Some Thoughts on the 2018 Oscars and their appreciation for SFF films

Yesterday was a day of decisions. Germany finally has a new (old) government after SPD members finally approved the coalition contract approximately half a year after the elections, the Swiss voted for keeping their TV license fee and Italy sadly voted for several equally horrible far right extremist parties. Oh yes, and the 2018 Oscars were also awarded last night. You can find a full list of the winners here, while Mike Glyer lists the winners of genre interest. And there were many this year, even though the Oscars are traditionally hostile to SFF films.

I probably wouldn’t have watched this year, because the TV in my office and the TV card in my laptop both ceased to work, after German antenna TV switched over to an entirely unnecessary HDTV format, which older TV’s and decoders can’t handle (plus, they charge you extra for the private channels in addition to the regular license fee). The livestream of German broadcaster ProSieben tends to crash my computer, which means that if I wanted to watch the Oscars, I would have to do so on the big satellite TV in the living room and couldn’t work on my PC on the side during the many, many ad breaks (though I worked on the proofread for the next In Love and War adventure). Considering the Oscars are almost four hours long, that’s a big time investment. It’s not an investment I would have made, if not for the fact that I actually cared about several of the nominated films this year, unlike many previous years, where the nominees were a lot of movies I hadn’t seen and usually didn’t care about.

But the Oscars have been slowly changing in recent years. Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes were pointed, but not under the belt like Seth MacFarlane’s infamous turn as Oscar host in 2013. Grisly Oscar baits such as propaganda-laden war movies, biographies of great men and the very occasional great woman, musicals that remind us why the musical is a largely dead genre and serious movies that contemplate the American navel are still nominated, but there are different nominees as well, the sort of nominees you wouldn’t have seen five, let alone ten years ago. And while American navels are still contemplated with alarming frequency, the navels at least aren’t always white, straight and middle class anymore. And occasionally, a genre film that’s not a musical or western also gets a look in. Two years ago, we had Mad Max: Fury Road takes home six Academy Awards in various technical categories and getting nominated for best picture as well (though it lost out to the forgettable Spotlight – so forgettable that two years later, I don’t even remember what it was about), last year the African American drama Moonlight beat the very white musical La La Land and this year, we had two SFF films – The Shape of Water and Get Out – nominated for best picture, best director, best screenplay as well as several acting awards. And unlike Mad Max: Fury Road in 2016, they actually got to take home Oscars in more than just the technical categories. This alone is reason to cheer.

The Shape of Water won a deserved four Oscars, including best picture, best director for Guillermo del Toro, best original score and best production design. Get Out and its director/writer Jordan Peele did not win best picture and best director and sadly, star Daniel Kaluuya lost out to Gary Oldman in a fat suit in the best actor category. However, Jordan Peele got to take home an Oscar for the best original screenplay, the first black person ever to win in that category. Blade Runner 2049 took home two Oscars for best cinematography (for Roger Deakins who won on his fourteenth nomination) and best special effects. Coincidentally, the special effects category is also the only category with a German winner, Gerd Nefzer (the other two German Oscar hopes, Hans Zimmer for music and Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen in live action short film lost out, while Fatih Akin wasn’t even nominated for In the Fade). Nefzer is the second German to win an Oscar in the special effects category following Volker Engel from Bremerhaven, who won for Independence day in 1997. So much for “We can’t make science fiction and fantasy films and TV shows in Germany, cause we don’t have the technology”. Cause it turns out we do have the technical expertise – we’re just leaving it to Hollywood to actually do something with it.

Rounding out the Oscar winners of genre interest is the animated Disney/Pixar film Coco, which won in the best animated feature film and best original song category. Now I have to admit that I was rooting for other nominees in both categories. Loving Vincent was visually and technically a lot more interesting than the latest Disney/Pixar effort. And while the song from Coco wasn’t bad and the live performance with dancers dressed as Frida Kahlo was stunning, I still found it the least interesting of the nominated songs. I guess my favourite was Mary J. Blige’s song from Mudbound, though I also found the song from The Greatest Showman surprisingly good, given how bad the critical reception of that movie was.

Though the 2018 Oscars started out frustrating, when technical category after technical category went to Dunkirk or The Darkest Hour a.k.a. the two WWII pictures designed to make Brits and Americans feel good about themselves (at least they didn’t nominate the other two Churchill/Dunkirk films made in 2017 as well, thank heaven for small mercies). What was worse, that there were more interesting movies nominated and not nominated in both categories. I don’t even like Baby Driver, but you can’t say that its editing, sound editing and sound mixing aren’t a lot more interesting and novel than Dunkirk‘s. As for the best make-up category, the nominees this year were a movie about a disfigured child, at least as far as I could tell (I’ve never heard of the film, let alone seen it), and two historical films, where make-up basically meant making actors look like historical figures. And while making Gary Oldman look like Winston Churchill is at least something of a challenge, turning Judy Dench into Queen Victoria isn’t much of a stretch. Why no nominations for The Last Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy (Groot and Rocket may be CGI, but Gamora, Drax, Yondu, Nebula, Mantis, Thanos and plenty of other characters are actors in make up), let alone The Shape of Water? Doug Jones does not really look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, you know?

