Oscar Elitist

The Academy Awards are this Sunday.  If you’re not excited, it’s your own damn fault.

The Oscars are perennially the most-viewed TV entertainment event of the year—more popular than the Grammys, Emmys or VMAs—yet they are also, unfailingly, the most criticized.  People carp about who was “snubbed” the moment the nominations are announced.  The show itself is derided for its bloated length and nauseating air of self-importance.

And again and again, the Academy is scorned for being out-of-touch with the typical American moviegoer, ignoring most (if not all) of the year’s biggest blockbusters in favor of low-grossing independent films that, in many cases, never even open in theaters outside major U.S. cities.

Rarely has this been truer than this year, and never have I been happier for it.  This has been a great year for the Oscars.  It’s just a shame more Americans don’t have the good sense to realize it.

It is very curious, indeed—and more than a little depressing—that 2014’s eight Best Picture nominees comprise one of the strongest fields in memory, yet also one of the least-seen.  Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is far and away the most lucrative in the group, having grossed more than $300 million in the United States alone.  However, the remaining seven nominees have earned less than $300 million put together, dragging the per-film average in this category down to its lowest figure in nearly a decade.

In truth, this economic fact does not bother me all that much.  To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea how any of the Oscar movies have done at the box office until I looked them up.  Except to write this column, I really couldn’t care less.

And why is that, ladies and gents?  Because there is absolutely no correlation between how much money a movie makes and whether that movie is any good.  I’ve never once inferred a movie’s quality based on how many people go to see it.  I don’t understand why anybody would.  As a strategy, it would only begin to make sense if all of America had similar tastes and could distinguish, as a group, between worthwhile entertainment and utter dreck.

It’s an absurdity on its face.  It would be like conducting a nationwide poll to determine which type of salsa to put on your tacos, or asking ten random strangers at the mall what you should get your wife for her birthday.  Are you really that susceptible to the whims of the masses?

This is not to suggest that gazillion-dollar commercial behemoths can’t also be excellent films from time to time.  Nor would I ever want to deny someone an enjoyable evening at the movies.  After all, it is equally true that a great many small-budget art house offerings are every bit as boring and stupid as they look.  When I say there is no relationship between money and quality, I mean exactly that.

All I want is to rebuke this idea that the Academy’s apparent disinterest in box office success is inherently a bad thing.  It’s not.  I’m positively thrilled that the Oscars take themselves seriously enough not to care whether all—or any—of America agrees with them about what constitutes great cinema.  I’m delighted that this has made the Oscars as “irrelevant” as they’ve ever been.  If it means honoring a slew of films like the ones under consideration this Sunday, I hope the trend continues indefinitely.

For instance, buried among the more talked-about works on this year’s roster is a little movie called Whiplash.  It was filmed in 19 days on a $3.3 million budget by a little-known 29-year-old director named Damien Chazelle, and it’s one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve seen in years.  It’s a simple story about a teenage conservatory student who wants to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world, and a teacher who knows virtuoso talent when he sees it.

The twist—and the film’s mad stroke of genius—is that the instructor is a raging psychopath who conducts band practices like the CIA conducts interrogations.  He is played by J.K. Simmons as a petty tyrant who justifies his extreme behavior as a way to weed out the true, committed artists from those who “don’t have what it takes.”

But what really makes Whiplash so exciting and so frightening is how the drummer, played by Miles Teller, shows that he may well be the diamond in the rough that Simmons has been searching for, and is prepared to endure the abuse—physical and psychological—that is required to prove it.  The movie’s final sequence—a compression of raw kinetic energy of jaw-dropping skill and intensity—brings all its threads together in a manner that is simultaneously funny, absurd and altogether electrifying.

Whiplash is clearly one of the gems of 2014 cinema, yet hardly anyone has seen the damned thing.  It’s as satisfying a theatergoing experience as one can hope for, yet precious few are even aware of its existence.

What a shame that a movie with such potentially broad and deep appeal has been relegated to the fringes of the national consciousness.  And what a tremendous relief that Academy voters nominated it for Best Picture anyway, thereby assuring it a considerably higher visibility in the long run than it otherwise would have had.

