Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscars, Good God Y'all, What Are They Good For?

We’re now into the 88th year of celebrating, or condemning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they honor some movie industry folks with shiny awards everyone likes to call Oscars. And once again the debate arises over whether this ceremony holds any relevance other than seeing the American version of royalty mix and mingle with each other in public. After all, we must know, what is she wearing!?

I’ll admit, as a movie-loving kid I looked forward to the Oscars every year. In fact, I’d say that these past few years are the only Oscar telecasts I’ve missed since I was old enough to remain awake for the endless ceremony. And that’s mostly because I’m halfway around the world without cable or satellite TV. But even as a kid, it was probably clear to me that the main attraction was maybe hearing some funny jokes from the host and seeing Jack Nicholson in his shades cracking everyone up with a simple smile.

It was obvious to me early on that the Oscars, just as with box office receipts, is no accurate barometer for quality filmmaking. And this has been the case since year one.

This might be a good time to tip the hat to a site that Paddy hipped me to: Oscars and I. Here is where you'll find a noble man venturing to watch 88 years worth of Best Picture nominees. It is highly entertaining to read about his endeavor, but I do not envy the amount of arguably bad and truly boring movies he will have to sit through to.

What is clear looking back at Oscar’s history is that they rarely acknowledge the truly innovative, remarkable or even memorable movies of any given year. Judging from the nominations, the award ceremony is largely a grand effort at maintaining a mediocre status quo and handing out awards to people who do a good job of being respectable and not rocking the boat.

Certainly this is the case for the Best Picture category, where a winner emerges from the largest pool of an elderly white folk mind-hive desperate to keep things from changing. Sometimes, in the pinko infested pool representing the writer or documentary categories, you might see a nice win for something that truly represents a step forward for filmmaking. Here’s where you might find an award given to a Coen, Charlie Kaufman or Errol Morris - people who could accurately be described as having an independent, forward-thinking voice.

There are Best Picture outliers and yes, even sizable chunks of time where you can look back at the nominees and see the movie industry coming to terms with itself. At the 40th ceremony in 1967, following wins for The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and A Man For All Seasons, you see a seismic shift sprouting a crop of amazing nominees including Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and the sweaty winner, In the Heat of the Night. But by the 53rd Oscars in 1980, the studios had realigned and Ordinary People, the filmic equivalent of slightly toasted white bread, emerged victorious over The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Tess.

There were signs in 1991 of another possible sea change when Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture. Indie film was seeing a resurgence at the time with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotape making waves. But, by now the studio stronghold was secure. Lessons had been learned in the 60s and 70s and there was to be no further uprisings. All the major studios sprouted “indie” branches, gobbling up the darlings of Sundance and keeping everything in order. In what feels like a grotesque message of maintaining the status quo, the rest of the 90s includes the following: Forrest Gump, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Titanic.

And this feels like a trend that could continue forever more. You might get one outlier here or there followed by a drastic reaction in the other direction. In this way, the random hodgepodge of modern era Oscar winners doesn’t even provide much in the way of sociological insight. For its first 60 years you could at least look back on nominees and awards and get a sense of what was popular at the time and maybe get a window into what people were responding to. But for the past 20 plus years, even that sort of relevance is gone from the Oscars. The King’s Speech? The Artist? Chicago?! It feels like random nonsense.

When a popular movie does win these days, all you can really do is shrug and say, “Oh yeah, that’s when all those Lord of the Rings movies were coming out.” Or, “What the fuck were people thinking with that Titanic craze?” Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but the popular movies of the past few decades tend to signal a response to advancements in special effects over any sort of relevant theme or concern - even when they win Best Picture.   

The Hurt Locker wasn’t a blockbuster or a masterpiece but it does feel like an outlier simply by addressing a highly relevant sociological problem in PTSD. But like 12 Years a Slave or Crash, the issues being addressed are ones we’ve been dealing with since before the start of the 20th century. Perhaps the insight provided here just goes to show how little we’ve really grown over the past millennia. (And yes, Crash is a perfect example of how we shouldn’t award movies based solely on its good intentions.)

You can argue that at least Best Picture winning movies like Ordinary People and American Beauty still accurately reflect the endless navel gazing that goes on in middle to upper class white society. Given the predominance of wealthy white men that make up Academy voting pool, you could imagine them pointing to these movies as sign that the Oscars have remained a relevant indicator of societal concerns.  

But, really, it isn’t difficult to see that the folks behind the Oscars are well aware of their lack of relevance. Since 2009 they’ve increased the number of possible Best Picture nominees in the blatantly desperate hope that more movies will attract more viewers. There are two very Hollywood mindsets at work here. The first, increased viewership equals an increased relevance, is flimsy at best. The second, when in doubt add more crap and see what sticks, is a classic way to simply make matters worse by further diluting the waters.

You’d think that people in the movie industry would recognize the power of a good narrative. Why not gain relevance by simply telling the story of the ever-evolving art form of the movies. Sure, old people are always going to be scared of change and unwilling to award something that could be perceived as a threat to the status quo but if the Oscars want to be taken seriously they need to embrace it. Stop awarding forgettable nonsense like The King’s Speech and Chicago just because Harvey Weinstein’s a bully. Relevance comes by recognizing innovative work, not mediocrity.

By going in this direction it could at least hold its head up high as being a respectable awards ceremony. The only other game in town that gets anywhere near as much attention is the Golden Globes. And at this point you could argue that they’ve become more respectable by not pretending that they have any respectability to begin with. The Golden Globes are honest and unashamed about the inherent meaninglessness of awards and the fact that it’s all about who campaigns more diligently and sends more fruit baskets or whatever to the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press.

By their very nature, these things are always going to be a popularity contest, but it’s not hard to make the nominees an accurate reflection of who made the biggest impact on the industry in the previous year. Obviously, history will be a better judge of what movies end up having the biggest long term affect on filmmaking but by continuing to tip its hat to stale biopics like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, Oscar is going to continue to come off as an equally stale product.

This is the very same reason there’s been increased animosity towards the Academy Awards this year. More people seem to be noticing that by looking back at the past decades of nominees you get no sense of narrative, of evolution, diversification or progress. Indeed, it is boneheaded and backwards thinking for the Oscars to believe that at this point they can have any real impact on the future of the industry. It’s going to continue to evolve, diversify and progress with or without them. So the smart move, and relevant move, is to get on board and shine a light on it.

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