Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2012+: The Year in Television

As it seems with almost all of my media exploits, my ambition outstrips my ability. I may use my screens as much as a couple of hours in a day, but that usually includes video games, computer time, movies, and television shows. I would say, on average, that I watch five to seven hours of television shows in a week, which seems like a lot but really is not. I generally end up dividing my shows into three categories: drama, comedy, and sci-fi/fantasy, the latter of which also includes superhero cartoons and other fantastical set-ups - I know they also technically count as dramas, but I find that it's easier to separate them. At any given time, I am following one intense drama (those are the shows my wife does not watch), along with half a dozen comedies, one sci-fi/fantasy show, and my one reality vice, Survivor, which really functions more as a serial drama with the way it runs. Those alone take up a few hours, which does not account for the myriad shows to catch up on - "first world problems", I know - but I thought I would go through my lists of some of the shows that have been on my radar over the past year. Maybe I should just finally give up on some of these, but I'm keeping them on my list(s) for now. Here are some of my thoughts on the TV shows I watched last year.
Edit: After having had this post sit for close to a month, I have decided to incorporate my first quarter update on TV into this post and make it about the TV I've watched in the past year and a bit. It really hasn't changed much, but it just makes more sense than the kind of arbitrary Dec. 31 cut off.

To start, here are five shows from the past that I've (re-)watched recently: 30 Rock, Sports Night, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (Seasons 1-3).

Serialized Dramas: There are five dramas I have been watching, along with my one reality staple, which tends to be dramatic enough that I can put it in here. Here are my quick hit thoughts on the dramas I have watched in the last year.

Breaking Bad - The first half of Season 5 was absolutely perfect. Gilligan and crew have set the story up for one of the all-time great finishes, and I cannot wait to see how they resolve all of the open ends in the upcoming final eight episodes. BB is as close to perfect television as it gets.

Dexter - Season 7 redeemed itself from the slow descent into awkwardness in Seasons 5 and 6, and the show has set itself up well for an exciting final season. I think at this point, though, that I'll mostly be glad that it's over.

Homeland - Season 2 might have been better than Season 1, which is saying something. There is so much subtle complexity in each scene, and Lewis and Danes are two of the best on TV right now. If you haven't been watching Homeland, you need to start. Now.

Justified - Season 3 expanded the world of Justified and brought in several new great characters as well as cementing Boyd Crowder's place as one of the best characters on TV right now. Season 4 has kicked it up a notch, and this might be the show that I enjoy the most right now. The show has a great rhythm for its characters and a nasty comic kick, and I really enjoy that EP Graham Yost provides commentary on each episode for It really adds a lot to the show to know the "behind-the-scenes" stuff.

Sherlock - Series 2 was perfect. I'm looking forward to rewatching both series this summer in preparation for Series 3 this fall - and they just confirmed Series 4 too!

Survivor - Season 25 (Philippines) was one of the best in years, and its meta-focus on how players were perceived outside of the game seemed to bring the show full circle. Season 26, Fans vs. Favourites 2, has already provided some of the most memorable moments in the show's history, and it's not even half over. I think there's a lot of life left in this show, especially with the awesomeness that is Jeff Probst.

As of next week, the only drama that I will be watching regularly will be Survivor, with nothing new on the horizon until June, when Dexter (June 30) and Breaking Bad (July 15) come back. So these next couple of months are the perfect time to integrate some of the projects I have kept on the backburner for a while. In order, the next show I plan to watch are: The Newsroom (Season 1); The Hour (BBC); House of Cards; The Americans (though I might wait until it finishes in a month and watch it all at once if I like it); Kings; Luther; Jekyll; and Utopia (the latter three are all BBC series, so they're short). I might not get through all of those shows (I likely will not), but I'm looking forward to some good Netflixing over the next three months.

There are, of course, network dramas that I have thought about adding to my rotation, but there is something so tiresome about the weekly commitment of watching 22-24 episodes. I far prefer shorter cable series at this point, which is probably why these are the five network dramas that I have thought about watching but that I will probably continue ignoring for now: The Following, Last Resort (now cancelled), Person of Interest, Revolution, and Vegas.

Then there are always the long-term projects I have in the pipeline but that I probably will not get to any time soon. I really should make time for The Wire, considering how many people call it the best show ever made, but I may have to wait until the fall, when Dexter and Breaking Bad are finally over. I want to work through Friday Night Lights and The West Wing (at least Seasons 1-4) with my wife at some point. I will probably wait until Treme is over to finally watch it, and maybe I'll try to catch up with Mad Men in time for Season 7.

Comedies: I'm surprised at how many comedies I'm currently following - 8! It has helped that several of them have not overlapped in airing, though I am still behind in a couple of them. It also helped that only one new comedy caught my attention this season; I guess I'm getting more picky with the shows I have in my repertoire.

