Hollywood

Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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What Can Reactionary-Religious Films Learn from “Noah”?

Russell Crowe as NoahAs consumers of film culture and product, we’re used to the many facets of faith.

It’s exponentially important to the continuation of the industry at large. We form allegiances with filmmakers, genres, actors, actresses, producers, screenwriters, franchises and series; we put our faith in these artists and their labors, hoping that they’ll satiate our selfish desires of fulfillment.

There it is: hope, the integral apple to faith’s orange—similar, yet still entirely different fruit. Faith requires pre-established trust, while hope is idealized fantasy that needs no foundation. We can hope out of pure curiosity, but faith requires establishment. Both go hand-in-hand, speaking to our collective desire to indulge in fantasy as we make our way to the theater weekend after weekend.

There are films and audiences that hope for far too much. Religious cinema is often cast aside as its own marginalized (sometimes rightly so) subsect of the film world. The stigma of “Christian” as a descriptor will automatically turn off a majority of the potential audience. It will appeal to the demographic of worshippers; the God-fearing will seek out films like The Passion of the Christ and the upcoming Exodus, and expect them to reaffirm their faith. Christian films rarely deviate from this give-them-what-they-want routine.

Christian films are anomalies of subcultural film in that they seem to cater only to other Christians. The New Black Wave that’s sweeping the country has universal appeal, as does the Queer cinema movement; Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and Gregg Araki make films with subcultural and minority subjects, yet have the ability—and a desire—to speak to everyone.

Noah is a byproduct of the melding of contemporary Hollywood ambition with Christian lore. It’s different in that it offers an alternative approach to a historically-coded text, the biblical story of Noah, his ark, and the raging waters which cleansed the earth in the Old Testament.

It’s a film that can’t escape religious association and—in the hands of a visionary director—has the ability to reach beyond the divided camps of the Christian audience and those who are not Christian.

It’s a film that endured the brunt of built-in criticism; criticism that has taken its toll on the film’s long-term success and standing (Noah took in $4 million on Friday, which will likely result in a drop of over 50% for its second weekend).

The controversy surrounding the artistic liberties director Darren Aronofsky takes with the source material when transitioning from page to screen is to be expected, though it’s never wise to judge an adaptation on the degree to which it adheres to its source. Each text is its own entity, though the Christian audience has made it clear that Noah doesn’t have that luxury, especially when its source material is one of the most well-known symbnols of their religion, known around the world and by other religions for its appeal as a spectacle outside of being a biblical text.

It seems as if pro-religionism has become a trend of obligation. Over the course of the last seven months, ten Christian films have been released to theaters, five of which played on over 400 screens. Christian filmmakers feel the need to release dreck like God’s Not Dead and Son of God in reactionary fashion.

Films like Noah certainly aren’t helping the case for a Hollywood that’s more accepting of Christian subject matter, and it’s clear how Noah might rub the religious sect the wrong way. Aronofsky’s vision of the biblical tale incorporates elements of the whimsical; giant stone-like creatures with glowing eyes and CGI bodies appear only a few minutes into the film, making the bible seem more like another installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Aronofsky treats the Old Testament exactly for what it is; a fantasy, and Christian audiences might respond to the film if they accepted that such biblical tales are as literary and constructed as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

Noah centers on the title character as he receives visions from “The Creator” warning of an impending flood that will wipe out life on earth. Noah takes it upon himself to build an ark that will house one pair each of The Creator’s creatures until the flood is over, an the world will start anew.

Aronofsky’s script, co-written with Ari Handel, consciously deviates from any mention of the word “God,” instead lending itself more to the idea of The Creator as an amalgam of all life. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography speaks to this notion, sopping up vast earthly landscapes from high above, framing silhouetted characters against the night sky and cosmos, visually blending life on earth with its surroundings, globbing it all together for the sake of universality united under the connecting thread of life itself.

