Saturday, 8 December 2012

Holding out for a Failure; or Weird Trends of Oscar Season

 I'd be inclined to blame it on the Oscar season making many veer into explicit silliness, but it could just as well be the year end making us make good on our penchant for list making (which I'm a big fan of, so no criticism). The elusive "it" is one of the dozen or so bugbears that every year seems devoted to making me enjoy the Oscar season a little bit less every year. But, alas, as is often the case, I'm burying the lead – when did it become acceptable for “film fans” to salivate over the possible failure of a movie?

Let me back up a bit. Andreas (of Pussy Goes Grr) was discussing a mutual pet peeve of ours regarding film culture on twitter(excellently manifested in this essay HERE), and I mentioned one of the oddities that has slowly revealed itself – so many film geeks seem to not even like movies anymore. The things that become the root for complaints – too long, too periody, too serious, and on and on – seem to emanate from some of the oddest avenues of “criticism”. I didn't realise how pervasive the issue was (or, perhaps just how much it was bothering me) until something space came up for me to actually ponder on. Oscar season is in the air, and as usual as film fans we tend to choose a horse to back. Overwhelmingly positive response from a screening made Les Misérables emerge as the one to beat. Ostensibly. With the embargo lifted, legitimate critical reviews have begun turning in and many are ebullient but some are not. It’s not sweeping the critics away as a sure-fire “contender” might. And, apparently this is reason to rejoice.

My issue is not one which emanates from Les Misérables alone. I’ve seen it attached to Anna Karenina (“that’ll show Joe Wright thinking he can get away with another well reviewed period piece”), Lawless (“lol, all Shia LaBeouf movies should tank!”), Frankenweenie (“Tim Burton thinks he can just be excused for Alice in Wonderland?”), and on and on. It’s not so much that the films have earned poor receptions, but the praise wasn’t as effusive as expected. Is it some cinematic version of Schadenfreude to revel in potential critical darlings not sticking their landing?

With Les Misérables, I’d want to imagine its musical roots play a role. I’ll avoid this pseudo-dissertation from turning into a winding discussion on how musicals remain (arguably) the genre which it is coolest to disregard on impulse and I’m fully cognisant that the knee-jerk hope for Les Misérables is more nuanced than an express hatred for the genre, though. In fact, the “destroy on sight” mentality is only a fallout of one of my least favourite Oscar related trends. Last week I mentioned my quasi adoration for Gwyneth Paltrow’s delightful (albeit much maligned) work in Shakespeare in Love. And, the always astute Nick (Cinema Romantico) observed: “The performance wouldn't be so unfairly unloved if she hadn't won the Oscar, which is just so unfair.” It is the ultimate weight of being an Oscar winner. Your work is scrutinised to a degree that becomes less about attempts at cinematic appreciation and more of ways to destabilise any possibility of credence in the Academy’s decision.

Enter – the general feeling of antipathy which follows Tom Hooper since his Oscar win for The King’s Speech. It’s strange, Rotten Tomatoes – which so many use as a barometer for quality – lists Hooper’s film at a 95% approval rating just 1% below the film it robbed of the Oscar. And, yet, it’s a struggle to find someone online willing to claim that Hooper is not an Oscar stealing hack. This must enter the equation because after its initial positive opening there were a slew of internet film fans bemoaning the fact that they Les Misérables being good was going to mess with their hatred of Tom Hooper. In fact, since Hooper has made some towering television movies (eking out near career best work from Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney, Samantha Morton and more) we can agree that he’s not a hack, right? Or if he is a hack that stole an Oscar you can hate The King’s Speech but not pray for every film he makes to implode, right?

I’ve already shared where I stand on the AMPAS and the choices they make when I disagree with them. Much of my initial appreciation for moviedom was spill-over from appreciating the Oscars. For that I’ll always have love for them. Even as sometimes I find their choices dripping in banality I’ve never hated the institution for their taste. As I’ve said, AMPAS is akin to an older friend you love who you sometimes often disagree with. To paraphrase George Furth, “Just because some of the decision might be wrong doesn't matter. It is still right.” And, by it, I mean the point of the Oscars – celebrating movies. Because that is film fans relish in, right? Enjoying movies…

It’s why I experience something like cognitive dissonance when people participate in gleeful excitement when a movie does badly. Allow me to step up on my soapbox for a bit but one part of being a cinephile is loving the cinema, right? Shouldn’t we then hope that we’re inundated with barrage of good – great – movies? Wouldn’t film fans be happy when a director they find to be less than stellar apparently ups their game? Wouldn’t we be happy if a movie not on our radar, or one we expect not to love turns out to be good? Aren’t we all sitting around hoping that every film released will add something positive to the industry? It’s why the wan smiles which accompany the “failure” of awards contender baffle me. Hoping that a film loses an award is one thing, exulting in a film failing – or hoping for a failure – is another. Perhaps I read too much into it but it’s difficult to remain joyful amidst the season while such subtle sourness pervades.

Where do you stand on hoping for imminent films to fail? Counter intuitive to a cinphile’s ideology or a logical extension of individuality? 

(I’ve vetoed my usual Incoherent Oscar column from the last two years with those typically wild Oscar predictions this year. In lieu of predictions, I still have a slew of other , albeit obliquely, Oscar related thoughts to liberate. So, maybe Incoherent Oscar lives on a different form. Maybe.)


Colin Biggs said...

The Oscar blogosphere has really dampened enthusiasm for what should be a celebration of film.

