The 87th Oscars Or (The Unexpected Result of Risk Aversion)

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It has been said in so many ways so many times, but there really is something rather obscene about the spectacle of a disproportionately white and male collection of individuals almost completely out of touch with the general population getting together in an exclusive and bizarre setting to essentially pat each other on the back for perpetuating the very things that set up and reaffirm the disconnect and lack of diversity in the first place. 

While I’m sympathetic to arguments about the absurdity and injustice of giving out awards for art, I’ve never found it to be entirely appropriate or constructive to ignore, dismiss, or completely deride the Oscars as an awards ceremony and cultural event. As institutions, however, American culture/media in general and Hollywood in particular are thoroughly indictable, and the Oscars offers us a representation of their/our injustices and shortcomings. The Oscars both remind us of American cinema’s potential and capacity for greatness while at the same time blatantly exposing where, how, and why they almost always fall far short. Given all that, it was interesting to watch this collection of people choose from a crop of exceedingly safe and mostly unremarkable feature films and bestow their highest honor on an unusual, off-beat, darkly comedic quasi-experimental film about a crisis-stricken entertainer who fancies himself an artist.

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There are a number of remarkable things about Birdman both as a film in and of itself and as a choice for the level of Oscar recognition it received. Much has been written about how Birdman‘s rise in prestige and ensuing Oscar success fits into the recent trend of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S.) awarding films about the movie business, but I think the appeal of this film to Oscar voters is perhaps even deeper than mere self-acknowledgment. In so many words, I don’t believe that Birdman‘s win(s) should be written off as simple narcissism. There’s something much more profound and complex at work here in the consciousness of American film business professionals.

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Although Birdman pulls no punches in its indictment of the current state of the motion picture industry, at its heart the film is not necessarily about the industry as a cultural force, but about the people who comprise the business. It’s all too easy and frankly lazy to merely dismiss Hollywood as a decrepit and artistically compromised institution and disengage from it and its products; far more interesting than that is the opportunity to explore the psyche of someone who can’t disengage from it, someone who possesses the primal, unceasing drive to express themselves through certain media and art forms. Aloof and myopic as they may be, Hollywood and the Academy are still a collection of human beings, who, being human, posses a drive/need for meaning, expression, relevance, and recognition. So as The Artist was about the inability to adapt to changes in the business and in the medium, and Argo effectively ratified Hollywood’s self-perception of cultural philanthropy and “difference-making,” this latest in that line of films about show business is ultimately about the pursuit of art and expression; a pursuit that is a necessarily personal and lonely one, yet also collaborative if the person in question chooses one of the collaborative art forms for their expression, film and theater being two examples that happen to be relevant to this film.

So while The Artist (easily the weakest, least deserving, and least interesting of the three films in question) is reassuring in the false, intellectually dishonest, and manufactured manner in which “reassuring” material tends to be, Birdman is reaffirming (among other things). It’s reaffirming of the pursuit of artistic expression, with no guarantee or even high probability of success or fulfillment, but reaffirmed and respected thoroughly by the text of the film, despite its unflinching depiction of the pitfalls of such an endeavor. This and many other things make Birdman a strange and in many ways inspired choice for the Best Picture Oscar.

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In a field of underwhelming but mostly well-done features, the two strongest of the bunch by a wide margin in my opinion are Whiplash and Birdman, two films that share a lot of similarities in terms of meaning and content if not in style and approach. While the elusive central theme/goal of Birdman and its protagonist are relevance, the central theme/goal of Whiplash is greatness. Both films explore what it takes to pursue these respective things and are exhilarating in their depictions. So, it’s almost appropriate that Whiplash comes closer to hitting its mark(s) in traditional cinematic ways than Birdman does, but Birdman‘s imperfections leave one coming away more impressed with their not-quite direct hit than with Whiplash‘s expertly executed but conventional (though not to say “formulaic”) project. In this way Birdman shares quite a lot with fellow nominee and previous co-frontrunner Boyhood, both films arguably being above all else successful experiments, even if neither film produces an entirely successful cinematic narrative.

But Boyhood doesn’t hold a psychic mirror up to “the artist” in the way that Whiplash and Birdman do (not that it should, of course-that’s not what the film is about). The two even share the incredibly effective motif of blood on the medium; with Whiplash‘s Andrew (Miles Teller) pushing himself so far in his pursuit of greatness that he spills his own blood on the drums just as Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) suicidally spills his own blood on the stage. And just as Andrew punches and destroys his snare drum in a manic and primal outburst, Riggan also assaults his chosen media, trying to stretch the forms and limitations of art forms to fit and facilitate his vision, as we all do in pursuit of creative expression.

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On-screen blood was also spilled in Selma, who’s omission from several major categories is well-covered and much-chagrined. While Ava DuVernay’s exclusion from the Best Director category stands as the most egregious misstep of the Academy this year and perfectly encapsulates Hollywood’s race and gender problems simultaneously, David Oyelowo’s absence from the Best Actor field comes across to me as almost inexplicable and frankly inexcusable. In my assessment he’s more deserving than any of the five actors who made the final five, though all of them did fine work at the very least. If I had to chose one actor to remove from the field to make way for Oyelowo, however, it would without question be the winner, Eddie Redmayne, who’s admittedly skilled performance in The Theory of Everything lacks the command, virtuosity, and irreplaceability of David Oyelowo’s channeling of a figure who’s media and historical image is so ingrained in the national consciousness and bloodstream its difficult to imagine someone pulling off the utterly transformative and definitive performance Mr. Oyelowo did.

