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The Unbearable Falseness of Oscars
you suck
I didn't watch the Oscars last night. I haven't for a few years, actually.

This wouldn't be a big deal except for how I feel about movies. I love them. Movies are one of my great passions in life, a bedrock of my psyche. My dad was a filmmaker, before I was born and that seemed like not a great economic choice. He directed and wrote. I grew up saturated in film. The one photo I have from my 1st birthday is me in a shirt that says: Baby Mogul.  In my family, a lot of emotional dialogue and hashing out of the stuff of the heart happens through talking about movies. We quote; we reference. We live in the subtext. Some people might think that's weird and upsetting--I like it. I like living in layers of reference, in a private language. These days, of course, I use that language much more with my friends and partner than my family. The movies we watch are no longer precisely the same.

But I just can't watch the Oscars anymore.

I have two problems and they intertwine hardcore. One is the insincerity issue. After living in Japan and being away from media faces and the way they exaggerate and code human emotion (and oh god, they do, so much it's terrifying when you step away from it) I am made physically uncomfortable watching presenters move their eyes across the teleprompters, saying things they don't mean and didn't write, things which are platitudes at best and unfunny nearly universally. These are the humans that, like it or not, are paid to interpret the experience of living on this planet for us, and they ways in which they act onscreen affect real life interaction to a huge degree. They are in a very real sense our avatars (hence the which celeb are you game). They teach us what angry and sad and happy and in love looks, sounds, and feels like. It's an absolutely monumental amount of psychic power they wield. And when asked to be genuine and play themselves for less than a minute on stage most of them become uncanny valley robots. Of course the reality is one more level of the matrix--the lines that are meant to sound genuine and like off the cuff banter are written by Bruce Vilanch to be a reasonable simulacrum of the genuine self of the movie star, and there's nothing genuine happening in all of the Oscars, except maybe that time Benigni said he wanted to make love to everyone. These people don't choose their dresses or suits, they don't speak except in sound bites written for them by a Hollywood Square veteran, and every effort is made to keep any real expression of feeling or personhood from seeping through to the audience at home. If we saw them as real people they wouldn't be so good as avatars.

I cringe from the banter. It's so intense, the fakeness of it. I can't bear it. And then Robert Downey Jr gets up at the Golden Globes and before presenting the award for Best Actress in a Drama recounts how he would like to fuck each nominee individually and in detail, reducing them to sex objects before grudgingly acknowledging their actual work and I see so fucking red.

The second is that my class warrior comes out and every sentence that is meant to make celebrities seem like they're just one of us, they tweet and get drunk too and you could steal this look! sets my teeth on edge. The amount of money involved in this spectacle is simply staggering. The amount of money in a single dress that will then get panned online. The conspicuous consumption of it, the back-patting for another year of spending millions on sequels and misogynist comedies, it's all so false, it's all so strange, it's all so surreal. The life on that stage is not our lives. It's just not. And I make my living as an entertainer. I get it. I get that many of them actually work super hard. But on Oscar night that doesn't matter, ironically. On Oscar night what matters is who you wear, and who the award for safest choice will go to.

And sadly, every year I find fewer and fewer movies that excite me, that even make me laugh or think. We spent last night watching 80s movies which at least had a little joy in them. And I like spending Oscar night actually watching movies, because so much of the Oscars is just the dresses and the money and the horrible songs and laughing at things that aren't funny and a barrel of fnords. I'm not saying we watched Citizen Kane--Back to the Future II featured prominently--but we consumed the art, instead of the system. Strangely, I still love old Hollywood--I can't really explain that. I love the stories of it, how fucked up things were behind the scenes while they were inventing our culture freehand, how like Greek myth it is, but I think today there's no contrast. We know it when people lock hookers in closets or shoot rivals in the head. We know immediately. Acting out isn't Frances Farmer writing "cocksucker" under Occupation on her arrest form, it's just doing coke til your nose falls off. There's no dichotomy, no light and dark. No layers of meaning. Hollywood today often feels like a bar where the lights have been suddenly and powerfully turned on, and every seedy thing is visible. But maybe I only like old Hollywood when I'm reninventing it for a book, as I am now. Maybe I only like it as myth.

