March 06, 2006

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

Our first year watching the Oscars from a vantage point far away from Hollywood, how ironic is it that this is the year we knew the most nominees? (Three, for the record. One who won.)

Oscar night last year: helicopters overhead all day, traffic congestion like you wouldn’t believe, parking at the farmer's market (a few blocks from the site) a mess. Order in pizza, do it early because everyone else is doing the same. Streets are quiet, everyone at a party.

Oscar night this year: quiet surrounds us in this hilltop aerie of ours. It's late here, past dinner time. Damian's asleep. We zip through TiVO, pause to watch speeches and clips, zip some more. Not so far from the film business, maybe, but far from the all-enveloping industry mindset.

I don't have a rundown of the show, no analysis of the documentary short subject choices nor extended critique of the dresses. (Though, what was that thing on Charlize Theron's shoulder? Did she put a snack in there, in case she got hungry during the show? A microphone to record snarky commentary from producers to use for blackmail fodder? A pet dog? Enquiring minds want to know.) I have just one main thought:

Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for best picture. Huh. Who'd a thunk?

I haven't seen Crash yet, though it's on our Netflix queue, so I can't comment on its Oscar worthiness. I'm a Paul Haggis fan, though, dating back to his eerie, disturbing and utterly brilliant short-lived TV series EZ Streets. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

But I did see Brokeback Mountain. I didn't find it romantic, exactly, but rather an exquisitely observed and heartfelt portrayal of human nature, of the choices we make – or are forced to make, by circumstance and our own psychology – and the repercussions of those choices. Which is to say, I thought it was a great movie. The parade of pre-Oscar awards says I'm not alone in this.

So why the Oscar snub? Homophobia? Brokeback just a little too real, with its single, non-graphic but nevertheless visceral sex scene? Somehow I doubt that. This is Los Angeles, after all, not South Dakota. This is the film industry, a creative magnet. There are gay people in this town, folks who are comfortable in their identity as such, people who don't feel the need to bury it six feet under. If a majority of the Motion Picture Academy members are secretly squeamish homophobes, well, they better look in their own mirrors, is all I'm saying. And across the table at their dinner companions. And across the desk at their business partners. And I'm not buying it.

So what then? Just a fluke of voting? Everyone assuming other people will vote for Brokeback Mountain so why not vote for their own favorite? But why was Crash their favorite when so many awards shows leading up to the big night singled out Brokeback Mountain? Whose favorite was it?

Dan pinpointed it last night, after we turned off the TV and went upstairs to the bedroom. It's all about the Academy. Which has members who are producers, members who are directors, who are cinematographers and writers and editors and production designers and costumers and animators, yes, all those. But the biggest voting bloc by far? Actors. And something I've learned from my years around the film business: people see movies through the filter of their own particular interest. Go to a movie with a writer, you'll hear about story and structure, inciting incident and character arc. Go to a movie with a director, you'll hear about pacing, staging, and camera placement, about subtext and context and coaxing meaning out of the story. Go with a composer and sure enough, you'll hear all about the music and how it dominated the scene here and gave the wrong tonal quality over there. If you see a movie through the eyes of an actor? Sure enough, it's about the acting. Admittedly, Brokeback Mountain had some brilliant acting. I thought Heath Ledger was amazing in his choked-back emotional restraint. But it wasn't showy and it wans't chewy and it wasn't a big ensemble.

That may be why Crash won. Because, from what I hear, it is all those things. Plus, Don Cheadle, an actor who has won a lot of respect and goodwill, was one of the producers. It sounds like it's a good film. It may be brilliant. I'd like to see and judge for myself. But the fact remains, Brokeback won the critic awards. Crash won the actors awards. Best ensemble cast at the SAG awards, which is their equivalent of Best Picture. And now this, the big kahuna, the shiny gold man.

People forget, but the Oscars are a company town's way of showing appreciation to their own. Which film fits the bill better? It's not about objective bests. How can you judge that anyway? What makes one beautifully written book better than another, one stellar meal more worthy? Contests are always about something other than choosing the best of anything, because subjectivity and personal filters always enter into the equation. So it was last night.

That's what I think, anyway.