Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Award shows are the anti-art

What is it about an artist's work that makes it superior to another artist's work?

Is it the amount of time and effort a director pours into his project, evidenced by lost weight and grey hair?

Is it the level of research a designer does into a time period and the amount of fine detail?

Is it the complete transformation an actor makes into her role?

Is it critical acclaim, the amount of enthusiasm with which thumbs were raised?

Or is it the bottom line: box-office receipts?

Well, it's Oscar season, and my fellow performing artists are going to be staying up past their bedtimes tonight, giddy with anticipation and wondering which of this year's uber-politically-correct-films-that-most-Americans-didn't-see will win. As for me, I'll be sleeping when Brokeback Mountain wins its big award, or possibly reading old issues of Thunderbolts while listening to Dream Theater.

Why all this vitriol, or at least disinterest? Because artistic award shows offend me as an artist. That's right, I said "offend," a word I don't use very often, but which I throw down here with no hesitation.

Art is not sports. There's no "winner." In fact, it's pretty obnoxious to say someone's art is "better" or "worse" than someone else's at all, much less claiming their work to be "the best." (For the record, Pat's the best.™) Different artists make different choices, they have different agendas, and they have different tools to work with. Is the The Garden of Delights better than the Last Supper? Is Rodin's Burghers of Calais superior to Michaelengelo's David? They're all trying to accomplish different ends through different means, and presuming to deduce which is the "best" is absurd at best and profoundly arrogant at worst. Every artistic endeavor is inherently different from every other one, and there is precious little objective "quality" to be described.

Even if there was an objective standard by which individual art could be defined, it would be impossible to separate performances from their context. Every effective acting performance I've ever seen has been the result of an ensemble of other committed actors, most have been made possible by a sophisticated script, all have been profoundly influenced by a strong director's crafting, and most have been assisted by the environment of setting, costume, and makeup. I'm looking at you, Sean Astin in Return of the King. At least the SAG Awards have a "Best Ensemble" award. Contrarily, how many fine actors (Natalie Portman) have been hung out to dry by directors for whom the acting is a low storytelling priority (George Lucas)? The Golden Globes and Academy Awards seem to think you can take the elements of filmmaking and separate them from each other like a scientist dissecting a dead rat to see what killed it. "And the Oscar for Best Spleen goes to..." Every performing-artistic endeavor is the result of collaboration and environment, and cannot be separated from its context for individual judgment.

This is all, of course, ignoring the biggest problem with the Oscars, and with almost all awards shows: the means by which awards are given. Who are the members of the Academy to be determining whether or not someone's art is successful, much less superior? The film wasn't made for them, it was made for the audience. All art is made for the audience, and only the audience has a right to judge its merits. Did the funny movie make you laugh? Did the tragic movie make you cry? Did the musical make you leave the cinema humming? Did the sci-fi-extravaganza make your kid beg for action figures and playsets? Then it was a success. At least the People's Choice Awards have the right people voting, and use the word "Favorite" on their honors.

The Oscars are unbelievably disingenuous: artists voting on which artists are the best, then charging millions of dollars for corporations to advertise in the middle of this mass-back-patting intellectual superiority festival while hyping it up for millions of audience members to watch. Hey, at least the audience got a little taste of the transaction at the back end there.

This year's Oscars are among the worst in recent memory. Not a single film up for Best Picture of the Year is even sniffing the upper eschelon of box office receipts for the year. Many of this year's nominees only played in large markets, where the most intellectually enlightened urbanites half-filled the art houses where they were screened. Not that this is easy to discover; the studios are very close-vested about releasing the numbers for several of these films. Hollywood doesn't want anyone knowing that Brokeback Mountain isn't the massive commercial crossover hit the Today show makes you think it is.

As a final note, how much money was spent on that dress? How many people could that money have fed today? Can we please take all this Entertainment Tonight / People Magazine attention and put it someplace that actually benefits someone who isn't already a millionaire?

