Do we really have to wait That long???
Do we really have to wait That long???
All right, all right…it is the worst crime in all of cinema. Worse than Alfred Hitchcock never handling directorial Oscar gold. More appalling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1 for 13 Academy batting average (he received one for 2001‘s special effects???). Over the course of his highly praised career, Martin Scorsese, a true American auteur, has never won the big prize. Granted, he’s still considered a filmmaking genius. But for many, that’s not good enough. Instead of letting him rest on his considerable laurels, fans and faux well wishers want him to walk down that red carpet and pick up the industry’s biggest reward. It won’t affect his status as a legitimate legend (just ask Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, or any other renowned director who had to wait around for “honorary” recognition). But for many, it would be vindication after decades of being purposefully passed over.
Some of his slights have been pretty heinous. For the record, Scorsese has been nominated six times for Best Director, all for films made after 1980, none for anything prior to Raging Bull. He also has two screenplay nods as well. Of the movies he’s been recognized for, two are hailed as modern masterworks – 1980’s Bull and 1990’s Goodfellas. How ironic is it then that both efforts lost to first time directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, respectively) both of who were superstar actors first, distinguished filmmakers a far distant second (quick, name another noteworthy film either has made since). One of the strongest arguments defenders make about Scorsese’s snubs is that, in a system which quickly rushes to celebrate the flavor of the moment, the Academy often fails to look at the bigger motion picture picture. And Marty is that man out of time.
No one would argue that Ordinary People (Redford’s still amazing movie) is better than Bull. It’s merely a matter of artistic degrees. Similarly, it’s a shame that the overblown reach of Costner’s pro-PC Western Dances With Wolves became the cause celeb of its otherwise mediocre movie season (let’s face it – Ghost, Awakenings and The Godfather Part III were Best Picture candidates that year as well). In both cases, Scorsese made the better film, the more timeless entertainment, the surest cinematic statement. But because of Hollywood happenstance, the power of the publicity machine, or the overall jealousy of an industry less enamored of his efforts than the critical community, Scorsese remains the Academy outsider, looking in. His latest nomination for the brilliant crime thriller The Departed promises to finally end his losing streak. But the fact remains that, in an amazingly creative career, it comes as far too little, way too late.
Indeed, there are at least five other films that Scorsese should have been acknowledged for, efforts that usually don’t get mentioned along with Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (remember – Oscar didn’t start to take notice until a decade after these definitive efforts). When you consider that two of his recent nods have been for less than successful works - no one would compare Gangs of New York or The Aviator to his finest – the indignity becomes even richer. One of America’s premiere talents has had to endure the nagging question of whether he will ever be the beneficiary of Academy recognition. Once you see the list of movies that haven’t made the cut, along with the few that did, you realize how rhetorical said query really is. Scorsese’s body of work is just phenomenal. His lack of AMPAS recognition is just ridiculous. Proof of point – the motion pictures listed below, beginning with:
1974 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Not Nominated)
After the aesthetic epiphany that was Mean Streets (remember, Scorsese was an unknown whose only major filmmaking fame was as one of Roger Corman’s b-movie journeymen) many weren’t prepared for this road movie cum character study. Substituting the stark Southwestern desert for the overcrowded streets of New York, Scorsese deconstructed feminism, showing how paternalism dominates both the personal (Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson) and professional (Vic Tayback) landscape. With Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the driver’s seat, and stellar supporting work from Diane Ladd, girl power was still prevalent. It’s interesting to note the absolute lack of directing tricks in this surprisingly immediate film. Utilizing handheld cameras and found locations, there is a decided documentary feel to this film that Scorsese would rarely revisit throughout the course of his career. It’s a sensational, slightly surreal cinema véritié approach that proves there is more to this man’s body of work than carefully choreographed compositions and meticulous tracking shots.
