In a great piece called “I like/hate ‘The Artist:’ How the Academy Awards slant our views of movies,” Scott Tobias over at The A.V. Club has done a superb job of putting into words a lot of my own feelings about this Oscar season, namely the fact that “The Artist” — which is cheerful, charming, and very lightweight — has been cast as this year’s presumptive Oscar favorite. Which, in turn, forces us to project intense feelings onto a movie that was designed specifically not to engender intense feelings of any kind.
Here’s what Tobias says:
“Such is the tyranny of Oscar season, an all-consuming three-or-four-month siege — and yearlong cottage industry — that frames the discussion in ways that can be perverse and often unjust to the films in that discussion, to say nothing of the future classics peering in from the cold. Take ‘The Artist:’ I would guess [director Michel] Hazanavicius, in his wildest flights of fancy, could not have imagined his happy little soufflé as the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Even its most vocal detractors — who would likely not be vocal at all about it under normal circumstances — would have to confess that the film is not some bloated sop to the Academy, like so many other major studio productions crafted specifically for year-end consideration. Its goals are modest, its pleasures refined — not a whiff of self-importance or middlebrow grandeur… And yet the resentment is there.”
In other words, “The Artist” is the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath: warm, relaxing, sudsy, fun to luxuriate in for a while, and then instantly forgettable the second it’s over. As such, it is completely effective. Casting it as “THE BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR” in big bold letters to be stamped into a plaque on the bottom of a small gold man throws a big bucket of cold water on everything it stands for.
As Tobias notes, “The Artist,” was not destined for a Best Picture Oscar, and it surely must not have been conceived with one in mind. So how did we get here? “The Oscars—and to varying degrees, all awards,” Tobias writes, “are not about greatness, but about consensus. And ‘The Artist’ is a point of agreement, much like a bill that’s been haggled over, kicked around by powerful special interests, watered down in committee, and passed to the majority’s tempered contentment.” Very well said.
Thinking about this perspective made me realize what else the Oscar race is like, and that’s the amazing/terrible reality game show “America’s Next Top Model.” If you’ve never seen “Top Model,” it’s pretty simple. Each season, model, talk show host, and Tyra Banks fan Tyra Banks convenes a few notable tastemakers from the world of fashion to pick our nation’s next great supermodel from a roster of a dozen or so candidates. Now in theory you would think that such a competition would be solely performance based: who takes the best photographs, who does the best runaway walk. But in execution that is rarely how it plays out.
Banks and her fellow judges often reject more talented candidates who show no progress over the course of the competition in favor of models who are, as Banks often puts it on the show, “on the journey.” Being “on the journey” can mean a few things — either the model had untapped potential which the show has developed and exploited (which Banks can then take credit for discovering), or the model had some sort of traumatic mental block — say, the death of a family member or the lingering mental scars from some form of abuse — which the show helped her overcome (which Banks can then take credit for resolving). On “Top Model” you better be more than pretty. You better be “on the journey.”
The same goes for the Oscars. The special interests and committees Tobias describes aren’t necessarily looking for the most viscerally exciting, or technically dynamic, or hysterically funny movie. They want the one that’s “on the journey.” The films that win Oscars are the ones that can best sell that journey to voters. And in the case of the Academy Awards, the journey can be a woman becoming the first winner of the Best Director Oscar while telling an important story in an easily digestible way. Or the journey can be the conclusion of a monumental feat of epic storytelling and a Hollywood gamble that paid off. Or the journey can be a Hollywood fixture makes good. Or the journey can be the return of a long-forgotten genre. “The Artist” — with its homage to the silent film period — certainly has a little of that. But it also has the journey of the plucky underdog surprisingly winning the hearts of everyone. It has the journey of the foreign filmmaker coming to America to validate the studio system by making a movie about how awesome Hollywood is. It has a lot of journeys. No wonder it’s the favorite.
What makes the journey so frustrating for cineastes is the fact that its predictability flies in the face of what the Oscars seemingly should be about: the new, exciting, and unpredictable in the world of cinema. Instead, the race eliminates contenders with idiosyncrasies, because the weird and the wonderful don’t build consensuses and they certainly don’t fit into easy categories. Sometimes the best movies are the ones that take us on the bumpiest rides. If only the journey to the Oscars didn’t need to be so smooth.