The Oscars in the acting categories predictably went to the sort of Oscar bait films that tend to win these awards. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell both got to take home Oscars in the best supporting actor and best actress in a leading role category respectively for Three Billboards Outside Whatever the Name of the Bloody Town Is (not the actual title, but I can never remember the name of the town and usually default to Dogshit, Nebraska). No idea why Sam Rockwell won – I expected either Richard Jenkins or Christopher Plummer to take it. As for Frances McDormand, I think she is a wonderful actress and I loved her acceptance speech, in which she asked all other female nominees in all categories to stand up and implored the powers that are in Hollywood to give all these women funding for their project. Nonetheless, I would have preferred both Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water and Margot Robie for I, Tonya (zero interest in the film or the case, but even I can tell that her performance was exceptional) to Frances McDormand, because Three Billboards Outside Wherever is exactly the sort of contemplation of the American navel, even if contemplated by a British director, that I’m sick of. What is more, the American navels being contemplated are white, rural and presumably Trump voting navels that I really don’t care about.

Allison Janey won the Oscar for the best supporting actress for her role as Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya. Her performance has been widely praised, so this is not exactly a surprise. Also not surprising is the best actor award for Gary Oldman for playing Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, since he was considered the frontrunner in this category, though my personal favourite was Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out. Not to mention that in spite of all the public proclamations of how Hollywood will and must change in the wake of #MeToo, Time’s Up and #OscarsSoWhite, awarding an Oscar to Gary Oldman (against whom there are allegations of domestic abuse) for his role in an old-fashioned bio-pic cum propaganda laden war movie sends a very different message. And for that matter, if Gary Oldman puts on a rubber suit and plays Winston Churchill, he promptly wins an Oscar. If Doug Jones puts on a rubber suit, in which he can’t even poop, to play an aquatic creature, he doesn’t even get a nomination, the only one of the major cast members of The Shape of Water who didn’t.

As might be expected, when a genre film wins Oscars in major categories such as best picture and best director, there is backlash, some of it from expected corners and some of it from unexpected corners. The expected backlash comes from established culture reporting and could be seen in cultural and news programs here in Germany calling this year’s Oscars “safe and unpolitical”, which makes we wonder if they’ve even watched the show, and dismissing The Shape of Water as a romantic fairytale, which makes me wonder if they’ve even watched the movie. Meanwhile, those same culture programs were falling all over each other to extoll the virtues of blatant Oscar bait like The Post (which didn’t win anything), The Darkest Hour (two wins) or The Phantom Thread (one well deserved win for best costume design) or European film darling The Square for best foreign language film (lost about to the highly deserving winner Un Mujer Fantastica, a Chilean film about a transwoman, whose star also got to present an Oscar). Interestingly, those programs did not extoll the virtues of Three Billboards Outside Wherever or Lady Bird, let alone Get Out. Well, at least no one has lamented that The Shape of Water winning best picture means the end of critical and serious cinema yet like they did after the best picture wins for The Silence of the Lambs, Return of the King or Chicago respectively. Okay, Chicago was something of a dud choice, but it was up against weak competition and there have been worse movies to win best picture.

The unexpected backlash against The Shape of Water comes from genre fans and critics, whom you’d think would be happy to see an SFF film take best picture. However, plenty of people are disappointed that the wrong genre film won best picture, because they were rooting for Get Out. Here is a polite version of this from Charles Pulliam-Moore at io9, who does like The Shape of Water, but would have vastly preferred Get Out and feels that The Shape of Water was the safe choice. I’ve seen uglier versions of this online, where people call The Shape of Water “that fish sex film” and declare that it won’t be remembered in ten years time, while Get Out will be considered a timeless classic. Personally, I suspect that both of them will still be well remembered in ten years time and that neither of them will turn out to be another Spotlight, forgotten after only two years.

Now I was very happy when Jordan Peele won in the best original screenplay category, was hoping Daniel Kaluuya would beat Gary Oldman in a fat suit to the best actor Oscar and would have been very happy for Get Out to win in the best director and best picture categories, too. I also suspect that Get Out got a lot of additional sympathy after it was reported that some older Academy members were flat out refusing to watch the film and dismissing it unseen, because they felt it was not Oscar worthy, since it was a horror film, B-movie like (uhm, what do they think inspired The Shape of Water?), released at the wrong time of the year and yes, had a black star in a non-approved “This is a very serious movie about racism and/or slavery” role. There were also the horribly racist comments by this anonymous Oscar voter about how Get Out “played the race card”, how she disliked Daniel Kaluuya, because he dared say something about racism in the US, while British, and how Octavia Spencer plays the same roles over and over again (well, I’m sure Octavia Spencer would love to play the Queen, Maggie Thatcher or the publisher of the Washington Post, too, but unfortunately black women still overwhelmingly get cast in stereotypical roles such as cleaners and maids). The racism on display here is horrible, if not entirely surprising. The Academy after all keeps giving Oscars to Clint Eastwood long after his heyday, nominated Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan for Creed, snubbed Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, because white racist terrorists murdering muslims and a blonde white woman avenging the murder of her Kurdish husband and son are apparently too far-fetched for them (never mind that In the Fade is based on a real case, though without the vengeance angle), really loves WWII movies like Dunkirk or The Darkest Hour and felt that a fawning propaganda pic like American Sniper was Oscar worthy as late as 2015. Even if the make-up of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences is slowly changing and becoming more diverse, there are still a whole lot of old, overwhelmingly white and male lifetime members whose tastes are stuck sometimes in the 1950s. However, these people are not as strong as they used to be, otherwise we would have seen more wins for the likes of The Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, The Post or The Phantom Thread than we did. Even Three Billboards Outside Wherever is not the usual choice for those voters, since it has a British director, rural working class characters and a decidedly unladylike leading lady. The fact that Get Out and The Shape of Water or Moonlight last year or Mad Max: Fury Road two years ago even got as many nominations as they did, let alone that they won in several categories and not just the technical ones either is evidence of change.