1983 – King of Comedy (Not Nominated)
With the monumental achievement of Raging Bull, the critical question became: what would Scorsese and his acknowledged acting collaborator Robert De Niro do for an encore. The answer, oddly enough, was one of the ‘80s bitterest satires. Predating the prevalence of fame whores by at least 15 years, this wholly New York look at celebrity and shallowness remains one of the filmmaker’s unappreciated classics. Like a brutal response to Network‘s previous clarion call, Scorsese took screenwriter Paul Zimmerman’s burlesque Travis Bickle, and with the help of an amazing performance from his partner, fashioned the oblivious Rupert Pupkin into the entertainment equivalent of Gordon Gecko. With its talk show as social signpost symbolism and unusual approach to romance, King was a delightful denunciation of every hack who ever believed him or herself capable of stardom. Featuring Jerry Lewis in one of his few dour, dramatic roles and a remarkable turn by stand-up comic Sandra Bernhard, the film remains a tremendously cynical cinematic statement.
1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ (Nominated, Lost to Barry Levinson for Rainman)
Talk about throwing a scandalized dog a bone. When it was discovered that Scorsese was bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel to the silver screen, the newly empowered Religious Right got their representational rocks ready for a good old-fashioned stoning. Fast forward almost 20 years, and a famous Hollywood superstar (pre-Anti Semitic rant) decides to do an equally contentious take on the Messiah, and he’s embraced as a motion picture prophet. Must have something to do with the public’s willingness to accept abject violence (Passion‘s snuff film scourging) vs. a question of theoretical enticement (Christ’s crucifixion based fantasy about a secular life with Mary Magdalene). Anyone interested in the psychological and dogmatic underpinning of faith deserve to see Scorsese’s overlooked epic. While Gibson may have received the fundamentalist stamp of approval with his picture, Scorsese delivered the real scholarly take, and was given a token nomination as a reward (the film’s only Oscar acknowledgment).
1995 – Casino (Not Nominated)
Poor Casino. When placed alongside Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it becomes the bastard stepchild of Scorsese’s mob movies, an also ran in a dynamic dominated by acknowledged artwork. But it takes real creative chutzpah to focus on the grime under the glitz of Las Vegas and come out with anything remotely original. Thanks to the unique storyline (following real life gambling boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, here renamed Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), stunning visual setting, and incredibly gifted cast (yes, EVEN Sharon Stone), Scorsese turned the crime drama on its ear. Instead of making the violence the most visceral part of his exposé (and there is some incredibly brutal material here), the accomplished auteur brought backstage bravado – and more than a little directorial pizzazz – to the everyday workings of a high rolling gambling establishment. Sure, the film loses its way toward the end, but in a year that saw Braveheart’s Gibson take the prize, this film deserved much, much better.
2005 – No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Out of Oscar Consideration)
Hopefully, the lunkhead over at PBS who kept this stellar documentary from getting a well deserved theatrical release is currently looking for a new place of employment. Of all the ‘60s icons, Dylan remains the most fascinating, and frustrating. At one time a true folk traditionalist, his transition into a potent political voice was an elusive aesthetic turn. The best thing Scorsese accomplishes with what is essentially a talking head retrospective is the complete contextualization of Dylan’s social and musical importance. He draws distinct parallels between the rising tide of unrest in the country and the simultaneous seismic shifts in the various entertainment mediums. He even stretches out beyond the scope of a standard biography to explore the importance of Dylan’s initial purist position, and why so many felt betrayed by his decision to “go electric” in 1965. And the worst part of all of it? It didn’t even win an Emmy. Scorsese lost the award to Baghdad ER.
All together, the man has made 21 major first run features. Of that number, 16 (give or take two or three) are considered by most film fans to be good or great. That’s quite a high percentage. It’s truly sad then that Oscar has failed to recognize his brilliance until now. But here’s guessing this is one filmmaker who would take his track record over a little gold statue any day. His lack of recognition from the Academy is dreadful. His work behind the camera remains definitive.
If the Internet is responsible for anything – and there are many divergent (and slightly seedy) concepts it can claim – perhaps the most seismic shock has come in the realm of movie marketing. It used to be that, when a film wanted to tout its potential as either a stellar drama, hilarious comedy, heart-pumping actioner or nail-biting thriller, studios and producers set up carefully considered publicity campaigns, playing to their products strengths while downplaying its potential problems. When the print media made early pronouncements of troubled talent or less than successful results, the mighty Hollywood spin machine was right there, ready to twist the tales in their favor.
