*The following was written prior to the 2014 Academy Awards as a supplement to this blog. It was originally published as a chapter in the blog and had a spot on the left-side panel with other like pages. I have re-categorized it for organization’s sake, so it has been re-posted as a blog post.
The ending of the year (and the beginning of the following) represents an important time period in the movie industry, particularly in Hollywood. We have come to call this period of time “Awards Season”, that four-month-or-so period of time between November and February (or March this year) which begins with the Gotham Awards and ends with the Academy Awards. This period is not only limited to awards jubilees, however. This season is also marked by film festivals, with their accompanying festival awards. It is a time of balloting, nominating, campaigning, voting, winning, accepting, losing, and politely applauding.
The question of whether or not awards season matters is an important one to ask when one is contemplating the jump from casual movie-goer to competent movie-connoisseur. An important topic of debate, particularly in contemporary discussions on film, revolves around a given award’s significance. As time goes on, the line between the “cultured” and the “layman” continues to grow, but only because the “cultured” desperately want it to grow. It makes them feel good about themselves. As a man who considers himself to be quite cultured, I know that it doesn’t take a whole lot for a casual movie-goer to become competent. It has nothing to do with how smart they are, merely how much time they’re willing to devote. In a world full of humans who constantly contemplate the cost-benefit ratio of any decision, one cannot expect every person in the world to consider a Robert Bresson marathon a worthwhile use of time; particularly when there are hours to clock and shelves to fix. The “cultured” people, too often, are the ones that don’t have the energy or desire to be practical, and they often choose to replace that with artistic pursuits. There is nothing wrong with that—at least in theory—but problems come up when these “cultured” people insist on asserting their cultural superiority to somehow compensate for their lack of practicality. So, they desperately try to stretch that boundary between themselves and those whom they have deemed “laymen”.
In what I consider a strategic move designed to play on this “cultured/layman” dynamic, the critical world has come to whine quite a bit about the “commercialism” of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and other major awards. They give too much credit to the popular film, they say. They don’t give proper respect to independent films, which don’t have the means whereby they can publicize and campaign that major production companies enjoy. They don’t give proper respect to non-American films, which no one in the United States are familiar with and which would helpfully pull attention away from Hollywood’s shallow dominance. Meanwhile, they contradict themselves when they come to praise great works of political commentary, which almost inevitably come from Hollywood, where progressive ideals are far more abundant and accepted. This is particularly evident when they say that movies like Dallas Buyers Club and Lee Daniels’ The Butler are the best movies of the year, when they actually aren’t, they are merely the most politically in line with their own activism. They then turn around and say that we should pay more attention to other countries, when the movies that they themselves have lauded as the “best” are American. It gets a little crazy.
The truth is, awards season does matter. I know, how shocking. Most would say it doesn’t. After all, does it tell you what the best movie of a given year was? No. Does it validate a performance by objectively saying whether or not it was good or bad? No. Does it help a movie age well and gain some degree of cinematic immortality? No. Good movies, like all good art, are not validated nor survived by awards. I am reminded of that scene in Dead Poets’ Society when Robin Williams’ character takes the chart that has been designed to quantify the quality of a given work of art and tears it in pieces in front of his students. An award merely says that the particular group of people voting on that particular award liked that particular movie more than the others. That doesn’t mean anything about a movie’s quality, as the quality is subjective. Subjective, by definition, means that it deals with the individual. That is why I said in the introduction to my list of the greatest films of all time that it is just fine for a single individual to come up with a quantified list, because it actually encourages boldness in an individual’s subjectivity. It is a helpful exercise in the journey from casual movie-goer to competent movie-connoisseur.
That is one reason why I feel that awards season is a noble tradition: it involves a large group of competent movie-connoisseurs expressing their own opinions, deciding a winner based on popular vote, and then engaging in debate on the results. There is something important about a film’s ability to gather a following. This following could be critical, popular, demographically-driven, or even one of those “cult” followings that seem to be as powerful as any of them (consider the long-held popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even Napoleon Dynamite). While there are many factors in determining a given film’s overall legacy, one of these factors involves the given film’s ability to garner an audience, and this is demonstrated by the awards that the film was nominated for.
Perhaps the most significant of these audiences is the audience of one’s peers. The awards season is primarily an opportunity for actors to nominate actors, for directors to nominate directors and for technical specialists to nominate technical specialists. I think that critics get so caught up in the “screw awards season” banter because this is the moment that hurts their elite status. Consider for a minute when someone goes to a restaurant and critiques the food, using all the tasting experience he or she has had in his or her life, ultimately declaring that the food is terrible. After all, this person knows food, having eaten three times a day for an entire lifetime. Then, some professional chef comes in and says the food is great. No one doubts the credentials of the first person. After all, what better opinion is there than one held by someone exposed to something so common as food? But, the professional chef still has some sort of clout that we can’t help but respect, deserved or not. Often, these awards situations make the critic, like the non-chef, somewhat bitter, despite the fact that critic is still a superb source.
