Tell me something good

Posted by · 5:09 pm · May 3rd, 2009

I quite enjoyed this NYT series of “memos to Hollywood” from Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, which include some well-deserved chiding of the Internet, the MPAA ratings board, and romantic comedy producers, among others. But I was disappointed that when it came to the ever-popular sport of bashing the Academy Awards, Scott only had this tired argument to hand:

It’s just not working: the Academy Awards broadcast, with its mixture of snark and high-mindedness; the pool of pseudoserious, faux-prestigious specialty-division B-pictures; the long, dreary slog of the awards “season.” You’re losing touch with the mass audience on one side and the tradition of popular art on the other. Take some risks, rejigger the formula, expand the membership pool. Do something!

He’s not wrong, exactly: we can all fill page upon page with a list of the Academy’s recurring failings. Year after year, they demonstrate an aversion to both daring specialist cinema and successful genre work that renders them irrelevant as a yardstick of artistic worth — but it was ever thus. (And to be fair, both critics’ groups and festival juries are capable of making blindingly short-sighted decisions on occasion. Awards are a fundamentally problematic institution, whoever dishes them out.)

But what Scott doesn’t mention is that lately, the Oscars have been fulfilling their impossible brief slightly more successfully than in previous years. Inevitable backlash notwithstanding, “Slumdog Millionaire” was a populist crowd-pleaser with some critical cache; “No Country for Old Men,” meanwhile, was a bona fide critics’ darling with playful genre elements. And “The Departed” was the kind of hard-boiled, audience-geared thrill ride that people often complain the Academy never recognises … except that, whether by accident or design, they did.

For varying reasons, none of these exactly fits the mold of a traditional “Academy picture,” which suggests to me that they are perhaps trying to “rejigger the formula,” after all. They aren’t always succeeding — I won’t even get into this year’s major groan-worthy snubs and selections — but I do sense a long-term transition under way.

As for the “long, dreary slog” of awards season, I would venture that the blame lies less with the Oscars than with the plethora of copycat awards bodies aiming solely to pre-empt them (I’m looking at you, Guilds), but that’s another conversation.

→ 5 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

5 responses so far

  • 1 5-03-2009 at 5:22 pm

    Bill said...

    I haven’t been around long enough to write from first hand experience, but the dabbles I’ve made into film history seem to suggest that the aversion of populist cinema is a fairly recent occurance. It doesn’t seem to me that we’ve seen this trend untill the beginning of this decade.

    Titanic, Forrest Gump, and Gladiator won best picture. Since the conception of the blockbuster, we’ve seen ET, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Jaws, and Star Wars as nominees. The Sound of Music won best picture in 1965. The very next year, Julie Andrews won best actress for Mary Poppins.

    Years like 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005 seem to be what propell the notion that the Oscars are for the elitists. Perhaps it was the populist films that failed in those years. (Maybe not. But the blame can’t all fall in one place.) We’ll see where the trends move, but I’d contend that AMPAS is definitely open to the concept of a blockbuster best picture. Plus, it would save their ass financially.

    “the blame lies less with the Oscars than with the plethora of copycat awards bodies aiming solely to pre-empt them”
    Couldn’t agree more with this.

  • 2 5-03-2009 at 10:48 pm

    red_wine said...

    I agree that the Academy is caught in some kind of netherland. They would like to think that they are being serious by not awarding blockbusters and instead gravitate towards second-rate middle-tier literary adaptations that are not good enough. They manage to alienate both general audiences as well as critics. They’ve made some decent choices anyhow but are seriously framed in time where prestige dramas are the norm.

    And this rift away from populist cinema is not wrong, money-making movies today are garbage. People mention ET, Jaws, Raiders, those are some of the greatest films of all time, those movies would be great even without popular backing.

    The rift from popular movies should also be attributed to dumbing down of audiences. Great movies that are commercial failures today might have been popular 30-20 years ago. The audience taste has so deteriorated that if they occasionally like a good movie, you start having doubts about that movie’s quality.

    Good choices this decade were LOTR, Million Dollar Baby(though Sideways/Eternal were there), Departed(not a fan but a superb movie) & No Country(their best choice this decade though Blood would have been an ambitious choice).

    The memo is not out of place after the most disastrous year this decade. I would recommend outlaw absolutely any kind of campaigning so that low-budget movies like Happy-Go-Lucky & Wendy And Lucy can be nominated for Best Picture.

  • 3 5-04-2009 at 9:57 am

    DINSDALE?! said...

    I like the aversion to popular cinema. I REALLY liked when they ignored TDK, though they did fall for the same stuff that is specifically made to get Oscar nominations (Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). No Country for Old Men was a daring and perfect choice, but they need to continue along those lines. The best cinema is virtually never populist. The very thing that makes great cinema great is the thing that usually turns off the general public. Also, I’d STRONGLY disagree about Slumdog Millionaire. It was a bad move, and in ten years, or less, it will be in the bargain bin with Million Dollar Baby and Crash.
    I will be pulling for Where the Wild Things Are.

  • 4 5-04-2009 at 11:07 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I said “Slumdog Millionaire” was a populist crowd-pleaser with some critical cache.

    Which part of that statement do you strongly disagree with?

    I wasn’t actually expressing an opinion of the film itself — though I do like it.

  • 5 5-04-2009 at 12:48 pm

    tony rock said...

    if ppl here like what the Academy is doing when it ignores populist cinema…then you’re just as ignorant and elitist as they are. Sure, most populist films are garbage. But there have been blockbusters these past few years which should have been recognized because they were great by most standards. Yes, that would be Dark Knight, King Kong, Walk the Line, etc.