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It’s that time of year again. This Sunday evening they will roll out the red carpet, thousand dollar gowns, parade of stars, bad musical numbers and tasteless jokes in the 2014 Academy Awards during which little gold statuettes will be passed out to members of the film industry in recognition of the Academy recognizing them.
To pretend that the Academy Awards actually award artistic merit, transcendent aesthetics, or culturally revolutionary film would be to lie to ourselves. The Academy Awards are just another Industry sponsored event created to give industry insiders a big pat on the back, provide promotional punch for the films being touted, and to maintain Hollywood’s Aura of Spectacular Specialness even while the majority of the world is buried in poverty and war, including members of the very country from which the Academy originated.
Yet, I watch the Academy Awards every year because I love movies even when the American institution that honors them pisses me off. Every year, I watch the Oscars and get increasingly more pissed off and appalled at the way Hollywood has manufactured itself as a Message Delivery System rather than an Entertainment Business. I like going to the movies. I have no problem shelling out my ten bucks for a ticket to be entertained by a Hollywood movie, but I get really mad when the movie industry promotes itself as some great political service by supporting movies with meaning messages laden with Self Importance, while quietly in the background industry corporates executives are lining their pockets with profits. Please let’s not pretend that the movie industry as represented by the Academy Awards is anything but a big business. Do you know how much a commercial spot costs on the ABC broadcast of the awards? Nearly $2 million for 30 seconds.
Nevertheless, the movie industry provides entertainment and escape for people who need a little relief. There is a reason why movies are popular during times of great economic depression. People can scrape together the price of a movie ticket even if they aren’t flying to the French Riviera or the Bahamas for vacation. I don’t understand why Hollywood is compelled to think that political education is its Be All End All of Merit. Is it to mask the real money-making machine that underlies the business?
Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with plain good entertainment, especially if we are paying for a couple hours of escape. Every year, great screenplays and movies are overlooked by mediocre message movies. This year’s Oscar ticket really takes the cake with both an AIDS movie and a slavery movie fighting for top awards. Talk about being put between a rock and a hard place. What oh what is the Industry going to do when you have both slavery and AIDS on the bill? In the end, it will come down to what makes Hollywood feel best about itself and is best for its business, not what is actually “best.”
I am going to focus on the Best Picture category because I’m not going to pretend that the Academy Awards exist for any other reason than to give its stamp of approval to this category. This is the category that sells more tickets at the theater and more DVDs once the awards are over. While on one level many filmmakers see their films as “art,” on the Academy level, movie production means profits. For all its self-importance and accolades, even the slavery movie is making A LOT of money for 20th Century Fox and its “independent” arm Fox Searchlight Pictures which distributed the film in the United States. The Board Members of Fox certainly care about profit margins more than solving real problems in the world today. So again, let’s not kid ourselves here.
Speaking of the slavery movie, let’s start with Best Picture. Clearly having Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave on the docket throws everything else in its shadow, not because it is the best movie but because it would be almost impossible for Hollywood to slight a movie of such “great historical and political importance” without coming off as an industry of bigots. Given the Academy’s track record of recognizing black filmmakers and actors, how is it even possible to consider other contenders about white people with this movie running for the prize?
Personally, I didn’t care for 12 Years A Slave, nor do I feel obligated to tout its credibility because of the subject matter. Just because a movie is about slavery doesn’t mean it is a great film. I have watched many Steve McQueen’s films, including his early art films. One thing they all share in common is explorations of male sexuality, which often is portrayed with erotic aesthetics. Steve McQueen is an artist who produces highly stylized and eroticized films even when dealing with political subject matter. 12 Years A Slave is beautiful looking – both the setting and the people –, but this is a problem. There are scenes in this film that could come straight out of Tom of Finland if he were drawing black slaves (e.g. the scene when the naked men bathe or are paraded about in various forms of bondage with their slick black skin glistening in the hazy Southern sun) or out of an erotic SM graphic novel (e.g. the whipping of black women). While the politically correct and sensitive viewer can feel good about themselves watching these scenes, there are plenty of people who 1) can get their rocks off sexually or 2) get their rocks off politically. Oh, look at the poor suffering slaves and their beautiful black bodies exposed to such atrocities. In the end, 12 Years A Slave plays like soft porn docudrama. It is a movie that makes white people feel good about themselves for seeing it.
I understand that I am in the minority when I speak my opinion about this movie. But the movie was made with an air of self-importance that swayed viewers into being seduced by McQueen’s seductive cinematic eroticism packaged as politically revolutionary. There are those who argue that is the point of the film. That slaves were treated as objects and not as people, and that McQueen turning them into highly charged erotic objects steeped in a kind of SMBD aesthetic exposes the slave trade as a business that treated people as objects. Well, I object. I think all this film does is keep slavery at a safe distance. 12 Years A Slave is the kind of movie that white people can go to and feel like they are doing something important. They can leave the theater, acknowledge they acknowledged slavery, and chat about it over wine and cheese. It is the kind of movie that the Academy can feel really good about recognizing while also helping 20th Century Fox keep a lead on the movie market. I’m not buying it.
