A Silverbirdian Approach To The Oscars

“Where have you been all our lives?”

For those keen on movie news, it must be strange that the movies that swept the awards, Hugo and The Artist, between them 10 Oscars, have not been seen shown on the big screen.
For those however with a practical knowledge of movie business, this isn’t news. Since, for a country with a handful of cinemas, it is reasonable that only a few of trending movies will be seen. But surely the front runners should get a spot? Erm…no.
To understand why the answer is in the negative, it is necessary to have an idea of the movies that normally make up the list of nominees. The Academy honours movies that please artistically rather than commercially, of course this art is a subjective concept- frequently critics disagree on the nominees and eventual winners: one of the most consistently acclaimed movies, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane did not receive the Best Picture Oscar. Nonetheless, it is not an unreasonable argument to say that at the very least the top award- Best Picture- is given to a good film, even if not great. Certain times, this good or great film might make a healthy amount of money at the box office, James Cameron’s Titanic for instance, but that is a rarity. These days with dwindling revenue in Hollywood, the sum of the nominees’ earnings are much less than they used to be.
So the reality is that the better movies are not box office giants. In fact, it has been very cynically posited that Hollywood only makes good movies for the Oscars- since America loves glory- or by accident.
Movies are commodities according to this grand scheme and nowhere is that more obvious than in Nigeria where the first home video responsible for the senseless artless boom seen these days was an ingenious way to dispose of blank VHS tapes received by the producer. Sadly, we haven’t gotten very far from that model save perhaps the use of discs rather than cassettes. Marketers now dictate storylines keeping several ‘screenwriters’ on a slim payroll that consists of deadlines shorter than the duration of the film itself.
They should not take all of the blame though; these movies are consumed by the populace and enthusiastically too. For every 1 person who considers the garbage spewed regularly and at short intervals as just that, there are 7 persons keenly awaiting yet another needless ‘sequel’. For that 1 person, Hollywood is the alternative. It isn’t a question of patriotism; it’s rather a craving to be filled. These days Hollywood itself is a fad, the foreign movie lover looks down on the Nollywood lover belittling his tastes and the gulf has widened since the foray of glossy cinemas into the country, there have been cinemas but none remotely near the standard of what we have now as epitomized by the Silverbird group’s Galleria. Hollywood lovers can now combine a cinematic passion with the trappings of a regular outing- the pricey tickets automatically excluding the poor who anyway have their Nollywood dramas.
If we can accept this exclusion as a given, then how come this cinema revival has not made our viewing habits better especially as there is the tendency to associate elitism with finer tastes? Sadly, this association has not permeated the film-viewing industry, which is not same as the film industry. What obtains instead is merely a carrying over of our basest viewing habits unto a huger screen. The only change? Brighter lights, bigger halls.
Which is the partly why several weeks after the movie industry’s biggest night, the significant nominees and winners are yet to get their time on the Silverbird screen. That particular acclaim doesn’t do much for the guys over at the cinemas. What surely tickles them is the allure of an all-star ensemble like the terribly vapid New Year’s Eve, a film almost universally lampooned, but was shown here almost immediately after its premiere in the USA. Meanwhile the very engrossing, and perhaps misleading, Shakespeare biopic, Anonymous, though advertised way before the herald of Eve, will never be shown. In a certain capitalist move where the bottom-line is all that matters, a quick calculation was done and the grand Victorian idea of Anonymous was quickly shelved thereby robbing the public of one of 2011’s better films. The irony is this: 2012, one of the most popular movies screened at the cinemas was made by the same director, Roland Emmerich. But in a world where spectacle is the main consistency, the sober more thoughtful movie is disregarded.
Anonymous did not get nominated for Best Picture though it received a nomination for its use of costume. The following nine movies did:
The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
As stated, spectacle is necessary but if not star a popular face, or two popular faces; which has to be how the least acclaimed of all 9 Best picture Oscar nominees, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with its cloying meddling Alexandre Desplat score and insistence on wringing every last drop from your eye by pushing 9/11 to the fore- even the novel it is based on was accused of taking advantage of the massive American tragedy, waltzed its way into the big screen ahead of the better executed frontrunners. It has two big names on its card- the much beloved Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Following that same formula, the remarkable Moneyball made it to the screen too since it had Brad Pitt on its card. Only The Help made it to the screen on ‘merit’.
The other movies also have a thing or two in their favour- The Artist has had buzz since it was premiered at Cannes where Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein took interest, The Descendants had George Clooney, Hugo had Scorsese, Midnight in Paris had Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, The Tree of Life had Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and War Horse was directed by Steven Spielberg .
