Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oscar Nominations: The Future is Now, Old Man

Well, no one would argue that these nominations weren't things that happened. They were...perplexing. Or maybe not? Maybe in a year with so much uplift and uncertainty, it would have seemed fitting to have a nominations morning as tumultuous as all that--but expectations were, by and large, met with little fuss. Granted, there's plenty of weirdness to admire here, and what's even stranger is that the weirdness isn't even on the margins? I said earlier that predicting this year was about trying to predict the kind of group that the Academy wanted to be--and who would have guessed even five years ago that the front-runners this year would be a Jordan Peele-helmed horror comedy that gleefully calls out white liberals, a low-key coming-of-age teenage girl movie, a spiky and brutal Martin McDonagh satire, and a movie from Guillermo del Toro in which Sally Hawkins has sex with a fish? Exciting times we live in. Anyhow--I'm generally (generally) pleased with what I'm looking at here. Some great moments, some awful ones, as per usual. So let's go ahead and unwrap our presents!

Note: I'll put an asterisk next to the nominees I predicted, so you can see how I did.

Best Picture
Call Me by Your Name*
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk*
Get Out*
Lady Bird*
Phantom Thread
The Post*
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri*

Both Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour played hard this morning, to somewhat bamboozling effect. Who'd have expected that the Academy would warm to Phantom Thread's "love means literally doing your best to murder your partner" wackiness? Darkest Hour is strange in that it isn't strange--it's exactly the kind of lukewarm Oscar bait you'd have expected to manage a handsome total in the late 90s, but doesn't the presence of things like Get Out and Lady Bird and the rest suggest that we're moving past that era? Some habits die hard, I guess.
Early winner prediction: The Shape of Water

Director
Paul Thomas Anderson-Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro-The Shape of Water*
Greta Gerwig-Lady Bird*
Christopher Nolan-Dunkirk*
Jordan Peele-Get Out*

This is a lovely batch of nominees. I'm not the biggest fan of either Water or Dunkirk, but I can't pretend to be sad that Del Toro gets his day in the sun, and at least now the Internet can stop complaining about Nolan's Oscarless-ness. And the other three choices are superb--all three made me shout and giggle and generally make my neighbors wonder how I spend my mornings. Interesting that McDonagh (Three Billboards) missed here--maybe it's not the presumptive frontrunner for best picture that I thought it was. Gerwig is now the fifth woman nominated in this category (Lena Wertmüller, Seven Beauties, 1975, Jane Campion, The Piano, 1993, Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003, Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2009), and Jordan Peele becomes the fifth black director nominated (Jon Singleton, Boyz n the Hood, 1991, Lee Daniels, Precious, 2009, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, 2013, Barry Jenkins, Moonlight, 2016).
Early winner prediction: Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water

Actor
Timotheé Chalamet-Call Me by Your Name*
Daniel Day-Lewis-Phantom Thread*
Daniel Kaluuya-Get Out*
Gary Oldman-Darkest Hour*
Denzel Washington-Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Another solid lineup--it's a shame that they're all in it to lose to Gary Oldman. Love, *love* that Chalamet got in, and Kaluuya as well. James Franco misses for The Disaster Artist (guess that means no Tommy Wiseau at the Oscars?), and the Academy is probably breathing a sigh of relief, having just sidestepped potential controversy, considering the current allegations against him. More statistics fun: Denzel Washington gets his eighth nomination, which makes him the fifth most nominated actor of all time, and Chalamet, at 22, becomes the third youngest best actor nominee of all time (and the youngest since 1939).
Early winner prediction: Gary Oldman-Darkest Hour

Actress
Sally Hawkins-The Shape of Water*
Frances McDormand-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri*
Margot Robbie-I, Tonya*
Saoirse Ronan-Lady Bird*
Meryl Streep-The Post*

The usual suspects, but I can't complain about any of these performances. Weak sort of morning for both I, Tonya and The Post, which might hurt both actress's chances here--and there was a time when I would have said it was between the two of them for the win. Strange how awards season shakes out.
Early winner prediction: Frances McDormand-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe-The Florida Project*
Woody Harrelson-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Richard Jenkins-The Shape of Water*
Christopher Plummer-All the Money in the World*
Sam Rockwell-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

As per usual, this category manages to be the dullest and most disappointing. I hate, hate, hate that neither of the Call Me by Your Name boys got in. What a waste. Christopher Plummer is now the oldest acting nominee ever for All the Money... at 88.
Early winner prediction: Sam Rockwell-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Supporting Actress
Mary J. Blige-Mudbound*
Allison Janney-I, Tonya*
Lesley Manvile-Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf-Lady Bird*
Octavia Spencer-The Shape of Water

Manville is probably the most unexpected nomination of the day--goes to show how much they responded to the movie (or just how much they responded to Manville's upper crust, I'll-cut-you shade).
Early winner prediction: Laurie Metcalf-Lady Bird

Original Screenplay
The Big Sick
Get Out*
Lady Bird*
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Great to see The Big Sick find love *somewhere,* though it's strange that neither Phantom Thread nor I, Tonya could muscle their way in here. This category will be one hell of a slugging match for the win, with four of the nominees being within striking distance.
Early winner prediction: Get Out

Adapted Screenplay
Call Me by Your Name*
The Disaster Artist*
Logan*
Molly's Game*
Mudbound*

Call Me by Your Name! Logan! Great fun to be had here. This is James Ivory's chance (writer of CMBYN, significant filmmaker of the 80s and 90s, has never won an Oscar, and is 89 years old), and no one's taking it from him. Incidentally, Logan becomes the first superhero movie ever nominated for its writing--and a great choice it is. Glad the Academy looked pasted the claws and little boys who can breathe ice to recognize a really tightly written movie.
Early winner prediction: Call Me by Your Name

Production Design
Blade Runner 2049*
Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour*
Dunkirk*
The Shape of Water*

Will we ever be free of Disney's CG-heavy live-action monstrosities? I hate Beauty and the Beast (the live action version) with the passion of a thousand burning suns, and seeing it pop up here for its joyless and chaotic design makes me want to swallow my tongue. At least Blade Runner and Water showed up.
Early winner prediction: The Shape of Water

Costume Design
Beauty and the Beast*
Darkest Hour
Phantom Thread*
The Shape of Water
Victoria and Abdul

As this branch can never pass up a good regal frock, I really should have seen Victoria and Abdul coming (and Darkest Hour too, I suppose). Shame that Blade Runner couldn't crack this lineup, but sci-fi just isn't the costume branch's thing.
Early winner prediction: Phantom Thread

Visual Effects
Blade Runner 2049*
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Kong: Skull Island
Star Wars: The Last Jedi*
War for the Planet of the Apes*

Kong: Skull Island? Sure, why not. Marvel continues its streak of present but minimal representation at the Oscars, and the category in general doubles down on the current franchise culture that's dug its claws into the industry. Somewhat shocking that neither Dunkirk nor The Shape of Water could manage a nod here. In fact, Water's miss here is the only reason it didn't tie the record for most nominated film ever this year (its tally is one shy of the record 14)--but that's for the best, I think. Ask La La Land--nothing screws with a movie's legacy more than when it begins to seem over-rewarded.
Early winner prediction: Blade Runner 2049

Makeup and Hairstyling
Darkest Hour*
Victoria and Abdul
Wonder

Always a tough category to predict. My biggest takeaway is that now I have to try and see both Victoria and Abdul and Wonder. Booooo. At least they're not making me watch Bright.
Early winner prediction: Darkest Hour

Film Editing
Baby Driver*
Dunkirk*
I, Tonya*
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Yay Baby Driver! Not my favorite film of the year by any stretch, but the way it wove itself together, all perfectly organized musical chaos, is one heck of an achievement.
Early winner prediction: Dunkirk

Cinematography
Blade Runner 2049*
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk*
Mudbound*
The Shape of Water*

No Call Me..., which sucks, but hey, we had to make some room for lighting Gary Oldman's craggy nightmare face so that he didn't look like the Hulk's testicle, I guess. Rachel Morrison, cinematographer for Mudbound, becomes the first woman ever nominated in this category, and Richard Deakins (Blade Runner) picks up his 14th nomination without a win.

