Monday, March 5, 2012

The Irrelevance of Oscar Night?

I remember neoconservative Robert Kaplan lamenting in his essay "The Dangers of Peace" that the "Academy Awards ceremony has achieved a status akin to a national holiday." Now the story many an entertainment journalist tells is that is that the affair seems decreasingly relevant to our pop cultural life – and some seem to fear, already irrelevant. There is, of course, some of the Hollywood press's usual exaggeration of such matters, as David Poland demonstrates over at Movie City News, reinforced by what John Anderson characterizes as the "starched," "conservative," "quaint" quality of this year's particular ceremony, but there is at least some basis for these concerns. The show's viewership has been declining for years , with the young appearing especially uninterested – the attitude paralleling what seems to be their increasing (for Hollywood, worrying) disinclination to go to the movies. (Indeed, the producers were so concerned with their loss of interest that last year they took some pains to win them back, in part by having Anne Hathaway and James Franco host the ceremony – a move which proved to be a complete failure at elevating this demographic's viewership.)

However, it seems to me less surprising that viewers are losing interest in the ceremony than that they ever took much interest in the first place. I myself have only watched the ceremony beginning to end once – way back in 1995. I haven't even tried to do that since, even through the years in which I vaguely hoped to (someday) pen a screenplay that would be deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination, and read Variety every week as part of my study of the craft – and now that I think about it, didn't see anything at all odd about this.

I suppose I didn't find it all that interesting a show. After all, the thing drags at four hours, and for all the energy and humor even a Billy Crystal brings to the stage, tends to be a rather staid affair. It's also awfully predictable. The press buzzes for weeks in advance about the front-runner, though anyone who's followed the business for any length of time hardly needs its speculations to hazard a good guess about how it will play it; there's a tedious predictability about the whole process as the awards are parceled out. Certain themes, certain characters, are simply much more likely to receive the Academy's accolades. (I think of the scene from Bowfinger in which Kit rants about how he needs to play a mentally handicapped slave, or the "Tearjerker" episode of American Dad.) Best supporting Oscars, while normally given to worthy actors, also function as bones thrown to performances and movies of sorts not typically recognized, because they are too funny, or too popular, or worst of all, too "fan boy" – the last type of movie particularly likely to win big in the technical categories, but slighted when the rewards for writing, acting and directing are distributed. And so on and so forth.

So why not just read about the winners in the paper (or on the web) the next morning? I'd think. But people watched anyway. I suppose it was the romance of the cinema, the "cult" of the movie star, and the sense that Hollywood was the very center of the entertainment world, with the Academy Awards ceremony the biggest night of the year for all three. Alas, the mystique of all these has suffered badly in recent years.

The Romance of the Cinema
Some of the cinema's loss of its magic would seem to be due to the change in the nature of the movie going experience. Of course, a considerable element of nostalgia is an undeniable part of such arguments. Yet, there seems something ritual, dream-like, even quasi-religious, about people gathering in a dark chamber to be entranced by a flickering image the size of a wall. That was diminished as movie palaces gave way to multiplexes, and seeing a movie became an item in the course of a day at the mall rather than a destination in itself, with the viewing marred by a pre-movie battering with ads, and then during the movie itself, the cell phone conversations of gadget-addicted oafs. It is diminished further still when instead of a theater screen you see a movie on a TV in your well-lit living room with all the distractions of a household about you and a finger on the pause button, or worse still, the even smaller screen of a laptop or handheld device you watch on a crowded bus or train during your daily commute to work.

These newer ways to watch a film are today far more characteristic of how we go about that activity. In the 1930s and 1940s a clear majority of the population of the U.S. (65 percent) was at the movies each week, which worked out to the average American going to the movies more than thirty times a year.1 By contrast, the average American has gone four to five times a year in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, to go by per-capita ticket sales. Additionally, the time they spend in the theater on those rarer occasions has been reduced by the changed practices of exhibitors (like the abandonment of such parts of the experience as pre-movie cartoons, shorts and newsreels, and double-features). The result is that they spend only a small fraction of the time they used to looking at movie screens, perhaps ten hours a year, which is also much less time than they now spend in front of a television or computer screen in a typical week, or even day (doing, among other things, watching the vast majority of the movies they take in).

