Let’s be totally reductive for a moment, and say that there are two kinds of documentary-lovers: those who enjoy watching the Oscars and those who don’t. I am very much the former, and often when I bring up my interest in the Academy Awards, I am slapped around for my interest in such commercial puffery.
With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, I figure it’s time to face this head-on. Please post a comment letting us know where you stand: Do you care what happens at the Oscars?
If my prior experience is any indication, the nays will triumph. And, it’s true, the feeling can sometimes be mutual. Jerry Seinfeld presented the documentary nominees some years ago, and he didn’t do docs much service by repeatedly cracking about what a downtrodden, boring category it was. Rumors that Oprah may be presenting the doc category this year are another indication that Oscar minders are worried that the category needs more juice. Are docs and Oscars incompatible?
I don’t think so. Take me, for example. I love movies. I also love documentaries. I like silly, over-budgeted blockbusters with happy endings that make me feel good about my life. And I also like serious, confrontational documentaries that critique social norms that I abide by. I live with the contradictions. I don’t think I’m alone.
So even though the Oscars are a bloated, self-congratulatory party, I can maintain a critical distance at the same time that I can enjoy the eye candy — and the contest. It’s not that I approve of how quality is often trumped by popularity. But it does make for a pretty good show. And the Oscars happen to be one of the few stages where, literally, documentaries and feature films can share the same space.
This year, I think the outcome of the Oscar category is a pretty sure thing. I’ve been right on my doc Oscar picks the past three years, and I think this one is the easiest to predict so far. The contenders are Exit through the Gift Shop, Gasland, Inside Job, Restrepo, and Waste Land. Each film is great and worthy of winning the award, but this isn’t about worthiness, is it? (Reminder: an appreciation for irony is an important ingredient to enjoying the show.) Gasland and Waste Land are both socially important films, but they lack the following or the buzz to be contenders. Restrepo is about the war in Afghanistan, which is a plus, and it has a fair amount of Oscar polish to it, but it hasn’t received the notice necessary for it to be a serious player. That leaves two very different docs going head-to-head.
Exit is definitely the doc of the moment. With all of the questions swirling around its genesis, and its hipness credibility replete with guerilla marketing on the streets of LA (see inset), you’d think it’s the popular doc to love. And it is, amongst the younger audience. I can guarantee that there will be at least one big Banksy joke/reference during the show, bringing documentary into the spotlight. (Presenter James Franco dressing up as Banksy is the most obvious riff, but I expect there will be a twist — maybe Ann Hathaway spraying a wall as Banksy, or a swarm of people approaching the stage in monkey masks?)*
And then there’s Inside Job; while it may be very timely, it being about the financial crisis, it’s not exactly hot. Or sexy. But it’s always good to remember who the Oscar voters are — mostly liberal actors, and mostly in their 50s or over. I think enough of that set will want to reward the documentary that captures the most important event of our time — the financial crisis — than give props to an incredibly clever (if possibly two-faced) film about street art.
That all said, there’s nothing more exciting than having a sure thing in a race. That’s when you keep a hidden hope that the dark horse — Exit, in this case — can pull out a win when no one sees it coming. And that’s why, more than anything, I’ll be watching the Oscars.
Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.
* Note to Banksy, Banksy’s producers, minders, friends or just his publicist: I understand that you, Banksy, have not been seen definitively wearing a monkey mask but if you consider you have a fluid and amorphous identity, it’s fair game to project anything on to you. (The first person I know of who suggested that you wear such a mask was the Academy’s executive director Bruce Davis, when he said it to me.) It makes even more sense if you consider how you sat with a monkey mask next to you in Exit and that Thierry Guetta painted a portrait of you wearing a monkey mask, which is about as real a representation of you as the real you, in the game that you’re playing. Or do you get to make up all the rules?