I wasn’t intending to do this; it’s over, it’s all been said, and even I’m tired of it. Except, movies matter to me, and as the major art form of our time they should matter to everyone, they should be understood as more than a superhero distraction. And now the Oscars.
So first off, I’ve been examining my own reactions on viewing Green Book, which I admit I greatly enjoyed. It’s an endearing, well-written, and finely acted movie. I want to say I had qualms, and I did, but they weren’t specific; it was more an overall unease. Green Book is also a manipulative, feel-good film, but what, exactly, did I feel so good about? Today, having examined my response, I think it comes down to pride. If you identify with the white character, the movie is a congratulatory slap on the back. When it comes to racism you can be proud of yourself. That’s why I left the theatre with that happy-ending glow.
While I have certain issues with Roma, it’s an incredible, beautiful film, and wonderfully acted. But of course it’s in black-and-white, and in Spanish, and about a housemaid, and worst of all from Netflix, that upstart challenger to the way things are clearly supposed to be. The Favourite, for all its admitted brilliance, irritated me; I don’t take pleasure from watching women at each other’s throats. I don’t find that particularly funny. So I understand the limited recognition given the first, if I can’t forgive it. And I don’t too much mind the partial snubbing of the second. And then A Star is Born, an ostensibly serious film, neglected to endorse any social cause whatsoever, instead promoting authenticity. Hollywood was not amused.
Netflix also financed the restoration of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, for over forty years the legendary “greatest film never made” and included on many top ten lists this past year, including my own. Its completion was nothing short of miraculous, granting us a new masterpiece from a filmmaker still far ahead of his time. Unfortunately it takes a fortune to campaign for an Oscar these days, and Netflix chose to support Roma. That’s understandable, even admirable; what isn’t is the rumor that the Academy was approached about some special recognition for the TOSOTW team but rejected the idea.
What can be said for either Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, two films that aren’t even good enough to be considered mediocre? How could they be nominated for Best Picture? And why weren’t all ten of the available slots taken? Did no one see the wonderful Shoplifters? Or Zama? Or Burning? Are we only allowing one foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and that only once every couple of decades? Then what about Support the Girls, or the luminous If Beale Street Could Talk? As to the latter, it’s worth noting that James Baldwin’s novel wasn’t particularly successful when first published back in 1974. No one then was interested in hearing about a falsely imprisoned black man, or police racism. We’d moved past all that.
I imagine the final Best Actor voting results as a list with Rami Malek’s teeth on top, right over Christian Bale’s prosthetics, then Viggo Mortensen’s weight gain at third, and Bradley Cooper’s beard coming in fourth. Willem Dafoe was so outclassed in the ostentatious disguise category.
So let’s consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has spent the balance of the past year royally screwing up in its attempt to revive viewer interest in its broadcast. Forgetting, I suppose, that the Oscars aren’t the People’s Choice awards, but have something to do with rewarding excellence. Remarkably enough, they somewhat succeeded in boosting viewership; I think people tuned in hoping for a train wreck. Or possibly it was that Bradley Cooper – Lady Gaga thing.
Popularity is all very well when it comes to finances, but it tends to chase excellence out to the art houses. I can name exceptions: God knows Dunkirk or Get Out should have won over The Shape of Water last year. Anything should have won over The Shape of Water, even the terrible Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (In case you’re interested, the actual best picture of 2017 was The Florida Project, which wasn’t even nominated, what with fortune favoring the financially fortunate.)
All this rambling discourse because something about all this both infuriates and scares me. It might be the general dearth of excellent, provocative movies, although as I say, they do exist. Black Panther was so close, if ultimately just that tiny bit too comic book; it inspired earnest discussion – imagine that! Maybe it’s the unabashed divide between superhero fans and art house patrons that disturbs me, or the recent influx of similar films advocating for preapproved purposes like drugs or conversion therapy. Maybe it’s the insidious idea that popularity really does signify quality, or maybe it’s the equally stupid notion that it means the exact opposite. Maybe it’s all the new Oscar voters with their own agendas, decisively shoving forward or pushing back, or the preferential ballot system, or the people who, as a SAG voter friend of mine once told me, “usually just find something they love and stop there.” Why bother to see all the films nominated? Did Olivia Coleman win over Glenn Close because not enough voters bothered to watch The Wife?
See, it’s not just me, we’re all so everywhere anymore, and this year’s Oscar results reflect our fragmented reality. Obviously too many of us are in whatever place voted for Green Book as Best Picture. Maybe it’s only surprising that we were surprised. Maybe movie goers were always crass and self-indulgent; people do want fun and thrills and self-affirmation and that’s fine, except that too often it’s all they want. And again, all this really matters to me, and should matter to everyone. Movies are not incidental to contemporary culture, they’re central, only these days too many other things come first, and art for art’s sake, that hoary bromide, is an afterthought at best, and at worst righteously overruled.
And that’s what’s wrong; that’s what’s driving me crazy. That, and the fact that not enough people seem to care. But we have to care, and we have to try harder, especially now that everything’s so available for streaming. Even if there are subtitles, even if there isn’t a heartwarming happy ending, even if we actually have to think. Even if we have to put our own presumptions and prejudices and passions aside for one entire minute and just listen.
Art is supposed to lead and astonish and question and enlighten and overthrow.
Not placate. Not pamper. Not even, necessarily, please.
Movies matter, and we need to honor them properly.
NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.
Photo credits: Oscars, David Torcivia (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Global Panorama, Oscar Award Image Courtesy Davidlohr Bueso (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Filmstrip by Mike Jennings (CC BY 2.0)