Featured: Top of Home Page

Middlebrow Oscar

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.