30 Rock - I finally finished Season 6 and 7 in the past couple of weeks, and the show was strong right until the end. I think I might bump it up a spot or two on my list of favourite sitcoms, actually. It went out on top, and it stayed sharp right up until its conclusion. It might be one of the most rewatchable sitcoms ever, so even though it's done, it will never be gone. That makes me happy.

Community - The frenetic end of Season 3 was one of the most audacious sequences of any sitcom ever, and Harmon and company pulled it off in a blaze of glory. Of course, the show itself was only half of the story; the other half was all of the drama surrounding Harmon's departure after the end of the season. Season 4 just isn't the same. I hope they end it now, rather than prolonging the show's inevitable demise. I think I might have to write a separate post about this, actually.

Futurama - The first half of season 7 was just as strong as Futurama has been throughout its entire run, save for perhaps the concluding "Naturama" episode. It's still not tired, which is impressive after 111 episodes and four full-length movies.

Go On - Matthew Perry's turn as a sportscaster grieving his wife's death with his wacky support group is the only new show that has caught on with me. It feels a lot like a less acerbic Community, with the same kind of diversified cast and spastic sensibilities combined with emotional awareness. On rewatching several episodes, there's a real humanity to the comedy here, and I hope that I get to see some of these characters develop in Season 2. The celebrity guest stars and cameos from sports figures actually work really well into the show (especially Terrell Owens) - plus, John Cho is hilarious. Yeah, I said it.

Louie - Season 3's storyline about Louie preparing to take over for Letterman was the best in the show's short run. It's too bad that we have to wait a year for Season 4, but I get that Louie C.K. needs a break after his pace in the past three years. I'm okay with waiting if he keeps making high quality comedy.

Modern Family - I have not really gotten into Season 4 yet (it's about 3/4 of the way through), and I'm not quite sure why. The fatigue of the show is being discussed, but I think it's just that the standard that has been set was so high that it seems tired even though it is as good as it has been. I'm sure I'll really enjoy it when I binge-watch Season 4, but it's just not that high on my priority list. It's missing that "pop" - those moments that make it must-watch TV, unlike the next show...

New Girl - This show might be the best comedy on TV right now. I think it's largely due to Kay Cannon as the new Executive Producer in Season 2, but the show has hit a great rhythm with its characters. Each episode has had laugh-out-loud moments, and some of the ideas and terms used this season have real (pop) cultural resonance. This is my "can't miss" comedy now, and I don't think it will be dethroned anytime soon.

Parks and Recreation - I have not yet started Season 5, and I'm not really sure why. Okay, it's probably because I have mostly been waiting for my wife to watch it with me, and she has not wanted to for months. But I might just go ahead and finally watch it without her. At any rate, this is still one of my favourite shows on right now, and I love the subtlety in the situations the show features. I need to binge on this one and catch up as soon as possible. That's how Leslie Knope would do it.

Most of those shows still have a few episodes left in this season, so I'll have to finish those up along with binging on Parks and Rec before I move onto a few of my projects. Here are a few of my lists

My top comedies to watch next (in order):
The Joe Schmo Show: The Full Bounty - Spike brought it back after eight years, and it looks as good as it ever was. This one will be fun.
Veep - I would like to watch Season 1 before Season 2 premieres in a few weeks.
Bored To Death - How have I not watched this yet? It stars Jason Schwartzman. C'mon, Turner - get it together.
Slings & Arrows - The Canadian comedy is all on Netflix, and it's all about staging Shakespeare. Again, how have I not watched this?!
Curb Your Enthusiasm - I just need to binge this show. 80 episodes is only 40 hours - if I don't work for a week, maybe I should just watch every episode. Seems like something Larry David would do.
Workaholics - I don't know if I will actually end up watching all three seasons, but I feel like I need to at least to check it out.

Five current/recent British shows I'd like to watch soon: An Idiot Abroad, Cuckoo, Derek, Life's Too Short, Moone Boy

Five classic British shows I should finally watch: Spaced, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Thick of It, Fawlty Towers, Black Adder

And, for good measure, five shows I really should finally watch after over a decade of procrastination, even if only to have finally watched them for friends who have recommended them to me over and over again: Andy Richter Controls the Universe; Clone High; Police Squad!; The Critic; and Larry Sanders Show.

Sci-fi/Fantasy: The final category is the smallest: the science fiction and fantasy shows. They are mostly dramatic, but there is something different about these shows that separates them from regular dramas. I tend to watch these shows more intermittently, which is probably why I have not been watching the SF/fantasy shows that are more serialized in nature. Here are my quick thoughts on the shows on my radar in this category.

