erasing clouds

Thinking About the Movies: The Oscars

by dave heaton

The Academy Awards are complete nonsense. Few good films ever get recognized, and no really adventurous filmmaking every wins anything. With its "each country picks it's a safe, congenial film" nominating process, the foreign films category is a joke, in no way about celebrating what world cinema has to offer. And the whole affair is mostly about surfaces and self-congratulation. So why do I love watching them so much?

I hold in my hands a heavy coffee table book called The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar, by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza, essentially a chronological look at the awards: who won what, what the fashion look was like, what important films got left out. The films that fill that last category ("Sins of Omission") should easily convince anyone who isn't already aware of how ridiculously out of touch the Academy Awards are, and have always been…to name just a few of the movies the book offers as non-winners of Best Picture: Modern Times, Sullivan's Travels, Out of the Past, Singin' In the Rain, and Vertigo. And of course in that list the authors are pretty much just considering movies that were likely to have won, leaving out the wider realm of edgier films. But yet looking through the book and its images from films that won, you still get a sense that to some extent the Oscars do celebrate the power of the image, what movies do to people. And that's worthwhile, even though the notion that Braveheart and Forest Gump represent the best that Hollywood has to offer makes me sick.

It has to be said that as ridiculous as our culture's celebrity obsession is, there is something enticing about watching good-looking people parade in the fanciest of clothes, whether your kicks come from the glamour of it all or from making fun of how someone could spend so much money on looking so silly. And I do find a certain joy in the horse-race qualities of the awards, in seeing whether the predictions come true and all of that, even though the entertainment media have become truly out-of-control in that regard, with so many would-be experts essentially re-stating the same tired opinions, not to mention acting like the Oscars is a scientific judgment of the best in cinema (how tiring is it to hear critics, in early spring even, make as the highest praise they can offer a movie the wish that it is "remembered at Oscar time"?).

Neither the fashion nor the predictions have much do with movies, though. And I'm not sure that the Oscars have much to do with movies, either, though there's always a moment when they feel like they do - when someone whose acting you respected and admired wins the award and seems genuinely excited about it, or when they have a montage of scenes from the movies that works to showcase why you love watching movies so much - even if it just captures the surface-level thrill that you feel from sitting in the dark and watching something on a big screen, that still can be something worth celebrating. Ultimately, though, for me it mostly comes down to having a yearly ritual that's celebrating something I really care about (as opposed to, say, the Super Bowl). Even if 99% of the time the awards miss the mark, that act of celebrating fills some basic human need - whether it's the need to rejoice or the need to have a decently pleasant diversion, I'm not sure, but The Oscars do something for me.

Issue 20, February 2004

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