Oscar Season Diary #2: Is America Watching or Seeing?

prisoners

Venice and Telluride came and went, and now Toronto is a thing of the past.

It’s that time of year again; the beginning of Oscar season, a time when a stern focus is placed on the finest films of the year. A variety of perspectives come together both onscreen and off, and it’s an invigorating season filled with a celebration of one of the most incredible industries in history.

While we often disagree on which films are the best of any given year, no one is complaining that for 6 months out of the year we have a legitimate excuse to talk about movies every single day on a larger-than-usual public scale.

Two things are certain at this point in the race:  three black filmmakers have films vying for legitimate recognition (that is, beyond technical or minor categories) from The Academy (when was the last time–if ever–this happened?), and one of those films emerged as a race-wide frontrunner at the close of Toronto.

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, seemed to sweep all three major precursor festivals with near unanimous praise. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show is being hailed as the best film of her–and director Alfonso Cuaron’s–career.

While we have our surefire Oscar hopefuls distracting us in one corner, it’s often that we find other, less-expected gems to creep up and find their home in the awards season race. One such film to come out of the festival circuit this year, Prisoners, at one point held a somewhat decent standing as a light Oscar contender. And while the awards circuit might be in tune with mature films, is the general public ready to invest in watching versus merely seeing?

From Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was nominated in the Foreign-Language category, Prisoners similarly explores dark subject matter in a way that American audiences simply aren’t used to. It’s the story of two families dealing with the kidnapping of their daughters. Each parent takes a drastically different approach, coming to terms with their own guilt, sorrow, and anger in a narrative which becomes an emotional, character-driven journey than a crime-solving procedural.

The theater I saw the film in was comprised of your typical mainstream crowd–the only problem is that I could tell half of them were prepared for Taken 2. At two hours and thirty-three minutes long, Prisoners isn’t popcorn-flick fare. Its weighty themes and brooding atmosphere do little to comfort, and that’s the exact opposite of what contemporary American audiences want.

It’s part of my job to get audience reaction after these pre-screenings. Most of the comments I got for the film were positive, but the rest were negative for one reason only: the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that the film does not spell everything out for you. It ends abruptly on poetic note that requires mental backtracking. It truly pulls you to all extremes of the film, and beckons your analysis in its stark simplicity. It’s complex, challenging, and wants to get under your skin. It forces you to think, and that’s something I’ve come to realize American audiences simply aren’t willing to do.

“It was fantastic up until the end. The end ruined it! I wanted to see what happened!” A woman shouted, and it pained me to write it down. I fear that the American public has grown far too impatient to enjoy mature films anymore, and it’s even more unsettling to think of the broader implications this has on our society at large. All this film asks of us is to think. For five minutes out of your day, to really think about what you’re seeing onscreen versus passively accepting it. Can it be chalked up to laziness? Sure. I’m only 23-years old, but I remember when laziness was a descriptor that stood out; it meant something to call someone lazy. It meant that their inability to function individualized them, but when that same sentiment can be applied to an entire group of people–and entire society, even–and mere competence becomes the standout–is where the issue becomes disturbing.

Yes, that’s it: we’re not just talking about films, here. We’re talking about competence.

Some of the comments for Prisoners were positive, but for the wrong reasons. “Great action, really violent and disturbing!” I heard a man say. “Total blockbuster,” another yelled. I remember asking myself if he was even aware of what a blockbuster truly is? I thought back to the 1970s, when Star Wars and Jaws introduced American audiences to the blockbuster. The term is a physical descriptor for a film whose presence takes over popular culture in key ways. Is it playing on a vast majority of screens across the country? Is their multi-channel marketing? Merchandising? A simple high concept? Compare yesterday’s Jaws-es to today’s Fast and Furious 6-es, and the cultural shift is clear. In his (and many other) eyes, “blockbuster” means “quality.” This is how much we’ve been conditioned to big-budget studio trash, and while we have the 1970s to thank for that, it’s also an era worthy of extreme praise for conditioning the public to the opposite of the blockbuster.

The 70s were about making movies for adults. The highest-grossing films of the year weren’t sequels, or based on comic book heroes, or budgeted at $100 million for the sole purpose of tripling that number for bragging rights. We saw experimentation in mainstream film. We saw ambition and creativity. And, as in any business model, the customer determined the product. We were smarter and patient. Today, we just want our $10 popcorn and escapism in spandex and a cape. Easy to digest, easy to process, and easy to feel good about ourselves at the end, and that’s NOT what cinema is about.

prisoners-viola-davis-jake-gyllenhaal-terrence-howard-600x399

Prisoners represents a reality that’s still tangible in the film world. We’re still seeing studios invest somewhat in small, independently-spirited, adult-oriented features. I don’t have a problem with the public dictating what a business does. That’s how it works. I have a problem with the downward spiral of the public’s intelligence having an effect on the quality and types of films that are produced. We’re seeing less and less investment in “riskier” projects (like Prisoners) and it’s killing creativity in the mainstream. There’s no reason that “mainstream” and “trash” have to be synonymous. It’s ingrained in our minds now because that’s what it has turned into, and that’s why we see Best Picture winners like Argo. We’re complacent with the fuzzy, tickly, sugar-coated happy ending that can only come with escapist fantasy. We’ve got soft stomachs built on titanium foundations of yesteryear, and it’s hard to tell what went wrong.

Was it the failure of big-budget films in the 1980s? When we saw the reality of failure could exist in Hollywood fantasyland? Heaven’s Gate couldn’t have caused that much of a shift, right? It takes more than one film to instigate a shift in collective cultural tolerance.

By all means, Prisoners is a mainstream film for a mainstream audience that isn’t quite ready for it. They’re still here, albeit not as abundant as they were in the days of Heaven’s Gate. I noticed the audience growing increasingly frustrated at around the two-hour mark of the film. Conversations were happening, phones whipped out, and trips to the concession stand increased by the minute. At one point, I even heard people cheering Jackman’s character on during one of the most disturbing sequences in the film. Everyone around me was missing the point, and it made me ashamed to be a part of a generation that sacrifices intellectual curiosity for disrespectful superficiality.

There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the film, it’s merely people’s tolerance levels have deteriorated to the point where mere self-induced distraction is blamed on the film for being “boring,” when in fact it’s one’s own failure to invest that’s the issue.

It gives me some hope, then, that 12 Years a Slave (Audience Award-winner, Toronto’s top prize) and Gravity have sustained their Oscar buzz throughout the festival circuit (with Prisoners plateauing with the critics this week, it’s unlikely to garner Academy recognition unless it smashes at the box-office). I’ve yet to see either film, but from what I’m hearing they’re pretty straightforward, linear films with big-budgets, studio backing, and undeniably mature, complex art-house flair that retain their viewer appeal in a fresh way. Sort of like Jaws and Star Wars were breaths of fresh air in their own right. It’s in the Academy’s best interest, in a year they’re desperately seeking to diversify themselves beyond their male-dominated member base, to choose films like these going forward, as they represent a glimmer of hope not only for the film industry, but for the culture consuming them.

No one wants to see mature cinema disappear and all it takes is a little thought on everyone’s part, no? Films like Prisoners deserve audience support, because we can’t let the creative side of the film industry disappear.

Is that really a ridiculous thing to ask of people? For them to use their money to think? It goes far beyond being interested in film or being a cinephile; it’s merely asking people to use their heads.

Top 10 Films of 2013 so far:

1) Prisoners
2) Blackfish
3) Blue Jasmine
4) Stories We Tell
5) Stoker
6) Frances Ha
7) The Place Beyond the Pines
8) The Bling Ring
9) The Grandmaster
10) The To-Do List

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