When people on the Left share a photo of Ivanka Trump and her husband dressed to the nines on the same day Trump issues a ban on hopeful Muslims entering the US, they say it’s a “Let Them Eat Cake” moment. Makes one wonder how people attending the Oscars will be regarded. Just how bad are things going to get over the next month if the first week of the Trump administration has already been a volatile mix of panic and chaos met with record-breaking global protests? The Oscars have not and will not be cancelled. The Oscars show will go on as it always has, even during World War II, the War in Iraq, and now, facing whatever fate awaits the country and the world.
I remember seeing Ivanka Trump in person at the Chateau Marmont ten years ago. She reminded me of a swan. A long-legged, long-armed, long-necked swan. She floated around the room like royalty. But now imagine her as an apologist for a corrupt, power-hungry authoritarian despot. We sense there is grave danger ahead. We know that the Oscars this year won’t be a place to calm things down but to rile things up. Remember back in the 1980s and 1990s when “getting political” was frowned upon? Back then, Republicans ridiculed Hollywood for being self-congratulatory indulgent millionaires pretending to care about the world. That sentiment is back on the Right, thanks to the guy who has lodged a decade-long assault on Hollywood and journalism – Breitbart’s Steve Bannon.
But Hollywood is not going to slump into self-hating mode. Nor is it going to back down to appeal to other half of America that voted for Trump. No, in 2016 everyone knows that this is war. This is a war for America’s soul. Are we going to plunge into darkness, or can we pull ourselves out of it? Perception is everything. Fake news is everywhere. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s going to get ugly.
Last night’s SAG awards were a good example of how Hollywood is going to navigate its planned festivities amid record-breaking protests and widespread upheaval. For all of the powerful speeches, there was still the underlying desire to be swept away. That was true with Lily Tomlin’s brilliant speech. And it will be true with the kinds of films that win awards on Oscars Sunday.
No film embodies that sentiment more than La La Land. From its send up of how Los Angeles weather never changes, to the various set pieces that exist as if the city itself is a movie set, to its hyper-realized hero and heroine who have sprung from a 1930s musical, but are denied the usual happy ending of those musicals.
I think La La Land’s worth is not in its message of “chasing dreams” but rather in its organic compounds. Its significance is intrinsic to its very nature, not imposed or appended. It doesn’t need to be important because what it is exists to bring pleasure to people in pain. La La land is not a confection so much as palliative medicine.
It can’t be about chasing dreams. Not when you have a film like Fences that exists under the shadow and legacy of slavery, where generations of descendants of those slaves were blocked from chasing those dreams because they existed behind a barrier of segregation — after centuries of white oppressors telling them they’re no better than farm animals or a tradable property. That freedom to be whatever they dreamed of being did not exist for those characters. The miracle in August Wilson’s play was brilliantly described by Viola Davis — he wrote about people who are invisible to a world of art built for and about white people.
Nor is that freedom to chase dreams open and available to the main character of Moonlight, who wakes up every day just trying to survive another day. He has to boil hot water for his bath on a stovetop. He beats back drug dealers, bullies, and gay-bashers every single day of his life. When finally the gust of true love blows into his world he has to wonder if it isn’t too late, if the damage hasn’t been done, if he can’t go back to that place where all things were possible.
For young black girls who go to see Hidden Figures, they now see that their history, too, was full of heroes. They just weren’t celebrated because in Hollywood, the story of African Americans is a limited one. It has most often been refracted through the lens of white filmmakers who may seek to absolve themselves from feelings of guilt. Even now, when the subject of this being an historic year for black artists and the Oscars, you will never run out of people insisting that movies should win on merit (which in the end often comes down narrow variations of reassuring familiarity) and that a Best Picture winner need not represent or even recognize anything larger that’s happening in our cultural evolution.
