3
Feb
2012
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People
Sam vs. Jordan: Awards Season
Sam and Jordan
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People is a weekly chance for two Review to Be Named Staffers to come together and engage in a conversation about issues where they don't see eye to eye. Sure, the title may be more aspirational than accurate, and the tone may vary from week to week depending on the level of passion and the strength of discourse. Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People will be an outlet for RTBN writers, who, for the most part, all love each other, to revel in the two things we love even more: pop culture and arguing.


THIS WEEK: Sam vs. Jordan on the whether television and film awards are a good thing.


SAM

I've been thinking about awards lately since it is the season. As the case has been for a number of years now, I am always left angry. The right people never win and those who shouldn't even be nominated take home the statue. It's made me wonder whether there should even be award shows for television and film. I don't feel like Jordan and I will divert particularly far in our opinions, but we may go about proving our point in a different way. To answer the main question as simply as possible: Maybe. That's right folks, like all good debates there really isn't a definitive answer.

Now for the long part. Films have an indelible place in our culture. This much can't be argued with. I think that it is great that people who create this art are honored for giving this to the world instead of becoming bankers. I think Jordan and I will agree that film and television has made our lives richer (depends who's hosting SNL, I kid. But not really). The problem with handing out awards to those we love in these media is that the people we (I'm now using we to mean anyone really) want to win often don't. This makes awards season turn into the Kentucky Derby. Each of us shaking our ticket, frothing at the mouth as The King's Speech takes Best Picture instead of Black Swan. Does Black Swan become a lesser film because it doesn't take home the statue? No, but it certainly feels like tons of good art is knocked down a peg and viewed by the public at large as not being as good as [Insert Oscar Winner Here]. At the end of Oscar night every newspaper will have a tally of how many awards each movie got. That's all well and good for sports, but that's such a reductive way of looking at films.

So the alternative to this is that there were no awards. Critics would still exist providing praise or disdain from those supposedly in the know and people would still line up in droves to see what they want. Could we really resist the urge to make film making sport? The problem of course, is that we (the film going public) don't decide. The film industry decides. This is another point for awards season in a kind of perverted way. Everyone knows that The Oscars and Emmys are completely self serving. The industry giving awards to itself to show how goddamn awesome it is. The good that I can pull out of this is the promotion aspect. While the films I might want not to get tons of press do, often smaller films that the general public would avoid become headline news stories. For instance, I'm pissed that Drive was more or less shutout from The Oscars this year, but I'm kind of glad that The Artist is getting attention. It's a good movie (not amazing, but still) that I'd be happy to see take in some more box office dollars. Better that than some other scholck. If Oscars and Emmys mean more box office for art house fare or more seasons for good television shows, then I'm all for it (Couldn't save Arrested Development though). But I can't help feeling dirty about supporting it.


Jordan

If there is one thing I have learned from law school, it is that the answer to any worthwhile question tends to be "it depends." I think award shows are unparallelled in their ability to promote lesser known films and tv shows to a wider audience, something I laud highly. I also firmly believe that award shows have contributed to the longevity of certain excellent series that would otherwise likely have been cancelled (or cancelled much earlier, as is the case with Arrested Development, which you mentioned). And we have to be honest here: as angry as award shows make us, isn't that part of the fun? I have seen every Best Picture nominee in every one of the last 12 years (though I am still trying to force myself to sit down and watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as I have no doubt the movie will ruin a book I am reasonably fond of), not because I think the nominees are a particularly sound barometer of the best films of that year (more often than not, they are terrible at this), but because Best Picture nominees become part of the larger cultural conversation about the state of cinema, and I think that's a conversation worth participating in.

I agree with you that letting films like The Artist get attention is a good thing (though I can think of several better foreign films that should have grabbed the Academy's attention last year, in an ideal world), and that if nothing else, the box office benefits to nominees cannot be undersold. My question for you is, if the award season means more abstractly than it does directly, do the winners even matter? Let me put it to you this way (a way that I think we said it many times last year): In ten years, which film will you remember more: Black Swan or The King's Speech? Why does that matter, and what does it say about the vitality of awards shows?


