The first year I covered the Oscars, you could feel them coming. They were a big event. They held them in spring. I have a memory of the sun coming out brightly and warmly. The jasmine was in full bloom. Contenders would spend the whole day getting ready for the big show. The excitement in this town was palpable. People all over the country planned their Oscar parties. They all knew the movies. They knew the stars. Tuning in, for them, was a big event like watching the Super Bowl.
Well, the times, they have a-changed. The Oscars have become really really REALLY really small. Too small. Like “let them eat cake” small. Like the secret room in the expensive bar that only some people know about through word of mouth. It’s great if you get invited. But it’s only great if you know about it.
Most people had no idea why the Golden Globes had been canceled. The Golden Globes, like the Oscars, already had their TV audience shrunk by half. Canceling them, it was probably assumed, was a result of COVID. Watching Film Twitter and those who cover the Oscar race either shrug or applaud the action was such a telling moment. They (we) feel like we’re the only ones who matter.
The question has to be asked: whom are film awards actually for? They used to be for almost everyone. In the past 22 years that I’ve been covering the Oscars, I’ve watched them shrink in relevance. Now, we’re at the point where they might be killed off entirely.
It didn’t use to be that the hive mind on Film Twitter and in the Oscar blogger world defined the Oscar race so completely. But that is exactly how it works now. If they don’t want Jennifer Hudson to be a strong contender, they will decide that. Voters don’t. Well, voters still CAN. It’s just difficult to break out of the pattern that has been set. A film like Respect can have an “A” Cinemascore and a really high audience score, but just because the critics are cool on it, the film and Hudson have a harder time wowing the tastemakers — who are, in my opinion, the very last people who should matter.
Ben Affleck is fantastic in The Tender Bar. It’s one of two great performances by him this year, the other being in Ridley Scott’s great film The Last Duel. Affleck is one of the best actors of his generation and yet he’s treated in the strangest way by the various hive minds on social media. They have created their own version of him and it’s something he can’t seem to ever escape from. That’s because the cartoon version of him serves a deeper purpose for them than even his masterful work as an actor. I hope he realizes that this is very specific to the online world and doesn’t translate outwardly to the general public. The public likes Ben Affleck and wants to see him starring in more movies. Unfortunately, the loudest voices influence the press and the press finds its way to Affleck and everyone else in Hollywood. It’s the general public he (and the industry at-large) should care about, not the insulated, isolated world of hive minds online. They seem BIG, but close up they never are.
Speaking of The Last Duel, it’s easily one of the best movies of the year and yet it has completely evaporated. Cyrano is another movie that is such a feel-good event, and yet it, too, seems to have been sidelined. In one way, it’s great that we’ve had such a good year in film that there are cast-offs as great as these. But I can’t help but feel something essentially has slowly slipped away.
This is also true of Spider-Man: No Way Home. There isn’t even a little bit of wiggle room in Oscar blogger land to pick, you know, the movie everyone saw and liked? Not even the tiniest bit. Only a small handful of us are urging them in that direction, but the watchful eye says “must follow my directive.”
Those who chatter online about the Oscars are focused on movies they think are going to be left off. Many of them are young and engaged with the Oscars and with movies, but not BIG OSCAR MOVIES, not big Hollywood. They are perfect audiences for the Spirit Awards or the Gothams. But the Oscars are better when they’re bigger. MUCH bigger.
Spider-Man is to the Oscars what that little green plant is to the Axiom’s captain in WALL-E. It’s a chance to bring the Oscars kind of, sort of back into the world where actual people live, not a specific group catered to for their every need. While Dune is a big movie and it’s definitely getting in, so are Don’t Look Up and West Side Story.
But there is something else going on in Hollywood with superhero movies that really does define the rabble from the elites. Right? The same dynamic is, alas, playing out in politics. The Left (or the Democratic Party) is fast becoming more elitist and insular, the very same demographic as what the Oscar race has become: educated, privileged, plugged-in, sophisticated people, existing in what my friend Jeff Wells calls the “rarified air.” Just as it would benefit the Democratic Party to open their tent to the forgotten public, so too would the Oscars fare better going forward through the next phase of American life if they remembered the rest of the country should be invited too.
Is that going to really be our future? WALL-E?
I actually don’t think so. Instead, a massive fracture and realignment is about to occur. When you get to the point where you are too afraid to speak your mind, where artists are not given freedom to write good stories for fear of offending, when comedians can’t really tell subversive jokes anymore — that is when you know things are probably headed for some kind of collapse, as they were in the 1950s.
Culture exploded in the 1960s, leading to the golden age of Hollywood — the 1970s, when the best films were made. That was because it was a cultural big bang that came from a time of pretense, artifice, and a facade of normalcy, like the 1950s were. The difference is that back then culture was conservative. When it exploded, it flipped to the liberal side. Now, I expect, we’re about to see another flip. Artists, like many voters, will be abandoning the traditional avenues of making art, telling stories, telling jokes. I don’t know what that will look like, or who will claim it. I just sense that whatever is going on now is not sustainable.
