Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Academy's train not taken


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I don't really believe in the concept of "perfection" in art, and I love many of my favorite works of art for their flaws, limitations, and shortcomings as much as I love them for their precision, their ambition, or their aesthetic achievements. But if you were to ask me what film I considered the closest to "perfect" of those I've seen, I probably would blurt out Sunrise without giving it a second thought. This film is a technical and stylistic marvel that sums up much of the history of film up to its moment of release in September 1927, including in its palette many of the hallmarks of German expressionism, French impressionism, Soviet-style montage, Scandinavian pastoralism and Hollywood melodrama. Critics and admirers of the film have pointed out the many dichotomous structures that make up Sunrise, and though I loved the film before I read it, I very much like Lucy Fisher's opening argument from her BFI monograph on the film, in which she proposes:
Rather than embrace fixed divisions, Sunrise is a text marked by fluid boundaries - junctions that trace the subtle connection between entities rather than their clear demarcation. It is this complex mode of 'border crossing' (this world of 'Both/And' -not- 'Either/Or' [Berman, 24]) that makes the film so poignant, resonant, fascinating and modern.
What is probably most enchanting about Sunrise for me could be described as one of these dichotomies or "border crossings": its extremely sophisticated telling of its extremely simple story, of a man and a woman falling in love with each other all over again, as if for the first time. To me, a sophisticated telling of a simple, even primal, story is the raison d’être of most of the greatest narrative cinema I know, and I can't think of a more classical example than this film made by German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau on his first Hollywood try.

For it is a Hollywood film, with a budget larger than any its studio (Fox) had ever allocated to a single film, Hollywood stars Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien (both of whom grew up here in Frisco) in the lead roles, and studio-dictated probable compromises to Murnau's vision such as intertitles, and in some prints, a score and a resultant lack of tinting. However, it was more of a critical sensation than a commercial one. Which brings me to the point of this post.

As you may have noticed, Sunrise is often listed or grouped among the films that have won the A.M.P.A.S. Award for Best Picture. This is because the first year that the Academy Awards were held, there was no category called "Best Picture". Instead, there were two categories, which according to my favorite source of Academy Awards information (data and dish alike), Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar, were entitled "Best Production" and "Unique and Artistic Production". The former went to the large-scale fighter pilot saga Wings, while Sunrise took the latter category's prize.

As little as I talk about them on this site, like many cinephiles I'm fascinated by the Oscars, even as I've grown very cynical about their usefulness as a barometer of genuine aesthetic achievement. For years, perhaps as a kind of sentimental attachment to these awards, I've liked to think of Sunrise and Wings as equal Best Picture winners at that first ceremony (which I've learned was not held until May 1929). So last month, when fellow blogger Edward Copeland researched the Academy's official position on whether the two films' awards were "roughly equivalent" and learned that the official word was that, no, only Wings deserves to be considered a "Best Picture" winner, I wasn't surprised, but I was very resistant to his suggestion that I "defer to the Academy" on this issue. It sparked a somewhat intense, though civil debate in the comments section of his post. In case you don't feel like reading all the comments, I'll quote a pair of sentences that form the crux of my position:
I have never encountered any evidence that in 1928[sic] the Best Production award won by Wings was considered any more prestigious or important than the Unique and Artistic Production award Sunrise won. There's even a paragraph (unfortunately unsourced) in wikipedia that suggests the opposite.
Well, I've recently encountered some evidence that Wings was considered more prestigious and important. Perhaps vague, perhaps inconclusive, and definitely incomplete. But evidence nonetheless, and I feel I ought to present what I have so far.

