Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In its dumb way, even Oliver! matters

A few years ago I accepted an invitation to somebody's Oscar party. There aren't many things that suck more than watching a major event with people who are enthusiastic when you yourself don't care. (This is a problem every March -- at packed bars, I think, "Basketball is a jumpy, squeaky-shoe sport," and pretend to be enthusiastic.) It's like attending a concert and hating the music and so you never get in on the fun. I made up an excuse and left the party.

Still, there's something nice about the Academy Awards and their nominees. You get nominations for good people with no shot of winning (the David Lynches and Robert Altmans) and harmless celebrity claptrap. Mostly, the awards work as good, superficial snapshots for posterity. It's always a little annoying when smart people write about these awards seriously and handicap prospects as deserving or neglected.

Very good movies stand the test of time regardless. They don't need awards. There are no asterisks next to Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman or Citizen Kane because they passed award-free. Good is always good.

The Academy Awards do something different. Like the Grammys and the fiction Pulitzer, they're bad at recognizing difficult and original work. They catalog and honor very formal, upper-middle-brow movies. This is valuable. Without it, some of these movies would (or will) have been forgotten. Excellent movies can lose but survive: Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or E.T. (re-watching it as an adult is a great experience).

Others are watched only because they won these awards. They may not be great movies, but they're good to have around, like a blurry family photo where somebody's only halfway in the shot. Midnight Cowboy has its melodrama and over-the-top visions of hedonism and scary big cities -- perfect for 1969. Kramer vs. Kramer works as snapshot into late-70s confusion over family roles before feminism became a dirty word; Forrest Gump is an effective fairy tale about baby boom nostalgia and Clintonian optimism; American Beauty -- that was your Clintonian moral confusion and ennui. Dances With Wolves and Driving Miss Daisy -- they've aged horribly, but are ripe with naive, condescending, multicultural sensitivity, which was the vogue when they were released. (America wasn't ready for Do the Right Thing, but white directors administering loving lectures about minority groups, that was easy to digest. This was also a theme in Out of Africa.) Going further back, we get The Lost Weekend's bizarre, borderline-trippy take on the menaces of overdrinking, and the sunny, cheerful American man dancing through post-war France in An American in Paris. I don't think these movies hold up, but they're valuable as cultural touchstones. Without the awards, I probably wouldn't have seen them.

Then you get something like Oliver! My mom likes movie musicals, and I remember Oliver! as one of the first movies we rented after buying a VCR. I think it's regarded as one of the worst movies ever to win a Best Picture Award. Who cares? People would watch 2001 anyway, and it's odd to watch Oliver! and think about how, in 1968, while the country was stabbed with race riots, assassinations, and Vietnam, the Academy favored a musical with cute British orphans singing and dancing about gruel. The stark, marijuana-friendly 2001 wasn't even a nominee.


Apparently, these dumb orphans hated gruel.

Even when the "right" movies win, they're formal, conventional products, executed extremely well. I'm thinking of Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, All the King's Men, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Amadeus, Schindler's List, and possibly The Departed (which I like today, but give it 10 years). Each is excellent but basically safe. Only The Godfather Part II, with its parallel-flashback plot and extensive subtitles, and Annie Hall's camera-addressing, time-hopping narrative, are structurally unusual. Pulp Fiction and Inland Empire never had a prayer.

I like the catalog of movies produced by these awards, but there's no good in taking a rooting interest. While I'm extremely enthusiastic about There Will Be Blood, it is odd and divisive. People will watch it for years regardless; like Citizen Kane or 2001, its worth is beyond awards. Like the best winners, No Country For Old Men is entertaining, highly formal and well executed. It will hold up over time. Still, without having seen Juno, I like the idea that forty years from now a college student will find it on TCM and think about how people were so naive in 2007, when in the middle of a war and economic distress, a little movie about teenagers was considered the standard-bearer. There's nothing bad about that.

8 comments:

flop said...

Not to get the ball rolling on the whole "OMG snubbed/overrated" thing, but Juno was a contrived mess. An endearing one with a rather likeable main character, but it's too openly manipulative and the first half requires too much shoring up of my disbelief for the much better ending to have much in the way of a lasting payoff. It's not awful, or even bad. It's just not all that good.

It's definitely not as enjoyable, well-made or just as good as Ratatouille and the fact that I found the idea of a rat being a world-class chef easier to believe than some of the scenes in Juno should probably tell you something.

crimenotes said...

I know you hate it and that you think Ratatouille is an allegory about the experience of Algerian immigrants in France. I've got no views on either movie's merit, except that rats are cute and I'm not that into pregnancy.

flop said...

You distorting, incomprehensive weenie.

I think Juno is not great, but not awful and said previously that Ratatouille would have A.O. Scott et al dancing a peppy hornpipe if it were an Algerian cook who were the outcast. I would say bonus points if it were subtitled, but that would only tickle Jay Sherman's fancy.

CrimeNotes said...

Perhaps I overstated. I shall do the gentlemanly thing and apologize.

Still: rats are cute.

blythe said...

i know all the words to every song in oliver!(!) i suppose that's neither here nor there, but perhaps somewhere.

crimenotes said...

One of the good things I can say about Time Warner Cable is that we get Turner Classic Movies on demand. For awhile last year "Oliver!" was on the slate. Not having seen it in years I thought it might be interesting to see how it holds up. It doesn't. I agree that your knowledge lands "somewhere."

Poo Poo Farter said...

First!

crimenotes said...

You definitely should make friends with "Flop."