Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Academy Awards

Insider awards, outsider art

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Concept art for Inside Out

I really have no business writing about the Oscars at all. My curtailed moviegoing habits these days mean that I only saw one of the Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome—and for all my good intentions, I haven’t yet managed to catch up with the others at home. (My wife is a journalist, and like all her peers, she’s been a passionate member of team Spotlight ever since she saw the earliest photos of the cast’s painfully accurate khakis, brown shoes, and blue button-down shirts.) I can’t even write about Chris Rock’s monologue, since I was putting my daughter to bed when it aired, although the rest of the telecast struck me as the most professional ceremony in years: it hit its marks and moved like clockwork with a minimum of cringeworthiness, even if there weren’t many memorable moments. The ongoing debate about diversity and representation in popular culture is an important one, and it’s going to be even more central to my life and this blog as I continue working on Astounding, which raises huge questions about our default assumptions about the stories we tell. But today, I’d like to focus on just one issue. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, wasn’t Inside Out nominated for Best Picture?

Because it’s a real mystery. Inside Out was one of the five most successful films at the domestic box office over the last calendar year, and it was the second most highly rated movie over the same period on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in behind Fury Road by just a hair. (It actually has a higher unadjusted score, but falls back a notch because it had fewer total reviews.) It also comes at the end of a stretch in which the Academy has been uncharacteristically willing to find room for animated features in the Best Picture race, as well as in their own category—as long as they’re made by Pixar. And Inside Out is the best Pixar movie ever made outside the Toy Story franchise, or at least the most visually and narratively inventive: its rousing aesthetic freedom is a reminder that even the best recent animated movies have been bound by gravity and mindlessly realistic texture mapping. Yet in a year in which the Academy Awards embraced unconventional nominees without regard to genre, from Mad Max to The Martian, Inside Out didn’t make the cut. And since there were only eight nominees, there was ample room for two more, according to a confusing sliding scale that I don’t even think most awards buffs understand. It wouldn’t have had to knock any other deserving movies out of the way: there was a slot right there waiting for it. But it was nowhere in sight.

Inside Out

This might seem like a moot point for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, made a ton of money, and choked up audiences worldwide. (My wife cried so much when we watched it that she practically went into anaphylactic shock.) But the larger implications are worth raising. It’s tough to analyze the collective psychology behind something like the Oscar nominations, which is why the problem of racism in Hollywood has been so difficult to address: it’s less the result of obvious structural shortcomings than an emergent property arising from countless small decisions made by players acting independently. When you try to find a solution, it slips through your fingers. Still, when the industry votes together, inclinations that might pass unseen on the individual level suddenly become all too visible. And in the case of animated features, when you amplify those tendencies to a point where they result in a concrete outcome, like a nomination or lack thereof, it’s obvious that a lot of voters find something vaguely suspect about animation itself. Thanks in a large part to its history as a children’s medium, it still feels like kid’s stuff, despite so much evidence to the contrary—or the fact that studios are increasingly dependent on a global audience for movies that are either animated or might as well be. It’s treated like outsider art, maybe because it naturally tends to attract visionary weirdos who wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.

This isn’t the Academy’s only blind spot: it also doesn’t much care for subtitles, sequels, or movies that fail to break even. But when you take into account the usual inverse relationship between artistic merit and job creation, the reluctance to recognize animated features as playing a grownup’s game is even harder to justify: these movies can take half a decade to make, employ hundreds of people, and involve the solution of many intractable creative and technical problems. (In fact, the development of Inside Out appears to have been exceptionally difficult: Pete Docter has spoken of how the entire script was junked halfway through, once they realized that Joy had to go on her adventure with Sadness, rather than Fear. It’s the best example imaginable of the Andrew Stanton approach—“The films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them”—succeeding, for once, to a spectacular degree.) And what makes Inside Out such an instructive test case is that everything else was lined up in its favor. It was moving, formally elegant, incredibly entertaining, and it wasn’t a sequel, the last of which probably counted against Toy Story 2, which was also unambiguously the biggest critical and box office success of its year. For an animated film not just to get nominated, but to win, would require both a masterpiece and a sea change in how such movies are regarded by the industry that relies on them so much. And if that ever happens, it’ll be a reason to be joyful.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

