Thursday, February 25, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Chariots of Fire" is the Worst Best Picture Winner Ever

Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Academy Awards are Sunday
Theory: Chariots of Fire is the worst Best Picture winner period.

While The Academy Awards are intended to remember the best in film, everyone can admit that they are far from perfect. There's been various wins throughout history that have left many fans riled up, annoyed by how political a simple win can be. The popular case study is when How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane at The Oscars. While the former was an average John Ford film, the latter was considered the revolution that cinema so desperately needed. However, one's search into Citizen Kane director Orson Welles' controversial basis will explain why it was almost like the prestige award equivalent of being Blacklisted. This is an extreme case, but one that emphasizes how skewered The Oscars can be on a bad day. In fact, it doesn't have to be politics necessarily. It can just be two very good performances going head to head with one unfortunately having to lose. Nobody can deny that even if No Country for Old Men is amazing, there's still some who wish that There Will Be Blood inched it out. It's the complication that makes some hate the award.

However, it's forced me to be more analytical regarding what wins Best Picture. Having seen every winner going back to Wings, I have a base level appreciation for most of them. Even if I don't like few of them, my personal viewpoint is to approach them with a sense of placement. For example: why was Cavalcade the Best Picture winner? It's a part of film history that serves as a gateway to a better understanding of their respective eras. Beyond politics, I look at Best Picture winners like how films are inducted into the National Film Registry. I ask how every film is culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. While some are definitely dated and a bit of a stretch, I can see why Gentleman's Agreement won based on the hesitant and secretive climate of the 1940's. I can even see why The Greatest Show on Earth (which many would argue is one of the worst winners) won based solely on spectacle. Are there better films? More often than not, this is a genuine fact. However, I think that there's something that speaks to the era and will continue to when audiences 60 years later look at this list and say "What was film in the 40's, 50's, etc. like?" 

As one could guess, this generally gives me controversial views on some Best Picture winners. I have done exhaustive research on Crash's notorious win over Brokeback Mountain (you can read about it here) and have settled that it's not a terrible movie, just incredibly average. While Academy Awards are likely supposed to be seen as an award for high art, I somehow can excuse the spectacle films because, honestly, that's just as integral to cinema. As laborious as Around the Word in Eighty Days is, I can admire its ambition. Mind you, I don't agree about every winner, though I am sure that my Top 10 least favorites is sure to cause their own sets of arguments. While I will only explain why my last place contender is there, I will share with you now my Bottom 10, ranked here from worst to least bad:
1. Chariots of Fire2. Braveheart3. Dances With Wolves4. Ben-Hur5. Shakespeare in Love6. Hamlet7. A Man for All Seasons8. How Green Was My Valley9. Out of Africa10. Grand Hotel
I'll admit that there's a few on here that maybe I irrationally dislike despite contradicting my previous statements (Ben-Hur). However, this list generally reflects films that I found dull or uninteresting in some capacity. While I may be willing to give most of these a second chance with a persuasive argument, I don't think that Chariots of Fire will ever be dethroned from last place for reasons that will become very obvious. You see, I am willing to accept that maybe I don't have the appreciation for Hamlet or Shakespeare in Love due to my apathy for William Shakespeare (you can add A Man for All Seasons if you talk about classical theater). I maybe watched How Green Was My Valley a little too soon before actually appreciating John Ford's oeuvre better. Even Grand Hotel is a film that I want to like more than I do.

But Chariots of Fire is a film that I loathe actually discussing in part because I'm sure that most people forget that it actually won Best Picture. I try to forget that it did, but there was something imminent about it since the first time that I saw it. I tried to discuss with others to understand why it won Best Picture and haven't gotten a great answer. To use the National Film Registry argument, I will explain myself. Historically, it wasn't the highest grossing film of 1981. Culturally, it wasn't a year for Olympics nor did it really speak about anything deeper in the culture. Aesthetically is was a nightmare thanks to one of the most inappropriate scores and use of slow motion that I have ever seen. To its credit, the cinematography looked good. However, the film lacks conflict worthy of its running time. Basically: why did we need a film about the British track team?

I will backtrack for a moment, as I am sure that someone reading this will yell at me for badmouthing Vangelis' score. To his credit, that opening theme is one of the most iconic pieces of film score ever recorded. I cannot find any fault with this particular track, even if the underlying nature provides evidence to why I actually hate this score. The electronic component feels out of place for a film taking place in 1919. While it serves as a nice baseline for the opener, it overwhelms later on and takes me out of the moment. I am sure that there were electronic instruments in 1919 that would make my argument invalid. However, there's a certain something that still feels tonally inappropriate. Considering that 1900's set drama The Knick features pulsating Cliff Martinez scores on a week-to-week basis without any problem, I am not one to dislike anachronistic music selections if they serve a function. However, what was supposed to be so electric and pulsating about Chariots of Fire? It gives off more of a Flash Gordon vibe than a period piece sports movie.

