How the Oscars and Elitism Help America

How the Oscars and Elitism Help America February 25, 2015
Photograph from the First Academy Awards ceremony, 1929. (Source: Wikipedia)
Photograph from the First Academy Awards ceremony, 1929. (Source: Wikipedia)

Mathematically speaking, the odds are that if you A) purchased a ticket to a movie in 2014 and B) watched Sunday night’s Oscar telecast, you C) didn’t see your favorite movie from last year win…well, anything. The New York Times reports this morning on the startlingly large discontinuity between the films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and those honored with the almighty dollar by the American public. Whereas nominee American Sniper has earned over $300 million domestically and left Sunday night’s ceremony with only a technical award in hand,  Best Picture-winner Birdman has earned less than a tenth of that. Put those facts together and you get (ta da) a sparsely-watched telecast and Oscar elitism:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time…”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2009, Academy officials increased their field of best picture nominees, from five to a maximum of 10, in a bid to embrace large, world-spanning films — “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — that are the pinnacle of populist art. The plan was to shift the Oscars back toward relevancy, “a history where most of the winning films were also popular with the audience,” as Mr. Hallman put it on Monday.

That strategy failed, of course, because it was perfunctory. If you see your job, as Academy voters do, as rewarding the year’s very best-made and most artistically compelling films, increasing the number of nominees you *must* have is merely spreading the vegetables around on your plate before ignoring them again. There was never any reason to believe that five slots in the Best Picture category were excluding movies that ought to win; as this article says, the purpose of the change was to tell the American public, “Hey, we’re watching the same movies as you–we promise!”

But is this reassurance even a good thing?

The Oscars are indeed “elitist” and have been for a very long time, if by “elitist” you mean “Consciously choosing to not see the film industry the way most Americans see it.” I submit that, accepting this definition, the elitism of the Oscars is not just unproblematic, it’s actually integral to the purpose the awards serve in American culture. For the Oscars to not be elitist in this sense would be for them to become utterly meaningless.

As I said in last week’s post, the Oscars have a notably higher degree of historicity and significance than other American entertainment awards. It is uncommon (maybe even rare) for the Grammys to honor an album or song that made little impact on the Billboard charts. For the Emmys, television programs that fail to attract viewers immediately are almost always canceled before you can say “Backstrom.” In both cases, there is an important connecting tissue between being a “hit” and receiving the award. By contrast, the Oscars frequently identify and reward films that emerge from outside the major studios. These films often lack both the power of distribution and rich marketing funds that major pictures–the kind you’re likely to see a huge cardboard display for at your local mall theater–thrive on.

In other words, the Oscars don’t just reward studios with market research teams and lavish PR campaigns. They honor filmmakers and films. Call it elitism if you want, but that is exactly what every industry needs–incentive for innovation that goes beyond corporatism.

That’s not the only good thing about the Academy’s”elitism” either. A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now. For more than a decade now, the American box office has become a practical altar to the franchise, the sequel and the recycled comic book story. It’s worse than you think; since 2002, only two non-franchise, non-sequel movies have topped the yearly box office. The two films? James Cameron’s highly derivative Avatar and Disney’s Frozen, both of which have sequels currently in development. Also since 2002, the Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman franchises have each been rebooted twice, and Pirates of the Caribbean and the intolerable Transformers series have each had *four* installments, all of them major hits (Transformers: Age of Extinction topped the entire box office in 2014 despite scoring a Rob Schneider-like 18% at Rotten Tomatoes). With Star Wars 7 releasing this Christmas and the Indiana Jones franchise inexplicably having survived its last reboot attempt, Hollywood’s Great Stagnation doesn’t see an end in sight.

The American public simply isn’t very good at going to movies right now. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in one of last year’s most important essays, contemplated the infantilizing of both our entertainment and our lifestyles. Scott characterized the current generation of pop culture as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan,” through which serious (=adult) consideration of meaning and symbolism are replaced with childlike loyalty to never-ending franchises that are essentially live-action cartoons. What’s lost in this phase is a realistic sense of what our world is like, and how to respond to it through art.

Even if you don’t pine for the years of “gritty,” existentially harsh films like Raging Bull and Midnight Cowboy, there’s something to be said for films that don’t need superhero paradigms in order to tell a rich story. I think now of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. No action scenes, no battles, no sweeping romances and no throbbing moral crises–and still, Boyhood is a profound meditation on how we interpret the meaning of our lives. The American public might see the poster or trailer for Boyhood and dismiss it as boring or “artsy,” but it, like many movies that the Academy has honored throughout the years, deserves a better reception than the one it gets from a public inoculated against quiet profundity by CGI.

The Oscars serve our culture by recognizing stories and storytellers. Film critics provide the public with a small yet often effective antidote to the monotony and meaninglessness of Memorial Day weekend openings. It is good for the everyday, working class moviegoer to know that there are alternatives to Michael Bay. Call it elitism if you want. It’s the good kind.

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