Oscar heaven, Oscar hell

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Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your least favorite Best Picture winner?”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about awards. The other day, the nominees for the Nebulas were announced, and although my name wasn’t among them, I wasn’t particularly surprised: I only published one story last year, “The Whale God,” and although Analog has the highest circulation of any surviving science fiction magazine, it tends to be overlooked when awards season rolls around—unless I missed it, it didn’t have any nominations at all this year. Still, I always look forward to the Nebulas and the Hugos with more than usual interest, since these are the only awards in existence in which I have anything like a shot at scoring a nod. In theory, there’s nothing keeping me from getting nominated one of these days: I’ve been very lucky when it comes to publication and placement, and these stories are reaching all the right eyeballs. The only obstacle, which is a considerable one, is writing an excellent story that a lot of people think is worth honoring. At this point, I’ve done well enough as a short story writer that the only thing standing in my way is me, and although I won’t claim that I’m thinking about a story’s awards potential when I write it up and send it off, I’d be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind.

There’s a category of Hollywood players that probably feels much the same way about the Academy Awards. Once you’ve reached a certain level of success in a field that is recognized by the Oscars, whether it’s acting or screenwriting or sound effects editing, you presumably start to think, well, why not me? The difference, of course, is that there are so many other intangibles. For the big ticket awards, you’ve got massive advertising campaigns and more subtle kinds of pressure operating on behalf of the different contenders, and even in the technical categories, excellent work has a way of being overlooked when it isn’t attached to a box office hit or a Best Picture juggernaut, which is really just a convenient way of sifting through the vast universe of potential candidates. Hovering somewhere above all this is the Academy’s indefinable sense of what makes for a worthy nominee: there’s no real point in complaining that the Oscars have no correlation with the best movies of any given year, since we’re dealing with a hive mind that has evolved its own set of preferences over time. (You could even make a good case that the last time the Best Picture winner conceded with the consensus choice for the year’s true best movie was with Casablanca in 1942.)

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash

When it comes to making a list of undeserving Best Picture winners, then, we’re really talking about three different things. There are the winners that were simply bad films in their own right, although there are fewer of these than you might expect. I thought Crash, for instance, which tends to be the first movie anyone brings up in this context, was perfectly fine—although it labored under the delusion that it was about race when it was really about class—and we all know that I like Titanic one hell of a lot. Titanic, it happens, is a classic example of the second category, which covers movies that beat out more worthy contenders. Of course, this happens every time, so I’m not going to complain that James Cameron triumphed over L.A. Confidential, even if it’s my favorite American movie of the last twenty years, or that The King’s Speech won over Inception. Last, and perhaps most subtly, are otherwise decent movies that led nowhere. Even a mediocre winner has the benefit of handing a blank check to the director and the other principals for at least one passion project, so it’s always a little sad to see that opportunity go to waste. Shakespeare in Love is a nice enough movie, but it’s hard not to see it now as something of a dead end for everyone involved, except perhaps for the marketing prowess of the Weinsteins.

So if I had to pick my least favorite Best Picture winner, I’d have to go with something like The Deer Hunter. It isn’t an easy or obvious choice, because it’s a movie of undeniable technical merits, and there are some extraordinary moments. Yet it’s also a hysterical, sentimental, and borderline racist work that turns Vietnam into what William Goldman aptly calls a comic book movie, with Christopher Walken somehow surviving months of professional Russian roulette only to die in De Niro’s arms. In theory, it was honored over many other deserving movies, although it’s hard to imagine many of my own favorite films from that year—Gates of Heaven, Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween—scoring a nomination, which they didn’t. Most of all, it directly led to the greatest debacle in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate, a movie that never would have been made if Michael Cimino hadn’t won the Oscar, and which resulted in the fall of one great studio, United Artists, and the end of the auteur system of the seventies. Looking back at what I’ve just written, I can’t help see some significance in how many times I’ve typed the word “heaven,” and in fact one of the four nominees that The Deer Hunter beat out that year was Heaven Can Wait. Winning an Oscar might seem heavenly, but occasionally, it turns out to be hell.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

The Soda Network

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Yes, I’ve got a novel to write, and a lot of other things on my plate at the moment, but somehow it seemed much more important to spend the weekend making clever name cards for my Oscar snacks:


And as a special bonus for readers of this blog, here’s the original artwork for The Soda Network, in case you want to make the drinks table at your Oscar party especially classy:

Happy Oscar night!

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2011 at 9:41 am

Posted in Movies

Tagged with , ,

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