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The Reeler Blog

Gasp! Will Documentaries Survive the Oscars?

As much as one can "own" the weekend in meek blogosphere outrage, Iraq in Fragments producer John Sinno did a pretty good job. I was already six bourbons into Friday evening when his "open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" arrived in my inbox, thus disqualifying myself from immediate comment but allowing a rewarding 48-hour cooling-off period to twist my beard and steep in the poor bastard's earnestness.

You must have heard about this by now, right? John Sinno? Upset about the Oscars? IndieWIRE cover boy and hero of the disenfranchised left for taking on Jerry Seinfeld's boorish presentation of this year's Best Documentary award? Pardon the long-ish blockquote, but...

While I appreciate the role of humor in our lives, Jerry Seinfeld’s remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind’s reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries “incredibly depressing,” he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they’re nothing but downers. He wasted a wonderful opportunity to excite viewers about the nominated films and about the documentary genre in general.

For what it's worth, Seinfeld's quasi-routine was way harder on theater owners than it was on anyone else (and don't think those exhibitors weren't chafing as well), but in off-handing a few documentary stereotypes -- and in subsequently provoking Sinno to this kind of knee-jerk self-defense -- the kerfuffle brings to mind a few important points:

--The Oscars are not now, nor have they ever been, nor will they ever be a suitable barometer of quality. Sure, that's how they're marketed, and that's the bottom-line standard among the hoi polloi -- which never expressed interest in documentaries anyway. Even in 2004, when Fahrenheit 9/11 rode Michael Moore's Oscar momentum from Bowling For Columbine to a $119 million gross, docs owned only a 2.5 percent share of the year's box office. This figure has gone down by more than half each of the last two years, even with the successes of 2005 Oscar winner March of the Penguins and this year's triumphant An Inconvenient Truth. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, Hoop Dreams, Grizzly Man and The Thin Blue Line are probably as well-known (if not better-known) for being overlooked at Oscar time than they would have been had they won -- or even nominated.

Which leads me to this David Poland moment: Seven of the 15 top-grossing documentaries of all time were not nominated for Oscars in the years they were released. Smaller films are creeping in all the time. So is the Academy in touch with audiences? Is it out of touch? Here's a guess in case this year's show wasn't telling enough: It doesn't care and it never has. Hence Jerry Seinfeld, who will at least retain a few million viewers who otherwise would have made off for the bathroom.

--The Oscar telecast needed Jerry Seinfeld. Between Ellen DeGeneres, interpretive dance, deadly boring musical numbers and a whole slew of predictable award winners (including Best Documentary, incidentally), Seinfeld's routine -- however recycled -- should have been a welcome respite from everything safe and inoffensive that the show had to offer. It pissed people off. It stole the spotlight (at least until Martin Scorsese won). It appealed to regular viewers at home (and, it should be noted, serving overseas in the military, an audience mentioned by neither Seinfeld nor Sinno). And for better or worse, it's the only moment out of nearly four hours that people are continuing to revisit a week on. "Was Seinfeld auditioning to host the Oscars?" we ask ourselves. I kind of hope so, if only because I want to see how the Oscar intelligentsia reacts to no longer being the most cynical, self-serving buffoons in the room. Don't say you couldn't tell this is where the Academy Awards were headed.

--Nobody really listens to the presenters until they open their envelopes. OK, look: I'll give you the lack of face time for the nominees; Seinfeld owed the nominated documentaries and the entire viewing audience five of those facile, TelePrompTer-ed one-line summaries like those Clive Owen and Cate Blanchett so strenuously imparted on behalf of this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees. At any rate, the doc award is perhaps the most carefully stage-managed moment of the night precisely because the Academy is terrified of actual issues like child sexual abuse, religious fundamentalism and Iraq compromising its party. I mean, March of the Motherfucking Penguins was recognized in 2005 over instant classics like Street Fight and Murderball. Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim were the front-runners in 2006. Coupled with the knowledge that those who even remotely challenge the status quo would be as conspicuously disinvited as Chris Rock and Jon Stewart before them, how edgy did Sinno really think the Academy would get?

--The Best Documentary nominees were incredibly depressing. And that's coming from someone who fell head over heels for Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil. Moreover, if Sinno actually thinks that Seinfeld "indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they’re nothing but downers," or that the fortunes of Iraq in Fragments, "thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre" swing on a throwaway phrase destined for a TiVo skip-over anyway, then maybe Seinfeld has a point. After all, even Ira Glass backed away from these guys in The NY Times Magazine this weekend ("We don’t say 'documentary' because 'documentary' sounds boring," he told Deborah Solomon, however tongue-in-cheek), and he knows from unfunny, let me tell you.

Anyway, look for Oscar to return next year to Hollywood's Earnest Moral Trough, from which Keanu Reeves will draw an only slightly vague and allusive reference to titles like Lake of Fire and Zoo before handing the statuette to men wielding stuffed animals. At least for that sacred 30 seconds, there will be zero threat of anybody enjoying themselves.

Posted at March 5, 2007 4:15 PM

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