Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Choose Your Own Oscar Adventure

I have always been curious about the process of how a film is ultimately awarded the Best Picture tag. While I usually watch the Oscars and cheer for my personal picks to win, there is something really disturbing about the whole thing. I always feel it when I ask myself the question: what does it mean to be Best Picture? What is the formula that a Best Picture must execute more efficiently than all of the other American theatrical releases this year? While I have examined the dangers of awards and top ten lists - notably how they influence perception and intepretation of individual films as well as sustain views of film art which aren't exactly healthy - I'm more interested here in the elusive question of how a Best Picture actually wins the award and what this means for the discussion and understanding of cinema.

The immediate question that arises from awards discussion is how can some individual or organization label anything "the best," especially considering the subjective experience of perception and interpretation that guides one's view of a film. Because some experts vote on which is the best, and film X wins, does that make it the best film of that year? The short answer is no. But I cannot help but remain fascinated by the whole thing and why people love to argue about it. A great way to identify some of these questions and issues is to looking back at all of the previous winners and identifying thematic and/or structural patterns. One can then begin to piece together what the Academy values most in a film and learn how they measure "quality."

Kristin Thompson over at Observations of film art and Film Art has put together a fascinating entry concerning her own views of what should have won the Best Picture Oscar over the years. For each year until 2000, Thompson cites the winner from a given year as well as the film she thinks should have won. Her selections are fascinating because she seems to follow her own individual beliefs in naming what should have won. On her list are some critical darlings such as Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Psycho, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also among her choices are some unexpected films (at least in terms of a more "serious" crtical approach, one I believe to be a fallacy and both she and David Bordwell have revealed as such in their work). These include Beetlejuice, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Chicken Run.

I know that the Contrarianism blog-a-thon just ended, but I cannot help but think about dominant attitudes and practices in criticism which dictate that only films that are "serious" should win awards. And by serious I mean "important" subject matters, like those explored in films such as Babel or Crash. That is the major problem I have with the Oscars. Although they have gone against type and embraced films that on the surface didn't deal with important/serious subject matters (e.g. Silence of the Lambs), they tend to follow a very predictable pattern of choosing all-encompassing, life contemplating films with big thematic ideas. Even darker films like American Beauty adhere to this pattern.

What I admire about Thompson's selections is that she is unafraid to fly against the critical mainstream, risking being labelled as a contrarian, when in fact she and her husband, David Bordwell, are simply more free-thinking about criticism and film interpretation rather than simply being contrary to popular belief. Thompson's selections show her embrace of a wide range of films including Hollywood filmmaking, critical tradition, as well as seemingly unnoticed films not on critics' or Hollywood's radar. Her choices are incredibly varied. Although she provides no reasoning for her choices (which logically would have been rather cumbersome, taking her weeks to put together), the listing of the choices themselves speaks volumes to her openness to the film vieweing experience as a critic.

I mention this because I think that it's in the best interest of all critics and voters in film organizations such as the Academy to adopt such an open attitude when it comes to understanding film images and the meaning they create, as well as assessing their quality. I admire someone who is unafraid to embrace a film that is not deemed acceptable to like by whatever dominant institution or ideology of which the film is part or to which it is relevant. This doesn't mean that we should think anything dominant or mainstream is suspect and try to be rebels or contrarians, because ultimately they're no different than the ones they claim to rebel against.

Critics are often pinned as being cranky, predictable, and out-of-touch. While this isn't true of all or even most critics, there are a chosen few popular ones and a wealth of journalistic critics who emobody a naturally contrarian approach to cinema, as if nothing will please them and that good films mean "interesting characters, crisp dialogue, and a well structured plot." These critics have bought into their own empty rhetoric and don't think to question their own practices for one moment before employing them to deems films as worthy or unworthy. That's why I always find it refreshing and inspiring (especially as somebody hoping to make my own contribution to criticism someday) to see some critics embody everything good about criticism by effectivelly capturing their personal experiences with the cinema, in so doing evoking thought and discussion about the magic, artifice, pleasure, and anything else associated with experiencing moving images.

It's not always easy to "do your own thing," since every critic has been influenced by popular approaches to criticism, both good and bad, as well as several critics who serve as unofficial mentors and models for structuring one's own criticism as one ventures into it for the first time. As hard as it is to find one's own voice, it's so crucial to the overall discussion and state of cinema to be unafraid to state one's opinions while balancing those opinions with a continued pursuit of education. One's learning never stops, and that should be reflected in their ideas and writing.

To re-focus this post back to the original point of the Oscars and predicting the winners, I would hope that voters and contributors to the discussion of cinema on all levels - even the highest - don't promote static criticism, and are instead willing to challenge, question, and ponder commonly held notions of what constitutes film quality. In doing so, the critical community can therby address the relevant concepts of thought and discussion as they emerge from cinema as a personal and collective experience.

