Last Thursday, Paul Thomas Anderson had the audacity to debut his 160-minute prestige season behemoth, There Will Be Blood (based on the equally hulking and shamelessly exclamatory* novel by Upton Sinclair), at the 2007 Fantastic Fest (described on its website as "a week-long festival featuring the best in new science-fiction, fantasy, horror, animation, crime, Asian, and all around badass cinema"), and, judging from the incensed reactions in some quarters (well, one quarter), you’d think he just told all of Hollywood and the venerable New York Film Festival to fuck themselves running.
Maybe, by opting out of the major late summer/early fall festivals (including the artiste-friendly NYFF, where his celebrated sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, bowed a decade ago) in favor of a relatively low-key genre shindig, this was precisely what he intended. Or maybe this was Paramount Vantage temporarily masking There Will Be Blood‘s hypothetical artistic shortcomings by screening the film in a friendly environment. Or maybe Anderson was just backing up what he’d said around the time of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival: "I just got out of the mix a few weeks ago and the first screening is going to be very discreet at a small festival. I don’t want to make a big deal about it."
The problem with that latter "maybe" is that it doesn’t leave much room for misplaced indignation – which is probably why Movie City News‘ David Poland gradually backed off his hyperbolic claim that the Fantastic Fest premiere was "suicidal" as it related to the film’s Oscar chances (you’ll have to read through ninety-some comments to observe the evolution in his thinking, but he does seem to lighten up a bit near the end). As for why there needs to be any kind of indignation directed at a film as a result of where it’s seen for the first time and who gets to see it first… it’s October, and already the awards race is out of control.
Sifting through the furor, Poland does make a very salient point. To wit: "This bullshit about ‘why does it always have to be about awards’ is pathetic. Why do you think they financed the movie? How do you think they intend to turn a profit? What planet do you people live on? The only way an expensive – and it’s expensive – art film like that with Daniel Day Lewis, who has no box office draw past the first $500k, in the lead, is to run it at the Oscars and other awards. The illusion of the renegade holds a lot more water when the movie costs less than the rest of the (big) studio line-up."
He’s right. But it goes further than this. I used to think it was the height of stupidity to view the Academy Awards as anything more than a silly, self-important pageant that ran late enough on the East Coast to guarantee a wicked Monday hangover (I mean, what maniac watches this shit sober?). But then I moved to Hollywood and saw how something as seemingly innocuous as a Best Screenplay Oscar could earn an up-and-coming filmmaker more artistic freedom (i.e. a workable budget) and greater access to top tier actors. There are myriad ways to generate professional heat in this town, but, sexual favors notwithstanding, few are as tangible as an Oscar win: with it, Bill Condon gets Kinsey made; without it, Kenneth Lonergan struggles for years to get Margaret off the ground (even with Scott Rudin’s backing).
Therefore, as a fan of both screenwriters, I have a legitimate rooting interest in their efforts (or, more accurately, their publicists’ efforts) to curry favor with Academy voters via the guild Q&A circuit, tacky "For Your Consideration" ads in the trades (and, now, on the various blogs dedicated to handicapping the Oscars!), and buzz-building cocktail receptions for influential journalists (without which I would’ve never spent an hour chatting up Bill Murray as he drained a pint glass full of champagne). These risible errands matter. The other option – preserving your integrity by treating the whole process with the dripping contempt it deserves – feels great until you try to secure financing for your next film. Better think small. Or attach Leo. (DiCaprio, not Rossi – though I don’t see why you can’t do both.)
This is how I explain away the thousands of words I’ve banged out in reaction to this year’s awards chase alone – even though it’s only October 2nd and the presumed film to beat, Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War, probably won’t screen for critics until late November at the earliest (though it’s possible there will be long-lead screenings for them magazine profile-writin’ types a month from now). If Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker I admire even when his writing verges on the amateurish (see Moore, Julianne in Magnolia), fails to connect with Academy voters or mainstream audience (who probably won’t bother with his nearly three-hour epic unless it comes pre-approved with Oscar nominations), he’s fucked. Or, at the very least, he’s back to making films on the reduced scale of Hard Eight, i.e. unless he casts a major Hollywood star (and even then, there’s no guarantee; e.g. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will likely fall short on all fronts despite the presence of Brad Pitt). For studios, great art isn’t worth the trouble if it ain’t sufficiently salable. So you do what you can to favorably shape perspective for the artists you like – based on, in the case of There Will Be Blood, a small but overwhelmingly positive sample size.
On one hand, I realize I’m feeding a beast that ought to be starved, but I’m afraid Oscar coverage, like box office analysis, is here to stay; and while you’re right to lament this, the American way has always been to reduce the evaluation of art to a popularity contest. Sooner or later, your soul has to wave a white flag on some of this shit. The most constructive thing to do, then, is to lobby for the quality I happen to love (Jesse James, Into the Wild, Mr. Woodcock) whilst practically gauging the popular sentiment amongst Oscar voters (which, by the way, shifts by the hour). There will be no standing athwart Hollywood history and yelling, "Stop!" – at least, not until I figure out how that translates into decent traffic (early market research recommends bellowing out my indignation whilst videotaping celebrities exiting nightclubs). The Oscars dictated the business of this town long before I was born, and they’ll dictate it until the medium passes into obsolescence. Face it: you love the Oscars. You really love them.
*According to The Believer, the tome boasts 1,539 exclamation points. Later in life, he suffered from chronic inflammation of the left pinky.