What is that exactly, you might ask? Well, it’s laid out here here pretty well by Tara Henley in her essay How We Got Here.
So, what do we call this new movement? The writer Wesley Yang calls it “The Successor Ideology,” since it replaces traditional liberal values. Columbia professor John McWhorter calls it “The Elect,” for its pseudo-religious overtones. The general public often thinks of it as identity politics. Centrists, heterodox thinkers, and conservatives call it “woke.”
But whatever you choose to call it, the social justice movement that’s sprung out of all this is focused mainly on shifting language and speech norms, on symbolic victories like toppling statues, and on building a vast, identity-focused human-resources apparatus that provides university graduates with lucrative administrative jobs.
This is how we wound up during the pandemic, in Toronto, with a largely racialized working-class population stuck on packed public transit, working precarious warehouse jobs for very little pay and filling emergency rooms — while the conversation on the left was almost entirely focused elsewhere.
Film that is required to adhere to a specific ideology might as well be useless propaganda. Storytellers, like journalists, like scientists, like teachers, are required to not pander to give people what they want to be true. Fear has left almost everyone frozen in place. It is bound to explode in one direction or the other.
I am reminded of David Fincher’s Fight Club, which is brilliant writing that was openly, even antagonistically subversive at the time. Imagine if its job was instead to soothe and reassure its audience that life is fair and everything is great as long as we all follow the right rules! Now, Fight Club in 2022 feels more relevant than ever. Why? Because it was about hiding a layer of primal vulgarity, even if in fantasy. The maleness of it all. The rawness of it all. The ugliness of it all. Fight Club makes us uncomfortable while we’re watching it. It makes us hurt. And that is the point.
While rewatching WALL-E, I was thinking — man, this is a well-directed movie. This is just SO SO GOOD. It’s so lean. It’s so funny. It’s so surprising. It’s so moving. Then I looked at who directed it: Andrew Stanton. Most people on Twitter might be inclined to dismiss a talent like that — after all, he’s a cis-gendered white male. The fact that he’s a great director doesn’t really matter as much as skin color, his “privilege,” his gender, and his sexuality. That has made us afraid to tell stories like Fight Club. Something about the freedom of storytelling makes the controlling voices of outrage nervous.
And I know just saying a thing out loud like that is going to maybe inspire someone on Film Twitter to screenshot what I wrote and accuse me of yet another thought crime. Twitter, and the mainstream media that thrives off of it, seem to love dragging people out in the public square for a new round of humiliation in hopes of destroying them for something they said or thought that isn’t in keeping with our new utopian world order. Every day a new trending topic. And where are our brave artists, comedians, and journalists to puncture this madness? AFRAID. They are afraid. Fear has led to silence.
Twitter got very angry at the actor Paul Walter Hauser getting angry when he saw the NY Times list, “And the Winners Should Be.” Twitter has a way of bringing out the worst in us. We have a split second to decide how to react, and some of us can’t control how we feel in the moment. The people on Twitter are hungry for that kind of thing because what else do they have to do? Hauser was triggered, as we all often are on Twitter, then was shamed by the Daily Beast, because they also have nothing to do. And if the Paul Hauser controversy didn’t satiate, there is always the Joss Whedon story.
And there will plenty more of this fresh hell coming tomorrow and the next day and the next. This is the thing that keeps people so afraid, and it is a destructive force that is driving people away from anything that reminds them that we’re all suddenly living with these rigid new rules. They’ll toss you out if you don’t comply. Most people who make movies, act in movies, or write about movies don’t want to be tossed out, so they go along with this madness. People just act like it’s all normal that a self-selected mob sees it as their duty to “hold people accountable” for their thought crimes.
Who cares, right? Another white cis male bites the dust isn’t going to make anyone feel uncomfortable about the unhealthy state of things. All in a day’s work for Twitter. Maybe some marketing executive or agent will urge Hauser to “apologize” — though if he feels like he should apologize then he should. There is no shame in an authentic apology.
I want to save the Oscars. I want to undo some of the damage I have done in the years I’ve been covering them. I want people to feel like they can express themselves again. I want my daughter’s generation to be able to live through breathtaking, subversive, ugly, challenging, difficult truths rendered through art and movies. I want the people on the ship of WALL-E to escape the ship, come back to a wrecked Earth, and rebuild it. There is still life here. There is life beyond the algorithms. There is life beyond the Dehumanizer that is Twitter.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s entirely hopeless. We just need a little bit of courage. And for the love of god, please don’t make us lose the best directors in all of this. We need them. We need the best of them to make movies even half as good as WALL-E.