Sunday, March 9, 2014


This year’s Oscars seemed mostly successful to me in one respect at least – they rewarded an unusual number of winners associated throughout their careers with enterprising or at least “different” films, nicely expanding the quirk factor of the “Oscar club.” I’m thinking in particular of Steve McQueen, Spike Jonze, Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, The Great Beauty’s director Paolo Sorrentino, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and, indeed, Brad Pitt – it sounds as much like the career tribute list from a prestigious mountain resort festival as a traditional roll-call of industry royalty. Sorrentino and McQueen aside (perhaps), I doubt any of these won for their best work; many of them didn’t even win in the “ideal” category given how we usually think of them (Pitt won as a producer rather than an actor; McQueen and Jonze won as producer and writer rather than as directors) but such caveats have applied since the early days of the awards (Orson Welles, for instance, won only for writing Citizen Kane rather than for directing and acting in it). Along with the (based on recent years) novelty of giving the top award to a serious film rather than a piece of fluff, and avoiding the much-anticipated blunder of over-awarding Jennifer Lawrence so early in her career, I’d say it hit most of the marks that will matter in the long run (and it’s hard to say none of it does, if only because the first line of the obituary for all the people I mentioned will now be amended to include the term “Oscar-winning”).

Seeing Sting

One of the less impressive winners was Twenty Feet from Stardom in the documentary category – it’s a very smooth and pleasant piece of work, but in the great scheme of reality-based filmmaking, pretty fluffy. Still, ever since I saw the film, some reason keeps popping up to think back to it. The night before the Oscars, we went to the Paul Simon/Sting concert at the Air Canada Centre, and one of the documentary’s participants Jo Lawry was in his back-up band, often to very powerful effect. Later that week, we watched a PBS recording of a performance he did in New York last year of songs from his forthcoming musical The Last Ship, and she was in that too.

It must seem from this that I’m a big Sting fan, but that’s not really true – the main draw of the concert was Paul Simon (or at least the two-for-one aspect), and The Last Ship was just a coincidence. I mean, I own some Police albums, and one of his solo releases, but that’s not so much among the 38 days of music on the iPod. And I know what my friend Pete meant when, in response to a message I sent him after the concert, he said: “I may be a 46 year old office clerk but I’m still too punk for Sting.” I mean, he is. And it sort of makes me feel bad I’m not.

The Last Ship

Only sort of though, because I guess I’m less interested now in Sting’s deficiencies than in his longevity and the diversity of his biography. For one thing, he used to be, if not punk, then at least someone highly compatible with the cool end of the classroom, at least when I was there in the Regatta de Blanc days. It was widely known he’d been a teacher for a few years, so his image benefited from such close association with, and transcendence of, the mundanity we were living day to day; he was also prominently featured around that time in the movie of Quadrophenia, another iconic expression of rebellion, and in some other edgy cinema. I think the Police probably became less interesting as they became more famous though, and although his solo career has exhibited plenty of craft, he’s never had the intuitive grace of, well, Paul Simon. As he settled into the typical elder statesman groove of tours, reunions, benefits, cameos and so forth, he’s been like the well-preserved wallpaper in the part of the room no one ever visits.

The Last Ship is set in the declining days of the shipbuilding industry in the Newcastle area, and if not autobiographical in its narrative, draws heavily on his memories of growing up in that environment, with its surrounding culture and rituals and dialects. On the PBS broadcast he talks several times about how his main motivation when growing up was just to get out of that life, but since he achieved that about as fully as anyone’s ever achieved anything, it seems he can now afford to be magnanimous, even affectionate about it. Of the songs he performed, some are instantly forgettable, but a handful are potential crowd-pleasers, with the right defiant swagger. Whether they’ll be enough to sustain a whole Broadway show, who can tell.

Novak and Minnelli

In the Air Canada concert, he performed songs from the span of his career, and interacted beautifully with Paul Simon; it was the kind of show where everything feels impeccably worked out and well-rehearsed, yielding a very high quality of musicianship. As I already conceded, Simon has much the stronger catalogue, but that didn’t seem to matter so much on this particular night. A woman behind me, who seemed to be a fan of Simon more than of Sting, consistently and loudly identified songs like Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes within about two bars (not so tough actually), telling her companion (and everyone else in range) how much she loved the song, and then continuing either to talk about her love of it or else to ill-advisedly sing along for its entire duration. This seemed to me a prime example of the affliction that’s often identified now, the chronic inability to submit to experiencing the moment. This was prominent at the Oscars where, on the one hand, presenters gushed the usual waffle about the magic of cinema, its life changing quality and so on, and yet the main preoccupation of the ceremony seemed to be selfies and other disposable bits of celebrity interaction. I guess if Hollywood can’t live fully in its own prime moment, why should anyone else?

Another aspect of this was the mockery (on the show itself) of Liza Minnelli and (everywhere else it seemed) of Kim Novak, sad in several respects, not least for how you know for sure that most of those doing the mocking have little sense of what the two of them achieved; we may all be relative office clerks, but we’re too punk to dig up some basic empathy and interest. The life story ought to be worth infinitely more than the funny tweet, but I guess that takes too long, when you’re living twenty feet from absolute banality.

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