In a just world, Whiplash would not need an Oscar boost in order to garner the wide popular acclaim that it deserves.  Nor would Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, an utterly delightful confection whose lead performance by Ralph Fiennes is one of the funniest you’ll see.  Nor would Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which deftly and compellingly shows how the particular racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., can be traced at least as far back as the Deep South in 1965, leaving us to wonder how we will resolve our present conflicts without a figure like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the way.

But we don’t live in a just world, so instead we depend on the Academy to tell everyone which movies they should seek out.  (We also depend on critics and bloggers, but who ever listens to them?)

The Academy does not always do this job well.  Those who are still sour about this year’s omissions of, say, DuVernay for director or The Lego Movie for animation can rest assured that worthy films and performances have been overlooked every year since the dawn of cinema, often inexplicably.  As widely noted, this year’s nominations contain an appallingly low number of non-white people, but then again, this has pretty much always been the case.

But on the curve on which Hollywood must always be graded, this year’s Oscar harvest is markedly stronger than usual, and a validation of the Academy’s worth in anointing the year’s best movies, even if the rest of the country disagrees with them.

The purpose of the Oscars is not to be popular.  It’s to be right.

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The Forgotten Dreamer

This week, as the United States observes the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama is leading the nation in honoring one of the march’s most important figures, if not the most important of all.

This honoree is a man who fought all his life to ensure that the promise of equality for all Americans would not be a mere dream.  Who knew from personal experience the horrors of prejudice and injustice, yet refused to be intimidated into keeping his unpopular and sometimes dangerous views to himself.

He was an indispensable leader throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Without him, the march we commemorate on Wednesday would hardly have been possible.

I speak, of course, of Bayard Rustin.

Fifty years out, one of the more unfortunate legacies of the March on Washington is the notion that it was all about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That on a muggy August afternoon in 1963, several hundred thousand supporters of racial equality spontaneously assembled at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King declare, “I have a dream.”

In this “official” narrative, people such as Bayard Rustin have for decades been almost entirely left out.  I certainly don’t remember his name popping up in my high school history textbook.  There is no national holiday celebrating his birthday, nor are there streets bearing his name that cut across Harlem or Chicago’s South Side.  He is, if not an invisible man, an unjustly overlooked man.

Perhaps that is finally changing.  Rustin, who died in 1987, is among this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  As well, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., currently boasts an exhibit about the March on Washington that pays scrupulous attention to the many men and women, beyond Dr. King, who were instrumental in bringing the idea of a mass demonstration to fruition.

Rustin’s role was as follows:  Having previously organized one of the earliest “Freedom Rides” to protest bus segregation laws throughout the South, he was put in charge of drafting the program, recruiting activists and other marchers, coordinating the buses and trains to transport them all to Washington, and hiring marshals and traffic directors to ensure everything ran smoothly.  All of these things he did more or less single-handedly.

In short:  While the March on Washington owes its sterling reputation to Martin Luther King, it owes its very existence to Bayard Rustin.

My question:  Why do you need me to tell you this?  Why has such an essential character spent most of the last half-century being expunged from the history books?

The likeliest explanation for this is threefold:  Rustin was a socialist.  He was a draft dodger.  And he was gay.

None of these would-be revelations was a secret at the time.  He had been arrested and jailed in 1953 for engaging in “sex perversion,” i.e. consensual sex with another man.  A lifelong pacifist, he had refused to serve in World War II.  As for his political affiliations, he was a member of the Socialist Party of America for much of his adult life, becoming its chairman in 1972.

For these reasons, many within the Civil Rights Movement fought to prevent Rustin from playing such a leading role, including for the March on Washington.  No less than Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, admonished Rustin to keep strictly behind the scenes, lest Wilkins and others be forced to answer for Rustin’s background during what was, after all, a rather delicate operation on the “winning hearts and minds” front.

And so we have one of the great ironies of the 1960s:  A central figure in the fight for the rights of minority groups has been very nearly absent in the popular mind because he was a member of one too many minority groups.

