The State of the Race: What We Can Learn from Cannes So Far
It’s best not to think about the Oscar race when in Cannes. Why would you? The two competitions are worlds away from one another and vive la difference. Yesterday’s press luncheon for the Weinstein Co. brought the topic of Oscars to the forefront, however, and it’s never too early to take a look at the way things might be changing at this stage of the game, for better or worse. You can’t stop what’s coming and what’s coming is an unstoppable force. Effects-driven tentpoles on a quest for international box-office dollars slam like battering rams at the gates of the Academy, a bastion of traditional sensibility that is still very much stuck with old reliable models for Best Picture.
“Watching the unprecedented spectacle of this Superman picture, I thought of the producer Lynda Obst’s new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, in which Obst explains why studios are making so many action-heavy, 3-D, Imax monstrosities in lieu of anything else: This is what plays in the rest of the world, especially China, from which an astounding 80 percent of studios’ profits now come. The greed on display extends to the product placements. Amid the explosions and flying debris, the Sears, 7-Eleven, and IHOP logos are visible from all angles. Critics and even the American public might be cool to this War of the Worlds take on Superman, but if Asian markets are onboard, it’s pop-the-cork-and-green-light-the-sequel-time: truth, justice, and the Chinese way.” – David Edelstein, July 2013
Did you read that? Let it sink in. 80% of studio’s profits come from China now. 80%. Little wonder that Hollywood kowtows to its best-paying customers, and that means more movies like everything you’re seeing now — which mostly amounts to dependable reiterations of everything you saw last year and the year before that. Attempting to bridge the gap between originality, quality and effects-driven international tentpoles are films by directors like Jim Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron, whose Gravity is the quintessential example of one of these jaw-dropping behemoths. Plug and Play films relying on astounding visual effects and devoid of difficult subtleties are what the mass international audiences want most. Of course, discerning moviegoers overseas crave greater depth the same as the brightest film lovers anywhere. But, as a rule, for blockbuster movies that need to put 150 million butts in seats, nothing is lost in translation when dialogue can be reduced to plain-spoken exclamations, wisecracks and catch phrases.
The upside of all this is that international audiences do not cotton to the same status quo patriarchy that American audiences have grown complacent about. Moviegoers around the world have long embraced women in leading roles — GASP — and would likely accept just about anyone in the lead provided the visual effects are good enough. Women tend to be as valued as international stars as their male counterparts, perhaps even more so. This is why Gravity became such a milestone movie. Jim Cameron could easily put a female in the power seat in the next Avatar film (I double-dog dare him) and it would still bust wide open the worldwide box office take. So to that end, many actresses should feel hopeful. They merely have to embody a fascinating aspects of America in order to take advantage of this brave new world being consumed by to international audiences.
This is why every respectable actor or actress has to don a dumb sexy costume and dive headfirst into some shitty superhero or monster movie to stay relevant — not just with “kids these days” here in the US but internationally even more so. Welcome to the new world order.
Things are changing so fast. But the one place resisting change is the Academy, still stubbornly holding onto their favored paradigm of real movies in real settings, with real actors and real-life stories, most of which are built from the ground up with human hands. This is about preserving tradition on the one hand but it’s also about rejecting the inevitable. Although Gravity did not win Best Picture last year, it won 7 other Oscars, including Best director. On Oscar night you could feel the palpable tension between the old world and the new. Even though the Academy’s decision to finally reward a black director for the first time in 87 years felt like a much bigger deal, look a little closer and you will see a major cock block there.
I remember having a conversation with my blogger cohorts over this very thing. They didn’t listen to me, of course, because I’ve been wrong in the past when trying to convince them of precedent. Steve Pond, Kris Tapley, Pete Hammond, Bill Desowitz — all reluctant to believe it. I said Gravity is an effects-driven film with only two actors in it. It can’t win Best Picture because only movies with bigger casts ever do and the Academy (thus far) has shown mostly disdain for effects-driven films, give or take a Lord of the Rings or Titanic — and both those exceptions recreated the past, they didn’t reinvent the future.
It was a close call. It always feels like exceptions can’t happen until they do, and many believed that the Academy would finally give itself over to what our collective cinematic future looks like. But they didn’t. They said no, once again.
One thing to remember, though. We can be proud and grateful that American cinema still has a thriving independent scene, flourishing like an organic garden. This is where most of the Oscar films have been coming from for a while now — hailing often from other countries too — like The King’s Speech, like The Artist. Even some our biggest stars, our biggest directors, are coming from somewhere outside American borders. I was struck yesterday at the Weinstein Co lunch when Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender, Christoph Waltz all looked like major Oscar contenders. Amy Adams alone represented the USA. Last year’s Oscar for Best Director came down to a choice between two non-Americans — Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen. Best Director has, for the past four years, gone to non-American directors: Cuaron, Michel Hazanavicious, Tom Hooper, Ang Lee (though Ang is a naturalized American citizen). The last homegrown American to win? Kathryn Bigelow in 2009.
What are we doing in Hollywood and New York to fortify our own domestic product? Not a lot, my friends. Not a lot. It all rests in the hands of independents, up and comers and the youth. Think of all of the film schools all over the country with young Americans investing in their futures as filmmakers. What kind of future in the economy of film will be left for them? They often graduate with insurmountable debt, something international filmmakers don’t have. Here we don’t have a government that supports their efforts the way international governments do.
But what do they have? They have unprecedented access to the American public and to international audiences via social networking and various methods of media delivery. They only need to realize this and keep making movies, no matter if they make money to maintain their bankability within a volatile studio system — a system that’s booming financially but risks becoming creatively bankrupt. Hopefully people like me will keep looking out for them, keep advocating for them for the betterment of cinema overall and for the diminishing quality Big Hollywood is dead set on promoting.
The Cannes film festival has never been a more important stopping point for the year in cinema. If Americans can no longer lead creatively in any significant way then they deserve to have their homegrown product eclipsed by international filmmakers who still believe in telling stories that illuminate the human condition. What do you see here? You see films about real problems facing real people. Complex problems without easy solutions that don’t need to tie things up in a neat little bow. Stories that don’t need to put every male character in the hero’s seat to save the world and right every wrong in two hours. Here, you see stories with women as actual people. You know, people. People who can’t fly.
I do believe that some of American cinema is still the best the world has to offer. Directors like Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Spike Jonze, Bennett Miller, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee — these are among the notable homegrown treasures who can make movies as great or greater than anyone in the world. You can’t tell me American cinema is dead. But it’s drought-ridden roots are in desperate need of preservation. Here’s to hoping the Academy keeps this in mind in the coming year.