Gilbey on Film: the Oscars grouch

Why make the Best Film category larger? It's obvious who's going to win.

 

The obvious change to this year's Academy Awards nominations is the decision to override the five-film limit on Best Picture nominees that has been in force since 1944. Now ten titles are competing for the prize that tells idiots which movies they should ask their teenage children to download illegally on their behalf.

For all the difference it will make to the end result, the Academy might as well have expanded the category to 50 films, or 4,423 films, or simply everything that has ever been released in the civilised world since the Lumière brothers first announced in the pages of Heat magazine that they were planning something "totally massive". It's a cinch to look at that ten-strong tally and pick out the titles that would scarcely have been acknowledged in an ordinary year.

Under the old system, the nominees wouldn't have stretched beyond Avatar, The Hurt Locker (hooray!), Inglourious Basterds (hooray again!), Precious and Up in the Air. Loosening the elastic has accommodated two deserving nominees that don't stand a chance (District 9 and Up), as well as An Education, which would be this year's Little Film That Could, if only Precious didn't already occupy that role more convincingly. Just for a lark, there's also something populist (the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side, which opens here next month) and something gormlessly arty (A Serious Man).

The new system is a form of sucking-up, necessitated by the mini-scandal of a colossal hit like The Dark Knight missing out in the categories that count. The ten-film rule placates the studios behind those pictures that would not normally be nominated. And it gives the fanboys something to root for now that their favourite film is ostensibly in the running.

A bit unnecessary, that, because the fanboys' choice, Avatar, is going to snatch Best Picture anyway. First Titanic, now this: James Cameron is such a consummate highwayman that maybe we should all start referring to him as Dick. (As in Turpin, obviously.)

At least Avatar hasn't made any impression in the two writing categories. (How could it? It's only the film's 3-D effects that have distracted most people from noticing that the script barely scrapes into the one-dimensional.) Hope springs eternal in the writing nominations. In the Loop certainly deserves its Best Adapted Screenplay nod. If it wins, can Malcolm Tucker do the acceptance speech, please?

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will be hosting the awards ceremony on 7 March, teaming up again after their recent gromcom* It's Complicated in a crafty piece of cross-promotion which will benefit that film's forthcoming DVD release no end.

But it doesn't really matter who's holding the microphone and dishing out the spiky-seeming yet crypto-congratulatory quips. Surely the perfect Oscar show would feature the corpse of Bob Hope, reanimated with the help of technology pioneered by the Avatar boffins, performing a four-hour soft-shoe shuffle to Radiohead's "No Surprises" while Ron Howard, James Cameron and other undeserving recipients of the Best Director prize receive a Thai massage on a bed that is slowly revealed to be a vast and fully working griddle.

(*Gromcom: a romcom in which the participants are grey/silver-haired and/or some way outside the usual 18-35 casting range. I made that term up. You can have it.)

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times