Watching the Oscars before the Storm

To prepare for last night’s Oscars telecast I read the A.O. Scott/David Carr debate about the ceremony. Scott argued that the publicity bloat of the Oscars obscures genuinely good American filmmaking. Carr championed the Oscars as one of our few remaining shared cultural experiences. Before the show, I was on Carr’s side, feeling that the Oscars accurately reflected Hollywood as an industry. But after watching the show, I came to sympathize with Scott’s position that, by closing the door on a very good film year while ignoring many excellent films, the Academy Awards did more harm than good.

I always forget that the ceremony doesn’t start on the hour. First there’s the red carpet to endure.  The doughy-faced girl who plays Hannah Montana was everywhere, acting very chipper for someone so irrelevant. The cameras were also fixated on Carrie Russell, whoever that is. A nice-looking woman, but kind of a generic starlet. The cut quickly to the dress procedure of the red carpet interview was startlingly abrupt. You get the sense that if Osama bin Laden came down the red carpet, there would be a perfunctory question or two about the whole terrorism thing before the conversation would switch to his elegant, flowing white robes.

So the actresses are led into the hall by their dresses, while the men look like they just remembered the Golden Globes is the ceremony with the drinking, not the Oscars. Then the promos kick in for ABC shows I won’t watch in this lifetime, nor in my next. Finally, Jon Stewart bounds on to the stage, armed with a set of jokes that had a first draft feel about them.

The rest of the night is kind of a blur. Carrie Russell appears a couple of more times and I still can’t figure out who she is. The Hannah Montana girl, the show’s most prominent product placement, appears again to do something completely inconsequential, and yet she manages to use the adjective "awesome" to describe it. Jon Stewart seems to be acting out the writers’ residual bitterness with his clench-jaw delivery. He looks visibly relieved to have the chance to ad lib when they let Marketa Irglova back out to give her speech.

There were a few other moments of actual feeling, when someone gets caught up in their passion for making movies, or the enormity of their good fortune finally hits them. One such moment was Diablo Cody, in her Betty Rubble dress and stevedore tattoo, accepting her award for her fellow writers. But overall the ceremony had a perfunctory and joyless air about it. I don’t know if it was the snowstorm that’s about to hit Chicago—our fourth or fifth major storm of this interminable and dreary winter—or just the tail end of a long weekend with a variety of job crises facing me on Monday morning. Maybe you saw something else. I haven’t had the chance to read anyone else’s reaction. Even the Coen Brothers’ studied New York cool struck a discordant note. Ordinarily I like them, although I’m still mildly surprised that No Country for Old Men won the Best Picture Oscar. I haven’t seen the film yet, primarily because I read the Cormac McCarthy novel, a post-Western grotesquery I wasn’t eager to re-experience in CinemaScope. The story just seemed too remorselessly bloody, too emotionally hollowed out to serve as the standard-barer for the American film industry.

I thought the key moment in the broadcast was Jon Stewart’s iPhone joke. There was some big-screen montage and when it was over, Stewart was watching it on an iPhone. The joke was a sly reminder that the Academy Awards are always two to five years behind the cultural zeitgeist. All that screen-chewing acting and those luscious long takes are lost in the microscreens of the digitized cinema. Finally, the iPhone joke was the writers’ way of reminding the actors that they’re up next in the bitter war over the three-inch screen.

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