Or why it's time we understood that the planet's biggest film awards are less about honouring the best than hunkering down in front of an entertainment channel to recognise feel-good movies.
Of this, we are all agreed. My mead can be your poison. If tastes did not differ, we would frequent the same restaurants and peck at the same foods, step out in the same clothes in the same cuts and colours, listen to the same music by the same artists, worship the same authors, click on the same links and land on the same sites, and, come the last Sunday in February, root for the same films and the same actors to walk away with Oscars.
But this understanding did not preclude the foaming at the mouth that accompanied the announcement, last year, that “The King's Speech”, that cinematic equivalent of lukewarm chicken soup, had trounced “The Social Network” in the Best Picture race. We rushed to denounce the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the block of Oscar voters — as orthodox consumers of cinema whose idea of the year's best motion picture wasn't one that shattered and reconfigured their carefully shaped notions of art but one they could view unabashedly with their grandmothers.
For a change, this year, let us make a case for lukewarm chicken soup, otherwise known as “The Artist”, the film that is widely expected to be anointed Best Picture. And why? Because, among other considerations, it is a family-friendly, black-and-white ode to silent cinema. Put differently, not only can you watch it with your grandmother, it's the kind of film she probably watched with her grandmother.
Is “The Artist” a “good” film or a “bad” film? Is it “worthy” of Oscar recognition, or isn't it? We shall not concern ourselves with these subjective inquiries that handicap the appraisal of any art. Like the Booker committee, like the music fraternity that hands out Grammies, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would retreat into a cave and crumble into an existential crisis if it began to concern itself with the yays and nays that greet its decisions each year. Some people are going to like “The Artist”. Some are going to hate it. Some will think it's a worthy winner (if it wins). Others will begin to foam at the mouth. Of this, we are all agreed.
The mistake we make every year is in expecting otherwise. The mistake we make is in thinking that Best Picture, according to Oscar, actually refers to the best picture made the previous year, the film that (in our subjective eyes) achieved its aims in the most skilful possible manner, the film that was loftiest proof that this is what cinema can be, when what Best Picture means, really, is Best Warmed-over Soul-slaking Serving of Chicken Soup.
Like the Oscar ceremony, this mistake we make is an annual tradition, the most noteworthy years being 1941 (when we fumed, “How could ‘How Green was My Valley' beat ‘Citizen Kane' and ‘The Maltese Falcon'?”), 1967 (“How could ‘In the Heat of the Night' outrank ‘The Graduate' and ‘Bonnie and Clyde'?”), 1977 (“How could ‘Rocky' punch out ‘ Taxi Driver' and ‘All the President's Men'?”), and 1994 (“How did ‘Forrest Gump' outrun ‘Quiz Show' and ‘Pulp Fiction'?”).
We claim — rightfully so — that “The Graduate” picked up on a privileged generation's ennui like no film before it; that “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first puff of smoke on a distant hill signalling that New Hollywood, that era of 1970s cinema ambushed by techniques from the European art film, was marching towards our movie screens; that “Citizen Kane” launched the director into a celestial orbit hitherto occupied only by stars, the faces in front of the screen; that “The Maltese Falcon” perfected the private-eye noir-drama that would reach its apotheosis, three decades later, in “Chinatown”.
We claim that “Taxi Driver” hinted at the perils of urban isolation long before they became forlorn fact; that “All the President's Men” rescued the journalistic thriller by grafting a strain of the documentary into the scoop-obsessed hijinks of “His Girl Friday”; that “Pulp Fiction” redrew the map of independent cinema, furthering its boundaries outside pitiful art-house ghettos. The juddering impact of these films is felt to this day. What did the Best Picture winners, in these years, do but give us a good time at the movies?
We make the mistake of expecting blistering art to be rewarded over bowlfuls of chicken soup because we look at other awards — at Cannes, at Berlin, at Venice — where the juries aren't scratching stubbled chins to pick the best picture from a list populated by “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, “War Horse” and “The Help”. The only edge in these films came from the corners of the screens they played on — in other words, they might actually be made by your grandmother.
Why, we simmer, can't the Oscars emulate these awards, which confer their top prizes on whimsical works of vision like Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life”? The Academy, too, perpetuates this notion, that it somehow cares about capital-A Art, by unleashing, as it did in 1996, a Best Picture roster with four independent films (“The English Patient”, “Fargo”, “Secrets & Lies” and “Shine”) crowding out a solitary Hollywood-endorsed moneymaker (“Jerry Maguire”). The Oscars have grown up, we exulted, until “Titanic”, the next year, ripped through these swells of premature celebration like an implacable iceberg.
Despite this, despite knowing that the Academy Award for Best Picture, these recent years, has been claimed by rousing crowd-pleasers like “Shakespeare in Love”, “Gladiator”, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — never mind the periodic anomalies like “Million Dollar Baby” or “The Hurt Locker”, which found themselves rewarded in spite of casting unsuspecting audiences into dark seas of nihilism, without a beacon of hope in the far distance — we make the mistake of thinking that “The Tree of Life” or “Hugo”, the most cinematic of movies in this year's Best Picture list, should be recognised.
They won't — unless the Academy decides, like in the years it singled out “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Hurt Locker”, to send out signs of its hipness and coolness and its continued relevance in the midst of the festivals at Cannes and Berlin and Venice, whose awards stand for something in the cinematic community.
But let's not make that mistake this year. If the festival at Cannes represents the country that birthed La Nouvelle Vague, if Venice stands for the home of Neorealism, if Berlin speaks for the native soil of Expressionism, then Hollywood symbolises something else altogether, something as old as the earliest film, and something even older: the pact between a magician and his audience that the ensuing hours will transport us to a world different from our own.
Let us recognise that “The Artist” is a joyful illusion, if not path-breaking cinema, then certainly a film that strives to put a smile on our faces, a song on our lips, a coat of soothing balm on our work-weary hearts. Let us make a decision, this year, to let those other festivals shoulder the onerous burden of nurturing cinema, while the Oscars continue to take note of the films that, like chicken soup, flood us with warmth and well-being. Here's rooting for “The Artist” and “The Help”. May the best broth win.