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Prize Fight

Alternative Award Awards reward the strangest things

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At long last, 2003 has run its weary course, and we calendar-keeping dwellers of the planet Earth are now officially burning through the early weeks of a brand-new year. Yes, the world has finally turned. The triumvirate months of January, February and March are fully engaged in their steady, annual trudge toward spring. This, of course, can mean only one thing.

Awards season is upon us.

Awards season, that magical time of year when Hollywood's neediest actors, directors and producers--joined by small armies of publicists, agents and assorted hangers--on-dress up in borrowed finery and gather together in glitzy clusters to take turns pretending, at high volume, that they don’t really care about such things as fancy dresses and fame and stupid old awards shows.

Actually, um, no--it isn’t.

Thankfully, there are some ingenious folks out there who've been quietly co-opting the traditions and structures and parlance of awards season, and are using them to satirize the system, as well as to make comments on the condition of the arts and various other issues of the wider world. Such underworld flimflammery is exciting, and unlike the average, four-hour Oscar telecast, these alternative "awards" are seldom boring. But then, many of them exist without benefit of an actual awards event, and sometimes without actual awards. Still, unlike such big-budget galas as the Oscars, some of these lesser efforts actually mean something.

There was a time, of course, when awards season did mean something. This was back when it was all about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the annual red-carpeted fashion show and statue-distribution ceremony better known as the Oscars (so nicknamed in honor of the gold-plated, sword-clutching, genitalia-free figurine the Academy hands out each year to scores of grateful, tearful, lawyer-thanking recipients).

As an important pop-culture event, the Academy Awards presentation was once second to none, capturing the imaginations of the worldwide masses, routinely ranking among the highest rated television broadcasts of the year and enticing Cher to improbable flights of fabric-twisting fancy while easily earning its reputation as the undisputed Superbowl of the filmmaking world.

Sadly, the whole Academy Awards brouhaha has lost much of its luster. In large part, this is due to all the other awards shows and award-giving institutions that have forced themselves into the mainstream. The Hollywood Foreign Press, for example, has been regularly passing out those pesky Golden Globes for almost as long (61 years!) as the Oscars have been around.

Until recently though, the Golden Globes were always seen as a pale, pathetic, anemic imitation of the Oscars. Nowadays, the Golden Globe Awards, always held in January, are seen as a kind of pre-Academy litmus test, anticipated as a laid-back Oscar-lite affair, at which celebrities become drunk and disorderly and say wonderfully embarrassing things.

But that's not all. In addition to the Golden Globes, there are also the Independent Spirit Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, the National Board of Review Awards, the American Cinema Editors Awards, the American Society of Cinematographers Awards, the Boston Film Critics Awards, the Broadcast Film Critics Awards, the Chicago Film Critics Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the European Film Awards, the Florida Film Critics Awards, the Genie Awards, the National Society of Film Critics awards, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards, the Texas Film Critics Awards, the USC Scripter Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards and the World Stunt Awards.

Poor Oscar, bless his naked little soul. He's no longer the only show in town, and some say this glut in awards shows has cheapened the whole shebang. Oscar knows it, too. This year, to avoid being seen as the awards season footnote that they're well on their way to becoming and to reverse their evolving role as merely the last calendar date in a long series of overblown congratulatory events, the Academy Awards have been moved up, and will now be held at the end of February, a full month earlier than usual.

Will this change help?

Does anyone really care?

The ever expanding awards phenomenon is not limited to Hollywood and film, of course. Over the years, everyone has gotten into the act, from movies and TV to stage and literature. There are the Grammys (for musicians), the Emmys (for television performers), the Tonys (for Broadway thespians) and the VH1 Fashion Awards (for skinny people in ugly clothes).

Add to these the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, the CLEOs, the Webbys, the Hugos, the PEN/Faulkners and the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Heck, even the Bohemian has gotten involved, annually distributing our Independent Arts Awards, otherwise known as the Indies.

