“A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died…”
What a year. We’ve never seen anything like it, at least not in the last 20 years. I’m sure the Oscars have lived through worse. We know they have. When I first started Bill Clinton was surviving impeachment, coasting on high octane charisma in a party that would one day turn on him. It was on the eve of the 9/11 attacks, which changed America in ways we haven’t really come to terms with. Our surveillance state under orange alerts and constant fear was braided through the coming years along with the rise of the internet, the disappearance of newspapers and actual journalists – and along with it, our privacy. Then came blogs like mine where personality and opinion swallowed whole sourced objectivity. A sea of op-eds. Outlets like the Huffington Post learned quickly that to draw eyeballs they needed clickbait headlines. At first, those headlines meant you maybe clicked, maybe read.
Then came social media which, it could be argued, might be the final thing that brings the once mighty empire of America to its knees. Do you exist at all if you don’t exist on social media? Can you survive at all? Are you a participating human? Where is real life anymore? How hard it is now to fight for any kind of honest truth. There is no truth. There is only what a small majority supports with likes and RTs. Now, clickbait headlines aren’t even read. They are taken as gospel.
The Oscar voters, and all of us who cover the race, know that it’s part of a mostly rigged game. It’s harder and harder to remember what the Oscars were supposed to be way back when. We look at the movies like currency. Their worth is in what they can win on a consensus vote. On the one hand, everyone knows it means everything. On the other hand, everyone knows it means nothing.
The Oscar coverage industry has never been bigger at a time when the Oscars themselves have never been smaller. What can an institution do when it’s been crushed by a pandemic and a changing industry that really can’t be bothered much with what the Oscars think anymore. They know that they really only have two options, like every other mutation in every other evolution of every species that ever lived on this planet: adapt or die.
Adapt – Abandon the need for the Big Screen of the old days and embrace streaming platforms and the many opportunities they provide.
Die – Hold on tight to the old way.
The old way is the greatest reign of the Oscars in my view. The 1970s, after the Baby Boomers launched a massive cultural revolution in the 1960s but then watched as their counter culture dreams were lost. They still held onto culture, though, and that disillusionment, that hopelessness made for the best films that ever won Best Picture.
The movies that remain are good. They have to be. They have to run the gauntlet that strictly polices them for anything that might be “wrong.” What the public thinks doesn’t matter. The critics know better and they have good taste.
But I have to admit, watching the optimistic press conference for the 93rd Oscars, the words of none other than Dr. Seuss came to mind:
And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!
Yes, these three made my heart grow three sizes that day. Why, because there they were – there the Oscars are – making it happen anyway. And they’re doing it with enthusiasm, excitement and OPTIMISM. How this? Where does it come from? Well, it comes from people who still BELIEVE in movies. Not just popcorn movies. Not just MOVIE movies. But the magic of the movies. The communal spirit of them. It moved me. I cannot lie. Even in the context of an industry that, as the saying goes, is in love with itself – and awards that sanctify that love – there was something about it that made me feel a small splinter of hope.
Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher sat for a press conference to talk about their plans for the Oscars themselves. They want to produce the Oscars as a movie. They want it to be good enough for people who care about movies to tune in and watch. If, for no other reason, for curiosity’s sake.
I went up to the place where you will accept your award, and stood there and looked at the room, and I was just so overcome. And the first thing I said is I would fully pull a Sally Field. I would cry. I would say you liked me. It would be like every Oscar highlight. It’s beautiful, and it’s overwhelming in its intimacy of our community. And you could feel our community in it, even though it’s just a set in progress right now. It’s great.
Soderbergh says about the movies:
They are about the times that we live in. They are all Zeitgeist movies. They are beautiful, they are moving; sometimes they are painful.
It’s like that proverb: In good times, in bad times, this too shall pass. And we need to have hope to move forward. So we have to acknowledge what we have been through, and the historic losses we have been through, but we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things.
You know, we were all dealt this blow with Pacific and ArcLight and the Cinerama Dome being in question. And we are here to, with these extraordinary nominees, make a case for why cinema matters. And that is how we bring our movie love.
And about the Oscars and the winners:
And if you like movies, you will feel like you are watching a movie. The presenters will be playing themselves, or at least I hope a version of themselves. But we are hoping that there — in the writing we have been interacting with them, and we are hoping that they will bring part of their experience and their movie love to what they say.
Jesse Collins says:
And it will also just emotionally, you know, we’ll see that like, Oh, we do want — we are a communal species — we do want to be together. And that will hopefully lead to more shows be like this; but also, people getting back into the theaters. People having the communal experience that only film can bring. We are hoping that this is a giant step forward in that.
You might wonder how the producers and director of Contagion might produce the Oscars in the year of THE CONTAGION. Well, to know the answer to that is to know the movie. I had probably watched Contagion (it is my favorite Soderbergh film after all) dozens of times before COVID arrived. That movie is about how to make life happen anyway. How to find the beauty in the familiar rituals. What might have felt like a bit of a corny ending before (at least that was the complaints I heard – I would have none of it – it’s a great movie and time simply had to catch up with it).
Contagion came out in 2011, ten years after 9/11 and exactly ten years ago this year. The Artist would win Best Picture that year because it was during a time in the film industry where voters were awash in nostalgia. What I loved about Contagion then wasn’t just the rocking socking directing, which is what I love most about it honestly, but I love that Scott Z Burns was confronting blogging and how it distorts information, journalism and truth already. I remember feeling a pang of guilt over that. Twitter had not yet changed its algorithm then to mimic Facebook’s, so it was really just a good news stream but even then it all moved too fast.
