Jason Apuzzo spots a “trend” in films and, in all honesty, I’m starting to feel embarrassed for him. But not so much that I wouldn’t bring you this :
Everyone in Hollywood loves to spot trends, myself included. So now that this yearâ€™s Oscar nominees have been announced, everyone around town is reading tea leaves or examining entrails – all wondering what this particular constellation of nominated films â€˜meansâ€™ for the movie industry.
My sense is that the Academyâ€™s selections this year will ultimately â€˜meanâ€™ very little. Why? Oscar season is no longer the rite of passage it once was for genuinely great films like â€œGone With The Wind,â€ â€œOn the Waterfront,â€ or â€œLawrence of Arabia.â€ Instead, todayâ€™s Academy Awards have devolved into just another marketing tool for â€˜indieâ€™ films nobodyâ€™s seen. The tipping point in this process probably came in 1998, when Miramaxâ€™s low-budget â€œShakespeare in Loveâ€ stunned the industry by beating out Steven Spielbergâ€™s â€œSaving Private Ryanâ€ for Best Picture. Oscar season hasnâ€™t been the same since.
Nonetheless, a new trend is developing in what â€˜indieâ€™ films the Academy honors. This year the Academy is hot for left-leaning, â€™social issueâ€™ films: â€œNorth Countryâ€ (sexual harassment), â€œThe Constant Gardenerâ€ (evil pharmaceutical companies), â€œGood Night, and Good Luckâ€ (evil Republican Senators), â€œSyrianaâ€ (â€™itâ€™s all about oilâ€™), â€œBrokeback Mountainâ€ (gay cowboys), â€œMunichâ€ (the â€˜cycle of violenceâ€™), â€œTransamericaâ€ (sex change operations), etc.
Taken together these films embody an important new Hollywood trend Iâ€™d like to call: The New Triviality.
Hollywood, you see, has become a lot like the Democratic Party – namely, a loose coalition of aggrieved constituency groups requiring representation. And just as in the Democratic Party, these groups will now get to fight it out over the next few weeks over who gets Oscar gold.
And let me tell you, if there is one aggrieved constituency group that you don’t wasnt to fuck with come Oscar time, it’s the gay cowboys. They can bring a studio head to his knees faster than you can say ‘yippie-ki-yi-gay”.
But letâ€™s back up for a minute. What characterizes a Trivial film? A good place to start is whether the film was produced by eBay co-founder Jeff Skollâ€™s Participant Productions (“Good Night, and Good Luck,â€ â€œNorth Country,â€ â€œSyriana,â€ the forthcoming â€œFast Food Nation”). Participantâ€™s films received 11 nominations this morning. And for those of you who donâ€™t know, Participantâ€™s avowed purpose is to produce films around which social activist (read: â€˜left wingâ€™) campaigns can be organized.
As Participant vice-present Meredith Blake put it in a recent interview, â€œOur product is social change, and the movies are a vehicle for that social change.â€
Participant is essentially the MoveOn.org of Hollywood. So, for example, in the case of â€œSyrianaâ€ – an infinitely trite thriller about the â€˜relationshipâ€™ between oil and terrorism – Participant uses its film to encourage the online purchase of â€˜TerraPassesâ€™ to help reduce auto emissions. If â€˜TerraPassesâ€™ arenâ€™t your thing, Participantâ€™s web site for â€œNorth Countryâ€ cheerfully encourages visitors to sign a â€œWomen-Friendly Workplace Pledgeâ€ and â€œimplement a sexual harassment policy at your school.â€ Yes, comrade!
So, in Jason’s world, what is a non-trivial movie? Glad you asked:
I donâ€™t recall whether David Lean bought any â€˜TerraPassesâ€™ while shooting â€œLawrence of Arabia,â€ be he certainly made a better film than this yearâ€™s Oscar crop. And so, by the way, did George Lucas.
You may remember George Lucas. Some thirty years ago he made a little film called â€œStar Warsâ€ that revolutionized filmmaking, inspired a new generation of filmmakers, and saved Hollywoodâ€™s finances. Lucas recently revolutionized filmmaking again by pulling Hollywood kicking-and-screaming into the digital age. In 2005 he made a little independent film called â€œStar Wars Episode IIIâ€ that was the yearâ€™s box office champ, received some of the warmest reviews of Lucasâ€™ career, and successfully rounded-out the most popular and influential film series in movie history.
Georgeâ€™s thanks for all this? â€œStar Wars Episode IIIâ€ got one nomination this morning, for Best Makeup. Lucas wasnâ€™t nominated for Best Director, although George Clooney was for â€œGood Night, and Good Luck.â€ â€œStar Wars”â€™s Ian McDiarmid, playing the deliciously wicked Chancellor Palpatine, wasnâ€™t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
So sorry, George Lucas. If your film doesnâ€™t get us angry at Bush, Oscar just doesnâ€™t care. Why? Because weâ€™re now in the era of film as social activism, The New Triviality.
Oh. It gets better.
The Trivial film, you see, is merely an occasion for social activism or celebrity posturing. For example, on accepting a Golden Globe for his role in â€œSyriana,â€ George Clooney used the occasion to make an untoward crack about Jack Abramoff. A friend of mine angrily remarked that the comment had â€œnothing to do with the filmâ€ for which Clooney was being honored. I politely demured. â€œIt has everything to do with the film,â€ I said. Why?
Because â€œSyriana,â€ as its creators proudly admit, is really just a â€˜platform.â€™ Just as Hollywood views films like â€œLord of the Ringsâ€ as â€˜platformsâ€™ from which to sell merchandise, so too are films like â€œSyrianaâ€ or â€œGood Night, and Good Luckâ€ or â€œThe Constant Gardenerâ€ now viewed as â€˜platformsâ€™ from which to sell politics, to pontificate about the world we live in. After all, there really is no â€˜pointâ€™ to a film like â€œSyrianaâ€ unless itâ€™s to enable a George Clooney to deliver political cheap shots on TV during awards season. He does it in the film, so why not on TV?
Of course, all of this Trivializes the cinema – turning it from an art form into something much smaller, more polemical. Thatâ€™s why this yearâ€™s Oscar nominees are truly films for the era of the iPod, with its 2-inch video screen. These new films make â€˜pointsâ€™ but constrict the imagination into something trite and pedantic – something with which weâ€™re supposed to be edified, rather than entertained.
Sooooo…. a film that “pontificates about the world we live in” is trivial, but a film with lots of cool special effects, bad acting, and wooden dialog that attracts the kind of people (you know who you are) who dress up as their favorite character and camp out for a week in advance is the seed from which the art form blossoms.
Which helps to explain the crapulence of Gentleman’s Agreement, Dr. Strangelove, The Best Years of Our Lives, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Meet John Doe, Paths of Glory, Z, The Battle of Algiers…..
Trivial, trivial, trivial, trivial.
And Jason wonders why he can’t find work.
(Thanks to Chicago Jeff for the link)
(Added): Jason complains about Saving Private Ryan being bested by Shakespeare in Love. Outside of the opening sequence Ryan was a rehash of every war movie I saw growing up as a kid. Other films that year (1998):
American History X
Gods and Monsters
The Truman Show
Out of Sight
Babe: A Pig in the City
A Bugs Life
…all better than Ryan. In my opinion of course.