Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Awards Chatter - 2019 Edition!

When I was a young boy my parents bought me a big hardcover book about cinema for my birthday, which traced the art form from silent film through to the 90s. The book had lots of glossy pictures of Hollywood and European cinema stars, segments for each year about who had won the major festival awards and Oscars, and little sections on the main releases, scandals or developments of any particular year. In the pre-IMDb years, before I had seen any, really, of these films, I looked at photos of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, or read about the release of Last Tango In Paris or the early days of the Venice film festival, and was semi-obsessed with the whole shebang. I acted in a couple of films on time off from school, and was generally fascinated with the world of cinema - with the smell of a film set, with the gossip, the posters, the galas and prizes. Growing up in France and reading Premiere magazine, I thought I was a sophisticated cinephile by seeing Clerks or La Haine.

Now, when I am so incomprehensibly blessed as to write, occasionally, for the Guardian or for Sight & Sound about cinema; when I look at my life and consider that I make however menial a living out of watching films and thinking about them - I simply cannot believe my charmed existence. It doesn't get you many paid gigs to say in public that you'd have done it for free - but for many, many years I essentially did, writing about films I'd seen, on my blog, for nine people and no pounds; or covering Cannes for my dear friends at Pajiba, without whom I would never have done anything, simply for the unspeakable pleasure it gave me, knowing they had no money and not caring. This is because cinema means the world to me - and that lure, in different forms, extends to millions of people around the world. The cinema itself is the experience I myself come back to - being in the room and feeling that hallowed hush as the lights go down; a close-up on a beautiful, smiling face, and the heave of emotion it can raise through your ribcage; a soft lament of a closing credits sequence when you turn to your mother, both of your faces streaming with tears. This extended, when I was a teenager, to premieres and awards shows, and all the resulting glitter and glam: Gong Li on the red carpet in Cannes; Johnny Depp arriving somewhere or other with Winona Ryder; the legend set in stone of Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his Oscar in his stead.

All this to say that I still have a romantic view of 'the movies' in my head, and my decision to write about film - to try to be a film journalist - stems from a love; a love that I see matched by all my colleagues. That love is essential to write about film properly, in order to convey, as well as possible, the thrill of a great movie and the spell it can cast. But, because cinema is an industry too; because it is founded on glamour - that word again, where sex and money do a dance - it can be difficult to hold cinema to account, and to look at it for what it is. You can only see something fully if you take a step back, and at the moment it seems clear to me that too many people's noses are pressed up against the window for them to see the building.

I sometimes feel as a film writer who tries to have an ethical code for writing about cinema - someone who occasionally will speak out, about some of the issues of the day - that I am seen as either a stick-in-the-mud, or a belligerent upstart, some kind of half-moon-glasses-wearing ranter. The truth is that I think a lot of the film industry is too cosy (and of course, this should go without saying, too white, too male, too straight, too middle-aged, too posh). The web of connections between people writing for the main publications and the people that they write about is too obvious and knotty for there to be the requisite critical outlook on artists, or for publications to take a severe stance on creators who abuse their position. Money connects everyone, and film companies throw a fine party. PR companies send a lovely basket. The schmooze is real - and no schmooze can be greater than 'awards season', a bizarre, wholly confected time of year where some of the big names get to drench each other in wine, ostensibly while celebrating film as an art form.

But awards only get you so far, and pointing out the deficiencies of the Oscars is like shooting Crash in a barrel. It has been a commonplace for a while now that the Academy Awards are kind of trash:  preceded by the far more overtly trash Golden Globes, they get it wrong probably more often than they get it right, although the occasional instance of something half-decent landing a little gold man manages to muddy the waters sufficiently. Moonlight is a great film, which helps you overlook the awards for more ropey fare or the fact that, in the year of Moonlight's triumph, a man accused of sexual abuse (Casey Affleck) won best actor and a film by another man accused of abuse (Mel Gibson) won two more awards, while female directors won nothing.

It can be exhausting to go on about this, so here is a weary reminder of the facts. Those of us who talk about this are chronically fed up of saying it, so please forgive a dry tone as I work through the same old dispiriting figures. (The conclusions I draw from them become more severe with each passing year, however, so stick around.) There have only ever been five nominations for a female director in the Best Director category at the Oscars in nearly 90 years: those women are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig. One win. There have only ever been five black directors nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and none before 1991: those directors are John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele. No wins. Please note that 'black' and 'female' do not intersect once for a nomination, as Ava DuVernay, director of the Best Picture nominee Selma will know only too well. Until Gerwig and Peele's nominations last year, the same number of men accused of abusing women (four: Bertolucci, Allen, Polanski and Gibson) had won Best Director awards.

