Column: Keeley's Corner
It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 22:02
Ah, Oscar season. A time full of endless talk-show chatter about who will take home what awards, onslaughts of studio-promoted “For Your Consideration” ads, and annual complaints that the Academy’s taste is old, tired, and not reflective of public tastes. A time to anticipate the spectacle of awkward pre-scripted banter between presenters, overlong and dramatic acceptance speeches, and the inevitable dead people montage in which the recently departed members of the film industry are saluted with a glorified PowerPoint. The nominees, hosts, and outfits may change, but year after year the basic pattern is the same.
For me, it is the best of times and the worst of times, for I have always cultivated a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. As someone who has been a cinephile since the age of six, I can hardly do otherwise.
At their best, the Oscars serve to highlight unheralded work, and draw audiences’ attention to films they might otherwise ignore. The two shining examples from this year are Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild—the first, a French-Austrian co-production about an aging couple’s enduring love, and the second, an independent feature that filters the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina through the fantastical vision of a six-year-old girl. Neither is exactly a sure-fire commercial prospect, and without their nominations they might languish in obscurity. But the Oscar boost will surely introduce these two worthy films to a new audience, and that’s a good thing. It’s what the Oscars should be all about: exposing people to good movies, and encouraging a national conversation about them.
Unfortunately, most people tend to tune out this conversation, because of the impression that the Academy’s taste is backwards and old-fashioned. They’re often right. If you’re looking for questionable Academy selections, there’s plenty to choose from. Would anyone still argue that The Artist was the best movie of 2011, or that its director deserved to defeat Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen for Best Director? Two years later, can anyone justify giving the Best Picture Oscar to The King’s Speech rather than David Fincher’s thrillingly vibrant and modern The Social Network? Going back even further, let’s address the fact that in a 54-year career, Alfred Hitchcock never once won a Best Director Oscar, and that his Vertigo, recently voted the greatest film of all time by the prestigious Sight & Sound poll of movie critics, was all but ignored by the Academy.
The truth is, the Oscars are rarely a prediction of long-term cinematic significance or greatness. It’s more accurate to say that they present a picture of how the industry wants to see itself. Sometimes the Academy chooses to reward “socially conscious” films like Crash or Slumdog Millionaire, sometimes they go for contemporary relevance (The Hurt Locker), and sometimes they indulge in nostalgia about their own past (The Artist). If Argo takes Best Picture this year, don’t be surprised—it’s a movie in which the power of Hollywood solves a Middle Eastern political crisis. How comforting.
Yet even as I indulge in this cynicism about the Oscars and the kind of movies that win them, I also resist it. Becoming too jaded about the whole process can obscure the better qualities of the films themselves, as well as the work that the ceremony helps to highlight. It is certainly understandable to argue that Argo and Lincoln are classic Oscar bait, carefully tailored by the studios to rake in the gold, but to argue that they are nothing more is reductive. I have lots of sympathy for those who say that the Academy’s methods for nominating foreign language films and documentaries squeeze out many worthy contenders, yet those categories also introduce people to great movies like A Separation and How to Survive A Plague. And you can complain all you want about the predictability of the Academy’s choices, but there are always surprises: who would have predicted that Amour, a great but bleak French-language film about two octogenarians, could garner four major nominations?
So even as I settle in to watch the ceremony on Sunday, grumbling that Moonrise Kingdom and Bernie and Skyfall were snubbed, even as I roll my eyes at the ceremony’s excesses and all the attention paid to fashion, I will also be watching it unironically. Part of me will always be the nine-year-old kid who stayed up past his bedtime on Oscar night to see who the big winner was. I hope someone else out there is watching it that way, someone bursting with a love for movies and eagerly hoping to check out the films he didn’t know about. If so, then the imperfect institution of the Oscars will have done its job.