Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ed's Oscars Round-Up

It's a few days later than I planned, for reasons that will be explained as we go along, here is my brief (in relation to the length of the ceremony) breakdown of the 2010 Academy Awards in terms of the ceremony, the winners, and my own personal experience of watching the whole bloody thing.

Despite being an avid follower of the awards season, I've never actually watched an entire Oscar ceremony. This is largely a factor of geography - I live in Britain, so watching a ceremony that is playing out 6000 miles away in real time is going to be a real commitment - but also because, in recent years, I've not actually had any physical means of watching them. Despite, or more likely because, the Oscars are the most important night in the film calendar, they are only shown in Britain on Sky Movies, a channel which I cannot get because I don't have the sort of disposable income that would make it a viable option.

However, technology being the wonderful thing that it is, there are now ways of viewing American television online via live streaming services, making it possible for anyone who cares to actually watch such a prestigious event. Add to that the fact that I wasn't working until 4 in the afternoon the day after the ceremony, and the stars aligned so that I could sit and watching the Oscars ceremony, live and uninterrupted (apart from the requisite breaks for tea). I have a very me-centric view of the Universe.

Things got off to a bad start with a musical performance by the otherwise fantastic Neil Patrick Harris, who I love just a little bit too much. He brought his usual enthusiasm to the opening number, but I couldn't help but think a) that he's done better at other awards shows, b) how strange it was that they brought him on to open and then did absolutely nothing else with him, and c) how much I wished he was the host, because if the producers were truly committed to shedding the Oscars' image as a stuffy, pompous circle jerk, then they could do worse than have someone host the show who has a real flair for showmanship and could add just the right dash of irreverence to proceedings. Instead, they had two old men host.

When it was announced that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were going to co-host the Oscars, it seemed like an inspired choice. Separately, they can both be incredibly funny. Sure, Martin's best days as an actor seem sadly far behind him, but he's still a razor sharp wit and he had hosted before, so there was a sense in having him host. Baldwin meanwhile is still riding high on his career (re-)defining role as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, easily one of the funniest shows on television. How could this partnership fail?

Well, it could fail like this: As soon as the two descended from the heavens and started to engage in a little back-and-forth about the various nominees, things felt off-kilter in a very bad way. Having two people host an event like the Oscars makes tremendous sense if they are an established double act; they would have a confidence together and a knowledge of each other's comic rhythms and timing that would make the patter between them flow smoothly and ensure that they hit every note just right. Martin and Baldwin conversely, despite having worked together on It's Complicated, are for all intents and purposes strangers who have been thrust together to perform in front of millions of people. During the opening, they missed beats, stepped on each other's gags, and delivered lines that would have worked perfectly fine if delivered by one person, but felt terribly unnatural when delivered by two people.

To be fair to them, they were working with some pretty weak material; the opening, and the show in general, was filled with cringe-inducing references to popular, specifically internet-related, culture ("Spoiler Alert!"), gags about the films that didn't really make sense ("I love that Precious was nominated, because to me it's the one film that really lived up to its video game." What the fuck does that even mean?), and a need to make jokes about all the Best Picture nominees that resulted in the opening going on for an uncomfortable length of time. Not all the gags were duds; I laughed heartily at Alec Baldwin saying that Invictus was Steve Martin's favourite film because "it combines two of [Martin's] favorite passions: rugby and tensions between blacks and whites," and I loved Martin's joke about how he and Gabourey Sidibe were similar since in their first films they both played a poor black child. Sadly, most of the gags on the night fell flat. (And the least sad about Ben Stiller's appearance as a Na'vi the better. Okay, I'll say a bit: impressive make-up and some decent lines, but it draaaaaaagged so very badly.)

It seems the producers realised something was amiss, since Martin and Baldwin spent much of the rest of the show on their own, and they fared much better as separate entities than as banter buddies.

The rest of the awards ceremony unfolded with very few surprises, but it never really seemed to recover from that faltering overture. The pacing of the show was very sluggish, which was not helped by the need to talk about all 10 Best Picture nominees over the course of the night. Obviously, you need to tell people about the films, but it seemed very strange having someone describe the film, only to then have a clips package play. You'd think that at a ceremony to celebrate film-making that someone, somewhere, would have realised the possibilities of montage, and thought that it might have been a good idea to put voiceover over the clips. They could have cut quite literally 20 or 30 minutes from the ceremony doing that, and made room for some Best Original Song performances, which have been highlights for me in previous years, or for Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall to talk about their honorary Oscars.

