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Art and the Oscars

admin on January 18, 2011 - 10:54 pm in Christian Living, Faith & Culture, Movie Reviews, Movies, Parenting, Tough Questions

Art and the Oscars

By Stacey Tuttle

On January 25, 2011 the final nominations will be announced to the public.  One month and 2 days later, on February 27, 2011 millions upon millions of viewers in over 200 countries around the world will tune in to watch the 83rd Academy Awards, aka the Oscars. 

According to Wikipedia, “The Academy Award (informally known as the Oscar) is an accolade by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to recognize excellence of professionals in the film industry, including directors, actors, and writers. The formal ceremony at which the awards are presented is one of the most prominent award ceremonies in the world….  It is also the oldest award ceremony in the media.”[1]

It’s a prestigious award, an old tradition, a competition of sorts, and it’s focused on movies and movie stars – it’s no wonder we are so fascinated by it!  The months preceding the Awards finds a large population of movie goers rushing out to see the movies which are or may be nominated.  The months after the Awards finds another large population of movie goers rushing out to see “What’s the big deal?” about the winning films they haven’t yet seen. 

Why do we want to see the award-winning films?  Because we, the general population, are told by the powers that be, the movers and shakers of the film world, that these certain movies are the best of the best.  But I wonder, as I look at some of the nominations from year to year, the best of the best at what?   Most of the categories appear pretty objective—the best editing, the best score, the best acting – but others are more obviously subjective, a matter of opinion.  For instance, what makes a film worthy of being nominated for “Best Picture”?  By what standards do we judge “best”? 

As the buzz builds about Oscar contenders and possible nominations, I think this is an important question, a question which bears careful consideration.  Is “best” a matter of science or a matter of art?  There is an obvious difference between the two, but as we look at the categories of Oscar nominations we find that the distinction is not always as clear-cut as we might expect.

For example, if we are looking at Best Editing, it would appear to be an objective, technical judgment.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  Editing affects the mood and even the message of a movie, which begins to be more of an subjective, artistic judgment, and less of a scientific judgment.  The same film could be edited with equal expertise by two different people such that the technical merit was truly equivalent.  Thus, from a technical standpoint, both could equally merit the “best” award.  But the overall tone and message of the film could be significantly altered by the two editors resulting in two essentially different films.  So how do we decide which get’s the award for “best editing”? 

This is an artistic decision, but it begs the question:  what makes good art?  We may agree on what makes certain technical aspects superior, but technical aspects being equal, what makes good art good

Furthermore, I think we need to ask if it is possible for a movie (or any piece of art) to have exquisite technical execution but  still ultimately fail as a piece of true art. 

There is a world of viewers out there who have never considered what makes something good art.  Societally, when it comes to movies, we allow AMPAS to dictate to us what is good art (or at least worthy of Oscar nominations), based on their perspectives and their preferences.  I am not saying that this is good or bad, per say.  What I’m saying is that I question how we can judge the value of their perspective at all until we define the terms.  Before we can judge if someone else’s artistic judgment is sound, before we can even form our own judgment, we must be able to answer the question of what makes good art, “good”.

Maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you just like what you like and you don’t care what the critics say about it.  But I ask you, how many people will go see, for example, Black Swan because of its Oscar nominations—people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise? 

To be clear, I’m talking about the artistic value of it, the thing which goes beyond technical execution.  Value.  It’s an interesting word to start with as we think this through.  Artistic value implies that art has value, or worth.  Not monetary value necessarily, but intrinsic value (which we often measure in monetary terms). 

I have done some research on definitions for “art”.  Trying to define art is a bit like trying to nail jello to the wall.  It seems like the best we can do is to find some guiding principles.  For example, art should be beautiful (generally at least, if not always) – but as beauty as largely in the eye of the beholder, it is a principle that is hard to define and quantify.   Another principle is that art should be “of more than ordinary significance.”[2]   Again, the interpretation and application of that principle is tricky.  The list goes on, but you get the idea.

The same year that Shakespeare in Love won 7 Oscars (1999), I read a book which changed the way I evaluated art.  The Eyes of the World, written in 1914 by Harold Bell Wright[3], follows a young painter trying to make his mark on the world with his art.  Mentored by a famous author, the young man had to make a choice between creating art that would make him famous versus creating art that would be truly good, but likely ruin his chances for popularity.  It’s a great story and I won’t ruin it by explaining why the choice he faced was so polar, why he couldn’t choose to paint that which would both make him famous and satisfy his conscience, but I do want to highlight two of the guiding principles for art in that book which significantly impacted the way I evaluate which movies are good and which are not. 

