The setting may change, but The Shawshank Redemption still rests at the top of the shelf.
My dad had to make choices when he and my mom moved into our house before I was born—what needed to go, and what needed to stay. The desk stayed, and was put in a new room. The desk spans the width of the wall, the shelves span the width of the desk, and the best of the best span the width of the shelf. The best of the best for my father, anyway. To make it this far, the stacks of books, CDs, and DVDs had to carry more than a place holding significance. This entertainment stayed.
Nine years later, a nine-year-old version of me climbed the desk and pulled down a DVD with a white man and a black man on the cover staring off into the distance. My dad tapped a finger on the cover, “Good. Even better than good. One of my favorites.”
Which, for me, became an understatement. A 16-year-old version of me watched The Shawshank Redemption for the first time, and it wasn’t just good, or just better than good: it was perfect. It’s about everything—everything. Nothing has been perfect since—there’s been good, and there’s been even better than good, and with every passing year, I wonder whether perfection like that is ever to be replicated.
Let’s start in the present: 19-year-old me watched the Oscars last Sunday—interested and skeptical. Accolades were awarded, and the upsets were relatively minor. Some people said some good stuff with their 50 seconds in front of the world. Birdman was given the golden crown for 2015. I haven’t seen Birdman yet, but when I undoubtedly do, there are three ways to proceed.
One of the first two ways is almost certain—either it’s like recent best picture winners (12 Years a Slave, Argo, and The Kings Speech), and it gets an “eh” at best; or it’s like the smaller chunk of best picture winners that requires stretching back some years, even more than a decade (The Departed, American Beauty, and A Beautiful Mind), and gets a pause before the “whoa.”
The third way is a trumping of Shawshank.
But I’ve almost grown to resent the Oscars as an outlet for what will and won’t supersede the perfect movie, because what it comes down to is that a lot of the Best Pictures don’t translate into the best pictures. The Oscars are systematic in this way. Political. But how disconcerting, how obnoxious, how dumb is that? Can there be more irony than the superfluous number who-will-win-and-who-should-win lists? What’s the point of a Best Picture award if the best picture doesn’t win?
But the Oscars aren’t alone in stagnation.
Let’s go back a couple weeks: Whiplash sucker punched me in the mouth, sparking discomfort and elation. I paced across my dorm as the snow piled up outside, trying to find something to distract me, confused as how my roommates felt fine enough to look up another movie. Whiplash had no shot at the Oscars, experts reported.
Ten months ago: In the dead heat of June, a friend and I got to New York City hours before a Yankee game and needed something to fill the time. Snowpiercer was playing in an independent theater, one of only four venues in the entire country that was showing the movie. Two hours later, leaving the theater, my friend and I looked at each other and both spat laughter. Our eyes were bloodshot. We had forgot to blink. We sat for 10 minutes in the movie theater lobby without saying a word.
Snowpiercer wasn’t nominated, and I’m not surprised. It’s a silly movie, and I can see someone at the Academy smoking their fancy pipe and saying, “Well, it’s just not tasteful enough.” But it was a silly movie that was able to suspend belief in its own silliness and beckon me to just take a ride, and that’s something else.
Whiplash and Snowpiercer are dime-worthy movies, but to my mind, they don’t come close to Shawshank.
That’s the story of all the movies that I see that are dime-worthy: great, but not like Shawshank. No film comes close to that third path—it won’t trump Shawshank. That means a lot more than trumping Shawshank as a very spectacular movie in its own right.
It has to do with my dad’s desk, how his office smelled like cigars even though he never smoked, of always seeing that cover with the white man and black man staring longingly at something that seemed heavenly, but far off. It has to do with watching the movie at the precise moment I did, where I was just old enough to understand everything going on, unlike so many other movies I had watched when I was younger and then re-watched when I was older and thought, “Oh, that.”
Things that make any movie as perfect and as incontestable as Shawshank have more to them, always. Things that go outside of the movie—like how the Best Picture goes outside of what makes it a best picture. And it is disconcerting, obnoxious, and dumb.
Whenever I see Birdman, it’ll come into crystal clear view whether the Oscar was handed off to the wrong team again. And no matter how good Birdman is or how good any other movie is, nothing will come to that one night, Shawshank, the office that smelled of cigars, and two men, bound together, looking off, wanting, like I do, to be proven wrong.
Featured Image Courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment