OPINION: Oscars Play It Safe This Year for Boring Results

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/

By Samantha Pickette
BU News Service

There are very few things that should be allowed to run on television for longer than three hours. “Gone with the Wind” is one of them. Sadly, Sunday’s Oscars telecast was not.

The evening consisted mostly of host Ellen DeGeneres resting on her laurels as one of America’s comedy sweethearts, knowing that no matter how she performed, people would still love her. The result was a lackluster and slow-moving show, marred by lazy jokes and painstaking predictability.

DeGeneres’ opening monologue, which had none of the glitz and glamour befitting of “the biggest night in showbiz” was so nonchalant that it almost seemed as if she forgot she was hosting the Oscars and had to throw something together at the last minute. Granted, there were a few clever quips here and there — DeGeneres’ comparison between the ceremony and “The Hunger Games”

“There are cameras everywhere, you’re starving, and Jennifer Lawrence won last year,” DeGeneres said at one point.

But most of DeGeneres’ jokes fell flat.

For example, pretending that Liza Minnelli was a male impersonator was not only not funny, but bordered on cruel. The other jokes simply went on too long, as was the case with the running gag about ordering pizza for the audience, which eventually culminated in DeGeneres handing out pizza and flimsy paper plates to the haute couture-clad celebrities.

DeGeneres’ performance was not a surprise, however. She hosted a similarly bland Oscars in 2007, following much the same formula: a monologue shouting out to nominees like Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, followed by a social media-related photograph — in 2007, it was Steven Spielberg taking a picture of DeGeneres and Clint Eastwood for MySpace; and in 2014, it was DeGeneres tweeting a selfie with Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong’o, and Jared Leto.

We know what we get with an Ellen DeGeneres Oscars: a few jokes, some celebrity hi-jinks, and above all else, predictability.

DeGeneres, then, was a safe choice for the Academy to make, fitting the now-familiar pattern that alternates each year between showcasing either a “dependable” or an “edgy” host. 2011 hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway were a failed attempt to attract a younger, hipper audience and instead proved that young, hip people can be boring, too. In 2012, the response was Billy Crystal, in his ninth turn as host. In 2013, the Academy decided that the older Crystal should be replaced by the bolder and more demographically appealing Seth MacFarlane, who managed to offend everybody while not being particularly funny.

So, here we are in 2014, with a “safe” host in Ellen DeGeneres and a painfully slow show.

DeGeneres is not entirely to blame for the telecast’s inadequacies. The stage itself, complete with a too-bright lighting installation, a group of menacing, life-size Oscars, and what can only be described as a replica of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo on the floor, was distracting at best.

The “theme” of the show, “Heroes in Hollywood,” represented by a few clips of Atticus Finch, Erin Brockovich, and Woody from “Toy Story,” was not carried out enough to merit being mentioned in the first place. And, to add insult to injury, the final thematic montage (presented by Chris Evans, who will most likely never win an Oscar) was dedicated to action movies like “The Hunger Games,” “Harry Potter,” and countless other films that have never been deemed worthy by the Academy.

There were some enjoyable moments, but those were few and far between. Bette Midler’s soulful “In Memoriam” performance of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and Pink’s ruby-red rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” were the only musical numbers of the night that were worthy of the Oscars (despite what the standing ovations for U2 and Idina Menzel’s performances would lead you to believe).

The major problem with the Academy Awards ceremony was that it was too predictable to be entertaining. Cate Blanchett won (and pointedly thanked Woody Allen), as we knew she would. “Dallas Buyers Club” and “12 Years a Slave” came away with the majority of the “big” awards of the night, because AIDS and slavery are more meaningful subjects than Wall Street debauchery and 1970s-era FBI stings. “Gravity” won everything else, and Sandra Bullock was convincingly gracious in her role as “the only person from her movie who won nothing.”

Moreover, it was too long, a fact that was exacerbated by a decided lack of pizzazz. Where was the Billy Crystal-esque musical number? Where was Ben Stiller presenting the make-up and hairstyling award dressed as a character from “Avatar?” Where were the iconic speeches? There was nothing special that distinguished this year’s ceremony. It wasn’t particularly bad. And it wasn’t particularly good. It just was.

But, there’s always next year. Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio.

Letting Go of the Tiger

Modified image, original licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

The tiger is an ambiguous figure, at once a powerful icon and a threat to livestock and people. Yet this majestic beast is well on its way from being mythologized to becoming an actual myth. Charitable organizations spend five to six million dollars a year to stave off its extinction, but wild populations have fallen to under 4,000 individuals. It may be time to give up on the tiger.

The fight to save the tiger embodies a “flagship species” model of conservation that selects a single species to be the public face for a particular habitat or group of organisms. The animals chosen are usually charismatic and iconic, like the elephant, the polar bear, the panda, or the whale. Animals selected in this way are often kept in zoos, as part of a captive breeding program or more often as an “ambassador” to raise awareness for conservation.