Adventure Time - I just discovered this cartoon, and I am still deciding whether I like it. I think I do, but every so often an episode comes up that is just a little too weird for my tastes. It's not like anything else I watch, so Finn and Jake may yet find a place in my regular watching.
Star Trek - I have not watched it for a month, but I'm almost done Season 1. That puts me at a third of the way through my quest to watch all 79 episodes by the time the movie releases. I have some more Trekkin' to do.
Star Trek: The Next Generation - My wife and I have stalled at the beginning of Season 4. That's just when it gets good, you say? I agree. But you try to be the one to convince her to watch it. When we do, we'll binge, but for now it's just waiting for us.
The Dead Set - A short British series about the zombie apocalypse that my wife won't watch with me. I just need to watch this one.
Battlestar Galactica - We have owned Seasons 1-3 for a year, but we probably will not watch it until we get through TNG, so maybe I'll watch it next year. Sigh.

And, again for good measure, five sci-fi/fantasy/escapism shows I feel like I should be watching but probably will not have time to watch anytime soon, thus making my nerd credibility decrease significantly in the process: Burn Notice, Doctor Who, Eureka, Fringe, and Game of Thrones.

And there a couple of other SF shows on my radar, but that I again probably will not get to, in light of the quality of that previous list, including Arrow, Continuum, and the upcoming Defiance.

Those are my thoughts on the television I have watched in the past year. My list was exhaustive and kind of exhausting, so I am looking forward to just watching the shows, rather than thinking about them. But let's end on a strong note, with the five TV events I am looking forward to the most in the rest of 2013: the return of Arrested Development (May); the conclusions of Dexter and Breaking Bad this summer; Series 3 of Sherlock in the fall; and the return of Futurama this summer. It should be a fun next few months as I wait for a great summer in television and knock a few shows off my "to watch" list in the meantime. I have also been thinking that I may start writing more reviews and reflections on the shows that I watch, even if they are shorter pieces, so stay tuned. (See what I did there? Hehehe.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Bucket List: Music

I wrote in late January about searching for the "grails" - those elusive items that I have been hunting for, in many cases, between one and two decades. I have found one since then - Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES - but it has been exceedingly difficult not to just order a number of them from eBay. Of course, it's not like my list will go away - after all, I would just replace those items with new items - so I wait and see what will happen. I also wrote about some of my goals for the year, many of which were focused and ideally achievable - even some of the aspirations I included. In the midst of those two posts, I found that there is another category I wanted to acknowledge but had difficulty in figuring out how to do so: the achievements on my "bucket list", the accomplishments I would like to make before I die - or at least in the not-too-distant-but-also-not-necessarily-immediate future. They are the kinds of accomplishments that are not easy to set as goals, since they sometimes rest upon circumstances as much as internal motivation, and they often get lost in the midst of the regular goals. Some of my aspirations are really similar to "bucket list" items, such as writing a book, but these often tend to be more confined events that can be completed in a short period of time in order to fit what seems to be a true bucket list - a term whose origins are surprisingly elusive to track. I suppose that all of those grails are in a way part of my bucket list, but I'm going to leave them off of these lists. I figured I would start with the biggest category and leave the rest for another post, so here is my musical bucket list.

Music: I find that I am always talking about the bands I have to see before they quit, so I thought it might be interesting to really think through which would be my top bands to see on my bucket list. I crossed a couple off recently, as I finally saw Big Sugar last October - I thought that would never happen after they stopped touring a decade ago - and I finally saw U23D in theatres last week. I have also missed out on a few major opportunities lately, too: for example, Keane was in Vancouver in September, and I just missed Muse (again!) in Vancouver in February. So I thought I should actually sit down and figure out what my list actually is. As I worked further through my list, I realized that there are several subtle levels and categories into which these artists fall. Here are my thoughts.
I thought I would start with making a list, as best as I could, of the artists I have seen over the years, just for points of comparison. I am certain that this list is not complete, and I have omitted some artists that were opening or playing on a bill but that do not really matter to me (ie. Alexisonfire, The Used). Here is my list of artists I have seen over the years, for reference as you read : The Arrogant Worms (x2), Big Sugar, Blindside, Brave Saint Saturn, The Civil Wars, Collective Soul (x3), Copeland, Creed, Downhere, Emery, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Hokus Pick (x2), John Reuben, The Juliana Theory, Kings of Leon, KJ-52, Lenny Kravitz, Means, Milo Greene, MuteMath (x2), Pigeon John (x3), P.O.D., Project 86, Roper, Skillet (x2), Superchick, Switchfoot (x2), Tea Party (x2), Thousand Foot Krutch (x2), Thrice, Tree63, U2 (x2), Underoath (x2), and Wide Mouth Mason.

A. The Showstoppers: These are the artists that I will look up every time they are on tour to see if there is some way to make it work, and issues like price and timing only apply as a last resort. They are the ones that I feel the need to see live at some point, and they're the biggest acts on this list. There are only five of these artists on my list right now, and a little part of me dies inside every tour that I do not see them live: The Black Keys, Coldplay, Keane, Mumford & Sons, and Muse. And of course, U2 is always on this list, as I will go out of my way to see them on any tour they have (though if I did not see them again, it wouldn't destroy me in the same way). I'd put MuteMath in this list as well, even though I've seen them twice.

