Verbose as I can be at times, I’ll let Mr. Coppola talk about his opinions and experiences of combining filmmaking and business. Let’s just say, he’s not a fan. And I don’t blame him.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” ― Martha Graham
I found this quote on Allison Iris’s web site showcasing her incredible abstract paintings. The quote resonated for me. Enough so that I wanted to repost it here. Martha Graham’s observation embodies my approach to filmmaking, one that has taken me many years and many trials and tribulations to begin to understand. It is why I am now wholly committed to making “my” films, the way I want to make them, and not playing by anybody else’s rules. This is not to be stubborn or to be a rebel, but to honor myself and what it is I want to say and what the experience is I want to impart. Accepted or rejected, it will be the truest sense of who I am. This has always been the goal for me. However, I am only now coming to understand its great importance to me and the sacrifices that attaining such a goal entails.
Unique expression –and the undisguised vulnerability that inevitably comes with it– is one of the main things I focus on in my Acting Workshops. Each actor –each artist– has the ability to create and express something wholly personal, something no one else ever could in quite the same way. It is what separates us from all others in the audition room. This form of expression is our most personal gift and –though it sometimes requires as much un-learning as it does learning– our greatest strengths rise to the surface when we embrace it.
“…if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
In March 1948, writer Raymond Chandler penned a piece in The Atlantic entitled OSCAR NIGHT IN HOLLYWOOD. Anyone who reads my blog on a semi-regular basis is already familiar with my strong opinions on the current state of Hollywood filmmaking and its own awards ceremony that never fails to shamelessly flatter itself. Mr. Chandler’s piece could have been taken directly out of my own head, though I never could have stated it anywhere near as eloquently as Mr. Chandler did so many years ago.
I am reminded of a recent “spat” I had with a reader of my blog who argued quite vehemently in favor of the artistic merits and outright “brilliance” of last year’s hit RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. I was very candid –perhaps even indelicate– in sharing my horror at the mere notion that anyone could bestow the words “intelligent” or “well-written” to such a tepid, slothful piece of filmmaking. Perhaps it was the title of my piece, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES OR THE DECENT OF AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE, that irked my reader so. You can read our exchange there in the comments section. I was, I’m embarrassed to admit, not my usual open-minded self, but somewhat brazenly repulsed by this particular reader’s insistence that APES was a bold and daring work of art. His sole argument, in addition to an overwhelming insistence that the film simply “was” brilliant beyond opinion or viewpoint, was to consistently hold up its box-office success and rather high Rotten Tomatoes score as inarguable proof of its artistic eminence. Comments like “In what universe is this film not shot at the highest level of the art?” or “If a supermajority of critics and audience opinions means nothing to you, as well as half a billion in cash, then I’m not sure I really care what it is that means so much to you,” was the precarious ledge his argument teetered on.
And so it was that I found myself somewhat relieved and giddy to discover Mr. Chandler’s piece. He and I may well have agreed on the current state of Hollywood films. Both the self-congratulatory attitudes of those at the top who believe the hype (hell, they create the hype) that celebrates their genius for creating these financially and critically successful films, as well as those who unwittingly praise those very same films and filmmakers, all the while unaware of the slow and deliberate manipulation of their ability to recognize something that lacks the most basic ingredients for well-crafted storytelling –never mind good art– for what it actually is. Particularly when faced with unrelenting insistence by those who have drunk the same Kool-Aid, that a particular work is undeniably “brilliant.”
To understand the great capacity cinema has as an art form, what boundless arenas it has the power and complexity to explore, is to also recognize when that goal falls short, despite any proclamations and box-office numbers offered up as proof to the contrary.
“Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.” –Raymond Chandler
Five or six years ago a distinguished writer-director (if I may be permitted the epithet in connection with a Hollywood personage) was co-author of a screen play nominated for an Academy Award. He was too nervous to attend the proceedings on the big night, so he was listening to a broadcast at home, pacing the floor tensely, chewing his fingers, taking long breaths, scowling and debating with himself in hoarse whispers whether to stick it out until the Oscars were announced, or turn the damned radio off and read about it in the papers the next morning. Getting a little tired of all this artistic temperament in the home, his wife suddenly came up with one of those awful remarks which achieve a wry immortality in Hollywood: “For Pete’s sake, don’t take it so seriously, darling. After all, Luise Rainer won it twice.”