I think these two principles are incredibly valuable to us not only as humans, but even more so as Christians as they are very much in line with Biblical principles.  According to Harold Bell Wright’s novel, art should either reveal truth or inspire viewers to something greater.  Furthermore, he vehemently speaks out against any art which simply appeals to base passions. 

Reveal truth, and/or inspire to something greater.  Those are some pretty simple concepts, but for me they were revolutionary.  When Shakespeare in Love was being touted as great art that year, I had an entirely different set of lenses with which to see it.  And again, this year when the likes of The Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech, and The Fighter (etc.) are competing for the titles of “best” in movie art, I find those principles greatly affect the merit I would assign to the films. 

 What if there was a contest for sculpting poop…human excrement?  There are undoubtedly some who would talk about the merits of ingenuity and being able to create something from what others consider waste.  There are some who would tout it as great art that someone created a technically masterful sculpture from poop.  I’m sure it wouldn’t be the easiest medium to work with, which would surely win an artist acclaim for their skills in working with something so challenging…and smelly and icky.  But at the end of the day it’s still just poop.  No matter how cleverly sculpted, how masterfully camouflaged, nor how beautifully painted…it’s still waste, excrement, poop.  What is the value in making it seem lovely?  It isn’t lovely.  It’s waste.  Wouldn’t all that artistic talent be better spent making something truly beautiful or useful?

When a film simply appeals to base passions, no matter how masterfully or how beautifully, isn’t it a little like painting poop at that point?       

I mentioned that Wright’s qualifications for great art were significant for us as Christians.  The Bible has some guidelines for the kinds of things we ought to think about.  Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  Surely this is applicable to what we watch as well.  What if movie makers took this verse to heart and attempted to create movies which actually help us think about things that were true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent and/or praiseworthy?  What if we really did strive to fill our heads with those kinds of things, what kind of a difference would that make to our lives? What if an entire society lived like that, what kind of result would that have?

But I know some of you are thinking that all of life isn’t happy endings.  You’re right.  Some of life is messy and ugly…MUCH of life is messy and ugly.  While some of that might be minimized if we took Philippians 4:8 to heart, there still remains pain, suffering and disaster.  Some of it just is, like the recent horrific mud slides in Brazil.  Some of it is a result of sin, like The Fighter shows with Dickie’s crack addiction. 

I still remember my high school choir teacher, Norma Browning, editing a few lyrics to a musical we were performing.  Her explanation seemed rather profound to me.  She said, “I don’t mind showing sin on stage, so long as we show the effects of it.”  She went on to explain that these lyrics were making light of sin (sex outside of marriage in this case, if you must know). [4]  This kind of brings us back to sculpting poop.  I’m not at all of the opinion that sin should never be shown.  But, I am of the opinion that sin should be shown for what it is.  It should not be glorified nor should its consequences be omitted. 

I was recently in a meeting with some people in the film industry and a friend of mine, Gayle Kakac, reminded us that the Bible gives a stout, frankly a frightening caution about causing others to sin.  In Luke 17:2, Jesus says it would be better “to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around [your] neck” than to cause someone to sin.  Filmmakers wield quite a power.  Their works can either lead people into sin (by making it look appealing and free of consequence) or help keep them from it (by revealing it for what it really is).  Glorifying sin almost inevitably leads others to do it. 

I think our world is constantly taking what is poop and painting it up so that it looks appealing to us.  Just look at our fascination with celebrities for an example.  We are so focused on, even enamored with, the external – their exciting, fun, easy, beautiful and glamorous lives—that we fail to see the character and the reality of their lives.   I’m not saying all celebrities are poop.  I’m saying that we rarely look beneath the exterior sheen to see what the sculpture (or the life) is really made of. 

False art tells us that what the sculpture is made of is irrelevant – the only thing that matters is how prettily its constructed.  Or, in movie terms, false art says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”[5].  True art, however, reveals the man behind the curtain.  It shows the poop for what it really is.  But it doesn’t just stop there. 

Another great teacher of mine, David Johnson, once said that it isn’t enough to know what you are against.  That’s not a specific enough target.  You have to know what you are for.  There are those “whistle blower” types who simply want to take the curtain off of everything.  They simply want to reveal and expose.  They are against everything and for nothing.  This isn’t enough.

It’s true; a true artist’s job is to help us look beyond the sheen.  But the point of revealing that the lovely sculpture is just poop after all is that, after taking the golden paint off the poop, you can then be directed to what is true gold. 

