Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2018
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Test of character

Only two and a half weeks until the Academy Awards! Are you as excited as I am?

Yeah, I’d almost forgotten about them too.

For a few years there, it seemed as though the “awards season” was getting shorter. They kept pulling in the date of the Oscars telecast, as if it finally dawned on the powers that be that maybe they should recognize the best movies of one year before getting halfway through the next year. This year, however, they’ve gone back to early March after a couple of years of holding the ceremony in late February. This year the big event is nearly two weeks after the date on which it was held in 2015.

So how does the movie industry keep up interest in last year’s movies—some of which, in fairness, did not reach a lot of people until the very end of December or later—with such a long lag time? Well, you can always drum up controversy. And, whether by coincidence or by conspiratorial design, there has been no shortage of controversy.

A piece in The Guardian by New York-based critic Charles Bramesco does a nice job of summarizing the various outrages and accusations. In nature they range from social sensitivities (is Three Billboards racist?) to artistic ethics (is The Shape of Water a copycat?). “Much as a political candidate is vetted before a big convention,” writes Bramesco, “this year’s nominees for the best picture Oscar have been subject to a battery of litmus tests.” I find that pretty funny since the most recent general election season in the States was one in which vetting and litmus tests of political candidates meant less than ever before in my entire lifetime. It is as though activists and the press are deliberately stepping up the vetting and litmus-testing on film awards in an effort to make up for it.

Let’s dispense with the ethical question about The Shape of Water straight away. Accusations of plagiarism have been made against Guillermo del Toro’s movie by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the estate of playwright Paul Zindel. I support the two of them if they want to defend their respective works in court and good luck to them, but generally we need to err on the side of artistic freedom and license. Any story will have inadvertent—or even advertent—similarities to other stories, depending on how granular you want to get. The stealing needs to be pretty egregious, however, to be sanctioned by the law. Personally, my favorite shorthand for The Shape of Water is BBC critic Mark Kermode’s (if he was indeed the one who originated it): The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Splash.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri racist? Because a character who exhibits racist behavior turns out to be able to change and/or maybe even has redeeming qualities? Please, give me a break. All of us who write should just give up our pens and keyboards if we are to be held to a Soviet-in-spirit-style vetting mechanism like that. I have to wonder if people who say things like that have any idea what that movie was actually about. (Not saying I do, but I have my opinions.)

Another hot topic, apparently: Is Call Me by Your Name pedophilic? Bramesco dismisses this one as mainly a concern of “hyper-conservative” media, although the timing of the film’s release in relation to the Kevin Spacey/Anthony Rapp coverage probably makes it a fair question. The lovers in the film are 24 and 17 and, as Bramesco points out, the age of consent in Italy, where it is set, is 14. Perhaps more to the point, the movie (as does the source book) is told from the 17-year-old’s point of view and it is extremely clear he is all on board for the experience. Even his parents are totally okay with the whole thing. As a story’s plot point, this is not a question that completely un-encountered by me previously. In my first novel, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead (yep, another shameless plug), there is an interlude that can be best described as confused fumbling in a sleeping bag between an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old, so it behooves me to come down on the side of artistic freedom. Let us be clear. Writing a work of fiction about an act that may be illegal or considered immoral is not at all the same thing as condoning it, let alone participating in it. Let us not be confused about the difference between committing and approving of an act and merely writing about it.

Aside from these sorts of questions about the moral suitability of the movies themselves is the moral suitability of the people nominated. I read that last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner Casey Affleck will not be a presenter this year, presumably because of sexual harassment accusations. This will be the first time in my admittedly-not-great memory that an acting award winner will not be announced by an acting award winner from the previous year. Also, some are grumbling about Gary Oldman, who is favored to win Best Actor for Darkest Hour. He was accused of abuse by an ex-wife during a period when the couple both reportedly had drug and other problems. In a 2014 Playboy interview, Oldman said that “political correctness is crap” and defended anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs by Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin. His main point, as I understand it, was that a lot of the self-righteousness is hypocritical and, frankly, he may have a point—at least on the hypocritical part.

What is the minimum standard of probity the entertainment community should require of a colleague in order to give them an award? All human beings are flawed. Should character or history figure in at all in granting an award—or only the quality of the work? Since no one asked me, my opinion veers closer to the latter. I am quite happy, for example, for Roman Polanski to get all the awards his peers want to bestow on his impressive oeuvre. At the same time, I would be more than happy if he would go back to California and stand trial for rape. Heck, I would even be okay with a nice posthumous award for the extremely gifted Leni Riefenstahl for the stunning film work she did for the German government in the 1930s. No need, however, for her to leave her place in hell—or wherever she is—to go collect it in person.

-S.L., 15 February 2018

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