Thursday, March 08, 2007

An Open Letter To John Sinno

Our favorite gadfly Joshua Gibson is back, this time with a few choice words for John Sinno, who sent an open letter to the Academy Awards committee to protest the portrayal of documentaries at this year's Oscars. TiP discussed Sinno's letter last week, which was published online in Art Threat.

Dear John,

Every year we get treated to at least one wounded nominee bemoaning their treatment at the Oscars. Last year, we got E. Annie Proulx's mean-spirited attack on Crash, which she calls "Trash," in defense of her own idiotic, bland Brokeback Mountain. Now it's the documentary's turn, with you as its standard-bearer.

Listen, John, the Academy is not designed to award documentaries. The standards are so different, so difficult to understand, that it's difficult to call documentaries "art" at all, and handing out awards for them in the same ceremony with narrative films is troublesome at best.

While your concerns about "independent" documentaries are worthwhile, it's difficult to sympathize. Why should documentaries be held to a different standard than narrative films if they wish to play the same Awards field? And besides, documentaries produced by Spielberg and directed by Michael Moore have won the award in recent years, making it difficult to see how small films benefit from the current system in any event.

The Oscars are, in essence, a commercial enterprise. To argue against that is futile. Just be happy your film made it at all!

As for Seinfeld, the mocking of the awards and the nominees is hardly a new tactic and hardly one worth crying in one's milk over. Will Ferrell was more or less explicitly mocking a whole range of actors (from Sean Penn to Meryl Streep to Daniel Day-Lewis) who portray the mentally and physically challenged in his song about having sex with Helen Mirren. I didn't see Javier Bardem writing any open letters about the inherent dignity of his work being sullied by Ferrell's mockery.

If anything, documentary filmmakers should be happy their work is now seen as worthy of mockery by high-profile presenters and proud that the Academy now believes documentaries have the ability to compete on a commercial stage 75% larger.

It's hard to be taken seriously when you spend so much time taking the Oscars seriously, Mr. Sinno.


Ezra Winton said...

Concerning Mr. Gibson's trash-talking comment on docs, I wouldn't dare take him seriously as he does Sinno while accusing Sinno of taking the Academy seriously, as that would be, well, too serious.

I just want to point out two things Gibson might be interested in learning: documentaries are indeed art, sure as his online ramblings constitute blogging, and indeed, documentaries are also a commercial enterprise even sometimes - get this - screening in theatres and making money.

Sinno's letter wasn't refuting the fact that the Academy is a commercial enterprise as Gibson suggests, but that docs deserve more respect. And while some of us expect this from professionals in the industry, I certainly don't expect it from someone who would rather spend their money on "The Bride of Chucky ."(Domestic B.O. gross: $32,383,850; gross for Fahrenheit 9/11: $119,194,771)

Ezra Winton
Art Threat Film and Video Editor

Joshua said...

Mr. Winton,

I never disputed that documentaries make money and are a commercial enterprise. My comments about the Academy's commercial nature were pointed at Mr. Sinno's complaint that the increase the geographic scope required to qualify a documentary for nomination will harm "independent filmmakers." A film like Farenheit 9/11 [the most fictional "non-fiction" film to receive an Academy Award in my memory] will have no problem fulfilling the requirement. It is a sign of tremendous respect that the Academy now believes documentaries are viable commercial products and therefore can screen in more cities.

As for whether or not documentaries are art, well we may have to disagree on that. But no one treats seriously the idea that Ulysses and Anti-Intellectualism In American Life are both equally deserving of the appelation "art." Non-fiction literature can sometimes aspire to poetry, but it's not art. The mere use of aesthetic techniques and celluloid does not make non-fiction film "art" anymore than "The NBC Nightly News" is art.

Besides which, you miss my bigger point. The Academy is, essentially, made up of narrative filmmakers, actors and craftsmen. These voters, no matter how respectfully they may treat documentaries, are simply not capable of judging documentaries by the standards they demand. If anything, that's a criticism of the Academy, not of documentarists. Many documentaries are worthwhile, intelligent, interesting pieces of work, perhaps all the moreso since documentaries have never developed the kind of ethical standards that make non-fiction literature what it is. By pretending to be tellin the truth and making art simultaneously, documentarists have given us some rather dubious pieces of political propaganda masquerading as insightful "exposes." I'm not sure that's something I'd be too proud of, were I an "independent filmmaker."

Luckily, I'm just a misguided blogger who, knowing that the singular "their" should never be used to describe a single, specific, gendered human being, would rather spend his money on Bride of Chucky than that towering achievement of the poor, beleaguered artist Michael Moore.