Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why You Should Still Watch The Oscars (Even If You Hate Them)

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are still weeks away, but bloggers and critics everywhere have taken it upon themselves to make predictions, bash the "undeserving" nominees, defend the select handful of films they enjoyed, and relentlessly attack the Academy for "losing its way". This is nothing new, as the Oscars have, at least through most of my lifetime, been a subject of heated scrutiny that comes from both sides of the spectrum. For purposes of convenience, I'll label one of those sides "film people" and the other side "movie people".

Wes Anderson on the set
of "Moonrise Kingdom"

Film people consist of anyone who watches, writes, produces, directs, studies, and consumes cinema as an art form. They see the cultural importance of making better, more daring stories told in more creative and unexpected ways; and how the writing, cinematography, actors, special effects, etc. lend themselves to the bigger, more beautiful picture. They expect a takeaway.

Christopher Nolan on the set of
"The Dark Knight Rises"

Movie people love movies (think summer blockbusters). They watch to be entertained and to be impressed and view film not so much as an art form, but as a perpetually changing fad that needs to be kept up with in order to stay relevant. As opposed to film people, movie people expect an experience or an escape - but only for the amount of time that the film runs.

These are both gross generalizations, but when it comes down to peoples' criticisms of The Academy Awards, it's important to know that not all criticisms have equal footing. Film people and movie people both watch the awards with different expectations in mind, and because of that their complaints are often very different. So while we hear all of these complaints and suggestions coming from both sides of the spectrum, how are we (and by we, I mean the Academy) supposed to remedy them? It's like having your mom yell at you to clean the house and then twenty minutes later having your dad yell at you for hiding everything you put away while cleaning.

So, keeping that in mind, let's get to the point: What's wrong with the Oscars?

When the Oscars started in 1929, about 270 guests were in attendance, a total of 15 awards were given out, and the entire ceremony lasted for about 15 minutes. Winners were announced to the public a couple of months later. The Oscars as we know them didn't really evolve until the 1940's, becoming a glamorous event where the majority of Hollywood was expected to be in attendance, and winners were announced via the now iconic sealed envelope. This change is attributed to many factors happening at the time: the end of the Depression, WWII, as well as the rapid expanding growth of the studio system - all of which contributed to the cultural and economic importance of the film industry.

The point of the Oscars was to honor actors, writers, directors, and other personalities for their contributions to film over the previous year. As the decades went on and the film industry continued to expand and its technology advanced, more categories were added in order to reward different skills - musical scores, foreign language films, audio and visual know the list. By creating more categories the idea was that even more films and even more skilled artists in their professions could be recognized for their work. A film might not have the best director or script or ensemble cast, but look at those fantastic costumes! Award them for that, because that's what they did better than anyone else.

Now allow me cite some Oscar winners/contenders from the past decade:

Titanic (1997)
14 nominations
11 wins

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
13 nominations
7 wins

Gladiator (2000)
12 nominations
5 wins

The Aviator (2004)
11 nominations
5 wins

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009)
13 nominations
3 wins those great, diverse categories the Academy managed to come up with in order to reward a wide variety of talents and skills associated with filmmaking? Isn't it super cool how we're awarding all of them to a handful of films, most of which are in the "Best Picture" category.

Enter the part of the article where Anna talks about Gravity.

Unless you've been trapped under a pile of rocks or have been lost in space (heh), you've at least heard of Alfonso Cuaron's space epic starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. I use the term "epic" lightly, as the story is far from epic. I won't waste any time summarizing the film, but you can gather what you need from its IMDB page here. In defense of Gravity, it's a unique idea, and the visual effects are stunning (if not a little dizzying) and deserve to be seen in IMAX. Gravity deserves every technical nomination it's been given, including best special effects and, hey, even best cinematography. Those are its strengths, that's where most of the hype about the film came from, and it deserves to be acknowledged for that. But Gravity is being acknowledged in 10 different categories, including best director, best picture, and best actress for Sandra Bullock.

No. Academy....Academy, stop. What are you doing???? ACADEMY!

Gravity may be a technical and visual masterpiece...but that's just it. It's great to look at. Film people and movie people can both appreciate it because of that. But there's no strong characters or strong story to balance the strength of the special effects. I don't even remember the names of the characters, and that isn't Sandra Bullock or George Clooney's fault. The characters are so poorly written - so barely written - that even if Sandy and George were giving it their all they would still fall flat. The same thing would have happened if unknown actors had been cast. I do not buy that these are real people, and so I don't really care about them. Gravity's biggest flaw is that Sandra Bullock carries the movie as an incomplete character. The only emotion we get as an audience is an adrenaline rush from clouds of space debris hurtling at us at a dizzying pace. There's no human connection or emotional investment.

When I look at the nominations for best picture (American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street), I understand why these films should be nominated for one, if not multiple Oscars. I even, to an extent, understand why they're all nominated for best picture. I don't agree with the selection, but I'm not surprised by any of them. What I am surprised by, though, is why they're all there together. The whole of the list is more confusing to me than the parts that make it up. I'm more shocked and upset about what isn't there.

Why no Inside Llywen Davis? Why no Fruitvale Station?

The acting nominations are what really get me. Why is every lead in American Hustle nominated? I think Matthew McConaughey was great in Dallas Buyers Club, but I don't think he'll win because of it. Now, had he been nominated for best supporting actor for his role in Wolf of Wall Street - I think he'd have it in the bag. The man creates a more enthralling character in five minutes of screen time than Jonah Hill did in three hours. Plus almost his entire performance was impromptu - and even long after his character's final appearance, the weirdness just keeps on giving.

A lot of people who don't consider themselves to fall heavily to one side of the spectrum as "film" or "movie" people watch the Oscars because they like to root for something and they don't understand how "The Academy" works. The most common misconception of The Academy is that it's this elitist, big studios and corporations-only, secret society made up of experts whose opinions transcend those of the common man. Movie people see them as wizards who get to point the finger and say "this is what's good", while film people see them as Hollywood bigwigs endorsing the movies that make money more than the ones that make art.

Both of these are wrong.

True, there are producers and executives and moguls that are members of the Academy. But there are also actors, writers, cinematographers, editors...artists. And they're not all big and scary names. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Tim Burton, Wes Andersen, Jennifer Hudson, Peter Dinklage, Bono....these are the people who vote for the nominations and the winners, along with people like Spielberg and Scorsese.  When Argo won best picture last year, it wasn't a political statement to the Iranian people. It was probably because The Academy felt bad for snubbing Ben Affleck for The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Because these are people who work together, look out for each other, and through their professions form biases and friendships that influence their decisions. Similarly, I won't be surprised if Leo DiCaprio picks up best actor for Wolf of Wall Street - not because he deserves it for that film, but because of how often he has deserved it and went unrewarded.

So why watch the Oscars?

If you're a film person, look at what exactly is being honored and recognized. Find the art. Find the cultural relevance. Why did people see this movie? Why did it do well? Find what this means for the films that are to come, and what this means for your own films. More importantly, look for what isn't there. Just because a film isn't nominated doesn't make it a lesser film.

If you're a movie person, look at what is there. Look at the titles, actors, directors, and writers that you haven't seen or heard about and seek them out. Watch at least one foreign language film. Watch a short.

The Oscars are important because, whether you like them or not, they are very telling of where the film industry and our own culture are heading. They try their best, and if we want them to get better, then we need to start trying our best.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Very well said, you made me realize why (even after all my bitching about it) I still watch the Oscars. Even though I don't agree with the McConaughey performance from Wolf or your review of Gravity (though I would love to have a discussion with you on it) this is a very well-informed and thoughtful piece of writing.