| July 14, 2020
I’ve been anxious to write this column… and avoiding it… for a week.
The biggest problem is that I don’t want to be guilty of what most of the writing on the Parasite win has been… a clear reflection of a predetermined set of beliefs that would have been reflected in a specific way, regardless of the result.
A few writers have been cautious. Most told us what was right about The Academy because of this win and would have told us what was still wrong with The Academy if something else had won. (A few were just thrilled and bless them for being happy beyond the constraints of intellect.)
I remained stubborn and wrong about the conclusion until it was proven. It’s happened before.
I should have flipped completely when a few middle-aged and older white men told me that they had decided to vote for Parasite because they love the movie and it was a much more interesting Oscar night story than 1917 or anything else. Switching votes is a clear signal. Like everything else, a few voices don’t make that the narrative. But like a similar hum that made it clear late in the game that Crash would push aside Brokeback Mountain, I should have taken it one notch more seriously. I believed, in both cases, in the traditional… that homophobia was going to win this day in 2005 and that the International Film win would block the way for Parasite this year.
So the question remains… what did happen? What events coalesced? Are we witnessing change or something more familiar?
I have heard and read a lot of theories. Sadly, one was sold by The Academy itself, which is such a breach of propriety they should be deeply embarrassed by the choice to do so. (No longer a feature of Academy leadership.) Of course, their answer is that they are responsible for this popular outcome, as the 2020 program brought in more international members… which avoids the fact that the expansion of membership was not presented as an expansion of international membership until the last year or so (after most of the media avoided noticing for years) and even then, there is no acknowledgement that 2020 has failed for Americans of color in the industry.
But how have movies won Best Picture in the last 11 Oscar seasons, since the expansion? (History before that is not really relevant to this conversation.) I count three ways. (Feel free to add, “the competition wasn’t very strong to many of the years.)
1) It’s THE Movie – Start to finish, the movie is inevitable. This is one of the classic roads to a Best Picture win, though it has become almost extinct since the expansion to more than 5 BP nominees. In the 11 seasons since the expansion, I would say that only Seasons #2 and #3 have any real claim to having a start-to-finish leader (The King’s Speech and The Artist). Of course, there were competitors and there are people who seriously felt The Social Network would win over The King’s Speech… but King’s Speech went into the TIFF as a frontrunner and Social Network made people doubt it, but then King’s Speech asserted itself. It also benefited heavily from Oscar Winning Method #3. All that said, in these last 11 years, there has been no Schindler’s List or Rings 3 or Chicago, which overwhelmingly seemed destined to win from Day 1.
2) The Default – The Solid, Respected, No-Conflict (in the Academy) Choice. Spotlight. 12 Years A Slave. Green Book.
3) The Whip. When one non-BP category becomes the clear winner and it leads to the BP win. The Hurt Locker & Kathryn Bigelow. Argo & The Affleck “Snub.” Birdman and Iñárritu. The Shape of Water and Guillermo del Toro.
Aside from Parasite, these categories – which obviously have some mix-match to them – leave out only one BP winner since The Expansion, Moonlight. To be clear, this happened organically, for me, in the process of writing this. It was not my expectation. But it’s also not very surprising.
In all 11 case studies, there are mixtures of The 3 Categories. Only The Artist, Argo, and Birdman are really without a showcased moral cause (like stuttering or homophobia or racism or post-traumatic stress syndrome). But I don’t think being the issues in these other 8 films drove them to Oscar. 12 Years A Slave, obviously, covers one of the most horrible moments in world history… but again, though the movie is brilliant, I don’t think that was the key to the win. The Academy wasn’t standing up to the Catholic Church by selecting Spotlight.
And so, with Parasite and Moonlight, there are elements of the other Categories in their wins. Both films have enormously appealing directors, though Barry Jenkins didn’t take home Best Director. Both films had a solid, unexpected constituency – older white voters – from early on at Telluride, though not quite enough to be The Default or to be THE Movie from the start.
What both movies did have, from early on, was a strong moral argument being made in both social media and the press (the other media) throughout the season about the value of their potential wins. And in both of these cases, those arguments often went negative about other films and about Academy membership.
It may or may not be a coincidence that both of these wins occurred while #OscarSoWhite was being thrown around. In the case of Moonlight, it followed the season in which #OscarSoWhite was originated. This season, with Parasite, there was one nomination amongst the 20 actors for an actor of color plus no female Directors nominated, with only Bong Joon-Ho representing non-white color.
Another element of this is that the films that seemed to be the primary competition for the eventual winners and, in both cases, seemed to leap to the front of the pack from the first day they were shown, did not have an answer to the “too white” attack OR to the kind of emotional energy that Moonlight and Parasite built to late in the season.