Of course they made bad movies then too. Terrible movies. I don't think we even let the level of badness old Hollywood often performed on the screen--even shitty movies look spectacular. I don't know why I'm not finding what I want in cinema now, or less of what I want. I suspect it's because I'm finding it on TV--long form storytelling has migrated, and the best stuff is happening on television, where a story can be given room to breathe and grow, and the budgets and sets are now as good or better than anything on the silver screen. That's where I'm getting my fix of great dialogue, gorgeous images, and indelible emotional moments. (I don't care about the Emmys either though. Award shows are just not as exciting as execs want them to be.)

Of course, the awkward truth is that if anything I ever wrote was lucky enough to be made into a movie and was nominated I would be on that carpet in a heartbeat. Of course I would. But it would be to take part in something I loved as a child, like going to Disneyland even though I know the company is straight up evil. The awards are powerful. The ceremony is not, at least for me, at least now. For now I've had my last Oscar night, and will have movie nights in March every year instead.

I understand deeply the reasoning behind all of this. And yet I am still sad about it somehow, or feel vaguely responsible (which is dumb).
I like being connected to this culture through dumb stuff (like the superbowl, and xmas and thanksgiving, and I suppose the oscars). And it's a loss when an event drops away.

The Oscars aren't about movies as art, or even movies as as stories, it is about movies as an industry, for all it may nod to writing, cinematography and music scoring.

We were watching UHF. :)

If your inner class warrior is out from that, never ever EVER google "gifting suite" or look up the value of Oscar swag bags prior to an IRS takedown in 2006. It will make you start spitting venom.

I much prefer to skip the actual show and just read glvalentine's fashion takedowns the next day. Far more entertaining.

Edited at 2011-02-28 08:42 pm (UTC)

I disagree with you about this, vehemently. Because I grew up in the 70s, when Oscar was treated like something the young turks of Hollywood had outgrown, and it seemed like at least a quarter of the awards were picked up by other people because the winners couldn't be arsed to show up for the accolade.

That was a sad time, and I'm glad to see Hollywood embracing its own celebration of its industry. Yeah, it's a giant production that's more about itself than it is about The Art. Yeah, a fortune is spent on dresses and jewelry. So what? This is ritual and celebration in the truest form for those who live on either side of a camera. And like most rituals and celebrations, it has bits that are awkward - I've never attended a Seder where there wasn't someone who couldn't read the lines or pages weren't lost or there weren't throat-clearing moments while stuff was being passed around. The only pagan rites I've been to where everyone knew what they were doing and no one dropped a line or there wasn't an odd delay while people were being shuffled about was...never.

The thing about our rituals and celebrations is that they aren't really designed to entertain; they're designed to acknowledge and bond us. And if sitting through the awkwardness of badly delivered Oscar speeches so that you can later reminisce over the awesomeness that was Kirk Douglas isn't a bonding experience, I don't know what is.

Oscar happened for a number of years before television brought it to all of us, and I feel privileged to be part of it. Yeah, these people are paid big bucks to do what they do, but they really do care about winning. And if the nature of the ritual is such that very few honest moments are allowed because we have a tradition of presenters "saying funny things" (written by a guy who really should be retired from this job - there are actors; given better material, they would probably deliver it), then that's a problem with the script, not with the people. The actors care about winning, just like the players at the Superbowl care about winning. Sure, there's a paycheck involved, but there is still the love of the game.

Oscar is bigger than the Hugos or Nebulas because movies are bigger, but that doesn't mean it's a hollow exercise. Yeah, there are bad movies, and asshole moments. But saying, "it was so much better in the golden days" sounds like the same kind of "I remember back when these awards were fun" Boys Club talk that you have seethed about in the SF community.

