Monday, February 27, 2012

Nostalgia, The Oscars and "The Artist"

LAST night's Academy Awards confirmed expectations that movies pining for the art of the past (the French past, in some cases) would walk away with the most trophies. The big winner, of course, was The Artist, which snagged best actor for Jean Dujardin, best director for Michel Hazanavicius and best picture.

Scorsese's Hugo, set in a Paris train station in the '30s and with a backstory involving early, experimental French cinema, picked up five technical awards, and Woody Allen's deeply nostalgic Midnight in Paris won best original screenplay.

Douglas Fairbanks, a model for Jean Dujardin's Artist 
At about the same tine, a recent LA Times story looking at the demographics of Academy voters -- as heavily weighted toward older white men as the Iowa caucases that often help determine the presidential races -- shows that some voters have quite a direct connection to the art of the past.

On Friday I was part of a good group -- including the Times' John Horn -- on Warren Olney's To The Point -- discussing nostalgia and the Oscars. Here is a link to that show.

We only scratched the surface, especially since I took the conversation a bit off track, into music and politics -- but I think it was lively. I should point out that I think The Artist and Hugo are very fine movies and do not need nostalgia to make them appealing.

(When I met with Michel Hazanavicius, the writer/director of The Artist, for a feature on the film, he talked about his love of Murnau, Fritz Lang and other silent filmmakers. But he didn't see the movie as being entirely about the silent era, but rather about a character caught in a universal struggle. "I think he's afraid of changing. One of the themes of the movie is a man in a transition -- something we all go through. It's something that happens to everyone at least once in their lives." And Hugo was, its setting aside, more deeply about a search for the father and the origins he represented.)

But with Academy voters, pining for the good old days didn't hurt, especially these anxious times.

The issue helps explain why otherwise strong films -- Bridesmaids, Melancholia -- were virtually shut out this year.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Roots of a Jazz Drummer

IT seems like everyone who saw Justin Faulkner's performance with Branford Marsalis out here has told me personally that we have to look out for this kid. Faulkner started that association on his 18th birthday, while still a high school senior.

This week, as a ripe old man of 20, Faulkner spoke to me about his development as a jazz listener and drummer after cutting his teeth on R&B and gospel. Billy Higgins shows up on his list of influences -- which I kind of expected -- as did Shostakovich, which I didn't.

My Influences column on Faulkner, who plays this Saturday at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood as part of the Kurt Ronsenwinkel trio, is here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dustin Hoffman Falls Into "Luck"

What's this celebrated screen actor doing on television? Dustin Hoffman isn't quite sure either. But he sat down to speak with me recently about what brought him to the David Milch/Michael Mann show Luck, and talked about his career and television in general. HERE is my story.

I was struck by how humble and openly neurotic Hoffman was; he spoke about his big break with The Graduate coming after what seemed like endless years of limbo. My favorite quote was about his difficulty in choosing suitable roles. Anyway, real soulful guy.

I'm curious to hear what my readers make of HBO's horse-track drama, by the way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The 2012 Oscars and Actors of a Certain Age

THIS week I have a brief piece on SecondAct, the site devoted to people 40 and over. (A demographic I joined four years ago today, and am happy to belong to if it includes Brad Pitt.) I look at some of the actors nominated for this year's Academy Awards -- George Clooney (The Descendants), Meryl Streep (Iron Lady), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and five others.

Not sure there's an unalloyed masterpiece this year. But seems to me this year's Oscars includes some really smart movies and a wealth of great performances.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Journey of a Soprano

THIS week my Influences column looks at opera soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who started out as a West Side Story loving kid in Puerto Rico and became a star who sings all over the world. (She's also won a Latin Grammy and been dubbed "the most beautiful voice in Latin America."

HERE is my conversation with Martinez, who had a fortuitous early meeting with Placido Domingo, who would go on to become a mentor of sorts.

She sings the female lead in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which goes up at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Producer Behind "The Artist"

CRAZY ideas come and go; most don't see the light of day. When millions of dollars are required, it's even harder for unorthodox notions to go anywhere.

So when Michel Hazanavicius decided he wanted to make a black-and-white silent film, he needed a lunatic to finance the project. He found one. HERE is my Q&A with Thomas Langmann, the producer who made The Artist -- nominated for 10 Academy Awards -- happen.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Architecture and the Creative Class

THINGS seemed to be going so well: The architect was a figure tailor-made for the heyday of bourgeois bohemia, and Frank Gehry was palling around with Brad Pitt.

But things changed, badly, and it's not clear now when, or how, they'll change back. Corporate firms are in some cases doing fine, and architects who design for the 1% are doing better than those who depend on civic projects, but many others are hurting.

The latest of my stories about the creative class in the 21st century -- part of Salon's Art in Crisis series -- just went up HERE. I spoke to a number of architects and observers to get a sense of this important but imperiled field.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nerds, Autism and So On

THE writer Ben Nugent just had a funny and serious op-ed on the New York Times about being falsely diagnosed, as a kid, with the form of autism often associated with musical and mathematical genius. ("FOR a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late ’90s," the piece begins, "I had Asperger syndrome.") Turns out he was just an awkward, artsy teenager who had not found his tribe. It's really worth reading, whether you know anything about the condition or not. 

A few years back I spoke to Nugent, who I knew from his Elliott Smith bio and a story I'd written on songcraft, about his book American Nerd: The Story of My People. The book is a serious look at a despised and misunderstood figure -- one Nugent has long identified with. Here is my conversation with him.