Sunday, February 10, 2013

College recruitment letters

An amazing thing happens when your kid takes the PSAT: they start getting mail from colleges. A really LARGE amount of mail from colleges. I don't know whether there's a correlation between your PSAT scores and the number of college recruitment letters a week, since I have only one data point living in my house. Rapunzel did decently but not "OMG, she scored how high??" and she gets about 1 or 2 letters a day. I think she's now heard from almost every private school in the country that isn't Harvard or the like (because, please, they don't HAVE to troll for students....)

And here's the thing: these letter are all Exactly. The. Same. I swear, some marketing firm somewhere wrote one and all the colleges use it with mail merge for their web site. Because they are all bland and content free and exist solely to exhort her to log onto their web site and use their Handy Tool to find out what college would be Best for You! (Why do I suspect each one would tell her that, surprise, THEIR school is the Best for Her?)

And it's not me pointing this out - it's Rapunzel. She is beyond bored by them - she picks them up and says "OMG, another college letter," accompanied by an eye roll. She opens it, reads out the same old same old text in a faux excited tone, and then pitches it in the trash. She's gotten maybe two that were different enough, interesting enough, informative enough to capture her interest for more than 10 seconds. One was Macalister in Minnesota, which used humor to good effect, touting that they had lots of lakes and Indoor Plumbing! (But not, alas, an architecture program). I think the other was the Savannah College of Art and Design, which would be a great fit if only it weren't so damn expensive (and no, they don't do significant financial aid... we checked).

And I wonder - do these letters really engage high school kids? Do they really rush to log onto their websites and use their Handy Dandy Tool to Find the Perfect College for You (Ours)? I somehow doubt it. Which leads me to wonder why colleges don't do a better job with this. It seems like a no brainer to spend a little money polishing up your pitch to make it stand out and convey quickly what's unique about Podunk College, what differentiates you from the rest of the pack.

As for Rapunzel, she'll almost certainly be going to a state school, and they mostly don't send such letters - I think they assume, rightly, that price is their differentiater, and most people don't need a spiffy flyer or letter to know that. That's surely the case here: my husband and others trot out esoteric private schools for her consideration, and my role seems to be to keep repeating "University of [Our State] system." It has become my mantra. Because I don't want to go broke sending her to college, I don't want her to be saddled with crippling college debt, and, here's my final secret, having gone to one of those Big Name We Don't Need to Advertise schools myself back in the dark ages: No One Cares past about the first job interview. After that, they care if you are competent, not what school's name is on your degree. So State U of Somewhere will do just fine, thanks...

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's wrong with the Oscars?

I am, as you probably know, a movie addict. I see about 40 movies a year in the theaters, and lord knows how many more on video. I LOVE movies. (Which is curious, since the first movie I ever saw, at the age of 6, was the way over-my-head 2001: A Space Odyssey. My parents and brothers wanted to see it, and a ticket and some popcorn was cheaper than a babysitter...) Which is to say, I feel at least mildly qualified to comment on the Oscars.

Every year, the powers that be at the Academy seem to bemoan the dwindling viewership of the Oscars telecast, and trot out new formats, new hosts, new gimmicks (let's nominate MORE movies for Best Picture!) to try to get more viewers. I know I don't watch it any more, and even as a movie buff, I tend to find who wore what more interesting than the awards. Why? They are boring, predictable (for the most part), and irrelevant to me. When a movie buff says that, you know they have a problem.

So, what's the solution? Here are some things that might, collectively, lure me back; they are all really one thing: make it shorter. Not just don't-overrun-the-3-hour-time-slot shorter, but no-more-than-2-hours-total shorter. My attention span is just not that long - I can't watch much of anything for 3 hours (even a movie) - and I just can't stay up that late any more.

