From 1994 to 2004, I watched the Oscars. Religiously, reverently. In college I’d organize viewing parties and low-stakes betting pools. Once, in 1996, I even interrupted a family vacation to return to the hotel in time for the evening’s telecast. Pulp Fiction won Best Screenplay, but lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump, teaching me to which category to really pay attention to in the coming years.
And then Crash won in 2004 and I realized my film taste ran counter to the Academy’s. Of course, I’d deviated from their picks in the past, but never so decisively. Crash is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, a condescending back-patting by a whitewashed Hollywood crew about what life must be like for all those impoverished “others” down in the valley. (Manolha Dargis beautifully explains the political forces behind its critical laurels.)
For the past eight years I’ve watched the awards as you might skim high school friends’ Facebook posts: intermittently, with a modicum of interest, and without consequence.
I’m thrilled The Artist is a front-runner for Best Picture, as it’s a genuinely great and imaginative film. But that’s one minute of television during a three-hour shitshow hosted by Billy Crystal. I love City Slickers as much as the next guy – moreso, in fact, as I can quote about half the film from memory – but choosing Crystal as host neuters the endeavor. Unless the audience is overwhelmingly septuagenarian, in which case, why air it alongside “60 Minutes”?
In other words, what could I gain from watching the Oscars that I wouldn’t glean from reading a list of the winners tomorrow morning? Especially as the Academy works to disqualify more and more of critics’ favorites. First, Carlos wasn’t eligible for Best Foreign Language Film because portions had aired on French TV. The larger irony here is the ambition of Olivier Assayas’ four-hour biopic could only be financed by those familiar with the longer format (TV executives), which then met universal acclaim from film festivals and silver screen distribution in the U.S.
Sure, IFC aired it as well, but that speaks much more to the changing revenue streams and audience fragmentation of the entire industry. In a way, the film’s success precluded its Oscar chances. Whereas under the old media paradigm, Titanic‘s Oscars acted as an industry referendum of and tribute to its record-breaking financial windfall.
In a related example, Sasha Frere-Jones notes how Cliff Martinez’s score for Drive has been rendered inelegible because he’d opted to share credit with his musicians. Why? So they could get paid for their work. If Martinez had taken full credit and screwed his colleagues, he’d surely win the Oscar. He’s already won a suite of accolades from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the International Film Critics Association. (See Frere-Jones’s piece.) And it was only a couple years ago the Academy rewarded another moody, industrial score: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work for The Social Network.
Admittedly these are just two examples. And the awards can’t be all things to all people, nor should it be. But its flailing about for relevance betrays its roots in the monoculture. We’ve seen other institutions transition into the 21st century without sacrificing their core values. (I would argue Saturday Night Live and NPR as two examples.)
…So why watch the Oscars? Well, you shouldn’t. At least not directly. I plan on taking the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 approach, frequently checking A.O. Scott and David Carr’s commentary.