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Although I’d switch out some of the nominees, I have no qualms whatsoever with the winners of the other three acting categories. J.K. Simmons winning for Whiplash was a no-brainer, Patricia Arquette did exemplary work in an incredibly challenging role and project, and Julianne Moore, even after her win, remains the most heinously under-awarded screen actor since Al Pacino. Still Alice may not be a particularly special film, but Moore is most certainly a special performer and she’s at the top of her game in that role.

The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash deserved every trophy they won and more, making Damien Chazelle’s loss for Whiplash in the Adapted Screenplay category to Graham Moore’s solid, serviceable but unremarkable script for The Imitation Game hard to explain. One could argue that Whiplash was miscategorized in the Adapted category thanks to what’s essentially a technicality, but I don’t think that adequately explains the results here, which give us what is in my opinion, the weakest script to win in this category since Precious. I very often have more than a few issues with the Screenplay nominations and winners, but this year the Adapted category made me break out in sweats. The Theory of Everything isn’t poor by any means, but it’s not quite good enough either. American Sniper‘s presence in this category is a disgrace for reasons too numerous to detail on this occasion.

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The script for Birdman was far from flawless, but I respect what they did tremendously and have no problem with the outcome of the Best Original Screenplay award. The same goes for Best Cinematography, which rightfully singled out the phenomenal work of the transcendentally great Emmanuel Lubezki. Finally, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the most talented and important filmmaker in his category this year and the best director of his generation was finally recognized by this body. Birdman is not his best film, but that’s not how the Oscars work. His work on Birdman is a singular achievement the likes of which are rare in cinema. I’m a great admirer of Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater, who’s work on Boyhood was tremendous, but Iñárritu deserves this award. Additionally, the incredible occurrence and significance of two Mexican directors winning Best Director (not to mention the same Mexican in Best Cinematography) in consecutive years cannot be understated.

The broadcast itself, as it so often is, was a complete mess in so many ways. It’s astounding to me that the Oscars producers worry so much about the immense running time of the show and losing audiences yet continually overload the ceremonies with endless and often inexplicable musical performances. What’s sort of unfortunate about this in this particular year is that with the exception of the unbearable Maroon 5, most of the performances were actually good this year. Although I don’t completely love the didacticism and on-the-nose nature of “Glory,” John Legend and Common’s performance (especially John Legend) was arguably the highlight of the show. It’s almost as if they took the snubbed and righteously/rightfully indignant Selma camp and carried them on their shoulders to Oscar glory.

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The Oscars once again took the desperate approach of adopting a sort of “theme” in the interest of reminding us (by beating us over the head) why we supposedly love movies and why their institution is “important.” It’s one thing to celebrate and acknowledge great work of the past, but it’s amazing how the institution tries to take credit for the canon, as if the powers that be planned it all and knew exactly what was going to work, whereas the truth of the matter is that, to quote William Goldman, “nobody knows anything”–hits very often happen by accident. The industry’s all too transparent fear and desperation is bellied by the actual, underlying themes of this years Oscars: risk aversion and normativity. The unusualness of Birdman and Boyhood only serves to underline how safe the rest of the field of nominees was. Even Grand Budapest, by the unique and brilliant Wes Anderson is typical of a Wes Anderson film. It’s neither a departure from or the most exemplary of his work.

The much documented “white-wash” of this year’s nominees and the persistent lack of woman-driven projects is a logical side-effect of two things: the inequality, classism, racism, and sexism in American society and Hollywood’s cowardly and crippling aversion to risk. This is the same risk aversion used as an excuse not to cast people of color or finance projects targeted toward, by, or about them. Even the choice of the admittedly talented and appealing Neil Patrick Harris as host was a “safe” choice. One can imagine the calculus being along the lines of “nothing outrageous or unexpected will happen; we’ll know exactly what we’re going to get.” That’s the model of filmmaking and distribution mainstream American cinema has reduced itself to. While the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry cower behind market research, making the exact same product over and over again (intentionally) and wondering why the returns are underwhelming, they would do well to take a lesson from some of the individuals they chose to honor and some of the work thereof.

Host Neil Patrick Harris begins the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood

People don’t love the films they do because they follow a formula or fit into a marketing strategy. They remember and admire the ones they love because they provoke a human response within them. They want to see themselves reflected–just as “Hollywood” clearly does with films like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman.

Audiences want and have always wanted films that are worthwhile–films that aspire to greatness and excellence. You can’t expect someone to love you if you don’t expose yourself–or if you don’t respect them enough to show them something genuine and honest. Hollywood would do well to learn some of the lessons of the films they chose to honor and their characters-a noticeable amount of which strove for greatness in one way or another, some getting closer than others, but many of them either exhibiting a representation of someone striving for excellence, greatness, or meaning, or sought those things themselves with the very filmmaking endeavor undertaken with the projects. That pursuit of greatness and truth is what’s worth honoring in and about cinema. That’s why we watch–or at least that’s what many of us expect from an industry too often crippled by cowardice and comfort.

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