Take the films opening in the next few weeks. The Nicholas Cage comic book saga Ghost Rider has been almost omnipresent since production began. Within months, photos of the phantom biker, skull aflame with meticulous CGI conflagration, were “leaked” to fan-favorable sites all along the web. It wasn’t long after that a genre-defining trailer was released, a jump cut driven example of minor exposition mixed with major money shots. By the time the film actually opens on 16 February, audiences will know of Cage’s deal with the Devil, the impressive images of the main character racing up the side of a skyscraper, and the lack of emotional heft possessed by supposed romantic interest Eva Mendes. No wonder the final film won’t be screened for critics prior to release. You can practically review it from the ads alone.
Or what about 300. Ever since it was announced that Zack Snyder was taking on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (when tens of thousands of Persians challenged – you guessed it – 300 Spartans), the nerd network went into hyperdrive. Snyder, instrumental in jumpstarting the whole horror remake craze with his excellent work in updating George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, promised a Sin City like respect for the author’s work, and as if to accentuate that fact, early teasers featured signature stylized shots of buff men making war in drama-defining slow motion. Understanding inherently that the new adolescent audience is as devoted to its own idiosyncratic interests as it is with the current pop culture landscape, 300 decided to avoid the standard marketing mechanism and simply go geek.
That’s right, in between online discussions of Doctor Doom’s new look for the Fantastic Four sequel (along with quips about the Silver Surfer’s metallic ‘package’) and the constant consideration of Spider-man 3‘s villain viability (where are those images of Venom!?), dork nation now determines the imagined achievement of a soon to be released film. While it may seem unfair to toss around terms like ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, or ‘dweeb’, the truth is that the web has made the obsessive instrumental in creating the momentum that will make or break a movie. Where once this social stigmatization illustrated one’s unacceptability as a perceived member of the inevitable in-crowd, it’s now a badge of honor, a recognized symbol of status inside the film business’s new advertising strategy.
While consensus has it that Harry Knowles and his Ain’t It Cool News website is the main purveyor of this armchair analyst conceit, the fact remains that, no matter who started it, the new wired mindset is setting the agenda for motion picture marketing. It’s no longer necessary to fashion extensive ad campaigns, hoping your coverage creates the kind of universal interest that generates major box office. No, movies are now like any other prepackaged product from a shrewd and sharp multinational conglomerate. It’s rare that a title will see a theatrical release without international rights, TV and cable contracts, and multiple DVD release strategies sewn up in advance. For a film to actually lose money in this safety net style approach, it has to really be awful – or better yet, lacking a legitimate online champion.
Everyone points to Snakes on a Plane as a perfect example of how the Internet is not that successful a shill, and for that film in particular, those critics have a point. Trying to take an old fashioned action film, highly reminiscent of the 1970s style of disaster and death, and selling it as a slick campy cult classic to a post post-modern audience was the height of salesmanship stupidity. What the geek audience was identifying with – the memory of dateless mid ‘80s evenings sitting in front of the tube with a stack of VHS hackwork – was not actually what the movie was prepared to deliver. Imagine their surprise when New Line actually offered something good. Like expecting something stupid and getting its serious substitute, Snakes of a Plane died because of improper public perception and deadly word of mouth.
Yet this is the very tactic that the new web-based bait and switch approach is hoping to achieve. Certainly there are those movies working on the hope of previously successful formulas (Eddie Murphy + Rick Baker’s amazing make-up = Norbit) and more than a few believing a “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t preview” conceit will confuse a few dollars out of the demographic (The Hitcher, The Messengers). But what the new breed of cinematic carnival barkers are really counting on is the feeb’s fascination with the unknown. When Michael Bay announced his 2007 Summer blockbuster wannabe The Transformers, online speculation went nuclear. It wasn’t long before the base had weighed in on must-have characters, feared directorial missteps, and a genuine curiosity over whether this material would play in a live action format.
