Film Fund-amentals: Night of Contradictions

It isn’t often that the Academy Awards bring to mind the quotations of Mao Zedong, but by 10 pm last Sunday I was busy hunting for my copy of The Little Red Book. I felt the need to re-read Section Four on “The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.” Let’s face it, the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony was a weird bundle of contradictions among the people, the industry, the art and (as usual) just plain common sense.

Oh sure, in many ways it was the normal run of lame jokes, gaudy fashion, public ego wanking and pointless statements (barely redeemed by Quentin Tarantino’s plastered impersonation of Bill the Cat. Ironically, it was rounded out with a long interpretive dance performance that raised the question: when does an interpretive dance require an interpreter to interpret whatever the heck the interpretive dance was about?

But there was something else going on with the Academy Awards show. Something poorly defined and barely whispered but definitely floating in the air. Just a hint, maybe, that the Hollywood industry is turning sideways, topsy-turvy and inside out, and that they are still unclear as to what exactly is that strange rumbling sound somewhere around the next corner. Maybe it was the ever-increasing sense of an enormous gap between an aging old guard (almost all of whom were new guards just a brief decade ago) and a young pack of newbies who may, or may not, have any reason for (or interest in) being there. Perhaps it was the brief flashes of racial and sexual conflict (weirdly summed up by the “Kanye West” moment at the Documentary Award presentation). Or could it be the degree to which the 82nd Academy Awards were starting to look like a mainstream version of the Spirit Awards for Independent Filmmaking?

This oddity really hit me when Tyler Perry stepped out on stage as a presenter. Here’s a guy who works totally out of Atlanta making low-budget movies that make an enormous profit from an audience that is largely ignored by Hollywood, while driving the studio suits nuts trying to figure out how he does it (I guess, maybe, by making movies his audience likes). And they want him out there because more of the TV audience is going to know who he is than know that Dame, Helen Mirren. By the way, Perry really drives studio honchos nuts because his movies, proportionally speaking, make more money than any Hollywood studio movie. Like I said, he drives the suits right up the wall.

Which also reminds me of how the whole awards show is bought and paid for by the same studio executives who just last year told independent cinema to drop dead — the same whiz kids who want people to pay big bucks at the box office to wear funky glasses and watch ridiculously expensive movies in 3D. The whole concept of the Academy Awards is to celebrate the shrewd brains of Hollywood who once thought Ben Affleck was going to be a major leading man, and who now think Gilligan’s Island will make for a hot motion picture.

No wonder I’m still looking for my copy of The Little Red Book. OK, the Maoist influence on cinema is actually pretty meager. A few extremely boring abstract films by Jean-Luc Godard and the old Chinese production of The Red Detachment of Women, a Cultural Revolution period opera that strangely resembles an old MGM musical (though performed with AK-47s). But whatever Mao didn’t know about movies, he certainly knew about contradictions, and the current state of Hollywood is a prime example.

So The Hurt Locker (budget: $11 million) becomes this year’s most honored film, closely followed by Precious (budget: $10 million). Meanwhile, funding for such small-budget movies is rapidly vanishing. The night’s biggest loser, Avatar (budget: are you kidding? After the first $400 million nobody was counting), is exactly the model of what every Hollywood studio is currently anxious to produce. In their pursuit of this model, most studios are facing financial problems and are cutting back on production, which in turn means they’re losing product and becoming less competitive in the market.

The contradictions continue. One of the few reasons for having the dang Oscars is the boost the nomination process gives to the films selected. But that didn’t happen this time. Of the ten movies nominated, at least five were either in second run or available only on DVD. In turn, the theatrical distribution process for small-budget movies is being gutted as many movie theaters creep toward “special event” presentations. Which also creates another odd contradiction, since the movie has to have had some theatrical play during the year in order to qualify for an Oscar, while at the same time, the increasingly harsh conditions of the distribution business are forcing many small-budget films toward alternative, non-theatrical distribution strategies.

The list is long and we have barely begun. Life is full of contradictions, and Hollywood is most certainly full of something. Every crucial issue that the film industry is currently facing was carefully avoided during the show. Yet the issues were right there, staring us in the face for more than three hours. No wonder the show began looking a bit like a bizarre funeral, minus the body.

And by the way, what was the deal with all the table lamps in the set design? The stage looked like a fancy display at Wal-Mart.

Oops, more contradictions. And I still can’t find my copy of that book.