The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).
So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”
That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.
As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:
“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”
I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?
After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.
I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.
Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”
In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.
Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.
I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.
So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.