauty and the Beast was lucky enough to secure a Best Picture nomination in 1991, but it remains the only animated film to make it this far. To add insult to injury, no animated film has ever received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, Best Editing, or any of the acting awards (for that matter, no voice-over artist has ever been thus honored). The Academy's 2001 introduction of an award for Best Animated Feature seems to have more firmly pushed this door closed, as the creation of a specialty category sends a strong message to voters that animated films should not be confused with Best Picture caliber films. After all, cartoons are for kids and therefore cannot be taken seriously. How else to explain the fact that no film rated higher than PG has ever won Best Animated Feature, while no film rated higher than PG-13 has ever even been nominated?

Even animated films which have received commercial and critical acclaim (two things the Academy loves), as well as artistic and academic praise (two things the Academy pretends to care about) seem to have zero chance of breaking into the Best Picture bracket. Such was the case of Spirited Away and The Incredibles, both of which claimed the Animated Feature prize but weren't allowed to compete against quickly forgotten Best Pictures like Chicago and Million Dollar Baby. It would appear that the bias against animated films has become so strong that even popular, prominent, and financially lucrative films remain segregated from the Academy's high profile awards.

And documentaries are just shit out of luck, relegated to the "otherness" of the Oscar's two doc categories. No documentary film has ever received a nomination for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, or Best Screenplay (and yes, many documentaries do have screenplays or their equivalents). In fact, no documentary film has ever been nominated in any non-documentary specific category, suggesting that somehow documentaries are less thoughtfully or painstakingly constructed than their fictive cousins.

This slap in the face is perhaps strongest felt by documentary editors, whose work remains perpetually under-appreciated by the Academy. Hollywood has long refused to view editing as a creative position on par with directing or writing, as top studio bosses seem to naively believe that editors simply glue all the necessary pieces of a film together in the right order. Nothing could be further from the truth, though this is especially true in the world of documentary filmmaking. Whereas editors working in narrative fiction have the benefit of working from a carefully planned screenplay, documentary editors typically find themselves without any such guides and must must wade through hundreds of hours of footage to construct their scenes. Doc editors nonetheless receive neither technical nor creative recognition for their work. To make matters worse, the films that snag the Best Editing Oscar each year are invariably big-budget, detail-oriented Hollywood productions in which the editor is handed such meticulously shot scenes that he or she can be asleep at the wheel and still produce an entirely watchable cut. It is in this way that the industry's hardest working editors lose out every year to those who have little need to imbue their work with innovation or creativity.

By relegating short, animated, and documentary films to separate categories and denying them access to the high profile awards, the Academy essentially declares that these films are necessarily inferior to feature-length, live-action, narrative fiction films. This is hardly surprising, seeing as the Academy is made up of powerful Hollywood insiders, most of whom have never worked outside the world of "major motion pictures", and who therefore have a vested interest in deifying over-produced big-budget epics while backhandedly tearing down any other film format that might threaten their control over the entertainment industry.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

And the Losers Are... (#1: Women)

Two weekends ago, I caught about a half hour of the Academy Awards telecast when I was eating dinner at my father's house. My stepmom, who is a big Oscar fan, was cooing over the show's every little flourish. My father was watching because he didn't really have anything else to do, and I was spending most of the time trying to keep myself from vomiting.

You see, I hate the Oscars. Back when I was a kid, I used to think that the Academy Awards show was one of the greatest things on television (and hence the world), but my fascination gradually transformed into boredom and then disgust with the bloated, self-congratulatory ceremony. At first, I mostly fumed at the show because crappy movies always seemed to beat less crappy ones. The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've come to realize that the show's awfulness involves much more than bad movies hauling home piles of gold statues. At its essence, the Academy Awards is a sham ceremony designed to validate the most conservative elements of Hollywood cinema by exaggerating the greatness of bland films and marginalizing, ignoring, or backhandedly attacking any threats to the establishment. The many sins of the Oscars could easily fill a book (and one day I might make that happen), but for now I plan on dedicating a few posts to some of the Academy Awards' most egregious problems. First up: rampant bias against women.

There is no award for Best Screenplay Written by a Woman, or for Best Score by a Female Composer, or for Best Director with Ovaries. However, oddly enough, the Academy still separates out male and female actors as if to suggest that there is something fundamentally different between the two. Male actors and female actors do the exact same job. Drama students aren't segregated by gender in order to teach the men "male-acting" and the women "lady-acting". Drama is drama, comedy is comedy, and masterful acting remains masterful regardless of the genitalia of the person delivering the performance.

Some people argue that it's appropriate to have separate award categories because different roles are written for men than for women. However, different roles are also written for blacks and whites, young and old, skinny and fat. Nonetheless, there is no Oscar presented for the Best Performance by a Mexican or for the Best Performance by a Tall Person in a Supporting Role. Furthermore, despite its ultra-liberal reputation, the Academy has yet to create separate categories for transgender or intersex actors.

In actuality, the segregated acting awards function as a smokescreen to keep people from noticing that women rarely win Oscars in categories that require them to compete with men. To date, no woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director (only three have even been nominated) or for Best Cinematography (none have ever been nominated). Only two women have won awards for Best Foreign Language Film, and only six female producers have taken home trophies for Best Picture, though all of these were shared with men. Even editing, one of the few high profile jobs that has historically been open to women, has only produced a scant ten female Oscar winners.

If the acting categories were to become gender-nonspecific, women would undoubtedly lose out there, too. Many female actors struggle to find good roles, as so few are written for them. Big studio scripts, which are predominately penned by men, tend to feature dynamic male characters full of complexity and nuance. However, these fascinating men stand side by side with cookie-cutter females who either fill stock roles or function primarily as eye candy. As some have pointed out, these two trends- the preponderance of sex kittens and the dearth of good female roles- are not unrelated: because Hollywood so strongly prefers its leading ladies to be sexy and young, American films feature few complicated, older female characters with rich and compelling life stories. The result is that Tinseltown's' most experienced female actors (those old crones who have made it past 30) have nearly zero chance of appearing in major productions.

To this end, the actress awards serve as a form of affirmative action guaranteeing that at least two women walk home with Oscars every year, but this is just a device designed to create the illusion that men and women exist on equal footing. The rest of the show, meanwhile, constantly reinforces the Academy's unspoken mantra that women who excel at filmmaking do so with much less consistency than their male counterparts.

It's not like women don't make movies, either. Women have made some of the most powerful contributions to the cinematic arts. However, they have often been excluded from the Hollywood power structure, which means that many of the best female filmmakers (e.g. Maya Deren, Sadie Benning, Su Friedrich, Peggy Ahwesh, et al.) have worked entirely outside the realm of mainstream Hollywood cinema. To Academy voters, the work these women produce is "too independent" to be recognized at the Oscars. However, female filmmakers seldom "choose" to make indy films instead of big budget Hollywood ones. In fact, they have no choice in the matter whatsoever, as their double X-chromosomes exclude them from the Hollywood boys' club. Or, to put it another way, women don't win Oscars because they're simply not allowed to make Oscar-winning films.