On Oscars and the personal gravity of art
When you have passion for movies but find yourself covering the circus that is the Oscar race every year, you're constantly searching out that zen patch of land, away from, maybe even above, the fray.
There are a couple of things I've asserted in all my years of doing this. "No one needs awards coverage this deep," as quoted by New York Magazine in an article last week, is one. "Don't take this too seriously" is another. On the latter, I can't really force that stance on anyone, nor should I. If you want to take the Oscars seriously, as something indicative of greater truth, as something — because of the show's position on the "world stage" — with the potential of illuminating the human condition, or the milestones of artistic history, that's fine. I leave that in the hands of the artists and the art, not the voters and the contest.
To put the Oscars on that pedestal, it disregards the very plain fact that people are people, that they have emotions and frailty, are not immune to politics and the like. It assumes they are concerned with presenting an image more than an honest reaction. Maybe you loathe what that honesty means one year. Maybe you love what it means the next. That's kind of the nature of subjectivity, isn't it?
So I read a piece like Eric Kohn's rally cry for "12 Years a Slave" and I just flinch at the idea that "all is lost" if a film that registers that note of perceived importance doesn't win the Best Picture Oscar. I recoil at the idea that, for the Academy to go in any other direction, it is a "failure," as Kohn (who I greatly admire and respect) Tweeted. Because that, if nothing else, diminishes a fantastic year for film, to presume that if any other film but the one you, in your own bubble, have deemed "important," wins the big prize, then it's a travesty. That neglects the fact that there are so many wonderful choices throughout the category.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is as important as "12 Years a Slave," if not more so for its immediacy and its revelation of the gluttonous, wicked human psyche that drives us all in this nation. "Philomena" is as important for its dismantling of organized faith-mongering. "Her" is as important for its depiction of a society more and more out of touch with itself. "Dallas Buyers Club" is as important for its characterization of a fight for the basic human right to life at all costs.
You can play this game with any nominee any year, so you shouldn't really play it at all. And no, I don't mean to sound glib. I'm very aware of how overdue an Academy Award to a black filmmaker is. I'm very aware of how "12 Years a Salve" is a cinematic monument to an era where one was sorely needed. But such things are really just one side of an equation, and these aren't robots filling out ballots.
"12 Years a Slave" is an amazing film. Steve McQueen is an amazing filmmaker who I have supported from the word go. It would make an absolutely sterling Best Picture winner, indicative of the kind of films Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner have wanted to bring to the screen throughout their production company's history, stretching back to "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (with which you all know I have been heavily affiliated as of late). I would not fold my arms in disgust, because a win for it would not just be a win for all the socio-political reasons proponents note, but also for a wonderful year in cinema.
What I don't get is the idea that a win for, say, "Gravity" flies in the face of that. Diminishes that. Douses the importance of the Oscars on the world stage. Let me explain why, and warning, there are opinions ahead.