Actually, critics are often better sources because they view pictures as composite wholes, while these awards by peers that are given every November, December, January and February are often viewed through biased eyes. Actors of a Adler’s school will not as soon vote for actors of Strasberg’s school; just as directors of blockbuster pictures are often looking for different things than those that direct low-key dramas. While some may want to laud a great technical achievement, others may be extra focused on acting ensembles (hmmm….Gravity or American Hustle?). The fickleness of these voting bodies may make them less credible than a critic that examines every facet of a given film, but it also lends to a volatile and thriving industry. Really, popularity contests only matter among your peers, and there’s something very telling about a chef saying you make a good meal. Perhaps that is why Sue Mengers, a famous talent agent for many significant filmmakers and actors in the mid-1900s, said “Stars are rare creatures, and not everyone can be one. But there isn’t anyone on earth—not you, not me, not the girl next door—who wouldn’t like to be a movie star holding up that gold statuette on Academy Award night.”
These awards can be utilized to help open people’s eyes to the world of cinema. Remember the purpose of this blog! I hope, through my writing, to help the casual movie-goer become a competent film-connoisseur. Going to the archives of the various awarding administrations can help the casual movie-goer find movies. Take this example.
Casual movie-goer A goes to a movie theater in August of 2008 with his extended family and watches the biggest movie of the year: The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, and Morgan Freeman. Leaving the theater, casual movie-goer A exclaims “that might have been the best movie ever made!” As casual movie-goer A is enjoying his first year as a college student, with his first-ever laptop, he often finds himself reading articles about The Dark Knight. He “likes” a page saying that The Dark Knight should be nominated for Best Picture. He reads troves of essays on Heath Ledger’s monumental performance. Then, February 22 of the following year comes around. The Dark Knight, not even nominated for Best Picture, goes on to win only two awards: for Best Supporting Actor and for Best Sound Editing. This atrocity bothers casual movie-goer A, and so he decides to look into it. What is this Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonmovie? What about this Slumdog Millionaire movie? All of a sudden, casual movie-goer A starts looking into “Bollywood” films, and is eventually (four or five years later) introduced into such Bengali-language masterpieces as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu. Meanwhile, he becomes a Cate Blanchett fan after watching Curious Case of Benjamin Button and finds himself loving the Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There, where Blanchett plays one of many manifestations of Bob Dylan’s character.
Still, casual movie-goer A insists that The Dark Knight was the best movie of 2008. He goes to various lists online to see where it ranks. Imdb.com sends him on a search for this The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly movie. A list of the “Biggest Ever Best Picture Snubs” sends him to The Shawshank Redemption. Upon finding out, reading that same list, that the first Star Wars movie lost to some rom-com called Annie Hall, he decides he should see what the big fuss about Woody Allen was all about, especially since the only time he had ever been exposed to the work of Allen was in Antz.
All this from the fact that the Academy made a decision. And in case you didn’t notice, which you probably did, casual movie-goer A is me.
This is the reason why awards season does matter, especially for the casual movie-goer on the path to competency in the world of cinema. I would recommend an exercise that I myself have never actually done, but I think it sounds fun: start with 1927’s Wings—the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture—and watch the 85 winners leading up to last year’s Argo. “85 movies?” you ask. Yes, it’s not as terrible as you think. How much time do you spend watching TV shows on Netflix every day? You can supplant this time and instead watch something good. You can easily watch them all this year without any trouble, and still find time to meet all your deadlines and finish all your projects. Watch one movie a week, you finish it in a year and a half. Watch them with friends and family. Talk about them together. From analysis and conversation comes true competency in film. I think that is one reason why I made this blog. In all this talk about helping the casual movie-goer become a competent one, perhaps I really considered it necessary in my own progression as a film-connoisseur to write about the films and theories to which I had been exposed over the last few years.
In watching these movies, you’ll see the evolution of film over time, including the emergence of sound, the development of frame ratios and camera speeds, and the advent of computers in movie production. You’ll see comedies (It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Amadeus, and The Artist), romances (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and Shakespeare in Love), musicals (An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, and Chicago), historical epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, and Gladiator), intimate dramas (How Green Was My Valley, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Terms of Endearment), crime masterpieces (On the Waterfront, The Godfather,and Mystic River), and war films (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Saving Private Ryan).
