Friday, February 27, 2015

"Is It Safe?" The method of Method

Another effect of the functional specialization which is partly responsible for the segregation of music- and movie-making talent in modern entertainment, could be the adoption of the Method approach to acting.

Not gratuitous.  Really.
Traditionally, actors would assume a role as something apart from themselves and their “real” personalities.  This is conveyed in the common synonym for acting-role — that is, “part”.  In traditional theatre, the impersonation required for a part, was completed by the elaborate costuming and make-up typical of stage-performance throughout the ages.  

In classical Greek theatre, actors even donned large masks (the word “persona” is Latin for “mask”).  These and other forms of theatricality were necessary such that large crowds could see what was happening on-stage.  The motion picture, and especially television, rendered obsolete the exaggerated gestures and movements typical of theatre-acting.  Since the moving-image was almost always framed at intimate quarters to the actors on-screen, there was little need for such theatricality.  

More than this, though, the close-up especially served to reveal the artificiality of an acting role, even if unintentionally.  Expressive performance was seen as “over-acting”, but detailed exposure to the human face permitted the film and TV audiences to “see through” actors’ delivering their lines outside the proper emotional tenor.  In order for an actor to move beyond this inherent insincerity, after World War II many in Hollywood adopted techniques originating in nineteenth-century Russian theatre.  

Method acting exploits sensual or emotional memories so as to express authentically the very affects needed for a part.  Some of the most praised actors of recent times have taken this to extremes, by remaining “in part” even when no cameras are rolling, on-set or even at leisure.  This was reportedly done by Daniel Day Lewis, when he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the Spielberg film of a couple of years ago; less pleasantly, he also kept up his on-screen persona as the villainous cad in the earlier ThereWill Be Blood.  During the first decades of film, when most performers originated on the stage, actors maintained the distinction between on-stage and private personae.  

Hoffman insisted on a real drill, too.
The disjunction between the method and traditional approaches, was illustrated by an on-set exchange alleged to have occurred between Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the making the Marathon Man, which was released theatrically in 1976.  Olivier, a star of the British stage before making it big in Hollywood, played a sadistic Nazi dentist who tortures a young grad student and marathon-runner (Hoffman) for information about jewels stolen from Holocaust victims.  Preparing for the part, Hoffman entered marathons and studied the subjects known to his character.  But when it came time to film the famous “Is it safe?” sequence, the young actor wondered as to what could be the “motivation” for having his root canal drilled into.  Olivier was said to have advised, “You should try acting.”  

As depicted in the recent movie My Week With Marilyn, Olivier’s patience was tried years earlier by method acting, when he filmed the Prince and the Showgirl in England during the 1950s.  His co-star, Marilyn Monroe, wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, and so studied vigilantly at the Actor’s Studio in New York city, American pioneers of the method approach.  This required lengthy delays in shooting, as Monroe constantly remained in her dressing room with an acting coach, looking to “get in character.”  As for Olivier, it appears he had no problem separating his stage personae from his real self.  According to one of his wives, the actress Joan Plowright, in spite of his dashing and debonair public image, Olivier was a “dullard” in his private life.

Method acting was but one example of the Modernist movement in the arts.  During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cadre of innovators refused and refuted the traditional forms of artistic representation.  In painting, this entailed the progressive abandonment of perspective techniques that provided an illusion of real depth to a flat surface.  The resultant Impressionist works did not attempt photo-realism, but their method of representation was more authentic than in Renaissance-style works, for showing a scene as if in flux.  

Maybe the first actor to really live the part.
In theatre, though, the avant-garde sought for greater realism in drama, than was typical of the stage at the time.  Often with political or even revolutionary subtext, the new theatre attempted to dramatize the lives of the audience itself.  Professional dramaturgy had no choice but to affect a more naturalistic portrayal of ordinary folks, the very people whom the modernists wished to attract to the theatre.  Method was originally called “Stanislavski method”, after the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897 (which was originally called the “Public-Accessible” theatre).  

