Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Oscars Post

For those of you interested in the literary vs. commercial fiction argument, you can look for another example of it in the Academy Awards, which I painfully got through most of on Sunday night. Nobody in Hollywood should really be stumped as to why they have such low ratings. Without the glamor, the celebrities, and the jokes, it would be nothing but an expensive graduation ceremony for the honors students.

I'm going to make a wild guess that most people who tuned in had not seen most of the nominees in most categories (except perhaps the sound and technical categories). I see a lot of movies over the course of the year - I'm going to say 20+ - and I had only seen two of the five nominated for Best Picture, and the second one (Juno) was because I was dragged by my mother and grandmother. Michael Clayton was great, though not Best Picture great. No Country for Old Men I consistently put off in favor of movies that were more fun because everyone I know who saw it said it was long, slow, and had a confusing ending. There Will Be Blood had an extremely limited release and came out at a time when I was especially busy with other things. Atonement I just plain didn't want to see; I can't properly explain it but some movies just put me off.

If not for a lot of publicity and the nominations themselves, the main winners of the evening are easily in reverse proportion to box office proceeds, which means most people didn't see them in favor of "crap." Spider-man 3 was the highest grossing movie of the year. It was followed by other action-adventure movies, only a few of which were nominated for anything other than freebies like costume and sound mixing. I don't even know what sound mixing is, but it gave Bourne Ultimatum the most awards it in a tie with No Country for Old Men.

As we get to know the awards process better, we learn that maybe it's in Hollywood's best interest that we don't. The voters, it seems, are industry insiders and experts (that means retirees with experience and a lot of time on their hands). It also includes actors, who can even vote for themselves and their friends with a clear conscience. In other words, they live in the fantasy world they created and they award accordingly, with little concern to which movies the public seemed to be willing to part with hard-earned money for. Now I'm not saying the tons of bad J-horror remakes I see should win anything, but man do I love them and I'll see them over a long, pretentious movie any day.

The Academy is what it is: a group of expert voters who have the qualifications to discern what is quality and the time to see every movie to make sure that they have what to compare to. In other words, yes, they should be the decision makers, but I increasingly don't like that they ask me to care. I can tell what's a quality movie or not - it's just my choice whether to devote the time to see it. I went out of my way to see Persepolis, which got robbed despite being an uneven movie that was not as good as the two books it was based on.

In short, if you haven't guessed the metaphor, Winners = Mostly Literary Fiction, and Ignored Movies = Commercial Fiction. It would be a better comparison if the Pulitzers had many categories, a flashy show to promote itself, and months and months of hype. Fortunately it remains what it is: a bunch of professionals sitting in a room, discussing it down to the last few books and then a vote. I think that's about all of the process we could stand, though a nominee list would be nice for those of us who do seek out quality literary fiction.

Also, 300 got fucking robbed in every technical category there was.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Yet, I hesitate, Rejecter, to completely agree. Sure everyone likes looking at Matthew McCougnahey (sp) with his shirt off in FOOLS GOLD, but does that bit of commercial fiction movie making deserve an award?

If so for what?

Yes, it's nice to go to the movies for entertainment, and I do, but I like when a movie lingers aftewards and I just don't get that with popcorn flicks.

I loved the sense of heightened right vs. wrong that MICHAEL CLAYTON gave us. Or Amy Ryan's stellar performance in GONE, BABY, GONE. Who didn't argue at the end of that movie in favor or against Casey Affleck's character's decision to return that little girl?

I can't be the only one that likes to think during a movie, not just have a jones for a Matthew MeConughney's naked torso.

However, your point is taken, and in my own writing I'm learning to write with a stronger commercial sensibility, in order to sell. Go figure.

Concerning the things you take on (or your employer) do you ever get a balance of Commercial and Literary in one book or is it primarily one or the other?

The Rejecter said...

Generally my boss does a lot of memoirs and political stuff now, but tries to keep it high end in terms of writing.

Nancy Matson said...

I see your point, Rejecter, but then again, what is the real alternative? Sometimes movies (and books) have both commercial and critical success, and a lot of times movies that are quite good are not seen by very many people, because they are considered depressing, or revolve around unpopular subject matter, or whatever. Anything commercial "wins" by making a lot at the box office/selling a lot of copies. This is a chance to get some credit in another way.

Also, it's not as if there is NO overlap. Juno was a huge commercial success. Seems to me Titanic did pretty well on Oscar night, too.

I'm sure most people don't care at all about the tech categories, but there obviously is interest in the big categories, like best picture, actor, actress, etc. Also, the Oscars will always have something the National Book Awards can't compete with -- movie stars! And that's why so many people will sit through an otherwise boring show.

Maybe they should have an hour long show that's just the big categories and leave it at that. And spare us the song performances. Yeesh.

Anonymous said...

You make some good points here, but I can't help but point out you are using this year's Best Picture nominees as examples and you haven't even seen them, including the winner.

