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Simulated Performances for the Imperial Court

Propaganda and Poison at the Oscars

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Seth MacFarlane claimed in his opening monologue that this year’s Oscars adopted for the first time ever a theme—“the wedding of film and music” as he put it. The spectacle that followed  last Sunday night was in fact a depressing barometer of the status of the sonorous arts on screen and in the cultural consciousness of this country.

Barely having recovered from the Super Storms of musical fakery and propaganda that were the Presidential Inauguration and the Super Bowl, the latest State ritual—the Oscars—sent all whose brains were still attached to their ears scampering for higher ground against the surging floodwaters of propaganda and poison.

Lest one doubt that the Academy Awards has become as elaborate a court ceremony as anything dreamed up by Louis XIV and his image makers, there was Michelle Obama, backed by a detachment of US marines in full formal dress, to pry open the golden envelope and read out the name of the Best Picture winner, Argo, itself an attempt to show that the foreign policy of the Carter Administration and the workings of his CIA did get at least one thing right. The First Lady was decked out in her silver-and-black Oscars ball gown and I was half expecting the nearby Marine sergeant to ask her what she was wearing, so she could giggle “Naeem Khan.”

Mrs. Obama’s much-praised poise worked in well-crafted counterpoint to the devilish randomness of her interlocutor on the Dolby Stage in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson, himself a true-blue Democrat who backed Hillary Clinton in 2008. It was only fitting that the First Lady should announce that the award went to Ben Affleck, an extreme political moderate, who only grudgingly nodded in the direction of Obama in 2012.  In the present political culture, the Oscars provide the proper court protocols for the public healing of political wounds and the binding of celebrities to the royalist party.

Indeed the key Democrat courtiers literally ran the show on Sunday. Macfarlane is a big donor, having given hundreds of thousands of his own considerable fortunes to Democratic candidates, and his tepid, not-particularly-funny songs and jokes about women’s breasts (the first song-and-dance number of his opening segment, taped earlier), Jews in Hollywood, and homosexuality. These are all codes in court language for what constitutes the political progressive nowadays, conspiracy theories and sexual puritanism being the supposed hallmarks of the Republican right.

What makes the message even more smarmy is that MacFarlane really can sing, having nurtured his native talent with the help of Lee and Sally Sweetland, the coaches of another vital Dem-aristo, Barbara Streisand. Her National Jewish Democratic Council spot for Obama made during last year’s election counts as one of the most boring two minutes in the history of political ads. Streisand’s Oscar night performance “The Way We Were” in honor of the Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died last August, gave musical voice to a maudlin politics.

Then there was Jennifer Hudson completing her State ritual trifecta: in January she serenaded the First Couple at the Inaugural Ball with her cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in one of the most sickly sentimental set-pieces of that sickly sentimental day; then came the frightening staging of “America the Beautiful” with the survivors chorus of kids from the Sandy Hook Elementary School; and now the Oscars granted her space for a big-voiced version of the song from the movie Dreamgirls, “I’m Telling You I’m not Going”—a message intended less for the Hollywood nobility and world audience keen to feast on American excess than for Republican instransigents on Capitol Hill.

With all this transparently orchestrated Democratic pageantry, one yearns for a blast of gruff, even incoherent, bluster from those politician-actors of yore: Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Spectacles of such searing radiance rely on foot soldiers at the front and lackeys in the basement. In an age in which the “live” is increasingly supplanted by the canned,

Seth Macfarlane apparently thought he would astonish his audience with the claim that there actually was a real Oscars orchestra, actually playing their instruments in synchronized accompaniment in relative proximity to the onstage performers.  The elderly and nostalgic might have imagined that the host was then going to point to the pit (if the Dolby theater has one). Instead we saw a shot of the round Capitol Records Tower, which stands some dozen blocks up Hollywood Boulevard to the East. We then cut inside of that building to see the orchestra arrayed in some windowless cell, known as a studio, connected to the proceedings through closed circuit television and click-tracks. The off-site placement of orchestras is common practice on Broadway, but nonetheless depletes the “live” of any meaning, for the musicians might as well have been in China, and probably will be before too long.

Macfarlane’s absurd acknowledgement of the orchestra, sequestered in its bunker, presumably spoke to the alleged theme of the evening, but also might have been a weird way of showing support for musical laborers. These players may be in a dungeon far from the precious celebrity real estate of the Dolby theatre on Oscars night, but at least they still had their union jobs. Thus was the state of organized labor literally captured for all the world to see: here were skilled American workers one step from the street, poised for replacement by digital machines or foreign scabs.

In an Oscars show supposedly dedicated to film music there was precious little of quality: no mention was made of great screen composers—Bernhard Hermann, Elmore Bernstein or Miklos Rozsa just to name a few. Even the Hollywood musicals presented on stage were of middling quality at best: Catherine Zeta-Jones, consort of Democratic Duke Michael Douglas, lipsynched a number from Chicago, the Academy’s best picture a decade ago and right up with the many bad films that have received that award, from Mrs. Miniver to Brave Heart; and of course Hudson’s song from Dreamgirls.

The evening was all about promoting the living and trotting out the relevant stars rather than actually celebrating the best Hollywood has brought forth, creations like West Side Story. Even Sound of Music got only a silly smirk with a Nazi doing the gag about the Von Trapp family having escaped, just prior to Christopher Plummer’s entrance onto the stage to present the Best Actress statuette.

At least the national audience and the multitude of foreign observers could take comfort in the fact that the august tradition of ballot-tampering continues not just in American politics but also at the Oscars. How else to explain that the other theme of the evening—a celebration of a half-century of the James Bond cinematic franchise—led to a Best Song Oscar for the latest in the series, Skyfall. One of that piece’s authors, Adele sang it with the luxury of her own on-stage non-faking-it orchestra dominated by a string section exclusively made up of women in shoulderless gowns. Shirley Bassey also belted out Goldfinger to give the nominated Skyfall song a British boost.

Ennio Morricone’s far-superior Ancora qui from Tarantino’s accursed Django Unchained didn’t even get nominated, nor for that matter was Morricone honored in the supposed celebration of the medium to which he has contributed so much. Like every single one of the Bond leads from Connery to Craig, Morricone gave the Oscars a wide berth.

Long before Argo took Best Picture, the Bond homages fueled the evening’s already rampant nostalgia for Cold War hijinx and their application in the War on Terror in all its guises. The coordinated Oscar night strategy of Bond and Argo bolstered the thrust of American foreign politics: demonize Iran and the rogue states, praise individual derring-do and Western high-tech warfare and spying, and do it to the raucous sounds of American music (even if composed and sung by Brits) with a gutsy singer backed up by electric bass, insidious drumming, and surging strings. Rule Britannia, Rule America!

Preposterous as it may now seem, the Queen herself had already appeared in a Bond short shot for and screened at the London Olympics last summer. It was therefore only right that the Obama court should attach itself indirectly to the Bond myth with Michelle announcing the last Oscar of the night. Increasingly, music becomes a stealth weapon in the project of making Americans believe that the simulated performances favored by our Imperial court are more worthy of attention than the reality beyond the official soundtrack.

Before last Sunday’s show had mercifully concluded more than three hours later, the nuptials of film and music had ended in divorce amidst the usual recriminations: cheating, abuse, and lies.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com