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The OSCARS are a joke. There. I said it. It’s out there! Not very witty perhaps. Not very original either. But how else must one respond in the face of another egregious snub by the Academy brethren for Mr Christopher Nolan? It is frankly inconceivable that a man who directed one of the best films of the past year, and undeniably one of the most successful in critical and financial terms, is not rewarded with his first Best Director nomination. Instead, that plum goes to the Coen Brothers, no strangers themselves to being shut out by the lords and masters of film for too long despite their exemplary filmic record. Congratulations to my beloved Coens (yet to see True Grit, but desperately wanting to). Be advised this is not a Minnesotan Auteur bash. Nor is it a splenetic rant just because the guy made a brace of Batmans, but a screed in favour of one of my favourite directors, who is not getting his due from a group of people who clearly wouldn’t know film if it came up and bashed them on the bonce. Indulge me, if you will, and allow me to explain my position…
Christopher Nolan is, for me, one of the most original voices working in film today, and a constant source of inspiration. A man who is able to craft complex narratives and narrative techniques but without becoming impenetrable and dense, a man able to expertly mine psychological depths in his brilliantly drawn, often terribly flawed, characters, and a man as capable of producing pyrotechnic spectacle in a summer blockbuster without compromising his vision to play it to the cheap seats. In short, me likey. Memento is a stunning film, a brilliant conceit of a story told backwards excellently handled, in no way gimmicky thanks to the marriage between a well-developed character and the fine acting of Guy Pearce. Insomnia, overlooked by many, is a great thriller with Al Pacino’s best performance in years and one of Robin Williams’ best ever. His big budget do-over of Batman is inarguably one of the most influential movies of the past ten years. Every Tom, Dick and Harry falls over themselves to ‘reboot’ material in dark and realistic ways, but few come close to his excellent examination of the character of Bruce Wayne, not to mention its box office behemoth sequel. The Prestige, in many ways my favourite, beautifully frames a deadly rivalry between two stage magicians in the late 19th Century, and delivers a shocking climax like his lauded breakout Memento. Both films are so well told that repeated viewings create an entirely different film altogether, informed by the knowledge of the climax. And when, as we pointed out in our films of the year segment, you thought it couldn’t get any better, he performs a masterstroke with Inception. What could have been an exorbitant folly is instead a benchmark of blockbuster storytelling, taking the special effects beloved of most summer yarns and combining them with a story to think about and characters to engage with. It is an all round stunning achievement, and one of the best of the year (for me, the best of the year, bar none.) So, naturally, the film gets nominated for Best Picture, but Best Director? You must be joking mate!
The Academy has a problem. They don’t like to admit it, but they do, big time. As recent exploits by another Brit at the Golden Globes showed, certain elements of Hollywood don’t like outsiders crashing the party. Nolan, a dual British and American citizen, is too British for the Americans, and, ironically, too American for the Brits, who would not let him into their Old Boys Network at the start of his career, hence his movies are almost exclusively US affairs (this also makes attempts to claim credit for him as the “British director” pretty ironic as many of the people doing so would not support him or his work when it mattered). But before this starts to look like I am about to don a red coat and reimpose the will of King George on the damned Americans, it is not a Transatlantic prejudice. When Martin Scorsese once more failed to win the top prize for The Aviator, when conventional wisdom was he would get a pity Best Director gong and Clint Eastwood would ride into the sunset with Best Picture, Clint, on a horse presumably, rode by and snatched both, there was much soul-searching as to why one of the greatest film artists had been snubbed yet again. Spike Lee had it. Because he was a New York filmmaker and his stories were often about New York people or things, he was too alien for them. So it was that Raging Bull lost to Ordinary People, Goodfellas to Dances with Wolves and so on. So too that the Coen Brothers were not recognised with a nomination until 1997 and Fargo, despite having produced such classics as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing: Minnesota wasn’t Hollywood enough for a while, it seems. It is similar for Nolan. Currently, he is not “one of them” in the same way they can embrace someone like, for example, David Fincher, who is a much closer kinsman.
But that points to another perennial Oscar problem. As Frank Langella’s Perry White says in Superman Returns: “Lois, Pulitzer Prizes are like Academy Awards, nobody remembers what you got one for, just that you got one.” As the “one” is the all and what it’s for means zip (I love The Departed, but is it more deserving than Raging Bull or Goodfellas?) the Academy like to engage in a little game. I like to call it: “who can we ignore the longest?” It is a game where they ignore the exciting new (and oftentimes, not so new) voices in cinema, for as long as humanly possible until they welcome them into the back patting fold. Take Fincher, for instance. For many his greatest work is Fight Club or Se7en. Se7en gets my vote, as it is truly brilliant in every conceivable way, whereas Fight Club left me a little cold on first viewing. But nevertheless, conventional wisdom states those are his finest pieces, yet to be topped. But as I’m sure you’ll agree, it is clearly not on a par with Braveheart or Babe, which secured Best Picture and Director nods when Se7en just got an editing nom, or The Cider House Rules when Fight Club was eligible. But Benjamin Button and The Social Network? Much more deserving. While I “liked” Network, and was not really a Button pusher, are they really the films he will be remembered for? They must have been threatened by his raw talent once, but now he can pull up a chair as far as they are concerned. It happens in other fields all the time, Paul Newman taking Bob Hoskins’ statue home because they had failed to reward the great Newman for any of his previous fantastic roles for his reprise of Fast Eddie Felson to name but one. Maybe Nolan is destined to be the Banquo at their feast until he does something they deem worthy enough of their time.
