Friday, May 28, 2010

Vincere: Mussolini's Shortcomings as a Lover

Vincere (Review)
Italian director Marco Bellocchio looks at Mussolini's ugly treatment of a secret lover and their child

By Steven Rosen
. . . . . . .

Marco Bellocchio is one of Italy’s great directors. At age 70, he’s a subject of European film-festival tributes and his new films still get treated as the important works of a seasoned auteur. Yet he’s never made an impact in the U.S. to rival his early and controversial Fist in His Pocket (1965), in which an epileptic young man decides to kill his dysfunctional family.

He probably didn’t mind that neglect much — he’s had an active filmmaking career at home and has also long been involved in radical politics. Given those politics, as well as his considerable experience and talent as a filmmaker, it’s right to expect great things from Vincere, his latest film, about Benito Mussolini’s ugly treatment of a secret lover and their child. It’s a chance to show how fascism works on a personal level.

Given the subject, you’d think maybe Bellocchio would make a grand statement about the tides of Italian history, like Visconti’s The Leopard or Bertolucci’s 1900. And for a while, you feel like you’re getting it. There’s the thrill of excitingly poetic — even operatic — self-assured filmmaking. But then the story starts to sputter and grow narrow and confined rather than epic, and the film’s attempt at grandeur grows hyperbolic and shrill.

As depicted in the film, the love affair between a young Mussolini and a smitten woman, Ida Dalser, is seen as rapturously erotic romance … until it isn’t. As Mussolini chooses another lover — and another mother of his child — to be his wife, he forsakes Dalser. And as he becomes Il Duce, Italy’s fascist leader, in the 1920s, he uses the power of the state to suppress and confine her and her son.

Historically, Dalser maintained she had married Mussolini first and before his other lover, making their son Benito Albino Mussolini a legal heir. The film hedges on that. Both she and her son, who was taken from her, ended up in asylums.

If this isn't a well-known story internationally, it's been the subject of recent Italian scholarship. There has been an Italian documentary and, later, books on it. Bellocchio, working with Daniela Ceselli, wrote this screenplay.

The director, with cinematographer Daniele Cipri and editor Francesca Cavelli, attacks the story with a ferociously energetic, emotional approach that for a stretch is transfixing to watch. Although Vincere is in color, much of that has been drained in the film’s early sections, highlighting an older Italy of contrasting blacks and whites and lurking shadows. When color emerges — on a flag, for instance — it’s so vivid it appears hand-painted.

At the film’s start, set in the town of Trent, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) is an idealistic anticlerical socialist union organizer who turns a public meeting into a shoving match by asserting there is no God. His courage and defiance bewitch beauty-salon owner Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno in a focused, disciplined performance) who finds his passion irresistible. And Timi’s Mussolini is indeed that: trim, athletic, handsome and sexy in an alpha way.

Vincere does some wild and weird things to show that passion. In a lovemaking scene, it concentrates on the beyond-steely, animalistic glow in his eyes as Dalser is lost in ecstasy. He seems eerie.

In the early going, as Mussolini moves on to Milan and Dalser supports his ambitions, Bellocchio uses what appear to be archival clips to frame the story. They're presented as movie-theater newsreels with titles and show how Mussolini was shaped and influenced by the coming of World War I in 1914. He turned right-wing and pro-war.

At a movie theater, when Mussolini and his hawks take on an antiwar element on the other side of an aisle, their bodies block the theater’s screen as they shout as if singing to the score. It comes off as both dreamlike and realistic, almost Fellini-esque.

So what goes wrong? I can put my finger on the moment the spell is broken. Historically, Mussolini emerged after World War I as a political force who eventually assumed power in 1922. At that point, Timi disappears from the film as the character Mussolini and instead we see true archival footage of … a balding, glowering, truly ugly middle-aged man.

In Vincere, the character Dalser — who has lost touch with Mussolini but is rearing young Benito — sees that same footage and renews her infatuation. That’s a stretch — most people would probably go, “Egad, thank God I’m not with him any longer; he’s really aged!” This creates a retroactive rupture in our suspension of disbelief. We can’t believe the character that Timi was playing could have turned into this so quickly.

