Dario Martinelli: You May Be Sceptical About Oscars, but Bad Movies Rarely Receive Them

University | 2016-03-01

“My opinion on Oscars? It’s better than a kick in the teeth!”, Dario Martinelli, Head of International Semiotics Institute at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) paraphrases a famous Italian saying. An author of “Lights, camera, bark!” (2015) and teacher of several courses on cinema shares his opinions on films, “must see” lists, Oscars and the crisis in Hollywood.

What is a good film?

My humble suggestion is that a good movie is a combination of many factors. Among them, I would mention at least the following five: technical quality and performance (it may be stupid to mention it, but the more a movie is professionally and brilliantly done in all its part, the better – at least generally speaking!); artisticquality and conceptuality (it helps when nothing was left to chance, and there is a reason for even the tiniest object appearing in a scene, or the tiniest word in a dialogue); relation with society (some movies just manage to capture the essence of a historical period, or a given social aspect… sometime they even anticipate them); influence (there are movies that became points of reference for many other movies that followed) and finally, yes, consensus (if many people and, most of all, generations like a given movie, we cannot ignore that part as well – it is important to stress on the word “generation”. 50 shades of grey was a very successful movie, but after a couple of weeks nobody was talking about it anymore, if not in negative terms. Gone with the wind, too, was a very successful movie, but we still talk about it as a masterpiece, 70 years later!).

Let me provide an example: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It was one of Chaplin’s best performances, as both actor and director, it was successful with both public and critics, it became a very influential movie (practically, there is no movie about Nazism and WWII – even dramatic ones – which doesn’t have The Great Dictator as point of reference), and it was so timely, that it even managed to understand in advance what became known only later – the movie was filmed in 1939, and released in 1940: by that time, the gravity of Hitler’s danger, and in particular the Holocaust, were far from being so evident as they would few years later. Chaplin himself once said that had he known that he had been so “accurate” in his parody, he would have not released the movie, out of respect for the Jewish people.

What is the most important: script, idea, filming, directing, acting? Something else?

When cinema came out as a form of art, and got increasing consensus among spectators and scholars, one of the big questions was: is cinema a “new” form of art, or is it only a combination of many existing forms of art? Prose and acting are from theatre, soundtrack is from music, scripts are from literature, and so forth. Ultimately, it was decided that that great little thing called “montage” was unique among all arts, so that made cinema a form of art of its own. But even so, I think that the strength of the film art lies exactly in this co-existence of many inputs. All of them can make a film strong, as well as any of them can ruin it. Perhaps, the director is slightly more relevant than anybody else, for the same reason why a conductor is so within an orchestra, or a coach within a team sport. The director is at the center of the project, because s/he coordinates all parts. The actor may do his/her job without ever getting in touch with, say, the soundtrack composer; the director of photography will probably survive without meeting the make-up artist, and so forth. But the director needs to be aware of everybody‘s job, and needs to have „the big picture“ in mind.  

Receiving a Golden Globe, a Palme d‘Or, an Oscar or some other award seems to add certain „quality“ to a film. Is it really so? If so, to which awards would you pay attention most when choosing a film?

In Italy, we have a funny phrase that we use when something happens that it‘s not necessarily the best thing in the world, but it is certainly not bad: „always better than a kick on the teeth!“ It means that, yes, we may complain that something is overrated, or not as great as it may seem, but – come on – there is much worse in life. I have a similar approach to prizes of any sort. Sure, there is a lot of business involved, they are more a celebration of film industry than film quality, etc. BUT: always better than a kick on the teeth! For sure, not all great movies receive a prize (when one thinks that people like Hitchcock, Kubrick or Lynch never got a “Best Director” Oscar in their life, one gets shivers!), but at the same time it is very rare that a bad movie receives it. So, in the end of the day, a prize is an indication of quality, though far from recognizing EVERY example of quality available.

Having said that – but this is just a personal opinion – I have always found the Golden Palm in Cannes, the Golden Bear in Berlin and the Golden Lion in Venice as better indicators of quality than Golden Globes or Oscars.

Oscars often seem overrated. For example, this year Mad Max received a best picture nomination, which seems, to put mildly, a weird chose. What are those choices based upon?

I neither want to defend or put down the Oscars: I think what is important to consider is the social and historical context that brought them into existence, that is, the Hollywood industry and approach to film-making. Hollywood was born as, and still is, an industry of entertainment. Within this concept, great artists have no doubt emerged, but always with the goal of entertaining the audience with great stories, great acting, great visuality, great emotions, etc. When we think of the best Hollywood directors, we always come up with people who managed to combine entertainment with artistic quality: Hitchcock, Chaplin, Scorsese, Kubrick… Oscars reflect this philosophy: prizes are given to those who offer this combination. We may or may not like it – and certainly we may have other parameters for judging the quality of a movie, but a fair assessment of the Oscars cannot transcend this basic assumption.   

The biggest speculation this year seemed to be: would or would not Leonardo di Caprio get the Oscar, which he did. What do you think about all this situation?

Di Caprio is a credible heir of that amazing generation of actors that characterized the so-called „New Hollywood“ in the 1970‘s: Hoffman, Streep, De Niro, Pacino, Redford, Nicholson, and all of those. When one sees his acting style, one can‘t help thinking about the huge debt he has towards that bunch. Not coincidentally, he has become a favourite of Scorsese, who was one of the protagonists of the New Hollywood.

This, to my mind, is at the same time his strength and his limit. He inherited from one of the greatest generations of actors ever (maybe THE greatest), yet he did not manage to produce something unique. In other words, it is possible to look at some acting and say „wow, this performance was so à la Nicholson“, but one cannot really say „this was so à la Di Caprio“. It‘s a bit like when Guns‘n‘Roses came out: great rock band, no doubt, but then you listen again to Led Zeppelin, and you surely know who is the original and who is the derivation.

