Not Gonna Bow: Notes on the Oscars

Not Gonna Bow: Notes on the Oscars March 2, 2014

“We will not bow! Not until you acknowledge that Tom Hanks was snubbed!”

[This post was originally published here on January 16, 2013. I’m revising and reposting it on the occasion of Oscar Sunday.]

It appears that a lot of people have completely misunderstood what cinema is for, concluding that it’s all some big cockamamie competition.

Poor saps.

Here’s a tip:

If you lament what a bunch of 60-something white guys did or didn’t like, you are behaving as if their opinion is what matters, and thus you are giving them the power that they claim for themselves.

In truth, what they like or dislike cannot confirm, add, or detract from the power within a work of art.

(Wouldn’t it be a shame if only 14% of Oscar voters were younger than 50? If 93% were Caucasian, and 76% were male? Yeah, it would. And that’s what The LA Times found in their 2013 survey of Academy members. Here are more interesting stats regarding Oscar history…)

Chamberlain the Skeksis covets the power of this golden shard, while Gollum wants “the precious” all for himself.

The more we cheer or grumble about what that small, skewed demographic thinks, the more the global conversation about art will be distracted by, and corrupted by, the lie that art can be meaningfully discussed in the vocabulary of competition.

And the more the madness will go on, disrupting the conditions necessary for close attention, for contemplation, and for the kind of discussion that opens up works of art so that they can speak meaningfully into our lives.

If you’re in a mood for a circus of ego and glamor and commercials, watch the Oscars. Sure, you’ll see some memorable things, laugh at some memorable jokes, and hey… U2!

But if you’re in the mood for art, watch a good movie.

And there are other things we might do with our time this evening. Father James Martin has a suggestion.

Knowing the Academy, they’ll probably decide that the big award goes to Gravity… which remains, for me, the least interesting of the whole celebrity-studded stack. Remember, these are mostly the same voters who picked films like

  • Crash over The New World and Junebug;
  • Argo over Moonrise Kingdom and Lincoln and The Master;
  • The Artist over The Tree of Life and A Separation; and
  • A Beautiful Mind over Gosford Park, The Fellowship of the Ring, Spirited Away, and The Royal Tenenbaums. 

So that tells you something about their ideas of great art. But what does it matter? So it’ll win a historical footnote and a bunch more money. That doesn’t add power to the art.

I’m more interested in discussing what films have to offer than what awards they win. So, for the record, here are some reviews, comments, and first-impression notes on the nine films that the Academy decided to acknowledge.

Allow me to humbly recommend a few that were deeply meaningful to me this year… films that the Oscars ignore for no good reason.

If you appreciate this post and enjoy Jeffrey Overstreet’s work exploring that fascinating territory where art, faith, and culture intersect, you’re invited to “Put Your Name in the Credits.” Cast your vote for “Keep Looking Closer Alive.” Make a donation. Offer whatever you feel moved to contribute. All donations will be applied directly to that materials, events, and experiences that make the blog happen. That’s a Looking Closer promise.

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7 responses to “Not Gonna Bow: Notes on the Oscars”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, sir.

    I’ve watched the Oscars a grand total of zero times, and I don’t regret it. I’d ABSOLUTELY go if I was ever invited, but I’d probably be feeling a bit dirty the entire time over the unfortunate collision of art and greed and power-grubbing stupidity.

    Actually wrote about this yesterday, when that Bradley Cooper Selfie broke twitter, and a little piece of my heart:

  2. Over the last few years, I’ve slowly learned not to care what films the Oscars honor.

    However, as someone who admired AMERICAN HUSTLE quite a bit, I sadly anticipate that I won’t be able to have many meaningful conversations about it without first addressing the undeserved hatred its going to get for doing slightly better than it deserved at the Oscar nominations.

    • I felt that way about ‘Gravity’…… Very undeserving, except for special effects…

  3. well said Jeffrey. I think it’s valid to complain, since the Academy wields power and there is no obvious or compelling reason for them to be stupid. In the big picture, however, they are so not the point.

  4. While they “don’t matter,” I still love the Oscars for this reason: it’s a night where people who normally don’t care about cinema as art are exposed to something more than blockbusters. It’s a month where people are talking about movies. It means that my parents — whose favorite movies of the year include “Grudge Match” and “Grown Ups 2” — might be inclined to go see “Her” or “12 Years a Slave” because they hear it’s really good. And there’s a chance that because of these accolades, people might begin a love affair with cinema, which will ultimately lead them to this year’s deeper treasures.

    The fact that the Oscars are so mainstream and safe is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it frustrates those of us who love movies, who know that not only aren’t these the “best” films of the year, the entire idea of ranking the “best” art is silly (even for us critics who make top 10 lists). But it’s a blessing because it serves as marketing for an art form, a gateway drug that can entice people to see that movies are more than an excuse to check their brains at the door. We may know that ranking art as silly, but there are people who’ve never considered movies to be art who begin to love it and take their journey precisely because of the Oscars. So I tend to be rather lenient toward the Academy, even as I curse their judgement.

    • Hey, I would never say “Nothing good can come from the Oscars”! If it serves as a gateway drug to better cinema for some people, that’s great. I just think it would be so easy to create something that would do that much, much better than the Oscars. What I like best about the Oscars is how much airtime it gives to people saying “Thank you” and acknowledging that nothing worthwhile gets accomplished without an elaborate network of relationships, generosity, support, and sacrifice.

      • I don’t disagree with you at all on this. While I love the Oscars, my reasons for doing so have shifted. It’s no longer “this is an important night for movie lovers.” It’s now, “this is silly, distracting fun — alternating at times with soul-crushing boredom — but at least they’re talking about movies.”

        Although here’s where my dream comes in. Netflix should take out a commercial during the Oscars and say “Love the movies? Then check out these:” and list all the small titles it has that could draw viewers in. They have “The Act of Killing,” and I’d love it if they’d get “Short Term 12” or some of those other wonderful gems.