To those who did not see the famous telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld, or any of the subsequent versions of it which Miss Rainer played in other pictures, with and without telephone, this remark will lack punch. To others it will serve as well as anything to express that cynical despair with which Hollywood people regard their own highest distinction. It isn’t so much that the awards never go to fine achievements as that those fine achievements are not rewarded as such. They are rewarded as fine achievements in box-office hits. You can’t be an All-American on a losing team. Technically, they are voted, but actually they are not decided by the use of whatever artistic and critical wisdom Hollywood may happen to possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.
The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.
The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.
All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.
If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the putty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women’s clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.
The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. The insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity of production) than to judge literature by last week’s best-sellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.
But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, in the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.
In painting, music, and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called “significant,” and bedtime reading when they are not.
But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won’t. I’m just daydreaming.II
Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner,which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I’ll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.
If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, “In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived “; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn’t good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong, because this sort of vulgarity is part of its inevitable price.
Glancing over the program of the Awards before the show starts, one is apt to forget that this is really an actors’, directors’, and big-shot producers’ rodeo. It is for the people who make pictures (they think), not just for the people who work on them. But these gaudy characters are a kindly bunch at heart; they know that a lot of small-fry characters in minor technical jobs, such as cameramen, musicians, cutters, writers, soundmen, and the inventors of new equipment, have to be given something to amuse them and make them feel mildly elated. So the performance was formerly divided into two parts, with an intermission. On the occasion I attended, however, one of the Masters of Ceremony (I forget which—there was a steady stream of them, like bus passengers) announced that there would be no intermission this year and that they would proceed immediately to the important part of the program.
Let me repeat, the important part of the program.
Perverse fellow that I am, I found myself intrigued by the unimportant part of the program also. I found my sympathies engaged by the lesser ingredients of picture-making, some of which have been enumerated above. I was intrigued by the efficiently quick on-and-off that was given to these minnows of the picture business; by their nervous attempts via the microphone to give most of the credit for their work to some stuffed shirt in a corner office; by the fact that technical developments which may mean many millions of dollars to the industry, and may on occasion influence the whole procedure of picture-making, are just not worth explaining to the audience at all; by the casual, cavalier treatment given to film-editing and to camera work, two of the essential arts of film-making, almost and sometimes quite equal to direction, and much more important than all but the very best acting; intrigued most of all perhaps by the formal tribute which is invariably made to the importance of the writer, without whom, my dear, dear friends, nothing could be done at all, but who is for all that merely the climax of the unimportant part of the program.III
I am also intrigued by the voting. It was formerly done by all the members of all the various guilds, including the extras and bit players. Then it was realized that this gave too much voting power to rather unimportant groups, so the voting on various classes of awards was restricted to the guilds which were presumed to have some critical intelligence on the subject. Evidently this did not work either, and the next change was to have the nominating done by the specialist guilds, and the voting only by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It doesn’t really seem to make much difference how the voting is done. The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success. A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing, a routine job in a winner will be voted in. It is against this background of success-worship that the voting is done, with the incidental music supplied by a stream of advertising in the trade papers (which even intelligent people read in Hollywood) designed to put all other pictures than those advertised out of your head at balloting time. The psychological effect is very great on minds conditioned to thinking of merit solely in terms of box office and ballyhoo. The members of the Academy live in this atmosphere, and they are enormously suggestible people, as are all workers in Hollywood. If they are contracted to studios, they are made to feel that it is a matter of group patriotism to vote for the products of their own lot. They are informally advised not to waste their votes, not to plump for something that can’t win, especially something made on another lot.
I do not feel any profound conviction, for example, as to whether The Best Years of Our Lives was even the best Hollywood motion picture of 1946. It depends on what you mean by best. It had a first-class director, some fine actors, and the most appealing sympathy gag in years. It probably had as much all-around distinction as Hollywood is presently capable of. That it had the kind of class and simple art possessed byOpen City or the stalwart and magnificent impact of Henry V only an idiot would claim. In a sense it did not have art at all. It had that kind of sentimentality which is almost but not quite humanity, and that kind of adeptness which is almost but not quite style. And it had them in large doses, which always helps.
