I watched the Oscars this year not at an Oscar party, but at a post-"Ed Wood" B movie party. How, you may ask, did that happen? Who would schedule a camp marathon on the night of the Oscars? Why is it that when Ryan Seacrest was trolling among the shallow pools of red plush looking for a bosom big enough, like Clooth Na Bare's lake, to drown himself in, I was taking solace in the bosom of Vampira and her statuesque physique and equally statuesque performance as an alien seed hatchling? Why is it that when George Clooney arrived dressed to the Nines, I was watching "Plan Nine From Outer Space"? Why is it that when Miley Cyrus arrived I was looking not into her saucer eyes but looking instead at a flying saucer on fire that oddly resembled the flaming hubcap of a 1978 Pinto hatchback? Why was I missing Mo'Nique and her hairy legs to watch Vampira and her leggy dregs?
Part of it was poor planning, but you might also attribute it to a lack of Academy Awards brio in yours truly. I am probably the only person on Earth who will tell you that I'm put off by the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 nominees. The reason for this gesture of noblesse oblige by the academy, their opening of the gates to more films, possibly even bad ones, is that America has divided into two camps, the 1% of those who like good movies and then everybody else. It was time to offer a seductive hand, it seems, to lure back the other 99% of moviegoers who had stopped watching the Oscars because they knew they would not see the names Twilight or The Hangover or Medea's Family Reunion engraved on a statuette. Ever. Who knew that their favorite teen angst kitsch and piss-colored melodramas would never be rewarded with the bald trophy who shines like tears from the sun.
I have always loved the Oscars before. Unlike the almost useless Grammy Awards, a ceremony that tries to plant tent poles in the shifting sands of fashion, and ends up mostly rewarding, in the face of such an impossible task, technical prowess and blondeness, the Oscars have always seemed to me to be an actual arbiter of quality first. Sure, they've thrown in such horrible crowd-pleasers as Ghost from time to time, but only the Academy Awards would reach out to a small desert flower growing unnoticed in the vermilion cliffs and water it--such films as Chariots of Fire, perhaps, or performances like Hilary Swank's in Boys Don't Cry.
When business people evaluate stocks, they usually look at two values--what the price of a company would be if everything, including the paper clips, were sold today, and then what the mad crowd thinks its worth. This is a dangerous game with art, which is always given no value until it is suddenly given way too much value. The same with Oscars. Sometimes, when you give an award to a person who actually deserves it, the price of the Oscar goes up. An Oscar worth 50 cents when you give it to Sandra Bullock is worth $1.20 if you give it to Martin Scorsese. Such is the manic temper of commodity.
But this year, the hawkers of the statue seem determined to try to fix its value again (downward) by dangling more of them out to a field of contenders that was largely unworthy. 2009 was not a good year for movies. In fact, it merely confirmed the fact that "merely good" is somehow a worthy substitute for great, something it becomes harder to think as the years pass and that copy of Taxi Driver sits on your shelf, reminding you how things used to be.
I haven't seen Avatar, and maybe I should withhold judgment, but the fact is I can't be excited about it because I feel like I know who it was made for, and it wasn't made for me. I was supposed to be excited last year when the excellent franchise of Star Trek was revitalized, only to find out that a series whose stories once proceeded from big ideas and intellectual curiosity had been turned into a work of hostility by fetish monkeys--people who romanticize mass annihilation and are drunk on enfeebling spectacle. People who prefer to see Captain Kirk as an out-of-control alpha male oozing vengeance rather than the cool, if libidinous, master of the Socratic dialogue that he once was. Could anyone have ignored the irony that the filmmakers of the new Star Trek literally destroyed the old Star Trek reality with a freak time warp accident and a bunch of red goop, freeing themselves to reimagine these beloved characters as a pantheon of whiny Gen Y orphans and freeing the series forever from the yoke of seriousness? Is this how dies the free-thinking, stoic Rousseauian humanist that sprang forth in the 60s, to be murdered in an Oedipal tantrum? His history erased by gadget-loving latch-key kids with a working mom and absent dad who will forever be trying and failing to get in touch with his feelings and beating up lots of people in the process?
I harp on Star Trek only because it was one of the highest grossing films of last year. Its audience has won. They control the films we watch. So I don't feel like they deserve to invest the halls of the Academy too, pulling down the marble and pulling up the porphyry and purloining the columns and otherwise destroying the last of the great Empire that was the Hollywood of the '70s and building their Vandal camps all around.
I can find hope in the fact that a number of good, adventurous, innovative films did indeed win the night--films like Precious and Inglourious Basterds. I concede that quality was eventually rewarded more than commerce. But I can't help but feel that this breach between what's good and what's successful will continue to widen until we have two different industries and two different audiences. If you think America is polarized politically, then I ask you to imagine what it would be like if we are divided aesthetically. It may seem like a silly distinction. But then again, men with long hair and women with hairy legs were once able to change the world.
Bring on Mo'Nique, and her hairy legs.