movie awards

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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In it for the Long Haul: 4 Things We Learned From Sunday’s Oscars

86th Annual Academy Awards - ShowDoubt is such a malicious feeling.

It liquifies, seeps through the tiniest of cracks, and willingly takes hold of our perspective and changes it in a heartbeat, and yet 2013’s awards season seemed to be defined by it.

From September through this past Sunday’s Oscars, it seemed as though the industry never reached a clearing of solace amidst the chaotic journey to the Academy Awards.

While Gravity, American Hustle, and sometimes even The Wolf of Wall Street seemed to lead the race at any given time, critical backlash or a guild surprise reintroduced doubt unto the emerging frontrunner’s wings before they could fully spread.

We had many frontrunners, but we ultimately had none.

12 Years a Slave seemed, on paper, to be the film with Best Picture written all over it, having fallen in line with the Academy’s diversifying image (publicizing increased minority membership while boasting its first black female president), which seemed to spell a clear path to victory for Steve McQueen’s powerful historical drama, though it became a sitting duck for critics, audiences, and Academy members who don’t like to be told what to do.

Instead, they fancy themselves as free-thinkers, seeing in the mirror rebels who buck the system instead of reenforcing it; they are, at times, both. Crash was a rebellious choice for Best Picture in 2004, though it fell in line with a general consensus to avoid the controversial. Films like The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo reaffirmed the awards season status quo as generally-appealing Best Picture winners.

What, then, inspired Sunday’s change of heart? 12 Years a Slave–a film about black characters, directed by a black man, with a black screenwriter and black stars–won Best Picture, breaking the longstanding streak of white filmmaker dominance.

There are four key things Sunday’s Oscar ceremony teaches us about the new breed of Academy that made what is, for them, an incredibly bold choice:

1) The Academy listens to outside sources, but are not dependent upon them

With Best Picture-sealed closure to complete its narrative, the 2013 awards season arc can certainly be traced across racially-motivated factors. The Academy’s diversifying membership (more women and minorities were invited last year than any other recent year) and changing leadership (Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first black female president in Academy history) mirrored a shift in the industry. A general push for more diversity onscreen and behind it led many prominent films starring (Gravity, 20 Feet From Stardom) and made by (12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station) minorities to critical and commercial success.

12 Years a Slave fit the bill at a time when racial tensions are ever-present in a nation that sees the split between rich and poor, black and white, and gay and straight widen across countless social and political battles day after day. People look to film as both a reflection of and comment on the society around them, and a film that deals with issues of race in a historical context is the greatest tool of all to both probe the majority and provoke thought across the board.

The Academy had many choices thrust in their face by critics circles and guilds alike. The NYFCC wanted so desperately to champion American Hustle across the finish line first, while the guilds seemed to back Gravity. Gravity winning Best Picture would have made sense statistically, given that 7 total Oscars (including two key Best Picture indicators–Best Director and Best Film Editing) were awarded to Cuaron’s masterpiece. In a split year (as the sages over at Awards Daily have consistently pointed out), the Best Director Oscar often goes to the more-respected film (in essence, the “better” of the two, for example: Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) whereas Best Picture is generally favored to win as a crowd-pleaser that pushes as little buttons as possible. This year, Gravity was the latter, though the typical awards procession was reversed. Steve McQueen went home with a Best Picture Oscar instead of one for his directing.

What prompted this? It’s nearly impossible to tell, aside from the fact that the Academy sought to forge the narrative that had been placed in front of them by audiences and industry tone. They consciously chose it.

movies-oscars-2014-alfonso-cuaron
2) The Academy–sometimes–thinks as a singular entity

You hear it all the time when predicting the Oscars: “you can’t make generalizations. They’re not a collective brain with a singular train of thought.” This year, however, the opposite is most likely true.

12 Years a Slave was divisive, yet it was able to win on a preferential ballot, which many believed was impossible given its polarizing nature. To win on a preferential ballot, a film must acquire significant support from Academy members who rank the Best Picture nominees. Not only must it receive a substantial amount of #1 votes, it must also cover a fair share of #2 and #3 votes for the sake of the preferential redistribution process, which many thought was impossible given the film’s nature and general Academy tastes (many, in anonymous interviews with trade publications, labeled it as “torture porn” and “hard to watch.”).

All in all, the film seemed like either a #1 choice or a #9  choice; there was no middle ground. The film triumphed during a split year (which, for the aforementioned reasons, usually ends up following a certain pattern, with certain types of films winning in both the Director and Picture categories). This means that a conscious split in the votes was made by the majority as Gravity, for consistency and statistics’ sake, by all means should have taken Best Picture given its huge wins in other categories.

A majority of Oscar voters made a conscious decision to deviate from the pattern, indicating a more generalized, universal way of thinking for them than is usually assumed.

3) The Academy simply is changing

Recognizing a film like 12 Years a Slave is huge for an Academy that boasts an overwhelmingly white male voting base. 77% of Academy members are men, and 94% of them are white. This essentially means that 12 Years a Slave still had to appeal to a white audience and gain white support, aseven if the entire non-white sect made 12 Years a Slave their #1 choice–6% of the vote is not enough to win Best Picture.

Has the racial and gender majority been reflected in the Academy’s past choices? It’s very difficult to back it up with statistics, but various interviews with Academy members (like Michael Musto’s, published here) seems to indicate that things like the size of an actress’ boobs and how good they looked in a particular dress are key factors of the voting process for some. That would also, if we’re being general, describe why, on average, younger women tend to win acting awards alongside older men. Do they see the award as a prestigious boys’ club that men must work their way into, while throwing sexually-charged votes at young, pretty women in sexualized roles (seriously, look at the characters that have won women Oscars here)?

12 Years a Slave was, undoubtedly, objectified for its racial implications, but its presence in the Best Picture race is justifiable beyond the awards season narrative it perpetuates. It’s a finely-crafted film by a budding auteur, and contains as much aesthetic girth as it does thematically.

The Academy has, for the past few years, awarded the same types of films across the same genre with a very small racial angle. The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo are each dramatic–structurally simple–films with general appeal, universal plug-and-play plots, and push as little buttons as possible. 12 Years a Slave is an artful, graphic examination of American history that shies away from nothing. It forces itself off the page, forces us to consider a small part of the foundation of who we are as a nation, and begs us to see African-American history as more than just an old, flat, black-and-white photo within the pages of a textbook.

The film calls for attention on black filmmakers in an age where white men overwhelmingly dominate control over the camera. The film calls for attention on black stars and, therefore, increases a diverse image at the forefront of the industry. The film winning Best Picture indicates that the still predominantly-white, predominantly-male, predominantly-heterosexual Academy, who’d never awarded a film about slavery or “black” issues its top prize before, who’d only given 4% of total acting awards to black actors, was willing to amend its historical tendency to shy away from films about the minority (Brokeback Mountain, The Color Purple).

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4) The Oscars are still entirely relevant

Argo currently upholds the legacy of Best Picture winners from the bargain bit at most major retailers (don’t believe me? Find the nearest grocery store–you know, one that sells DVDs on that shoddy rack near the checkout–and survey the films offered. I’ve counted Argo on sale at approximately three different ones in the Pittsburgh area). The Artist, in a sad turn of reality mimicking art and the film’s aesthetic, has quietly faded away. Ratings continue to climb for ABC’s telecast, however, though there’s an uneven weight of relevance distributed disproportionately between the ceremony itself and the films winning awards.

Sunday’s show functioned almost entirely as a means to re-insert not only the telecast into contemporary pop culture–both literally (Ellen’s selfie begged for interactivity) and figuratively–but also to cement the Academy’s opinion as aware, timely, and forward-thinking.

