Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What happened to the Oscars?

Usually, the release of the Oscar nominations, various countdowns to the Oscars, and the Oscars themselves constitute the height of the pop culture calendar. Cinephiles lament the paucity of independent nominees, while movie-goers cheer on their favorite blockbuster. All the famous people dress pretty for us, and we all band together to watch them.

Recently, though, it seems that nobody cares. Normally, I'd at least get an e-mail or two asking what I think about the nominees. I was almost certain I'd read a Facebook status update along the lines of "Go Avatar!" or "Coen Brothers got screwed!" or something. Not a peep.

So what gives? I've got theories. Here they are.

Years of Best Picture Irrelevance

The best picture category is the centerpiece of the whole ceremony. It used to be that Best Picture nominees would drive viewership, start discussion, and generate audiences for less-heralded gems. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption might have been relegated to the dustbin of history, were it not for Oscar acclaim.

In the early 1990s, apparently tired of nominating duds like the Godfather III and Dead Poet's Society, the Oscar voters discovered independent cinema, nominating films like The Crying Game alongside blockbusters like A Few Good Men. The films nominated for best picture from 1992-1999 represent some of the best work Oscar has ever honored.

Unfortunately, studios figured out how to game the system. Major, star-driven releases were given the indie treatment, releasing in December only to find wider distribution in January or February. Voters seem to have taken the bait, nominating preening crap like The Reader, Chocolat, and Babel.

These films may have made their margins, but they punished viewers who were naive enough to think the category was some indicator of quality. The occasional Juno or Slumdog Millionaire is not enough to maintain the Oscar's credibility.

In response, the academy decided to expand the field to ten nominees, in a pandering attempt to generate excitement. Unfortunately, while this tactic enabled Pixar to finally get an absurdly overdue nomination, it watered down the field to the point where The Blindside scored a nomination. Americans like events that are meritocratic, not egalitarian.

Obsession With Length

The Oscars are notoriously long, and the length is a frequent source of complaint among viewers. But the problem is better than the solutions. Cutting off actors mid-speech makes me uncomfortable. Having the host disappear for the final two hours disrupts continuity. Cutting out certain portions of the show guarantees you are taking away someone's only reason to watch.

In truth, the length of the show is fodder for jokes, but does nothing to keep viewers from returning. A neurotically paced show (like last year) zaps the fun out of it. I want to watch an writer whose work I respect get his moment in the sun. I want to watch singers perform the nominated songs.

Paris Hilton

Well, not her specifically, but the new era of celebrity culture for which she is the primary spokesperson. Celebrity has gone from being a fascinating phenomenon, with elusive actors appearing only briefly outside of their fictional roles, to a manufactured process.

It used to be that the Oscars were your only chance to see some of these famous people. Now, they are everywhere. We know what they wear to the beach, what diapers they buy for their kids, and from which African nation they prefer to adopt. The minutiae has eliminated the mystery, and taken some of the sizzle away from the Oscars.

Missed Opportunities in Minor Categories

It's tough to argue that people should sit through an awards show when they have no reason to care about more than half of the categories. In this respect, the academy has failed not only its telecast, but cinema itself.

Hoop Dreams is arguably the best documentary ever made, but was not nominated in its category. Let The Right One In apparently wasn't even the best Swedish film, and so failed to garner a nomination.

Meanwhile, the academy reflexively nominates holocaust porn in the short topic categories, period pieces for costume and set design, epics for art direction, score and cinematography, and (tellingly) special-effects extravaganzas for best makeup. Why should a viewer be interested in categories that seem only to double-down on other categories that are more relevant to them.

Bad Hosts

The Letterman fiasco was understandable, but has Whoopi Goldberg been invited back four times? Ellen Degeneres and Hugh Jackman were unmemorable. Billy Crystal, great as he was in the 1990s, overstayed his welcome. And as much as I'm interested in the Baldwin/Martin combo, how perfect would it be if Conan O'Brien were hosting this year?

No Love For Comedy

There are a lot of bad comedies, and the persistent release of fart movies, action stars in tutus, and SNL vehicles does nothing to legitamize the genre. All the more reason, then, to find room for films like Groundhog Day, Planes Trains and Automobiles, and (more recently) Knocked Up and The Hangover. The Hangover is far better than any of the films nominated last year.

The comedies that are recognized tend to be overrated art pieces (Shakespeare in Love). Making intelligent people laugh is difficult, and those films (and actors) that do so should be recognized above mediocre dramas.

Sean Penn

Enough of him already.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's something wrong in your head, if you think The Hangover is far better than any of the films nominated last year. Was that the only film you saw last year?

8:36 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Which of the 2009 nominees was better?

9:32 PM  

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