Is Les Mis my cup of tea? No, but why tear it down when others can enjoy it?

Film is inherently subjective, too often we forget that.

Miles Maker said...

Film criticism has become a lot like politics. Deeply rooted in belief, obstinate in a pundit's position to never be swayed, triumphantly right or arguably wrong in the outcome.

Amir said...

I don't understand the celebration of failure either.
I'm guilty of dismissing The King's Speech (and I think Rotten Tomatoes is not a proper barometer look at) but if Les Miserables or whatever he does next is a great film, I'll rejoice. Heck, I'll even rejoice if Michael Bay makes a good film one day. The idea should be that the more great filmmakers there, the merrier, not to instead pretend like there's a good filmmakers' club and another club for filmmakers we don't approve of and that no one can cross over.

Oscar does put that burden on its winners though, and justly I think. I understand that a lot of winners, particularly women, are hard done by the industry and can't find good roles, but I think it's fair to expect winners to live up to their statue at the end of the day.

The Siren said...

I also think Paltrow is swell in Shakespeare in Love. Another irritant for me with Oscar talk: everyone decries Oscar's tendency to overlook comedies, and then sneers when something comic wins (cf. poor Marisa Tomei, who was darling in My Cousin Vinnie).

To your point, film culture on Twitter is often defined by what you hate. Which is unavoidable I guess, but I dislike any kind of criticism that starts to shade into judgments about who could possibly like something you find bad. I enjoyed "The Artist," but could understand much of what its detractors found annoying. Where I parted company was with those who painted it as some sort of insult to all film history, and snorted that no one who knew anything about actual movies of the period could possibly like it. I finally told one person on Twitter that if he wanted to characterize me that way, fire away. End of Twitterspat.

I love a well-built, interesting contrarian argument, as long as I'm not being pigeonholed because I diagree. All I can do is strive mightily to avoid doing that to people in my own writing. The temptation is there.

And yeah, actively cheering for a movie's failure is usually unseemly. I think most people who do it are just joking, but if it's too mean, it's not funny to me.

(Excellent, thought-provoking post, thanks.)

rob humanick said...

Speaking as a younger person who has always felt similarly offput by this kind of negative cheerleading, I think the problem has and will always exist, but that it's being warped further by internet culture and increasingly selfish and shortsighted younger generations (mine isn't all that great, but it doesn't seem to have fallen off the continental shelf).

I am one of the few "rotten" reviews on The King's Speech, which I didn't so much hate as find shallow, easy, and sporting only lip service to history, art, and personal struggles. I wanted to like Hooper's new musical; after all, it had a lot going for it, and why would I want to dislike something that's going to take up 3 hours of my life?

Unfortunately, I hated it, and am a little bitter about it, because it seems to me such a waste of creativity and a blemish on film art, when it could have been beautiful and moving (which it is, for approximately 3 minutes with Mrs. Hathaway). Anyone who hopes to hate something is probably a bit of an idiot and not very confident in themselves.

Corey Atad said...

Interesting post, and I think you make some valid points about this aspect of online critical culture.

To me, Tom Hooper is a very capable director with a very poor visual style. I've seen Les Miserables and I very much liked it. There are flaws, many of which stem from the source itself, a few others stem from the limitations of adapting the source so directly, and others truly are problematic directorial choices. All in all, though, the film worked on me.

But I think Les Miserables is sort of a perfect storm when it comes to what you're talking about. It is taking it from all sides. Non-musical folks who hate it, people who love the stage musical who hate what Hooper has done, people who just plain hate Hooper for whatever reason. The trouble, though, is that it's difficult to discern the people who want to hate from those who really just hate the film.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

colin "why tear it down - before you even see it - when others, or even you, might" is what makes the entire situation so baffling.

miles that's a quite discerning observation, actually. and i suppose after months of saying what "type" of film you like, critics feel the need to justify their preconceived notions by not allowing themselves to approach something they may not like with openness. which is counter-intuitive to the whole nature of enjoying cinema.

amir but don't you think putting the burden on the winners gets skewed when they keep having to justify why they won when? oscars can't look forward, they couldn't have guessed that cuba gooding's career wouldn't take off, they just really happened to be on board with that performance. it gets thorny when asking a performer to justify their win turns into liking the initial performance less in retrospect.

the siren it does make the entire experience somewhat sour when you feel as if you're being pigeonholed into a certain stance...or else, right?

rob and, your point is very valid. you HAVE seen les miz so not liking it is a justifiable thing for you to do, but the salivating excitement in other people not liking it before you have is the weird thing. as you say, the "negative cheerleading" is unfortunate.

corey i love your last paragraph. the hate (and not for this film specifically, on any random one) comes from so many angles discerning where it's legitimate and where it's not can be tough. some films i've seen critics set themselves up to hate, and i could rarely take their hatred after seeing it as legitimate.

Amir said...

Andrew- I do think that the burden skews opinions on the original performance, and it shouldn't. My point wasn't to say that it's right to dismiss worthy performances in retrospect because that particular performer didn't do well afterwards. A good performance that's award-worthy should win awards, and obviously those voters can't look into the future.
But my point was that some Oscar winners/nominees really work hard AFTER their nomination to keep their momentum going (e.g. John Hawkes at the moment) and that removes the burden. Others might not get so lucky and the Oscar-winning performance really sticks out. Not a knock on that one good performance, just that typically people expect winners to carry on doing great work.