Saturday, February 25, 2012

In defence of the Oscars: why the haters are wasting their breath

Last month, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled the list of nominees for the 84th Annual Academy Awards, the media and social networks broke out into a firestorm of griping and outrage. Of course, everyone predictably got their predictions wrong, but many seemed to take it personally that the final list of nominations didn't match up with their own personal favourites.

The carping has continued unabated since. Article after article has appeared on how the Academy is the one that always get it wrong, how they're irrelevant and how their choices are predictable and ridiculous, all this before the actual ceremony takes place. But you know who else had a nominees or "best of" list that was just as bad if not worse?


The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a "best" in the movies or any art. The most one can really say is that this or that is a personal favourite. Even if there was some type of statistical scorecard for films like they keep for sports – say, an "emotions per hour" average, "memorable lines" index, or "walkouts per public screening score" – you still wouldn't have 100% agreement. Even with statistics, people will interpret them: "he hit x number of home runs but that was in a smaller home field"; "his lower goals-against-average came behind a strong defensive team"; and so on.

But with films there can be no formula to assess them since each film is trying to accomplish different goals on its own terms. Yet people persist in believing that there can be an objectively perfect list with objectively best choices that the Academy is too stupid to make. And of course, detractors almost certainly hadn't seen all of the films so they wouldn't know if the nominees are bad or not, they just know they really liked so-and-so but it got "snubbed."

The term "snub" has been used to death in the last few months. People somehow believe that nominations are done by exclusion. That's not how it works. The nominating ballot is a preferential ballot, meaning the voter nominates one choice per category, with several backups in order of preference in case the top choice(s) gets eliminated. They do not nominate selection of candidates.

So theoretically, a film or person may have been on every ballot but in a second-choice or lower slot just behind the eventual nominees that weren't eliminated. Then again, maybe someone just lost out by a single vote. You just can't assume that the Academy somehow disapproved of something because it wasn't nominated.

Gold Derby published an extensive list of the supposed snubs. They have around ten other alternatives for each of the major categories. Almost all of them are very credible possibilities. You could pick any five from their choices in a category but then you'd still have another five that were snubbed. Is the Academy supposed to have fifteen nominees in each category to keep everyone happy?

Even with their list of snubs, they snubbed people. For their Best Picture omissions, they didn't include Melancholia, Beginners, Jane Eyre, Margaret, CarnagePina, Young Adult or The Skin I Live In. Actors and actresses left off include Robert Forster (The Descendants), Tom Cullen (Weekend), Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus), Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster (Carnage), and Anna Pacquin and J. Smith-Cameron (Margaret). Of course, there are many more I could mention. I guess that means I'm snubbing them.

No matter who gets nominated and who wins, there will always be a chorus of indignation and bitterness. It is impossible to please everyone. That especially includes critics and bloggers who as much as anyone are cheerleaders rather than objective viewers.

That outrage comes from wanting to have one's own good taste validated by the agreement of others. But when they disagree, then some people turn nasty and resort to insults and attempt to humiliate the opposing view. That's common on internet comment boards, but it's inexcusable when it comes from a film journalist.

Some of the worst culprits are Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere. Last year, they shamelessly shilled for The Social Network and dumped all over The King's Speech every chance they had. Even though there isn't the same divide between the critics and the industry this year (The Artist won numerous Critics' awards too starting with the New York Film Critics Circle), they and a bunch of others are doing the same smear campaign against The Artist. Stone's pronouncements include "no one seems to want The Artist to win" and she got into a Twitter argument with Scott Feinberg after she tweeted "The Artist [wins at] BAFTA. What a shocker! The most painful BAFTAs I have ever endured, honest to God." Wells calls The Artist "a movie that nobody of any consequence really loves..." and when Guy Lodge disproved his claim that no one took it seriously as an Oscar contender at Cannes, Wells replied "I still don't think The Artist is a serious suggestion to win Best Picture, and most of the thinking world (yourself included?) agrees with me." Many others have joined the chorus.

David Poland has written about it in a piece called 3 Days To Oscar: Pissing On The Artist. He's absolutely right about people looking down their noses. They are like children throwing a tantrum saying "if you won't massage my ego by agreeing with my choices, then to hell with you." This will happen whatever film becomes the frontrunner. It becomes an object of scorn to fans of the others.

Really, you could piss on any of the Best Picture nominees were it to become the frontrunner. For instance, I've written about how The Help has a deep-seated racism beneath its anti-racist message. It also wastes a lot of good actors in a sea of mediocrity. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has many detractors who hate it passionately. But even with the supposedly reputable choices, one could put them down. Many critics put The Tree of Life on the top of their list. Yet this is a film that had so many walk-outs that a theatre had to post a warning that there would be no refunds. Many people accused The Artist of being "pastiche" and "gimmicky" but those terms could apply equally to The Tree of Life. Obviously, it's impossible to make a criticism-proof film that will appeal to everyone.

As a result, the Academy is in an impossible position. They honour the films that they like, but when they go too far one way, the general public complains that they celebrate boring, elitist films. They go too far the other way, then the critics, bloggers and academics mock them. When they choose films that people expect, everyone gripes that they're too predictable, but when they surprise us with choices like Shakespeare in Love and Crash, then people are furious that they dared to stray from the favourite. They can't win.

In spite of all the noise, the Oscars are still important and meaningful whether you like it or not. For people in the entertainment industry, it is still the highest honour. If you told an someone in show biz that they could have any one industry award in the world, what do you think they would choose? A Grammy? A Tony? A Golden Globe? A Critics' Award? No, the Oscars are the most prestigious award out there and all the bitching really comes down to sour grapes from people who haven't got a hope of ever getting one so they build themselves up by tearing the Academy down.

That's just sad, really.

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