Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Oscars

The Kids Aren’t All Right by Caitlin Murphy

When I was twelve years old and watching the Academy Awards, something amazing happened: Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Christy Brown, a writer with cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot. Having seen the film and been in awe of his performance, I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled though, I remember feeling a deep belief that something right had happened. Never a sports fan, unable yet to vote, I felt rewarded for my convictions the way I imagined other true-blue supporters might. My passionate rooting had paid off, and the resulting feelings of glory – though ultimately vicarious – were no less visceral. I have ever since loved the Oscars, and looked forward to watching them every year. And in response to those who would drone on to me about how the awards were political, or rigged, or unfair, or just plain stupid, I had nothing really to say; I simply held onto that pleasure I experienced in caring deeply about my favourite films and actors, and wanting so much to see them acknowledged: someone needed to tell Daniel Day-Lewis how great he was, simply because I couldn’t.

This year’s Oscars sucked. Sucked so hard that I might not be coming back.

This was of course the year that the film industry loudly broadcast its fears that it may be going the way of the dodo bird, or (worse) live theatre. And though the fears themselves are understandable (especially faced with a movie about a website), the results were not. The task at hand was clearly to recruit new, young followers to Oscar’s flock, and thus we got – all of us got – an evening of shameless pandering to youth culture and its assumed interest in three things only: technology, music and its own ever-waning attention span. Segments were lame, segues were non-existent, and nods to cinema’s history felt tacky and tacked on. In short, nothing worked.

The ceremony’s opening set the sad bar: a montage sequence of clips from the ten nominees for Best Film, in which our two decidedly young and relevant hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco, made digitally inserted cameos. Later, in an impossible to lead into moment, the powers of technology and music joined forces when several film clips were strung together to look like a music video, complete with jump cut editing and lyrics inserted into actors’ mouths. “Look at how we mess with things,” pleaded the Academy. “Nothing is sacred to us! You see! We are not stuffy!”

However, to my shock and dismay, the evening’s most garish display of “doing things cause we can” was yet to come. Three words: Bob Hope hologram. Harkening back to their predecessors, the hosts introduced the late comedian, who appeared at the podium, as though brought back from the dead; he proceeded to be the liveliest speaker of the evening. It was Hope’s poise, charm and wit that most impressed, not the anonymous digital prowess shown off in projecting him as a hologram. As revealed here and in the lame montage sequences described above, digital manipulation does not equal creation. Later, multi-time host, Billy Crystal came out and chatted us up for a bit; he was engaging and affable and fun to watch. We’re human beings. What we’re actually most interested in is other human beings.

Interestingly, one of the show’s own hosts seemed to be committing internal mutiny, starting officially during pre-show interviews. I’m not very familiar with James Franco, but he looked distinctly disconnected throughout the ceremony, as though sometime after lunch he had a painful epiphany that he was about to contribute to something huge and horrible. In everything he said and did, his subtext rang out: “I’ve changed my mind. This is soul-less. Help me.” (or, alternately, and who can blame him, “I’m very, very high.”)

And yet of course, something not all that surprising – but, given the context, rather ironic – happened. The King’s Speech, a historical drama, written by a man in his 70s (who had to wait until someone died to write his script) dominated the awards. The King’s Speech is a great film because it has all the hallmarks of a finely-crafted drama: the characters are well-drawn and beautifully played, the conflicts are clear and pitiable, the dialogue is true to character and situation, the stakes are high, and the resolution is satisfying. Despite acceptance speeches in which those associated with The Social Network have waxed on about the film’s profound themes of betrayal, friendship, and determination, they tossed these out like so many etc’s that I’ve never been convinced that even they know what the film’s themes are. The Social Network struck me as a film about people being cool, saying clever things, and suing each other. (Side note: interestingly, in cutaway shots throughout the ceremony, director David Fincher looked vaguely unresolved, as though perhaps he’d left the stove on.) This year it felt like the Academy was trying to be The Social Network, when it knows that it’s The King’s Speech.

As a college teacher, I am all too familiar with the internal wrestling inherent in trying to work with younger people: to what extent should you go to them, figure out where they’re at, and tailor your approach to suit their predilections; and to what extent do you accept yourself for the vitamin that you are, remembering you have benefits that won’t necessarily be desired or deemed cool. It’s only been this year, after nearly a decade of teaching, that I’ve developed the nerve to ask myself, “shouldn’t they be aspiring to be more like me than I should to be like them?” When we are too open to being whatever others want us to be, we end up as nothing. And it shows. This year, I felt like that little gold statue was trying to play coy, call-girl, flirtatiously asking what we wanted his name to be. “Your name is Oscar,” I wanted to reply. “Own it.”

Yes, I’m a bit of a luddite. Yes, I’m in my mid-30s. And yes, I’m getting old (or at least unyoung). And maybe my horrified response to the Oscars this year is just about me. Or maybe what’s really getting old is this stereotype that any and all resistance to contemporary culture’s infatuation with technology, fragmentation and the surface of things comes solely from a place of fear, or a sense of irrelevance. Very often it’s actually informed by having a modicum of taste, a good sense of humour, and a clear conviction that we can try harder, we can do better. Bob Hope did. So should we.


  1. Yes, they, your students should aspire to be more like you. But it is an impossible mission as they have not yet realized that they do not know everything and that their current state of being is not the final stage and that they will continue to realize new things for as long as they live. One day they will find that everything is a mystery and no one knows anything. If they are lucky. In other words, you are not living on the same planet, not in the same dimension, and definitely not talking the same language.

    The only way of getting your message through is by just being what you are, and maybe, maybe in 10 years 1 or 2 of them will start realising that you are cool and already knew everything they knew at that time, as did every other adult. Think of it as communicating from space, it takes a while before the message is received.

    What the hell does this have to do with the Oscars?