Look at the juxtaposition of the main character of Lion. That film illustrates beautifully the two sides of privilege. Look at where he starts. His mother, who cannot read, has to collect and carry rocks to earn a living to feed her tiny family. They live in abject poverty in India without any access to basic technology or comforts that most of us consider necessities. When a twist of fate lifts Saroo from his abandoned despair and transplants him into a world of opportunities thousands of miles away, he is at last able to find the freedom to chase his dreams. His journey then becomes epic in the classical sense when his explorations lead him back to India, back to his mother. The film Lion is acutely conscious of the differences between having privilege and not having it.
La La Land, though, is valid as a work of art, as a burst of cinematic vitality that springs from a filmmaker whose own career illustrates perfectly what a person of privilege can do with that privilege. If the aim of rewarding Oscars is to reward high achievement in movie-making creativity, La La Land more than deserves its accolades. With brilliant songs, an infectious score, and dazzling design elements throughout — paying homage the legacies of the greats, Demy and Minnelli, by preserving and re-energizing their stylish sangfroid the way the film seeks to honor and re-enliven jazz. The movie’s essence is what movies are about. Valuing what came before, preserving it, celebrating it as an important part of American and cinema history. The chasing dreams part exists within the movie but I don’t believe it defines the movie. This much is true: no matter your background or where you come from, millions will watch the movie and be swept up in a yearning for greater things.
The disastrous political shifts we’re experiencing this year will not be reflected in the films that are chose; they were conceived and completed before things feel apart. We might hope to see films a couple of years from now that are only now being written in creative reaction to what’s happening around us. We could see more direct impact in the foreign language feature race and the short categories — since shorter films and those from overseas pulse to a different rhythm, on a different wavelength that’s frequently more reactive and immediate. No, the politics of Oscar Night will come from the artists who take the stage as presenters and winners, where protests will surely be taking place outside, and where Meryl Streep, we expect, will once again emerge a hero, raising her right to freedom of speech to a clarion call as few others can do. Many will no doubt find salvation in La La Land’s message about art for art’s sake, because to them art is speech. And when freedom of speech is threatened, art is threatened, performers are threatened, our very cultural foundation is threatened.
Arrival is, strangely enough, the only film in the Best Picture lineup that seems to be dealing with erratic, over-reactionary militaristic forces being opposed by a clear-eyed and resolute resistance. That, and Hacksaw Ridge, which advocates non-violence in a war-driven environment. Both of these films have a weighty subtext that, when we look back on this era ten years from now, will seem more and more substantial and relevant. Arrival is very much about saving the world from itself. It’s about the peril of miscommunication, irrational fear of the “other.” Hacksaw Ridge is about how citizens are commanded by unyielding authority to kill one another just because we’re on opposite sides of a war — with division created by the same leaders that send us into calamity. It reveals the unspeakable carnage that humans are capable of. Neither of these movies have received enough attention in the dialogue surrounding this year’s Oscar race and the broader events unfolding to our horror, but they do hold an essential place in this woeful moment, and we can be confident that their artistry will only rise in esteem as years go by.
Who knows where we will be in one month’s time, when the Oscar ceremony is broadcast. Will Hollywood be in a mood to unify America? Will it back off in an effort not to alienate the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump? Should the Academy even try to placate that swath of the population who, if not all hateful, have enabled the hateful to take power? Those “deplorables,” as they proudly adopt a term that should make most of them feel ashamed, have this exaggerated sense of persecution, as if they’re holed up in a bunker, “forgotten men” under siege for their “freedom cry.” People like Sarah Palin love to play the victim — and pander to the psychosis of the artificially victimized — convincing them that they’re oppressed by liberal America. The Oscar speeches and most of the films awarded will play right into that wave of paranoia and many who voted for Trump will likely not watch because of that.
However, the anti-political nature of La La Land might, in fact, be its own unifier. Perhaps that is the best reason the Oscars will likely have an uptick in viewership this year. Back in the day, that’s what musicals could dependably do. There weren’t many ways to escape the horrors of the world wars or the Great Depression, but there was Fred and Ginger, singing and tap dancing, emerging from worlds that were out of reach for those paying a quarter to see them. Back then, movies were medicine. Maybe now, they must be again.