This year looks set to lead to the same embarrassments and disgraces, since Bohemian Rhapsody by Bryan Singer has somehow become a prime Oscar contender in the wake of its unforgivable Golden Globe award and its disgusting nomination, this morning, for a BAFTA, at the expense of any film by someone who doesn't stand accused of raping adolescents. Say it again, and say it loud: it isn't being a killjoy, or misunderstanding the film industry, to decry again and again - as many times as is needed - the way the film industry continues to celebrate people who use their position to sexually abuse others. I have tried to write enough articles about the allegations against Bryan Singer, which have ended up on the scrap-heap or unrecognisably defanged, to know how litigious he is; and the writers of the oft-mooted tell-all Esquire article about him, which is still nowhere to be seen several months after it emerged it was in the works, will probably have far more to say on the subject. But the wheels are coming off. Two days ago, the actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted: "So we just..we are all still supposed to be pretending we dont know about Bryan Singer? Cause it worked out really well with and ." That tweet still hasn't been taken down, which it would have been by now in years gone by - plenty of accusers have quickly come and gone, such as the actor Noah Galvin, who said in an interview a few years back: "Bryan Singer likes to invite little boys over to his pool and diddle them in the fucking dark of night" and then made a swift, not-at-all legally compelled retraction a few days later. To be clear, the allegations against Singer aren't a secret: they're there on his Wikipedia page, and you can read a fine breakdown of them on Indiewire by googling that.

Hand in hand with this vile kowtowing to powerful men - let's not forget how Harvey Weinstein ruled the Oscars, year after year, while hiding in plain sight as a sex-attacker, under the guise of being, simply, an amusingly legendary bully - come routine, by now unremarkable acts of discrimination against women and minorities. And it must be repeated, again and again because this stuff does not fucking sink in somehow with awards-drunk film-heads and industry bloggers, that these things are a part of the same disease. It isn't a coincidence that Debra Granik, Lynne Ramsay, Marielle Heller, Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, Chloe Zhao and Alice Rohrwacher, to name a few off the top of my head, made critically acclaimed and award-winning films that came out this year and that none of them, probably, will be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Women make considerably fewer films than men - but it isn't even a question of tokenism anymore to talk about rewarding them to the same tune, not when the resources are there to make up a whole, perfectly shiny Best Director category without any men in it. The journalist Kayleigh Donaldson said it best today, with this tweet: "If nothing else, this awards season has given me further proof that the industry hates women directors. Nothing they do will ever be good enough because hey, the Dumb & Dumber guy made Driving Miss Daisy!" (This is in reference to the widely derided Green Book by Peter Farrelly)

Discriminating against women and minorities is merely the natural by-product of caping for powerful white men, and a direct result of this is that men will feel confirmed in their ability to continue as before. At a time when people are fond of talking about #MeToo destroying men's careers, it's quite notable how many abusers are out there and working perfectly contentedly, two years into the movement. Celebrating these men gives them opportunities; employing them gives them money and power; supporting their work gets them more gigs. You don't have to want an artist's work to die out to realise that directly subsidising their power to abuse and contributing to their ability to buy people's silence is probably, let's say, a bit tacky these days; a little gauche.

But the film industry doesn't learn, and I am becoming disheartened at how much there is out there to fight, and at how few people I see using the terrific power vested in them by their public platforms to speak out. This week a fairly consequential figure in the industry said in a trade paper that the best way to deal with Bryan Singer is to ignore him. We have to be so clear that the people holding these stances are part of the disease that horrifies those of us who love film and want it to get better, and that by their silence they collude, however unconsciously, in acts of abuse. The revolution that is so needed in cinema, which is badly reported in our media, and which doesn't just apply to celebrities naming other celebrities as oppressors but which touches people at all levels of the industry, right down to (and perhaps especially) cleaners and blue-collar workers; this revolution will involve unseating those who abet abusers by looking away. Critics and industry writers must get more tough, cast off any partiality they may have, and talk about the disease. Mention the rot, every single time you get a gig - there isn't an aspect of the film industry untainted by it. This means staying vigilant, informing yourself about the personal ethics of actors and industry figures, and trusting in principles to guide you; it may even involve missing out on some opportunities and lovely things.

We can't keep having a conversation about awards shows if we don't talk about the problem staring us in the face. I don't want to think about who is going to win Best Screenplay when someone who allegedly drugged and assaulted a teenager is nominated for Best British Film. Enough. Enough. The clearing out of the cupboards has barely begun, and it won't be pretty anymore maybe, not like it was before when we didn't spoil the party by saying anything. It will not be easy and lovely perhaps; it may involve wrangling and kvetching. But this is the only way ahead, when the thing we love so dearly is ailing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"There have only ever been five nominations for a female director in the Best Director category at the Oscars in nearly 90 years: those women are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig. No wins."

Bigelow won. Still embarrassing.