Monday, March 03, 2014

At the feet of the Oscar

A friend and frequent reader submitted a question:

I do not care about the Oscars - or awards shows in general. As someone in the business, what do you think about these shows, and am I abnormal for not caring and almost resenting these things as a huge waste of time and energy?

To be honest, your humble correspondent is not a good spokesman for "the business."  The people involved with the Oscars have a career profoundly different than mine.  The only person I can speak for is me, so the following is a personal reflection on the spectacle of the Academy Awards.   

My indifference to the Oscars can be explained in a few simple categories, and it might not be of much interest to anybody, but you never know.  And it's my blog.  So here we go.

Commercial vs. Artistic achievement

There are some very exciting films being screened at festivals around the world, and you will never hear about many of them.  I enjoy good movies, and even some of the bad ones.  It would be wonderful to go to Sundance, Cannes, Vienna, et al.  Good movies might also be nominated for Oscars, but artistic achievement is incidental.  This is about business.  Films and artists rise in commercial value with awards or even nominations.

This is not to suggest that the Oscars have nothing to do with art.  Good movies do get nominated and win awards.  It is nice when actors who are not A-list celebrities are recognized for their performances.  This year, for instance, Bruce Dern's nomination brought attention to his performance in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.  And I was very thrilled in 2008 when Richard Jenkins, an alumnus of Trinity Rep, was nominated for his performance in The Visitor.  He did not win in 2009, but his work and a good small-budget drama got some deserved attention.

The event itself is a commercial product, a televised spectacle with an audience of multi-millions.  In order to capitalize on that attention, the event is a lengthy media spectacle and a platform for expensive advertising. It is a platform for fashion designers as well, with much media attention on the red carpet and the attire of the celebrities -- we ask not only what they are wearing, but who they are wearing.  Celebrities can rack up quite a bit of goods and services in the form of swag (amounting, this year, to $80,000 per basket).

And guess what?  By watching the show, by clicking on news articles about it, by tweeting and posting about it on social media, we are helping millionaires and corporations make even more money.  Just as some of these celebrities willingly become billboards for fashion designers, we become billboards for the Oscar brand.

...oh yes, and also Class achievement
These are industry awards, voted upon by a group of six thousand industry insiders.  You can read about them on the Motion Picture Academy's page (click here).  Apparently, the three faces on that page are representative of the Academy: mostly male, mostly white, and rich.  That is changing, but turnover at the Academy is slow and it will take some time for the body to become more diverse.  At any rate, there is little prospect for more working-class representation, who might lift up films showing life at other margins of society.

The politics: what we can talk about, what we cannot.

It is fitting that some popular political shows give coverage to the "races" for Best Picture, et al, because these are in fact political campaigns.  The six thousand Academy voters are lobbied heavily to support this or that nominee, and the stakes and arguments are often overtly political.  For example, there was some suspense this year about whether Cate Blanchett's nomination was in jeopardy, not because of her performance or competing nominees, but because of recent controversy about director Woody Allen, which had nothing to do with her.  Ms. Blanchett's public appearances (including other awards shows) were scrutinized for any reference to Woody Allen.  It could not be just about her own work, because this is not primarily about art.   These are political campaigns and decisions are made with concern for the image of the Motion Picture Academy and for individual professional concerns.

Because the Oscar ceremony has such a large audience, it is hard for the participants to resist the opportunity to work political messaging into their appearances.  When Marlon Brando was honored for his performance in The Godfather,  he famously sent a surrogate, by the name of Sacheen Littlefeather, to receive the award and make a speech about the plight of indigenous people in America.  Video hereMediaite has a collection of other such moments.

Overt political messaging can also be part of the event itself and of course embedded within the nominated films themselves. During wartime, there tends to be more flag-waving, and when an honoree criticizes a current war they tend to get booed -- even when the war is unpopular, as was the case in 2003. This shows the utility of the Oscars as a propaganda tool: patriotic and pro-capital films can be celebrated, while messages criticizing mainstream culture or government are unwelcome.

We could have a very interesting discussion about whether Scorsese's nominated film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is critiquing capitalism or celebrating it.  That discussion will not take place at the Academy Awards or anywhere in the context of the Academy.  It is irrelevant. 

On one of these political shows, a host recently admitted that Gravity, for all its remarkable visual effects, left him a little cold as a human story and he felt suspicious about the veiled religious messaging.   The panel shrugged off these artistic concerns and asked him, "Did you see it in 3-D, though??"

Our latent affection for royalty.

Hundreds of years after the Declaration of Independence and the American and French revolutions, modern concepts of republican or parliamentary democracy, notions of civil equality or social democracy, have never diminished popular affection for royalty and aristocracy.  The spectacle thrills our senses with beautiful clothing and uniforms, magnificent architecture, music and pageantry, and the cult of personality about these titans who occasionally consent to walk among the commoners.

Overheard once at the Cafe Tropical in Silverlake, Los Angeles:

"You know, sometimes you'll see Tom Waits here!" 

"Well sure -- the coffee's good."


It is not my intention to be a grinch and rain on anybody's fun.  A lot of my friends really love watching celebrities turn up on the red carpet, to see what they are wearing, to see how they are aging -- and it is very much as if these are extended family members, people with whom we are familiar.

Fine for them.  It just isn't my thing to make titans of men and women and celebrate the lifestyle of an opulent minority.  Some of these A-listers are genuinely talented people who have the freedom to make good movies or at least movies they like; but for me it is about the work, not about them.  I'm happy for people who work hard and become well-known and well paid for their labor in such an exploitative industry -- it is a rare thing, and most of us will never achieve it.  However, the culture's fascination with fame and riches seems, to me, to reinforce and legitimize class disparity, the idea that some people are intrinsically different:  beautifuller, smarterer, better endowed to lead, more naturally suited to holding power and reaping the profits of common assets and other people's labor. 

Which leads, among other things, to this annual financial whirlwind for the Oscars, as so many of us voluntarily function as unpaid promoters of a commercial event, dutifully tuning in to this long infomercial for the entertainment industry and cult of celebrity, rewarding its advertisers with ratings, internet clicks, and social media posts, all to the additional profit of the production companies and the numerous associated industries. 

Clever, isn't it?

Me, I would much sooner have a movie night and invite some friends over to watch, discuss, critique, and invent.


Anonymous said...

I love your world view.

Kelly said...

I'm not one who's just never been my cup of tea. And, considering I seldom go the movie theatre, I've rarely seen most of the movies up for awards.

I also don't pay much attention to critics (or popular) ratings for movies. I prefer to watch a movie and decide for myself.