B. The Headliners: The next level is a bit of a grab bag, as it includes a number of different types of artists. They're mostly indie, but some have had significant success and do arena tours. I have missed out on quite a few of these artists of the years, especially when they perform on the mainland, as it's such a pain to go over to see shows. I am always interested in seeing them, but price, timing, and venue are all factors. These ten artists are: Anberlin, The Avett Brothers, Deas Vail, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, Florence and the Machine, Fleet Foxes, The National, Sigur Ros, and Wilco.

C. The Veterans: These are all big arena headliners, and I find it kind of inconceivable that I have not seen them in concert yet. Any of them could stop touring at any time, so I'm always thinking of whether it's time to see them. Alice Cooper leads this group, but there are four other longtime tourers on my list: Aerosmith, Rush, The Tragically Hip, and Van Morrison. There are also other more recent veterans like The Killers and Weezer that I would enjoy seeing at some time. I have not seen Foo Fighters since 1999, and I'd enjoy seeing them for real (not just in a festival). Although I have seen Collective Soul three times, the last time I saw them was in 2005, and I'm sure I'd enjoy seeing them again with their newer material. I'm sure I can think of another artist to fill this list out eventually, but let's leave one spot (out of ten) blank for now until I think of who should fill it.

D. The Maybes: There are a few artists that might be fun to see sometime but that are not huge priorities for me. If I was in the right time and space, I'd see them, but they're not really high on my list. The five I can think of are: Bon Iver, City and Colour, Feist, Jars of Clay, and Mat Kearney.

E. The Openers: I know I would really enjoy seeing these artists, and it's quite possible that seeing them live would cement my emerging fandom. They are always on my radar, and I think they would all put on great shows. Milo Greene is a great example, as we saw them open for The Civil Wars, but there are a few others in this category, including: Josh Garrels, The Lone Bellow, The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Whitehorse (who I just missed in the past two months due to sickness).

F. The Dreams: These are the artists that I have probably missed out on for good, but I can always have hope that there will be a reunion tour that will come near enough to me. They fall into two categories, depending on whether they are active or not. Five of these artists have just re-activated or remained active, so they're slightly more in the realm of possibility, even though they're probably still mostly a dream: Audio Adrenaline, Five Iron Frenzy, Further Seems Forever, mewithoutYou, and The O.C. Supertones. The other five are probably best to let go, as I have probably missed out on them, but you never know with musicians: Audioslave, David Crowder Band, Stavesacre, The Swell Season, and The White Stripes.

G. The Outliers: There are a few artists that just don't really fit anywhere else. I would love to see Flight of the Conchords sometime, and I really want to see Video Games Live the next time they come to town. There are also artists like Demon Hunter that I think I might want to see, but I'm not sure if I would actually still enjoy their show or whether I would be going out of nostalgia. I would also throw acts like Gungor and Jesus Culture here, since they don't necessarily tour in the same way, but I think I'd appreciate seeing them sometime.

So that's my musical bucket list. I just listed fifty artists, and I'm certain I forgot a few, too. I would be interested to hear how our lists match up, and whether you have similar categories or thoughts. Or maybe, like a normal person, you have a list of five, not fifty. Either way, I'm interested to know who is on your list.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

