Thursday, March 4, 2010

The way we talk about Oscar

This is the third in a series of Oscar-themed posts leading up to Sunday's telecast.

It's funny how we talk about Oscar. We tend to refer to the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one person. Like "Oscar tends to reward films that do this," or "Oscar never recognizes films that do that." "Oscar," in this context, is a direct synonym for "The Academy."

It's a rhetorical device, of course, intended to give us a shorthand for talking about decisions made democratically by an entire body of people as though it were one brain, or at the very least, a hive mentality with many followers making the same buzzing noises. (An appropriate metaphor, since we're always talking about a film having "Oscar buzz.")

But it gets to a point where we start to think of the films that get nominated not as the consensus of a large number of industry professionals, who vote in their own areas of expertise, but rather, the rigid judgments of a board of anywhere between 8-12 people, most of them balding white men. Don't we?

I know I do. I seem to have this idea that these 8-12 mostly men, most of whom have been sitting on this board since the 1960s, gather together in a room sometime in early January, and just choose what "should" be nominated. Because when you think about it, why are the judgments of 8-12 theoretically knowledgeable people, chosen precisely for that theoretical knowledge, any worse than the judgments of hundreds, thousands, of Academy members? It only takes nine Supreme Court justices to make decisions that govern how our entire country runs. Why not only nine members choosing which films get nominated?

It's not that I think it should be this way -- but that we talk about it as though it already is. We tend to say things like "Oscar is too stodgy to nominate this film," or "Oscar loves movies about the Holocaust."

And perhaps because a disproportionate number of Academy members are old, we're safe in discussing their voting tendencies in these terms. But aren't Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus also in the Academy? Aren't they voting on best picture too?

Well, as I've just learned from wikipedia, probably not. Maybe I should have known this already, but membership in the Academy is by invitation only. However, there are over 6,000 current members, so some of them, even only a small percentage, have to be Taylor Lautners and Miley Cyruses.

Still, I like the notion, purely as a conspiratorial fantasy, of 8-12 white men gathering in a cabin in Big Bear and deciding which movies will be nominated each year, almost like a fantasy football draft. There would be a really long table in one of the cabin's rooms, and someone would be running the show in front of a big marker erase board. Of course, the board would not primarily be used for writing -- it would house the names of various legitimate contenders on removable placards, and these placards would get moved up and down and all around like names of quarterbacks and wide receivers in a mock draft. At the end of a difficult -- or perhaps, not nearly so difficult as we might expect -- weekend, the dust would settle and the nominees in each category would be finalized.

Like I said, that's how we already discuss it. When we express surprise/disgust over a certain nominee, it's like we're implicitly blaming the poor judgments of a very few people. The next talking point in that discussion is, implicitly, how Oscar is old and out of touch. Like if those 8-12 men did exist, it would be time to put them out to pasture.

But criticizing decisions made by a democratic body is kind of the same as criticizing who your country elected to be president. Oh, you can criticize that decision, and many of us did during the Bush administration. (The same way many conservatives are criticizing now, but I don't like to give them the same level of credibility on my blog.) But you can't criticize the process. It was a democratic process, arrived at by democratic means. If The Blind Side was one of the top ten best picture nominees this year, it's not because a small number of Academy members had an agenda that trumped the will of the majority. It's because this was at least the tenth most popular pick for best picture among a body of 6,000 people.

Oscar is an interesting individual. I'd like to meet him some day, to ask him why he does the things he does. But until then, I'll just have to be content with his judgments. He does, after all, have the wisdom of thousands behind him.

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