Monday, 25 January 2016

Unpopular Opinion: Shut Up, Whiners


This January, like many Januaries past, brought with it the promise of a new beginning; with the new year comes a renewed hope that things will change, will get better, and we'll finally win the Oscar pool at work. But this year's Oscar nominee list didn't renew a waning faith in Hollywood, didn't offer hope that things are getting better with the Academy. Rather, this year's list of nominees precipitated a whole lot of bitching and moaning about representation. Nothing has changed, it seems. Nothing is getting better.

Why? Because no black narratives were nominated. Because too few female narratives were nominated. Because, because, because.

Value Judgement

The very fact that people care so much would suggest the Oscars are still the most important film award in North America (or the world, depending on who you ask), but the fact is, the Oscars have been slowly loosing credibility since 2009, if not the turn of the century. The expansion of the Best Picture category from five to a maximum of ten, devalues the nomination. So there were a lot of good movies in 2009, but the Academy couldn't whittle down the field? It hadn't been a problem the previous eighty-one years.

"Best," as a value, can be quantified and every now and again some wag likes to point out how the quantitatively "best pictures" of the year aren't the big winners. For example, Birdman won Best Picutre but 2014's highest grossing film was Transformers: Age of Extinction (these same wags conveniently forget that Titanic and Toy Story 3, two huge moneymakers, were nominated in their respective years). Oscar's "best" is, of course, a qualitative judgment, a synonym for outstanding. It's both objective and subjective; it's easy to spot the difference between Crash and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Best Picture and best box-office, respectively in 2005), but what makes Crash better than Brokeback Mountain or Munich? Where do we draw the line between popularity, critical acclaim, and making a good impression? Indeed the argument could be made that Brokeback Mountain had to be nominated because it was so beloved by critics, but would never win because the stuffy old white men of the Academy are were made uncomfortable by the movie's subject matter.

But these are the same starched collars and stuffed shirts who voted for 12 Years a Slave. Where was the outcry over Ray, Precious, The Help, or Django Unchained which were all nominated but didn't win? Why not demand to know why or how The Hurt Locker was more deserving to win than District 9, which is understood by most to be an allegory for apartheid.

Well, because The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and it was about time a woman won Best Picture, and she was also running against her ex-husband and wouldn't it be great to stick it James Cameron and his over-the-top Avatar.

The Oscars will never, can't ever be divorced from politics. Remember when Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day? Some say he only won because he was snubbed two years prior for his performance in The Hurricane. And Morgan Freeman's Best Supporting Actor win for Million Dollar Baby was more of an achievement award/apology for his numerous nominations and losses over the years (Jamie Foxx won Best Actor that same year for Ray, but lost to Morgan Freeman in the supporting actor category--yes, Foxx was nominated twice in 2004).

Hurt Feelings

I can't help but wonder if all the outrage isn't just a whole lot of hurt feelings. So the movie you liked best isn't on the list of best movies. Big deal. It happens every year, it's just that this year everyone's making a big deal about it.

What, exactly, is the point of the Oscars? Or of any awards show for that matter? Is it to celebrate achievements in a specific field or to address topical socio-political issues? How outraged would you be if I told you no black man or woman has ever won a Nobel Prize in literature?

The Oscars have always claimed to be free from politics, or at the very least, not a stage for political expression, which is a nice sentiment, but politics have a hand in everything, even celebrating a job well done. But when those politics begin to overshadow the purpose of the celebration, it's time to reevaluate the nomination process and the award as a whole.

Why, exactly, should Creed be nominated? Because Michael B. Jordan is singularly extraordinary as Adonis Johnson or because it's a black narrative that isn't about racism? And someone explain to me why the Academy should be ashamed of itself for not nominating Carol for Best Picture? Because it's an outstanding film that doesn't deserved to be passed over, or because it's a female-led narrative about a lesbian couple?

Boycotting the Oscars isn't going to accomplish anything, and it only further reinforces their prestige in the eyes of the audience. Moreover, the snubbing of black or feminist narratives won't prevent similar movies from getting made. For instance, horror movies are hardly ever nominated for anything, but that hasn't killed the genre.

Kind of a Big Deal

Feminism and racism are big right now, and these attitudes are reflected in the outrage over the Academy's lack of feminist and black representation in this year's nominations. But there's no law that states the Oscars have to cow-tow to popular or populist opinion. Sure, they have bowed to social pressures in the past but, for whatever reason, they haven't this year.

People like to accuse the Academy of being too male and too white, and their conservative, patriarchal leanings are reflected in their choices. While that may be true, the fact of the matter is, the Academy is a reflection or representation of Hollywood and the studios that produce these movies. If we want to see a change in the Academy, we have to demand a change in the system that made it. It's all well and good for Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to issue a statement about growth and change, but it's quite another to implement that change and for it to have an effect.

More to the point, the increase in DTV (STDVD?) and VOD distribution has had a huge impact on how we engage with film, but the Academy hasn't kept up with these changes. For example, Beasts of No Nation, which has been charming audiences, critics, and juries all over the place can't be nominated for an Oscar even though it should be. So, if the point of the Oscars is to celebrate outstanding achievement in motion picture arts and sciences, why is the Academy limiting their pool of potential winners to only those films which can afford a theatrical release?

It is prohibitively expensive for some filmmakers to get their movie into theatres, hence the increase in DTV and VOD releases. But since a film must have a theatrical release in order to qualify for an Oscar, the award is inextricably tied to antiquated notions of distribution and exhibition, which are themselves tied to the economical/political issues that surround film marketing and promotion.

Any change in how the Academy makes it decisions come Oscar time, must reflect the changing face of the industry as a whole. House of Cards, which is a Netflix original, has been nominated for several Emmys, and that's a powerful reminder of how much the television landscape has changed with the onset of streaming services. More recently, Amazon picked up a nomination with Transparent, further suggesting ATAS understands something about its medium that AMPAS refuses to accept.

There needs to be a change in the Academy and its nomination process, that much is obvious. But expanding and diversifying the Academy's membership isn't the cure-all everyone wants it to be. Rather, the Academy needs to be more inclusive not only in terms of who but also in terms of what. Diversifying membership will only result in diversifying the politics swirling around the nominations. Expanding the field of potential nominees, on the other hand, will introduce more and different narratives, non-traditional characters and roles, and, hopefully, fewer Oscar-bait movies.

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