The Creator is perhaps one of the least-important pieces of Noah’s puzzle. Character struggle is often internal—sparked by Noah’s adherence to what he believes is The Creator’s plan—and speaks to the film’s relegation of The Creator’s will to second-fiddle in the shadow of Noah’s arc as a character. Noah begins the film as a man of faith, who sacrifices earthly desires for the sake of the will of a higher power, and ends as a man of his own volition.

video-undefined-196A7F3B00000578-247_636x358Faith is a capital principal of filmmaking in general. Studios trust that an audience will respond to their work. Characters generally find their faith in something–spiritually or other–is challenged, altered, or lost. Bob Harris loses faith in himself, his career, and the institution of marriage in Lost in Translation. Dr. Ryan Stone’s spiritual outlook is challenged after the loss of her daughter in Gravity. For many successful plots, something is lost only to be regained through unwavering faith and hope.

Many of these characters become agents of change after internal struggle, or simply succumb to the higher power of narrative necessity or a screenwriter’s desire to see them through to the end of their own story.

Noah is no different. What the Christian audience wanted so badly to be a by-the-numbers retelling of a story they’re already familiar with ended up as a film that values the development of its human characters versus throwing its weight behind the grand scheme of religion. It is a Hollywood production through and through, one that just so happens to strip itself of the chains of religious association and create something new out of dated, fantastical source material.

There’s so much to take away from Noah if expectations aren’t placed upon its “duty” as a story rooted in religion. While faith is a necessary component of satisfactory consumption, it’s simply unwise to treat any Hollywood product as a legitimate reflection of any community, religion, or subculture. What Noah does well, however, is continue the small sliver of artistic favor that’s left in studio filmmaking. This is a film with more than one central female character. This is a film that re-envisions a familiar text for a modern audience. It defies the normative culture in so many ways.

The Old Testament is filled with stories, and accusations of misrepresentation are unfounded when half of what happens within the pages of the bible defies so much of the reality we live each day.

Can you make a greater statement by denying the fantasy or indulging in what meaning arises from the power of fictional construct?

Noah is another one of these stories that lends itself to the cinematic medium moreso than any other. It’s a grand-scale epic of spectacle and action. What we should be celebrating with Noah is what its existence says about the state of the contemporary auteur. The power of a director’s vision and conviction in his craft to take something so familiar and resurrect it as something fresh, something beautiful, and something that can speak to a universal audience instead of jerking off a compartmentalized one.

That should give us hope.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Rayon, Ja’mie, and the Transitioning Face of Oscar?

27LETO1_SPAN-articleLarge-v2We’re conditioned to assume that identity and labels go hand in hand.

As consumers we pick at endless rows of grocery store displays, weaving in and out of a sea of familiarity in dozens of uniform rows across the immediate horizon.

Everything is there, and everything is convenient.

The way we digest movies largely follows the same pattern all the way through to awards season. Films are produced, they’re released, and they’re marketed to specific audiences. They succeed or they fail.

It’s funny that studios seem to process us the way we gobble up their films. We fall into demographics, clusters of numbers, ages, attendance figures and statistics; labels placed upon us so they can determine which standards of beauty to uphold and which norms to re-enforce. Anything to make a buck on the status quo.

Oscar campaigns seek to funnel those we see onscreen (and those who craft the fantasy from behind the lens) into their respective categories, to be voted on by the Academy, which bestows a prestigious label on one member from each category: victor.

One thing that hasn’t been a luxury of convenience is the avenue of expression the minority voice has at its immediate disposal. In 2014, teenagers in Florida are being murdered for being black and listening to loud music; in Texas, those who oppose the state’s ban on same-sex marriage face majority opposition to the tune of 57% percent (according to a survey by Public Policy Polling).

As much as movie studios and television networks treat their demographics like guaranteed, sliced-and-served morsels, people are not wonderbread slapped onto a shelf or saccharine pudding fudged into tiny plastic squares.

Labels have become a tool for both sides of the debate. For the oppressed, labels identify their “other”-ness and embrace it; for the oppressor, they’re used to alienate.