But, in a capitalist sense, the ‘drawbacks’ were more important. Only The Descendants had a chance of been shown, and even that is a slow drama with understated comedy not the brash, slapstick kind peddled by Nollywood and most standard Hollywood fare; Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is virtually unwatchable and unfathomable for the individual without a working knowledge of art and literature of the 1920’s and the era’s key artistes, a feature that automatically excludes most Nigerians; Scorsese’s Hugo and eventual Best Picture The Artist are love letters to the cinema and as such will be enjoyed only by the movie buff- the former pays homage to the very beginning of cinema and the latter is a silent movie which is a tribute to the silent movies of yore before the advent of the ‘talkies’. In fact, some audiences in America demanded their money back when they discovered the movie was really silent and in black and white. One can only imagine what the comparatively less cinephilic Nigerian audience will do. A lynching perhaps?
As for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, for reasons bordering on obscurity, it is highly improbable that anyone of his films will ever show in a Nigerian cinema. (There might be a glimmer of hope though, since Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was screened few weeks ago.)
Taken together, the Nigerian cinema has shown only one-third of the 2011’s best. A generous fraction considering other acclaimed movies were also released. Movies like: Beginners- for which Christopher Plummer who was Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music finally won an Oscar in the Supporting category, Drive, Take Shelter, We Need to Talk about Kevin and some others were released.
In fairness, the populace has their share of blame in this, for if they abandon all the brainless blockbusters and reward the few good movies that make it to the big screen with reasonable numbers, then maybe something will give.
This fascination with poor Hollywood movies did not just start. The average Nigerian family places emphasis on violence as the greatest source of spectacle. Or how is it explainable that children raised in the 90’s know more about Steven Seagal and Jean Claude van Damme but less about Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro? And more about Cynthia Rothrock than the Meryl Streep? Even the most acclaimed movie children of the 1980’s are familiar with from their parents is likely to be the violent but great The Godfather? Maybe The Civil War is forever entrenched in that generation’s psyche… So arguably, what has happened is simply a transfer of cinematic experience from the home videos viewed on diminutive screens unto expectations of violence on the big screen- expectations which the cinema is wont to fulfill.
But as the very concept of cinemas is elitist in this climate, the onus is theirs. The argument can be made that it isn’t a cinema’s place to give movie lessons. The response will be, don’t give it, show it! Give a great ‘boring’ movie, a nasty, brutish run but by all means show it. There is a chance that such films will have staying power as word of mouth helps in spreading its ingenuity. The audience should not be continually handed movies as bereft of nutrition as the overpriced popcorn its hand. Junk in hand, junk on screen.
This fixation on instant gratification is unbeknownst to the operators of the cinema, a distraction from what could in the long run become profitable. What stops a cinema from running a succession of Oscar winners during award season thereby encouraging buffs to bring friends in hopes of convincing such a person on a certain film’s merit? For instance, it is almost certain that anyone who has heard of The Artist would be put off by the idea that watching a silent B&W film would be exhilarating, but if it was possible to lure a skeptic to see it courtesy of the sometimes-free popcorn or what other traps available, it is a sure bet that by the close of the movie, said skeptic would be a believer after watching the most cheerful ending of any movie in years. Or take an otherwise educated fellow to see the early Woody Allen movies and not marvel at the man’s scriptwriting genius.
But it is not possible under the capitalist system run by the cinema today. There is even a lesser chance to see foreign films, films that require subtitles; and this prevents the Nigerian audience from seeing some of the finest directors working today. And if the way audiences pack to see the melodramas of Bollywood is anything to go buy, it wouldn’t be a hard sell. One of the most acclaimed pictures of last year was an Iranian drama, A Separation, a movie that would make for excellent viewing in a country like ours. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been making remarkable movies about ordinary people for several years. There are several other great directors working outside of the English language whose movies will connect with the Nigerian audience.
In all art, there is no way to become better if you don’t study the greats. And by refusing to show truly great movies, the Nigerian Cinema fails the young filmmaker who can’t dream significant dreams when fed the scraps from Hollywood’s table. These malnourished directors who will never see the work of true auteurs then produce garbage for the populace and the cycle begins again.
In all of this, it is cinema enthusiasts – a group made up of the movie buff, the critic, and the filmmaker- that suffers: it is absolutely possible they would never see the great movies. Cinemas won’t show it; satellite television schedules are not entirely convenient; the genuine DVDs are hard to come by; Alaba boys, every bit as capitalist as the cinemas, will not pirate such- it was easier to obtain pirated copies of great films when the piracy gig was still run by Asians who in retrospect appear to have had a good grasp of both popcorn cinema and quality cinema. Already those with a practical knowledge of the movie business, whom by nature or by some unusual nurture have a palate for great cinema, having recognized the Silverbirdian approach fails especially during award season, have opted for the only route available these days: the online route.
True, the online route is mostly illegal; but maybe cinematic survival (and by extension, artistic survival) in a land of pervasive philistinism even from the ‘elite’ should be allowed to play by its own rules.