The Guild-ed Cages of Awards Season

After decades of decided handwringing, Hollywood finally has what it wants: a sense of specialness undeterred by surprise or a sense of wonder.

Sometimes, the communal consciousness of the cinematic community gets it "right". Of course, by 'right' we mean modeling most of the critical consensus that arrives via the various journalistic organizations and collectives providing their positions over the last few months. Awards season is all about a shared coming together, about a year's worth of performances and personality whittled down to a determination of ten, or five -- and then finally one. As trophies come and go, as bottles of champagne are uncorked and gift bags bulge with unnecessary trinkets, the suspense dissipates, each new member of the annual media shouting match removing one more layer of intrigue to the seemingly predetermined list of winners.

Of course, there is always a baby to come along and soil the bathwater, and this year it's the Director's Guild of America. The DGA, almost always a bellwether for who will win the coveted Oscar for filmmaking, is rarely ever wrong. Even when they are -- Stephen Spielberg's snub for The Color Purple, Ang Lee and Rob Marshall's Guild wins vs. Academy loses -- they tend to be on the correct side of the situation. But over the weekend, the DGA pulled one of those unbelievable movie biz boners that will have movie lovers kvetching until the next time they nullify reason. In a decision of deceptive bends, they gave Tom Hooper -- a UK TV name with only four features to his name -- the year's highest honor.

Look, The King's Speech is a very good movie. It's a calculated crowdpleaser that substitutes urbanity and British wit for in-depth psychological explanations or action scenes. It features fantastic performances, a wonderful script, and one of those bigger than real life true stories that skirt specifics to simply "feel" right and authentic. Like The Queen, it remodels English royalty as flawed individuals struggling both inside and outside the manipulated monarchy. It's a funny, familiar film. While it will probably also take home the Academy Award for Best Picture (thanks a lot, Producers Guild of America), it is not 2010's supreme achievement in cinema.

In fact, it's hard to see just what Hooper did to deserve the DGAs love. He didn't mold the amazing acting work of stars Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, or the rest of the considered cast. He did not write the script -- that was left to playwright David Seidler (who had previously proved the materials merit on stage). While he signed off on each one of them, he did not build the sets, design the costumes, or digitally manipulate the backdrops to recreate pre-War era England. In the end, Hooper was like a general contractor. He subbed out all of the important work and then sat back and made sure the camera was in the right place. Even the question of keeping things in focus was the job of cinematographer Danny Cohen.

While that may seem like downgrading Hooper's efforts, it's actually a matter of fact -- and artistic distinction. Ever since the French founded their famous "auteur" theory, there have directors who made their aesthetic presence known, who placed their outsized vision directly on the screen for everyone to see and sense. Like judges who are accused of rewriting the laws instead of merely interpreting them, these filmmakers inject passion, not passivity, into their designs. Hooper, on the other hand, is more of a technician. He keeps the mise-en-scene in check, continually drives the narrative forward, and sprinkles each scene with just the right amount of magic to make it seem accomplished. You can't pick out what he's doing well, you just know he's not doing anything wrong.

While you contemplate that concept for a moment, let's look back at who he beat. First and foremost, there's Darren Aronofsky, whose work behind the lens in Black Swan showcases a brash, bold artist eager to embrace genre convention as well as spit directly in its formulaic face. Similarly, David Fincher's frontrunner status for the Facebook film The Social Network indicated a rare combination of geek love and genuine appreciation for his inventive, elusive mechanics. Christopher Nolan, a stranger to AMPAS recognition but beloved by the DGA, picked up a third nod for the brilliant Inception, and David O. Russell redeemed his ranting, raving self by showing -- Terry Gilliam like - that he could handle a measured mainstream movie like The Fighter.

Yet among these arguably gifted filmmakers, Hooper was declared the best. Theories run the gamut from infamous Weinstein interferences and campaigning, to the size of the DGA vs. the far smaller sampling of Oscar. Age vs. youth, classicism vs. an avoidance of the new and predominantly post-modern have also been batted about. But the truth is, as with every end of year stampede, The King's Speech picked up steam at the strategically correct time. While The Social Network was taking a stand among almost every critic's group and True Grit was trampling the competition at the box office, the little British biopic that could kept chugging along, working on its endurance in order to make a run for in the prestige playoffs. Everyone else was Lebron James. Hooper and his crew are like the Celtics, or Lakers.

Of course, this doesn't make the win any more satisfactory. One would hope that a decision like this would be based on merit, not timing. Among the five (and feathered out to include The Coens and a couple others), Hooper barely makes this writer's top ten. Indeed, David Poland of Movie City News said it best when he suggested that any one of a dozen or so known names could have made The King's Speech and done as good -- or even better -- a job as Hooper. It's hard to say the same for the other nominees. Yet just like the Screen Actors Guild awards that went by the book on 20 January (Firth and Natalie Portman for Best Actor/Actress, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale of The Fighter for Supporting), there's a weird inevitability to the decision. Just when you think the institutions are catching up with the culture, unpredictable predictability like this steps in and spoils things.

Fincher will survive. So will Aronofsky and Nolan and Russell. Portman's cute little baby bump will look even more fetching come the end of February, and also-rans like Annette Bening and Hailee Steinfeld will have to feel "thankful" for the mere nomination. After decades of decided handwringing, Hollywood finally has what it wants -- a sense of specialness undeterred by surprise or a sense of wonder. A month from now, it will all be over aside from Joan Rivers' rating of the various fashion flubs. Who knows - Hooper may join that elite group of DGA winners with no Oscar to show for it. On the other hand, each guild seems to be follow a script only a stuffed shirt could create. 2010 promised to be something significant. If showcasing sameness is noteworthy, then we're right on course.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.