Archive for February, 2015

‘Habit is a Great Deadener’: Peter Molyneux and Waiting For Godus

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by drayfish

Peter Molyneux 22Cans

IMAGE: Peter Molyneux (22Cans)

‘Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—’
Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Over the last few days most every article written about Peter Molyneux and his company 22Cans has started with some variation on the same sentence:

‘Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…’

(Well, that and the obligatory Waiting For Godot reference that self-loathing pun-junkies like me just can’t resist.) It’s the kind of catch-all observation that’s both undeniably true and open to whatever inflection the author chooses to apply to it.

For those sympathetic to Molyneux it’s a statement of solidarity – an industry luminary, a beloved, if occasionally over-eager creator has fallen into tough times, his reputation maligned by a string of unfavourable news reports. For those who have little patience for the designer, however, it’s a grim kind of schadenfreude. Finally, after years of reckless hyperbole, Molyneux is finally being brought to task for spruiking endless features, and entire games, that never come to fruition.

What triggered this whole mess was a series of glaring own-goals scored by Molyneux himself as 22Cans winds down production on Godus – the Kickstarter funded game that has yet to meet even its primary stated goals almost two years after it was supposed to have been completed. At the Fun & Serious Game Festival this past December, Molyneux announced that he was shifting his attention onto a new project, a smart device game called The Trail. Godus, he lamented, was a game that ‘lacked in narrative, progress and reward’, but The Trail (whatever it was) would be brimming with the stuff.

Everything snowballed from there.

Firstly, for a lot of people the tone of finality and regret rang some alarm bells. After all, whether his sentiments are genuine or not, Peter Molyneux has developed a reputation for disparaging his previous games whenever he wants to promote his next one (the Fable franchise being the most notorious example): ‘Don’t worry about that last game, that’s in the past; this next one is going to do everything that one failed to…’ Hearing this refrain from Molyneux again while mentioning his next project implied that he was drawing a line under Godus and abandoning it – something that came as quite a shock to the Kickstarter backers who were still waiting for a completed version of the game they had purchased. Predictably, social media and the Godus forums lit up with scorn.

Secondly, games journalists started combing back through the numerous promises Molyneux had made over the course of Godus, and the results were immediately troubling. Not only was the game still in an alpha state that lacked all of the multiplayer and competitive functionality Molyneux had been touting from its conception (in some interviews he had spoken of five hundred thousand players engaging simultaneously in dynamic battles; at present it remains a solo experience devoid of conflict), but some core promises from the Kickstarter campaign had been so walked back or ignored that the whole enterprise began to look suspicious…

After declaring that he had used Kickstarter specifically to avoid using a publisher, five months later, having met his funding goal, Molyneux signed with a publisher. The stretch goal of importing the game to Linux appears to have always been impossible. Molyneux’s own employees were posting on forums their dissatisfaction with the project and their regret that core elements of the game would never be completed. Even purchases supplementary to the Kickstarter pledge had not been honoured. Art books were neither produced nor delivered. A behind-the-scenes documentary had not been made. Some of the 359 students who paid for developer consultations and career advice felt they had been ignored.

Most gallingly, however, and inarguably the charge that has cast the biggest shadow on Molyneux, was the discovery that Bryan Henderson, the ‘winner’ of the Curiosity game that tied directly into the promotion of the Godus, had been effectively abandoned by 22Cans.

Henderson, the man repeatedly, publicly promised that his ‘life would change’ after winning the Curiosity challenge, was contacted by Eurogamer, who discovered that, despite Molyneux’s claims that Henderson would play a pivotal role in Godus (he would be ‘god of gods’; he would get a cut of the game’s ongoing profits) almost two years later he has so far received no money, had no direct involvement with the game, and been actively ignored by the company, who even stopped replying to his emails.

In an effort to hose down this controversy, Molyneux apologised to Henderson through the press, explaining that he was baffled as to how such an oversight could have occurred, and made assurances that – despite what principle members of the Godus development team had said – the game was still on track to implementing its online features. Henderson, he enthused, would definitely, eventually get to play the ‘life-changing’ role promised him.

But this latest round of interviews culminated in an exchange with John Walker at RockPaperShotgun who, rather than simply copying down the official quote, walked Molyneux through the litany of seemingly broken promises that the Godus crowd-funded project had already left in its wake. What resulted was so excoriating that Molyneux declared he was being hounded, and vowed to never again talk to the press.

That, he said, would be his final interview.

He said the same thing in an interview he gave to the Guardian, which he conducted almost immediately afterward.

