Smoke and Mirrors (…but mostly, mirrors)

DISCLAIMER GOING IN: If you, Academy, ever wanted to nominate me for an Oscar – or any other kind of performing/writing award presented before a glittery cabal of famous faces on live television, I would absolutely accept it and disown this piece by doing. Hypocrisy, go.

The Movies last, they have lasted.

The Movies have proved engines for small girls in the Mid-Atlantic who dream of one day becoming BIG STARS…and maybe more importantly, The Movies often bring to the national conversation important sociopolitical ideas. The Movies have told us before what love ought to look like, what violence does look like, what happened or might have happened at x and x point in history. At the very beginning of Movies we learned how to think about story in a visual way that few mountain-dwellers alive can no longer not-imagine the privilege of. Plus, the movies are fun! They’re our communal cultural background! In just two weekends, Marvel’s The Avengers made one billion dollars in theatres because so many people wanted to spend their Friday night the same way. It’s not too dramatic (which would be apropos, anyways) to say that The Movies in America are a huge part of being alive and moving around in America – regardless of whether or not you particularly see and enjoy a lot of them.

Yet the Oscars (ceremony and season) are meaningful only to the extent that they celebrate or draw attention to the movies, and by proxy the cultural interests and arguments present in a year’s worth of popular art. The Oscars are only an evening, let us not forget (looking at you, blogosphere). Yet Hattie McDaniel winning Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind is a moment that continues to mean something because it really meant something for a symbolic “white America” to give a black woman a gold statue for anything in 1940. And then, okay, moving into this century: Octavia Spencer, Halle Berry, Dustin Lance Black, Jodie Foster…these win moments are of bona fide historical importance because they echo back to us, as a culture, just how rare it is for marginalized groups of people to be celebrated in this country. Still. Or for marginalized stories to be told at all…Still.

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courtesy of classiccinemagold.com

Yet I watched the Oscars last night. Okay, I watched half of the Oscars at St. Dymphna’s and then read a lot of after-the-fact coverage online this morning. I tried to think about the Oscars from that now faraway place of the starry-eyed kid/ superstar wannabe in the mid-Atlantic, staying up late to countdown to that final announcement, whispering my own ‘Best Actress’ drafted acceptance speech to the walls of my parents’ empty living room (did I never tell you I was super cool when I was eleven??). But this morning, after the 85th annual Academy Awards, I started thinking about The Movies versus The Oscars. I have accordingly deduced that there is a huge crevasse between these two worlds, as we the laymen perceive them. The Movies can be different kinds of good for us. Like vegetables (Hotel Rwanda…) or ice cream (When Harry Met Sally, Spiderman…). The Oscars…well, of the Oscars I begin to think, not so. The Academy Awards, they contain a little poison.

It’s about to get pretty Pinko-Commie in here, fasten your seatbelts.

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image courtesy of insidemovies.ew.com

I will make another disclaimer before I really rabble-rouse: I don’t mean to say that the Oscars themselves are non-meaningful. People should receive credit for work well done that spoke to a large audience. I have no doubt that moviemaking is difficult work; Christoph Waltz should have weekly parades in his honor. But a celebration of unusual talent is no longer the meat of this event, if it ever was. Mostly – perhaps you picked up on this, too – the Oscars are a masturbatorium. They are a fabulous party for fabulous people that we the laymen are not invited to. A fabulous party at a fabulous place celebrating excellence amongst the excellent, the rich, the beautiful, the very, very lucky. It’s not even like politics because we didn’t get to vote — this pageant is so beyond the daily experience of being a person that it’s hard to put into words why so many Americans watch. The Oscars are not self-aware, like the Golden Globes, where all attendants are visibly buzzed half an hour in. The Grammy’s are pure spectacle and only musical theatre kids care about the Tony’s. Yet we the people in all our moviegoing sense are somehow expected to believe that the Oscars are the most serious and special of the awards for this serious and special medium. Yet, the night itself is largely ridiculous. Why do we care?