It seems that the very industry within which minorities often find their voice also comes under the most scrutiny for upholding societal standards. Big-budget films and the studios which release them generally funnel their products into four affective categories, films that:

a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally

b) Bolster traditional gender, race, and identity roles because that’s what the dominant majority is used to

or

c) Both

2013 saw the release (and triumph) of three prominent black-themed, black-created films that bucked the system: Lee Daniels’ The Butler proved that “black” subject matter has commercial staying power; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, storming critics circle awards at the end of the year; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is on the verge of potentially becoming the first black-themed film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The clout is undeniable, and the tide seems to be turning in the favor of a “New Black Cinema” movement of sorts.

The voice of the LGBT community is one that shares the spotlight of inequality, yet is often misunderstood by the dominant majority far more than racial minorities. For every The Butler, there are twelve Blue is the Warmest Color controversies; sexual stigma follows simply follows gay-themed films, and we as consumers and critics have ourselves to blame.

The Oscars aren’t innocent on this front, either. So blatantly was the tide of 2005’s awards season turned against Brokeback Mountain when Crash took the Academy’s top honor out from under it. Is the Academy ready to hear the LGBT voice beyond decorating heterosexual actors taking on the “ever-courageous” task of playing *gasp* a gay character?

Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film nominated for six awards at the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect transitional film for a still all-white, still prominently-heterosexual, still predominantly-male voting base not unlike the one which upset Brokeback Mountain at a time when history could have been made.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic, bigoted man in Texas who contracts AIDS as a result of his promiscuous, drug-using ways.

Using Ron’s homophobia as a base, the film then systematically deconstructs his fear of the LGBT community as he copes with his diagnosis. His struggle with AIDS is closely mirrored by that of Rayon’s (Jared Leto), a transwoman he met while at the hospital. Initially hostile toward her, Ron’s relationship with Rayon is further founded on the prospect of business (he eventually uses her to sell non-approved treatments for AIDS-related ailments on the street), and the hostility he feels toward the gay community lessens to the point where he actively campaigns against the FDA and its regulations.

The film sort of passed with the Academy because of the general “safeness” of its plot. In their eyes, it’s ok for old white men to like this film, seeing as its protagonist is a heterosexual male who “enters” the gay community for personal gain, using a transgender woman as a tool for business instead of, say, enjoying her company. The gay community is seen as an impenetrable barrier or obstacle for Ron. He doesn’t want to associate with it, but bites the bullet for a quick buck.

His tune changes, though, and he quickly forms a friendly bond with Rayon. In one powerful scene that takes place as the pair shop at a grocery store, surrounded by uniform displays and generic products soldiered next to each other in perfectly-aligned fashion, Ron forces a bigoted former-friend to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene which cements the equal-plane understanding of each character. Rayon shows Ron a side of himself he didn’t think existed, and Ron shows her an equal ally in the battle against discrimination, as he now knows what it’s like to be discriminated against.

It’s not merely the presence of a trans character that makes Dallas Buyers Club such a revolutionary film. Rather, it’s the screenplay’s unwillingness to let Rayon become defined by her status as a transwoman that allows the film to thrive.

Whereas a film like The Crying Game (an Oscar favorite in its respective year) toys with gender identity as a thematic device to give the film some edge, Dallas Buyers Club‘s screenplay never bullshits Rayon’s existence, doesn’t shove her into any boxes, and certainly doesn’t confine her to heroic status because of her identity. She is not a object of LGBT championing, nor is she an “other”: she’s simply a character.

Rayon is defined by her attitude, her assholish (if you will) demeanor, and the fact that she’s allowed to be herself, which is an imperfect person not merely defined by her sexuality. The fact that she’s allowed to be flawed beyond what the hetero-normative perspective would immediately label a “flaw” (her transsexuality) is where the character succeeds as a positive presence for the LGBT community in film.

While Ron’s’s relationship with her deepens as the film goes on, it’s never motivated by anything more than the bond of friendship.

