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The State of the Race: What Does “Too Dark” for “The Academy” Really Mean?

This question shadows the Oscar race from the beginning of the year onward. It stood upright when No Country for Old Men was in the race and it loomed large when The Departed was in the race. “Too dark” translates this way: The Academy is made up of senior citizens, it is assumed, who spend their days in retirement, for the most part, locked up in a giant mansion in Beverly Hills or Bel Air, or Encino or London or New York whilst the rest of the world evolves. Think: the card game in Sunset Boulevard. The theory is reinforced by the notion that voters have just the holiday season to figure out which film they vote on for Best Picture. Holiday season equals good cheer which equals a reluctance to go dark.

That might be true for films that can win over five to six thousand voters on a preferential ballot for the win but does it have any place in the discussion leading up to the final ballots? No. All it serves to do is close doors that desperately need to be pushed and held wide open.

The thing is, it’s no one’s job to say no. It’s no blogger nor critic nor journalist’s job to declare something “too dark” before Academy voters have a chance to see the film. It is their job, perhaps, to say whether the film is good or not. Second guessing the Academy’s lack of nerve, or soft stomach is really the job of Oscar strategists, studio heads and publicists. Not critics, not bloggers. The second I start hearing things like “that movie is too dark for Academy voters” something somewhere on my body puckers. There are no such limitations, generally speaking, upon the Academy. They will respond to a dark film if it’s good enough. When we say stuff like “they” won’t go for an effects-driven film like Godzilla, that’s probably right. Although under the right circumstances they HAVE – District 9, for instance. We can say they won’t go for horror but in some circumstances they HAVE: Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist. We can say they won’t go for comedy when, in fact, in some instances they HAVE: Annie Hall, The Artist.

The movies just have to be GOOD enough, not Oscar genre-y enough. “Too dark” usually means you are trying to do the thinking for your dear old grandparents, whom you are trying to protect from being offended. But these are the same people who came of age under Altman, Kubrick, Ken Russell — they voted for Fargo and The Piano. They voted for Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. They voted for Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and Wolf of Wall Street. A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver! They voted for Godfather II! You want to talk about dark, try having Fredo bumped off in a boat to the Hail Marys while Michael sits quietly, stoically on a bench.

You want to talk about dark? Let’s talk about Sunset Boulevard. Let’s talk about Billy Wilder. What if he had never made that movie, or The Lost Weekend for that matter. What if he always had to make a feel-good period piece Oscar movie just to make it under the wire to appeal to Academy voters? Would the tastemakers then have said it was “too dark” for the Academy? They would have been fools to do so, fools to overlook something so brilliant.

Of course, the preferential ballot makes that much harder than it used to be but not impossible. Take Black Swan, for instance. Take Amour. The more imaginative and open to possibilities critics, bloggers and journalists are, the better the chances that the voting will be much more diverse. Wouldn’t you, as someone who writes about or watches the Oscars want to chase after the GOOD movies, whether or not they are “took dark” or too effects-driven or too horrific? Each year, each film I myself never say no if the film is good enough and if the film is good enough you are required to ask why not? There are simply too many people who act as tastemakers and sheepherders who are doing the limited thinking FOR the Academy before the Academy has a chance to do it for themselves.

And here’s why. Let’s call it the Inside Llewyn Davis rule. Or we could call it the Dragon Tattoo rule. But Dragon Tatoo got zotzed by the Academy, not the industry, specifically because of the preferential ballot. Inside Llewyn Davis never did well with the industry overall. Let’s look closer at why and whether or not we were “right” or “wrong” to assume it would, or hope it would, or champion it until the last gasp.

But first, let’s look at the bigger picture. Will Inside Llewyn Davis be remembered beyond this year? Yes. Will some of the films actually nominated for Best Picture be remembered? Probably not. So the bigger picture continues to reinforce the notion that the Oscars don’t matter. They don’t. We know this already from looking at film and film history. They matter in the right now. They matter for career-making, for the good for the ego, the satisfaction of victory and they can also upset the power balance in Hollywood on occasion; an Oscar can sometimes make the difference between getting jobs and not getting jobs out of the gate (Lupita Nyong’o).

But let’s go back to the very beginning. Inside Llewyn Davis hits big at Cannes. It completely wows the critics. It ends up with a 92 Metacritic rating. Wow. It’s made by the Coen brothers, two of the most beloved artists in the entertainment community and within the Academy. It stars a relative unknown, Oscar Isaac. The film hits the sweet spot of boomer voting demographic — taking them right back to their peace loving, folk singing, Greenwich Village, war protesting, health food roots. So far, so good. There’s just one problem. Well, two if you count the absence of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which gave Llewyn Davis a different look than usual Coen fare. The first problem is that the film is dark. It is so dark, in fact, that it really does bleat out the Nietzschean phrase “when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” It is about a folk singer who hates the industry he’s in. It is about a failed artist spitting in the wind. It is about a futile man whose only true moment comes the night before Bob Dylan blows it out of the park and changes the music industry and the world. Bob Fucking Dylan. As if things weren’t bad enough. There is no upside to Llewyn’s life. There is only another possible road not taken that he never took — the road to happiness which would have included giving up on that silly dream to become a folk singer at all costs. He could have raised a son. He could have fallen in love. He could have built something. Instead, he’s kicked in the gut and left for dead in an ally for being a major asshole.