Such worthiness and tin ear for the public often makes Oscar the subject of ridicule, from Clarence Wurley’s declaration in True Romance that “All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books” to discussion of Ben Stiller’s “Simple Jack” in Tropic Thunder. Nolan is no stranger to their snobbery when it comes to making a great film, that happens to be large in size. The Dark Knight, like PIXAR’s WALL E, were unquestionably two of the best films that came out in 2008 (or, I would contend, of any year). But instead they gave their laurels to one such unwatchable movie from an unreadable book, The Reader. Who saw The Reader? Who who did liked The Reader?
But the howls of irrelevance and cries of foul did nothing except increase the Best Picture least to the ridiculously high ten to reward “more popular fare” i.e. give it a place at the kid’s table while the adults hoover up the gongs. They have nominated Inception for Best Picture, as it deserved, but have felt that the direction of said same is not up to the Coens’ marshalling of True Grit. So, to paraphrase the inestimable Billy Crystal “Inception, the movie that directed itself!” You know, when I saw Paris fold in on itself, it did feel like it was a self making film. This is not an unheard of occurrence. Many years back Paul Greengrass’ United 93 did not make the Best Picture list, but his direction was deemed strong enough for the Directors list ahead of the Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, or when Julian Schabel gatecrashed the list and left Atonement’s Joe Wright wondering why his attention grabbing snooze inducing period piece warranted nothing for him. But with the “Atonement sin” (which it wasn’t: he rightly got nothing, as it was rubbish) the Academy deselected the most pedestrian of the bunch. I have yet to see The King’s Speech and am certain it will be a triumph, and for all I know Tom Hooper’s nomination is deserved (his miniseries John Adams is one of the best pieces of television in recent years). But, to review, the man who made The Damned United, one of the worst films of 2009, has a Best Director Oscar nomination and Chris Nolan doesn’t? To go back further, the guy who made Avatar, not bad for a popcorn flick but a ridiculously self serious envirotwaddle fest with Smurfahonti abound but barely there 3D, gets a nomination, but the man who brought us snow fortress assaults, plunges off bridges and breathtaking zero gravity corridor fights gets nothing? Is he doomed to be one of these figures, a Hitchcock or a Kubrick, auteurs he is often compared to, who is always the bridesmaid but never the bride, or in this case, neither, but just invited to the reception?
It is a sorry state of affairs indeed. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. How can the Academy claim its position as an authority on film if it roundly ignores one of the best filmmakers working today? How can it retain its legitimacy by denying him this accolade, after having snubbed his other (in many cases even better) work? And how can it be anything less than hypocritical for Hollywood types to carp about the poor selection of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes lineup then fawn and bleat about the excellence of a body that passes up one of the genuinely most daring pieces of achievement in directing this year? By doing so they show themselves to be as out of touch and irrelevant as Sunset Boulevard’s delusional Norma Desmond. “It was the pictures that got smaller” she said. And the audiences too, I suspect, if they continue to overlook what is genuinely the best and brightest in any given field, be it special effects, acting, music or direction, if it doesn’t conform to their own narrow tastes and prejudices, with no rhyme or reason therein. At least the HFPA want to glad hand celebrities. At least the Razzies want headlines and smug snickers at others’ expense. At least the Goyas, the Césars and the BAFTAs have a national interest as a bare minimum, although to BAFTA’s credit they look beyond their own shores in a way their Hollywood counterparts do not. The Oscars long ago became a joke, their arbitrary nature and ridiculousness a punchline. Now, that joke’s not funny anymore (but, as they don’t hold with comedy either, its doubtful they have noticed).
So, what will I be doing on Oscar night? No idea. I may watch live, I may not. But I will have people to cheer on, whether they do well or no. I can cheer Jacki Weaver on for Animal Kingdom, applaud John Hawkes for being recognised for his fantastic performance in Winter’s Bone and do a merry jig when Christian Bale, Nolan stalwart and all round great actor, beats him on his first nomination, though he should have had more. I can swear and curse when The Illusionist is no doubt passed up for Best Animation in favour of Toy Story 3, and hope to the Lord God Alice in Wonderland is not enabled in any way shape or form.
I can also hope Nolan gets something out of the night, like screenplay, but unless he has Cobb, Arthur, Eames and the gang incept the voters and plant the very idea in their brains he will be left whistling a mournful dixie. Maybe with news Bane is the latest Batman villain he can make The Dark Knight Rises with Oscar in mind. Batman has his back broken by Bane in the first five minutes, and must struggle against his disability to heartbreaking effect. Maybe then, and only then, will the Academy sit up and take notice of such a fine writer, producer and director, as Mr Christopher Johnathan James Nolan.