Monday, March 24, 2008

On Lists: A Case Against the Oscars

My stance against the Oscars is not exclusive to this one awards show, but the general way in which film is categorized and appreciated in mainstream culture. Too often do we rate or judge films in terms of lists, and how they stack up against one another therein becomes very problematic. When lists are used for diversion on blogs such as these (like top 10 80s John Cusack Movies), they can be an entertaining time-waster. But when such lists go beyond this triviality and self-awareness into the ways we appreciate films at large, there is little left to be desired. That all major critics are expected to release a “Top 10” list each year, and every major media ceremony chooses a “best” from a category of five or so nominees illuminates this preoccupation with lists when evaluating film. Perhaps the most arbitrary lists are the painful Top 100s AFI expands on each year.

What is fundamentally wrong with lists is that by their nature they will inevitably have to exclude something significant. Very few major lists (top 10 of the year, top 100 ever, a category of nominations) exist without a notable exclusion or sacrifice in order to conform to a preconditioned number of options. Yet numbers divisible by 5 (5, 10, 100) are just as arbitrary a number with which to categorize a list than any other. So why is this practice of conforming to the structure of the list more important than potentially excluding information that deserves to belong on that list? If there were eleven great movies this year, why not list those, and in no particular ranking? If there were four great supporting performances, why “fill out” a category with a fifth?

Another problem with lists is that they force meaningless comparison. The victor of an award, or the more prestigious numbered positions on a list, simply hold significance for their designated place among other options, but this delineation does not necessarily prove any sort of superiority amongst the rest. This year’s Best Picture nominees consisted of a wild array of genres and filmic approaches (narrative, stylistic, etc), yet we are expected to judge one as superior above them all. But how does one go about comparing There Will Be Blood to Juno? No Country For Old Men was deemed the best film of the year—but was it the best comedy of the year, or romance of the year, or most complex portrayal of women of the year? Of course not. This movie was good upon the merits it set out to achieve, so how is it that we compare films that seek to achieve totally different responses, affects, and thematic goals? Yet the term “Best Picture” suggests something all-encompassing. Does this mean the other films are somehow inferior? Of course not. Yet the aura of the award or the no. 1 position suggests this.

This is why young people who see Citizen Kane are so often disappointed, because a film promoted as the “No. 1 Best Film of All Time” implicitly succeeds in all areas a film conceivably could. But Citizen Kane clearly doesn’t do this, and instead simply tells its own specific story the best way it could. I don’t understand how one could simply place it in a ranking that states it is slightly better than Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather. Films should be judged on their own merit, not on the merit of other films.

As this year’s Golden Globe “press conference” showed, once the glitz and glamour and falsely entitled sense of importance is stripped away from these award ceremonies, their total lack of value becomes evident. If the writers’ strike had kept the Oscars from happening, the trivial nature of the whole enterprise could have been revealed. Maybe the descending ratings will eventually destroy the need for such a ridiculous ceremony, and then films can be properly evaluated on their own instead of engaging in a political pissing contest in order to achieve some sort of meaningless ranking.

Nothing I’ve said is new. It’s not like the Academy Awards have had a great track record of recognizing works of film that have truly held significance over time. The awards allotted would be far more accurate if the best film of 2007 was named twenty years from now. Maybe if Martin Scorsese or Al Pacino won awards when they actually deserved them, or if Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or Cary Grant ever won a significant Oscar in their careers, then this arbitrary categorization would have some symbolic semblance of respectability, possibly even reflecting as close as one could get of an active judgment of artistic merit (after all, this is not a science).

Instead, it mirrors the current Democratic race for the presidency in that it becomes not about the quality of those involved, but whoever has the most votes. But in the race to elect one work of art as superior to another, I’ll stay apathetic.

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