On Oscars and the personal gravity of art

03.01.14 3 years ago 26 Comments

Warner Bros.

When you have passion for movies but find yourself covering the circus that is the Oscar race every year, you're constantly searching out that zen patch of land, away from, maybe even above, the fray.

There are a couple of things I've asserted in all my years of doing this. “No one needs awards coverage this deep,” as quoted by New York Magazine in an article last week, is one. “Don't take this too seriously” is another. On the latter, I can't really force that stance on anyone, nor should I. If you want to take the Oscars seriously, as something indicative of greater truth, as something – because of the show's position on the “world stage” – with the potential of illuminating the human condition, or the milestones of artistic history, that's fine. I leave that in the hands of the artists and the art, not the voters and the contest.

To put the Oscars on that pedestal, it disregards the very plain fact that people are people, that they have emotions and frailty, are not immune to politics and the like. It assumes they are concerned with presenting an image more than an honest reaction. Maybe you loathe what that honesty means one year. Maybe you love what it means the next. That's kind of the nature of subjectivity, isn't it?

So I read a piece like Eric Kohn's rally cry for “12 Years a Slave” and I just flinch at the idea that “all is lost” if a film that registers that note of perceived importance doesn't win the Best Picture Oscar. I recoil at the idea that, for the Academy to go in any other direction, it is a “failure,” as Kohn (who I greatly admire and respect) Tweeted. Because that, if nothing else, diminishes a fantastic year for film, to presume that if any other film but the one you, in your own bubble, have deemed “important,” wins the big prize, then it's a travesty. That neglects the fact that there are so many wonderful choices throughout the category.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is as important as “12 Years a Slave,” if not more so for its immediacy and its revelation of the gluttonous, wicked human psyche that drives us all in this nation. “Philomena” is as important for its dismantling of organized faith-mongering. “Her” is as important for its depiction of a society more and more out of touch with itself. “Dallas Buyers Club” is as important for its characterization of a fight for the basic human right to life at all costs.

You can play this game with any nominee any year, so you shouldn't really play it at all. And no, I don't mean to sound glib. I'm very aware of how overdue an Academy Award to a black filmmaker is. I'm very aware of how “12 Years a Salve” is a cinematic monument to an era where one was sorely needed. But such things are really just one side of an equation, and these aren't robots filling out ballots.

“12 Years a Slave” is an amazing film. Steve McQueen is an amazing filmmaker who I have supported from the word go. It would make an absolutely sterling Best Picture winner, indicative of the kind of films Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner have wanted to bring to the screen throughout their production company's history, stretching back to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (with which you all know I have been heavily affiliated as of late). I would not fold my arms in disgust, because a win for it would not just be a win for all the socio-political reasons proponents note, but also for a wonderful year in cinema.

What I don't get is the idea that a win for, say, “Gravity” flies in the face of that. Diminishes that. Douses the importance of the Oscars on the world stage. Let me explain why, and warning, there are opinions ahead.

I've seen “Gravity” five times this year and no film has been so emotional an experience for me. Alfonso Cuarón has hammered the rhetoric home since its Venice debut, but to reiterate, it is a film about adversity. It is a film about the desire to disconnect from life and finding the passion and the power to shrug off the darkness and re-engage. People dismiss this as a thin narrative. I hail it as a universal concept relatable to any and all, presented through a visual metaphor with amazing technical prowess and emotional consistency.

I know what Dr. Ryan Stone feels. And it's not about a dead daughter, more shorthand for grief and melancholy than anything else. Personally speaking, I'm coming out of some dark times in my life, which have never been (nor would they be) reflected in this space. Family, finance, health, work, friendship, love, marriage – these are all embattled elements in my life as of late, and I've often been met with the desire to cut loose and float away from these troubles, find a fresh place to start. But in “Gravity,” I've found a piece of art that says, in no subtle terms, that the triumph and glory of life is one lived, embraced for all its darkness and hopelessness, engaged with, energized by – one accepted as the only one you'll get. That is a powerful message for me at this stage in my life. (Again…subjectivity.)

So if you're going to tell me that something which has that kind of impact on me, while objectively being such a towering technical accomplishment, would be a “failure” if voted the year's best film by a group of 6,000-plus members who might, consciously or not, feel similar tugs in their heart as they watch it – well, I have to just pardon myself and say “nonsense.”

The Oscars aren't meant to be a bully pulpit, and the Academy has, time and again, shown a resistance to the urge to make them so. I'm not at all saying Fox Searchlight has treated this campaign as such, mind you. They are one of the classiest outfits in the Oscar game and have run a remarkably, refreshingly reserved campaign on behalf of this film. And if they win, I will be so, so happy for them. I only wish certain others would find that place for any other film that might win, and I include such contenders I would personally see as thin victors in that, mind you. I'm not so egotistical as to think that how I respond to these films, or how I perceive their place in an overall landscape, is anything more than my own perspective.

And by the way, please don't think I'm saying no one is having an internal reaction to “12 Years a Slave.” Solomon Northup's story is a staggering one with plenty of layers and I know, if only because McQueen is a remarkable humanist filmmaker, that it is registering such notes. I'm not generalizing; I'm just reacting to something that rears its ugly head each and every year.

The problem I see, not just with covering film awards but frankly with art criticism, too, is this notion of gate-keeping. Critics and the film commentariat are very useful, and they illuminate so much. But the enjoyment of art will remain, from here to eternity, a personal thing. Yes, the best of it stretches beyond that. Yes, the best of it connects the human condition with its place in the world, contextualizing it in a broader landscape.

But it can never be pummeled into that context. The minute you try to reduce it to a duty or a cause or a statement or an importance overriding the mysteries of one's own heart, you've suffocated what makes it so joyous, so vital, so human.

Enjoy the Oscars Sunday. Enjoy the movies forever.

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