Saturday, February 23, 2008
So, the Oscars are here. Can you feel the excitement?
Maybe it's the fact that the presidential primaries seem to have replaced it as a source of melodrama, star power and juicy gossip, but I just can't get too excited about this year's Oscar ceremony. Ever since I was a kid, devastated that E.T. somehow lost to Gandhi (which seemed even more remarkable when I caught up with Richard Attenborough's snoozy epic many years later), I've found myself obsessed with the race. I've watched loyally almost every year (missing a couple of ceremonies in college, when I didn't have a TV), thrown Oscar parties, devoured books on the ceremony's history and even tried to see every best picture winner (the only one I've missed is Around The World in 80 Days, a film which repeatedly puts me to sleep). Like many pop culture bloggers, I can recognize the absurdity of any awards ceremony truly demarcating what's "best" in a year's cinema, but still enjoy the trashy, overly emotional combination of joy, snark and genuine excitement the show seems to annually engender (after all, camp and sincerity are often closer to one another than we want to admit).
But this year? Meh. Again, like the primaries, there was so much early politicking on behalf of certain films (No Country For Old Men, There WIll Be Blood), and so much quick backlash against others (hello, Juno!) that it was easy to think the Oscars had already happened back in late December, and even easier to be turned off by the hyperbolic partisanship of various critics (again, "the Oscars don't matter!...Except when my favorite has a chance to win!"). The writers' strike (which I supported) also played a role, and made the ceremony seem less, well, ceremonial and more a desperate publicity grab (it also introduced an historical irony: the Oscars were originally designed by the studios as an anti-union tactic, an attempt to limit the growing interest in guilds by offering an alternativre "Academy" that would hand out shiny awards as bait for joining. That the "Oscars must be saved!!" tactic seems to have rushed the negotiations between writers and studios is one of those incidents that might have made Louis B. Mayer smile).
Mostly, though, I'm just behind on my moviegoing. It's been a busy year, and I've yet to see any of the Best Picture nominees except Juno (I do have Michael Clayton sitting on my DVD pile, and hope to get to it before the show tomorrow), which means I feel much less of an emotional investment in the winner than I might have in previous years (I don't even feel that animus of "well, as long as Crash doesn't win, I'll be happy" that I've sometimes felt in past seasons). I've held off doing any kind of Oscar predicting because I felt like I was operating from a position of ignorance, knowing more about the media coverage of the race (and the blogosphere's positions) than the films themselves (I guess that makes me the Oscars' Chris Matthews).
Still, it's the Oscars, and the trashy side of me can't resist saying something. So, instread of lengthy predictions, let me guide you to writers far more knowledgeable about this year's movies than I: Dennis Cozzalio has an excellent set of predictions up at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule; Jim Emerson links to witty suggestions about how to throw an Oscar party; Glenn Kenny is exchanging should/will win predictions with critic and journalist Arion Berger; Edward Copeland recently completed a poll of the best and worst "Best Actor" winners of all time; Jonathan Lapper has an epic review of every Oscar ceremony's "Best Picture" winners up through the 1970s in the archives of his site, Cinema Styles; Self-Styled Siren makes me feel better by admitting she hasn't seen any of the Best Picture nominees, and also has some nice Oscar-related links at her superb site; and one of my favorite film bloggers, Kim Morgan, offers her predictions here.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention a superb new, Oscar-related book that I've been reading (devouring, really) the last several days: Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris. Harris is an editor and columnist for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes the "Final Cut" column at the back of the magazine. It's a good column, but nothing in it prepared me for the breadth and density of Harris's book, or the clear and vigorous way he weaves a dazzling web of connections between Hollywood, Paris, London and New York in the 1960s, in order to trace out the makings and meanings of 1967's five Best Picture nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, The Graduate, and the year's oddball nom (its Seabiscuit, if you will), Dr. Dolittle. I can hear what you're thinking: "Oh, god, do we really need another book about the New Hollywood?" I had that initial response, too, but by zeroing in on these five films-- some of which get overlooked in the more auteurist-driven histories-according-to-Biskind-- Harris makes the period feel fresh, and the connections he draws between film, theater, fine arts, pop music and commerce are fascinating (as are his anecdotes, like how Warren Beatty was with Stanley Kubrick when John F. Kennedy was shot, trying to convince Kubrick to direct What's New, Pussycat?). I hope to write more about the book soon, but its real triumph is the tonal balance Harris keeps between genuine enthusiasm for the filmmakers' accomplishments (and sympathy for their failings) and a reporter's objectivity: there's none of the macho fannishness that made even the best moments of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls a bit cringe-worthy, but Harris also doesn't condescend to the period, or smugly deploy post-hoc syllogisms that reduce the movies down to easily portable theses about "the sixties." He seems much more interested in tracing out the chance meetings, lucky breaks and sudden reversals that can suddenly convulse the Hollywood landscape, and the thrill of his text is that he makes seemingly long-settled stories and arguments bristle again with mystery, glamour, humor and sex appeal. You know, kind of like the Oscars.