Are the Oscars becoming irrelevant?

Well no, since you asked. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed.

The Oscars are the high watermark of film recognition. The red carpet trampling, lovvie love-a-thon that is the motion picture awards season starts in earnest with the Golden Globes in early January and extravagantly culminates every year in late February with the Academy Awards in which apparently “everyone is just thrilled to be nominated!” but in actuality hopes are realised, dreams are shattered and the presenters are almost constantly underwhelming. When it comes to the big night though it can all seem like a bit of game. A cynical, industry driven game in which awards are doled out by the sensibility load and Martin Scorsese can win an Oscar through sheer bloody minded persistence (and a superlative body of work of course).

The awards themselves essentially boil down to the artistic whims of a group of voters who are predominantly older, whiter and male-er than your typical movie audience, and your typical movie audience they most definitely aren’t. The 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a venerable bunch of industry professionals who once inducted are placed into their various pigeonholes of expertise. Actors, directors, cinematographers and writers all have their place to name a but a few with the experts in each category having more sway when it comes to the tricky business of voting. In the first round directors nominate the work of directors, writers of writers and so on with each member providing a list of their top five choices. These feed the candidates for the second round of voting to the Academy as a whole who then all submit their top fives in most categories. The exception is of course the be-all and end-all award of Best Picture which everyone votes for.

Oscar voters are people sustained and venerated by their own artistic endeavours and as such they won’t be voting for any hack produced hokum any time soon. Added to this we don’t get many surprises either. We get them plumping for the worthy over the cinematic (think the choice of The Help over Tinker Tailor), the traditional over the innovative (War Horse over Drive), the heroic underdog over the perverted sex-addict (Brad Pitt’s average display in Moneyball over Michael Fassbender’s powerhouse performance in Shame). Way back when in 1989 we got the starkest manifestation of this we could ever wish for with the triumph of the comfortably middle class over the radical and intelligent with Driving Miss Daisy winning best picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a film that set the tone of black-centric cinema for a decade to come and wasn’t even nominated. A case like that more clearly than anything shows how the mass appeal of the facile and one-dimensional can almost always triumph over the confrontational and original. This may seem like I am throwing The Help and Driving Miss Daisy together into some sort of race rights for dummies cadre and it kind of seems like I am. But Driving Miss Daisy cleaned up at the Oscars so of course it’s brilliant. Of course it is! Anyone who says otherwise is stupid, or a Hollywood Foreign Press member. So both.

Speaking of which when you compare the Oscars to the Golden Globes our gold plated, statuesque friend comes out smelling of roses. The Golden Globes are the sort of unashamed silly affair that keeps re-hiring a presenter to hilariously lampoon their inadequacies in some sort of devil’s pact for viewers. It’s like someone building a house on a cliff using stone from the cliff face. At some point the Golden Globes, I mean house, ahem, will collapse and all of the viewers will leave and Ricky Gervais will have to find somewhere else to live out the creative death of his career.

What the Golden Globes do have over their more respected counterparts however is timing. If something wins at the Globes it’s often a good indicator for things to come. By the time the Oscars swing round films like The Artist will have won so many awards that they’ll we struggling for something to say other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG the Oscars are the best it’s been my dream blah blah blah” that we’ve heard all before. There’s none of the surprise that there should be for indie flicks like The Artist when they win a huge award as their expectations are already so high come February that a Best Picture victory will seem more like a relief than anything.

So why will I be staying up into the wee hours of the morning waiting to get my Oscar fix for yet another year? Well it’s because they are just so bloody important and despite everything that I’ve said up until this point they still hold the requisite amount of artistic integrity.

More often than not the Oscars get it vaguely right and if they don’t it’s not usually that bad (apart from the Academy’s complete disregard for Senna this year which is ridiculous beyond parody). Yes, last year The Social Network should have walked off with Best Picture never to be refuted but that on the night it went to The King’s Speech wasn’t terrible. The Social Network would’ve been (and had been) a success irrespective of awards attention but The King’s Speech, high on the Oscar buzz it was getting – and Colin Firth’s repeated walk-ons at every awards show imaginable – carried the film through its January and February release period to a humongous (and thoroughly deserved) box-office. That an artfully inclined arthouse flick about a king with a speech impediment made $400 million worldwide is testament to the power of Oscar buzz. Without the Oscars such deserving films would get much less mainstream attention and I think cinema would be poorer for it.

