Dig Those Oscars
If you are planning to sit through the Oscars tonight, here are some comments based on last year's festivities.
People who love music hate medleys. And people who love movies hate those “Celebrate the Movies” clip reels shown on cable TV to promote movie channels, and in theaters to promote movie-going. Watching the 77th Academy Awards, I really hated the opening clip reel, put there by the movie industry to remind me how much I love movies. Even the most willing cow needs an occasional rest from the milking machine.
If the members of the Academy had wanted to attract more viewers, then perhaps they should not have been so timid about including the two most controversial films of 2004, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. The Passion, which received but did not win three nominations (Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup), deserved one for Best Picture and Best Director. And Fahrenheit, which received no nominations, deserved one for Best Documentary, a category in which fairness and accuracy have never been among the criteria.
Without re-masticating the well masticated debates over these films, I will simply note that both sold a lot of tickets to people who do not ordinarily go to the movies. So if they had not been airbrushed out of the proceedings, then perhaps all those one-time ticket buyers would have tuned in, boosting the ratings and saving us from that tacky clip reel.
It was, of course, entirely appropriate that the clip reel rolled across the ceiling of the Kodak Theater before and after each commercial break. For this is what movies are rapidly becoming: commercials for themselves. Instead of drama, comedy, suspense, or any other recognizable genre, the standard-issue Hollywood flick is now a pastiche of attention-grabbing moments meant to thrill, tickle, tease, and titillate audiences too immature or distracted to care how, or whether, they all fit together. Like music videos, these messes only reinforce the mini-attention span of the average popcorn buyer. Usually they don't survive to a second weekend, but that doesn't really matter. The industry is now structured so that one weekend of suckers is usually enough.
Which returns me to the Oscars. Given the tone of most releases these days, Chris Rock was the perfect MC. His opening monologue was painfully convoluted, making sense only as an attempt to offend the right people (notably President Bush) without offending the wrong people (notably the millions who voted for Bush but might also shell out nine bucks to see Chris Rock movie).
Jon Stewart will probably do better at hitting the Zeitgeist between the eyes. But even more than Rock, he is going to have a major problem cutting through his own thick carapace of irony. Maybe he won't have to; maybe the good people writing his material will drop all pretense that this is a ceremony of artistry, excellence, and achievement (including lifetime achievement). But that would be a mistake, for no other reason than it would lose audience share.
Consider: most movie fans look at the Academy Awards the way the two children in the urban folktale look at the room full of pony manure. Either they can turn away, disgusted by all that you-know-what, or they can start digging, inspired by the idea that there must be a pony in there somewhere. The latter approach is worth keeping, even when the irony mounts to the ad-buzzing ceiling, because somehow this industry keeps turning out a couple of good films a year. Of course, if Munich wins Best Picture, I will be tempted to lay down my shovel.