Get Out and The Shape of Water are both very good films and I would have been happy to see either of them win, though I prefer the latter and was also very happy to see Guillermo del Toro’s work recognised, especially after Pan’s Labyrinth lost the best foreign language Oscar in 2007 to the horribly stereotyped Stasi drama The Lives of Others in one of the great mistaken decisions in Oscar history. And can’t we just be happy that there were two excellent genre films nominated for several Oscars this year and even won some of them (not to mention the nominations and wins for Blade Runner 2049 and Coco), without playing one against the other? Both Get Out and The Shape of Water would have been deserving winners. And let’s face it, even without the blatant racism of certain Academy members, Get Out winning best picture or best director was always a long shot. After all, it was Jordan Peele’s debut and debut films rarely win. Besides, even the nomination, let alone his win in the best screenplay category will open many doors for Jordan Peele. Not to mention that Jordan Peele and Get Out won the Independent Spirit Award in the best picture and best director category only a few days before. We will see more movies by Jordan Peele and we may see him win a best director Oscar in a couple of years. And while SFF films generally don’t have good chances of winning best picture in general, The Shape of Water with its retro setting, musical sequences and focus on the magic of cinema has more of a chance to appeal to more conservative Academy members than Get Out. Finally, I suspect that The Shape of Water also appealed more to non-American Academy members than Get Out, because in spite of its British star, Get Out is a very American film with a very American setting (suburbs are nowhere quite as stiffling and conformist and ready-made horror settings as in the US), playing on very American anxieties. The Shape of Water does have a very American setting as well and also plays into all sorts of men in black stereotypes, but I still feel that it’s appeal is more international.

As for people who claim that The Shape of Water was a safe and predictable choice, as this Guardian article says, The Shape of Water is anything but safe. It’s a movie by a Mexican director in which a group of marginalized people – a mute woman (sadly not played by a mute actress), a black woman and a gay man – go up against the military industrial complex to save a sentient non-human being from torture and vivisection. Like many of Guillermo del Toro’s films, The Shape of Water questions toxic masculinity, as this Twitter thread points out (highlights below – click through to read the whole thing):

The Shape of Water also feature female masturbation and – what apparently put off some people – a sex scene between Eliza and the acquatic creature. Honestly, the objection to the sex scene in The Shape of Water is the most baffling thing to me, but then certain people were also put off by the gay sex between a 17-year-old and a 25-year-old in Call Me By Your Name, even though the film is set in Italy, where the age of consent is 14 and 17-year-olds having consensual sex with 25-year-olds is completely unobjectional. As for The Shape of Water, first of all sex between a human woman and a sentient aquatic creature is no more bestiality than sex with werewolves, vampires, aliens, etc… And besides, critics have been remarking on the erotic undertones in the original Creature from the Black Lagoon since the movie came out in 1954. Hey, I wrote a short story in which a young woman has sex with the Creature from the Black Lagoon (with consequences) two and a half years ago (collected in Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Women Who Love Them), long before The Shape of Water came out. And I’m pretty sure that Guillermo del Toro and I are not the only people who’ve watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered, “What if the Creature did more than just watch her swim and carry her off? And what if it were consensual?”

So no, The Shape of Water was not the safe and predictable choice no more than Get Out or even Lady Bird (I have zero interest in a mother-daughter drama about Catholic schoolgirls, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been a deserving winner) would have been. Dunkirk or The Darkest Hour would have been safe choices (because apparently, umpteen WWII pictures, including four about the same aspect of it in the same year weren’t enough). The Post would have been a safe choice (stars Oscar darlings Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and has something to say about censorship and freedom of the press, while being safely removed in time from what is happening now). The Phantom Thread would have been a safe choice (stars Oscar darling Daniel Day Lewis and has some very pretty dresses). The Shape of Water is not a safe choice and a very good film besides. So why can’t we celebrate both The Shape of Water and Get Out as two very good genre films with something to say who both got Oscar nods last night, even if the winner wasn’t ultimately the one we’d prefer?

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