The governing board of the Academy is at great pains to protect the honesty and the secrecy of the voting. It is done by anonymous numbered ballots, and the ballots are sent, not to any agency of the motion picture industry, but to a well-known firm of public accountants. The results, in sealed envelopes, are borne by an emissary of the firm right onto the stage of the theater where the Awards be made, and there for the first time, one at a time, they are made known. Surely precaution would go no further. No one could possibly have known in advance any of these results, not even in Hollywood where every agent learns the closely guarded secrets of the studios with no apparent trouble. If there are secrets in Hollywood, which I sometimes doubt, this voting ought to be one of them.IV
As for a deeper kind of honesty, I think it is about time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to use a little of it up by declaring in a forthright manner that foreign pictures are outside competition and will remain so until they face the same economic situation and the same strangling censorship that Hollywood faces. It is all very well to say how clever and artistic the French are, how true to life, what subtle actors they have, what an honest sense of the earth, what forthrightness in dealing the bawdy side of life. The French can afford these things, we cannot. To the Italians they are permitted, to us they are denied. Even the English possess a freedom we lack. How much did Brief Encounter cost? It would have cost at least a million and a half in Hollywood; in order to get that money back, and the distribution costs on top of the negative costs, it would have had to contain innumerable crowd-pleasing ingredients, the very lack of which is what makes it a good picture.
Since the Academy is not an international tribunal of film art it should stop pretending to be one. If foreign pictures have no practical chance whatsoever of winning a major award they should not be nominated. At the very beginning of the performance in 1947 a special Oscar was awarded to Laurence Olivier for Henry V, although it was among those nominated as best picture of the year. There could be no more obvious way of saying it was not going to win. A couple of minor technical awards and a couple of minor writing awards were also given to foreign pictures, but nothing that ran into important coin, just side meat. Whether these awards were deserved is beside the point, which is that they were minor awards and were intended to be minor awards, and that there was no possibility whatsoever of any foreign-made picture winning a major award.
To outsiders it might appear that something devious went on here. To those who know Hollywood, all that went on was the secure knowledge and awareness that the Oscars exist for and by Hollywood, their purpose is to maintain the supremacy of Hollywood, their standards and problems are the standards and problems of Hollywood, and their phoniness is the phoniness of Hollywood. But the Academy cannot, without appearing ridiculous, maintain a pose of internationalism by tossing a few minor baubles to the foreigners while carefully keeping all the top-drawer jewelry for itself. As a writer I resent that writing awards should be among these baubles, and as a member of the Motion Picture Academy I resent its trying to put itself in a position which its annual performance before the public shows it quite unfit to occupy.
If the actors and actresses like the silly show, and I’m not sure at all the best of them do, they at least know how to look elegant in a strong light, and how to make with the wide-eyed and oh, so humble little speeches as if they believed them. If the big producers like it, and I’m quite sure they do because it contains the only ingredients they really understand—promotion values and the additional grosses that go with them—the producers at least know what they are fighting for. But if the quiet, earnest, and slightly cynical people who really make motion pictures like it, and I’m quite sure they don’t, well, after all, it comes only once a year, and it’s no worse than a lot of the sleazy vaudeville they have to push out of the way to get their work done.
Of course that’s not quite the point either. The head of a large studio once said privately that in his candid opinion the motion picture business was 25 per cent honest business and the other 75 per cent pure conniving. He didn’t say anything about art, although he may have heard of it. But that is the real point, isn’t it?—whether these annual Awards, regardless of the grotesque ritual which accompanies them, really represent anything at all of artistic importance to the motion picture medium, anything clear and honest that remains after the lights are dimmed, the minks are put away, and the aspirin is swallowed? I don’t think they do. I think they are just theater and not even good theater. As for the personal prestige that goes with winning an Oscar, it may with luck last long enough for your agent to get your contract rewritten and your price jacked up another notch. But over the years and in the hearts of men of good will? I hardly think so.
Once upon a time a once very successful Hollywood lady decided (or was forced) to sell her lovely furnishings at auction, together with her lovely home. On the day before she moved out she was showing a party of her friends through the house for a private view. One of them noticed that the lady was using her two golden Oscars as doorstops. It seemed they were just about the right weight, and she had sort of forgotten they were gold.
