Opinionista Kalim Rajab 17 January 2013

And the Oscar goes to… television!

For entertainment lovers, last Friday was that time of year again, when the nominations for the Academy Awards for 2013 were announced in Los Angeles. As is increasingly the norm with recent Oscar lists, it appears that only Alice in Wonderland provides some parallel for life in an ever more bewildering Oscar-land. 

Just as only in Alice’s world do blue caterpillars sit on mushrooms smoking a shisha pipe, or mad hatters have tea at 6pm, so too do more and more of the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem like they’re living in an enchanted reality when it comes to choosing the year’s finest.

Every year we bemoan the elements of randomness of the Oscar lists – what has not been adequately rewarded and what has curiously slipped into the ring for certain categories. Most of the focus this year has been on the “big” films, yet to come to our shores, like Steven Spielberg’s historical epic Lincoln, the lavish (yet another) remake of Les Miserables, and the controversial thriller Zero Dark Thirty, which tells of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the war against terror. 

The equally dreamlike and nightmarish Life of Pi, which has come to South Africa, wooing crowds here for the last few weeks, also features strongly – but among these are some downright bizarre choices. 

Silver Linings Playbook, an innocuous movie with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, which is pleasant enough but has definitely no pretensions to being anything more than a slightly edgy rom-com, has inexplicably been allocated a spot at the chef’s top table when all it seemed to be wanting was a warm seat at a 24-hour diner. Don’t get me wrong, the 100 or so minutes I spent in its company were enjoyable, a sort of modern When Harry met Sally but now with loony people on medication. It’s the type of film I call the “M-Net Sunday night movie” – a nice film you’d be happy enough to watch on the couch before the start of a long week, but definitely wouldn’t consider paying money for at the cinema. 

Yet is this really, based on numbers and categories, what members seem to be saying is the best all-round film of 2012? This certainly does seem to be implication, for Silver Linings Playbook is nominated in all major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. To give you a sense of just how prestigious and rare this is, consider that in the history of the Oscars, a film has only ever been nominated in all these categories on four previous occasions. All were classics: From Here to Eternity, A Streetcar named Desire, Network and Bonnie & Clyde. Yet even Robert de Niro seems to be sheepish when giving interviews about the film, as if embarrassed that his pedestrian performance should honoured when several of his great performances in the 1980’s went unnoticed. 

Is this the only bizarreness from the Oscars? Unfortunately not. For some curious reason, and despite constant howls of derision ever since it was launched in 2009, the Academy continues to have a shortlist of 10 films vying for Best Picture, instead of the more usual five. On a face of it, the thinking was sensible – opening up the list to 10 would broaden the landscape of nominated films, allowing for far greater diversity in genres and styles, and recognising the full breadth of creativity coming from modern film makers. The reality, however, is that with a generally declining pool of quality and original material coming out of Hollywood, there are never going to be 10 great films produced in a single year. So in practise such unworthies as Toy Story 3 and The Social Network are accorded greatness status. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change, proving less that the Academy members are going bonkers in their choices, and pointing more towards the fact that they simply have fewer outstanding films in the Hollywood universe to choose from.

What is at play in this trend? Probably the most important factor has been, over the last decade, the profound and inexorable change in our cultural habits brought about by the renaissance of prime time television, and offset by the gradual dumbing down of what’s on offer at the movies. 

Primarily through the efforts of the US cable channel HBO, increasingly the more nuanced, character-rich and groundbreaking work is coming from television as opposed to cinema. While one popular cultural form has diluted itself in search of greater profits and more cookie-cutter templates, the other has eschewed this in favour of greater originality and daring. When I was growing up in the 1980s, no self-respecting actor or director would be caught dead on TV unless he was a has-been. Today the greatest actors, the most daring writers, the most sensitive directors are being lured to the small screen. As the Financial Times critic Peter Asden notes, “the movies continue to deliver the numbers but they are increasingly the province of adolescents. Why else would anyone want to remake The A-Team for the big screen? [Once] the lowliest art form, there is [now] nothing sharper in the cultural firmament than American television writing.” 

And this is not just a rant. More and more, it is to television series that we turn to influence our societal values; our ways of looking at the world. Martin Scorsese, a great student of cinema, said that growing up as a kid in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1950s, he learnt about the world and got his life experiences by watching how the heroes and anti-heroes experienced life, love, death and dishonour on the big screen. When he wanted to know how to kiss a girl, he would probably have learnt from watching Alain Delon do it. When he wanted to know about how to treat kids from the other neighbourhoods who weren’t white, he would probably have watched Gregory Peck standing up against small town racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. He probably got his first taste of understanding obsession, later a key theme in his work, by sitting and resitting through John Ford’s The Searchers. In 2013, the clues to understanding our worlds, of understanding what motivates different people, of how they handle their fears, are still there for us to are still there for us to discover, but in all likelihood we’re getting them from magisterial, character-rich TV dramas instead. Think The Sopranos, or Mad Men, think Mildred Pierce and Downton Abbey

Reading through the latest Oscar list and seeing the trailers this past week has been a bit of a deflator for me. There hasn’t been that rush of blood, that frisson of elation as I remember the great performances I’ve seen over the past year, or the tinge of excitement as I look forward to what’s about to hit our shores in the next few weeks. I suspect I’m not alone. But as one cultural medium closes another opens up, and at least we can look forward to some creative fireworks in the comfort of our living room. Silver Linings Playbook at Ster-Kinekor versus the TV series Boardwalk Empire on DVD? There’s just no contest. DM


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