While Ron is doing a service to gay community, Rayon is never seen as needing a straight man to save or defend her. She’s secure in herself enough to maintain a grasp on equality within their relationship. Issues of “queerness” aren’t at the forefront of her character. She sees Ron as a friend, doesn’t let his sexuality (or what his demeanor and dress would suggest about his “straightness” to a stereotypical mind) precede him, and initially approaches him out of kindness without fear as they both lay in hospital beds, for disease knows no socially-coded bounds.

Rayon’s eventual death is deeply disturbing. We spend so much time with Rayon, absorbing her flaws, watching her paint her face and create the reality she desires that the world won’t let her have without burden. In her dying moments, she remains true to herself. We see quick, abstract shots of her reaching for a mirror and makeup; not as a means to put on a fake face, but to cement her life’s purpose with the identity she embraced, even in death.

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Another unlikely face that (sort of) destigmatized the LGBT community in 2013 was Australian writer-director-actor Chris Lilley and his brilliant mockumentary series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” 

The series follows Ja’mie King (Lilley), a 16-year old private school student and her attempts to garner her institution’s most prestigious award, the Hilford Medal. Of course, Ja’mie’s pursuit is offset by her miserably evil ways. The show comes off at once as commentary on the ever-increasing superficiality of the world’s youth, but never emphasizes the fact that its title character is played by a 40-year old man.

Most American critics bashed the series, labeling it a transphobic assault of sorts, insisting that it prompted viewers to see Ja’mie as a monstrous other simply because a male actor happened to play her part.

First of all, the American media and entertainment industry hardly carry the torch for the LGBT community in a way that gives them the right to suddenly defend what they perceive to be unfair representation. Second, the genius of the series lies within Lilly’s abilities as an actor, not his creative decision to don women’s clothing.

There’s a brilliant believability in his mannerisms as he encapsulates and transforms into a 16-year old girl. From the way he maintains childish aura to the attitude, the dialect, the cultural understanding of a younger generation gone sour is embodied in the character. It’s not drag for the sake of poking fun at a man in women’s clothing, it’s simply appealing for Lilley’s ability to become a character he’s created. It’s acting in its finest form. 

The show insists on not placing Ja’mie in situations where the gender-bending would be an easy joke. Instead of seeing a person of trans identity, we’re forced to see Ja’mie as the terrible, manipulative, angry, evil, juvenile, judgmental person that she is. Her actions transcend her physicality. The show doesn’t rely on its lazy, would-be crutch to succeed. 

Whereas Rayon represents the progressive face of transpeople in cinema, Ja’mie’s appeal lies more in how the character is digested by audiences versus the content of the show. The de-emphasis on the fact that it’s “drag” has audiences focusing on more important aspects of her character: how she treats people, how she manipulates every dynamic of her life, and the pure comedic wit of Lilley’s writing.

Australian audiences adore the series, as their audiences are generally able to understand the appeal versus identifying its most superficial parts and ripping them apart because it’s easy to. American audiences–especially those watching movies–could benefit from adopting this mindset.

So, does Jared Leto’s status as a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category speak more to the Academy’s diversifying tastes, or does it speak more to the Academy’s long-standing view of straight men playing queer characters as heroic or stepping beyond their bounds?

I think it’s easier to gauge the Academy’s stance by looking at the Best Actor category, where Matthew McConaughey is currently predicted to win by nearly every major Oscar pundit. In a sense, Ron is the Academy. He represents the old-fashioned, traditional way of thinking that’s made the Oscars a confluence of the same opinion for the past 85 ceremonies.

Dallas Buyers Club represents a point of reference for these members. They can reject his transformation, or accept the minority voice the diversifying Academy around them is attempting to amplify.

Until the envelopes are opened, let’s hope they inspect the mirror as carefully as Rayon and Ja’mie do, or force audiences to do.

No one likes the old white boys’ club label anymore, anyway.

Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.

