Monday, February 23, 2009

A Des Moines of the Soul

For so many reasons, film is sometimes not worth taking seriously. Some of the finest minds of the 20th century never did, despite occasional proof that it was worthy of their attention. Nearly as bad as the vast majority of films themselves is the abysmal level of film commentary, which would be hilarious if it were not so disheartening. Hollywood, chosen by some of the medium's earliest entrepreneurs for its invariably sunny climate, bears much of the blame. With unintended sarcasm, D.W. Griffith summed up the place that he helped to create, an industrial assembly-line of hoary ideas, as "a Detroit of the mind."

Every year since 1928, AMPAS - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - bestows its imprimatur on what its members consider to be the best work of the year within the reach of the industry. And, just as diligently, the annual denunciations of the Oscars provide a shrill accompaniment to the award ceremony, which is now seen live around the world in some places that never saw and will likely never see most of the films under consideration. That a family living somewhere along the Mekong or the Amazon may be gathered around their TV set to see if Mickey Rourke will win for Best Actor is both a wondrous and an incredibly sad gauge of Hollywood's grip on the world's imagination. But, every year, against odds that seem insurmountable, a handful of films are made in some of those distant places, like Sri Lanka or Chad or right here in the Philippines, that represent the most powerful rebuke to everything that Hollywood and its Institute for Self-Congratulation stands for. And if the Academy recognizes one of those films at all, it is under the rubric "best film in a foreign language," which is nothing but Hollywood's admission that these films are from another realm and not at all in the same line of work.

I am by no means enchanted with the Oscars. But the worst one can say about them is that their criteria for competitive eligibility are far too narrow and arbitrary for their choices to be considered authoritative in any realistic sense. But the people who are most vocal in their opposition to the Oscars are guilty of passing critical judgements that are at least as absurd as those made by the Academy. The Golden Globes has committed at least as many gaffes in their history, as has the New York Film Critics Circle. Sight and Sound, a film journal operated by the British Film Institute, published a critics' poll in 2002 of the Ten Best Films that includes at least five turkeys.* So if the Oscars simply want to keep their money and their honors in the family, why shouldn't they? The only people who have any right to object are the sheep who pay the overinflated price of admission to a Hollywood movie. It is, after all, their money Hollywood will be throwing around on Sunday night. The ceremony will be broadcast live via satellite on Monday morning here. And I will be watching with the same grim sense of duty with which an opponent of the death penalty watches an execution.

*It was also the first of the six polls conducted every ten years since 1952 to restrict its choice of foreign films to - ridiculously - just four.

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