Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Oscars Honor The Future

By Lars Trodson

The most significant event of Oscar night was not Kathryn Bigelow winning an Oscar as Best Director. The fact that this happened in 2010 is not something to be celebrated as much as it is something to be slightly embarrassed by. A woman wins an Oscar for making a movie 90 years after she gets to vote? Wow, America, don't go crazy.

“The Hurt Locker” wasn’t my movie anyway. I liked it, but I thought it was a series of sketches -- it had no narrative thrust, which is what a movie is supposed to do. James Cameron, with “Avatar”, proved once again he can keep a huge piece of machinery chugging along without leaving the audience behind, which is what a good director should do. But my movie was "A Serious Man", which I think was basically shut out from any wins.

To me the bellweather event of this year was the cinematography award handed to Mauro Fiore for "Avatar." This was a movie that was largely created inside a computer, with live action shots serving as props. If the movie had any beauty, it wasn't in the lighting or the composition, it was in the fact that, more than ever, CGI effects could approximate the movements and idiocyncracies of shooting a movie on film. In one CGI shot in "Avatar", as the camera panned the Pandoran landscape at sunset, a flare shot across the "lens." I remember feeling ambivalent about what this tiny bit of movie razzle dazzle actually foretold.

Now that this "flare" has won an Oscar, what it represents is a firm but narrow leap into the future, which is how the Academy tends to do things. It takes the Academy years to recognize just how fast movies change, so they tend to give innovative filmmaking a nomination ("2001: A Space Odyssey") but give the win to something more traditional ("Oliver!"). It's been too much for the Academy to leap in to the future with both feet, even though the audience obviously has.

Just last year and the year before,  the cinematography branch of the Academy was honoring films that were actually shot and made to look beautiful by the choices the director of photography made. Last year it was "Slumdog Millionaire" and the year before it was "There Will Be Blood." Even "Pan's Labyrinth" from 2007 was more traditional craftwork than a bold new jump into the future.

But the Cameron/Fiore "Avatar" is a whole new animal. I suspect the voting members understand where the future is headed - even more conventional movies like "It's So Complicated" and "The Bucket List" are so shined up with effect shots that they're more of a hybrid than we tend to think. So if that is where you think you are headed, you might as well honor it, because that may be the only way you'll be honored yourself.

Now that this choice has been made, that is, an Oscar actually given to new technology, I suspect you will see a gradual acceptance of other innovations, such as roles largely caught by "performance capture" nominated in the acting categories.

But I don't suspect any one way of filmmaking will take over. In the 1950s, when Hollywood was also turning to fantasy and special effects to combat the competition, there was still a balance. In 1959, when "Ben Hur" swept the Oscars, its competition included "The Diary of Anne Frank."

This year "Avatar" became the highest grossing film of all time, but it was beat out by "The Hurt Locker", an independent that was essentially about three men in war.

So there will always be a balance. But at the Oscars this year, the future arrived, in baby steps.