Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nobel prize!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

Back in 2000 I wrote an article called “Nobel Prize!” and I still think about it more than anything else I wrote that year (sad, no?) so I thought it was time to revisit the concept. I’d been thinking about how there’s no Nobel Prize for cinema, and about how there ought to be, and then I started thinking about who would have won the prize if there were one, and I ended up making up an entire fantasy list of winners.

The exercise needed some ground rules of course. I assumed the first prize was given out in 1970 (of course, the further back you go, the more geniuses you could corral, but it seemed to me that 1970, with art-house cinema at its peak, would have been a good time for the Swedish Academy to come to its senses), and tried as best as I could to think my way back through history, avoid hindsight and consider who would have seemed most deserving at the time (given that I was only 4 in 1970, my sense of this may not be completely accurate).

Since 2000, I’ve added a new recipient to the list every year, on the same day that the real-life prize for literature gets announced. Here’s the complete list.

1970 Jean Renoir
1971 Charles Chaplin
1972 Luis Bunuel
1973 Roberto Rossellini
1974 Alfred Hitchcock
1975 Ingmar Bergman
1976 Akira Kurosawa
1977 Howard Hawks
1978 Federico Fellini
1979 Robert Bresson
1980 Orson Welles
1981 Jean-Luc Godard
1982 Michelangelo Antonioni
1983 Michael Powell
1984 Billy Wilder
1985 Satyajit Ray
1986 Alain Resnais
1987 Andrezj Wajda
1988 Frank Capra
1989 Eric Rohmer
1990 Ousmane Sembene
1991 Wim Wenders
1992 Robert Altman
1993 Theo Angelopoulos
1994 Jacques Rivette
1995 Martin Scorsese
1996 Zhang Yimou
1997 Abbas Kiarostami
1998 Bernardo Bertolucci
1999 Shohei Imamura
2000 Stan Brakhage
2001 Hou Hsiao-hsien
2002 Manoel de Oliveira
2003 Claude Chabrol
2004 Chris Marker
2005 Mike Leigh
2006 Wong Kar-Wai
2007 Raul Ruiz
2008 Agnes Varda

Given the inevitable constraints of such an exercise, the list still looks pretty good to me overall. You’ll note how in the award’s early days, my fictional committee marches one step ahead of the grim reaper, scooping up as many of cinema’s fading giants as possible. Some, like John Ford and Fritz Lang, expire just a year or so before they might have got the nod (Howard Hawks, who died in 1977, made it by the skin of his poor old teeth). American auteurs alternate with art-house masters for the first twenty years (Frank Capra is probably the least profound director on the list, but I feel sentiment would have got the better of the voters on that one), but since then American winners have been much more sparse. The absence of Elia Kazan isn’t due to righteous anger but rather to the fact that I forgot about him until it was too late (if there were actually a committee, I’m sure someone would have reminded me).

There’s a shortage of potential American recipients in the pipeline too, with the prize swinging heavily toward Europe in recent years (a fact precisely mirroring the evolution of the literature award). The last US winner was Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker who worked entirely outside the system: I was rather pleased with how my imaginary Nobelists stirred it up a bit with that one. Cassavetes and Kubrick died too soon. I doubt a consensus will ever form around Spielberg or Eastwood. Woody Allen and Francis Coppola have trailed off too much in recent years. The strongest contenders to come to mind may be David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Charles Burnett (all of which to some degree might be regarded as a snubbing of Hollywood). I think Spike Lee is worth thinking about. Others might advocate more strongly for the Coen Brothers. And there’s always Jerry Lewis!

Like the judges of the literature prize, the film committee occasionally makes a choice that might be as much a nod to a region than an individual endorsement – Africa’s Sembene and China’s Zhang for instance. Given how Zhang’s work has lately consisted mostly of pretty but inconsequential digitally powered extravaganzas, it’s clear now the committee moved too quickly on that one. I see Wim Wenders as another mistake – he got the prize too young, and on the brink, it’s now clear, of a calamitous decline in his reputation. The award a few years back to Claude Chabrol might seem generous, but he was the only one of the Nouvelle Vague pioneers still on the outside looking in, and it just felt heartless!

There is of course no shortage of potential recipients, but again in common with the literature prize, it’s likely that future winners will continue the recent trend of being better known to specialists than to the even moderately cultured masses – the days of Fellini and Bergman are no more. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima stands as something of an unrecognized elder statesman, although if the committee wanted to be daring again, they might choose to recognize animation via his countryman Hayao Miyazaki. Werner Herzog and Roman Polanski have both made some Nobel-worthy work, along with a lot of stuff that’s anything but, but the judges are paid to step back and assess the overall contribution. Pedro Almodovar will have to be carefully considered at some point.

Canada has a genuine contender in David Cronenberg, whose reputation is coming on strong now; advocates of Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand have their money firmly on the wrong horse. And there plainly ought to have been a woman up there long before this year. Apart from the victorious Varda, I’d considered Claire Denis, New Zealand’s Jane Campion, and a less-known French director, Chantal Akerman. But in general we must be wary of being so rarified as to be irrelevant, so the judges must constantly scan the landscape of the last twenty or thirty years, diligently reflecting on the arguments for John Boorman and Peter Weir, building future submissions for Tsai Ming-Liang and Olivier Assayas, scouring the backwaters for monumental artists you and I haven’t even heard of, and just generally hoping it all works out for the greater good.

Of course there’d be little point in instituting a real world Nobel Prize for cinema now. It’s just too late. But if anyone wants to put funding into my little enterprise, allowing the construction of a retroactive bricks and mortar hall of fame and a generous annual cash prize from here on (as well as a modest stipend for the hardworking committee), then I’m easy to get hold of. Otherwise, I’ll plan on letting you know again how it’s going, in 2016 or so.

(Postscript on subsequent additions: 2009 - Francis Coppola; 2010 - Claire Denis; 2011 - Nagisa Oshima)

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