On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming

With rampant talk of the Oscars being too pale and too male, people forget another overwhelming bias: too jingoistic.

Though its headquarters are smack-dab in Beverly Hills, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was first pitched by MGM’s Louis Mayer in 1927, he intended for it to be the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But within four months of its founding, “International” was dropped from the name.

Sure, foreign films are honored in their own category, and foreign actors/creatives regularly creep in across the board. (Among thioscardirectors year’s best director pool, in fact, only two contenders are American, and the smart money is on Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.) But a separate, mystery panel is required to adjudicate the foreign film categories, an upfront admission the AMPAS membership lacks a worldview.

Most films worldwide are produced in India — in 2014, it certified about three times the number of movies than were made in the USA, 1,966 vs. 707 — but only three Indian movies have ever been nominated for Academy Awards in the foreign-film category: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001). None was awarded the Oscar. Granted, awards are based on quality not quantity, but how many films aren’t considered because they are beyond the AMPAS panels’ comfort zones or ken?

America holds a movie monopoly.

For roughly a decade, I’ve tracked nominees and winners in the 24 top categories and noticed a serious U.S. bias in an area that should scream inclusiveness: the wonderful world of shorts.

AMPAS’ creed is to advance moviemaking, and this is where it happens. Shorts are the gateway for the have-nots to gain notice, funding and skill. So how’s that working out for foreigners hoping to network?

ANIMATED SHORTS

Sixty-four percent of all Oscar winners have been U.S. entries, including last year’s 3-D Feast, a Disney/Pixar production. Even the non-American animated shorts bow in some way to the States, such as France’s Logorama (2009), which pokes fun of U.S. culture — or lack thereof. The most recent ‘toon winner in a language other than English was 1999’s The Old Man and the Sea — a Russia-Canada-Japan collaboration based on an American classic novel — still in the America-centric judges’ wheelhouse. Another 17% of the winners hail from Canada or the United Kingdom or a collaboration between the two. It’s a filter that doesn’t make us look good.

(You can read about my prediction/pick for this year’s animated shorts here.)

But enough about politics. This is art, not politics. *skeptically cocked eyebrow

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

My Prediction: “Day One” (USA)

day-one-directed-by-henry-hughes.47.36-PM

This follows the first day on the job for a female Muslim interpreter joining U.S. soldiers on a mission to interview a bombmaker in a remote Afghan village. Despite slick production and fine acting, it offends. Opening with the fetching Layla Alizada nude in the camp’s makeshift shower — realizing she has also gotten her period, what a bummer!— suddenly a buff soldier is undressing outside to use it next, unaware there’s a woman in there. Oooooh, titillation. Later, of course, on the 6-mile trek she has to pee, while men stand guard, and she can’t keep up with the boys and nearly passes out. What, is this Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Oh, and of course the crisis involves a complicated pregnancy. While dramatic and gripping, it’s billed as challenging gender and cultural norms but plays right into them. U-S-A! U-S-A! zzzzzzzzzzzz.

ITS EDGE: Heavy industry backing in the way of George Lucas, AFI and marketing up the wazoo. Not to mention the whole military industrial complex. AND it’s slick, did I say? Then there’s the issue that its unoriginal title could easily be confused on the ballot with a popular iPad journaling app, a domestic abuse non-profit or any number of previous TV movies or low-budget films, something porn-ish. Capitalize on name recognition much? Plus they save it until last in the cinema bundle. Who decides the order? It’s like So You Think You Can Dance, the contestant with the most votes or best routine finishes the night.

My Pick: “Stutterer” (Ireland)

Stutterer+Oscars+2016+Benjamin+Cleary_1.1.7Enchanting, beautiful film that shows the comfort and value of online relationships. Matthew Needham plays an earnest loner who would be a hipster if not for his debilitating stutter. He is dependent on his dad to navigate the day, while narrating a lovely alternate universe in his head. When the woman he has been Facebook-chatting up for six months suddenly arrives in town and requests a meeting, he finds himself at a crossroads. With all the heavy topics this year in every category, this film is a breath of fresh air. And, of course, the litmus test: This is the one I would share with my adult daughters.

