It’s January! That means awards season is upon us and Innis College students are getting testy. It will be nearly a year since The Artist won Best Picture at the Oscars, and that time has afforded me an opportunity to think hard about the caliber of films we celebrate as being great.
Michael Chapman, the cinematographer of Raging Bull, declared, “Movies were the great art form of the twentieth century. But the twentieth century is over.” I agree. The glory days when a film became a text, when a movie shared the same shelf space as a masterly painting or epic novel, when Taxi Driver was as poignant, tragic, and meaningful as a work by Dostoevsky, are over. Movies are no longer cultural artifacts.
The legitimacy of film has been marred by thousands of bad movies, both preceding and following the year 2000. Industry talent is low, ideas are few, and little can be done to effect change. But it doesn’t hurt to question the very films that we exalt, and that is my concern here.
You remember The Artist, don’t you? It was all the rage in the early months of 2012 — that black-and-white, silent film. It’s okay if you don’t remember the movie; it’s not that memorable, let alone timeless or classic, as one would hope a Best Picture winner would be. In retrospect, some viewers will undoubtedly ask themselves whether this was, in fact, the same film that won an Oscar for Best Picture.
The Artist is a sideshow curiosity, not unlike the films of the early twentieth century that it emulates. Those silent and silver classics, in spite of a technologically-underdeveloped medium that had difficulty sustaining story or showcasing cinematography, could be saved thanks to the awe inspired by original narrative, innovative special effects, absorbing acting skills, melodic music, or well-crafted sets, costumes, and scenery. The Artist cannot demand such a forgiving critical eye, especially because its trite plot can be chalked up to little more than laziness and sloppy craftsmanship.
Released in 2011, when colour, sound, and in-theatre gimmicks had long been ubiquitous, The Artist seemed daring. Does that mean the absence of dialogue and a monochromatic colour palette are valid artistic merits? In my opinion, it does not. The Artist offered little more than a gimmicky film quality like 3D or IMAX. If the film was not silent or black and white, it would not resonate as much with audiences, because we have all seen this story before in various forms. Considered independently of the awards that it has received, The Artist is perfectly ordinary.
So why and how did The Artist win Best Picture? Well, the Academy, an aggregate of industry professionals, vote for the “Best Motion Picture,” and in the process, conflate their choice for ‘best’ film with their ‘favorite’ film. Granted, The Artist was sweet, funny, and charming, not unlike Silver Lining’s Playbook, one of this year’s Best Picture nominees. A great film can have all these attributes, but surely a Best Picture winner has to be more than that?
In fact, it’s somewhat hard to fathom how Silver Linings Playbook could be in the running for the same award that Annie Hall took home in 1978. Coming from the minds of of Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, Annie Hall serves up a class of wit and humour that is rarely offered in mainstream or independent comedies. Both Silver Linings Playbook and Annie Hall are funny, sweet, and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but only the latter transcends its genre and stands out as a classic for its nuanced acting, innovative writing, and Gordon Willis’ cinematographic treatment of New York.
After progressive and prolonged exposure to films of substandard quality, it’s not surprising that audiences take what they can get. Now, the best of the lowest common denominators is being lauded by critics and awarded by the guilds, academies, and festivals the world over. As we recede into a Platonic cave of ignorance, we are mistaking shadows for reality, mediocrity for greatness, accepting trite and trivial movies as masterpieces.
We should not excuse a mediocre film winning Best Picture simply because it is the best we can drudge up. The voting process should not be like grasping for straws. A great film has to be a film for all seasons.