THE LONG SHOT: When you’re strange

Posted by · 8:05 pm · November 24th, 2010

(Updated predictions available here.)

I shan’t often find room for Gaspar Noé’s name in a space ostensibly dedicated to the Oscar race, so bear with me if this seems an unlikely opening gambit, but inspiration for this week’s column began with a conversation about his fluorescent, drug-addled ghost story “Enter the Void.”

A friend had recently caught up with it, and found herself disappointed: having been promised a psychotropic headfuck, she instead found something more sentimental and less questioning than his previous work. “At this rate,” she muttered aggrievedly, “he’s about 10 years away from a bloody Oscar nomination.”

That’s a flip exaggeration, of course, but there’s a kernel of truth in it: the Academy likes its enfants terribles most when they’ve passed the teething stage and begin to play nice — or at least safe. There’s a long and illustrious list of adventurous, iconoclastic directors who scored with AMPAS either by putting a leash on their wilder creative instincts or making sly concessions to the mainstream.

Bernardo Bertolucci may have scored a surprise nomination for testing erotic boundaries in “Last Tango in Paris,” but it was a less contentious, more lavishly mounted historical biopic that got him the gold 14 years later. More recently, after a career mostly built on nasty genre play, Roman Polanski was finally welcomed into the winner’s circle for an earnest, straightforward Holocaust memoir. Martin Scorsese tried everything within and without the bounds of awards bait to earn the Academy’s approval, only to finally get it for one of the least personal films of his career. Gus van Sant has yet to win, but for all his restless formal experimentation, the only films to have got him an invitation to the ball thus far are atypical ones: a rote inspirational drama and a mildly off-kilter prestige biopic.

I could go on listing examples, but from the current state of this year’s Oscar race, it looks like we’ll have fresh ones to discuss soon enough. David Fincher already proved a handy case study two years ago, when he earned his overdue first nomination for a lacquered romantic fantasy that dismayed many fans of his darker previous work; he’s back on edgier ground this year with “The Social Network,” but the sober true-life drama is still a far cry from the name-making excesses of the Academy-sidelined “Fight Club” or “Se7en.”

“127 Hours,” like the Oscar-garlanded “Slumdog Millionaire” before it, bears the polished indie pluck of the Searchlight brand, but its director is visibly more of an establishment figure than the man who made “Trainspotting” and “Shallow Grave.” Ditto Christopher Nolan: “Inception” may have received valentines for being more ambitious, structurally and stylistically, than its rival Hollywood blockbusters, but it remains a less expressive or arresting artistic statement than “Memento” nearly a decade before it. Cut to David O. Russell, repeatedly ignored by awards bodies for brilliant imaginative leaps in such films as “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees” — now earning the first serious Oscar buzz of his career for a meat-and-potatoes boxings drama that has inspired repeated use of the adjective “solid.”

Even the arthouse titles in the Oscar hunt don’t always see their helmers pushing the boat out: “Another Year” may find Mike Leigh in peak form, but he’s also doing what we (and the Academy) always knew he could. With “The Kids Are All Right,” Lisa Cholodenko interestingly courted mainstream audiences, playing gender roulette with classic rom and bedroom-farce formats; the result was arguably her most well-rounded film, but still not as sensual or electric a study of lesbianism as her 1998 breakthrough “High Art.” And what of John Cameron Mitchell, the sexually probing arthouse rebel now aiming for an Oscar berth with the muted, tasteful domestic drama of “Rabbit Hole?”

Amid all this auteur-based good behavior, then, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is, contrary to its title, something of an odd duck. On the one hand, it follows the pattern we’ve been discussing: a sleek, sexy genre piece, it’s easily his most audience-friendly proposition to date. On the other, it’s also his most erotic, ambiguous and fastidious film — mainstream only from a distance, and unnerving despite, rather than because of, its tricksy genre tropes. Even if Aronofsky had no hand in writing it, it’s the most brazenly auteur-centered title in this year’s Oscar discussion, and it’s for that reason (and perhaps a self-protecting instinct to dodge wishful thinking) that I have, up until now, remained guarded on its awards prospects.

