Monday, February 25, 2019

The Oscars as always are a mixed bag, often better for the couture than for the films that grab the gold. The Green Book was not a dreadful film and it may well pass the ten-year test, making the cable movie channel rounds a decade from now. But the Driving Mr Shirley plotline, cringe-worthy ending around the Christmas tree, and Viggo Mortenson’s noble (failed) attempt to make Italians look like Vikings (or vice versa) do not a great picture make. It certainly wasn’t as original or well done as Black Panther, The Favourite or Roma, or for that matter Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Leave No Trace, none of the last three even getting a best pic nomination. Which films will still matter in, say, 20 years? That test probably brings the list of worthy 2018 films down to just three: Roma, Cold War and The Favourite. A 50-year test might include Cold War alongside Roma, but only the latter is likely still to be considered a great film a century from now.

It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, pairs Roma up with Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 debut about a young woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work as a domestic servant. Today, Black Girl often occupies the slot of “founding film” for African cinema, a role in US cultural history that used to belong to the racist Klan epic, Birth of a Nation[i]. Black Girl and Roma would make a great double-bill, but I suspect the latter will look more like an homage to Italian neo-realism (turning the title into a subtle, possibly delicious pun). But Black Girl isn’t even Sembène’s second or third best film.

Prizes are always crazy and yet they have real-world consequences. What makes the Oscars is the opportunity to look at the stars vamping in great outfits, and isn’t that what made Busby Berkeley a hit 80 years ago? The Pulitzer gets coverage from every news organization because it’s about them[ii], but the creative awards have been random at best, great one year, head-scratching the next. I haven’t met a young writer who could tell me the last half-dozen winners of the Yale Younger Poets award in decades but when I was in college pretty much every MFA candidate could recite them without blinking. The MacArthur may bring fortune, but seldom fame – and generally has done a better job representing art forms other than literature.  The Levinson Prize, the one literary award in the US that pre-dates the Pulitzer, is all but anonymous.[iii] Having given awards to Pearl Buck and William Golding, the currently-suspended Nobel Prize in literature is hardly in any position to serve as a model of the process. When Czeslaw Milosz won the prize in 1980, it’s unlikely that many poets in the Bay Area – with a few very notable exceptions – considered him among the five best poets in Berkeley. For his accomplishment, the University of California did give him its most coveted award, a parking spot in his own name.

What is the purpose of such competition in the arts? The oft-cited purpose of awarding excellence would come across as more real if in fact excellence even appeared to remotely be a criterion. Calling attention to the medium itself seems a more likely, and more justifiable, goal. The Oscars are an ad for the movies just as the Pulitzer is an ad for poetry. Quite a few other awards exist to argue that different configurations of judges might be at least as well-qualified to identify excellence in a given field. And prizes like the American Book Awards and Lambda prizes do a lot of good simply pointing out that there is more to literature than cisgender white males.[iv]  

But what is the value in an ad for the medium? There appears to be some evidence that sales for award-winning films get a tic upward after receiving a major prize. But a secondary award, like best director or best foreign language film? Too bad for Roma, which will have to make do with glowing reviews and great word-of-mouth, where a win might have triggered a broad release in US theaters, still a good way to see a movie. Cold War continues to be a wonderful flic, the greatest Jerzy Koziński tale Truffaut ever filmed.[v] But mostly, it’s apt to remain a secret.

[i] One could argue that this alone tells you all you need to know about the history of colonialism in each place.

[ii] Which means that the end of print journalism, already quite visible on the horizon, will render the Pulitzers moot, at least as presently constituted.

[iii] Having won one, I know.

[iv] The Nobel gave awards to Selma Lagerlöf and Rabindranath Tagore within its first 15 years, and yet its long-term record hasn’t been especially good, 100 prizes to men, just 14 to women, the majority since 1990 Even within the last three decades, nearly twice as many men as women have received the award. Prizes to writers in English outnumber any other language by more than two to one. Of non-European languages, only Chinese and Japanese have received more than one prize. Tagore was the first and last Bengali writer to receive the award, and much of his writing was in English.

[v] Even though neither had anything to do with it.