Garbage In Garbage Out, or Why the Foreign Oscars Need to be Blown Up
By ROBERT KOEHLER
Computer programmers have a term for the risk flawed data input poses to the goal of good data results: Garbage In, Garbage Out. No four words better sum up the profound problems that have turned the foreign-language Oscar category into a sad, pathetic joke. When the head of the executive committee overseeing the Oscarís foreign categoryóthat would be widely-respected producer Mark Johnsonólooks at you directly, as he did to me while we rode a shuttle bus during this yearís Sundance, and tells you that itís time to ìblow upî the section, itís a way of saying that the dilemmas hobbling the foreign film competition go far, far beyond the obvious issue that this yearís nomination list left off Cristian Mungiuís Palme díOr-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.
This corner of the Academy Awards is rife with garbage, and almost inevitably, the garbage out results in a quintet of mediocrities (and some baddies) like The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, Austria), Katyn (Andrzej Wajda, Poland), Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, Israel), Mongol (Sergei Bodrov, Kazakhstan) and 12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia). The mediaís dominant angle on the ìmissingî nominees (most oft-cited include various pet titles like Marjane Satrapiís and Vincent Paronnaudís wildly overrated Persepolis, Fatih Akinís disastrous The Edge of Heaven, Lee Chang-dongís should-have-won-the-Palme masterpiece Secret Sunshine, Carlos Reygadasí astonishing Silent Light and, perhaps most indefensibly, J.A. Bayonaís less-than-scary The Orphanage) utterly misses the more serious issues confronting the Academy. This isnít surprising: Itís easier stirring up froth about why the widely-liked The Bandís Visit was DQíd (an excess of spoken English dialogue, a cardinal sin given the awardís name) than looking inside the very yucky interior of this category.
If they did, theyíd find a bad, bad smell inside.
So where does the garbage start?
Governed by a United Nations-style philosophy of one-country-one-vote, or, if you will, ìRobert Mugabeís Zimbabwe is every bit the equal of Nicolas Sarkozyís France,î the Academy proudly allows any country to select and submit a film to the race, and do so in any manner that that country desires. No matter how profoundly corrupt or confused. The Russian group is notoriously sullied, with its dominance by a tiny mafia of producers and directors surrounding Mikhalkov, his big brother Andrei Konchalovsky and their circle. An unimpeachable source in the Russian film industry has described to me in blood-curdling detailóway, way off the record, for fear as they put it ìof injury to my body and my loved onesîóof kickbacks, greenbacks and rampant cronyism for deals leading to their ìselection.î (Notice Russiaís pick this year?) Italy, which regularly indulges in Donneybrooks and what one Variety reporter once described to me as a ìcomical simulation of the Italian parliament,î assembles a ridiculously huge group of disparate industry-ites and even some hangers-on to fight over the film to pick. (Their choice this time was a true doozy, the spectacularly dreadful Giuseppe Tornatore mess known as The Unknown.) Many countries, such as Mexico and France, have entrenched and relatively small committees composed of established industry pros who tend not to want to leave their cushy posts. Perhaps only India has a reasonable system, which involves a national runoff among films selected from the linguistically distinct provinces. At least in this caseóIndia is, after all, home to the worldís biggest national film industry—thereís some consideration of a wider swathe of films across a range of interests. (Some, like Israel, automatically send their best picture ìOscarî winner, though this leaves aside the authenticity of particular national film academiesóincluding our own.)
The process is so screwed up that when a country like Japanówhich is usually expert in picking real dogsóselects a film as fine as Suo Masayukiís procedural courtroom drama, I Just Didnít Do It, or Hungaryówhose own set of cronies arenít known for their tasteópicks something as daring and provocative as Gyorgy Palfiís Taxidermia, it comes off as a stunning accident, a freakish event. Look at the lists of best 2007 films by Doug and myself on this site (way back in January) and note how few titles overlap at all with the list of 63 submissions for the current Oscar race: For every Secret Sunshine, there are dozens of pieces of junk like Satanas (Colombia) or The Russian Triangle (Georgia) or Shadows (Macedonia), stuff ratified by local bureaucrats, hacks and other nincompoops. Itís from such incoming garbage that outgoing garbage includes (from Spain) The Orphanage rather than the countryís greatest film of 2007, Jose Luis Guerinís In the City of Sylvia (Oh! We forgot! The Oscars would disqualify it as being too much in French, a language not frequently used in Spain, and therefore out!) or The Edge of Heaven (from Germany) rather than such stunning and accomplished works as Thomas Arslanís Vacation or Maria Spethís Madonnas that far better reflect the latest, and possibly most interesting, new German Wave. (And maybe Spethís might not rate because it has too much English on the soundtrack. Who knows? Who, outside of a handful of Academy bureaucrats, cares?)