It's hip to be cynical about these awards, and this year it's been particularly hip to sniff at the nominees and call them a dull group. Well, I saw these movies, and I was entertained by them. I embrace the Oscars, awkward warts, catatonic hosts, surprising gaffs, and all. Dressing up to pat ourselves on the back isn't such a bad deal.

I'm actually a little miffed at the tone here, though I know you don't mean to hurt. I'm sharing my experience, my memories, why I can't watch them. I know you have a big party every year and you love it--why is it not ok for me not to? I'm not trying to be hip and since you know me it's a little weird to hear you accuse me of that. I specifically said it wasn't better back then, they weren't better movies and they weren't better people. I don't find any of this much relevant at all to the Hugos and Nebulas where there are no million dollar gift bags and pretty much no one outside our community cares.

I was sharing my history. Not trying for some kind of detached sneering that you seem to have seen everywhere and I really haven't. Everyone's covering the Oscars with the shared assumption that they are important. I'm saying that my sensors have been damaged to the point of not being able to watch things like this. I know you love it. That's fine with me. I'm really taken aback and not a little wincing from you seeming to not be fine at all with my personal experience of this. Do you /really/ think I'm being hip or have even the smallest concern for what hip is or means at large?

I stand by my Tweet:

If a bitchy green Sesame Street character isn't involved with whatever shit is going on tonight, I don't give a fuck about it.

I have demonstrated my inability to communicate without movie quotes (and parentheses) here previously; I grok that... but the cultural touchstone aspect of movies has waned, not simply because we've got more media from which to choose, but because we are twenty-odd years removed from the people we were when they were ingrained on our cultural lexicon.

Part of it is, too, the fact that there is a lot more stuff demanding attention and importance in our lives as we are now - not just media, but Real Life Stuff - which means it's harder for an entire movie to be quotable from memory without devoting a lot of time and attention to it than we're probably capable of now. I bet you and I could, over a pot of coffee and some adult beverages, run off pretty much every line from a half dozen movies without breaking a sweat (ferris beuller? ghostbusters? princess bride? blazing saddles? monty python and the holy grail? I'm not sure I even NEED someone else; I'm sure you're even more conversant).

part, for me, was lack of money - i simply couldn't afford to go to the movies, and my media entertainment budget is preferentially spent on books. i can't see that changing until something better comes along.

... and part of it is the lack of passion about which you've spoken here; the layer of remove that we're increasingly cognizant of.

it dulls the ardor when you know your partner is faking it.

I really wish I hadn't wasted my time watching the Oscars last night. James Franco looked like he was pained to be there. Anne Hathaway tried to be entertaining, but the tittering in the room made it clear that no one thinks women are funny, but Anne is just so cute for trying. The show also blinded me with its whiteness.

There are still vibrant, interesting, brilliant, engrossing films made for audiences who think. I saw several of them in theatres last year, and was confused when one of them (Exit Through The Gift Shop) got an Oscar nomination. But these films aren't cultural touchstone events-- they're indies, they play art film markets like NYC and Boston for two weeks, and living in the middle of Texas now the only way I can find out about them is through tracking reviews and waiting for them to come out on DVD, if they ever do.

I haven't given up on movies. But the movies that are expected to draw a large crowd, the blockbuster films that people go around quoting afterward these days-- those movies gave up on me a long time ago.

Exit Throught The Gift Shop is an awesome film, one of the few in a long time that I've watched twice (once in the theater, once at home). Funny, thought-provoking (an over-used term, I know, but appropriate in this case), I just loved it.

I feel like documentaries have become more and more a source for interesting films for me. By their nature, I think they offer the opportunity to tell new stories, stories that are not the same warmed-over stuff we see so much of.

