To many people, worldwide, the American Academy Awards is the most important and prestigious event of its kind. Important? No question… an Academy Award is worth a small fortune, before and after taxes. Prestigious? Define prestigious.
As a media event, the awards ceremony (and its internet fellow-travelers) is one of the largest of any kind in the world, though this year’s viewership dropped considerably. Why? Depends upon whom you ask. Too long for antzy tv and internet viewers, not enough glamor, too little ‘gods-of-olympus’ mystique, a thoroughly prevailing loss of innocence. Above all, it was thoroughly boring, uninteresting, unrewarding for a four-hour sit-through. All effect, bland content. But that’s not new… it’s been soda without fizz for many years.
The script this year was much more inane than usual. The structure of the show wandered. Perhaps it had to do with the ‘actor-presenters’ delivering their lines. Perhaps it had to do with the touted effort to attract a growing, younger audience by focusing on growing, younger references, words and ‘ha-has’. Boredom comes in all shapes, sizes and ages.
The supposed brouhaha about the absence of diversity in nominations, about the cloister of 60-something white folk who dominate the academy's voting membership, was just that... a brew-ho-ho, more than likely launched by a publicity cabal to ring the cash register faster. It fit right in, you know. Printed right below the "Hollywood" sign on the hill, in small, smiling letters is the maxin: "Any publicity is good publicity."
The Academy Awards was instituted in Hollywood during the so-called ‘golden’ studio era of the 1930’s and 40’s. It began as an insular, self-contained sit-down dinner ceremony for Hollywood people to honor themselves followed by post-event publicity and marketing. It became a natural for television as a live, unedited event. It grew in scope and impact and of course, it began to make much money… which is, after all, the pump that makes the Hollywood carousel go ‘round.
What was also particularly revealing in this year’s broadcast were the presentations of the presenters. From the host to the mélange of film-actors, there was a monotone—a steady delivery of unsyncopated timing and vocal mumble. American film actors don’t speak very well off-camera. Many are at least consistent, they don’t speak well on-camera either. And what was so apparent as one watched and listened to them, one after another, is that this is a generation of actors who are not performers (other than the host)—sans experience with live audiences, sans experience with live theatre, sans an awareness of who they are, where they are, and what it is they are doing. They ‘twitter’ and there’s nothing more mind-numbing than four hours of ‘twittering’.
And I listened with amazement to the music, to Lady Gaga (I'm agag at her name!) who like Madonna and Kanye West believes she can sing songbook songs with wandering pitch and 4by4 phrasing. She can't.
And the nominated films? Tell me the difference between Boyhood and the yawning of reality television.
So it is, every so often, as now, I must light the candle, ring the bell, but never close the book. It is time for me to remember the life, the work and the art of Stanley Kubrick. In today's tsunami of massing media, of disposable here-today-gone-tomorrow filmmaking, of mobile phone video (‘it’s a movie isn’t it?’)… I reach for the artistry and vision of Kubrick as a haven in the flood.
Consider the stunning discoveries of the Toba cataclysm, 73,000 years ago when our human species was reduced to less than 1000 individuals, a third of whom were female—an almost extinction of the species—and in that revelation, examine 2001: A Space Odyssey.
He died nearly sixteen years ago, quietly in his sleep after shipping his final cut to his distributor. He created only 16 films for distribution and there will never be another film by Stanley Kubrick. As each year goes by, more and more people realize what film artists have known since the 1960’s... he was and remains singular among the handful of unique filmmakers in the 20th century. As one director mused: "I look at the history of cinema and I see it divided into before Kubrick and after Kubrick." He transformed the role of music from a mood and emotion heightening component to the role of a character in a film. He created photography and its love of lighting beyond the eye of any other filmmaker. He made production and costume design a signature of each frame. His sense of editing cannot be taught. He was singular and in that he influenced the few important filmmakers that surrounded him.
So few films? It doesn’t matter. It may have taken him 4 to 8 years to create a work, but each film encompasses more beauty than most directors could achieve in a lifetime. And each of his films becomes a new film with each new viewing.
The high mark list begins with:
Paths of Glory
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
2001: A Space Odyssey
A Clockwork Orange
Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shut
There is much to say about these films. Each was released to a critical uproar. Some were wildly popular and delivered huge returns at the box office. None of them ever lost money. One of them still sits alone as a cinematic work of art and a popular movie. 2001 is not a science-fiction film, or a drama, or a documentary... it’s in a genre of its own, a quantum vision of the future and its roots. The design and technical achievements of this film still stand alone today.
Kubrick was also unique in that he had complete control of his films right down to their distribution, and advertising. He had a remarkable relationship with one of the hardest-nosed, profit-driven studios inHollywood, Warner Bros. Throughout his life and career, he looked to them as if they were a Renaissance patron and that’s how they treated him. He got whatever he wanted. He was their one Master — for which they wanted recognition. He was also a profitable one. Like Picasso, he showed how art and success and money mix – by living and breathing it 24 hours a day.
It’s bad that he’s gone. It’s good that he lived. His envious critics are forgotten as all critics are. His imitators are disposible and ignored. In today’s empowered lowest-common denominator where everyone is an artist, where the art and artifacts of cinema are merchandised and made matter-of-fact in a maelstrom of technology and voyeurism and youtubeability... his work remains an irresistible, unmitigated treasure.
No master filmmakers have yet emerged in this century. Of the three most likely: Ridley Scott has given up the ghost and mired himself in an end-of-career frenzy; Christopher Nolan sadly, uncharacteristically kissed the golden blarney-stone and blew away his expected masterpiece, Interstellar, with uncontrolled acting, a flaccid script, and a mustering of every visual effect from his vast visual workshop. But then... there's still