Then the first teaser trailer was delivered – adding fuel to the already blazing interest inferno. Prior to the full fledged ad which answered a lot of questions and appeased a lot of panic, the momentary glimpse of the title robots sent messageboards into a tantalized tizzy, which in turn generates the kind of MySpace interest that movie marketers murder for. If a studio can expertly control the release of such iconic information, if they can prevent the kind of collaborative overkill that sunk Snakes chances at wider acceptance, it can guarantee a huge opening weekend and not have to worry about the ultimate value of the product.
Of course, this strategy can backfire – sometimes, tragically – when misapplied. You just know that Cartoon Network and the suits at Time-Warner were wetting themselves when their proposed promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film (utilizing black boxes that featured a light up illustration of the show’s symbolic Mooninite character) turned into an imagined terrorist plot. Had our post-9/11 mania not kicked in, and the populace panic over something that ‘sort of, could of’ looked like a bomb (in the right light), it would have been fairly obvious what the unusual animated project was attempting. By slyly placing these series symbols around cities in the US, nerds in the know would have their own public private joke. While others looked on at the blocky image, trying to decipher its Atari throwback design, the fanatical would have a shared chuckle and move along.
Indeed that’s the whole point of this new geekdom strategy. Don’t worry what professional critics have to say, don’t screen a movie in advance to allow newspapers and other media sources to set the agenda. Instead, tap into the online cosmos of specific genre categories and hope the devoted fans pull you along. Back when television was the reigning cultural watchdog, such a tactic worked. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly discovered a long life beyond cancellation, while recent efforts like Family Guy and Futurama used the newly discovered populist power of DVD to revive their fortunes. And as the sole significant force setting the agenda for Internet discussion, the wired now work overtime doing the same sort of selling that a carefully choreographed marketing campaign would.
So as the next few months drag on, as film after film arrives without preview press coverage and advanced critical consideration, simply sign on to your favorite world wide website and get the good geek word. Why, even now you can discover how Chow Yun-Fat looks in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End, read a breakdown of how successful a recent focus group screening of the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Hot Fuzz was, or just bask in the glow of an onset visit to the still in pre-production Iron Man. And if you don’t think these all knowing nerds matter, consider this: recent reports have Rob Zombie putting a temporary halt on his remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. Why? Because early reviews of the script have been brutal in their unified hatred of the project.
What this means for the future of the motion picture marketing machine and its compatriots in the legitimate press may be insignificant – or insurgent. For decades, fans have complained about the lack of a voice in the way in which films are created. They’ve wanted more heart, more head, more meaning; basically, more substance. How letting a bunch of individuals with way too much free time on their hands dictate what does and does not make money (and therefore, catches the eye of those who make the creative decisions) as well as the dialogue on how it is received by the like minded public, doesn’t sound like a sane business practice. But for now, the geek zeitgeist controls the conversation, and there’s not much anyone outside the clique can do about it.
It used to be a yearly tradition. For fans of the NFL’s annual love fest, a glorious, bloated example of excess meshed with merchandising, the Super Bowl stood as a benchmark for the Spring/Summer movie line-up. With the Winter and all its awards season brouhaha finally winding down, and the game’s notoriety as a showcase for advertising excellence and experimentation, studios wishing to launch major movie buzz would always buy up large blocks of time to test out the latest trailers. In past years, blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 2 and Fantastic Four used the massive viewing audience and instant exposure of the gridiron classic to begin the push for warm weather consideration. As with most of the game’s greatest ads, Hollywood usually leveraged its creative conceits to offer up something truly special.
Not this year, however. Granted, it was a bad year overall for Super Bowl commercials. When you consider that Bud Lite and its joke-based series was challenged for entertainment supremacy by the same old GoDaddy.com sexism, it really wasn’t a great year for pigskin-fueled purchasing propaganda. But the four tepid trailers served up by Tinsel Town, each one no more than 30 sloppy seconds and all offering little or nothing in the way of interest or intrigue, were a blight on the pinnacle of the new American pastime. Sadder still, almost all were previewed on the Internet before showing up during the Indianapolis Colts containment of the Chicago Bears. For anyone who sits through the game solely for the chance to see what show business has in store for their future leisure time, there were more compelling ads for CBS shows than viable cinematic substance.