Yet it is hard to fathom the Academy not giving Best Picture to a movie about slavery. There is nothing an industry that has basically shut out blacks likes to do more than haul out the Message Movie to pat itself on its money-lined liberal back. Look how big and important we are for acknowledging a slavery film as the Best Picture! Sure, 12 Years a Slave swept the Golden Globes. However, the Golden Globes are British as is filmmaker Steve McQueen. This throws a wrench into the Best Picture. How can the American film industry give a Best Picture award to a slavery film that didn’t come from the country which instituted the slave system portrayed in the movie? A country founded on the backs of slaves? There is a competitive factor here. Shouldn’t the Best Slavery Picture come from America? How can they give the award to a British outsider artist’s film?
This is where Dallas Buyers Club comes into play. If they don’t give the Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, then certainly they will toss the award at the AIDS movie, since AIDS and gay issues certainly are the champion cause of Hollywood. Interestingly, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t necessarily a gay movie. It is a heterosexual AIDS movie based on the real life story of Ron Woodruff (played with astounding ferocity by Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic Texan electrician and rodeo bull rider who contracted AIDS during one random sexual encounter. However, the screenwriters and producers twisted, molded and packaged Woodruff’s story to appeal to a gay audience, which in turn appeals to the Academy and the Hollywood industry. In this business marketing is everything. While the movie’s central plot focues on a heterosexual homophobic man coming to terms with his own death sentence, Jared Leto’s Rayon character (a dying drag queen) was scripted into the screenplay to add a gay flavor and create a movie about tolerance as well as self-preservation.
Certainly Rayon’s fictional character is being championed by Hollywood as the Face of AIDS rather than the self-serving Ron Woodruff. I just returned from a trip to LA where the town was virtually plastered with posters and billboards for Dallas Buyers Club. (Yet, I did not see one poster for 12 Years a Slave.) The large majority of posters I saw featured close-ups of Jared Leto’s face as Rayon while only a few showed the lead character (and heterosexual homophobe) Ron Woodruff. It would seem from the advertisements plastering the streets of Hollywood, that Dallas Buyers Club is being championed as the gay AIDS movie, so it is likely that if the Academy does not feel compelled to acknowledge slavery as envisioned by Brits, then it will give its Message Award to the AIDS movie especially since the movie industry lost a hell of a lot of players to the disease.
So with both AIDS and slavery on the ticket, it’s hard to think that any other movie could stand a chance. This is where the Innocent Outsider comes in – Gravity. Personally, I thought Gravity was a big bore. There were some cool effects with stars and the great vast infinite nothingness of space, but mostly the movie is about Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear trying to figure out how to save her ass. Frankly, if I want to see a woman lost in space fighting for survival in her underwear, I’ll take Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. But Gravity is a safe bet because it doesn’t take place on earth. Therefore it is not beholden to acknowledge slavery or AIDS. Also it is directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Hollywood’s favorite of the Mexican Trio (Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Cuarón). Giving the award to a Mexican director demonstrates Hollywood’s tolerance (ahem) while also securing its close economic relationship south of the border. A lot of money flows between Hollywood and Mexico, just saying. Of course the Hollywood Win-Win-Win will be to give Best Director to Cuarón, Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, and Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey. Then all bases are covered (speaking of saving one’s ass).
There is no way the Academy will give Best Picture to Wolf of Wall Street – a movie about a filthy rich white opportunist – with a movie about slavery on the ticket. However, I quite frankly think watching Leonardo with a candle stuck up his butt was way more entertaining than enduring 136 minutes of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s pleading, suffering and outraged eyes. Also, Scorcese is too much of an industry outsider. The Academy gave him his one Oscar for The Departed after being slighted year after year after year for better films. Philomena can’t win because if they are going to give the award to a British film, it has to be the slavery film.
What would I pick? Well, I think the best films on the list are American Hustle, Her and Nebraska. Spike Jonze’s Her speaks of very contemporary problems – alienation and isolation in the age of technology while Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an impeccably filmed and timeless black and white portrayal of economic depression and the fallacy of the American economic opportunism. Both these films are ruled out for being too small for the Academy Awards which not only prefers Big Movies but Big Bombastic Message Movies. This leaves American Hustle which is my pick. It is by far the most complex film — with nuanced acting, a fantastic screenplay, and a classic American Hollywood film.
The brilliant thing about American Hustle is that it seems slick and contrived on the surface, but it is actually brimming over with complex human emotion and desperation. It takes the surface of American Materialism (as represented by “the hustle”) and turns it inside out exposing a lot of vulnerable hearts. It doesn’t have any great agenda other than being a fantastically scripted, acted and directed film about people struggling to survive and to fulfill desires that get confused between human emotional needs and material wants (a nice counter-play to Her). Seriously, if I am going to shell out ten bucks at the multiplex, then I want what Hollywood once was best for – genre filmmaking. American Hustle is a classic romantic screwball comedy for the Depression Era. David O. Russell is a hell of a filmmaker operating within the “system” of Hollywood by making studio movies that mirror such industry greats as Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch. Why not just acknowledge the industry for what it is – the entertainment business which serves the masses most when it entertains rather than politicizes.
I realize I forgot to mention Captain Phillips. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if that lie of a movie won? Tom Hanks as heroic white guy surviving the Somalian pirates! Then I would have to break my television. Well, we will see if my TV still exists on Sunday night when the Academy of Motion Pictures will show its true colors or at least hide them behind a lot of bad jokes, shitty musical numbers and big messages.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.