I hear you. It came for me when I realized watching the Oscars just wasn't fun for me anymore and that innovative things really do get passed over in favor of safe things (insert my rant on Upvs The Secret of Kells-I loved Up, but geez.) (0)I do however love the idea of a movie night in March to celebrate them and say hello and thank you.

(0) The last thing I remember making me feel emotion at the Oscars was the gent who did the score for Slumdog Millionaire(1) and very clearly said "All my life I had a choice, to choose hate or love. I chose love and here I am." It sounds cheesy but it had real gravitas and emotion in it.

(1)Problematic in its own way, of course.

I haven't watched Secret of Kells yet. I'm saving it for a treat.

You write so many great posts, and they all have so much going on. I often want to comment, but I find myself ruminating about the post for so long that, by the time my thoughts are worth anything, the moment has past. I feel that way about your Persephone post from awhile back, which was another excellent post. So, thank you so much for giving so much interesting, great stuff away here. Your blog is the one I get most excited for when I see that (1) next to it in my Google Reader. But enough gushing.

I wonder a lot about the state of movies today, and whether I've changed or they've changed. Maybe no movie is going to mean to me what Star Wars, or Ghostbusters, or Back to the Future, or Raiders of the Lost Ark do, because of when I encountered them, and how they hard-wired themselves into my psyche at an early age. But I also find that I'm less interested in their contemporary equivalents, and more interested in movies whose plots I don't know as soon as I've seen the trailer.

Recently, I've been watching movies like 8 1/2 and Blow Up, and enjoying them because I didn't know what to make of them right away. So, I wonder if I've just gotten weird. But, I also think I still want to see rip-roaring adventures, really good ones, and I just feel like there's not many on offer.

This, of course, only speaks to one of the many issues you raise in this post, all of which merit serious thought. I just thought I'd share this, because your post brought it to mind.

Yes. This. In so many ways this.

I think all my loathing for Hollywood is summed up in the concept, plot and trailer for the film Hall Pass. I saw it when we went to the movies the other week, and the desire it provoked to just SMASH EVERYTHING was so strong, I almost broke the seat. I cannot even begin to describe how vile the idea of someone scripting, pitching and making that movie without ever stopping to think, 'Hey, maybe we're being I don't know, misogynistic and awful?' makes me feel. It's like, if aliens had come to the cinema right then, and asked me what reason I could give them not to destroy the entirety of the human race with their Super Laser Death Ray? I would have had a hard time coming up with an answer.

That trailer is amazingly horrid. And it's one of many bro comedies being churned out like mad. There's some rage against women there that's being turned into culture at an alarming rate.

"The truth is that if anything I ever wrote was lucky enough to be made into a movie and was nominated I would be on that carpet in a heartbeat. Of course I would. But it would be to take part in something I loved as a child, like going to Disneyland even though I know the company is straight up evil."

Wow. Just. Wow.

Um, ok. I'm not quite sure where the problem is. The Disney part, the movie part, the book part? I do still love Disneyland, though I'm conflicted about it. Disney engages in some bad stuff, for serious. I love movies, too though I'm conflicted about them. Just being honest here. Is it that I gave any thought to whether anything I might write in my whole career might, though bizarre and unpredictable chance, end up qualifying me to go, and said something about my feelings in that direction? Ok, well, I do make stories for a living, and everyone dreams of the film option. How could I not, being a film geek? Am I conflicted about that, too? Yes, yes, and yes, and I believe in honesty in blogging.

Edited at 2011-02-28 10:20 pm (UTC)

I half-watched the Oscars while doing other things. There were some funny and touching moments of genuine emotion that surprised me, both from presenters and recipients. There was a lot of mediocre, stiff and wooden, false if you will, but there's something special about Natalie Portman, nearly in tears, thanking her parents for giving her life. And there was something terrible and wrong and hilarious and brilliant about Kirk Douglas (when did he get so old?) flirting with Anne Hathaway and teasing the nominees with interjections before he read the winner's name. And Collin Firth excusing himself from stage before he gave into the impulse to do a happy dance while trying to contain his emotions was endearing and amusing. So, while the show on the whole was mostly dull and predictable, there were moments... glimmers of humanity and emotion that made it worth it to me. Sure, they're all actors and could have been faking it all... but I choose to accept some of it at face value.

