Editorial: The 85th Academy Awards: A Post-Oscar Rant
by Jeff Ritter
Published: February 26, 2013
I've been reviewing films professionally for the last five years, and have never been shy to offer my opinion when solicited before that. Around the office this morning, the day after the 85th Annual Academy Awards, lots of folks were talking about the broadcast. It's the most watched non-sporting event in America.
I couldn't care less.
Hollywood has a mystique about it. Even now, more than a decade into the 21st century, it seems that much of America if not the movie-going world still regards Hollywood as the mecca of cinema, the place where dreams become reality, where stars are born. That's a romanticized ideal that the public holds close to their hearts. The reality is grim. Hollywood chews up dreams and spits out drug-addled, ruined has-beens. A few folks strike gold. Most strike out.
Even theater patrons, you nine-to-fivers hoping for a two hour break from your gray cubical hells (believe me, I'm right there with you--do cubical walls even come in other colors?) or thankless, back-breaking labors, are not spared. Hollywood makes you addicts. You crave excitement. They provide it. Visceral thrills, pathos and humor is yours almost any time you want it, just for small fee -- if you're single with no children, that is. Otherwise, you have to weigh paying your utlities against two hours of modern bread and circus entertainment. Today the bread is nearly inedible popcorn (an otherwise healthy snack that shouldn't come in strata that can be used for dating epochs) and the only lion you'll see comes in front of Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions.
Yet still we come, in record numbers, to get our fix. Hollywood still makes insane money, even in a down economy. It's nothing to them to raise ticket prices. You'll still come to see vapid, shallow acting, sparkling vampires, hairless twentysomethings that suffer from lycanthropy and zombies. Oh please, please, let there be zombies. I think audiences must see themselves in those droning, shambling, hungry creatures. How else do you explain the fact that you, the movie-going public, have not yet risen up, brandishing your pitchforks and torches, and demanded better products? Why have you not waged war on Hollywood with the only true weapon you have at your disposal -- your hard-earned cash -- and said, "No, I will not pay extra to rent 3D glasses for two hours! I will not waste my money watching a film I might have otherwise enjoyed while trying to keep from wretching up the undercooked pretzel and cold cheese I just ate that cost me about as much as a decent meal?" Where are the teeming masses raging over Hollywood's hubris to charge us full admission for a film that clocks in under 90 minuutes? Anything less than that should qualify as a short, and be required to be part of a double feature. Any director worth a damn, and Michael Bay too for that matter, should be able to squeeze 90 decent minutes out of their source material.
And such source material it is, too. Hollywood is nothing if not creative. That's sarcasm, folks. Hollywood releases maybe one movie a month that isn't a prequel, a sequel or a remake. A few weeks ago, the interwebs and the water coolers were ablaze with the news of George Lucas selling the rights to the Star Wars franchise to Disney. The prequels and sequels that deal alone will generate staggers the mind. For all of the ridicule Lucas has endured over Jar-Jar Binks and Episodes 1-3, I remain skeptical that the Mouse, who this time last year was touting their own Death Star-sized flop "John Carter" as "the Star Wars for this generation" and who hired a director famous for disjointed television to lead the way, will do any better.
The best thing Hollywood has going for them is the comic book industry. That's why Disney bought Marvel and why DC Comics has been the property of Warner Brothers for years. Comics are convenient bundles of story boards, tailor made for easy filming. Find a copy of Frank Miller's 300 and have it at hand when you watch Zack Snyder's film of the same name and see if you can pause your DVD or Netflix feed on each panel as you go. It's all in there, shot for shot. Hollywood has raked in billions on the labor of underpaid writers and artists, colorists and letters, editors and production staffs. They get paid a flat page rate if they're creating on a work-for-hire basis, as most are for Marvel and DC. Corporate sells the story to a motion picture conglomerate and they make more than the Gross Domestic Product of some nations.
Sony's Spider-Man franchise (including the less than "amazing" relaunch) has earned roughly $1.3 billion at the box office, just in America. The Christopher Nolan helmed trilogy of Batman movies nearly matched that, earning Warner Brothers roughly $1.2 billion domestic. That's just two of a whole herd of cash cows. DC has a Superman trilogy in the works and has been trying to figure out how to get a Wonder Woman franchise off the ground for years now. Marvel has Iron Man, Captain America and Thor in play and a slew of other characters coming on the heels of "The Avengers." "The Avengers," which earned $623 million at the US box alone. "The Avengers," which stodgy old critics who think every movie they see needs to be some poetic insight on the human condition and thus didn't "get" it. "The Avengers," which despite being the top grossing film of 2012 and the third-highest grossing film in history behind "Avatar" and "Titanic," earned one measly Academy Award nomination for Visual Effects.
