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del Toro and the (Mostly-Useless) Oscars, part 1

After roughly two months in the theater, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water (2017) has garnered lots of award-buzz—thirteen Academy nominations, to be exact. I certainly plan on reviewing the movie, which, while hardly my all-time favorite, was still all-round solid and deserving of an extensive write-up. For now, however, I wanted to relay my thoughts on the award hype surrounding it, and what value said hype could possibly have, in and of itself

Here is part one, which shall discuss the state of movies, before and after the Oscars materialized, and the struggle movies today face when getting made, versus years ago. Part two shall discuss Academy constraints and favoritism; and three shall attempt to explain why the Oscars still matter and what a big win possibly means for del Toro, if anything.

I'll be blunt: I've never put much stock in the Oscars. One, they're largely political; two, they're disinterested in celebrating most of the genres I feel to be important and valuable. Instead, they promote their own favorites—those considered by them to be the most artful, significant or culturally important. I'd be more willing to entertain their arguments except there are none to found. Instead, like gods from on high, they simply announce nominees months in advance before tossing down verdicts like thunder bolts. This theatrical-but-empty delivery is about as complicated as drawing a name from a hat. There's nothing interesting about it, and it feels like an excuse for the Awards to celebrate themselves.



As far as I can tell, the Awards are mostly jam-packed with utter, irrelevant nonsense—pomp and circumstance provided by the Academy in order to shamelessly promote themselves and Hollywood. If never-ending parades are one's thing—of myriad guild actors sporting expensive clothing—then one could do much worse than the Academy Awards. They're clearly invested in that odd, annual pastime; I am not, and frankly couldn't care less about glamorous agents paid to walk the red carpet, merely to sport some overpaid tailor's fancy duds. It just doesn't interest me, and I fail to see what it has to do with movies.

I think the Awards should be to promote and celebrate cinema, not Hollywood's upper-crust, nor their strange hobbies. If the Academy left the dazzling to the cinema, then perhaps movies, themselves, would dazzle more often. Alas!

Maybe I'm underestimating the so-called "importance" of these events: to garner audience interest and attention. Of course, this operates under the assumption that producers actually need indicators of where to hedge their bets. I'd say they don't, having long since figured that business out. But let's, for the sake of argument, say they need help from the Awards. If this is true, do the Awards really go beyond serving as a kind of opiate for the celebrity-crazed, in that they actually provide clues for future producer investments?

In that case, does a win or a loss matter? Ultimately it makes no difference to me if a movie wins, because I'm not a producer. The film-in-question could be a widely-recognized classic, sleeper hit, box office bomb, or bonafide blockbuster. It just doesn't matter. In fact, several films I ardently love are silent movies that experienced little in the way of today's modern "success" (money or awards): F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Here in 2018, each is a great classic (more for film historians or makers than casual moviegoers). Of that, there is no question. However, in their respective heydays, each was nearly lost forever due to outrageous circumstances.


In Murnau's case, he copied Dracula (1897) a little too closely for Stoker's widow's liking. Enraged, she sued to have all copies destroyed, down to the last print. Eventually, she had her day in court, winning the case. As a result, all prints, including the original negatives, were incinerated—all but one. One positive print had already been widely distributed, making destruction of the movie effectively impossible. Alas, Murnau would never live to enjoy its reemergence, dying tragically in 1931, while Prana Film, the parent studio, went bankrupt to dodge copyright infringement charges. In short, no one made any money off it, especially Murnau; all the movie did was put him on the map, though largely posthumously.

Despite a vain woman's mad attempts to erase a work of genius, however, Nosferatu remains to this day a cult classic par excellence. One couldn't buy its cult status if they tried.

Likewise, Dreyer's original negatives for The Passion of Joan Arc were thought to have been burned, many years ago. Even before they were, the movie was heavily censored by French nationalists and the Catholic Church. Here, it would seem to be yet another a case of an unlucky director fighting a losing battle. The original negatives were destroyed in 1929. However, fifty-two years later, in 1981, a print of the uncensored movie was found in a janitor's closet of a Norwegian insane asylum (nothing but the chaos of real life could account for such paradoxical serendipity). Perhaps, this wasn't the best place to hide it, if indeed that's why it was there; then again, perhaps, it was merely a lucky derelict. Who knows. In any case, the movie was painstakingly restored, and over the years has been rescored several times (my favorite being Richard Einhorn's 1994 "Voices of Light").


Both Nosferatu and The Passion of Joan of Arc are amazing films, and yet neither was rated by the Academy Awards (which debuted on live radio in 1930). Nor did either make much money. By todays standards, they'd be failures, but, for all intents and purposes, they are great films in ways that modern blockbusters could never hope to match.

Nowadays people forget how easy movies have it, in terms of making them digitally versus analog. That's not to say the sheer abundance in the Internet Age doesn't present its own set of challenges. It does. However, modern movies are made and celebrated, one after another, in a steady stream whose only interruption is gossip—contrived upset, and rumors to go along with it. The Academy is an ongoing novel-of-manners, subsisting on its own self-important hearsay. They may seem pointless. I honestly believe that they are, largely without function.

And yet the very fact that the Academy exists reminds me how conducive society is nowadays towards making movies. On one hand, it's easy as pie (relatively-speaking, mind you). On the other, there's little to no danger, no struggle to survive the way that Murnau and Dreyer did. One rare exception that leaps to mind is Seth Rogen and Ethan Goldberg's The Interview (2014), which saw its wide release canceled, nationwide, following threats from North Korea. However, then-president Barack Obama discouraged such a response and the movie was eventually released, albeit on a limited basis.

While in reality The Interview was little more than an odd-ball Rogen vehicle, the irony here lies in how it was treated, which allowed it to theoretically become much more dangerous than it actually was. To be fair, I've seen far worse movies; but to think that it, on its own, was the source of so much nationwide panic borders on the absurd. In times of relative safety, I think a movie like The Interview demonstrates how, more than anything else, what a cinematic "paradise's" biggest threat is: itself.


I'm not defending censorship, by any means. I merely wish that awards at the national level—in times where the movie-making industry is largely a torrent of weak, banal content—actually aimed to measure and examine quality in a way that wasn't tantamount to a perennial, aristocratic media circus (the Oscars). Said circus is not without its own shortcomings, which I shall explore in greater detail, in part two.


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