Pure genius. Beautiful insight into the human condition. Brilliantly written, acted and directed. A perfect 10 of a movie. Surely the industry voters would embrace such a film. They did not. And here is the reason why:

When it came time to promote the film for Oscar, Llweyn Davis went on your typical Oscar run. Stops at Telluride, where the Coens were feted with tributes alongside T Bone Burnett. They did all of the publicity you could imagine to help this film and to help T Bone and Oscar Isaac, a relative unknown. They held concerts in New York and Los Angeles celebrating the roots of folk music. They did charity events. They celebrated the soundtrack and suddenly the campaign for Llewyn Davis became about one guy singing a beautiful folk song, the genius of T Bone Burnett’s contribution to American music overall. The problem? That wasn’t what the movie was about.

So when people hear that beautiful singing and they take a bath in the glory that is Burnett and folk music they then sit down to a movie about an asshole who hates folk music. You see where I’m going with this? In many ways, their campaign, as wonderful as well intentioned as it was, undermined the whole point of that movie, the deeper meaning of that film about futility.

Compare that with Wolf of Wall Street, which was slammed for being a celebration of all ungodly things in our society rather than a comment on it. That message was broadcasted loud and clear what that movie was supposed to be about. Scorsese talked it up. Audiences knew what to expect. With Llewyn Davis they did not. They thought they were going to see something celebratory. These are clearly people unfamiliar with the work of Joel and Ethan Coen but that’s another story.

So you can look at last year and you can say the bloggers, critics and journalists were wrong. And from there you can kick yourself for thinking that movie had a chance. It was “too dark,” you will conclude. The truth is probably somewhere in between. But you will never be wrong for supposing a movie that good could or would go all the way. If you do not stand behind such great things the heart inside you will die. You might as well be betting on the horse races. Except those are cruel to animals so go to Vegas. Wait, the environment. Nevermind Vegas. Okay, how about online poker. But the Oscar race is still and always will be about finding the best, no matter the genre, no matter how “dark” or funny or absurd. The best, period. That is the path back to the 1970s. It starts with the sheepherders.

Best Picture does the preferential ballot and that is what makes the difference between admiration and passionate love. That system seems to punish films that really do deserve recognition but don’t necessarily hit voters passionately, as in, right to the heart. So when people say it’s “too dark” for voters, what they should be thinking/saying is whether the film will invoke passion or whether it won’t. Darkness is really beside the point.

Did Inside Llewyn Davis earn passionate support? No, it did not. In the end, it was hurt by the bait and switch. It was also not embraced by the industry. When you have a film like Dragon Tattoo embraced by the industry but not the Academy on a preferential ballot you can kind of see how passionate support is needed there. The film ended up winning Best Editing anyway, without a Best Picture nod, something not done since the mid 1960s. So that tells you how much they admired the film. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, passionate support will tend to squeeze out the films that are “too dark,” and embrace films that might have passionate support, like Dallas Buyers Club.

But it isn’t our job to decide that — not at the beginning of the year. Good film, bad film. That’s all ye need know. When you make the goal the punt up the middle instead of the grand slam, when you soften things way too early you incentivize the desire to aim low, to never challenge yourself as an artist so as to appeal to a dumbed down, milquetoast status quo. Who really wants that to continue to the Academy’s legacy? They surely don’t. I’ve gone to screenings with them. I know how old they are. But that is still no reason to second guess their choices this early in the game.

If people say Gone Girl is too dark or Maps to the Stars is too dark. That might be true but that is no reason not to champion those films or presume they will or might go all the way. We welcome darkness so that we may see deeper into ourselves. Often without darkness we can’t ever really get to the light.

Now, if it were me, it would be an easy call about Maps to the Stars but that’s because what I love about it is how good it is. It is so good, in fact, that its goodness, its greatness would trump my own passionate feelings about the plot or the characters. In other words, I don’t watch a movie and think “I liked her.” My liking the characters falls way behind my love for the genius behind the work. I realize that most people do not think this way and thus, the sappy, soft-hearted “Oscar Movie” thrives.

I also realize that opening doors can lead to heartbreak, as it did last year with Inside Llewyn Davis. But all that means is that you get to write an impassioned essay about how wrong they were. If predicting that movie to get in was wrong who would want to be right.

Nonetheless, though I probably would not predict Maps to the Stars to get a Best Picture or Best Director nomination (though it should), it’s a slam dunk for Screenplay. If it doesn’t get that nomination, voters truly have packed up their balls and put them in storage. Just saying.

Five Easy Pieces
Love Story

The French Connection
A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler on the Roof
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra

The Godfather
The Emigrants

The Sing
American Graffiti
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
A Touch of Class

The Godfather Park II
The Conversation
The Towering Inferno

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nes
Barry Lyndon
Dog Day Afternoon

All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
Taxi Driver

Annie Hall
The Goodbye Girl
Star Wars
The Turning Point

The Deer Hunter
Coming Home
Heaven Can Wait
Midnight Express
An Unmarried Woman

Kramer vs. Kramer
All that Jazz
Apocalypse Now
Breaking Away
Norma Rae