Monday, December 13, 2010

Hollywood, Why So Serious?

I would like to begin today’s discussion with a simple question.  Should TOY STORY 3 win the 2010 Oscar for best picture?  On the surface the question appears innocent and to many na├»ve.  Come on!  What are you thinking?  How could an animated film win the big prize?  What makes you think that an animated film even deserves the big prize?  Hollywood even created a category specifically for animated features in order to keep from having to ever answer this very question.  Sure animated films have been nominated in the past.  BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was nominated in 1991, but many thought that that was a relatively weak year for films, and UP was nominated last year, but it was probably the beneficiary of an expansion of the category to 10 nominations.  In either event, neither was given a proverbial snowball’s chance of winning, so what’s the deal?  Why does Hollywood have such little regard for animation and while we are on the subject certain other genres when it comes to its coveted award?

THE SOUND OF MUSIC
In the past Hollywood would judge its nominations, not based on subject matter, but based on excellence in craft and entertainment value.  Through the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s best picture winners were routinely crowd-pleasers like IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).  Even as late as 1976 ROCKY took Oscar home.  As they say, that was then, and this is now.  The last pure comedy to win was THE STING in 1973.  Yeah a musical won in 2002 (CHICAGO,) but the subject matter was certainly edgier than previous musical winners.  It took an over top epic of monumental proportions for a fantasy film to win, THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  THE RETURN OF THE KING.  SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was light and entertaining, and it managed to beat the darker and grittier SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in 1998, but many thought that anomaly was the result of a media blitzkrieg by Harvey Weinstein.  Oh and of course, there is that whole TITANIC thing.  Remove these from the mix and look at the trends, and you will see it’s true.  In spite of these notable exceptions, Oscar has moved into darker and often times more socially relevant subject matter over the last 30 years.  Comedies, most fantasies, and heart warming musicals have been left at the train station holding their tickets in hand in favor of what Hollywood feels are deeper and more important dramas.  Many recent winners have had very narrow audience appeal and have not performed as well at the box office.  In fact, Oscar has become so predictable that many people see certain films as intentional “Oscar bait.”

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
It is certainly short sighted to notice and report a trend without at least attempting to address the why so why has Hollywood moved in this direction?  Well, any answer would be complete and absolute speculation because I don’t think you would ever get a straight response if you tried to pose the question in an open forum of Hollywood executives and filmmakers, so I will do my best to at least to tell you what I think.  I think that Hollywood has lost touch with the regular folks who spend hard earned money on their product.  I think that they have forgotten why many of us go to the movies.  Now I am not talking about why I or many of you go to the movies.  Yes, I like to be challenged on occasion.  I like to question my own convictions from time to time as I am sure so do many of you.  However, the general masses don’t visualize movie going in the same manner.  Most people just want to check out for two hours and enjoy a little vacation from reality.    Sure Hollywood still provides this type of entertainment, but from the perspective of the craft of filmmaking such popcorn fare seems to be of an inferior nature.  The powers that be put their time and talents into the crafting of more challenging subject matter.  Unfortunately, gone are the days of an abundance of well made light-hearted films.  This trend has occurred because I feel that Hollywood has come to the conclusion that it is its job to educate the masses to their way of thinking.  Yes, I may be over stepping my bounds and accusing Hollywood of some seriously arrogant practices.  Yes, Hollywood filmmakers mostly walk to the left of the political equation, and I certainly don’t want to create yet another liberal vs. conservative debate, but it does seem that the general attitude of Hollywood is that we know better than you, we are smarter than you, and we want you to listen.  Look how great and important these films are.  They are so great and important that we are giving them our most prestigious prizes.  America, watch and take notice of what we are telling you.  This is the way of the future, and you must see the fact underneath the fiction.  Now I admit that this is my opinion, and it is not necessarily a fact, but it is certainly not a position to where I have idly arrived.  I have come to this conclusion by carefully listening to the interviews given by many Hollywood “A-listers” over the years and also by listening to some of their Oscar acceptance speeches on the big night.  To me, it is disingenuous to continue to place a higher level of importance on certain films at the expense of others.  There is plenty of room for high quality films of all types, and Oscar can and should acknowledge all deserving entries.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Well, I guess one can’t necessarily raise concerns without providing a solution so here it is.  Return to the ways of yesteryear.  Now I am certainly not saying that Hollywood should stop making socially relevant material into films.  What I am saying is that they should put forth high effort in all aspects of filmmaking, and they should judge films on the art and craft of filmmaking, not on subject matter.  I am a moderate in all aspects of the word.  Balance is important.  Hollywood has drifted away from the middle, and I think it is time for it to move back into its proper position.  It is O.K. for a popcorn, box office blockbuster to win the Oscar for best picture if it is crafted well.  It is also O.K. for a lighter box office performer with social relevance to win if the same rules have been applied.  THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the current front runner to take home Oscar Gold on 2/27/11, and it is most definitely a well crafted tale of superior quality.  Let’s just strip subject and genre out of the equation and judge apples to apples instead of including them and judging apples to oranges.  When done it is easy to see that TOY STORY 3 or even INCEPTION meet the same criteria.

TOY STORY 3
With this stated do I think that TOY STORY 3 has a chance?  No, not this year.  Hollywood for all its liberal and progressive ways is actually quite slow to change.  Animation still has an uphill battle on its hands for some very practical reasons.  Hollywood really and truly doesn’t know what to do with it.  For one, animated films have no visible actors to be judged.  Voice talent is in a sound proof room somewhere reading and recording lines of dialogue to be later synced to a cartoon creation.  This creates a barrier for Oscar voters who may be attempting to perceive the man or woman behind the avatar.  In addition, most of the regulars in Hollywood don’t even know the names of the great animation directors.  Sure we know who Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and David Fincher are, but do we know John Lassiter, Brad Bird, and Lee Unkrich.  Why is that important?  Well unless you are DRIVING MISS DAISY, no film has won the Oscar for best picture since the early 30s without its director also being nominated.  Since name recognition is absent, the likelihood of one of these directors receiving a best director nom is quite remote.  Despite this, with the continued existence of Pixar there is hope.  TOY STORY 3 is easily the highest reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes this year with a tomatometer of 99% and only 3 rotten reviews to its name, (including our good buddy Armond White.)  Past Pixar films have also held this distinction.  Pixar films continue to be triumphs of storytelling and heart felt emotion and sentiment.  They have generally been technically superior to most other films animated or otherwise.  As this trend continues Hollywood will eventually take notice and will eventually award an animated film Best Picture, and maybe then we can truly return to judging films on their technical merit and not their subject matter.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.