On Lincoln and historical accuracy

I finally watched Lincoln last weekend after months of intending to see it but putting it on the backburner or wanting to see other movies more. I had some inherent interest in seeing it, particularly as a huge fan of Daniel Day-Lewis and of historical biopics in particular, but it mostly felt like the kind of film that I should watch, rather than one I would rush out to see; I guess that's why it took me over three months to get out to see it. It was, after all, a box-office and critical hit, the highest-grossing "serious" movie of the year, and the most-nominated film at the Academy Awards, so it was kind of inevitable that I would see it as a history teacher and as a cinephile. Anyway, I appreciated the film and at times even enjoyed it for what it was, not just for the fact that now I have seen it. I agree with the general critical consensus that it is close to perfectly constructed - Day-Lewis' performance is iconic (though I would argue that it wasn't as impressive as several of the other nominated performances this year or several of his past performances), the supporting cast is fantastic, the script is impeccable, and Spielberg's direction was spot on. It was his best film since Saving Private Ryan, one of the year's best films, and an immediate leader in the question of what a historical movie should look and feel like. So why did it not win Best Picture this year? I have a couple of thoughts.
The first reason that it did not win was that it felt too much like it should win. One of the interesting talking points about Lincoln was how it immediately heralded the true onset of awards season, as I discussed in mid-November, and how it immediately emerged as the movie to beat for the Oscar. As we walked out of the theatre, my friend asked "So how did that NOT win Best Picture?" because it seemed so perfectly scripted to win. Everything about the movie, especially its opening and closing scenes, screamed that "Lincoln is a movie that is supposed to win awards"! They fit the tone of the movie, but the result is that it becomes almost more about the experience of watching the movie than actually being drawn into the movie itself. I think that part of the argument against Lincoln's possible victory is that the way in which the movie was constructed seemed to make it too predictable or too inevitable that it would win. Normally, this would not have been a problem, but after two years of wins in that vein - The King's Speech undeservedly defeating The Social Network in 2010 and The Artist steamrolling to its inexorable victory last year - the Academy needed to shake it up (so to speak). I think that the win of The King's Speech actually was a huge factor in Lincoln not winning this year, as it seems that the Academy is trying (at times) to shed the image it cultivated in the mid 1990s when movies like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love (each of them textbook "Best Pictures") beat movies such as Pulp Fiction, Fargo, L.A. Confidential, and Saving Private Ryan (itself with elements of "Best Pictureness") over a five-year span. As for Lincoln's actual reception, I felt that, shy of a win for Best Adapted Screenplay, that it was almost perfectly honoured at the Oscars. It was the frontrunner with twelve nominations but ending up with two wins, including one high-profile win; I expected three or maybe four, but the low number of Oscars it won is testament to the overall quality of this year's films. So, in short, it suffered a bit of an Oscar backlash, which contributed to other movies being honoured.
But there's another big part as to why it lost, especially to Argo - it was too historically accurate. Take a second and consider some of the "historical" films, including biopics, that have won in the past three decades: The King's Speech, Braveheart, Amadeus, Titanic, Gladiator, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Gandhi...the list could go on. What do they all have in common, aside from that feeling of being "Best Pictures" and that each one won over at least one much more deserving nominee? They have all been criticized for being far too liberal with their treatment of history, as they all manipulated certain truths and realities for artistic license. Argo was roundly criticized for how it de-emphasized the role of the Canadians in the escape and how it "Hollywoodized" the events in a way that created a new story, even as it seemed to celebrate how accurate it was. It seems that it was true enough to be considered authentic, even as it liberally twisted the truth along its way. Lincoln, on the other hand, was subject to much more subtle criticisms, which focuses primarily on aspects of the script. The two chief issues that were raised were questioning the authenticity of the words used in the script - even writer Tony Kushner admitted that it was difficult to make every word absolutely authentic - and the fact that all four congressmen from Connecticut voted in favour of the amendment, rather than the two depicted in the film (a change Kushner inserted for "dramatic tension"). I think that Lincoln's overall sense of accuracy made these small issues stand out more than Argo's glaring rewrites of far more recent events, and that they actually became far more damaging to Lincoln's Oscar push than Argo's egregious revisions did to its (obviously). Lincoln was being evaluated almost as a documentary in that sense, whereas Argo was free to be seen as a "movie" - and there's no way a docudrama could actually win Best Picture. Lincoln was too "real", it seemed, and its minor issues interfered with that reality. Of course, Lincoln's text, context, and subtext was loaded with biases, inventions, creations, directions, and interpretations that may have significantly diverged from reality, but it's the perception of accuracy that dogged the movie's campaign, rather than the reality of it. I think that the same kind of issues plagued The Social Network two years ago, even though its writer, Aaron Sorkin, openly acknowledged that he was more interested in storytelling than in getting every last detail correct.
This issue of historical accuracy versus artistic license has been part of movies since film was introduced; consider D.W. Griffith's seminal 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which casts some interesting light on the KKK, for example. It's a discussion that is always interesting as a history teacher, and it means that I am always having to be critical and cynical of "historical" movies in addition to providing that extra layer of cynicism if I choose to use a film in class. It makes it difficult to use films sometimes, since I feel like I have to compensate or at least explain that artistic license to students who otherwise do not have a filter for understanding either the history or the nature of film. That's perhaps what is most distressing to me: that most viewers cannot or do not differentiate between art and truth, and that filmmaker's versions of stories often become synonymous with the stories themselves. Lincoln almost could have avoided this issue, but it failed, like so many of its predecessors have. It was accurate enough that its errors became more of a point of criticism, and it will always have that asterisk whenever it is used to teach American history. Sure, it's not as bad as U-571 or The Patriot for rewriting history, but its minor foibles are enough to have to explain and that it lost the Oscar, as well as some respect from historians, even though it really would not have changed the film to have been more accurate.
I would love to see this conflict between accuracy and artistry be resolved and eliminated. I would love to see directors and writers and producers assume that moviegoers could handle the truth and that real events would make good stories. I really wish that filmmakers would not make me have to include an extratextual explanation when I show a film or edit out grossly inaccurate portions of films when I want to show them to students. I really want to see a film that can actually find artistic license and historical accuracy. Then again, what would history professors and teachers have to do with their lives if movies were actually accurate? After all, at least half of our jobs is feeling like we need to counteract the untruths perpetuated by the media, putting movies and television shows on trial for all to see. Perhaps it is we historians who need to give up the fight and just assume that historical accuracy in movies is an unattainable dream; then again, maybe we just need an advocate like Lincoln who can help us push our Conversational Amendment on the moviegoing public. Or maybe it's just up to the people themselves: I'm doing what I can on a small scale, and if all of us who care just help our friends, family, and colleagues become better historians and better movie-watchers, I will be satisfied.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