As for the one-film-one-country rule, Academy executive director Bruce Davis considers it Holy Writ, beyond debate, absolutely untouchable. I did get the distinct impression when asking him about this rule during an interview for Variety that wild horses and other four-leggeds would have to drag him out of his Beverly Hills office before he ever budged on his no-discussion position. ìBesides,î he responded semi-rhetorically, ìwould you open it up to multiple films, with no limit to the number?î When one has a terrible idea, such as Davisí Academy has with this rule, the best defense is suggesting chaos as the alternative. Even the abysmal Hollywood Foreign Press Association, that assembly of entertainment hack journos from around the world best known for rampantly corrupt junkets and the Golden Globes, were shrewd enough to not limit their field of foreign-language films to one per country. Only a supremely bureaucratic mindset would come up with such a ridiculous schema as the Academy, yet what goes little noticed is that the rule has been in place since nearly the inception of the category over fifty years ago. Put another way, the ancient and doddering Wajda wasnít even a pup filmmaker when this lame-brained idea took hold, and for those interested in a reasonably relevant foreign film category, the bad news is that it ainít going away anytime soon. No matter what kind of detonation plans Johnson has in store.
And it gets worseóoh yes, much worse. Sample this masterstroke of a rule, a model of what can only be termed as good intentions gone south: We paraphrase, but in essence, every print source supplying the Academy with a submitted film must deliver it in the form of a 35mm print. No digital allowed, either on tape or DVD. Moreover, that print will never, ever, be returned. It will stay in Academy vaults in perpetuity, throughout the known universe. The logic behind the latter requirement exists in some netherworld thatís too scary to contemplate. As for the former, the demand for a 35mm print may have made sense back in the day when film-to-video produced an unsightly image and damaged the filmmakerís visual intentions. But now that weíre well into the age of digital cinema, when many of the most sublime new films on Earth are shot and presented digitally, when digital has been better absorbed into the film worldís circulation system than iPhones or WGA agreements, when even the high and still mighty Cannes film festival happily and frequently projects digitally-shot films on digital playback media—well, this is just about the stupidest requirement imaginable. (For all you techies out there who may wonder if the Academy demands this because its Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, where the foreign committee views the submissions, isnít equipped for digitalóbe assured, it is.) Itís also a rule with hidden consequences. Poorer countries and producers, hard-pressed to afford even one video-to-film transfer print for certain festivals, and then faced with this onerous, idiotic and hopelessly outdated rule once their film is an official submission, might not be able to afford to deliver the print-into-the-Academy-black-hole given skyrocketing lab costs. A few films have fallen by the wayside because of this, and more will. How and why itís even possible that a country with a bumper year of fine and even brilliant films like Malaysia (whose new wave of talent is going at full crest, and winning festival awards everywhere) didnít submit is stunning on the face of it, but itís reasonable to guess that that Academy bill was just too steep to make a submission even viable.
Please note that thereís been no mention here of the voters and their voting process, which after all would demand a Tolstoyan essay all by itself, and has been reported and described many times in the trades. The hue and cry about this group overlooking the 4 Months of the world simplifies the deeper matters eating away at the credibility of this Oscar category, many of which are too often ignored. Johnson has frankly and openly complained about the groupís heavy weighting toward retired members of the Academy branches (and donít think he hasnít received waves of internal flak for his comments), and while it may be true that younger members are under-represented, it hardly follows that a ìyoungerî foreign Oscar committee would automatically pick better moviesóa bias thatís commonly repeated in most news accounts of the groupís problems. Itís just as possible that their choices might even be worse; after all, the audience of 60 to 80-somethings may be a tad more comfortable with subtitles than the youngíuns, who may have found Taxidermia just as revolting and intolerably radical as the crowd who reportedly streamed out of the official screening in abject horror. (Thus, getting Palfiís point. Besides, 20 to 50-somethings streamed out of it in Cannes too.) Johnsonís belief that lowering the committeeís average age would ensure a more up-to-date result sounds plausible, but isnít likely. Besides, the extraordinarily pockmarked process preceding his group watching and voting already makes the choices worse than suspect. If one wants up-to-dateness, yearns for hip and relevant, and gets all hot and bothered at the cutting edgeóthis is the Academy, so that can only go so faróthen the issue is that the original countries and their bodies regularly fail to pick their own films that matter. The voting Filipino film industry vets, for one of many examples, wonít acknowledge the exciting and groundbreaking independent movement going on in the islands and aggressively throw blockades in the way of any of the movementís young filmmakers from getting their work shown in commercial venues. These same vets, voting for a bit of travelogue-y drivel like Donsol, would never allow themselves to vote for a Khavn, or a John Torres, or a Lav Diaz. (His relatively shorter films, of course.) A body dominated by a hidebound elite in a countryís film culture, corrupt or not, will rarely if ever lean to the new. Particularly when they only need to pick one film per the Academyís dictates. Thatís why when cases come along like Mexico finally selecting Reygadas (after his years as a pariah), or a Hungary selecting their new and more daring artists like Palfi or Benedek Fliegauf, they have to be seen as exceptional, as bolts out of the blue. Look again at the best lists we assembled here at Filmjourney.org, and the message is that 2007 was a great year for world cinema. Yet the universe of cinema these lists acknowledge is often deliberately rejected and even despised by many of the members of the very committees determining a single ìbestî for the Oscar race. The entire system is rigged for mediocrity. The idea of blowing up such a system is just about the sanest new idea to hit the Oscar chat circuit in a long, long time.