More Oscar, less grouch

OscarWill the recession depreciate Oscar gold? Promises of a leaner, more entertaining  ceremony have come to be as reliable as the first robin of Spring, but viewership continues to fall. Each year something new is tried to shake things up, in this case giving the actor Hugh Jackman the hosting duties. This is a role traditionally given to comedians, with the idea that there would be no conflict of interest as they were unlikely to be nominated for any awards. (Long-time host Bob Hope made a joke of this, saying that at his house they referred to the award ceremony as “Passover”; more recently the role has often been given to talk-show hosts such as Jon Stewart or Ellen DeGeneres.) The decision to give the job to Jackman was no doubt made in hopes of luring back female viewers, who have always been the event's core audience.

Oscar's problems, though, may be more than skin deep. A more fundamental reason for the decline in viewership may be that the Academy's tastes rarely reflect that of the broader audience: while some of this year's Best Picture nominees have performed well – the heavily-promoted The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has grossed over $100 million, Slumdog Millionaire nearly $90 million – none of the others have even hit the $30 million mark. This can't be written off as part of an overall box-office slump: as often happens in poor economic times, people are actually spending more time and money at the movies. The best-performing film of 2008, The Dark Knight, earned nearly double what all of the year's Best Picture nominees did combined. Nor is it simply that there were no commercially successful films to nominate: Wall-E received better reviews than any of the Best Picture nominees, scoring a 93 (out of a hundred) from the review-tracking site Metacritic, while only two of the nominees fared better than The Dark Knight.

The fate of these two films helps us to understand Oscar's problems. Wall-E was almost universally praised by both critics and audiences alike, and represents a major step forward for Pixar, the studio that made it: with its long silent sequences and often-sombre mood, it's the first of their films that is made equally for kids and adults, as opposed to being a kid's movie that adults can also enjoy. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, for all its flaws, was a tremendously ambitious movie, with scenes and images to rival anything in last year's nominees No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both movies were being seriously talked up in the days before the nominations were announced, but one senses that in the end the Academy was more concerned about respectability than quality.

Fortunately, we can still use the Oscars as an opportunity to bring students' attention to what's good in film. Here are a few online resources that will help you channel Oscar buzz into productive classroom exercises:

  • The Web site In Contention has a great list titled The Top 10 Shots of 2008, which combines stills, descriptions of the shots and interviews with the cinematographers responsible to analyze just what made these shots memorable. Have students read and discuss the entries and then have them make the case for their own favourite shots of the year.
  • One of the few aspects of film-making that doesn't have an Oscar is the title sequence. Many don't know that titles typically have their own director (who works in concert with the film's director) and their own history, techniques and conventions. The Art of the Title helps to address this, providing analyses of dozens of title sequences from various films along with clips and interviews. Show the title sequence to a well-known film and have students discuss how it establishes the mood, tone and themes of the movie. Students can then pick a favourite movie of their own and storyboard an alternate title sequence for it, then defend their choices. (For help with storyboarding, see the MNet lesson The Privacy Dilemma and the handout Storyboards for the Production.)
  • Finally, we can give the overlooked technical categories a little love by considering The Top 50 Special Effects Shots of all time. Reaching all the way back to 1930's Just Imagine, this article considers not just the historical importance of the shots it describes but also the emotional or narrative impact each shot had within the film. You can use some of these scenes as a springboard to a discussion about the role of special effects in film: when are they most effective? Do they work best when made to seem as spectacular or as realistic as possible? You can also focus on how special effects are used in broadly realistic films, such as Apollo 13 or Forrest Gump – or this year's The Strange Case of Benjamin Button – and discuss why these aren't seen as “effects films.”

Note: some of the video clips in the sites above may contain disturbing or otherwise unsuitable content, and some of these sites contain user comments that may be inappropriate for a classroom. Teachers are strongly advised to pre-select material for their classes to view and read rather than simply directing students to the sites.