Oscars So What

An editorial warning: this is not a particularly well-organized or conclusive piece of writing. I said everything I have to say conclusively about the Academy Awards last year (see the hyperlink below), and here I’m mostly just wreslting with the question of just how seriously the whole thing should be taken. I don’t know, genuinely, but thought I’d put my thoughts on it up anyway. If you feel like having an argument about it, that’s cool! I’m willing to argue, but I have no idea what my definitive position is on any of this. Partly this is because I’ve always thought the Oscars were dumb and out of touch, partly because I think awards shows in general are one of our great cultural exercises in huge, ornate silliness (and none moreso than the Academy Awards), but also because there is some socio-historical import there. I can’t even stop re-litigating it in this introduction. The upshot of it all is: this is neither particularly funny nor particularly stance-taking, and if that’s not your thing, I’ll be back next week with something else.

So the Academy Award nominations happened again and, just like last year, they accurately reflect the taste of the very old, very white voting body. This year the numbers have been bandied about and it turns out that the academy is older and whiter than even the pessimists among us had imagined.

Most of what I had to say last year (where I wrote about this clusterfuck instead of actually writing about the awards) is still true. In case you don’t want to click there, I’ll run it down briefly here. The Oscars are a naked marketing platform: the film-release cycle is built around it, and an Oscar win often precedes the wide release of a film, as a way of getting people’s attention about it. Or at least to boost later download/home entertainment sales down the road. On the other hand, their place, culturally, serves as something of a de facto list of “things we cared about then,” which means that the nomination/winning process does carry some weight. It is simultaneously completely impossible to take seriously and also necessary to take seriously.

That’s still, mostly, what I have to say, but this year I want to add that I don’t have any idea what the solution is, here. The problem is one of enculturation: yes, more actors of color should have been nominated. Yes, the films that did get nominated were dumb and out of touch. Ever thus. The solution, then, is to take them less seriously. There’s no way to create a separate awards-granting body that is also equal until the stature of those granted by the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is lessened, at least culturally.

The good news is that’s already happening. The film industry are less able to create a monolithic idea of what is “serious” or “praiseworthy”. It’s happening slower than it would in, say, the book or record industries, where the dissemination of interest and perception of economic value fractured so quickly and so violently that they didn’t have time to prepare, but it’s happening. As long as movie theatres are governed by their inability to show infinite films on infinite screens, it’s always going to be somewhat resistant to the same fracturing1. The Academy Awards, then, were one of the ways people could govern their way through the “serious” stuff, so that they knew which films to spend their entertainment dollar (or their bandwidth, or their torrent-seeding patience, or whatever). Even beyond assuming a nomination was a mark of quality (something that, in general, fewer people do consciously or directly than, I think, was presumed, but I don’t have any numbers on either the presumption or the actual incidence of it happening), there’s still the fact that hearing the film’s name over and over again has a way of creating primacy in the mind, and people (generally) assume that something that has become familiar is better, or more worth attention, than something that hasn’t2. This is where the Academy Awards do the most damage – by getting a bunch of things into the conversations that aren’t a bunch of other things, and creating that familiarity and not other familiarities.

1 that is to say, the music industry lost radio because people had other ways to seek out exactly what they wanted exactly when they wanted it, which is why, after fifteen or so years of free-fall, they’re trying to patch the holes in the boat by going after Spotify, signing deals with Soundcloud, or trying to convince YouTube to paywall the stuff they still somehow own that someone might want. The book industry is in much better shape because it never really was governed by the blockbuster model, so its distributed set of economic tidepools never really took the same kind of heavy damage from things like file-sharing. Film is, obviously and necessarily, a different animal altogether.
2 this is, in its most simple form, precisely how advertising works – Geico isn’t trying to say anything about car insurance geckos, they’re trying to get you to remember their geckos, ergo their brand name, which would create familiarity in the first place, thus making you more likely to think of Geico as the place you should call to save 15% or more on your car insurance.  

And, to be clear, I don’t think there’s a sinister conspiracy afoot here. That’s the other other problem. The nominating body doesn’t even think of Michael B. Jordan (a phenomenal actor who managed to carry the seventh installment of a forty-year-old film series and also should be nominated for many things for a lot of his work, bar, of course, Fantastic Four), and nominated Sylvester Stallone, a guy who briefly stopped being a walking punchline long enough to bring something like life into a character he created half a lifetime ago. While the latter is impressive, certainly (I definitely didn’t think he had it in him), it’s also more appealing to the aging-white-dude members of the Academy – it’s a comeback story (which do well historically with said body), it’s a mentor-type role effectively played (ditto), and it’s a guy, more importantly, who they’re already familiar with (there’s that familiarity popping up from the other side of the thing). Meanwhile, nobody said that Michael B. Jordan, necessarily, didn’t deserve it, because the nominations are a positive-only process – there is no “no” vote, only a “yes” vote, so MBJ didn’t get enough “yes” votes. This process, in less-prominent and less-obvious, but still-probably ways, continues on down the line until the thing that seems reasonable to the voters (who are largely-homogenous demographic) does not to the people who see the end result3 and are much more likely, having not been a part of the selection process in the first place (which process is already fairly shrouded and may or may not include any amount of direct communication w/r/t who is nominating what), to notice a seemingly-ineluctable (given that it not only keeps happening, but that no process or procedural changes seem to be in the works to keep it from happening again) pattern in the results.

