Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ol' Uncle Oscar

Ostensibly, the Academy Awards honor "excellence in cinematic achievements." But we know that's not really the case. Even another venerable body of American cinema, the American Film Institute, acknowledges this: of the AFI's 100 best films of all time, only eight have been recipients of the "Best Picture" award. What films win "Best Picture"? Braveheart? Mutiny on the Bounty? Crash?

While Oliver! and Slumdog Millionaire might take home golden men, their achievements, though certainly works of public relations art, aren't really cinematic. So what are the Academy Awards for, and why does the Academy choose to honor the films it does? In his 2005 book Hollywood and the Culture Elite, film historian Peter Decherney outlines how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed to postpone the unionization of Hollywood's actors, writers, and directors:

"Stagehands, electricians, and other crewmembers had been unionized several months earlier in the Studio Basic Agreement. The Academy's members arbitrated labor contracts, but that was only the most direct manifestation of their management role. In order to defer the unionization of the Hollywood workforce, the Academy took several steps to define film industry jobs as skilled artistry rather than labor. The ultimate goal of the Academy was to oversee the Hollywood workforce from training to retirement, and the most public and disarming sign of this process was the establishment of the Academy Awards in 1929... the Awards assisted in the definition and installation of filmmaking labor and art... the awards separated "below the line" workers from the artists who wrote, directed, and acted in films, effectively distinguishing the unionized laborers from the artists."

The Academy Awards initially sought to recognize films that took chances, artistically: "the first ceremony (cohosted by [Cecil B.'s brother] William de Mille)awarded separate prizes to the best picture (Wings) and the best "unique and artistic picture" (Sunrise), separating commercial fare from prestige art films. Wings, William A. Wellman's WWI fighter pilot film, was a comparatively big-budget epic that capitalized on Charles Lindbergh's popularity. On the other hand,Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a weird and wonderful love story, told in a kooky expressionistic style by F. W. Murnau. (Roger Ebert has a great essay on the film.)

So if there was a category for best "unique and artistic picture" this year, what would make the cut? Maybe "Bright Star", tautly told with images, instead of "Up in the Air," where dialogue babbles like a player's piano, an often forgettable tune.

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