. The Bigger Picture | London Progressive Journal
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The Bigger Picture

Thu 13th Feb 2020

As I was writing this article the death was announced of Kirk Douglas, at 103 a screen legend. I only got to know him very briefly several decades ago. Here's the tiny tribute I wrote elsewhere upon hearing the news. I've included a slightly expanded version here to help define the ambiguity I feel about recognising cultural achievements.

Ah, we have indeed lost a cine-legend with the death of the iconic Kirk Douglas. I had the great honour of getting to know him many moons ago when Kirk slit my throat with a scalpel! It was, of course, in a film released as Cat and Mouse, with a television version titled Mousey. He was, as actors say, a generous acting partner. Always in character when the camera was rolling, he never failed to put me at my ease between takes. He happily confirmed a very funny anecdote I'd seen him tell on a talk show. And, a bonus for me, he remembered we'd met before.

I'd been assigned to interview him for my college newspaper and he was totally wonderful, patient and interested in my own acting ambitions. He was at the time starring in the Broadway version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. When he learned I couldn't afford to see the show, he personally led me around to the box office and reserved a comp ticket for that evening's performance.
I’d been aware of only some of his work off-screen, standing up for the rights of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. My admiration for him grew as I learned more. In a world of doubt and destruction, Kirk never lost his morality and humanity.

Some Pain, No Gain
Couple of questions for you. Do you know your Argo from your Fargo? Why 1917 was included in the 2019 calendar, or why 1956 depicted 1984? Of course, they're film titles, all to be judged in the annual awards ceremonies.

Here in the UK, the British Academy of Film and Television has just presented the Bafta awards, and yes, as an elected lifetime member I’m one of the several thousand who vote for the nominees. By the time you read this, Hollywood will have staged the 92nd Academy Awards show, the culmination of another year of mostly American movie releases.

Back when I was that college student interviewing Kirk Douglas, and having already made my professional acting debut both on stage and in a few independent films in my native New York City, the idea of celebrating more mainstream contributions to the profession was something I took for granted. I might have concentrated on journalism, but I was tempted by star-dust and glitter. Almost blinded. And I wanted to play with the big boys and girls.

At the time, Hollywood would have been the logical destination, but the opportunity came to join a European theatrical tour, with some featured roles for me in the repertory of original plays. We didn’t fully understand the importance nor the effect our work was having on international audiences, but when we returned to our base in Greenwich Village, we were celebrated as theatre heroes. And collectively, we received a prestigious award.

At the time I felt no ambivalence; it was a thrill to be publicly recognised. And, as part of a show biz community, when friends and colleagues were similarly honoured, I was genuinely delighted for them.

But wearing my journo hat, over the years I discovered some realities about the film industry which made it more difficult to give unquestioning support, not to the nominees and winners, but to the concept of awards themselves. In my naivete, I’d assumed they were solely talent driven. And that both local and national press coverage existed to bring such talent to the attention of the audience. Yes, I was pretty stupid not to connect the link between writing about cinema, celebrating it by awards, and raking in profits at the box office.

As I say, I was blinded by my pursuit of success. At the time I knew little about the politics of cinema which drove the process from script to screen, and in fact underpinned the mechanism of all mainstream arts. The more I discovered the more conflicted I felt about award ceremonies.

To Know Know Know Them Is Not Always To Love Love Love Them
In a deliberate reversal of Phil Spector’s 1958 hit for The Teddy Bears, knowledge of the schemes behind one’s dreams doesn’t always breed content.

As objective as I can be about an industry to which I devoted much of my adult life, I’m among a very select handful of people who’ve enjoyed simultaneous success as a performer, producer, director, writer, and media executive alongside a career researching and reporting on the wider implications of all aspects of film and television. I’m probably the only one. Not a boast, just a fact.

I may have mentioned it before, but it’s well worth repeating, that in the early days of movie-making, both in the US and the UK, no journalist, experienced or neophyte, had the requisite assessment skills to judge. Editors assumed that theatre reviewers could transfer their expertise, or that fresh-faced youngsters could relate to the new screen-based phenomenon merely by virtue of their age. In his excellent book The Critics’ Film Guide, UK film critic and author Chris Tookey traces the development of criticism from the earliest days, often with scholarly erudition as well as some laugh-out-loud amusing examples.

