Saturday, March 19, 2016

Oscars Buzzed. I'd Like to Thank the Academy... No Wait, the Opposite of That...

The closest thing I have to a religion is movies. I don't adhere to any systems of spirituality because, frankly, there isn't a single one that is based on even the tiniest shred of verifiable evidence. That isn't to say I don't experience moments of transcendence or embrace cultural systems that do; I'm just a lot more honest about it than a lot of people. I find cultural instances of transcendence in the written word, video games, and mostly movies. I'm not sure why I developed such an affinity for movies. Perhaps part of it based on the fact that out of all forms of media, movies most closely reflect the way that human beings process the world around us. The point is that award shows are the closest thing I have to a High Holy Days, and I have completely abandoned even the pretense of observing them.

I wish the Oscars actually mattered, but it seems like the organizers do everything in their power to turn potential adherents away. Aside from the fact that the Oscars are boring as shit, the whole voting process is a giant clusterfuck. Right now it's a political system, which means it's based mostly on popularity and marketing campaigns and money. Which is fine if that's the system they want to employ. It's just that the results from one year to the next aren't comparable on any meaningful level, and so the outcome doesn't really hold a lot of value. Which wouldn't be so bad, if the Oscars didn't have the pretense of providing some meaningful metric. They're a popularity contest posing as a meritocracy, and it's that gap between what they are and what they purport themselves to be that's the problem.

Right now, they just send around a list of films and people nominated under each category, but they don't provide any criteria with which to evaluate the films. A series of interviews by the Hollywood Reporter gives a bit of insight into the (a-hem) thought process that goes into voting. What's the difference between sound mixing and sound editing? Members don't know the difference; what's more, nobody's tried to educate them about the difference. Perhaps the most telling quote from the voters interviewed is this:

I don't know the difference between the two. Nobody does. I just vote for the movie in the category that I liked the best.

Eeny, meeny, miny, best picture.
And I'll give you Paul Anka's guarantee (guarantee void in Tennessee) that this is indicative of larger systemic issues. A bunch of people are just voting on what they "liked the best." There is some sound reasoning, but there's also a lot of bullshit from not voting for an actor for not liking the movie itself or not agreeing with the historical interpretation of the character to flat out just not having seen all of the nominated films. I know that art is subjective, but the Oscars are supposed to represent recognition of professionals achieving a standard of excellence within a certain field. Imagine if safety awards for companies were handed out in the same method as the Oscars: a bunch of people voting for whichever companies they "liked the best." If you were to look at that, you'd call bullshit. And you'd be right.

Awards for safety are typically handed out based on the number of total recordable incidents, i.e., injuries or deaths, with the lower numbers being better. But if you want an award to be quantitatively meaningful, then you're going to have to establish criteria to evaluate the relative quality/excellence of a thing, and for that you need an effective, consistent evaluative matrix. I know that awards handed out to corporations for health and safety a little bit different from the Oscars. It's a lot easier to qualify whether somebody died on a job site than whether seeing Tom Hardy's Tom Johnson contributes to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the human condition (although I think most of us would agree that it does).

Art is a lot more subjective, or that is to say, people's evaluation of art is a lot more subjective. Can you put a number on a feeling? The short answer is "Yes." But that's not what we're talking about. The whole point is that if the Oscars are going to try to represent themselves as some kind of benchmark, they need to establish what that benchmark is. The problem with the current Oscar voting process is the same as expressing a "feeling:" people lack to tools to properly articulate and evaluate their responses.

From what we've seen from countless exposés, I don't think that it would be a stretch to say that the vast majority aren't well-informed about the subtleties of the technical components of filmmaking and that they aren't in any sort of place to adequately articulate their voting choices. Also, what criteria are being used to evaluate films for nomination? Without the application of standard criteria there's no accountability. Which is fine to put on a show and have an excuse for people in an industry to get together and party, and I assume have massive orgies of sex and drugs with Jack Nicholson. But it provides no value in establishing a baseline of quality or excellence, which is what, at least some people involved, want it to be.

