Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • What Makes a Good Movie?

    • Posted on Feb 25, 2007 by Scott Cawelti

    2-25-07

    Tonight’s Oscar extravaganza raises an old question for movie lovers and critics:  What makes a good movie?  And a related question: What might go on in the head of an academy voter when they cast their ballot?  Let me hazard a few slightly educated guesses.

    First, taste.  I like pecan pie, you like peach, and no amount of argument will make me choose peach over pecan.  I loved “Fargo,” “American Beauty,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and have argued at various times with very intelligent people who despised one or another. 

    My taste tends toward movies which challenge, even disturb me enough to wonder about an issue.  Others prefer movies that reinforce their values, that leave them entertained and comforted.  Peach, not pecan pie.

    Second, politics.  In any award judging, a candidates’ connections, track record, and remembered behavior seems bound to influence judges.  That’s why Martin Scorcese may win for best director; he’s been nominated five times for that award, but has never won.  Voters will likely remember those near-winners, all great films.   

    Yet not all choices for good movies arise from personal preferences or politics.   If that were true, Oscars would have no validity over the long haul, since tastes and political influences change radically over the years. 

    Yet for 78 years, “Best Picture” Oscars do seem to identify (with glaring exceptions) films that deserve attention and re-viewing. 

    Which brings us to the standard critical criteria, the third means of choosing good films.  Film textbooks such as “Film Art,” by Bordwell and Thompson, make the case that judging a film’s quality hinges on four standards:

    (1)  Coherence.  All the parts have to connect.  A new character or action cannot suddenly pop up without some connection to other characters and actions, or if they do they must be thematically related.  Incoherence seldom gets rewarded by critics.

    (2)  Complexity. Simple plots with one-dimensional characters make viewers feel patronized or even ignored.  We’re grownups, and grownups prefer actions with some of the complexities we all encounter in life. 

    (3)  Intensity. Some movies seem to stay on the screen, with few memorable characters or actions. They might seem pleasant enough, like some low-end restaurant food, but three hours later you can’t remember much about it. Intensity equals memorable.  

    (4)  Originality.  Even standard crime dramas and westerns can be stretched by great directors with an original vision.  Consider Robert Evans’s “Chinatown” in 1974 and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in 1992, both of which won Best Picture Oscars, both highly original genre films.

    Textbooks also caution about judging a film merely by plausibility, since what’s plausible in life may or may not work in a story. 

    And rejecting a film because it seem to support immoral behavior or show immoral actions makes little sense, since moral judgments often depend on faith-based or subjective choices, both of which vary widely from viewer to viewer.  Or what appears to be immoral on the surface may support a highly moral, though unconventional, outlook.  “American Beauty” comes to mind.  

    So if one were to leave one’s taste aside and use textbook criteria you’d have some defensible basis for judging a film. Yet there’s a final criterion, and it may be the most important of all: The spirit of the times. 

    Viewers connect most readily with what’s deeply in their thoughts and feelings at voting time. That connection arises from everything that’s swirling about in the media, as well as conversations with friends, current events, politics, workplace happenings, even dreams.  Germans call it “Zeitgeist” and it’s quite real. 

    The best films and novels help viewers understand the larger issues behind the zeitgeist, the realities that affect what they’re thinking and feeling. 

    So which movie stands the best chance of winning Best Picture honors tonight?

    I’d have to go with Scorcese’s “The Departed.”  It touches on fears of corruption (much in the news), problems with deception and loyalty (ditto) and its director, Marty Scorcese, probably will also win for Best Director.  And logic dictates that the best director will direct the best picture. 

    I’ll be watching.

               

               

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  • Jon Stewart is Stinky Cheese

    • Posted on Mar 05, 2006 by Scott Cawelti
    3-5-06

    When I was a kid, I’d watch my dad load stinky cheese onto crackers and I’d almost gag.  My kid nose said sweaty feet, but my dad said “yum.” 

     Now I know he was eating bleu cheese, or Roquefort, or some other such aromatic, well-aged cheese.  Surprise.  I now eat sweaty feet cheeses as much as my dad ever did.  It seems I acquired his taste.  

    Jon Stewart is like that.  He’s stinky cheese to those who don’t appreciate him, but others find him a gourmet delight of satirical comedy.  

    Like stinky cheese, satire’s an acquired taste.  Stewart ridicules the high and mighty along with the silly and self-important.  He and his writers skewer them verbally, visually, with fake correspondents, and with an inimitable double-triple-take reaction that yields his biggest laughs.  

    Stewart makes it looks neither hard nor risky, but it’s both. Whenever I venture into satire with this humble column, I receive angry letters and e-mails from those who either didn’t get it or hated seeing their favorite sacred cow get tipped.  

    Satirists run the risk of being misunderstood at best, of getting murdered at worst.  Ask those Danish cartoonists who have been threatened with death, or Salmon Rushdie, who rightly feared being killed by those whose taste hadn’t graduated to satire. 

    So I was taken by surprise when Stewart got the nod to host the tonight’s Oscar gala.  Jon Stewart is to Johnny Carson or Jay Leno as “South Park” is to “Peanuts,” or Tabasco to ketchup.

     Sharp and hot to familiar and cool.

    He’s likely going to cause more of a ruckus tonight than any other Oscar night host.  

    A few of the edgier past hosts promised more than they delivered.  Whoopi Goldberg didn’t seem herself and David Letterman will never live down his silly “Oprah/Uma” gag. Chris Rock toned down his act to a murmur, and seemed almost strait-jacketed.  

    Stewart, though, potentially offers a whole new breath of fresh air to the stale Oscar ceremonies.  No mere standup clown or Vegas act, he brings heavyweight comic credentials to the job. A professor of media at Syracuse calls him a “public intellectual,” and his “Daily Show” has won seven Emmys, having been nominated for ten. 

    Indeed, in 2004, that “Daily Show” actually beat out traditional news shows by winning the award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information from the Television Critics Association. That’s like James Frey winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Well, sort of.  

    And this:  He and his “daily show” writers’ book “America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” stayed at #1 for 18 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, and was named book of the year by Publishers’ Weekly.  It’s loaded with pointed satire, from a photo of Supreme Court Justices with no clothes, like the Emperor, to diagramming the sick brains of television pundits. 

    Millions watch ‘The Daily Show” worldwide as their major news source, and I never watch it without a half-dozen guffaws at the tomfoolery that Stewart exposes with abandon. 

    What makes “The Daily Show” work as well as it does probably won’t work at the Oscars, though. After all, “The Daily Show” is highly political, and politics and Oscars go together like Hitler and Gandhi. Remember Michael Moore’s acceptance speech brouhaha? 

    Also Stewart loads his comedy with bleeped obscenities, and they’ll wear thin instantly on Oscar night, if they appear at all. Besides, Stewart’s double and triple takes work best in front of a bizarre still shot projected over his shoulder onscreen.  That’s not going to fly on Oscar night. 

    These three stock techniques form about half of Stewart’s repertoire, and he’s going to need far more tonight. Since he’s blessed with a huge comic talent and a big brain, he might make it all work.  

    Or he could bomb, meaning a “lame” showing, which he admitted he feared.  Not something anyone wants to do in front of millions, least of all Jon Stewart, whose credentials as a satirist might suffer a black mark.   

    Or it could be “The Jon Stewart Show, featuring the Oscars!”  

    Either way, tonight’s Oscar ceremony will be memorable.  


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