The age old struggle once again in '08: Slumdog Millionaire v. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
It may be premature to speculate on this, but everyone else is doing it, so why not me?
2008 is already looking like another one of those years where the top category's a hard-fought battle between a cold, cerebral, subtle, (god forbid) "thinky" technical marvel, and a more overtly emotional, "feely" movie that people feel more of a "connection" to, or that makes them feel better about themselves when they vote for it.
This has been played out several times in recent years, and unfortunately, the latter always wins. People love their raw emotional manipulation. People don't like to think. People seem to feel that any degree of emotional distance from a piece necessarily makes it less moving. There's no room for both emotion AND brains in a movie. That seems to be the prevailing notion, anyway.
This bothers me, because it's always struck me as a kind of reactionary overcompensation away from the tendency toward new technologies and modes of storytelling, at the expense of old-fashioned emotional stories that touch one's heart. Emotion is great, and I love being moved by a movie. I'd even go so far as to say that being moving (in some way) is an essential part of being a great film. BUT I'd prefer for movies to make me think, as well as move me. I believe that pushing boundaries, asking the hard questions, being challenging... all that stuff... is the other ingredient in what makes a great film great. That's why I always come down on the side of the big, cold, thought-provoking films, and thus why I am always disappointed.
Let's look at previous examples this decade:
Gladiator vs. Traffic vs Crouching Tiger
Case in point. The traditional, old-school epic about revenge and putting things right beats the marvelous Asian romance-wuxia fusion AND the challenging contemporary movie about the drug war. Granted, this time two better movies split the anti-Gladiator vote, but the outcome still proves my point. Not that Gladiator is bad, mind you. The other two are just better. But they LOST because they're "difficult" (i.e. challenging), whereas Gladiator is the same old yarn we've seen many times before.
A Beautiful Mind vs. LOTR: Fellowship vs.
This was touted as something of a threeway race at the time, but let's not kid ourselves: Moulin Rouge! never had a real chance to win. It lacked a director nod, and would've been a pretty big longshot even without that crippling hurdle. So the real fight here was between LOTR (the dazzling epic that made the fantasy genre respectable) and A Beautiful Mind (the biopic that made people feel happy). There were other factors at work here, as there always are, but again, the result proves my point. Mind, despite a 5-nom defecit, emerged the winner.
Chicago vs. The Pianist
This is sort of a counterexample, since Chicago did in fact win the oscar (it's Benjamin Button in the analogy, for those keeping score), while The Pianist, all small and emotional, just barely lost. But that was a timing thing. The Pianist could've won with a bit more time to grow. And the fact that it won three major oscars over the juggernaut that was Chicago, when most people thought it wouldn't win any, again proves my point. The Pianist was really quite good, though - Chicago couldn't really be said to be obviously superior - so I didn't care much about the outcome of this race. But there you go.
2003 is N/A because Return of the King had no real competition.
Million $ Baby vs. The Aviator
Classic example: The Aviator was a technical marvel and the assumed frontrunner, whereas Baby was a sleeper hit that made people cry. The feel-bad movie of the year! (key word: feel). Succumbing to the emotional manipulation, the voters handed Baby the statue, despite Aviator's huge nomination tally.
UGH. CRASH! vs. Brokeback Mountain
Need we even revisit this. Suffice it to say that the result here is consistent with the pattern: subtle films that make you think as well as feel, that don't offer instant emotional gratification, that require processing, that are challenging, that are technical marvels, DON'T WIN. Even when they have more nominations and MANY more precursors. The cheaply emotional, pedestrian, manipulative, nonsensical, self-involved, touchy-feely movies win. Again: UGH.
2006 and 2007 don't really fit the pattern. These two years resulted in two good winners, but the familiar "new and challenging vs. conventionally emotional" paradigm was not in place. This year, it seems, it will be. Button is this former, and Slumdog is the latter. If all goes as it seems it will, Button could get 11-13 noms, while Slumdog will be stuck in the mid-single digits. But that shouldn't keep Slumdog from an "upset" victory.
Just based on trailers and such, I already kind of love Benjamin Button. And Slumdog seems, to me, overly familar. I hope Button lives up to what seems like great promise, but I equally hope that the inevitable "huh?" reaction to it from some quarters doesn't doom its chances for victory.
For challenging films that treat their audience like adults are always the underdogs, no matter how it may seem. Just like Barack Obama.
"Up how many points in the polls? Whatever, I'll believe it when I see it."
Luckily, that one turned out well. We'll see how this next one goes.
The political analogy is, I think, is an apt one, for I see liberalism as the counterpart of the challenging film. It challenges us to think, to reject cheap emotional manipulation, to realize that there's room for more than one thing at a time (think AND feel! preserve my marriage AND allow equal rights for others! keep our country safe AND respected abroad! free market AND regulation!). Like challenging films, liberals often seem cold, scary and mechanical (hello John Kerry) until you actually stop to think about what they're saying. But I reject the notion that we cannot be both rational/thoughtful AND emotionally fulfilled. It's true neither in art nor in politics.
Anyway. This rant was brought to you by Adam C Keller, oscars and politics enthusiast extraordinaire, on a boring friday afternoon. Hope it was fun.
Now let's all root for Benjamin Button to go the distance, if only for the principle of the thing.
Labels: awards season 2008