The Brat and the Big Screen
By Justin Aylward
In recent days, there has been much discussion about the relationship between streaming giants Netflix and the Academy. Blockbuster director, Steven Spielberg, who has suggested that Netflix movies should not be eligible for Oscar’s recognition, has fronted this dialog. Among other things, he talked about how the theatre-going experience is under threat. ‘There’s nothing like going to a big dark theatre with people you’ve never met and having the experience wash over you.’ Although Spielberg did not mention any specific streaming network in his most recent remarks, in 2018 he did say, ‘I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for Academy Award nominations.’
There are many complaints one can make in refuting Spielberg’s comments, and other figures in the film world have been quick to respond. But the most interesting facet of this debate is that no one side is right. Spielberg is the godfather of the blockbuster, since the release of his nerve-shredding thriller Jaws in 1975. From then on studios and distributors have realised the potential of spot-releasing their films, sending them out to theatres at certain times to attract a wider audience. Today we also see the release of aspiring Oscar-winners during the December window. But that’s not what bothers me. Instead I can’t help but hear a whininess in Spielberg’s voice as he puts forth his argument. He is the most prominent member of the director’s brat-pack, a group of young artists who graduated from the first major American film school and forging a path in Hollywood. Maybe I am being unkind, but Spielberg kinda sounds like a brat who has never been told ‘no’ in his life. He will never struggle to finance a movie, have it distributed, find an audience and feature during the lengthy awards season. If only other filmmakers had it so easy, we might not rely on streaming platforms. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc have brought projects that major Hollywood distributors will not support to audiences who would not otherwise have seen these films and television series. And it is a good thing that the visual arts can thrive outside the mainstream Hollywood circle.
It is understandable that Spielberg wants to preserve that theatre-going experience, but what does he think is going to happen; will film fans suddenly refuse to leave the house to watch a movie when they might watch one in their own living rooms? Maybe we should just destroy all DVDs; after all, we can’t watch them on the big screen. Spielberg has made many terrific films – no one can deny that – but many of his films rely intrinsically on the type of environment and atmosphere that is created in theatre screening rooms. There is a wide-eyed element to many of his best films such as E.T., Jurassic Park, and Minority Report; the sheen of these movies is massively dulled when removed from the darkened airs of the theatre. But this debate shouldn’t became a contest between theatres and streaming services, because we can have both, and there are positives to each. It’s true that some movies just aren’t worth seeing outside the theatre – Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is possibly the best example – but to state that films should only exist, or that they be birthed on the big screen is blind to the great emotional potential of the medium. You don’t need a massive screen to transmit the tones and emotions of film into your heart and mind. Not all films are cinematic, but it doesn’t make them any less worthy of an audience. I love a good spectacle and will never fail to be amazed by the far-reaching vistas that fill out cinema screens, but I will choose a film that moves my heart and shatters my mind any day over a visualistic feast, and I have seen such films on screens as small as laptop. Only seeing films in the theatre is like only eating in Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s nice, but it’s also a bit rich and extravagant. Sometimes you crave something simple, and many streaming platforms offer that.
Another matter I have often wondered about is the significance and prestige we have placed on the Oscars in the first place. As far as I am concerned the Academy can forbid any kind of film they want, I honestly don’t care. It won’t exacerbate my ill-feelings towards them any more. But if they do such a thing I hope it will further delegitimise them as the benchmark of filmmaking achievement. For too long the Academy has been seen as the great paragon of assessment, the final arbiters of taste for whom all film fans should look to for guidance in their choice of film. Paradoxically, the Academies blindness is so obvious for everyone to see. Their decisions are often motivated by the desire to promote a clean, liberal image of their organisation, and not by a duty to try and recognise high artistic merit in filmmaking. If one positive can come from their choice to exclude movies released through streaming services for a place in the competition, it should be the final clarifier that the Academy no longer tries to identify the ‘Best Picture’, or ‘Best Director’, etc… because they don’t. They will select the best picture that falls under the narrow constrictions of their rules.
The Movie Transfer Window
By Justin Aylward
Chloe Zhao, the young director who made her breakthrough feature in 2018, has been touted as the next blockbuster director for Marvel’s new franchise film The Eternals. The announcement was made in September, shortly after Zhao’s masterful film The Rider was released in theatres around the world. The film, an elemental masterpiece about mortality and a young man’s place in a world in which he can no longer function, is one of the most revered films of the last twelve months, cropping up on numerous top-ten lists. But what is most conspicuous about the news is how Marvel executives eyed Zhao for the job after seeing the film. What does a production company that produces loud and tech-heavy superhero franchises see in the proven director of quiet, humble, and considered tales of down on the ground Americana? It all sounds rather sketchy to me.