For good or ill, we now live in an award-saturated culture. Every profession, from insurance sales (Product Line Solutions Awards) to foundation application (Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards) to prostitution (the Aspasia Awards), feels strangely entitled to its own Oscar-like honoring system. Such invasive award-oriented thinking has become so integrated into our lives that it's become an automatic expression of affection. Are you fond of weird cable cooking shows featuring overweight chefs speaking bad English? Well, what are you waiting for? Go make up a funny-sounding organization and start announcing some big bad winners!

Even the lowliest and least-funded among us are finding ourselves compelled to jump in and have some Oscar-like fun. One needn't be an organization at all to become a significant player in the great big award-culture sandbox. Truth is, with little more than a website and a sense of humor, hundreds of alternative awards have popped up, many little more than elaborate hoaxes, others possessing more serious intentions.

Many of these efforts--fluttering somewhere in that internet neversphere between community service and personal expression--will never amount to anything, while there are a few that will become as notorious as the Darwin Awards. Started online by molecular biologist Wendy Northcutt, the Darwin Awards are, of necessity, posthumous, as they honor those who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it in unusually stupid ways. Northcutt has expanded the awards into three bestselling books and has a major motion picture on the way.

Surely, such handcrafted endeavors deserve to be honored with their own awards presentation. After all, if last year's Oscar telecast and this year’s Grammy show are each eligible for an Emmy award (both were nominated for Best Variety or Music Special), it’s only fair and fitting that a few notable under-the-radar awards efforts be similarly applauded. Here then, for your consideration, are our choices for outstanding achievement within the ever evolving art of creative award-culture tomfoolery.

Call these the Alternative Award Awards. It's just our way of thanking all the little people.



Best Achievement in the Energetic Bashing of Crappy Films Winner: The Stinkers (aka the Ultimate Bad Movie Awards)

Back in the late '70s, when the Bad Cinema Society was first conjured into existence, it had just two members, Mike Lancaster and Ray Wright. Then slaving away as ushers at a Pasadena movie theater, the sleep-deprived, popcorn-fed pals were inspired to start their own anti-Oscar campaign after being forced to work on the night of the 1978 Academy Awards. As attendance was typically light that evening, Lancaster and Wright smuggled in a small black-and-white TV set and watched the Oscars from the snack bar.

It was the night The Deer Hunter and Coming Home beat the celluloid out of Heaven Can Wait and Midnight Express. How great would it be, they joked, were the Oscars to take a break from honoring the best films and start handing out scornful demerits to the year's very worst cinematic stinkers--like John Travolta and Lily Tomlin's stinky May-December romance flop Moment by Moment or Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees embarrassing themselves in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It was too good an idea to pass up, and a year later, Lancaster and Wright printed up their own ballots, distributing them to friends and customers and then tabulating the results. With that move, the Bad Cinema Society and the annual competition known as the Ultimate Bad Cinema Awards, quickly dubbed the Stinkers, were born.

"For the next few years," says Lancaster, "we kept that up, doing the ballot amongst ourselves, annoying all of our friends. It was a labor of love. We thought every group of ushers did something like this. Thank God for the Internet, because we were finally able to take it to an international audience and leave our friends alone."

Today, 25 years later, Lancaster and Wright have turned their fitful irritation with lousy films into a thriving, if still relatively unknown, movie-bashing website (www.thestinkers.com). Lancaster, who handles the day-to-day operation of the site, now posts reviews of notably bad films, maintains a list of the 100 worst films of the last century and proudly links to Alternative Reel's Critical Hyperbole's Hall of Shame, where movie critics are chastised for their exclamations over such fare as Gigli. It’s all about loving movies and having no patience for junk.

"I just hate that the studios are always lying to us," says Lancaster. "Gigli was not the romantic comedy of the year, but they told us it was in that ad campaign. Pluto Nash was not, and will never be the 'comedy event of the decade,' but that's how they described it. The studios keep giving us crap, so they deserve all the crap we shoot back at them."

To that end, once a year, Lancaster makes fresh ballots available in whatever way seems appropriate (one year they passed out ballots at the Rose Bowl parade). Afterwards, they gleefully post the results, organizing them into a variety of categories including Most Unwanted Sequel and Most Toxic Chemistry Between Screen Couples. There is no ceremony, so no one appears to make emotional speeches.

