Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Will Never Be Cool If You Let People See You Try

It seems like the folks behind the Oscars simply cannot win. They stick to their guns, leaving the telecast in its traditional state, and they are deemed "out of touch." Then, they make changes and they step on everyone's toes while doing it. (It's hard out there for a self-congratulating Hollywood aristocrat, is it not?) The threat of irrelevance, however, is a very real one in an industry that needs attention to live. Ratings are sinking for the annual broadcast, once a major television event. If they sink too low, who knows what would happen? (The awards might be moved to a local high school auditorium, where they would only have their integrity to ride on. Ha.) With that scenario in mind, the Academy has made some of the most significant changes to the Oscars that it has made in decades.

...Of course, the changes it made last time were also some of the most significant changes it had made in decades. I guess they were not significant enough the first time. Personally, presenters standing in a semicircle for the acting awards was positively earth-shattering. I mean, if the traditional Oscar blocking goes, what will they change next? The idiotic banter? The bastardized performances of the winning films' scores? The nipple slips? Thankfully, none of the above. The Academy continues to prove that they are, indeed, out of touch but, at the same time, willing to sell out in a vain attempt to mitigate it.

February's Oscar broadcast was a sorry attempt at reinvention. More often than not, it felt like the Tonys, as it was riddled with musical numbers that ranged from bland to excruciating. Attempts at streamlining the show seemed to backfire. How would making five people present each acting award make things move faster? Even the predictable effort at burning through the technical awards in one segment dragged more than it has in the past. The most troubling innovation was the "Hollywood Yearbook" montage. These consisted of clips from an arbitrary selection of films from a given genre. Well, they were arbitrarily selected from the mainstream films of the past year. If this is not already obvious, the intention of these montages was clearly to bring in a broader audience by devoting time to films that are well known, but not necessarily good enough to be nominated. (Yes, I've always thought that awards shows were far too exclusive toward shitty films. Thank you, Academy!) There is so much to celebrate about the films that compose the Oscars' heritage but, instead of focusing on them, they chose to remind us of how many talking animal movies came out last year.

Seemingly emerging from this maelstrom of horrible ideas is the biggest announcement of the past few weeks: the Best Picture category will now have ten nominations. The Academy claims this will finally allow all of those criminally under-appreciated films to get a chance. One cannot blame them for wanting to change; this past year's Best Picture nominees were astonishingly mediocre and showed a concerted effort to exclude certain films. (Do not try to claim that "Benjamin Button" was better than "The Dark Knight" or "Wall-E." It requires more thick-headed pretension than any one human can possess.) This change, however, does absolutely nothing to fix the problem. If the Academy voters are only interested in being pandered to and refuse to recognize quality, how will giving them more slots to fill remedy such a problem? I suppose that, by sheer odds, it will improve films' chances of getting nominated, but the value of a nomination will go down proportionately. Ultimately, I view this as mere trickery. With this setup, unconventional contenders like the "The Dark Knight" may get a nomination, thereby drawing viewers, but it will not necessarily have a real shot at winning.

The two other recent announcements are equally troublesome. One says that the Best Original Song category will no longer happen if there are not enough good songs submitted that year. (Less music? That is quite a reversal. Looks like Hugh Jackman's musical numbers did not grab ratings.) The quality of a song will be determined by a vote in which members view a clip of the film, wherein the song was featured, and then rate it. If fewer than three of the songs average over a certain score, the category is shelved that year. It is nice that they want to recognize how the song does its job in the context of the film (it is the point of the category, after all), but can a short clip really convey its effectiveness in that regard? Absolutely not. At least voters are required to watch all of the eligible clips for this category; it is not usually the case.

Let me reiterate that: Voters are not required to watch all films that were accepted into competition when choosing nominees for most categories. That includes Best Picture.

One would think that detail would need to be tweaked.

An example of a category that does require viewing of all accepted films is Best Foreign Language Feature. The effectiveness of that approach was made apparent this past year with the surprise victory of Japan's "Departures." It beat out the overrated favorite "Waltz with Bashir."

The other announced change is that the honorary awards will no longer be part of the telecast. Those are those awards that do not have nominees, only unfamiliar old men who stand up and talk for ten minutes. These people have supposedly had long careers that deserve a moment of recognition on the world stage and, more importantly, a moment for educating those who are ignorant of their importance, but the Academy does not seem to care. Old men do not sell ad time. Like the "Yearbooks," it is another decisive step away from valuing recognition of true achievement.

Yet, I refuse to abandon hope. Billions attend movies each year, but the Oscars seem like the only opportunity they are afforded each year to celebrate the art of film. There have been some moments of greatness in the past few years (The 2007 Foreign Language Film retrospective was downright beautiful. "Once" beating the odds to win Best Original Song in 2008 was a rare moment of true justice.) and they make me sure that things have not degraded beyond the point of no rescue. It is clear that, with every attempt to reinvigorate the Oscars, however, the Academy takes another step away from credibility. That the Oscars are seriously flawed is no secret, but continued attempts at a slick, crowd-pleasing broadcast will likely yield some pale MTV Movie Award clone. That may sound like an extreme statement, but prestige is the only fundamental quality that differentiates the Oscars from any other movie awards show. The Academy should not be so quick to squander it. They certainly will not be able to beat MTV at its own game.

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