1968: february 19

oscar run xiv: michael clayton

Robin's brother is visiting us, and earlier tonight he asked if we'd seen a movie and we hadn't. Robin said something like "it must not have been nominated for an Oscar." This got me thinking. These "Oscar Run" posts every year give something of a warped sense of what movies I watch. For a month or so, I watch the movies every one else watched the year before. The other eleven months of the year, I watch lots of stuff from before 2007, often movies that no one else sees. But I watch those movies by myself, as often as not, so I can see why Robin thinks the only movies we watch are Oscar nominees ... those are the ones where I say "hey, you want to watch this with me?" When I watch Sherrybaby or the 1932 Scarface or The Brain That Wouldn't Die, I don't even bother to tell anyone I watched them.

Another consequence of this is that it seems, at least to me, like I don't like any movies, because every January/February, I write about movies that I wouldn't normally seek out if I wasn't trying to catch up on what's popular. Movies like Transformers just aren't my cup of tea.

And ... this is something I've been noticing about myself for 35 years or more ... the more movies I watch in short periods of time, the less able I am to appreciate the good parts. Which is to say, if I saw Michael Clayton when it came out, and I hadn't seen a movie in a few weeks, I would have been excited about the experience, I would have taken pleasure in the film's strongest points, and would have said mostly nice things about it. But when it's the fifth movie I've watched in a week, even if it's the best movie I've seen in a week, I'm a little more tired of anything that feels like the same old thing. And while Michael Clayton is a fine movie, there's not a lot of new things to grab me ... it's pleasures are fairly traditional, i.e. the acting.

So here I am, getting ready to say a few words, and I worry that I'll be unfair, that it will sound like I thought the movie sucked, which isn't true at all. But as I look over my ratings for the films of 2007, I see a preponderance of 7-out-of-10s, which to me means "I liked it" but if I'm using a curve, "7" has become something unremarkable, my way of saying "I liked this movie but it was no Bonnie and Clyde." And the only 2007 movies I rated higher than 7 were either documentaries or, in the case of Persepolis, animated.

So, either I thought Michael Clayton was a solid movie, or I thought it was just another movie, or I think most movies I see are good.

I haven't bothered to actually say anything about the movie. I'm usually confused when a movie jumbles the chronology of the narrative ... not because I don't know what's going on, although that is often the case, but because I don't always know why the filmmaker chose a jumbled chronology. I didn't like Memento as much as some people, but at least I give it credit for doing something different with chronology. And practically my favorite movie of the last X number of years is Run Lola Run, which is quite playful with chronology. But Michael Clayton? I'm just tired of getting 20 minutes into a movie and seeing "4 Days Ago." It's no longer innovative ... I feel like half the movies I see do that. And I don't get the point, in this case at least. The movie would have been the same to me if it had started 20 minutes in.

None of this ruins the film, largely because the thing I liked best about it was George Clooney, and the chronology meant nothing to that enjoyment. Some claim that Clooney doesn't do enough to warrant his status as a fine actor ... this is his first nomination for Best Actor, and he already has a Best Supporting Actor win to his name, so he has the status but somehow remains underrated at the same time. I think George Clooney is a movie star, and I find his acting quite appropriate to that role. He doesn't usually chew the scenery, because he doesn't have to. He doesn't do the things that get people Oscar nominations ... the other nominated actors from this movie, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, get those parts here, and they are both fine, but Wilkinson channels Peter Finch in Network, which is pretty much what is called for in the movie but which also pretty much guarantees he'll get nominated in the "Not Really Loony But Playing Up the Loony Side Nonetheless" category, and Swinton, again doing what the movie asks, gets nominated in the "I'm Repressed But You Can Tell It Bothers Me Because I'm Trying So Hard to Show You I'm Repressed" category. Clooney, meanwhile, is "merely" ready for his close-up, but he commands the screen, and he makes great use of subtle changes in his face that mean all the more for being understated. He achieves what Clint Eastwood strives for as an actor, and he deserves his Oscar nomination, which falls into the "As With Sean Connery Back in the Day, I Deliver One Great Performance After Another and No One Notices Because I'm Handsome" category.



I couldn't agree with you more about George Clooney - though I haven't seen Michael Clayton, in every role he's in he makes it look so damn easy that people assume it is. And you're spot on about the "showy" roles and Oscars - remember, we live in a world where Roberto Benigni won an Oscar, but Cary Grant never did.


Tilda Swinton has come a long way--as in "a long way, baby"--from her Derek Jarman and Sally Potter roles. Since she's hit the mainstream (and she's getting a ton of work), she's recurrently getting roles as the scary, castrating product of Rush Limbaugh's feminazi id. I suppose it's American culture's clawback reaction to the kind of persona she exudes on screen: androgynous, articulate, unconventionally pretty, British. I found her role in "Michael Clayton" so painfully demeaning that it almost ruined the movie for me (about which I'm more or less with Steven in any case--s'okay, but so what--if I want a cinematic evaluation of the contemporary corporate environment, I prefer "The Corporation").

The only one of Swinton's recent mainstream roles that I've enjoyed at all was her take on the angel Gabriel in "Constantine"--cool haircut, great costuming, played up the androgyny, had a sense of humor.

Charlie Bertsch

I liked Michael Clayton better than you did. But I agree with your assessment of the acting. It got me thinking more about the role of acting per se -- as is usually the case when I read your entries about Oscar contenders -- and that made reading Steven Shaviro's take on Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood more rewarding, as I wrote in a comment linking back to this entry.


I'm trying to avoid specific reviews in case I manage to see There Will Be Blood in the next few days, but I was aware of Zacharek's review, and loved this part of Shaviro's comments: "I think it is a brilliant description of Day-Lewis’s performance. Except for one thing. Everything that Zacharek deplores about the performance is precisely what, to my mind, makes it so great."

A lot of what I've come to think about criticism in general can be found in those two sentences. Some criticism interests me because the writer sees things I don't. But at other times, I'm fascinated by the way someone else sees the same things I do but comes to different conclusions.

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