One year after celebrating a film about assisted suicide, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences seems to be a willing and eager participant in its own self-destruction.
Though the awards ended up being more spread out among several films, the 2005 Oscars were lampooned by many American males as "the gay cowboy awards" (which all but guaranteed ESPN's Bulls-Cavaliers match-up an unusually high rating). The real story of the night, however, was politics, politics, politics — which might account for an unusually high amount of female-oriented counter-programming on the cable schedule, as well.
The result were an Oscar telecast that managed to bring in 10% fewer voters than the previous year's awards, which were low enough to foster panic in the Academy and yet another retooling of the broadcast and a search for a suitable host.
A Soviet operative in the 1930s famously complained at the difficulty of converting Americans "because they do not like to go to meetings." Americans complain long and loudly every other year because our television entertainment is interrupted by political commercials—even though the campaign spots take the place of car, beer, and tampon commercials. They don't take time allotted to plot developments between the ticking clocks on 24.
Too much attention to politics—namely windy, deranged left-wing speeches—were credited with the slide in Oscar viewership in recent decades. So, they were banned, and the Academy Awards became even less water cooler-worthy when you couldn't laugh at Susan Sarandon or Bah-bra's latest outburst the next day.
Now those speeches would be redundant-- the 2005 Oscars were all politics all the time. In fact, the least political movie nominated for Best Picture is about Truman Capote and the death penalty.
So it's only fitting that instead of finding a genial, popular actor/comedian with wide appeal, this year's host is Jon Stewart, a cable talk show host whose daily takes on the news became the flavor of the year when Bill Maher's pseudo-intellectual cynicism ran its tired course.
The excuses for the Oscars' failure to attract viewers began the week before the telecast. The buzz started in the Hollywood press that the lack of a box office champ in the Best Picture lineup-- or for any major award, for that matter—could hurt the Oscar telecast's ratings. What was assiduously avoided was the reason that hardly anyone went to see these films.
It's not news that issue-oriented Serious Films in Hollywood tend to have a soft liberal outlook. Some are even successful at the box office. However, once a filmmaker establishes a brand name for leftist propaganda, and people feel more preached to than entertained, the box office tends to fizzle. Witness the box office plunge of Oliver Stone.
That could be why the entertainment media have studiously avoided any mention that three of the films up for major Oscar consideration, George Clooney's anti-American screeds, Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, and the ham-handed women in the workplace drama, North Country, were financed by Participant Productions, whose website, www.participantproductions.com openly proclaims their intention to produce propaganda.
Imagine the hysteria if the conservative John M. Olin Foundation or the boogeyman of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, Richard Mellon Scaife, had a film production company whose motto at their website proclaimed,
"Changing the world one story at a time."
"Participant believes in the power of media to create great social change. Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all."
Or how about this punchline:
"The Movie is Just the Beginning"
"Our films raise awareness about important social issues, educating audiences and inspiring them to take action.You can get involved in the issues that matter to you on our new social action website, Participate.net!"
Take, for instance, The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson was up front about his vision for the film, and its uncompromising take on authenticity, historicity-- and deity. So, the media storyline became dominated in a frivolous discussion as to whether the film was anti-Semitic, going so far as to solicit the opinions of writer/director Mel Gibson's father about the Holocaust!
Before The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, even opened, there were daily stories on every broadcast network about the Narnia filmmakers' two-track marketing system, one to a general audience, and one marketed to the Christian community.
The stated point of the stories was that it was tricky business to accomplish this in a way that would not put off the unconverted. The real purpose was to make the failure of the business plan a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was a warning disguised as a business story-- This is a religious movie, watch out!
Then there were the reviews. Considering the general literary value of the publication, it might not be surprising that People magazine's Leah Rozen would write, "when the lion sacrifices his life to save another's, the scene plays disturbingly like The Passion of the Christ, complete with beatings and jeering," as though C.S. Lewis's inspiration was Mel, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
But there's no excuse for a publication with the intellectual pretensions of the New York Review of Books to mimic that line. Alison Lurie's long piece on the film contains this line, "Aslan's progress toward his death at a kind of altar called the Stone Table is a juvenile version of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, complete with ugly scorning and beating and spitting bystanders."