But, especially throughout the American states, there simply wasn’t the budget for arranging press screenings, let alone hiring reporters to attend them. With the deluge of new film releases, local and regional papers couldn’t sell enough advertising to justify more editorial space. Readers demanded content; that’s what they paid for! Editors begged the studios for help.

The promotion teams based in Hollywood and New York rushed to the rescue. They scripted their own reviews, supplying them in a variety of sizes and formats to fit any newspaper on the market. They didn’t need by-lines or provide any accountability. And who better to know the details of production, selectively feeding a public increasingly hungry for the ‘secrets’ of the stars. In fact, those so-called reviews were complicit in creating stars. Before that, the faces of silent actors might be familiar, but their names were mostly unknown.

As for those newspaper reviews, let’s just say objectivity was strangely absent! History hasn’t identified exactly who came up with the idea to whip up a publicity frenzy in the context of an annual celebration. Movie goers had a whole year to trade their pennies for a cardboard ticket at the box office, spending about three hours watching a double bill of genre films, interspersed with newsreels, cartoons, and crucially, coming attractions enticing a return visit. Most movie theaters changed their double bills about twice a week.
How else could pre-teen farm hands and Chicago grannies race around the chariot track of ancient Rome, pick sides in the War Between the States, help solve a baffling murder, or be swept off their tootsies by the passion of illicit love?

Then, in anticipation of the well-publicised annual ceremony, those same movie goers bought papers and magazines to somehow identify with their favourite stars and films. Every winner had thousands of hopeful backers. Smiles. Speeches. The hoisting of their iconic statuettes. The paps do their Snap-snaps. And there’s the front page already for sale in the morning tabloids.

All this brou-ha-ha helped found AMPAS – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – which appeared on May 11, 1927; its celebratory Oscars were first awarded on May 16, 1929.

The UK’s the British Film Academy caught up shortly after WWII, in 1947. In 1949 it presented the first awards for films made in the previous two years.

Neither of these celebrations, however, pre-dated The Venice Biennale, going strong for over 120 years as one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Established in 1895, the Biennale began and continues as the first International Art Exhibition. In 1932, as a kind of sub-set of the Arts including Music and Theatre, the Venice Film Festival launched and is recognised as the first independent and international film festival, awarding Golden and Silver Lions to grateful producers.

So, What’s The Problem?
Those are the ingredients that comprise the movie industry. But similar rules also apply to win a more qualitative battle. No need to dig very far to brand that process with a capitalist label. It’s a fool’s errand, though because it simply cannot be done. The premise is false and any element balanced upon it is destined either to collapse or be rendered meaningless.

Let’s focus on acting. A very unlikely example to prove a point, but bear with me. If, within the course of a year, five separate films were released with exactly the same screenplay, but starring five different actors in the challenging lead role. That might be a way to compare the performances and declare one above the others.

But if you’re presented with a plate of an apple, a curried prawn, a lump of stilton, a spoonful of crème caramel, and some buttered spinach, the only way you could choose one as a winner would be to factor in your favourite food. There is no objective way you could declare that an apple is a priori better than a prawn.

And, even when assessing screen performances with any degree of objectivity, you have to be able to rely on acquired knowledge about the process. As a Bafta voter, I’m asked to rank lists of nominees in scores of film and telly categories, including editing, cinematography, special effects, production design, title credits, costume design, original music, original and adapted screenplay, as well as the more familiar performance, directing and best picture categories. If I can’t recognise how an editor may have influenced a director’s choices, or assume that costume design in a period film should get my vote just because it’s set in the past, well that marks my ignorance and renders my votes careless at the very least.

However, there’s more consequence than that. Following a trend that’s snowballed into a journalistic avalanche, broadcasters and print editors have been soliciting opinions about films and television from members of the public. On the one hand, that’s fair enough… after all, if the target audience can’t pipe up what’s the point? Not to mention the matter of encouraging free speech. Gogglebox. Vox pops. Late-night call-ins. The ITV Television Awards as voted for by you, the public! Everyone’s a critic these days, innit?

Very gradually, weaning themselves away from the era of viewers as quiet consumers, studios and broadcast policy moguls are having to confront a public with unfettered access to each other, without the filter of decision makers controlling what they think of the offerings. Actors, too, have been getting more canny, increasingly taking on the role of Producer or Executive Producer. They’ve become entitled to their own say on a production and its exploitation. Some prove more discerning than others.

