' ' Cinema Romantico: What Makes an Explosion *Oscar* Worthy?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

What Makes an Explosion *Oscar* Worthy?

In inevitably making a crack on his NPR quiz show Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me about the recent announcement of a new Oscar category for Best Achievement in so-called Popular Film, host Peter Sagal said “film critics are going to be asking, yeah, it’s got explosions, but are they *Oscar* explosions?” Stop the tape. *Oscar* explosions, you say? You’re speaking our language, Sagal. What, we wondered upon hearing this, might constitute an *Oscar* worthy explosion?

As the Guinness World Records site reports, the largest film stunt explosion of all time took place in the 24th James Bond film “Spectre.” Guinness explains: “Taking place in Erfoud, Morocco, the blast had a total yield of 68.47 tonnes of TNT equivalent and was the result of detonating 8,418 litres of kerosene with 33 kg of powder explosives - and it lasted for over 7.5 seconds.” Is that it? Does the largest film stunt explosion of all time automatically equate to *Oscar* worthy explosion? Please. As a person with a blog who sees movies, I think I know the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a little better than that.

The Academy is not just looking for the largest explosions. They are not looking for Christopher Nolan leveling the old Brach’s Candy building on the west side of Chicago for “The Dark Knight” nor are they looking for every Michael Bay explosion ever. These, after all, are the [assumes the Jon Lovitz “ACTING!” voice] Oscars. The Best Achievement in Popular Film might be intended to cater to the Common Man but that the Academy found it necessary to create a category to cater to the Common Man is all the proof you need of their disinterest in catering to the Common Man. No, if you want an *Oscar* explosion then you need to take it up an expressive level.

Explosions outside of the box are tempting to consider, like Wolfgang Petersen finding a way to work some explosions into “Troy” despite the film taking place in 12th Century BC, or Wes Anderson working explosions into his “Rushmore” protagonist’s Vietnam stage play (“You’ll find a pair of safety glasses and some earplugs underneath your seats”), or the collecting of shells in “One Crazy Summer”, never mind the exploding drummer of “This Is Spinal Tap” fame. I love all these explosions. But is ingenuity *Oscar* worthy? That’s dubious.

You know what else is dubious? The claims that John Huston’s War Department funded “The Battle of San Pietro” was actually filmed in the midst of The Battle of San Pietro, fought in 1943 during the Italian Campaign of WWII. That was the argument proffered by Mark Harris in his book Five Came Back where he convincingly laid out the case that the battle presented on screen was actually a series of reenactments. And I can totally see facsimile explosions pawned off as the real thing inadvertently ending up as *Oscar* worthy, leading to pre-ceremony controversy and a subsequent redaction of *Oscar* worthiness.

I would love nothing more than to cite, say, the explosion in “Groundhog Day” arriving right after Chris Elliot’s expertly timed “He might be okay” or Michael Caine in the (real) “Italian Job” admonishing his cohort “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” or, of course, The Sundance Kid lamenting “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” But this is the Oscars, people, and we all know the Oscars don’t reward comedy.

The explosions at the end of “Fight Club” are bold and, given the presentation, weirdly beautiful. They are, however, also replete with nihilism. That, friends, is not *Oscar* worthy. Neither are The Pixies, at least not when compared to, say, John Williams. Everyone knows this.

This blog’s favorite movie explosion of all time undoubtedly takes place in “Die Hard.” Not the one at the end, of course, but the one where John McClane ties the C4 to the computer monitor and straps the computer monitor to the office chair and then sends it hurtling down the elevator shaft which essentially encapsulates, to borrow the phrasing of Lord Dark Helmet, firing a warning shot up someone’s nose rather than across it. This explosion yields quite a visual spectacle, so much so that it sends the TV cameras outside the building into a tizzy (“Eat your heart out channel five”). It also ticks off Hans Gruber, resident villain, which is the whole point, though it also ticks off Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson who struggles to tolerate such brazen destruction of property. And I feel as if Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson’s attitude would mimic the Academy’s.

This brings us to David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The explosion there was expensive and immense, yes, but it was also what the movie turned on as well as a ferocious metaphor for the madness of war. And much like the immortal Mickey Abbot of “Seinfeld” once proclaimed Bacterial Meningitis to be the Hamlet of Diseases, I think the explosion in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” earns similar distinction. Expense, enormity, meaning, this explosion’s got everything; that’s *Oscar* worthy.

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