From that point on, Mussolini isn’t really an active character in Vincere. Instead, it becomes a luridly tragic melodrama about Dalser’s fate. She's separated from her son and put in an insane asylum, where naked women run around taunting and being chased by exasperated staff. The scenes are overwrought and corny (except for Mezzogiorno’s performance); even the weather is excessively melodramatic.

Meanwhile, her son grows into a young man — played by Timi — who flips out while imitating one of dad’s speeches and does a bizarre meltdown. It’s showcase acting, but you respond, “Huh? Where did that come from?” By now, Bellocchio has lost touch with whatever he originally had in mind and is just rushing toward an end.

(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat 5-19-10

Film Review | Casino Jack and the United States of Money

In Jack We Trust

by Thomas Delapa

If I were a betting man, I’d give odds that most audiences will likely take a pass on Casino Jack and the United States of Money. It’s not that the juicy subject matter is a gamble. Rather, Alex Gibney’s documentary exposé of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff comes up ten years late and a few dollars—and some sense—short.

Though the issue of campaign financing is as topical as ever—especially in light of this year's controversial Supreme Court decision—jaded Americans perhaps will want to forget all about Abramoff’s sleazy saga. The onetime “King of K Street” and “The Man Who Bought Washington,” Abramoff was convicted in 2006 on fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy charges. The surrounding investigation netted such Republican big fish House as Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned under pressure in 2006, and Ohio Rep. Bob (“Freedom Fries”) Ney, who served time in prison.

Whereas Gibney’s Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) came up a winner, Casino Jack gets bogged down in a seemingly endless stream of details and talking-head cameos. Abramoff’s biography reads like something out of a cheap spy novel—or Hollywood’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Take your pick of his schizoid incarnations: movie producer, ultra-orthodox Jew, free-market fanatic, College Republicans chairman, influence peddler, D.C. restaurateur—and unsavory insider in the G.W. Bush administration. Despite Abramoff’s staunch Republican ties, his largess also extended to Democratic congressmen, including Rhode Island’s Patrick Kennedy.

But it was greed and blind ambition, not politics, which ultimately motivated Abramoff. It would lead him to bilk tens of millions of dollars from naive Native American tribal leaders who had hired him to lobby for their casinos. In maybe the most brazen of Abramoff’s criminal deeds, he secretly conspired to close one Texas casino, only to coax that same casino to hire him to win its permit back. Chief among Abramoff’s stealth associates in the casino caper was Ralph Reed, the powerful Christian Coalition leader and Time cover boy who, at least publicly, was condemning America's moral decline.

While there’s no doubt that Abramoff is the fall guy (and some say, scapegoat), it’s the American political system that ends up as the biggest loser. First and foremost among Gibney’s persistent themes is the issue of governmental de-regulation in the area of lobbying and campaign financing. You can follow the big money all the way back to Ronald Reagan’s revolutionary 1981 declaration that “Government is the problem.” Even today, an unreformed DeLay (late of Dancing with the Stars) still insists that “money is free speech.” A less convincing argument is that our current system essentially is one of legalized bribery, and egregiously so with the staggering increase in congressional campaign costs.

By the time Gibney’s narrator recounts Abramoff’s dirty dealings to buy a floating Florida casino (a deal that may have involved a gangland hit), your eyes may begin to glaze over, with fatigue as much as disgust. That debacle would eventually lead to a damning, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Washington Post, Senate hearings and the eventual sinking of Abramoff’s fortunes. Though “Casino Jack” went down with his ship, the vast majority of his congressional cronies are still sailing along, perfectly content to rearrange the deck chairs.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 5/18/10

Saturday, May 22, 2010

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Film Review | Exit Through the Gift Shop

Schlock of the New

by Thomas Delapa

Newly arrived on the art-house circuit, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a nearly priceless satire of the contemporary art scene, especially if you’re willing to buy into what may be an elaborate inside joke of the Borat School.

There’s a revolving door of characters in this droll indie documentary, beginning with Thierry Guetta, its gnomishly oddball subject. French-born but in the U.S. since the 1980s, the stubby, mutton-chopped Guetta started his career dabbling as a near-compulsive home videographer. In the 1990s he glommed on to the burgeoning “street art” scene, accompanying and filming outlaw artists in their nighttime tags of Los Angeles. First with his French cousin, a.k.a. “Space Invader,” and Shepard Fairey (later responsible for the iconic Obama “Hope” poster), he worked his up way to the now-famous Banksy, whose subversive, politically-toned British guerilla art elevated him into an underground phenomenon.