Films like The King’s Speech, Crash, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire range from mediocre to hugely entertaining and heartfelt. They’re the type of film that’s pleasing and easy to sit through. They’re perfectly enjoyable, though they lack the gravitas and titanic statement that only a true “best of” pick should have. I’m not sure how long even the general public would have continued to take the Academy at least somewhat seriously if films like Argo continued to win Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave is a film with something to say. It doesn’t exist as a fantasy amidst a society plagued with struggle. It will not have the same impact in Norway as it does in the United States. It is specific to our culture and to our history, whereas the last three Best Picture winners are fantasies which either glorify and embellish American culture and heroism (Argo and The Artist) or have little to do with American culture at all (The King’s Speech).

It’s a film that’s both reflective and pensive of history and the present. If anything, it increases the presence of the minority voice and offers an alternative narrative to the ones dominated by white screenwriters and white actors. It’s a film that resonates now as a genuinely fantastic work of art, but will also establish a legacy that legitimizes the Academy’s taste as in-line with contemporary social and political sentiments.

It’s a film that, to put it shortly, is in it for the long haul.

What, then, do the Oscars mean to us as a society, if anything at all? It’s a self-congratulating, self-made cycle of greatness, but it’s become a pedestal of visibility in an industry that’s teetering on the edge of a revolution for greater inclusion of minorities across the board.

Is it ok to doubt the relevance of the Oscars? To doubt the impact they have on American art and culture? To deny that, even on the smallest level, art can help someone envision a platform for themselves they never thought possible?

This year, the Academy looked doubt in the face, harnessed it, and talked all of us into certainty for the future.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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.

Charting the Course: SAG Awards Predictions

12-years-a-slaveTonight, the island is within sight, and the anchor begins its descent.

The Screen Actors Guild will this evening chart the course of awards season with its 20th set of award winners. With three films leading an awards discussion without definitive direction, the SAG has the power to shift the tide in favor of one.

While a small nominating committee (of around 2,000) tosses contenders into the ring, the entire SAG base of 120,000 (the largest of any industry guild) votes on winners. This means that the film/performances with the most general appeal will win. This
means that tonight there are three possible outcomes:

1) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, placing the film essentially on a platter for the pundits to pick apart, allowing Gravity or 12 Years a Slave to swoop into the lead

2) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, making the film indestructible, allowing it to plow through the DGA and PGA on to the Oscars

or

3) The SAG can shift momentum toward 12 Years a Slave with ensemble, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress wins

If American Hustle–undoubtedly the film with the most general appeal–sweeps with the SAG, the momentum will likely continue with the DGA and PGA, all the way to the Oscars. It’s already enduring an onslaught of backlash, not for the quality of the film, but because–yet again–in the minds of Oscar pundits, the general consensus gravitates more toward pure entertainment value than foreseeable longevity, cinematic value, and historical significance.

12 Years a Slave is an important film in an important year for diversity within the industry. The Academy welcomed its first black female president, and three black filmmakers all put forth massive efforts that won over audiences (Lee Daniels’ The Butler grossed nearly $150 million worldwide) and critics (Fruitvale Station brought Ryan Coogler recognition from the Film Independent Spirit Awards to the various critics circles around the country) alike.

When 12 Years a Slave was making the festival circuit, it seemed nearly unstoppable. I’m not sure “divisive” is even the proper word to use to describe its appeal, because there are people who completely refuse to watch it in the first place. It’s a disservice to the history of the country and to the brilliant filmmakers behind the film to shun it based on personal discomfort with the subject material, and the film would fit nicely within the shifting narrative of our nation’s political and social landscape. Art and society often compliment each other, and in a year that was so huge for the minority voice in the arts, 12 Years a Slave is a fitting film to represent the year.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the Academy is rarely on the side of history, and often overlooks films with the potential to embed themselves as historically significant.

Once a film becomes the Best Picture “frontrunner,” it’s dead in so many ways. It becomes the “it-girl” of awards season and, when it wins, becomes throwaway. It becomes the film everyone has seen and the film everyone is expected to love. It fails to carry significant dramatic weight, as its status as the golden film of the year precedes the content of the picture. It’s happened for the past three calendar years (The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and now American Hustle) are all universally-appealing, adequate, entertaining slices of quality filmmaking that represent our quick-fix culture’s taste. They’re films that make us happy in the moment, but don’t ask much of us at all in terms of intellectual engagement.

