Oscar Hangover: Afterthoughts about Art and The Artist from the Cool Bathroom Floor

It’s been a day and a half since the 84th Academy Awards wrapped up in a flurry of gooey love for a Gallic mash note to the Hollywood of 80 years ago, and I’m just now waking up on the bathroom floor, covered in regurgitated self-congratulatory awe. (Not entirely sure if it’s mine or the Academy’s.)

The Oscars are always an oddly frustrating event for film writers who pretend to care more about, you know, films than who’s dating whom while wearing yet another “whom.” The first thing any aspiring film writer learns is to annually cock a haughty snoot in January at the long list of Oscar nomination snubs. From there we move quickly to bitching about how the general public is more interested in fashion and celebrities than bothering to actually see the nominated films. (See above.) And if we make it to the morning after, we can haul ourselves up from the cool, cool porcelain to sneer derisively at how few of our favorite films and performances actually took home little naked, gold eunuchs.

The problem, however, is that for most of the viewing public the Oscars still stand as some sort of… thing. Americans love to race and measure and rank and then hand out awards to winners—we cannot, we’ve been told by someone in front of a flag, tolerate a loser. So even as they complain (from the opposite side of the aisle) that the Oscars only give awards to films they’ve never heard of, let alone seen, most of the public still takes at least passing note of the media hype over the Oscars—somebody won something, attention must be paid.

Film critics spend all year watching and writing about all kinds of movies non-stop, but Oscar Weekend is when the public expects us to Say Something. They want us to predict the winner of a horse race most of us don’t have a horse in, and then get annoyed when we don’t care about the same things they do. (Namely the aforementioned fashion, celebrities, and popular films we didn’t like as much as they did.)

Okay, so I’ll say something. Here follow (after the jump) my muddled, hype-hungover thoughts about the Oscars in the fading glow of this year’s ceremony.

Let’s start with the end result: The Artist, to absolutely no one’s surprise, is the 2012 Best Picture. I’m one of those who liked The Artist just fine thanks, but found it to be at best a charming trifle; a cute trick no less enjoyable than those performed in it by Uggie the Dog, but not that much more meaningful. But if I can mix my metaphors, The Artist hit a perfect storm of Academy sweet spots: It was heart-warming and uplifting, it was about old things (the Academy membership is old, in case you hadn’t noticed), it was about the glory and wonder of film making, it was distributed by Harvey Weinstein, and it even had that all-important bit of Oscar bait: personal hardship, struggle, and triumph. (The pain and suffering of being an aging actor!)

All of that allowed the Academy to arrive at a warm, pleasing consensus. Yes, The Artist is something of an “indie” film (it also took all the top honors at the somewhat inappropriately titled Independent Spirit Awards the night before), but it’s about happy, friendly, familiar things, not lesbians or genocide or moral gray areas or ambivalent endings. It doesn’t pander to the box office (sorry, Potter fans), but nor does it feel like an affront to mainstream viewers like The Hurt Locker did two years ago when it had the audacity to beat out Avatar (the most expensive and highest-earning film of All Time!). As a group, the Academy likes movies that are about Art (this one even has it in the title!), but are not off-puttingly artsy or deep.

Am I bothered The Artist won? Not at all—I don’t dislike the film, and anymore I like to tell myself I don’t care who and what wins an Academy Award. But of course I still watch and write about them. As others have said, the Oscars are Hollywood’s Prom night—the pretty, popular kids dress up and go to the ball, while the clove-cigarette-smoking art students and poetry reading future lit majors stay home and pontificate bitterly about the empty silliness of the social spectacle—all while trying to keep one slightly jealous eye on the glittery proceedings from a coolly detached distance.

Along exactly those bitter-jealousy lines, if I can indulge in a little of that ol’ film-critic carping, my favorite films of 2011 were the very aesthetically different Win Win and The Tree of Life. Win Win was nowhere to be seen on Oscar night—it deliberately and admirably steers clear of the sort of Grandiose Big Issues and Heaving Emotions the Academy pays attention to. The Tree of Life was included in the Best Picture nominees not so much because it’s a cinematically groundbreaking masterpiece for the ages (which I truly believe it is), but because the Academy voters kind of felt they had to—most of them didn’t understand Malick’s film, but they felt it made them look smarter to pretend they loved it.

So I didn’t expect any of my personal favorite films of 2011 to bask in even a fleeting moment of Oscar glory (I’m also a huge fan of Moneyball and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and yet as much as I girded my movie-loving loins in cynicism and snark, I still came away from Sunday night’s proceedings feeling annoyed, even angry. (And no, it wasn’t just the continued presence of The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the two films I utterly loathed the most in 2011.) It took me until Monday morning to figure out what had stuck so uncomfortably in my craw, despite my having heavily lubricated said craw with Oscar apathy.

It was Billy Crystal.

