Saturday, February 12, 2011

Award Shows: The Great Promoters of Philistinism

"Up to now -- since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution -- most movie makers have been assuming that they know how to make movies.  Just like a bad writer doesn't ask himself if he's really capable of writing a novel -- he thinks he knows.  If movie makers were building airplanes, there would be an accident every time one took off.  But in the movies, these accidents are called Oscars."     -Jean-Luc Godard
"The Oscar is the most valuable, but least expensive, item of world-wide public relations ever invented by any industry. "     -Frank Capra
Every year around February, a large slew of movie award shows are on the scene and on your TV.  It feels that no other industry in America is as busy having its accomplishments noted.  These award shows are supposed to be a highbrow alternative to commercialism but they seldom live up to their claim.  Award shows are plagued with numerous problems that make them unnecessary and phony.  The most obvious culprit among them being the Academy Awards.

When the Academy Awards were first started, they were meant to be a way for great, artistic cinema to not get lost in the shuffle of commercialism.  They were to promote film art.  They quickly became prone to many problems.  Perhaps the biggest problem is that they are more about advertising than art.  They are just another layer of advertising hype and marketing.  The winners are almost always big studio movies.  The Academy also often nominates whatever movie was popular during the year, such as Avatar or The Blind Side.  Making money is important when it comes to getting awards.  The Academy has to be careful not to pander too far, though, or it will become obvious.  The system of how the movies are chosen is very wrong.  The Academy's own website notes:
And because of the Academy’s successful efforts to eliminate splashy gimmicks and gifts, the “race” to be nominated consists principally of attempts by studios, independent distributors and publicists to make sure that each of the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sees their film. It means special screenings for Academy members, free admission to commercial runs of a film, and the mailing of DVDs.
It would seem that movies that promote themselves better have a much better shot at winning.  What does promotion have to do with whether or not a movie is good?  As one person noted, voting members of the Academy should not have to be sent a DVD to see a film.  Any movie that gets some buzz should be seen by them.  Can they, the voters of the greatest films of the year, not take time out of their schedule to see perhaps a mere thirty movies a year.

Another problem to look at is the movies that win awards, especially best picture, and the notion of "Oscar bait."  Every year, around the Fall, we hear about Oscar bait movies coming out.  What is Oscar bait?  Oscar bait does not so much mean great movie as it does a certain type of movie.  It is the so-called middle-brow that is ever so slightly off mainstream.  Oscar bait movies are usually cheap melodrama or fake high art, whatever has the surface veneer of highbrow even in spite of its shallow core.  Heavy subject matter is always a winner despite lack of substance.  There is almost no wrong way to make a movie about the Holocaust.  When it comes to acting, the Academy prefers "strong" acting performances, such as Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, to subtle ones.  The only way to "stand out" is to play "characters," although its debatable whether its actually harder to play such highly "dramatic" roles as opposed to regular everyday people.  Of course this means the acting is all hammed up for the sake of being memorable.  Real outside-the-box creativity or avante-garde-style work has no place at the Academy Awards.  In the year 1968, Stanley Kubrick's seminal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't even nominated for best picture.  Instead the nominees were Romeo and Juliet, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Rachel, Rachel, and The Lion in Winter.  So you had a Shakespeare adaptation, a Dickens adaptation, two Broadway adaptations and a book adaptation (yes, I know 2001 is technically based on a book).  Over the years the Oscars have ignored great film noirs and now acclaimed B-movies.  Contemporary award shows are a surprisingly bad indicator of future reputation.  As A.G. Sertillanges put it, "Great men are not great until after their death."  On top of this, the Academy's ideas of art are quaint and shallow.  It's as though people who don't know anything about art are trying to awkwardly guess what art is.  The whole thing promotes a very narrow, formulaic idea of art.  Much like commercialism is a formula, "art" is a formula, not quite the exact same formula, but a formula nonetheless.

All of this is of course degrading to the average viewer's taste and encourages people to like worse movies and have worse taste.  It is greatly damaging to cinema for creators and viewers.  The media takes the legitimacy of award shows for granted because Hollywood has hidden financial connections to news media as well as the news media don't want to admit they are wasting time covering something dumb for the sake of ratings and readership.  For the average viewer, award shows are the closest thing they have to real film appreciation so they are likely to take them seriously.  The regular viewer is also likely to think that Oscar winners are so different from mainstream movies, but anyone who has seen a variety of foreign films knows that American "art" and American mainstream are actually quite close.  It can also lead people to assume they don't like artistic cinema because they don't like Academy Award winners, which can lead people further towards commercialism.  It creates a false choice between two types of mediocrity.

Another problem stemming from lack of hindsight is the oft-noted consolation Oscar given many years after a "snub" for a lesser outing.  This contributes to a vicious circle of snubs and reparations.  Another way to solve this problem is through the lifetime achievement award which is always a boring no-brainer.  By the time you've earned a lifetime achievement award, the Academy has nothing to add to you.  They only prop up their own credibility by jumping on the bandwagon of other people's praise.   

The final problem is the way the Oscars treat foreign-language films.  Notice, not foreign, but foreign language.  British movies, despite being from another country are still in the English language.  So it's not about separating countries but removing the languages people are uncomfortable with, namely everything that isn't English.  Of course, the foreign film category gets treated as second-rate, but its merely in another language, which neither makes it better or worse, just less interesting to mainstream audiences and a completely different market than Hollywood which is covering its own.  Perhaps, although this will never happen, best foreign language film should be saved for second to last in the ceremony and best picture should be called best English-language picture.  The notion that the work other countries do is somehow always lesser is dishonest.  If other countries are forced to have the worst seat at the table, why even invite them at all just to be so condescending?  Lastly, the process that each country only gets one submission is wrongheaded for obvious reasons.  The category is just a very challenging one to begin with because there are so many movies.