Also-rans:

  • “Ave Maria” (France/Germany/Palestine) — A Jewish family has an implausible accident at a nunnery in Palestine. They beseech the coven of virgin Marys to help them get back to the settlement. A bit goofy, soap opera-ish and tinged with anti-Semitism, it’s my least favorite of the bunch, even though there were several good laughs (the pickle! the phone!). Refreshing treatment of the Middle East conflict, but felt as if it was shot in just one day.
  • “Shok” (Kosovo/United Kingdom) — Kite Runner in Kosovo. Told mostly in flashback, this is a horrific, powerful story of the death of a friendship amid war (“shok” means friend), and how two adolescent boys are forced to face evil head-on. A true shock awaits that will lurch you in your seat. The only downside is it relies on structural clichés.
  • “Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)” (Germany/Austria) — Love, love, love this one. Simon Schwarz is brilliant as a father who decides he wants custody of his daughter. He’s like a Louis C.K. without the humor. The way the plot unfolds is like a master class in acting. So tense and suspenseful. Such complicated emotions, and the little girl is fabulous, too. I would have chosen this one, if Stutterer hadn’t charmed the pants off me. Something about the order in which the shorts are bundled is extremely manipulative. I’d be thrilled, though, if this won.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

Prediction & Pick: Last Day of Freedom

Because my favorite D.C. venue to watch the documentary shorts has permanently closed, I could find only two of the nominees On Demand. Sorta like flipping a coin, but this one stood out. It’s topical, about our broken justice system, but is a blend of documentary and animated short. An interview with the brother of a death row inmate is illustrated in lovely pencil drawings. Its novelty alone should carry it to gold. I wanted to watch it again as soon as I was done.

Also-ran:

chau-beyond-the-lines

  • Chau, beyond the Lines — [Ed: That lowercase “b” is cq.] A guilt trip to Vietnam. Chau is an institutionalized teen boy afflicted with deformities caused by American use of Agent Orange. He also happens to dream of being an artist and fashion designer, even though he must draw with his foot or mouth. Stirring, but it feels a little like a 60 Minutes segment and reminded me of Inocente, the winner a few years back about the homeless girl who also wanted to become an artist.

Oscar shorts: Like a box of chocolates

What will be missing on Oscar night is suspense. Not like M. Night Shayamalanaboomchuckawam suspense. I’m referring to the inevitability of a sweep by “The Artist.”

Oh, I liked the movie well enough. But, face it, it’s a) foreign (‘cept John Goodman, yay) and b) gimmicky. It sometimes feels as if Best Picture nominees are chosen based on how well Billy Crystal can spoof them for his opener. Guaranteed there will be B&W, silence, toilet humor, cross-dressing, fitting keys in locks (both “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Hugo”), Hawaiian shirts (both “The Descendants” and “Rango”) and possibly a trained Jack Russell terrier.

And how many more “homages” does the movie industry need?

If you’re gonna elect a valentine for Best Picture, go with “Hugo.” It covers even more film history than “The Artist” — from 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon” to today’s cutting-edge 3-D technology. Oops, did I say “elect”?

These studios mount Oscar campaigns to rival politicians’. The Frenchies have been stumping ever since Cannes last May for their trifle of a film. And Oscars night has gotten as anti-climactic as a typical presidential election. Can’t believe I’m pining for a Bush-Gore scenario or this year’s GOP race, with contenders hop-scotching to the finish line.

I’d hoped that when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the nominee pool from five to 10 (or, in this case, nine*SEE NOTE), it would ensure suspense. Instead, the talk-show-awards-show momentum of “The Artist” and “The Help” sealed their deals. I likely wouldn’t have seen either without a nomination; after all the hoopla, I had to drag myself to both. The Academy’s true motive in adding  nominees wasn’t to recognize more art but to sell more tickets.

*(In case you’re wondering why there are only nine and not 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rule this year, ergo: “The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5% of the total votes cast.”)

I like seeing movies without advance team or fanfare, shunning reviews — sometimes even trailers — until after-the-fact. That’s why I recommend “the shorts,” the Buddy Roemers of the year. They revive the ol’ sport of it. Practically no one has seen or lobbied for them; they’re like Forrest Gump’s chocolate sampler, you never know what you’re gonna get. Lest you think they’re not important, I’m sure they count big time in your Oscar pool, they constitute three categories! Plus the brains and talent behind the shorts are the filmmakers of tomorrow — often still in film school.