3 further complicating this is the fact that the members of the Academy are film-indsutry professionals of some variety, and thus also have a different set of factors affecting their voting, i.e. these are people whose work they have, in various ways and at various times, had some srot of contact with, which creates another kind of (unintnetional) bias. It’s why you tend to think your friends’band is better than, say, the other local opener on the bill, which obviously consists of morons who don’t know anything and should just get off the stage. But, again, I have no real control environnment here, so I wouldn’t be able to speak to the hard data in terms of how much this ends up making a difference.

Last summer, the Hugo Awards happened. The nomination process was hijacked (or gamed, or however you choose to call what happened) by a bunch of people who were block-voting for the authors that they found socially acceptable4 (even while much of the remainder of the nominating body found many – although not all – socially repugnant, to say the least). The day was saved for the Hugos by two things: one was the much-used ability to vote “No Award”5, which ended up winning the most, to the delight of the people who were repulsed by the initial nominating-bloc in the first place. One of the further things decided upon was a change in the way nominations are decided, to block exactly that kind of slate-formation, which will most likely go into effect (the hedge and delay both being due to the vagaries of the governance of the Hugos), in 2017. All of which is to say that it’s 100% possible for an awards-granting body to listen to their constituency and make changes, albeit much easier for an open-to-the-public (anyone attending Worldcon is a member of the World Science Fiction Society, which grants them a nominating ballot and a voting ballot) organization than a shadowy bunch of secret old dudes.

4 specifically, if you weren’t around for the whole thing, they were nominating people who represented some bygone era when there wasn’t all this “social justice” on the part of all these non-whtie dudes who didn’t write space opera. If this is the first you’re hearing about it, congratulations, and for more information you can google “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” or just the 2015 hugo awards and figure out pretty quickly what was going on there. The point is the things they wanted were pretty distinctly ugly.
5 if you didn’t need FN4, you probably also don’t need this one, but essentially “No Award” is treated like an entry itself: if there are five entries in the field, you rank six objects, such that if Book E and Book C are great, but Books A, B and D are beneath consideration, you would vote 1) Book E, 2) Book C, 3) No Award, 4) Book A 5) Book B and 6) Book D.

But, and this is where all this is going, I don’t think it’s impossible. If the current process is unable to produce a set of awards that the people who your event has been tailored to market the films to – that is to say, if a substantial subset of the public itself is saying “these results are bad and we do not condone them”, which is the case here – then what is the benefit in not, at the very least, examining that process and what it is or isn’t doing. And if you all get together and decide that, no, there is absolutely no change that could be made and that somehow this would’ve all happened no matter what because of your air-tight process, then I guess that’s that and your awards show is still crap.

Really, the idea that this has now happened two years in a row seems to me that the Academy isn’t looking at anything, and isn’t really willing to change it to begin with (whatsoever the process may be). This seems like a dumb way to do business. at the very least. but I’m not in the Academy in any way, so it seems to me the easier thing is this: to say the Academy Awards are a dumb thing that is not worth taking seriously. If they want to get everybody together in pretty dresses and have an awards show, who can stop them? But that doesn’t mean it has to mean anything.

And, y’know, some of these films probably do deserve attention, and I’m sure it’ll be nice for these people to get their awards or whatever. I’m happy for them if that’s the case. But It should mean less that it came from a homogenous group of very old people who are going to go away and not be any kind of concern sooner than the people who are currently upset by the way this has all gone down, who skew younger, and who are also paying to see the movies that are the livelihood of what you’re doing. We can’t vote no award, but we can stop seeing your dumb movies (which, actually, is happening anyway – it’s the blockbusters that are leading to record-setting box office numbers, not the fucking Danish Girl).

That’s thin soup, though. The real problem isn’t the Academy Awards, the Academy Awards are just the instrument of expression of a far more endemic set of attitudes and motivations, and laying the blame on the (admittedly prominent) public-facing result of a general attitude. I guess the essence of the whole thing is that it’s satisfying to get mad at, but it’s also not the whole job.

Or, in other words, the Academy Awards have always sucked, and will always reflect the dumbest aspects of whatever is going on in film-related culture, and that isn’t new (remember when Crash won best picture? That was the exact same impulse at work with a slightly-different end result. At least none of the movies that got nominated are as bad as Crash. Except The Danish Girl. Ugh), and it won’t change. And so we don’t really have to do anything. They’ll burn themselves out, and we’ll be left with a once-prominent event that turns, as it does every year, into something far closer resembling a fashion show than an artistic awards program. That’s its best possibly aspirational state, I guess.

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