I suppose that it wouldn't be so bad if the accompanying visuals weren't so grating. Chariots of Fire is entirely about track racing. Fair enough. However, there's nothing all that cinematic about racing around a courtyard or track, especially when done ad nauseum for two hours. I get that there's supposed to be an underlying British pride thing involved, but do the British really need to stroke their ego around a track team whose real life story may be interesting but doesn't contribute any value to the language of cinema? I don't hate this film because of its overwhelming love of British culture. After all, The Bridge on the River Kwai is another film that exploits this. Yet it does so while making its characters seem impressive. All this film does is express a desire for runners to keep running with interludes of people talking about how great Britain is and how they should never give up. To be honest, there are far more interesting stories about the Olympics worthy of being told. Chariots of Fire is not one of them.

The scenes that bother me the most tend to be the running scenes. At a certain point, you could be forgiven for just thinking that they recycled footage. However, this is where the film loses me. The film uses slow motion techniques to enhance the running to make it look like a glorious achievement. As anyone who looks at sports photos online, even in a casual passing, they can look utterly ridiculous doing this. What is arguably the lowest point in the film comes when characters are supposed to run hurdles in slow motion. They look pretty silly with both feet on the ground, so adding a hurdle and Flash Gordon-level anachronistic music only makes for a confusing image that is neither provocative nor interesting. This is only the halfway mark for a movie about running. It would be fine if there was an interesting character in the bunch. However, there isn't due to the film being about the British TEAM. There's no singularity here that warrants pride. It could be that I'm American and don't understand British struggle. Yet if this is the most that they have struggled, then golly gee... they have had it pretty easy.

Onto the part that I try to not bring up, but feel inclined to because everyone else does. Much like people who complain about Crash beating Brokeback Mountain, I feel inclined to tell you the four films that Chariots of Fire beat at The Oscars for Best Picture. In most cases, these are films that have withstood the test of time with varying degrees of more success. At very least, all of these have more dramatic depths and artistic merit than Chariots of Fire's best scene (which is the opening. Had the film been just that five minute bit, I wouldn't have complained). I try not to argue that one film's worse because it beat a better film (an unfair argument when discussing art), but it's so hard not to argue for that case here. What are those four films? On Golden Pond, Atlantic City, Reds, and...

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now tell me, why is it that people complain all the time that Saving Private Ryan lost to Shakespeare in Love or Star Wars lost to Annie Hall, but nobody mentions Raiders of the Lost Ark losing to Chariots of Fire? There's an undoubted impact that Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones film had on pop culture that resonated for over 30 years. It was pinnacle action adventure cinema. Most people still love it. So why is it then that if everyone's being bitter about who beat who, why does nobody mention this? I admit that maybe Spielberg's name was still too new and genre films have never fared well at The Oscars. However, I still think that there's something to this argument that is akin to when The Social Network lost to The King's Speech. It was the old beating the new school, and most people have held grudges because of it, calling The Academy old people stuff.

Before you accuse me of being a fanboy about this, let me just clarify that while I love Raiders of the Lost Ark as much as most men, I actually argue that the other films stood more of a chance, save for the great but just as "old people stuff" accusatory On Golden Pond. Atlantic City is an underrated drama worthy of a revival thanks to its intriguing political climate and the shifting nature by which the real life Atlantic City has faced in the decades since the film. However, I maintain that Reds should have won in 1981 because it explored Communism and journalism with such clarity and beauty. It is also the best thing that Warren Beatty has ever done as a director. It's the type of film that The Academy would honor later in the decade with Gandhi or The Last Emperor. Even then, I think that aesthetically, it was one of the greatest films of its time with a compelling balance of what the Hollywood system could do while doing provocative activism stories.

I know that one could make similar arguments for other films being the worst Best Picture winner, but it makes me want to ask "Have you really seen Chariots of Fire? No, really. Have you SEEN Chariots of Fire?" Some films have dated poorly and are as slow as molasses. Even then, there's something indicative of their value at the time. For Chariots of Fire, I cannot understand what was so significant about a movie about running in 1981 for a film that wasn't even the highest grossing film of the year (both On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark out-grossed it). How was it noteworthy cinema to watch people do something that Rocky did with more gravitas not even a decade prior? There's not a lot to love about Chariots of Fire, but it's easy to think so after that iconic opening that promises more than it could ever deliver. It's  film about running, plain and simple. I wish that there was more. Maybe if that was the case, I would be able to not say that it was the worst of the bunch.

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