I thought that by looking up articles on the first Oscars I might be able to learn these two awards relative importance at the time through their prominence in media coverage. So I went to the public library's microfilm holdings. It turns out that, though the first Oscars were handed out by Academy president Douglas Fairbanks at a very brief ceremony held on May 16, 1929, they had been announced nearly three months earlier. The February 20, 1929 issue of Variety magazine lists the winners in a page seven article entitled "Academy Awards Talent Credit for Making-Writing-Acting-Titling". Titling? It refers to the first and only Oscar awarded for the writing of silent movie intertitles, which went to MGM's Joseph Farnham. And the award is listed in the eighth paragraph of the Variety article, after mentions of the awards for best performance (Emil Jannings & Janet Gaynor), best direction (Frank Borzage, dramatic for Seventh Heaven & Lewis Milestone, comedy for the Two Arabian Knights), and best writing (Ben Hecht for his original story Underworld & Benjamin Glazer for his adaptation of Seventh Heaven). Continuing in Variety's order, cinematography (Charles Rosher & Karl Strauss, Sunrise), art direction (William C. Menzies, the Tempest and the Dove), and engineering effects (Roy Pomeroy, Wings) are listed before the article comes to the categories in question in the twelfth (Wings for "production of most outstanding picture") and thirteenth (Sunrise for "production of most unique and artistic picture") paragraphs of the story.

Twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs? This was not what I expected. I thought I'd be able to determine which was the "real" best picture winner from the headline, like you can on every newspaper throughout the land on Oscar Monday these days. I didn't know how to interpret the burying of these two awards almost to the end of the article, just before the "Special" awards for the Jazz Singer and Charlie Chaplin. Did the fact that the "outstanding picture" award came slightly first mean that it was slightly more prestigious (though still less prestigious than title writing or engineering effects)? Or was saving "most unique and artistic picture" to next-to-next-to-last, rubbing shoulders with the award to the film that "revolutionized the industry", and to the man cited for "acting, writing, directing and producing the Circus" a more prestigious placement?

Reading the May 22nd, 1929 coverage of the ceremony itself told me that in the months since the announcement of the results, Variety had made up its mind as to which was the most important award. As a side note, Frisco Bay residents will be interested to know that the lead paragraph of this page 4 article relays the intention of Stanford University to follow "the lead of the U. of Southern California in recognizing the [motion] picture as a subject for a formal course of study" the coming fall, which was apparently announced at the same dinner where the awards were distributed.

But the only awards mentioned in the article, other than a quick sum up of the winners and runners-up (but not the categories they were honored for) in the last couple paragraphs, were Wings, for "most outstanding picture of the year" and the special award to Warner for the Jazz Singer. The award to Paramount head Adolph Zukor for Wings was presented in an unusual manner. A "screen dialog" between the Academy president and Zukor was, as the article puts it, "photographed and recorded in New York and projected by a small portable machine". This may not be conclusive proof that the Academy itself considered the Wings award the most important of the evening; there could have been equally unique methods of presentation for the other awards that Variety chose not to cover, or it could be that Zukor only got this treatment only because he was unable to cross the country to attend himself. But I have to admit these are at best weak possibilities, not at all corroborated by the more detailed description of the event in Inside Oscar (which still doesn't mention how the "most unique and artistic picture" award was received). I'm pretty convinced that the "most outstanding picture" award won by Wings really was the big award of the night, and that it's only sensible to consider it the predecessor of the "best picture" award, to the exclusion of Sunrise's award.

I can't decide if I'm disappointed or not. I like Wings a lot. William Wellman is one of my favorite directors of the late twenties and thirties. And, as one of the biggest spectacles of the year, filled with ground-breaking special effects and an epic scope, it makes some sense that Wings would be the first in a line of films to include the likes of Ben-Hur, Patton, Braveheart and Gladiator, even if I personally value it more than all those combined. However, I also like to imagine a world in which simple or primal stories told sophisticatedly, like say, Shadows, the Conformist, Dead Man and Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, might have been the ones earning the film world's most prestigious honor the year they were released, without consideration of their box office success. In that world, Sunrise is definitely the Best Picture of 1927.

Speaking of that year, this post is an under-the-wire entry in the 1927 Blog-a-Thon, which includes another take on Sunrise as well.

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