Until this weekend my take on Crystal was benign disinterest. I don’t mind him in films because he mostly makes films I don’t bother to care about. But as a comedy fan who delights primarily in the element of surprise, I actively loathed him as the long-running, increasingly revered Oscar host, simply because he comes out and does the same ancient Catskills shtick every year. (It took no special pop-culture precognition back in December to know he’d sing about War Horse to the “Mr. Ed Theme.”)

But during this year’s show as well as in his pre-show interview with Entertainment Weekly, Crystal continually hammered home a populist traditionalism about the art and industry of cinema that first irritated and eventually enraged me. (Okay, maybe not enraged, but really, really irritated.) When loutish, bad-boy Oscars producer Brett Ratner imploded last fall and took his hand-picked host Eddie Murphy down with him, Crystal was quickly asked to come back and “save the show.” But more than that, Crystal was seen as the torch-bearer for Classic and Classy Hollywood Tradition—he is, as we’ve been repeatedly told, in the hallowed Oscar Host pantheon alongside Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

In a year when the Academy embraced two films—The Artist and Hugo—that spent their creative energy praising the historical creativity of film, Crystal was the icing on the giant cake the Film Industry baked for itself. Throughout the EW interview and during the Oscar ceremony itself Crystal repeatedly harkened back to The Good Old Days, when studios made Big Movies (on expensive Film Cameras!) and everyone paid to see them on the Big Screen in Cathedral-like Big Theaters.

Such shilling for the Studio System by the comic actor and “beloved Oscar host” served two important self-serving tasks: 1) Encourage people to stop watching movies on their smart phones and the Internet and get back to paying increasingly high theater-ticket prices (preferably for IMAX 3D presentations), and worst of all, 2) Stop with all this DIY micro-indie digital filmmaking and get back to letting the Big Studios determine what films, with which carefully chosen stars, should be made and seen. Though he’d insist he was just “there to entertain,” Crystal’s comments and jokes were those of a corporate spokesperson encouraging everyone to reject all that irreverent subversion from haters like the Ricky Gervaises and Jon Stewarts and get back to loving and respecting Benevolent Dad.

The Independent Spirit Awards held the night before the Oscars are increasingly rife with their own flaws—the films that win there, including The Artist this year, are more and more likely to not be “true” indies, but “independent-flavored” films cultivated or at least distributed and promoted by the studio’s boutique shingles, but I’m mostly okay with that, as those tend to be the kind of indie-studio hybrid films I love. But a couple of 2011 films nominated for several Spirit Awards stuck out as exactly the sort of works that, even in this age of 3D superhero action franchises, keep me excited about cinema: Another Earth and Bellflower.

I’ll write more at length in the future about both of them, but suffice to say for the purpose of today’s argument that those two mesmerizingly creative and evocative films were made for pennies, shot almost entirely on the broke-ass poor backs of their dedicated filmmakers, fueled only by high-octane ideas, not special effects budgets and big stars. Not to beat the old familiar drum, but films like this are the future of cinema—even if the Academy won’t get around to noticing let alone rewarding their filmmakers until 20 years from now when they make movies about illiterate orphans putting on a show during wartime.

Billy Crystal will probably never see Another Earth or Bellflower, and if forced to sit and watch, I’m guessing he’d sneer at them as “dull, pretentious, and not at all entertaining or enriching.” They are the sorts of “little” films he, as the representative of the studio gatekeepers, wants to keep out of theaters–they aren’t part of the “magic of cinema dreams” the Academy butters its bread with. (All kinds of “bread” — the organization exists almost solely on selling the broadcast rights of the ceremony).

And that’s why the Oscars this year, as embodied in Crystal, irritated me—not because they reward the “wrong” films, but because they enforce a closed, traditionalist attitude that would rather sit and praise itself over and over again with “History of Overused Movie Quotes” clip reels than look to the future of its own art form. That makes the crowning of The Artist all the more both appropriate and its title deeply ironic. (It is, after all, about a Hollywood fixture unable to adapt to changing technology.)

Toward the end of this year’s Oscar show, the producers aired the last of a series of interview montages, talking to familiar stars and celebrities about what the movies mean to them. The first couple segments had been, of course, more of that same self-congratulation, but the last one, featuring Gabourey Sidibe, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, Robert Downey Jr, Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise and Patton Oswalt almost accidentally did something unheard of at the Oscars: It began to speak the truth about the struggle of true art within the Film Industry.

“[With a great film] you understand something that you didn’t understand before about life, and everything is stacked up against that film ever getting made,” said Norton. “You’re hurling toward this ideal that could be shattered by anyone being selfish or being fearful,” said Downey. “The sign that a film is great is when it’s over, to the soles of my feet I’m feeling, ‘How did they do that, how did they get that done?’” added Norton at the finish of the clip. It was an impassioned but bittersweetly subdued swipe at the Studio System, and it filled me with the sort of damp-eyed inspiration I used to feel watching the Oscars when I was a kid.

When the show came back to Crystal after the montage, he quipped, “I’ve never had any of those feelings.”

Hahahahahaha… no, of course you haven’t, Billy. Of course you haven’t.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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