The Motion Picture Academy has been stingy with special Oscar accolades in recent years. The last time the organization went out of its way to recognize something peripheral to its usual slate of kudos was with a special achievement honor for Pixar’s “Toy Story” in 1996.
That changed Nov. 11 at the ninth annual Governors Awards, where director Alejandro G. Iñárritu accepted his fifth Academy Award, for virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena,” hailed by recently elected Academy president John Bailey as “a deeply emotional and physically immersive venture.”
“It’s great that you don’t have to compete,” Iñárritu joked ahead of the ceremony.
The 54-year-old Mexican auteur won three Oscars for “Birdman” in 2016 and another for “The Revenant” the very next year. “Carne y Arena,” a six-and-a-half-minute experience currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is unforgettable, placing participants in the middle of an attempted migrant crossing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Donning a backpack and a VR headset, shoes and socks left behind in a metal locker, you walk on (real) sand and rocks in a large room dedicated to the virtual experience that’s being beamed into your goggles.
Story-wise, it’s brisk; border patrol officers arrive by land and air; guns are drawn; migrants are apprehended. But your experience is your own. I found that my instinct was to drift back and almost force a proscenium, to observe the scene playing out from afar, and then to move throughout it, taking in the details. When Iñárritu was first choreographing the project, he used the tricks available to him — lighting, blocking, etc. — to subtly manipulate the viewer to go this way or that. But he soon found the experience was much more complex.
“I think it’s the identity — who you are as a person,” he said. “There are people who stay behind the policemen the whole time. There are people who go down into the sand and shout and try to hold the kids. It’s also dependent on the emotional state you went into it with that day. That’s very interesting. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.”
The special Oscar was a strong spotlight for the Academy to shine on an evolving technology that has been labeled the next big thing in visual storytelling for well over two decades. But, intentionally or not, it was also a shrewd way to generate attention for the organization’s own ongoing art project. Hang a left once you exit the “Carne y Arena” exhibit at LACMA and you’ll run smack into the Academy’s construction site for a grand (and embattled) movie museum set to open in 2019.
The special Oscar was a strong spotlight for the Academy to shine on an evolving technology.
“VR has the potential to change the landscape of museums and galleries, because you can go into the mind of an artist,” Iñárritu said. “Imagine if a sculptor like [James] Turrell did VR. I think great artists will be able to create amazing pieces where you will really walk into their brain, and that will be life-changing.”
Narratively, though, the director thinks it will require a new filmmaking generation to bring its own approach. “We should not be contaminating this with old narrative arts of theater or cinema,” he said. “I think this is its own beast. It requires a new way, and I don’t know if it’s anti-narrative, but it should be much more unexpected … a new language. This is like a little scratch, a little baby, a little DNA, a little sperm of what really will become a big monster, I think.”
Who knows? Maybe someday virtual reality will make its way out of peripheral awards ceremonies and onto the Academy Awards show. What will be the first VR film to win best picture, and how far away is that moment? It could be closer than you think.