‘Mid90s’, middle ground: lacking inspiration.

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Mid90s proves that standard movie tropes are always familiar no matter how you dress them up. And first-time director Jonah Hill has certainly earned kudos for dressing his new film up to fit its epochal title: one only has to glimpse a few grainy frames (purposely shot on 16mm film for added effect), to be transported back into the last days before the millennium: compact discs, baggy clothes, big hair and of course a nostalgic soundtrack by a seminal voice of the era, Trent Reznor.

Although the title references an entire cultural zeitgeist, the film is far from being all-encompassing in scope or subject. Instead, it’s an insular story built on specificity, resting under a rather prosaic and vague title for lack of keener inspiration, which is its biggest flaw.

The story begins in Los Angeles during its titular time period, with a young preadolescent boy named Stevie. Hounded by his boorish older brother from the opposite end of the adolescent spectrum and given free rein by a lais·sez-faire mother suffering from arrested development, Stevie is primed for one of cinema’s biggest clichés: a summer he’ll never forget.

This leads into another hallmark of the period: the skateboarding underworld, when Stevie sets his sights on befriending a group of older boys at the local board shop.

As soon as he unremarkably worms his way into the affections of the boisterous but nonthreatening slackers, his story ticks off the requisite milestones of coming-of-age and its subgenre of films: exhilarating new experiences, wise mentors, chafing against his family, high jinks that just skirt the line of true danger and serious trouble.

Since the plot is standard framework, the question is if the parts make up for the sum. Stevie is competent enough as a protagonist: he fits the bill in looks and temperament, without hitting any false notes. The home life he shares with his threadbare family never truly generates a sense of urgency, which curbs any added weight to his arc. Stevie’s older brother and young mother aren’t guilty of anything beyond typical dysfunctional fare: physical taunts from the former and distractions by the latter. As for Stevie’s newfound entourage: they border on caricatures, with raunchy nicknames and slight characterizations that are as nuanced as a junior high yearbook.

 The film suddenly hits a climax that can only be described as inorganic and again, contrived—but this is in keeping with its steadily innocuous tone. Mid90s doesn’t seek to innovate or make a statement. It’s a light tale that never truly triumphs or fails abysmally either—inhabiting a safe middle ground of familiarity, evident all the more by its usage of epidemic-level nostalgia for a past era that’s bound to pique audience interest. It’s the only true star of the movie; without it, it would lose half of its distinction.

Nobody Walks in L.A.

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L.A. has the worst pedestrians in the world—because we’re not used to them. It’s bad enough that it takes forever to drive a relatively short distance in this town due to traffic, but when you need to drive through an intersection and a person dares to walk across it first? It’s enough to make you curse the existence of humanity.

Sometimes it’s truly a test: on more than one occasion, I’ve been delayed by the truly physically impaired. Of course I empathize and wait patiently on those occasions, but those moments feel tailored to test the utmost limits of my character. It’s like halting an epic sneeze or cutting off a bowel movement midstream: the absolute urge to purge and the terror of following through with such a deplorable act calls for your every last nerve to reverse the impossible.

On one such occasion, I had to make a left turn from a moderately busy lane; a slew of cars rolled through in the opposite direction, deterring me. My receptors were already piqued because this traffic was a tad unusual for this area given it was an early Saturday evening. I scanned my target intersection, and saw two young men idling by on skateboards. They cleared before the train of cars did. Impatient, I began to eyeball the nearest traffic light up ahead that could clip this parade to my left. Then I saw it:

A disheveled, middle-aged man ambled arduously forward towards my designated cross street—on crutches. What’s more—in my periphery, I caught an aberration on one of his legs—yes, his right leg was amputated around the knee. Immediately, my mind jumped to do the math: at his laborious pace and with the yellow light imminent up ahead, he would reach the intersection just as the cars on my left cleared.

I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t even angry at him. I was just resolutely amused that this was happening. It felt so indicative of this city. Here I was, driving a car that still functioned well past its purported expectancy, with takeout on my passenger seat—no plans for the night, half a mile from home—and normally I would’ve flipped out at this pedestrian who dared to cross a public street in direct tandem to me turning into it, except that in this scenario the perpetrator was possibly a transient with clear physical limitations and little to no means by the looks of his tattered appearance.

If I had flipped the switch into full selfish pig mode at that very moment, even just privately in the confines of my car—I knew it still would’ve been a sin, in the eyes of my conscience and whatever god may exist. I could see an audience of my fellow human beings at that very moment as well, sneering and groaning at me if I were to recall the story on stage or if they were privy to it via a hidden surveillance camera—satisfied in their smugness that I was more terrible than they were, convinced that they would’ve felt nothing but angelic compassion in my position.

I drove home and lamented it all: the feckless logistics of this town, the cruel irony of fate, the snide hypocrisy of humans and my own presumptions about them—and my inability to resist being affected by all of this.

City of Broken Dreams

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I volunteer at the local gay center occasionally. It’s located in the heart of Hollywood—on Santa Monica Boulevard, just off of Highland. If you go a bit further north on Highland, you’ll hit Hollywood Boulevard next to the Kodak Theater where they used to hold the Academy Awards.

I don’t live too far away, geographically, but as with everything in L.A. it’s cultural disparity that separates us, not distance. Driving up from my nondescript, low-key neighborhood of West L.A. adjacent to Beverlywood, I’m essentially wading into the gritty, smoggy, unfamiliar waters of Hollywood when I venture there. More discerning people would have ardent reservations even going there, barring an absolute emergency or valid necessity. Geographic prejudice is just one of the many charming traits of Angelenos you’ll discover here. I’m certain many of them take gleeful pride in it, much as they would a fine set of hair or an official job title.

One Monday morning, I gamely made the commute to do some filing for an upcoming event at the Gay Center. It was pleasant—getting out of my routine to help out with a good cause, while brushing shoulders with people I otherwise would never encounter on my own. The free pizza and cookies were just a bonus.

Halfway into my shift, I had to move my car to avoid parking regulations. Walking amidst the nearby adjacent residential neighborhood, I got into my vehicle and circled around onto Highland Avenue and parked, then trekked back to the Center. This unremarkable act evoked volumes to the intensity of this city and its continuing unfamiliarity to me.

Within such close proximity to the Gay Center, several of its constituents were milling about in surplus: an African American transgender woman strutted down Highland Avenue, bemoaning the heat under her breath. A pair of young gay men, stylishly dressed, sauntered northward on the street. A lone gay man in his late thirties to early forties, glanced at me curiously as I reached the crosswalk.

The street glowed under the unseasonable heat for late October—all concrete, metal, and glass—cars and casually dressed denizens moving forward with purpose. Businesses held shelter like virtue.

Back at the Center, a middle-aged man and woman danced and frolicked to music from a boombox while a small, hairy dog looked onward at their side. Their diligence seemed to equate with rehearsing for an imminent performance in the future. They paid me no mind, and I didn’t with them.

It was at that moment that I tied everything together. I realized that I no longer possessed a sense of wonder that is synonymous with youth. Not too long ago, I would have been tickled with simple amusement at the sight of this quirky couple and their canine cohort. I would have mused over their arbitrary efforts and location—the myriad possibilities of their intentions and origins.

I would have felt joy at watching the nearby city streets emitting their own special music, new to my ears as a visitor. The pedestrians and storefronts would have told stories that I knew would continue on without my witness—the mystery of it all intriguing me.

I would’ve felt this like a child on a Saturday morning: plain reverence at the beauty of life and all it had to offer on one special day. Now? I’d woken up on a new day, and didn’t recognize what I saw in the mirror anymore. Or I did—I looked just like the hardened cynics who had scoffed at me whenever I expressed unmitigated wonder in this city.

I realized: there was no sense of wonder for me anymore, because there was nothing new for me to see in this city. I knew the end of each story now, or rather: I knew where I belonged in the context of each one. I knew what to expect. I’d been trying in vain to make a connection in this fractured city, to no avail. What did that tell me?

Without ambiguity, there is no need to be curious anymore. This is why people settle down and stop exploring. It isn’t necessarily a choice. It’s an acceptance of who you are and how you are received in this world. I was just holding out on it for much longer than most.

Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?

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It’s that time of year again: when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—who wore it best—oh, and which film won Best Picture. Probably something artsy and serious. Sometimes it’s deserved—a film of true excellence and craftsmanship in writing, acting, and directing. But usually it’s just a film that you may or may not have seen. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided all serious dramas will be relegated to DVD viewing—‘cause, you know: why do I need to see talking faces on a big screen?) Also, movie prices are astronomical, so—okay, I see it: I’m part of the cycle and why Hollywood is nickel and diming every potential film that passes through their gates in the hopes of production. No wonder they’re settling for the bottom line so often—a “sure” thing (read: sequel, prequel, or remake of something that did legitimate business once). But I digress.

Anyway, it’s the Oscars again. And of second most importance, it is 2017. I make a point of the year because frankly, I don’t believe the Oscars are nor have been the same for a long time now.

I often wonder what my younger doppelganger today would think of this Hollywood pastime now. What do young, budding (okay, and gay!) dreamers like me today think of this rapidly declining tradition of awarding the “Best” in Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

Cut to: me in the early 1990s. Maybe because things often look better in retrospect or I just didn’t know any better because I was a kid, but: the Oscars felt like they meant something back then. The five, count ‘em, just five nominated films for Best Picture (more on the topic of that category being expanded to ten nominations later) really felt like they earned that coveted spot. Each film that was nominated felt special, and it was usually a tight race that was more or less about merit and not just politicking by studios and adhering to social trends of the day.

