Monday, November 21, 2011

Doc "Snubs": 2012 Oscars Version

Christopher Campbell of The Documentary Channel's blog said it. S.T. VanAirsdale of movieline said it. Adam Benzine of realscreen has said it; he said Asif Kapadia said it. Ben Kenigsberg for Time Out Chicago said it. Steve Pond for The Wrap said it. [Edit to add] And now Jay Cheel at The Documentary Blog has said it (even though he tries to say he doesn't care). Some of them said hundreds of others said it via Twitter, and I'm sure there are others out there who have said it - THE INTERRUPTERS was snubbed. (Some said others were snubbed, notably SENNA.)

What they didn't say is why or how it was snubbed.

Sure, Campbell tautologically called it a "great film", adding it has "a great message". Benzine cites THE INTERRUPTERS as "highly lauded" while "hold[ing] a 99% 'fresh' rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes". Kenigsberg calls TI "an extraordinary achievement" and that none of the other films on the shortlist "are on the same level [as TI]", adding that TI "features personalities and stories more memorable than any you'd find in 2011's feature films". Pond echoes Benzine stating TI is "one of the most acclaimed docs of 2011 and a film that most observers put at the top of the list for films most likely to be honored by the academy this year".  All to say that writing for documentary is as sorry as documentary critics' opinion of the Documentary Branch Screening Committee, though that isn't my battle.

In addition to the lack of writing in reasoned defense of THE INTERRUPTERS and its kin, there is little to no writing on the process of selection these writers seem so up-in-arms about. A couple of sources cite the 124 films that were in consideration, though I haven't seen mention of what these films might be - aside this handful of "snubbed", "shafted", and otherwise "over-looked". At least one critic notes the Academy's shift in process post-HOOP DREAMS outrage, and another makes the suggestion that an Executive Committee ought to take over the process. From a handful of rudimentary searches online I couldn't find information on the process, so perhaps it is intentionally opaque, but I have to believe there are folks in the doc community that have (insider?) knowledge but just aren't talking. This, too, is not my concern.

I'd rather return us to the critical outrage regarding the snubbings. The claims of snubbing seem situated in two contexts. First, James' HOOP DREAMS was denied a "Best" (non-editing) Oscar in 1995 - he is owed. Second, THE INTERRUPTERS is something "the Academy tends to like". On being owed, it should be obvious that the idea of a Best Anything of the Year award runs entirely counter to "being owed". Of course, the conversation that engages this quantifying endeavor measuring bestness is a fool's game, leading us to the reality that these awards are about what we know they are about - politicized popularity contests. Who is voting, who do they know, what do they owe, what do they get, how hard are various film's teams lobbying, etc. The ugly underbelly of "Oscar-grade" film. If this was merely about some other kind of best, we would find some diversity of product. It's like that guy in that movie with the gambling, right? The question is why do so many want to put their blinders on and make this about what it isn't about? Which gets us to the second point, that THE INTERRUPTERS is the kind of film we expect to see do well at a place like the Oscars.

I'd rather elide that conversation for now and instead open the space to celebrate that even films like THE INTERRUPTERS, INTO THE ABYSS, TABLOID, maybe even NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT (that I call a 2010 film), and (though probably never) THE ARBOR - among countless others - are "the type of films" that we might expect to find embraced by the Oscars, but for whatever reason are saved from that milquetoast abyss of commodified praise, instead praised as snubbed.

To all the films that didn't make the cut.

And to those of you that did, congratulations are, of course, still in order (BUCK, BILL CUNNINGHAM, and PROJECT NIM are three of my favorite films of the year, and I'm sure several that I haven't seen are also very good).

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