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Perhaps I’m naïve, but responses to the Oscars, both nominees and winners, never cease to surprise me. Never mind within hours, within one hour of the nominees for the 87th Annual Academy Awards announcement (bit of a mouthful), the Internet was awash with ridicule, condemnation and insistence that the Academy had got it wrong yet again. Why do non-Academy members find it so hard to accept that the position of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is different but possibly just as valid to their own position? Why will we not accept that this is a bunch of films that AMPAS choose to honour, and that the Academy is allowed a different position to our own? Come the end of the year, many film fans post lists of their top films of the year, and these lists vary widely. We can disagree, but we do so respectfully, whether it is on online or in person. The level of vitriol and contempt directed against AMPAS every year seems excessive, dubious and downright arrogant. A Bunch of Dry Old Men? I am also irritated by the way the uninformed describe the award givers, referring to AMPAS as if it were a secret cabal or committee whose members meet, look over the films their friends made, puff their cigars and sip their whiskey, before voting for the films that made the most money. The Academy has over 5000 voting members, divided into 15 branches relating to the Academy’s various categories (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.). Each member of a particular branch picks nominees in their category from the films eligible for consideration, which can be any theatrical release that plays for seven days in Los Angeles between 1st January and 31st December of the previous year. Voting decisions can therefore be made individually and not necessarily because of others’ influence. This is not to say that personal and financial relationships do not influence decisions, or that no decisions are made by voters going “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo” on the list of candidates, but let’s have some perspective on the sheer size of the institution involved. To be fair, this institution is far from diverse. According to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, over 90% of the voting members of AMPAS are Caucasian, over 70% are male, and at least 50% are over the age of 60. Furthermore, over 30% of voting members are former nominees and winners. The stereotype of the Academy voter being an old white man does therefore have some validity. Nonetheless, while this demonstrates that women and people of colour are severely under-presented in the Academy, it does not mean that anyone else necessarily knows what these old white men enjoy, respect and reward. We can speculate about their preferences and whether they will be more swayed by a gold watch from Rolex or Chopard, but we do not ultimately know. Furthermore, what makes your opinion or mine more valid than theirs? Granted, the opinions of this largely homogenous institution do lead to a great deal of Hollywood hoopla and one of the grandest shows of the entertainment calendar. The fact that these are the film industry’s awards and that the manner of their presentation is so ostentatious can appear crass and excessive. If that is your reaction, that the actual institution of the Oscar ceremony is offensive, why take any interest in the awards at all? And if you do take an interest, consider this: if the resources were suddenly made available for the [insert your name here] Film Awards, would you not make a big fuss about it as well? And if you were suddenly appointed the arbiter of cinematic quality, able to dole out awards to the film artists that you deemed worthy, would you be so different from AMPAS? What performances, scripts, special effects, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, hair and make-up, directors and, oh yes, films overall, would I vote for to win? But then again, what do we know about cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, etc? Are the people who actually work in these areas not somewhat qualified at deciding on high quality work? Of course, strong reactions tend to relate to particular categories, mainly Best Picture. This leads me to what I would like to see: a reasoned response to Oscar nominations that respectfully disagrees and does not declare that a few thousand total strangers are idiots. I may not agree that the films nominated each year are the finest examples of cinematic art that the previous twelve months have produced, but that does not mean my opinion is more valid than anyone else. Were I a member of AMPAS, and nothing I voted for was nominated simply due to number of votes, it would make my opinion a minority. The demographics may be narrow, but it is a democratic process rather than the dictatorship that negative responses infer: “the Academy members are wrong and I, the arbiter of all that is quality, am right”. It sounds different that way, doesn’t it?
My question, therefore, is why is the opinion of anyone who derides the Oscar nomination decisions more valid than those of the combined beliefs of the members of AMPAS? Who is really qualified to give awards for filmmaking? Perhaps the people that spend the most time actually watching and assessing films, i.e. critics. Critics are among the first to give awards, presented before the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars take place. Indeed, the films honoured by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and other such organisations often go on to receive awards from the industry as well, which suggests that the Academy voters may take some guidance from the critics. Of course, if you don’t value reviews either, then you’re still going to be annoyed, perhaps by the type of films that are honoured. I will return to this in my next post.
In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.
Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).
By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.
Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.