I vote, I die, I vote again.
Maybe the issue is just a disparity in the language: instead of "Best Picture" maybe something more vague like "Outstanding Achievement in Film" or "Notable Achievement in Filmmaking." Also, it would probably be a lot better to break the "best anything" categories down into genres. Best comedy, drama, action, sci-fi, etc. I mean, how can you reasonably compare such vastly different films as Spotlight, which dealt with the team of investigative journalists who broke the story of widespread sexual abuse and the covering up thereof in the Catholic Church, and Mad Max:Fury Road, which dealt with an action-packed, two-hour-long chase scene through a post-apocalyptic Australian hellscape? Or Alien and Apocalypse Now? (Hypothetical, since Alien wasn't even nominated?! That's some zombie bullshit right there.) Both are great films, but you can't reasonably compare them using the same criteria for narrative and character development.

Right now, the Oscars are just a dressed up People's Choice Awards. Richer people, but still. If we want the Oscars to count for something, the first thing they need to do is establish hard criteria so that people have to justify their evaluation of each film. Then they need to establish who is able to evaluate what films in what category. Could you imagine your English teacher being responsible for marking your calculus final exam? Not teaching you calculus or being in any way involved, just at the last minute have someone with comparatively little knowledge about the subject matter being asked to provide any sort of meaningful evaluation? How would you feel if you were marked based on what that teacher "liked the best." (Though, in all fairness, we've probably all been at the whim of a dipshit teacher or two in our academic careers, but my point still stands!)

What the hell does an actor know about sound editing? Or for that matter, what the hell does a sound editor know about the nuances of an effective acting performance? Some would say that there's no accounting for taste. But there could be an accounting if there were some common criteria. There's always some subjectivity when expressing preference for something, but it's a lot more quantifiable than people think.

For me, an award should be bestowed based on an evaluation and analysis of the degree to which participants in a certain category measured up using common metrics and consistently applied criteria. Basically some kind of rubric or matrix. Take an "award," break down the 5 to 10 most significant criteria, and develop a rating system for each as well as a list of specific, explicit justifications for each rating. Which I understand is more difficult and involved than simple voting, but they need to take this kind of approach if they're going to claim any sort of legitimacy to the award show beyond it being an industry circle-jerk--which is fine if that's what it is. But it's consistently claiming to be some kind of benchmark of excellence, and that's what the issue is.

To demonstrate, I will take a cue from John Oliver and employ the universal linguistic standard: dicks. There are big dicks and short dicks and hairy dicks and less hairy dicks. Everybody is free to enjoy the dicks of their choosing. There's no real way to objectively quantify which dick is best (apologies to Ron Jeremy). Any rubric of the "best dick" is going to be arbitrary--as all meaning is. The only way that an award for "Best Dick" is to have any significance is in relation to a set of criteria: for example, metrics based on length, girth, hair, ejaculate production, colouration, etc. Now, everybody everywhere may not agree on the final dick picked based on the criteria, or even the criteria themselves (i.e., the (assumed) preference of big dicks to small dicks) but the final results will be meaningful because the parameters were clearly defined. So you can quantifiably say that a certain dick is the Best Dick based on how well it met these specific and clearly defined criteria in this specific context.

Where's the "vibrate"
button on this thing?
That's not to definitively say that the Best Dick is objectively the best dick, but the best dick based on these evaluative processes. It's about defining the terms. Currently, all we have to go on is some vague sense of "best." But if they had a McClean's-style breakdown of best dicks like how they do it with universities, it would at least have meaning within a certain context as opposed to the no meaning that it currently has. And people would still be free to enjoy whatever dicks they prefer, and argue for their merits even though those merits might not meet with the specific criteria set out by the Acadickmy Awards.

I'm not saying that we should stop handing out giant, gold dildos in recognition of filmmaking achievements. All I'm saying is that if we also want the Oscars to double as both an excuse to distribute incredibly expensive sex toys and a meritocratic token of achievement and get people invested in this thing again, the system has to overhauled drastically. If we can put in as much thought into the Oscars as we can into our own dicks, they might just have a shot.


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