- Drop (from the telecast) the awards that no one cares about (other than the nominees, their mothers, and some tiny set of film industry insiders). Like, best documentary, best documentary short, best animated short, best foreign language film. Are these good, deserving films? Probably. But the fact remains, not one person in a thousand has probably seen ANY of the nominees in these categories, and it just is not interesting to listen to them read off the names of five documentaries I have not only not seen, but have never even heard of, and then announce a winner. They dropped the more highly technical awards from the show some years ago, and present them at an untelevised event. Do it for these snoozers, too.

- Drop (again, just from the telecast) awards that the average movie-goer is incapable of forming a coherent opinion on. I love movies, but I couldn't offer you an intelligent opinion on what movies had the best sound editing, much less which one was THE best. Because if it's done well, it's invisible to most of us. Yes, I'm sure the sound editors who vote on this know the difference between excellent sound editing and good sound editing, but unless it's really terrible, I don't, so I don't care. Shift these to the technical awards. Costumes, makeup, visual effects, set design, those can stay (and OK, cinematography, although I bet most people don't really know what that is). In short, if the presenters have to explain what it is, it's probably too esoteric for the telecast.

- Drop the performances of the Best Song nominees. Not only are the performances time consuming, they aren't even by the original performers from the movie version! (I can't understand that at all... it's just perverse.) Why can't we just have an excerpt of each of the songs, from the movie? That's all we get for all the other awards... and this isn't the Grammys. (Not that I watch the Grammys - I'm too old to have heard of 99% of the nominees there...)

- Cut the scripted banter between the presenters. It's not funny or entertaining, it's just stilted and frequently embarrassing. And while we're at it, eliminate explaining what awards are (see above - if I have to have it explained, I don't care). Just get up there, read the nominees, show the clips, announce the winner, and done.

- Eliminate acceptance speeches by people who aren't famous. OK, this is a bit harsh, but the hard truth is, while I have an opinion on best costumes and am happy enough to see the clips of nominees and what MOVIE won, I really do NOT care about the actual winner, whom I have never heard of and will probably never hear of again. (Admit it - you don't either. I bet no one reading this, except possibly my niece Laura, can name ONE costume designer or makeup person or set designer. And no cheating with Google or IMDb). I don't care about how grateful they are to the Academy, their agent, their partner, their parents (who BELIEVED in them), or... Yawn. Wake me when they get to something interesting. Actors and directors are generally more interesting, because (a) I know who they are, and (b) they might say something funny, or scandalous, or otherwise entertaining ("You like me! You really like me!") But some random set designer? Not interesting. Harsh, but true.

I do have one more thought that is not really about the length of the telecast. It's always more interesting to watch something when you have someone to root for. And how can you root for something you haven't seen? As I said, I see 40 movies a year, and I've rarely seen more than two of the Best Picture nominees, even since they went from five to as many as ten. This year, I've seen three; some years, I've seen none. Now, some of that is just my tastes. But some of the nominees are things no one has seen. Take Amour - it made $1.2 million at the box office, which translates to about 150,000 tickets. That's a pretty tiny fraction of the roughly 40 million people watching the Oscars. That's not to say that such little-seen art house films are not fine examples of film making craftsmanship. But first and foremost, a movie must be entertaining. People have to want to see it, because no matter how good it is, if no one's interest is captured by it enough to shell out 8 bucks, then what was the point? So that leads me to my final suggestion:

- Set a minimum box office gross for eligibility.  I'm not suggesting box office gross should be the only or even a significant factor in awarding an Oscar. I've seen plenty of blockbusters that I enjoyed immensely and would not suggest were Oscar worthy by the remotest stretch of the imagination (to name the top five from 2012, all of which I saw and enjoyed, none of which I would have nominated for an Oscar: Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, and Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2). A movie doesn't have to be Oscar worthy to be entertaining, but I think it does have to be entertaining (among other things) to be Oscar worthy. Is that too much to ask? The minimum needn't be huge, but seven of the nine Best Picture nominees made more than $50 million (Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Miz, Argo, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook). The last two made only $11 million (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and $1.2 million (Amour).