I don’t think the late accusations that 1917 overlooked the Black contribution to the UK’s WW I effort meant much. But 1917 is an almost completely white movie. You can’t really avoid it. La La Land had non-white characters featured… but in the end, it was a movie about a white girl and a white guy.
What happens a lot in Oscar races, in my view, is that there are dozens of moments of opportunity/danger and no one knows which elements will become keys or just pass by. This is one of the reasons why the season is so dense and repetitive. FOMO. No one wants to be left out of anything, even if that thing is minor, because you never know when that turns out to be a turning point for some unexpected reason.
It’s a very complex idea, trying to measure how negative energy affects the Oscar race. In my view, this was the fourth season of negative arguments having a major footprint in the award season. The seasons with the most negative noise were Moonlight/La La Land and Green Book/Roma. It was a split decision, in terms of a win and a loss. But Roma was never fully the cause of the anti-Green Book group, which may have been the reason why Green Book could not be brought down. But both of the “anti” films are still mocked beyond reason.
One of the things that is interesting about both Moonlight and Parasite is that they became the most positive of the campaigns. In ways both similar and different, they became the positive story in their seasons that voters – white and old and male and otherwise – decided to vote for. (One angle that I hate is the attempt to claim that any Oscar winner somehow got there without the majority group in The Academy, regardless of whether that majority should exist or not. It both insults and misreads older white men and insults and misreads women and POC, assuming they vote in a monolithic way that squeezes past, somehow, older white men. It’s bullshit.)
In the case of Moonlight, its season competition was not exactly Avatar against The Hurt Locker, but the box office disparity was not dissimilar. La La Land was a massive hit… the 2rd highest grossing non-animated musical of all time at the time. It was a bigger hit than Chicago and the biggest non-animated musical not based on a Broadway show in history. Moonlight had grossed $23 million worldwide at the time it won.
But the argument was made – and still is – that La La Land was not daring… just another massive hit original musical made for the big screen. Absurd. And don’t even get me started on the original choices in the filmmaking itself. It wasn’t reckless to not like the film… but claiming it was easy was to take it someplace recklessly unfair.
All that said, Moonlight is beautiful and poetic and daring. I am in agreement with all the positive arguments about Moonlight. And I still think that Naomie Harris was robbed. (The winner of Supporting Actress was the always great Viola Davis and so no one complains about that one.)
A24 pushed hard for Moonlight and in all categories. As a result, they got 8 deserved nominations and played deeply to all Academy fields.
How much of the negativity around La La Land, much of which was attached to positive arguments for Moonlight, help Moonlight win? We will never know. But in the year after #OscarSoWhite, it was the first time we had really seen this form of a disqualifying argument. It wasn’t about a specific flaw or incident. It was about everything that La La Land was about… so it was virtually impossible to answer without sounding defensive and/or racist.
Even if La La Land took, say, a 10% Academy voting hit because of the push in media and social media, in order to win, Moonlight needed to be embraced in a positive way by a large percentage of Academy voters. And that achievement suggests that A24 and Barry and the entire team got the voters excited about the prospect of their film winning. It became the best story of that season.
This is where it is always tricky, as people seem to want everything to be, not ironically, black or white. If you believe that Moonlight was a good thing and Green Book was a bad thing, the answer in your eyes is not in the subtle shifts created by the circumstances of each season, but the “need” to hold a greater meaning that defines progress or regression.
In time, moments that actually are a shift in the mindset at The Academy become clear and most are just very specific moments in Academy history. After 11 years of The Expansion, I think it is completely legitimate to assume that there is a disadvantage in being too successful at the box office. Of course, that doesn’t mean that one of the Top 3 box office grossers amongst BP nominees will not win someday. Who knows? (No one) Maybe next season. But when something repeats for 11 seasons, especially after a very long history of only the top box office grossers winning, you can start to assume something real has changed.
(My personal assessment is that The Expansion added lower-box office, higher-quality movies to the equation and allowed Academy voters to remove the “wasted vote” yoke that narrowed the idea of what could win in years past. No matter what the box office, if you can get yourself nominated, you could be the winner.)
Likewise, we have seen three International film nominees/winners nominated for Best Picture in these last 11 seasons. One has won. Trend? No way to know today. I would say that a season with two International nominees would be far more indicative of the influx of international voters causing a permanent change of tone than this 1 win.
And we really have no idea what the impact of Netflix will be on The Oscars going forward… or whether Apple or Amazon or HBO Max or Peacock will push more than two streaming nominees into Best Picture in the same season. So far, it is just Netflix. They have gotten in with 2 relatively cheap films and one massively expensive drama. The math can be debated. But none of these players can’t afford to push their direct-to-streaming (with qualifying run) films into the Oscar race. What happens then? And now that voters are used to Netflix being in the game, does comfort breed comfort or contempt? Only time will tell us.