This more open and inquisitive perspective of cinema which Thompson evokes is often reflected in many Oscar nominations. But in terms of the winners, we still have a long way to go. Last year, for example, four of the five films nominated for Best Picture were provocative and uniquely nuanced in their own ways, yet the film that won, Crash, was a pastiche of popular network narrative styles cloaked in a facade of so-called ambiguity. This year, the Best Picture nominees as a collection are quite interesting, but perhaps not as much as last year, in which the nominees were fascinating more for their quiet instrospection rather than "big" ideas. Several of them dealt with important issues facing us today as citizens of a nation and as social beings in a culture. Some criticized the films as being "issue" pieces, but the only nominee guilty of this would be the eventual winner, Crash, which exploited popular contemporary stylistic devices to create an in-your-face examination of important issues. Babel is scarily similar to Crash in some ways in its use of the network narrative and thematic similarities of communication, culture, and social identity, but I think that actually hurts its chances since that was the trendy thing last year. I have written about both The Queen and Letters From Iwo Jima in my Cinema 2006 series, and I stand by my beliefs that they are both brilliant films. The other two films nominated, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, I enjoyed immensely but would hesitate to call them great. I didn't feel the emotional connection to The Departed that seemed to be brewing underneath its surface and despite it being very absorbing and exciting, it felt too concocted to me, the events too convenient. At times, the film felt like a blatent result of screenwriting structure. Little Miss Sunshine, one of the more charming films of last year, overcame a premise and stylistic execution that were both very traditional in their rebelling against classical tradition. But the film slowly found a really strong rhythm and offered a subtle examination of a family dynamic without being overly insistent on its themes of the broken American dream. I liked both of these films very much on first viewings and intend to view them again as in the near future. Neither of them left the impression on me that Letters From Iwo Jima and The Queen did.

To me, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing with what wins, since everything comes down to personal experience and interpretation. More interesting is the study of films that have won and identifying patterns of what the dominant institutions consider film quality, because it is absolutely essential that this perspective never remains static or complacent. No formula should determine Best Picture winners. Any film should be capable of garnering the award, not just "serious" or "important" films. Critics and awards committees now need to be confident enough to contemplate the medium itself and what constitutes quality; there is no set answers, because the idea of film quality like many other ideas associated with interpretation should be fluid and ever-expanding, along with our understanding of the film as an art form and a medium of communication.

In a sense, the Oscars are meant to represent the pinnacle of American film from year to year. Thompson observes that it's hard to really know how certain films will be remembered over time, which is why she doesn't choose her winners beyond 2000. The beauty of the Oscars in an American film history sense is that they represent cinema through the years. One film from a particular year is chosen to represent that year cinematically; and what it says about that year or that time is fascinating to study. It's really quite impossible to somehow know what will be revolutionary or important in the now; it can really only be determined in retrospect. This view of the Oscars sees the term, "best," not so much as best as most influential or most interesting that will someday transcend the present and be remembered. The fun of it is that we don't know what will be remembered once the now becomes the then. It's one big guessing game, and looking back on winners is an exciting exercise to see what has molded itself in our collective memory and what hasn't; what has really contributed to the American film experience and what hasn't.

I think this perspective of the Oscars is more fruitful than merely trying to pinpoint which film supposedly objectively embodies our collective notion of film quality. There can never be an objective understanding of "best" when we discuss these issues. But in order for that term to represent more than a failed attempt for objectivity and sustaining a facile and destructive notion of quality, we the critics, the bloggers, the lovers of film everywhere need to understand the term as not quality and objectivity, but a one word summation for which film stands out in our own individual perspectives as being the most noteworthy, stimulating, contributory to the advancement and discussion of cinema. While I value personal perspective in discussion rather than collective voting, I still think there is a place for almost mythical ceremonies like the Oscars. Some shun them and laugh at them, some live and breathe them. I am probably somewhere in the middle in that I value its place in our collective consciousness regarding cinema, but I also acknowledge its potential dangers and weaknesses that call for improvement (notably the compartmentalizing of the film experience and the notions of quality which are imposed on others' views of film). Nevertheless, the Oscars, in particular the Best Picture awards, are a fascinating staple in our film culture.

Later in the week, I will unveil my official predictions for Oscar night. But right now, in the spirit of Kristin Thompson, I now present my own list of my choices for Best Picture nominees and winners:

* denotes my choice for the winner

[Note: Since my quest to see as many theatrical releases as possible each year started roughly in 1999, it would only be appropriate that I started there.]

Being John Malkovich
Boys Don't Cry
Eyes Wide Shut *
Fight Club
The Insider

Almost Famous
Cast Away
Chicken Run
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon *
Wonder Boys

A.I. Artificial Intelligence *
Ghost World
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Waking Life

Adaptation *
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Minority Report
Spirited Away

American Splendor
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost in Translation *
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Kill Bill Volume 2
Sideways *

A History of Violence *
King Kong

Children of Men
Letters From Iwo Jima
Miami Vice
Pan's Labyrinth *
The Queen

I'm interested in your feedback on who will win and who should win/be nominated.


Jo Custer said...

Ted, I really hate this kind of stuff. It's so empty, but since some of your choices kind of surprised me, I think I can pause to give you a little feedback...

