Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Oscar Disconnect

Courtesy of Santi Slade
What movie will win Best Picture at the 86th Academy Awards is anyone’s guess, provided those guesses are Gravity, American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave. With the Golden Globes, Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild spreading their love amongst them, you can rest assured that voters will choose one of these final three. Which one is the big question, although I predict a victory for 12 Years a Slave, a movie I also happen to think is the best from these choices.

But, as any scholar of Oscar-ology knows, film quality has little to do with a movie’s chances. Having fun with the Academy Awards requires accepting that they are meaningless indicators of artistry, innovation, genius, etc. The Oscars are more a game of sociological politics than anything else.

Say 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Do you think most voters — 94 percent white and 77 percent male, according to L.A. Times — process the significance of a black protagonist struggling to retain his agency within his own story? Or the nuances of Steve McQueen’s direction, as he drapes Solomon’s face in darkness throughout his first beating? I am floating critical readings of the film here, attempting to break down a daunting and daring mammoth in order to support my claim that, “12 Years a Slave is a great film” with evidence. A critic must do that, especially a pretentious amateur such as myself.

The Oscars do not reward films for their intellectual prowess, like, ever. Yet, that does not mean they do not reward complex, abrasive fare like 12 Years a Slave, which has two advantages: 1) The ending packs an emotional wallop, reducing you to a puddle of tears whether you like it or not. The last dramatization of this sort to win Best Picture was Schindler’s List, a movie that does not skimp on the waterworks for its devastating final minutes, either. 2) And like Schindler’s List, 12 Years a Slave is capital-I Important, with History and Race and Human Suffering and The Banality of Evil populating its thematic lineup. 12 Years a Slave also has the ignominious honor of being the first high-profile slavery film since 1997’s Amistad, if we discount the subject’s pulp fiction treatment in Django Unchained. That means you can expect plenty of votes stemming from white guilt — the “We have to give 12 Years a Slave Best Picture so I can sleep again” mindset — more than deliberate appreciation.

All this could backfire, of course. Academy voters could see 12 Years a Slave as too tough, too “brutal” (McQueen’s least favorite word) a slog and opt for American Hustle’s lighter, almost paper-thin touch. However, American Hustle does not have what similar confections like Argo and The Artist had: It is not a movie about how movies — that is, of course, those made in Hollywood — are so great. If David O. Russell started his movie with a make-up girl pasting Christian Bale’s dead rodent of a toupee together and let Jennifer Lawrence frolic about a movie set, Singin’ in the Rain-style, the Oscar would be his. For now, he will just have to hope his streak of nominations over the past three years amounts to enough goodwill to vote his fun, if decidedly flawed, movie to the top. If American Hustle does, indeed, win, blame the actors’ branch, the Academy’s largest and surely the most receptive to the energy Russell pulls from his actors.

Then, of course, we have Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s passion project has almost $700 million to its name in worldwide grosses, a figure Hollywood can feel good about after exporting a string of not only god-awful but, lord almighty, underperforming blockbusters last summer. A 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes speaks to a level of “universal acclaim” that not even past CGI pioneers-cum-critical darlings like Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi had. With Academy favorite Sandra Bullock starring as the latest sci-fi heroine since, what, Terminator’s Sarah Connor and a nifty 90-minute runtime, Gravity has a few statistical perks up its sleeve. It should also be noted that the Academy’s prominent but faceless below-the-line faction (editors, sound mixers, visual effects programmers) surely love Gravity’s technical powerhouse.

What do we learn about the films by analyzing their Oscar chances? Nothing. Well, to be a Best Picture nominee, a film must pass a few preliminary tests: slick presentation; lofty, if not very provocative, subject matter; coherence of narrative. Somehow American Hustle squeezed in despite failing that last one, and I’m sure most of the Academy denounced the fringe lunatics who got The Tree of Life in two years ago (my kind of people, by the way). But pretty much any Best Picture nominee looks and feels like a “good movie,” if not a surprising, or motivated, or layered, or even smart one.

I sense that Nebraska, my favorite film of last year, received its nominations on the backs of its aging stars more than the brilliant subtext Alexander Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson weave into every scene. Then again, many movie lovers, inside and outside the Academy, looked over Nebraska. I not only felt the power of that movie as I watched it but let it slide around in my mind for days and weeks after. I realized how certain minute moments (like the Mt. Rushmore visit, or the brothers’ air compressor theft) spoke volumes to these characters and their rich history. Those epiphanies are mine and will stay with me, despite what other critics may say, despite how much money it makes, despite how many Oscars it does not win.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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