It might be added that the places where we watch our movies, and the technologies we watch them with, are not the only ways in which the experience has changed. We are far less likely to experience a film as a shared cultural moment, the movie that "everyone" sees increasingly a rare thing now – the distance between highbrow and lowbrow, between old and young and innumerable other cultural and demographic categories ever greater. And of course, those diminished moments seem ever more fleeting, as movies come and go ever more quickly. Even an "event" film is likely to be "#1" at the box office for one week, or two, before attention has shifted to the next not-so-big thing.

And film as a whole has given ground to other media, the differences with which have been blurred by more than the smallness of the screens on which we watch them. Those who said in the 1950s that television spelled the end of cinema spoke prematurely, but they were right in identifying it as a competitor, one that has long been closing the gap with movie production in technical accomplishment and thematic ambition. In the process it has stolen an increasing portion of film's thunder artistically and commercially, a point evident even in video sales (DVD making television shows a force here such as they never were in the day of VHS). At the same time, one might wonder if moments which saw the medium of film revolutionized, with new ground broken, or something presented to us that we really didn't see before, have not grown scarcer – and owed increasingly to the genius of the FX artists who have topped themselves year after year in films like Jurassic Park, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Avatar. Where other aspects of cinematic storytelling are concerned, the medium seems increasingly backward-looking and self-referential, with its remakes and reboots and homages and other kinds of recycling, its movies about movies and the people who make them, when film doesn't seem to be turning into something entirely different (as Jonathan McCalmont suggested in his review of Transformers 3, subtitled "The Ambivalence of the Metallic Sublime").

Indeed, in an age in which Ipods are treated like life support devices, Ipads and laptops are always in hand and the cell phones are never off, I would suggest that film is for many (whom one suspects increasingly find the devotion of their full attention to a two-hour narrative a strain) just one more source of sound and image – like YouTube videos of low IQ amateur stuntmen – on which to draw for the highly personalized multimedia blitz in which they swaddle themselves during their waking hours.

The Cult of the Movie Star
One might add to the above the familiar lament that the stars of today fall short of their predecessors in the day of the Dream Factory. Once again, there tends to be a heavy element of nostalgia in such talk, but there still seems to be something to it nonetheless.

Certainly stars in the old moulds, stars like the big box office draws of the studio era, seem at the least an improbability today. In their day stars were held up as exemplars of some contemporary, yet archetypal, ideal, in a way that seems to have been possible only in the hothouse of a more genteel screen-world with very particular attitudes toward such matters as social class and gender. The machismo of Clark Gable and Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, the sophistication of Cary Grant and David Niven, the innocent sweetness of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, all existed in that context – and became impossible when it disappeared. The social signifiers out of which a distinctive, appealing screen image might be built up seem ever-shakier things, while the ideals that they would convey have become a far less certain thing. (Take, for instance, the idea of gentlemanly sophistication. As Jeremy Black observed in The Politics of James Bond, there has long since ceased to be "a secure basis" for its representation, while it has been increasingly unclear that this is a desirable thing for an action hero to display.) At the same time, the gritty, the crude, the scatological have become pervasive, and entail indignities incompatible with that larger-than-life, better-than-life quality stars are supposed to have (like being on the butt end of toilet humor).

Whatever the prospects for reconciliation between old-fashioned stardom and these changed cultural expectations, the classical idea of the star seems irreconcilable with the reality that today's biggest names tend to become those by appearing in the very productions (indeed, series' of productions) most prone to subordinate, even overwhelm, plot, character – and star – with concept and spectacle. Consider, for instance, Shia LaBeouf as he shares the screen with Autobots and Decepticons, or the number of actors whose biggest movies have them playing an already established, iconic pop cultural figure likely bigger than they can ever hope to be – like Christian Bale in his Batman films. The result is that while it is often lamented that the age of "high concept" has meant fewer good roles for women, it may have meant fewer good roles for anyone in the sense of a role giving an actor a chance to really make their mark in, let alone dominate, a major film – as a star is supposed to do. Stardom seems irreconcilable, too, with the fact that, just as our taste in subject and style is more fragmented, it is tougher than ever to find actors with anything approaching a universal appeal, the Big Names we have instead reminding us of just how divided we are. (Think, for instance, of how men and women tend to respond to Sarah Jessica Parker and Megan Fox, respectively.)

