A sad week for cinema. Two influential figures are dead: Theo Angelopoulos, the 76-year-old director of The Travelling Players, Ulysses' Gaze and the Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day, died yesterday after being hit by a motorcycle near Athens. (You can find a thorough and illuminating interview with him, conducted at the National Film Theatre in 2003, here. And Bingham Ray, a major player in the US production and distribution scene, died aged 57 after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Monday. Ray founded October Films, whose first release was Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and later headed United Artists, a speciality division of MGM. An obituary in the LA Times notes that he "often clashed [with MGM executives] over the types of films that Ray chose to champion, with the studio regarding his taste as too esoteric and arty."
Which brings me to this week's other, less significant but nonetheless disheartening news. "Academy Awards Nominations Play It Safe" is a headline of the "Dog Bites Man" variety; no one expects the "esoteric and arty" to be anywhere near the door-list. With each year, I feel more inured to the minor snubs and injustices, and more resigned to the parade of phoney prestige that constitutes the whole awards calendar, not just the Oscars. I'm not immune to its silly allure -- I vote in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, and was happy to see The Artist and A Separation amply rewarded last week. While I haven't yet seen Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed Margaret, its inclusion on our nominations list, and the tie-break win in the Best Actress category between that film's Anna Paquin and awards-magnet Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, did make a case for the importance of such rituals in bringing largely unsung work to wider attention.
We all know by now that this isn't the remit of the Academy Awards. The expansion of the Best Picture category in recent years to ten nominations was intended to accommodate popular favourites that might otherwise not have nabbed a place; at no point was it meant to shine a light on the overlooked or under-praised. But it's ridiculous to cast the net so wide when the quality of the films nominated does nothing to warrant it. Any awards body that is seen to be making up the numbers will lose what little authority it has. I'm sure this isn't going to trouble the Academy -- viewing figures count here, aided by the smoothness of the ceremony (hence the return to Billy "Safe pair of hands" Crystal after the botched experiment of Anne Hathaway and James Franco).
Reluctant as I am to share the opinions of someone who boasted of having walked out of The Artist, Bret Easton Ellis was correct when he tweeted that "The Oscars are a marketing tool but they give an indication of what Hollywood is thinking about itself. 2011 was an awful year for movies... In order for The Oscars to mean anything, if they mean anything at all, they have got to limit the number of best picture nominations to five."
I'm sure The Artist will win big; I hope it does -- it's not the best film made in the past year, but it is a smart and witty confection, and it's certainly the finest work within the boundaries of what the Academy is prepared to acknowledge. As the Huffington Post remarked, "films about films" like The Artist and Hugo (which leads the way with 11 nominations) predominate this year; the Academy is nothing if not self-adoring, and such movies are inherently flattering to the industry's sense of itself as magical.
Keeping the glass half full, it's encouraging that A Separation has been recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category, as well as the expected Best Foreign Language Film. Another plus: Bridesmaids got a Screenplay nomination, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy -- she could very well win, as it's one of the few categories where unbridled comic turns are tolerated. (See Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway.) And a Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life -- flawed though that movie is -- alongside Best Director for Terrence Malick is not to be sniffed at.
Expect to see Malick sitting in the front row on Oscars night, jeering and braying loudly. Next to him is that born hellraiser, Joey the horse from War Horse, who leads the charge as the pair of them "do a Kanye" when The Artist scoops the gold. Well, if we can't have esoteric and arty, let us dream of scandal and horseplay...