Thursday, February 24, 2005

Chasing Oscar, part 2

I've been meaning to write more about the Academy Award nominations since they were announced, but other topics rose to the top of the blogging list. So with the Oscars show coming up this Sunday, I'd better get to it. (Hopefully, you enjoyed posts about chic toilets rather than my trip to see Finding Neverland and my intentions to see Hotel Rwanda.)

But something that's really been bugging me is the belly-aching over a couple of the Best Picture nominees. For instance, an article in last Sunday's New York Times focused on the criticism Sideways has been receiving from alcohol treatment therapists and counselors. Yes, really. Apparently, some of these professionals think the film glosses over the fact that Paul Giamatti's character (Miles) is an alcoholic and casts his subsequent behavior in an acceptable (and comedic) light.

I don't know about you guys, but in the movie I saw, Miles is indeed portrayed as having a drinking problem, someone who drowns his sorrows - sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously - in pinot noir. If audiences choose not to acknowledge that part of the story, it's not the filmmakers' fault. And to say they had a responsibility to show the consequences of alcoholism not only implies an agenda where one doesn't exist, but also completely misunderstands how storytelling works. Alexander Payne didn't set out to make that movie. If people like Polly McCall, a therapist quoted in the Times article, want to see that kind of film, that kind of story, they should make one themselves.

The same applies to the disapproval recently thrown at Million Dollar Baby because of choices made by the two main characters toward the end of the film. I hesitate to say exactly what the debate is about, since it gives away a key story point that I think people should see for themselves and I don't want to ruin the movie for anyone. (Go see it, for #@$%'s sake!)

Part of the complaint, by the way, is directed at film critics. Some people think they should tell audiences what happens in the story so that audiences know what to expect and can choose whether or not to see it. I would think anyone who loves and respects film - and I assume that includes most film reviewers - would prefer not to spoil a movie for audiences and ruin the effect that a filmmaker was trying to accomplish. The job of a film critic is to review a film on its artistic merits, not make moral judgments for audiences. If a critic chooses to reveal what happens in a film to warn people who might be offended, then that's a decision he or she can make. But a critic isn't under an obligation to pass along such information.

Here's what Roger Ebert has to say on the subject. Tim Rutten feels differently in the Los Angeles Times.

But back to the debate over the film's morality: Certain advocacy groups and right-wing commentators say that the decision made by Clint Eastwood's character amounts to an endorsement of that action by the filmmakers. Does a political agenda have to be attached to everything?

If a story depicts a character doing something that people might disagree with, it doesn't mean the storyteller supports that particular action or philosophy. The story involves what that character would do, not necessarily what the reader or viewer would do. Writers and filmmakers (the good ones, anyway) try to create believable characters and build narratives around them that make sense. And I'll argue that a good story might compel audiences to disagree with what they're seeing or reading. It should put a question in your mind after you're done with the experience.

I'm going to make a shameless plea for comments today. If you've made it through this whole rant (and thank you for reading, if you did), I'd really like to know what you think - even if this is something you don't really care about. (If you do, here's another essay by Jim Emerson.) You don't need a Blogger account to leave a comment, and though I'd prefer you do, you don't have to leave your name either. Thank you.

Okay - Oscar predictions tomorrow! Who's having an Oscar party?