Culturally, budding gay—I mean, budding dreamers of all stripes only had a few outlets to view their favorite stars back then: People magazine, and “Entertainment Tonight”. Which meant we were primed and hungry to see all these stars convene on one epic night—a smorgasbord of glamour, glitz, and at least to an idealistic kid like me back then: talent!

The Oscars have been cheekily dubbed “The Superbowl for Women”—in terms of annual cultural impact and significance. But unlike the actual Superbowl, the Oscars have been morphing and changing notably, and gradually eclipsed by other smaller Superbowls in the past two decades.

In the age of Twitter, TMZ, and the E! Channel, we can literally follow our favorite stars online 24/7 to see what they ate for breakfast or what color their kids’ poop is; spy on them as they exit an airport terminal via shaky video footage, or consume their daily lives in a craftily executed weekly reality TV show.

With these enlightening options that we’ve been blessed with through technical progress, the mystery of what it means to be rich and famous and talented has become rote and accessible in ways never before imaginable.

I have a feeling my teenage doppelganger today would view the Oscars the same way I viewed silent films or drive-in movie theaters when I was a teen in the 1990s.

Perhaps in response to this changing culture (read: poorer ratings for the telecast—undoubtedly due to the Academy’s penchant for nominating “serious” films that don’t do much business at the box office)—the category for Best Picture was expanded to include up to ten nominees, in 2009. The Academy claimed this was a throwback to the early years in the 1930s and ‘40s, where there were up to ten nominees per year—but many cynical observers assumed it was a blatant attempt to nab more viewers for the annual show. The quip “Are there even ten films worthy of being nominated every year?” hit the web quicker than you could say ‘Action!’. Incidentally, the Oscars suffered its lowest TV ratings ever the previous year, so read into the subsequent change however way you want.

As I alluded to earlier, I could relate to the criticism on the merit of today’s films—let alone their worthiness of being nominated for such an honor. In our current cinematic climate, I think the cap of five nominees is/should’ve been more relevant than ever—an elite prestige worth striving for, artistically.

Nearly a decade later, the expansion of nominees hasn’t made a mark on me as an Oscar viewer or a movie fan. If anything, it makes it harder for me to remember what films were nominated each year—but that could be more of a reflection on my waning interest for the show altogether.

In 2016, the Academy was confronted with yet another issue—this time one of moral. The lack of diverse nominees that year spurred a boycott by many African-American artists and viewers, who claimed a racial bias against them. Although I understood the greater issue of diversity, as a minority myself even I had reservations about the campaign. Was the Academy biased, or were there simply no quality films that year that starred African-Americans (or other ethnic groups)? If it was the latter, for instance—the issue wasn’t the Academy, but the movie industry itself.

Nonetheless, in true form, the Academy reacted swiftly with their image in mind—claiming they would add a significant amount of women and people of color to their voting bloc. The validity of this gesture aside, the consequence of this detrimental publicity also left a viewer like me wondering how sincere future nominations would be. As well intentioned as the campaign was to shed light on the Oscars’ lack of diversity, the fallout could be that they might overcompensate and recognize films (not people, mind you) of lesser merit to meet political correctness.

This shifting of objectives and influences only aided the rapidly declining relevance of the Oscars in my eyes. It was not about simply awarding the best films anymore—but a commercial and social experiment gone awry.

But this was nothing new overall: the Oscars have always been about more than just the merit of moviemaking, of course.

I turned eighteen when the world entered a new millennium in 2000, and the year “American Beauty” won against a highly publicized award campaign for its chief rival nominee that year, “The Cider House Rules”. Maybe because I’d technically became an adult and therefore achieved full enlightenment at last, but the fact that a movie studio launched a publicity campaign to swarm voters to choose their film was not lost on me. Apparently, voters don’t just go into hibernation and pick winners, then emerge back into the real world alive and rejuvenated by the purity of their choices.

The validity of their choices has often been debated for other reasons as well: awarding an actor or director for their current, less stellar work simply to acknowledge their greater body of work is another common longstanding ploy.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the curtain has finally gone down on my love affair with the Oscars. Honestly, the last few years I’ve been less and less drawn to the extravaganza. As late as 2013, I still recall having a few vestiges of excitement that I’d had in my youth—feeling like I was witnessing something greater than myself. But the past two years and on the eve of this year, it’s dawned on me now that the heyday of the show has long joined the past. It doesn’t detract from the merit of truly good movies, but that’s the thing: good movies and the Oscars are not the same thing, and they haven’t been for a long time.

So it’s that time of year again—when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—and who wore it best. Oh, and which film won Best Picture. Exactly. That’s all it is.