Becuase members of the public cannot distinguish their opinions based on taste, from those of professional critics many of whom have acquired rigorous assessment qualifications, the awards ceremonies are also being lifted from the paws of industry honchos with vested interests. You have to go back quite a way to re-visit the kind of socio-political messages about current affairs we heard this past week. Allusions to MeToo. The lack of ethnicity. Matters of gender balance. As the epitome of those, the fact that Joaquin Phoenix’s plea for an approach of genuine humanity evoked a prolonged standing ovation, speaks powerfully to industry decision makers who might have been happier dismissing it.

Sadly, there’s also a sinister side to this mélange of democracy and Big Brother. It was alluded to by this year’s Bafta host Graham Norton introducing the solemn item on the agenda paying tribute to those contributors in all cinema fields who’d died during the year. Noting the absence of Tony Garnett, a seminal force of both the film and television industries, he reminded viewers that because Tony had worked across the disciplines, his tribute would feature in May during the Bafta TV awards. What’s slightly sinister is the implication of the timing.

Are We Meeting in the Middle?
This year we Bafta voters were warned our deadlines had been moved forward in deference to a change of scheduling for the Oscar awards ceremony. Some of the international press has been referring to the spate of such ceremonies as the ‘Awards Season.’ With regard to cinema, it kicked off this year with the 77th Golden Globes, voted on by fewer than 95 of the Foreign Press Association members. It often sets the slate for the Oscars, but is by and large independent.

Over the years, as Norton noted, Atlantic cross-overs between talent from the UK and the US, have prompted a surge of Academy membership on both sides. Both have sought to benefit from such alliances. And so have the most powerful mainstream studios.
Many will deny it, but it’s become common practice for studios – with enormous budgets for promotion and advertising – to nominate a bloc of talent for Academy membership in as many categories as possible in support of any particular film up for awards contention. I can’t claim there’s a direct quid pro quo for Academy membership, but many perks strew the path along the red carpet with an irresistible array of goodies in lieu of rose petals.

Distinctive Assets… heard of them? It’s a facilitating company. It collects Big Bucks from Big Brands. It packages the innocently-named ‘’Goody Bags,” and hands them out to Big Celebs. Gee, that’s not a bribe, izzit? Hello, Ukraine… we’ll give you those tariff concessions if you get the dirt on Biden. Yeah, that kind of bribe that’s not a bribe.

So Distinctive Assets packs out the bags with stuff like A Week’s Free Holiday in Greece. Cannabis infused chocolates. Free spa treatments in Malibu. Noticeable jewellery.  Fashion for him. Fashion for her. Oh, it’s adding up… this year those goodies totaled about $100,000… Ka-ching! Big Bucks indeed. And, of course, both men and women get to wear exclusive designer clobber and accessories for the evening. So, when the microphones are thrust into their faces asking “what are you wearing, darling” they can enthuse about the name on the label.

Oh, dear… Bafta members don’t get goody bags. Is that why there have been so many no-shows from Americans at the Awards Ceremony. Surely not.

Membership of Bafta is only valid for a year – unless like me one has what’s called Lifetime Membership. That means it’s up to the individual to renew by paying another year’s dues. What the nominating studios want is their votes for that year. None of that fills me with confidence for the future.

We live in an era where the capitalist ethic, having once at least been a benign force, has morphed into a monster of manipulation. Cash is King. It will buy you out of trouble, it will buy you a facsimile of Truth… it will buy you!

When I recall how eager I was as a young adult to chase the evanescent dreams of fame, I cannot deny the overwhelming sense of pride, gratitude, and sheer joy it is to receive public accolades at a ceremony of celebration. So I couldn’t possibly seek to deny that experience to others. But I wish with all my heart that the process had been underpinned by honesty rather than bribery, greed, and corruption.

Never has that been more true now that there seem to be awards for everything, in all walks of life. Not just the Arts. Best Office Manager. Best Warehouse Fork Lift Driver. Best District Attorney. Best Wild Animal Trophy Hunter. And, of course, Best Ever President of the United States, Better Than All The Rest, So Great, So Great.
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