Monday, January 18, 2016

On the Oscars

I can begin with stating the obvious without being too smug about it: The lily-white Oscars are not the biggest problem facing people of color.  Still, I think about movies for a living, and I do so because I think they are important on some level, though I don't know which level that would be, and I might as well say one or two things about the Oscars.

Let's begin by saying that the Academy is bullshit and has always been bullshit.  It's gotten far more wrong than right, and the definition of "right" is crazy to begin with.  For every Daniel Day-Lewis honor there have been at least five Sandra Bullocks, who won for her role as obnoxious Southern racist-not-racist in Gone With the Birth of a Blind Side.  With very very very few exceptions (Midnight Cowboy), the Oscars don't nominate difficult movies, like Pink Flamingos, Killer of Sheep and Stranger Than Paradise.  The Academy's favorite Holocaust movie has a happy ending.  The Academy considers humanitarian behavior an important part of what it means to be part of the industry, and yet it still managed to give a Best Director Oscar to a child rapist.  

Most Oscar winners are boring.  Did you see Jamie Foxx in Ray 12 years ago?  Do you have any desire to see it again?  If you were putting together a quick list of fun movies for your friend would you put on Ray?  If you wanted to give your friend a list of good music movies would you have him watch Ray?  No.  The answer is no.  You would not, because Ray sucked and everyone knows Ray sucked, but Jamie Foxx did a pretty gosh darn good impression of Ray and so he won, but even his gosh darn good impression of Ray wasn't good enough to hold anyone's attention for that long.  This was a movie about one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century but we somehow got a lameass drug-addiction redemption story.  How about Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line?  No.  They both got awards for what old rich people in LA think is great about acting, namely good mimetic impressions of famous people that lack any internality, and not what anyone actually looks for in a great performance.  Yes, I know that it's not a movie, but David Bowie's last music video features him in old age, dying of cancer, putting his hand on his hip and sashaying like a drag queen while reminiscing about once being a "king" in New York.  Those two seconds of screen time that I watched on YouTube last week was more interesting than anything - ANYTHING - Jamie Foxx did in Ray or Reese Witherspoon did in Walk the Line.

The Academy does not stand for excellence.  It stands for making money in an industry that is designed to make money.  If they give an award to a high-art movie, or a movie with high-art pretensions that didn't make money, it's only because they need the lie that the organization is about art, so that you will watch the Oscars, and consider all the terrible movies it nominates great art and that you will watch those movies.  

There are great movies made every year, from all around the world.  Some of these are animated features, some are documentaries, which tend not to get nominated for Best Picture.  My favorite comedy of the last 15 years was 12:08 East of Bucharest, which was made for under 200,000 dollars and came out of Romania.  Am I being a snob for telling you to watch a low-budget Romanian comedy instead of The Danish Girl, which I haven't seen but probably sucks?  Maybe.  But in the Netflix era, in which all movies are easily and cheaply available to you, there is no excuse for not challenging yourself.  If six months from now, you want to watch The Danish Girl -- which again, probably sucks, but which I admit I don't know because I haven't seen it, although yet again, I'm pretty sure it sucks  -- instead of 12:08 East of Bucharest, then you are making a decision not to challenge yourself with an interesting, brilliant, hilarious film from a country you don't know that much about, and instead watch something a large group of old people in LA has decided is good because it's 2016 and we have to pretend that we aren't all a bunch of transphobic jerks anymore.  You are choosing to be bored. 

The Oscars are based on publicity campaigns that ape any presidential election, although the attack ads are more subtle.  The Oscars make you care about the feelings of rich people who don't care about you.  The Oscars make an argument for the American meritocracy, but are themselves the embodiment of "the-fix-is-in" capitalism.

The Oscars are boring as hell to watch, which is amazing for an industry that prides itself on entertaining people.

So when you are angry about the lack of people of color at the Academy Awards, you are angry that there aren't as many black people being honored for being part of mediocre garbage as white people.  You are angry that we didn't have anyone this year like Jamie Foxx who won an award for doing an excellent impression that didn't actually do all that much for you in a mediocre movie you (probably) didn't like that much.

There's the old saw that Jim Crow-gave-us-the-blues.  In other words, oppression and marginalization force groups to develop extraordinary cultural products outside the constraints of capitalism.  There're a lot of problems with that concept, but I think we can agree that there's something to that.  The problem, I acknowledge, is that movies cost a lot of money, so it's very hard for marginalized groups to make movies with budgets of even relatively small sizes by Hollywood standards, say $10 million.  And I acknowledge that there are amazing movies that were made because they had enormous budgets.  I get that.  I get all that.  But at this point, the best reaction to the Oscars is to ignore them, listen to people like me who tell you to watch something weird, wonderful, new, and that wasn't made for a lot of money, and to support filmmakers from marginalized groups who want to make movies.  Let's have more transgendered cowboys in black-and-white movies.  Yes, most of those movies suck too, but the best of them are wonderful.  Yes, I'm a goddamn snob, but capitalism has failed culture.

Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have decided to boycott the Oscars this year.  The truth is any white actor with self-respect should boycott them too, not just for the Academy and Hollywood's racism, but because the Oscars have proven again and again and again, that they can't properly judge whether or not a work is important, interesting or lasting.

Now, go read an essay bout lead poisoning in Flint's tap water.

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