Up the Academy: Or, Why Awards Season Hurts Our Relationship With Movies

When I was a younger - and, admittedly, more insecure - movie buff, I used to take the decisions made on Oscar night very personally. I covered myself in ash and sackcloth when Crash upset Brokeback Mountain in 2005, burnt offerings of joyous thanks when The Pianist made its surprise mini-sweep in 2002, and gnashed every tooth in the room when ABeautiful Mind beat out In the Bedroom and The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. When I was in college, I used to drunkenly insist that people ask me Oscar trivia at parties because I didn’t know anything about sports and I needed something to impress girls with (number of girls impressed: 0). Like many of you, I will be tuning in to the 85th Annual Academy Awards this Sunday. I will make snarky comments both to my fellow watchers and to my twitter follower(s)[1]. The difference is that, these days, I absolutely could not care less about the outcome of the show. I will watch for the pageantry, I may get caught up in some of the drama, but it will have absolutely no effect on my mood whatsoever when Ben Affleck strides across the stage to accept the Best Picture award for Argo, a film that I enjoyed and then more or less completely forgot about.

Because who gives a shit?

That's a sincere question, because the way it reads online and in interpersonal conversations (I still have those from time to time) a lot of you do. Maybe the better question should be "Why do you give a shit?"

If their choices are so ridiculous, why give them the power of taking them so seriously?

That's a question that, based on my opening paragraph, I could obviously have asked myself until very recently. I used to think that Oscar cheer-leading was a sign of passion, but now I feel the complete opposite. It's easier to root for a film to win a fabricated competition than it is to truly engage with it, easier to applaud when an arbitrary body of voters give it a trophy than it is to understand why it moved you. It's even easier to vilify and root against a film than it is to try and examine why it didn't work for you, and to label those for whom it did work as simple-minded sheep rather than try to understand their perspective, to empathize with their response.

Which I'm just as guilty of from time to time, by the way. When 2006 - 2007 saw the back-to-back wins of The Departed and No Country For Old Men, I got caught up in the rush of excited speculation that maybe we were going to start seeing a bolder, ballsier Academy. When 2008 saw the "snubbing" of The Dark Knight for a Best Picture nomination in favor of one of the most uninspiring slate of options I had ever seen, I deflated and resigned myself to the bitter truth that those hopes had been for naught.

Which in its own way was just as problematic, because by allowing myself to be angered by their decisions, as I had in 2000 when the rote Gladiator beat out the likes of Traffic and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I was given them the same level of bullshit vindication.  As recently as two years ago, as I was settling triumphantly into my "who gives a shit?" phase, I couldn't help but wonder how anybody could be taken in by such a slight, obvious bit of crowd-pleasing pablum as The King's Speech.How could the Academy not realize that The Social Network was an important piece of art that actually had something incredibly insightful to say about our current world and how we choose to live in it?

And therein laid the problem. The Social Network wasn't even my favorite film of that year. It wasn't even my favorite of the nominated ten. But since that had become the agreed-upon frontrunner, and since it was an honest-to-god great movie, I found myself caught up in the critical insistence that it must win in order to justify...I'm not even sure what anymore, quite frankly. The Academy as a legitimate barometer of artistic taste and integrity? The opinions of a multitude of critics that their choice of the year's best film was indeed the best?

It just lowers the level of discourse all around. Something very upsetting happened in early December of last year. I noticed on my twitter[2] feed that Rian Johnson, writer-director of "Brick," "The Brother's Bloom," and "Looper" (which was one of my favorite films of the past year) had gotten an early look at Quentin Tarantino's then-upcoming Django Unchained. "Django was terrific," Johnson posted, "DiCaprio blows the roof off the joint." Amongst the various responses to that briefest of teases was a seemingly innocuous "what do the awards look like for it, acting wise(sic)?." Johnson responded with a polite "not by bag, but everyone was awesome."

One of the greatest filmmakers of our time was in the privileged position of having seen a highly-anticipated work from an all-time master, and all this person could think to ask was what awards he thought it would be nominated for. What a fucking mess.

Though they did give us this, so I guess they can't be all bad:


So I will be enjoying the Oscars for what they are - a silly pageant and an eventual piece of trivia. While I could still tell you most major winners for the first seventy years or so of their history, the last ten years become a bit of a blur, mainly because that's when we get to the point where I begin actively engaging with the ongoing history of film in a serious way. Where I begin living amongst the real-time releases of films that will define my affair with the medium going forward, whether they end up being recognized in the moment by a select group of their peers or not. While I will cheer louder (and tweet more excitedly[3]) than anybody if long-neglected masters such as Roger Deakins or Greg P. Rusell are awarded their first Oscars tomorrow night, or if Quentin Tarantino is recognized for distilling broad histories both cinematic and American into so cohesive and entertaining a script, I probably won't remember whether they were or not until I run into you at a party ten years from now and drunkenly insist you ask me so.

- cs

[1] @chrisailor, by the way.

[2] @chrisailor, in case you’ve forgotten.

[3] @chrisailor, for the last time – really, it’s just getting embarrassing for us all, at this point.