By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn February 26, 2012 at 1:55PM
With all these discussions of rules and stipulations, the award season can sound like a terribly cold, mechanical affair. Setting aside whether or not "The Artist" was qualified to win Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday, the main question is whether the movie deserved it. When Sir Ben Kingsley opened up the final envelope onstage at the Santa Monica event yesterday and read the two-word title, the mood in the room was best described as a collective shrug; the entire ceremony had culminated in little more than a rehearsal for the Oscars.
What happened here? As a Spirits voter, I had been pulling for a number of candidates in the room who never made it to the stage. In the Best Feature category, you have "Take Shelter," Jeff Nichols' brilliant southern-fried look at a blue collar man coming to grips with his fractured reality, which gets real with the dark pathways of personal and professional failure in ways that "The Artist" only confronts with persistent cheeriness and breezy homage. "Take Shelter" is a powerful psychological thriller that assaults the senses and wakes them up; "The Artist" never bothers to burrow so deep. It steamrolled the more challenging nominees simply because it's so hard to hate.
Within minutes of the Spirits' conclusion, I heard many variations of the same concession. According to one attendee, "The Artist" is "okay, I guess," while someone else offered that it was "fine, but…" and then never finished the sentence. Because it's so damn light and fluffy, "The Artist" is the cream that rises to the top of voters' minds.
And so it went with the other categories where "The Artist" triumphed. Guillaume Schiffman took home the Best Cinematography award, although he couldn't make it town in time for the ceremony, having won the same category at France's Cesare awards on Friday. Here, Schiffman beat out Joel Hodge, the innovative cinematographer for "Bellflower," a movie shot with a homemade camera that captured its expressionistic world of heartbreak and crazed libido.
Also not present: Jean Dujardin, a Best Male Lead winner for "The Artist" whose victory meant that "Take Shelter" star Michael Shannon went home empty-handed, as did "Drive" stud Ryan Gosling and Woody Harrelson, nominated for "Rampart." These three performances were neither safe, tidy or comfortable to watch, just like the movies. Again, "The Artist" beat them out only because it was easy.
Looking back on these wins, it's easy to place the blame on a single culprit. "Full list of Harvey Weinstein award winners," read Indiewire's Twitter feed on Saturday afternoon, followed by a link to the Spirits outcome. While The Weinstein Company certainly dominated the evening, also taking home a prize for Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn" (undeserved, but her adorable acceptance speech about being an outsider made up for it), there's something greater than a marketing feat at work here. The cause exists deep in the crevices of voters' minds. By looking in familiar places, they cast unadventurous votes.
That, at least in some roundabout way, accounts for lack of wins for many nominees last night whose success would have sent a message about the validity of working outside industry norms: Consider "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "In the Family," nominated for Best First Feature. Both use patient formalism to a near-experimental degree. As former Indiewire editor Brian Brooks pointed out in Deadline yesterday, Andrew Haigh's gentle gay romance "Weekend" didn't even land a nomination, maybe because it was just too small and soft-spoken to catch most voters' attention. These are great movies that could use the boost to validate their originality.
One solution to the ongoing danger of a single audience favorite crushing all else might be an alternative awards show exclusively dedicated to microbudget films. A panel of expert could have the power to veto potential nominees on a case by case basis. Following this logic, "The Artist" would likely have been ruled out. But a more realistic answer lies in the hands of the filmmakers. Audiences, even the industry vets, often suffer from cinematic amnesia: They only remember the movies constantly thrust in front of them. To beat the system, you have to play it harder than everyone else.