Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sunday Best: Oscars Are Irrelevant

 I love the Oscars.

Growing up I would stay up all night to see who would win in the big categories.  For someone who loved movies, this was my Super Bowl.  There was excitement, competition, upsets, drama... the works.

For one reason or another, the Oscars was supposed to be the night where those who had achieved excellence in the field of movie-making would be honored.  However, I doubt that anyone looking back on the last 10 years could make that claim.

Instead, the Academy voters chose movies that had buzz or were edgy rather than looking at actual artistic merit.  Feel free to disagree with me, but I saw The Shape of Water.  There is nothing in that movie that would ever make me think that it was worthy of a Best Picture Oscar.  The only thing that seemed to be in place was that it was thematically in line with the world-view of those working in the film industry.  But best picture?

I have often stated on this blog that I tend to dislike Christian movies.  As a devout Catholic, these movies often are perfectly in line with my world-view and values.  But for the most part, I can evaluate them on artistic merit.  And yet Hollywood cannot seem to do the same.  I maintain that one of the greatest comic books ever written was Watchmen, even though its central philosophy is absolutely opposed to what I believe.  But Watchmen is not a propaganda piece focused on changing your world-view.  It is a piece of art that challenges you to think differently.  Ultimately I reject the world-view it shows, but I cannot deny its artistic merit.  I can say the same thing about a film like Apocalypse Now, which seems to say that the root of the human soul is horror.  But the movie still deserves all the accolades for its artistic merit.

Recently, the Motion Picture Academy set out a set of criteria that movies will have to meet if they wish to qualify for a Best Picture nomination.  I have looked at the criteria and there is nothing terribly shocking about it.  I have read many people upset because none of the new criteria have anything to do with artistic merit.  I'm not very shocked, because the Motion Picture Academy is merely codifying what it was already doing culturally: rewarding films for having the approved world-view.

The best movie from last year that I saw was Joker.  It was a film that raised a lot of interesting and disturbing questions without giving very clear answers.  In other words it made you think and let you draw your own conclusions.  I actually don't know if I agreed or disagreed with its world-view, but I recognize the mastery that it took to make it and I appreciate that it lets its audience be active engagers instead of passive recipients in the theme.

I have no problem with the Academy imposing technical restrictions on a film.  They already do.  Movies need to be at least a certain length and (at least pre-COVID) have a limited theatrical run.  But as I said, the criteria are not technical, nor artistic, they are cultural.   This has nothing to do with whether the criteria is a social positive.  Even though I am a Christian, I would be opposed if the Academy stated that a certain percentage of those involved in the production had to be Christian and in order to qualify for Best Picture.  The point is that art should be judged on its artistic merits.  That doesn't mean that themes don't have a place in these artistic judgments, but that theme is one aspect of art, not its only aspect.  And while the cultural condition in which a piece of art arises is important, it is different than the art that these conditions produced.

But the Academy disagrees.  Instead, in a few years, you will have a Best Picture that was chosen first for its non-technical, non-artistic qualities before other considerations.  As I said, it seems like the Academy has already been doing this in practice, which is how we get Best Pictures that are as irrelevant as they are forgettable like The Shape of Water and The Artist.

The Academy Awards have already slipped into cultural irrelevance.  To give you an idea of how out of touch the Oscars are, the combined domestic box office of the last SIX Best Picture winners (Parasite, The Green Book, The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Spotlight, and Birdman) is less than the domestic box office of Joker.  And while box office does not equal artistic merit, it is a good indicator of how much of an impact you have on the culture.

Will I keep watching the Oscars?

I suppose I will.  But as a ceremony awards excellence and crowns future classics, it has never been more irrelevant.

My advice?  Do what I have been doing for the past few years: make your own awards list and share it with others.  You may take a lot of flack and get into a great deal of debate.  But it will be a lot more fun than watching the Oscars.

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