“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” — William Faulkner
We’re always in a rush to judgment about movies: hit/flop, success/failure, best picture winner/loser. Spurred on by the impulse to check insta-polls in 2012, we’ve been in such a hurry to reach snap verdicts that we often don’t bother to take the time we need to digest the films we’ve seen. We tweet our first impressions as fast as our thumbs can tap, as soon as the lights come up. Those opinions then go on record, they get spread and read across the country and around the world, helping to shape other opinions, and so and so on. Gut reaction chain reaction. Even if a film somehow manages to run the gauntlet and hit every possible check box to define its greatness, it still has to rise above dozens of catchy headlines, off-the-cuff remarks, and articles as the inevitable backlash sets in. Smart marketers keep expectations low enough so they can reach the masses every time. Dangling the low hanging fruit, as it were, is the reason McDonald’s is so successful. Don’t risk enough and the collective jury will shrug. Risk too much to please the critics? The fans? Good luck with that. Success is measured in money and praise. But to make bank and earn cred filmmakers need to please both the high-minded and the lowbrow. Problem is, those two types don’t usually hook up for date night on opening weekend. All the same, against all odds, a few bold filmmakers are still willing to try what’s never been done, to take daring leaps of faith that could make or break their careers.
The Oscars don’t necessarily reward risk because why should they? They are in the business of picking what the Academy members liked best, though they like to pretend they represent the “highest achievements in filmmaking.” Voters are no longer influenced by public reception — because decisions are mostly made in private screenings rooms, on blogs and in film reviews before many of those films even hit theaters. The one exception to that trajectory right now is Argo. It has gone the traditional route of moving through film festivals, past the critics and briskly onto the public, where word of mouth is now driving it towards $100 million. So where’s the risk in Argo, you might ask? Didn’t Ben Affleck make a great movie simply by sticking to conventional plot structure and never drawing outside the lines? To some degree, yes. But consider this. That Affleck is making major films at all is quite a reach and risk in itself. He had to overcome a lot of public ridicule after being dismissed by the industry. He ignored the naysayers who had him pegged wrong. He stepped out on a precarious ledge at a dizzying creative height to make three interesting films in a row, Argo easily besting his previous efforts.