Jan 31, 2011

A royal toast to our new front-runner

I must admit to a silent flutter of pleasure at the sudden ascendency of The King's Speech, and not just because it's fun to see all the Oscarologists tearing their hair out, although it is satisfying to read this sort of thing:—
"I said on my last Oscar Poker podcast that if Tom Hooper won the DGA I would quit. The reason being, not out of disgust — it is their choice, their club, their statuette. But because it would show that I learned absolutely nothing in the eleven years I’ve been doing this website. And that is absolutely true: I know nothing."
Nor is it because I think that King's Speech is a better movie than The Social Network. But I do appreciate this reminder of the stubborn independence, epistemologically speaking, of the filmmaking community from those writers and journalists paid to supply commentary on it. Flying in the face of four long, long months of wanton theorising, predictive analysis, statistical break-down, voodoo incantation, rain dancing, star gazing and tea-leaf reading on the Oscar blogs, Tom Hooper's win at the DGA has the reassuring thunk of reality. Attempts to guess which way the Academy is going to leap have always struck me as a queasy blend of wish-fulfilment, projection and outright patronisation. First everyone had AMPAS down as old farts who could not disentangle themselves from their oxygen tanks for long enough to fill out their own ballots, leaving it to their nurses to do it for them, and ensuring easy victory for films like Driving Miss Daisy or Scent of a Woman in which some young pup tends to the palliative care of an aged film legend. Then, thanks to a belated achievement Oscar for Martin Scorsese (for a tonally berserk crime thriller) a final acknowledgement of the Coens (because there was nothing else to vote for that year), Academy members underwent a Pimp-my-Ride makeover — ta da! — into snazzy young Sight-and-Sound-reading hepcats, snapping their fingers to the latest Tarantino soundtrack and discussing auteur theory into the wee small hours. Neither guise ever struck me as all that convincing. The stodgy old fart rap was merely a side-effect of the blandifying effects of any electoral process, and the hepcat stuff was just a mirage created by the sheer desperation that has beset the task of choosing a winner these last few years. You think the Academy wanted to reward Scorsese for The Departed, a film in which every main character but one ends in a fine misting of brain matter and splintered jaw fragments? You think that if a movie like Driving Miss Daisy or Gandhi were around, the academy wouldn't have been all over them in a heartbeat, rather than queue up to pin a medal to the chest of Javier Bardem as he punches in the skull of yet another sheriff in No Country for Old Men? You think they wouldn't have crushed the indie-spirit of The Hurt Locker in a second if Avatar hadn't been about blue people? Wake up, people! The only reason the academy has been unable to reward a film like Driving Miss Daisy or Gandhi recently is because Hollywood doesn't make films like Driving Miss Daisy and Gandhi any more. The entire middle class has dropped out of the filmmaking ecosphere. Liberal weepies are dust. Sweeping epics are done. Loin-cloths are out. The only examples of 'Oscar' movies we've had recently have been duds like Invictus and The Blind Side, undernourished and overlit b-versions of the kind of film that used to get 'A' treatment and clean up at the awards. The academy haven't lost their taste for Oscar bait. They just haven't been let near a healthy enough specimen. They're like drunks who've managed to stay dry for several years not because they have lost their taste for alcohol but because nobody has offered them a drink. The Brits have finally done it with The King's Speech. Evidently they didn't get the memo about cratering the forehead of their hero before the end credits foll. I say, Bottoms up, old bean! Pip Pip!


  1. Far be it from me to deny anyone's enjoyment of The King's Speech. But with respect to my dear friends from across the pond, I think its awards-reaping has less to do with any cheerio appeal than cynical Weinstein cunning. I wrote in my review that the movie felt like Oscar-bait-by-algorithm, and as with any mediocrity I find its success (especially Hooper's) depressing.

    You have a good point about the demise of American cinema's "middle class." On the other hand, I'm not sure that the lack of loin-cloths and liberal weepies is altogether a bad thing. (They're not that far gone, either -- as the previous decade's Gladiator and [to an extent] Crash attest. They could easily come back.) Nor has history favored that sort of film, regardless how many li'l gold men they pick up. When people look back on 1989, they think of Do the Right Thing (which wasn't even nominated), not Driving Miss Daisy. It'll take less than five years for The King's Speech to look like moldy toast, while who knows which films released in 2010 will show staying power.