According to his Wikipedia page, Constantin Stanislavski’s “work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States.  It draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant‑garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behavioural psychology, James‑Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy.  He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'.”  The entry goes on, “increasingly interested in "living the part," Stanislavski experimented with the ability to maintain a characterization in real life, disguising himself as a tramp or drunk and visiting the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune‑telling gypsy; he extended the experiment to the rest of the cast of a short comedy in which he performed in 1883, and as late as 1900 he amused holiday‑makers in Yalta by taking a walk each morning "in character"” (page last modified Feb 25, 2015).  Such “life-acting” could only have been realized within drama devoted to intense realism.  If an actor of the mannered and costumed Shakespearean or classical theatre attempted to remain “in character” at all times, the result would be more comical than revolutionary.  

Always the irony: an approach to acting that originated in left-wing politics, is now a key part of one of the greatest examples ever of free-market capitalism: Hollywood filmmaking.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Reason Why Music Isn't Popular At the Movies (Anymore)

As to the subject of the last entry: why are movies about music so unpopular?

It is strange because at one time, movies and music were joined at the hip.  Musicals were very popular throughout the first decades of sound film.  It was common, too, for 
music-stars to become movie-stars.  Arguably, the last of the classic-Hollywood film musicals was the Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews from 1965.  Since then, music and movies have gone their own way, at least in the United States.  

Into the Valley of the Obsolete...
Hollywood movies almost always include music, of course, be it a specially-composed score, or (as more commonly in recent times), contemporary or old-time pop songs.  Many music-hits gain public attention, in turn, as theme-songs to box-office smashes.  But the modern involvement of music with movies, doesn’t extend very often to the production of choreographed spectacles of the classic type.  The few such musicals that were produced after the ‘60s, have been very popular — as with Grease in 1978, or the adaptation of Chicago, during the early century.  A recent production of Les Miserables was also successful, critically and commercially.  

It isn’t a lack of demand for musicals that prevents them from being made.  It is that the suppliers — the requisite movie and musical movers-and-shakers — lack the will or imagination to make them.  

There are two reasons for this, I believe.  

Firstly, the predominant style of popular music after the mid-1960s - rock - doesn't lend itself to extended choreography.  Rock music is used very often in movies to involve the audience in the action onscreen.  But when rock music itself is the subject of a film, it somehow seems rather boring and pedestrian.  This must be the reason why no biographical film has been made of the most popular entertainers of the twentieth century: namely, the Beatles. The latter, of course, had the one really successful rock movie.  But A Hard Day’s Night, from 1964, focussed mainly on the lads’ hijinks-ridden attempt to evade hordes of Beatle-maniacs while travelling to a TV studio.  

Recent Hollywood rock movies have been unsuccessful.  One complete bomb of a years ago was a rock musical set in the classic mould, Rock of Ages.  It was despised to the point of ridicule (though I actually liked it).  It seemed to make plain to most people, why rock and movies are so incompatible.  

I couldn't resist
It could be said that Grease was a “rock” movie.  But its music actually owed more to an older song-and-dance tradition, overlain with the doowop and r’n’b genres of the 1950s.  This dance-hall and minstrel style lends itself more readily to spectacular choreography, because movement is based mainly in the feet.  Tellingly, dancers of this era were often called “hoofers.”  But rock’s rhythmic backbeat comes from the blues.  It inspires movement in the hips, rather than the feet.  It is thus rhythmically of little interest to other than people dancing to it.  Attempts to choreograph rock movement for the obvious benefit of the audience, end up seeming mawkish and artificial (as undeniably, they do in Rock of Ages).  Dancing doesn’t seem so in the classic Hollywood musical, based in an inherently more spectacular rhythmic orientation.  

Still, rock long ago ceded to other musical forms, the industry dominance it had from the late 1960s to the early 80s.  Still, performers in most other genres of American pop music, have similarly not been able to break into Hollywood.  The obvious example is Madonna, a chart topper for three decades, but never consistently successful at the box office.  This is in spite of the fact that choreography has been an essential part of the music-videos produced by Madonna and other pop-music queens since the 1980s.  

Perhaps it was the very ubiquity of dance on music-television at the height of its popularity, which made people unwilling to also see it at the movies.  However, neither Madonna nor any other music star of the MTV era has been successful for their comedic or dramatic roles.  Apart from the undoubted incompatibility of rock music with the motion-picture form, there seems to be the sense that modern movies are of a different sensibility from contemporary song-and-dance.  