If the man behind the curtain isn’t who we thought he was, then the job of art is not only to reveal that, but to point us to something greater, something more worthy of our attention.  If we as a society have been enamored with shallow ideals and mediocrity, then shouldn’t movies (at least movies that we herald as great art) help inspire us to things that are truly excellent, noble and praiseworthy?  Certainly there are some, maybe even many. 

On a side note, this does rather raise the point that we need Christians in the business of film making.  How can a film maker truly point us to that which is most true lest he knows the Truth?  Non Christians may make for great whistle blowers. They may be fantastic at removing the curtains to reveal the man behind the wizard, but they are limited in their ability to point us to higher, nobler truths if they have rejected the Highest Nobility, that author of truth Himself. 

 So, with a few guiding principles for determining great art, I want to make a couple brief comments about a few of this year’s likely Oscar nominees. 

The Black Swan.  I am frankly mortified to admit that I have seen it.  I would like to spare you all this mistake.  But as I have, I will admit that I can see the technical genius of it.  The imagery, the metaphor, the sense of irony, the lighting, the score, etc…  it’s masterfully done.  But, to what effect?  The movie is pornographic (though there is no nudity to be precise, I have never in my life been so exposed nor so uncomfortable…it was the most sexual movie I have ever seen).  It’s also dark and creepy in a way that I can’t shake or erase.  It is haunting.  All of that I might have forgiven (to some extent) had there been a purpose to it.  If, for example, it was revealing the nature of the child sex trade, such a haunting lingering effect might be merited, even valuable.  Especially if it was done in a way that motivated people to act against such a great evil.  But it seems to me that in Black Swan it does so for the pure joy of doing so.  It is meant to appeal to the darkness, not to reveal it.  As I said, I frankly admired some of the genius that was involved in the creation of the film, but in the end, underneath all the technical genius, I was left with the feeling that I had just eaten a bunch of beautifully prepared poop.  And it made me sick.

The King’s Speech and The Fighter.  Two totally different films, yet in a way, the latter was sort of a red neck, white trash version of the former.  Both are true stories.  Both are stories of overcoming and of making a difference in the world, of doing something truly great with your life.  The King’s Speech is “nicer” in many ways.  You have British royalty who largely acted with decorum and dignity.  The people in The Fighter however are about as opposite to British royalty as you can get…think Jerry Springer.  You can decide for yourselves, but in my opinion, both movies did a fantastic job of revealing truth and taking some of the veneer off of the poop.  In one we see some of the struggles of British royalty and the expectations and responsibilities which hound them.  In the other we see the effects of crack addiction and of lives with great potential that are wasted.  But, we aren’t just left with poop revealed.  In both we are given something greater.  We are shown that lives can have purpose.  We are shown that people can overcome—they can best their own demons and overcome their differences with each other.  And ultimately, both films tell the story of men whose perseverance and character make a difference in the world. 

Now, I don’t know enough about film making to know whether these movies were as technically brilliant as Black Swan.  But if I do know that watching those movies inspired me to be a better person, while the Black Swan had a decidedly corrupting effect on me.  I don’t know how things will be awarded this year, though I suspect Black Swan may have a banner year.  But for me, I cannot consider any film “best” or even call it good art at all whose effect is so negative and corrupting.  

Questions for Discussion:

  • How would you define art?
  • Do you think Philippians 4:8 has applications to the art world, or do you think that’s irrelevant to art?  (Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”)
  • Do you think it is appropriate to ever show sin?  Or do you think Norma Browning made a good distinction, that sin (and its consequences) should be shown for what it is and not glorified?
  • Which is more captivating to you, a person who knows all that they are against, or a person who knows what they are for?  Which more closely defines you?
  • What do you think of H.B. Wright’s qualifications for good art:  that it reveal truth and/or inspire to something greater?
  • How would applying those two principles to the movies you watch affect your evaluation of them?
  • Do you think the Academy Awards ought to be evaluating technical merit only, or should the overall effect of the film itself be taken into consideration?

 


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/art

[3] You can find used copies on Ebay or purchase a reprint on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Eyes-World-Novel-Classic-Reprint/dp/1451000073/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1295029971&sr=8-1-spell OR, read for free on Google books at: http://books.google.com/books?id=DFowAAAAIAAJ&dq=harold+bell+wright,+eyes+of+the+world&printsec=frontcover&output=reader

[4] This was a private Christian school, Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, TX.  I doubt in a public high school she could have said such a thing to us.  Incidentally, I love my school and am forever indebted to the impact Trinity and its teachers have had on my life and my spiritual formation.

[5] That’s a Wizard of Oz reference, in case you missed it.

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