All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.


David vs. David

Here’s some good news:  The race for Massachusetts governor is between two certified losers.

In one corner is the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, whose signature political achievement is having been defeated by Scott Brown in the 2010 Senate special election to succeed the late Ted Kennedy.

And in the other corner is businessman Charlie Baker, who ran for governor four years ago against the incumbent, Deval Patrick, and lost by six and a half points.

Of these two dubious distinctions, Coakley’s is widely viewed as the more embarrassing, owing (if nothing else) to her status as a Democrat in one of the most liberal states in the Union.  Then and now, it begs the question:  How inept of a candidate does one need to be to lose a statewide vote to a conservative, pick-up truck-driving good old boy in the land of the Kennedys?

Not that we should leave Baker, the Republican, off the hook.  In fact, before Patrick’s election in 2006, the commonwealth was presided over by Republican chief executives for 16 years running.  It may seem counterintuitive that Massachusetts voters would so regularly entrust the keys to the State House to members of the minority party—including one Willard Romney—but they did it nonetheless.

And so the gubernatorial race that will be decided on November 4 is as wide-open as one can be, and my fellow Bay State residents ought to consider themselves highly fortunate to be faced with these two pitiful failures from which we have to choose.

It is fairly well-known among political and historical junkies how personal setbacks tend to turn losing political candidates into victors—and, with any luck, into considerably better people.

Richard Nixon endured two bitter electoral defeats, in 1960 and 1962, before roaring back in 1968, having evidently learned the secret to securing the American people’s trust and affection (undeservingly, as it turned out).  Ronald Reagan lost the Republican nomination for president twice, in 1968 and 1976, before finding his golden moment in 1980.

More recently, Mitt Romney learned a thing or two in 2008 about how to weave his way through the Republican primaries four years later, even if it wasn’t quite enough to carry him all the way to the White House.  Similarly, Hillary Clinton demonstrated a definite adaptability in appealing to the Democratic base in the course of the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama.  Most analysts agree:  Obama’s success forced Clinton to become a better candidate.

For all that separates these disparate test cases, they all demonstrate that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be applied to the unnatural world of electoral politics:  Faced with past and potentially future defeat, a candidate must either change his or her behavior or die.

Oftentimes in politics, it’s all just a matter of luck.  For instance, Nixon in 1968 had the enormous built-in advantage of the nationwide disillusionment with Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, whereas in 1960 Nixon himself represented the outgoing administration against an appealing young whippersnapper, John Kennedy.  Same for Reagan in 1980, running against a rather feckless Jimmy Carter.  Sometimes the country is simply in the mood for an insurgent, and all you have to do is play the part.

What makes the current contest in Massachusetts unique and interesting—and, in my view, potentially welcoming—is that both candidates (not just one) can be considered underdogs and would-be “comeback” stories, since both of them lost the last time around.

(Note:  Coakley did, in fact, win her last race for attorney general, but it was not nearly as competitive or consequential as the Senate campaign against Brown.  As such, nobody cares.)

Because of this dynamic, neither candidate can take comfort in any assumption of “inevitability,” or even of merely being the front-runner.  Accordingly, neither Baker nor Coakley has any cause to take anything for granted or become complacent or arrogant.  They have both sobered up, as it were, and understand that votes will truly need to be earned.  That the office of governor should be considered neither a birthright nor a foregone conclusion.

In short, both candidates will need to take the race seriously, and very probably will.  In a state that is traditionally dominated by one political party—a state in which all nine sitting congresspersons are Democrats, six of whom do not currently face a Republican opponent—this is something to savor and to celebrate, for it may not happen again anytime soon.

And what a shame if it doesn’t.

By all means, a state in which a supermajority of the public agrees about the major issues of the day ought to elect public officials who share those views.  However, this does not negate the necessity to debate such issues, forcefully and thoroughly, all the way to Election Day (and beyond).  And the most effective way to do this is to have a serious and formidable member of the opposition with whom to argue, forcing the campaign’s presumed “favorite” not to coast to victory on a wave of entitlement.

In a battle between two people with a great deal to prove, neither of whom can really be considered the favorite at all, the commonwealth of Massachusetts may, for the next two months, play host to a rare and real breakout of democracy within its borders.  I sure hope we’re ready for it.