On Having Seen All 53 Oscar Nominees

I did it on the plane yesterday on the way home from a business trip: I watched Brave, thereby completing my quest to see all 53 of this year’s Oscar-nominated films. From A (Adam and Dog) to Z (Zero Dark Thirty), from under 2 minutes (Fresh Guacamole) to 2 hours 49 minutes (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), from nine months ago (Marvel’s The Avengers) to yesterday; from movie theaters to Netflix to Amazon Instant Video to iTunes downloads to Youtube to… “other,” I did it. Foreign films, documentaries, documentary shorts, live-action shorts, animated films, animated shorts…

Of course, it doesn’t take any talent to do this. Watching movies is very passive. Even paying close attention to a movie is mostly passive. It requires no physical exertion, and it probably takes less energy than reading. Yes, a boring movie can be an endurance test, and sometimes you have to read subtitles, but mostly you just sit there and… watch.

I decided relatively late that I was going to try and do this. First it was just going to be all the Best Picture nominees. I thought I’d try some of the other major categories too. But then I saw that @mattiek (former old-school blogger Cows in the Barn) was working his way through all 53 nominees, and I realized it was something I could try to do as well. There were a few days where I watched three or even four feature-length films. I ventured out to some movie theaters I hadn’t been to in ages. But I managed to check everything off my list.

What’s next? I might start working my way through Sight & Sound Magazine’s 2012 critics’ poll of the top 250 films of all time. It’s supposed to be the most respected list of movie rankings, and it only comes out every ten years. Even among the top 10, I’ve only seen two.

At any rate, tonight for the first time I’ll get to watch the Oscars without asking, “What the hell is War Witch?” or “What is Kings Point?” or “That movie looks interesting.” Because I’ve already seen them all.

Oscar Mania

I’ve been having a bit of Oscar mania this year. Usually I don’t even get a chance to see all the Best Picture nominees, but for some reason I’ve taken on the goal of seeing as many 2012 Oscar-nominated films (and nominations) as I can. For the first time I can remember, I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees (and there are nine this year!).

Today I saw The Impossible and The Master, which brings my total to 93 of 122 nominations seen, and 30 of 53 films. And with these two films today, and The Sessions and Flight earlier this week, I’ve knocked off all the acting nominations and have completed 13 of 24 categories total.

I find myself wondering why I’m doing this. I guess at heart I’m doing it because it’s fun. I love going to the movies, and I love watching the Oscars.

I guess part of me also hopes it will make me better somehow. More knowledgable about movies, or smarter, or something. But the thing is — sitting in a theater passively watching a movie takes no talent. To read a tough book you have to be smart, but anyone can watch a movie. So what do I really hope to get out of this? Do I really feel like I’m a more knowledgeable moviegoer? Not really. I haven’t seen most of the films on the Sight & Sound poll of top 250 movies ever. But I want to.

Also, why the Oscar nominees? I’m wary of just checking things off a list so I can say “done.” And the Oscars are fallible. Not everything is great just because it was nominated for an Oscar.

Still, this project is exposing me to movies I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I don’t think I would have seen The Impossible if not for Naomi Watts’s Best Actress nomination. A movie about the death and destruction of the 2004 South Asian tsunami? Count me out. But it turned out to be more engrossing than I’d expected (partly because my family used to go on Asian Christmas vacations when we lived in Tokyo, so it evoked memories for me and made me wonder what would have happened if my family had been in a tsunami). It was a bit hokey toward the end — I found my eyes welling up even though I totally knew my emotions were being manipulated. And I felt guilty that the movie focused on rich Western tourists as opposed to the native Asians who were killed. But I’m still glad I saw it.

I can get something out of a movie even if it’s flawed. Matt often says he can find something worthwhile in even the worst piece of theater; perhaps the same is true for me of movies. Well, maybe not pulp movies like the kind Quentin Tarantino famously used to love seeing: pulp westerns, blaxploitation, kung-fu, horror — those aren’t my thing. Not really into the teenage summer blockbusters either. Actually, maybe it’s just the serious arty-type movies I’m into — movies with a vision.

I guess I’m thinking too much. (Guilty!) As my therapist has been telling me, stop worrying about the point of doing things that seem fun, and just do them.

OK then.

On Returning to The Clock by Christian Marclay

The Clock Chart

Last night I returned to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at MoMA. This was my third visit; I first saw it at the Lincoln Center Festival in July, from 3:15 p.m. to 6:33 p.m. Here’s what I wrote back then. It’s now at MoMA, and I had to go back because it’s so mesmerizing. Last Friday I saw it from 10:35 a.m. to 2:32 p.m., and last night I went yet again. On weekends it runs 24 hours, and I really wanted to see midnight, as well as 10:04 p.m., when lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future, which I’d read was included.

