Home » Cinema » The Oscars are pandering to the populist mood sweeping the globe | Rachel Cooke

The Oscars are pandering to the populist mood sweeping the globe | Rachel Cooke

I love shark movies as much as the next cinema-goer. But we should also reward high-quality film

Movie sharks were on some peoples minds last week, thanks to the release of the $150m blockbuster, The Meg, in which Jason Statham plays a traumatised oceanic rescue specialist who goes into battle with a 75ft prehistoric megalodon (sample dialogue: Man v Meg isnt a fight. Its a slaughter!). Whats your favourite shark in culture? asked the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row on its ever more frantically needy Twitter feed and because I was badly in need of a displacement activity that day I, too, fell to thinking about giant fish with downturned mouths. Surely, I thought, theres only one answer to this question. The one we all think of most fondly, because it frightened us so much and we all love to be frightened (assuming were able, metaphorically speaking, to get out of the water), is the great white beast that, to pinch from the critic David Thomson, gave a beautiful, skinny-dipping girl the biggest sexual surprise of the 1970s.

Boy, does Jaws take you back, and I dont mean only to that moment when, sitting cross-legged in front of the television in your pyjamas you saw a severed, crab-crawled hand, and ran terrified from the room (as a child, I managed to see it all the way through only on my second attempt, and even then there was a sticky palm over at least one eye in the scary bits). Nor am I making reference to CGI, a wizardry still far off in 1975 (as every fan knows, three pneumatically powered prop sharks were made for the production and yes, they do look a bit rubbish now).

No, what I mean is that Jaws had it all in a way that movies only rarely do nowadays: loved by the critics (in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called it the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made); adored by the Academy (at the Oscars, it was nominated for best picture, though it lost out to Milos Formans One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest); wildly popular with audiences (until the release of Star Wars in 1977, Jaws was the highest grossing movie of all time).

But it also changed the landscape: the prototypical summer blockbuster, it would have three (crummy) sequels; henceforth, studio bosses had in their sights an eager young audience that would return to the cinema again and again if the thrills, as opposed to the art, were just right. As Thomson notes, for all the brilliance of Jaws great performances by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss; a gut-twisting score by John Williams; masterfully calm direction from Steven Spielberg; oh, and that great comic-book Moby-Dick speech Shaw delivers about the USS Indianapolis there is a certain vacuousness at its heart. The audience, he writes, is cheering when it is not moaning with terror. And it means nothing at all not even the half-baked social criticism of the resort town that would rather not frighten tourists away. It is zero to the power of 10.

Shaws Indianapolis scene.

Zero to the power of 10. Are these the kind of numbers the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has in mind when it says it plans a new category of Oscar for outstanding achievement in popular film? I guess not. As some have already pointed out, the figures with which it is most preoccupied are probably the ratings of the TV Oscar ceremony, which fell to a new low this year, though perhaps it also has an anxious, tokenistic eye on Black Panther, which has taken some $1.35bn at the box office worldwide and is now the ninth highest grossing movie of all time. (Quite why it believes seeing the producers of Black Panther collect a statuette will improve ratings is anyones guess; their speeches will be just as drippy as anyone elses, unless they fly in on a remotely piloted jet.)

Others, though, beg to differ by which I mean those who really care about film. For them, were now fully into zero to the power of 10 territory. When Adam McKay, director of The Big Short, heard the news, he suggested some other possible new categories: Best movie where shit blowed up good and hottest female alien. Rob Lowe couldnt even bring himself to crack a joke. The film business passed away today, he said. It is survived by sequels, tent poles and vertical integration.

This isnt snobbery, on their part, or mine. The point, surely, is that popularity is its own reward. If an intricate, singular, challenging film also turns out to be popular, well, bingo. But its the intricate, singular, challenging film that the Academy should be in the business of celebrating, not the merely popular. Not, of course, that its possible to feel even the remotest sense of surprise at this decision. On the Booker longlist, there squats a pretty bog standard crime novel, Snap by Belinda Bauer. At the National Portrait Gallery, visitors can see a Michael Jackson exhibition in which the images on display reveal nothing at all save for the fact that no revealing image of him exists. Placed end to end, the column inches that have been devoted to Love Island in recent weeks put even the megalodon to shame.

Popularity is in the air we breathe, from politics to culture, the latter being to a degree a natural corollary of the former; the result of much the same nervousness that has struck dumb our representatives when it comes to explaining, say, the full consequences of Brexit (or, among decent Republicans in America, of Trump). All of which makes it all the more vital that some small pockets of resistance remain. Hooray for Black Panther and the rest. But before you get in the popcorn, tell me this: what great, mind-changing films are out there that we havent all yet seen?

Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/11/the-oscars-are-pandering-to-the-populist-mood-sweeping-the-globe

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