"We do send winners a certificate," Lancaster mentions. "If we can find a celebrity’s address, we will make an effort to let them know they’ve won something, even if it was the award for Worst Actor of the Year."

To date, the only response they've received was from Tom Green, winner a few years ago for his God-awful work in Freddy Got Fingered. "We got an angry e-mail from Tom Green's manager," Lancaster says, laughing. "He didn't think it was very funny--but then, the movie wasn't that funny, either."

With a modest amount of prodding, Lancaster acknowledges the existence of that other bad-movie competition, the Golden Raspberry Awards, launched in 1980. The Razzies, which garner loads of media attention every year, are the award institution to which the Stinkers are most frequently compared, in spite of the fact that the Stinkers were technically doing their thing first.

"What we do is pretty much identical to the Razzies," admits Lancaster, "except that we have a much more comprehensive ballot, with funnier, better-thought-out categories. You will not find Worst Fake Accent on the Razzy ballot. You will not find Most Painfully Unfunny Comedy on their ballot. Basically," he laughs, "they're boring and we’re not."

Lancaster and Wright believe that it's only a matter of time till fame catches up with them. "Give us another 10 years," says Lancaster, "and the Stinkers will have turned that other bad film award into a tiny little afterthought."



Least Classifiable Awards Presentation Winner: The Ig Nobel Prizes

"There's one thing, I think, that clearly sets the Ig Nobels apart from all the other awards out there," explains Marc Abrahams, editor of the Boston-based "science humor" magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research and one of the main brains behind the annual Ig Nobel Prizes. "All the other awards tend to honor something for either being the very, very best, or the very, very worst. With the Ig Nobel prizes, best and worst are completely irrelevant," he says. "The Ig Nobels honor just one quality--things that first make you laugh, and then make you think."

As described in Abrahams new book, The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research, the cheeky Ig Nobels are one of the oddest prize fights going, an intellectual joke-fest annually staged at Harvard University, in which awards are presented by actual Nobel Prize winners to various unsung individuals who've done scientific work that, to quote Abrahams, "cannot, or should not, be reproduced."

In 2003, 10 new Ig Nobels were presented to numerous groups and individuals, including a band of Australian physicists who were honored for their paper titled "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces" and a team of English doctors who have discovered that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers are more highly developed than those in the brains of their fellow English citizens.

Past awards have been given to scientists of different disciplines for researching such things as the evaporation rate of foam on mugs of beer, the mathematical formula that predicts how many Alabamans will be going to Hell and the comparative palatability of different Costa Rican tadpoles.

Now in its 14th year, the lab-coated, duck-calling, paper airplane-tossing, wild Ig Nobel ceremony has become a very hot ticket in Boston. Routinely rebroadcast in an audio version on NPR the first Friday after Thanksgiving (on Ira Flatow’s weekly "Science Friday" segment of Talk of the Nation), it can be seen online at www.improbable.com. In addition to the new book, a troupe of Ig Nobel winners will be touring England this spring as a kind of traveling science-comedy show.

"In England," notes Abrahams with a bemused chuckle, "the Ig Nobels have become the centerpiece of National Science Week. Go figure."

The exponential growth of the Ig Nobels' popularity is welcome, he suggests, since it calls attention to the awards' underlying point: that science can be interesting, and at the very least, it can be funny.

"What I hope the Ig Nobels accomplish, if anything," he says, "is to get a lot more people to become curious about those things they once thought they hated, or maybe were convinced they couldn’t understand."

And what are the chances that the Ig Nobels may someday eclipse the Oscars and the Grammys in popularity?

"Good question," Abrahams says. "Someone should do a study on that."



Best Achievement in Epidermal Cinema Winner: The Skinnies

Big screen celebrity is only skin deep, or so some people say. According to Dr. Reese Vail, a San Francisco-based dermatologist, educator and film fan, movies are all about the skin.