The changing character of publicity doesn't help. The hypertrophied portion of the media living off of public interest in the doings of the rich and famous – E!, TMZ and the rest of the multimedia paparazzi machine – has overloaded us with celebrity gossip-themed infotainment. And much of this constant coverage presents stars and would-be stars as slobs and oafs and worse as we see them going into or coming out of rehab or cop cars or courthouses, or watch "experts" minutely scrutinize the signs of their plastic surgery and their weight fluctuations and their emotional outbursts. There is, too, the Great Leap Into the Sewer of the reality TV revolution, which has turned a whole category of skuzzy, scummy snots into "stars." Meanwhile "real" (e.g. movie) stars routinely get reality shows of their own – on their way down, the indignities of their fall no longer taking place out of sight, but instead served up to their fans in a desperate grasp at another fifteen minutes. That abundance of unflattering material not only makes it much harder to support some carefully cultivated persona, but is a constant reminder that stardom is itself a show – and while this was just as much the case circa 1930, it seems we have grown too conscious of the fact for any amount of postmodern reveling in superficiality for superficiality's sake to fully repair the damage to this delicate illusion.

What remains of old Hollywood-style glamour is, far more than before, shared with the worlds of music and fashion, the allure of which has often eclipsed tinsel town's luster. The '90s was the heyday of the supermodel, but something of the fascination with their industry endures in ways large and small. Much like the Oscars, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is an annual television event, broadcast on a major network in prime time. (At a mere one-hour in length, offering lingerie models and that aura of luxurious hedonism the brand's promotion excels at conveying, it is rather a different approach to entertainment – which despite drawing just a fraction of the Oscars' viewership, was judged to have had very good ratings last year.) Meanwhile, Christy and Linda and Cindy and the rest of the faces of haute couture from the supermodel's glory days are still on magazine covers and television screens (in commercials selling anti-aging products they credit with keeping them forever young), while Carla offers another reminder of that era every time news cameras are pointed at the First Lady of the French Republic.

This, too, adds to the difficulties in the way of attaining the larger-than-life, better-than-life quality expected of the star, even with the biggest and most sophisticated of publicity machines squarely behind them. Unsurprisingly, they make it less and less often, with the result that the "A-list" is in decline, and bankability fading as a meaningful concept (as Matthew Belinkie suggests in his post "The End of Movie Stars?"). Indeed, it often seems to me that the function the casting of stars serves in the moviemaking process is less about capitalizing on their draw than convincing the audience that a particular film is indeed a major production deserving of their time and money through the inclusion of well-known (and therefore costly) performers.

Thinking of all this I remember hearing the common refrain among British monarchists that Britain "needs" the royal family because it "doesn't have a Hollywood of its own." I've always found this an unbelievably stupid thing to say, for a multitude of reasons, above all the claim that celebrity worship is some deep-seated human need which can all by itself justify feudal political anachronisms. But it's also the case that even Hollywood isn't what it used to be.

The Centrality of Hollywood
These developments reinforce each other, the diminished status of film making movie stars seem smaller, and the weakening of stars' celebrity changing the way in which audiences respond to film. At the same time, even where film is concerned, Hollywood seems less and less the center of the entertainment universe.

Certainly where the U.S. box office is concerned, only one foreign-language film (excepting Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto) grossed more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, only five more than $20 million, only seventeen more than $10 million during the whole decade of the 2000s according to Peter Knegt of Indiewire. This makes for an average of less than two a year hitting the $10 million mark, and the total from all these films typically accounting for well under 1 percent of the revenue from ticket sales. Moreover, even these movies tend to have been made by directors with some Hollywood experience (like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) with actors known to American audiences from their appearance in Hollywood movies (like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger) – the foreign films that make it even this far generally those that seem least foreign to Americans. And of course, where global moneymakers are concerned, the U.S. still remains far and away Number One, year in, year out, at home and abroad.

