Friday, March 4, 2016

The Oscars Part II: Death to Nostalgia

Last week, before the latest Academy Awards ceremony, I vented some of my frustrations with Academy's long history of handing out statues to mediocre movies. It's a tradition that has left many people to consider the Oscars irrelevant and boring and it's one that has perhaps inevitably led to the hashtag #oscarssowhite. But despite this venting, I was still holding out hope that there might be some signs of life this year - that maybe the controversy leading up to this year's ceremony would light a fire under the voters. Hell, I knew the chances of Mad Max: Fury Road winning best picture were slim to none but it was my horse in the race and we all hold a vast capacity for self-delusion.

But if there's a third guarantee, after death and taxes, it's that the Oscar's will let you down. It seems as if the almighty powers of nostalgia are just too great. Which is why I question whether it's even worth getting mildly disgruntled about.

Unfortunately I'm stuck with a love for movies and Mad Max is one of the only Hollywood movies to come around in recent memory that got me excited about the medium and all its potentials. It made me giddy about movies again by tapping into all the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place: the wild creativity, a sense of wonder and amazement at seeing someone manifesting their dreams - it is audacious.

Now I know everyone didn't fall in love with movies for these reasons and this is by no means the only reason I love movies. And I also know that we can't help which movie it was that left that some important imprint on us, what we may consider an ideal movie or perhaps a Best Picture.

Notice how visually interesting a movie about the newspaper business can be?

You can't knock anyone who might look at the great film All the President's Men, see a kind of picture that should be made more often, and therefore cast a vote for Spotlight. But here's where a movie like Spotlight (and The Revenant for that matter) differs from Mad Max: it simply excels at being a type of movie. It doesn't have any ambitions beyond telling its story effectively, which it does entirely through a good script and solid performances by its actors.

Yes, Mad Max: Fury Road excels at being an action movie but it also creates and immerses you in a wholly unique and thoroughly realized world filled with subversive and thought-provoking themes. It does this by expertly using every single facet of the filmmaking toolkit and what you end up with isn't just good storytelling but also an ambitious technological marvel that pushes the boundaries of the medium forward.

You can make an argument for The Revenant getting close to this level of filmmaking but at its core it comes up far shorter in the story department. There's nothing new or memorable in a tale of a man keeping himself alive to exact revenge. In reading interviews with Tom Hardy where he talked about his perspective on his character, it's easy to think of the flip-side to The Revenant as being a much more interesting movie. We've seen far fewer movies follow and try to get inside the head of the doomed target of revenge. As it is, the only interesting thing about the movie is its cinematography, technological wizardry and the crazy story behind the making of the movie.

So why did Spotlight win Best Picture? Did Mad Max and The Revenant split the vote? Or does it come down to nostalgia?

The Oscars are more often than not steeped in nostalgia. These events often have a theme that will enable the ceremony to look back and honor past glories and contain more than one touching montage-style highlight reel. And this is largely unavoidable since movies are inherently suited to evoke and take advantage of the immense powers of nostalgia.

No one is immune to these powers. It's easy to be like Max from Kicking and Screaming and be despairingly nostalgic for conversations you had yesterday. And it's even easier to let nostalgia blind you when it comes to judging the quality of a movie.

So, in a way it makes perfect sense the most nostalgic movie nominated for Best Picture would win. The Oscars often honor non-threatening movies and what's more comforting than Spotlight? The movie could easily be mistaken for being made at any point in the last 30 years, if it weren't for some passing references to the internet.

I made this point last week, but Spotlight makes it even more obvious: When it comes to the Best Picture, the Oscar's aren't interested in change, forward thinking or making advancements in filmmaking. Perhaps the members save that kind of thinking for the technical awards and it doesn't even enter into the criteria for Best Picture. But, man, is it dispiriting.

I get excited when I hear people like William Friedkin and David Byrne talking about not having a nostalgic bone in their body. Maybe these two guys aren't the most relevant people in popular culture nowadays but at least they continue to move forward. They know nostalgia is a creative killer. The worst thing any industry or art form can do is nurture thoughts about how better things used to be back in the good old days.

Yes, nostalgia is an unavoidable part of human nature but so is being unimaginative and unoriginal - which is what nostalgia can lead to in any art form unless you're extremely clever about it. What we can try to do is fight these tendencies as best we can. Certainly, we can also try to award movies that fight these tendencies and represent imaginative and original voices.

Spotlight isn't a bad movie, but its win is bad for movies just as Leo's win is perhaps bad for acting. You can hope that wining an Oscar for Best Picture might increase attention for the need of good investigative journalism and change in how the Catholic church operates. But the irony is that it will likely have very little effect because when movies like Spotlight win Best Picture, the honor just keeps losing its value.


Padraic said...