From an awards-watcher’s perspective, there’s both handicap and advantage in seeing contenders first, ahead of the buzz that trails them the entire season. With little else to sound off against, you can at least be sure that your opinion is your own, but initial gut instincts die hard, and my sense, acquired at the film’s first press screening in Venice nearly three months ago, that “Black Swan” is entirely too cool, too bleak, too strange for the Academy hasn’t been easy to shake off. Still, when buzz gets loud — as it emphatically has this past fortnight, since the film’s rapturously received LA premiere united middlebrow blogger types and high-end critics in opinion — it can override such on-paper unlikelyhoods.

That’s how it worked for the coolest, bleakest, strangest Best Picture nominee of the last decade, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” — though even that had the Academy plus-points of being a large-scale period saga. By contrast, there’s little precedent for kinky, flamboyant psychodramas like Aronofsky’s latest making the cut in the top race. Then again, there was little precedent for grim Gothic horror films winning the top prize when “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the board nearly 20 years ago — every Oscar pundit’s go-to exception that proves the, well, exception. Once a film takes root as a pop-culture phenomenon, it can be hard even for the Academy to pass it by, though box-office muscle is often an abetting factor, and I’d be surprised if “Black Swan” makes blockbuster bucks.

If this remains the question mark that has me less certain than other prognosticators of “Black Swan”‘s place in the Best Picture race, such an extravagant directorial showcase would at least appear well-positioned for a consolatory Best Director acknowledgement. Or it would be, if the directors’ branch of the Academy didn’t run so oddly hot and cold with their spirit of adventure — and their affection for industry outliers. In assessing Aronofsky’s chances, I’ve heard many cite David Lynch’s twin “lone director” nods, 15 years apart, for “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” (two rare occasions where the directors recognized a film that no other voting branch did) as evidence that the branch does embrace artists who let their freak flag fly.

What is often ignored is that before those left-field mentions, Lynch had already gained entry into the club via his more Oscar-friendly Best Picture nominee “The Elephant Man.” Aronofsky, however, has no such pre-approval for his latest flight of fancy; with only a trio of past performance bids to suggest the actors’ branch is at least aware of his films, we still have no idea how the Academy really feels about him or his craft. (Hell, Paul Thomas Anderson at least got Academy love from the writers before graduating to the big boys’ club in 2007.)

Yes, many agree that Aronofsky is due some respect. But where some iconoclasts need only make a few aesthetic adjustments to enter the club after a few years on the fringes (see Steven Soderbergh or the Brothers Coen), others could try anything under the sun and still not get past the bouncers (see David Cronenberg or Lars von Trier, though the latter will always have that Best Original Song nod to put on his résumé). Maybe they aren’t wearing the right shoes, or maybe the transgressions of their wilder early films are too much to forgive — but until the nod comes, it’s difficult to say which category an auteur falls into.

I’d feel more bullish about the directors’ branch taking a chance on Aronofsky — or Mike Leigh, or Debra Granik, or any of the intriguing dark horses on the track — if they hadn’t proved so lily-livered in recent years. After a robust few years of surprise nods for the likes of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Atom Egoyan, Spike Jonze, Pedro Almodovar and Fernando Meirelles, they have since retreated into the shallow paddling pool of consensus favorites. Twice in four years, the directors pulled the previously rare stunt of mirroring the Best Picture field exactly (both fields that were hardly formidable to begin with), and would almost certainly have repeated this unimpressive trick this year, had they been restricted to five titles in the top race.

Exactly when, and why, AMPAS decided to go all conformist on us is hard to determine, but voting has always worked in phases. But I hold out hope that the Academy’s most elite branch is still capable of pulling out one of the jawdroppers of yore — as when Hiroshi Teshigahara made the cut for “Woman of the Dunes,” Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” or even Scorsese for “The Last Temptation of Christ.” We’re probably as unlikely to see anything on that scale happen this year as we are to see trade papers filled with FYC ads for “Dogtooth.” Still, a nomination for Darren Aronofsky, perhaps at the expense of one of the leashed auteurs in this race, would go some way towards suggesting the Academy still has eyes for the good, the bad and the weird.