And yet, there are ways in which Hollywood is weaker than it appears. There are sizable markets where domestic productions have cut into Hollywood's share of the annual lists of top-earning movies in the past decade, like Japan and South Korea – a fact that has drawn surprisingly little commentary. It also tends to be forgotten that while Hollywood continues to have a near-monopoly on the megabudget blockbusters, a great deal of American production does not travel very well – like Will Ferrell's comedies. (The movie widely regarded as his biggest hit, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, earned over 90 percent of its ticket sales domestically, and much the same has been the case with his other hits Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Blades of Glory and Step Brothers.)

Additionally, it seems that the traditionally insular American market, so much more accustomed to exporting rather than importing pop culture, has become more permeable. It is not only the case that British imports have long been a routine part of what Americans see on their screens, or that today American and Canadian production are increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo beam product from across Latin America into a great many American homes, and MHz Networks brings far more diversity than that to cable viewers. The profile of the Hong Kong film industry that produced Bruce Lee, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Jet Li has fallen, but Japanese anime and the Korean Wave and Bollywood are strong presences – more cult than mainstream admittedly, but still a part of the landscape. Equally, the originals of the foreign movies Hollywood remakes so frequently are easier to access – typically on cable and video, so that a focus on ticket sales understates their impact, which is not wholly confined to snobbish intellectuals, hardcore fan boys or immigrant communities. This all makes Hollywood seem a smaller place, one that often comes off as self-important and even provincial in its attitudes – not least, the fact that the whole of production from outside the English-speaking world is typically segregated into a Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (a far cry from the cosmopolitanism of the Cannes Film Festival). The more sophisticated viewers, those most likely to be appreciative of film as art form and tradition, are also those most likely to see Hollywood's limitations.

A Generation Gap
Every section of the filmgoing audience has been affected by these changes, but these attitudes are more evident among younger viewers than the rest. It is they whose experience of film is least connected with the theater, they who make the fullest use of the new media technologies.2 (Senior citizens love their cell phones as much as everyone else, but I generally don't see them watching videos on such devices.) It is they whose take on stardom and celebrity most fully reflects the age of high-concept, tasteless gag and reality TV. (Indeed, a crucial reason why newer actors are failing to make it as stars may be that this demographic simply can't be sold on the concept.) And it is they who are most prone to look beyond America's movieland not just for their images of glamour, but their entertainment.

It is worth noting, too, that younger filmgoers have virtually no cinematic memory, despite their unprecedentedly easy access to old movies via video, cable and the web. Walk into a college classroom and mention just about any film from before the last decade, for instance – let alone the stuff that used to run on AMC back when those letters stood for "American Classic Movies" – and with very few exceptions you will get blank stares. (I have even had this experience in university classrooms that I knew had more than their fair share of film majors.) Not only do they not share the nostalgia of (mostly) older film fans; they have little consciousness of exactly what it is for which older filmgoers feel such nostalgia.

Consequently, the Oscars seem just one more awards show in a whole season of them, all minutely covered in the press, and one that seems comparatively remote at that in its standards and mechanisms of selection, next to less prestigious, but more audience-oriented – and youth-oriented – presentations like the People's Choice Awards, or the MTV Movie Awards. In many a case, they haven't even heard of the movies up for little statues simply because they don't even see those sorts of films, and those among them who have artier sensibilities are likely to feel that the Academy overlooks their particular favorites (as Julie Gray confesses has been her experience). And all of these awards shows put together appear just one part of the ever-more visible life of the worldwide media-industrial complex (every other quarter of which has its own awards shows, from TV commercials to video games).

None of this is to say that the end of film, or the end of Hollywood, or even the end of the Oscars as an annual event, is at hand. Rather it means they are part of a scene in which cultural influence is more widely distributed; in which film, Hollywood and the Oscars remain, but share their prestige, their power to excite, their claim on audience affections with other media. Additionally, given that the trends that have already wrought the change – like the fragmentation and globalization of media, and the increasing ubiquity of media itself – seem likely only to continue progressing (or even accelerate) in the years to come, it seems that this diffusion and complexification will only continue as time goes by.

1. The data on movie attendance has been taken from Michelle Pautz, "The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance," Issues in Political Economy 11 (2002). Accessed at The figures on per-capita ticket sales were calculated from data from Box Office Mojo.
2. John Anderson observed that on many occasions during this year's ceremony, "participants reflected on movie going as something they remembered fondly from their childhoods. They might have been talking about the Civil War."

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