The greatest threat to movies has always been real life. I’m not talking about cultural trends for once, I’m speaking of my own personal calendar. My tendency is to read at internet pace, but not write at it. And, though some of the clickbait and bias-greasing gallimaufry I read can make that feel smugly like a badge of honor, the tendency can be a tragic flaw, or at least a private shame, when the nominees have not only been good material to write about, but have been—well—good movies.
I’m going to drop a bombshell here. Of the seven Best Picture contenders I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a single one I didn’t like. I missed Brooklyn, but it was by no means a conscientious objection; at a time when Hollywood is working so hard to use old schmaltz to tug new heartstrings—e.g., L.G.B.T., handicapped, wolf-boy, etc.—it’s almost refreshing to see a “prestige” love story in which the wedge between lovers is that one’s Italian-American and the other Irish. Faith and begorra, they’re both good Catholics!
I don’t say this as an enemy to progress: as someone who wants to “Make America Great Again,” which seems to portend an A&P that’s fully stocked with Wonder bread. The name of this post may be a failure as a pun, but it’s not an attempt at a statement. On the one hand, all we (the collective we) have been through these past few years, groups like Black Lives Matter have more than earned their right to righteous indignation. And activists have picked a target that, to its credit, responded swiftly and substantively. But it all plays into the entertainment-industry assumption that attacking figureheads is more important than dealing with underlying issues.
Actually, as a microcosm of the “establishment”—a real cuss word in this electoral cycle, though not as filthy, in my opinion, as “expectations”—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stands in pretty well. I would doubt whether even its crustiest old members were out-and-out racists; it’s basically a superannuated institution. But that doesn’t make it also a bad one, because it is responsive to legitimate complaints. I can only hope this responsiveness doesn’t let progressives think change will be so easy when they are not dealing with their own. My beef with The Martian relates to this: diversity looks great on screen, but it’s better in real life. Reactionaries can make “Benneton commercials,” too. If #OscarsSoWhite leads to more people of color working in Hollywood, and not just displayed as props on screen (no matter how well intended), then I’ll consider it a victory.
As a matter of fact, I can say that I personally missed Creed and Straight Outta Compton partly because, like any good Film Scout, I prioritized the Best Picture nominees. My bad—don’t put it all on Hollywood. Also missed, to my regret: Carol, Trumbo, Anomalisa, Embrace of the Serpent … the list goes on. Took me almost 45 years to get to 45 Years. I was really gunning for The Hateful Eight this year, despite my record on Tarantino. He can be a great director when he’s not a concern troll; he hasn’t earned the righteous indignation that Black Lives Matter has. And I don’t think he hasn’t earned it because it’s wrong for a white guy to sympathize. His quixotic kerfuffle with police unions seems like an expression of authentic outrage; films like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained simply don’t. I really hope his failure to draw audiences and awards this time around doesn’t mean that people prefer his “controversial” subject matter to his movies.
There’s a lot of righteous indignation going around. It’s in politics now, so it hasn’t hit movies yet, though it will soon. I’ve been toodling around with a long-form review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that connects, as an unbroken line, the nostalgia of A New Hope with the support for Donald Trump. I know it’s awfully steep; kindly tell me if my nose bleeds.
Here it is in a nutshell. I recently analyzed the conditions, circa 1977, that led to pop culture encroaching on religion, but it has bled into politics as well. The aim of most pop culture is to entertain us for a profit, which is 100% kosher; but the more profitable it gets, the more market share it gains, the more it snowballs toward a hostile takeover of all culture. So when we complain about Donald Trump being an entertainer, we forget that we’ve implicitly asked politicians to put on the jester’s cap.
Voters are possibly justified in their bias against “career politicians.” At least since J.F.K. looked good in one on television, suits have hollowed out throughout our nation’s capitol. No wonder Trump’s reality-show résumé seems more impressive than a record of public service. When an electorate is conditioned to respond only to being entertained, it is not going to want a candidate with realistic points of view. Ironically, Democratic partisans take most of the credit for producing entertainment and yet this Pavlovian call-and-response has redounded primarily to the G.O.P.
Bill Clinton benefited from talk shows, and Barack Obama has his brand managers; but Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, to a degree, Trump all come out of the Hollywood machine. It makes sense that the Republican establishment is vulnerable when a wily orangutan with a toupée turns the party’s style against its substance. As Michelle Goldberg points out, “people hate feeling guilty” and “Trump’s power lies in his ability to make his supporters feel exonerated.” Facts are needed to hold politicians and journalists to account; entertainers aren’t held to the same standard. This profusion of self-serving fictions isn’t something that can be blamed on one person or movement—it’s how the free market works when it has no values to compete with. The more we seek entertainment, the more it becomes available, and the more everything else adapts to its for-profit model. This creates favorable conditions for a demagogue.
So you can see why I haven’t been able to finish that piece.
You may also ask what the hell this has to do with tomorrow’s Academy Awards, or any of the nominees. Well—thankfully!—nothing. Unlike last year, where it took me two weeks to get anything in writing, I’m hoping to once-over-lightly the movies before my Oscar party starts. Stay tuned.