"The Lord of the Rings!" he trumpets. "The power of those three films is amazing, and the skin conditions--wow! And it wasn't just the evil characters who had bad skin--the orcs with their rotten complexions, Grima Wormtongue with his crazy lesions and weird moles. What was amazing was that the heroes, the regular movie-star types, all had skin conditions you could see. There's Elijah Wood floating down the river and he's got this huge zit on his chin, not erased by computer, there on the DVD for all eternity.

"There's also Viggo Mortensen's lip scar, and Liv Tyler's little chicken pox scar and Elijah Wood's fingerbitten fingernails. Those movies are packed with interesting skin conditions!"

Such examples and more (a lot more) are displayed in sometimes queasy detail on Vail's uniquely focused website, Skinema.com.

"It’s something I started a few years ago," he explains, "as a tongue-in-cheek method of showing people the way skin conditions are used in movies, and to remind people that celebrities like Cameron Diaz--even though we tend to think of them as physically perfect--actually have skin like the rest of us. Truth is, that image of Cameron Diaz is not reality. It's an airbrushed fantasy. Cameron Diaz actually has very severe adult acne."

Within months of starting up the site seven years ago, Dr. Vail--who runs a private practice as well as serving on the clinical faculty at UC San Francisco--found himself fielding calls from journalists and radio stations around the world, all wanting to talk about the doctor's favorite skin flicks.

An Oscar-like awards effort seemed inevitable.

Now, once a year, Vail selects the best examples from the previous year's films and announces winners in a little contest he calls the Skinnies. This year's winners include Charlize Theron in Monster, winner for Best Use of Makeup to Uglify Rather than Beautify. Another winner is the "dark spot on Sean Penn’s neck" in Mystic River (Most Distracting Lesion). Taking the prize for Best Hidden Comeback is none other than "Demi Moore's stretch marks," as showcased in that revealing bikini scene in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

Vail's favorite is the award for Scariest Pierced Creatures.

"The year's Scariest Pierced Creatures weren't the orcs from The Lord of the Rings or the Bullseye character from Daredevil," Vail says. "They were those punctured, tongue-bar girls from Thirteen. That was the really terrifying stuff!"

One of Vail's prickliest peeves is the way certain skin conditions--facial scars, albinism--are used by filmmakers to signal the innate badness of a character. The worst case from 2003, he says, was the gun-toting evil albino in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain.

"Doesn’t Minghella realize that the evil albino is such a lame cliché?" Vail asks. "Why are there never any evil psoriasis characters? Filmmakers, please, just give us one evil psoriasis guy."

If nothing else, it would be a shoo-in for a Skinnie.



Most Hair-raising Award Winner: Outstanding Heads of Science Man and Woman of the Year

As if Marc Abrahams wasn’t busy enough with the annual Ig Nobel awards, his Annals of Improbable Research magazine recently hit another offbeat home run with its recent establishment of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists and announcement of the first ever Man and Woman of the Year 2002-2003. The first Man of the Year was Dr. Piero Paravidino, a chemical researcher and heavy metal rocker from Italy, who authored the paper "Synthesis of Medium-Sized N-Heterocycles through RCM of Fischer-type Hydrazino Carbene Complexes." For Woman of the Year, the winner was French astronomer Ilana Harrus, Ph.D., an expert in the X-ray emissions of supernova remnants.

As advertised, both of these winners have long, luxuriant, flowing hair.

There is no fancy trophy or certificate for being named Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club Man or Woman of the Year--"Membership in the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists is itself sort of a trophy," says Abrahams--but that hasn't stopped thousands of the world’s leading scientists from writing in to nominate each other, and even themselves.

"People do compete for this honor," Abrahams allows. "The letters are pretty funny. A lot of them are pretty emphatic that it's an important honor, and that they're the one who deserves it."

Unlike the Ig Nobels, there is no public Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club ceremony per se, but Abrahams is happy to proclaim that when the traveling Ig Nobel show hits the United Kingdom in March, British members of the Hair Club will be invited to come up on stage and take a bow.

"That should be very exciting," he says. "Imagine it--all that flowing hair in one room."



Competition of Least Earthshaking Importance Winner: The Moist Towelette Awards

The Moist Towelette Awards are the pleasantly scented brainstorm of Michael Lewis, a 28-year-old computer programmer from Orlando, Fla., who boasts a certain hard to describe fondness for the peculiar, factory-dampened paper product known as the moist towelette.