Sam

Jordan, I certainly should have considered that there is some fun to the pomp that goes with awards shows. Sometimes there's a great, moving speech. Sometimes an old person swears. I guess there's some fun in screaming at the bad picks, but as this years Golden Globes showed me, it can be downright unpleasant. Seeing winner after winner of mediocre shit go up on stage and thank their agents isn't really fun.

As for your comment on Best Picture nominees becoming the large cultural conversation about the state of the cinema, I think that's part of what makes award shows a bad thing. I'd argue (and I think you'll agree) that films like Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia are more indicative of the current state of cinema than a war movie, a white guilt film, a silent film, a (good) Scorsese children's movie and a 9/11 quirkfest. My point is that because the Best Picture category might dictate what's being talked about, all of the subjectively worthier films are left out of the conversation. Besides being mentioned as snubs, they're not what the film going public is talking about leading up to the big night. That's not to say it's not worth talking about this lot of Best Picture nominees, but I'd say it isn't necessarily a good picture of what filmmakers are giving us in 2011.

This leads to a point I forgot to bring up before. A negative to the awards process (and this applies more to film than television) is award baiting. The "Oscar Movie" is something that should be reviled by the public. Art that is created to win awards feels dirty to me. While captivating, original films might create the archetype for the "Oscar movie", the mass of unforgivable shit is bad for the state of cinema.

To answer your last question, I'd point to the most famous case of "The Oscars don't mean dick" of all time: Citizen Kane. Now widely regarded as THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER, it lost to How Green Was My Valley (a movie so shitty you watched it at 1.5x speed). So the short answer to your question is no, it doesn't matter who wins because I (whose opinions are all fact to me, even if they are fluid) know that Drive was better than all of the nominees this year. What does matter is that more deserving films will not get the Oscar win boost of press. I want people I like to get lots and lots of money (see: Christopher Nolan). Because the dollar more or less runs Hollywood, I think that giving an award that will improve a film's box office intake is like ordaining the people involved to continue working. I don't want this to happen. This is what gives us Sandra Bullock movies.
I don't really have any questions for you right now, but I'm sure something I've written has sparked something inside of you.


Jordan

I think Citizen Kane illustrates my point perfectly. Had we been sitting there in our coattails with our monocles, sipping martinis and listening to the Oscars on the radio in 1941, we would probably have been furious at the victory of How Green Was my Valley (which really was terrible, by the way). Yet 70 years later, most people haven't heard of the latter film, while the former is championed as a masterpiece. Maybe the winners don't matter after all; it seems to me the great cinema survives being snubbed by the Academy and that they just look foolish in hindsight when we remember something like Shakespeare in Love beat out Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan. The anger is fleeting, I think, but the joy of great cinema lasts forever.

I have to agree with you that this year's Best Picture race is hardly indicative of what went on in cinema in 2011, and though I think this is sort of an endemic problem, I think that last year was especially illustrative of a flaw in the awards season construction. 2011 was a year full of great movies and fascinating ones, but very few of them were big budget Hollywood fare. My favorite films last year, Drive, The Tree of Life and Martha Marcy May Marlene were all reasonably independent, and that's leaving out a lot of very good films that were a whole lot smaller than even those, like Shame and the almost completely unseen (and thus very underrated) Submarine. In addition to overlooking indie films, awards season tends to ignore a lot of very quality foreign films. It seems silly to make this argument in a year when The Artist is most likely going to win Best Picture, but the way the Academy structures the Best Foreign Film category leaves out a lot of movies that are worthy of notice, and the fact that foreign films are still ghettoized in their own category when the last decade has proven they can be of equal or superior quality to any American fare is irksome to say the least. Films like Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, A Separation and The Skin I Live In all came from proven directors who created excellent films on par with (and exceeding) most Hollywood movies last year, and yet only A Separation has any nominations to its name.

