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Confessions of an Awards Season Skeptic, Part Two: I, A Lone Voice of Sanity and Calm Awash in a Sea of Noise and Indignation

First of all: Simmer down everyone.

There. Now I’ve justified my headline. So.

“Nobody listened to me when I was 7 and I said Ordinary People over Raging Bull was f[**]ked up, now 34 years later and you're STILL watching.” So tweeted the very entertaining sometime political blogger known as Norbizness this morning, and truer words were never quite spoken. I don’t wanna be coy about my age but in this case why not; I’ll just say I was not inconsiderably older than Nor at the time and I said the same thing and yes, it IS 34 years later. Should I be heartened or disappointed by the fact that we—or maybe I should say YOU—can/do get so heated up about stuff that matters in certain respects but in larger more arguably significant respects matters not at all?

Even as I input this, the televisions soundtrack tells me of all the “surprises” and “snubs.” Here, again, is another example of what my colleague and pal Matt Zoller Seitz has called the reification of “Oscar”—okay, he didn’t really call it that, I just decided to fancy up his observation. Which is: that in this particular iteration of reaction to nominations or lacks thereof, people are acting as if the convoluted process of eventually conferring an award is down to an actual entity called “Oscar” that has a will and a personality and resentments of its own. Hence the dearth of nominations for “Selma” can be read as a monstrous manifestation of the institutionalized racism of Hollywood, and the multiple noms for “American Sniper” (which do not, due to some oversight on the part of the forces of evil, include a Best Director nod for Clint Eastwood) portend, in our country, a revival of the fascism that Pauline Kael warned us of in her review of “Dirty Harry” back in the day. Clearly, in 2017 either Jeb Bush or Bill Hader’s portrayal of the 120-plus-year-old Adolph Hitler will be president, if this keeps up.

Look, I’m disappointed that “Selma,” a movie I greatly admire, got so few Oscar nominations. I’m not alone here. Richard Brody, a prophet of cinema for The New Yorker and someone whose voice and temperament is as far removed from that of the average Oscar blogger’s as my voice and temperament is from that of Kelly Clarkson’s, was agog on the Twitter machine: “How in the world could ‘Selma’ not get nominations for—at least—screenplay, actor...? What was the Academy watching (or not seeing)?” Agreed. And the question as to what the Academy was or wasn’t seeing is an apt one, but not one to which we are likely to ever get a truly satisfactory answer. Then there’s “American Sniper,” a movie I also like (so does Richard, if I recall correctly). It takes a certain kind of act of will to infer that the crop of nominations places “Sniper” in direct aggressive opposition to “Selma.” But. But but but but but. From this cinema lover’s perspective, there’s a real, or “real” enemy to be fought here, as Sinead O’Conner would say: Rather TWO real enemies, two “Ordinary People”s, only neither is as good as “Ordinary People.” 

In the Best Picture category—and bear with me a bit here, as I’m going to make some generic categorizations that I may or may not fully subscribe to—we have: Three, count ‘em, three, daring and unusual films by well-established aesthetically forward-facing directors. Those would be “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “Birdman,” or as I really feel like calling it from this moment on, “The Birdman.” 

Then you have one excellent conventional picture from an artistically respect-worthy Hollywood eminence-grise. That would be “Sniper.” You have the daring “here I am” statement from a young tyro. That would be “Whiplash” and I still say to hell with it. Then you have the historical drama that has the bonus attraction of being an actual first-rate film from an actual emerging but also fully-formed filmmaking talent (who also happens to be a woman of color). That’s “Selma.” 

And then you have the two fact-based British-scientists save the world award bait movies. Worth noting that said bait hasn’t been NEARLY as uniformly gobbled up as it has been in recent comparable years. That neither “The Theory of Everything” nor “The Imitation Game” has been sailing through the awards season picking up this that and the other thing should be cause for some kind of world-weary celebration. Also: Nor can we say, at this stage of the game, the thing that F. Murray Abraham’s character said about the G.I. folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” that these films “connect with people.” They haven’t gotten the zeitgeist traction that’s expected of such bait by this point in time. But make no mistake: these motion pictures are menaces.

See what I did there? I exposed my own particular prejudices (which of course I will defend as some things resembling “artistic principles”) while at the same time raising a perhaps undue amount of alarm as to what I might consider the dire consequences of what would happen should either of these movies which I dislike should win the Best Picture Oscar. And yet. “Crash” won a Best Picture Oscar. “The Artist” won a Best Picture Oscar. G---damn “Ordinary People” won a Best Picture Oscar. And yet I woke up this morning and had a healthy breakfast and some delicious coffee. And some time soon, “Raging Bull” director Martin Scorsese is embarking to Asia to shoot a film project he’s been trying/hoping to realize for several decades. Life is, in many respects, good. And art does, in some respects, thrive.

“No Oscar nominations for Angelina, none for Aniston, but another one for Streep, who knew,” Billy Bush, that Delphic Oracle, said at the opening of today’s episode of “Access Hollywood.” He’s trying to keep his chin up because of the gaps in HIS narrative. A little later, he reflected to Dave Karger, “a surprise here, no Aniston,” and Dave concurred. Well, define “surprise.” Aniston apparently gave a powerful, and ostensibly vanity-free performance in a movie that you haven’t seen. Her not getting a Best Actress nomination is only a surprise within a circumscribed bubble that decreed Aniston was due/likely to get a nomination. Nobody outside that bubble has even seen the film. It’s in that respect that the Oscars have become a rather peculiar “spectator” sport.  You know what’s a real snub? The lack of an editing nomination for “Birdman,” a movie that flows as if it’s one long shot, the result of…virtuosic post-production all around, actually. That the technical achievement here isn’t being acknowledged is…well, you know the word: INCONCEIVABLE. And yet.

“So much lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations,” the political progressive Kit Hoover put it to Lorraine Toussaint of “Selma” just now. To which Toussaint responded with exceptional grace and equanimity, expressing/acknowledging what we all know to be true—e.g., that Ava DuVernay SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN a damn Best Director nomination—but concluding, of the film’s two nominations, “We’re on the map and we’re in the room.”

“’Selma’ Was Robbed, And Other Unforgivable Oscar Crimes,” reads the headline of one nom roundup that’s popped up in my feed. Nothing succeeds like overstatement, I guess; I’d like to say “can we agree that ‘crimes’ is maybe a bit much, even for headline English?” but I’m afraid a lot of people would sincerely say “no” to that. So instead I’ll ask a question. Or a few questions. Here goes: Who is it that is not to be forgiven? And how, exactly, will this forgiveness be withheld? How about “we” all stop paying attention to meaningless award shows? THAT will teach them, right? Who’s with me?

Ha! I didn’t think so! We’ll take this up again right before, and right after, the damn Oscars. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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