I watched the Oscars on Sunday because we all are trying to reengage with our traditions. I suspect you all probably were doing the same thing, so I will avoid most of the obvious… only… Kevin Costner seems in critical need of antidepressants… and Will Smith really needs a vacation (though I’m pretty sure he is not the only person to have been moved to exasperated violence by Chris Rock, just perhaps the first to be caught on live television…). And Lady Gaga was given a shit task and yet performed with grace and aplomb — and such palpable kindness! So she was the highlight of my night.
There weren’t many other reasons to have sat through this, though I did. To begin with, I am not moved by fashion. Mostly I am confused by it. I think we’ve hit the nadir of design that actually makes the human body more elegant than it is without adornment. Maybe in the last century actually. It seems to be about shock and awe these days. And what is more shocking than just wearing your sweat pants? So at least be comfortable if you want to thumb your nose at tradition…
But the Oscars Awards ceremony is about tradition, for movie-making and for movie-watching. Even in my anti-television family, we always spent some night in late winter watching people honor each other over the art that they all made together. When I was a child, it seemed that every person in Hollywood was both capable of winning awards and also capable of delivering beautiful heart-felt thanks — and they all looked magical up there on stage. Even the sound editors!
As I grew older and began to watch with my own children, that became what interested me the most, the acceptance speeches. There were tears and awe-struck memory lapses where the winners probably couldn’t tell you their own name, but there was also eloquence, insight, gentle humor, and real humanity. It was fascinating to hear how a cinematographer or a producer described their role in story-telling, how an actor thought about their art, what a director wanted to see on the screen and how successful they believed they had been in that process. There was also time to talk about movies and art within the context of the real world. Many folks had very interesting opinions and could express them powerfully in a very few minutes. It’s probably not exaggeration to say that some of those speeches changed minds, maybe even behaviors.
But those minutes are gone now. Today, it’s a quick parade of a committee, each clutching notecards so they can quickly blurt out their thanks to those who made their work possible in the approximately 15 seconds between arriving on stage and the ‘moving-on’ music begins to shunt them off. Speeches are allowed only for the principles. Most other workers don’t even get to see their awards presented.
However, there is plenty of time for musical production and advertisement and these strangely stilted presenters and hosts. Aren’t these people supposed to be actors, not just posers? Shouldn’t they be at least capable of improv? Maybe they’re getting too old to read the teleprompter with ease and so spend much of their time squinting at it and trying to keep up with the words.
This year was particularly strange for many reasons. There was more time allotted to the schtick leading up to announcing the names of finalists than there was to actually talking about any part of the movie or the reason we give these awards. I came away from the very long night knowing absolutely nothing about most of the ‘best picture’ nominees. I’m not even sure that there were producer awards. (Did I miss that while going to get the tea kettle on?) The lifetime achievement awards were almost afterthoughts at the end of some very tiresome comedic mess (is it still comedy if it doesn’t end well?…). There was no actual award presented, nor any effort to showcase the recipients, either on stage or in some retrospective montage.
This general lack of substance or reference was paired with the explicitly stated focus on ‘getting back to normal’ after the pandemic, as if that’s the only thing that is bringing down the movie industry. Which, let’s be honest, has been floundering in its own terminal nostalgia for decades now, endlessly churning out repeats of any tired theme (or whole script) that might once again bring in those blockbuster dollars. But if you’re wanting to get back to normal, shouldn’t there be some attempt to showcase normal? There sure didn’t seem to be much effort in that regard.
But then came the the ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ moment. The show’s producers apparently decided Encanto needed two musical productions squeezed into the precious moments between advertisements — one of which, ‘Bruno’, had nothing to do with any award. At first, I figured this was because people can’t seem to get enough of Lin-Manuel Miranda — who couldn’t come to the awards because… his wife has COVID… and yet I don’t think one person actually said this on camera during the awards… (I finally looked it up on my laptop.) And that somewhat critical omission actually made me notice all the rest that was not being said in this Oscars ceremony.
There was no time for polemics in the speeches, of course, but there was also nothing else of the larger world inserted in any part of this production. It’s as if they self-consciously put up ‘Bruno’ as the stand-in for everything from the pandemic to the Ukraine to climate to the general breakdown of the political order — we don’t talk about that. There were a few brief and awkward allusions to women’s rights and Florida and the deplorable lack of parity — still — even in their own industry. But nearly everything from the context of the last couple years was met with radio silence. Which makes it sort of hard to understand why there was any interruption to tradition to be ‘getting back to’.
But this Bruno moment made me notice another subliminal message from the producers… The Oscars is about tradition. There was much talk about getting back to movie traditions, focusing on the traditional central place of movie-making in our culture. In fact, it came across as an almost desperate plea to the world to pay attention to Hollywood again. But what traditions came into focus during the show? As I said there was no actual celebration of achievement nor the art involved in any given award nominee or winner. There was also little focus on what one might expect from a ‘get back to traditions’ theme night — classical film, great moments in both movies and Oscar nights, even traditional design. However, nope. There was very little allusion to the past. Except for those presenter scripts…
Again, I’m sure you noticed that many of these award presentations took up more time than the actual award winners were allotted. And you probably came away feeling, like I did, that much of these presenter skits seemed to be begging for attention for generally forgotten, maybe even B-list, ‘celebrities’ and forgettable films. But what I noticed was the theme behind the careful choice of presenters as well as all those ‘fan favorite’ montages. Of course, most of them were representing some movie made in the recent enough past that the actors were still capable of reading from a teleprompter. Barely. And of course the fan favorites were all pretty much Spiderman… or scenes from similar comic book spin-offs of the very recent past. So there was that temporal limit on focus (which really underlined how little good film has been made in the last many decades or, rather, how little of the good film-making has made any kind of impression on the world, even in Hollywood). But nearly all of the chosen movies were… sort of violent crap… but rather lucrative violent crap.
There was the painfully embarrassing trio from White Men Can’t Jump. Then the bit on Pulp Fiction which seemed to want you to believe that the movie was about dancing. And while Juno was a lovely movie, choosing to include it in this celebration of recent greats without bringing in Elliot Page (you know, Juno?), sort of undermined the theme.
Or maybe not… because the theme really seemed to me to be all the ways in which Hollywood has profited off of, well, exploitation… Or at least violence. I understand that The Godfather is a great work of film. I know that the movie has influenced so much of our culture. But it should be noted that its greatest influence is still felt in the board rooms of the tech giants and private equity corporations that are mining industry and information for personal profits and, in the process, taking apart our entire world — including Hollywood. The Godfather is a metaphor and a justification for taking wealth and power by any means. It might be a great movie, but it’s really not a tradition that I want to celebrate… let alone ‘get back to’.
And this seemed to me to be the message from the night. Let’s get back to making money off of sex and violence. And we’re not talking about all the Brunos that are showing us that the world we used to live in — one in which people paid quite a lot of money to see misogyny and crude gore and rampant racism — is crumbling. We’ll not talk about all the reasons that we won’t be getting back to these sorts of traditions. We won’t talk about Bruno… as all the catastrophic predictions that came from his mouth blow up all around our carefully — if awkwardly — scripted world.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022