I want the uncanny valley robots. I want a whole movie about them. And I want the uncanny valley with its subtly and unnervingly wrong sky and rocks. I will have to settle for watching Waking Life and rereading Machen's The White People.

Other than that, did media emotions seem less faked in Japan, or is it a different artificial system?

Considering that it gets on my nerves to realize that the interviews on NPR aren't exactly real conversation, I probably shouldn't watch the Oscars.

Heh. I have miscommunicated. I didn't have TV in Japan, and was able to tune out a lot of the media due to not speaking the language, and only had a few old DVDs, so I was basically media blacked out for two years except for blogging and Livejournal.

In general I think Japan goes full tilt into the uncanny valley rather than hovering at the edge, and I can respect that and be interested in it, when the relationship to real life is coincidental at best and intentionally so.

(Deleted comment)
I KNOW. I like RDJ! I don't want him to be horrible!

I haven't watched the Oscars in years except for clips here and there, but we were visiting my mother-in-law who had them on TV. There was one moment that warmed my heart: when one of the men accepting for The King's Speech thanked his boyfriend. Aside from that? I feel your pain.

I loved The King's Speech even though I usually loathe best picture winners because they're oh-so-serious in a way that feels fake to me.

I'm glad Trent Reznor won and sad Nolan and Banksy lost, but it's not all about my taste. It's good to see people whose work I've followed (e.g., Dana Brunetti) go through the angst of the evening even though he and his compatriots ultimately didn't win the biggest awards (for The Social Network) -- except they won the one that mattered most to me: adapted screenplay.

Last year was different, and I rooted for Katherine Bigelow, the first American woman to be nominated for Best Director, as well as the first woman to win that particular Oscar. The fact that this was so little, so late is a constant reminder to me how much women are still excluded from places of power in Hollywood. It's true even in award order, where the awards are basically given from least prestige to most: the actress categories always come before the actor categories. Women who are equals in a film will frequently be nominated as supporting actress instead of actress.

So for me, the pain -- and perhaps this is my personal pain as a film major -- is that I always knew I couldn't be up there on that stage accepting an award I really cared about as a filmmaker. I wasn't glorious enough to be an actress, and my own love of sound editing is too little respected to be above the fold in Oscar reporting.

Where I work, there are Oscars in the lobby of the main building for work we've done (in technical categories). Even though I had no direct part in them, I'm oddly proud of them anyway. That makes no sense, I know, but I can't help it: films are a part of my culture.

And I do have nothing but respect for the award itself. It's the ceremony I'm talking about.

I'd never thought about the order issue you bring up, it's very interesting. Also I haven't seen The King's Speech yet but really want to.

I was only watching because Shaun Tan (fellow Hugo nominee of yours) was up for, and won, best Animated short, and another friend was on his fourth nomination for best visual effects (he'll win sometime). The fantasy/Science Fiction commuity down here is delighted. Sometimes it's worth the crap.

However, the ceremony was awful, and very badly done. I was watching on PVR and fastforwarded through most of it, only stopping for the Ausies, and best film.

If you haven't seen either Winter's Bone or True Grit</> do yourself a favour and do so. Both have very strong female leads (and one of them is a fourteen year old girl), and strong stories. Beside them The King's Speech is a pale immitation.

I really want to see both those. And managed to completely forget about Tan for which duh. I read about it afterward and was happy for him though. That man is a super-genius.(I think I thought it wouldn't be one of the televised awards.)