This interview is interesting to look at now — ten years later — because of just how significantly news and news delivery has changed:
Of course, it should be mentioned that the contagion in this film is a lethal one. It isn’t what COVID actually is. The movie virus can’t be survived unless you are genetically immune to it or you find the right drug. COVID has a 2% death rate, which means 98% of people who get it survive it. But what we’re dealing with is more psychological. That is captured in the Soderbergh film.
As someone who has been covering, watching and analyzing both the Oscars themselves and coverage of the Oscars through a changing country after the turn of the millennium, I can say that this year has, to me at least, held up a mirror to the industry overall and exposed one big problem: the Oscars and movies and “community” can’t exist just for one side of the aisle. It is probably bothersome to hear but I’ve never seen it quite this bad and I don’t think survival is possible with hundreds of millions of people left out of the experience or just simply disregarded.
As you can see from the above clip, Contagion came out at a time where we weren’t so polarized politically. It doesn’t really become a question of Democrat and Republican, masks vs. no masks, vaccine vs. no vaccine — and how that has done nothing but divide us to a crippling degree and the news media is, frankly, invested in keeping us divided because it drives fear and outrage which, in turn, drives ratings.
Thus, I think what should happen in an “adapt or die” scenario is to figure out a way to really understand that storytelling doesn’t just have to be a way to confirm or affirm what we believe and what we stand for. But that really great films can and should transcend politics or risk being trapped in the era in which they are made. The world is changing fast. Too fast for many of us to keep up with it.
The producers are saying, come and watch the Oscars to celebrate the movies that somehow rose to the top of the pile this year. What they say to us about our country and our world, what they say about the industry, and, frankly, just how utterly beautiful each one of them is. None of the movies on offer are overtly partisan. Each tell a unique story either about a time in history or a universal human experience.
What Bill Maher said about the Oscar movies — that they are all depressing — is true. Most are, anyway, with a couple of exceptions. They are downers but that has been the recent trend for the past few years. I used to joke that Academy members would need to be medicated every year before their screener pile arrives. But that’s all it was. A joke. Just as Bill Maher’s monologue was a joke. So what happened? Well, he trended on Twitter for days and days. Now imagine a country that is more outraged about Bill Maher’s monologue than the atrocities happening all over the word and you start to see where America REALLY is in 2021.
The Oscars are offering a different pitch — one that might say — you know what? Fuck it, let’s have a prom anyway. Let’s HAVE A PROM ANYWAY. There is beauty in that. There is celebration in that. The movies themselves are depressing, perhaps, because the truth is depressing — life can be depressing. But catch this:
Mank is about the the heart-stopping beauty of CINEMA, but it’s also about what really matters in life. If Mank wrote Kane as a story about a man who had everything but still saw himself as a failure, so too does Mank regard his life as unlived potential. Drink and gambling destroyed the promise of his talent. But what did Mank have? He had love. He had friends. He had what Kane never did. It is that too.
Nomadland is about connecting with the natural world when you give up the constraints of a worker bee lifestyle living paycheck to paycheck, staring at a computer screen, looking forward to Black Friday, sitting in traffic just to get home, eat a meal in front of the television and fall asleep on the couch. Here we see a movie that says — look up, look out — see this beautiful country, this beautiful life, these beautiful people. It is that too.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is about a time in American history where the 60s were about to die, where hundreds of thousands were being killed in a pointless war. If Mank was the beginning of the fight against communism, the Trial of the Chicago 7 is very near the end of it. They bookend the Cold War. But Trial is also about the American right to protest a government you think is bad. That is written in the Constitution. You as an American can stand up and say — ENOUGH. That movie shows the power of assembly, peaceful of otherwise. It is that too.
Minari is about a Korean- American family struggling with a vegetable farm in Arkansas. Yes, they go through struggles as they try to make something better for their family. But in the end, they, like the Minari that grows beside the creek, find a way to plant their roots and become part of the landscape. Maybe they weren’t born there but now they call it home. It is about a family holding itself together in the worst of times. It is that too.
The Sound of Metal is about a heavy metal musician losing his hearing but learning how to listen. It features a dazzling performance by Riz Ahmed that you will not forget. You see what he sees and hear what he hears. The sound of silence is preferable to the sound of noise. Overcoming one’s ego is really what that movie is about and when he figures this out — it’s a beautiful thing. It is that too.
Judas and the Black Messiah is about the rise and fall of the Black Panthers at a time in our history where they were a threat to the established order. Yes, Fred Hampton is killed and yes, Bill O’Neal kills himself after — but it is also about the first all black producing team, a mind-blowing performance by Daniel Kaluuya and poetry read by the dazzling Dominique Fishback. It is that too.
Promising Young Woman is about a suicide mission — a depressing jump off a cliff because of grief, rage and a need for revenge. But it is also a colorful, delicious, wickedly funny explosion of girl world in a pink splatter on an otherwise boring wall. It is the a chance for Emerald Fennell to show what she can do when given complete control of a movie. It is that too.
The Father is about a man struggling with dementia. It is a depressing thing to confront. Trust me, I know. I watched my dad go through the same thing a few years back. There is no getting around what happens to us as we age and then expire. No upside to it. But it is also one of the best performances by one of the best actors who ever lived. Not only that, but he’s matched by a team of actors who bring it. Any actor would be amazed by this film just for the sheer artistry at work. It is that too.
For the films that didn’t make it into the race, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami and even movies that could not come near the Oscars that were great, like News of the World, The Invisible Man, and even Greenland. In all of them there are people still willing to make art when everything is against them.
I appreciated the optimism of the Oscar producers. What they are trying to do costs us nothing. The Oscars will be free to watch. Hopefully they will be, if not entertaining, a reminder of what it all means when everything else falls away.