Sunday, March 15, 2009

And the Losers Are... (#2: Shorts, Documentaries, and Animations)

Curiously, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not choose to present any award for Best Feature Length Film. Or for Best-Live Action Film (i.e. non-animated). Or for Best Narrative Film Based Upon a Screenplay. Why? Because it's pretty much taken for granted that the film that wins Best Picture must necessarily be a feature length, live-action narrative fiction film. Any film that does not posses these characteristics is instead labeled as "special", which of course really means not special enough to be the best film of the year. Handing out awards in these special categories allows the Academy to pretend like it cares about film diversity, but the Hollywood elite who run the Oscars are actually more concerned with manipulating viewers into believing that the major studios' stale, overwrought dramas are categorically superior to films produced outside of the Hollywood power structure.

To date, there has never been a short, animated, or documentary film to win Best Picture. Short films are relegated to their own categories, with separate divisions existing for live-action, documentary, and animated shorts. This all contributes to one the Oscars' great unspoken messages: short films are not as good as their feature-length counterparts. There's no good reason to blindly assume that any film running under 60 minutes must necessarily be inferior quality to a film that is over an hour long. However, for Academy voters, this is a golden nugget of truth, and this bias speaks volumes about the Academy's business-based values. Feature-length films generate immense profits, whereas shorts are neglected by the major studios and tend to find find receptive audiences only at specialized film festivals. The profitability of longer films therefore confirms their "greatness", while short films are seen as junior projects made by silly people who foolishly care about things other than making millions of dollars. The Academy places these films to a separate category, claiming that doing so honors up and coming filmmakers. In reality, however, these categories exist for the Academy to belittle filmmakers who choose to work outside of the Hollywood business paradigm.

This relegation of short films ties into another unrelenting trend that has developed in Oscar voting: length bias. Most Best Picture nominees extend well beyond the 2 hour mark, which effectively broadcasts the message that "epic length" is the same as "epic quality". In fact, no Best Picture winner from the past two decades has dipped below 110 minutes, and films running over 150 minutes have made off with the top prize eight times during the same period. Ironically, this trend cuts against one of the greatest strengths of traditional Hollywood storytelling, as rewarding "epic" pictures often favors bloated, poorly edited films over those crafted with narrative conciseness.

The Academy likewise marginalizes animated films, labeling them as specialty kiddy projects that have little to do with serious cinema. Disney's Beauty and the Beast was lucky enough to secure a Best Picture nomination in 1991, but it remains the only animated film to make it this far. To add insult to injury, no animated film has ever received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, Best Editing, or any of the acting awards (for that matter, no voice-over artist has ever been thus honored). The Academy's 2001 introduction of an award for Best Animated Feature seems to have more firmly pushed this door closed, as the creation of a specialty category sends a strong message to voters that animated films should not be confused with Best Picture caliber films. After all, cartoons are for kids and therefore cannot be taken seriously. How else to explain the fact that no film rated higher than PG has ever won Best Animated Feature, while no film rated higher than PG-13 has ever even been nominated?

Even animated films which have received commercial and critical acclaim (two things the Academy loves), as well as artistic and academic praise (two things the Academy pretends to care about) seem to have zero chance of breaking into the Best Picture bracket. Such was the case of Spirited Away and The Incredibles, both of which claimed the Animated Feature prize but weren't allowed to compete against quickly forgotten Best Pictures like Chicago and Million Dollar Baby. It would appear that the bias against animated films has become so strong that even popular, prominent, and financially lucrative films remain segregated from the Academy's high profile awards.

And documentaries are just shit out of luck, relegated to the "otherness" of the Oscar's two doc categories. No documentary film has ever received a nomination for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, or Best Screenplay (and yes, many documentaries do have screenplays or their equivalents). In fact, no documentary film has ever been nominated in any non-documentary specific category, suggesting that somehow documentaries are less thoughtfully or painstakingly constructed than their fictive cousins.

This slap in the face is perhaps strongest felt by documentary editors, whose work remains perpetually under-appreciated by the Academy. Hollywood has long refused to view editing as a creative position on par with directing or writing, as top studio bosses seem to naively believe that editors simply glue all the necessary pieces of a film together in the right order. Nothing could be further from the truth, though this is especially true in the world of documentary filmmaking. Whereas editors working in narrative fiction have the benefit of working from a carefully planned screenplay, documentary editors typically find themselves without any such guides and must must wade through hundreds of hours of footage to construct their scenes. Doc editors nonetheless receive neither technical nor creative recognition for their work. To make matters worse, the films that snag the Best Editing Oscar each year are invariably big-budget, detail-oriented Hollywood productions in which the editor is handed such meticulously shot scenes that he or she can be asleep at the wheel and still produce an entirely watchable cut. It is in this way that the industry's hardest working editors lose out every year to those who have little need to imbue their work with innovation or creativity.

By relegating short, animated, and documentary films to separate categories and denying them access to the high profile awards, the Academy essentially declares that these films are necessarily inferior to feature-length, live-action, narrative fiction films. This is hardly surprising, seeing as the Academy is made up of powerful Hollywood insiders, most of whom have never worked outside the world of "major motion pictures", and who therefore have a vested interest in deifying over-produced big-budget epics while backhandedly tearing down any other film format that might threaten their control over the entertainment industry.


Tesla said...

Amen brother!
Ps. this is a fucking essay!

Atom Yades said...

An essay that I should have proofread before posting at 2 in the morning!

And I'm just getting started, too! I will attempt to make my future posts less essay-ish and more readable by employing colorful pictures and zany charts and diagrams.