On Argo and the studio system

I have been thinking about the Oscars this week, and not just about who won and who lost and which jokes host Seth MacFarlane should have omitted (the Cruz/Bardem/Hayek joke was the worst of the night, IMHO). MacFarlane and Kristen Chenoweth's delightfully tongue-in-cheek commentary in the midst of their show-closing song honouring the "losers" - "who lost to Chicago?" - made me think about the nature of this year's nominees and of the Oscars themselves. Of course, I knew most of the answers to the flippantly hypothetical proposition (The Two Towers, The Pianist, and The Hours, although I temporarily blanked on Gangs of New York), as well as a couple of other notable films from 2002 (Talk To Her, Adaptation.), but I'm admittedly a movie nerd with a freakish memory for these things. Most people do not have much of a memory even for Best Picture, much less the other films that are in competition in any given year.
I wrote in mid-November about the onset of "Awards Season" and how there are at most thirty films that are ever really in contention for multiple and major awards at the Oscars (making exemption, of course, for the half-a-dozen or so films that earn one technical nomination like Visual Effects, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, or Costume Design). That number is usually narrowed down to about fifteen films at the nominations, and further reduced by the amount of Oscars and the quality of the awards that each film wins at the ceremony. After this year's Awards, that short list for 2012 is Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Skyfall, and Silver Linings Playbook, which seems to be a fairly good approximation of the movies that really did matter in the past year on a wide scale. Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and even Zero Dark Thirty seem more likely to fade into relative obscurity (at least from popular awareness and discourse), along with other films like Moonrise Kingdom, The Sessions, Flight, and The Master. This whole discussion is interesting, particularly in terms of what films are memorable and what makes a film memorable, even as 2012 marks one of the more accomplished and memorable years in film in a long time. What are the films that people will remember in five, ten, twenty, or fifty years? (Quick: try to remember the five films that were nominated instead of The Dark Knight, without looking it up. I bet you get one - Slumdog Millionaire - but try to remember one or two more. Yep, didn't think you could.) Apparently, Argo is one of those memorable films, if its victory is supposed to be any indication; I'm not convinced of that fact, and here's my explanation as to why.
I'm certainly not convinced that Argo was the Best Picture of the year; I'm not even convinced that it was the best in its genre in the year - though I have not seen it, I'm inclined to lean toward Zero Dark Thirty as at least equal to Argo in the "international espionage thriller" genre. Argo certainly does not have much company in the "action thriller" genre in Oscar memory, which is, I believe, part of the reason why it won. The fact that Affleck and company crafted a movie in a stereotypically straightforward genre that had the kind of heart and soul of a movie that could win Best Picture gave it that extra bit of oomph and put it over the top. Perhaps the most comparable Best Picture winners in recent memory are The Hurt Locker and The Departed, which is in itself a bit of a stretch to connect to Argo thematically - though it too, was certainly not the best of its year. Perhaps, particularly after the emphasis on "sentimentality" with the last two Best Picture winners - The King's Speech and The Artist - the fact that a thriller could thrill and be smart about it made it about time that an action thriller would win the prize. The Academy has honoured westerns and epics and musicals and war movies and biopics and detective flicks and film noirs and romantic comedies (though still rarely honoring horror, science fiction, fantasy, or black comedy), but they had not really been able to honour a direct action thriller like Argo, so the fact that they could meant that they did. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Argo, and it's on my Top 10 for the year, but it's not really a Best Picture. If I were to take the last twenty years of Best Pictures, it would rank somewhere in the middle of the pack, behind the instant classics (Unforgiven, Schindler's List, No Country For Old Men, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), but ahead of the overly sentimental (Forrest Gump, The Artist, The King's Speech, Million Dollar Baby), the bloated epics (Braveheart, The English Patient, Gladiator, Titanic), and the travesties (Crash and Shakespeare in Love, which is not a terrible film of itself, but when compared to Saving Private Ryan...yeesh). It's somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10, along with The Departed, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty, Chicago, and A Beautiful Mind. In some order. (Maybe I should try that exercise sometime - rank the Best Picture winners. Of course, I actually need to watch all of them then, and that would mean that I would have to sit through The English Patient. This might be a topic for a future post.) Argo is entertaining, well-crafted, anachronistically timely with its exploration and development of themes and ties between eras, and it is definitely one of the better action thrillers of recent memory and perhaps longer - but it's not quite a Best Picture.
But there's more to the discussion that I feel the need to unpack. Previous to Sunday night's Best Picture win, Owen Glieberman wrote for EW about how Argo is representative of the populist nature of the Academy, that Argo was the film that they most enjoyed watching. He compared it to Chariots of Fire, and much of his commentary on how the Academy votes for Best Picture and how that relates to box office and popularity and the role of the awards race (arguably now more than ever) is accurate and interesting, but I do not think that it gives a full picture of what Argo's win really means. I think the part that Owen missed out was looking at the current state of the studio system and what it means for the Oscars, as represented in Argo's win. That, to me, is the key as to why Argo won, and I think that considering that one of the main thrusts of Argo is a critique of the Hollywood studio system that a further examination of this factor is in order and eerily prescient.
