04 December 2008

A note on film awards.

Why the end of the year shouldn't be about a single "best."

The National Board of Review, in typical early fashion, has announced its selections for the best films of 2008.

December means many different things – lavish meals, strung lights, a decorated tree, latkes, vacation time, that one local radio station that converts its entire playlist to holiday music, etc. And when you love movies, December means serious theatrical releases, top ten lists, and open season for awards. I'm not prepared to begin even thinking about the idea of such awards, especially this year when my theater attendance rate is at its lowest in a decade, but it is time.

The best way to describe how I generally feel about film awards would be the above still, taken from Chuck Jones's impeccable 1950 short film Rabbit Fire, and altered by yours truly. Critics' circles and Hollywood academies that bestow awards on the world of film are often as silly and self-serving as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but usually not as entertaining. As a matter of mental stimulation, I'm much more interested in a year-end review from a specific critic than I am in any sort of awards ceremony. Any kind of look back, whether in a top ten list or a lengthy column, is at least more intellectually consistent than an organization's awards for the following reasons:

1) no accountability to anyone but yourself;
2) no arbitrary rules;
3) no limitations in nominees, particularly in the categories of genre and nationality;
4) no "consensus" candidates;
5) no winners chosen to fit the occasion, such as being passed over the year before or receiving a competitive award as a way to honor a person's body of work; and
6) no "horse race" mentality, or politicking on behalf of a studio.

In other words, staying true to the original, diverse, exploratory intent of criticism.

It's chic and simple to trash awards. What I don't want to do is come off as only an Oscar naysayer; I think there's a systemic problems with awards, regardless of medium but especially in film. The overarching problem is that awards are the easiest way of quantifying a general opinion. Because an award can carry the heft of history or possess some immediate cultural cache, it means something to cite how many awards a work of art has won, a fact that is both satisfying and frustrating. Films are more than the sum of their awards, particularly films or artists who never receive said awards. It's this reductive simplicity that makes something like the Oscar ceremony susceptible to so much criticism but impervious to large degrees of change.

As far as appreciation is concerned, simplicity is the path to the catch-22. As much as I can't stand film awards, complaining about them – even now, right here in this blog post – inadvertently lends a sense of strength to them. To grumble that Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick never won a Best Director Oscar, as I have done in the past, or to bemoaning Citizen Kane and Saving Private Ryan were passed over for Best Picture, as I have also done in the past, gives strength to the Oscars by virtue of expressing any emotion at the outcome. Yes, those bone-headed decisions make the Oscars look short-sighted, but it also means I apparently care about the Oscars because their outcome was not my desired outcome. This is a twisted sort of feeling, one that a person should ever own up to, let alone publicly.

Awards from critics' circles – such as those based in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago – have legions of defenders (re: members or want-to-be members) but are typically no less guilty. Their tastes are typically more in line with my own, but strictly speaking, that shouldn't give me any greater pause. It's not necessarily the results that make something adequate or inadequate, but the process and the bylaws. (Last year Jack Mathews, formerly of the New York Daily News, gave a great summation of the inherent flaw in voting at the critics awards.) It's natural that critics – whose preferences are so often the losers at flashy Hollywood ceremonies – would feel driven to create their own alternatives to the mainstream awards, but the great irony is that their balloting can be just as political, and the moment the image of your organization naming something the best film becomes more important than honest and straightforward criticism, your awards aren't worth a melted penny. The other irony is that critics already have their own alternative to the glitz and glamour: the platform of publication and the intellectual freedom that comes with writing one's mind instead of diluting one's opinion among a group. (At least some had this right before journalism began downsizing.)

Award-giving, it must be confessed, is a sort of criticism – granted, it is a superficial sort of criticism, but it is a relative of criticism nonetheless. The most valuable aspect of any criticism is the notion that there is always time left to experience good art, but where most awards organizations go wrong is that they limit such notions to a handful of films. How ridiculous would it be to limit your annual film intake to the five films nominated for Oscar's Best Picture? I suppose in some ways a "top ten" is just as an arbitrary, but at least it's more expansive than one or five.