Oscar Season Diary #3: The Academy and Box-Office; Does it Matter for Women?

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I hate the word “gendered.”

Maybe it’s because we live in a time where it’s unjustifiably easy to see the dichotomy between male and female–especially within the film industry. Or maybe it’s because I know I use the word far too often, to highlight issues pertaining to the prior sentiment.

When you think about it, the existence of separate categories for actors and actresses at the Academy Awards is sort of sexist in itself. When the boundaries are set, difference is emphasized, and thus the funneling begins. A performance is a performance, and separating them based purely on gender has never felt right to me, never more so than now, when the American film industry is so conflicted in its representation of gender.

Since the 1970s, movie studios have benefited from this sort of separation of gender. The first round of true blockbuster films (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.) were male-centered. The trend of appealing to teenage boys continues today in what is very much the same vein of appeal as it was back then–even though that initial crop of young males are now well into their forties. Films are marketed to men, by men, and are consumed in varying quantities; whether you have a pre-destined hit like Iron Man 3 or a string of major flops like R.I.P.D., After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and White House Down, studios consistently push male-driven films like it’s the only thing they know how to do.

Films like Klute, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Network made the decade a breeding ground for powerful films about powerful women. Women drove the plot. They weren’t filler that needed justification simply to hang over a man’s head.

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But, women were still sexual, you might say. And not to the point that they are in films today. I’d actually say healthily so, as opposed to the empty sexuality we so often see on contemporary movie screens. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in 1971’s Klute is a prostitute both socially and sexually. She has sex with a lot of “Johns,” as she calls them, but rarely do we see her engaging in contemptible behavior. She doesn’t so much use her sexuality like a pawn in a chess game to get what she wants, but rather she absorbs the act of sex as a means to feel desirable. She’s not after the act of sex itself as much as she craves the closeness and sense of self-worth. She isn’t validated by sex, she’s validated by belonging–as a woman should–as an equal part of another person’s life.

Jane Fonda won Best Actress for the role in 1972.

Bree is a powerfully-written character, and the type of female character you don’t see anymore. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity is a similarly-detached female, having once been a mother but not bearing the weight of a mouth to feed anymore, as her daughter died at the age of four. Stone carries the grief, but doesn’t externalize it as a weakness. Instead, the film unravels as a rediscovery of herself; her rebirth; her coming to terms with her physical fragility (the fragility of life, not gender, mind you) on the brink of death as a means to regain a sense of worth that most women in film are only represented as possessing if they’re a mother or a wife. Stone has no generic tropes to validate her; she has only herself, and is validated in her strength and will to survive–to live life itself–with former pain (not in spite of it) that won’t drag her down anymore.

Sandra Bullock is currently neck-and-neck with Cate Blanchett for Best Actress over 40 years later.

The Academy has long been able to pick out strong female parts and amplify their effect. The crop of nominees for Best Actress reflected a diverse array of women that reflected the ever-present demand for strong female characters. Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, and The Impossible featured female characters that drove the plot of their respective films. Silver Linings Playbook, the film which took home the Best Actress award for star Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, happened to feature a fantastic actress in a male-driven film who won for a supporting role. Nonetheless, the age and cultural range (9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, 86-year old Emmanuelle Riva) compared to the Best Actor category was astounding.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at each of the films that have opened to over $35 million weekends so far this year:

  • Gravity – $55.8 million
  • Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
  • The Conjuring – $41.9 million
  • The Wolverine – $53 million
  • Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
  • Monsters University – $82.4 million
  • Man of Steel – $116.6 million
  • Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
  • Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
  • Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
  • Oblivion – $37.1 million
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
  • The Croods – $43.6 million
  • Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
  • Identity Thief – $34.6 million
  • The Heat – $39.1 million
  • World War Z – $66.4 million
  • The Hangover Part III $41.7 million
  • The Great Gatsby $50.1 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with:

  • Gravity $55.8 million
  • The Conjuring $41.9 million
  • Oblivion $37.1 million
  • Identity Thief $34.6 million
  • The Heat $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