These critics don't have the guts to flat out warn of the religious parallels in the story and make a judgment based on that. No, it's "Be careful, your kids are going to be exposed to something like that gory, over violent, anti-Semetic, masochistic 'Passion' movie!"
Recently, "End of the Spear" a film based on missionary attempts to reach out to a tribe that was so violent it was on the verge of extinction prompted this retort from The Washington Post's Desson Thompson, "One man's missionary work is another's ideological aggression."
Even Gary Thompson's mostly positive review of the film in the Philadelphia Daily News pointed out that "Spear" was "financed and distributed by Christian groups."
Alison Lurie BEGAN her review of "Naria" with this leaden paragraph: "The new film of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was financed by Disney together with something called Walden Media. This organization (which is based in Los Angeles and appears to have no actual connection with Thoreau's pond or book) was founded by the Denver multibillionaire Philip Anschutz, an evangelical Christian and supporter of George W. Bush."
If newspaper reviews began with a list of John Kerry or Al Gore supporters involved in a film, then deforestation of the continent might become a real rather than an imagined danger.
So, when a film has a real or imagined conservative or Christian agenda, the intrepid entertainment press of the modern mainstream media can be counted on to ferret it out. But try to find the words "Participant Productions" in ANY major newspaper review of "Syriana," "Good Night and Good Luck" or "North Country."
The funny thing about these "fiercely intelligent" movies (an oft-repeated phrase in my search for reviews) is that all three of them could have been made 30 years ago.
North Country is Norma Rae filtered through 20 years of Lifetime Original movies. Starring Charlize Theron and the estimable Frances McDormand, this heavy-handed sexual harassment flick proposes that being an old-fashioned guy means giving the boyfriend who's beating on your daughter the benefit of the doubt and blaming her when she is sexually assaulted at work, rather than kicking the crap out of the bastards picking on your little girl.
But nothing is more dated than George Clooney's pair of Participant projects. Just as George W. Bush is taking the heat from lefties — including Clooney -- for a policy of trying to "force" democracy on parts of the Middle East, Syriana proposes that the United States is in the business of propping up dictators—and assassinating reformers!-- to keep the oil flowing. It's loosely inspired by the CIA memoirs of Robert Baer, a vocal House of Saud critic, but his printed recollections of the Saudis mostly take place in the '90s during the Clinton Administration!
For one thing, let's forget about the inconvenient fact that both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have given speeches denouncing the past U.S. practice of propping up dictators in the name of stability.
Even worse is Good Night, and Good Luck, in which everything that has been learned since the fall of the Soviet Union — and a lot that people knew before — has been ignored for a fairy tale in which Good Prince Edward R. Murrow, the ultimate stout-hearted crusading journalist, takes out Dark Knight Joseph McCarthy, the evil lord of Red-baiting conservatism.
Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and a superb suspense novelist in his own right, nails this movie best: "[Clooney] leaves out the Cold War, the hot war in Korea, the Venona decrypts that proved how sophisticated and exhaustive the Russian intelligence initiative against the American target was. He even leaves out McCarthy himself, relying on archival footage and sparing himself the ordeal of trying to imagine such a fellow as a human being. He also leaves out nuance, context, empathy, anything that suggests the larger truth that nothing is as simple as it seems. The film, therefore, is like a child's view of these events, untroubled by complexity, hungry for myth and simplicity."
Hunter goes on to point out that the real damage McCarthy did to America was to give ammunition to simpletons like Clooney to use against America's security services that were fighting a real enemy; and we now know not only that some of the people Murrow defended were communists, but we also know their code names.
Unfortunately, reviews like Hunter's, which place the McCarthy-Murrow episode in historical context, are few and far between. According to the indispensable Rotten Tomatoes website, North Country was positively reviewed by 70% of critics, Syriana by 73% and Good Night, and Good Luck by 94%. The more prestigious the reviewer or paper, the more likely the review was to be positive. Roger Ebert gave all three movies a 4-star rave, fervently preaching the message found at Participant's website to the letter — but, of course, making no mention of the company.