The backlash is instant, or slowly seeps into the film’s identity over a slow period of time, and the very same hype machine that took 12 Years a Slave from end-all frontrunner to the underdog is now already heating up to take American Hustle down.

Some have labeled American Hustle’s female characters as throwaway, forgettable, and poorly fleshed-out. They might pale in comparison to the women Russell’s earlier work, but these characters (and the women playing them) are some of the most buzzed about topics about the current awards race. They’re sexualized and flaunted, but they’re also charismatic and appealing because of the enormous talent bringing them to life. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the biggest star on the planet. She helmed the first female-driven film (Catching Fire) to top the domestic box-office since 1997 earlier last year, and has earned Oscar recognition three times in the past four years (two nominations, one win). To reduce her work in American Hustle (and the recognition she’s getting for it) to the appeal of her sexuality is demeaning to Lawrence’s star as a whole. It’s just a shame that her performance pales in comparison to her fellow nominess (both with the SAG and the Oscars).

jennifer-lawrence-first-american-hustleThe whole detractor “old white male Academy members are voting with their dicks” theory surrounding American Hustle‘s popularity holds up to a certain extent, but it can’t be cast over the entirety of the film. Porn is now more accessible than ever. It’s free and only a few mouse clicks away. I hardly think that you can attribute an old white male’s sexual attraction to the idea of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams to the film’s scope of appeal. Academy members aren’t using American Hustle as a source of sexual pleasure. It’s an exciting, showy period picture that’s sleek, flashy, and allows them to leave the theater with no weight on their shoulders. It’s not particularly challenging, and doesn’t exactly say a whole lot, nor is it about much at all. At its core, the film is pure escapist porn, and that’s what a general audience is going to gravitate toward.

The only Oscar frontrunner at a complete disadvantage here is Gravity, as the SAG obviously focuses solely on actors. Though Sandra Bullock does appear in the Lead Actress category here, the film never had a shot in any other category, as the only other actor physically present in the film (George Clooney), is a miniscule part of the overall product.

What Gravity loses here is pure visibility, and that’s a shame because this is a film that’s relied largely on its spectacular presence. Though Bullock last week snagged an award for the film at the People’s Choice Awards, she’s had little traction with awards season voters at any other major Oscar precursor. Her appeal, too, is largely based on her endearing persona and ability to captivate a crowd. The SAG nominated her, which is huge, though the award is Cate Blanchett’s to lose.

In terms of the big picture, however, lets not forget that the SAG can deviate largely from the Best Picture narrative. Just two years ago, they awarded The Help’s ensemble with top honors, and Inglourious Basterds took the same award just two years prior. The SAGs voters are inclined to vote for, again, the films, performances, and stars from the most general appeal, and that’s something 12 Years a Slave simply doesn’t have. It’s great for the impending Best Picture Oscar winner when its cast lines up with the ideals of the SAG’s 120,000-strong voting base, but it doesn’t always mean that an ensemble award here indicates Oscar glory further down the road.

Oscar voters still have time to mull their decision, though the 2013 awards season map needs an X, and it’s on the SAG to plot its coordinates.

Full Predictions:

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: Lone Survivor

Sewing Cinema:
 Stitching Together 2011 Oscar Greatness, One Costume at a Time

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“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” It’s a philosophy spewed by Edith Head, one of the most celebrated names in the history of the Academy Awards.

Edith Head’s name isn’t synonymous with star-power or box office success, as most of the politicized institutions associated with the words “awards” and “season” tend to be. She’s no Angelina Jolie. She’s no Meryl Streep. Alas, she’s bounds ahead of them; She was a costume designer, one with more Academy Awards than any other woman in history.

Her line of work is visual and prominent throughout each of the 433 films she worked on, but remembered only as a fleeting compliment to the performers who donned her creations.