What about all the other award shows, such as the Golden Globes?  They all have the same problems, but they add to them redundancy.  Do we really need a dozen or more award shows to tell us that all the same movies and actors were great?  If a soldier saves his fellow soldiers by jumping on a grenade, thus dying in the process, he only gets one Medal of Honor, but someone makes a hammy performance in a movie and they get a dozen awards.  All these award shows are just an excuse for filling up television airtime, having more advertising for these movies, a bunch of bourgeois parties and Hollywood patting itself on the back for how great it is.

The worst offenders in the award show pandemonium are niche award shows such as the Scream Awards and the MTV Movie Awards.  It seems that no matter what your niche, some group of pseudo-elites is willing to validate your taste, however bad, with an awards show.  There is no reason that the critically-panned, teen girl fodder, Twilight, should get any awards for anything.  At best, it's a guilty pleasure.  The Scream Awards, with categories such as Best Superhero, Best Actor in a Fantasy Movie, and Most Memorable Mutilation is so obviously pandering to a demographic to the point of celebrating tastelessness.  Most Anticipated Movie isn't even awarding something that exists. How can you "award" something for being anticipated?  That's more of an observation. Since when do fans of shamelessly terrible paracinema need validation from an award show anyway?  Lastly, People's Choice Awards?  Isn't that the box office?

K-Stew and R-Pat of the award-wining film, Twilight, at the MTV Movie Awards

It's debatable whether or not the overall idea of an award show for film every year is necessary or right. There are numerous reasons for not having any shows.  For starters, art contains a certain level of subjectivity and it becomes even more challenging when you are not only pointing out what is good, but attempting to quantify what is best.  Secondly, award shows can remove the highest ideals of art and replace them with trying to win an award.  For the viewer, it can be a distraction from true appreciation of these movies which is replaced with awards fever.  Movie awards fever is an avoidance of movie art.  It is probably the most superficial, pointless and irrelevant way to "enage" a movie.  Rather than engaging the movie itself and all the ideas in it, we are caught up in some pointless sideshow outside of the movie that has nothing to do with the movie itself.  These are supposed to be some of the most thoughtful and meaningful movies of the year and all we can say about them is "Will it win?"  Art is turned into a sporting event.  For millenia, great art was  created without yearly televised shows to recognize it and no groups to award it.  Great films would continue to be made, with or without award shows, which brings the final problem of award shows.  They don't so much add to the reputations of great films which would be remembered anyway so much as they enshrine mediocrity that would have otherwise been rightly forgotten.  It is like the back of a child's American history book where there are a few pages of all the presidents.  Good or bad, if you were ever a president, you are enshrined as an equal within those pages.  It circumvents the more organic process of time, criticism and popular opinion.  This is the cultural filter.

On the other hand, I believe in the idea of movie award shows, but the system needs fixed.  The Academy needs to start picking genuinely creative movies that are both formally creative and contain meaningful content.  "Drama" should not be their standard.  Perhaps they should start reading some famous books on film theory.  Reducing the best picture nominees back to five would remove the opportunities for undeserving outliers to be nominated.  It would also be quite cosmopolitan of them to admit that other countries make good movies too.  At the very least, they could have an acknowledgment that best foreign language film is not something less, but merely separate.  They need to have a deep reassessment of their past and how it has clashed with the hindsight of film recognition.  Removing the blatant commercialism and audience pandering is probably the most important thing.  It should in many cases be an opportunity to introduce people to great movies they would have missed as opposed to mediocre ones. After fixing the Academy Awards, all other redundant award shows should disappear.  If some groups wish to give awards representing themselves, this would be acceptable even though it gets silly after a point, but they should not have a needless banquet and take away television time that could be better spent on King of the Hill reruns.  So the two biggest problems of movie award shows are long-standing bad taste of the voters and the pervasiveness of commercialism within the awards process.  While these problems will probably never go away, hopefully audiences will realize the emperor's nudity. 


  1. Great essay. I especially love the video.

    ...and God, I hate these awards shows.

    1. Thanks man. The video is actually from, a site I don't usually like, but the video is internet gold.

  2. "When the Academy Awards were first started, they were meant to be a way for great, artistic cinema to not get lost in the shuffle of commercialism." Just to clarify, that celebration of artistic cinema was with the very first Academy Awards, when there were two best picture categories; artistic achievement and production achievement. They got rid of artistic achievement after that. Also, the two main reasons for the creation of the awards have absolutely nothing to do with art; first, films were getting attacked from all kinds of quarters of the American cultural milieu, so the Awards Ceremony was a way of creating an aura of glamour and artistry that could be used as a defense from many of these attacks ("how can these be trash? They're art!"). Secondly, the studio heads were afraid of the craft unions gaining too much influence in the ways the studios were run, so they worked in concert to try to break the influence these unions had. The awards ceremony was a form of self-congratulations in these efforts ("we made these great films by following our rules, not union dictates").

    Whilst I can agree that there should be quite a bit of reform for the oscars, to leave out some fairly important (and not unknown) facts about it's history creates a false impression that film, and film-makers, were somehow less commercialistically crass in bygone times, or that the complaints that you have brought up had never been brought up before.

    1. I like your points. I probably did over-idealize the Oscar's beginnings. I don't know a whole lot about that exact area except what I read in Frank Capra's autobiography which is of course shown through his biased lens.

    2. I would agree that virtually all my complaints have been brought up before, but I did google search the topic before writing this essay and I think this is potentially the most comprehensive, but at the same time tightly written piece on the matter.