In fact, the compulsively secretive Banksy directed Gift Shop, wrapping it up into a wry portrait of Guetta—who may or may not be who he says he is. On a dare, Banksy evidently told Guetta to turn off his camera and take up street art himself. So Thierry mortgaged his house (surprising his wife and family) and reinvented himself as “Mr. Brainwash,” whose style might be described as a kitschy pastiche of Warhol by way of Photoshop.

Whether Guetta is a fraud or post-modern Fauve, idiot or idiot savant, here’s where things get sticky. Leaving his voluminous street art footage behind in the gutter, the film focuses on Guetta’s grandiose, hype-driven efforts to turn himself into another Banksy, perhaps even another Damien Hirst. He exploits a quote from Banksy to launch his enormous 2008 one-man show, “Life is Beautiful,” in L.A. (housed in a converted TV studio where I Love Lucy was shot.) He hires a team of successful designers and promoters, gaining a fawning preview from trendy L.A. Weekly. Despite a broken foot and last-minute chaos stirred up by his own ineptitude, the opening attracts thousands of visitors to see a crammed simulacrum of Warholian soup/spray cans, silk-screened Marilyns and junked TV sets. “I’m not sure why I’m here,” admits one youthful art-goer, “but I’m excited about it.”

When the dust clears, the film’s faintly facetious narrator (actor Rhys Ifans) remarks that over $1 million of Mr. Brainwash’s artwork was sold to the throngs. Earlier this year, Thierry’s 15 minutes of fame was extended well past midnight, triumphing in a best-selling show in New York City.

In our gotcha! era of Borat and Punk’d, unsuspecting spectators can hardly guess what is real and what isn’t anymore, which may allow Banksy to get the last laugh on a gullible, wine-and-cheese-going public. But what may have begun as a prank has morphed into the modern art world’s version of Springtime for Hitler.

The film’s final stroke goes to the seemingly chagrined Banksy (disguised in monkish cowl and electronic voice): “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless."


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 5/18/10

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Film Review | Robin Hood (2010)

Robin N the Hood

by Thomas Delapa

Pray tell, I don’t know why Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe thought the world needed another reel Robin Hood, but methinks the director and star figured they could alchemically translate the Oscar-winning gold of Gladiator to not-so-merry medieval England. But if you pay more than a farthing for this bust, it’s highway robbery.

The rip-off begins with Crowe, a native New Zealander playing one of Britain’s greatest legends—and in an impish, Irish-flavored accent. It’s hard to tell who or what Crowe consulted for the role, but it surely wasn’t the kingly Columbia Encyclopedia, which describes the heroic 12th-century wealth redistributionist as “Manly, chivalrous, fair, and always ready for a joke.” Crowe may be manly, but he’s more surly than chivalrous, and it’s fair to say that he’s as funny as a medieval tax collector. This is one dull blade.

Audiences expecting a tongue-in-cheek romp or a rousing adventure will also feel cheated. Scott bends over backwards to fashion a handsome and grimly realistic historical saga adorned in pageantry and pretense, knitted together with a classical, choral-intoned score. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland pours in enough back story—starting with Richard the Lionhearted’s battles in France—to fill the English Channel. But this isn’t Shakespeare, mate. Didn’t anyone tell the great Scott that Robin Hood was a mythical figure? Even Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack got that when they made Robin and the Seven Hoods.

You won’t find Sammy Davis Jr. or any other cool cats in the supporting cast, but you will get a band of no-names among such errant stars as Cate Blanchett. Crowe has more chemistry with his horse than he does with the gaunt Blanchett, whose days playing young maids (Marion or otherwise) are behind her.

While Robin Hood is robbed of a compelling romantic angle, its villains are as cheap as they come. With the inglorious death of Richard (Danny Huston) in France, John (Oscar Isaac) slinks to the throne, tossing juvenile tantrums when he isn’t issuing royal edicts to increase taxes on his fed-up subjects. Behind the scenes lurks a weasely, scar-faced traitor (Mark Strong) who’s plotting with the hated French to invade England. Treated like a cast-off, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) is not even introduced until the third act. A shabby lot, Robin Hood’s band of merry men are only merry when they’re cavorting with lusty wenches.