But Netflix is a digression in this piece…
Bong Joon-ho reminds me of Guillermo del Toro. It’s hard not to fall in (non-romantic) love with these guys. (Maybe romantic for some.) Brilliant, kind, funny, and super-passionate about film. Part of the Parasite win was Bong immersing himself in the Los Angeles scene for months. It never felt awards slutty. And no one got bored of him.
And the 1917 loss was not just about the movie or the negativity but about Sam Mendes, who I quite like and find surprisingly down to earth.. but he isn’t Bong and he was not as accessible as Bong (in part because he only finished his film in early November). 1917 also suffered from being written off, sometimes illogically, as nothing more than a single-shot stunt. It also suffered from coming out late in that most Academy voters probably saw it on a DVD or streaming onto their TV, which is far from the experience of seeing it on a large screen.
That said, I believe that Parasite won and not that 1917 or any other movie lost it. As one voting friend insisted to me, Parasite was the better story. And I think that is right.
We get so caught up in the the idea that everything is political, but I believe that The Academy is uniquely apolitical, in the way politics is about the outside work and meaning. It is very political internally. But I go back 40 years and I don’t see a single Best Picture winner that is acutely a statement on the politics of the world. I don’t think that changed this year.
So… why did Parasite win?
There are many reasons, but it became The Story. You may have preferred another film, but the person you wanted to see on the Oscar stage multiple times was Bong. And even if it wasn’t your first vote, it was probably in most Top 3s.
And here is another twist… did Netflix break the ceiling on choice even more by getting two films into Best Picture slots, further pushing aside what has long been Academy reticence about voting for any one film to win both International, Doc or Animation AND Best Picture?
It’s not completely unlike the American political system. And some will disagree with this. But I think once we had a Black two-term president, no group is off the table. Not a Woman. Not a Jew. Not a Billionaire. And unfortunately, not even a racist pig. Prejudices didn’t disappeared. But (most) people seem to value their vote aside from their prejudices now. Evangelicals voting for Trump… incomprehensible. But reality.
White old men voting for Parasite happened. Other people too. Maybe they made the difference. Maybe they didn’t.
One last thought. Six of the last eleven Oscar Best Picture statues went to distributors not associated with the majors. Of those 6 wins (amongst five companies) only two distributors are still operational, Neon and A24. Weinstein and Open Road are gone and Summit was subsumed into Lionsgate. Go back another 11, goodbye Miramax and DreamWorks. Another 11, Miramax and Orion.
Things change more than we realize. Companies come and go and we live in a kind of denial. Fashions change and movies that were breakthroughs in their moment become albatrosses of some political past that we finally feel we should be past.
A lot of normal circumstances led to Parasite‘s win last Sunday… and a lot of magical moments and energies that belong to no other film in history also led to that moment. There is nothing wrong with that. It is why we all still care what happens at The Academy Awards, a show that was started for all the wrong reasons and like so many great old people, has become somehow more dignified and respected after so many years.
To hope for deeper meaning is a fool’s errand. To enjoy what happened, for the film, for South Korea, for Asians worldwide, for Bong, for one lovely night.. that it what it means. Inhale the magic deeply. Don’t attach expectations. Don’t seek a trend. Another group of artists will be on the stage next year, hoping to feel magic. It’s not being an ostrich. It’s Oscartown.
"We had a very good plan to put on the SHOW safely. But with an unending number of cases and the national chaos, even the best strategy is threatened by this out-of-control environment. No matter how much many of us wear our masks and observe social distancing, [circumstances have] worsened and the health and safety of you—our passholders, filmmakers, the people of Telluride and its surrounding areas—cannot be compromised. We have been working cooperatively with our fellow fall film festival partners to champion global cinema and its artists. We hope that many of you will seek out and discover the titles we’ve selected for this year’s program at the New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival or Venice Film Festival. We will announce soon what we have programmed in the hopes that you will experience as we did, the best in film this year. We understand that film festivals and their long-term health are not top of mind today. A safe vaccine, vital medical interventions for those sick and properly enforced health regulations are. However, we do ask that you take this moment to consider a world where gathering around a shared love of culture is no longer possible and what that means for the psychological condition of the world. If the prospect prompts a sense of despair, please advocate and champion the return of our gatherings that provide vital nourishment and oxygen to humanity's soul."
July 14, 2020
"After months of intense due diligence around physically holding an event, we’ve come to the heartbreaking but unanimous conclusion to cancel this year’s Labor Day celebration of film in Telluride."
July 14, 2020
Focus Features Takes U.S. Rights To Schrader's The Card Counter; Universal Pictures International In UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Australian, New Zealand China, Japan, South Korea, Latin America and Airlines. Schrader: "The folks at Focus are the best at what they do. Over the years I've been jealous of directors in the Focus fold. Now happily I am one."
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