Enough harping, though. What do you think could be done to make awards season better? How could the Academy (and HFPA, SAG, and all the rest) emphasize the good things we've pointed out about awards while cutting back on the awards baiting and the infuriating snubs? Can awards season be saved, or are we better off in a world with more critics and fewer statues?

Sam

I'm not really sure there's anything that can be done to fix the current problems with award seasons. I think, for Awards shows like the Emmys and Oscars should be voted on by solely critics with at least 10 years experience (I'm cribbing this from the way the Baseball Hall of Fame voting). While this brings up the problems that lie in Baseball Hall voting (older writers tend to vote and not vote for non-deserving/deserving players respectively), the current Oscar voting system is the equivalent of letting my grandpa voting for who gets in the Hall of Fame. It wouldn't be perfect but it'd be better. Imagine the likes of Ebert, Scott, Rabin, Stevens, Sarris, Denby and Tobias having more say than some old bag who is part of the Academy for 60 years. No it wouldn't be perfect. It never will because unless you or I or any individual decides who wins, it'll never be a "perfect". There is no perfect. My advice would be to change the voters. I think having the Oscars become a kind of "National Critics Circle Award" would make for better choices and it would be more in touch with the state of cinema than whatever Oscar comes up with now. It would not only promote better films, but it would encourage filmmakers to create original, interesting and challenging works instead of Pay It Forward. In this world Oscar Baiting would produce better films. There's also no fixing the Globes. If you pay the Hollywood Foreign Press enough, you'll win.


Jordan

Which is why I have a shelf full of Golden Globes and an empty bank account. I agree that changing the voters would be incredibly helpful, and that there's never going to be a perfect awards season so long as people other than myself are picking the winners (and that would only really make me, and probably usually you, happy). I also think everyone would benefit from changing the production and release schedule to avoid the year-end rush of "prestige pictures" that start rolling out around November and seem to be in a constant race for the latest possible within-deadline release date, as if the Academy will just vote for whatever they saw last (considering the average age of Academy members, and the number of nominations for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was released on Christmas, and didn't go wide until January 20th, there might be something to this theory, even if there shouldn't be). If we can't change release schedules for commoners like us, maybe there should be some sort of film festival for Academy voters which screens as many films as humanly possible from the previous year (big budget films, indie films, foreign films, comedies and dramas alike) and has compulsory attendance rates for those who want their ballot to count. I imagine forcing Academy members to sit through more movies might have the duel effect of thinning the herd of older voters who just go for the blandest offering and of forcing them to see movies they might otherwise have completely ignored before allowing them to snub. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that one of the reasons Albert Brooks wasn't nominated for Drive is because not enough of the Academy actually bothered to watch his performance.

Or what about this? We leave everything exactly as is, but create a supervisory panel, made up of the most experienced and respected critics of our age (think of this like the Supreme Court of movie critics) who can review the Academy's choices a certain number of years later and correct mistakes in hindsight. I'm not sure this last suggestion solves our problems with award shows, but that raises the question of why? I guess what I'm trying to get at here is, if the quality movies win out in the long run anyway, why does it matter who wins the awards in the short run? Sure, The Artist will make a couple million more dollars after walking off with the Best Picture Statue this year, but that doesn't mean that Drive won't ultimately have a larger effect on cinematic culture over the next few years. Maybe we've been approaching this all wrong. Maybe award shows are neither good nor bad, but ultimately irrelevant. What do you think of that? Is it madness? If so, why are award shows relevant, and does their relevance outweigh their tendency to bungle it every single year?

Sam

I agree that ultimately awards shows are irrelevant. I don't love the movies I love any less because they didn't get a bunch of Oscars. I don't hate Sandra Bullock any less because she's won an Oscar. My problem is that Oscars shape the business at large. Actors and directors get more work because of awards recognition. I don't think this should be overlooked. In the end, a couple of million dollars doesn't make that much of a difference to me, but it would be nice if the good movies got a few extra bucks.

I think we can conclude what we already thought. Awards for art are good, bad and neither all at once. Like all great debates, this is best resolved by one Ron Swanson when he says, "I still think awards are stupid, but they'd be less stupid if they went to the right people."


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