Oscars schmoscars

I have always had an ambiguous attitude to the Oscars. The Academy’s track record over the past almost 90 years has not been good. The judgement has too often favoured the big over the great, the shallow over the profound and the mawkish over the moving. Then, in my more generous moments, I have thought that they, at least, provide a carrot for filmmakers to elevate their work over the lowest common denominator level that seems to be the norm for much of Hollywood’s output.

I don’t even want to get into the question of non-English language cinema except to say that how Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) failed to be nominated for Best Picture, which it most certainly deserved to win, I fail to understand, especially as Almodovar himself won most deservedly for Best Original Screenplay, and it was a year of relative midgets won by Chicago. But there are just too many voters who can’t be bothered to read the subtitles (even in Spanish, which is the second language of California!!).

This is not to say that I am making my remarks primarily on the basis of my own likes and enthusiasms. But one looks for the winners of the past to be the most admired classics of today.  But no, Citizen Kane regarded as inferior to How Green was my Valley, Vertigo wasn’t nominated in any category! No Best Director Oscar for Hitchcock, Welles, Lubitsch, Chaplin… I could go on and on. Nor do less ‘intellectual’ categories fare very well. No best actor for Cary Grant, nor best actress for Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Arthur,  whom James Stewart described as “the best actress I ever worked with.”

Perhaps even worse than this is the way that, over the last decade or so, the marketing departments have gone bananas with carefully crafted ‘Oscar-ready’ productions. Thematic threads abound with Good Things  – tolerance of a host of minorities, battling against injustice, and, bizarrely, the British Royal Family! Then there are the equally obligatory Bad Things to be roundly condemned – slavery, war, social prejudices, as if art is disguised sociology, and this decade’s social obsessions will last as long as Shakespeare’s plays.

But hey, there must be some good things in the Oscars, even for a Grumpy Old Film Critic like me. Well, at least once in the last decade and a half, they made an heroic and great choice – Million Dollar Baby. But, as I pass backwards in time, I can’t understand how they chose Birdman over Boyhood12 Years a Slave to virtually anything and certainly Her and Nebraska,  etc., etc.

And, of course, there are years like 2009 when nothing deserved an Oscar and like 2008 when nearly all those nominated (except, possibly, Michael Clayton), were better than most of the winners in surrounding years.  I well recognise that the Best Picture Oscar is not meant to be a foolproof value judgement for the future, but couldn’t they “get it right” once in three years rather than once in ten, as, approximately, at present.

Here is my list of Best Picture Oscar “should have beens” since 2000.
2000 –  Requiem for a Dream
2001 – Mulholland Dr
2002 – Hable con Ella
2003 – Goodbye Lenin
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2005 – The New World*
2006 – Letters from Iwo-Jima
2007 – Atonement
2008 – In Bruges
2009 – Fantastic Mr Fox
2010 – Inception (with reservations)
2011 – The Tree of Life
2012 – To the WONDER
2013 – Her
2014 – Boyhood.

* In fairness, The New World was excluded from consideration as Malick re-edited the film after poor audience response to its US release.

So, what should win this year – I don’t know because, regrettably, I have only seen one nominated film – that is Carol, which, in spite of  its Good Thing leanings, is full of classical filmic qualities and makes a fascinating companion piece to Far From Heaven. If it wins, which I doubt, I won’t be rejoicing, but at least I won’t be tearing my hair out.

Earth has fallen


A year or so ago I spent (some might say wasted) an inordinate amount of time compiling a list of films that I regarded as key to the understanding of the creative processes that go to make great cinema. I published them on IMDb as 40 films to help you understand the cinema.
Such lists are, evidently, subjective but I believe a subjective list from someone who has given a lifetime to extolling the virtues of the cinema as an art has more validity than one from a casual cinema goer. I will take a couple of entire posts to explain the origin and methodology of the list creation process, but I want, here, to show how hazardous such an endeavour can become.
Even while I was working full-time in the cinema, it was never possible to continually refresh one’s mind of the entire canon of classic films. You are left with your memory of a film and a general sense of its ‘importance’. This can vary from wild enthusiasm to subdued reverence.
One of the undoubted highlights of the Centenary of Cinema season which I presented at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast throughout 1996 was a screening of Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth. Even though the print (copy) of the film was poor, the improvised piano accompaniment by a music student whose name now escapes me, was magnificent and the film duly earned a great ovation. Even before that screening, on the basis of a single film society screening in my student days, I had regarded the film as an apogee of poetic silent cinema (and that was its reputation).
There was, hence, no doubt in my mind that it belonged on my list of 40 Films… In my commentary on the list, I happily extolled its virtues, safe in the knowledge that my judgement was sound:

 In a way, silent film aesthetics are a ‘disjoint subset’ of modern film aesthetics. That is to say that there are not only some things that sound film can do that silent film cannot, but some things that silent film can do that sound film ‘cannot’. Obviously, one can make a film and simply leave off the soundtrack, but that actually creates a different aesthetic, as it is necessary to express visually not only the words that people say (which can be done with inter-titles), but also the intonation, and the sense of noise or silence in the film world.
Of all silent films, I believe that Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth does it best.
An only mildly propagandist story of simple Ukrainian farmers is turned into exquisite visual poetry by the director, whose other work is barely ever shown. 

Nothing too controversial there, then. Except that I was idly flicking through YouTube, a subset of which is available on my smart DVD player, when I encountered a ” full movie” version of the film.
I know I will now be hoisted on my own petard. Yes, internet films are a shadow of their ‘full’ selves, but I wanted to check out my memory of the film from 20 years ago.
Oh dear, the first 10 minutes are static and turgid. Well after twenty minutes the visual methodology starts to emerge and by the halfway mark, one can start to appreciate Dovzhenko’s command of the cinematic form. But should it really be in my 40 films? I think not.

So the questions I want to ask are:
a) Since the film hasn’t changed over the past 20 years since I saw it last, is it my aesthetics that have changed, or was the circumstance of the screening resonating with the sense of grandeur that the Centenary of Cinema season sought to encompass?
b) Are all classics subject to such deformation of valuation in time?

I will return to this in the near future.