I saw NO COUNTRY and I was blown away. I loved, loved, loved it. It was beautiful and exciting and I never would have thought to describe it as slow. Of course, this is coming from someone who LOVED the ending and thought the ending made the entire movie. Without it, the movie would just be about murder when really, it was about so much more. But the most common reaction seems to be total and absolute hatred for the ending. When I saw it in the theater, people literally yelled out, "WHAT?!?!?" and other not-so-nice things at the end while I was trying to fight back tears after what I had just seen.

Is there anything wrong with bust-em-up action movies that gross a bajillion dollars? Nope. But NO COUNTRY meant something deeper to me, and I'm thrilled it was recognized with a win. I must not be the only person who felt that way about it, and aren't I glad that movies don't win Oscars based solely on how much money they made or how many theaters they played in.

Furthermore, you will always have snobby literary people putting down genre fiction as being simplistic and "not as smart," while others will bash all literary fiction as being pretentious and false and boring. Is there literary fiction like that? Hell yes. But there's also a lot that gives me the same feeling I got when I watched the end of NO COUNTRY. Literary awards might sometimes be bestowed on authors who "know the right people" or whatever, but I think sometimes, the winning books really are powerful (for some) and have affected (some) people enough to make it deserving of recognition.

The Rejecter said...

I have no idea whether No Country deserved the Oscar it got. Some people thought There Will Be Blood got robbed. I have no idea between the two, not having seen either, but it's yesterday's news. The point is, commercial vs. literary.

Austin Williams said...

Off what the main topic was supposed to be, but I just wanted to chime in and agree with you about 300. It should have gotten a cinematography nod, at the very least.

Anonymous said...

I think the only thing that could possibly be worse than the entertainment industry getting together and giving themselves awards, would be the politicians getting together and giving themselves awards.

Anonymous said...

I started to agree with you, but then exceptions started coming to me. So I went over to and pulled up the list of nominees and winners of Best Picture since 1990. Most of the pictures (both nominees and winners) were commercial successes. Only in the last couple of years did the Best Picture category get overwhelmingly pretentious.

Here's the list of winners:

1990: Dances with Wolves -- comm
1991: Silence of the Lambs -- comm
1992: Unforgiven -- comm
1993: Schindler's List -- lit
1994: Forrest Gump -- comm
1995: Braveheart -- comm
1996: The English Patient -- lit
1997: Titanic -- comm
1998: Shakespeare in Love -- comm
1999: American Beauty -- lit
2000: Gladiator -- comm
2001: A Beautiful Mind -- ??
2002: Chicago -- comm
2003: LOTR: Return of the King -- comm
2004: Million Dollar Baby -- comm
2005: Crash -- lit
2006: The Departed -- lit
2007: No Country for Old Men -- lit

LindaBudz said...

Loved Juno.

Hated "No Country." I like my movies to have a plot, I'm just funny that way. Though, I will concede to anon's point that the ending was pretty amazing.

Enjoyed Michael Clayton, didn't see the others.

My tastes run toward commercial in books as well.

The more commercial stuff does get recognized via the Golden Globes, right?

Anonymous said...

Some people are taking this way too seriously! Great job in pointing out the difference between lit fic and commercial... you made your point and I couldn't agree more!

MelodyO said...

Very interesting post! All I know is that when Titanic won, the Oscar audience was huge. When NCFOM won...not so much. Nothing wrong with preferring the literary movie, but (just as with literary books) your audience is going to be smaller.

In other news, I hated Spiderman 3 and loved Juno. Just wanted to share that with you. :0)

Adrienne said...

I see what you are saying, and it makes a lot of sense, literary vs genre. But I think Nancy said it best, the popular films win at the box office, this gives the more "difficult" films the chance to shine.

I have to say a lot of film goers are starting to drive me a bit crazy though. They say things like how there are no good movies made anymore, and go on to cite all these blockbusters. When I then ask them if they've seen any of the other amazing films that came out this year, "Oh I find that stuff boring." First off, how do you know if you haven't seen them, and second . . . WTF?!!

But I have to disagree strongly with you about the event itself. I found it quite the opposite of boring (okay I do agree the songs, aside from the one from Once, were attrocious). I thought Jon Stewart did a brilliant job, he was genuinely laugh out loud funny. And while I thought Ellen last year did a wonderful job too, he actually really made me laugh (I especially enjoyed the montage salute to periscopes and binoculars - as well as his dig at the Vanity Fair party, "Here's an idea, you want to support the writers? Why not invite them to the party?! They promise not to mingle.")

In fact I found the entire evening wonderfully elegant, epitomised in my opinion, by Stewart bringing Markéta Irglovás back on stage to give her lovely acceptance speech.


Sorry for the digression.

Back to your regularly scheduled topic.

Anonymous said...


How many Highbrow Works of Literature from the 1930s can you name off the top of your head? And if you did "man on the street" interviews, would anyone recognize them>

Now what if you did the same "man on the street" interviews with "Conan the Barbarian", "Perry Mason", "The Lone Ranger", "The Shadow", "Zorro", "Buck Rogers", "Doc Savage", "Flash Gordon", and other lowbrow pulp titles of the same era?

Who has shown more staying power?