There’s an interesting debate brewing on Twitter over whether Avatar was robbed for Best Picture. Frankly I was surprised Hurt Locker had won. While critics had eventually forecast it would take the prize, I had put my money on Avatar, only for industry/political reasons. That said, I’m delighted Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, which spent too much money on creating lifelike blue people and not enough on script doctors.
A growing faction is claiming Avatar was cheated. /Film editor Peter Sciretta tweeted the first salvo: “The Hurt Locker will be this generation’s How Green Was My Valley” … and it began!
John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley beat out nine films for Best Picture in 1942, one of which was Citizen Kane, obviously now considered the greatest film of all time (or at least the greatest American film). We can debate it, but it’s pretty safe to say Kane has had more staying power.
Sciretta’s argument, which has a great deal of legitimacy, is that we will remember Avatar but not The Hurt Locker. Avatar, the argument goes, created a truly new and stupendous experience, whereas The Hurt Locker is just a good film.
Perhaps. Time will tell. I can’t imagine us forgetting Avatar. Let’s be real: it’s made a ton of money. It’s big. It’s 3D. This is not really an issue of remembering and forgetting.
The Oscars are about moments, specific, and fleeting, moments in history. Hurt Locker was the right film for this year. Not only because of Kathryn Bigelow (first womanhood and all) but also because it created a different kind of war movie, one which toes the line between valorization and criticism, which intimately shows the confusion and tension of fighting a 21st century war in an urban Middle East landscape, using 20th century American tactics — a war, by the way, which by 2010 Americans have forgotten is still being waged.
Avatar is about the contemporary world too, but in the worst way: it’s poorly written, full of half-drawn and stereotypical characters; its treatment of political issues is pat, to be kind; its depiction of native people is woefully unimaginative; it begs to be read as important simply because it dramatizes important issues, not because it portrays them with sophistication. We might remember Avatar, especially as we continue to deplete the Earth’s resources (as if a 5-year old couldn’t spot that trend?), but I’m not sure we’ll see it as art in the way we do Citizen Kane. Actually, I’m sure we won’t. Did Avatar create a different kind of sci-fi epic? No. Its themes, its narrative conventions, its ideology and even, yes, its visuals are almost textbook; its innovation lies almost entirely on technical mastery, which is not to downplay its value in film history.
Getting to the point: We should remember that as much hype as the Oscars generate, they are not really focused on establishing any film canon. The Academy does an okay job of honoring actors generally (though not always for their best performances), and directors too (white manhood aside), but Best Picture winners do not always produce classics. Scanning the top winners from 2000-2010, none of them make my personal list of the most significant films of the decade, with the possible exception of Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not sure if either The Hurt Locker or Avatar qualify, to be honest.
The Oscars are really about industry insiders weighing many, many competing claims to the award: negotiating the complicated politics of which directors/actors/producers/below-the-line workers have won before, have never won, need to win, have campaigned properly, have campaigned unconventionally; in addition to which films are timely, which may be timeless, which other films have won recently, which kinds of films have never won; how much each film costs, how much each film grossed, how the critics feel, how the guilds/associations feel, which films will help the broadcast’s ratings, which films will help perceptions of the Academy, and on and on. After considering all of that, which voter can honestly take historical relevance or significance into account? It’s simply too abstract, and we can’t tell the future anyway. How else can you explain Driving Miss Daisy winning over The Color Purple? Or Crash over Brokeback Mountain?
“It isn’t the public who votes, it’s the public who cheers,” Academy president Tom Sherak told the New York Times, referring to the ceremony’s function as entertainment. As for the awards themselves, Mr. Sherak said: “I think the Academy voters did what they do. You and I might disagree with one thing or another. But they did what they needed to do.” (The Times article has some great information about the makeup of the Academy in general, which skews increasingly indie/foreign).
That being said, The Hurt Locker will certainly stand on its own, if only as a particularly skilled reinvention of the war movie. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if Avatar can shake its at times dreadful script and the Dances With Wolves/Pocahontas/District 9/Heart of Darkness meme. Once again, time will tell. But I doubt you could mashup Hurt Locker with any other film quite as easily as you can with the clearly derivative Avatar:
Like Lawrence of Arabia, Avatar has already earned its place in film’s technical history, the kind of mastery, paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars, that created new and enticing visual pleasures. This much is obvious. But there’s something to be said for creating an equally engrossing and doubly innovative experience for less than 1/10 the budget. When you get down to it, this is really why The Hurt Locker won.