"I just appreciate the fact that, while working in relatively confined parameters, the moist towelette artists of the world are able to express themselves in unique ways," Lewis explains. In 1995 Lewis crafted the first issue of The Modern Moist Towelette Collecting Newsletter. "I thought creating a moist towelette newsletter might make the world more interesting," he says, "so I did it and printed it up, and I mailed the first edition to a few of the major moist towelette manufacturers. But I never heard back from them."

A year or so later, Lewis took the concept to the Internet (http://members.aol.com/moisttwl), where it currently exists as one of the leading moist towelette collecting websites in cyber space (and, oh yes, there are others). Almost immediately, people began sending him packaged towelettes in the mail.

"It was so great to suddenly be receiving these moist towelette treats in my mailbox," Lewis says. "People actually took the time to send me various unusual moist towelettes they had found--and my collection suddenly exploded. He is now the proud owner of more than 2,000 such items, many of which are featured on his site, along with such inspired attractions as a moist towelette matching game, a Modern Moist Towelette Collecting theme song and the Modern Moist Towelette Collecting gallery.

It was only a matter of time till Lewis began the Modern Moist Towelette Collecting Awards, honoring the spongy thingies for Best Design in international, medical, restaurant, casino and gas station categories. Honors go out for Strangest (that would be the one advertising "The Wizard of Oz on ice") and Most Original Use, with winners including a mint-flavored, mouthwash-dampened "tooth towel" and a spiritually inclined wipe adorned with a fish and a cross, and emblazoned with the mailing address of a minister from Hallandale, Fla., and the semidelusional words "This is an instrument of Faith!"

The awards are not annual; Lewis merely posts his favorites as the mood hits him, but as evidence of the award's significance, he proudly mentions the written response received from Zee Medical Supply, maker of the towelette that was once nominated for best in the "medical" category.

"We were pleasantly surprised to find our award on your site," the letter reads, "and we will try to be gracious about missing out on the top spot. Just being nominated is more of an honor than we could have asked for."

"Letters like that," says Lewis, "make all my effort seem worth it."



Additional Achievement Awards

Every major awards ceremony includes three or four awards that are too important to skip but not important enough--or sexy enough--to actually waste time showing on the broadcast. In the Best Award Targeting an Obscure Literary Hybrid, we hail the Sapphire Awards, annually honoring achievement in the genre of "romantic science fiction." Sponsored by the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter (www.sfronline.com), the Sapphires are handed out to writers of novels or short stories that fall into various categories such as Futuristic Romance, Paranormal Romance (love stories involving ghosts, fairies, vampires, werewolves, doppelgangers, dimension-hopping phantoms, etc.), and the ever-popular Time Travel Romance. For Currently Defunct Awards Institution Most Deserving of a Prompt Resurrection, a nod goes to the Product Placement Awards (www.productplacementawards.com), created by Australian publicist Anthony Dever to recognize and celebrate the "effectiveness of 'product placement integration' in motion pictures, books, music, computer games and television." The PPA's occurred for one year only, honoring the semi-intrusive appearances of Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Gap in the futuristic Minority Report (remember the talking billboards?). The selection and announcement of such awards, apparently, were more trouble than they were worth for Mr. Dever; sadly, his once-promising website is up for sale.

By this time next year, with any luck, some enterprising individual will have snapped it up and reinvented the Product Placements Awards (What should they be called? The Crassies?), and will be using them to spread their own unique view of the universe. Along with those, you can be sure, there will have arisen several other new awards as well, all jostling for a moment in the Awards Culture spotlight. Because, just as with the Oscars--or the Emmys or the Grammys or any of the others--winning the damn trophy is not what's truly important. In the end, what really drives all these award-giving/award-collecting endeavors, be they large or small, is probably not anyone's fundamental desire to win-win-win; more likely, it's nothing more than our incessant human craving--that basic, underlying, ever-present need--simply to be noticed.

It's a reasonable theory.

Someone should do a study on that.

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From the January 29-February 4, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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