As with so many things, I am a natural, knee-jerk contrarian when it comes to Oscar season. I’m not strident or angry, but as the years have passed, I find my lack of sympathy for the whole thing deepen. My failure to understand the appeal of the ballyhoo leading up to the ceremony or the awards themselves seems to deep year over year, so that now the Oscars seem to me almost pointless.
I can make arguments for the Oscars, and not ones that are pure sophistry (though I like to think I’m good at pure sophistry, too). I sincerely believe it’s good to give recognition where it’s due artistically, and most if not all of the films are deserving of some. The Oscars give more hesitant moviegoers a reason to get their butts to the theater and show the industry there is still some demand for films of that caliber.
But that’s about where my praise ends and my vague disgruntlement begins. Nominees say that it was an honor or a thrill just to be up for the award, which I think shows we ought to stop right there and not bother to announce winners at all. The idea of selecting a “best” among such a wide array of films is, after all, faintly ridiculous. I mean, right? Why the hell would I care if Philomena has won Best Picture over The Wolf of Wall Street, when the virtues of one have nothing to do with the virtues of the other? It isn’t like comparing apples to oranges — which, after all, are actually comparable — but more like comparing apples to steak tartar, or peach sorbet to lobster roll.
And yet we do enjoy our horse races, I know. If I were truly disinterested in any activity that drew up fairly meaningless lists of winners and losers, I would not be an obsessive board gamer. I dedicate my brainpower often, and happily, sometimes addictively, to board games, even though the stakes of winning are preposterously low. It’s competition, much like our vaunted Oscars, and what’s more, competition for competition’s sake almost. We go to board games, after all, to win, and at least we acknowledge that and embrace it, however small the stakes.
Films are another deal altogether. Film and art more generally are arguably sought out not so that we can evaluate and score but so that we can get some of that brief ray of light that comes with beauty, truth, or humanity, or the je ne sais quoi of creativity. Whatever it is you get out of art, it’s a damn sight less quantifiable than the final score in Settlers of Catan.
(It strikes me now that as domains of mastery, expertise in board games and respectable filmmaking are something like inverse complements from a prestige point of view. Which is to say, if you announce at the average dinner party that you are one of the best Monopoly players in the world, you will get vague interest but few phone numbers, I can only assume. On the other hand, explain that you are an award-winning filmmaker with a shot at winning a major award, and I would expect fevered interest — if only because virtually everyone likes to talk about movies — or at least some deference. Perversely, however, winning a board game is much more clear cut and rarely a “matter of opinion.”)
I am not above critically evaluating movies (did you know I have a blog about them?), which puts me in a similar frame of mind to that of ranking and awards. But there’s quite a bit less pomp (namely, zero) involved, and among my friends and me, a debate about the quality of this or that film is really to the end of illuminating it, if only a little. The Oscars are like these debates writ in bright lights, spectacular in a way that is completely fabricated and not true at all to the spirit of art.
Yet year after year, we seem to make a collective agreement to forget this fact, at least on many of the film blogs I read, and, presumably, at water coolers everywhere. (I’ve never heard anybody make the case that films are essentially unrankable, I don’t think, which suddenly seems odd to me given how obvious the point seems.) At moments like this, with so many web columns dedicated to the pursuit of those golden statuettes, I think to The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton. Dutton makes a great argument for art as evolutionary adaptation, a kind of performance we humans use both to train our brains and to show off. I don’t know if he’s right, but since reading it, I’ve often felt like many human endeavors, even art, seem like only manifestations of our eternal race to show the world how fit we are to reproduce.
It’s hard for me to see the Oscars as anything but a highly tuxedo’d version of that struggle. But even if I see the reasons for it, I just can’t get my mind off the big thing: Great art is often a mess and consuming it seems like it ought to be messy, too. Messy means not reducing one to the “best” or talking about our top-ten lists as though they meant anything significant about the art itself. When we come to art, it’s probably better (notice the mellow tone here) if we’re not trying to get maximum artistic enjoyment per minute watched.
This is a perhaps protracted explanation of why I won’t be commenting on the Oscars this year, or really any year. Yes, world, I know you’re disappointed, but please try to contain yourself.