I didn’t watch the Oscars last night. I haven’t for a few years, actually.
This wouldn’t be a big deal except for how I feel about movies. I love them. Movies are one of my great passions in life, a bedrock of my psyche. My dad was a filmmaker, before I was born and that seemed like not a great economic choice. He directed and wrote. I grew up saturated in film. The one photo I have from my 1st birthday is me in a shirt that says: Baby Mogul. In my family, a lot of emotional dialogue and hashing out of the stuff of the heart happens through talking about movies. We quote; we reference. We live in the subtext. Some people might think that’s weird and upsetting–I like it. I like living in layers of reference, in a private language. These days, of course, I use that language much more with my friends and partner than my family. The movies we watch are no longer precisely the same.
But I just can’t watch the Oscars anymore.
I have two problems and they intertwine hardcore. One is the insincerity issue. After living in Japan and being away from media faces and the way they exaggerate and code human emotion (and oh god, they do, so much it’s terrifying when you step away from it) I am made physically uncomfortable watching presenters move their eyes across the teleprompters, saying things they don’t mean and didn’t write, things which are platitudes at best and unfunny nearly universally. These are the humans that, like it or not, are paid to interpret the experience of living on this planet for us, and they ways in which they act onscreen affect real life interaction to a huge degree. They are in a very real sense our avatars (hence the which celeb are you game). They teach us what angry and sad and happy and in love looks, sounds, and feels like. It’s an absolutely monumental amount of psychic power they wield. And when asked to be genuine and play themselves for less than a minute on stage most of them become uncanny valley robots. Of course the reality is one more level of the matrix–the lines that are meant to sound genuine and like off the cuff banter are written by Bruce Vilanch to be a reasonable simulacrum of the genuine self of the movie star, and there’s nothing genuine happening in all of the Oscars, except maybe that time Benigni said he wanted to make love to everyone. These people don’t choose their dresses or suits, they don’t speak except in sound bites written for them by a Hollywood Square veteran, and every effort is made to keep any real expression of feeling or personhood from seeping through to the audience at home. If we saw them as real people they wouldn’t be so good as avatars.
I cringe from the banter. It’s so intense, the fakeness of it. I can’t bear it. And then Robert Downey Jr gets up at the Golden Globes and before presenting the award for Best Actress in a Drama recounts how he would like to fuck each nominee individually and in detail, reducing them to sex objects before grudgingly acknowledging their actual work and I see so fucking red.
The second is that my class warrior comes out and every sentence that is meant to make celebrities seem like they’re just one of us, they tweet and get drunk too and you could steal this look! sets my teeth on edge. The amount of money involved in this spectacle is simply staggering. The amount of money in a single dress that will then get panned online. The conspicuous consumption of it, the back-patting for another year of spending millions on sequels and misogynist comedies, it’s all so false, it’s all so strange, it’s all so surreal. The life on that stage is not our lives. It’s just not. And I make my living as an entertainer. I get it. I get that many of them actually work super hard. But on Oscar night that doesn’t matter, ironically. On Oscar night what matters is who you wear, and who the award for safest choice will go to.
And sadly, every year I find fewer and fewer movies that excite me, that even make me laugh or think. We spent last night watching 80s movies which at least had a little joy in them. And I like spending Oscar night actually watching movies, because so much of the Oscars is just the dresses and the money and the horrible songs and laughing at things that aren’t funny and a barrel of fnords. I’m not saying we watched Citizen Kane–Back to the Future II featured prominently–but we consumed the art, instead of the system. Strangely, I still love old Hollywood–I can’t really explain that. I love the stories of it, how fucked up things were behind the scenes while they were inventing our culture freehand, how like Greek myth it is, but I think today there’s no contrast. We know it when people lock hookers in closets or shoot rivals in the head. We know immediately. Acting out isn’t Frances Farmer writing "cocksucker" under Occupation on her arrest form, it’s just doing coke til your nose falls off. There’s no dichotomy, no light and dark. No layers of meaning. Hollywood today often feels like a bar where the lights have been suddenly and powerfully turned on, and every seedy thing is visible. But maybe I only like old Hollywood when I’m reninventing it for a book, as I am now. Maybe I only like it as myth.
Of course they made bad movies then too. Terrible movies. I don’t think we even let the level of badness old Hollywood often performed on the screen–even shitty movies look spectacular. I don’t know why I’m not finding what I want in cinema now, or less of what I want. I suspect it’s because I’m finding it on TV–long form storytelling has migrated, and the best stuff is happening on television, where a story can be given room to breathe and grow, and the budgets and sets are now as good or better than anything on the silver screen. That’s where I’m getting my fix of great dialogue, gorgeous images, and indelible emotional moments. (I don’t care about the Emmys either though. Award shows are just not as exciting as execs want them to be.)
Of course, the awkward truth is that if anything I ever wrote was lucky enough to be made into a movie and was nominated I would be on that carpet in a heartbeat. Of course I would. But it would be to take part in something I loved as a child, like going to Disneyland even though I know the company is straight up evil. The awards are powerful. The ceremony is not, at least for me, at least now. For now I’ve had my last Oscar night, and will have movie nights in March every year instead.