    Finally, and please take this in the spirit of a petty pet-peeve, but Gandhi is not spelled Ghandi. The latter does, however, remind of one of my all-time favorite comic strips, which seems appropriate for the discussion.

  2. I don't think we're in disagreement. We don't have to wait five years. The King's Speech already feels dated. Like I said, it's got nothing to do with which film I think is the best. To do that in connection with the Oscars is a fundamental error —  I've learned my lesson there many times over. But I'm surprised the Oscar blogs keep failing to take this onboard. They're like Charlie Brown, always believing Lucy will hold the football in place. I think it stems from the fact that many of them don't seem to have decided what their role is. Is it to predict or advocate? Are they odds-makers or film critics? Therein lies their current heartbreak. The Academy will always break your heart. The sooner they learn that the happier they will be.

  3. Excellent point about the Oscar blogs (which was your original point to begin with, me getting sidetracked). I enjoy Oscar forecasts as a sort of parlor game, and it pleases me when a film or performance I particularly admire gets an unexpected nod (John Hawkes being this year's pleasure), but the emotional investment by some in this stuff leaves me bewildered. You've hit on their identity crisis, though I'll go further and suggest that they can't choose between prognostication and criticism because they don't know the difference. We can argue the merits of the last few rounds of winners (No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker), but their distinctiveness compared to the usual fare was gratifying. I also quite liked the head-slapping "I've never heard of that movie!" response those pictures elicited from John Q. Moviegoer -- "Look it up, asshole," being the proper reply.

  4. Boy, when someone has a premise he wants to prevail, any old fact will do, true or false. Why don't we throw a simple rule out there? Departed and Hurt Locker and Old Country have just as much "meaning" in terms of what its voting body felt like rewarding as Gandhi and Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer -- right? Departed isn't 75% of a proper Oscar winner because you happen to squint just so when you decide to write about it, it's an Oscar winner. A fairminded person might try to figure out if its victory means anything, not pretend it didn't "really" win.

    Second, I've been writing a New Yorker (magazine) blog for the last five years, and I've thought a lot about the 1970s NYC liberal, upper-middle-brow consensus that seemed to hold sway for so many years -- think William Shawn's NYer, Dick Cavett, Woody Allen, Doonesbury, etc. -- and I'm here to tell you, that "moment" didn't last all that long and shouldn't be taken as a "real" anything, much less what a real Oscar winner looks like. Gandhi may seem to you like a "real" Oscar winner, but that's just your opinion, and it's more interesting to understand why you think that, or why it's true.

    The real irony in your post is that The Departed beat out The Queen, another movie that features royal corgis and is certainly the kind of movie you claim didn't exist in 2007, all of which I'm sorry to say indicates you're not really thinking things through.

  5. Martin,
    on your last point about The Departed, I think I lean toward Tom simply because he doesn't forget to add "belated achievement award" before Scorsese's name.
    2006 was Scorsese's year for the Academy, not The Queen's.
    and trust me, if Fincher was 65, this year's story could have likely been different too.

  6. My point is not that The Departed or No Country didn't "really" win, but that the Academy's hand was forced, giving an illusion of hipness, when in fact they simply had no alternatives. I think we're seeing the proof of that this year. AMPAS has a genuine choice this year between a hip choice and Oscar bait. We'll see which way they go.

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  8. We-ell, just because in this post, Tom only went back as far as Gandhi doesn't mean the "liberal weepies" and "sweeping epics" cleaning up at the Oscars don't go back a lot further than the 1970s. (Loincloths are not a dominant theme prior to Gandhi but I suspect that *may* be a joke.) I see Tom's view of the Best Picture Oscar like a road--solid, big-budget, broadly appealing (oh all right, middlebrow) forming the straight-of-way, with a few rest stops in the form of a comedy or a genuine outlier like The French Connection.

    And I'd say that's quite accurate. It's kind of astonishing how early on things like Cavalcade starting winning Oscars over more daring fare. And it's also genuinely odd and interesting that we've had a few years together of movies that aren't Cavalcade redux. The relative lack of Oscar bait movies to vote for doesn't strike me as the only explanation, but I don't think Tom is wrong about its being a big factor.

    Some of those middlebrow, middle-class Oscar winners are also great movies, but that's another argument.

  9. Odd, interesting and also a little bit disconcerting. Seeing the Coens up there was strange. I've always taken it as one of the God-given functions of the Academy to make me howl with outrage over their selections. I don't like it when they start pilfering my Netflix choices.

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