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David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: Choking On The Tea Leaves


I hate the annual dredging out of “this year is the dirtiest year ever!” meme. It usually happens around the same time everyone runs out of real things to write about. This year, with extra weeks in the Phase Two schedule, expect to read a lot of it from the many Oscar writers who have no interest in the Olympics at all.


In the last week, there have been a series of attacks on the box office potential of 12 Years A Slave, which is “dirty tricks”-speak for “there is something less than great about this movie about the black people you have no responsibility for to which They are trying to force you to give a Best Picture Oscar.” These two stories ran, by the way, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, the day before the film’s first expansion to 123 screens, and then in the New York Times, two days after the film’s first expansion. The New York Times story was not on the front page, but that paper’s spin was almost nastier, claiming that 12 Years was some kind of test case for the worldwide box office potential of movies about the Black experience in America… a movie, again, on just 123 screens in the United States.

Both, of course, claim that the stories were aboveboard and that this film somehow called for a harsh under-the-hood examination of potential box office. Maybe that was because just comparing the film over and over to Precious made it seemed as though they were racist… but they couldn’t really see it comparing to any other film. That would be the nice version of the story. The alternative is that any one of a half-dozen Oscar Whisperers got into the ear of Mr. Horn and/or Mr. Cieply and planted this bug… not unlike the bug that crawled into Chekov’s ear in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (the Ceti eel, for those who are curious).

Don’t even get me started on the still-coming slams on Blue Is The Warmest Color, which remains the biggest buzz hit of the indie season, but without the box office or U.S. familiarity to have any chance to make a serious run for Best Picture gold or even Best Actress nods. But still, journalists must beat it to death, just in case it has any vampire in it, threatening to rise from the awards dead.

A month ago, “news” broke that the crew of the real Captain Phillips’ ship were unhappy with the heroic representation of him in the film. That one probably is as legit as “dirty tricks” can be, as there is ongoing litigation over that hijacking and the problem with the crew should have been seen coming by the producers of Captain Phillips. Still, no doubt, someone out there is surely complaining that those stories were placed in better public view by the competition after the film was well received by critics and at the box office.

August: Osage County became the center of speculation on post-TIFF recutting to find a tone that might make critics happier, even though they seem to have a pretty effective audience film.

Then there was the “will he or won’t he?” of Martin Scorsese cutting The Wolf of Wall Street to a length that Paramount felt better about. You have probably noticed all the long-lead puff pieces turning up in magazines and newspapers in the last 10 days, all of which had been timed to the original November release. Again… the “dirty tricks” subtext is that there is something wrong with the film. This replaced the original subtext from opposing publicists, which was that the film was too much a comedy to be in the Oscar race.

This week, the rumors are that American Hustle is “a mess.” What is this based on? Someone telling people that American Hustle is a mess. Don’t believe any of it until you see the image on the screen.

Earlier this week, The Weinstein Company cancelled a number of screenings of Mandela. Why?

Fox’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Warner Bros’ Her have also gone back into hiding after festival debuts.

Disney allowed Saving Mr. Banks to close the London Film Festival to a lukewarm embrace. The U.S. premiere has been emasculated and the question of whether the film can regain a foothold is a real one. (That qualified as a “dirty trick” done to oneself.)

Universal is trying to get momentum for Lone Survivor without allowing real criticism, but printing pseudo-critics’ raves in their snazzy handout. (Disney’s already enlisted a couple of the same pseudo-critics to punch up the quotes for Banks, even after getting some real critics from Europe weighing in on the film.)

And, of course, there is the endless effort to frame Gravity as “a ride” and not a “great movie.”

After all that, you would think that no one could ever win an award this year.

But in the end, awards buzz (sometimes aka “dirty tricks”) can’t kill a movie that has its place.

If those LA Times and NY Times articles were not pitched by representatives of competing distributors, they were remarkably on the nose, speaking specifically to the audience that will soon be asked to vote for 12 Years A Slave… older, monied white people in New York and Los Angeles who are openly squeamish about on-screen violence and less openly squeamish about watching movies about black people. When I see two bullets aimed right at what someone hopes is the center of the head, right into the brain, I am not one to think, “Gee, what a coincidence, since neither bullet was aimed at the person at all… we were just skeet shooting.”

