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Highbrow, lowbrow: The Oscars

The 85th Academy Awards came and went. This year, and the film that gets an extended theatrical release and slight boost in DVD sales because of the prestigious Oscar brand on the cover is Ben Affleck’s Argo. I’m sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ll start by citing the alarming statistics that a survey in…

Brad Mariano is grouchy about the Oscars. Brad Mariano is grouchy about the Oscars.
Brad Mariano is grouchy about the Oscars.
Brad Mariano is grouchy about the Oscars.

The 85th Academy Awards came and went. This year, and the film that gets an extended theatrical release and slight boost in DVD sales because of the prestigious Oscar brand on the cover is Ben Affleck’s Argo. I’m sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ll start by citing the alarming statistics that a survey in the Los Angeles Times brought to light a few years ago. Of the 6000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% are Caucasian and 77% are male. The median age is 62. So essentially an old conservative voter base decides the primary awards for a medium that should be cutting edge by nature. For example, Martin Scorsese was only awarded a major award in 2006, over two decades after he was more culturally relevant and simply better with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Historically the Academy rewards films that are of limited artistic merit (Titanic), are politically and ideologically offensive/naïve (Driving Miss Daisy) or too often, both (Crash, Forrest Gump). In short, no-one was under the illusion that this year’s Best Picture would go to, well, the best picture. Many of the most ambitious artistic achievements were snubbed at the nominations – not just the foreign (Holy Motors) but American as well (The Master).

The Oscars is not about celebrating an artform, but instead is a gathering of Hollywood heavyweights patting themselves on the back, promoting the homogeneity and commerce of mainstream film culture within the parameters of strong internal politics– in other words, the combined antithesis of everything art should aspire to.

To be fair, Argo isn’t terrible. It has skewed history to be favourable to the US but is a competent, well-made thriller. It’s a shame that outside Lincoln it was the only film that really had a shot.

Oscar campaign followers realise that speculation means looking out for the factors which made some awards predictable, despite the absolute lack of transparency in voting (e.g it’s impossible to find out what comes second in any award).

Zero Dark Thirty was a film with Oscar pedigree, but garnered a lot of controversy for its depiction and inferred (by some) approval of torture used in interrogation processes – a taboo that struck a nerve in a country where Dick Cheney’s rhetoric still sits uncomfortably in the public consciousness. This doomed the film from ever having a chance since the eternal debate over aesthetics versus morality in art is not one the Academy wants to engage in.

The Academy promotes the celebration of the status quo of mainstream filmmaking without ruffling any feathers. This isn’t new, mind you – this is the same Academy that let tycoon William Randolph Hearst bully them out of awarding anything to Citizen Kane, the film that shaped the future of cinema.

Amour had the misfortune of being a foreign film; it’s no coincidence that the only foreign film to win the top award was last years The Artist, a film full of nothing but sincere and nostalgic love and adulation for Hollywood. Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained received nods for Best Actress and Original Screenplay, respectively, but auteur projects aren’t generally given the same love as bigger productions.

There are other storylines too, such as this year’s supposed success story of Affleck’s transition from mocked actor to revered director, but at the end of the day, Argo fit the bill. Aesthetically bland but competent, with a slightly patriotic tinge, the film was generally inoffensive but like the last ten winners (with the possible exception of No Country For Old Men) will be forgotten completely when the history of film is written.

As always, this year’s race didn’t provide much excitement or satisfaction but hey, Oscars gonna Oscar – the films and hosts change, but the same inherent problems surface every year, to the point where it becomes worthwhile viewing the whole affair as a perversely cynical and masochistic game of predicting which unremarkable film will win and why.

Well, only a few months ‘til Cannes.

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