Getting agro over Argo et al

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By Will Ross

The Oscars were almost over when their insidiousness reached its peak. First lady Michelle Obama was brought in to present best picture, delivered some platitudes about how these films prove “love can endure against all odds” etc., and handed the best picture Oscar to Argo.

There has been much criticism given to the moment: Argo, a tale of ingenuity and the triumph of US diplomacy, was considered a surefire winner. Selecting FLOTUS as the presenter seemed indiscreet. And the faux-apologetics of host Seth MacFarlane’s endless misogynist tirades have rightly taken a shellacking.

But to blast the Oscars for a sensational political kumbaya or sexist sluggery is to miss the forest for the trees. The real outrage was in Obama’s parade of platitudes, all the more so because it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

The speech was a capstone in the grand delusion of the Academy Awards, an event that purports to “recogniz[e] the year’s best films” (oscar.com’s words), ones that “broaden our minds” (Obama’s). But it operates as little more than Hollywood self-promotion. The movies with the biggest advertising budgets for award campaigns (in Argo’s case, around $10 million) are the ones that get nominated.

It’s not that Oscar choices are, as critics often hold, “political.” The individual votes of Academy voters are not made public, sparing them from political repercussions. The problem is precisely the opposite: the Oscars are a willfully apolitical event, voters do not have a comprehensive, international knowledge of cinema in their given fields, and they are by and large quite happy to vote for the most-promoted movies instead of seeking out the best and most groundbreaking ones.

In light of the winners and nominees, to suggest that Academy voters’ thought processes are political is to give them too much credit. The ceremony aims to indulge as low a common denominator as possible while still wearing a veil of sophistication and respectability.

After all, why would a ceremony purporting to showcase the worthiest cinema dedicate roughly 15 minutes of airtime to James Bond montages and songs? Does James Bond need the exposure more than, say, Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has been jailed and banned from filmmaking by the government, and yet still makes films that are smuggled out of the country in protest of censorship and totalitarian oppression? Or is that a little too political — and too foreign — for the Academy’s tastes?

The one non-English language film that escaped the “best foreign film” ghetto, Amour, pulled down a few nominations, including Best Picture. Impressive for a film whose point runs opposite to Michelle Obama’s description: love does not, and can not, and should not “endure all.” But on Oscar night Amour was neutered and rebranded, from a ruthless and stark depiction of love and death to a Hallmark drama with all the nuance of a Nicholas Sparks movie.

The nomination of Amour probably had more to do with the incumbent respectability it earned at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. There it won the Palm d’Or, often viewed as the real top prize of cinema. Cannes is a hotly anticipated festival and subject to immense industry pressure, yet its juries preserve its integrity time and time again, rewarding ambitious, difficult films that leave a lasting mark on the entire art form.

Regardless, the Oscars aren’t likely to change their ways anytime soon. So next time, I urge you to look at the prizewinners of other ceremonies — like the Berlin Film Festival, or Cannes, or even a film critics circle. They don’t have the same hype or spectacle, and there may not be many movies you’ve heard of, but the best awards rarely have the most dollars behind them.