The legitimacy of the Academy Awards is hardly a new topic of discussion. In fact, lamenting the travesties and cop-outs perpetrated by the Academy over the years has reduced many critics and commentators (myself included) to angry rants. The absurd contradiction is that we spout our disgust at the results of an award ceremony we often claim is meaningless anyway. The point is the Oscars aren’t meaningless. Whether we like it or not they are the most popular and preeminent celebration of film in the world today, and for the common movie going public the small statue is the mark of a quality film.
However, it seems to me that the validity of the Oscars has never been as questionable as it is right now. This year’s supersized Oscars is a curious beast. Up scaling the best picture nominations from five to ten would have been all right had Hollywood churned out ten films worthy of best picture accolades. I foolishly assumed that this extension would mean Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, arguably one of the finest films in many years would be nominated, yet sadly it is once again relegated to the Foreign Language film category. Instead sub-par efforts like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds make up the numbers.
The battle for best picture is apparently a two-horse race and one of the most interesting in recent years for the Hollywood hype machine. It’s a battle of antinomies, the massive, multimillion-dollar epic versus the small budget, hard-bitten war film. The most sophisticated visual effects versus the staple in-camera explosion. For directors Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron it’s a battle of the exes, not to mention the sexes, with Bigelow potentially becoming the first female to ever receive the best director award. It’s a battle of mammoth popular success against a low-grossing film of significant critical acclaim. Which film triumphs will speak great volumes about the state of popular cinema today.
In a recent, provocatively titled piece, David Thomson has drawn a very deep line in the sand regarding Avatar. Whilst his article ‘Ozu v Avatar – this really is what cinema has come down to’ focuses on the importance of family in cinema, Thomson is perhaps guilty of exaggerating the divide by taking such extremes. The battle between Avatar and The Hurt Locker is really a far more simple case: one of quality of subject against quality of spectacle.
Avatar may contain some of the most advanced and incredible computer generated imagery in the history of cinema. But it also boasts a screenplay so fraught with clichés both in plot and dialogue, hung on a story so basic, that it could easily have been told in a quarter of the films marathon running time. Its mediocre acting performances are less to do with the skill of the actors themselves but rather the severely limited character development, devoid of any real depth or originality. Put bluntly, the massive success of Avatar is not due to the quality of the sum of its parts.
The Hurt Locker on the other hand is a taut, tough, action film directed with great prowess. Its visceral and tense episodes remind us of the ease at which good direction can stir affect in the stomachs of the audience. It has been praised for depicting the Iraq war without politics, yet the penultimate scene is one the most apt metaphors for the war itself that I have seen this side of Generation Kill. Its performances are solid, its narrative pared down to necessity. Whilst by no means a masterpiece, it is easily the better film in my opinion. It is a whole film, not one that relies on only one aspect of its production.
Whilst Avatar is no doubt advancing the art of cinema, my problem is that in this case it has come at the compromise of story and character, the two most crucial staples not only of film but of all narrative based art. A best picture award for Avatar would be sadder than a thousand Halle Berry acceptance speeches. It would be the justification of spectacle over subject and would confirm my worst fear; that story and character are becoming more marginal than ever before.