I got to the museum last night around 8:15. There was just a 10-minute wait to get into the theater; not bad at all. I entered at 8:33 p.m. I worried I’d have to go to the bathroom in the middle of it and thereby forfeit my seat and possibly miss midnight, but I wound up being OK.

Here’s some seating advice for The Clock. The viewing area consists of rows of low white couches. At MoMA, there are three couches per row, forming two interior aisles (in addition to aisles on the sides). I’ve found that the best place to sit is on an interior aisle, on one of the side couches. If you sit on the aisle you get an armrest, and if you sit on a side couch, your view doesn’t get blocked as much if a tall person sits in front of you as it does if you sit on the center couches. It’s something about the way the viewing angles line up.

Anyway, this was by far my favorite visit to The Clock. Every time of day has a different feel, and there’s something about The Clock at night that is just cooler than during the day. There were scenes of people at restaurants, at bars, seeing shows. People at parties. A few people lonely at home watching TV or movies, which was kind of meta. Many creepy nighttime mansions. And many, many bedside clocks: people getting into bed, then, later at night, people getting awoken by portentous phone calls.

As 10:00 p.m. approached, I knew the Back to the Future scene was coming up. At 10:04, lightning struck and Marty McFly traveled through time. The clip was about 20 seconds long, but among the vastness of The Clock it just came and went, and then we were onto the next movie. Kind of anticlimactic.

Then eventually it was 11:00. You could feel people begin to pay more attention as the witching hour grew closer and closer. At 11:30, the minute hand began its final upward sweep. Then it was 11:40, then 11:45, then 11:50, as the angle between the minute and hour hands began diminishing toward nothing. The tension and excitement in the room grew enormously.

11:59. “Get me the governor!” Then: the final seconds before midnight. Each. Punctuated. By. A throbbing. Beat.

And then midnight.

Big Ben exploded in a glorious flash. Clock after clock struck and chimed 12, one after the other, second by second. Orson Welles got stabbed on a clock tower. Mayhem on screen.

During the next few minutes, lots of people left, having gotten what they came for, and other people replaced them. I stayed a while longer. Just after 12:15 there was a long stretch of quiet scenes with no dialogue. A slow panning shot of people asleep on train station benches. A 1940s woman in a mansion welcoming her bleary-eyed husband through the front door. It began to feel late.

I simultaneously wanted to stay and leave. But at some point your brain starts to turn to mush and you just can’t take any more of it. It was time to go home and go to bed. So at 12:45, I left. And it was still full.

The weird thing about The Clock is that it’s playing when you arrive and it’s playing when you leave, and there are people already watching when you arrive and people watching when you leave. You always arrive after the beginning and leave before the end. There’s no other way.

So I have now seen noon and midnight. Noon was really cool, midnight was even better.

This morning I asked Matt if he could help me make a chart of my visits. He created the chart at the top of this page, with my input.

I’ve barely seen the morning hours. I hear the middle of the night has lots of dream sequences and creepy happenings. I’d love to see that, but I don’t see how I’d be able to stay up that late.

Marclay insists that The Clock be shown only in real time. I hope at some point he decides to livestream it online. I don’t know how it work for different time zones, but maybe he could figure that out.

At any rate, the film is at MoMA through January 21, including two more 24-hour weekends. I may have to go back and catch more of the morning hours. I love this film.

The Clock by Christian Marclay

This afternoon I spent 3 hours and 18 minutes watching The Clock, by Christian Marclay, at Lincoln Center. It was fascinating and profound.

It’s easy to describe The Clock, but it’s not easy to describe the experience of watching it.

The Clock is a 24-hour montage of movie clips that feature clocks or mentions of the current time, shown in real time. For example, if it’s 6:05 p.m. when you’re watching, it’s 6:05 p.m. on screen. Sometimes the clips are edited together to show similarities, other times to show odd juxtapositions. The sound from one clip sometimes bleeds into another. The clips come from all decades and genres and countries (though mostly American and British), in black and white and in color, in various moods. It’s like a Chuck Workman montage on steroids. The experience is addictive and hypnotic.

Lincoln Center is showing it through August 1. Admission is free, and you can stay as long as you like, but there can be a wait, because there are only about 100 seats. When I arrived this afternoon, I was told the wait was about 90 minutes, but I wasn’t doing anything else, so I decided to go for it.

Once I got in, I intended to stay for at least an hour, maybe two hours tops. But I wound up watching for more than three hours — from 3:14 pm to 6:32 pm.