The first movie trailer to appear during the actual Super Bowl broadcast itself (nothing prior to kickoff was considered as those offerings are not, traditionally, touted as part of the post-game Madison Avenue scorecard) was for the feel good sports movie Pride. It’s yet another in a long line of inspirational stories in which a decent and deserving coach – in this case, Hustle and Flow‘s breakout star Terrence Howard – meets up with a band of misfits and/or disenfranchised kids and leads them through life lessons based in teamwork and physical acumen. Howard’s Jim Ellis starts a swim team for underprivileged and troubled black teens at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Stinking of the whole “based on/inspired by a true story” stigma, and featuring a graying Bernie Mac as what appears to be the standard sober sage character, this ‘us against them’ workout has the added element of race to make it play more important than it probably is.
Not that the trailer tells us this. Loaded with labored jump cuts and more than a few shots of suspicious Caucasian kids looking at their urban competition with white flight disgust, the key components of the ad appear to be prejudice and prostylitizing. How Hollywood can keep churning out this overdone genre (didn’t we see the same story a few months back when it was starring The Rock and featured a bunch of juvenile delinquents suiting up to play football as part of some Gridiron Gang?) and still expect audiences to respond is a question only a Hum V driving show biz bean counter can answwer. Maybe Howard and his fifteen-years-in-the-making overnight success can sell some tickets. But with four names on the screenplay and untried director Sunu Gonera behind the lens, this looks like a loser, plain and simple.
So does Hannibal Rising, come to think of it. In the world of popular literature, no one has wasted as much salivating cinematic goodwill as Thomas Harris. Lucky to have Michael Mann bring his Red Dragon to life (forget the Brett Ratner remake – its good but not great) as Manhunter, he saw his Silence of the Lambs become a certified Oscar winner and bravura best seller. So what did this inventive author do? Why, he wrote Hannibal, a tome that more or less shit all over the legacy established in his first two Lecter novels. Indeed, the sense of outrage and repugnance was so great in the creative community that the project was stalled for several months, and Jodie Foster blatantly refused to reprise her Clarice Starling role. Since the one time FBI bright light was destined to become the cannibal doctor’s accomplice and lover, the reason for such a rejection seemed pretty clear.
Frankly, someone at MGM should have used the same power of de-persuasion on the morons behind this mockery of a movie. Looking like Little Hanny Goes Nutzoid in the Super Bowl preview (as well as the numerous online ads that have turned up over the last few weeks) French pretty boy Gaspard Ulliel gets the perplexing prequel duties. Forced to inhabit Harris’s new WWII-set storyline about Lecter, his sister, and some flesh feasting members of the Axis powers, this looks like Glamour Shots as grindhouse gratuity. Thanks to the training of some Japanese relative (a widow of an uncle) and something called “The Tale of Genji”, Lecter learns to channel his pain into repugnant, nauseating revenge. Like the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which promised to show us how Leatherface became a Black and Decker desiring death dealer, Rising is reported to answer all the questions about the compelling character’s past, and people-eating proclivities.
The ad is certainly sketchy enough – several shots of snow-covered fields, frightened little faces, and an overly groomed adolescent grinning as blood spatters his Abercrombie and Fitch formed face. We see the flash of a blade, hear the sound of steel slicing the air, and then for some strange reason, an illustrated façade of Anthony Hopkins morphs into our youthful lead, iconic restraining mask squarely in place. For anyone who still feels a kinship with Harris’ Grand Guignol post Lambs horror hackwork, this looks like another wanton waste of time. The period piece setting doesn’t do a great deal for the already reaching storyline, and the whole Asian angle feels like a tacked on tip of the hat to the J-horror fad of a few years back. Genre fans will line up for almost anything, but it looks like only the most ardent devotees to dread will queue for this uninspired effort.