But there is little doubt that 12 Years A Slave will be a major focus of the December awards and pre-Oscar nomination season. And the film will have to keep fighting for its place for the next 4 months. That is why I sounded alarms (on Twitter) during Toronto and soon after. It is really hard to be the perceived frontrunner for 6 months. The only thing that has kept 12 Years from taking more of a beating is that Gravity came along and took a lot of the heat. Of course, Gravity doesn’t deserve to be undermined either.

There are a lot of really good films in this year’s award season, if not a lot of GREAT films. There are also terrific foreign films and docs that get more sunlight at this time of year. All of this is wonderful. We should all see every Coens Bros film or Alexander PAyne film or Jason Reitman film or foreign language film or doc or Scorsese film with clear, hopeful, movie-loving eyes. They deserve it and more importantly, we all deserve it. If you are reading this, you care about movies. (Not saying you have good taste in columnists… but you have a real interest in the conversation.) We are into the 2 months of Movie Christmas.

But if you’re working the Christmas party, it all looks a little different.

The thing that really gets me about all of this is that publicists are publicists. There are some I love, some I really dislike, and a lot in between. But when it comes to this stuff, it is a part of their job. And some do it with gusto and some are really embarrassed and most of them can tell you, at some later date, that business is business and let’s go on with the show.

But journalists? The job is to seek truth. Not to pitch propaganda and see if it sticks… or even better, if it sticks FIRST! We, as a group, work with people with vested interested every day. But we do not work for those people. We work for our readers. And when it comes to award season, there becomes a venal indifference to truth. Only “first” matters. Only getting attention matters. And yeah, there is some of that adrenaline that comes from knowing something – you think – before anyone else. But the job of the really good publicists is to make you feel like you are discovering something because you are so smart and such an insightful journalist so when you write the spin, it seems all so sincere. This is a very special skill. And to me, as someone who honors journalism, it is the dirtiest trick of all.

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6 Responses to “20W2O: Choking On The Tea Leaves”

  1. movielocke says:

    I was at an American Hustle screening a month or so ago, it’s not a mess. not even close. I liked it more than SLP or The Fighter.

    The weird thing about this season is that all the critics/community seems to be about murder this year, they want to kill kill kill movies. There’s no acknowledgement of the merits of Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s just “Kill the fucking movie because I fucking say that isn’t what the academy likes and I’m the motherfucking gatekeeper, kill kill kill!” And it seems like everyone is out to attack every other movie in a Tarantino esque bloodbath. The whole year just feels weird.

    And so maybe it’s smart for American Hustle to play it close to the vest and get it in front of friendly audiences first, before it goes in front of the murderous audiences of the chattering class.

  2. KMS says:

    Before Midnight

  3. KMS says:

    People care more about accurately predicting the winners than seeing the nominations go to the films and people who deserve them.

  4. Jerry says:

    Just saw 12Years A Slave. The violence of this film wasn’t as intense as I expected but the emotional intensity was incredible. A truly great film that may be too intense for some people. Is it wrong to say that some people should skip the film due to its intensity, no! Now if people with award ballots are skipping it then that is wrong and they should submit no ballots.

  5. pj says:

    After all that, you would think that no one could ever win an award this year.

    Well no one said anything bad about NEBRASKA….

  6. someone says:


    You’re coverage of the Oscar race is probably read by more AMPAS members than the articles that you are reporting on. Thus, the existence of your article unfortunately propagates the very criticisms that you seem to rally against.

    People like you have turned the Oscar race into some kind of Vegas sportsline and in the process, have damaged the integrity of the awards that you seem so obsessed with.

    But let’s be honest, your site generates more money from awards consideration ads during your prolonged Oscar campaign than from any other source of revenue, so you are strongly motivated to turn this into some sort of blood sport that runs throughout the year.

    After reading this recent post, I will now abstain from ever returning to your cite so I can try and vote without being influenced by your shameless gossip and grandstanding.

    To actually report that “someone” said American Hustle is a mess is just so unnecessary, don’t you think?

    Have fun.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon