Monday, February 23, 2015

The Academy Awards

Awards shows can tell us a lot about ourselves, which is why I insist on watching them, even when I haven't consumed much of the entertainment content being awarded. Last night was a case in point: I think I've seen about four films in the past year, only two of which were up for awards. I was pretty bored for most of the Academy Awards ceremony, and some of my ennui certainly had to do with my lack of connection to the films themselves. But my lack of enthusiasm was not entirely due to the fact that I don't go to the movies much of late. Nor was it entirely due to the thudding predictability that plagues such ceremonies at this point.

No, what bored me--what bores me in general--is how rooted our entertainment industries are in routine, and how truly resistant they seem to real, actual, honest change.

I don't mean to imply, here, that films themselves can't reflect life in interesting and important ways. Nor do I mean to imply that people who make movies can't do so with insight, intelligence, and the real desire to teach, reach, inspire, and impel. I'm not saying that at all. We are a country that makes great movies (and also plenty of really shitty ones). That's a good thing. But the disconnect between what is made and what is lauded by the industry that makes it riles me, and I found myself especially riled by last night's flat, strange, strained charade.

Before the televised borefest, NPH was heralded as the savior of the proceedings, but his failure to really shine--as he has just about everywhere else he's shown up, ever--says more to me about the structure of the ceremony, and its deeply-rooted habits, than it does about him, or any other host. As an industry, Hollywood seems so protected, so eager to sell itself without examining itself; so totally backassward. I am sure Neil Patrick Harris was not as free as he has been in other situations to exercise his particular sweet-and-cute-until-he's-nasty-and-even-insane persona. As we've seen over and over again, the edgy, snarky, biting persona just doesn't fly at the Academy Awards, which are too large, too pressured, too mainstream, too careful. I'm not surprised NPH was only half there, but I'm not worried about him. Like every other criticized emcee of the ceremony, he'll be just fine: he'll weather the criticism and either be invited back or not. It won't matter, though, no matter what happens, because regardless of who is overseeing it, the Academy Awards ceremony will surely remain more or less the same: a celebration of mainstream, unthinking, unchallenged America.

Sometimes, the ceremony is a titch different: sometimes, when a cluster of successful films or a significant number of winners allows for the identification of what seems like a convenient trend, the ceremony acknowledges it with, say, a special celebration of black artists, or of how great it is that Hollywood has progressed to the point where they let a few women work behind the scenes. I have grown tired, however, of these minor alterations from year to year: There is nothing I hate more than being told, every so often, that I am suddenly special and trendy because I have a vagina; I am quite sure I'd be just as weary of being trotted out and celebrated every few years were I to be a person of color.
Anyway, there was no chance to celebrate women or diversity last night; rather, there was the same old red carpet corral, and then what seemed to be a shallow and hurried stab at racial inclusion, surely in response to bad press about the stunning lack of black performers, creative artists, and films that got nominations. With "Selma" and the work of just about every black film professional in the world overlooked this year, there seemed to have been a mad scramble at the last minute to half-assedly celebrate black people in other ways: lots of shots of people of color in the crowd; a (lame) running joke featuring Octavia Spencer; many black presenters; a truly moving performance of "Glory" by John Legend and Common. This last segment managed to soar above the rest of the show, but the performance doesn't make the institutionalized oversights of difference any better. Nor did the obligatory shots of deeply moved (mostly black) people weeping in response to the song during the extended ovation. It was a moving moment, but it sure as shit wasn't a moment that signified any real change.

We've all seen the leaked Sony emails and learned about the casual racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and general staggering small-mindedness) that infuses the industry. We've heard about how very, very sorry the authors of all those emails are. So a lengthy ovation is all well and good, but in the end, it's also cheap and meaningless. What now? I mean aside from the fact that the Academy gave the award for best song to "Glory," and not "Everything Is Awesome"? What more? What else?

My guess is nothing--and that guess is evidenced by the lengthy celebration last night of The Sound of fucking Music after the brief nod to things of great political import. Wow, that film sure is inspiring!

This, then, is precisely what I think is so boring about the Academy Awards: the same old, same old, despite small, and sometimes even earnest, attempts to make lasting change, not just in Hollywood, but everywhere. It was nice, for example, that Patricia Arquette took a moment during her reception speech to advocate for wage equality and equal rights for women, which is something we've been fighting for--and always, always losing--since...well, since forever, really. Perhaps a few people took the time to stop snarking about what everyone was wearing to think, at least for a split second, about what she'd said, but that's probably about it. Sure, Fox News is already bitching about her statement; that was predictable. But so too was the front page of the arts section of the New York Times this morning. Above the fold: Alejandro Iñárritu triumphantly waving his Oscar above his head in celebration of what he has accomplished. Below the fold: female celebrities wearing expensive clothing and being celebrated for how pretty they look. Same as it ever was. The Academy Awards celebrates things in the thinnest, most superficial possible ways, and no wacky jokes or random appearances by an emcee in tighty-whities is going to change that.

Now, I reiterate: the Academy Awards ceremony is no real measure of the worth of films themselves; that much is clear, and also, I think, a blessing. Some weeks back, immediately post-snub, Spike Lee pointed out to Ava DuVernay that he has never won an Academy Award, and that his films are nevertheless studied in schools and analyzed by later filmmakers. This is an important point. It means that despite itself, Hollywood is in fact capable of turning out important art--if not of properly recognizing it.

It's the stubbornness of the institution itself--its dogged resistance to almost all kinds of difference--that results, then, in such boring ceremonies. The world is changing--maybe more slowly than I'd like sometimes, but it is. Then there's the Academy Awards ceremony, where people of color are a hurried afterthought worth pitying or pandering to but not truly including; where women spend weeks being groomed so that we can all pick apart their outfits on Twitter; where almost no one, even in this day and age, is openly gay or trans; where even a host with a famously engaging, challenging, interesting persona cannot shake anyone out of their contented stupor.

In sum, I forgive Neil Patrick Harris for trying so hard last night. He's certainly not the one who needs to be earning people's forgiveness.    

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