Restoring the tiger would bring balance back to their old habitats, but the barriers to achieving this goal are considerable. The tiger was once an apex predator in India and Southeast Asia, exerting top-down control across entire ecosystems. Today, it inhabits only 7 percent of its historic range. Groups working to save the tiger butt heads with government bureaucracy in tiger countries.  And urban development is an inexorable tide of habitat fragmentation.

While flagship species have undeniable appeal, singling them out for protection often distracts from other critical ecological issues. And some valuable ecosystems don’t harbor any flashy mascots, like the mountain streams of Appalachia. Rather than focusing on glamour species, conservation biologists are now selecting species with a focus of preserving biodiversity, a measure of the number and abundance of species in a given area, and a good indicator of ecosystem health. After all, saving the tiger but not its home and food sources would relegate the survivors to living only in zoos and scrupulously managed reserves.

Still, estimates used to approximate biodiversity tend to fail when modeling species as rare as the wild tiger. There’s no way of knowing whether current management strategies are working at all. This doesn’t mean that all conservation efforts are fruitless, but public money may be better spent elsewhere.

Captive breeding programs in zoos lack the capacity to ever restore tigers to the wild. They are in a better position to conserve uncharismatic species, like the pygmy rabbit, spotted stoat, and hellbender. These beauty pageant losers could be brought back from the brink of extinction in someone’s basement, restoring their roles in natural ecosystems.

The world’s ecosystems, charismatic or otherwise, provide environment-stabilizing services including water purification, soil fertilization, land management, and pest control. Together, the economic benefits of these services exceed the combined GDP of the whole human species. Shifting our focus to a group of organisms facing manageable levels of risk could preserve more ecosystem services than the tiger alone ever provided.

The wild tiger may well be past the point of no return, but the Quixotic quest to save it can teach us valuable lessons about setting priorities in conserving biodiversity. We do not treat all species as equals. If we temper this natural bias with a focus on ecological importance and manageability of risk rather than mass appeal, we will be well on our way to optimal returns on our investments.


Dust to Dust: Considering Natural Burial

Your view
Your view
Photo courtesy of Flickr user knfk

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

As far as we know, everyone dies. After you die your loved ones will most likely hand you off to a very professional-looking, somber stranger. This stranger will deal with your corporal remains either by the pickle-and-primp method or by crisping you in an oven that reaches up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should the former method be chosen, your orifices will be padded with balls of cotton and sewn shut. While the blood drains from your body, the gloved and masked stranger will systematically pump you full of noxious preservatives. After your corpse is plumped full of these carcinogenic chemicals, you will be washed with poisonous fungicides and insecticides, dabbed with rouge, and stuffed into an outfit of your loved ones’ choosing.

Your body will be put into a polished metal and wood coffin and lowered deep underground into a secure, cement vault. The grounds around your vault will be regularly clipped, watered, and sprayed with pesticides. Or, if your loved ones went the “cleansing fire” route and chose cremation they will receive an urn full of what will be called your “ashes;” in actuality it is the pulverized gravel left over from your charred bones.

Embalming, the pickling method described above, coupled with the dressing, storage, funerary services, and burial can easily cost from $10,000 to $12,000, cremation $1,500 to $4,000. Both are not only costly, but ecologically harmful. Both are also entirely unnecessary.

Traditional burial and embalming require huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and manufacture of toxic chemicals, an absurd testament to inefficiency. Embalming, though not legally required, often serves a purpose as a preservative to give far-flung family members time to travel to bid the body of their loved one farewell. However, embalming does not accomplish anything a good rest in a refrigerator could not.

Mark Harris, an environmental author and proponent of alternative burials, said that 75 percent of all caskets are made with metal. We put this highly durable box into a deep pit that is lined with concrete – a “vault.” Vaults were created to prevent cave-ins should the coffin begin to degrade. They also protected a loved one’s remains from skullduggery.

Harris puts the waste into perspective in his book Grave Matters: “A typical 10-acre swatch…contains enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses; nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel; 20,000 tons of vault concrete; and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.”

"Arlington Tree" courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer
“Arlington Tree” courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer

We are taking huge swathes of land and making them useless for all but social visits to carved hunks of stone. This manicured, pesticide-treated collection of somber rocks could be meadowland, forest, orchards, or even community parks; a place where mourners might go to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life.

Fortunately, those of us who are either ecologically conscious or simply wary of the grotesqueries and indignities our bodies are subject to at the hands of a funeral director can now opt for natural burial. In a natural burial, the untreated corpse is shrouded or encased in biodegradable materials (cardboard, linen, or sea grass) and shallowly buried in hopes of becoming mulch. This mulch will nourish the local flora, including any memorial seeds planted by the grieving family.

Would you rather visit your grandfather’s oak tree or a slab of stone with his name on it? And even if the figurative permanence of a gravestone appeals, natural burial does not preclude this option – you can stake your chosen memorial on the burial site. We have green alternatives to embalming, cremation, and traditional burial; it is now time to lay those old practices to rest.