No matter how well a pop singer acquits her- or himself in a given film (and Madonna received good reviews for her 1984 film debut, Desperately Seeking Susan), movie-audiences will not continually accept a singer in roles very far apart from an onstage persona, or so it would seem.  At the other end, the overt use of singing and dancing during the course of a movie narrative, seems intrusive and artificial. 

This disengagement of the movie and music industries at the artistic level at least, has thus a second reason: specialization of talent, as occurs when any line of business becomes larger and more complex.  Under the studio-system, movie companies were heavily involved in music-recording.  They invested in promising and pretty novices, so as to expose them to audiences cross-platform (as it would later be called, on stage, screen, record and broadcast).  

But as the studio-system disappeared in its classic form, and the supply of talent came to vastly outnumber the demand for their labour by television, film and music industries, would-be entertainers have had to specialize in their craft in a way that precludes them being any good at any but one type of entertainment.  The studio-system actress could become a good singer and dancer (or vice-versa), because training in these fields was paid for by her employers.  Contemporary performers simply don’t have access to these subsidies.  They must attempt to “make it”, or even make a living, selling what they are “naturally” good at.  It might be said that the imaginative psyche of present-day entertainers, that which allows them to break out of the bound of “real life” to create a role, a melody or a movement, has become so preoccupied upon a particular type of artistic endeavour, that the other forms of expression, once so closely associated, undergo atrophy. 

Even the exceptions that “prove” (which is to say, test) this rule, end up confirming the larger point about the disparate sensibilities of modern movies and music.  The Brooklyn-born Barbra Streisand enjoyed a lengthy career as a successful actress and singer.  Popular during from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s,  she could be considered the last of this classic-Hollywood type.  Originally reaching prominence on Broadway, she then became a pop star, breaking into movies with the musical Funny Girl in 1968.  

Yet after that, Streisand appeared in very few musicals.  She was popular and lauded in both comic and dramatic roles.  But her status as a music-star ran parallel to her career as a film actress (and later, a producer and director).  Talented, hardworking or ambitious enough to be proficient or exceptional in several types of entertainment, Streisand somehow knew that they couldn’t be mixed together easily or at all, to any success.  

He's Going to Need a Bigger Bed
This is confirmed by the career of another Broadway type who succeeded in movies: the late Bob Fosse, who died too young in 1987.  Fosse’s early Hollywood films were musicals, such as Cabaret from 1972 (which he didn't stage originally).  But he didn’t thereafter direct a Hollywood musical, in spite of staging the successful Chicago in 1975.  He made the excellent All That Jazz in ‘79, about a Broadway choreographer much like himself, but it had only two musical sequences (one an arrangement of the Everly Brothers' Bye, Bye Love.  This and other Fosse pictures were, in complete contrast to the high-flying tone typical of the Broadway musical, downbeat stories of tragedy and heartbreak as resulting from success.  Again, as with Streisand, Fosse’s very twin oeuvre reflects the different sensibilities of popular song, the musical and the movies.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why is Music So Unpopular at the Movies?

I've almost finished watching the cable TV series Treme, which ran on HBO between 2010 and 2013.  Named after the New Orleans neighbourhood renowned as a centre of the city's musical scene, Treme (which is pronounced like "trem-ay") dealt with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.  But it was no hit, in spite of the critical praise it received.  I thought it was a standard cable program - which is to say, if it aired twenty years ago, it would have been considered revolutionary. I really thought Treme hit its stride by the second series, but nevertheless it had very few viewers. When I mentioned the show to a relative of mine (who watches cable shows to the exclusion even of movies), he'd never heard of Treme.

This had me pondering as to why movies and programs about music aren't  very popular.  The indifference of the viewing public to the lives of musicians isn't reserved for niche tastes like New Orleans jazz.  Forty-five years after his death, Jimi Hendrix remains popular among youth whose parents were then years away from being born.  A few months back, Rolling Stone had a short profile on an upcoming feature film about Hendrix's breakthrough period.  Starring Andre Benjamin, from the rap-group Outkast, and entitled All Is By My Side, I periodically wondered when it would appear in theatres.  However, it showed up instead on the "rapid-borrow" shelf of the library near the beginning of the year.  Evidently, no one would distribute it theatrically. Personally, I enjoyed it; but I'm a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. Benjamin (who is more than a decade older than Hendrix was at the time of his death) puts in a very credible performance as the ill-fated guitarist.  It could be presumed that there is a built-in audience for such a film: but theatre-chains guessed, probably correctly, that no one would go to see it (the movie does suffer from the apparent inability of the filmmakers to secure the copyright to Jimi's music, and the performances consist of songs written by others).