Thus we come back to the Oscars, those gilded statuettes, as faceless as the corporate shills who barter over who gets what. If you believe there's any true, legitimate voting going on in the Academy you probably also believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Bigfoot once took a squat behind your shed. The Oscars are a sad joke. I finally understood that when "American Beauty" won in 2000, over "The Cider House Rules," "The Green Mile," "The Sixth Sense," and "The Insider." Don't get me wrong, "American Beauty" isn't a bad movie, but it was the least of the nominees that year. Best Actors, Actresses, Supporting Roles, Directors -- all of them contrived by studio honchos who wrangle for votes like politicians. Just like Congress, they get away with it, They put a funny and hopefully not too edgy host out there (it will never be Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and parade all the stars in front of the camera. They give the masses a glimpse of their favorite actors and actresses, some of whom give the best performances of their careers by containing the contempt they themselves must surely have inside, smiling at the camera and reading the nominees that don't include them. At least everyone gets a swanky gift basket valued at roughly 20% more than my house.
The Oscars are worse than a farce. They are an infomercial. They are an excruciatingly long advertisement for films that you would never see otherwise unless they were nominated for the major awards and DVDs you were more inclined to buy five years ago before the proliferation of streaming media. Hollywood desperately wish it had thought of that first. This year's Best Picture winner was "Argo." "Argo" was a good movie. Ben Affleck, a fairly easy target for late night talk show jabs, directed a remarkably detailed recreation of the Iran Hostage Crisis, focusing on the fortunate few who got away. It was fine, but it was boring. It turns out that a film about Americans hiding from Iranian hostage takers by slumming in the Canadian consulate and playing cards until the CIA shows up to smuggle them out isn't exactly riveting. It will get a resurgence of interest and a quick re-release to theaters to capitalize on the win. If you pay money now, you've effectively been hooked by an infomercial only Harvey Weinstein and Ron Popeil could love. The Academy picked "Argo" despite Affleck not getting a Best Director nomination. I guess great movies just direct themselves. It was up against "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the only film in the bunch to be released in the summer of 2012. It clocked in at a barely credible 93 minutes and has a plot synopsis so ridiculous that you'd think it was an excerpt from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford. I'll let you look that one up. The rest of the nominees, like "Argo," came out just in time to qualify for the 2013 Oscar season: "Lincoln," "Amour," "The Life of Pi" (which should have been a short film about a tiger having lunch at sea), "Zero Dark Thirty," "Les Miserables," "Django Unchained," and the rather surprising nominee "Silver Linings Playbook." Of those pictures, I'd have voted for "Lincoln."
"Lincoln" was a great film with three very worthy contenders for individual acting recognition in Daniel Day Lewis (who won), and Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones (who did not). However, "Lincoln" only gets my vote if I'm stuck with this grab bag of nominees, some of which were seen by less people than a matinee showing of "The Avengers" six weeks after release. It's bad enough that audiences have the attention spans of an attention deficit disorder child after a six pack of Red Bull and a Sam's Club bucket of Skittles. The short memories of the "voters" are laughable. It's a wonder any of them can find their cars after the ceremony. Oh, right, limos. Forget it.
No, rather than vote for anything on this list, I'd rather take a more quantifiable approach, a method that doesn't involve saturating the market with pet projects just before the vote. "Argo" winning Best Picture is the equivalent of a September call up for the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award. I don't care if the kid belted 20 homers and 60 RBIs and hits .550 for that month, he is not the MVP over a player who's been there since the start of the season. The Best Picture should simply be the movie that made the most money. It's highly improbable that the film that earns the highest box office will also be as bas as "Ishtar" or "The International." By this method, your nine nominees for Best Picture should have been, in ascending order: "Ted," "Brave," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, part 2," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Skyfall," "The Hunger Games," "The Dark Knight Rises," and...you guessed it, "The Avengers." Joss Whedon wins my Best Director award because it only makes sense that the best film had the best direction. Had Uwe Boll directed the Marvel Superheroes ensamble we obviously wouldn't be having this discussion and Christopher Nolan's third Batman film, despite being the worst of the trilogy, would have won. It's simple math. Where does the 2013 Oscar nominees stack up? "Lincoln" earned the best, at fourteenth overall for the year in US box office. "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables" also ranked ahead of twenty-second place "Argo." "Beasts of the Southern Wild" didn't even make the top 100.
Is it a perfect system? Obviously not -- "Twilight" and its lip-biting lead actress Kristen Stewart should be nowhere close to an Oscar ceremony much less an award. But it's more representative of the desires of the audience. We obviously prefer escapist fare like superheroes and oversexed stoner teddy bears, on the whole, than depressing melodramas like "Amour." If you don't want "Twilight" to win, you should patronize better movies (preferably in crystal clear two-dimensions only).
Nothing will change. Next year the Oscar will go to some other movie nobody saw or cared much about. There's always another "Slum Dog Millionaire" or "The King's Speech" waiting to be unleashed upon the voters of the Academy, who will vote based solely on who vets them best, what comps are granted, who greases the most palms. And millions of Americans will be tuned in once again for the year's biggest infomercial. It doesn't matter who the host is, a talented guy like Seth MacFarlane or a miscast James Franco, I refuse to watch like the good little sheep Hollywood wants us all to be. Dare to be different, demand better, and by whatever god you pray to quit letting them gouge you for 3D tickets.