The Academy Awards is always a love/hate relationship for me. I love the tradition and the memories of what the Oscars were to me when I was a kid. And I love the occasional inspirational speech made by an award winner (when they’re not unceremoniously cut off), but I can’t stand the forced “entertainment” qualities on display each year to keep the ratings up and the lowest-common-denominator grinning. The problem, I realize, is not with the Oscars, but with me. I want the Oscars to be something they’re not, something they’ve never been: a respectable awards show celebrating the art of cinema.
The Academy Awards have been coined a “popularity contest” by many and never have truer words been spoken. Films may be nominated by their peers, but that, sadly, is not saying much as this year’s Writers Guild Award nominations included both AVATAR and THE HANGOVER for best screenplay. I’ve expressed my horror and disappointment about that before in previous posts. The Academy Awards are an extension of that mindset. One wonders how many of the voters actually know much about film, its history and/or artistry. Not to mention whether or not the voting members have even seen most of the films out there. Particularly the less popular ones (films, that is, not voting members).
I’ve never had the stomach for the red carpet scene that serves as the tasteless introduction to the proceedings. A couple of artificial-looking pseudo celebs asking mundane questions and calling all the stars by their first names as if they were great pals while complimenting their overpriced attire. But the public has always had a fascination with the wardrobes and excesses of Hollywood stars and starlets. And this tradition keeps the gawkers happy while maintaining a disturbing air of voyeuristic mock-reality that holds about as much excitement for me as watching two lobotomized inmates examine one another’s teeth.
Then there’s the Awards ceremony itself. This year’s started off with a completely uncalled for musical number sung by the always charming Neil Patrick Harris. Not as excruciating as watching Hugh Jackman do his song-and-dance-man schtick the previous year, this entire opening was nonetheless a complete waste of time, a false-start hiccup that kept the show from actually beginning on time. And all this with the producers well-aware that the show will inevitably struggle to fit in its already-determined time slot and that something (or, rather, someone) will be cut from the show as a result.
Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were irreverent and entertaining enough, but their overly scripted banter was often obvious and felt more like a moderate sitcom than an awards show of any repute. But they had a few genuinely funny moments and they are both likable, so I was, when all is said and done, okay with them. They never tried to “steal” the show and for that I am thankful.
But early on, the show’s director decided–as is shamefully done every year–to do the one thing I will never get over, the one glaring miscalculation and unforgivable insult to any award-winner that can ever be done, to cut off a speech before it’s even begun. The greatest thing about the Academy Awards is to witness someone living that dream moment; to be recognized by one’s peers and community for their contribution. But for the Academy, this part of the show seems more necessary evil than anything else. Sure, you have to make certain that the show isn’t wildly long and that people don’t go on and on forever, but let them at least spit out a “thank you”. There is nothing more degrading and disrespectful than to see an award-winner get his or her opportunity to step up to that mic only to find it silenced while the orchestra slams into another theme that should be titled “You’re not really important.”
But thank god we have time for Ben Stiller dressed up as a Na’vi from AVATAR going on and on long after his joke has ended. Yeah, that’s why I tuned in: to see some comedian covered in blue make-up drag a joke to its death instead of honoring the people WE CAME HERE TO HONOR! Where was the music and the silent microphone when we most needed it?
Follow this with something I’d hoped the Academy had put to rest years ago: the interpretive dance number. Sometimes it’s for Best Costume, sometimes for Best song, this year it was for Best Score. Yes, I’ve always wondered what THE HURT LOCKER would look like if re-imagined with some graceful hip-hop moves… Wait for the Broadway musical, fools! You know it’s coming! But the Academy Awards is not the time or the place. Priorities at the Oscars are ass-backwards. But who am I to argue that seeing a bloated, gratuitous dance number is more entertaining than seeing Lauren Bacall or Gordon Willis or Roger Corman receive lifetime achievement awards? So long as those viewers bored with all that silly talking are kept happy.
And while we’re on the subject of what is kept and what is cut, how about that Cinematography Oscar? Nice to know that one of the most visual, “cinematic” categories to be awarded at the Oscars doesn’t even warrant enough respect or foresight to actually show us some of the remarkable imagery we’re throwing an Oscar at! Or did they have to cut that due to time wasted by Ben Stiller and the “fabulous” League of Extraordinary Dancers? Because, really, at the end of the day, who in the audience at home even knows what cinematography is, no less cares?
