Written by Derek Godin
Poster design by Olly Moss
Early in the third episode of season two of Welcome to the Basement (which is a great YouTube show about watching and dissecting movies), co-host Craig Johnson succinctly sums up the love-hate relationship that many cinephiles have with the Academy Awards:“The Oscars are lucky they have my unconditional love because they piss me off every single year.” The nominee announcement ceremony is a yearly exercise in frustration and annoyance. Great actors and actresses are snubbed, excellent films are totally ignored and the technical awards are treated like lepers. All of that before the East Coast has had their first cup of coffee and before most sane West Coasters have even thought about getting up.
I can hear the naysayers now. But of course great films and performances are ignored! The Academy Awards are an archaic self-perpetuated myth machine that more or less functions as the biggest professional circle jerk in Hollywood (which is saying something). The average Academy voter is, statistically speaking, a stodgy old man who revels in the safe, lukewarm, middlebrow womb that is the popular American cinema. Let us not forget, they are surely thinking, that these are the same people who made Crash and Dances with Wolves the pennant winners of their respective years. Surely we can’t place the burden of quality on the same folks who voted en masse to crown Shakespeare in Fucking Love the best film of 1998?
Well, hypothetical trivia-savvy cynic, you’re right. I haven’t got a comeback for that. The Academy’s voting patterns are predictable, boring, and a lot of the time, off the mark. If your movie is a drama about either war, overcoming adversity, American history or Hollywood’s own glorious past, you’ve practically got yourself a ticket to the Dolby Theatre. You have a comedy film? Good luck, son. Genre film? Forget about it (unless you’re Lord of the Rings). Obviously there are exceptions to this, but the simple fact that the term “Oscar bait” has entered everyday speech when talking about a specific subset of movies is a sign that these patterns do exist. Plus there are studio politics to consider, which are slimy and crooked in their own right. There’s the Anglocentrism of the whole affair, the stench of narcissism and self-congratulations, and three hours of bad jokes.
So why do I watch? Why do I, as a cinephile, sit down and watch the Oscars when a lot of the time, I’m wary of the nominations, winners, politics, choice of host, jokes, manner of coverage and/or running time? I have a couple of theories. One of them, as lame as it sounds, is just full-on love of film. You watch the Oscars because you’re invested in the medium, for the joy it gives and the romanticism it exudes. There’s also the contingency of Oscar viewers who see it as one of the last remaining vestiges of classical Hollywood glamour, all beauty, class and opulence, and watch accordingly. A lot of people watch it because it’s eye candy (on more than one occasion people have told me that they “watch the Oscars for the dresses”). Increasingly, it’s a night of kibitzing, online or otherwise, where the ceremony gets continuously riffed on in all manner of ways.
None of these really capture the allure of the Oscars for me. Obviously, it’s about the films. Watching the Oscars is just another kind of cinephilia. But it doesn’t exactly have to do with whether or not the movies are good or bad. It’s about talking about the nominations with friends, talking about who’s likely to win and lose, figuring out if anyone nominated is due, so to speak. It’s about rooting for the nominees we like, even if we think that their work in another film was much worthier of the little golden statuette. It’s about nursing the rivalry between the two or three films that netted the most nominations. It’s about participating in Oscar pools and filling out one ballot with your head and the other with your heart. It’s about getting together with your friends and having a grand old time.
In short, the Oscars are basically March Madness for cinephiles.
Think about it. The 68 teams that are selected for the NCAA’s college basketball main event are not necessarily the 68 best teams in the United States. The prestige pictures backed by studio cash are the teams that get in by winning their respective division, and everybody else is an at-large, relying a combination of skill, luck and politics. It’s probably how, say, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got to be a nominee for Best Picture. Teams ranked in the Rating Percentage Index Top 25 generally get into the tournament, but like their Oscar analogues (movies that are critical darlings), some get snubbed. Fans cry foul and pundits go on about the kinks in the methodology. Just like for the Oscars.
While the Selection Committee builds the bracket, fans and observers alike try to read the tea leaves and figure out who will get placed where, and against whom (I’d like to point out that unlike with the Academy, we know the names of every person on the Selection Committee). Hype gets attached to certain names. A grand narrative starts to get sketched out. Dark horses. Wild cards. Long shots. Cinderellas. This divining process is called bracketology when applied to the NCAA basketball tourneys, but it could just as well be transposed to the Academy Awards. Plug what you know through what’s worked in the past and you’re sure to hit a bullseye more often than not.
And finally, the final bracket is announced. Cheers! Boos! I can’t believe so-and-so got subbed! How on Earth did they manage to get in? But even amidst all of the chatter, one thing is sure: the Great Selectors have made their choices. The die is now cast. The participants have been revealed; it is now time to pick the victors. Chances are you’ll be able to tell who’ll win a lot of the categories just by looking at the seed number or the pedigree of the film. So you fill out your bracket/ballot as best you can. You know that someone is likely going to win here, but you hope with all your heart that you’re wrong, busted bracket be damned. Cinderella stories are what make this whole enterprise interesting. Someone has been invited to the big dance time after time, only to come up short. Maybe it’s their year? Maybe they’ll pull it off this time. They can win in this field. Maybe a great team got stuck in a bad pod. Better luck next time. Wasn’t their year.
A lot of these imposed narratives don’t really hold up to scrutiny, but they’re an amusing part of the process. They give an otherwise hollow spectacle a sense of gravitas and continuity. More importantly, these kinds of events are given a sense of cultural context; wins and losses can capture the spirit of the current cultural and societal moment. Plus, it’s always fun to have bragging rights and some extra change in your pocket from winning your pool. In both cases, though, the allure isn’t so much about the event itself, but the collection of little meta-events that spring up around it. The love-hate relationship that many cinephiles, myself included, have with the Oscars is that push-pull between recognition and recreation. If we don’t agree with who’s up for the prizes, we might as well make a game of it and enjoy it on our own terms.