This is why I can see the logic in National Board of Review's relatively bizarre structure (for a film award organization, at least). Its general inoffensiveness is rooted in the fact that it fuses the award-giving process with the top-ten-making process, thus making it perhaps the most inclusive of all its kin. The final result is a broad cross-section of the year's films that is much closer and more fair to the year's offerings. The Board names a best mainstream film, a best foreign film, and a best documentary, but more importantly, it also lists choices for top ten mainstream films, top five foreign films, and top five documentaries. Two years ago, the "special recognition for excellence in filmmaking" category officially became a category presenting a top ten list of independent films. I'm not entirely sure they should have to name a "best film" in each category, but by placing their attention instead on five to ten great films, the focus is shifted away from a who'll-get-it-who'll-get-it mentality that drives the Oscars, the media, the industry, and betting pools.

In other words, the National Board of Review's final tally is between thirty to forty different films from the year, which would translate to an impressive queue on Netflix and is probably closer to an actual representation of how the board's members think. I don't want to give the impression I always agree with the selections or I think the Board is hallowed and angelic; any organization that would count The Bucket List among 2007's best films is obviously imperfect. But compared to the limited universe of the Oscars and the high-brow universe of critics' circles, the National Board of Review has figured out a way to come much closer to presenting a sensibly broad spectrum of good films, which should be the ultimate goal.

One of the more psychologically and socially fascinating aspects of art is that commentary on art is an artwork in itself, and as such it is always looking for a justification of its own existence. Awards are mutually gratifying: the art gets honored, yes, but the honorers get to seem important and have fun in doing it. More than anything virtuous or grand, it's just fun to talk about good movies, and awards might be more tolerable if the awarders seemed more comfortable acknowledging the breadth of work in a year instead of the so-called best of work in a year. After all, we would all be fine without awards, wouldn't we? Great art survives regardless of the critic, and this doesn't mean the critic is without a purpose. For as long as art is made, there will be room for formal analysis and greater appreciation of that art. But the notion of the award – the tangible, golden, shiny award, given for the wrong reasons and given as a competition – is the nadir, not the zenith, of that appreciation. It's a dangerous reduction that doesn't begin to showcase the variety of art in the world and its frequently unexpected ability to amaze and entertain.

As far as end-of-the-year discussions are concerned, there shouldn't be much more after this on Screen Savour. I'll include any links to worthwhile top ten lists in the Sunday Matinee feature, lists that will range from professional critics to the much more interesting people listed in my blogroll. I'll put a premium on those that avoid contests and instead show a greater love for the medium. Come February, I might give into temptation and feel obligated to acknowledge the Oscars in one way or another, for same reason that even football fans can't avoid the Super Bowl if their favorite team doesn't make it. Just be aware that whenever the topic of awards comes up, there's a large part of me that can't see it as anything more serious than whether it's duck season or rabbit season.


Dead Pan 04 December, 2008  

TS- This is a beautifully written, well thought, and clearly honest and personal write up. It reflects my thoughts exactly, but much better than I could manage to articulate. This is something that needs to be read by the great film blogosphere as, I am sure, most put a greater importance on the awards than they are even aware of.

I share your burden though. I watch the Oscars and root for certain people every year without fail, even though it is rare for my absolute top choice to win, or even be nominated.

Tony Dayoub 05 December, 2008  

I have to admit that I love lists and awards concerning movies, not because of the aspect of validation that you are right to point out is generally inaccurate, but because I enjoy anything that celebrates cinema in any of its myriad forms.

But the best part of it is arguing about all the films that were over- or underrated in the aftermath of these situations. And I always love a critic's personal 10 best list.

I hope you'll share yours with us.

Farzan 05 December, 2008  

Good thougts, your absolutely right. A very well written expression that just about any movie lover should read

darkcitydame4e 05 December, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
A very well written review about the film industry "pat" on the back to itself once a year after passing out the little "golden statuette."