I hold out no hopes whatsoever that the Academy will do any of this. And I probably won't watch, again, this year. Besides all of the above, the Oscars are just too predictable (something they probably can't do much about). If Lincoln does not win Best Picture, I will faint dead away. It has everything the Academy worships: period costumes, serious drama (what's wrong with comedies, anyway?), a beloved and well-known director (who can root against Stephen Spielberg?) and Serious Actors (Daniel Day-Lewis! Sally Field!) I'm not saying it's undeserving (I didn't see it because it's not my cup of tea), just that watching it win a whole boatload of Oscars is too predictable to be very interesting.

If you care, here's my take on the nominees. First, the ones I have seen:

Argo: this would be my pick to win. It's as flat out entertaining as any action movie or thriller, and simultaneously seriously thought provoking. Its even-handed take made me sympathize with the Iranians even as I rooted for the Americans to get out of Iran. But I'll be surprised if it wins, given the Academy's dis of Ben Affleck for Best Director (I get he started as an actor, but seriously? The man has not directed a bad movie yet. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were both also excellent - entertaining AND thoughtful. What more could you want?)

Silver Linings Playbook: loved this, too. An examination of mental illness that didn't feel the need to be inspirational and to cast the mentally ill as somehow saintly, just real. A depiction of a family where everyone is just trying the best they can, but imperfectly, to deal with the lousy hand they got dealt. DeNiro was brilliant, and the scene in which Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's characters trade opinions about various meds, to the horror of her sister, is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time.

Django Unchained was a middlingly entertaining, self-indulgent bit of revenge fantasy and not worth the hype, though Christopher Waltz was marvelous, as was Jamie Foxx. But Quentin Tarantino needs to get over himself - the violence was so over the top, it really did feel self-indulgent, and some of the depictions of the treatment of slaves seemed to linger a little too long and lovingly on the violence and torture, crossing some indefinable line, for me, from a difficult-to-watch depiction of a hideous reality to somehow getting off on it.

I didn't see the rest of the nominees, but my 2 cents on them, for what it's worth:

Lincoln: if I were a betting woman, this is the one I'd bet on. But historical biopics are not my thing. Besides, I know how it ends....

Les Miz: I feel like I should see this - it's like a phenomenon - but I just can't... Three hours of NOTHING but singing... I love a musical, but this is what they call a sung-through musical - i.e., there is no or minimal dialogue that is not sung. Too opera-adjacent, thanks... However, Anne Hathaway should totally keep that pixie cut, because she is rocking it.

Life of Pi: I read about a chapter of the book and nearly lapsed into a coma. The Nerd had to read it for Honors English and said it was entirely without plot (an opinion my mother, a rather more mature reader than my 13 year old, seconded). While I'm sure it's visually spectacular (Ang Lee is mostly a genius, though he has his obscure side), I just can't. I suspect it will (or should) win Best Adapted Screenplay, if for no other reason than that virtually everyone said this book was unfilmable, and turning an unfilmable book into a film that grosses more than $100 million is an achievement.

Zero Dark Thirty: I haven't seen this, though I may yet. But it won't win, because (a) Kathryn Bigelow also got dissed for Best Director, and (b) her The Hurt Locker won a few years ago, and the Academy likes to spread the love around. War and political films are not usually high on my list, but The Hurt Locker was brilliant - painful, but brilliant. There is this one scene in which Jeremy Renner, as a bomb specialist who has just spent a year one wrong decision away from being vaporized, is standing in front of a wall of cereal at the grocery store, where his girlfriend has told him to "get cereal," paralyzed by indecision. There is no dialogue, no movement, just this 5 second shot of him standing there, staring. I had never understood why anyone would chose to redeploy, and in that moment, I got it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: too art house for me... and apparently a lot of other people. I'd have dropped this one under my box office rule.

Amour: I really don't need to spend two hours watching two really elderly people deteriorate. I'd have dropped this one under my box office rule.