Estimated time: 9:05 AM, CST, Thursday morning (January 10, 2013). My cell-phone alarm jolts me awake with a blast of smiley ska-pop, Reel Big Fish’s Average Man, piano chords skipping faster than my heartbeat. I see lavender walls, gravy-gray in the light of snow and sun funneling through the dented blinds. The coarse ridges of the couch cushions dig into my back. A chill nips the skin my covers have abandoned for the floor. A tragic image of a squatter in transit, but actually, it is only me at college, recovering from a night of no drinking but plenty of aimless YouTube browsing.
From the corner of my eye I see my roommate slogging through the room with his backpack on, ready for class. Inspired, perhaps, by his incentive, I twist over to grab my cell phone from a table covered with used tea bags, almonds, Wii game controllers, empty DVD covers – an artist’s home, all right. I turn off the alarm and move to set the phone back down when it buzzes. A text notice from CNN.
The screen reads (I paraphrase): “The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announce complete list of 2013 Oscar nominees. Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, and Argo amongst Best Picture. Lincoln leads 11 nominations.”
At 10:40 AM I’ll depart for my first class. Until then, a free hour-and-a-half presents itself, a time to push ahead on work, exercise, write a blog post, eat breakfast, watch a movie or four episodes of a TV show, read a book, practice either of my instruments (saxophone, drums), read an article on a subject I’m unfamiliar with, dance half-naked in my room to “Average Man,” or return to browsing YouTube aimlessly. I choose a separate option. I spend my time reading the list of Oscar nominations, engaging them with a sleepy fervor: surprise, a pleasant wash of bemusement at seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild under Best Picture – a movie over five-months old considered for top honors! The irregularity … Matched by the boil of Les Miserables, an expected seething, less pronounced than the rage felt in past years at The Help, The Blind Side, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. An overall matching of expectations. These choices were apt and deserving of their accolades, or, these choices were apt and undeserving, but it fits the Academy’s modus operandi, and I’d expect nothing less.
For the next hour I digest the list, meaningless but for the names of films and actors, and measure some of the reactions to it around the Web, the talk of snubs, offenses, and insults to filmmaking by an outdated, ghastly husk of an award show. My friend trudges out of his room at around the forty-minute mark (9:45 AM), having just risen to use the bathroom while still in boxers and an over-sized green tank top. I alert him to the nominations. We digest the list again, together, and share our dismay: no Holy Motors! No Best Director for Wes! Moonrise Kingdom, Cloud Atlas, and Samuel Jackson for Django all but made invisible! We wax philosophic on the state of movie awards: the usual, good-natured college BS. He returns to his room and I return to browsing award reactions.
90 minutes – a feature film’s length – whittled away by someone else’s superlatives. A “Best of/Worst of” I can’t share in because I do not belong to the Academy and cannot vote on what films constitute the cultural zeitgeist today. I can only vote through the films I see and tickets I purchase – infinitesimal statements, helpless against the maelstrom of piracy unfolding across the Web, even more worthless when stacked against the convictions of an Academy voter, with their firm notions of what a traditional, good ol’ American film needs to be significant… A pathetic mote next to those phrases that obliterate all beside them: “prestigious,” “feel-good,” “landmark,” “epic”…
I keep returning to this list the rest of the day.
That evening I log onto Facebook to find a message waiting, logged at 7:38 PM. A request from a friend: could I please write about the Oscar nominations on Check the Reel? he’d really like to read it. I am flattered. I’m drawn to action, for his sake, for the sake of dialogue, for the sake of this blog and my own confused productivity. I sit down the next morning (time unknown, Friday, January 11, 2013) to set down the words that will capture the essence of that previous dawn, waking up to a phone buzzing with ska and a crisp, relevant news-byte. I will relive my discovery, reaction, and subsequent rationalization…
But I don’t know what to say.
I still don’t know what to say. After spending 800 words describing my morning routine with Tolstoy-like precision, I’ve yet to crack the essential questions. What do I think of the Academy Awards? Am I satisfied? Am I enraged? Like Peter Travers, do I want to yell, “Damn you, Oscars! Damn you, Hollywood!” because, yes, I spot more oversights than agreeable choices. I could say Django Unchained wouldn’t have been nominated had it been released before December. I could also say Les Miserables featured the sloppiest, most inept filmmaking of any film in recent memory. I frothed at every creative choice: the disregard for any mood but misery; Hugh Jackman’s pores pressed against the lens, camera canted as if to slide him off; murdering the revolutionary boy on screen, the most blatant delight in human anguish without justification, enough to reverse all good-will fostered by Anne Hathaway in her moment of schadenfreude spectacle. I could say these things, implying Les Mis doesn’t deserve a place near Best Picture while Django snuck in through marketing luck, implying with everyone else the Academy is defunct and out of touch…
But that would be missing the point; I’d be thinking too small and personally. If I should really describe my reaction to the Oscar dynamic, the interplay between categories and films selected, no individual nomination would do. I need words descriptive of many films and many ideologies. I need to crack into the heart of the Academy and its structure, tendencies, biases; its instinct for preservation. I would need to write a book to cover the subject’s breadth.
