Sunday, February 22, 2009

THE READER AND (VS?) THE GREAT DEBATERS

Okay, so I went to see THE READER in the theater (having stopped watching it on the disc I got for the awards season which skipped) because friends told me they liked it.

The best thing about seeing the entire film was the discovery that Bruno Ganz, a German actor who I consider to be one of the greatest film actors ever, has a small role later in the film (he plays the law professor) and just seeing him on screen made me smile (despite the subject matter), let alone watching him work (impeccable as always).

But my reaction was still the same. There is some terrific acting by everybody in some scenes which was so emotionally accurate it brought tears to my eyes, but there’s also some overwrought melodramatic clich├ęd acting (and writing) in other scenes by almost everyone (Ganz is the exception, and it’s almost a lesson in acting to watch what he does compared to everyone else—they often look like they’re “acting” while Ganz looks like he’s “being” as acting teachers say).

No question Winslett does an amazingly committed job, the consistency of her physicality (the traits she uses to convey her character’s inner life as well as her resistance to any reality other than hers etc.) alone is impressive. It’s a very brave performance in the ways her performances always are. But I still found it manipulative and in that way disappointing, as I did the whole movie.

But I also watched over the weekend, on cable, a movie that should have been nominated last year for best picture but wasn’t—THE GREAT DEBATERS. It too deals with a sensitive and difficult subject, but from the perspective of an actually true story.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s so much more than any summary of its plot or characters could ever convey. Yes it’s the story of the debating team at a small “Negro” college in Texas in the depths of the Depression and the height of segregation, legal and de facto, and how they went on to win national recognition as one of the greatest college debating teams of all times.

But, it is also the story of some extraordinary African-Americans, who were more representative of the strivings and accomplishments of a generation, in fact generations, of “black” Americans than all the “gangsta” movies ever made combined.

It’s the story too of Melvin B. Tolson, a poet whose work I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid and first became interested in any writing that came from or spoke to the racial history and problems of this country.

And it’s the story of a young boy and the relationship with his father as well as his teacher and fellow students and coming of age.

The acting is all amazingly without flaw, which means Denzel Washington, who stars in it but also directed it, should have been nominated as best director. It’s emotionally challenging and rewarding, as well as intellectually engaging and visually delicious (the 1930s never looked so good on screen, not phony Hollywood good, but richly realistically varied good).

I didn’t give this movie as much credit as I should have last year, or it would have won half the awards I decided to make up myself. But seeing it the same day I saw THE READER, which has gotten so much attention, it almost feels like there’s maybe something a little racist in THE GREAT DEBATERS not having gotten as much respect and attention and awards as it should have. Not on the audience’s part—most of us just weren’t that aware of it I bet—but on the media and awards panels and etc. part.

There should be a special Oscar category for movies and performances etc. that were inadvertently or deliberately overlooked or underrated in previous years, some kind of SECOND CHANCE OSCAR for movies that should have been awarded but were somehow overlooked. Mine goes to THE GREAT DEBATERS.

4 comments:

douglang said...
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douglang said...
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douglang said...

Michael, thanks for this. I love The Great Debaters, which got very bad reviews, some of them very harsh, especially Nick Pinkerton at The Village Voice. It was true that the "plot" was the standard small team from tiny town defeats established giants, but the plot was just there to support the story, which was about the conditions of people's lives at that time. The cast was phenomenal, and I'll be surprised if Journee Smollett in particular does not became a major actress. The day after I saw it, I went online and got Tolson's selected poems, Harlem Gallery, which is fantastic. I'd read a little of his work before, but hadn't really fully appreciated it.

So, I was happy to see your comments, and I wanted you to know that I shared your enthusiasm.

Charles Lambert said...

I've got to this late, but I just wanted to endorse your praise of Bruno Ganz. I've been a fan of his since his early days with Wenders and he's one of the finest actors around. His performance in Soldini's Pane e Tulipani a few years ago is masterfully touching and restrained. I want him in the film of my book, of anyone ever makes a film of it...