Monday, February 21, 2011
Little Victories: Thoughts and Digressions on Oscars 2011
John Lennon is asking how it feels to be one of the beautiful people. Mark Zuckerberg is hitting refresh, over and over and over again. And I'm wondering what, exactly, all the fuss is about. It's October of last year, and I'm finally getting around to David Fincher's The Social Network. The film's been out for a few weeks; every Tom, Dick, Harry and Karina has, by now, weighed in. In retrospect, this is far from the ideal circumstances in which to approach a movie. (I am not impervious to hype, though it tends to do an opposite number on me—here was a work that had some impossibly high expectations to live up to.) This, I ask myself as the credits roll, is the second coming of Kane? This smart, slick, occasionally heavy-handed entertainment is what we've all been waiting for? I feel like A.O. Scott in the winter of 2004—"quaffable but not transcendent" he slyly wrote of that year's unanimously lauded critic pick. I am puzzled. I am vexed. And then, as the film begins to win every conceivable award on the planet, I am resolute in my opposition. Will no one see that the emperor is naked? Can nothing topple this mighty white elephant?
Be careful what you wish for. If it's peculiar practice to spend months decrying a film you basically like—as I did, in private conversation and public preamble—what could be stranger than unexpectedly finding yourself in the position of rooting for that very same movie? Once the prospective frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, The Social Network has become, with surprising swiftness, a beleaguered underdog. Its chief competition? An unremarkable bit of pomp and circumstance called The King's Speech; it's the kind of politely prosaic movie that Miramax would have launched a big (and likely successful) campaign for back in the 90s. (No small wonder that the Weinsteins, former Miramax moguls, are behind this one, too.) The film's major surge happened at the end of January, when it not only secured the highest number of Academy Award nominations (a whopping and inexplicable 12) but also scored surprise victories at the SAG, PGA and DGA awards. Much as I'd like to suggest that Oscar pundits were premature in so quickly abandoning the trajectories they laid out for this award season, history is very much on the side of The King's Speech. Its victory feels foregone.
"I take it all back," I recently said to a friend, half-jokingly, when he asked me about my tentative flip-flop on Fincher's film. "Better that one than the alternative." He replied, with a shrug: "Is there really any difference between them?" I was dumbfounded. It was as though someone had suggested to me, for the very first time, that there was no real difference between the Democratic and the Republican parties. (Picture that decade-old Rage Against the Machine video, but with its alien "facemash" now merging Jessie Eisenberg's nebbish features with Colin Firth's more classically-handsome ones.) There are, of course, some very significant differences between The Social Network and The King's Speech—matters of tone, texture, performance, thematic agenda, and, most prominently, aesthetic function. And yet, to a certain and quite persuasive extent, I can see his point. Both films are seriocomic biopics that filter (relatively recent) history through a social malcontent's crisis of ego. Both are set upon the precipice of a communication revolution, a point that their respective champions can't seem to stress enough. And both are, by my estimation anyway, vastly overvalued middlebrow entertainments.
The race between these contenders—each groomed for success by monied industry figures, each bankrolled as the kind of "prestige pictures" that win awards—operates as a microcosm of everything that's wrong with Oscar season. Just one year I'd like to see entertainment journalists and award pundits declare radio silence. The relationship between the AMPAS voting bloc and the various media outlets that anticipate it has become parasitic—the tail wags the dog, predictions become prophecies and the field gets narrower with every "sure thing" announced by the press months in advance. (Even the snarky commentators at, say, Slant are helping secure nominations for the "mortal locks" they're bemoaning.) What would happen if every film writer risked their predictive credibility on rouge contenders? What if everyone just clammed up and left AMPAS to its own devices?
Far from widening the field, the doubling of the Best Picture slate has really done the opposite. Is it an accident that the same ten pictures cited by Peter Travers in his early-bird year-in-review ended up filling out Oscar's ten-spot? The architecture of the season was already in place by then. The Chosen Ones were already well on their way. Take a look at the acting categories; 15 of the 20 nominated performances hail from Best Picture contenders. Over in the screenplay races, nine of the ten scripts belong to the same crop. (Mike Leigh is the Odd Man In; he hasn't a snowball's chance.) Critics and award groups are now in a kind of perfect, unholy sync, with their respective year-end extracurricular activities—namely: list-making and accolade dispensing—telling the same lie: that these are the only ten movies that mattered in 2010.
What really scares me, though, is that my friend's offhand suggestion gets at a more cutting truth still, one that speaks to my very own overeager investment in this annual dog and pony show. I may have retired from the Oscar prognostication game a couple years ago, but my own tendency to rank, rate and relentlessly compare movies like a kid with a stack of baseball cards has not been as easy to shake. Films are not contenders in a horse-race, nor are they political candidates. I need not "root" for any of them—what I think of The Social Network should ultimately have nothing to do with its chances of winning awards. It may be an "underdog" now and it may well be a much better movie than its "opponent," but it remains the same imperfect, ambitious entertainment that I grappled with back in October. I fear that my perspective on it may be intrinsically tied to dubious notions of relative "value"—it is "overrated" by critics, "underrated" at the Academy Awards, and judged only in terms of how it's been perceived by others. This is one of the dangers of living in an age where opinions fly as fast as internet servers.
Ironically, the most positive spin I can put on the award season depends on the same kind of questionably comparative criticism. This year's Best Picture lineup may be impossibly obvious—and, given the mostly-lousy state of American film last year, irksomely homegrown—but it's also a relatively watchable list of movies, each flawed but not without charm or virtue. Certainly it's a much stronger batch than last year's. I'll take the shrieking hysterics of Black Swan over the shrill histrionics of Precious any day. The Fighter is better inspirational, sports-movie pap than The Blind Side. And for all my misgivings with Inception, I'd much rather linger on in its sci-fi trappings than sit through a white guilt double-bill of Avatar and District 9. Hell, even The King's Speech, my least favorite of the nominees, packs more punch than its immediate British predecessor, last year's An Education. Faint praise, I suppose, but when it comes to the Academy Awards—which serve, like it or not, as a fairly accurate barometer of where mainstream film culture is at—little victories are about the best you can hope for.
As for The Social Network and The King's Speech: I may never be able to completely divorce my feelings about these hugely successful works from the hype that's surrounded them since their release. But there is a difference between them, one that extends far beyond how much more "overrated" one is than the other. On Oscar night, I know which one I'll be pulling for.