Cannes

Oscar Season Diary #1: Punditry and Responsibility

Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender

Is it appropriate to use the word “responsiblity,” in this case?

After all, it’s film we’re talking about. Not international tension or foreign policy, right?

In a way, though, is Oscar punditry not unlike a sort of international operation? Filtering the chaos of Toronto, Telluride, and all the guilds and critics’ circles to come into a streamlined, easy-to-digest pill for those non-endowed with the knowledge of such a particular competition? I think of HitFix, IndieWire, Awards Daily; each reports in a personable manner, speaking to readers versus at them. It’s all stuffed with pretension here and there, but we’re used to that. This is Oscar Season, after all.

Awards Season blogging/punditry discourse is, for the most part, a way for the knowledgeable to be at-bat with the rest of their team at the same time, fighting for the same chance to strike the Academy’s pitch. No one asks them to, but that doesn’t stop the sensationalized coverage of this year’s September festivals from forcing their way into casual Oscar discourse.

I think immediately of Alonso Duralde (film critic at The Wrap) and Adam B. Vary (film reporter for Buzzfeed) and their Twitter spat this weekend after the former expressed his distaste with press oversensationalizing the quality of films for the sake of self-starting awards season buzz. Vary insisted the praise–specifically, that for 12 Years a Slave–was genuine, while Mark Harris (writer at Entertainment Weekly) chimed in, adding that those insisting the Best Picture race is already over aren’t doing the film any favors.

I see the side to each point. It seems that though as power and sway is taken away from critics during awards season (did we have the amount of guild awards, SAG awards, and online buzz 20 years ago? I think not) as anyone with access to the internet now wields the power of broadcast. The onslaught of praise for 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride and Toronto is almost knowingly self-fulfilling. What Duralde is getting at, I assume, is that the praise seems more like a wank to their individual ability to find the diamond in the rough and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The awards race has transcended mere quality. It’s about buzz, marketing, studio pushes, and (most importantly) making a splash at these game-changing early-season festivals. Voluminous praise spreads like a virus, and soon everyone is on the bandwagon, an individual part of the machine that turns appeal into gold (Blue is the Warmest Color swept Cannes like wildfire in a similar fashion).

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Perhaps the praise is merely that: praise. It’s ridiculous to judge someone’s enthusiasm for a film, especially in an age where art takes a backseat to blockbuster. I’m all for championing films that break the mold of what studios deem marketable, and 12 Years a Slave certainly looks to live up to the hype. But hype can often kill a film’s chances at the Oscars. Jumping the gun and declaring the race over when Toronto hasn’t completed is ludicrous. There were those who latched on to Argo at this point last year, but that did little good. The film, after all, was left out of the Best Director category, and only then did it become the clear frontrunner (or, colossal sympathy vote) for Best Picture. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated followup to Shame, I just hope its chances aren’t killed thanks to foam-mouthed bloggers expending its welcome too soon.

It was almost as if the desire to love 12 Years a Slave preceded it. Like a shaken bottle waiting to be uncapped. The desire to praise something different, something from a filmmaker widely ignored for superior work two years ago. That’s why the praise for films like Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto seems more legitimate, at least in my eyes. Both seem unexpectedly fantastic, and the reviews truly reflected that. You can tell that critics were stunned by their impact. That’s not to say that quality wasn’t expected, it just didn’t have nearly as much chatter surrounding it as the buzzier flicks did. For one, they weren’t shown at Cannes, and Cuaron’s track record has been 0 for 0 for the past seven years. Surprise passion trumps informed expectation.

Alas, Toronto is nearly over, and we still have other contenders (arguably) to sift through (August reviews should begin pouring in shortly, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have yet to screen anywhere, Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips are making leaps and bounds to the forefront of Oscar discussion), and all of that only leads to the conclusion that we still have three months until nominations are announced. Sensation and accessibility to underqualified, over-shared opinions only leads one of two ways, neither favorable: building buzz (The Artist) or dying a slow death thanks to over-sharing and over-saturation of “it’s a guarantee, so lets talk about something else” (Lincoln).

Though no one asks for their opinion, bloggers an informed voice is often the best candlelight to follow in a sea of darkness. But, for once, it’d be nice to find the footing on my own.

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Current Big 4 predictions after Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and pre-screening buzz:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lee Daniels (The Butler)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – If she remains Lead, which apparently she is
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

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The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) film still

For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.