Recently this also proved true for Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, 127 Hours, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain and the masterful Sideways to name but a few. Oscar buzz is the real force behind the Oscars. What happens on the night happens and will be raked over in movie posters for eons to come but the real relevance of the Academy Awards is in the bridge they build between the artistic medium of film and the mainstream engine of the film industry.

If you love films and hate to see the wrong things getting top recognition come awards night then yes it may seem like the Oscars are losing their relevance, but as an industry force they are nevertheless a force for good. Even if we do have to put up with the occasional give me a bloody Oscar already! film like I Am Sam (featuring the now famous Sean Penn going ‘full retard’ performance) or Seven Pounds (in which Will Smith begs for an Oscar so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t actually grab his nearest box jellyfish and jump into a bathtub for attention come nominations), ultimately they bring (albeit a small selection of) lesser known gems to the masses.

So come February the 26th 2012 I’ll be sitting down to watch 4 hours worth of film industry back patting, self indulgent montage and lots and lots of hysterical speeches. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Oh and Billy Crystal’s back. Which is nice.

Shame: It’d be a shame to miss it

Breaking all taboos, director Steve McQueen’s film Shame offers a harrowing and powerful glimpse into the life of a sex addict. Brandon, played by a brilliant Michael Fassbender, leads an outwardly successful and stable life in New York City, while inwardly his isolated, numb existence is perpetuated by a cyclical ritual of porn and prostitutes. Only the advent of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) disrupts the cocoon Brandon has carefully constructed around himself and forces a self-reflection that takes him to his emotional and physical brink.

It is harrowing to watch a world in which Brandon has substituted intimacy with nudity and severed all real emotional ties, both to others and to himself, reflected in his minimalist, cold apartment that contains nothing but technology facilitating his addiction. As his life gradually spirals out of control, Brandon wrestles with a self-loathing that has long remained dormant under the surface. The viewer feels both painfully close and yet always at a distance as he watches Fassbender’s increasing display of raw despair and anger in long, slow-paced scenes.

The film never truly explains why Brandon is the way he is, or what had happened between them that makes the arrival of his emotional wreck of a sister wreak such havoc on his life. Frustrating at times, this adds to the idea that Brandon is an everyman, “one of us” as co-writer Abi Morgan and director/screenwriter McQueen put it. It highlights the severity of this problem and the very thin line that exists between healthy sexual relations and sex addiction. And it lets Fassbender’s intense performance speak for itself.

New York City looms large in the film and provides a haunting and powerful backdrop to Brandon and Sissy’s story. A cold, unforgiving city which facilitates Brandon’s anonymity and seclusion, it also exposes both siblings’ loneliness. One of the most telling scenes of the film is when Sissy sings Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, poignantly exposing her longing and desire to find a state of peace and happiness, which is echoed by Brandon’s single tear that streams down his face.

Rarely does a film combine such powerful cinematography, brilliant lead actors, emotional score and a unique and distressing storyline that gets under your skin. While many questions are left unanswered, Morgan and McQueen do convey “hope that there’s hope” for the protagonist. Ultimately, it is a human tragedy, and Fassbender’s perhaps most physically and emotionally daring role yet explores a hitherto unexplored sense of shame.

The MPAA will watch rape all day long but for God’s sake don’t show them your penis

When Michael Fassbender parades around your latest with his chap out you know you’re in for trouble. Alas, the artist (and now accomplished film director) Steve McQueen seems unfazed by such bother with his latest cinematic effort , Shame, revelling in it’s realistic depiction of sex addiction and as much as the American ratings board hates to see it, that inevitably includes some genitals. On screen genitals. Literal, on-screen, bodily genitals.

Now you may think that I’m overstating the presence of genitals here, but for the MPAA they are a not inconsiderable sign of depraved horrendousness. Whilst The Hangover, The Life of Brian, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have easily passed through the ratings system by showing us the comical side of man’s silliest of endowments, when it comes to sexualising genitalia the MPAA often loses its sense of humour a little.

The American ratings board has a long and confusing history in this most natural of areas. Stick a prosthetic impostor down there (think Mark Wahlberg’s stocking stuffer from Boogie Nights) and hey presto, you’re got yourself an R-rating. Whop out the organic alternative then you better be playing it for comic effect or it’s an NC-17 and you’ll be kicked out of cinemas faster than you can say “it’s faintly ridiculous that a perfectly natural appendage is given the same classificatory status as sexualised violence”. Or something to that effect. Watching directors play peek-a-boo with a carefully placed lampshade here or a cheekily placed sausage there isn’t really conducive in many cases to the depiction of matter-of-fact everyday life, or sex, that films often wish to portray.

