Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"For a stronger Oscar, vote Coen": The politics of Best Picture

With yesterday's unveiling of the Oscar nominations, film culture (both print and online) has been abuzz. As with any other year, many moviegoers and critics have raised questions about the nominees' validity: Who earned nominations, who didn't, why certain actors/filmmakers were snubbed, and how others were undeserving. Examples of this may include questions like: "Why wasn't Sean Penn recognized for his directorial work on Into the Wild?" Or: "How could Tim Burton have been snubbed yet again for a Best Director nomination?" One question I have after browsing the list is: "How in the hell did Norbit earn as many nominations as Eastern Promises?" The outrage and the joy are being expressed on movie message boards, fan sites, blogs, as well at more popular print venues for film criticism.

And with election coverage also finding its way into daily headlines in a variety of news sources lately, it's hard not to think of the Oscars as much more than a game of politics. The last few months have seen huge sweeps of print and online ads dominating entertainment press, during which time pundits have projected and documented highs and lows for the major studio prestige releases vying for Oscar gold. In that sense, the Academy Awards are exciting to follow. And why not? For anyone who reads film journalism or criticism regularly, the race is fun to watch if for no other reason than the thrill of seeing which movie comes out on top, and to argue the results.

In the spirit of the buzz of Oscar month, I will throw my hat into the increasingly discussion of Best Picture politics...

As expected, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood sit atop the list as the favorites; the former title having been prominently featured in critical dialogues for months now and has slowly risen above other contenders, while Blood steamrolled into the awards hunt in December, almost as if its makers/promoters absolutely knew it would be a favorite for Best Picture. As many have already observed, the race to the Oscar seems to be about these two movies alone. They are the focus of heavy critical attention, at least. But there is more to the Oscar race than critical art evaluations. On the other end of the spectrum is the audience. In the past, these two dialogues were not too far off, but a schism seems to have occurred in recent years. A very clear divide has emerged between those who appreciate formal beauty and supremely crafted classical filmmaking, rich in Hollywood narrative and stylistic tradition, and those who admire films that subvert those traditions. Filmmakers have of course been playing with the conventions and deviating from classical cinema traditions for quite some time, but only recently has Oscar really recognized them. Movies that would not have "made it" into the Best Picture category in the past are now being lauded from strong intellectural movements in criticism. Audience response to these films has not been good, as box office numbers on recent Best Picture-nominated films have shown. Every year now, my casual moviegoer friends and acquaintances approach me after the nominees are released and tell me they haven't seen any of the five nominated films, or even heard of two or three of them.

Obviously, the changes of which I speak represent more than shifts in critical discourse, but in American filmmaking as well. The film landscape is changing on a number of levels: economic, social, thematic, and while it would be easy to split Oscar-contending films into two distinct categories, i.e. experimental art films and classical Hollywood tradition films, that's not the case. Those two sensibilities are converging to form a multiplicity of films, some of which may lean more toward one sensibility, but many of which employ elements of both trends. This hasn't gone over well for audiences because audiences crave familiarity. But the social and economic changes in the American filmmaking industry, as well as in the country as a whole, have made it impossible for there to be two main kinds of films, of which only one (classical Hollywood cinema) is recognized by the Academy Awards.

Within the last three or four months, several movies have been released each week to quiet box office returns, despite high critical success. Critics knew these would be the movies talked about at year's end, but the numbers never reflected any great audience interest. Of course there are more factors at play, such as distribution/availability. But distribution is often determined based on how studio promoters deem a film's recogniziability. That is to say that films that don't fit within the comfortable molds of "hits" are typically given platform releases so that the studio can control a film's distribution depending on whether it performs well. While the trailer for There Will Be Blood played before major releases for months, the film was given a small release (in New York and Los Angeles) near the end of December, at which point all the reviews emerged. But only recently has it become marginally available to average consumers. The film is now a major player in all awards and lists and very few people have seen it. Whether this method of critical success turning to box office and critical success remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, this pattern has been developing in recent years and will continue to develop as the socioeconomic landscape of American cinema continues to change. The market is increasingly crowded now, and moviegoers ultimately fail to form a consensus on many films because there are so many of them in release that many of these pictures fall into box office oblivion.

