It’s all over but the shouting. But when the Academy Awards are finally handed out on Sunday, the shouting will have subsided, too.
And not a moment too soon.
Among the most reliable rituals of awards season, none have become as noisy — and noisome — as the controversy and clamor that bubble to the surface each year, the debates, takedowns and backstories given added potency and carbonation by content-hungry Web sites and social media.
Indeed, the mutually supportive swirl of release-reception-pushback-double-down is part of what makes the Oscars such an important business model in Hollywood: Get enough buzz going, and a studio can forgo expensive TV ad campaigns and let its movie seize the zeitgeist on news value (the PR term of art is “earned awareness”) alone.
That strategy has taken on added torque and velocity over the past several months, to the apparent benefit of this year’s best picture nominees. All eight of those movies, the trade publication Variety recently reported, have at least doubled their modest production budgets — in “American Sniper’s” case, earning nearly $400 million to become the surprise blockbuster of the year.
For filmgoers interested in the kind of ambitious, adult-oriented dramas that awards season makes possible, it’s good news that the chatter has improved the fortunes of otherwise endangered films. However, the tenor of the commentary — especially about such fact-based films as “American Sniper” and “Selma,” but including such audacious time-experiments as the coming-of-age drama “Boyhood” and the backstage satire “Birdman” — has often been so parochial and painfully literalistic that it has seemed as if the writers have been poring over a partisan tract, comparing and contrasting PhD theses or dissecting a psychological text — anything but watching a movie.
In an era awash in hot takes, truth squads and armchair Facebook reviews, it’s easy to forget that arguing about the content and meaning of films goes hand in hand with the invention of the medium itself. One hundred years ago this month, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” had its premiere at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. Not only were audiences introduced to a film of unprecedented aesthetic and technical sophistication, but the sprawling historical epic went on to become an enormous commercial hit, the movie business’s first box-office blockbuster.
Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman” (the film’s original title), Griffith’s ambitious portrait of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction was an operatic pageant of noxious racial ideas, portraying its African American characters (played by white actors in blackface) as drunks, buffoons, political threats and hyper-sexualized beasts while the Ku Klux Klan members were cast as romantic heroes. When then-President Woodrow Wilson saw “The Birth of a Nation,” he famously delivered the awestruck quip, “It’s like history written in lightning,” most likely because the movie referred to and reinforced his own toxic notions about race, explored in his five-volume “History of the American People.”
The dubious politics of “The Birth of a Nation” had an immediate social effect: The film met with swift, strong rebuke from the NAACP, leading several states to ban its theatrical release (and leading Wilson to retract his earlier praise). Meanwhile, Griffith’s valorization of the Klan helped energize a resurgence of the terrorist organization, which used the film as an indoctrination tool into the 1960s.
It’s just that capacity to move, motivate and galvanize that has made cinema so uniquely problematic as an art form, as viewers continue to puzzle out the movies’ power to shape our beliefs and behavior. For all of Griffith’s contributions to visual language in the form of camera movement, visual effects, lighting, casting, editing and music, perhaps his most enduring legacy has been the anxiety of influence.
That anxiety has only been redoubled by our unwillingness, or inability, to talk about films in the very terms that Griffith helped refine. One hundred years after the invention of the modern feature film, the same people who jump at the chance to discuss films as polemical vehicles or vessels for hidden meaning can’t wrap their analytical minds around them as aesthetic objects, actual things.
Whether a former political official is bemoaning the distortion of Lyndon B. Johnson in the civil rights drama “Selma” (while distorting the movie’s depiction of him in the process) or a former foreign correspondent sees “American Sniper,” about Iraq war veteran Chris Kyle, as an endorsement of an illegal and immoral war, both are reducing each movie to its most rudimentary elements, rather than appreciating the formal strategies and subtleties that make it far more complex as art, entertainment and interpretive history. One writer takes the fictional “Boyhood” to task, either for being too much like Michael Apted’s documentary “Up” series or not enough like it. Another insists on plumbing the ways Michael Keaton’s character in “Birdman” reflects the actor’s own life story and career (a reading Keaton himself has dismissed as “superficial”). In neither case does the journalist seem willing to engage the film on its own terms as a material representation of its maker’s methods and intent.
All too often, the films’ distributors are complicit in elevating content over form. None has so masterfully mastered that dark art as Harvey Weinstein, who has become an expert in mining his movies for even the flimsiest connection to a social or political hot button, then husbanding a public-service issue campaign to a savvy marketing push. Weinstein’s “Honor this man, honor this movie” ads and billboards on behalf of “The Imitation Game” — linking a best picture vote for the movie to redressing homophobia — is reminiscent of the impresario’s past efforts to hitch “Silver Linings Playbook” to mental health legislation and “Philomena” to adoption reform.
It’s difficult to argue that even the most tenuous issue-driven campaign isn’t worth it: Weinstein may be crafty, even cynical, but it’s usually in the service of good films that deserve the audiences that the added attention helps recruit. But in drilling down so obsessively on what a movie’s about — rather than how and why it does what it does — our annual awards-season “conversation” does a grave disservice to cinematic literacy. And in an era increasingly dominated by visuals, movement and sound, the ability to think critically about visual media — the skills to unpack images, understand editing, parse performances and appreciate the myriad intentional details that go into every movie, from the most hackneyed genre exercise to the boldest artistic statement — is more crucial than ever.
It may be diverting, even important, to consider how Ava DuVernay’s portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson did or didn’t hew to the historical record in “Selma.” Far more interesting — and crucial to the argument — is why DuVernay made the choices she did, whether in the name of realism, symbolism or narrative concision. The fact that “Boyhood,” which Richard Linklater filmed over 12 years with a nonprofessional actor, bears some thematic similarities to the “Up” films is so obvious it goes without saying. What makes the film a masterpiece to so many viewers is how he and editor Sandra Adair transcended their influences and elaborated on them, carefully selecting scenes and transitions to create the seamless experience of time passing without once explicitly drawing attention to it.
In its own spangly, self-congratulatory way, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does its best to redress our movie myopia, not just when it confers its highest honor on the year’s “best” picture, but when it rewards actors, editors, screenwriters, cinematographers and sound technicians — a valuable reminder that movies don’t just spring fully formed into the multiplex but are constructed from the grammar that Griffith himself either redefined or anticipated in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Of course, that film wasn’t history as much as an elaboration on a pernicious lie. But Griffith’s masterwork and its successors do bear a resemblance to lightning in their power to jolt and illuminate, engulf and inflame. Our ambivalence about that power leads us to reduce movies to texts, tracts and treatises. But at least for one night we can agree to consider them as — of all things — art.