Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

The Phantom Empire
by Geoffrey O’Brien
W W. Norton & Co., New York, 1993 $20.00

"Instead of visions modern people see movies,
which wear off a good deal faster." — Geoffrey O’Brien, The
Phantom Empire

"A spectator can avoid certain movies, but not
The Movies." So writes Geoffrey O’Brien in his observation
of the cinematic experience, The Phantom Empire, which takes
an a priori view of the power and influence that movies have over
society. In it, O’Brien examines the interior processes by which
the viewer observes, ingests, and exploits the flickering issues/04/images
on the screen.

O’Brien does not cite any specific film theorists,
but his work obviously owes to the writings of Hugo Munsterberg,
Sigmund Freud, Laura Mulvey, and Noel Burch (only the last of whom
is credited). The Phantom Empire does not contain footnotes, a bibliography
or an index, except for an index of the films cited. It points to
the emphasis he places on an emotional relationship with film, rather
than a theoretical one.

O’Brien reflects on a wide range of topics, from film
spectatorship and genres, to Italian and British filmmaking. His
observations on   – the roles that memory and history
play in the assimilation of cinematic information are especially
worth reading.

He notes that "history is compounded by our cinematic
experience" and offers the notable example of raconteur/President
Reagan’s frequent substitution of movies for history. O’Brien’s
point is that for Reagan-and for us-movie memories are no less valid
than reality: they enhance reality.

One of the stumbling blocks to enjoying The Phantom
Empire
lies in navigating O’Brien’s flowery prose. His messages
are often buried in similes, allusions and metaphors. I frequently
found myself wishing that he would lay  off the poetry and get to
the point.

The greatest hurdle that O’Brien sets up for himself
and his readers is his pretense that The Movies are the dominant
carriers of meaning in society. His narrow scope that avoids serious
discussion of video and television isolates film in a deceptive
vacuum of influence. Then again, O’Brien is not out to prove anything.
The Phantom Empire is a kind of "come along with me for a cinematic
journey" book.

No facts, no figures- just movies.

Behind the Oscar, The Secret History of the Academy
Awards

by Anthony Holden
Plume/Penguin, New York, 1993 $14.95

At first glance, Behind the Oscar, The Secret History
of the Academy Awards
, looks like one more whipping of a dead
horse.

A disclaimer that the book is neither endorsed by
nor affiliated with the Academy o£ Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
seems to confirm it.

But author Anthony Holden, who has written biographies
of Laurence Olivier and Prince Charles, is a meticulous researcher
and obviously relishes his subject. He has written a lively account
of Oscar’s checkered history from the founding of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 1920’s through the Silence
of the Lambs
sweep in 1991. In between is a year-by-year, blow-by-blow
documenting of two decades of studio politics, infighting, and vote
control, and 40 years of super-hype which began in the 1950’s with
the national telecasts and the rise of independent filmmakers.

The motivation for the backroom shenanigans and big
spending has been recognition of achievement and merit. Its money.
Win or lose, a nomination usually means at least a 20 percent boost
at the box office, and is often a launching pad for careers.

According to Holden, the Academy was born when Louis
B. Mayer decided to build a beach house. He found that because of
union contracts it would be prohibitively expensive to use his MGM
craftsmen to design and construct it. Recognizing the growing strength
of the unions, he called some of his cronies together to create
a "mutually beneficial" organization to unite the various
craftspeople, actors, writers, and others who comprise the movie
industry. The result was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences. Beneath the seemingly lofty ideals rested the more pragmatic
purpose of controlling talent, and making it more difficult for
technicians to strike studios.

Two years later the Academy Awards were introduced.
The ceremonies began as small, intimate dinner parties which sputtered
through the 30’s and 40’s. Gradually taking on a life of their own,
they were rescued from oblivion by television and became the annual
exercise in self-aggrandizement that we see today.

But the annual telecast is merely the tip of an iceberg
which floats around for several months before the main event. Interest
snowballs thanks to studio maneuvering, and a promotion campaign
which by 1991, was spending over $7,000,000 annually to promote
nominations as well as a series of lesser awards shows.

The Price Waterhouse count appears to be about the
only thing Hollywood doesn’t try to influence. Enough free thinkers
and maverick winners have given the awards a degree of respect and
integrity which they probably don’t deserve and may not have.

If nominees come a cropper at the Oscars, we needn’t
feel sorry for them. The Oscars have fostered a host of lesser known
shows which hand out enough awards to fill an automobile showroom
while building momentum for the big night. In the weeks before the
Oscars, nominees can win awards from the New York and Los Angeles
Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the National Society
of Film Critics, and a Golden Globe from the Hollywood Foreign Press
Association. They may also be honored by the Director’s, Writer’s, and Publicist’s
Guilds, independent filmmakers, film editors and sound recordists.
Failing at all of those, they may end up with recognition no one
wants-an annual Golden Raspberry Award presented on Oscar eve for
the year’s worst achievements in film.

At 480 pages of text, plus another 180 of lists, the
book contains more Oscar trivia than anyone else ever thought of
or will remember. The lists include every winner and loser in all
major categories, plus rankings of most nominations, most wins,
oldest and youngest winners and nominees, wins and nominations by
genre and several other groupings and categories.

There are also chapters on the Lifetime Achievement
Award and other Oscars, which have usually been given as consolation
prizes; forays through the Hollywood blacklists; and actors, directors,
and producers who were never honored by the Academy. Holden’s continuing
analysis of studio thinking and psychology and the kinds of films
and performances which tend to win and lose takes on the trappings
of handicapping a horse race. It also serves as a primer for anyone
interested in betting on future awards. Scattered throughout are
memorable quotes such as Joan Crawford’s "When they sign you
up for one of those special awards, you know its time to cash it
in," to Groucho Marx’s comment, during the blacklisting era,
that Moses’ name had to be removed from the Ten Commandments’ writers
credits because he’d crossed the Red Sea.

By the end, the reader is likely to feel that the
only time an award was given solely on merit may have been in 1948
when Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet was named best picture. Even
that was due somewhat to the votes of a rebellious membership. Holden
concludes: "If film is an edited version of life, the Oscars
are generally given to those who interpret life as Academy members
would like to see it-not necessarily as the rest of us, mere moviegoers,
would like to see it, and least of all as it is." MM

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