Original Score
Dunkirk*
Phantom Thread*
The Shape of Water*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Academy Award nominee Johnny Greenwood! I was worried for Phantom Thread, but it pulled through here. I know the John Williams slot is an inevitable default, but how odd is it for him to get in for Star Wars rather than The Post? I'll give a shiny new dime to anyone who can hum me four bars of new music from The Last Jedi without looking it up on Youtube first. Incidentally, is this a good place to talk about how far The Post fell? Two months ago I'd have called it to win best picture, and this morning it could only scrape two measly nominations together.
Early winner prediction: The Shape of Water

Sound Mixing
Baby Driver*
Blade Runner 2049*
Dunkirk*
The Shape of Water*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Silly of me to take Star Wars out of my predictions at the last second. Great to see Baby Driver again--it feels like you can't really nominate its editing without also picking up on its sound.
Early winner prediction: Dunkirk

Sound Editing
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049*
Dunkirk*
The Shape of Water*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi*

A rare year in which both sound categories match. I don't think this has happened since the sound editing category expanded from three to five nominees in 2006? Don't quote me on that. Also, here's a good place to note that Wonder Woman wasn't nominated anywhere--shame, that.
Early winner prediction: Dunkirk

Original Song
"Mystery of Love"-Call Me by Your Name
"Remember Me"-Coco*
"This is Me"-The Greatest Showman*
"Stand Up for Something"-Marshall*
"Mighty River"-Mudbound*

Academy Award nominee Sufjan Stevens!! I will never stop smiling about this. I nearly fell off my couch when they announced this. Also glad to see the best guilty pleasure of the year (Showman) getting some love. Interesting aside: with this nomination for Mudbound, Mary J. Blige becomes the only person ever nominated for both original song and acting in the same year.
Early winner prediction: "Remember Me"-Coco

Animated Film
The Boss Baby*
The Breadwinner*
Coco*
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent*

Some people may be shocked to see The LEGO Batman Movie miss here, but if the original couldn't make it, I didn't think the sequel would either (which is a shame, considering how fun it is). Can't really speak intelligently to this category--I've only seen Coco.
Early winner prediction: Coco

Foreign Language Film
A Fantastic Woman-Chile
The Insult-Lebanon
Loveless-Russia*
On Body and Soul-Hungary
The Square-Sweden*

Bummer that South Africa's fantastic The Wound couldn't make it, but hooray for A Fantastic Woman, which is spectacular, by all accounts. Also odd for Fatih Akin's In the Fade to miss, as I'd assumed it the frontrunner.
Early winner prediction: A Fantastic Woman-Chile

Documentary Feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail*
Faces Places*
Icarus*
Last Men in Aleppo*
Strong Island

Everyone has called Jane a done deal to win for months, and now we've got a category without a frontrunner--always interesting. Will this give Agnes Varda (Faces Places) or Steve James (Abacus), two of the most influential documentarians ever, the chance to finally win a competitive Oscar? Fun fact--Strong Island becomes the first movie directed by an out trans director to be nominated oscar. (Note: emphasis on out, or The Matrix would take this title. Or something else?)
Early winner prediction: Faces Places


Note: of the main nominees (i.e. not foreign, animated, or documentary, because most of those never open near me, and I just am not going to be bothered to see The Boss Baby in theaters), I still haven't seen Roman J. Israel, Esq., All the Money in the World, Victoria and Abdul, Wonder, or Marshall. Victoria is next in my netflix cue, and I might go see All the Money... today, but Wonder and Israel both present significant hurdles to me seeing everything before the oscars (both come to Netflix in late February). Still, I'm hopeful--this is the closest I've been to seeing everything before the ceremony in a while (which is still a feat I've managed only once, in 2008).

This wasn't the best year for me as far as predicting goes, but it was a tough year. I managed to nail Actress, Supporting Actor, and Film Editing, but totally fumbled Costume Design, Makeup, and Foreign Language Film.

For those counting at home, here's a list of the most nominated films:

1. The Shape of Water-13
2. Dunkirk-8
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-7
4. Phantom Thread-6
5. Darkest Hour-6
6. Lady Bird-5
7. Blade Runner 2049-5
8. Get Out-4
9. Call Me by Your Name-4
10. Mudbound-4
11. Star Wars: The Last Jedi-4

What an eclectic gathering of movies on that list--big budget sci fi, horror, queer romance, high school movies, oscar bait-y period dramas, and fish sex (seriously you guys, how did The Shape of Water get this far).

And a list of notable movies that didn't get any nominations at all: Wonder Woman (still surprised by this one), The Beguiled, Stronger, Good Time, Wind River, Battle of the Sexes, In the Fade, BPM, Girls Trip, The Lost City of Z, Murder on the Orient Express, Downsizing, Okja, Wonderstruck, Detroit, mother!, Atomic Blonde, Spider-Man: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok

Well, you win some, you lose some.

In the meantime, what do y'all think? Good nominations? Bad nominations? Like I said, I'm generally pleased--things certainly could have gone worse.

(Academy Award nominee Sufjan Stevens! Whaaaaaaaaaat.)





Saturday, January 20, 2018

Oscar Predictions 2017: We May Be Done with the Past, But the Past Ain't Done with Us

It's that time of year again--that blessed time in which this silly little blog springs fully formed from my head and emerges into your life, ready to poke at things with spears (or maybe to write better Athena metaphors) (does my metaphor cast me as Zeus?) (this was a terrible opening gambit). Sure, the Oscars are a profoundly silly exercise, made even more so by the year-long predicting culture that surrounds them in the glitzier corners of the internet, but hey--this is my kind of silliness, and I've been doing it for too many years now. So, as Hugh Jackman and his cadre of camera-ready circus misfits would giddily shriek, this is me--a sentence in which 'me' means 'an incurable compulsion which I'm going to foist on you, so buckle up."

Longtime readers (who do exist--shout-out to my ever-diminishing but apparently still present Eastern bloc fans) might notice that I'm sticking with last year's streamlined format. For 10 years, Oscar predictions were a week-long, five-post production number, but last year, I decided to squeeze everything into one lightning round dashed out in a desperate frenzy on a train to Würzburg. While I can't reconstruct the heady adventure of typing with a train-enforced time limit, I *can* try and preserve the bit of brevity I recaptured last year. So that's the plan today--throw everything in your lap with one big, defiant, dump (seriously I need to put more thought into my metaphors).

This year presents something of a conundrum for Oscar prognosticators, in that it's no longer quite clear who the Academy is. Since the #Oscarsowhite controversery, Academy leadership has worked hard to create a voting body whose cultural and age diversity more accurately reflects the country at large, and this year, the results are making themselves evident--of the roughly 7.000 members, at least 1.000 have been added in the past two years, most of whom embody the Academy's attempt to invite a fresher, more adventurous set of voices to the table. The result? The phrase 'Oscar bait' (i.e. the kind of movie that seems made to garner awards attention) no longer means what it wants to mean; films that would have been safe bets even five years ago are gasping for air, and films that five years ago would never come within spitting distance of the Dolby theater are fighting for the prize. (Seriously, let's take a minute to acknowledge that the four most muscular awards threats this year were directed by Guillermo del Toro, Martin McDonagh, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele--brave new world, this.)

So long story short--this year isn't just about predicting the nominations. It's about trying to predict who the Academy is, who they want to be, and how that's going to reflect in their annual shower of little gold men. It's about the future, dammit.

Now that I've kicked brevity's teeth in, let's hop in to predictions!

(note: all predictions are presented in order of likelihood.)