And again to Kotaku, in the interview he did with them.

…And just in case the point wasn’t made strenuously enough, once more to a UK student newspaper called The Linc.

No more interviews! Except for those four and counting.

For those who claim Molyneux has cried wolf too many times, it all seemed like more feigned theatrics.

And so, in this roundabout way, we reach the point in which I too inevitably type the words:

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

Godus MeteorStrike

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Before I get into my opinion – about this RockPaperShotgun interview, about the audience backlash, about the industry and Molyneux himself – I should probably lay out my own history to try to head off any accusations of bias.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got no horse in this race.

I was a great fan of Populous back on the Sega Master System, was intoxicated by the grimy cyber noir of Syndicate on PC, and had a good deal more fun with the Fable series than most it seems, but I was never a Molyneux faithful. Black and White, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper all passed me by, and aside from appreciating that he was a cheerleader for the industry, I never personally invested in any of the hyperbole that has so often made him a subject of ridicule.

‘Acorns that grow into trees’ and generations of children that live on after your character dies sounded wondrous, but at that time no one in the industry had even programmed convincing looking hair, so I was not exactly surprised when his promises fell short. What always struck me as more irritating was that the interviewers he would tell these things to never bothered asking how exactly any of it was possible. They just printed the words verbatim, shook their heads in wonder, and whipped up some anticipatory summary about how eager they were to see the final product.

Perhaps most significantly for this discussion: I neither participated in Curiosity, his grandiose ‘experiment’ in literal social click-baiting (to me it looked futile from its first announcement) nor did I invest in Godus, purported to be the successor to every one of his previous hits (the Kickstarter page describes it as part Black & White, part Populous, part Dungeon Keeper, etc). I did download the free Godus iPad app some months back. I remember thinking it was pretty but a little perfunctory, and deleted it once hit the predictable pay wall for advancement.

So when I approached the RockPaperShotgun interview, I was neither looking to defend Molyneux nor to see him kicked around for my amusement. What I found instead felt strangely inevitable. The natural end result of a cycle that has spun on for too long. It sounds trite, and the pun in the title doesn’t help, but what I found really did make me think of Waiting for Godot, and the uncomfortable tragicomic angst that plagues that play. Of characters locked into dialogue that now feels rote and overly familiar, emptied of meaning. Of people exhausted by the roles that they have no choice but to enact.

Defenders of Molyneux have criticised the interview as brutal and unfair. Walker was getting overly emotional, they say, being belligerent and twisting Molyneux’s words against him. That was not the way to speak to a games developer – an artist. Robin Parrish of Tech Times described it as an ‘assault’. Thomas Ella of Hardcore Gamer went to the hysterical length of labelling Molyneux the messiah in the article ‘The Crucifixion of Peter Molyneux Shows How Far We Have Fallen’. He describes Walker as having ‘nailed Molyneux to the cross again and again’, opining that:

‘We are not dealing with criminals or crooked politicians here; these are artists. Sometimes there will be mistakes, there will be unethical business practices, and there will even be games that failed to meet their creator’s lofty promises, but we are still talking about video games — about entertainment — and that cannot be emphasized enough.’

Voices such as these have waxed lyrical about what a grand shame it is that such a talented artist is now being chastened, unable to voice his ideas. This will stifle creativity itself, they warn. And indeed Molyneux’s response to the interview was to claim that Walker – and a hostile games media at large – were driving him out of the industry. Clearly he was being targeted in a smear campaign designed to tarnish his reputation and tear him down.

It’s an emotional appeal, and one that on first glance is hard to dismiss. Here is a guy who loves the medium and clearly loves talking about it. But to categorise it as an attack on an artist is a gross misrepresentation, one that obfuscates the real issues by appealing to the easy terrors of censorship.

Undeniably, it is a bracing interview. When the first salvo is ‘Are you a pathological liar?’ you can fairly safely assume that the follow up is not going to be, ‘So how do you juggle work and family?’ But nothing within it seemed cruel or unjust.

Whatever else you think of the piece, Walker wasn’t attacking an artist, his work, or his ideas. He didn’t slag off the dog in Fable 3 for having crappy AI, or label Theme Park a failure because it didn’t synch with Theme Hospital like Molyneux once promised. He was asking him – in his capacity as the head of a business – why his company had failed to deliver on goods that had already been paid for by consumers, such as the art books that have still not even been printed, or features like multiplayer that have now been denied due to financing decisions that Molyneux made with third parties. He was asking him why he told investors that he could produce a game in nine months when his own experience showed he had never turned one out in less than three years. Why he would knowingly ask for less money than he was already aware he would need.

