Master Of The Obvious: Issue #35

Wed, March 29th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Every year about this time, people ask me the same question over and over and over.

"Did you watch the Academy Awards?"

For future reference, here's the answer, forever and always: no. I don't watch the Academy Awards. I have never watched the Academy Awards. The only circumstances under which I can conceive of watching the Academy Awards is if I'm nominated for something, which isn't likely to happen since I don't work in film, and even if I were nominated, I'd be sleeping there in my seat at the ceremony, not watching the show on TV. I don't give a rat's ass about the Academy Awards, and I've never understood why anyone does.

(That's this year's motto, by the way: I don't give a rat's ass. It's not to be misapplied. Use it wisely.)

I used to review movies. Finally quit after sitting through 7-10 films per week for nine months straight - an alarming percentage of just sheer crap. And I mean crap bad enough to make you long for issues of SLEEPWALKER just to wash the taste out of your mouth. I understand how guys like Roger Ebert can go so wonky after a few years, how Rex Reed can try to shoplift and when caught claim he was just putting the merchandise in his pockets for safekeeping and forgot about it. (Even people in comas know you only put store merchandise in your pockets if you're stealing it. Even quadriplegics with no sensation below their jawlines know when they've got cds in their pockets.) What put me totally over the top was Brian dePalma's BLOW OUT, a pretentious wad of murky twaddle, and I didn't even try to watch a movie for a year after that. Movies have only gotten worse in the interim, devolving more and more every year into storyless, characterless subcreative gangbangs whose raison d'etre is to keep bankers pacified. Even most "low budget breakout films" are creatures of hype: last year's monster BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was among the worst flaming crap I've ever seen in my life, replete with bad acting, nauseating camerawork, zero script, and characters so dumb they could only have graduated from the high school in PORKY'S. Its worst feature? You'd have to be on very seriously bad drugs to think it was even remotely scary.

"I used to review movies. Finally quit after sitting through … an alarming percentage of just sheer crap. And I mean crap bad enough to make you long for issues of SLEEPWALKER …"[Sleepwalker]

But the main "contribution" of BWP was to show how easy it is to masquerade as John Q. Public and anonymously hype your own wares to phenomenon status. (Yes, I did see a good movie last year: Doug Liman's GO. Funny, scary, surprising, clever. Great story logic, but you still never see what's coming. Sharp dialogue. A wonderful movie, the best thing out of Hollywood since L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. I recommend the DVD, which has gobs of great extras on it. If you must expose yourself to BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or something like it, check out the parody BEAR WITCH PROJECT instead. It's a stitch, at a quarter of BWP's runtime.)

So every year at Oscar time I ran a contest in the paper I worked for: anyone who could select more right than I did in the top six Oscar categories - actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, director and movie - won a dollar, which I paid out of my own pocket. (And this was years before anyone ever heard of WIN BEN STEIN'S MONEY.) I'd write a long article outlining all the nominees, discount talent almost entirely, work out which studio's putting what money behind what, take Hollywood sentimentality (never underestimate it) and figure on pretty much an exclusively business basis who was likeliest to win what. Factors to take into account: comedies usually aren't perceived as putting Hollywood's "committed to excellence" face forward; action blockbusters are usually shunned, regardless of box office gross; well-liked aging mediocrities commonly have an edge over exciting younger talent; the Academy loves hamminess, as long as it's portentous enough. Used to drive people nuts. I'd get the nastiest letters about it. In the three years I did it, I paid out four dollars - all in the year I got one wrong.

Of course, that was before the VCR era. (Take that to mean I was very young then, not that I'm very old now.) I wouldn't want to try that stunt today. Not that Hollywood has changed. The only way it has changed is to become more like itself than it ever was before: a cesspool of largely ignorant moneygrubbers. I know there are smart people in Hollywood, and many people who are genuinely interested in the art of what they're doing. They're all trained - the town actually trains them, it's the equivalent of smacking a dog on the nose until he learns the right place and way to do his business, after which it's so automatic the dog doesn't even think about it - to screw up whatever they're doing if someone thinks it'll bring in more money. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying: that's the way the town is. Anyone in Hollywood will tell you the same thing. They'll just tell you they're planning for the day when they can get around it. The Academy used to have film screenings to give voters an opportunity to see all the films. But you could tell which films had juice just by how many voters actually bought tickets to see them in theaters, and what kind of buzz was up about it.

Nowadays it's all videotape. Studios pump out tons of "official bootlegs" of films they want to push, they make sure the tapes get into voters' hands. Nothing wrong with that. Except that kind of promotion gets expensive. So studios very studiedly determine in advance which pictures they want nominated for an Oscar. Who they want to see as a breakout star. What will help - even if nominated - to put the company in the black. Small films are generally left out; smaller companies can't afford that kind of push, and small films from big companies are usually blackballed in advance because companies don't want to distract from their big pushes. Aesthetic issues aside, where this becomes a problem on the gambler's end is the easy availability of videotape guts any real word of mouth. Who knows who's really watching what, and what's sitting on shelves?

The point being not that I have cool prognostic powers - I don't - but that the Academy Awards, like the Emmys, exist not to celebrate the best of Hollywood but as a business tool. Period. Many good films never get anywhere near the nomination process. But that's okay. It's not about what's good, it's about what's good for business. Let's throw AMERICAN BEAUTY out for that second run and maybe even pay for the thing this time. And it's about Hollywood feeling good about itself, a night where they can dress up like adults and announce: "See! We really don't make crap!"

