Saturday, 20 February 2016

Impressions on the Oscar Nominations


The Oscars are a bore. Any awards are, naturally, but the Oscars in particular because – despite entirely fair recent criticism of them as out of touch – millions of people around the world, and most people in the American film industry still take them and their decisions all too seriously. I should think that the description of a performance or a script as “Oscar worthy” is really a slur, given the artistic calibre of what usually gets nominated and awarded, but hack critics belch out the phrase as if shouting for encores. But one shouldn’t be too surprised, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always amazingly finds itself to be in complete accord with critical consensus, and what gets labelled as Oscar worthy is generally officially stamped and packed just so, which gives some clue as to how much our of our annoyance with the Academy is attributable to either the unanimity-seeking critical community, or the industry’s enslavement to their opinions.

The Oscar choices represent what Hollywood would like to think of itself, and what it would like us to think of it. A quick flip through the nominees of each year can give a good impression of what’s on the industry’s mind, and where it likes to picture itself standing on some or other issue. What can always be relied upon at the Oscars is that message is a far stronger factor in success than artistry, and ostensible political correctness or moral decency is far preferable to relevance or entertainment. One can discern that this year, for instance, Hollywood and its journalistic myrmidons applaud filmmakers for venerating a lawyer who upholds the US Constitution; for blessing us with the sweet, good-natured story of an upper-lower-middle immigrant who finds happiness in America; for deciding for itself that action pictures with female leads may be entertaining and commercially viable after all; for enthralling us with the wonders of technology and human innovation, to the exclusion of humanity and its own wonders; for chastising greedy and fraudulent financiers and traders who profited massively from their millions of customers’ losses and got away with it; for inflicting pain and discomfort on major stars in the interest of so-called realism and authenticity; and for censuring the Roman Catholic Church for sheltering child rapists. In short, it doesn’t exactly go out on an ethical or intellectual limb, and the aesthetics of its choices can always be trusted to match this moral timidity.

I do feel that something must be said on this blog about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but I’d also like to note that the attendant problems are broader than this, and in two directions: the problem of ethnic and cultural exclusion in the industry is not restricted to its awards, and the problem of what’s considered worthy of Oscar consideration and what isn’t is not restricted to the matter of ethnic and cultural diversity. As Richard Brody writes in a recent piece for the New Yorker, the primary cause of this problem in Hollywood “is the presumption that baseline experience is white experience and that black life is a niche phenomenon”. He summarises the problem in the industry:

“Many of the great classic jazz and blues recordings were marketed as ‘race records.’ To this day, the Academy proceeds as if movies about black experience were race movies. The result is that only narrow and fragmentary views of the lives of African-Americans ever make it to the screen – and I think that this is not an accident. If the stories were told – if the daily lives and inner lives, the fears and fantasies, the historical echoes and the anticipations of black Americans were as copiously unfolded in movies as are those of whites – then lots of white folks would be forced to confront their historical and contemporary shame. They’d no longer be able to claim ignorance of what they’d like not to know – which includes their own complicity in a rigged system.”

Something similar, I think, can be said for the marginalising – albeit to a lesser extent – of female and of gay experience in the cinema. Women and homosexual directors seem to have an easier chance (if they’re white) of making movies that can break into the bubble of work deemed worth considering by the Academy than black directors do, however shamefully small that chance may be as well. These are exclusions enforced at a number of levels in the industry, and not only at the end of the film production cycle, when the narrow, supposedly meritorious scope of work is being celebrated.

The problem with the Oscars is not only that they exclude the work of individuals from ethnic and cultural groups other than that of their main voting base (which is notoriously uniform, racially speaking), but the exclusion of so much else that is worthy of celebration and applause. This includes the work of young or little-known filmmakers who need the kind of recognition and career boost that an Oscar or Guild nomination can supply. Since the inception of the institution in 1927, the Academy has always had a tradition of honouring the most amazingly mediocre work, and so the films that have really deserved the glory of its makers’ peers’ acknowledgement and gold statuettes have either sunk beneath the radar, or been belittled and ridiculed by those who yoke themselves to the consensus views.