The coolest guy that ever lived.  Yes.

A similar, and more so undeserved obscurity has attended to Nowhere Boy, a 2009 film about John Lennon's youth.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, then just nineteen, is outstanding as the future Beatle, holding his own alongside fellow novices and deft veterans, such as Kirsten Scott-Thomas (expert as John's aunt Mimi Smith).  It was well-directed and edited, too, and the fact that no Beatle music is heard, is excused by the fact that it portrays events years before Beatlemania.  I'd never heard of it, though, until I came across the DVD while browsing titles at the library.  It could be argued that Hendrix's popularity is of more limited reach, but there is no question about Lennon's widespread renown.  It seems, however, that almost none of his many fans have the slightest interest in seeing movies or watching TV shows depicting his life.  Earlier attempts at a cinematic Lennon have been similarly unsuccessful.  In the 1990s a film called Backbeat, about the band's early days in Hamburg, met cautious praise but did little business either.  In 1988, a documentary called Imagine was released to theatres.  Though it had a great deal of rare or previously-unseen footage of Lennon, it similarly played to sparse crowds (as I was surprised to find when I went to see it). 

Speaking of Oscar-worthy performances...
As I remember it now, I went to see Imagine as a second-choice.  We had intended to view instead Rattle and Hum, the documentary about U2's mega-successful U.S. tour in 1987.  Scanning the movies page, though, we found it had disappeared from theatres soon after release.  Lennon's global popularity aside, U2 were the hottest thing in music in the late 1980s.  Not even this could encourage their fans to come see a movie of the band performing, in spite of good reviews it received (one of the At the Movies duo even put Rattle and Hum on his top-ten-of-the-year list).

The lack of popularity for films and documentaries about world-famous musicians, could be explained by their subjects' very ubiquity in the mass media.  Which is to say, John and Jimi's voices and personae are so familiar that any attempt to portray them will seem inauthentic and artificial.  Meanwhile, Rattle and Hum's failure could have resulted from public fatigue from the hype about the "new Beatles" (the accompanying soundtrack album didn't sell as well as expected either).  Yet the simultaneous flop of the Imagine doc, which did indeed feature the real McLennon with an intimacy not seen before, points to a generic indifference for musical cinema. 

This is even more striking, given that musicals were an integral part  of movies during the first decades of sound-film.  The relatively few musicals that have been produced since the 1960s, have been more successful than not.  It is specifically movies about the lives of musicians or their fans, which are terminally unpopular. This is so even for fictional films specifically about popular rock music.  Almost Famous was about a rock band that was something like Led Zeppelin dressed up as Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Set in 1973, the story was based on director Cameron Crowe's earlier career as a teenage journalist.  Released in the year 2000, Almost Famous was a surprise flop; its director had just made the Academy-heralded Jerry McGuire, and Famous was expected to be a smash.  

In 2010, a film called the Runaways was released, based on the first all-female rock band, from the late 1970s.  Though it featured popular young actresses at the time, Kirsten Stewart (as Runaways' guitarist Joan Jett) and Dakota Fanning (as the lead singer, Cherie Currie), the Runaways did little business, earning back less than half of its ten-million dollar budget at the box office.

Can't beat those seventies...