Looking at the box office receipts of this year's assemblage of movies, only one (Juno) will cross the $100 million mark, and barely. It's been deemed the audience favorite, as it has continued to perform very well and will likely do so for several months. Michael Clayton can also be considered a hit, albeit a marginal one given its subject matter and target audience. Interestingly, Atonement, converges new and old narrative styles and aesthetic trends to the best effect, out of all five filsm, but it has somewhat underwhelmed at the box office.

While certain critical groups lauded these films in different ways -- all three have done fairly well from the pop film critic-journalists -- none of them have garnered much discussion in the serious critical discussion. These three films instead represent different demographics of the audience enjoyment factor of the Oscars, which is important. They collectively hit all bases when it comes to audience satisfaction and an overall enjoyment on the part of critics, but they lack that intangible level of abstraction contained in There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men that's driving so many discussions and debates about the artistic merit of the respective films. In previous years, this wasn't much of a factor so long that a movie generally did well with critics and audiences. But, as mentioned earlier, a schism has developed between the critical and audience ends of the spectrum that Oscar desperately wants to bring together. As the movies themselves begin blending more lines and embodying elusive ambiguity, there have been strong movements in criticism to recognize more artful and demanding movies. And since this movement has picked up so much speed in recent years (with regards to American cinema), Oscar has no choice but to recognize it.

Which is perhaps why films like Good Night, and Good Luck, Capote, Munich, Lost In Translation, and various other smaller movies have picked up nominations for Best Picture, when at any other time they'd be respectfully acknowledged outside awards shows. So, while we still have a system based on critical and audience reaction, that binary has become incredibly clouded in the last eight or nine years. And it's becoming harder for Oscar to recognize this. There is now a new mold emerging in the five-film assemblage of Best Picture nominees. It's not concrete as of yet, but it still honors the audience-critical binary to an extent.

While Atonement, Juno, and Michael Clayton all seemed somewhat destined to be there, as general success with critics and nominees, they are little more than pet nominees. Let's boil these movies down to what they mean for the Oscars; let's translate them into political terms and see what kinds of patterns emerge. Atonement represents that old-fashioned romance that Hollywood is known for, Juno is the "quirky" indie dramedy, a la Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways, representing the Academy's efforts to recognize Sundance-inspired "indies," which are not indies at all. And finally, Michael Clayton is that serious legal thriller that Oscar remains enamored by. It's also helped by the fact that it stars the socially responsible and Academy fave, George Clooney. While Atonement picked up a huge victory by nabbing a Golden Globe for Best Drama, it still trails along with Michael Clayton, which is that one movie that's "glad to be there," but has absolutely no shot of winning. While some are placing Juno in this category, that would be a mistake.

Although No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are the outright favorites at this point, that could change very quickly. Though they own the major critical attention, Juno could make some serious noise. It's suffering some major backlash after it was annointed this year's indie Oscar nominee, but it seems to have a better shot of winning then the previous two simply because of its status as an audience favorite. While that wouldn't give it enough to win alone, Dennis Cozzalio and David Edelstein provide sound reasoning for its strong chance by pointing out that its status as "a winner" may give it an edge when the heavywights, Blood and Country split. It's very possible.

I would certainly agree that those two are heavily favored over the others to win, only There Will Be Blood fits some semblance of and Academy mold inasmuch that it is sprawling epic with a powerhouse lead performance. But the subject matter is so demanding and the thematic core so dense that it has left audiences for the most part cold. Nonetheless, the Academy loves that stuff; you know the films that scream "ART!" Oh, and the dissonant music helps solidfy it as a contender, despite not qualifying for best original score.

No Country For Old Men, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It's that perfect movie that neither critics nor audiences really understand, but both sides are utterly intrigued by. It defies all labels, molds, and claims made about it, yet it also recognizes them and maybe to extent relishes in them. Many critics have provided useful insights about the film and have tackled it on a number of levels, but each new perspective further points out that the mystery of this movie will never quite be understood despite all the engaging discussion. It is both deep and shallow, and everything in between. It is and it is not exactly what cinema can be. (I will discuss this in more detail when I recap my favorite films of 2007 in coming weeks.)