The thing is, it’s easy to stay longer than you intend. You constantly know what time it is, and yet you also lose track of time. Even though the film is essentially a few thousand movie clips chopped up in a blender, a sort of narrative tension emerges. You keep wanting to wait and see what the next clip will bring… and the next… and the next…

There is also some built-in narrative structure. Starting at 15 minutes before the top of the hour, you see a lot more clips of people anticipating things that are about to happen. In movies, important things happen at the top of the hour: the bomb explodes, the train leaves, the store closes, the alarm goes off. As I neared the top of an hour, I had to wait and see what would happen. I watched what happened at 4:00 pm, then stuck around for 5:00 pm, and then before I knew it, it was nearly 6:00 pm, so I had to stay for that, too.

As the clock ticked down from 4:59 to 5:00 pm, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt sat in his office, staring at the clock on the wall, waiting for his last day of work to end and his retirement to begin.

Just after 6:00 pm, Mr. Banks of Mary Poppins walked through the door of his house singing “The Life I Lead”:

I run my home precisely on schedule
At 6:01, I march through my door
My slippers, sherry, and pipe are due at 6:02…

The Clocks also shows you how movies condense the passage of time. For example, at about 4:50 pm, there was a clip of Steve Martin in Planes, Trains & Automobiles impatiently waiting for a meeting to end so he could catch a 6:00 pm flight. (We see 6:00 on his plane ticket.) Over an hour later, we see another clip from the same movie as he rushes through the airport to catch his plane, only to find it’s been delayed.

Similarly, four or five clips from The Time Machine appeared over the course of an hour. (And I saw three clips from One Hour Photo; that was kind of odd.)

At one point, something freaky happened. I suddenly wondered if there would be a clip from Clue — and less than five minutes later, there was. It was uncanny. I don’t remember what time anything happens in Clue, but something about the time of day — early evening — must have made me think about it.

Because that’s another thing: you can feel the mood of different times of day while watching The Clock. The late afternoon feels like a long stretch of indefinable time: people have trysts, children stare at the clock waiting to get out of school. At 5:00, work ends. In the 5:00 hour there are a couple of clips of children eating dinner, then as it gets later, people start making dinner, and other people start looking forward to their evening plans.

Watching The Clock, you really come to feel like “The Movies” exists as a separate, palpable, ongoing world where every year, every event, every reality is happening simultaneously. The feeling is heightened by knowing that The Clock is still going on right now even though I’m not there. It’s like there’s this alternate universe where things are happening right now — an alternate universality.

It was such an amazing experience. I wish I could see the whole thing. And I regret that I won’t be watching at 10:04 pm, when lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future.

MOMA has apparently bought a copy of The Clock, so if you live in New York and won’t get a chance to see it this time around, you’ll get another opportunity.

It really should be available to stream online, so more people could see it.

Every Little Step

We saw an absolutely wonderful documentary yesterday: Every Little Step, about the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. If A Chorus Line is a musical about people auditioning for a musical, then Every Little Step is a documentary about people auditioning for a revival of a musical about people auditioning for a musical.

Yeah, pretty meta.

I saw the original production of A Chorus Line when I was a kid, and I don’t remember much about it. After watching this documentary, I could kick myself for not seeing the recent Broadway revival. I really, really wish I’d seen a production of the show when I was old enough to appreciate it.

A Chorus Line was a groundbreaking musical when it opened at the Public Theater in 1975 — it transferred to Broadway later that year — but by the time I was a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, it was an institution. It had always been around and always would be, ensconced forever at the top of the ABCs, the New York Times’s daily alphabetical listing of current Broadway shows.

My parents took me to see A Chorus Line on my 10th birthday, in December 1983. I’d started acting in school plays a couple of years earlier; they’d seen A Chorus Line back when it was new, and I guess they thought I, a budding performer, might like it. But they must have forgotten how much of an “adult” show it was. I can’t tell you how embarrassed I was as a 10-year-old boy to be sitting with my parents, listening to a woman sing about “tits and ass.” I was mortified.

That’s the only thing I remember about seeing the show.

I looked at my Chorus Line Playbill this morning — I have the Playbills for almost every Broadway show I’ve ever seen — and according to the cast list, when I was 10 years old I saw the original “Paul,” Sammy Williams. He was apparently still in the show in 1983, eight years into its run. I wonder if he left and came back or if he’d been in it the whole time? Anyway — his performance was wasted on me. I saw the original Paul and I don’t even remember!

Which brings me to one of the most amazing moments in the documentary, which is when Jason Tam, during his audition, performs Paul’s monologue. The performance is so moving that the panel is fighting back sobs. Once the audition is over and he leaves the room, Bob Avian — the original co-choreographer and the revival’s director — lets go and breaks down in tears. I was choking back tears myself, as were other people in the audience.