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand

SO what could be done

I wonder if the Oscar ceremony could be rescued- by perhaps not televising it- and having it be more strictly an award event for filmmakers, and not entertainment and ad revenue. If the recipients weren't on camera, perhaps they might have greater license to speak freely, and without scripts.

Replace the award show with a celebration of what goes into making movies- interview with the costumers, writers and effects folks, with the kinds of people you don't ordinarily hear from on the talk shows, and maybe even highlight movies that were great, but didn't get wide release. A movie theatre (Collidge corner movie house) near me is showing the Oscar nominated shorts, both the animated and live actions ones, and I would bet that a lot of people who don't live in a major city would love the opportunity to see them.

Edited at 2011-02-28 09:57 pm (UTC)

The Oscar-nominated shorts (animated and live-action short subject) are available on demand for a couple of bucks! I'm not sure if this is the first year they've done that, but I hope it keeps up. :D

oh dear gawd, you just said so precisely and beautifully, the maelstrom happening in my head last night. thank you. i don't feel like such a freak, considering my entire twitter stream was full of the crap.

I understand where you're coming from. Movies and their quote-language have a very similar role in my family and my life. I communicate complex sentiments with friends by simple quotes ALL the time, and vice versa. The Oscars aren't for me either.

The awards themselves sometimes do a great deal for the careers of people, and that's the main reason I pay a small amount of attention to them. I haven't watched an Oscars show for years, but I do like to read the winners list.

I was super crazy excited to hear that Shaun Tan's "The Lost Thing" won an award. Other than that, the whole red-carpet thing is a bit of a circus. I take it as that. I don't condemn it, it's just not something that I need in my world.

I love Shaun Tan in a crazy way.

Weird question, but--I'm intrigued by what you mean by "long form storytelling". It brings to mind connected movies with a discernible arc (like the Star Wars trilogies or the Dollars films), or films that are self-contained but have arcs that come together (like L'Appartement, Full Monty, and to a lesser extent Persuasion). The former kind of storytelling is a lot easier to do in books and TV, unless you have a team of mad geniuses like the LotR writing/directing team at the helm and a great source (original or adapted) to build on. TV and books give you space to set things up over time, over distance; they give you sprawling room if you need it, where movies demand an almost impossible tightness at times. Which might be why epic movies with a truly original storyline are so hard to come by: how do you come up with an epic that fits into three hours?

tl;dr: So, long form vs. short form. How do you define them? Can long form exist in a single movie? And also, how weird is it that The Wolfman is an Oscar-winner?

Very weird.

I think movies used to be long form and tv was short form. Arc shows that were not soap operas are a relatively recent development in tv and the kind of movie-quality complex story shows we're seeing now are a whole new animal--one that HBO and other premium channels had a lot to do with inventing. Now the networks are trying to turn out their own blue ribbon stuff, and channels like AMC, never a bastion of original programming, are in on it. It's exciting, it's new, and most importantly a lot of it is very, very good.

Movies, especially series as your examples show, can and are long form story telling. But you can always say more in 13 hours than in 2. And I think what we're seeing now is awesome, in terms of innovation.

Back in '85, when Sydney Pollack's work on Out of Africa led to his beating out Akira Kurosawa for Best Director on Ran (which wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Film, but that's another story), I nearly stover in our family's TV with a vacuum cleaner. Gods, how much I miss having that sort of passion- wrongheaded though it may have been- about the Oscars, or movies in general. I feel as though we're strip mining our own cultural past, producing an endless dreary series of remakes and rehashes.

I do have to say that Kirk Douglas wasn't fake at all. I adore that crazy old guy, but I think that you're very right. The only reason he could be that honest is because he's a "legend" and possibly because he's got so old he doesn't care anymore.

It's a bit odd to see my exact feeling on the Oscars, the Hollywood Peeping Tom Syndrome America has embraced, and movies in general these days written by a total stranger....albeit more eloquently than I could ever have put it.

Well said, and I wholly agree.


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