It seems like more of the same -- or worse -- at the Academy Awards this season.
With Oscars coverage continuing its five year-plus struggle with uneven formats, rotating guest-hosts, and sheer over-length, what does the Academy decide to do? Add, not subtract, of course: double the number of hosts for the broadcast (Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin), as well as the number of nominees for Best Picture.
On the face of it, it's hard to see how these decisions will make the already bloated proceedings any leaner or more focused, which is precisely what's needed -- but hey, the movie business works in strange and sometimes lamentable ways.
Who knows -- Martin and Baldwin could be the new Martin and Lewis. However -- as to expanding the all-important Best Picture award, this seems like a desperation move to draw in more viewers by widening the competitive field. Of course, at the same time it dilutes by half just how important and exclusive a Best Picture nominee is.
For instance, if the offensively gooey, by-the-numbers The Blind Side or the wildly self-indulgent Inglorious Basterds can now make the cut for the industry's top prize, then just how important is the honor anymore? And on a broader level, what precisely do these awards attempt to recognize these days: commercial success or cinematic merit?
I've written before about Academy Awards "off years" -- they are nothing new, but I predict we are in for a dilly this year. What other signs can I point to?
How about a phenomenon I'll playfully call The Return Of The King?
One of the worst Oscar years on record, in my view, was 1997, the last time James "King Of The World" Cameron was up for so many awards -- and won nearly all of them.
The movie in question, of course, was Titanic -- a re-telling, in comic book form, of the fabled ocean liner's tragic sinking -- an immense, supposedly invulnerable ship which screamed excess.
The wild commercial success of that movie spawned another subtler tragedy, at least for some of us: more immense movies which scream excess, like the ship and movie that preceded them.
Thus was born the "Titanic Syndrome" in Hollywood, whereby the studios accelerated their emphasis on "big" movies, offering huge helpings of sound and spectacle, speed and energy- but not much in the way of sense, emotion or originality.
Still, these movies didn't sink to the bottom of the sea -- quite the opposite. Most were consistently profitable if not popular, particularly (and predictably) among younger audiences the world over who love noise and mayhem and don't read much -- particularly movie reviews.
These are the very folks who've happily gone back to see Avatar multiple times, helping propel Cameron's gargantuan production upwards to a rarefied box-office heaven, and landing the film-maker on the cover not just of People or Entertainment Weekly, but BusinessWeek as well.
So, feeding the beast, I finally coughed up my sixteen dollars, donned my 3D specs, and sat down to watch Avatar this past week. Nearly three hours later, once all the eye-popping visual effects disappeared and the thunderous noise receded to a residual ringing in my ears, I was left feeling slightly sea-sick, disheartened, and empty.
Still, I had to concede that viewed purely as a technical achievement, Avatar must be given its due. As I marveled at some of its more dazzling compositions -- in 3D yet -- I had the precisely the same feeling of wonder as in 1977 with Star Wars. On both occasions, I could tell I was seeing the boundaries expand of what cinema could actually portray.
Given this accomplishment, I think Mr. Cameron should walk away with statuettes for Visual Effects, Art Direction, Cinematography, and both Sound Editing and Mixing -- a veritable basketful of trophies for the King.
However, should he win Best Director over his former spouse Kathryn Bigelow (nominated for The Hurt Locker, which I thought superlative) I would certainly cry foul. And if -- God forbid -- the Academy should bestow Best Picture on King Cameron once again, that cry would become a wail of protest.
After all, what does it say about the state of the industry when a film can win Best Picture without having been nominated for anything in either the primary writing or acting categories?
Think about it a moment. To me, it affirms the idea that with today's mainstream product, the historic bedrocks of great film -- script, story and characterization -- are no longer mandatory to achieve the industry's top honor.
Make it shine, give it some whizz-bang, and voila! You could be a contender.
We're already seeing the erosion of these critical fundamentals on-screen in so many derivative action films, re-makes, and assorted blinding, deafening fantasies. But is Hollywood now ready to pronounce this shift a good thing, to proclaim their allegiance to short-term box-office receipts over lasting creative merit by anointing a technically astonishing but otherwise overstuffed, pretty pedestrian fantasy as the year's best picture?
Say it ain't so, Joe. Or Steve. Or Alec. Or somebody!
Clinging to the old adage that Hollywood is a cyclical business, I continue to hope for at least a modest resurgence of what I like to call "human-scale" pictures. Believe it or not, Hollywood used to make a lot of them. These films focus on human stories -- stories we, the audience, can relate to or learn from. They are plot-, script-, mood-and character-driven. They can be funny, sad, or thrilling. But in the end, they always make us think or feel something. And most important, they make us care.
Rest assured, I too enjoy an adrenaline-fueled bone-cruncher or over-the-top sci-fi fantasy on occasion, but not as my sole and steady cinematic diet. The issue here is one of balance -- specifically, balancing merit and money, substance and spectacle.
Regardless of where you stand on this, make no mistake: if James Cameron and Avatar walk away with this year's "Best Picture" at the Oscars, both the industry's stance on this debate -- and the kinds of movies it will continue presenting the public -- will become all too painfully evident. And the balance that I and many others yearn for in American film will be that much longer in coming.
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