Oscars

Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscarmania, Oregon Book Awards, strange tales and a stranger firing, opera's triumph, carving stories, photo stories

ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.



WRITE A BOOK. MAKE IT GOOD. SEND IT INTO THE WORLD.



Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”
 

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)

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Derek Chauvin, George Floyd & the art of crisis

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Portland Oscar nod; Dawson Carr's big day; diving into dance; conversation with a laureate; musical BRAVO; fish tales

ON TUESDAY, THE BIGGEST CULTURAL NEWS OF THE WEEK – maybe the biggest since the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital – came down. Derek Chauvin, who almost a year ago, as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed the life out of George Floyd with his knee, was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It was a rare case of a police officer being held accountable in the killing of a citizen – even, as with Floyd, of an unarmed citizen – and it seems, at least for now, to have topped off a year and more of intense cultural division. Any other decision by the jury most likely would have set off a firestorm across the nation.

The political and cultural fissures of the past year have pulled the arts & cultural world into the fray, perhaps inevitably: If art reflects its culture, how can it possibly stay uninvolved? In Portland, public statues have come tumbling down and institutions have been under attack: Two men were arrested and charged with smashing another $10,000 or more worth of windows at the frequently targeted Oregon Historical Society during rioting last Friday. The window-smashing and other acts of destruction came during protests against recent national killings of Black citizens by police, and a police killing in Portland’s Lents Park of a man with a history of mental illness.

George Floyd was the focus of a Black Lives Matter mural painted by Emma Berger and others last year at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

In the past year a rapid growth of public protest art has transformed the sides of many buildings in the city and the plywood covering boarded-up storefronts. Across the nation, in arts and cultural organizations large and small, racial equity has become the issue of the day, an overdue conversation in search of action, and an issue that is unlikely to be resolved by a single decision in a single courtroom on a single day.

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Portland director’s ‘Hunger Ward’ earns Oscar cred; films in theaters?

Streamers: Skye Fitzgerald’s documentary short about the devastating war in Yemen chronicles two women's struggle to aid children caught in a war-caused famine

Better late than never (although some may differ), the Oscars are upon us. Expectations are that this year’s viewership on Sunday will continue its years-long cratering process, especially considering the lack of big-screen spectacles up for consideration. But for those who see award ceremonies as an opportunity for quality films without eight-figure promotion budgets to get a boost in visibility, this year’s Oscars are a boon. In a non-COVID year, a film like Munari or a performance like Riz Ahmed’s in Sound of Metal may have been overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Tom Hanks’ in Bios. So instead of bemoaning the lack of any Avengers, Transformers, or Jedis in the Best Visual Effects category, let’s appreciate the presence of Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan. (Okay, maybe not the best example.)

One category that regularly raises awareness of otherwise under-the-radar efforts is Best Documentary Short. Of all the films nominated each year, these five have the lowest box office prospects, and they’re not generally seen as auditions or springboards to more lucrative Hollywood work. No, these are almost always labors of love and, even more, of a burning need to capture and tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Among this year’s nominees, all of which meet that criteria, one stands out: Portland-based filmmaker and activist Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward.

Hunger Ward

“I don’t think of myself as an activist in the traditional sense,” Fitzgerald said when I spoke with him last week. And yet, he adds, “Cinema is uniquely positioned to move people, to bring a virtually unseen story to a much broader audience so they will care, so they will marshal resources to engage the problem.”

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The race is on. Ready for live events?

ArtsWatch Weekly: Ready or not, things are opening. Plus Lillian Pitt & Friends, opera breaks the mold, movie time, poetry all over

THE RACE IS ON, as George Jones famously crooned, and if it’s not pride up the backstretch and heartaches goin’ to the inside, as the song’s lyrics breathlessly declare, the stakes may be higher: Can we get the nation and world successfully vaccinated before relaxed safety standards and unchecked viral variants send us back to the starting gate? As warmer months approach, and vaccination rates improve, and people become more restless after more than a year in shutdown, the urge to get out and do things grows stronger – but is it jumping the gun? This week the state reclassified Multnomah and Clackamas counties, with a combined population of more than 1.2 million, from “moderate” to “high risk” for coronavirus. (Washington County, with a population of almost 600,000, maintained its “moderate” status.) The question is vital and controversial, and it goes beyond schools and workplaces and houses of worship and even a weekend at the coast. It has a deep and direct impact on cultural life, too.

Young blues phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, had the crowd roaring at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival. The festival, a Portland July 4 Weekend tradition, was canceled in 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions but will return in July 2021 at the new Lot at Zidell Yards, south of its usual sprawling location on the downtown waterfront. This year’s acts have not yet been announced, and crowd size will be controlled. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Things are stirring. Restaurants have opened for indoor dining. Even theater, beyond the Covid-special videotaped virtual version, is taking tentative steps. Portland’s Triangle Productions has just gone into rehearsal for Joe DiPietro’s four-performer throwback comedy Clever Little Lies, with plans to open to a live audience on May 6, and it could be just the sort of nostalgic escapism that cooped-up audiences will be craving. Movie theaters are reopening (see Marc Mohan’s “Streamers” column, linked below). A consortium of Oregon large-event venues, meanwhile, has written Gov. Kate Brown pushing for guidelines and permission to reopen, arguing that they know how to control crowds and should be part of the decision-making process. The letter includes about fifty signees, ranging from the Pendleton Round-Up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Sisters Folk Festival, and the Portland and Eugene symphonic orchestras.