While this Robin Hood plunders its legendary hero (badly), it also panders to today’s anti-tax crusades brewing throughout the realms on the both sides of the pond. John’s tyrannical demands for more money to “pay for foreign adventures” are met by subjects as mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore. Yet at the same time Scott and company pay lip service to democracy and equality, they barely mutter the tale’s original populist themes of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. They slickly parry the tricky double-edged sword: Nay, this Robin Hood is a crusading libertarian, not a thieving socialist.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Andy Garcia Plants Himself on a City Island

City Island (Review)

Andy Garcia reminds us why he was once a burgeoning big-screen star

By Steven Rosen

Andy Garcia was on the verge of becoming the new Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino in the late 1980s and early 1990s — dark-haired and handsome, volatile yet seductive, equally good as cop or criminal, lover or fighter in films like Internal Affairs, Black Rain, 8 Million Ways to Die, The Untouchables and especially The Godfather Part III, in which he was Oscar-nominated as the hot-headed, violence-prone suitor of Michael Corleone’s (Pacino) daughter.

But somehow, someway, the Cuba-born Garcia’s star faded — maybe too many law-and-order movies, maybe a slight propensity to overact in them in order to stay interested. As he got older (he’s 54 now) and his features thickened and lost their youthfulness, he wound up the patsy — the target — for the A-list stars of caper movie Ocean’s 11.

The good news of City Island, then, is that Garcia has a fine role in it and responds with a strong, likable performance. As a corrections officer who secretly wants to be an actor, he’s by turns charming, humorous, wise, tough and sweet. He displays star magnetism. To get such a part, Garcia co-produced the film.

The bad news is that City Island needs every ounce of Garcia’s considerable skills to (barely) rise above being arch, belabored and (mildly) sexed-up sitcom material. The director/writer (and co-producer) is Raymond De Felitta, a New Yorker who aims to be a poet of its overlooked boroughs. His 2000 Two Family House, set in the world of 1950s-era working-class-Italian Staten Island, was a well-written look at how the community responded to the arrival of an unwed Irish mother whose baby is black.

City Island is set in an unusual corner of modern-day Bronx — a seaport on the Long Island Sound that's a bit of touristy New England fishing village in the middle of the metropolis. As the film sees it, the population there is divided between families who have been residents for generations and newcomers. Vince Rizzo (Garcia) belongs to the former group — he’s a working-class family guy stuck with argumentative loud-mouthed wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies), who seems to want to look younger and hotter than her college-age daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's real-life daughter), who's moonlighting as a stripper.

At prison, Vince discovers that his long-lost son from an early affair, longhaired and hunky Tony (Steven Strait), is in jail on car theft and qualifies for probation. So Vince offers to take him home, although he tells neither Tony nor his family exactly why.

Right off the bat, the premise strikes one as dodgy. So we start with questions about buying into the story. But overlooking that, one immediately notices that the arguing between Vince and Joyce transcends typical dinner-table jibes and seems really mean-spirited, even vicious. And the smug, sexually oriented comments of their teen son Vince Jr. (sleepy-eyed Ezra Miller) come off as outside the pale of naturalism. (Almost everything about Miller’s character, especially his obsession with a fat woman, seems strained and stolen from a bad Fox-TV sitcom.)

The broad and inauthentic writing forces Margulies into a performance that matches. Visions of Down and Out in Beverly Hills flicker in her attraction to Tony, but City Island is too chaste to really go there — and Strait’s straight-laced performance doesn’t make us want it to.

Amid it all, Garcia underplays his scenes and keeps a glint in his eye and a paternal smile on his face, never letting Vince’s exasperation get the better of him as an actor. The family scenes do have some funny moments, where the writing sparkles, as when he sends Vince Jr. to his room. The boy retorts, “This is not a 1950s family. It’s not real punishment. My room has everything I need.”

