Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Horse-Race that Matters Least

Recently, my Wednesday papers have come bundled with a "special section" called The Envelope. In this special weekly fold-out section, we're treated to a blow-by-blow account of the "Oscar season" as it's now known. Urgent questions are raised: Would the voters penalize Leo for his Costneresque accent? Or will the boy wonder finally get his shot with The Departed? Can you hear that deafening industry buzz on Dreamgirls? No? Do you live east of La Cienega, you loser? Is Letters of Iwo Jima a late arriving dark horse, a la Million Dollar Baby? Will Peter O'Toole's refusal to cross the Atlantic cost him his last shot at the elusive award?

Eager for answers? Me neither. Until I started perusing this section one idle morning, I hadn't given these questions a second thought. And considering that I'm a movie geek who can name every Oscar Best Picture winner from 1927 on, I started to wonder: does the general reader actually care about this crap? If so, why?

Since the Los Angeles Times caters to the entertainment industry, you can argue that maybe this section is a local thing. But how to explain the editorial decision of the Paper of Record, which deemed the Oscar horse-race so vital to its readership that it has been hosting a frequently-updated blog called "The CarpetBagger" for over a year? And the hundreds of Oscar sites that obsessively detail the studios' every move? Besides the actual industry insiders, why are there so many people eager to play-act being an insider on one of blogs now tracking the Oscar race? In fact, why "track" the Oscar race at all?

It's one thing to be disappointed at the Oscar party when your favorite loses out to some piece of shit. But if you can't get over Brokeback Mountain's loss last year in a couple of hours -- unless your name is James Schamus or Ang Lee -- you're in need of some serious medical attention. The Oscar results, in the grand scheme of things, mean next to nothing. I know, we care about all kinds of trivialities. How is following the Oscars any different than following sports, for example? First of all, allegiances to sports teams have been formed over years; there's a longstanding emotional attachment, not to mention civic or national pride that you feel about the team from your city or country. Can someone really be that attached to Capote? And so what if a bunch of strangers prefer Crash to your favorite? A more important distinction is that the point of sports is winning. You follow sports to find out who wins and loses, which is settled on the field. The point of movie-watching isn't, or shouldn't be, following "winners and losers". If O'Toole wins his Oscar, does it actually enhance your enjoyment of the movie? Would it make Venus any better, more worthwhile as art or entertainment?

Why not devote that wasted ink to something important, like when we'll be getting out of Iraq, or when Britney will finally start donning knickers again? Vexed as I may be, it's apparent that throngs of people care about the Oscar race as a kind of sport, keeping horse-race sites like Movie City News thriving. Scott Tobias and Noel Murray share my befuddlement, and in their Onionavclub exchange, offer up some terrific points. Noel is on to something when he links the rise of Oscar prognostication to a decline in the esteem of movie criticism. Oscar prognostication/tracking satisfies the reader's temptation to see what's up and down, but does so in a putatively "objective" fashion. Oscar stories end up flattering the reader by offering up buzz instead of expertise, and they provide the reader with handy movie-ranking shorthand. Why bother discussing the merits of a movie when you can now argue about the more "objective" Oscar-worthiness of the movie? "You liked The Good German? Well, I see no nominations besides at best cinematography. Oscar voters would never go for something that dark."

At one time, the Oscar race was interesting as a parlor game. But now it's been inflated to such a degree that the Oscar campaign itself is worthy of extensive news coverage. We now have innumerable weirdos, folks who aren't even film aficionados, now versed in the Best Supporting Actress race, which means being experts in predicting how a bunch of old farts will feel about unseen female supporting performances. The end is nigh, I say.