Sunday, December 19, 2010


Michael C here trying to piece together some conclusions from this first wave of precursors.

One thing we can say for certain. With all the support materializing for Black Swan this past week the message is unequivocal: no discussion of the year’s best work will be complete without Aronofsky’s dance phantasmagoria in the mix. Yet Swan’s place in the lineup isn't the sure thing it should be. Due to the film’s extreme nature it is widely assumed that for every one Academy member who has the stomach for it, there will be ten others who are fleeing the screening with their hands over their ears, humming the score from Driving Miss Daisy to blot out the horrible sounds coming from the screen.

Are Oscar voters wimps?

One could be forgiven for getting that impression reading the conventional wisdom bandied back and forth about films like 127 Hours or Black Swan. The standard issue reaction for any film that has more than a sprinkling of realistic violence, sex, or stylistic daring is, "Oh, this is too much for the Academy." The average academy voter is, according to this view, a stodgy old fogey whose taste in movies calcified sometime around the release of My Fair Lady and is horrified that a movie might stray outside the bland Oscar template. They thought Inception was too confusing, Rabbit Hole was too depressing, and a lot of them avoided 127 Hours altogether. While there is undoubtedly some truth to this (we all remember the reports of some voters flat-out refusing to so much as watch Brokeback Mountain) I think it misses the larger story.

There is, of course, the simple fact that more outre the film is the less of a consensus it's going to build, but it still doesn’t add up. How could all these Academy members reach prominence while being artistic scaredy-cats who dive under their seat when things get too intense? To succeed in creative professions one needs some open-mindedness, some adventurousness of taste. After all, a lot of the current voting body is made up of people who cut their teeth during the golden age of 70’s filmmaking, people who worship at the altar of Scorsese and Altman. Yet, these are the folks who somehow mistake The Blind Side for an artistic milestone?

The Average Oscar Screening?
While there is surely bad taste and timidity around the margins, I believe the larger shortcoming of the voting pool is not that their taste is so tame but that they assume yours is. The Academy prizes its own relevance above all else, and they know marking ballots for Fish Tank and Dogtooth isn’t going to secure it for them. They can't be throwing Mulholland Drive in the lineup if it going to lead to three months worth of perplexed movie-goers promising to never trust the Academy again as long as the live.

The fact that the Academy in the past has honored films as adult as the Silence of the Lambs, Midnight Cowboy, or The Departed proves that they’re not necessarily as timid as their reputation suggests. It’s just that if they’re going to risk upsetting the blue hairs of the world than those films are going to have to arrive stamped as pre-approved hits.

I think it is fair to say Black Swan's status as an Oscar lock is going to have less to do with the intestinal fortitude of the Oscar voter and more to do with how well it performs in this, its first weekend of wide release.

(Here are the current figures)

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