The mass indifference toward rock-themed movies goes back long before Almost Famous or the Runaways.  Robert Zemeckis has been one of the most successful Hollywood  directors of the past few decades.  His first studio feature was I Wanna Hold Your Hand, from 1978.  It is about New Jersey teenagers attempting to get into the hotel where the Beatles stayed when coming to America in 1964.  It was also well-previewed and reviewed, but did so poorly that Zemeckis was unable to direct another film for several years.  The director's constant efforts to merge a fictional present with the factual past are no less expertly accomplished (so I recall, not having seen the movie in decades) than in later attempts by Zemeckis that were much more successful at the box office.  Thus, when the kids finally obtain entry to the theatre where the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan show, the shot cuts away to the actual Beatles performing through the monitors of old-style television cameras (which in turn obscure the faces of the actual actors pretending to be the Beatles).  By the 1990s, when Zemeckis made Forrest Gump, computer-graphics were advanced enough such that the title character, played by Tom Hanks, could be rendered in conversation with president Kennedy and other historical figures.  This jumbling of time-frames was indulged even to a tiresome degree in the Back to the Future trilogy, in which the years are traversed in a nuclear-powered sports-car, and characters observe themselves doing things already shown before (hence the ennui).  Nevertheless, Future and Gump were very popular films.  Audiences do not reject Zemeckis=s particular thematic approach, except when it is applied to music.

Not surprisingly, the Beatles have been the most successful at the cinema.  But even this has be$en relatively unspectacular.   Made at the height of Beatlemania, A Hard Day's Night was very popular.  But the followup, Help!, was not as well-received.  Not counting the Magical Mystery Tour fiasco, only Yellow Submarine was an unqualified success, and the actual Beatles appeared in it only briefly.  The documentary Let It Be, appearing just as the Beatles broke up, was little-seen either at the time of its release, or for years afterward (for the good reason that it was boring).  The documentary featuring the Woodstock festival in 1969, was a box-office success upon its release to theatres the following year.  It was broadly popular less so due to the performances contained therein, but because of the extensive footage of the concert-goers themselves, which takes up probably half or more of the film's original three-hour running time.  This lack of interest of movie-goers in rock-music movies, obtains only when musicians are, onstage or off, the subject of the movie itself.  Music is an essential part of nearly all Hollywood movies, with popular song having an increasingly large place on soundtracks.  Frequently, songs become hits as the title-tracks of popular movies - even old radio-hits have undergone revival because of their inclusion in films (such as Stuck in the Middle with You, by Stealer's Wheel from 1974, which saw airplay nearly twenty years later, after it was heard in an infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs).  Again, however, rock and other popular songs only became famous in movies, if they are backing-tracks to some different activity than watching musicians perform.

The question is, why is this so?  I will tackle that in the next entry 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Art is Always Illusion

The National Gallery of Canada is hosting this year an exhibition of prints by the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). 

It turns out that Escher's son emigrated to the Ottawa area years ago, and the prints are from the younger Escher's own collection. I've been fascinated with Escher's works for years. 

Famously, most of them portray "Impossible Realities", such as Ascending and Descending, which I had as a poster on my wall when I still lived at home with my parents. 

Dating from 1960, it is a lithograph depicting a building about thirty or forty feet high, with an unseen courtyard bordered by a staircase. Figures aligned in two rows move in opposite directions on the stairs, which are shown to simultaneously ascend and descend: 

These and other Escher works are optical illusions: but they bring forward the reality that the perspective techniques which made for "realism" in post-Renaissance painting, are themselves based on optical illusion. 

In Ascending and Descending and other works, Escher employed the geometrical principles which made for the illusion of ascending stairs, upon the same visual plane as those principles which provide for the illusion of descending steps. 

Though Escher wasn't the first to parody the optical illusions inherent to perspective painting, his oeuvre uniquely in the twentieth century made the vanishing-point form part of the content of the work. 

Through the maintenance of realism in terms of architectural detail, Escher nevertheless made it impossible to accept the conceit that his images were simply looking through a window. 

In a book called The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher, by Bruno Ernst, published originally in 1978, the author writes of a trompe l'oeil that he encountered years earlier: "These mural paintings, carried out in many combinations of varying shades of gray, achieved so plastic an impression that one could not escape the conviction that they were marble reliefs a deception, an illusion that never ceased to astonish." (p. 5) 