So going back to Hattie McD and some of those Important acceptance speeches you’ll recall if you’re anything of a movie buff…yes, the Oscars have elements of historical importance. And the movies they celebrate certainly do. Take this year’s assortment of Best Picture nominees: Django Unchained is a repurposed vision of American slavery in the service of a revenge narrative. Argo is an arguably topical meditation on the Iranian Hostage Crisis. It’s nice that people are still being made to think about these things, whatever your opinion about Mr. Tarantino’s use of the N-word (calm down and put it in context) or Mr. Affleck’s action-izing of the last scene in Argo (ditto). The New York Times had some interesting commentary the other day about a movie’s responsibility to its audience when it draws source material from history. Yet the historical ambition of these movies is so starkly at odds with the pageantry of the Oscars, which is pretty unsavory in a certain light. Let’s take our host.

Now, Seth MacFarlane is not the first Oscar host to be unfunny. At the end of the evening, he himself was guilty of nothing but a semi-bomb of a three hour stand up set. But in the larger scheme of things, he was the first host in the past few years to bring a retro tint to this highly viewed ceremony in a most misguided sense. I’m not talking about the cheeky musical numbers (which I personally enjoyed) but rather those first-grab offensive jokes that were only so unfunny because they were so 1970. The Latina remark, the Women remarks, the Jewish remarks…what Family Guy has never understood is that offensive material doesn’t get sluiced past as a cultural error once it is pointed out and underlined; it takes a little more panache than mere reference to make a solidly subversive joke. Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic put this point nicely. Take Mr. MacFarlane’s Captain Kirk bit (and I’m a Trekkie!) – did that not smack of the most dated kind of straight-white-male humor? This year’s Oscar host reminded me – and various other incensed female journalists – that Hollywood remains a boy’s club at heart. This very ceremony was billed as “something the guys can enjoy.” Now I understand the marketing angle, but there isn’t a whole lot of popular TV that wasn’t explicitly designed for the “guys to enjoy.” Being a straight white guy comedian in America has somehow become so passe it’s retro-cool again? Um, I must have missed that memo.

So the Oscars have reminded me that Hollywood can be a dated place. Not a huge surprise, when one thinks about certain standards the movies are held to that don’t apply to all mediums. For one, there is the fact of the broad appeal – Hollywood movies can’t get too bizarre-o if they want to sell tickets. There’s also the fact that it takes much longer to make a movie, than, say, a TV show – it’s no coincidence that the allegedly hot-button issues depicted in the Best Picture nominees are more pertinent to newspaper headlines two years ago than ones today. And television being more immediate and forgettable and HBO not being television at all, there are all these envelope-pushers in the visual media today who are not a part of moviemaking. The Tina Fey’s and Amy Poehler’s and Lena Dunham’s and Mindy Kaling’s and Elizabeth Meriwether’s (or, you know, just those specific women) arrive to me in half hour packages in regular, weekly doses. They’re exciting cultural memos because they’re funny women literally changing the face of American humor as we watch. Quentin Tarantino is an envelope-pusher, in the most blatant sense of the term – but he’s also a straight white guy with familiar attitudes and hang-ups re: violence and sex. I don’t mean to write him off, as I think he’s pretty stellar – he also doesn’t quite fall into my rather messy comparison – but this discrepancy is something to notice. Then there’s also the glaring fact that 77% of the Academy Award voters are men. Maybe we’re in a time warp.

