Why Americans Did Not Watch The Oscars

(x-posted to The Valve)

The Oscars mean two things to most Americans. First, it’s a chance to celebrate the most impressive films of the year, from a mainstream point of view. We wash ourselves clean of forgettable trash like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and look back (through a series of painfully short and choppy montages) at films that reflected national fears, intoxications, and bouts of moral seriousness. Second, it’s a celebrity parade and fashion event. This year we didn’t need it. Why?

No Country For Women

At this particular moment, the filmmakers able to hold the aestheticist high ground are making Westerns and gangster movies (blatantly indebted to Westerns) without women. Petitpoussin already faced down this trend here, though she was content just to fire one shot, touch the brim of her hat, and move on in her quiet, laconic way. There Will Be Blood was so pathetically lopsided in this respect that it became farcical. In the final scene of the film, Paul Thomas Anderson attempts to achieve the iconicity of the word “rosebud” by having Daniel Day-Lewis give a speech about “drinking another man’s milkshake,” which means siphoning the oil from an adjoining piece of land.

If it was still 1988, then maybe, just maybe, that wouldn’t be a ridiculous speech. However, it’s 2008, and “your milkshake” and “my milkshake” irresistibly recalls the Kelis song “Milkshake”:

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
And they’re like, it’s better than yours
Damn right, it’s better than yours
I could teach you, but I’d have to charge

All his life, virile Daniel Day-Lewis sits apart from women, and Paul Thomas Anderson exiles them from the frames, until the whole sexual life of the film is channeled into the gushing spurts of black oil and the oil merges with Kelis’s bizarrely euphemistic dirty talk. It’s sort of homoerotic, since it comes during an intimate moment between Day-Lewis and his enemy (a boy preacher), but the film has no idea what to make of that; mostly, it’s the inevitable return of the repressed.

It’s worth observing that one of most emotionally turbulent moments in the film comes through Kelis’s metaphor, since men without emotion were so central to 2007’s heralded films. Even Joel and Ethan Coen were guilty of finding this problem more interesting than it really is: grim lands demand grim heroes, money and death have a chill touch, and the masculine cult should be celebrated and condemned. Romance becomes the sterile, pre-pubescent romances of technology and treasure: Javier Bardem blows up a car and performs surgery on himself, Denzel Washington finds a good way to transport heroin, the fields are so rich with oil that Day-Lewis gets some on his shoe.

In fact, what emerges from the supposed aesthetic purism of this year’s nominated films is really the cowardice of the Academy. Superficially, Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood) is a pawn: the sum of his life’s ambitions amounts to choosing to work with one oil monopoly rather than another. Nonetheless, the film tries to minimize that truth, and compares unfavorably with Gangs of New York, where Day-Lewis played a very similar character but the politics (and the little thug’s illusion of power) were the central point of the final act, not one rich man’s boring decline into decadence. The academy was too stodgy to award Gangs of New York an Oscar for Best Picture, preferring to wait until The Departed, which had about as much political meaning as a hair-dye infomercial. By the same token, when a film appeared that embraced the homoeroticism of the Western mythos, Brokeback Mountain, the Oscar went to Crash.

Julianne Moore, where have you gone? When Paul Thomas Anderson completed his real flawed masterpiece, Magnolia, Moore was there, giving an unforgettable performance as a gold-digger gradually discovering her feelings for her husband. When the Coen Bros. made the modern comedy classic The Big Lebowski, Moore was there as the painter and radical feminist Maud Lebowski, and it’s through her collision with the Dude that “the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.” In Children of Men, clearly the best picture of 2007, Moore was the leader of the insurgents who convinces Clive Owen to return to the cause. These films weren’t preachy or self-consciously politically correct about gender; they were simply realistic.

Admittedly, the Coen Bros. did better than Anderson: we have Llewelyn’s wife and her hilariously grumpy mother, as well as a miscellaneous woman who manages the trailer park where Llewelyn lives. These women are the only characters who refuse to play Anton’s games of death — the trailer park woman won’t give Anton information, and Carla Jean won’t flip a coin for her life. They are victims of the men around them, including Llewelyn, who puts their lives in danger while dreaming that he’s saving Carla Jean from continuing to work at Wal-Mart. The film almost manages to suggest that all the men — the “good” guys like Llewelyn, the bounty hunters, the suits, the police — are caught up perpetuating the machinery of death. But Carla Jean is still little more than Andromeda in chains, little more than Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises, compared to Maud Lebowski or Marge Gunderson from Fargo. Confronted by this artificial wasteland of maleness, audiences were supposed to applaud; most of them just turned away. It was The Godfather without Kay, Casablanca without Ilsa.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that vitiated political commentary and lopsided representations of gender went hand-in-hand this year, but I don’t think so. The great political film of the year was Michael Clayton, and it owed much of its power to Tilda Swinton’s astonishingly believable villain. Female characters do not merely create possibilities for heterosexual romance and desire, or for (potentially sexist) outpourings of emotion. Without them, you cannot portray what Martin Heidegger termed “average everydayness,” the interwoven fabric of consummation and disappointment, luxury and poverty, birth and death, family and social life that gives rise to the political. Look at the examples from television — try to imagine The Sopranos without Carmela and Meadow. Al Swearengen (from Deadwood) is a better version of Daniel Plainview, in part because we see him interact with Trixie, Alma Garret, and the cripple Jewel. The hermetic world of men is also the American cult of the exceptional individual, taken to the point of feverish delusion and inimical to the common ground that political thought and work requires.

