Triumph of 'The Artist': Why the Independent Spirit Awards Need a Wake Up Call

Awards
by Eric Kohn
February 26, 2012 1:55 PM
9 Comments
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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.
Because it's so damn light and fluffy, "The Artist" is the cream that rises to the top of voters' minds.

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.

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9 Comments

  • malikmubeen | April 8, 2012 12:52 AMReply

    nice movie

  • F.P. | February 28, 2012 2:21 PMReply

    How did MY WEEK WITH MARILYN from the UK and THE ARTIST from France make the Indie Spirits, while UK productions WEEKEND and SHAME were relegated to just Foreign Film award eligibility (yet another stupid approach for non-American/English-speaking film awards)? It just takes three letters to explain it - T.W.C. At $12M, that budget alone should have made THE ARTIST ineligible, but it was shot in LA and the budget cap for eligibility is (incorrectly) set at $20M. MARILYN likely was similarly budgeted, meaning that that cap needs serious re-evaluation, along with some Harvey-proof rules. The Cassavettes nominees could have easily been the Best Picture nominees - 500K is a budget most indies would kill for these days. I'd argue that films under $10M should still be eligible, but good luck trying to get that sort of budget anyway. Changing the caps alone would prevent some of the same Indiewood shenanigans of 2012. But more importantly, shame on IFP voters for being taken in by campaign BS. When the trades can spend more time trumping the great young films of the year more than the IFP membership, something has to change.

  • LG | February 27, 2012 7:44 PMReply

    It's still a shame about Michael Fassbender. X-Men, Jane Eyre, Dangerous Method, and the best male performance?...Shame is the right word for his lack of at LEAST a nomination. Truly a shame. I fear not as I know his best is yet to come but he worked his butt off last year. At least Venice got it right.

  • Mark Stolaroff | February 26, 2012 5:57 PMReply

    We've had this problem with the Spirits for years. I remember feeling this way when "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" won at the Spirits. It was made for millions and was up for like 10 Oscars. I think one problem is TV. Just like the Oscars, it's a big TV show and has to attract viewers. Of course, watching a "Bellflower" acceptance speech would have been incredibly entertaining.

  • daveDH | February 26, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    So it looks like we need an alternative cinema establishment to the alternative cinema establishment. Then again, if MMMM is the best example of a neglected masterpiece you can find, we may need an alternative cinema establishment to the alternative cinema establishment to the alternative cinema establishment. That, or just junk the whole thing, and start over.

  • Eric | March 21, 2012 2:33 PM

    Sorry, F.P., but you have bad intel. I've never had a conversation with the Borderline guys at Cannes. And while we've had friendly conversations in the past, I saw and enjoyed the movies first. If you're going to complain about the quality of that particular movie, fine. But don't invent stories and assume we'll just lie there and take it, mkay?

  • F.P. | February 28, 2012 2:27 PM

    Actually, no Eric, MMMM didn't deserve it. Like many, I half expected Lizzy Olsen or Adepero Oduye to trump Michelle Williams, but that's all MMMM would have deserved. I respect that the boys of Indiewire love to over-promote the greatness of that film and SIMON KILLER, but neither was an experience worth repeating for me, and many many others who've seen them or just MMMM. Olsen's a star, but the jury's still out on the Borderline boys to many non-Indiewire employees. But when they return to Cannes in May, I'm sure you'll all have a fun time partying together again, so you all have that much to look forward to.

  • Eric Kohn | February 26, 2012 2:57 PM

    All joking aside, you're right in that MMMM certainly received considerable attention. But you're wrong to sarcastically assert that it didn't deserved it.

    Still, as the piece specifies, the neglect of "Weekend," "Bellflower," "In the Family" and "Take Shelter" is even more problematic.

  • davey | February 26, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    I was hoping last night's Indie Spirit Awards would be a relief from The Artist overkill. Unfortunately I was wrong. I actually thought Williams deserved to win last night, though. And 50/50. And The Interrupters. Too bad The Artist had to ruin the evening as a foreign film put into the wrong categories according to the usual Indie Spirit rules.

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