Curiosity-cube

IMAGE: Curiosity (22Cans)

He was asking him why a young man who had already been utilised as a piece of advertising – compelled by his ‘win’ to give interviews to publications like Wired, Game Informer, and several news outlets around the world – had subsequently gone uncompensated and ignored by his company. How he could possibly claim to still be overseeing a project if he had already announced he had handed it over to someone else – Konrad Naszynski, previously a Kickstarter backer who joined the company because he believed the game was in trouble.

Consequentially, the interview was a completely legitimate piece of journalism – even that confronting opening question. In Britain, and here in Australia, you see precisely such probing questions from journalists. Just last week an interview with the Australian Prime Minister, conducted by one of our foremost reporters, literally started with the query, ‘Are you a dead man walking?’

In fact, if anyone really wants to cry foul about Walker’s ‘journalism’, then really his only inappropriate moments were when he – clearly sympathetic to Molyneux – took him at his word, or reassured him. When Molyneux claimed to have made good on some of the forgotten student consultations, Walker replied,

‘I think what I’ve done there is fill in one [crack in the story], that’s brilliant news. I’m really glad that that existed and that you did it and that’s good.’

If he were really being an unfeeling bully, such late unsubstantiated excuses would have meant little.

The problem is that despite the occasionally exasperated tone of the interviewer, the only one Molyneux was really combating was himself. Walker was simply quoting back to him explicit promises Molyneux himself had made – often not even in the heady adrenalin of an interview, but written down, contractually agreed, and repeated in multiple venues.

So to me, this overprotective reaction from people who believe Walker stepped over some unspoken line – evoking Molyneux’s status as an artist as immunity from questioning; suggesting that holding an incorrigible day dreamer to account for straightforward business decisions is somehow killing his creativity – is more indicative of another larger problem in the industry, and gaming ‘journalism’ as a whole.

Because there is and should be an important difference between a promotional junket and asking a businessman to explain himself when it appears that might have committed the literal definition of fraud. It’s a distinction that Molyneux is clearly having trouble making, and it is frankly a little alarming that so many other commentators in the industry, wringing their hands about the mistreatment he has apparently just suffered, don’t appear to recognise it either.

Godus Mining_Settlement_cropped

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Perhaps you can argue that the tone of the questioning was a little rough – but again, unlike the majority of the other interviews he would have had with gaming press, this was not meant to be a puff piece. This was not about each participant following along to the dance steps of a prearranged preview, where Molyneux had a checklist of features to mention about the product he was spruiking, and Walker was just hunting for a splashy lead. It was a reporter seeking answers to troubling questions, backing them up with research, and not accepting obfuscation and evasion in reply.

It’s exactly what journalism looks like in any other industry.

To his credit, Molyneux didn’t just take offence and hang up the phone – but that’s because even he knows he to get in front of the story before it swallows him whole. Walker wasn’t beating him up, he was giving him a right of reply; in many cases offering him the chance to clarify his own damning testimony.

That’s not to say that it isn’t still worth asking why so many other Kickstarters and games publishers have not been similarly castigated for shady practices. Why focus on an independent publisher like Molyneux when Ubisoft can advertise clearly phony footage of Watch Dogs in their pre-release marketing and slap embargoes on reviewers to prevent them mentioning the buggy, unfinished mess of Assassin’s Creed: Unity before consumers had made their purchases? Why not tear apart Randy Pitchford at Gearbox for making similarly lofty promises about Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game advertised with fake footage, farmed off to underfunded secondary studios, and released borderline unplayable? But that’s not the same thing as saying such questions shouldn’t be asked.

Lamenting that the entire industry has been apathetic to these issues in the past doesn’t mean that everyone should just give up, continue asking softball, prearranged questions, and agree to play nice. For too long this is an industry that has been beholden to utterly ridiculous trains of hype, where unfinished products are feverishly talked up. Where ‘reporting’ and advertising become inextricably mixed in previews and demos. Where visibly uncomfortable creators are prodded out onto the marketing treadmill to peddle their wares and soulless PR reps fake up enthusiasm for design features that they had nothing to do with, and don’t fully understand anyway. Where early access and pre-orders and season passes actively try to circumnavigate delivering a finished product that can be judged on its own merits.