But I’m glad they brought out Tyler Perry to squander more time “explaining” what editing was for the folks at home. So let me get this straight… Editing is the art of deciding between a long shot, a medium shot, or a close-shot? Okay, got it. Glad to have been educated in the most demeaning, misleading and pandering way possible. So much better than hearing someone’s acceptance speech that they’ve dreamed of delivering their entire fucking lives and may never get another chance to do! And don’t even talk to me about the non-sequitur “Tribute” to Horror Films that took up even more precious time. Don’t misunderstand me, I love horror films. I even made one. But was this relevant to anything? Anything at all?
Sorry, didn’t mean to infuse this post with anything nearing real emotion.
But since I mentioned emotion, how nice was it to see all the wonderful filmmakers and stars who passed away in 2009 that were completely ignored or forgotten in the “In Memory Of” montage. Why should anyone like Farrah Fawcett or Dan O’Bannon or Bea Arthur or Henry Gibson or Harve Presnell be remembered? That would take away from the endless appreciation of John Hughes that petered out in awkwardness. Don’t get me wrong, Hughes made a wonderful contribution to cinema. In fact, looking back at his films now shows just how much more depth there was in the teen comedy/drama then than there is now. But Mr. Hughes was no more (or less) important than all the other great artists that we lost last year. I mean Dan O’Bannon only wrote ALIEN. No one remembers that film. Or how about Kathryn Bigelow’s BLUE THUNDER? Or TOTAL RECALL? Or the dozens of others including John Carpenter’s very first film DARK STAR? And let’s not bother mentioning the extraordinary visual effects work he did on a little film called STAR WARS! Yeah, they were right to leave him out entirely. And Farrah was just a TV star, you say? Then clearly you never saw LOGAN’S RUN or SATURN 3 or THE CANNONBALL RUN or EXTREMITIES or THE APOSTLE or DR. T AND THE WOMEN. Far more films than Michael Jackson can lay claim to, although he was represented in the Academy’s little montage. I guess Mr. Jackson’s death got to eclipse Ms. Fawcett’s just one more time. And Bea Arthur, while it’s true that she was mostly known for her TV roles so it’s not exactly a snub that she wasn’t included here, she was not a complete stranger to film either: LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS, MAME, HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1, to name but a few. And Henry Gibson’s “minimal” contribution to cinema only included such classics as NASHVILLE, THE LONG GOODBYE, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE BLUES BROTHERS… The list goes on. And on. Maybe the Academy doesn’t miss him, but I sure as hell do. And then there’s Harve Presnell who, like Bea Arthur, did a lot of TV, but also graced the silver screen in such pictures as PAINT YOUR WAGON, FARGO, FACE/OFF, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, PATCH ADAMS, THE FAMILY MAN, OLD SCHOOL, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, EVAN ALMIGHTY… No stranger to our beloved cinema. The bottom line is it doesn’t take a lot of work to find out who has passed away in the last year. I’m sure SOMEONE at the Academy has internet access, no? So when they say “We can’t include everyone,” I have to ask, “Why not?”
Moving on to something new to this year’s Academy Awards is the inclusion of 10 films (as opposed to the usual 5) nominated for Best Picture. This made room for such mediocrity as DISTRICT 9, THE BLIND SIDE and UP IN THE AIR. All films that have an audience and work in their own way, but are not Best Picture caliber IMHO. But it sure does help those ratings! Sadly, the two dance numbers and bloated comedy routines went on so long that Mr. Tom Hanks barely had time to open the envelope and announce the winner. No time to read the list of nominees so the winner is Hurt Locker good night and drive safe.
On the up side (and a non-sarcastic note), I’m glad there were a couple of moving speeches that made the cut. I was thrilled that THE HURT LOCKER’s oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (who shared the award with Chris Innes) stated for all the world to hear:
“Thank you to the Academy for giving this award to a movie that was made without compromise. We didn’t have any preview screenings or focus groups or studio notes. Everybody made the movie we wanted to make and it turned out great, so I’m glad everybody liked it.”
