an attack on Oscar Bait

By Kaley Bales

How do we value movies? Acting? Actors? Sets? Costumes? Critics? Director? Cinematographer? Soundtrack? Box office? Maybe the poster seemed interesting? A review in the paper? The aggregate score on rotten tomatoes? No, Oscars! I know that’s what you’re thinking. Every year the Oscars are there to tell us what is the best. So it should be very simple, just watch the Oscars, note the winners, cue up your Netflix, and you’re off to movie Heaven! But here’s the thing, only a fool or a masochist would want to sit down and watch the last twenty winners of the best picture Oscars. The winners are generally liberal-minded, do-gooder, sentimental pieces of pseudo drama. While the best films (the ones we like to watch) are not the avant-gardes, not the important, or the noble, but the films that rack up ticket sales like crazy. Popcorn movies! The movies where, at the time of their release, are dismissed as being there just to make a good buck and to entertain the masses. Well it turns out ‘fluff’ is what stands up. Personally I’ve always been a popcorn movie lover–Grease, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone. Are they philosophically deep? Will they help you adjudicate the death penalty? Will they give you the answer to our immigration problems? Will you study them in film school? Not necessarily. But boy if they aren’t entertaining as hell, and entertainment is underrated.

Although popcorn movies are considered disposable, they are actually harder to pull off than serious ones. It takes skill to make something look simple. The act of editing the Home Alone stunts alone is a miracle of practical FX. But you don’t think about it! John Hughes, the producer of Home Alone (and an unsung genius) isn’t about showing off talent, but allowing you to simply experience it. As opposed to watching Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot where you’re constantly saying, “Oh my God, look what he’s doing to perform that role, that takes talent.” Popcorn is about the flow of experience, where Oscar baits forces you to admire it.

I love the Oscar!
Let’s go back to the year 1990–not back to the future, but to the actual past–and take a look at that year’s Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy, and compare it to that year’s box office champ, Home Alone. You will see the difference between lasting art and disposable junk. The only trick is that what you thought was lasting in 1990 is now only a VHS tape in your grandma’s house, and what you thought was junk is revived again and again and again, and is, well, really, art.

Driving Miss Daisy focuses on racism and anti-Semitism in the 1950’s. Or rather it takes these serious subjects and uses them as a crutch to make you think you’re looking at real art. It’s classic Oscar Bait. It’s adapted from a play and that makes it serious, because well the theater is serious. Morgan Freeman is in it and he sounds a lot like God and so you have to take it seriously. It also takes on serious subjects like racism and anti-Semitism. That’s the most important aspect of Oscar Bait: you have to have a serious topic. The problem is that there’s no real purpose to it. We know the South in the 1950’s was a racist and anti-Semitic viper’s pit. What the movie doesn’t do is make us think of racism in our own times. All the problems are conveniently swept under the rug. That makes it perfect Oscar Bait. It’s serious, but it doesn’t place any demands on me.

Does Anyone Remember This Film?
Now let’s take a look at Home Alone, released in 1990 and written by John Hughes (a master of popcorn films). Home Alone is about a kid who gets left, well you know, home alone. The main character Kevin, played by the charming childhood star Macaulay Culkin, runs free in his house, with access to his parents money, all the while fending off the local robbers in a stream of endless physical gags. Home Alone is a kid’s fantasy of freedom. Kevin is free, but not really. He’s only free of his parents and his bully of an older brother. Hughes complicates the idea, though. He shows that Kevin’s freedom is a fantasy freedom and that’s where the robbers come in. And it is here, that Hughes starts to push and pull at our expectations and desires. It may not be John Stuart Mill on freedom, but it’s still complex. And Hughes does this while choreographing some of the most ornate chase scenes since Harold Lloyd in the silent movies.

Home Alone is all about entertaining an audience. It’s essentially an hour and a half of physical comedy and wish fulfillment. But hey, wish fulfillment is easy right? No! Realizing people’s fantasies is a lot harder than you would think. Home Alone is a complex wish fulfillment realized by sight gags and one-liners that are much harder to do than simply being serious. Popcorn movies set up a dream world and make it real, while Oscar winning movies take the real world and turn it into a fantasy.

This is actually difficult to do

Take for example the scene in Home Alone where Kevin is executing his barrage of perfectly timed and planned traps. The timing in every single one of those site gags is impeccable. That takes a lot of editing and cinematographic skill. The gags have a wonderful rhythm as they pile on one after the other in succession. The fact that they are repetitive doesn’t matter, that’s part of the fun, and the slight variations on something we’re expecting and understand. When Harry (Joe Pesti) opens the door to the kitchen and the blowtorch is activated right onto the top of his head, we understand it as the culmination of a series of assaults that only make sense in a world where one gag keeps topping another. That’s the definition of popcorn brilliance and just brilliance in and of itself.

Meanwhile you have one of the most famous scenes in Driving Miss Daisy, where an old Morgan Freeman feeds Thanksgiving pie to an even older Miss Daisy. It’s a quiet scene, an old friend helping another friend, despite the fact that he was her servant. It’s a great scene by itself, but the movie forces too much importance into it. If the movie wasn’t constantly trying to emphasize how important and serious it was, it might actually work. Driving Miss Daisy just gestures at difficulty, while Home Alone makes you experience it.

If you ask someone today ‘Hey would you rather watch Home Alone or Driving Miss Daisy?’ some people are going to be inclined to say, ‘What’s Driving Miss Daisy?’Oscar movies rarely stand the test of time. In fact I had never even heard of three out of the five Oscar nominees for best picture in 1990 before writing this essay. I’m going to put my faith in entertainment

©Kaley Bales and The CCA Arts Review

No comments:

Post a Comment