Let's look roughly at the era of "independent film" for this discussion - the past twenty years, since 1992. I am aware that there were independent films starting in the 1960s and 1970s, but the kind of critical and commercial embracing of independent film really did not happen until the early 1990s. Within a decade, starting in 1992, each major studio - Disney, Columbia (Sony), Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount (Viacom), and Fox - had its own independent division that was financed by its parent company but allowed to function as an essentially independent entity. Over the past two decades, these divisions - Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage, and Fox Searchlight, respectively - have accounted for a surprisingly high number of nominations and victories, even of Best Pictures. (I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but sometime it would be worth it to break down the percentages over the years. Not now, though.) Moreover, this period has featured the development of "mini-major" studios that have vacillated between a philosophy and practice of independence and the realities of the corporate conglomerates that engulf the entertainment landscape. Some are affiliated with one of the big six, though with significant self-management - DreamWorks (now affiliated with Viacom), Pixar (now with Disney), and MGM (the former film giant that is now affiliated with Sony) - while others often function in partnerships with those major studios - LionsGate, the #7 studio, and The Weinstein Co., which was born out of the Weinstein brothers' need to leave Disney's control and was responsible for two consecutive Best Picture winners, The King's Speech and The Artist. Then there are a host of genuinely independent studios, many of which have been started by producers, directors, and actors to create their own films. Many of them are at least loosely affiliated not only with one another, but also with more significant independent affiliates of major studios (or the studios themselves). There have, of course, also been genuinely independent films that have achieved critical and commercial success (Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity come to mind initially), but the vast majority of "independent films" that have hit the big time have still come through these major (or mid-major) studios. The reality is, despite the flourishing world of independent film and the great strides that have happened with the evolution of technology and so on and so forth that the road to success still, with very few exceptions, goes through the big six studios.
LionsGate is an interesting entity, so please allow the digression. Most of the studio's success has come from action and horror movies, as well as several series (Saw, Madea, The Twilight Saga, and The Hunger Games most prominently), and they rarely partner with major studios, but they have risen significantly in the past decade and a half nevertheless. In spite of their commercial success, the studio has has only mild success in the Academy Awards in its 15 years, with only a half-dozen films making any kind of impact at the Oscars. A few films - Gods and Monsters, Rabbit Hole, Hotel Rwanda, and Monster's Ball - have garnered minor attention and nominations, along with one high-profile win, Halle Berry's Best Actress in 2001 for the latter film. The two LionsGate films that have had the most success were 2009's Precious and the Best Picture travesty in 2005, Crash. But they do work with smaller independent studios (including a few in which they have financially invested), and they have just recently announced a low-budget film division of their own. So even the mini-major "independent" studio has an independent division. Huh.
With this understanding of the majors, mini-majors, subsidiaries, affiliates, and independents, we come to the core realization that emerged from this year brought, particularly as Argo arguably brought Hollywood's self-aggrandization: despite the rise of independent film in the past two decades and an increasing acknowledgement of the necessity of independent film as part of Hollywood, the studio system is as in control (if not more so) than it ever has been. Some of that control comes through its independent divisions, but the primary reason that independent films are still being recognized is that the field is slightly larger in terms of nominees, not in terms of the studio system opening up. let's look closer at this year's nominees. Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, three were considered "independent" and were nominated and/or honoured at the Independent Spirit Awards: Amour (Sony Pictures Classics), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight), and Silver Linings Playbook (which was distributed by the Weinstein Company, one of those mini-majors). While the first two were certainly independent films, SLP had as much a feel of a major film as an independent one, and it seems hard to argue that any film that is distributed by Weinstein could truly be considered independent. Still, the fact that one-third of the nominated movies (and three of the five Best Director nominees) came through the independent system is impressive, and it would seem to counteract my initial argument, save for the fact that there seemed to be so much attention given to the fact that "Hollywood notices the little movies now" because of the two former movies being nominated that it virtually invalidates any real progress that may have been made through nominating them. Perhaps more than any of the past three years since the field of Best Picture nominees was expanded, it was almost impossible to tell which of the nine nominated films were the "major" and "minor" nominees, but