Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

New director Cooper garners Oscar buzz with ‘Crazy Heart’; ‘American Radical’ captures professorial life

Credit: O. Johnson

“Crazy Heart”

Who would’ve thought a little-seen, small-budget picture by a first-time director would have the Academy at its knees with less than three weeks to go before the biggest night in Hollywood? Not this critic.

I kind of expected George Clooney (for “Up in the Air”) or Morgan Freeman (for “Invictus”) to run away with the golden statue this year, but Jeff Bridges and his role as a washed-up alcoholic with a penchant for good lyrics, random women and the guitar is getting some perhaps worthy attention by Oscar voters.

The not-so-subtle whirlwind Bridges embodies: a 57-year-old guitarist named Bad Blake, stuck in his ways and with little future ahead of him: is a solid display of method acting not unlike that which almost brought Mickey Rourke last year’s award for Best Actor. The two roles are nearly indistinguishable, though the characters’ futures could not be more different. It’s strongly implied that Randy (Rourke) will die doing what he loves whereas Bad will slowly-but-surely jump start his career and, for that matter, his life.

For my money, “Crazy Heart” is unwaveringly predictable and too schematic to merit the hearts and minds of so many members of the Academy. In a sense, it remains true to the ever-cliché masculine, middle-age maturity plot in ways that Rourke’s film last year, “The Wrestler,” didn’t: Washed-up male who entertains for a living has drug problems and still lives in the past; he meets woman who gives him a pseudo-chance, but blows it and must completely change his ways; he changes his ways and moves forward with his life in such a way that he is able to still entertain, thereby preserving the nostalgic present.

Though it may not be nuanced or revolutionize the way we think about Southern country musicians, Sam Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” holds a place in the upper echelons of this year’s Oscar nominees and, like “The Wrestler,” is a testament to the power of acting, proving that one good lead performance can carry a film from the opening to the ending credits.

“American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein”

The life of an academician is rarely captured by good fictional dramas, save Tom McCarthy’s film “The Visitor.” Professors, rather, are frequently caricatured as intellectual priests who yearn to satiate their sexual appetite as in Isabel Coixet’s mundane and incoherent film “Elegy.” Both 2008 films, regardless of their quality, fail, however, to paint a portrait of the professor and what has led him/her to become what most perceive as a recluse, elitist bookworm far removed from the reality he/she supposedly contemplates.

For such a painting, one must turn to documentary films, like those of Astra Taylor (director of the 2005 film “Ã…½iÃ…¾ek!” and the 2008 film “Examined Life”) or Kirby Dick  (director of the 2002 film “Derrida”). Fortunately, this week sees the release of another solid film: a study of political scientist Norman Finkelstein: worthy of being included in this group.

Finkelstein was an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University until 2007 when he was denied tenure by the school’s dean and a president-affirmed panel for “personal and reputation-demeaning attacks on Alan Dershowitz,” though they praised him as “a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher.” Of course, the tenure denial goes much deeper than a heated exchange with Harvard’s Dershowitz on “Democracy Now!” in 2005; the tenure denial addresses fundamental questions of academic freedom that universities still confront today.

The film focuses on this particular affair and the entirety of Finkelstein’s life, interlacing arguments in favor of and against the politically polemic academic. The results are, dare I say, some of the most violent exchanges I’ve seen without the use of a physical weapon. Some, like Leon Wieseltier of “The New Republic,” believe Finkelstein is a “poison: a disgusting self-hating Jew” while others, like MIT’s Noam Chomsky, believe he’s “an outstanding scholar . . . it’s amazing that he didn’t get full professorship a long time ago.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Finkelstein’s political positions or not, Nicolas Rossier and
David Ridgen’s new documentary “American Radical”: like Stanley Fish’s New York Times blog: is an excellent introduction to the complex territory that is academic freedom in the postmodern world.

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    joonyJul 27, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    can somebody tell me where we can find infos on oscar buzz documentary american radical????