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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For your consideration: Mark Steilen’s musings on the Academy Awards

Screenwriter and producer Mark Steilen, who grew up in Spokane, at the world premiere of the comedy “Tag” on June 7, 2018. (Carolyn Lamberson / The Spokesman-Review)
By Mark Steilen For The Spokesman-Review

It has become the fashion lately to debate factual subjects. I am not a fan of this pastime. The ancient Greek philosophers had a word for people who argued facts: “idiots.” In his definitive text on logic, “Posterior Analytics,” Aristotle uses the now archaic term, “moron,” a word whose meaning has evolved to mean “world leaders.”

So, I’m going to explain some stuff to you about the relationship between competition and art, and you can argue with me, but guess what that makes you? That’s right. A world leader. Anyway. Maybe just staple your tongue to the roof of your mouth for 10 and listen to some wisdom.

When figure skaters spin around like a thousand times and then do backflips and land on ice on one foot with only a sixteenth of an inch of steel under them and don’t snap their skinny spines, that’s nothing short of a miracle. It is, frankly, awe inspiring – a combination of hyper-athleticism, art, will-power, countless hours of training, daring-do, psychotic parenting and sparkly outfits.

But it’s not a sport. It isn’t even a competition as far as I’m concerned. Neither is body-building, for that matter. Or the Miss America Pageant. Here’s why: Because any event settled by the opinion of judges is perfectly subjective. I know, I know, they pretend to have “criteria,” but only wahoos are fooled by that. No matter how many silly, super-ultra-vague things the judges say, like “Her twisty-nine-thousand was a smidge off center, Laura,” it’s still just a few Mom and Dad’s opinions.

Reviews, if you will. Fine, I say.

Because this doesn’t diminish the magnificence of these displays of human greatness. Driven people stretching the limits of human freakiness is inherently valuable and, frankly, interesting as hell. It’s just a different way to be cool. It might even be argued that it’s cooler because it doesn’t have to be competitive to engage our interest. Think about THAT!

But to compete, you need clearly defined, objective criteria for beating another person that does not require an opinion. For instance, if two figure skaters had to do 17 toe spins super fast at the same time and then see who could put a ball through a steel ring more times than the other skater? Boom! Game on! Or, if they locked all the body builders in a concrete box with one door, turned out the lights and said, “Ready, GO!” and the first one to get out of the door alive was the winner? THAT is a competition!

True competition is predicated on the quantifiable. There are no style points in downhill skiing. Fastest down the mountain rules. No one takes a touchdown away from Brady because his pass wasn’t a tight enough spiral. Wobbly? Six points. Eat it. Most points when clock runs out wins. Fermé la bouche!

So you likely know where I’m going with this. Hey? Guess what? Movies aren’t a competition, either! Well, they do compete in one very specific sense – they are a business. You could put quantifiable criteria on films. In fact, they do. But by that measure – box office as a multiple of the negative costs – “The Blair Witch Project” is the greatest film of all time and would win every Oscar forever. And, not a secret, it’s not.

The truth is, movies are art. Some lame, some sublime, some low-brow art, some super-smart-person art, but every one of them, no matter how great a failure or success, is an intensely difficult, collaborative work among many artists.

Now, consider for a moment the fundamental absurdity of art as competition. What if every year there was the Oil on Canvas March Madness? Or a Large Scale Sculpture in Marble Super Bowl? “Tonight! Mona Lisa throws down with Venus de Milo! Michaelangelo’s David squares off in the octagon with Rodin’s Burghers of Callais!”

That’s a stupid idea, Mark. How would you pick a winner between “Starry Night” and Pollock’s “Painting 31”? There’s no way to keep score. There’s no quantifiable way to win! One is a picture of the night sky that doesn’t really look like a real night sky and was painted by a madman, and the other is a bunch of paint squirggled around that doesn’t look like anything at all! HOW CAN THEY COMPETE? WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA? IT’S ALL TOO FUZZY WUZZY! WE HATE THE IDEA OF ART AS COMPETITION, MARK! STOP TALKING ABOUT IT! IT SHOULD BE ART FOR ART’S SAKE!

