All Over But The Shoutin’ Part Deux – The Great Disconnect
After The Social Network walked off with the Golden Globes, I wrote a piece more or less stating that that film would waltz all the way to the Oscars, that the race was essentially over. My, how things can change. Over the course of a few weeks, the momentum shifted completely to The King Speech. The major Hollywood guilds all went for it. The PGA, the DGA, the SAG, everyone except the WGA who made the inspired choice of awarding Christopher Nolan for his Inception script. I should have seen this coming. I fooled myself into thinking a film as daring and undeniably great as The Social Network could upend the traditional “Oscar Movie” for Best Picture. A spat of recent winners (No Country For Old Men, The Departed, even The Hurt Locker) clouded my judgment and led me to think those 5,800 voting members might actually be voting for the great films these days and not just the films that made them the happiest. Again, I like The King Speech. It’s a nice, solid film with a couple fine performances. But great it is not, and we saw some great films get released this year. It’s a shame. Not over yet, of course, but the guilds, with their mammoth voting populations and populist bent, are your biggest indicators. As of right now, it would be a huge upset if The King’s Speech did not win the big one next Sunday night.
All of this amounts to what could very well be greatest disconnect between film critics and the film industry in the modern era. The Social Network won all the critics awards. And by all, I really do mean just about every single damn one of the them. For instance, if it were to lose the Oscar to The King’s Speech, it would be first time a film has won the Los Angeles Film Critics, The Chicago Film Critics, The National Board of Review, and the New York Film Critics Circle and NOT won Best Picture at the Academy Awards…ever. It has never happened before. To which you might say, “who cares what critics think anyway?” Alright, fine. But critics, like in all areas of the arts, often hold the keys to the canon, for better or worse. They dwell in the influential areas of journalism and academia and their opinions contribute greatly as to whether films survive or fade away. And despite what you might think, they don’t contradict popular taste all that often. The highest grossing films of the past decade, Titanic, The Dark Knight, and Avatar, all did extremely well with the critics. This year’s most critically lauded film on Rotten Tomatoes, Toy Story 3, also made somewhere in the ballpark of $800 million. Good films have a habit of being liked by critics and filmgoers alike. The only thing sometimes separating them is breadth of distribution.
The critics community and audiences certainly have more in comment with each other than with the Academy. Until the recent run of darker, more challenging winners, your typical Best Picture flick follows a predictable formula, which more or less goes as follows:
-It has to popular, but not too popular. The Academy likes to see itself as a voice of the People, but not a voice of the Masses. Best to make $100 million, but if you make over $200 million? You’re likely out of luck, unless you’re period flick like Titanic and you make SO much money that you can’t possibly be denied.
-The film has to be good, but not too good. It has to be very well executed but not too challenging in its thematics or its moral compass (case in point: traditional period hero flicks like Braveheart, Gladiator, Ben Hur, etc.)
-Related to this, it has be universally agreeable enough so as to not create serious audience divide, as the truly great films are likely to do. It has to be a film not everyone loves but NO ONE can hate. I really liked Slumdog Millionaire, but who could hate it? It’s Charles Dickens with pretty Indian people. Nobody I have ever talked to loved Shakespeare in Love, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that hated it. Great films are hated by quite a few people when they first come out, until times passes and you get responses like “I didn’t like it, but I can appreciate how good it is.”
-It has to make your average viewer cry at least once. The Social Network isn’t likely to send you into tears. Its grip is more nuanced and intellectually charged than that. But The King’s Speech sure as hell will.
-They empty their treasures in the first viewing. This is perhaps the most important, since Academy voters are busy people. They mostly watch the one screener copy they get or head to the theater to see a film once. Great films, like great novels, unveil their greatness over longer exposure and repeat viewings. They are wonderful the first go around, but every watch peels back new layers that eventually, over time and contemplation, solidify its place as a great work of art. A Best Picture winner cannot do this. It has to overwhelm you emotionally the very first time you see it, and the odds are very, very good that repeat viewings will not add anything substantive to your understanding of it. You may enjoy the film again and again, but it wont present deeper layers of itself. It is what it is. Not everyone is a nerd like me who will watch his Social Network and Inception blurays numerous times and see a beautifully different film with every new exposure. I love Forrest Gump (1994 Best Pic winner), and will watch it every time I see it on TV. But it’s the same film every time, without fail. Pulp Fiction, also released in 1994, shows something new every time.
These rules all apply to a King’s Speech over Social Network scenario. One makes you feel good, gets you up and cheering and that is a wonderful, beautiful thing for a film to do. But it doesn’t comprise a great work of art. A great work of art has to go deeper. It has to probe the depths of what makes us human, how we live, why we do the things that we do, what motivates us to claw our way through existence. It has to force us to look our ourselves and our world and think about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
The great film could still win out over the good one next Sunday night. A couple recent developments (Fincher’s BAFTA win, Inception‘s WGA upset) suggest that voters might be rethinking their choice. Because for better or for worse, the Oscars do matter. They secure a film’s place in history at least to some extent, and in bestowing them the Academy shows a bit of itself in the run of history. Will they get swept up in the happy movie that made them feel good right now, or will they recognize the achievement that will likely survive after most of them are dead?
Of course, my loyalties are right there on my sleeve, and my opinion is only my opinion. I’ll have my Best Picture of 2010 no matter what statues come its way.