[Photos: Los Angeles Times, Lionsgate, Universal Pictures]

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

29 responses so far

  • 1 11-24-2010 at 8:09 pm

    Pete said...

    Not putting Inception in the BEST DIRECTOR, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, and BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY categories is absolutely ridiculous!

  • 2 11-24-2010 at 8:13 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Not that I’m not not appreciative of any comments that come my way, but updating my predictions took ten minutes. Writing the column took a few hours. I think you know which one I’d rather talk about.

  • 3 11-24-2010 at 8:53 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but I wouldn’t have imagined it to be a more “audience friendly proposition” than The Wrestler.

  • 4 11-24-2010 at 9:06 pm

    half empty said...

    I think you’ve got to look at the 10. Some of the directors you listed would have probably seen their pictures nominated with 10 nominees. Some wouldn’t.

    Just a few examples…

    Who would: There Will Be Blood would have probably been Anderson’s 3rd Best Picture nomination. As for Boyle, Trainspotting seems like it would have stood a good chance, and 28 Days Later had a lot of fans (and he was an indie name by then, too). Nolan’s one of the reasons for the expansion.

    Who wouldn’t: Fincher probably wouldn’t have had any more luck. Se7en, maybe, but that was still early in his career, and probably a little too brutal/genre for the Academy. The cult of Fight Club didn’t really build til home video, and Zodiac probably didn’t have broad enough support. Mitchell’s previous work wouldn’t stand a chance, either, even with the ardent supporters he’s had since Hedwig. Cholodenko didn’t stand a chance with High Art, either. Your point about softening the edges is totally spot on with these three.

    I think Aronofksy is closer to the former category, though.

    The Wrestler would have surely gotten in had the 10 been in existence two years ago. And who knows about Requiem….it was certainly on their radar via Burstyn, and the critics were biting. That’s surely the kind of film that would have been pushed harder today with the larger field.

    I’ve had unease about Black Swan’s chances, too, but I think it’s the result of a lingering pre-10 mindset. Aronofsky might not be as familiar as the Coens, but I think he’s familiar enough, and with a strong Best Actress contender at the center of his film, it’s probably in. Best Director is obviously shakier, but it helps that he’s probably more known to the Academy than Hooper, Cholodenko, Mitchell, etc.

    Tangent: how many Woody Allen movies would have gotten Best Pic noms if there had been 10 up for grabs?

  • 5 11-24-2010 at 9:10 pm

    half empty said...

    Ugh…brought up the Coens near the end to say that if they can get in with A Serious Man, which was a weird little auteur thing with no notable stars or acting contenders, Aronofsky should be able to get in with his talked-about Natalie Portman flick, as weird as it might be.

  • 6 11-24-2010 at 10:24 pm

    Rob said...

    I adore “Black Swan,” and saw it a third time last night, but I think it’s insane to call it his most audience-friendly film.

  • 7 11-24-2010 at 11:02 pm

    RC of strangeculture said...

    I really appreciate this post because it really captures “the game” and the history behind some of these nominations and tries to identify what makes the unique favorites (There Will Be Blood is a great example) get a center stage seat.

    I for one, have felt like Black Swan is “too much,” even in a 10 film race. But I know others…as they do…disagree.

    I say, if Crazy Heart didn’t make it last year, then The Wrestler wouldn’t have made it the year before, and if The Wrestler wouldn’t have made it, than Black Swan won’t either. I don’t know if that’s all true, but that’s my guy on this speculation.

  • 8 11-24-2010 at 11:32 pm

    Dooby said...

    I’m seeing stuff about Black Swan EVERYWHERE. The buzz is REALLY building – I’m hearing more about it than King’s Speech even though it’s releasing this week!

    It’s in for the top 10 – so many good reactions suggest the ‘divisiveness’ is not quite the problem it was thought to be.

  • 9 11-24-2010 at 11:51 pm

    Napoli said...

    I’m so not getting The Fighter buzz. Did I see the same mediocre, over-acted movie as everyone else? Guy is right–when the best you can say is “solid,” something is up.

