It was the night of the BAFTAs and I found myself throwing screeners at the TV in rage and disappointment. What did my fellow members think they were doing? La La Land is not a bad film by any means. It’s OK for a Hollywood act of self-love, but a great film, made by a great director with a great performance by the lead actress? Great cinematography and music? You’ve gotta be kidding me. Yet, five gongs the film collected, none of them deserved. So why did it happen?
Recently I wrote about what it was I wanted from going to the movies. When times are hard or uncertain all everyone else seems to want is escapism. On April 4 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later Bobby Kennedy met the same fate. The US was in existential turmoil, both physical and metaphysical. It was a crazy year around the world. And what was the film that screened that summer and went on to win best picture in the Oscars? An entertaining, cheesy piece of musical escapism of a Dickens Classic, Oliver!, directed by Carol Reed. There was less emotional and subjective voting behaviour in the UK where Mike Nichols’ The Graduate picked up the most BAFTAs, followed by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001- A Space Odyssey. These are two unforgettable, timeless classics that will for ever be cherished in the annals of cinema history. Oliver! received several nominations but no wins. Altogether a much more satisfying and sensible result.
I had no doubt La La Land would clean up at this year’s Oscars for similar reasons Oliver! did so well. I had prayed fervently that the 2017 BAFTAs could be remembered for recognising great talent, but I guess that will have to wait for another year. It would be mean-spirited of me to say that all the awards were given on the basis of public emotional need – an interesting consideration within the tenets of Film Culture I would posit – and many choices, although they were not mine, nonetheless were deserved. The categories were crowded places to be in 2017, which is why I am so pissed off with the results.
Looking back at 1968 and comparing both the social and political realities of then and now, I find it worrying that today my fellow BAFTA members seem more in love with Hollywood escapist pap than genuinely good films and especially directors. Sure, the USA was in greater turmoil and fear in ’68 than we were back in Blighty – although revolution was in the air and I, when not high on rock and roll was expressing a view outside the US embassy and getting a good kicking from our boys in Blue for the trouble. I blame the Media. The last few weeks has been a continual blitz of hype, adulation and verbal diarrhoea around the brilliance of La La Land. It has been a marketing triumph for Lionsgate who are the main distributors of the film. The Media was looking for a sweet bit of escapism to prime the pumps of audience need, and boy has it succeeded. Yet, when I had discussed voting intentions with fellow voters I couldn’t find anyone who rated the film at all. I fear that the arbiters of taste and quality amongst my peers are a different breed in the UK than they were nearly fifty years ago. I suggest that we are becoming more like the Americans in our taste and if that is the case, I am much saddened. I also wonder if, as in real life, I live within a neo-liberal, independent cinema-lovers bubble and don’t mix enough with the modern media air-heads who spend too much time drinking inappropriately at BAFTA HQ.
Escapism is a vital part of the experience of film and it is good for us to be able to spend those few hours in a darkened room forgetting about our troubles, our leaders, our neighbours; but when I Google for the ten best escapist movies of all time what pops up is Vogue’s suggestions, which are all to do with getting away from it all to some exotic location. So first perhaps, one needs to attempt to define just exactly what an escapist film is – and I don’t include John Sturges’ 1963 classic, The Great Escape, starring the ultimate movie heart-throb Steve McQueen – which, by the way, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film Editing but didn’t win. Any ideas?