An Open Letter to Roger Durling
If you follow this site at all, you might know that I've worked myself into a tiny lather in recent years drawing bubbles from my admittedly small soapbox as both an incorrigible devotee of the Oscars and a somewhat cranky critic of how long, expensive, and over-crowded with nuggets and chatter the so-called "awards season" (or, worse, the "campaign season") has become. It's hard enough when so many of the wrong films seem either pre-targeted for consideration or disappointingly excluded from it. I find my Oscar addictions, which are no one's fault but my own, prompting me to think and write more about movies I don't really care about, just because they're likely to be nominated, than about movies for which I might actually have a thought-out, passionate, more valuable critique to put forward.
Meanwhile, I always feel sorry for actors and other filmmakers (some, not all) when we hear them say what a tiring grind "awards season" becomes, no matter how flattered they are by the attention, and no matter how happy they are to promote a film they are proud of, and which might struggle to find an audience without the spotlight of awards. Speaking only for myself, I dislike when awards and their surrounding discourses become goals in themselves, rather than opportunities for rich, detailed debate and conversation about the films in questionthe quality of the work, including but not limited to, or even centered upon, its possible appeal to AMPAS. Anyone who reads even a little about the Oscarsand I stick to what I see as the best, The Film Experience and In Contentionmay also have heard some editors and journalists say that the season has gotten out of hand, with too much to cover, and too little differentiation among events and prize-giving bodies. December becomes so crowded with films that many of them are doomed to box-office failure. The entertainment pages themselves are so glutted with tightly or loosely awards-based coverage that what (I think) should be a fun hobby and a spontaneous honor can become a bewildering blur, an echo chamber, or a vegetative industry all its own.
Beyond forming these aggravated opinions in recent years, I have jumped to my own conclusions about what is or isn't a "legitimate" event and what seems, by contrast, like a pure publicist's coup, with little to teach anyone about filmmaking. I haven't been consistent or very well-informed in arriving at these knee-jerk opinions, so I usually keep them to myself. Yesterday, though, in a comment thread at In Contention, I arbitrarily seized the occasion of a news item about the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to vent some of this frustration. The gap between what I have prejudicially been feeling and what I actually know quickly became obvious. I don't withdraw from many of the general principles of what I've outlined above, but I didn't take any time to phrase them carefully or test their validity before posting the comment, and I sure did a ham-handed job of picking a scapegoat without any basis in knowledge. (Perhaps you have heard of this kind of thing transpiring - even, occasionally, on the Web.) Having been rightly called out and calmed down by In Contention's editor, Kris Tapley, I then received a personal invitation from Roger Durling, the Executive Director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, to come attend the festival and "have priority access to everything and criticize from experience. Let me know, and I will make it happen." I am taking for granted that Mr. Durling is in earnest, though he would be well within his rights not to be. What follows is my open response:
Dear Roger Durling,
The humble pie keeps coming, and deservedly so. Believe me, I fully appreciate what a classier, more generous overture you have made than I deserve from my exchange on In Contention. I feel particularly humbled after having aired my prejudices so vehemently and recklessly. I've been behind the scenes of enough festivals to know at least a little of what it takes to put one on. So on those grounds alone, cheers to you and the SBIFF, and hosannas from high up in the nosebleed seats for choosing a Vanguard award winner in Nicole Kidman who inspires so many people including me in just the ways you single out in your publicity release: her talent, her range, her fearlessness, her filmography, and her wonderful performance in Rabbit Hole, which I saw at a festival screening here in Chicago.
I've already caught myself red-handed, and enabled others to further catch me out, connecting faraway dots as an uninformed reader. So you know already that as one Oscar enthusiast, unusually or not, I have felt liable to fuse together in my mind several Southern California film festivals of the fall and winter (Santa Barbara, Hollywood, et al.), their pre-announced awards, the various career-recognition and Lifetime Achievement awards emanating from other groups, and all the other press releases and ceremonial prizes unfolding through the fall and early winter as one long campaign for Oscar. For me, this becomes especially tempting when, year to year, there seems like such strong overlap between the spotlighted recipients at these events and the actors and films we know to be involved in carefully orchestrated campaigns. But I should take more responsibility for these subjective impressions I've knitted together. I just never see coverage of SBIFF or the Hollywood Film Festival or other, similar events except as regards these pre-announced awards. I could obviously take the initiative to look up more coverageand certainly should, at least before airing my arbitrary, petulant grievances about them, with no necessary basis in reality.
Foolishly, like other media consumers who think we can read between the lines and discern The Truth, I imagine I know what nominees or prospective nominees are talking about when I read them saying they wish the season were shorter, required fewer PR appearances, and felt like less of a grind, even amid all the generous adulation they receive. The truth, of course, is that I don't really know what these artists are talking about, and don't even know enough about what I'm talking about, so for lack of a better phrase, I ought to shush up. I have attended plenty of festival galas honoring artists and senior executives for their work. Of course it is often the case that the readiest people to accept are often those who are trying to cast a light on recent efforts that are just finding their way to market, to voters, or to critical notice. I have seen them be very proud and flattered by the recognition of their own careers, and pleased that someone else's gracious admiration has enabled them to draw extra eyes to a just-emerging film that could use the support in a crowded market, at a frantic time of year.
I wrote on In Contention as though this entails an implicit act of bad faith or "shilling" on the part of festivals I have never attended, even though I know it not to be the case at any festivals I have attended. You don't have to be naïve about publicity to know how earnest a festival or an executive director or a programmer or a festival staff is in honoring someone whose contributions they truly admire, and whose time they appreciate. It's one of several grounds on which I owe you and your colleagues an apology.
No matter how coordinated or not your festival is with other publicity efforts for actors or their films, I do know that every festival in the world only comes together through long, hard work and coordination. You'd never know I understand that, based on what I said above, and I'm sorry to have rejected the possibility out of handbased in part on what I have projected onto the timing of Santa Barbara's film festival and the framing of the small bits of coverage I happen to see. My perceptions or misperceptions of what's going on half a country away are just that: cursory, faraway perceptions.
Most importantly, I at least oughtn't pull the two lamest moves on the internet: forming strong opinions in the absence of adequate knowledge, and then broadcasting those opinions with a cynical vehemence that's beneath my age and good sense. I admit to wanting to see more diversity in the range of names getting honored and fêted at this time of year, and to other personal hankerings and nostalgias related to film awards and press campaigns, past and present. But they, too, are subjectively cultivated biases, and I should have stated them responsibly as such, if they even needed stating at all.
Please accept my apology for what I wrote, including tones and claims that were more scurrilous than I intended or ought to have allowed. Meanwhile, I wish I could accept your humbling, generous offer to grant me press access to SBIFF, were I able to attend. I can't be there, and at least in the context of today, I think it's clear I haven't warranted the privilege; maybe you can extend it instead to a journalist, writer, or blogger who has already supported the festival and would be thrilled to enjoy their first press pass at an international film festival.
As an alternative, either sooner or much later, may I propose a short, open interview to be published as free publicity on this site for SBIFF, about how your role as Executive Director works, how the festival's honorees are chosen, how you see the festival as relating or not relating to the awards campaigns that are ramping up around the same time and around many of the same people, and what you most wish people knew about SBIFF that we might not know or understand. I would learn a great deal from this, I expect my readers and students would learn a great deal from this, and it would be my privilege to promote the festival, even from afar, as wait for it an informed member of the blogosphere. E-mail me if you're interested and available. If no (or even if yes!), many, many best wishes for your festival. I look forward to reading about it, carefully and in context.