Best Picture
Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Shape of Water
Get Out
Lady Bird
Dunkirk
Call Me By Your Name
I, Tonya
The Post
The Florida Project
Alternate: The Big Sick

Here's the world as I see it: the top five (Billboards to Dunkirk) are more or less unshakable, and the final five (Post to Sick) are all close enough that none of their omissions would surprise me. As such, I'm banking on nine nominees again--it's the most common number, and this year's support is diffuse enough that we can expect a high number (note: the method to determine the number of nominees is a little too cumbersome to detail now (ask if you're really interested), but it has a lot to do with which films have lots of passionate supporters). I'm especially not confident that Florida gets in, but I'm not any more confident in its competitors, so here we are. If a surprise happens, expect it to come from Mudbound or Phantom Thread. If you *really* want something crazy, predict Darkest Hour or Wonder Woman, but don't bet the farm on it.

Director
Guillermo Del Toro-The Shape of Water
Christopher Nolan-Dunkirk
Martin McDonagh-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Jordan Peele-Get Out
Greta Gerwig-Lady Bird
Alternate: Sean Baker-The Florida Project

The top four slots seem golden, and there is literally no one who seems to make sense for the fifth, so I'm defaulting to Gerwig (note: when I say defaulting, I mean as far as predicting go; if we're talking merit I'd have her win this group in a walk). Sure, maybe the Academy has started to internalize the implications of #metoo and will go for Gerwig, but Lady Bird is a) very 'feminine,' and the directors tend to spring for brutality, b) Lady Bird is quiet, and 'quiet' directors often get pushed to the side in favor of flashy, and c) are they really going to nominate two debut films from actors-turned-directors (the other being Peele/Get Out)?
All that being said, who takes her spot? It's tempting to guess that they go with a wonkier, artsy choice--Baker/Florida or Luca Guadagnino/Call Me By Your Name--but Florida is struggling just to stay afloat and I'm having trouble imagining that the Academy will embrace a queer film two years in a row. So what else? Steven Spielberg and The Post? It would be easy--the name makes it easy--but The Post has landed with a thud on the precursor awards circuit, and I've no idea what to make of its chances now. And that leaves us with more, even more far-fetched left-field possibilities like Dee Rees for Mudbound, Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, or even something crazy like Villeneuve/Blade Runner or Jenkins/Wonder Woman. Really, I've no idea. This is a tough one--which is why I circle back to Gerwig. She makes the most sense in all the chaos.

Actress
Frances McDormand-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Sally Hawkins-The Shape of Water
Margot Robbie-I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan-Lady Bird
Meryl Streep-The Post
alternate: Michelle Williams-All the Money in the World

This quintet calcified months ago, and I don't seen anything rallying enough last minute support to change that. Judi Dench/Victoria and Abdul and Jessica Chastain/Molly's Game have their own pockets of support, but not enough to break into the big game. I'm a little tempted to put Williams in there, but who bets against Meryl Streep on Oscar nominations morning?

Actor
Gary Oldman-Darkest Hour
Daniel Day-Lewis-Phantom Thread
Timotheé Chalamet-Call Me By Your Name
James Franco-The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya-Get Out
Alternate: Denzel Washington-Roman J. Israel, Esquire

They can't go for Chalamet, Franco, and Kaluuya all at the same time, right? What a wacky, young category that would be. And yet it's the one that makes sense to me, so I'm sticking with it. Two asides: one, if Chalamet does get nominated, he'll be the youngest since Mickey Rooney's 1939 Babes in Arms nomination (and the third youngest of all time), and two, I hate that Gary Oldman's performance (which I read somewhere described as a 'talking dirigible,' which is perfect) is probably going to win in such a fresh and interesting crowd as this.

Supporting Actress
Laurie Metcalf-Lady Bird
Allison Janney-I, Tonya
Holly Hunter-The Big Sick
Mary J. Blige-Mudbound
Tiffany Haddisch-Girls Trip
Alternate: Octavia Spencer-The Shape of Water

Hey, know what's not going to happen? That Haddisch nomination. But I agonized who to put in that final spot, checked my mail to put off choosing, and found a Netflix copy of Girls Trip in my mailbox, so it must be fate. Spencer really is the smart guess, but I'm guessing (or hoping, I suppose), that Water isn't quite as strong as anticipated (though still strong enough for going on with). Look for Hong Chau/Downsizing or Lesley Manville/Phantom Thread to shake things up.

Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Willem Dafoe-The Florida Project
Richard Jenkins-The Shape of Water
Woody Harrelson-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Plummer-All the Money in the World
Alternate: Armie Hammer-Call Me By Your Name

I *hate* not having a Call Me... boy in there but them's the breaks--Hammer's playing a golden gay object of desire (aka the kind of role that doesn't necessarily get awards) and Michael Stuhlbarg may be a little too quiet to pop (again, stupid, but hey). Which leaves Plummer as the last viable candidate standing, and one that sends a message. There's a chance that the Academy springs another one of its out-of-nowhere 'hey, didn't we see Michael Shannon this year? He's nice' nominations for Michael Shannon/The Shape of Water, but good lord I hope not.
(Fun sidebar: there's a slim chance that The Shape of Water becomes the most Oscar-nominated film of all time on Tuesday morning, and if that happens, it happens here with the Shannon nomination. Water's got 15 places where it could score, which is enough to push it over the record held by All About Eve, Titanic, and La La Land. I haven't seen anyone predicting that it gets 15, but plenty of people are going for a record-tying fourteen. I'm less convinced, but it could certainly happen.)

Original Screenplay
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Shape of Water
I, Tonya
Alternate: The Big Sick

What a crazy, writhing nightmare of a category. Due to the capricious nature of the movie gods, all but one of my predicted nominees for best picture finds itself in this screenplay category--as do a number of viable alternates. This results in a category in which a good 12 valid competitors are mud-wrestling for a skimpy five spots, and *anything* (except Missouri, I guess) could fall out. Sick could easily make it in, as could Phantom Thread or The Post, depending on how strong either of those movies come on. Even something like Darkest Hour could make a play--the margins will be razor-thin, which primes this category for wackiness.

Adapted Screenplay
Call Me By Your Name
Mudbound
Molly's Game
The Disaster Artist
Logan
Alternate: Wonder Woman

And here's a different kind of wackiness: what the hell do you predict when there are no best picture contenders in play? There's a whole lurching flotilla possible spoilers: Wonder, All the Money in the World, The Lost City of Z, Victoria and Abdul, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool come to mind. I'm probably silly for picking a couple superhero movies (no superhero movie has ever been nominated for its screenplay), but I am, at times, openly, defiantly silly, and you can't stop me.

Production Design
The Shape of Water
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
Darkest Hour
Murder on the Orient Express
Alternate: The Post

I feel confident on the top three, but the others not so much. Beauty and the Beast or Phantom Thread could easily spoil, and movies like Wonder Woman or Three Billboards might capitalize here if they're more loved by the Academy than expected.

Costume Design
Phantom Thread
Beauty and the Beast
The Greatest Showman
Blade Runner 2049
The Beguiled
Alternate: The Shape of Water

I've lost my mind here--it's ludicrous not to predict Water, and it's equally ludicrous to predict Blade Runner and The Beguiled. I'm drunk on my own power! I can pick anything I want! I, Tonya and The Post could easily show here, as could Wonder Woman or Victoria and Abdul. 

Visual Effects
Blade Runner 2049
War for the Planet of the Apes
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The Shape of Water
Okja
Alternate: Dunkirk

Is it misguided to pick Okja over bigger competitors like Dunkirk or Guardians of the Galaxy? Probably, but I've got a hunch. Note: this category has previously been narrowed down to a 10-wide shortlist by the Academy. The other movies that are still in the running are Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Kong: Skull Island, and Alien: Covenant.

Makeup and Hairstyling
Darkest Hour
I, Tonya
Bright
Alternate: Wonder

Look for Guardians of the Galaxy to jump in here too if the Academy's feeling the Marvel love (which, to be fair, they almost never are). Like Visual Effects, this category's also been previously trimmed down; the other eligible films are Ghost in the Shell and Victoria and Abdul.