Here are the movies from the past couple years that really moved me, that made me smile and feel warm, that made me cry, that made me angry, that lifted my heart: The Lord of the Rings, Napoleon Dynamite, Amelie, Spider-Man 2, The Road to Perdition, Sin City, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom of the Opera, The New World, Garden State, The Incredibles, Seabiscuit. Of these, my current favorites are probably Amelie, which made me laugh and cry with delight, Spider-Man 2, which was the most moving film I saw in all of 2004, Napoleon Dynamite, which restored my faith in youth, and The Lord of the Rings, which is without a doubt my favorite movie ever.

Yes, I know The Return of the King won 11 Oscars. But I wasn't watching. And I won't be watching this year.

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  • At 3/08/2006 3:52 PM , Blogger Wayne Conners said...

    Andrew, while I agree with your assessment of award shows, I watch them anyway. Why? Simple. I like the musical numbers, the host usually makes me laugh, and I’m a sucker for those silly montages of movies past and present (the film noir montage made me want to run right out and rent The Big Sleep). For the longest time I didn’t watch the Grammys because I felt it was all about popularity, not quality. Which it is. What changed my mind? I don’t really know, but I think I just reached a point in my life where I took it for what it is instead of what I wanted it to be, and if it entertains me in some way, why not? Is that hypocrisy? Maybe. I was kind of put off by the thinly-veiled messages to “Watch movies in the theatre, it’s better than at home.” I know that. I think it’s good to watch movies in both places. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post. Good start to your blog, though I had to create a blogger account to post this, which I think means I have a blog now...

  • At 3/13/2006 10:16 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I would LOVE to read a Wayne Conners blog.

    That's what inspired me to finally start this thing: I needed to respond to a blog about "Othello."

    The only Oscar moment I really enjoyed was after the massive self-congratulatory montage of social-awareness clips, when Jon Stewart said something along the lines of "And none of these issues was ever a problem again."

    Soon after, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" won Best Song, one of the musicians thanked Jesus, and I went to bed with a stack of comic books.

  • At 3/15/2006 8:20 AM , Blogger peter hamm said...

    I agree, and then I don't. For instance, the oscar this year went to "Crash" which I thought was a decent effort by actors doing a decent job in an ensemble cast with a screenplay that was all agenda and no character. It was so ridiculously preachy (like Traffic a few years ago) that I expected a phone number for donations to some anti-racism group. It just wasn't best picture material.

    The grammys on the other hand, awarded the best album of the year to an album I consider to be one of the best I've ever heard, "how to dismantle an atomic bomb" (Best line ever from a u2 song... "freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby's head"). So at least THEY got it right.

    But dude, there are quality issues. "Dark Side of the Moon" is a way better album than "The Man Who Ate The Plant" isn't it... And come on... "Out of Africa" is WAY better than "They Saved Hitler's Brain".

    There's good and bad,so there oughtta be awards for it.

    btw, Ange, you are a theater professional. How can "Citizen Kane" NOT be on your list of favorite movies?

    Anyway Peter has to go now. He has to get ready to go to work and stop posting on Ange's cool new blog. (uh oh, third person again... I think he's cracking...)

  • At 3/15/2006 2:17 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Just so you know, Pete: I have the power to delete your posts with the push of a button. So don't tick me off.


    I'm actually trying very hard to avoid using "quality" descriptions for art these days in favor of descriptive language. Music, in particular, is such an incredibly pure and eclectic art. Sometimes I want to be taken on a journey with Yes, sometimes I want to bang my head to Dream Theater, sometimes I want to tap my feet to Bruce Cockburn, and sometimes I want to jump around to Reggie and the Full Effect. Are any of them inherently "better" than the others? I'm not sure.

    That said, "Revolver" is a better album than, say, 2 Live Crew's "Banned in the U.S.A." I can't explain it, but we all know it's true.

  • At 10/30/2006 4:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


    But if you really think the Oscars have anything to do with who's the best, you've clearly never worked in the film and television industry...


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