Friday, February 28, 2014

The In Memorium Mash

Yes, I heard about Harold Ramis. Terrible news. And yes, I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Shirley Temple, and Sid Caesar, and Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole right at the end of the year. I also heard about the passing of a few names you probably won't recognize, like Miklós Jancsó and Jimmy Murakami. I love all their work, but I've refrained from writing about them on this blog. I only write up full posts for the figures who really meant something to me personally, and by my account that's only happened three times to date, for anime director Satoshi Kon, for Ray Bradbury, and for Roger Ebert. As awful and tragic as losing some of the others were, writing about their deaths wouldn't be the same.

I decided on this policy a long time ago, because to set the bar any lower would mean making judgment calls I'm not particularly inclined to make. Just look at what's happened to the In Memoriam segment at the Oscars, where there's a full-blown battle every year over who gets on the list. Every year someone notable gets left out, leading to lots of grousing. Every year there are calls to just do away with the whole thing because the process has gotten so acrimonious. This year things have even taken on a political dimension, with a petition going around to include Sarah Jones, the second assistant director of "Midnight Rider," who was killed in a terrible accident during the film's production, in this year's montage. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler announced his support a few days ago. I don't think they have much of a shot, considering how jam-packed the list of potential honorees is this year. There's a good chance that Ramis isn't going to make it in this year because his death came so close to the date of the Oscar ceremony.

When the first "In Memoriam" montages started appearing in award shows in the 90s, I found them a highlight. It was a nice break from the awards show banter, and pointedly injected some real gravitas into the Hollywood spectacle. Sadly, all too soon they became criticized and compromised, as inclusion in the montages became a status symbol. Suddenly it was a big deal if a famous name was left out, even if the justification for adding them was iffy. People got emotional and nitpicky. Campaigns and petitions started appearing at the end of every year. For a while there were the complaints over the varying applause levels that different honorees would attract, which lead to requests that all applause be held until the end of the segments. Ironically, cutting the applause often made all the honorees seem less important. I've found the recent practice of inviting famous performers to sing something melancholy during the segment is awfully distracting. A few years ago the Emmys got The Canadian Tenors for theirs, which was pretty dire.

Want to add more names? That usually means that the In Memoriam segment gets stretched out to untenable lengths in an already lengthy awards ceremony, or that individual honorees get less time. The Emmys tried to mitigate this somewhat by specially spotlighting six notable figures, which didn't turn out so well. Cory Monteith got one of the special tribute spots over other beloved TV figures with far longer and more accomplished careers, which predictably brought out the complainers (me included). The Oscars have already posted a hefty list online of every Academy member who died last year to emphasize that they haven't been forgotten - simply that there isn't enough time for everybody in Sunday night's montage. Of course, not every notable or semi-notable figure from the film community who died last year was a member of the Academy.

The basic idea behind the In Memoriam segments and the sentiment that fuels their popularity remain perfectly legitimate. I still get a chill every time I spot someone in the lineup who I didn't realize was gone, or had forgotten had only passed recently. However, the major memorial montages have transmogrified over the years to stand for things that they were never meant to. In the eyes of many they're just another industry recognition to be fought over, bargained for, and dissected for motes of meaning by observers. What will it mean if Sarah Jones gets included in the montage over Maximilian Schell or Richard Matheson? What about if Paul Walker gets more applause than Joan Fontaine? What does that signal? Probably not much except the prevailing sentiments of the hour.

I have my own little list of names in my head of people that I hope the Academy doesn't forget, but honestly enough of a fuss has been made about this. And if I look at my own blog, there's really only one person I cared enough about to try and honor myself - Roger Ebert.


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