Film Editing
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I, Tonya
Baby Driver
Alternate: Get Out

This category is pretty inextricably tied to best picture, so if you're expecting Lady Bird, Get Out, or something else to make a big play for the big prize, expect to see them pop up here. It might be a bit foolhardy to think the Academy responds to Baby Driver, but I'm hoping that movie's technical prowess is too obvious to pass up.

Cinematography
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Mudbound
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alternate: Darkest Hour

The first three are set--go ahead and throw some darts for the last two. I'd love to see Call Me By Your Name or The Beguiled here, but don't anticipate it. Fun fact: if Mudbound is nominated, its cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, will become the first woman ever nominated in this category--which is the only category left standing at the Oscars that has never had a female nominee.

Original Score
The Shape of Water
The Post
Dunkirk
Phantom Thread
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alternate: Darkest Hour

Always dangerous to bet against John Williams, even if he's got two scores in one year (seriously, the man' got 50 nominations--I'm pretty convinced his name already comes pre-printed on the ballots), but I'm betting The Last Jedi underwhelmed enough voters to allow for the rare Williams miss. Blade Runner and Victoria and Abdul could easily score--always tough to tell with this branch.

Sound Mixing
Dunkirk
Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Baby Driver
Atomic Blonde
Alternate: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I'm going for a no-guts-no-glory pick here, having Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde over Star Wars, but I have to make my own fun. Both Billboards and Get Out could show up here if the Academy reeeeaaaallly embraces them (and I was tempted to put Billboards here, as I'm expecting something of a Missouri love-in), as could Wonder Woman.

Sound Editing
Dunkirk
Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman
Alternate: Baby Driver

Copy and past the arguments from up above--they rarely yield the same nominees, but the rationale behind both sound categories is pretty similar.

Original Song
"Remember Me"-Coco
"This is Me"-The Greatest Showman
"Mighty River"-Mudbound
"Prayers for this World"-Cries from Syria
"Stand Up for Something"-Marshall
Alternate: "Mystery of Love"-Call Me By Your Name

Predicting this category is always an exercise in futility--they love who they love, until they don't, they nominate the big, obvious contenders, until they don't, and they love musicals, until they don't. In that vein, I'm predicting snubs for both the Call Me... songs and the Beauty and the Beast ones, and am anticipating total anarchy. But hey, at least Cher might get nominated, and who doesn't want to see that?

Animated Film
Coco
Loving Vincent
The Breadwinner
In This Corner of the World
The Boss Baby
Alternate: The LEGO Batman Movie

Something interesting with this category this year: normally, only members of the animation branch are allowed to vote to determine the nominees, but for some reason this year it's been opened up to the whole Academy. So who knows how that will effect the outcome? Conventional wisdom suggests that this gives big studio efforts like Ferdinand or Despicable Me a leg-up, but conventional wisdom also suggests that the big studio animation efforts this year were almost uniformly horrible. So I've decided to err in favor of indie and foreign movies--probably a silly choice, but hey.

Foreign Language Film
In the Fade-Germany
The Square-Sweden
Foxtrot-Israel
Loveless-Russia
The Wound-South Africa
Alternate: A Fantastic Woman-Chile

Most of these haven't opened near me, so I've got to go on reputation alone. That said, I'm feeling fairly confident about this group, even if Chile's film has been gaining steam of late. Note: this is another category that already has a pre-selection process that results in a shortlist for nominations. The remaining movies in contention are The Insult (Lebanon), On Body and Soul (Hungary), and Felicité (Senegal).

Documentary Feature
Jane
Faces Places
Strong Island
City of Ghosts
Icarus
Alternate: Last Men in Aleppo

Year in and year out, this is the category for which I can drum up the least interest. Here are predictions! Those are movies! With names!


For those of you following along at home, here are the movies I'm predicting for the most nominations:

The Shape of Water-12
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-9
Dunkirk-8
I, Tonya-6
Blade Runner 2049-6

Incidentally, I know it's silly to devote so much space to predictions without talking about what I want to have happen, but my own best of the year awards are, as always, delayed until February. There are still a few titles I'm waiting for--hopefully they'll come out soon. And if not, I'll make due. But if I could guarantee one nomination, it'd be Sufjan Stevens for Call Me By Your Name's original songs (I just really, really, *really* want Academy Award nominee Sufjan Stevens to be a thing)--but will also throw something out a window if Timotheé Chalamet isn't nominated for Call Me... as well. And if I could prevent one nomination? Part of me wants to say Christopher Nolan in director, just for the ensuing internet riot, but I'll have to go with an out-of-nowhere snub for the Gary Oldman talking dirigible fiasco.

It's been a crazy, volatile year for awards (and otherwise), so I fully anticipate being profoundly, devastatingly wrong here. Oscar nominations come out Tuesday morning--I'll try to churn out some reactions then before I have to run off to class. In the meantime--where'd I go wrong? Have any thoughts? Hunches?




Sunday, March 12, 2017

Things I've learned, part 1

Today marks the official halfway point of this trip, both geographically and chronologically. I've got 8 weeks behind me and 8 ahead, and I've got one continent behind me and one ahead. So as I sit here in the airport, waiting to (essentially) leave Europe (guys, it fills me with so much existential anxiety that I don't know whether to classify russia as Europe or Asia), it seems like a good time to have a quick think about what I've learned. So here's follows a few random observations--all the things that haven't warranted their own blog post, but might be worth jotting down.