Consider this rather dated comment from the screenwriter of The Exorcist, who said, “I get cassettes near Academy Award time of every movie that’s made that thinks it has some kind of chance for a nomination – that’s when I watch my movies.” If the only movies you ever watched are Academy Award nominees, or Screen Actors Guild award nominees, or BAFTA nominees, you won’t be too bad off. That’s not say that you won’t be missing out on some key films, but you’ll far better along than most casual movie-goers. And I will say this, in your quest to educate yourself on a given year’s nominees, you’ll be led to those other “snubbed” and forgotten films that are so deserving of your attention. That is inevitable.
Now that the opinion part of this chapter has been written, I would now like to spend a little time writing on the various major awards. When one comes to understand who makes up the voting body for each respective award, that person can better understand what certain awards tend to emphasize. This is important when it comes to giving awards season its proper dues. For concision’s sake (I’ve decided to try being concise now…yeah, right) I will only cover five awards.
First and foremost, we will discuss the biggest of all the awards, the plus grand de tous.
The Academy Awards
Known as “The Oscars” for the golden statuettes that are given (which are officially called “Academy Awards of Merit”), the Academy Award Ceremony is often the final awards extravaganza of the awards season. This makes this particular ceremony the ultimate movie ceremony, the final award, not unlike the championship game after a long post-season in sports. While all the other awards are great (as a matter of fact, they are all based on the Academy’s premise because the Academy Awards is the oldest awards ceremony in the performing arts), the award movie makers want, particularly the award that American movie makers want, is the Oscar.
The nominees (and ultimate winners) are selected by a voting body which, as of 2012, has 5,783 members. About 20% of this Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) consists of actors; actors, therefore, make up the largest “demographic” if you want to call it that. Consider, for a moment, how this effects the movies that are picked. Also consider the sheer amount of votes involved. This also makes it difficult for art films and foreign films to get in running, because there will be so much diversity in the ballot results that picking the top 5 must inevitably result in popular films.
This is the most consistent criticism of the Academy. But, when one considers the nature of the voting, I don’t think the criticism is very worthwhile. There is nothing wrong, in my eyes, with an ethnocentric award presentation. Most countries have awards races for their own national releases. We just have a big problem with that in America because we’re a “melting pot” and we insist that “America the Beautiful” be sung in every foreign language.
There is, however, a legitimate problem with the Academy, and it spawns from a term you’ve probably heard: “Oscar bait.” Basically, “Oscar bait” is any film that falls under a certain genre that is released in the last three months of a given year so that it’s fresh on everyone’s minds. Which genres are the most “Oscar bait”-ish? Romantic historical epics, biographical dramas, romantic “dramedies”, and family melodramas. Perhaps this is born of the fact that the greatest segment of voters are actors and these genres are the most fitting for dominating acting performances. This gives movies like those made by Robert Bresson—one of my very favorite auteurs—a distinct disadvantage, because, while they are incredibly poignant and moving, they are not as obviously emotional and dramatic as other movies.
The Cannes Film Festival
Film festivals are not part of awards season, but the Cannes Film Festival is not only the most prestigious festival in the world but also awards the most significant movie award of a given year: the Palme d’Or. I said earlier that American filmmakers want to get the Oscar. Filmmakers from everywhere else lust for that illustrious Palme d’Or. Where in 2002, Chicago won the Best Picture Academy Award, it was Roman Polanski’s The Pianist that took home the Palme d’Or. Ten years later, in 2012, Argo won the Best Picture Academy Award, but Amour was the Palme d’Or-winner. It is quite obvious that the Palme d’Or is a more art-driven competition that puts quality over popularity because it is singularly involved with first viewings and presentations.
Despite all of its prestige, however, one must recognize the nature of all festival awards. Whether at Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, or Venice, they all are subject to a certain mob mentality. That is probably an unfair word usage on my part, but it is inevitable in any group setting for a person to go with the crowd. Often, these awards are delivered after a single viewing with a powerfully influencing audience. That they can, at times, be rushed decisions. However, one should consider the voting body involved. The films are awarded based on the deliberations of several “juries”, the most prestigious of these juries is the “Competition” jury, which was, this year, presided by Steven Spielberg and included an international body that included Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Ang Lee, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, and three others. Other juries award other awards, but one can see that festival awards are usually given be a relatively small voting body. This can be telling, as a general consensus is quite easy to maintain. A film’s true greatness, therefore, can be difficult to gauge.
The Golden Globes Award
Like the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes is a primarily ethnocentric American awards ceremony, but it is even more focused on popular film than the Academy is, as it does not have awards recognizing cinematography, documentaries, or short films (animated and live action). Even some very honorable awards, such as foreign English-speaking films, World Film Favorites (known once upon a time as the Henrietta award), and films promoting international harmony have been retired over the years. The Globes don’t even award technical achievements in film.