  • 10 11-25-2010 at 12:07 am

    Chris said...

    It’s certainly bold leaving How To Train Your Dragon out of the animated category. But more than anything, it really makes me want to see The Illusionist and Tangled :D

  • 11 11-25-2010 at 12:08 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Half Empty: Contrary to your name, I think it’s wildly optimistic to imagine that 28 Days Later was even on the minds of Academy voters. I doubt Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream would have made the cut either, but there’s little value in debating the unknown. Good points, though.

    I won’t deny I have a “lingering pre-10 mindset,” largely because I suspect we’ll be returning to it in due course.

  • 12 11-25-2010 at 12:14 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    Look, I get as angry at the Academy’s inability to nominate some of the great original work by auteur directors as much as the next person, but I’m getting a little tired of the Oscar bashing as well. Just because a film is “daring”, “edgy”, or “experimental” does not automatically make it better than a movie that is “safe”, “crowd-pleasing”, or “expected”.

    Unfortunately, everything in society today is extremely polarized no matter what the subject matter is, so someone is either all in one camp or the other, but any “rules” on what constitutes a good movie makes me nervous.

    I remember I read Penn Jillette quote somebody once who said that if you know two data points about someone and can accurately predicate a third, that person isn’t worth knowing, and while I am not that dismissive of people, I sympathize with the sentiment.

  • 13 11-25-2010 at 1:28 am

    Rob T. said...

    One overlooked factor is that last year’s directing Oscar nominations might not have matched up entirely with the top five “best picture” nominees, since we don’t know precisely which were the five most popular out of the ten. And because we don’t know, everything anyone might say about the matter is pure speculation.

    If the Academy had stuck to the traditional five nominees, I could imagine a slate composed of The Hurt Locker, Precious, Up in the Air, An Education and The Blind Side. The first was the eventual winner, the next two were moderately topical novel adaptations, and the last two “based on true stories”. Note that the winner was also topical, and while not a “true story” was still informed by the screenwriter’s experience in Iraq.

    Leave out A Serious Man and District 9 as too quirky, Up as too animated, and Avatar and Inglourious Basterds as too…maybe not too original but too creative. Just because both of the latter were among the most acclaimed films of last year doesn’t mean the Academy would have agreed to put them among their top five.

    Now of course we don’t know how closely last year’s “best director” nominations matched with the top five “best picture” nominations, but I think my proposed set of five fits in with the Academy’s usual nomination habits and that last year’s “best director” slate would have looked a lot hipper by comparison.

  • 14 11-25-2010 at 5:11 am

    Glenn said...

    I think it’s safe to say “Avatar” and “Inglourious Basterds” would have made it in to the top 5 over “An Education” and “The Blind Side”. Come on.

    Guy, another impressive piece. Loving your writing.

  • 15 11-25-2010 at 5:48 am

    half empty said...

    Guy: It might be overly optimistic, and it’s definitely debating the unknown, but I have a feeling that 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, and Requiem would have seen stronger pushes in their years. Might bot have come to fruition, but you never know. If a film like Winter’s Bone is legitimately in the conversation this year, I especially think Requiem would have had a shot at a Picture nomination to go with Burstyn’s acting one. And while 28 Days Later might seem too genre, it did make $45 million in the US. Boyle was also, at the very least, “the guy who made Trainspotting,” and the critics were mostly positive. A District 9 sort of nomination?

    Looking back at what I wrote, I’ll admit that Trainspotting is a major stretch.

    Interesting article. Clearly got me thinking. These hypotheticals might not have too much to say about the current race, but it’s fun to think about. That’s much of the appeal of all this prognostication anyway, right?

  • 16 11-25-2010 at 7:02 am

    Conor said...

    Guy, why do you think they’ll return to five nominees soon? I wish that would happen, but it seems like last year’s ten was considered a success.

  • 17 11-25-2010 at 7:34 am

    JJ1 said...

    It’s funny, when I went to see ‘Love and Other Drugs’ last night (which I liked) – the theater was full of couples. And when the ‘Black Swan’ trailer came on before the movie, I heard a smattering of “well, I’m not seeing that”.