-speaking of blog posts; writing has gotten a whole lot harder since I lost (misplaced?) my Bluetooth keyboard in Venice. I've no idea whether it was taken from my room or if I left it (I don't recall if I left it out in the open during the day, and I couldn't find it checking out, but I *was* in a heck of a hurry). So that's a shame--blog posts will probably be more limited because I have to write all of them with my thumbs. Still, 8 weeks in and I've only lost a keyboard and one sock. That's some kind of minor miracle.
-I've been struggling to find the right words to express this since Morocco--I meant to do a whole post just about it (but see above re: missing keyboard)--and I'm still not sure I have them, but hey. My experiences in Morocco made me realize that, like it or not, I still carry an 'America first' narrative with me, subconsciously or otherwise--the idea that our country's narrative is the main story, and everyone else has to find a way to play into that. What do I mean? Long story short--I didn't like being in Rabat, I loved being in Marrakech. After some thinking, i realized I liked it because it was designed for me to like it. Rabat was no tourist city (i told a local i visited Rabat, and he said 'what were you doing there? That's not a city for you). Marrakech, however, was the epicenter of Moroccan tourism--the main areas were, in some ways, a pantomime of Morocco put on as a show. And this felt safe and comforting to me. It felt recognizable--because it was a version of an intimidatingly  different country that made sense in my narrative. Granted, there's nothing wrong with enjoying tourist stuff--if you exclusively avoid the beaten path you miss some amazing things--but it's worth critically examining *why* Marrakech felt so much safer and friendlier to me. This is something I'll have to work with for the rest of my trip, as I go to progressively more different places which may or may not cater to tourists. I'm hoping I'll have learnt something from Morocco and will be able to apply those lessons in, say, Mongolia or Southeast Asia. We'll see how that goes.
-it's probably for the best that I'm leaving Europe now. As amazing as Europe is, and as diverse as all these countries are, I've fallen into a bit of a rut of comparing. I'm seeing some of the most eye-popping and jaw-dropping things Europe has to offer--how can the other places compare. Too frequently I find myself being mildly disappointed that what I'm seeing isn't the best in the world. 'Sure, this is a nice museum, but is it as good as he Louvre?' 'Sure, this is a nice old town, but is it as beautiful as Salzburg?' 'Sure, this is a nice river view, but is it as nice as Budapest?' The answer is generally no--and that's not a bad thing. But after two months of seeing Europe, it's starting to blend together a bit for me. So it'll be good to change worlds, so to speak--to get somewhere for which I have no comparison.
-Lighter notes: some things I do seem totally innocuous to me, but are downright shocking to everyone around me. I was eating pizza in Rome, and the person at the next table watched me with slack-jawed disbelief. When his wife returned from the bathroom, he described to her in enthusiastic pantomime (complete with sound effects) in (what sounded to me like) Polish what I'd been doing. What had I been doing? Eating pizza with my hands, not with a knife and fork. But you know what? I will work with every cultural structure, learn about new ways of doing with joy in my heart, but I draw the line as eating pizza with a knife and fork, because some lines shouldn't be crossed. Sidebar: I think Americans are perceived as rude overseas (and overseas visitors can be perceived as rude in the USA) because we all assume that everyone has the same standard of politeness. But that's the further thing from the truth--everywhere (and everyone) has their own set of etiquette that thy assume isniniversal, and is generally broken purely by accident by re people visiting.
-quick notes on movie theaters in Europe--different and yet totally the same. In London, there were no ticket sellers; everyone used a machine. Then (in a development that would have literally killed my mother), the movie was preceded by close to 30 minutes of commercials and previews. Hungary and the Czech Republic were similar--biggest difference was that sets are reserved when you buy them. Apparently, the seats at the back are considered most desirable. I went to a theater in Prague--the guy working showed me the map of the theater and told me where the screen was. I picked a spot near-ish to the front. He looked at me, dumbfoundedly, and repeated himself: 'screen is *here*. I told him I understood. I think he ja a lot to think about when he went home that night.
-the 'off the beaten loath' sugggestjons on the jnternet are fairly ridiculous. While reading about Prague, I was told to 'skip those tourist waffles and find trdelnik, a dessert the locals love!' Sure, sounds great! I'm always up for being a dessert hipster. Much to my chagrin, however, there is a trdelnik cart on literally every street corner in the tourist sections of Prague. Don't get me wrong--trdelnik is delicious, it's like a churro-donut filled with ice cream, but off the beaten path it was not. I never did find those tourist waffles.
-an unexpected side effect of my speaking the local language: it hasn't made travel harder (yet), but it has made it slightly less fun. I loved going into every conversation like it was a tennis match, ready to serve back any language I was given. This was especially great in Morocco, where I could cycle through three or four languages in two minutes. Now I just start every conversation with a meek, poorly pronounced hello-equivalent and then try English. It's a bit of a shame.
-to that end, I decided it was a good idea to try and learn Russian just with the internet in less than a week. Spoiler alert--not so doable. It's been fun though.
-despite the fact that I have officially hit the point in my trip where I remember that I can get tired, I'm still profoundly greatful and giddy that this is my life. I will be totally exhausted and dead by May, but I went looking for an adventure and I've certainly found one.

Quick rankings
Top 5 cities this far--
1. Barcelona
2. London
3. Rome
4. Marrakech
5. either Budapest or Salzburg, depending on the minute.

Favorite experiences (can't bring myself to rank them)
-spending a whole day getting lost in the Louvre
-watching the sun set over the Thames
-finding a totally visitor-less Roman ruin in Lyon
-getting slapped with a massive Catalan culture festival in Barcelona
-haggling in the souks in Marrakech
-the Vivaldi concert in Venice
-eating dinner in the piazza Navarro in Rome
-and, of course, the overwhelming kindness and generosity of all the friends I've gotten to visit. Y'all are spectacular.

So then: 8 weeks, 11 countries, 2 planes, 1ferry, more trains than I care to count, and 585 miles walked. Wackiness.

Next up--traveling the trans-Siberian railroad, my mom's first overseas experience, visiting some of the niggest cities in the world, going back to Japan, and navigating Southeast Asia. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Final Oscar Predictions--the rushed and cold edition

That's right--even if I have to do it with terrible campground wi-fi after a very long day of battling tourist crowds in Venice, no force on this or any other Earth can stop me from doing Oscar predictions. Tragically, this will be the first year in over a decade that I won't be able to watch the Oscars themselves--see above, re: terrible wi-fi. Although even if the wi-fi were super, I'm not sure there are any Italian websites streaming the Oscars. And even if there were, it wouldn't change the fact that they Oscars air fro m1.30-4.30 AM over here, and I'm just not strong enough for that. So all of you will have to watch for me and let me know how it goes.

I wish I could say that the following predictions would detail nail-biting, stress-inducing races that come down to the wire, but I don't want to lie to you. Instead, you'll get to ask yourself the same question 14 times in a row: just how much does the Academy love La La Land

Best Picture
The Nominees:
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

To answer the question right off the bat: the Academy loves La La Land so, so much. I've heard a few murmurs of Moonlight riding political sentiments and the growing desire for inclusiveness to a surprise win, but I just can't see it happening. Brokeback Mountain couldn't win when it was the massive frontrunner--no way a queer-themed movie topples an absolute Oscar juggernaut. That's not the world we live in not yet, anyway).

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Should Win: La La Land
Should Have Been Here: Silence

Director
The nominees:
Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Mel Gibson-Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan-Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve-Arrival

Copy and past the argument for best picture. Sidebar--if/when Chazelle wins, he'll become the youngest person to ever win best director, ousting Norman Taurog for Skippy, who has held the record for over 80 years. Sidebar #2--have I mentioned how much I hate the fact that Gibson is nominated here? Because it makes me want to jump out a window.

Will Win: Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Could Win: Barry Jenkins-Moonlight
Should Win: Damian Chazelle-La La Land
Should Have Been Here: Martin Scorsese-Silence

Actor
The nominees:
Casey Affleck-Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield=Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling-La La Land
Viggo Mortensen-Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington-Fences

This one is a nail-biter in fact, if only because it's one of the few places La La Land probably won't triumph. Affleck was the presumptive frontrunner for months, but there's been a late-in-the-game momentum shift in favor of Washington's work. Either could take it, or, alternately, they're so close that a third contestant slips through the gap (because literally every category La La Land's in has some kind of narrative that ends up with it winning).

Will Win: Denzel Washington-Fences
Could Win: Casey Affleck-Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Denzel Washington-Fences
Should Have Been Here: Joel Edgerton-Loving

Actress
The nominees:
Isabelle Huppert-Elle
Ruth Negga-Loving
Natalie Portman-Jackie
Emma Stone-La La Land
Meryl Streep-Florence Foster Jenkins

A well-liked actress in the right age bracket giving a charismatic star turn in the best picture frontrunner? Check, check, check, check. It's tough to imagine Stone losing this one--though, bizarrely, her biggest competition comes from the transgressive and not-widely-seen Elle. A win for Huppert would be a massive upset, but a totally fantastic one.

Will Win: Emma Stone-La La Land
Could Win: Isabelle Huppert-Elle
Should Win: Natalie Portman-Jackie*
Should Have Been Here: Viola Davis-Fences (or, if you prefer, since Davis is nominated in supporting [and she's definitely not supporting in this movie], Taraji P. Henson-Hidden Figures)

*Note: I haven't seen Elle or Florence Foster Jenkins

Supporting Actor
The nominees:
Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Jeff Bridges-Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges-Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel-Lion
Michael Shannon-Nocturnal Animals

This is a tough one, in no small part because it's pretty inextricably tied to another category. The question to ask here is whether or not the Academy will feel like recognizing both Moonlight and Lion, and whether they'll use the Adapted Screenplay category to do that as well. It's easy to argue that either movie will win both categories, or that each will pick up one--but which does which. My gut says that Ali and Moonlight take this, but don't be surprised if Patel wins here. Or maybe something even crazier happens, and Bridges walks away with his second Oscar.

Will Win: Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Could Win: Dev Patel-Lion
Should Win: Mahershala Ali-Moonlight
Should Have Been Here: Alden Ehrenreich-Hail, Caesar!

