Off the Carpet: Reindeer games

Posted by · 10:53 pm · September 8th, 2013

Boy was there a wealth of topics to write about this week. I could have dug in on an extremely crowded Best Actor race that already features 12 or 13 performances that have actually been seen (with a handful that could be real threats still to come). I could have done a typical roundup of awards prospects for films that dropped in Toronto over the weekend. I could have commented on the amount of quality we’ve already seen and how, so far, it’s looking like 2013 could be one of the great film years.

But then I saw this Vulture piece, and something I had been fending off as mere inside baseball bitching suddenly stuck in my craw. So let’s get this business out of the way at the top so we can enjoy the season.

Now, the problem with getting too bent out of shape over audacious, gun-jumping pieces like that is, really, who cares? It reads as an attention-grabbing reach, and no one is likely to take it as anything more than an attention-grabbing reach. But the stench of ownership on the race and predictions and whatnot has begun to reek far too much for my taste.

I typically scoff at notions thrown around by the hipper-than-thou set that people like me on this beat are just looking for “first” points. It’s not true of everyone and it’s simply not cred any of us here are really after, because we’ve established it. We set the stage here year after year and the track record speaks for itself. But it’s understandable for those wading into awards coverage waters to be eager to make their mark.

At Telluride, the outspoken annoyance with Oscar talk seemed to reach a fever pitch, and then, ironically, some of those same voices joined the chorus once they made it up to Toronto. “Sandra Bullock is pretty much a lock for one of the Best Actress slots,” one journalist Tweeted this weekend upon seeing “Gravity.” And then, within an hour: “I am sick to death about reading cumulative tweets about the Oscar race on the first Saturday of TIFF. Slow the f*ck down.” It’s breathtaking, really. But it’s also indicative of something else.

There is a spike in early Oscar discussion, yes. This year I submit that it has, in part, to do with the overwhelming quality of the work. “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” — these are great movies. Great movies are given to superlatives, and in certain corners of the mind, “Oscar” — as an idea, anyway — is meant to be a quality assessment. But the spike also seems to say something about a craving for relevance, a clamoring for a place in the conversation. Vulture calling the Oscar race over in September? Sure got a lot of hits. The amount of outlets — Collider, Rope of Silicon, etc. — that has begun lighting out for these destinations with awards barometers in tow? Sniffing out ad buys, no doubt. (And we, by the way, welcome the new voices to the discussion.)

This goes for mainstream outlets, too. Variety has been trying to figure out the online awards thing for a while after having frankly been on pace with, ahem, a pretty good (opinionated) blog and awards landing page six years ago. Last week it seemed someone high enough up the chain was pushing the newly appointed (old school) awards columnist to cook up something, anything, regarding the Oscars in the trade’s Venice coverage. The pressure is on to read as something at least approaching authority in some quarters. In others, as we see year after year, any pontification will do.

With that in mind, the hypocritical quote above reflects the sense that some feel as though only they are the gatekeepers of these kinds of assessments (assessments that, at the end of the day, do not equate to rocket science). I spoke with a friend and colleague well read in the space at Telluride who was bemoaning the amount of people calling “12 Years a Slave” an Oscar film, while he himself proclaimed “Prisoners” an “instant Oscar contender.” So I put the question to him: “Are you the only one who gets to call something an Oscar contender?” Rhetorical, but I think it landed.

So the voices are here to stay. The noise and the clutter will get louder. But it’s not ruining movies, and anyone who thinks it is must be stuck on facile reasoning. I submit what one Oscar-nominated filmmaker, whose work is well-loved in the cinephile set, said to me ahead of Telluride: “Awards don’t mean anything except that I get to keep making the movies I want to make.” Oscar buzz equals box office, and at the end of the day, if you want quality movies, you should want them to have Oscar buzz. It’s one of the only ways quality films meant for an adult audience can find that audience in this day and age, with brands and blockbusters weighing down advertising budgets.

Do we want Steve McQueen to keep making the movies he wants to make? Do we want Paul Greengrass to keep making the movies he wants to make? Do we want Alfonso Cuarón and David O. Russell and Bennett Miller and Jason Reitman and the Coen brothers, etc., to keep making the movies they want to make? I should hope so, lest they be stuck on a “Hunger Games” sequel or some other dubious franchise play.

But there’s nuance in this; it’s admittedly not all or nothing. Those of us who write about the awards circuit and channel our passion for movies into cheer-leading our favorites and analyzing the field have to know what the cumulative impact is, and not just the cumulative impact, but the impact of overt assertions. Through no fault of its own, Fox Searchlight — surely terrified that a Vulture piece with that headline on it is floating around in September — is the early Best Picture frontrunner with “12 Years a Slave.” But they might ask what Sony thought of that with “The Social Network,” or Paramount with “Up in the Air.” Two things happen when the media sets you up like that: you have farther to fall and you set non-festival press up with a “show me” attitude; potential backlash begins to fester as there’s a long way to go.

I’m not completely sure what my point is here. The Oscars, for all their faults, will always be an ideal. It’s good to have an ideal. It’s wrong to look at movies as product in a race to the finish but it’s good for films like “Short Term 12” and “Before Midnight” and “Mud” to be considered in terms of whether they might reach “the ideal.” The whole damn thing is a paradox. But you can put too much on it, and if your goal as a journalist is simply to be heard — if it’s about you, not the movies — then you’re getting in the way of art. Then you’re ruining movies.

With that off my chest, let’s see how the rest of the Toronto Film Festival plays out. There has been some exciting discussion of Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, etc. Next week, I promise, we’ll be back to actually talking about the movies, not the noise around them. In the meantime, the Contenders section has been tweaked.

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