To get out of my Betty Friedan chair, another thing worth considering about the Oscars is what all the after-the-fact coverage says about what American readers and thinkers and watchers care about. The Onion got a lot of flack for a gaff of a joke they made on Twitter concerning our young Quvenzhane Wallis. Now while I can imagine just who of my acquaintances might have made this kind of joke at a specific Oscars party I could have gone to (I don’t like this person, mind) – the HUGE backlash is very telling. I myself would like to hug my girl Q if she was at all wounded by this remark, but the point of it was not its offensiveness. At the end of the day, The Onion made a stupid joke that might otherwise have gone ignored – only this joke concerned the OSCARS, and the OSCARS are about pageant over content, all the time. It’s not about jokes. That unthinking Twitterer betrayed a lack of awareness as to what this ceremony means to people – granted, a largely wealthy upper crust of people – in crossing that invisible line of self-deprecation. See, because it wasn’t SELF-deprecation at all; we lowly watchers aren’t quite allowed to mock them. CAN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING? No. No, you cannot. The Oscars are at heart about making an evening go smoothly for a bunch of celebrities. This is why no one ever likes the Oscar host unless it’s Billy Crystal. Only so much witless mockery will do.

I will say that that Onion writer in specific should eat his/her hat because if there was any unusual, attention-worthy dark horse element at these year’s awards, it was Beasts of the Southern Wild and this movie’s non-actor nine year old black girl star. She’s entirely not of the engine I here villify (wordy mcwordy pants…) But then, remember! We didn’t get a vote! It’s not about us, it’s not about the movie, it’s not about New Orleans, it’s none of it the point. Maybe this would be a different kind of rant if Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t won Best Actress for a romantic-comedy. And hey, I like her as much as the next set of stairs. Bada-WOMP WOMP WOMP.

…Diving into the rest of next-day editorials: the tone of all the coverage was so very barrel-scraping. Simon Doonan put up a piece on Slate today that quite literally had NOTHING TO SAY about this year’s gowns, despite the click-securing headline, “THE WORST YEAR EVER FOR OSCAR FASIONS?” Doonan called the dresses “so stunningly conventional” that he found it “virtually impossible to think of anything to say about them.” And then he wrote an article on Oscar fashions, in which he tried his best.

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image courtesy of extratv.com (don’t we kind of like J-Law’s?)

Other writers – TOTALLY NOT ME INCLUDED – used the ceremony as a springboard for feminist rants. See Margaret Lyons’ on The Vulture. Linda Holmes at NPR wrote of MacFarlane, “his sexist jokes were in poor taste, sure, but if they’d been funny, nobody would have cared. People are forgiving when your women-are-crazy material is funny; they’re not so forgiving when it’s dull.” Andy Samberg and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman applauded MacFarlane for doing his best with a difficult job, also not news…it all pointed to assignment. Now I know how journalism works, I know these stories absolutely were assignments, but the tone of coverage suggests that there might not, in fact, have been anything really interesting to say about the Oscars. Maybe the Oscars…go with me….are not, in fact, really interesting. Yet we talk about them. Are expected to. On the front page! WHY SO SERIOUS?

The French Revolution is an interesting and meaningful story, and the music of Les Miserables is enough to make me weep on a train. Anne Hathaway, you have made me cry. Congratulations. Mr. Tarantino, you have often made me think. Viola Davis (pulling for you, lady!) and Octavia Spencer and Halle Berry, you have granted me-Brittany- the-blacktress the coolest kind of hope. I have a movie still tattoo on my foot. You can’t say I don’t love the movies. Presumably, I will be thinking about the movies until I no longer have a foot.

Plus sometimes, when my roommate isn’t home, I stand in the hallway and thank the Academy for recognizing all those years of New York toil I haven’t yet seen through. I imagine my jaw-dropping dress, and what Simon Doonan will say about it, and I picture graciously thanking my fellow nominees. I dream of schmoozing with JLaw and G-Cloon and L-Di-Cap, sure I do. I will likely keep dreaming this dream. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge flaw in my dream, of time gone by (…too much?). Unmitigated celebration by your peers is probably as lovely as it seems, but it gets harder to stomach the longer I live in a real world less glittery than either my parent’s living room or the Kodak theatre. And heck, maybe I am taking the Oscars — which are only an evening — a little too seriously…but then again, aren’t our stars? Aren’t you?

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