The plodding gait of the ceremony made the decision to limit speeches to 75-seconds seem incredibly strange; if you can't tighten everything else up, and you really feel the need to include interpretive dance sequences, then forcing people to cut short what is probably the defining moment of their career (or, in the case of Sandy Powell, an irritating diversion) just seems cruel. Obviously, not everyone could give the kind of speeches that Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock gave, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't get the opportunity to say what they want.

Incidentally, Sandra Bullock's speech was probably the highlight for me. It was full of warmth, life, and humour, but it was also incredibly heartfelt, and you really felt that she was honoured and couldn't quite believe that it was actually happening. If only her films were as good as her speeches.

Montages provided the most touching and the most frustrating moments of the evening for me. The tribute to John Hughes, in which many of the actors who rose to stardom in his films stood on stage and told stories about a man few knew but whose work is beloved by so many, was moving and was a pitch-perfect tribute.

At the other end of the scale, you have the horror montage, which pissed me off royally. Firstly, it didn't actually have anything to do with the ceremony, and only served to make a bloated telecast even more corpulent, but it was preceded by one of the most ill-thought out statements of the evening. In introducing a serious of clips of iconic horror films, Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart said that it had been 36 years since the Academy had acknowledged horror films, alluding to The Exorcist being nominated for Best Picture in 1974 and the Academy's general genre bias.

Now, any film buff worth their salt at that moment would have instantly chimed in with, "But what of Silence of the Lambs! It won Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay in 1991, a feat only achieved by two other films (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), surely a horror film could not hope to be honoured more than that?" It could be argued that Silence of the Lambs is more of psychological thriller than a horror film. It's an argument which I will have no truck with in general, but in this context it was undone almost instantly since clips from Silence of the Lambs were included in the montage. It's a frustrating oversight that just got me angry for incredibly stupid and petty reasons.

As for the awards themselves, there were very few surprises - many of the people predicted to win did, in fact, win - but those that cropped up were fascinating in and of themselves. From a somewhat geeky point of view, Avatar winning Best Cinematography is actually more revolutionary a development than it might first appear. Sure, cinematography is about the look of a film, and in that regard its not surprising that a film with such gorgeous visuals would be honoured, but all those images were generated inside a computer, which explicitly links Avatar's cinematography to its special effects in a way that hasn't been done before. It's a weird little development that could suggest a general change in thinking in the industry about the implications and artistic merit of visual effects. Could we only be a few years away from someone being nominated or even winning an Oscar for a motion-capture performance?

About an hour in, when I was flagging a bit and had to have my third cup of tea of the evening, I got a sense that The Hurt Locker, having beaten Avatar in several of the categories that they were competing over, could win, but even so I was truly shocked and delighted when Tom Hanks (in a manner so abrupt that it could have seemed curt if anyone other than Tom Hanks was saying it) announced that The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. I was also delighted when Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, but certainly not shocked since she absolutely deserved it for delivering a visceral action film that also examined the allure of exactly the kind of machismo that usually drives visceral action films.

This of course raises the issue of whether or not Kathryn Bigelow's win was political, rather than based on purely artistic merits. It's no secret that her victory marks the first time that a woman has won Best Director - it was probably the aspect of the film most strongly emphasised by The Hurt Locker's campaign team - and the big 'what if' question that arises is whether or not The Hurt Locker would have won if it had not been directed by a woman. Unless someone develops the technology from Sliders that would allow me to visit a dimension in which Kenneth Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker, then there is no way to objectively answer that, but I think that it probably would have won at least some awards, if not Best Picture and Best Director.

It's important to note, when talking about The Hurt Locker, that the key factor in its awards success was not gender but the unwavering support it received from critics. The film opened last summer to rave reviews but minimal box office - it's the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever - and that would usually be the kiss of death for an awards hopeful. The unofficial rules of awards season state that if a film wants to win big at the Oscars it has to be released between October and January, and it should take at least some money. But critics kept talking about it, kept the film's name out there, and as awards season started to kick into high gear The Hurt Locker was showered with plaudits from the major critics groups. This dedicated and constant acclaim kept The Hurt Locker at the centre of awards discussion, and without it I doubt that it would have won big on Sunday night, if at all.

As I blearily looked around my living room at 5:30am on Monday, 8th of March, I wondered if it had all been worth it. Considering it's taken me three days to get my head back into a space where I can actually write, I'd say that watching the Oscars live did take it's toll on me, but I fully intend to do it all next year.

Well, it's time to wrap this up before they start playing the music to shoo me off. In closing, I'll just say that, although it was probably one of the more boring ceremonies in recent years, I had a lot of fun watching largely thanks to Twitter and the running commentary of my friends who were also watching at home, so thanks to Rachel Grundy, Nicole Campos, Adrian Goodswen, and Nic Thompson for making the whole experience that little bit more bearable.