But, if I can shift gears here for a moment, I think that it's good to know that a couple of "thespians" didn't want nothing whatsoever, to do with awards and awards shows and one actor comes to mind immediately and that would be actor George C. Scott.Others who(m) "thumbed" their nose at awards to a certain extent actress Katherine Hepburn, actor Humphrey Bogart (respectively,) and maybe actor Marlon Brando, later in is career for political reasons.

T.S. said,"To grumble that Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick never won a Best Director Oscar, as I have done in the past..."

Personally, I think that it was for the best when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock not winning an Oscar@, because I think it pushed him "harder artistiscally."

I also look at it like a trade off because even though he never won an Oscar@ today he is still as popular as he was 50, 60 years ago "amazing"......as the following link can attest to.... http://www.paracinema.net/issue4.html
(and to think John Ford, with all the Oscars" "under his belt" is rarely talked about in the wider film circle.?!?)

T.S.,I must admit a really well written, indepth, review by you about the "intrinsic worth" of award shows.
dcd ;-)

MovieMan0283 05 December, 2008  

I like lists (and to a lesser extent awards) for roughly the same reason as Tony. Plus I imagine it would feel pretty validating to be saluted by your peers and critics for your work, even if you know it's a subjective - perhaps even politicized - assessment.

That said, one of the biggest problems with the Oscars is that - if we can agree on a general consensus of great films throughout the ages - they've SO OFTEN been wrong.

Part of me was happy to see Scorsese win the Oscar but wasn't there something slightly offputting in the smug condescension involved? As if now, finally, his career was worthy? With Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas there to pat him on the back? And everybody winking and nudging like, welcome to the club, old man, you've finally earned it (for his, what, seventh or eighth best film...if that?)

But as much as I roll my eyes, I watch the Oscars every year (despite the fact that I've virtually recused myself from cinema attendance) and tune in when they have those slightly corny and extremely obvious AFI lists on. Part of me is still that eager little kid who wanted to stay up and see who won Best Picture, or check off the titles on a list that I'd seen (um, that latter point hasn't really changed, I have to admit).

I guess, to conclude matters in the Christmas spirit, much as I feel like and often enjoy feeling like Scrooge, my inner Tiny Tim keeps wanting to thrust his crutch in the air and proclaim, "The Academy bless us, every one!" Or something like that.

T.S. 07 December, 2008  

• Shawn and Farzan, thank for you both for your really kind words.

• I do agree, Tony and MovieMan, that anything that celebrates film can be fun and I often do have a lot of fun searching out "top" lists, following awards, and filling out a faux ballot. My preference is lists, and if I could save only one tradition for the end of the year, it'd be the list. I hope to make one myself, but my moviegoing experience in 2008 has been woefully infrequent and if I were asked to list the best films I've seen this year, I could probably only give three or four titles. But that'll change come the early part of 2009, thanks to DVD and hopefully my local theaters will begin to carry some more films.

• I think you're right, DCD, that perhaps the lack of an award can push someone harder. Awards have become so entrenched in our society (and a tradition) that those who fail to accept them are often seen as snooty and pretentious and yet those who campaign and push for them are never seen as stooping to such low levels to win a single award that, in the scheme of things, probably won't matter much. And while Hitchcock is certainly the best known of the directors (for skill and his own talent at marketing himself in film, television, and print), I wouldn't dismiss Ford's accomplishments, though. He deserved his wins.

And just a follow-up note to this essay and the unappealing mentality that comes with awards: Arguing about lists can bring a great deal of enjoyment to movie lovers, but a recent post over at AwardsDaily (I site I came upon as I researching my essay, and which I now truly despise) recently showed that sometimes it's not even the films on the list but the list itself that angers people. Commentators over there berated Roger Ebert for selecting a Top 20 films of the year instead of a top 10; they belittled his decision to break tradition and proclaim equal (and alphabetical) love for many movies, with some accusing him of senility and going as far as to deride him for not telling them what his favorite movie of the year was and one even tossing out the notion he didn't write the column himself. That's the kind of horse-race and who-will-it-be attitude that should not have a place in film love.

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