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WORKING WEEKEND: And Now For Something Still the Same

11 Jan, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

Watching that American Film Institute (AFI) Awards show on TV recently sort of depressed me. Not in any significant spiritual way, mind you. After all, it's just another televised awards program for movie and TV shows and performers.

But that was the core of my concern: More of the same. Hollywood is of course synonymous with excess. Still, AFI always had been, in my eyes anyhow, stubbornly prestigious and even pristine without being excessively stuffy about it.

Its Life Achievement Awards specials, in their 1970s salad days, were very classy affairs, which, along with the theater's Tony Awards, placed it at least a cut or two above the typical televised awardathon. Then again, how can you go wrong with screen legends like Cagney, Davis, Fonda, and Stewart. One of AFI's, and I dare say any awards show's, finest hours, was when the great Cagney, in homage to his own famous "stairdance" in Yankee Doodle Dandy, hoofed his way up the stage steps to the syncopated clapping of an adoring audience. This was not one of those ersatz embraces now routine at these cookie-cutter affairs, but a heartfelt tribute to a seminal figure in filmed entertainment. It's hard for anyone with a sensitivity for film history to watch it and not get misty-eyed.

Watching the AFI's Awards, my eyes merely glazed over. One of the oddities that struck me about this newest AFI conceit to chase down commercialism is that, almost betraying its very birthright – it is the American Film Institute – it somewhat self-consciously dumbed down the name of its top honor to "Movie of the Year," while a bit preciously using "AFI Actor of the Year – Female" in lieu of the apparently AFI-unacceptable "actress". Ah, the age-old struggle of art vs. commerce rages on even within AFI's naming its categories. That Actor category also sounds like AFI is honoring an actor's body of work for calendar 2001, which in fact would have been a refreshing distinction instead of citing a single performance. AFI was on to something with its category labels, but didn't follow through on the awards methodology. A shame, that.

Then there's the AFI Awards tagline "Honoring a Year of Excellence," one of those constructions that collapse if you think about it too much, which is my problem when it comes to anything involving words. Literally, the awards are not honoring the year itself, as noted above, but rather individual entertainment released in that timeframe, and glibly labeling each year as one "of excellence" defies the very notion of quality, rendering everything, by definition, average. The tagline would be appropriate if AFI produced a tribute to the par excellence movie years of, say, 1939 or 1950 or 1971.

At least AFI made an interesting attempt to draw on cognoscenti in composing TV and movie nominating committees, as well as a jury, to determine the nominees and the winners. Between the People's Choice Awards and baseball's All-Star Game, the consumer public has long since proved it is not so much a reliable barometer of performance as it is a lightning rod of empathy with icons it feels warm and fuzzy about, or those stars who promote themselves precisely to cultivate their celebrity.

Just as some of professional sports' all-jerk superstars have reminded us that talent and character can be mutually exclusive, publicly-voted awards for entertainment remind us that big box-office does not always imply big talent, and big talent does not guarantee fame.

But you can't blame the AFI for not resisting the temptation to mainstream itself with a me-too awards show that, ironically, does not advance the art of television or of film, to paraphrase its own lofty language, and certainly adds nothing to the familiarly stilted staging of awards shows, epitomized by the ten-ton Oscarcast. Maybe the Motion Picture Academy should hire Baz Luhrmann the strobe-like director of Moulin Rouge, to produce the Oscars. It sure would move a lot faster.

We have the Emmys for TV, the Oscars for movies, and the Golden Globes for both, not to mention sundry other honors too innocuous to remember. With all AFI has to offer, why add to the cookie-cutter clutter?

Because it can, and because it is a simple and obvious way to further ingratiate itself with its constituency – the creative and commercial forces that drive the moving image industry, 90210.

AFI did try to make the affair more intimate, but The Golden Globes have already co-opted that mis-en-scene with its dinner format that induces more spontaneous and humorous acceptance moments than the Oscars can muster with its all-too-inhibiting infrastructure built on an immobile mass of production logistics.

What The AFI Awards rudely reminded the rest of us, though -- looking at the priveleged, eternally insecure folks assembled in that room somewhere in la-la-land -- is about the insularity in which our popular entertainment gets conceived and produced and honored. With some exceptions – Pixar, Shrek, Moulin Rouge, Soderbergh, Aronofsky, to name some -- it's the same, old same-old. People, ideas, formulas.

That accounts for my ambivalence about the makeup of the AFI's carefully-selected committees and jury that decided these awards. Go to www.afi.com to see who they are, and you'll agree that their expertise is inarguable, and preferable to the public polls, which are redundant anyhow with box-office grosses.

Maybe the AFI judges' creative insight can be put to more productive use by helping to discover new talent. Forget the awards for once. Just identify, encourage and promote emerging talent and new forms of sensory experience, and put that on TV.

Robert Redford's Sundance Institute is doing what I'm talking about. Check out SundanceOnlineFilmFestival.org. It challenges our assumptions about what a "movie" is or should be. I've not attended Sundance but it's said to have opened up considerably in recent years in accessibility, expanding beyond a rarefied lair for Hollywood deal makers.

This lead paragraph from the Jan. 11 issue of The New York Times offers hope to those of us searching for something at least partly different in our entertainment experiences: "The curtain rose on the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night with the premiere of The Laramie Project, a socially conscious film that festival organizers say reflects a new sensibility outside mainstream Hollywood moviemaking."

Hurray for Hollywoodent.

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