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That brings me back to Gravity and its Oscar chances. The Academy has a duty to not only legitimize itself by nominating great films, but also to reflect what the general public deems acceptable, as well. This is true more so in recent years where films like Avatar, Les Miserables, and The Help sneak into the Best Picture race. Audiences like films that make them feel good (even when more powerful, era-specific films like Zero Dark Thirty are perhaps more reflective of our cultural climate and, therefore, more “important”), and the Academy often falls victim to this sort of blind acceptance of anything that’s neatly-tied together and pushing as little buttons as possible. How else do you explain Argo winning the top prize last year? Unless you go with the Ben Affleck sob story, that is. Poor Golden Boy didn’t get a Best Director nomination, so we’ll console him with the year’s top prize for American films. No word yet on if Kathryn Bigelow will justifiably receive honorary Oscars for the next decade after embarrassingly-cruel tactics led by U.S. politicians (you know, people with real power outside a superfluous movie industry awards bubble) ruined the reception and impact of her film.

Gravity and the case for Sandra Bullock, however, reminds me of how the road to Oscars 2009 should have gone down if The Blind Side were a much more deserving film than it actually was. We saw Bullock win her first Oscar for her role in The Blind Side, a film that entered itself into the Oscar race thanks to its gigantic box-office success (nearly $300 million worldwide). While the film populated the clear “people’s choice” spot amongst the Best Picture nominees, there was no denying Sandra Bullock’s vital extra-filmic role in a changing moviescape. She’s one of the few movie stars (regardless of gender) who can still open a movie based on her presence alone. Even her less successful films of the past ten years manage to gross at least $30-$40 million domestically. It took me a while to realize that her win for Best Actress wasn’t for her performance, but for her essential presence in the industry as a whole.

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Gravity
is making its impact as a critical smash, box-office hit and, yes, a success for the gendered debate within the film industry. The Academy would be insane not to give Bullock the win, if not to pat themselves on the back for a job well done four years ago, but to cement the crown firmly atop the head of the face of the return of the powerful Hollywood female. While Cate Blanchett’s performance is far superior, it’s clear that Oscar has a duty here. In a year when each of the leading female contenders is over the age of 40 (the supposed “age of death” for an actress’ career), Oscar can sink the boat a’la 2012, or it can be on the right side of a changing tide. These women and films are proof that an actress’ career doesn’t have to fade once she reaches a certain age.

The answer to how this year will play out in the Oscar history books lies largely within Gravity.

Photo-Forward; Seeing the World Through Jenn Hoffman’s Eyes

An Interview by Joey Nolfi

Jenn Hoffman – Photographer

Photobucket(above: Portrait of Jenn Hoffman)

To put it simply, through a photographer’s eyes the world becomes a different place. It is their visionary, imaginative, and creative point of view that enables the rest of us to see things from (literally) an entirely different angle. And judging from the looks of the extensive images in the portfolio of photographer Jenn Hoffman, that world is an artistically-chic and edgy playground inhabited by some of the fiercest people on the planet.

From visionary conceptuals, stunning fashion pieces, classic wedding photos with a contemporary twist, to celebrity portraits (we’ll get to that in a minute) of some of the hottest names in fashion, Hoffman’s portfolio is as diverse as the people she shoots. From models of all skin colors, backgrounds, and roles in the fashion world to actors, actresses, and ordinary people that don’t fall into any specific category, Jenn Hoffman has shot them all. “I love to shoot all kinds of people, but my personal favorite are fashion models! Tall, skinny, interesting faces…so fun!” says Hoffman, and that’s definitely apparent in her work; some of her clients include top outlets for models such as the LA Models agency in California, magazines such as Fiasco, and even international publications such as Popcorn Magazine in Germany.