Something that many of us find particularly frustrating is that what the Academy does pick can nearly always be predicted by pundits who have not yet even seen the films in question, or know very much about them. The blogger Sonny Bunch named this particular aggravation in a recent column for the Washington Post “the Eddie Redmayne Problem”:

“Redmayne followed up that period picture about a man with a physical disability [The Theory of Everything] with a period picture about a transgender activist coming to grips with her identity [The Danish Girl]. Naturally, it was a role that became an instant front-runner for best actor consideration as soon as the first photos dropped. Obviously, he garnered a nomination. And if it weren’t for the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio ate raw liver in the freezing cold during the filming of The Revenant, Redmayne would probably be the odds-on favourite to take home another trophy. In other words, the narrowness of what constitutes an Oscar worthy film is a huge part of the problem. … You shouldn’t be able to guess who will be nominated for a supposedly merit-based award without having seen a second of that person’s performance.”

It’s the factoring in – to a very large extent – of all these extra-aesthetic considerations that undermines any and all of the work done by the Academy. Of course, no awards voted for by over 5000 people can ever be expected to make very bold decisions at all in selecting artworks to salute, but a step in the right direction, one feels, would be in reforming the membership and electorate (as the Academy has announced it shall) so that those selecting nominees and winners are not retirees of the industry – men and women (though mostly men) who haven’t worked on a movie in years or even decades, and who often no longer possess the vicious rages and frenzies and vigour necessary to make an honourable work of art.

In short, it’s not that the Academy thinks white actors or directors are necessarily better than any other actors or directors, even on a subconscious level, but the vast majority of movies being eructed by the industry for their consideration, and those under the Academy’s consideration, are of a particularly narrow and often exclusionary sort. For example, one of the films vaunted by the critical community in the 2012 Oscar season, and so cast into the Academy’s field of vision, was the small independent hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. While it is remarkable, and in some ways heartening, that this feature got recognition of the kind that it did from the Academy and other awards groups – as part of an emerging pattern in recent years of small independent productions being nominated and featured fairly prominently, some of them genuinely great films (The Tree of Life, Black Swan, The Grand Budapest Hotel etc.) – one feels that one of the reasons it was so readily received was because of the frankly unsavoury view it takes of its black characters. While the director, Benh Zeitlin, clearly has real affection for both his actors and the characters they portray, the picture smells strongly of his condescension, relegating them to the part of charming, folksy, rural, ignorant, naive blacks; while a movie of real black urban experience – told, for a change, by a black director and writer – which deals with the lives of many black people in American cities in real circumstances, Creed, is nominated in only a single category, Best Supporting Actor for Sylvester Stallone’s performance. As Richard Brody suggests, the Academy affirms that what’s really worth acknowledging in such a film is the part that depicts a white man’s experience.

(Read The Back Row’s reviews of Joy and Spotlight.)

Now let us consider the films that did manage to be included, having found themselves in the Academy’s scope. Perhaps the most remarkable among the Best Picture nominees is the mammoth twenty-years-in-the-making desert post-apocalyptic breakneck action sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road. Its Oscar love is particularly noteworthy because it was released all the way back in May, and Oscar voters – who were famously too old to successfully work the online voting system – have notoriously short memories, not usually selecting features they saw earlier than October. It’s why so many period pictures and personal dramas are released at the end and beginning of the year, leaving the other nine months for mass entertainments such as The Dark Knight, Jurassic World, and Deadpool.