other than the Best Director oddity, it sure seemed like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild were on the outside looking in, just happy to be there (save for Amour's inevitable win in Best Foreign Language Film). The remaining six films - arguably the "real" nominees - were all associated with major studios, though some were in partnership with mini-major studios: Argo (Warner Bros.), Django Unchained (Weinstein/Columbia), Les Misérables (Universal), Life of Pi (Fox), Lincoln (DreamWorks/Touchstone/Fox), and Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia). All of the major six were represented, though I'm sure that both Disney (Touchstone) and Paramount (associated with DreamWorks) would have wanted greater representation, which would have happened for the latter had Flight been nominated for Best Picture. Aside from Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence - perhaps the poster girl for traversing the line between independent film and major studio franchise work - the independents were mostly marginalized, as they usually are.
To further the conversation, let's take a quick look at the nominees from the last three years, the time since the Best Picture field was expanded. 2011's nine nominees featured five of the six studios, including three of their independent divisions, along with one mini-major: The Artist (Weinstein), The Descendants (Fox Searchlight), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.), The Help (Touchstone), Hugo (Paramount), Midnight In Paris (Sony Pictures Classics), Moneyball (Columbia), The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight), and War Horse (Touchstone) . Universal's year was fairly sparse, with only A Dangerous Method seeming like a possible contender; their main entry ended up being Bridesmaids, which had only two nominations. In 2010, all major six studios were represented - though two of those by their independent divisions - along with one mini-major and one true independent film: The King's Speech (Weinstein), 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight), Black Swan (Fox Searchlight), The Fighter (Paramount), Inception (Warner Bros.), The Kids Are All Right (Alliance/Focus), The Social Network (Columbia), Toy Story 3 (Pixar/Disney), True Grit (Paramount), Winter's Bone (Roadside Attractions, the only true independent represented in recent memory). In 2009, the first year with ten nominees, the field was a little more diverse, but still fairly studio-centric, again with each of the major six represented, as well as two of their independent divisions and two mini-majors: The Hurt Locker (independent, but with involvement from Universal in US), Avatar (Fox), The Blind Side (Warner Bros.), District 9 (TriStar, which is part of Columbia), An Education (Sony Pictures Classics), Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein/Universal), Precious (LionsGate), A Serious Man (Focus), Up (Pixar/Disney), and Up in the Air (Paramount). So, to recap, in the past four years, of a total of 38 nominees, there were only two films that came from outside the established Hollywood systems of major studios, mini-majors (which are still considered independent, even though they really are not), and independent divisions of major studios. Though there were fifteen "independent" films nominated, only two of those were truly outsiders to the studio system: Winter's Bone and Precious. I am sure it would be interesting to go back through the years and to determine how many nominees were really outsiders to the system; off the top of my head, I can think of one truly independent film (1996's Secrets & Lies) and a couple of "mostly-independent films (Shine and Fargo from that same year). Of course, in true Oscar style, they were mostly unacknowledged, save for recognition of incredibly iconic lead performances in the latter two films, because of the nine-award juggernaut of The English Patient - a semi-independent film released by Miramax, which was owned by Disney at the time. So even in the midst of celebrating independent film, Hollywood was still meeting the needs of its own studio system.
To bring it back to this year's Oscars, it seemed clear that part of the love for Argo was a sense of "haha, look how far we've come since those studio days of the 1970s". There has been progress, to be sure, but the road to an Oscar still goes through that same studio system that has been running the Academy for 85 years. Save for a couple of genuine aberrations in the system, it is still the same machinery and mechanism that runs the box office and the awards season. That is, of course, part of the joy of watching the Golden Globes: they really don't care about that system, so anything can (and often does) happen. Sure, there are more opportunities now to appreciate films of all origins, but the reality is that the road to Oscar glory still runs through six major studios. I know that this kind of majority control and manipulation is enough to turn some people off of movies entirely, but I do have hope that the rise of independent movies will continue to force the major studios to release films that are intelligent and well-composed. Argo was more than it might have been otherwise because of the independent film mentality, and that's what ultimately allowed it to succeed - ironically both in spite of and because of that same studio system that it simultaneously mocked and honoured. In that sense, Argo was the perfect winner for this year, as it managed to feel indie without actually being indie, which is perhaps the mark of where Hollywood is headed: in order for movies to succeed, they have to go through the studio system but look and feel like they did not. Argo hit that juxtaposition perfectly, and that played a huge part in its victory. After all, as John Chambers said to CIA agent Tony Mendez in the movie, "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot...without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in!". Argo did that, and it worked, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future as a result.


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