Celebrity clients are also nothing new to Jenn Hoffman. Hoffman has shot Hollywood actors and actresses, notably Danielle Harris, one of the stars of the recent Halloween remake. Hoffman has even worked with modeling royalty like Janice Dickinson, for whom she shot a promo for Season 4 of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. Hoffman says that Dickinson “…was just AMAZING! She knew her modeling, so when I was shooting her I barely had to say anything!” and that she enjoyed working with some of the male models from Dickinson’s agency as well, most notably Brian Kehoe and Paul Vandervort.

Photobucket(above: Supermodel Janice Dickinson by Jenn Hoffman)


You’d think that working with such high-profile subjects would drive anyone absolutely insane from anxiety, but Hoffman says that with her, that isn’t the case. “It doesn’t bother me anymore” Hoffman says about her nerves, “I used to get nervous before agency model shoots, but now it’s a breeze because it’s part of me. It’s a privilege!”

But, putting together these shoots isn’t easy. Each of Hoffman’s shoots usually take at least 3 hours to complete, and even more prep work before anyone sets foot in the studio; “Honestly, there is a lot of computer work, loads of e-mails, and constant networking” says Hoffman, but the creative process behind her work is more than worth the hassle; “All of [my concepts] I have thought of. I do believe a great team can make a huge impact on the final shots as well. My red phone picture [shown below] was a spur of the moment shot!”. It’s refreshing to see someone still so passionate about this craft to be truly devoted to it, even in free time, to constantly come up with the brilliant and striking concepts that Hoffman produces. She even incorporates very powerful religious imagery into some of her more artistic pieces, most notably one in which she used a male model to represent Jesus dying on the cross; “I chose the perfect model for that, Jesse Holland. He got into character beyond belief” she says of her careful process of selecting models for projects like this. But what’s more interesting about art like this withinin contemporary photography is that the religious theme is so overt. “I think other art inspires me to create my own,” Hoffman says, “the fact that I can make my own lifestyle and create art with many different people is rewarding…I do have a Christianity [sic] about me, and this shoot just depicts an icon in life. Jesus is an icon.”

Photobucket(above: Photo by Jenn Hoffman)

It’s clear that Hoffman is as dedicated to her craft as any true artist is, but her ideal way of life that she lives every day almost didn’t happen at all. Hoffman’s early life in Raleigh, North Carolina almost steered her on a completely different path, one that didn’t include the art of photography at all. “My original major was graphic design” she says, “but I realized that wasn’t my forte.” After a random occurrence at the age of 17  in which she witnessed a friend transform a common shoe on the side of the road into a piece of envisioned photographic art, she realized photography was her true passion; after taking a photography course in Raleigh, Hoffman began a new course which would take her to the successful place in which she’s comfortably sitting right now. “I was fascinated by the way photographing something was so fun and adventurous. I then started shooting models, kept going and going, then decided to move to LA to pursue the dream!” Now residing just outside of Los Angeles, it seems as if the dream is already being lived.

But the road to success wasn’t always easy. Hoffman, at one point a struggling photographer like so many others, says she’s felt like giving up; “Sometimes in this field of freelancing, you feel like giving up either due to finances or the slowness of business, but I keep telling myself to go and go! I really could not imagine doing any other job!” Thankfully, Hoffman’s stuck with the craft, because the images this photographer produces are some of the most stunning shots this side of Vogue.

Photobucket(above: Photo by Jenn Hoffman)

Art is ever-present in today’s society, and that presence is growing day by day. “I think other art inspires me to create my own. Other photographers are an inspiration to me as well…[photography] is an addiction you cannot explain,” Hoffman says, “It really is about the way you connect with your subject and the way you put passion into your work that will make it ‘good’ or ‘successful’.” But as far as labeling goes, within the art world it’s easy to become pigeonholed into a generalized category in which you specialize, and Hoffman feels very strongly about her place in the industry; “I consider myself to be an artist, not a photographer” she says with a smile. And trust me, the rest of the world sees you that way too, Jenn.

Jenn Hoffman Photography – Official Site

(below: Brian Kehoe and Paul Vandervort, photo by Jenn Hoffman)

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