It is useful to remember, in this celebratory week, that history is never as simple or as morally clear as we would prefer it to be.  Like all the civil rights battles therein, it is a messy, complicated business whose participants are neither saints nor devils.

My hope, in light of Bayard Rustin finally getting his due, is that we make a greater effort to render our country’s most colorful episodes in a realistic, rather than idealistic, light.  That we treat our heroes and villains as if they existed in all three dimensions, not as proverbial cardboard cutouts.  That we forgo our usual national tendency never to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

After all, oftentimes the truth can make for a mighty good yarn as well.

Speak For Yourself

I promise this whole column will not be about Justin Bieber.

But the 19-year-old pop music superstar, who was already not having a terribly great month, unwittingly stirred a rather improbable ruckus the other day that can serve as a proverbial “teachable moment” for us all.

In Amsterdam, amidst the European leg of his current tour, Bieber visited the Anne Frank House and signed its guestbook thusly:  “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.  Anne was a great girl.  Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”

(“Belieber” is the official term for a Justin Bieber fan.  As if you didn’t know.)

Of course, to a normal, mentally balanced human being, those are just about the most innocuous, uninteresting three sentences one could possibly write, scarcely requiring any further comment.  Contemporary teenager expresses affection for an historical figure roughly his age, dreaming that, had they occupied the same time and place, she might have liked him back.  End of story—if, indeed, this could even be called a story.

However, as Bieber’s every action has become the object of acute fascination by a not-insignificant gaggle of followers—admiring and despising—for whom a sense of proportion is not a strong point, this utterly harmless episode has ballooned into a controversy on the strength of the perceived lack of humility on Bieber’s part in presuming to speculate about Anne Frank’s tastes in music.

It’s an exercise in silliness—a demonstration of the spectacle one becomes when one is prepared to be offended by absolutely anything.  However, although Bieber meant no disrespect in his sweet nothing of a guestbook message, we can nonetheless wring some small semblance of meaning from it by reflecting upon the pitfalls of a practice that long foreruns the Biebs—that of ventriloquizing the thoughts of those long past.

Touring bookstores across the United States in 2005 to promote his biography Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Christopher Hitchens regularly advised against historians and biographers assuming more than they could possibly know about their respective subjects.  To theorize what a particular historical person might have thought about a given subject, Hitchens argued, is beyond the competency of even the most learned student of history, and should be avoided at all costs.

(Hitchens granted himself one exception:  That in seeing Sally Hemings for the first time, Thomas Jefferson must surely have thought, “Maybe there is a God after all.”)

We all like to claim our favorite historical and literary authorities as corroborators of our most deeply-held views, figuring that the collected writings and opinions they churned out while alive license us to infer what they would say about things now, if only they weren’t dead.

Certainly Jesus Christ has fallen victim to this practice over the last few centuries, becoming an unsolicited spokesman for believers and nonbelievers alike.  (My favorite example:  Max von Sydow lamenting in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”)

Men such as George Orwell and Abraham Lincoln have proved especially malleable in recent years, welcomed as moral leaders of pretty much every ideological movement currently in business.  Then there was the recent hilarity of the chairman of “Gun Appreciation Day” saying unironically that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would oppose gun control “if he were alive today.”

Quite apart from the practical difficulties of conjuring imagined opinions of the dead to make a point about the living, there is a far more troubling matter:  The implication that our convictions are only as valid as the individuals who might share them.

To wit:  Suppose it were demonstrated that King really would oppose an assault weapons ban, say, or that Orwell would find President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program appalling.  So what?

The case for or against a particular policy ought to stand or fall on its own merits, with the identity of its supporters and detractors a distantly secondary consideration.

I refrain from smoking cigarettes because medical science has demonstrated that tobacco causes cancer—not because Adolph Hitler recommended that I do so.

I was in favor of a right to same-sex marriage both before and after President Barack Obama gave it his seal of approval.  The arguments for and against did not change just because the president did, much as the case for abolishing slavery did not hinge on President Lincoln’s personal endorsement.

Do not depend on the reputations of others to determine what is right.  Have the nerve to think for yourself, as if your own opinions and powers of reason were as legitimate as anyone else’s.

Be a belieber in your own self-worth.