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Streamers: Portland theaters’ reopening plans, Oscar-nominated shorts, French ski drama

Ready or not, movie theaters are starting to open again in time for the Oscars and summer blockbuster season. Plenty is still streaming, too.

As vaccines continue to make their way into the arms of more and more Oregonians, and the state in general dares to look forward to the resumption of some version of normality, it’s a good time to check in on Portland movie theaters and their plans. It should go without saying that these plans are extremely subject to change: Both Clackamas and Multnomah Counties are moving from Moderate Risk back to a High Risk status on Friday, April 9, which means that maximum allowance at theaters will move from 50% of capacity back to 25%, while Washington County will remain in the Moderate Risk category for the time being. That said, here’s a rundown of announced reopening plans.

Several independent Portland-area theaters have already reopened, including the six-screen Living Room Theaters, Cinemagic, the Moreland, Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre, and the Liberty Theatre in Camas. Among the titles showing on their big screens are Oscar nominees Nomadland and Minari, as well as more mainstream fare such as the Bob Odenkirk action flick Nobody and the monster mash Godzilla vs. Kong. The venerable Clinton Street Theater is resuming its traditional Saturday night Rocky Horror Picture Show events, although at 9 p.m. instead of midnight due to county restrictions.

One mainstay of Portland’s movie scene, Cinema 21, recently announced plans to open to the public for the first time in over a year on April 23 with a pair of documentaries: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street and The Truffle Hunters. Another, the Hollywood Theatre, has yet to indicate a timeline, although it continues to offer remote programming, including an upcoming remote master class on the films of director Richard Linklater. The Northwest Film Center at the Portland Art Museum remains closed to the public as well, although it is opening experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s poetic debut feature Małni—Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore virtually on Friday, April 9.

Two chains operate theaters in Portland. Century Cinemas have opened their multiplexes at Eastport Plaza and Cedar Hills Crossing, while the screens at Clackamas Town Center remain dark for the time being. Regal Cinemas is planning a phased reopening. Bridgeport Village will begin on April 23, with the bulk of its Portland screens to follow on May 14. (The Pioneer Place theaters will wait until the following week, May 21.) Obviously, the summer movie season beckons, and these places are understandably eager to welcome paying customers once again. Personally, I don’t plan on setting foot in an indoor theater until, at the very earliest, I’m fully vaccinated, but once it seems safe to do so, I plan on making up for lost time with a vengeance.

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A scene from the Oscar-nominated “Do Not Split”

IN THE MEANTIME, many Portland-area theaters continue to offer expansive selections in their virtual cinemas, and will presumably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. They provide a great way not only to help support exhibitors during this disastrous time, but also to keep abreast of exciting cinema that doesn’t necessarily get showcased on Netflix or Disney+.

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ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.

 


 

The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

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The Oscars are dying: So what?

To remain relevant, the Academy Awards need to re-examine what it is they're celebrating

The Oscars are dying. So what?On March 4, the Motion Picture Association of America held the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. You may not have heard about it, since reportedly nobody really cares about the Oscars anymore. As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20% from last year’s already dismal numbers. Since the Nielsen people began tracking viewership in 1974, this was the first time that fewer than 30 million people tuned in. That’s right, more people saw a naked man streak past host David Niven (and, in an even worse crime, “The Sting” top “The Exorcist” for Best Picture) than saw Frances McDormand’s stirring call for gender equity in Hollywood or Helen Mirren ride a Jet-Ski.

The proffered explanations for this phenomenon are legion. Televised events, from the Super Bowl to the Grammys, don’t capture eyeballs the way they used to. (This may be partially because of the difficulty cord-cutters have in actually watching plain old over-the-air television broadcasts.) The nominated movies these days don’t have the box office appeal of stuff like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” or “Titanic” (which was the winner at the most-watched Oscar broadcast). Regular folks are turned off by liberal, America-bashing, rape-culture-critiquing, non-cis-white-male movie stars, according to some.

While the executives at ABC and the various movie studios fret about the increasing irrelevance of this once-iconic pop-culture ritual, the proper response from anyone who cares about film as art should be a hearty, “Who cares?” It’s not so much that I wouldn’t care if the Oscar completely vanished from the face of the Earth—that would be a genuine loss. But if “The Oscars,” as in the globally notorious spectacle, as long and glitzy as a limo with a hot tub, were to shrink back down to a life-size event, that would be a good thing, even if it ended up being shown on some third-tier streaming service instead of a broadcast network owned by the world’s most powerful media conglomerate.

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