The unfortunate complement to these tough-guy films are the insular domestic dramas. They have incredibly weak male characters, mostly of the man-child variety, and take similarly improbable turns in order to be nothing more than twee celebrations of family. They’re love poems to America’s white suburbs with facades of anti-suburban hip. Last year, it was Little Miss Sunshine. This year, it was Little Miss Pregnant Sunshine. The Academy turned a blind eye to Quentin Tarantino yet again, but I’ll take The Bride or Zoë Bell over Juno anyday.

Fashion at the Oscars; or, Goodbye Red Velvet Carpet

One of the most interesting effects of the increasingly horizontal possibility of celebrity — reality television, celebrity bloggers, and so forth — has been the way it has redounded on traditional arenas and duties of celebrity. To the best of our ability, we now try to put ourselves in the position of celebrities, which means reacting to the phenomenon with the same ambivalence that they seem to feel. It’s no longer that we want celebrities to be flawed, human, and approachable — “grounded,” as the old compliment used to go — but rather that the process by which ordinary people with talent become famous is now our primary concern.

Think of how central Britney Spears’s story has been to the entire year in tabloid reporting. Her adventures this year were sold to us as a series of nightmares about custody and control. Britney’s out of control! Britney’s lost custody of her children! Various antagonists, including Britney’s mother, manager, and boyfriend, all took turns in the role of the morally dubious handler who seizes control of Britney’s life, particularly when she was forcibly committed to a mental health institution. They, in turn, would accuse each other of trying to control Britney, either directly, or through drugs, or by exploiting Britney’s insecurities and/or mental health problems. The reception of Britney’s artistic work was likewise transformed. For example, when Britney gave a terrible performance of the single “Gimme More” on the MTV Music Awards, viewers responded with comments like “Why can’t they find her a decent wig?” The anonymous “they” of this comment stands in for all of the people, of whom we are now fully aware, who find ways to manipulate Britney into being a marketable commodity.

The allure of the red carpet pre-show at the Oscars always had to do with our relationship to the stars: at their most distant and un-approachable, they were symbols of style. We still believe icons like Frank Sinatra and Audrey Hepburn to have been stylish; even as television announcers gave us the names of the designers for each piece, we gave the stars credit for picking it out, and for exemplifying the glamour to which it alludes.

Three reality shows in particular — American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway — have de-mystified glamour to an extraordinary degree. (To some extent, the makeover shows have also contributed to this, but they are as much concerned with normalcy as with celebrity.) The dynamic of each show works to objectify glamour as something existing outside of any particular human being, to which any human being can aspire. The brutal honesty of Simon Cowell, Tyra Banks, and Tim Gunn is delicious for viewers in its cruelty, but is also meant impersonally. Glamour is not subjective; if it were, you could never teach it.

Therefore, it’s no longer possible to be much interested in what celebrities are wearing on the red carpet, because it’s no longer possible to attribute to them their own choices. If a celebrity is wearing something terrific, we understand that they have been guided to this choice by a series of handlers working with them. If they wear something terrible, we just wonder why they can’t get better advisors. It’s the same with the rest of the celebrity’s functions: while a dinosaur like Hugh Hefner might still have a reputation for throwing wild parties, a show like Super Sweet Sixteen makes it clear that party planners throw parties. The hosts merely afford them.

The dynamic has become the same sadomasochistic dynamic running through Britney’s story. For example, it was leaked to the press that the women on America’s Next Top Model were forced to go without food or sleep, denied ways of amusing themselves (like books), and generally put under unbearable strain. The show itself flaunted trials like having the models do photo shoots in icy water. Far from diminishing the show’s popularity, these revelations served to confirm what we already knew, which was that the process of becoming famous is a painful and violent re-education, with all the dramatic tension centered on what the wannabe accepts, and what she resists, and how, and for how long, all the while risking returning defeated to an ordinary life. Meanwhile, we are increasingly willing to watch specialists perform: dance coaches, karate coaches, personal trainers, stunt men and women, party planners, makeup artists, fashion designers. (My pick for movie of the year, Death Proof, is about stunt drivers battling an evil stunt driver.) It used to be that the red carpet was the stage for the individual accomplishment of taste. The depth of the image was the star’s own subjectivity. Now that we are conscious of the objective and cooperative process of producing style, depth is provided by interactions between people, insofar as each will or will not sacrifice themselves to the demands of the ideal. Anything less, for the contemporary viewer, is too shallow to do justice to the illusion.