The Oscars, and How to Pick a Real Winner…

Who will take home those golden chunks of cheese tonight?

Well, if you’re looking to play the annual game, I posted my predictions in an earlier post. Feel free to post yours here. Or better, which films *you* would pick if you were handing out the Oscars.

As usual, I’m sure I’ll be surprised by the winners. Heck I *hope* I’m surprised by the winners. After all, the likely cheese-winner is not necessarily the one who has done the work most deserving of praise.

And really, it’s hard to take the word “deserves” seriously at all when it comes to assessing art, isn’t it? We won’t know which of these films is the Masterpiece — the Lasting Work of Excellence and Significance until we’ve had a few years to assess their strengths and find out are standing the test of time.

My guess is that in ten years, when we look back at the films of ’07 and discuss those that still haunt, inspire, and challenge us. Some of the Oscar-winners will be there. Perhaps Juno and Atonement will still be cherished. Perhaps No Country for Old Men will make us go, “What was the big deal?” It’s hard to say.

And we’ll chuckle fondly over commercial products like Spider-Man 3, I Am Legend, Transformers, and Live Free or Die Hard. No offense to those tasty productions. They were designed to give us two hours of razzle and dazzle, while their stories were sprinkled with simple moral lessons. But I doubt they’ll linger in the imagination more than those Saturday morning G.I. Joe cartoons I watched as a kid, nor will they be considered worthy of preservation in the Museum of Meaningful Cinematic Art. They served their fun and frivolous purposes, and they deserved a few cheers for their craftsmanship. They even struck a resonant chord here and there, as when Peter Parker fought with his dark side in, quite symbolically, a church. But still, these weren’t the summit of artistic endeavor.

As much fun as those films might be, those are the titles you’d find on an eighth-grader’s top ten list. And we should hope to recommend to moviegoers around the world the kind of thing that inspires through poetic storytelling, poetic imagery, and challenging questions that ask us to look closer and grow in wisdom. My hope is that works of art far greater than 2007′s fast-food-events of the week will rise to the top over time.

The most potent works are likely to come from passionate artists who sacrificed time, money, and resources in order to share their visions with the world. They are *not* likely to come from studio committees that carefully designed their products to appeal to a particular niche audience. (And that includes “Faith Films” designed specifically to give Christians entertainment that doesn’t offend them. Those films tend to get attention more for what they *don’t* have than what they do have. Heck, if we assessed art that way, we’d come away heralding disposable features like Alvin and the Chipmunks or The Game Plan, and that would be a little embarrassing.) That would be like serving baby food to visiting royalty, saying it’s the best we have to offer.

Let’s hope this year’s great works are not overlooked due to their low budgets, their lack of big-studio marketing budgets, their subtitles, or their challenging subject matter. And let’s hope they’re not condemned for having the courage to show us the world the way it is — the truth of the beautiful and the profane — so that we can learn to find light in the darkness, and engage with harsh, complicated realities. Scripture is full of such ambitious, “gritty” storytelling. Shakespeare accepted nothing less. Sure, there’s a place for frivolous action movies. But when it comes time to acknowledge what it excellent, what is true, what is worthy of praise… what kind of discernment will we demonstrate?

It’s ironic, in a way, that a big budget, big-studio movie like Ratatouille has come along to recommend the better path. Brad Bird’s whimsical film suggests that we should outgrow our habit for “fast food” of all kinds — and that includes shallow commerical fare at the movies. Ratatouille coaxes us to seek out exotic, meaningful, poetic works of culinary excellence. In fact, it concludes by celebrating a small, foreign, independent operation as being the place where miracles happen.

But that makes Pixar a unique American filmmaking operation. They’re the exception. They’ve been blessed with vast resources and one of the biggest marketing budgets in movies. Nevertheless, their storytellers show us the truth with surpassing excellence, and their stories — crafted for children — encourage us to mature in our appreciation of art (and food). God bless them.

It’s ironic that some of the religious organizations that want to “clean up Hollywood” and steer us to sanitized, simplistic entertainment are embracing Ratatouille. Because Ratatouille encourages us to be adventurous, to rebel against what the masses want, and to seek out the overlooked nugget of excellence. Find the authentic vision. Don’t pay attention to what succeeds at the box office. Find what challenges you, moves you, and nourishes you.

I would like to believe that Christians, more than anyone, have an appetite for poetry and profundity. Alas, many Christians seem more interested in cultivating a Hollywood that passes tests of “safety” and “santization” rather than courage, excellence, and revelation. When we jump on that bandwagon, we end up with a top-ten list for eight-year-olds. Eight-year-olds, Dude. And we miss out on the films that help us find hope in the messy darkness, or design in the chaos, or an awakening of conscience in the presence of horror.

So here come the Oscars… an event that celebrates superficiality and glamour, but that also (sometimes) acknowledges excellence. And why do I enjoy the show so much? Because for one rare moment in the media spotlight, I get to listen to artists stand up and show gratitude, rather than hearing them talk about themselves. For one rare moment, I see people acknowledging that great art is about collaboration, the influence of role models and parents and teachers, and the inspiration that comes from other great works of art.

If you were given an award tonight, who would you thank for their support, influence, and encouragement? What would your Oscar speech be? Well… guess what… you don’t have to win an Oscar to thank them. You could write them a note write now, and make their eyes fill with tears of joy, just like those Oscar-winners’ parents will weep with pride tonight.

Now, maybe someday, the Oscars will change the rules so that these “contests” end up examining the full array of excellent films from all around the world. Most experienced moviegoers know that the Academy’s restrictions end up crowding out most of the best movies. Countless masterpieces are ignored or overlooked by Americans because these films don’t have big marketing budgets, and they require that moviegoers approach with a certain level of understanding and education. Thus, many masterworks are only discovered much later, or not at all.

For now we’ll have to settle for this deeply flawed Oscar ceremony, and enjoy what glimmers of goodness appear there. Or, well… there’s really no harm in turning the channel. In fact, instead of watching prime-time advertisements for movies that often fall short of true excellence, how about skipping the whole thing, watching a great movie, and discussing it with your friends?

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://www.coulterfamily.net/ScottCoulter Scott Coulter

    Jeffrey:
    The last time I mentioned you and Raymond Chandler in the same breath, I was talking about your fiction. Now it turns out Raymond has written some commentary on film (and Oscar Night) as well…

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194803/oscars-hollywood

    –sdc


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