I think the more people and young filmmakers (and studio development heads and studio heads) that can hear this the better. A film made WITHOUT COMPROMISE, WITH NO STUDIO NOTES, can win Best Picture. Listen up filmmakers. In the immortal words of Frank Capra, “If Hollywood is dying, it’s because you haven’t got control of your own films yet. You have to find a way to get control of your films away from those who consider film as some leisure-time investment, an orc in a conglomerate of some kind. It’s got to come back into the hands of the creative people.” The Academy Awards show might pander to their ratings and the lowest-common-denominator, but filmmakers need not.
And while I disagree personally with many of the Awards (I would have liked to see FANTASTIC MR. FOX win for Best Animated Feature and Original Score, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep for Best Actress, Colin Firth for Best Actor–though I love Jeff Bridges to no end–THE WHITE RIBBON for cinematography, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE simply nominated), I realize that I will never be in sync with the tastes of the Academy in all things. Or even most. That’s a given and I accept that. Though my heart always mourns for those incredible films overlooked each year because they were simply too daring, too odd, too misunderstood, or too unpopular to warrant the attention and admiration of a majority of Academy voters. To see DISTRICT 9 nominated for its video-game screenplay while a superior sci-fi like MOON goes unnoticed, not to mention Sam Rockwell’s riveting tour-de-force performance, always makes me sad. Or Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant film THE INFORMANT! with an amazingly daring perf by Matt Damon (far more challenging and impressive than his nominated INVICTUS perf), or Soderbergh’s micro-budget THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, fearless and original in every way, or Spike Jonze’s raw emotional take on childhood WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE with its unconventional stream-of-consciousness approach to storytelling. But so is the way of any award celebration. Years from now, people will be mystified as to how these films were ignored while lesser films praised.
At the end of the day, the Academy Awards seem to have more in common with American Idol than with any real appreciation of world cinema. It’s more surface entertainment value than an award show with any real prestige. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t turn down an Oscar or spit in the face of the Academy if nominated for one, but I know what it is and I know what it isn’t. And it’s not what I wish it was. Nor is it what I once believed it was. It is, as we said before, a popularity contest. But at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to be popular, right? And like I mentioned earlier, the problem isn’t with the Academy or its awards show. It’s with me and my desire to see an award ceremony that respectfully honors cinema with a sense of decorum and a sincere understanding of and appreciation for the extraordinary art of filmmaking.
Francis Ford Coppola is and has been a great influence on me as a filmmaker as well as a source of my deepest admiration. Both via the films he’s made as well as in his approach to filmmaking. Yes, even some of the films that were difficult and painful experiences for him, those films which he didn’t feel reflected him fully as an artist, have had a lasting impact on me.
Through my ongoing journey to understand my desire to make films and tell stories, my many youthful fantasies of making those films in that once magical place known as Hollywood, and in watching and listening to great artists like Francis Coppola share their insights, experiences and wisdom, I have managed to not feel completely alone in my conclusion that Hollywood may, in fact, not be the best place for me to be making films. This is a subject I have written about before and return to often as I find myself in a transition period in my life and art. While still a resident of Los Angeles and Hollywood, and still surrounded by many “industry” friends and acquaintances, I have both mentally and artistically distanced myself from the very world I had once strived to be a part of. Through my experiences as a writer working with name producers, to my experiences making THE PLAGUE, my first feature as director, I have learned to trust less in the business of filmmaking and trust more in my own gut as both a filmmaker and a lover of film.
It is therefore that I am thankful and inspired when I stumble across great filmmakers whose experiences in the field, far greater than my own, seem to confirm my desire to follow my gut and my heart, even while so many around me–agents, lawyers, industry peers–seem to suggest my desired path lies somewhere between pipe dream and career suicide. But the more steps I take away from filmmaking as it is defined by the town and industry I physically inhabit, and move toward a place more centered around the artistry and love I have of films and filmmaking and my joy of working with people I admire, respect and whose company I enjoy, the more empowered I feel, the more inspiration I seem to find, the more excited I become.
And so I want to thank Mr. Coppola for sharing his thoughts and experiences in his introduction to the Blu-ray release of PATTON, a film for which he won the Academy Award for screenwriting, and let him know that there are filmmakers out there like myself who are not just listening to what he is saying, but actually hearing and finding inspiration in his words; the inspiration to follow a path dismissed by many, attained by few, but cherished by those lucky enough to trust their hearts.