Writing on the night of the 84th Oscars in 2012, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times seemed to wonder "aloud" as they analyzed the 5,800-member Academy’s cultural relevance. They had found most members to be “overwhelmingly white, male and 60ish.” Such a rarified persona is presumably enough to relegate the Academy to oblivion. Coming during “Black History Month,” Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Sammy Davis, Jr.—a character sketch that had gone unscathed many times in the 1980s—functioned as a lightning rod for people otherwise bored with the lack of surprises in the announced winners (or the host). Lest “let’s go kill Hitler” had become too politically incorrect for Crystal’s Sammy Davis character to say (like Crystal, Davis was Jewish) at the Oscars, one might take a gander at the excellent film, Inglourious Basterds. This brings me to the main point. According to the New York Times, the Academy may not be relevant because the award-winners did not do well at the box office. I respectfully disagree.
The New York Times points to the “generally weak box-office performance among the year’s nine best-picture contenders—only one of which, [The Help], amassed more than $100 million in domestic ticket sales.” The best picture, The Artist, had amassed only about $32 million. Cieply and Barnes contend that film’s win underscores “the Oscars’ growing detachment from the movie-going public at large.” Indeed, only about one in ten of the Oscars’ viewers had seen the film.
The classic cinema look must have reminded some Oscar viewers and attendees of the grandeur of the big screen. (source: The New York Times)
Providing another perspective, I submit that the Oscars is not a popularity contest. The awards are not about telling the public what most titillated it over the past year at the movies. The existence of the technical categories, such as art direction and sound mixing, points to something else—a chance for the experts to award talent. Whether we like it or not, the general public is not the best judge of the talent of a sound editor; we go to the movies to become absorbed into a world, rather than to resist this by critiquing each technical function that went into the making of the film.
So while many people saw the last Harry Potter movie and may have enjoyed it (I passed on the last three in the series), art design and cinematography went instead to Hugo, a film that far fewer people had seen. Whereas every member in the Academy can vote for best picture, the other categories are voted on only by their respective practitioners. While this allows for politics and bias (e.g. James Cameron not getting best actor for Avatar due to his personality), the method also enables people in a position to recognize skill to be decisive in the selections. A director watching another director’s film, for instance, can pick up on good directing much better than we could as viewers. I suspect the general viewer’s opinion becomes more valid when a particular technical function is bad (e.g. a scene is out of focus, or certain sounds can’t be heard). I suspect that practitioners in a given field are necessary to discern between five cases, each of which looks good to the rest of us.
Therefore, I think there is great value in having something more than The People’s Choice Awards. Moreover, the ancient Greeks were on to something when they defined virtue as excellence, and modern society only shows its banality in viewing such a conception of virtue as not relevant simply because not many of the public have seen specific instances.
While I found the storyline of The Artist to be formulaic (the “punch-line” is actually in some classic films about silent-era stars), the selective use of sound was interesting, as was the decision to have the film mostly silent in a sound era. I make this observation from the standpoint of the art and science of film (as well as from the vantage-point of film history), which is not necessarily that of the general public. The film’s technical functions were fine; that those awards were spread around to other films may testify to the imprint of practitioners of the respective functions. In other words, one film might have had the best sound editing while another had the best art direction (though in 2012 Hugo got both of these).
Hugo deserved to win for its art and cinematography, as much of “that world” of the film is essentially art. The screenplay is also notable—even if many more people went to see Harry Potter. Hugo is not only a movie for kids; it contains, or is, a commentary on functionalism (and machines, and indirectly, technology). The screenwriter backs this up with a theology that is historically associated with functionalism (i.e., Deism, or God as clock-maker).
Even so—and this is where having experienced screenwriters voting—the screenplay of The Descendants may have been even more decisive (i.e., excellent) because the protagonist’s (not the actor’s!) choices having to do with character (i.e., virtue) are key to the film itself and especially its narrative. Specifically, how far the protagonist decides to go against one of his antagonists is vital because anything would have been justified. In making the nuances of the protagonist’s choices, the screenwriting is vital to the film in saying something about being human. The general life and death theme means the story is ultimately about being human. Relative to the screenplay of The Descendants, that of The Artist is rather formulaic—even predictable. Watching the ending, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen that before.”
I do not believe that the general public is in a position to judge between the best of the art and science of film-making. Indeed, film-making itself, including its various technical functions, is not like cooking—something that most people can do (or even judge). Whereas having taste buds makes anyone a potential expert on whether a dish is “good,” we cannot assess sound mixing or art direction, or even period costumes, simply by watching the finished product. Even in regard to acting, even though bad acting is rather obvious to the viewer, discerning between good actors must surely be difficult for a viewer who has not studied and practiced the stills of acting. Knowing the “tricks of the trade,” only an experienced actor could discern the nuances that distinguish good actors from the best. We, the general public, already knew before Oscar night which films had been popular and thus “good” in terms of popular opinion. Left unknown until "the envelop please" was which films were the best as judged by the practitioners according to standards forged out of specialized training and years or even decades of experience.
If standards sourced in expertise are indeed irrelevant in modern society, Hollywood's output might reduce to what we think we want: more meaningless but tasty eye-candy. As the old adage goes, be careful want you ask for; you might get it. Lest we get what we think we want, we might want to view the Oscars as something more than a rubber-stamp of the People's Choice Awards; we might deign to acknowledge without feeling humiliated that the typical viewer is not the best judge. This lesson is lost on Hollywood itself to the extent that producers and directors chase the "top grosser" prize for the first weekend.
Arthur Abbott, the renowned retired screenwriter in The Holiday, has the obsession that has come to grip Hollywood in his cross-hairs as he addresses the crowd at the WGA event to honor him with a lifetime achievement award. "I came to Hollywood over 60 years ago," he says. "When I first arrived in Tinseltown . . . there were no cineplexes or multiplexes. No such thing as a Blockbuster or DVD. I was here before conglomerates owned the studios. Before pictures had special effects teams. And definitely before box office results were reported . . . like baseball scores on the nightly news." As subtext, Malcolm Lee, the film's screenwriter, was undoubtedly sending Hollywood a message: Things have gotten out of hand and the quality of films has suffered as a consequence.
Karl Jung would say Arthur Abbott instantiates the "Old Man Wisdom" archetype of our collective unconscious. The viewers are thus inclined to respect Arthur's points. (Youtube: Jacky Huang Szu Han)
Film-making need not be led by polls and focus groups like a dog chasing its tail. There is still such a thing as talent, which comes from intuitive aptitude, training, and experience. Such expertise is not always reflected in the first-weekend numbers, or, moreover, readily observable at a distance. Chasing that distance is an exercise in futility (or self-destructiveness) for any aspiring or veteran film-maker who values outstanding quality in the craft.
Source:Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “’Hugo’ Wins 2 Early Awards at the Oscars,” The New York Times, February 27, 2012.