It wasn't until the day of the Academy Awards, long after Oscar hype and critical fawning failed to make any of these flicks a hit, that the Washington Post finally mentioned that eBay guru and Participant founder Jeff Skoll funded these films for a political purpose.
North Country, it turns out, was meant to be released to coincide with the Violence Against Women Act in a coordinated effort with the National Organization for Women. Talk about coal to Newcastle, Congress beat Participant to the punch, however, voting for the act 415-4 three weeks before the film opened.
As Mark Steyn points out in National Review, it's hardly courageous to be against the abuse of women, propping up dictators, or so-called "McCarthyism." Senator McCarthy received more than his due punishment over 40 years ago while he was still alive. That duly noted, however, Participant has an agenda for each movie that's meant to go beyond the obvious storyline.
Participate.net gives the agenda for each film just in case beating you over the head with it for two hours was insufficient. North Country fans are directed to various sexual harassment and domestic violence sites and such "action projects" as "Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy at Your School."
The action point for Syriana is a less obvious. Most people notice its critique of American foreign policy and its insistence that the CIA would assassinate any reformist leader of an oil-rich country. Less noticed is a scientifically indefensible line by Matt Damon's character, who insists that the world is running out of oil, and the Middle East is sitting on top of 90% of what is left. Forget Central Asia, Venezuela, West Africa, Canada, Alaska, the U.S. coast …
So, instead of being directed to human rights sites or anti-military organizations, filmgoers who are inspired to social action by Syriana are directed toward Global Warming projects, alternative energy fantasies and various and sundry other radical environmentalist causes.
But what is a skull full of mush that has been motivated by Good Night, and Good Luck to do? Why, get involved with making the press stand up to President Bush, of course. You see, the fear of terrorism is the new witch hunt, and if only we had a skeptical press that would have questioned the warmongering president, we would not be stuck in Iraq today.
Of course Jeff Skoll has the right to fund and produce any kind of movies he wants. He can be the George Soros of the movie biz. He is up front about his involvement and his goals, and that is even admirable.
What is wrong, however, is for the entertainment media who have lavished praise on his finished product to ignore the story of his involvement.
Fortunately, however, P.T. Barnum may have been wrong about the taste of the American public. The hype has failed, and the biggest hit of the Best Picture nominees is likely to be Brokeback Mountain, which will do just over half the business of the highest grossing film to win a major award, Walk the Line, itself only a modest hit.
Instead, audiences, to their credit, flocked to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Kong, Batman Returns and the latest and best in the ever-improving series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Each of these movies has a following, each has its award-worthy strengths, and each was shut out of major award consideration. Each also out-grossed the three Participant films put together by a factor of more than 2-1. In fact, all five of the Best Picture nominees together failed to gross as much as the kiddie medium hit, Chicken Little!
That's why most Americans will participate in activities other than watching the Oscars on Sunday night.
Still, I must give credit where credit is due. My favorite film of 2006 -- gasp! choke! -- was a Particpant Films production. Murderball is, indeed, a fiercely intelligent — and fierce — movie about the human condition. It is the story of the U.S. Olympic Wheelchair rugby team; and it is the best sports film since Hoosiers. (It is also the perfect answer to the end of Million Dollar Baby.)
This is the story of quadriplegics in "Mad Max" wheelchairs who smash the snot out of one another in the pursuit of Olympic gold. There may have been no funnier moment in a movie this year than the reaction of one of the athletes who is told by a girl that she heard he was "in the Special Olympics."
The film even has a compelling story arc -- one of the founding members is cut from the team and goes on to coach Team Canada into becoming the American team's chief rival. Murderball is a bristling, life-affirming, but never sappy, amazing film (that, by the way, deserves it's R-rating).
Unfortunately, it's main competition—and the winner-- for Best Documentary Feature on Oscar Night was my other favorite film of 2005, the awe-inspiring March of the Penguins. Both films are better than any of the Best Picture nominees. That's what Oscar 2005 came down to. The best race was for Best Documentary.
The lessons of Murderball are far more important than any film about mere politics could be. If Jeff Skoll really wants to change the world for the better, this is the kind of film he should make.