But why bother?
Why do we care what the Academy says?
Because it seems like a big deal.
The word “Academy,” with all its suggestions of authority and academic intrigue; the golden statuettes; a glossy, red-carpet award show with its array of celebrities spruced-up beside loved ones, quietly brooding their chance at victory… We pay attention to the Academy Awards for all the same reasons we discuss, watch, and bitch about the Tonys, Grammys, Golden Globes, you name it. Authority draws glances; spectacle holds it. If Barack Obama made a list of his favorite US Presidents and said he’d announce the best one on NBC, flanked by Seth MacFarlane and Christina Aguilera, we’d eat that shit up. Nothing gives credence to his claim, and yet nothing has to. Conversely: replace the “Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences” with “freshman at Northwestern” and the nomination list loses all value. People stop caring.
I understand the zest of award season, its irresistible allure, and I’ll still watch this year’s ceremonies like I would a ten-car pileup. If we want to talk film, though – and capture its flux, the liveliness of this art – awards will not do. Neither will superlatives from any authority of any pedigree. Last year, Quentin Tarantino posted his favorite films of 2011. Immediately we see Green Lantern and Three Musketeers and no matter Tarantino’s achievements we’re tempted toward rebuke (See his comment section). This is not a slight against Tarantino, whose Django Unchained is every bit as exuberant, subversive and genius as you’d expect. It mean there’s a line between opinion and discourse. It means we need to stop talking about film awards and move onto the films themselves.
And the films are many.
Cloud Atlas, Holy Motors, Moonrise Kingdom, Hitchcock, Jiro Dream of Sushi, Bernie, Dredd, Indie Game: The Movie, The Master, Sleepwalk With Me, Seven Psychopaths, End of Watch, Hotel Transylvania, ParaNorman, Magic Mike, Cabin in the Woods, Chronicle, Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-It Ralph, “Paperman,” The Grey, and more - Films hidden within or nowhere near the Oscar ranks. Films that sing, spasm, provoke loud reactions on both ends. They don’t demand you love them. They only demand your full, undivided attention. They demand engagement.
Freed from the shackles of award speculation, these movies fall from their false hierarchy into an imbroglio of ideas eager to be devoured. We can talk about how each film works on its own terms instead of terms laid out by an award jury and enjoy them all. Daniel Day-Lewis’s embodiment of Abraham Lincoln suddenly becomes one in a crowd of great acting turns this year, albeit a distinguished and superb turn. He stands beside Denis Lavant, the sullen chameleon in Holy Motors, one minute a madman eating cemetery flowers, the next a kind father doting on his daughter. Together they walk with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña prowling the ghettos of LA in their police cruiser; Karl Urban, eyes hidden beneath reflective visors and lips a bubble of lawful contempt; a gleefully manic and infantile Sam Rockwell, enraptured by bloody fables; Jack Black waddling from small town to state prison basked in aw-shucks naivete… The same substance fills their roles as Wreck-It Ralph, the lugging CGI brute with a heart of gold embodied in the dopey, downtrodden bark of John C. Reilly’s voice-work, and all these fictions mingle with the stark reality of Jiro Ono wrapped in his sushi-craft, or the makers of Super Meat Boy sublimating childhood solitude into gameplay, replayability, and nostalgia. I would not dare diminish each individual by ranking them, defiling them with that word’s rancid odor.
I value every film that speaks earnestly. When art is crafted by human hands and driven by human needs, emotional or intellectual, it’s achieved the most important perfection. If you asked me how Hotel Transylvania stacks up next to Citizen Kane, I’d tell you they each deal with old men who have lost plenty and can’t afford to lose any more, who cling to loved ones because they know they’ll have to let go. They are the work of artists entrenched in the system even as they subvert it, frustratingly aware their greatest fame – theatre for Welles, cartoons for Tartakovsky – might be behind them. They ring with wit and light touches. Although they stand on different pedestals critically, they speak with one multifaceted voice. It’s the voice of the storyteller. It shines a light on the teller and listener and enriches both.
The Oscars are just a game, and while games are fun to play the novelty wears thin. Film is a way of seeing. It can shine a light on evil and reflect prejudice. It draws the eye to the smallest act of kindness and outlines the grandest heroism. When a film opens your eyes to vistas never seen, at all or from this angle, they are important and should not be demeaned by comparisons with other films just because one seems more “significant” than the other. That motion pictures can convey morals and change lives – through optical illusion! – is significant enough. So take award shows lightly as you look back at what films touched you in 2012. Think instead of how, brought together in a colorful, vibrant mosaic of stories, they make this Earthly life worth its expense.