No matter what happens on Oscar night, critics, fans, and moviegoers will likely complain over the results. Ultimately no one will be happy with the selections, despite being pleased with some. In the end, everyone has their own opinions about what deserves to win and what doesn't, and there is rarely middle ground. Discussions about this are about as inconsequential as political pundits ranting and raving on political programs. It's enough to drive one crazy, or worse, to question the reason we argue about this stuff at all. Is cinema nothing more than a matter of who thinks what is artful or important? Is politics nothing more then a matter of who thinks what is unlawful, fair, or just? It might seem like nothing more than a rhetorical concern, but these practices of awards, races, and lists have strong implications for the larger pratice of cinema itself, because those that engage in them - critics, actors, filmmakers, movie lovers - may actually be cheapening the medium by doing so, conditioning it to embody the same simplistic value claims that we use to discuss it and recognize it.

I would love to deride the Oscars for not recognizing brilliant films like Zodiac, Paprika, Manufactured Landscapes, etc., but I've realized that this would contribute to the problem. This problem doesn't appear to be within the concepts of competition or rank-based evaluation. Rather, the concepts themselves are the problem. We are collectively obsessed with "Bests," competitive dueling, and grade-based evaluation, which is why perhaps so much political discourse and popular film criticism seems to undermine the subtleties, flows, and relations that actually define cinema and sociocultural affairs. I reserve hope that those who really love cinema ought to recognize how foolish it is to think of movies so categorically and competitively. Yet just like the election race, many of us get caught up in the hype and glamour in spite of the fact that these practices, i.e. races and awards, may actually encourage a kind of discourse that reduces all complexity and innovation in cinematic or political analysis/discussion to a matter of "good" and "bad." After all, nobody watches the Oscars to learn anything about cinema. Just like nobody watches The O'Reilly Factor to learn anything about politics or sociocultural affairs. We watch them so that we can agree or disagree; to combat empty value claims with equally empty value claims.

Which begs the question: Are we so entrenched within these modes of thought that we cannot recognize the necessity to break free of the reductive paths of theory and discourse they purport? And if we cannot recognize that necessity, is it even a necessity at all? But perhaps the biggest concern in these considersations is what seems to be an ever-hazy line between value claims and knowledge claims. It's a scary thing to think about, but there is one thing I am sure of right now: When No Country For Old Men wins the prize, I'm not sure whether I'll be overjoyed or saddened that one of the most astounding and beautiful films I've ever seen won an Oscar. I'll want to be overjoyed, but perhaps that's the problem. If it doesn't win, though, I'll be furious.


Adam Ross said...

Lots to chew here -- thanks, Ted. I share your thoughts in the final paragraph about "No Country for Old Men," I adore the movie and it's one of the best I've seen in years ... yet, I don't know if I want it to win. If the Coens accept a Best Picture award, where will their career go from here? Another question is -- do THEY want their movie to win? Something tells me they're kind of ambivalent to it, but who knows.

Each year I'm a little annoyed at the Best Picture nominees, but looking back at history you see it's nothing new: Mary Poppins? Airport? The Towering Inferno? Working Girl? The list will only get longer.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Adam!

It's amazing, when you think about it, just how many movies slip out of the collective critical memory when it's time to construct top ten lists and awards nominees. That's not to say that some movies receiving nominees don't deserve it; just that the selection process for the five nominees is more about lobbying and politics than it is about quality.

There are so many wonderful movies from last year, and probably so many more that I haven't seen or even heard of. That's why I invest myself in the Oscars only to the extent that I am fascinated by critical canon-making in action.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

You say a lot of important things in this essay and I agree that the deeper issue is the motivation behind our society's continual categorization and ranking, the disease of what's "Best." What I thought was odd here, though, was your distinction of "Oscar" and "the Oscars" as a monolithic decision-making force. In a way, of course, the Academy represents the industry itself, but in actuality it is made up of thousands and thousands of people. People who work within the industry, have their own tastes--and their own motives for wishing to see certain films and people lauded and others shot down. That's where the true politics comes in, and is certainly the motivation behind the recent trend to turn every category into the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rick said...

Life is more interesting than film. Even films with twisted plots are made somewhat predictable by their running time, if not having been "spoiled" by giving away too many details in the trailers. But not even Gene Rodenberry anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union (recall Ensign Chekov's references to his Russian motherland). Just try to predict what landmarks will still exist when you get old!