Well, yeah. Now, by logical extension, how on earth would you establish criteria for films to compete? I’ll tell you how. You couldn’t! Nobody – NO-BAH-DEE – has the slightest idea how the hell you would decide whether Mahershala Ali scored more acting points than Adam Driver. “Ladies and gentlemen, only 30 seconds left in the flick, and here comes Streep … is she? Yes! YES! Streep throws her signature slightly-smug-but-not-entirely-dismissive-half-smile and … DOWN GOES BULLOCK!

The only reason the Oscars exist is to sell more tickets. They’re a commercial.

That’s why the whole red-carpet-glitter-grift was invented – so yokels like us could gawk at gorgeous men and women while they were in their actual skin instead of up there on the screen – and then after gawking, think, damn, Greta Garbo is smokin’! I’m totally gonna go see “Ninotchka”!

Not that people don’t take it seriously. Especially the poor (by “poor” I mean incredibly rich but stressed out) schmucks sitting there hoping they get their name called. They do care. These are artists, but they wanna win. That’s human nature. Sure, it’s a fakey competition, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to them – it’s important because it acknowledges the mind-bending, physically debilitating effort it takes to make a good film, and that when all is said and done, people appreciated it. The most honest words ever spoken by someone accepting an Academy Award were those of Sally Field, who, after winning best actress for “Places in the Heart,” famously busted out with, “You like me! You REALLY LIKE ME!” which explains nearly all of the motivation behind every human endeavor.

OK, so it’s an imaginary competition. So what? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the Oscars. Go ahead! Explain what you think was significant about Rami Malek’s subtle incorporation of Freddie Mercury’s overbite, or how Yalitza Aparicio rips your heart right out of your chest with her quiet eyes. But don’t pretend that has anything to do with winning anything. You should probably smash your face into your own fist incredibly hard if you’re having that argument.

However, I do have a dear friend’s movie in the competition this year. Pete Farrelly, a loyal, kind, thoughtful, brilliant sweetheart of a guy who has championed the underdog in so many ways he’d be embarrassed if I wrote about it, made a little movie called “Green Book.” Pete got rich and famous making movies like “Dumb and Dumber” and “Something About Mary.” (We had a huge argument about whether it was a good idea to ask Cameron Diaz to put that stuff in her hair. I lost that argument. Pete won. The rest is history.) But awhile back, we were having dinner, and he said, “I found this amazing story. Did you know there was a travel book published so that black people would know where they could eat or sleep when traveling in the south without being killed by white people?”

I did not. I am super white. Pete is, too, but he had read about it. He said he was going to make this movie. It didn’t seem like a smart business decision at the time. It seemed like Pete wanted to make a work of art. Even if it wasn’t the kind of thing people knew him for, Pete’s a maker. Maker’s make. Artist’s art. They keep making art even if you don’t give a damn about the art they make.

And who knew? It’s brilliant and funny and moving and all sorts of good things that a movie aspires to be. Now it’s nominated for an Oscar. “Dumb” made more money in the first two months than “Green Book” is likely to ever make. By the quantifiable terms of the competition of film, it’s a loser. But it’s not. It uplifts. It inspires thought and debate on important issues even while you’re giggling. It elevates the human condition just by existing. So … it’s a work of art.

You might have guessed by now that I don’t believe in the Oscars as a competition. But if somebody’s gotta vote, they should vote for my buddy’s movie. Because if it is a beauty pageant, he’s as hot in a bathing suit as any of them. And, just as an afterthought, if I ever get one there (do not hold your breath), vote for my movie. Screw it. Just because I don’t believe that art should be a competition, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather win. Maybe if I do win, I’ll change my mind and think I won because my movie was quantifiably more brilliant. I’m delusional most of the time, so it’s likely.

Oh. And Pete also made another movie. “Movie 43.” Widely considered to be the worst movie of all time. Eh. That’s art. If you haven’t dropped a football? You haven’t played football.

Enjoy the show.

Mark Steilen was born and raised in Spokane. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he writes and produces movies and TV shows. His most recent film, “Tag,” came out in 2018.