(Read The Back Row’s review of Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Many pundits count Mad Max’s critical and commercial success as a win for feminism, since its star is Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and not Tom Hardy in the title role and because (if I remember correctly) the female supporting roles feature more prominently than those of the males for once. I, for one, affirm that it’s no bad thing to feature a woman above a man in a script (and Theron ensures that her character features above Hardy’s on screen just as assuredly), but if, say, the lead in a major Hollywood blockbuster were labelled a Marxist, Marxist viewers would not stand for any sort of praise for it unless he also exhibited a Marxist worldview, either by way of text or through performance (though preferably both), and I see no reason that feminists should settle for any less. George Miller, the director, along with the writers, does pitiably little to convey the broad background of experience and backstory, as well as the precise social and political status, of any of the characters in the stark mythical setting he’s dreamed up, and I’d’ve thought the whole point of feminism in art (distasteful as it sounds) would be to radically expand the depictions of female experience. This is of course being done in the contemporary cinema of daring and personal originality and unprecedented scope and breadth, but, again, it’s in movies that journalists and the Academy neglected to seriously and thoughtfully look over – e.g. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, Todd Haynes’s Carol, David O. Russell’s Joy, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (note that even in the cinema of 2015 it’s not a common occurrence for a woman’s story to be told by a woman director).

(Read The Back Row’s reviews of Trainwreck and Carol.)

As it happens, my own personal selection (which can be read in my post on the movies of 2015) would have Trainwreck out in the front of the pack, snatching up the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and fighting it out for Best Director (against Carol and Joy), Best Actress for Amy Schumer (against Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy again, as well as Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey), and Best Supporting Actress for Tilda Swinton (with some show of competition from Tessa Thompson in Creed). I’ve not yet seen 45 Years, Room, or The Danish Girl, but I could easily countenance Johnson pushing Saoirse Ronan’s rendition of banal purity – and pure banality – in Brooklyn out of the race; as well as Swinton and Thompson’s stunning performances replacing the dull and restricted work of Rachel McAdams in Spotlight and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs (of course, these artistic disappointments are hardly attributable to the actresses, who have delivered formidable work on other projects; as with nearly everything I blame the directors: John Crowley, Tom McCarthy, and Danny Boyle).

(Read The Back Row’s reviews of Creed and Brooklyn.)

I quiver at having to face the possibility of Alejandro G. Iñárritu coming out on top once again, for the second year in a row. Were the four Oscars for Birdman not enough of an ordeal for moviegoers? Must this career – comprised as it is of hideously contrived, stiflingly pious, frighteningly dull, exhaustingly ostentatious, infuriatingly snobbish movies – be honoured once more? And why the hell is it that Leonardo DiCaprio gets thoughtlessly passed over (for more dull earnestness in Matthew McConaughey’s AIDS-fighting rodeo hick) in one of the best performances in cinema in years, as Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s staggering, sublime masterwork The Wolf of Wall Street, while shooting straight to frontrunner status with the grimy, sludgy acting found in The Revenant? It’s no more “Leo’s Time now than it was two years ago; the only sensible explanation can be that the majority of industry professionals and media “experts” feel compelled to award work that looks like it was very hard to do, no matter how filthy and tiresome the outcome may be. It’s probably got something to do with some subconscious condition from which second-rate filmmakers and entertainment journalists suffer, where they worry themselves into a senseless frenzy about the apparent triviality and futility of their profession. As we hardly needed Oscar Wilde to tell us, though he was good enough to, “All art is useless” – or, as it’s sometimes given, “All art is immoral.” Reports from the set of The Revenant that DiCaprio and other crew members suffered for the craft gives the impression that what they were doing was necessary and something noble enough to render that suffering worthwhile. Iñárritu’s Oscar success last year banked on the inferiority complex most of Hollywood feels when brought up alongside literature and the theatre, and this year he’ll benefit from their fear of being thought of as inconsequential purveyors of minor tricks and light diversions.

(Read The Back Row’s review of The Revenant.)

Much has been said, here and elsewhere, on the other nominees, and much more shall be said (hopefully some of it here as well) in the week left before the winners are announced. For now, as I stew in my dissatisfaction with the entire sordid affair, and count down the days until Facebook newsfeeds can confidently be relied upon not to mention the damned business for an entire day, I invite you to comment with your own thoughts on what got in and what was left out, shivering and sobbing in the cold. Do your very worst; it cannot possibly be any meaner in spirit than mine.


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