Except they do. But that's okay. At least movie and TV awards - how many are there now? - serve a function, even if only economic. Even the Grammys, which have celebrated the inane and retrograde since their inception (they keep pretending to catch up to the times by introducing more categories, and then they go and vote for things like - the most egregious example - Jethro Tull for Best Hard Rock Performance) affect record sales and bolster company fortunes.

But it's all marketing, and getting more blatant all the time. (At least when I was doing my annual contest, people could still fancy the Oscars rewarded excellence. No one seems to do that anymore.)

And if nobody should give a rat's ass about the Oscars, comic book awards are really a pathetic exercise.

It amazes me that every so often fights break out over comics awards. All that nonsense that greeted the inception of the Eisners and the Harveys. The recent tiff over the Harvey Awards. Every year more and more of them appear: Eagle Awards, Wizard Awards. Whatever the CBG awards are called these days. I've lost track.

"It amazes me that every so often fights break out over comics awards."

I've been told for years the purpose of comics awards is, in imitation of the Oscars, to celebrate "excellence" in comics. (Or maybe the science fiction genre's Hugo and Nebula awards.) Another feelgood exercise: We Are An Industry Worthy Of Its Own Awards.

Which we are. But it still doesn't mean anything. First, there's no basic standard in the business to define what's meant by "excellence." (Whatever one may think about the San Diego Con's Inkpot Awards, at least we know what they're given for: showing up at the Inkpot Awards banquet.) Does anyone really think Batman represents the highest artistic aspirations of the comics industry? I'm no fan of imposing standards, because they always serve the political or aesthetic agenda of the agency doing the imposing, but unless you can put together a working criterion for "best," and then make sure everyone voting reads everything, and I mean everything, appropriate to that category, "best" is a meaningless term.

(The comics industry is quietly big on feelgood diversions. I stopped going to Pro/Con because of that organization's ESTian implication, in the midst of the biggest sales slide in comics history, that all is well and, truly, if we feel good about ourselves then destiny cannot but work for us. A couple years back, a little congregation of publishers embraced a marketing scheme that would have created a little "platinum" sticker to put on comics that sold over a certain level, to signal to the reader, per platinum records in the music business, that this is a comic readers should buy. Execs from all kinds of companies were said to be gaga over the idea. I presume it was the sales slide that made implementation superfluous.)

In comics, as in the Oscars, comics companies are more and more controlling the process. In some cases, they select what gets submitted for nomination, meaning the nominating voters work from a pool already territorialized by publishers. Award committees are notoriously sanguine about letting companies do their work for them.

"In comics, as in the Oscars, comics companies are more and more controlling the process."

What we've got are beauty contests. I doubt that particularly shocks or surprises anyone. (That's why the column's called MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, pal.) That's what's most awards are. Even prestigious (meaning there's prize money attached) awards like the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards are mostly beauty contests. The difference between them and comics awards is:

Nobody gives a rat's ass about comics awards.

Oh, they're nice for conversation pieces. But if winning awards had any effect on sales of, oh, SIN CITY, I've yet to hear about it. Alone among media awards, comics awards have no economic function whatsoever.

Which means the only real purpose they can hope for is a genuine celebration of excellence. If they can dig up truly excellent work - it takes a lot of digging in this medium - and somehow convince publishers to focus on excellence rather than… well, rather than what they currently focus on… awards might just deliver some value. Right now, they're just another aspect of the "I'm Okay You're Okay" comics industry gladhanding that's just got to stop.

Then maybe people in this business will put their energies into real work for a change.

Someone asked last week what novels I'd recommend, so I decided to share with the whole class:

The Recognitions and Carpenter's Gothic, by William Gaddis. (Gaddis, reportedly a huge influence on Thomas Pynchon, was America's greatest living novelist until he died a couple of years ago.)

Under The Volcano and October Ferry To Gabriola, by Malcolm Lowry.

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

Sometimes A Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. (Among other things, an amazing exercise in shifting viewpoints.)

The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid, by James Ellroy.

What can I say? I'm a 20th century kind of guy. Go forth and read.

Still on the stands: X-MAN #63 from Marvel and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28. I've read them both now, in published form. They ain't bad. Go buy them. I need the royalties.

Warren sent me an advance copy of this week's COME IN ALONE, and it's a don't miss affair, so don't miss it. Friday, at Comic Book Resources.

More stories this week at @VENTURE: another chapter of Mike Baron's entertaining HODAG (which will be of particular interest to old BADGER fans), plus short stories by Nat Gertler, Dan Membiela, Rik Hoskin, Bruce Canwell, and my debut crime story on the site, STICKING POINT. WHISPER fans will, unfortunately, have to wait awhile longer, as this weekend debuts the first chapter of my crime novel TEQUILA. Also this weekend: more HODAG, the beginning of another Anna Passenger story by Adi Tantimedh, and who knows what else will pop up in the next couple days. For you fiction fans, @VENTURE's the happening place on the web.

To anyone - you know who you are - who sent e-mail to my business address - you know what it is - since last Wednesday, my ISP went through convulsions, so if you haven't heard back from me, I probably didn't get your message and, rather than think I'm ignoring you, you should resend. Thanks.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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