The times, they are changing. When True Detective aired, the buzz caught on slowly. Folks were watching it but they weren’t really REALLY watching it. Around the time of episode 4 that started to change. Suddenly, the obsession ballooned to consume a global audience. How people watched, how they accessed it, varied. The incentive was there to seek it out by whatever means necessary. By the end of the series, the hype had eclipsed what the creators originally had in mind. An elegant, perfectly executed series was not big enough for the hungry imaginations of the obsessed, who took the random tangents, or subtext of the series to be actual clues that would point, ultimately, to the bad guy. But the story was only ever really about the two true detectives, Rust and Marty — the most excellent Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. This series was about their inner structure. What lies beneath the surface of the landscape of that deep, soggy, American south — slave cabins and everything rotting underneath illuminates the disease upon which this country was founded. We want it to not be there. But it’s there. The evil represented in the show can’t be blotted out by anyone, not these two characters, not even God himself. Rust was a manly Christ-like figure, absorbing the sins of mankind though now having lost “faith” in even himself. That last shot of Rust in the hospital ought to make that abundantly clear.
But True Detective made another thing abundantly clear. What will become of the Oscars now that television is doing what movies used to do back in the 1970s? Television is where the artistic courage is happening when it comes to American film narrative. With this, the fourth consecutive year that Best Director went to a man born and educated outside America, one has to start to wonder about what kind of a ship we’re building here. Of the nine Best Picture nominees, only three were directed by Americans. Many of the films that were Oscar bound, at the top of that list Joel and Ethan Coen, were supplanted by films that appeal more to voters. What are we to make of this?
It isn’t as though the Oscar race has to be about Americans only. But the short categories are often dominated by foreign language films as well, films made in places that foster creativity rather than what we seem to value over here in America: opening weekend. We measure box office like we measure dick size. It’s killing American cinema.
I know, you’re thinking — “Why pick on foreign directors when they are doing American cinema better than Americans! After all, opening weekend ain’t no problem for many of them plucked from their own homelands to helm the bloated tent poles. A good director is a good director and it doesn’t matter where they come from.” Yeah, that’s true. But being a patriotic American I take a look at all of the film schools, all of the student filmmakers, all of the up-and-comers and I wonder — why aren’t Americans kicking ass in either the short categories or now, in Best Picture?
Is it that we value style over substance here? Is it that Americans have forgotten how to tell a good story because we’re all raised on sequels and reality TV? Are we really the stupidest first world country? Do we not value education enough? Do we have no politicians who will help us keep and build the foundations that value art? I don’t have the answers to these questions.
It is also time to start thinking about what’s going to happen to the Oscars themselves.
American film is moving away from good, quality storytelling and towards branded tent poles. The youngsters are cutting their teeth on this kind of crap thus they will be raised to believe that this is what movies are. This started during my childhood with the advent of the blockbuster. Now we’re actually rebooting Star Wars via JJ Abrams. These movies satisfy the requirement for the giant dicks at opening weekend. Look at those numbers! People will come in droves, and they do, no matter what that greasy hamburger tastes like — they’ve been branded and they do what is required of them. Movies as video games, movies as amusement park rides, movies as familiar, comforting, non-challenging entertainment. Worth noting: Gravity did all of that while defying those rules at the same time. Give it a slightly more complex screenplay and it would have been even better. Tent poles. Get used to them. Get used to every beloved director being hired to make one. Branded tent poles are power in Hollywood. Directors can do those and then turn around and make what they want.
At the same time, the Oscars reject this adaptation in their own evolution. 86 years and they just finally awarded a film directed by a black director. To them, that’s progress. And it is. But they are an island onto themselves, offering safe passage and refugee status to any film — ANY FILM — that tries to tell a story without the use of visual effects to tell it. As Jim Cameron and Martin Scorsese dive enthusiastically into 3D, the Academy still says no way. One category represents the effects-driven films — Best Visual Effects. It simply isn’t sufficient now. They need a separate category for the kinds of films they don’t like to award for Best Picture, the same way they’ve done for Foreign Language film and Animated Feature. They created those categories to preserve their Best Picture for the kinds of movies they want always to dominate in Hollywood — dramas, mostly, but nuts and bolts filmmaking that relies on acting, writing and directing — not green screen and a team of effects artists. Avatar, Hugo, Gravity — these are three films that many have argued should have won Best Picture. Only one of those choices I would agree with. I thought Hugo was far the more accomplished film than The Artist but you see where this is going, right? The American went daring and challenging while the Frenchman went the traditional route. Tom Hooper, Michel Hazanavicius and now Steve McQueen told traditional dramas that any old American director might be too disinterested to tell.
The Academy is going to have to find a way to deal with effects driven films within the next ten years. Either that, or the Best Picture/Best Director race is going to represent world cinema, films made by foreign directors who aren’t seduced by the tent poles and are still being encouraged to simply tell good stories, to make good movies. This is what you see at the Cannes film fest, and it should be said, on the independent scene — Sundance offers up many films by up and coming filmmakers. That hasn’t changed. Independents will continue to find a seat at the table, with unknown but talented filmmakers while the best directors this country has to offer are off doing This New Piece of Crap Part 10: The Formative Years, or else they are making coffee and music as David Lynch is doing, or they have exiled themselves to television where the ground is fertile, the audience engaged and the future limitless.
Right now, Oscar Island still makes room for the best directors working at the top of their game, like Martin Scorsese with Wolf of Wall Street, like Paul Thomas Anderson and his upcoming Inherent Vice, like David Fincher and Gone Girl. But it certainly isn’t easy for them. Scorsese had to go outside the studios to get funding.
What’s the answer? There probably isn’t one. Television is going to continue to thrive in this, its second Golden Age. Effects movies are going to continue to make too much money to stop now. Americans are going to condition themselves to watch only one kind of movie when they go to movie theaters. The baby boomers are going to be senior citizens soon so perhaps they alone can keep alive the art house. Or maybe we can keep looking to pioneers like last year’s Ava DuVernay, who is broadening the reach of the art house to — gasp — people of color. Or Benh Zeitlin who used crowd funding and a good idea to make his movie. Oscar Island waits for them and offers them safe passage through the storm.