We don’t have to talk about The Artist anymore. It’s a charming and well-intentioned flick full of charismatic performances… it’s thoroughly likable, though in my opinion, wholly unremarkable. While this isn’t a Best Picture win that will cause the sort of uproar of the milquetoast The King’s Speech winning over the bonafide new American classic The Social Network, The Artist’s victory points to what I consider a growing issue within the film committee and that’s self-perception. The Academy Awards are a reflection of how this community views itself from the past year and while it’s impossible to recognize the dynamic and wonderful work being done both within the studio system and independent world, there’s a certain expectation that it will at least match-up with audience expectations outside of said community.
Right now a major one exists between the Academy voting body, critics, and the movie-going audience at least on the Best Picture level. Riffing off of Andrew O’Hehir’s initial post from Salon, Jim Emerson breaks down this phenomenon pretty succinctly. Contrasting this Oscar year’s winners with the National Society of Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and 2011 box office receipts carry with them some commonalities, but in doing so portray’s the Academy’s choices as either safe or even worse, insulated. The term “Oscar bait” can be thrown to the wall this year and certain films would stick, which is why the expansion from 5 to (possibly) 10 categories exists. More populist films that connect with both audiences and critics, such as The Dark Knight, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, Bridesmaids should theoretically operate on a more level playing field, but films like War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which either don’t connect with the viewing public or get middling-to-negative reactions from critics, still find their way in their due to the clout of their producers and studio backing. As a viewer, I feel that these films are forced down my throat as what a specific body feel are the “important” works of the year over both those aforementioned hits or challenging works that draw a rabid fan base like this year’s Drive, Young Adult, Take Shelter, Beginners or Shame.
Is this the very nature of committee-wide voting that the the cream of the artistic crop are ignored in favor of the middle? I can accept that since I know I have a very specific view of what I think the cinema of a given year represents and that it may differ with others. Given that logic, shouldn’t a wide-reaching hit like Moneyball (a great example of efficient and surprisingly nuanced studio filmmaking), The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, or The Help (which I have no interest in seeing but many have connected to) stand a better chance of riding to the top than a niche film like The Artist? Politicking and parades ensure that an already narrow-minded body focuses on even fewer films toward the end of the year to the point where certain films, like The Artist, are more powered by their ever-turning hype machines than their artistic merit. Hell, I’m surprised May releases Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life even made it on the ballot this year, though that may be a testament to the respect that many have for Woody Allen and Terrence Malick than anything else.
Where am I going with this? I’m not exactly sure; cyclical rants generally work like this. I don’t expect industry professionals, critics or moviegoing audiences to singularly be the bellwether of taste and culture. Each group is bound by their own biases and predispositions of what cinema is and how it should be celebrated. That being said, when there’s a zeitgeist formed by an overlap in taste like the ones made by Harry Potter…, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or Drive, they should be celebrated and acknowledged as such. Not to discredit the writing or technical categories in any respect, but it’s clear that Best Picture carries with it the most prestige and cultural significance. Should I or anyone else expect a voting body of 6,000 consisting of 92% white and 77% male with a median age of 62 to represent the taste of the majority of filmgoers? Probably not, but that doesn’t keep anyone from getting wrapped up in the furor of the awards ceremony itself.