Yes, Edith Head dressed everyone from Gloria Swanson to Joan Fontaine, and if her career as a costume designer throughout Hollywood’s golden age up until her death in 1981 proves anything, it’s that she made such glamorous stars, well, shimmer.

That’s the job of a costume designer, after all; to aide in the illusion, to craft the cinematic fantasy which envelops us, sometimes out of materials we’d be hard-pressed not to find at a local Pat Catan’s. It’s not everyday someone like Anne Hathaway can whip up a sustained, award-winning performance out of a clearance bin at a flea market. Costume designers often shop on a budget, with some of the most effective pieces finding their way onto a set because a diligent member of the costume department strolled off set and into a sale rack at a shoe store (I speak from firsthand experience: I once sold a pair of $15 Vans that were to be worn by Viggo Mortensen, purchased by the costume designer for 2009’s The Road which filmed here in Pittsburgh).

In short, it’s a costume designer’s ability to turn the ordinary into spectacle. That’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken it upon itself to recognize the countless men and women who sew, pluck, rip, tear, and stitch together the framework of some of the biggest spectacles in American cinema each year with an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

Representing 2011’s crop of contenders are five designers who crafted gorgeous pieces representing eras as far apart as Shakespearian Britain (Lisy Christl’s work for Anonymous), the brooding moors of 1800s Gothic fiction (Michael O’Connor’s designs for Jane Eyre) and the streets of 1930s Paris (Sandy Powell’s contributions to Hugo).

Most of 2011’s nominees (as is true for every year, actually) crafted dazzling wardrobes which harken back to periods of years past, what with the most contemporary representation hailing from Arianne Phillips’ work in W.E., a film whose narrative spans between the 1930s and 1998 as it chronicles the love affair between Britain’s King Edward VIII and an American, Wallis Simpson.

Its director, having never been a stranger to the aesthetically rich, Madonna’s film boasts perhaps the most arresting costumes of each of the nominees with hats by Stephen Jones, gowns by John Galliano, and other contributions from the likes of Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even the National Museum of Costume in Scotland, who donated a Michael O’Connor wedding gown for filming.

The power of film to incorporate so many contemporary facets of the fashion industry into a single lavish homage to historical fashion is particularly evident in W.E., a film which utilizes the savvy of head designer Arianne Phillips to string together other magical pieces which drape the veil of 1930s European glamour over the delicate cheeks of Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort.

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Recreating the fantasy of the past through fashion is often the primary task of a costume designer. As CGI and digital projection technologies evolve to elevate the medium itself to higher standards of sophisticated (albeit illusory) presentation, the spectacle itself becomes simply representational. Yes, the fantastical flora and fauna which populated Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar were imaginative and spectacular, but they ultimately remain fantasy, relying on our classically trained tactic of suspending disbelief in order to “accept” them in context.

But, costume designers have a different job. They must create the past in the physical, in the present, in the now, bringing a glorified age of, say, 1920s Hollywood to life with every stitch, sequin, and wing-tipped shoe at their disposal. Of course, I’m referring to Mark Bridges’ work as seen in The Artist, also nominated this year. The film is a cinematic love letter to the silent era of Hollywood, when looks were everything and an actress’ wardrobe was the yesteryear equivalent to a computer generated explosion. Bridges’ costumes here do more than just catch the eye, they serve as a reminder of the simplicity of an era, the ability of an audience to listen with their hearts to a film which didn’t contain a single spoken word of its own. Costumes were more than just flashy adornments, but rather beacons of prosperity or shining testaments to the desire of the public to one day afford something just as beautiful as the drapery cascading down the frame of the actress dancing before them. Yes, the stars are the ones who conspicuously consume and uphold the business. Maintaining the fantasy, however illustrious the illusion; that’s what costume designers have done throughout history.

It seems as if Ms. Head’s observations are correct. A designer’s work can certainly be esteemed by its presence on the frame of a Hollywood actress as she poses for photographers on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre. But as the evening of February 26 comes to a close, one costume designer at the Academy Awards is going home with an Oscar; the other starlets just pretty girls playing dress-up.