Supporting Actress
The nominees:
Viola Davis-Fences
Naomie Harris-Moonlight
Nicole Kidman-Lion
Octavia Spencer-Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams-Manchester by the Sea

No way Davis loses this--it's a titanic performance, she's *actually* a lead, which helps her win, and the Academy owes her big after giving best actress to Meryl over her in 2011.

Will Win: Viola Davis-Fences
Could Win: Michelle Williams-Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Viola Davis-Fences (or, if you prefer someone who is *actually* in a supporting role, Naomie Harris-Moonlight)
Should Have Been Here: Kate Dickey-The Witch

Original Screenplay
The nominees:
20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea

La La Land vs. Manchester--if Affleck loses best actor, then this is the only realistic place to reward his film, which is certainly popular and well-regarded. And musicals rarely win screenplay awards--but how far can the La La Land train go?

Will Win: Manchester by the Sea
Could Win: La La Land
Should Win: The Lobster
Should Have Been Here: Green Room

Adapted Screenplay
The nominees:
Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion
Moonlight

This is probably Moonlight's to lose, right? That being said, Lion has been coming on strong--like we mentioned with supporting actor. But still, I have to assume this goes to Moonlight. Or hey, maybe something wacky happens and Arrival sneaks in.

Will Win: Moonlight
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Silence

Production Design
The Nominees:
Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land
Passengers

Definitely goes to La La Land. Caesar and Passengers are just glad to be here, no Harry Potter movie has ever won an Oscar, and Arrival is probably too minimalistic.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Arrival
Should Win: Passengers
Should Have Been Here: The Witch

Costume Design
The Nominees:
Allied
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

This is a tough one. First things first--we can safely assume Allied and Beasts are out. So do they go with the massive charging elephant of a movie, or do they resist it because it's contemporary costumes--which never win--and go with something period? And if so, do they go Jackie or Florence? Smart money is on Jackie--it's a movie as much about the style of its titular character as anything else--but I've a hunch that La La Land goes on a bit of a sweep.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Jackie
Should Win: Jackie
Should Have Been Here: The Dressmaker*

*Note: I haven't seen Allied or Florence Foster Jenkins

Visual Effects
The nominees:
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Jungle Book
Rogue One

This might be easier than I'm making it (Jungle Book takes it on account of being eye-popping), but I've got a feeling this one's a bit more complicated than all that. After all, Doctor  Strange is eye-popping too--and a Marvel movie has to win this Oscar eventually, right? And Kubo is gorgeous and unique. Heck, even Rogue One has an argument behind it for winning.

Will Win: Kubo and the Two Strings
Could Win: The Jungle Book
Should Win: Doctor Strange
Should Have Been Here: Captain America: Civil War

Makeup and Hairstyling
The nominees:
A Man Called Owe
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

All of these seem impossible as winners, don't they? I suppose it's the (kind of) love for Owe vs . the instinct that Star Trek movies exist to win makeup awards.

Will Win: Star Trek Beyond
Could Win: A Man Called Owe
Should Win: Abstain (I've only seen Star Trek)

Film Editing
The nominees:
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Moonlight

La La Land wins this in a walk. Next.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Moonlight
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Swiss Army Man

Cinematography
The nominees:
Arrival
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

I think La La Land's got this one in the bag too, but if there's any late-surging affection for Moonlight or Lion, expect it to manifest here.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Silence
Should Have Been Here: The Witch

Original Score
The nominees:
Jackie
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Passengers

La La Land is kind of all about its music--the only way it loses here is if it's set to lose everything.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Lion
Should Win: Jackie
Should Have Been Here: Swiss Army Man

Sound Mixing
The nominees:
13 Hours
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One

A category where musicals usually dominate if nominated--even if said musicals aren't potentially record-breaking Oscar gladiators.

Will Win: La La Land
Could Win: Arrival
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Don't Breathe

Sound Editing
The nominees:
Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Sully

A three-way race between Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, and La La Land right up to the end. Fun fact--this race could be an awfully important, because it could be the only category's standing between La La Land tying the record for most Oscars won by a movie (11) or even breaking it. So keep your eyes on your TVs during the sound categories, kids.

Will Win: Arrival
Could Win: La La Land
Should Win: Arrival
Should Have Been Here: Rogue One

Original Song
The nominees:
"Audition (The Fools who Dream)"-La La Land
"Can't Fight the Feeling"-Trolls
"City of Stars"-La La Land
"Empty Chair"-Jim: The James Foley Story
"How Far I'll Go"-Moana

Easy to assume that La La Land pulls this one out too. There's an argument that the two songs split and give the well-loved Lin-Manuel Miranda to ride Moana to glory, but I just don't see that happening this year.

Will Win: "City of Stars"-La La Land
Could Win: "How Far I'll Go"-Moana
Should Win:-"How Far I'll Go"-Moana
Should Have Been Here: "Montage"-Swiss Army Man

Animated Film
The nominees:
Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
Moana
The Red Turtle
Zootopia

Zootopia probably has this wrapped up, buy Kubo *has* been coming on awfully strong lately--and Laika studios has never won an Oscar. It's definitely a threat here.

Will Win: Kubo and the Two Strings (screw it--no guts, no glory)
Could Win: Zootopia
Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings*

*note: I haven't seen My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle

Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine-Denmark
A Man Called Owe-Sweden
Tanna-Australia
Toni Erdmann-Germany
The Salesman-Iran

Six weeks ago I'd have told you that Toni Erdmann would win this in a walk--but then the world went crazy, and now who knows? In a moment of politics and Oscars intersecting, it's likely that The Salesman wins a protest vote--director Asghar Faradi probably won't be able to attend the ceremony, due to visa bans/political stupidity. And Land of Mine and A Man Called Owe both have pretty big followings. Aaaaand Toni Erdmann is still the critical favorite. So who knows?

Will Win: The Salesman
Could Win: Toni Erdmann
Should Win: Abstain. I haven't seen any of these movies, because we don't deserve subtitled movies in the middle of the country.

Documentary Feature
The nominees:
13th
FIre at Sea
I am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
OJ: Made in America

Probably Oj's to lose, but 13th, Fire at Sea, and I am... are all legitimate threats.

Will Win: OJ: Made in America
Could Win: 13th
Should Win: Abstain--I have seen any of these, but mainly because I'm lazy and ran out of time before my trip.


So that's that. If I'm right, La La Land wins 10 trophies--stopping just short of being record-breaking. It could win as many as 12, and I don't think it'll win any fewer than 9. It'll be interesting to watch just how many Oscar dreams it can kill in a single sitting.



Thursday, February 16, 2017

On Being Polite

When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I paid $20 for someone's mix-tape. He was just one of many different flavors of hustler native to the Bay area--catch a tourist's eye, give them a sob story about your path as a starving artist, get them to hold your mix-tape, and then kindly let them know that a donation is expected. And I know all this now, but at the time I went for it hook, line, and sinker. At the end of the day, I paid him $20 not just for the mix-tape, but just to get him to let go of my hand and let me walk back to my car in peace.

The moral of this story? I am not great at saying no to people on the streets. I'm not great at ignoring people, refusing to make eye contact, etc. If someone says something to me, I'm bound to try and say something back. I know that cities are full of people inventing new ways to get into my wallet, and I know that I'm ridiculously susceptible. So I do my best to be mindful.

Today I failed at all that. And everything went fine, but it gave me some new perspectives on how I need to navigate the world.

I was walking around the Rabat kasbah--a massive fortress-settlement by the sea, a centuries-old community surrounded by walls. Strolling under the walls, I hear someone shout something; I look up at one of the many men sitting on top of the walls. He tells me the entrance is near the stairs. I thank him and head to the stairs, where I find him waiting for me.

"Where you from?" he asks.
"The United States."
"You like Trump or Obama?" (In case anyone is wondering how aware people are of American politics overseas.)
"I like Obama."
"You come stay in my country anytime." (In case anyone is wondering how American politics are currently being received in Muslim-majority countries.)