Hey Sean,

Padraic here. Good to see part two of your reckoning with the Oscars. Although you clearly recognize this, you are simply setting yourself up with failure by expecting something from the Oscars beyond what they do: acknowledging well-crafted stories that people seemed to respond to in that given year. Sometimes these are horrible stories terribly told (Crash; The King's Speech), but ones that for some reason middlebrow adult movie-goers went to go see. Other times they are incredible stories told with a bold vision and exceptional craft (No Country for Old Men; 12 Years a Slave) that for some reason middlebrow adult movie-goers went to go see. This year it was an excellent story told in pretty workmanlike fashion (from what I know - seeing Spotlight this weekend) that for some reason middlebrow adult movie-goers went to go see. Yes, James Cameron or Peter Jackson crash the party every once and while with a true hit, but the Oscars I think tend to reflect (rather than create) a public with very little interest in the kind of films you champion.

And let's be clear - the Oscars are for middlebrow adults. Mad Max was a fairly big hit, but I cannot imagine anyone over 40, or maybe 50, who is not a film buff going to see that film. I'm under both those numbers, saw the film, and came away with very little other than an appreciation of craft. I said wow, marveled at the deep reserve of Miller's creativity during the stunning closing credits where we learn all the weird names, and then really never thought about the film again. My mom, who I see as a perfect representation of an Oscar viewer (she makes sure to see almost all of the nominated films and judges a film almost solely on the storytelling and acting - film technique matters of course in presenting a story, but not for the sake of itself), said she could see no way she would want to see the movie. And she's right - I have no idea what that would do for someone who is over 40 and not deeply interested in marvels of making films. On the other hand, I cannot imagine a person who wouldn't stand to learn and "enjoy" a film dedicated to the inspiring work of newspapermen to investigate the horrors of the Catholic Church's abuses. The idea that celebrating a film clearly driven by noble intentions and excellent acting (you don't deny either) can bring down the value of an award given to intellectually and morally disingenuous bunk like Slumdog Millionaire and Million Dollar Baby, or to industry onanism like The Artist and Birdman, is simply laughable.

The problem is clearly with expectations rather than the Oscars. As you acknowledge in part 1, there may have been a brief period where innovative films had success, but this is more by accident then by design. To put it in the terms of our favorite movie historian, people have always been distracted by the "bauble" while the real work of creating art out of film goes unnoticed. I think you might want to revisit OscarandI given your feelings, as you might miss his object. The author's point in watching every single nominated film in the history of the Oscars, a point I think is already clear by 1947, is that the Oscars have *always* been mediocre and always rewarded films that in retrospect look pretty weak. Is it possible that the nostalgia is not in the academy itself but in your own expectations?

And see, here's the real problem with the Oscars - it sucks up too much debate. I was going to come on here to post about The Forbidden Room and Mr. Freedom (two mindbogglingly great films I'm guessing not one in a five hundred Oscar voters could even name), and I get caught up in the 2016 Oscars. The best thing that can be done is to ignore them, or use them as a rough guide to average taste in movies. Anything else and you'll just end up disappointed again.

Sean Erickson said...

I think you've touched on a point that I may have struggled with. I like and understand Oscars and I. I've read quite a bit of it, including the first post where the intentions are laid bare, and will continue to read it.

The very object of the site is why I mentioned it when I did - that it is indeed clear from looking back that the Oscars have always been inconsistent and perhaps irrelevant. While I look forward to his continued work, it does immediately raises the question of why the need to watch all the movies to prove a point that seems rather apparent?

Even you seem to suggest that writers might be wasting their words by considering the wrongdoings of the Oscars? And this was indeed an idea I was wrestling with in these two posts.

Yes, it could be great to have a detailed record of sorts that really does underline how being irrelevant isn't a new development for the Oscars. Again, I'll gladly cheer the author on in his journey as he is a pleasure to read. I just can't help but feel a bit sorry for the guy at having to sit through all these movies, many of which are readily acknowledged as being the worst possible kind of movie - boring, and wonder whether the end result will justify the means. But, after all, maybe the author's intentions rest more heavily on simply solidifying his encyclopedic Oscar knowledge. And there's nothing wrong with that, either.

What I actually hope that we'll see more of in Oscars and I is some defense of the middlebrow - maybe a case to be made that high-minded critics aren't always right. Because it is easy to pick apart the kind of middlebrow movies that the Oscars traffic in.

In general I tend to enjoy retrospectives that look back at movies that got no love upon their initial release. For example, I much prefer Nathan Rabin's World of Flops over his brief time spent with the IMDb Top 100. I've always felt there's a good amount of insight to be had in reappraising movies and if I were to question whether it might make more sense to reconsider the movies that have been nominated for Razzies over the ones nominated for Oscars - I don't mean that as a criticism to anyone's efforts, it's simply a criticism of the Oscars in general. Generally speaking, I'll take a spirited defense of an unloved movie over either a defense or dismissal of an Oscar nominated movie.

But at the very least I think it is good to continue to criticize the Oscars themselves just as it good to criticize any sort of injustice that might appear too far-gone to change. Why not take the time once a year to offer suggestions as to how the Oscars might fix itself? I don't think it's nostalgia that corrupts my expectations, if I have any - I think it's my idealistic streak that will keep me hoping against hope and shaking my fist at the Academy Awards.