Thomas Ella’s extremely silly reference to Molyneux’s ‘crucifixion’ is therefore rather revealing because I think it does exhibit (albeit accidentally) the problem in the gaming media that this whole situation has exposed, and why the backlash against Molyneux in particular has such resonance. Because until now the distinction between artist and businessman in video games has been unhelpfully, systematically obscured; and while many might argue that Molyneux is not the worst offender, by his own actions he is the most symbolic.

Because Molyneux made himself a god. A god of the gaming industry.

And people notice when gods come tumbling down.

godus_head-pic

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

There has been a communal mythologising of Molyneux over the years – partly something that he has cultivated, partly something projected upon him. His history of trading on impossible, patently loopy ideas is such common knowledge that it has even spawned a parody persona lovingly lampooning him on social media in the form of ‘Peter Molydeux’, and has given rise to an entire competition, the Molyjam, premised on trying to bring ridiculous, wilfully impractical concepts to life. He has occupied a lofty, indulged position in the industry not just because of his achievements in the past, but because he continues to be such a charismatic, mysterious subject.

It’s what makes him such an appealing interview. He seems open, unfiltered, unrestrained. Consequentially, industry commentators are always swift to describe him as charming. Just read this interview at the beginning of Godus’ development in 2012 in which Molyneux breaks into tears (something he had also done in a couple of other venues and on a pre-recorded Kickstarter video at the time), and the interviewer, describing him as the ‘godfather of god games’, seems utterly enamoured:

Personally, I think [the tears] came from the exact same place as Molyneux’s childlike excitement from earlier this year. He loves games. He loves the possibilities they present. He loves his creations. And even if they destroy him, he’s going to keep investing his heart, soul, and reputation into each and every one. “I think I will be doing games until the day I die,” he said. “At this rate, the way I’m burning through my life, I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer.”

The tenor of this description is all too familiar. Molyneux is besotted with games – in love with them. He can’t be held responsible for getting carried away when he’s so deep in the throes of inspiration.

Never mind that (as a Kotaku article, ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’, outlined) there are numerous anecdotes – some of which Molyneux tells himself – showing him in a far less flattering light. Lying in order to receive a gift of cutting edge computers under false pretences; throwing a stapler at an employee who argued for a higher bonus cheque; taking credit for features that were not his; embarrassing co-workers with impossible demands directly in front of the press.

He has even admitted, while excepting a BAFTA award that he frequently makes big promises that are complete fabrications in interviews just to keep reporters guessing:

“I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep and I really apologise to the team for that.”

Elsewhere he has acknowledged publically describing features that do not exist in the hopes that it will compel his employees to make them a reality.

And yet rather than leading reporters to question him more thoroughly in future, it just becomes part of the cycle; the contradictions just get folded into the grand narrative. Enigmatic genius or playful rapscallion? We’ll just keep describing the endearing glint in his eye and pretend everything he’s saying this time is true…

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the industry because Molyneux makes – and actively courts – headlines. His promises make headlines. His apologies make headlines. The new promises he makes on the back of old apologies make headlines. Even a few weeks ago he warned Microsoft about over-promising on their HoloLens prototype and a predictable slew of articles, ripened with the irony of it all, rolled out.

But in the past three years the gulf between promise and product became too pronounced to shrug off.

Fable Acorn

IMAGE: Acorn Achievement, Fable Anniversary (Lionhead)

It is conventional wisdom that the Beatles’ biggest mistake was claiming that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Pride precedes the fall, and all that. But looking back, Molyneux seems to have tripled down on the self-deification after founding 22Cans. He wasn’t just bigger than Jesus. He was God.

He left Microsoft because he no longer wanted to be ‘constrained by what they can and can’t do’; he wanted to ‘ change the world and everyone will be happy.’ He was going to make the ultimate god game. He was going to make everyone in his audience gods. One lucky winner he was even going to make god of all gods, even cutting him a healthy slice of godly bounty.

Molyneux was declaring himself god of the god game that would spawn a god of gods amongst a network of infinite gods. The hype had built to a colossal, ludicrous level.

Pride precedes the fall.

Because ever since, Molyneux’s signature exaggeration has become less endearing. Since founding 22Cans and soliciting a small fortune through crowd funding he hasn’t just been delighting the press in the lead up to his big reveal – he has been perhaps been misleading the people who had already invested in his vision. These weren’t just apathetic potential customers whose attention he was trying to snare, they were the faithful who already believed in him.