I walk to the edge of the wall, taking in the view. He follows, pointing out buildings, giving me tidbits about the history. He is friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable. When I turn away from the sea, he beckons me to follow him.

This is the moment where I know what will happen--he will give me a few bits and pieces of info before asking me for some money. I've fallen for it before, and I'm sure I'll fall for it again. Now is the time to disengage--to thank him for his time and walk away.

"What's your name?" I ask.
"Tarek. I speak 5 languages and I live in kasbah all my life."

And so I follow. What, after all, is the worst that can happen?

Before we go any further, I want to end the suspense and say that nothing terrible happened to me. Tarek continued to be a wonderful tour guide; he took me all through the kasbah, showing me little nooks and crannies, showing me things the other tourists missed. How many saw for instance, that one of the cannons defending the main entrance had a portion of the Koran engraved into its side? How many other tourists had the scripts on the walls translated for them? How many were taken to a back room where bread was being baked in a massive earthen oven?

And how many were invited back to Tarek's house for tea made by his mother?

I acknowledge that what I did here was very stupid, and that I'm really lucky that nothing happened to me. Tarek continues to be a polite host--regaling me, of course, with a sob story explaining why he needed money. He shows me the ugly scars adorning his left arm and hand that he claims were left there by a father that abandoned his family, and how sometimes he sits on his roof smoking, so that he can try to forget.

It is in this moment I realize that he might not be telling the truth about his scars--or that he is, but he is possibly not all there. I'm not afraid--the view is beautiful, Tarek is kind, and I can hear his mother cooking downstairs. But I acknowledge, in a disjointed, distanced sort of way, that this could end very poorly for me. I casually mention to Tarek that I need to meet friends in my hostel soon. He says of course. I'm sure I'm not the first tourist who has said this after finding themselves on the roof with him.

After we drink the tea his mother has brought us, we head back into the city. I tell Tarek that I need to leave, but that I'd like to help him and his brother (the excuse he gave for needing money). He says that would be very nice. I avoid the fact that I need to pay him--I am very much alone in a city that belongs to him. And so does he. Only when I give him money does he apologize that I'm 'helping' him. He says that I'm nice, and I'm always welcome in his home. At first, I was somewhat touched by this, and moved to think that he wasn't a bad guy--maybe he was legitimately in need. But upon reflection, this is the only part of the adventure that scares me the most. He wasn't apologizing that he needed money: he was apologizing because we both knew if I didn't give him anything, the very friendly visit I'd been having could easily take a different direction. He is apologizing for what happens if I don't agree to help his brother.

Dilemma #1: should I be mad that he got my money this way? After all, I had an amazing experience (up until I casually realized I could be in danger)--I got to see the side of a city most tourists never do, I got to chat with a local in English, French, and Spanish about his hopes and dreams, I got some incredible, first-hand contact with a culture that I'm sure I'll remember long after I've forgotten after other parts of my trip. And because of the exchange rate here, it didn't even cost me too much. He got the equivalent of $30 for me--wouldn't I have been willing to pay this had I gone through an official tour guide? I paid as much in London just to go inside a cathedral. Surely an hour-long intimate tour of the kasbah was worth just as much. $30 is no massive sum for me, but Tarek can feed his family with it for a month. Exchange rates are funny that way.

Dilemma #2: isn't the money irrelevant when I very well could have been putting my life at risk? I know I was lucky--Tarek was a scammer, but an honest and caring one who legitimately wanted to share his city with me. I'm not even sure scammed is the right word--I unexpectedly paid for a fantastic experience.

But how very, very stupid am I to follow a stranger into his home? If this had been another man, or maybe another city, or another country, any number of things could have happened. I wouldn't have been sitting on a rooftop terrace, drinking tea and talking Moroccan politics in halting French.

Dilemma #3: I am ultimately who I am. If someone asks me a question on the street, it's difficult for me to brush by. I'm not good at walking past beggars. For what it's worth, I'm used to believing in the best in people. This will maybe be the most difficult aspect of my trip--recognizing that the people who offer to help me don't want to help. That I am seen as a resource--and I am exactly that--whose worth can be extracted by means either gentle or otherwise. I acknowledge that, for my safety, I need to learn to be hard.

But what kind of a way is this to travel the world? How can I meet people, experience other ideas and perspectives, encounter other cultures, if I treat every walk down the street like a battle, if I make sure to shut down every person who comes to speak with me? Until Tarek, everyone in Rabat has been exceedingly kind--many people have stopped to wish me good day, or welcome me to Morocco. Maybe I'd been lulled into a false sense of security by the beauty of the ocean and the openness of everyone I'd met thus far. So how should I have responded to an encounter that I assumed, at the time, was just like all the others I'd had thus far? When is the right time to start pretending that the people I meet on the street aren't people? Sure, I realize there are lines to be drawn--speak, be polite, but don't follow anyone, don't let them convince me of anything, etc. But where does that distinction begin? I know I should have brushed by Tarek on the stairs. I should have mumbled something in German about not understanding, and gone my merry way. This would have been safe and practical. But it also wouldn't be me.

So this is my first major dilemma of my trip. How do I guard myself against the people who want to exploit me or do me harm without doing so in a way that makes me feel as if I'm turning my back on the world?

I legitimately don't know.

So long story short: I listened to the man on the wall, was treated to an amazing tour, and gradually realized how potentially dangerous a situation I'd managed to find. And now I'm not sure which face I should wear when I walk out the door.


So there's that. Morocco continues to be a learning experience. And don't worry--I haven't let this ruin my day, or my trip--I still had a great day seeing breathtaking things, and I continue to look forward to all my adventures to come. In 5 years this is a story I'll tell and laugh about.

But for now color me puzzled. There are plenty of Tareks between me and my flight back to the USA, and I have to admit that I'm not looking forward to looking each of them in the eye and telling them I have no interest in speaking to them or learning their story. But I suppose I'll have to. It's safe and it's practical.

Monday, February 13, 2017

4 weeks down, 12 to go--some thoughts on the first quarter

So one quarter of my trip--29 of 113 days--is officially gone, which means I thought it best to take a moment to reflect on what's happened thus far. Although 84 days seems like a mammoth amount of time to continue living out of a backpack, I can tell already that it's going to slip by faster than I can even imagine--even the four weeks thus far have gone like the blink of an eye.

This is a doubly good time to take a step back, in that it's something of the end of a chapter in this trip. Until now, I've spent all of my time in Western Europe in countries in which I have at least some passing familiarity with the language. And while the UK, Germany, Austria, France, and Spain are all wonderful in their own individual ways, their worlds are not so far removed from the reality I normally inhabit, nor are they worlds that I'm incapable of navigating. This changes tomorrow as I set off on a two-day trip that ends with me standing, befuddled, on a train platform in Rabat, Morocco. Morocco is the first country I'll be in in which A) I don't at least somewhat speak the main language, B) is the first country I'll be in which doesn't use an alphabet I can read, and C) is the first country I'll be in whose culture completely diverges both from the one in which I was raised and the ones I've been touring up until now.

So it'll be an adventure. Until then, here are some brief impressions on what I've seen thus far.

