Ok, I'm getting a bit obsessed with movies. I think my last two significant conversations over meals were about stuff I've been watching. The good news is that I'm no longer blabbing about music no one else has heard before. The bad news is that I'm still not over my egocentric need to voice critical opinions.
And thus begins a few reflections about the Oscars last night.
In the fallout of "The Hurt Locker's" big night, some have argued that the secret to its success vs. the box-office behemoth that is "Avatar" is that actors, who make up more than 2/3 of the Academy voters, feel threatened by its profusion of special effects. Or it at least makes them think about how much is filmed in this universe and how much is created in the digital one. These voting actors wanted to award a movie that showcases acting, rather than effects. And that's why they gave the best picture Oscar to "Up in the Air."
Whoops. Maybe not.
But this would be the logical conclusion from this argument. If actors were indeed voicing their preferences for performance-driven movies, "Up in the Air" would certainly take the cake. It had the most nominations in acting categories and probably would have picked up a couple if it was nominated in most other years. So this can't be the whole secret to "The Hurt Locker's" success.
While Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty certainly did a good job in animating their roles in "The Hurt Locker," their performances did not make the movie. What gave the movie its emotional potency were the technical elements. "The Hurt Locker's" Baghdad is one of the most penetratingly real settings ever filmed for a war movie. The attention to detail combined with the tension-driven story make the film a nerve-racking thrill ride from start to finish. I think this had a lot to do with "Hurt Locker's" eventual success--the technical elements are transparent and easy to recognize and have a definite expressive purpose of amping up tension. The film has a bite that was lacking in every other film nominated for best picture. "The Hurt Locker" did what a good action movie is supposed to do--keep your adrenaline up for a good two hours--and was rewarded for it by both actors and technicians.
So yes, I am a bit disappointed that two terrific films--"Up in the Air" and "An Education"--went away empty handed. But that has more to do with the strength of this year's nominees than anything else. I could easily see "Up in the Air" taking a good four or five awards home if it were came out last year and was up against that weaker field. Oh well. The one bit of silver lining is that Jason Reitman and Carey Mulligan are still at the beginning of their careers and certainly have the obscene talent to get their hardware in the near future.
In the end, as A.O. Scott so elegantly put it in Sunday's New York Times, the Academy Awards are really about what Hollywood thinks of itself, or at least wants itself to be. As more and more boutique studios get shut down and the box office is dominated by buzz rather than artistic merit, I think many academy members wanted to show that there is still a place for thoughtful and independent film in the industry. Just the number of cracks last night about "Avatar" showed how much Hollywood is uneasy with technical and economic Goliaths. This isn't to say that artsy movies are going to make a comeback. The so-called independent films that got nominated were far from weird or inaccessible, were cleanly made, and came from relatively mainstream sources, be it best-selling novels or prescient current events. With this lens, it's easy to see how a well-shot indie movie with an archetypal plot like "Slumdog Millionaire" was so successful last year.
I feel I can't end though without some final thoughts about "Avatar." So what if it came home with three minor awards. It's still the most audacious piece of filmmaking out of the nominated bunch. You can criticize the script, the score, and the acting all you want, but it's hard not to admit they did their job well. "Avatar's" real problem lies elsewhere.
It's a bit ironic that a sci-fi movie that was so immersive through its use of 3-D technology would feature a relatively compact alternate world. In the great sci-fi and fantasy movies, like "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and "Lord of the Rings," the worlds that the filmmakers have created are so rich and detailed that you feel that the story you're watching isn't all that's going on out there. The worlds are filled with minor places and characters that probably have colorful histories of their own; you just have to fill them in. "Avatar" lacks a world of this magnitude. Pandora is a land lost in time. The Na'avi live the same way they have lived forever. There are no other adventures to be had on the other side of the planet. Everything that's important or interesting about this world is confined to the 3 hour run time. Our imaginations aren't allowed to run wild after the fact like they do after watching "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings." Certainly James Cameron loves the world he has created, but he doesn't make it large enough for the audience to take a piece of it home with them and love it too.