Speaking of underwhelming, Disney dished up another glimpse of its under the radar CGI spectacle Meet the Robinsons. So far, the trailers have all played like JOHNNY Neutron: Boy Genius, featuring a real lack of legitimate laughs (seriously – does ANYONE think the overly perky lady wearing dozens of caffeine patches is remotely funny? Or clever?). Even worse, these ads tell very little about the time traveling sci-fi storyline, leaving us to infer what the heck the deal is with the Snidely Whiplash wannabe featured throughout. Granted, the T-Rex’s response is kinda cute, but the latte swipe is just lame. Rumor has it that new Disney animation honcho John Lassiter has provided a little of his patented Pixar magic during post-production. Judging from this lackluster collection of clips, the size of the contribution better be massive. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be another in a long line of House of Mouse missteps, made worse by what is a purposefully vague promotional campaign.
All of which leads to the winner of the worst ad of the entire evening, a preview so painful that members of the Chicago Bears defense actually felt superior to the sizable Super Bowl egg this family friendly flop laid. Here’s hoping that Hairspray can save his hemorrhaging prestige, because John Travolta looks lost in the trailer for Wild Hogs. As a matter of fact, after his last few films, the one time superstar’s resurrected post-Pulp Fiction career seems MIA as well. In the loud, boorish PG-13 comedy (always a sign of generic ordinariness) the once and future Vincent Vega teams up with Tim Allen (ugh!), Martin Lawrence (oh no…) and William H. Macy (hmmm…) as four best friends who decide to micromanage their midlife crisis by taking a cross country trip – on motorcycles. Unfortunately, they run into a band of Hell’s Angels-esque bikers and all manner of stale hijinx ensue.
Representative of the sorry state of onscreen comedy, this creaky, imitative effort from Van Wilder ‘genius” Walt Becker just smacks of creative bankruptcy. The whole ‘born to be mild’ vibe given off by the trailer, a hyperactive ad with ADD that never once slows down to establish mood or character, reminds one of the high concept films of the early 80s. Those prefab farces delivered dumb ideas wrapped around an unlikely onscreen presence – in this case, Lawrence and Macy represent the strained stunt casting – hoping to generate a little off the cuff cleverness. Travolta and Allen appear to be taking turns as pre-adolescent party boys, giving a bad name to growing old gracefully while simultaneously subjecting us to erectile dysfunction jokes (or what appears to be the AARP equivalent of same). It’s a grating, groan-inducing mess, the kind of calculated crap that makes one wonder how it ever found its way inside the biggest sports showcase of the year.
The answer, oddly enough, is Variety. Reporting on the lack of prime Hollywood hoopla this time around, the industry publication discovered that studios would rather sponsor an entire pre-game show or segment (as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit and Sony’s Ghost Rider did) than throw their millions away on an ad with little to no box office impact. According to sources, post-game studies show that more people remember a rabid squirrel protecting its master’s Bud Lite than recall the selling points of some ersatz blockbuster. In fact, ever since Independence Day and it’s exploding White House became a water cooler moments for Tinsel Town trailers back in 1996, film companies have had a love/hate relationship with the big game’s advertising agenda. As prices continue to rise (over $2 million and counting this year) and audiences turn to alternate sources of filmic information, the need to blow a massive amount of the publicity budget on a Super Bowl ad seems silly.
Indeed, gone are the days when David Fincher and Ridley Scott could stop a nation cold with their particular brand of artistic advertising. We no longer live in an era of Super Bowl as super salesman. Unless it has something to do with cars, beer or CSI (in any of its many forms), 2007 will definitely be remembered as the year when Hollywood failed to bring it’s A-Game…not unlike the Monsters of the Midway. Call it contractual obligation, or chasing bad money after worse, but here’s betting that Pride, Wild Hogs, Hannibal Rising and Meet the Robinsons fail to get a single mention when Monday morning Madison Avenue quarterbacking begins. After sitting through the 210 minute marathon to experience them, these trailers tell a tale more troubling than tempting. Based on this lame representation, we could have a spectacularly substandard year at the cinema on our hands.
It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.
When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.
Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.
This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.
Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.
On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.
In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.
Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.
It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.
By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.