The subject Uri raised – and BJ and Magilla chimed in on – may cover more ground than I can comfortably deal with right now. But let me take a stab.
I’ve been feeling a lot of the same things, but thought it was partially due to my personal circumstance. My domestic situation has become substantially more difficult and limiting of late -- to the point that the last time I was inside a theater to see a movie was Albert Nobbs, prior to the Oscars. This situation may not change much for the foreseeable future. Not since my senior year in high school – a very long time ago – have I felt so distant from the movie culture.
But, you know…for the first several months there, I was hard pressed to think of a thing I’d have gone to see. Yeah, I’d probably have taken in The Hunger Games, just to brush against the zeitgeist – but now I’ve got the DVD in hand and, really, who cares it’s a few months later? More recently, a few titles have popped up that I’d obviously see first run – Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild, possibly even the Dark Knight Thing, or Hope Springs. But that’s not much to show for about 8 months’ worth of releases.
Obviously, things will change some when Fall kicks in. I’ve been excited about The Master since seeing the trailer online, and the enthused/bewildered reactions from early viewers have me even more intrigued. And there are a few other big ticket items that I can’t help looking forward to – Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, The Silver Linings Playbook – plus, of course, the hope that something arises unexpected from the mid-range list at Toronto or Venice. Things generally look less bleak by Thanksgiving than they do late summer.
But it’s getting harder each year to rev it up; to get the charge I used to in older days. Going through the historical replay threads, I can still summon up the passion I felt about certain races, whether they went exactly as I hoped or disastrously otherwise. Lately, though…
I understand Uri’s feeling about last year’s batch, in particular. I wasn’t especially fond of The Artist, but I found it hard to argue strenuously against it because it was plain there just was no top-drawer Oscar-type movie competing with it. I loved Tree of Life, but something that abstract was never going to be Academy fare. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was in a genre never much honored. I liked The Descendants more than many here, but both it and Moneyball were second-tier stuff. And the rest – Hugo, Midnight in Paris – were, like The Artist, sweetly crafted, but way too trivial to champion. You can understand why, in that setting, a number of critics flipped for the late-release Margaret. Whatever that film’s shortcomings, a contemporary story taking a big bite out of serious issues must have felt like a meal at Lutece after months of Burger King.
Going back, I guess I’d argue the previous year (2010) was a little more solid, if only because many of the filmmakers at the center of the race – Fincher, Russell, Aronofsky, the Coens – are, along with a few others (Payne, the Andersons P.T. and Wes, Jonze/Kaufman separately or together, Ang Lee) the talents I WANT to see involved in an Oscar race. But I guess, for those who found The Social Network violently overrated by the critics, or those just crushed by the triumph of the easy uplift King’s Speech, that year was also disappointing. I myself was somewhat in dissent from the critics’ favorite the previous year, The Hurt Locker, and not over the moon about Slumdog the year before that, so my enthusiasm was muted in both those cases. You have to go back to the No Country/There Will Be Blood face-off of ’07 to find a really bracing race between films that meet the criteria Uri set out in his post. (And let me indulge my usual dislike of the this-site-excluded Oscar bloggers’ role in all this. Attempting to forecast the race months out, they’ll always highlight the dreariest, most unchallenging contenders imaginable. Nate Rogers is one of the better thinkers out there on the subject, but his current top five predictions are Lincoln, Les Miz, Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson and Life of Pi – except for the last, as utterly homogenous a group as can be imagined, and, sight unseen, one of the dreariest)
All this matters because the sort of films Uri talks about – people seeing/talking about them – play a vital role in any sense of a common culture. We can still argue about who was rightly or wrongly chosen in 1974 or 1976 because those films still matter to us. Is anybody going to feel like arguing the last few years’ results on that level? As BJ says, half the films – even the good ones – are in and out of theatres so quickly they barely become part of any conversation. In Weinstein World, they’re designed to open as close as possible to the Oscars, goose the gross during their short time on display, win awards, and create DVD covers that begin “Winner of…” Once they’re in DVD, there’s no possibility of any national conversation, like we had about so many films, worthy or not, in past decades. Individual talents still exist, but movies as an entity have almost ceased to matter.
Now, BJ rightly points out, there’s plenty of strong drama being generated, on television (mostly on cable). In recent years, I’ve found my Netflix renting being bifurcated – each week, one movie, and one cable series compilation. And, absolutely, if you stack up The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie (and, if you missed them back when, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under)…you’ll find infinitely better writing and stories than you do in any comparable sampling of recent films. But there’s a caveat: the television form is designed for a different effect. TV shows are supposed to go on and on; they don’t provide the catharis, the singular experience that a great movie does over the course of 90 - 180 minutes. It’s possible some of these series will self-limit, and create a sense of closure and fullness when they wind down (I’d argue The Wire did that spectacularly – start to finish, it’s the fully-rounded epic of modern urban American that Tom Wolfe made a pathetic stab at in Bonfire of the Vanities). Hopefully, Mad Men will live up to our hopes and provide just such a perfectly calibrated finale, that makes us feel the experience had a wholeness to it comparable to the cohesion we feel in a well-made film. But the phrase “Jump the shark” originated on TV for a reason: there’s always the chance even the best shows will lose their way…that, in extending season after season, they will lose the initial bump of excitement, and make their fans feel like saps for having stuck around. Fans of Twin Peaks, or Lost, or many other shows you could name, will know exactly what I’m talking about.
And, besides…many of us don’t have time to devote that many hours to one project (the same way many never got around to Berlin Alexanderplatz). There’s something about the limitations of movie running time – along the lines of the classical unities, though not as stingy about time and space as the Greeks were – that compel a creator to fashion something that does all the things those fine TV dramas do, but wrap it up – complete it – in a one-sitting format. We NEED those kind of movies, and we need them to play a more prominent role in our culture. Otherwise, we’ll have become a Seinfeld culture – all about nothing. Which is close to a definition of decadence.