-One thing that I absolutely can't capture in pictures is that each city speaks its own language--not just the people, but the buildings and the architecture. Everywhere I go is different in some subtle, ineffable way that doesn't show up in pictures, but is nevertheless present. It's the way that London is like a brownstone neighborhood of New York City if it had been sent back a few centuries in a time machine and then never washed again. Salzburg is the inside of an easter basket--all pastels and presents and chocolates, but then you look in a shop window and the Easter Bunny turns around and kicks you in the stomach. If the girl who was always at Hot Topic was given an unlimited supply of concrete and a children's primer on urban decay, Berlin is the city she'd have created--a defiantly ugly sprawling vivacious mess. Paris is like walking inside a miniature model of a city. And Barcelona is the sound a dress makes as it floats on the air, permanently outside of time. And this is to say nothing of the little towns I've been to, Fuessen (what the inside of Walt Disney's head probably looked like) or Rouen (if the Halloween and Valentine's Day sections of your local grocery store had a baby) or Lyon (a world in sepia). Pictures don't cut it, and I'm not sure words do either, but it's a heck of a thing to stand in it.
-Translators have one of the world's most important jobs. I eating dinner with a friend, her sister, and said sister's boyfriend, and we all did our best to communicate, but one thing led to another and the three of us ended up looking to my friend--the only one at the table who spoke both English and French very well. And without her, we couldn't have communicated the way we did--we'd have stumbled along, and stared manically into each other's faces, but it wouldn't have come to as much. Translating is an act of construction, and it's a vital one.
-that being said--good grief has everyone been patient with my language skills. No one tried to speak English with me in Germany, and they were just as patient in France; the only time someone switched to English (in a conversation that started in French) was after I said "I'm so sorry, my French is terrible." Even my atrocious high school Spanish has managed here and there. So people *are* willing to do their best to communicate if you can meet them somewhere along the way.
-it's too early to be sick of hostels, but hey, here we are. Hostels are fine, but I am so happy when I stay with a friend and I don't have to do everything in the dark, surrounded by nine strangers.
-speaking of friends: I probably need to come up with two different categories--'favorite city visited alone' and 'favorite city with a guide. I can get plenty out of a city on my own, but it pales in comparison to what I get to see and do with someone who knows their way around. SO massive, massive thanks to all the people strewn across Western Europe who've helped me along thus far.

A few stats:
I have visited:
               -6 countries (UK, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Spain)
               -heard 7 languages commonly used (Icelandic [during my layover in Reykjavik], English, Flemish, German, French, Spanish, and Catalan) (not to say anything of the smattering of other languages I've heard spoken by other tourists or locals--I think I've heard just about every language by now, but most common are Chinese and Arabic)
             -used two different currencies (the pound and the euro). I'm finally starting to figure out the euro coins, which of course means that I'll be switching currencies in two days.
            -number of cathedrals/basilicas/churches seen: 18 (two in London, one in Winkel, two in Salzburg, two in Berlin, two in Paris, two in Rouen, one in Chartres, one in Voiron, two in Lyon, and three in Barcelona). I'm probably forgetting a few. I've seen a lot of cathedrals. Points to Westminster Abbey in London for being the most historically interesting, points to Salzburger Dom for having the most intricate interiors, points to the Rouen cathedral for the best facade, and points to the Sagrada Familia for being the first time just looking at something pretty has made me cry.
            -number of museums seen: 10 (the British Museum and the Tate Modern in London, the Austrian military history museum in Salzburg, the Topographie des Terrors in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, the Joan of Arc museum in Rouen, the movie props and miniatures museum and the museum of fine arts in Lyon, and the Museum of Barcelona History and the Maritime Museum in Barcelona). The Louvre wins all of these contests in a walk.
            -Favorite city thus far: easily Barcelona. Far and away Barcelona. I decided Barcelona was my favorite city about two hours after getting here, and nothing I've seen in the past 4 days has changed my mind.
           -favorite moments: walking along the Thames as the sun went down in London, spending 8 hours strolling the Louvre, happening on Roman ruins in Lyon and getting them all to myself, and seeing the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
          -best meal: Again, Barcelona (sorry Elise)--I have a bunch of options here, but I think I've got to go with the tapas we got the first night I was here--a huge variety of food, the names of which I've generally forgotten, but the octopus was a standout.

So that's that--tomorrow I leave for Morocco, which means that by Wednesday I will have left the relative familiarity of Western Europe in favor of something new. And I can't wait. ...but I should probably figure out how to say "please help me, I have no idea what's going on" in Moroccan Arabic.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On Little Things and Books

Here's the thing about culture shock thus far--and I admit that it my be different for me, in that A) thus far I've been (relatively) fluent in the language of every country in which I've spent time and B) I'm picking up and moving every few days like a particularly capricious and whimsical tornado tromping its way through a trailer park: it's not necessarily what I expected. Speaking a different language? Not a problem (although the day where I traveled from London to Mainz with a stopover in Belgium and got 4 different languages in one day was more than a little exhausting and made my brain feel like lukewarm spaghetti). Different cultures? Groovy! What a great chance to learn! Restaurants that do things in a slightly different order than what I want? Kill me now.

It's the little things that are exhausting--the minutiae that govern every day, the rules you don't think about that are subtly, almost imperceptibly different that trip you up and make you feel like a crazy person. So, just for fun, here are a few of the little things that are perplexing in their differences because seriously why would these be different anywhere it's so eeeeaaaasssssyyy *screaming noises*:

-I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: neither bathrooms nor water are for free I can't get over this, and refuse to on general principle. And so I spend every day a dehydrated mess with a bladder teetering on the edge of a catastrophic, Old-Faithful-esque explosion.
-There's no standardization in restaurant protocol--when to sit down, when to pay, how to pay, where to pay. This doesn't seem to bug anyone else, but every time I eat out it's an exercise in floaty-dancing.
-Americans are spoiled rotten with street signs, in that we actually have them. Stop taking this for granted. Alternately, apparently Europeans have the kind of honed and preternatural senses of direction about which we can only dream.
-Rules of the road (or lack thereof): I have yet to fully understand traffic laws anywhere I go, and am convinced that it will be this lack of understanding, and not a pack of wild Russian dogs or an exotic illness or anything like that which will be the death of me out here. In London no one pays attention to the walk/don't walk signs except when they do, and every time I thought I figured out the pattern I'd casually almost get run over by a Vespa. In Germany people obey the walk/don't walk signs with wild-eyed dedication except when they don't and I could never quite get the rhythm down for that either. Point is, if you go overseas you'll probably get run over. Act accordingly.
-Cussing is taboo in the US, but just a fact of life here--just today I've seen at least two different billboards/ads that would make a Sunday school teacher scarping off into the hills.
-On that note--tragically, I never got a picture of the Dildo King billboards in Berlin, but they were everywhere. This is a city that is incredibly passionate about selling dildos (dildoes? What's the grammatically correct way to pluralize dildo? Dildae? Dils-do?).
-personal space. Again, Americans are spoiled rotten, in that over here it's *not* generally assumed that everyone will stay at least an armslength away. If you get a foot then today is a good day for you.
-Post offices--German bureaucracy is maddening and confusing, but German postal workers (at least from my limited sample of one office in Prenzlauer Berg) are delightful human beings. It may have taken me 40 minutes, but I got my package sent and the woman who helped me didn't even make e feel like an idiot while doing it.

I'm sure there are other examples--and they'll bug me the second I step out the door--but the point is this: it's not the big cultural differences that make you do a double take; it's the everyday occurrences that you suddenly  can't negotiate, and everyone around you can't comprehend why you don't know what's going on because who doesn't know that? It's wacky?

Parting note: I've decided during my trip to try and only read books that take place in or capture the spirit of the countries I'm visiting. I cheated a bit at the beginning and read At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, which is very much about Dublin, but is also very much about Ireland's relationship with the UK, so I allowed it. Why I decided to start with a 600 page historical epic is anyone's guess, but it meant I had to skip my Germany book. But now I'm in France--I read Perfume: Story of a Murderer on the train here, and, in a fit of woeful optimism, will start A Tale of Two Cities tonight. If I somehow plow through that, I've got The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer to tide me over (or, if it comes to it, to work as my Hungary book). And once I hit Italy am morally and legally obligated to read Andre Aciman's Call me by Your Name, which is arguably my favorite book and takes place in Italy. What I want/need, however, are suggestions for all the other countries. So, if you have a favorite book that takes places in or evokes (deep breath) Spain, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand, please do let me know! Save me time googling so I can spend more time doing what I really love--getting lost on European trains and then pretending I know exactly where I'm going.