    Not the best trailer to show in front of ‘L&OD’, but I guess promotion is promotion.

    When I saw ‘127 Hours’ and the ‘Black Swan’ trailer was shown, you could hear everyone buzzing (positively). Diff’t strokes for diff’t folks, I guess.

  • 18 11-25-2010 at 9:20 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I really can’t wait to see “Black Swan” next week. And, if it really is as good as everyone seems to think, I truly hope Aronofsky gets the Oscar recognition he’s long deserved. I’m still somewhat heartbroken that he was not nominated for “The Wrestler” (which I still consider the #1 film of 2008). And he should have been nominated as well for “Requiem for a Dream”, but I understand why that didn’t happen. Let’s hope this is his year!

  • 19 11-25-2010 at 9:27 am

    Keil Shults said...

    I still want to know if Guy really thinks Black Swan is more audience-friendly than The Wrestler.

  • 20 11-25-2010 at 9:51 am

    Ivan said...

    In a year with 5 best pic nominees the frontrunners would be at this time….

    The King´s Speech
    The Social Network
    The Way Back
    The Kids Are All Right

    with director´s nominations for Hooper, Fincher, Nolan and Weir and the lone nod for Darren Aronofsky.

  • 21 11-25-2010 at 1:38 pm

    Rob T. said...

    Glenn, I agree that the directing nominations for Avatar and Inglourious Basterds indicate that both films would likely have placed in a slate of five “best picture” candidates, but we don’t (and can’t) know that for sure. It would have been scandalous if one of them hadn’t been nominated for “best picture”, and outrageous if both had been passed over. However, it would also have been perfectly consistent with the Academy’s tendency to gravitate toward “prestige pictures” in this category.

  • 22 11-25-2010 at 2:13 pm

    James D. said...

    Without having seen Black Swan, I thought The Wrestler was incredibly audience-friendly. It was a pretty universal story of second chances and all that hoopla. And I loved it.

    I wonder if Harmony Korine or Vincent Gallo will ever be at the Oscars. That would be funny.

  • 23 11-25-2010 at 2:16 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    One question I have about Black Swan that no reviews I’ve read have brought up is Showgirls. How does the film in anyway mirror Showgirls? I’m not at all suggesting camp as I’m comparing the petty jealousies of beautiful women in competition.

  • 24 11-25-2010 at 3:12 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    /3rtfu11- Karina Longworth of LA Weekly spoke about it and Showgirls.

    “Though Black Swan was seemingly as well-received here as it had been at its previous festival stops, it’s drawing more comparisons to Showgirls. It’s not exactly an inappropriate point of reference; the difference is that Black Swan is intentional camp, whereas Showgirls was sincere―and sincere in a way that, today, seems very of its moment, the transitional point where 80s bombast would give way to 90s disaffection. As for Black Swan, it’s a blast to watch, but its aftertaste is acid. If this had been directed by a first timer―or anyone without a track record for securing their actors Oscar nominations―it would have been programmed into Midnight Madness, and no one would be taking it this seriously.”

  • 25 11-25-2010 at 3:34 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    @James D: It would be interesting to see Korine try something more accessible and awards-friendly, like Lynch did with The Straight Story. I actually think he could pull it off, but I don’t think he’d care to make the attempt.

  • 26 11-25-2010 at 4:01 pm

    DylanS said...

    Best Picture nominees (in a field of 10)
    -The Social Network
    -The King’s Speech
    -Black Swan
    -127 Hours

  • 27 11-25-2010 at 4:04 pm

    DylanS said...

    I’m feeling no buzz for “The Way Back”, which i’m looking forward too as a fan of Weir’s previous efforts, and that’s a shame. Given it’s lack of buzz, are you considering it as a potential frontrunner purely based on Weir’s academy track record?

  • 28 11-25-2010 at 4:40 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I would think that Kris still has TWB in contention due to Weir, yes. But … it still doesn’t come out for over a month, and as long as it’s getting screened for critics/GG/guilds, it may be fine, no?

  • 29 11-25-2010 at 5:46 pm

    DylanS said...

    Valid point, it could get buzz at just the right time with its release date.