Relegated to gay-panic scenes in Judd Apatow productions and racial stereotyping in films like Hall Pass the sexualised or serious depiction of the penis is one of the last taboos in mainstream American cinema. An uninterested, lazy, flaccid phallus may be a natural preset, but there is so much more to the poor fella than meets the American cinematic eye. Refused a full performance and left underappreciated and impotent it’s about time audiences (but mainly the censors) began to realise that penises are used for so much more than casual laughs and that when films seek to depict said uses it may not be all that bad if one sneaks it’s way into view.

Now I’m not saying that I want to see unsimulated sex in every film that I go into but nor do I want a perfectly natural evocation of sexuality restrained by the whims of the close-minded censors and cinema-chains. Adult films are meant to be for adults. Adults who have sex or don’t have sex or have the option to have sex. Don’t want to see a penis? Then don’t have sex (at least with the lights on). Don’t want to see a penis in the cinema? Then don’t watch the film. Fair enough. But for those who do one should let them make an adult decision and let them see adult films. I’m not talking porn here but I’m not talking some soft-core nonsense either. When the BBFC classified Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs as an 18 unsimulated depictions of penetrative sex (which had been seen before in Intimacy although not in as graphic fashion), oral sex and male ejaculation were given an airing on our conventional cinema screens for the first time. The film may have been mindnumbingly boring but it proved that adults can see such ‘outrageous debauchery’ and come out unscathed and sane. Whilst also bored out of their minds of course. Whilst British audiences are treated as sentient, progressive beings capable of exercising judgement and taste in their visits to the big-screen, America treats its audience with a censorious, nannying contempt that sees them as being irrational prudes with brains the size of testicles.

In the case of McQueen’s Shame the sexually explicit film has been awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA (the American censors) due to its extensive and sexualised depiction of its lead actor’s penis (well that and seeing him urinate out of it as well). In real terms this equates to the British ‘18’ rating, but whilst over here such a classification raises no controversy whatsoever, the American equivalent is box-office poison.

Like a lingering disease cured only by cuts to the most nefarious bits of your running time, the NC-17 has long been the leper of US distribution. Whilst the American censors are nice enough to not ban you entirely from seeing a film containing ostensibly adult content, many cinema chains indirectly will. Many both refuse to promote and flat out refuse to show NC-17 rated films due to the institutionalised stigma that comes with them. Choked from screenings and public goodwill they often fall by the wayside and it is extremely rare for a film to not appeal against what is often considered a label of disrepute. With Shame however Fox Searchlight seeks to change all that by embracing the NC-17 as “a badge of honour, not a scarlet letter.” Their dogged promotion of the film and it’s likely candidacy for awards consideration come New Year may just be what is needed to break the taboo of this most divisive of classifications once and for all.

Though it may sound fair enough to award Shame what is functionally an ‘18’ rating, all the board requires of them to receive the generally acceptable R certificate is to cut out Fassbender’s explicit bits. But when a film treats its subject matter as maturely as Shame does and with an uncompromising artistry that is hard not to respect, why should the director’s unflinching portrayal of sex have to get in the way of a seemingly arbitrary American aversion to male genitalia? Genitals given the right context aren’t generally considered to be morally offensive or “liable to deprave or corrupt” so why is their sexualised depiction treated in the same leagues as violent, abusive sex? Any on-screen delivery of everyday consentual sex is always going to be less disturbing than a rape scene or a graphic and realistically delivered murder, right? Anyway, anyone who is likely to be depraved or corrupted by the sight of a penis is probably as mad as a box of Von Trier’s to begin with.

One may see the problem here as being with the inherent stigma attached to the NC-17 by cinema chains and the public at large but the MPAA has a lot to answer for. When disturbing and sexually explicit films like Requiem for a Dream (after with its required cuts but still featuring coercive sexual acts), Blue Valentine (after extensive appeals) and Last House on the Left (delivered with no shortage of visceral rape, torture and murder) receive ‘R’ ratings it’s hard to see why a film like Shame should be unfairly maligned just because it’s lead actor literally couldn’t keep it in his pants. He’s playing a sex addict, what did they expect?

– Ross Jones-Morris