It wasn’t until watching the documentary yesterday that I really thought about A Chorus Line in the context of its time and place: New York City, 1975. Post-Watergate, pre-disco; post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS. (About halfway through that 12-year gay golden era, in fact.) A few years ago I wrote a piece for the New York Blade about my impressions of a documentary called Gay Sex in the 70s. I linked to it on my blog and wound up getting schooled for my naivete by a few people who had been around during that decade. I admit that I used to feel uncomfortable about gay life in the 1970s. The era just seemed so distant, so foreign, so weird — right down to the mustaches. (A few people made fun of me for remarking on the mustaches.) But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wished I could go back 35 years in a time machine and just walk around the Village and take everything in. I realize that may sound silly to someone who actually lived through the 70s. But I didn’t live through the 70s.

And I wish I could go back in time, turn invisible, and visit the Public Theater in the spring of 1975, where people were discovering A Chorus Line for the first time.

I can’t recommend Every Little Step highly enough. If it’s playing in your area and you love theater, go see it.

Sweeney is a Musical

Not to be a snob, but it’s funny to read anecdotes about people who went to see “Sweeney Todd” this weekend and walked out after figuring out that it was a musical.

…about 15 people walked out of the theater during the film. When it started one of the three *loud* women behind me said “Sh!t, this ain’t a Goddamned MUSICAL is it?” then they proceeded to giggle and moan for the next 20 minutes until they finally left. (Thank GOD!)


Sweeney: The Movie

The first show I ever did in college was Sweeney Todd. After perfoming in conventional musicals in high school — Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, and The Music Man, this was quite a shock. How am I supposed to sing this crap? I thought. Are all college musicals like this?

The show was put on by a group called First Year Players, which does shows in which the entire cast consists of first-year students. (UVa calls its students first-years through fourth-years.) I was in the chorus. At the first rehearsal, the director decreed that none of the males could cut their hair or shave for the duration of the show — two months. I refused, because I was feeling like enough of an outsider at UVa and I didn’t want to make it worse by appearing to be a crazy mountain man. Finally the director relented and let me be clean-shaven.

Our production was what the director called “Brechtian.” I didn’t know anything about Brecht at the time. All I knew was that we framed our production as a show within a show. We were all homeless people putting on a production of Sweeney Todd. Instead of one stage, we had three mini-stages placed among the audience. When the audience came into the theater,
we were already wandering around the stages and the audience members, pretending to be homeless people.

It was strange. And it was the most difficult theater music I ever had to learn. But it was lots of fun and it’s the most prominent memory of my first semester of college.

So I’ve always felt a special connection to Sweeney Todd.

Matt and I saw the movie today. I felt that I was well-versed beforehand in the idiom of Tim Burton’s production, having watched a couple of “making of” specials and seen several clips online. I already knew that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (particularly the latter) were doing very different interpretations of their roles, that all iterations of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” were cut.

So what did I think of the movie? Well, on the one hand, I’m just thrilled that they made a movie of Sweeney and that millions of people will be exposed to Sondheim’s wonderful score and lyrics. And the movie has great production values — it deserves Oscar nominations for art direction, cinematography, costumes, and maybe makeup and directing. And it was nice to see an actual kid playing Toby. And Alan Rickman was absolutely fantastic as Judge Turpin.

And the movie was so bloody it was wonderfully comical — it made me think of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Martin McDonagh’s blood-soaked Broadway play of last year.

And I enjoyed the cameo appearance by Anthony Stewart Head.

On the other hand, I thought Johnny Depp was rather one-dimensional as Sweeney. I actually liked Helena Bonham Carter’s nontraditional interpretation of Mrs. Lovett more than I liked Depp’s Sweeney. I didn’t hate Depp in the part — I actually liked him quite a bit, and it’s hard for me to hate him in anything — but I would have preferred someone more dynamic in the role.

I missed the choruses of “more hot pies” and “god that’s good” in the song “God That’s Good.” I know Burton cut all the chorus parts for timing reasons, but the movie included all the orchestrations for that song, with nothing sung over it, so given that no time was saved there, he might as well have included the chorus for at least that one song.

And the movie ended way too abruptly. No patty-cake, no policemen, no nothing.

Still, despite the flaws, it’s a top-notch movie, and probably the best film interpretation one could expect. And it will introduce millions of people to the show — for that, I’m thankful.

P.S. My favorite line from a “Sweeney” movie review so far: “Depp’s Sweeney comes across as one more mournful Burton wacko… and his ivory-pale face is crowned by a stiff black mane with a white blaze in it. If you had sat Susan Sontag down and broken the news that not everyone in New York reads Hegel, you would have got the same effect.”

depp sweeneysontag


Last night Matt and I saw The Farnsworth Invention, the new Aaron Sorkin play about the invention of television. It got me thinking about the history of broadcasting, which then got me thinking about the opening scene of the movie Contact, which is one of the coolest movie openings ever — as we pull away from Earth, we come into contact with older and older radio waves, umtil we reach the silent infinite void that existed before anything was ever broadcast.

I looked for it on YouTube, and of course it’s there.