Ernst goes on: "This playful exercise has its roots in the representational methods of the Renaissance. The three dimensional world had to be reproduced as faithfully as possible on the flat surface, and in such a way that image and reality might be indistinguishable to the eye. The idea was that the painting should conjure up warm, voluminous reality. In the case of the trompe l'oeil paintings, ceiling paintings, and those portraits which keep on staring at one from whichever point one looks at them, it is a question of playing the game for the game's sake. It is no longer a matter of representational verisimilitude in the things that are being portrayed, but of downright optical illusion, of superdeception in the service of deceit. The painter takes a delight in this deceit, and the viewer is determined to be deceived willy nilly, deriving therefrom the same sort of sensation as when he is being taken in by a magician. The spatial suggestion is so strong. so exaggerated, that nothing short of actual touch can reveal to us that we are dealing with pictures on a flat surface. A great deal of Escher's work is related to this supersuggestion of the spatial to which we have just referred. However, the suggestion itself is not what he is primarily aiming at. His prints are much rather the reflection of that peculiar tension inherent in any flat representation of a spatial situation. In many of his prints he causes the spatial to emerge from the flat surface. In others he makes a conscious attempt to nip in the bud any spatial suggestion that he may have brought about." (pp. 5-6) 

Escher was also evidently fascinated with the figure-ground relationship. This is seen in the "periodic space-filling" works, such as the pen-and-ink Angels and Devils, from 1941, where each angelic figure's outline is shared with the satanic one beside it.

More substantive works, such as Up and Down (from 1947), carry forward the figure-ground relation in terms of illusional representation. The lithograph features a young man sitting on steps leading up to what appears to be a tropical villa, looking up at a woman leaning on its balcony. 

This is shown from two perspectives simultaneously, from above the villa, and from below. In the latter scene, the structure's ceiling becomes the floor for the perspective from above: In point of fact, all art, or at least all art that claims to be representational, is an optical illusion. Curved and straight lines are placed down on paper (or painted on canvas or whatever), and if accomplished with enough finesse, establish a gestalt: a face, or a building, or the sky, or what you have you.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Academy Awards were held last evening. 

As usual, I didn't watch; even if I had cable (or even digital-broadcast) TV, I probably wouldn't have bothered. The program itself is too boring to watch, I find.

Still, the Oscars are of inherent cultural fascination. Before I get into that, I wanted to discuss hunting. In books on human prehistory, authors usually describe agriculture as “succeeding” the hunter-gathering economy. But hunting remained a feature of the rural environment in every society right up to modern times, and until recent centuries, life in cities, or even large towns, was relatively uncommon.

It wasn’t only hunting for “game”, important as this was to rural people throughout civilized times. In less arable lands, or in the very common circumstances of crop failure, hunting made the difference for many populations between life and starvation. Predation thereby, was by no means rendered obsolete by the mere invention of farming.

 The hunt only ceased to be commonplace, at least in Britain, when during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, agricultural techniques were transformed through crop-rotation and the enclosure of land. This farming revolution not only increased harvest yields to such an extent as to make crop-failure and starvation a thing of the past. Land enclosure, and the complementary clearing of wasteland and wilderness for agricultural purposes, drastically reduced the amount of wildlife available to be hunted. The inequities of the cash-crop system introduced by agricultural improvements, were highlighted by the drastic curtailment of traditional rights of hunting.  Hunting upon enclosed lands was redefined legally as “poaching”, subject to severe penalty, up to and including death. Meanwhile, the feudal right of lords to hunt anywhere they wished to, was maintained.

The centrality of the hunt among feudal lords, and indeed, of hunting for sport generally, attests to the importance of hunting behaviour, indifferent to subsistence needs. The “goal” of game-hunting is the trophy — the head of the animal hung upon a wall, the remnants of the great feast held to conclude, and to celebrate, a successful hunt.Sports involve most or all the physical faculties required of hunting. The quarry is now a ball, instead of a beast, and the playing field replaces the happy hunting-ground. But the aim of the sport-contest is the same — a trophy, representing not the head of the opponent, but in contemporary times at least, an icon representing the player of the sport, or some kind of vessel. Sport-trophies are also handed out at a feast — the banquet.

Naturally, the champion gets the biggest trophy of all which, like the head of a slain beast, is usually hung on a wall, or placed on a mantel. As usual, what is apparently fun and frivolous, has deep roots in the human psychology. So primordial, in fact, that trophies are handed out for lots of activities that have nothing to do with athletics. Returning to the Academy Awards telecast, then. Observing the glee which with celebrated movie stars reacted when they were announced as the winner of the best-actor or actress awards, it struck me that this event, and others like it, is a kind of pagan-technological feast.

