Friday, April 5, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Netflix viewing

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the first Netflix original film I've seen since I got the online streaming service for myself, and it comes for me at an appropriate time. You may recall Scruggs was a three-time Oscar nominee, including Adapted Screenplay, one of several Netflix films from last year to be feted, and that's starting to rub some people the wrong way.

Steven Spielberg is spearheading a movement within the Academy to get films from streaming services like Netflix ineligible for the Oscars, saying they should qualify for the Emmys instead. Earlier this week, Variety reported the Justice Department sent the Academy a letter saying any potential rule changes that would bar the streamers from Oscar competition would violate antitrust laws.

I admit, when I first saw Netflix movies among the Oscar nominees a few years ago, I wondered the exact same thing: shouldn't they count as television movies?

Then I saw them premiering at major film festivals and getting reviewed like other films and I thought, well, I guess they're considered movie movies after all: they have the same or similar caliber of stars and directors and they don't look cheap — yet I was miffed because they weren't shown theatrically. Still am, to a lesser degree.

I didn't understand that Netflix and the other streamers were trying to build a whole new distribution model.

I had been using Netflix to watch old TV shows like Deep Space Nine and The Twilight Zone, and on the homepage I had seen the new releases, but I guess I still can't help thinking of Netflix films as being less than theatrical films.

Scruggs is a legitimate film by any standard you care to use. It's the Coen Brothers, which should be more than enough for many people. It's an anthology of Western stories, and because it is the Coen Brothers, everyone talks in that Runyonesque manner like in their version of True Grit. It has actors you've heard of: Liam Neeson, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, etc.

And it's good. Some of the stories were better than others: Waits was really good as a gold prospector, and Nelson is a legitimately talented singer in a funny, Lebowski-esque musical.

Does it matter that I saw it online instead of in a theater? Well, for one thing, these days, dramatic TV shows look more like films than ever; Feud was one example among many of that.

However, I've stated here, time and again, that seeing a movie on a big screen makes you aware of details you could miss on a TV screen — or in this case, an iPad screen, which is much smaller. Until holodecks become a reality, the theater is still a more immersive experience, and that counts for much.

I still believe that. Roma debuted on Netflix, but Alfonso Cuarón encouraged people to see it in theaters. Martin Scorsese wants the same for his next film, which will stream on Netflix also, so it looks like they can and will make concessions to certain filmmakers with clout if they demand a theatrical release.

Bringing this back to whether or not Netflix films should qualify for Oscars: if it's a matter of law, then the attorneys will sort it out one way or another, but for now, I tend to agree with Spielberg. Feud or American Horror Story could be considered really long movies, but Ryan Murphy doesn't try to compete with the likes of The Shape of Water or BlacKkKlansman or even Avengers when it comes to awards.

That said, the line will get blurrier than it is now once more streaming services start up and more filmmakers like the Coens and Scorsese flock towards them. I'll have to reassess my opinion then. Bottom line: the marketplace is changing, and sooner or later, we're gonna have to adapt.


  1. The times they are a-changing and I think Spielberg is in a losing battle. Change isn't always progress, but change is inevitable.

    Old-timey western fan speaking: The Coen brothers version of True Grit did not create that dialogue/style. Most of it came directly from Marguerite Roberts screenplay for the 1969 movie which, in turn, was lifted from Charles Portis' novel. Credit where credit is due and credit to the Coens for recognizing its worth.

  2. [Rich speaking from a different device]

    I see. I only saw the original TRUE GRIT once, long ago, and forgot about the stylistic dialogue in that version. And needless to say, I never read the book.

    I fear I agree with you regarding Spielberg, but he’s the kinda guy people will listen to. If nothing else, he’s gotten a discussion going, and that could lead all sorts of places.

    1. If I hadn't already been overly-familiar with the earlier movie and the novel, I wouldn't have understood most of what came out of Jeff Bridge's mouth. An authentic accent is one thing but communicating is another.

      Spielberg may or may not like where this whole thing ends up. Somehow, audiences seem to get lost in all of this, but they need us.

  3. Nice article as well as whole site.Thanks.


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