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Artists, punks and suits

by Philip Martin | March 19, 2023 at 1:54 a.m.

I don't understand having strong feelings about who wins what award or how a halftime show goes down.

Most of us figure out pretty early that different people like different things, and while I believe that some of the entertainment products we consume are genuinely bad for us--art shapes who we are, and every image and noise we take in and process moves us either toward or away from empathy--I'm not prepared to set myself up as a serious arbiter.

We get the kind of [fill in the blank] we deserve. Our politics has descended into professional wrestling because smart people figured out they could accrue more power and money by keeping people entertained and outraged than by working to make the lives of ordinary citizens better.

The movies are the way they are because market forces have caused them to evolve into big, loud, overt spectacles that operate outside ordinary bounds of logic.

Because there are individual human beings involved in both these theaters of endeavor, there are some politicians who to some degree resist the general tendency to pander. You do not hear much about these politicians, for however noble their first intentions, the pragmatic demands of successful electioneering eventually overtake their ideals.

If you're going to play the game, you have to abide by the rules, and the first rule of power-seeking is that there are some truths that cannot be uttered. It is naive to believe that you can be both completely honest and electable; people will not stand to be told some things. Nevertheless there are good people in politics who have resigned themselves to working within an imperfect system to achieve whatever modest advances must be achieved.

Similarly, there are artists in Hollywood, and most who set out to make movies are driven less by the commercial lures of the business than the psychic rewards available from creative work. People are not called to filmmaking by the prospect of large paychecks, though I'm sure most of them are aware that a good living can be made at the elite levels of their profession. Even so, most actors have day jobs; most writer-directors shoot their movies on weekends, dragooning their friends into supporting roles.

It's only when money makes its presence known that they are tempted to sell out. When there's an opportunity to use skills in the service of some nakedly commercial enterprise, you take the opportunity, because that's the way our world works; everyone needs money.

Then there is more money, another opportunity that can make life easier. And soon you are working a lot, maybe on projects that don't matter that much to you, and you start to develop a certain sense of pride in yourself as a first-call, top-gun-for-hire.

And it's the first-call, top-gun-for-hire folks who end up on stage on Oscar night. Because they make the kind of movies that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science typically rewards: Movies that reassure their audiences that everything is going to be all right, that employ pretty people doing improbably dramatic things in a universe a degree or two heightened from the one we inhabit.

And that's all right, because I understand the Academy Awards as a kind of Chamber of Commerce banquet for the film industry; they're passing out awards to the people who did the best by Hollywood, not necessarily those who did the best to provoke thought or effect change in the human heart. My favorites are never Oscar movies, though sometimes it works out that the Academy Awards reward excellence.

It's difficult to argue "Everything Everywhere All at Once" isn't an excellent movie. I don't think it's as groundbreaking or as subversive as a lot of its supporters claim, and am skeptical of a film that takes the hypothetical existence of the "multiverse"--an allegedly infinite collection of diverse realities--as license for indulging whatever fantastic scenarios come to mind, but all in all, I like the movie well enough. Just not as much as I like "The Quiet Girl" or "The Banshees of Inisherin" or "The Integrity of Joseph Chambers," all more mundanely grounded in the recognizable reality of our actual Earth.

But that's a question of taste, something that's not completely within our control.

Were I to make an argument for "EEAAO" as the signal film of last year--which isn't the same thing as the winner of the Best Picture Oscar--I would note its globalized cast and the seamless way it incorporates the traditions of Hong Kong filmmaking, anime, Marvel comics and Spielberg-ian sentiment into an American pop context.

It's a chaotic, multi-tasking movie for a generation untethered from conventional expectations of domestic security. As such it probably shouldn't be warmly received by baby boomers who generally find it--as their parents found the Beatles--loud, frenetic and confusingly cheeky. (That cohort had "Top Gun: Maverick," Tom Cruise's rewrite of "Star Wars" as a two-hour Cialis commercial, as its champion.)

Most refreshingly, it wasn't built to be an Oscar movie; its release in March 2022 evidenced a lack of awards season ambition. "EEAAO" was indisputably a commercial venture--everyone who participated in its making expected to be paid--but it evinced an uncommon playfulness and a reckless disregard for convention. There's a punk ethos in "EEAAO" that shouldn't be disregarded--they definitely weren't thinking about potential Oscars when they made this movie.

But the "artists" who collaborated in the making of "EEAAO" didn't refuse to take part in the awards show or refuse to accept their statuettes. They probably saw the awards as validation of their efforts, even as their work seemed to subvert the traditional conventions of Oscar bait. They're happy their movie made more than $100 million at the box office, a number that's only likely to increase.

The Oscars are becoming younger, more diverse and more international, just like basketball and baseball. (My favorite moment from the television show the other night was the exhilarating live performance of "Naatu Naatu," the song from the Indian film "RRR" that went on to win an Oscar.)

At least part of the reason some people are complaining about the Oscars is pure nostalgia, which I'd define as longing for a romanticized time that never existed, a time we got better than what we deserved.

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