1999. Kubrick was my first favorite film director and I did like Eyes Wide Shut more than the critics, but Being John Malkovich was a more original and better conceived film, as was one you don't have listed, David Lynch's The Straight Story. Lynch at least stretched his limbs (and how); Kubrick wasn't covering new ground at all. The foreign language award film for that year bested both of those, btw. (Amoldovar's All About My Mother)

2000: I really loved Almost Famous and Tiger, Dragon but neither one felt like the best. I can't remember off the top of my head which indie films got snubbed that year, though.

2001: A.I. Artificial Intelligence is another case of a master filmmaker not quite bettering himself. He had a lot to work with--much more than he did with Close Encounters but his earlier works stand the test of time; A.I., not quite. Ghost World was a good departure for Buscemi without being stunning; and, while I love Waking Life, I think that
In the Bedroom was a very fine work of craft that deserved a less haughty reception.

2002: Adaptation? Absolutely. It had guts.
Haven't seen Lantana, though.

2003: American Splendor was sublime and much pithier than Coppola's Lost in Translation...but I have a feeling this list is seriously missing someting, too.

2004: Wow. How do you pick Payne's Sideways over Before Sunset? Can you look in the mirror and tell yourself that he did better than in About Schmidt?

2005: See this.

2006: You're probably right, but only in comparison to other American films. I think we got outshined bigtime this year and that it's high time we make the Oscars universal.

Jo Custer said...

{please note that, while I was honest with my highly opinionated monologue, that I don't take these things too seriously; so, neither should you!}

Ted Pigeon said...

Of course I don't take it too seriously. If you have taken the time to read my posts earlier on these matters (they are very long, so I would understand if you haven't), than you would know that I don't put much stock in much of this stuff. But it can be fun, and as informed as our perspectives are regarding cinema, it's ultimately all filtered through our very subjective experiences. I don't expect agreement so much as discussion. Through discourse, we can all learn to stretch our perspectives by allowing them to grow, which is what I argue.

That being said, it seems that we agree on many films, generally speaking, and that we bring very different experiences with cinema to each of these. I don't deny that my specialty here is American cinema. I have tried to expose myself to as much foreign cinema as possible, but a great majority of my cinema experience is with American film history. I still have a far way to go, but I'm fairly knowledgeable about foreign films.

I have posted on other blogs, and maybe in my post on lists (Criticism part III) that the idea of categorizing the film experience is absurd, and that the biggest offense of this is the foreign language film category. It's downright laughable considering some of the films nominated for Oscars this year. I belief Andy Horbal brought this up recently and demonstrated Oscar's greatest problem, which of course is a microcosm for how the entire process works. It's totally absurd and highly damaging to young film lovers, no doubt. But, assuming you have a certain distance from it, which I most certainly do, then there's nothing wrong with having a little fun with it. Plus, following the Oscars can be very revealing about our culture's relationship to the medium itself and how we have reduced it to a political ad campaign, but that's a whole other story. From a film history standpoint, it's worthy of discussion. Not much more than that thought. Thanks for post!

Ted Pigeon said...

And regarding A.I., I plan on devoting a very long post in the future about the film and how it deals with so many crucial aspects of all media and how they form representation and constitute our perceptions and ability to interpret. Topically, the film is interesting if disjointed. But I argue that there are things going on in that movie deeper than I have seen explored in any criticism.

Jo Custer said...

I love A.I., and that will be a post I look forward to. Feel free to drop me a comment on my blog (I get my comments emailed to me, so it doesn't matter where) when you do, and I'll be sure to come on over.

I am a fairly pick-and-choose reader--partly because I am very busy and partly because I spend too much time in front of a computer screen as it is...I hope to get caught up with a lot of reading this summer. I enjoy your viewpoint and voice a lot.

Tell me, when you say American films, do you speak of classic films or modern indies or both? (or none of the above?) I'm curious. I have to watch My Favorite Wife over the next couple of days and write about it...

Jo Custer said...


I tried to watch the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday, but found them too nauseating to sit through. But I thought that you would like to add this to your base.

The nominees/winners are listed here.

Ted Pigeon said...

I would like to think that I've approached American cinema somewhat openly. I'm very involved in classical filmmaking, contemporary film, and everything in between: indies, genre films, etc. Foreign cinema would be a part of that essentially. Since I don't have infinite time (it would be nice wouldn't it?), I have to make choices in what I see and study. Lately I've been trying to catch up on 2006 films. I've seen around 55 and within a month or two would like to have seen somewhere in the 70s, which is somewhat down from previous years, when I would see 80 or 90 theatrical releases. I try to balance these with films of all shapes and sizes.

Jo Custer said...

Choices, yup. I find myself rearranging the Netflix queue every so often to fit in with my writing schedule, etc. Thanks in part to the fact that Pittsbugh doesn't get as many releases as it should (and most of the best ones don't show up until the awards season) I don't get out to see many films in the theatre, so when I do I make sure it's going to at least be very interesting if not good....and, of course, I support the local filmmaking scene as much as I feel I can. We're undergoing changes here, so it'll be interesting to see what develops over the next few years...

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