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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

I'd like to spank the Academy

By Peter Valelly

I barely watched the Oscars last Sunday. Sure, I checked the winners online throughout the night and caught a cumulative hour of the ceremony on TV, but this was the first year in a long time that I felt entirely safe not staying up and watching. Save for the shallow but eternal pleasures of red-carpet preshows and “will win” vs. “should win” debates, the Academy Awards seem to have undeniably declined. Even as the Academy has made more nominations, the entire process seemed somehow blank and rehearsed, as the crowd I watched with expressed regret over Eddie Murphy’s loss or exploded into cheers for Forrest Whitaker’s victory despite hardly having seen or cared about the performances in question. Everyone seemed to watch out of routine, just to see whether the host would hit or miss, or whether predictions would be accurate.

So what exactly happened to the Academy Awards? Of the moments I saw, the most telling was the Best Documentary Award going to “An Inconvenient Truth.” I suppose I could call the film a documentary on climate change, but in truth the film is little more than a tape of Al Gore giving an extended lecture on the topic, although it is supplemented with handy visual aids and a few scenes more appropriate for a Gore campaign ad. Most documentaries tend to see their films as objective snapshots of people, events, or phenomena, while others take an explicitly subjective point of view and defend it. But “An Inconvenient Truth” was a weird hybrid of the two, a rather objective document of a subjective tirade about global warming. I enjoyed the film because I agreed with its politics, and I strongly suspect members of the Academy voted for it for that reason.

But I’m pretty sure that it was neither the best documentary that came out last year nor the only politically responsible one. I can’t comment on most of the other nominees, but I did have the good fortune to catch director James Longley’s “Iraq in Fragments” during its two-week run at the Bell Auditorium in Minneapolis. Longley’s film appears in almost every way to be a narrative fiction film, rife with glossy, stylized camerawork and totally devoid of routine documentary elements like interviews. The film documents moments in the lives of everyday Iraqis, from an 8-year-old boy to radical Shias bidding for power in the nation’s first post-Saddam election. Everything from horrific acts of violence to innocent kids’ games flashes across the screen throughout the film. I was initially frustrated by the complete absence of the filmmaker’s presence from the film, with no explanation given for why its subjects never spoke to the camera or how the filmmakers were granted the kind of access to make this film. Yet as jarring, shaky shots of a random shooting run up against close-ups of Iraqi corpses, its desperate, sweeping portrait of a nation in turmoil makes it more relevant and more resonant than “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So why “An Inconvenient Truth”? Sure, it was more famous and better funded than any other nominee, but something else is going on here. Director Davis Guggenheim’s over-the-top outpouring of love for his subject during his acceptance speech was just one example of the night’s gratuitous Gore love, as the ex-VP figured prominently throughout what Kayla Burchuk ’10 calls “the Hollywood ego boner fest.” Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio were granted ample stage time to discuss the Academy’s commitment to the “environmentally intelligent practices” of the show’s production, and joking hints about a potential Al Gore presidential run were greeted with raucous applause. Throughout the night, people seemed to be celebrating the film’s political relevance over its artistic merit. And as Melissa Etheridge accepted her Best Original Song award for “I Need To Wake Up,” from “An Inconvenient Truth,” there were hints of another major awards show that had long ago withered into deep irrelevance: the Grammys. The Dixie Chicks‘ sweep of that show’s major awards echoed a similar commitment to political timeliness over all other considerations.

But “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t win Best Picture, so of course there is more than just politics at work here, and I’d argue that the victory of Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” follows the same pattern in a way. Scorsese’s win isn’t the only time the Academy has gone out of its way to honor a genius they’d previously neglected, but it’s telling that it occurred in the same year as Gore’s bizarro Oscar coup. As art has been fragmented by downloading culture, Netfix, and the hyperactive flurry of faux-subcultures defined by aesthetic taste, the idea of a show designed to award the year’s best in any medium seems kind of ridiculous. So in scrambling to belatedly award an aging master like Scorsese, or applaud the Dixie Chicks’ defensive anti-Bush record, these award shows seemingly opt to grapple with their own demise by awarding the art that they blindly guess will be most historically important. And while I’d be hard-pressed to argue that the Oscars had ever truly awarded only the best in motion pictures, I find it equally hard to care about award show culture’s quaint slide into irrelevance. Next year, I’ll try not to watch at all.

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