Cinema lovers complain that lately, it is really difficult to be impressed, shaken, mesmerised, surprised, etc. Are films getting somewhat “weaker”? Or just different? Or, maybe, after one has seen a certain amount of good films, one becomes somewhat more demanding? Or saturated?

Difficult question, and I am not sure if I have a solid opinion on this. Generally speaking, I agree with you, and my feelings are similar to yours. At the same time, there are a couple of considerations to take into account. First, the fact that we get exposed to a very limited range of movies. When I think of the situation in the main Lithuanian cinema halls, I think of 80% of American mainstream Hollywood movies, then the rest is distributed among Lithuanian productions and European ones. In a situation like this, obviously, we get a very partial picture of the situation.

So, in a way, I feel that what we are referring to, when we speak about not being impressed, surprised, etc., is American mainstream cinema, and not cinema tout court. With that in mind, I certainly agree that American mainstream cinema is not going through a golden age, to put it mildly. A few years ago, I had the pleasure to meet and interview Paolo Virzì, who is a very good Italian director – one of the few who keeps the tradition of Commedia all‘Italiana alive. He said something very interesting about the crisis of American cinema. He said that it is a crisis of ideas: there is money, there are good directors and actors, and everything, but there are hardly good ideas. And, indeed, American cinema is currently relying on existing ideas: movies are transpositions from other media (like novels or comics), sequels and prequels, remakes of old movies or foreign ones, etc. This makes a huge difference with the above-mentioned „New Hollywood“, which – on the contrary – was an explosion of original subjects.

On the other hand, if we look at other film schools outside America, then we may have a totally different impression. Spanish cinema, to mention one, is literally flourishing these days.

Is it possible to lose interest in film? How do you deal with your personal disappointments as a cinema viewer?

I must say, something happened to me a couple of years ago – and it probably has to do with ageing, middle age crisis and so forth. I realized that there is no point for me to run after each new release, when I clearly haven‘t caught up with all the classics that deserve to be watched and „absorbed“ in their completeness. It didn‘t happen with cinema only, but with every art (and, to an extent, with other aspects of life, as well, but this would be a long story, now). I started a little personal project of reading some literature classics that I had never read, or never read in original language. I had never read Moby Dick in English, can you believe that? So two years ago I sat down and read it, and could finally appreciate Melville‘s richness in language, prose, and all those things that escaped me when I read the novel in Italian, years and years ago. In music, I realized that, for instance, I had never listened to the whole Creedence Clearwater Revival discography – I only knew the hits. So, I went on to buy the opera omnia, and for weeks there was nothing else playing in my car stereo. And so forth.

Same with cinema. Do I really want to go and check whatever „new sensation“ is out, when I still haven‘t seen all of Bergman‘s or Kurosawa‘s films?

There is also another thing: if it‘s true (and I agree with you that it is) that films are, generally speaking, less interesting than they used to be, it is also true that other forms of audiovisual art are growing in artistic level. TV series and music videos, for instance, are now at a golden age. I recently had the chance to see the two seasons of Fargo, and they were just amazing, not just as stories but really as cinematographic products in all respects.

I know, you‘re kind of sceptical about “must see” lists. However, what would be 10 films that anyone, calling themselves a cinema lover, must watch? Why?

I am certainly sceptical of these “1001 movies to watch before you die” kind of things. However, earlier we were talking about the importance to respect people who have been working on movies for years and years… There is this prestigious film magazine called Sight and Sound, which gathers the opinion and studies of nearly 1000 scholars, critics, distributors, programmers, and – only every ten years – publish a classification of the most important movies of all times. Every ten years! They make a very accurate job, watch and re-watch hundreds of movies, and finally express their preferences based on many criteria. The last chart was published in 2012 (so, the next will be in 2022), and it made a bit of sensation, because after 50 consecutive years (1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002), the first place was not anymore occupied by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, but by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (for the record, before Citizen Kane, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was topping the list).

So: my first recommendation is to go and check that list, at least the Top 50, and make sure that “you don’t die before” having seen at least 20 or 30 of those.

Second, I can give my own recommendation, which is far less authoritative than Sight and Sound, but in the end will mostly consist of movies that one can find in their list. If, in one of my film courses, I had a student coming from Mars who wanted to get an idea of what this terrestrial art of cinema is like, then I would probably go for the following, in no particular order: Vertigo itself, Kubrick’s A Space Odissey, Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera, Fellini’s Amarcord, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Coppola’s The Godfather (either I or II, better both!), Antonioni’s The Passenger, Zinnemann’s High Noon (possibly to be watched along with Hawks’s Rio Bravo, for the famous reason that they were both allegories of blacklisting during Maccarthism), Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Needless to say, as soon as I wrote these ten, I felt guilty for the others I left out…

Can you reveal your personal top 5?

That is even more difficult! Only five? I feel now like Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity, when the journalist asks him his all-time top 5 of songs. First he answers, then he calls her back and asks to change a few entries, then calls her back again… after a couple of days, he goes “Look, why don’t I just make you a compilation tape?”.

Maybe we can bargain a little: I will try to squeeze in five directors, not movies, and I will suggest some of their movies in parentheses. So: Alfred Hitchcock (with honorable mentions for Rope, Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds); the very recently departed Ettore Scola (A special day, What time is it?, The terrace and The family); Sergio Leone (both “dollar” and “time” trilogies); Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, A Gentlemen’s Agreement and On the Waterfront); and – to finally mention someone who is still alive – the Coen Brothers (The Great Lebowsky, Fargo, Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men).

And now, Monicelli, Scorsese, Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, Weir, Kubrick, Eastwood, Solondz, Soldini, Bergman, Moretti: please forgive me!