Monday, December 4, 2017

At A Theater Near You

I have written close to ninety blogs this year and they are all tied for first place….which is to say they’re also tied for last place.

So it is with movies. Each one gets a full page ad in the newspaper proclaiming it the year’s best. Curbing their enthusiasm is not what these critics are being paid for. December is the time of the year to dust off and drag out those hyperbolic adjectives. Compelling, brilliant, spell-binding, riveting, fierce, impeccable. Leaves you breathless, soaring. The last four are part of a full page ad for a movie roundly condemned by just by just about every critic.

If you see no other movie this year you must….After watching 
that one I may not want to see another. Movie criticism has become part of the fake news industry.

Soon the Golden Globes will bestow their honors foretelling the Oscars….or not. We will root as if it mattered yet I can’t remember which film won the Academy Award two years ago. In fact the most enduring and endearing ones seldom get the votes. Instead we get the one with the biggest splash often with low satiety. Think of Donald Trump on Mt. Rushmore. 

In 1943 Casablanca got nosed out at the Golden Globe by the now unwatchable, Song of Bernadette. The Oscar went to How Green Was my Valley over Citizen Kane in 1941. This was a personal snub of Orson Welles. Vertigo, Grapes of Wrath and The Graduate were also overlooked in their respective years. Hollywood spends over half a billion bucks in promotion for the grand prize. Only six of the top twenty all-time best American movies (according to the A.F.I.) won an Oscar. The prize seems to go to the one with the biggest buzz in the weeks leading up to the event, testimony to our low attention span. God help a movie released in early spring.

Art abhors a hierarchy. At least among the worthy. Why not just honor those approximately dozen works for their excellence and let it go at that? The chances are several would be exemplary of the craft in far different ways. Comedies, which are generally shunned, may receive their due. Musicals, as well. A serous dramatic work operates by different standards. Performances likewise. The comic genius of a Charlie Chaplin should not have been in competition against Fred Astaire or Spencer Tracy nor should one have to choose between Liza Minnelli and Meryl Streep.

Imagine Matisse going against Picasso for the grand prize or 
the pianist of the philharmonic vying with the first violinist.
It all has the whiff of the huckster. Oscar night is an occasion for a celebration of the marketplace not the art of cinema. Foreign and low-budget independent films with no inclination or means for a massive advertising campaign, are ignored unless word of mouth becomes a loud chorus.

I expect to be reaching into my bag of adjectives watching this year’s contenders.  If the short list follows previous years I’ll be muttering vacuous, insipid, juvenile, mind-numbing, inert, cacophonous and stilted dialog. Any sense I have of being out of touch with the popular taste will be confirmed.  

It has been said that everyone in the theater sees a different movie owing to what they bring to the viewing. Maybe my jaundiced eye is just a bad fit for the fourteen year-old sensibility which seems to be pervasive these days. There must be a number of us who have outgrown comic books and don’t wish to pay money to have our nervous system strung out. Nor do we require an obligatory vomit scene and a pile of corpses torn apart in close-ups. In the name of authenticity the Special Effects department presents us with a version of life in extremis leaving little to the imagination. The net effect prepares our psyches for gratuitous violence and gore.

The struggle between the art form and the bankers is inherent in the medium; what we eventually get to see is a collaborative concession, the reconciled negotiation between the integrity of an artistic vision and the financial backer looking for a return on investment.

Now that I've emptied my spleen I don't want to end this piece on such a sour note. In fact I have seen a few films so far this year to which other adjectives apply such as incisive, soulful, visually transforming and imaginatively daring. Pass the popcorn.

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