In the middle of all this is a subplot I suspect attracted Garcia to the movie in the first place. Vince harbors a dream to be an actor — though he dare not tell his caustic wife. He secretly reads a book on Marlon Brando in his bathroom. And under the guise of going to poker games, he attends an acting workshop in the city. There, a crusty instructor (Alan Arkin, in a pricelessly wonderful scene) berates Brando for encouraging Method-obsessed actors to pause too much in their line readings.

There’s some post-modern irony in this subplot — a humble, shy Vince auditions for a small role in a Martin Scorsese movie starring De Niro, impressing the casting director with his “naturalism” (really, Garcia’s considerable acting chops) by interpreting his scene as if he was still at work as a prison guard. (There’s a second layer of irony in this standout scene, as Vince is actually imitating Tony.)

This Vince-as-actor subplot also allows Garcia to show his tenderness in scenes with a fellow acting student (an overly affected Emily Mortimer, who reminds of Margot Kidder in Superman). You can see here Vince reveal the life he’d like to live and the person he’d like to be.

City Island shoehorns its loose plot strands into a big, loud scene where the camera flits back and forth trying to keep up with the characters as they shout out their secrets. It’s meant to be cathartic, but it’s formulaic.

What remains is how appealing Garcia is and how you’d like to see more of him as a middle-aged leading man in better movies. Grade: C-plus

(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat; April 28, 2010)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Review | High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess

L.A. Low

by Thomas Delapa

In a town all-too-famous for its meteoric rises and falls, Don Simpson may not belong in the same orbit of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or even “Fatty” Arbuckle, but if any producer symbolized the revved-up, dumbed-down, testosterone-fueled Hollywood of the 1980s, it was Simpson, who died of a drug overdose in 1996 at age 52.

Gone but not forgotten, Simpson’s dubious legacy lives on in the ubiquitous male action flick, as well as in the blockbuster movies of mass distraction made by his one-time partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, including the soggy Pirates of the Caribbean saga. First published in 1998, High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess (Doubleday) is Charles Fleming’s vitriolic, blow-by-blow account of Simpson’s high—and luridly low—times in Hollywood’s fast lane, and it’s worth another look in the rear-view mirror.

Before he crashed and burned, Simpson was one of Tinseltown’s superstar producers, rising to mogul-dom just as New Hollywood risk and experimentation was running out of gas in the late seventies. At the studios—where it’s said you’re only as good as your last movie—Simpson was a guy who always got his phone calls returned.

Short in stature but not in ego, Simpson began his career at Paramount and Warner Bros., breaking out in 1983 with Flashdance, the first in a string of formulaic, dimly-plotted hits that appalled critics and seduced a new youth audience weaned on TV, pop music and the emerging MTV aesthetic. Simpson was a key player in turning “high concept”—catchy plots easily boiled down into one or two sentences—into lowbrow box-office gold. Over the next 15 years, Simpson and Bruckheimer zoomed to the stratosphere, cranking out big-budget hits like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Bad Boys, slowed down only by the thunderous dud of Days of Thunder. The team quickly exploited the allure of synthetic pop songs (pasted over the paper-thin plots), selling both Flashdance and Top Gun as essentially long-playing music videos, amped up with sexy hardbodies and hokey fairy-tale heroics.

But in Simpson’s story, there were no happy endings cut from a Tom Cruise movie. Behind the scenes, he became notorious for a lifestyle out of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, not the Hollywood Reporter. His prodigious drug use was an open secret, as were his sordid sexual escapades, which might even embarrass Tiger Woods. A serial womanizer, Simpson was habitually fond of prostitutes (notorious “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss counted him on her A-list) and S&M, and at least one of his former secretaries sued him for sexual harassment. As he aged and fretted over his looks, his addictions crept into all manner of plastic surgery and hormone treatments, which, as Fleming describes, eventually made his face look like “an inflated ball of Naugahyde.” For all his vain efforts—checkered by stints in rehab—Simpson in the nineties went downhill fast. Few were surprised when, on Jan. 19, 1996, he was found dead at his toilet, the victim of the “combined effects of multiple drug intake,” including cocaine. Michael Eisner, his former boss at Disney, said “I had been waiting for this call for 20 years.”

On his death, dozens of his Hollywood friends and cronies rushed to praise him. Screenwriter Joe Ezterhas, no stranger to hype, called him “a true American original.” Others were quick to bury him. In one of the most mordant Hollywood postmortems, director Robert Altman said, “Simpson was a bad guy, a bum. It’s a big plus for our industry that he’s gone. ...”