In a funny sort of way it’s a bit reminiscent of the scandalous ‘tapping up’ swindle that occurred in the world of football, and the biannual transfer windows. I don’t suspect the major Hollywood moguls of operating through nefarious means, but I do wonder if they are perhaps trying to appeal to a new theatre-going demographic. This theory does crumble somewhat under scrutiny when you understand how lucrative superhero and ‘comic book’ movies have become in the last decade. Maybe it’s too much to expect that the financiers are hoping to upgrade the likes of Ant-Man and The Green Lantern to new levels of artistry.
What would the film world be like see if a more frustrated Tony Stark in Iron Man 4, a rich and powerful man struggling with his wealth, tired to find charitable means to expend his money; Marvel meets Preston Sturges. Audiences will love it. Or what if Wade Wilson aka Deadpool collapses in the throes of an existential crisis? Stamp that franchise with the mark of Ingmar Bergman and see what happens. Whatever it is that inspired the appointment of Chloe Zhao, it is curious to wonder if the often-oversold genre of action/superhero flicks are set for a makeover of which the finest auteurs such as Luis Bunuel or Jean Renoir would be proud. Such films may leave audiences scratching their heads and wondering what conversations in the dark with God have to do with saving the earth from flinty stalwarts. But it would provide us with more to ponder than the average Marvel or DC offering. That’s okay with me.
Green Book, and the Oscar Playbook
By Justin Aylward
Last Sunday at the Academy Awards, Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture. The result was a surprise and brought a curtain of silence over the audience. Among the guffaws and yelps at the Dolby Theatre and the hand-wringing and keyboard-banging on social media, is a message worth considering. It is a recurring reality that the winner of the best picture award is quickly forgotten – can you remember what film won in 2009? – but the films selected by the Academy as the best picture are not where the message is contained. The choice of best film actually reveals more about A.M.P.A.S. than anything else. It’s all a big marketing ploy, and the best way for them to show to the world what they are all about. So what does Green Book’s triumph tell us?
The film, by the birdbrain-comedic director Peter Farrelly, was received tepidly by critics, many noting the tired trope of the white saviour narrative, while others called the film soft, Hallmark material. But hey, at least it doesn’t force people to do some actual thinking, and that’s just the way the Academy likes it. Green Book may be a wishy-washy, rose-tinted piece, but that’s what appeals to the voters. A movie like Green Book will never cause a major stir, or even a meagre pater among the broader film world. It is merely a piece of entertainment like a knockoff antique; it has the appearance of stateliness and prestige, but you soon find the surface is tainted by cracks and cheap paint. The Academy knows that soon enough film audiences will forget all about why they loathe the movie, but in the meantime the Academy can enjoy the short-term gratification of patting itself on the back for a job well done. It’s as though they are willing to be fooled into showcasing their liberal credentials on a film that isn’t nearly as liberal and proud as it thinks.
In the past, the Academy has shown its’ favour for films and performances of a specific type. This has become so evident that some have speculated that actors can carefully tailor their way to Oscar glory. Look at some of the winning performances from years gone by; a precedent is put on roles that show perseverance, characters overcoming circumstance (Erin Brokovich, The Theory of Everything, Room, The King’s Speech, Silver Lining’s Playbook, Dallas Buyer’s Club). The Academy also has a liking for historical figures who have shaped the world we live in today (Lincoln, Darkest Hour, The Iron Lady, The Queen). All these winners are perfectly worthy of the prize, but the decision-making that went into highlighting these performances was more about drawing attention to the Academy branch itself as to the actors who created the work. Sometimes the bias is so obvious as to be blinding. Who else would the actor’s branch of voters rather nominate than actor’s who play actors or other performers (Bohemian Rhapsody, La La Land, The Artist, Walk the Line, Ray). There has been a historical shutout of certain movies throughout Oscar history. There is a good reason why horror and comedy have never forged a strong footing in any of the major catergories; anything that smells of genre – especially a popular genre – must be ignored. But that great irony in all this is that in doing so, the Academy has created a genre of its’ own. Where do you think the Oscar bait comes from, after all?