Molyneux is delighted by the word ‘belief’. He believes he can make great things. He believes in the industry. He believes in games. Unfortunately, however, as the past few years have exposed, Molyneux sometimes also uses ‘belief’ as bait, robbing it of its meaning. Belief becomes a caveat. An excuse. Occasionally a weapon.

One of his popular refrains when getting called out for a promised feature that never appears is to regret that his enthusiasm so often gets misinterpreted as a promise. He shifts the blame from himself, the guy who said the words, onto the listener, the one who foolishly took them at face value. He effectively declares, ‘Well, you took the risk by believing me.’ But this ignores the fact that when he makes these statements, he explicitly declares them to be features. He’s not saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if…?’ or ‘This is what we’d like to do if we can figure it out…’; he says: ‘This is what we’ve done. This is coming.’

Believe me.

It’s a semantic sleight of hand that recurs again and again when one sifts through his innumerable apologies. Repeatedly, when it appears that he is accepting blame, or looking wistfully back upon mistakes, the fault is always subtly laid somewhere else. He didn’t lie, he just didn’t know what he was saying. Sure most of the goals won’t be met, but Kickstarter makes you say reckless things. He had to exaggerate.

And this is particularly true for the RockPaperShotgun interview in which his repeated mea culpas actually operate as attempts to make himself look all the more endearing. He’s sorry for being too honest. Sorry for sharing too much. Sorry for being so excited. For caring about what he does.

He’s sorry he tried so hard, but believe him, none of it is really his fault.

Blaming someone for dreaming too big, for trusting too much, feels mean. That’s certainly what Molyneux’s supporters argue in this whole mess. But it’s important to realise that what is coming under attack is not Molyneux, god of gaming. It’s Molyneux, god of marketing. The guy who knowingly traffics in deception to fortify sales. Who said that Fable: The Journey wasn’t on rails when it clearly, at every point, visibly was always on rails. Who said that Kickstarter was the only way to avoid publishers, right as he was signing up with a publisher. Who now admits the final days of crowd funding made him think,

‘Christ, we’ve only got ten days to go and we’ve got to make a hundred thousand, for fucks sake let’s just say anything.’

The people who cry foul at Molyneux’s treatment in this RockPaperShotgun interview are defending the dreamer, the artist, the sincere, if devoid of self-awareness enthusiast of the games medium. But he was not the one who was being interviewed. It was Molyneux who actively mixed those two figures up. And to continue to conflate the two just perpetuates the cycle of spin and marketing that gave rise to this muddle of a god complex in the first place. It furthers the uncomfortably reciprocal relationship that has masqueraded as games ‘journalism’ for too long.

And that is what this whole sad scenario has crystallised for me.

Experimentation is a vital part of creativity. It should be cherished and allowed to flourish – particularly in a medium still exploring and testing its fundamental expressive potential. But too often the videogame industry steps on the toes of its own innovation by promising too much too early – touting features and revolutions in game play not yet tested, funnelling everything into a bullet-points that can be rolled out as hyperventilating advertising promises before anything has even been coded. They become their own form of restraint on inspiration.

Molyneux began this downward spiral not by flying too close to the sun – as many have romantically tried to suggest – but by falling into a pattern of empty promotion, muddying the waters of creativity with marketing. Rather than experimenting with these ideas in his studio, or talking them through at games conferences, he would wind them inextricably into his sales patter. Essentially, what he was asking for was a license to workshop ideas in public, but with everyone playing along that the dreams were real, wilfully forgetting anything that he had said before, and suspending all expectation for the future. He was asking for a belief so absolute that risked becoming pure indulgence, where the promotion was more important than the work itself.

He made himself a god. He promised impossible things. But his need to stoke hope into white hot hype has set fire to his own icon, and threatens to burn the whole thing to the ground.

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, stand awaiting a man called Godot who they have been told will meet them. They too believe. But after an eternity of waiting, with day after day after day of disappointment, of the same messages being spewed by the same messenger – not this time, next time for sure – their hope has finally faded to apathy. Words are empty. Promises unfulfilled. Sentences repeat ad nauseam.

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

‘But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he’s received and I’ll give him a carrot. …. But habit is a great deadener.’

– Vladimir, Waiting for Godot

In Godot there are no more gods left. Just a dead tree and the familiar sting of self-loathing for ever having believed in the first place.

Waiting for Godot Sara Krulwich NYT

IMAGE: Waiting for Godot (Sara Krulwich, The New York Times)

The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish

 LOGO_OSCARS_ON-AIR__2014-color

IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

lego movie group

IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.

braveheart

IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.

Selma

IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

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