Assuming you have short attention spans, here’s your cheat sheet:

Documentary shorts

I saw these with my pal Patricia Kime in a theater with a full-service bar. And they didn’t show us “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” although we may have had our own sighting. ‘Nuff said.

It’s pretty intense to see a series of doc shorts, each with its own agenda, and mostly grim tales. But, because the story of James Armstrong was sheerly uplifting and expertly crafted, I’ll go with …

PREDICTION & PICK: “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement” (hands down)

Speaking of and in election year, if the Barber doesn’t inspire you to vote, vote, vote, early and often, nothing could. Hallelujiah! Also-rans:

    • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. This is a close contender, because who isn’t mesmerized by the images of Japan during and after the March 11 quake-tsunami tragedy? Despite the beautiful buffer of endless poetic images of cherry blossoms, it needed editing. Did Terrence Malick direct this? (I mean, there are a LOT of blossom close-ups.)
    • Saving Face. A Pakistani-American plastic surgeon journeys to his homeland to bring women who are victims of acid attacks back to life. Heart-wrenching, but I kinda resent its corny title.
    • Incident in New Baghdad. One-sided, single-sourced, anti-war soliloquy. Doesn’t stand a chance.

Live-action shorts

PREDICTION & PICK: “Time Freak” (hands down)

    • Time Freak. I’ll bet the farm on this 11-minute treasure about a geek who invents a time machine but, rather than travel to ancient Rome, obsesses over ironing out awkward social situations. You know, how you wish you’d thought of that great comeback sooner? It made me LOL.
    • The Shore. Interestingly, several shorts dealt with time and reconciliation. Northern Ireland’s luscious offering was about a man returning to the Emerald Isle with his grown American daughter to make peace with his best friend and jilted lover.
    • Tuba Atlantic. A Norwegian man learns he has only six days to live and wants to communicate with his brother in America, with whom he hasn’t spoken in 30 years. An blonde apprentice “death angel” ushers him through grief’s stages. If there weren’t so many seagull murders, I might regard it higher.
    • Raju. This German film exposed child trafficking in India. A bit heavy-handed, but a lovely portrait of morality.
    • Pentecost. A team of altar boys are “coached” for the Big Mass of the season. Also from Ireland, it deftly mixes sports and religion. Made me think of last year’s “The Confession,” from the U.K. — which remains one of my favorite shorts ever; no religious rant or satire can compare to its heaping guilt serving.

Animated shorts

These are way tougher. But I’m gonna guess that Academy voters will be swayed by title alone, as most will not have taken the time to watch them, like a track novice picking a horse. Interesting, all the contenders were virtually “silent.” A big theme this year!

PREDICTION: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

PICK: A Morning Stroll

SHOULD-WOULDA-COULDA: The Australian contender, “Nullabor,” about road rage in the Outback, was a virile buddy flick that didn’t make the cut. Crikey!

  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. A strange mix of Hurricane Katrina and The Wizard of Oz. I eventually warmed to it; as a lover of books, who wouldn’t? But it needed editing, so it’s not my favorite. The “Pop, Goes the Weasel” soundtrack was odd. In short, it celebrates literature and learning on the backs of those who came before us. And alerts us that books are on life support. It’s more about people dying than books dying, to beg to differ with other critics. But the flying books are awfully cute.
  • Dimanche/Sunday. Most artistic of the bunch, about life in a small town and a boy’s yearning for adventure. As a birder, I LOVED the three crows. From Canada.
  • La Luna. A working-class tale of who is really behind the moon’s phases. This is Pixar, so I’m handicapping it, although the artist is Italian. This is the best one for kids.
  • Wild Life. Not only did I hate the animation style (broad strokes that had that smeary motion), it was a story-telling jumble, with an incredibly annoying soundtrack, variations of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from “The Pirates of Penzance” mixed with the Old West. The Darwin allusions were nice, but its use of birds didn’t earn it enough points to overcome my bitterness. Also Canadian.
  • A Morning Stroll. This must be seen to be believed. It’s the story of a man seeing a chicken walking down a city street, played out over a century. It also traces the history of animation. The Oscars are so about film history this year. If you like zombies, you’ll love this short.

Funny my “shorts” post is my longest on the Oscars.