…look, you all knew this was coming.
Here’s the thing about last Sunday’s Oscar ceremony: I don’t remember most of it. That might be a good thing. In my mind, the inability to recall vast swaths of the show signals the following:
- Nobody said anything embarrassing (a’la Travolta introducing Idina Menzel as Adele Dazeem)
- Nobody said anything to inspire outcry (e.g. Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech in 2015)
- Nobody said anything Earth-shatteringly stupid (see: everything said by Seth MacFarlane during his 2013 hosting gig)
- Nobody and no film won an upset victory so shocking as to provoke protest among the cine-proletariat
Of course, under mild scrutiny you can make contrary replies to each of these; Sam Smith satisfied both the first and second bullet by spouting malarky after winning Best Original Song, Sacha Baron Cohen pissed off Oscar organizers by appearing on stage as Ali G against their wishes, Mark Rylance took Best Supporting Actor from Sylvester Stallone (though Rylance is so great that no one should reasonably have their underpants in a knot about it), and the night’s overarching message, regarding the promotion of inclusion and diversity, kept being undercut by crappy ethnic jokes. (This is to say nothing of Alejandro González Iñárritu winning Best Director for the second year running, an arguable a win for inclusion and diversity even if it’s a loss for the recognition of good filmmaking*.)
But even if the 88th Academy Awards avoided grave offenses of taste and propriety, and even if Mad Max: Fury Road deservedly won six awards (thus validating its unassailable technical merits in the eyes of the mainstream), and even if Leo got a trophy without having to actually kill himself, there is still something deflating about the entire affair. Maybe it’s the time commitment. Watching the Oscars takes as much time as it takes to watch Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, assuming you are a human being and you can pause to go to the can once or twice during its 171 minute running time**, and yet once all is said and done, I felt as though I’d aged a month enduring its stream of starts and stops. It is too goddamn long, simple as that, and unlike the Grammy Awards, the Oscars are ill-suited to the concept of putting on a show for a live audience. At the Grammys, you get to see nominees perform the shit they’re nominated for. (That Kendrick Lamar performance was something else, y’know?)
You don’t really get the same experience at the Oscars. You get The Weeknd and Smith and Lady Gaga performing songs they wrote for movie soundtracks, and in an instance of nonsensical and blatant pandering, you get David Grohl crooning “Blackbird” during the In Memoriam segment. Honestly, though, who the hell cares? We tune into the Oscars to tune into the movies. Songs and music are a part of the movies, sure, but the Oscars are supposed to be about the actors and actresses, the cinematographers and editors, the writers and directors responsible for making those movies. Musical performances are fine, but that isn’t how we want to interact with our movie stars, and unfortunately there is no way to foster that interaction without relying too much on clip shows. You can’t perform a movie live the way you can perform a song live.
So what’s the solution? Maybe cut down on the number of awards given out during the ceremony itself. In truth, John and Jane Q Viewer don’t know anything about the Best Short Film categories, they couldn’t tell you what Sound Mixing and Sound Editing are (without having presenters explain it to them first), they don’t really have any opinion on the persons behind the camera; they just know about the actors and actresses, and to a lesser extent, the directors. They want to know what the Best Movie Of The Year™ is. I would personally be bummed to see the technical categories relegated to off-screen distribution – in the case of this year’s show, for me it would have meant a massive reduction in fist-pumping moments – but if you want to offset the Oscars’ inherently grindy nature, maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to trim down the total number of awards given on live television***
Whatever the “fix” to the Oscars as a piece of entertainment may be, one thing is clear: it needs to be about the movies. In that regard the reduction in think pieces (which I like to call “essays”) wrapped around outrages both real and perceived is meaningful; there’s less to be mad about after the fact, and in theory that means more opportunity to talk about Spotlight, or Room, or Brie Larson, or Alicia Vikander, or The Revenant, or Fury Road, or Son of Saul, or Inside Out; there’s more chance to mull over Joshua Oppenheimer being robbed yet again for putting himself in literal danger in order to expose genocidal monsters for who they are to the whole world, to discuss the separate yet related subjects of collegiate rape and clerical sexual abuse, to chat about feminism and female narratives. The truth is that none of that ends up happening on a wide cultural basis, which is fine: not everyone is that invested in film as art and as commentary. But even among cinephiles, this kind of dialogue is scant. In part, that’s because critics and film nerd diehards tend not to accept the Academy as a good barometer of quality in filmmaking, though all but the snobbiest snobs are probably satisfied, for the most part, by the way the cards fell this year.
But the absence of real discourse about film in tandem with the Oscars is better explained by the fact that even if there is less to be angry about, there’s plenty to feel abject about. Whatever “wins” you can check off for the future of inclusion in the Academy – both in its voting body and in its voting choices – that future does not undo its present. Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chris Rock tried to make us feel better about the ceremony’s whiteness, either through promises made or through humor (and if the “Asian accountant” bit was kind of horrendous, Rock**** net zeroed by inserting Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey Whoopi Goldberg into scenes from The Danish Girl and Joy), but again: their efforts did not, could not, purge the ceremony of its heterogeneous taint. People aren’t making as many objections to the Academy’s diversity problem now as they were at the time nominees were announced, but that either means we got most of our frustrations out of our system beforehand, or we’re all simply numb to Academy voters’ tendency to embrace sameness – and as long as that is the subject of Oscar confabulation, rather than the films, then the Academy will remain a broken institution that is part of an even more broken system.
*I am also sick to death of Emmanuel Lubezki winning Best Cinematography. This category, as I mentioned last week, was a no-lose category, a category where anyone could win and it would be well-deserved, but it didn’t occur to me at the time of writing that piece that Lubezki has been winning statues for the last three consecutive years. I’m starting to think that Academy voters only accept cinematography as “good” when his name is on it. That’s fine, but look, John Seale came out of fucking retirement to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road. That’s a baller move. Fury Road also looks great. Do the math.
**Or how about A Brighter Summer Day, which is 237 minutes and which you will hear more about from me later this month?
***Admittedly, this solution would have kept Jenny Beavan, Margaret Sixel, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pato Escala Pierart, and Gabriel Osorio Vargas from getting televised attention, which is decidedly not good for diversity.