So, the other night, The King’s Speech swept the Oscars*. It was a predictable series of events, drawing accusations of the film being ‘Oscar-bait’, and annoying a whole mess of people on my Twitter. But … it is undeniably a film of pedigree, being an ‘important-issues’ period drama with a cast and crew that have paid their dues. More importantly, The King’s Speech has undeniably drawn acclaim across the board.
Meanwhile… “Who is Arcade Fire?” is apparently quite the hot question. They won a Grammy and a couple of Brits a couple of weeks ago, and the backlash to the victory of the likes of King Bieber was enough to birth the aforelinked Tumblr, and to mean that I have been accosted once or twice on my casual, non-pointed, wearing of an Arcade Fire T-shirt. I briefly dismissed the whole backlash-at-backlash as a bit snobbish, frankly; a lot of rockist rubbish. After all, why should a band who, evidently, no-one has heard of win pop-music awards?
The King’s Speech – and this film is used as a not particularly fortunate example, standing in for every awards-flypaper film of my cultural lifetime – is a popular film, yes. It held the top-spot at British cinemas for nearly a month, and has taken something like thirty times its budget. But the story of a struggling stammering monarch from the margins of history… does that really constitute a populist film?
There’s no doomed romance, as far as I can discern (with my admittedly limited knowledge). It doesn’t have battles, explosions, giant robots** or Jason Statham. It doesn’t pile on the dirty gags. It wasn’t released in 3D. It’s not a child-and-adult-alike-friendly animated sequel to one of the most loved film series ever…
Yes, that was a oh-so-cleverly veiled reference to Toy Story 3, there. Pixar finally got themselves a token nod in the proper Best Films list, but no-one ever took their chances seriously. Their computerised doodles shall remain in the box labelled ‘Best Animated Feature’, where they belong. The fact is that Toy Story is the most pop film in the nominees by a million miles. It’s highbrow fare: The Social Network; The Kids Are Alright … okay, Inception is a sci-fi action flick. But it’s an ideas movie, and probably the most brain-on-sleeve ‘intelligent’ film in the whole nominations. My point is, you’re not likely to see Meet The Parents 3: Little Fockers in the nominations any time soon. Good.
I have mixed feelings about the Oscars, as probably shows from my grumbles. But they matter, in a way that no music awards ceremonies really do. Best album/artist/single nominees are largely picked directly from the top-seller lists. The Brits actually ghettoises the ‘Critics’ Choice’ into their category, with a mighty three nominees. This mean there’s little snobbery – no heed is given to what the broadsheet arts sections have to say on the matter, or what albums are being championed on the internet – but equally a lot of the musical spectrum is excluded, and the focus is clear. Unit-shifters, not critical darlings.
This feels like part of a larger picture. With cinema, critics are a large part of the process: people choose what films to see, based at least partly on recommendations and star-ratings. There’s an awareness and profile attained by well-received movies than bands or albums. My non-culture-interested mom has heard of Black Swan; she’s never heard of Radiohead, to pick a similar mix of popular and ‘highbrow’***. It seems like, to generalise, film sales follow reviews, whereas media coverage of music follows sales (the The Kids Are Buying Who? Put ’em On The Cover gambit). Note the prevalence of pull-quotes on film posters and accompanying trailers. Adverts for the Hot New Album, meanwhile, just have whatever Radio1 DJ is doing the voiceover telling us ‘this is an amazing album’, like they’ve been paid to do.
It’s just very strange for two media, which share a similar reputation and place in society, to be treated so very differently. Film is hardly a higher artform than pop music.
…I don’t know. I’m getting up on the old barricades here, ones I’m not entirely comfortable with. I don’t know the ins and outs of either industry, really, and I’m sitting a pretty privileged positions. I’m the guy that reads the reviews, and listens to the podcasts, and has spent the latter half of my life putting myself in the know. And I still know the critical opinion is wrong 33.3****% of the time.
And it could be empowering, placing the power democratically in the hands of the masses, of the consumers who actually pay for this stuff rather than pompous critics.
And while the theory of a potentially empowering musical democracy It seems like, in practice, this potentially ‘democracy’ of music actually depends on a handful of people, those controlling major radio playlisting.
Nevertheless, is it right that winning an Oscar, chosen by an equally narrow number of people, automatically bumps up a film’s reputation and audience? (Not unless it actively deserves to seen by more people, I reckon.) But that platform is there, and it’s potentially useful. That ‘awards bait’ is even a viable tactic is demonstrative of the state of the industry. Word-of-mouth is the only truly democratic tool, and that’s how the best films are sustained, awards and reviews only supporting and confirming this method.
So, I’m not saying the situation surrounding films is perfect; a lot of rubbish still sells very well, and lowest common-denominator values seem to inform what gets made. And I’m ignoring that it’s easier to explain a film with a synopsis and a review, and to explain a song by actually hearing it. I’m ignoring the blog-readers and review followers who do listen based on recommendations. I’m ignoring the opposite, the people who will go and see the film with the highest number on the end as much as they’ll only buy albums from the supermarket. Largely I’m ignoring them because either end is hard to talk about without coming off elitist, and I don’t want to celebrate or sneer at either. I’m not making any claims of universal truth here.
I’m just sharing my observations – and note the amount of ‘I’s in this post, and berate me for bad writing – in the differences of the cultures surrounding the (pop)cultures. I am, admittedly, struggling to restrain myself from propose a world turned upside-down… But wouldn’t you like to see a world where genre and perceived audience doesn’t stop Pixar from steamrolling the Oscars every year, and where Gil Scott-Heron and Sleigh Bells sat alongside My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the Best Album lists?
…I would, but that’s just me.
**More’s the pity.
***Ick I hate that word. This entire post is skirting around that idea, dear readers.
****Recurring. Figure estimated.