I'm always interested in statistical fallacies that seep into general film commentary, and one of the most prominent recent examples is the disgust over the omission of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from the list of foreign language Oscar nominees. Mungiu's film is very good, but this particular complaint is problematic.
First, read Robert Koehler's excellent primer at Doug Cummings' filmjourney.org, "Garbage In Garbage Out, or Why the Foreign Oscars Need to be Blown Up." If you've ever wondered why the category is notoriously idiotic, Koehler's piece should prove educational. Unfortunately, the reasons are so deeply embedded in the layers of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and the impetus for change so weak, that there's no sign of the problem going away any time soon.
Mungiu's film is better than this year's winner, a decent but unremarkable movie from Austria called The Counterfeiters, but focusing on this fact not only doesn't address the problem, it reinforces basic assumptions about the output of the world's filmmakers. People focus on this movie because it was one of the 63 eligible films from which the nominating committee could choose. But:
Problem number 1: How many of these films have the complainers seen? And how many of the eventual nominees?
Problem number 2: More importantly, focusing on the omission of 4 Months narrows the critique of this category all the way down to the voters who screened these 63 films. We could ask how they chose these 5 nominees, but a better question is, How were the thousands of films made last year whittled down to 63? Complaining about the final selection process implicitely accepts the ridiculous process that resulted in the 63.
Problem number 1+2: Koehler highlights many good reasons why the selection process is absurd, but he omits one, which is that even without the current rules, even if any foreign language film could be submitted, only those that have a chance of winning an Oscar will be, and since self-selection is governed by recent history the problem lies neither with the voters nor the Byzantine submission requirements, solely, but a confluence of the two. Even if we can easily come up with a dozen foreign language films that are better than the winner and better than many of the eligible films (here are Koehler's), Germany submits a film (for last year's Oscars) like the thoroughly mediocre The Lives of Others because it has a chance of winning; and they were right about that. *
The good news is that exhibition of film in the US — not uniformly, but at least in cities — is far more progressive than this category reflects. I'd wager that the Academy's perpetual ignorance of the world of film has relegated this category to near unimportance, and in a ceremony intended to puff up Hollywood, any improvement in this regard would distract from the main event. It's not hard to imagine a calculus that concludes it's better to have five foreign films that generate polite applause and a sheen of fairness, knowledge, and worldliness than to improve the situation and thereby help the competition. (Better to be a kindly slave owner than to risk the autumn harvest.) The winner of the foreign language Oscar will get a big boost, for sure, and will occupy space in the screening calendar that could have been put to better use, but to fill the other weeks and other screens, the country's small theaters seem to look elsewhere for guidance. Be grateful for that.
The biggest reason to reject the well-intended outrage over 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is that it reinforces a myth that has long stuck in my craw: that the world of film is small enough to know in its entirety. It's not. If you can identify a best film from the thousands made last year, you're a busier viewer, with a spongier brain, than anyone I know. And I know some spongy viewers, let me tell you.
I end with two anecdotes:
1) At Sundance this year, an excited volunteer told a pack of 4 or 5 festival attendees standing near me that he'd seen seven films this year and that Sugar was "the best film at Sundance." If he'd said this about a worse film, I'd have challenged the notion. Perhaps he misspoke. Perhaps he meant to say "of the seven I've seen." But, yeah, he was just an excited volunteer, talking big. I can't complain too much. But when the selection committee for the most publicized movie award ceremony on earth functions essentially the same way, I feel like plopping my weary frame in the chair of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber with the throat-slitting blades.
2) A commenter in an Oscar live-blog that I was following during the televised event was genuinely excited that so many foreign-born actors won in major categories this year — Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Bardem, Swinton — which made it seem like Hollywood was becoming aware of the outer world. Yes, aware of the outer world as long as the outer world is Europe, as long as the outer world comes here (where the movies are made), as long as the outer world speaks English, Cotillard excepted. This is faux progress, weak evidence of a Hollywood melting pot.
* Koehler rightly points to a few aberrations in this year's submissions, but it's doubtful those countries thought they'd win. Likely they had nothing that could, so they proudly submitted something better.
I always feel bad after writing such a cranky post that finds fault with everyone, so here's a positive footnote: I'm delighted that the most talked-about moments from the Oscar ceremony are the performances, speeches, and general demeanor of Best Song winners Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová from the delightful Irish film Once. We've been championing this film for a year -- even on episode two of the Errata movie podcast -- so I'm thrilled at the well-deserved boost it's receiving.
I noticed this evening that it has climbed near the top of the iTunes movie rental chart, just behind The Bourne Ultimatum.
We will chalk up your crankiness to an attack of Koehleritis. It's very catchy, being so displeased with everything and having to express an opinion about it. As commendable as Mungiu's film is, and however much a slight it might have been to have excluded it from nomination, worrying it like a bone with a little bit of meat left on it doesn't prove to me that it would have won the Oscar, no matter how much Koehler wanted it to. Personally, I don't think so.