Middlebrow Oscar

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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009

The Oscars are ancient history by now in the blogosphere, but I came across this post by Matt Feeney at The American Scene that makes an apt point about “Ocarness” that was absolutely borne out by the by and large predictable outcome.


For a long time, the Oscars have lived within a self-aggrandizing self-contradiction, in which “best” is unofficially hedged up and down with considerations of commercial success and a kind of Oscar-approved moral grandiosity, to the point that nobody thinks the “best” films and performances are actually the best and the whole conversation deteriorates into horse-picking that is implicitly cynical and also besotted with both the celeb-spectacle and the presumption of the awards’ cultural importance. I.e. the awards wouldn’t be so worthy of the emphasis placed upon them if it wasn’t pretended that they award true merit, but if they really did award true merit, they wouldn’t take up the cultural space that they do…. the Oscars routinely reward films that openly game the Oscar logic, and this is now coming back to haunt them. It gives us the prospect of an Oscar show that is fatuous and boring precisely because it is so thoroughly self-referential.


This is why you can generally pick the winners of each award if you haven’t seen the films or even read about them. You just have to put yourself into the Oscarness mind-set and think about what ideological duty the film industry imagines itself as being commissioned to perform. This year, it hoped to send a message about gay marriage and about the significance of India as a country, a 5,000-year-old culture that may as well have begun when Danny Boyle’s plane touched down in Mumbai, for all Hollywood is concerned. 


The Oscars is nothing if not self-referential—just witness all the pointless and near incomprehensible montages of past nominees from last night’s show, and the soporific spectacle of previous winners delivering encomiums to the current nominees. The point is not to honor the year’s best films but to celebrate Oscars themselves as a cultural force. Feeney’s description of the contradiction at the heart of the show is right on as well; it has just enough credibility to not be entirely creditable—it defines the unstable middlebrow culture that has recently vanished from publisher’s lists with the demise of popular literary fiction.


It makes you wonder if the Oscars’ days are numbered. The show felt pretty irrelevant last night, and the employment of a throwback song-and-dance man like Hugh Jackman smacked of a desperate reach for old-time Hollywood glamour from the days when it was still hegemonic. But films seem behind the curve of TV and online media these days; it seems that it arrives late to the zeitgeist, putting out movies, say, about identity theft after the threat already feels stale.


I still make a point of watching the Oscars though, in part because I love the red carpet shows, when extemporizing sycophants collide with often painfully shy nullities and they talk past each other in painful, raw encounters. The celebrities seem so diminished, surrounded by their peers and dwarved by the insane media hoopla, chaotic and annihilating—it’s an almost abject spectacle as the stars re-enter the womb of hype that has made them. I find this weirdly fascinating; all the participants seem on the knife-edge of madness, one banality away from going schizo.


The Oscars also provide a glimpse at a purified secular piety that no one subscribes to personally, but which we all end up willing to entertain as being someone‘s belief system. By virtue of it being a par ethos calculated to be a common denominator for the vast audience the film industry hopes to reach, it takes on a kind of credibility. It’s akin to the cynicism Feeney describes, which leads to our not being at all surprised when inferior, barely watchable films like Crash and A Beautiful Mind are called the “best.” Few think these films are the best films, but we accept somehow that society needs to call them as such, for obscure ideological reasons that we’d prefer not to investigate all that deeply. Instead it’s just vaguely reassuring to know that the highest echelon of the film industry is so fatuous, and takes its mediocrity so seriously, that it can’t ever really endanger the public psyche with anything truly upsetting or challenging in its entertainments. We aren’t missing anything epoch-making there; the revolution will not be showing in your local cineplex.

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