Altman—truly a cinematic anti-Simpson—is now gone, too. But since Simpson’s inglorious fade-out, it’s hard to say that Hollywood has gotten better. Flying solo, Bruckheimer has thrived, succeeding beyond even Simpson’s wildest dreams with booty collected from the Pirates franchise, National Treasure and the grimly metastasizing CSI TV series. The hyper-real, youth-skewed, post-narrative trends that Simpson seized on the eighties have exploded in the years since, juiced up by digital special effects. Then, as now, nothing in Hollywood succeeds like excess.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Do Oscars Need an Additional Music Category?

Music Oscars

By Steven Rosen

Crazy Heart features a powerful, evocative composition that seems likely to be recognized during movie awards season – its “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart),” by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett, is a strong candidate for an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

But, really, the whole mix of music assembled for the film’s soundtrack by Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton is effective. It uses, for instance, Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light” – even a snatch of co-star/producer Robert Duvall singing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.”

So why not Oscar consideration for its overall soundtrack? Actually, there are those who actively work in finding existing pop songs – source material – for movies wish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would do so with a new Oscar category.

The Academy has three Oscar music categories – Original Song, Original Score and Original Musical. In the past, it has had other categories – Prince won an Original Song Score Oscar for 1984’s Purple Rain – but they have all honored music made with the film in mind.

Yet The Graduate, way back in 1967, changed movie music forever by using pre-existing Simon & Garfunkel songs. One of the classics of modern American cinema, it has a traditional score of sorts – Dave Grusin wrote instrumental passages that evoke the lifestyle of the upper-middle-class California adults young Benjamin Braddock was rebelling against.

But Grusin isn’t thought of as the film’s primary musical auteur. That honor has always gone to Paul Simon, who allowed director Mike Nichols to evocatively use several existing songs in the film, especially “Sounds of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair.” But Simon wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. (While The Graduate was the origin of “Mrs. Robinson,” only snatches were actually used in the film – Simon hadn’t written the verses yet.)

But ever since, movies have used source material – especially older rock and pop songs – to help convey the emotional tenor of individual scenes.

“Most of us hear source music and it already has power from how its been assimilated into our lives,” says Joe Henry, the singer-songwriter who has worked on music for movies in several different capacities, from producing cover versions of Bob Dylan songs for I’m Not There and writing for Knocked Up with Loudon Wainwright III, to composing the score for the upcoming film Motherhood.

“It’s like hiring a particular actor, say Jimmy Stewart,” Henry says. “You didn’t have to do a lot of work to prove your character was a good guy. It’s telegraphed instantly by his presence.

“Music wasn’t used that way in the early days of the Academy,” he says. “But it has slowly found purpose as a significant way to aid storytelling. To not have a way of acknowledging that when appropriate is like not acknowledging an editor or a light designer.”

It’s an interesting question, concedes Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy. But he doesn’t expect a change anytime soon. “It is undeniable that preexisting music has made very effective contributions to many pictures over the years, but that’s not what we do at the Academy,” he explains.

“The Oscars are about the creating of stuff,” he says. “I know a score completely made up of preexisting music has a creative aspect to it, but there’s nobody writing the music and that’s what we focus on.”

Randall Poster, who supervised the selection of Dylan covers for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, believes the work deserves award consideration. “It was a monumental task because we were dealing with one of the greatest icons in pop culture,” Poster says. “It would be nice if somehow, someway, there was an acknowledgement of the best musical element in a movie,” he says.

Crazy Heart’s Burnett, who produced the soundtrack of mostly new recordings of American traditional music for O Brother Where Art Thou? that garnered five Grammys, is more cautious. He says he understands that the Academy needs first and foremost to keep the Oscar for Best Score “pure” – meaning it’s a “substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring,” according to Academy regulations.

“Maybe there could be a couple more music categories, but it doesn’t feel like the Oscars are short of categories,” he says. “The reality is you write these songs and people carry them in their hearts. That’s about as far as you can go with it.”

(This ran in the March, 2010, issue of American Songwriter)

(Photo of T-Bone Burnett)