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FLICK PICKS: At both Oscars and TCM, simpler works better
February 23, 2009  | By Diane Werts
If this year's Oscar ceremony was pretty much an all-over-the-place mess with a couple good ideas thrown in, then it's mirrored by this year's 31 Days of Oscarstunt at Turner Classic Movies, which for me can't end soon enough. (But doesn't, unfortunately, until March 3.)

Trying to theme each day's films around "classes" at some pretend TCM University just isn't working. Monday's Ranch Management mix tries to find unity among old Hollywood's soul-selling saga The Devil and Daniel Webster (left), James Dean's 1955 intensity-fest East of Eden, and Cicely Tyson's '70s breakthrough Sounder. Wednesday's Neurological Disorders slate throws together Bette Davis' '30s weepie Dark Victory and Robin Williams' deep 1990 Awakenings. OK, so Friday's American Elections slate actually makes some sense (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King's Men, The Manchurian Candidate, The Best Man). But it's a stretch to find sensible flow in Thursday's too-smart-for-its-own-good Hydrogeology schedule connecting The African Queen, A River Runs Through It, Chinatown and Death on the Nile.

Like last Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, TCM's monthlong event is lovingly thought-out and often cleverly presented, but it's simply not the best way to serve the audience. The 31 Days programmers clearly wanted to give us something different from the same old same-old. So did the Oscar folks -- dumping clips of individual nominees as their names were announced, in favor of a gang-of-five mass personal tribute presented by previous winners; weaving current and vintage clips together in one conglomerate then-and-now best picture montage; and that artsy approach to the annual In Memoriam tribute, flashing visuals from each deceased name's work across multiple screens above Hollywood's Kodak Theatre stage.

But really, don't we want to see the work the nominees have actually been nominated for? (Especially in a year with so many obscure films.) Shouldn't we be able to tell which snippets actually belong to the current films nominated for the award being presented? And wouldn't we like to be able to read the departed souls' teeny-weeny names and see their distant faces clearly on our home TVs, instead of being dizzied by a camera weaving in and out among those theater screens like a drunk staggering through the various parts of a Calder mobile?

Sometimes, the answer to a tough problem is the simplest option. The more complex it looks, the plainer it just might be. Perhaps something has been done the same way for years because it works that way. Show the clips individually already. Put the faces front and center. And line up each day/night's TCM Oscar titles in the simplest possible way -- Katharine Hepburn or Paul Newman starring, Alfred Hitchcock or Sydney Pollack directing, logical themes like this Tuesday night's festival from Japan (including Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and even The Burmese Harp from one of this year's In Memoriam folks, director Kon Ichikawa) or Saturday's boxing movies.

Don't try to dazzle us with your inventiveness. Just put together something clear and common-sensical. That's what keeps us watching.

By the way, here's this year's In Memoriam montage in decipherable form, up close and sans inebriation effects:

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