The actual trophy given out for winning an Academy Award is fascinating in its banality. Featureless, almost out-of-focus seeming, the statuette is nicknamed “Oscar” in spite of its androgyny. The design is a relic, a fragment of the Art Deco style, which often incorporated statuary shorn of distinctive individuality in its architecture and decor. The Oscar is, in other words, significant of absolutely nothing at all. But one gets the impression that winners of the year’s Oscar in what-you-have category, have to do everything in their power to remain dignified when rising to accept the award. Some don’t even bother. My idea as to the underlying nature of the Academy Awards, perhaps came to light as I watched Jack Nicholson, the now-venerable actor, rise to the stage and do a little dance across the floor to the podium, collecting the Oscar for the lead performance in As Good As It Gets.

Nicholson had already won the Oscar for best actor as a relatively young man (for Chinatown, in 1974). It should have been no big deal for him; instead Nicholson as much as levitated across the stage to get his trophy. I think this was when I decided that the attraction of the Oscars, was not merely hype.

There is a whole lot of hype involved with the Academy Awards. It is the most watched programme on the planet, seen throughout every country in the world. The manifest elation of Oscar winners, and the corresponding disappointment of the also-ran, would seem to indicate that the whole world actually voted for them. In reality, Oscars are awarded by an organization called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — hence the official name of the awards ceremony.

There are prominent members of the Academy, but its membership as a whole remains confidential, as do the methods for polling as to which movies and performances are to be judged the best of the year. In spite of its name, the Academy exists virtually to give out awards. The shadowy character of is inner workings, actually seems to lend prestige to the “race.” It’s almost as though the Hollywood community, and by extension, millions of people throughout the world, treat the decisions of the Academy as sacred, the word of some kind of priesthood of wise elders of the industry.

This is so, even when (as often occurs) the selection of this film, or that performer, as the best of the year, is met with general disapproval. In spite of it, the next year Hollywood players avidly campaign to be included on the nominee list.

 The Academy Awards are just one of many annual, industry-specific awards’ banquets, almost all of which are of interest only to those directly involved. Aside from the attention given the Oscars, the latter differs from the others in that no feasting is to be had at all during the ceremony. Originally, the awarding of the Academy “Merit” trophies (as per their formal title) followed a formal dinner, but this was judged too cumbersome for live telecasts.

Less prestigious shows, such as the Golden Globes (these awarded by even more shadowy entity known as the Hollywood Foreign Critics Association or some such) are staged with the nominees sat at tables. In any case, the “real show”, as the saying goes, comes not during the awards show, but with the after-parties, when the Hollywood elite carouses well into daylight.

In pagan lore, charms and idols are associated with luck — both good and bad. If, as I believe, the Oscar trophy is a subliminal fetish, it is perhaps inevitable that the Academy Awards have bred their own superstition. There is talk of an Oscar “curse,” the career bust that supposedly dogs winners of the best-acting categories. Empirically, the case for such a phenomenon cannot be made by mere observation of the number instances when this did, in fact, occur. A more careful approach would be to compare the success of Oscar-winning performers with those who were nominated and did not win, and those who were not nominated at all. The latter’s diminishing prospects couldn’t be blamed on an Oscar-trophy “curse”.

My quick analysis on exactly this question, done several years ago, led me to believe that for most movie-stars, Oscar winners or not, box-office “cred” is relatively fleeting. A very minuscule number of film stars are successful over many decades; most have less than a decade as bankable actors, and many have five years or less. This is regardless of Oscar-approval or not. What is clear, is that success at the Oscars is essentially irrelevant to an actor or actress’s commercial potential. Even otherwise highly-praised film stars have remained active for long periods without winning the trophy, while the vast majority of performers who have not won an Oscar, are also not stars for very long. In spite of all the Oscar hype, the Academy Awards are a commercial irrelevance, at least in the long-term. They are, at base, as irrational as the worship of any icon can be — more so than with sports even, as the criteria for “victory” at the Oscars is so mysterious and arbitrary.