By practice and principle, the Oscar nominations are not an occasion for me, as they are for so many in my fraternity, to guess the winners, to lament the omitted, or to fill out an uncounted ballot. Nor are they, anymore, an occasion for me to restate the reasons why they are not an occasion for me. Those don’t really change, although there appears to be a deepening schizophrenia in the Oscar shows of recent years (however many it has been since the last chapter of Lord of the Rings took top honors), a widening divide between the kinds of movies that Hollywood, in its Sunday best, one night out of the year, pretends to value, and the kinds of movies it values throughout the remainder of the calendar. As much as the major studios might like to have the accolades of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, they’d rather have the receipts of Spider-Man 3 and Transformers. The art of steering a middle course is one of the many lost arts. Studios nowadays are in the business of making obscene profits off movies with indecent budgets. Making “prestige” movies is left to their “specialty” subdivisions, if not to total independents. Dissociation personified. The studios of old did not have to apologize for frittering their resources on the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives and On the Waterfront.
As of this writing (though things could change between writing and publishing), the striking Writers Guild threatens to darken the Oscar show, same as it did the Golden Globes show a couple of weeks ago. There’s no reason to think the world would come to an end. Life went on, let’s remember, even after the baseball players sat out the World Series. Please don’t misconstrue. It is not in my nature to wish economic hardship on anyone (in particular, the Little People, the caterers, the chauffeurs, the whosies, the whatsies), so I am not actively rooting for cancellation. Should it come to pass, however, I could make an easy transition to looking upon my three and a half hours of free time on February 24 (maybe five and a half, counting the Red Carpet parade) as something of a silver lining. Some commentators, harder of heart, openly applauded the cancellation of the Globes show, citing the disrepute of the Hollywood Foreign Press and the golden opportunity for reform. I don’t make that distinction with the Motion Picture Academy; and the Globes, not sidetracked into the byways of Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, not disposed to create a category (Best Makeup) that could accommodate Norbit, are a better television show. And in view of the Oscar show’s annually falling ratings, the front offices have been presented here with a chance not simply to play hardball with the writers, but also, as a sizable bonus, to punish the members of the Academy for their hypocrisy, a chance implicitly to put it to them to bring the list of nominees more in line with the list of top-grossers, a chance to restore some distance between the Oscars and the day-earlier Independent Spirit Awards. Their own opportunity for reform.
However that shakes out, artistic value, if I may succinctly reiterate my fundamental quarrel with the Oscars, cannot be decided by consensus. The Academy might as well be casting ballots on whether Brad Pitt ought to stick with Angelina Jolie or go back to Jennifer Aniston. Results of such a vote would mean no more to Brad Pitt (or should mean no more, at any rate) than the outcome of the Oscar vote will mean to me. Or you. We have bigger elections to worry about in 2008.
Two things, even so, compel me this year to break my customary silence and to pay some attention in print to the nominations. One is that the only new movies available to me this week are Rambo, Untraceable, and Meet the Spartans. The other, which would compel me at the same time to root for resolution of the writers’ strike, is that the Coen brothers are in the running in several categories. Now, I don’t need No Country for Old Men to take home the Best Picture prize in order to validate my view of the movie or its makers, but I’m not so sure of what other people need. Over the summer I was hovering around the snack bar at Landmark’s La Jolla Village when I overheard an indecisive customer at the ticket stand balking at Paris, Je T’Aime on the grounds that the Coen brothers had something to do with it. They, and I quote, “can be really weird.” An endorsement from the Establishment might have some benefit with such balkers. Win or lose, the Coens should already have gotten a re-charge in their careers; doors should have been opened wider; purse-strings loosened. For the next little while at least, I needn’t lose sleep over that.
Nice as it might be to see them troop up to the microphone time and again (not that I would bet on it), my own rooting interest centers on the directing award. They’ve won a screenwriting award already, for 1996’s Fargo, arguably their best piece of writing. No Country, in spite of its nod as an Adapted Screenplay, is arguably their least piece of writing, more precisely a piece of copying down the writing of Cormac McCarthy; and it quite rightly throws the spotlight on their masterly direction. They earned their master’s degree in that department with their sophomore film, and if the perennial studently direction of Martin Scorsese could finally get its Oscar last year, there can be no objection to the Coens’ getting one, too.
I might almost be content, though, with nothing more than a public unmasking of their Roderick Jaynes persona in the editing category. (Would they take the stage in person? Send up an impostor in their place?) To make the case, just look at the scene wherein the softened criminal returns to the killing field with a jug of water for a dying drug runner. Look at it, say, from the appearance of a second, silhouetted truck alongside the softy’s truck on the ridge of the hill, and keep on looking at it through the charge of the attack dog at the river’s edge as the softy sure-handedly reloads his sidearm. Look at it. Study it. Show it forever after in film schools. A master class in itself.