Well, it is officially award season. And I don’t just mean the ad industry shows like The One Show or D&AD that have recently clogged your mailroom with exceedingly creative entry forms. The boozy, schmoozy Golden Globes took place this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Oscars) just unveiled their nominees this week and the Independent Spirit Awards are about to happen in a big tent in Santa Monica somewhere.
What these shows represent is more than self-love, political correctness, fair-weather topicality or the blinding glamour of an $800,000 dress. They represent respect. Respect for artistry and achievement. ‘Achievement’ meaning the ability to become a part of cultural conversation by applying that artistry to the timeless museum we call “the screen”. Agree or disagree with the nominees, these ‘best of the best’ are proof that a killer story in your head can be more than a killer story in your head. They’re proof that--with the right cocktail of creativity, dogged perseverance, money(!) and the right band of allies—that story in your head can grow up to be crowd-pleasing, insight-blooming, tear-jerking, gut-busting, culture-shaping, peer-worshipping realizations. They are proof of the universality of a story well told.
That’s why I watch them. To see great stories (not bejeweled human beings) get their just rewards.
The best of the best stories in film, television (and even advertising) help all of us in ways we rarely ever acknowledge. They give us a common reference point for life. They allow us to feel like we’re not alone in our experiences. They---like every form of storytelling going back to the ancient Greeks—help us to make sense of the world around us. Even if you’ve never mentally or physically experienced what a character experiences in a great story, you still take away from it common emotions. When you love a bit of storytelling or feel like a narrative really resonates with you yet cannot quite put your finger on why (because we’re not all the late Roger Ebert, after all) that is the power of insight working on you. You feel a distinct connection in the way of subtext or theme or metaphor or the choices a character makes. The things that cause you to walk away saying “Man, that was powerful”.
Here’s the part I offer For Your Consideration: More and more of these great stories are being told by those immersive compulsives who are determined to put their busy hands on all aspects of the tale. Hyphenates. They tend to have a deeper connection to those characters because they actually dreamt them up or embodied them from inception to completion. As Writer-Directors or Actor-Directors they understand how to chronicle their characters’ internal and external experiences through artful coverage because they carefully crafted the action description and have an innate sense for what the emotional impact of a scene should be. They think about casting and location as they write. They dream about the edit as they shoot. Rather than pretentious, self-indulgent auteurs, these folks are simply “fully vested” --as your HR person or broker is so apt to say.
Just look at the examples of fantastic Hyphenate-ology we’ve been treated to this past year.
Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”. I’m not here to tell you that you have to love this film. But you have to acknowledge it is a pretty amazing piece of filmmaking. Beyond all the calculated hype about how “arduous” it was to get a modern day musical made (about the cute, quirky Hollywood lifestyle of two Caucasian, adorable A-list stars directed by a guy coming off a huge Oscar favorite like “Whiplash”), I still think Writer-Director Chazelle’s achievement is pretty stunning in that so much of the action in scenes was absolutely interdependent with technique. None of the bigger dance-set pieces would’ve worked had Chazelle not been determined to deliver them in single takes which in turns implies the universality of the LA experience. I’m betting that technique was scripted long before the shooting boards were rendered. And this surface level story packed in tons of great other insights that even a mail carrier in Marfa, Texas could relate to. It was about dreams. It was about the dueling pace of relationships. It was about allegiance to your own sense of destiny. And it was about bullshit, believe it or not. Hollywood bullshit. Which LA is the galactic epicenter of. These are notions we’ve all bumped up against in our lives.
Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”. This is such a highly internalized story that it’s really tough to imagine anyone other than the screenwriter directing it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that--on paper—Lonergan’s script of an emotionally-wounded janitor suddenly confronted with custody of his teenage nephew--is really quite a dry read. But, on film, it really hits you in the gut. Because just as much is revealed in the long, awkward, silent moments between dialogue as in the brief explosive moments with words and action. Casey Affleck’s character has such a self-imposed numbness that the film really maneuvers you into imagining his anguish while still dancing humor on the head of pin. That’s a dimension of filmmaking that might feel throwaway but which I have to believe was painstakingly choreographed into the shooting of this story. I suspect Casey Affleck will continue to be awarded most of the credit, but Lonergan was clearly the architect and the builder.
Ted Melfi for “Hidden Figures”. Melfi wasn’t even alive yet when these three unsung African American women made their contributions to the space program. That—or sensing the potential skepticism of a 2016 audience--might have been the impetus for him to dedicate so much research (according to trade press lore) to the accuracy of the story and the little details. It seems he went out of his way to make sure to scrub out all the hyperbole and leave the goosebumps to Pharrell’s soundtrack. This isn’t to say the story did not get the Hollywood treatment. It clearly did. But much of that was in the actual marketing of the film and in the tone, not the mechanics of the story itself. You don’t have to be African American or female or a genius or even versed in science to walk away with a sense of belonging in this story. All you have to understand is the experience of being told you cannot do something when you know damn well you can. You ever been there? I have.
Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”. Empathy, complexity, point of view.. I didn’t love every little thing about this film but I did love the iron grip Jenkins had on those three things. This has been a year of particularly complex characters and the lead character here stands as a prime example. Have you ever known what it was like to feel an ocean between you and the ability to love or be loved? Boom.
Kelly Freemon Craig for “The Edge of Seventeen”. Even the most resonant stories still tend to get channeled through an audience’s own personal spectrum and life experiences. And part of those life experiences actually happen to be the previous films we’ve consumed. This teen-angst genre is such a well-worn one but Craig was able to navigate it with particular freshness, avoiding clichés like traffic cones. I’ve often said in creative meetings that a fresh insight can be defined as something that many people are thinking but few/if any have ever articulated (yet). I have to believe that Writer-Director Craig’s steady, unflinching hands were responsible for that.
Denzel Washington for “Fences”. If you have any doubt that Actor-Director Washington totally nailed an inside-out, outside-in perspective on this highly complex character that speaks to damn near anybody with a head and a heart, then I don’t really know what to tell you.
Of course there are scores of amazing screenwriters who never direct and mind-blowing directors who never write (much) and an ocean of actors who never direct. They are--without a doubt--accomplished, enviable storytellers in their own ways.
But, there is a very special place in my heart for those who throw their arms and mind around a story and don’t let go until they are convinced that every audience member has had the chance to feel or experience what these complex characters felt or experienced. Even if that audience may never articulate back the full intent, theme, symbolism or subtext to a focus group or in some ‘man-on-the-street’ promo ad, at least Writer-Directors have the satisfaction of knowing they left everything on the field. They are essentially “authors” --who did not put down (or pick up) the pen after Chapter 3. The next time you hear the term “Writer-Director” in any medium, I sincerely hope you think about him or her in those terms.
Meryl Streep for her role as Actress-National Conscience. Streep brilliantly couched her outrage within the confines of “performance”. By calling out the “stunning and breathtaking performance” delivered by an unnamed candidate who physically mocked the special needs of a reporter, it was like calling out Sean Penn for “I am Sam” if he had waltzed into that role armed only with malice. After all, Trump was essentially acting. And remember, acting and storytelling are supposed to consummate expressions of empathy. So—as the greatest living actor on Earth--she is absolutely, 1000% qualified to judge him or anyone else on this basis.
Tip o’ both hats to Meryl.
Let’s see now if the Commander-in-Chief’s deep-black-void-where-his-empathy-ought-to-be lands him a Golden Raspberry this year--a dubious achievement award typically reserved for the tone deaf and miscast who should’ve never been let out of hair and makeup.