EVERYONE HAS THEIR wakeup moment about the Academy Awards: A moment when you put away childish belief and realize it’s not at all about art but about popularity (as Sally Field once indicated and then got lambasted for her clarity). Mine happened back in 1977 when Rocky won Best Picture and Taxi Driver did not. No plainer illustration of art vs. commerce is imaginable, but the reality has been blurred ever since.
Today’s completely uncritical promotion of the Academy Awards in the mainstream media makes it unlikely that moviegoers will ever entertain a skeptical thought. Most media outlets treat the Oscars with nearly patriotic fervor—as the issue most important to all Americans, with Obamacare perhaps coming in second place.
This Oscar hegemony barely disguises the depressing change in media habit where journalism and entertainment have merged. Imagine some media conglomerate drumming Oscar mania into its readership the way stern schoolteachers used to teach multiplication tables. Imagine a periodical called Oscars Weekly that drilled mindless competition and narcissism instead of art analysis and human sensitivity by ceaselessly, throughout the year, keeping a running tally of movies as potential winners of Academy Award nominations or the statue itself. It wouldn’t be far from the insanity that Oscar talk journalists already indulge and that reaches psychotic pitch during what’s loopily known as “awards season.”
Old-time cynics used to say that the Oscars were simply Hollywood’s way of congratulating itself, using the awards to gain box-office attention for the industry’s product. Now, no media pundit would dare admit that promoting Oscars proves how journalism has capitulated to the film industry. None have criticized the Academy’s new accounting methods that nullify its own credibility.The Awards are turned into the pinhead’s Super Bowl simply in order to sell more product—to keep the wheels of media capitalism turning. Sometimes those wheels roll right over good sense. For example: flattening Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker into media fodder.
Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t need to win an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, she already received more important—and lasting tribute—in the best British comedy of the past decade: Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. Wright paid homage to that beautifully complex moment in Bigelow’s 1991 surfer-cop movie Point Break (the film where film-student Bigelow admitted she couldn’t match John Boorman’s Point Blank but still felt inspired by it). It’s the retarded ejaculation where Nick Frost fires his pistol into the air, replicating how in Point Break undercover cop Keanu Reeves—the best American actor critics ever trashed—discharges his pistol away from the bandit in the Ronald Reagan mask.Wright recognized the wit and seriousness in Bigelow’s action-movie narrative. It was a more politically brilliant moment than any in The Hurt Locker because it went deeper, divulging Americans’ ambivalence about their leaders and took it all the way back to Freud:We still can’t kill our fathers. Like it or not,We Are Them. This goes beyond the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war sentiments that fuel over-praise for The Hurt Locker.
Critics ridiculed Point Break when it was first released but, since then, Bigelow’s visual splendor and genre proficiency has won enough regard that she now receives retroactive esteem for The Hurt Locker, the Iraq War action film that critic Gregory Solman nailed as “totally unexceptional.” It is worst than inexact when critics call it “One of the best war films ever made.” Any appreciation of Bigelow’s artistic ambitions and psychosexual, gender-bending sensibility forces one to understand that The Hurt Locker is not a war film but another of her explorations into the masculine thrill complex. It is disingenuous to use The Hurt Locker as an opportunity to comment upon the Iraq War—hijacking its dubious treatment on combat as a mental dysfunction (“War is a Drug”) beyond Bigelow’s deliberately noncommittal stance.
This misreading of The Hurt Locker has gotten twisted-up in the mainstream media’s Oscar hoopla. Bigelow’s unexceptional film has gotten her heroized as an exceptional American female filmmaker through way-late feminism. The Hurt Locker lets the liberal media have both its Iraq War statement and female tokenism. Movies as art, or entertainment—and as a reflection of our culture’s spirit and politics—have been left out of the discussion.
Problem is, nobody talks about the movies anymore. Debasing film culture into a race between nominees ignores whatever pleasure or aggravation works of art—or works of entertainment—can provide. (This year’s jacked-up “competition” between ex-husband and wife James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow for their films Avatar and The Hurt Locker is particularly egregious.) Media has irresponsibly made it acceptable to ignore the content of films by focusing on how they perform in some netherworld of notoriety and celebrity. Never mind that Inglourious Basterds disgraces the Holocaust or that Precious disgraces black folks: THEY MADE IT TO THE OSCARS!
Bigelow’s unexceptional film has gotten her heroized as an exceptional
American female filmmaker through way-late feminism. The Hurt Locker
lets the liberal media have both its Iraq War statement and female
In the real world, this prize-giving does not matter; people lose jobs or worry about health insurance. But in the craven, closed societies of media privilege, well-heeled journalists tout the Academy Awards as if they matter.They know the only way to ensure that the public stays culturally illiterate, intellectually docile and aesthetically numb is to promulgate the habit of ignoring films as political or moral expressions. Oscar hoodwinking traps readers and viewers in nonsense and trivia—what Bob Dylan once ridiculed as “the world of entertainment,” before turning up to accept his own statuette (for an undistinguished track in Curtis Hanson’s drab and dishonest Wonder Boys).
Fewer people will enjoy a moment of awakening when the entirety of the media landscape is swamped with Oscar signposts and bunting. The New York Times has validated this journalistic decline by making Oscar gossip a standard part of its arts pages.Thus, gossip becomes journalism, the same way the Times sanctioned the reporting of weekend box office totals as an official and equivalent example of cultural response. Oscar punditry has become a branch of journalism—no longer on a par with criticism, it has taken the place of criticism.
And yearly, this insanity turns the public into suckers, subject to the whims of how publicity mavens who decide which millionaire client will command popular attention. Oscared films become important for no second longer than the exploitable moment. Movies released during award season for the awards crush don’t even have time to enter the culture, and we forsake our cultural right to claim—and acclaim—what is meaningful to us spiritually or aesthetically by following this whole rigged process.
Think about it: Does anyone care anymore about The English Patient? Shakespeare in Love? American Beauty? Chicago? A Beautiful Mind? Million Dollar Baby? Slumdog Millionaire? None of these films are artistic landmarks.They didn’t mean much even while watching them. But the further you get away from the first impression or from the marketing, they mean nothing.They’re just… Oscar winners.
Before the moment of awakening, the fallacy existed that the Academy Awards ratified the progression of popular culture: Audiences once were truly moved by Gone With the Wind, On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather. Genuine cultural impact means nothing to the pundits and gossip columnists running the Oscar crap game because they can’t control it.They are not in command of the ecstasy afforded by E.T., the insight granted by Saving Private Ryan or the gratitude audiences felt from Michael Jackson’s This Is It. If these media manipulators cannot control our affective responses, they disdain and seek to robotize them. All this might seem trivial, but don’t think it’s harmless. It really does come down to a form of political influence and cultural domination. Oscar media stinks because it doesn’t let us think for ourselves.