by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I watched last Sunday’s Academy Awards, which disappointed me personally because not only did Kathryn Bigelow win Best Director over James Cameron (which I was expecting and rather hoping for — partly because, as Barbra Streisand, who probably deserved a Best Director win herself, said when she read the name, “It’s about time” that particular glass ceiling got broken; and partly because I could see a lot of Academy voters thinking, “Well, Cameron’s already got one; we should give it to his ex instead”) but her movie, The Hurt Locker, beat out Avatar for Best Picture. The audience for this year’s Academy Awards show on TV was unusually high, but I suspect a lot of those were big-time Avatar fans who turned it on to see their favorite film win Best Picture and won’t be watching again next year now that the Academy has once again given their top honor to a little movie only a handful of people have actually seen rather than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
There was an odd article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times (below the fold on the main-news front page, not in the Calendar section where it belonged) by film critic Kenneth Turan arguing that The Hurt Locker won Best Picture because Academy members voted for it as a throwback to the days when “films like The Hurt Locker were business as usual and not something that was such an aberration, so outside of current norms, that it very nearly didn’t get made at all.” Ordinarily I’d like to see the little-movie-that-could win the Academy Award, but not this time — unlike Turan, I don’t see Avatar as just a popcorn spectacle: I see it as the personal vision of a master filmmaker and a successor to films like The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Cameron’s Titanic and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as examples of the kinds of films that should get made more often and should win Best Picture: big, audience-pleasing spectacles that are also great movies, vividly directed and stunningly presented, films that reach the mass audience but that more discerning, more intellectual moviegoers don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed at having liked.
I’m glad I got to see both films in a theatre but my response to them was very different: I respected The Hurt Locker but I loved Avatar — and I loved it even though I’ll admit that (as with Titanic) there are limitations to the depth and scope of James Cameron’s imagination that made it not quite the ultimate sci-fi masterpiece it could have been — not quite at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Tarkovsky (not the Soderbergh!) Solaris, which I still think are the two best sci-fi films ever made. Avatar has been criticized for dressing up an old-fashioned plot line in stunning special effects — yet The Hurt Locker is also an old-fashioned plot line; the gung-ho crazy who breaks all the rules and gets himself and his men in mortal danger unnecessarily is a kind of Ur-cliché of the war movie genre, and the real EOD men who saw The Hurt Locker and didn’t like it cited the craziness and irresponsibility of Jeremy Renner’s character as the biggest thing they didn’t like about it.
There were some other weird awards — like the Best Foreign-Language Film going to a really obscure Argentinian movie instead of the highly publicized and widely shown German film The White Ribbon — and Avatar winning only for cinematography (for an Italian d.p. named Mano Fiore — just how the man got the name “Hand Flower” baffles me) and visual effects. By giving its top award to a really depressing war movie instead of a visual masterpiece like Avatar — and a movie that attracted a handful of people instead of one that, as all too few films do nowadays, actually bridged the gap between the normal moviegoing audience and serious film lovers — the Academy continued its slide into total irrelevance and delivered a first-finger fuck-you to the mass audience they were hoping to attract by expanding the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10.
I still think that, rather than keep the expanded pool of nominations, they should do what they did in the very first Academy Awards but dropped after the first year — split the Best Picture category into “Best Production” and “Most Artistic Quality of Production.” (The one year the Best Pictures were split that way, Wings — a popcorn blockbuster that was also a great epic film — won Best Production, and Murnau’s Sunrise, a rich romantic melodrama that was also a popular success, won Most Artistic Quality of Production.) That way they could have given Avatar the Best Production award it deserved and The Hurt Locker the Most Artistic Quality of Production award it deserved — just as the year before they could have given a top award to the film The Dark Knight (which won only one major award — for Heath Ledger’s awful performance as the Joker, one of the most flagrant examples of miscasting in the entire history of movies) and still had the Artistic Quality award for Slumdog Millionaire.