The Oscar telecast may be great, Ellen DeGeneres could prove the perfect host, and — who knows? — the awards themselves might turn out to be full of surprises, emotionally charged moments, and delightful acceptance speeches. But right now, more than in any recent year, a kind of sourness has settled over the Academy Awards. As the season grinds along, the campaigning winds down, and the guilds hand out their various trophies, the prevailing (and possibly unrepresentative) sentiment among the Academy members I’ve talked to seems to be “Let’s get this thing over with.” The fights have all been had — is anybody really up for re-litigating American Hustle v. The Wolf of Wall Street? — and the movies themselves have been more than sufficiently chewed over; they’ve all been around for a long time now and, this weekend at least, more people bought tickets to watch pieces of Lego brawl with each other than attended every single Best Picture nominee combined.
Many people complain, justifiably, that the pre-nomination viewing-and-voting season is too short; it’s the September-to-March conversation that’s too damn long. The only reason anyone is still talking about Blue Jasmine in its 28th week of release is an op-ed in the New York Times that essentially challenged several of its cast members by name to repudiate Woody Allen. This is what we’re down to — hashing out whether Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress chances will or should be adversely affected by her professional association with a man who has now re-denied doing something he had already denied doing 20 years before she signed on to make the movie for which she’s nominated. Oscar voters are, ludicrously, being asked to serve as jurors in a trial by op-ed: Is a vote for Blanchett to be treated as de facto indifference about the nightmare of child molestation, since Dylan Farrow has publicly contended that for a long time, she felt that any awards for Allen’s films “were a way to tell me to shut up and go away”? More to the point, is there any conceivable way to ask or answer that question without acknowledging that something horrible is being inappropriately trivialized and something trivial is being inappropriately transformed into a crisis of situational ethics? I’ve heard people say they think this controversy is useful because it opens up a larger discussion. I hope that who should win Best Actress isn’t the discussion they mean.
As singular as the case of Blue Jasmine is, the stance that Woody Allen fans ought to bring the baggage of real-world knowledge into the multiplex is right on the spectrum of the kind of gut-level, deeply personalized fighting that has been going on about many Oscar movies all season long. There’s no question that in the last few years, the rise of social media and the culture of self-declaration and sweeping pronouncement it favors has changed the way we argue about movies. Never has it been so easy to get close to so many other people for the purpose of not really listening to the ones who disagree with us. But this year, the nature of the disputes has changed. The biggest fights about 2014’s Oscar contenders have not been about their aesthetics but about their politics and morality. And as strident and repetitive as these quarrels usually end up being, I’m going to raise my half-full glass and give a mild cheer for the fact that they’re happening at all. I’ll even posit that they’re fights worth having.
You’ve heard about some of them, if not all. The Wolf of Wall Street has been accused of endorsing, or at least insufficiently condemning, the vulgar, vicious hedonism it spends three hours energetically depicting, and also of ignoring the real victims of Jordan Belfort’s crimes. The physician of the late Ron Woodroof, the protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club, has come forward to say that Woodroof was not a straight homophobe but a nonhomophobic bisexual, a claim denied by the film’s co-screenwriter. This is more than a “gotcha” fact check, because if it’s true, it gives credence to the complaint that the movie takes the early history of AIDS activism — landmark years in which a small, marginalized, and demonized community of gay people rose up to fight for themselves — and falsely renders them hapless by placing an invented “relatable” straight guy at the front of the barricades instead. (“It would be,” said one gay activist I talked to, “like making Solomon Northup white in order to reach a bigger audience.”) Some have complained that the blithely fictionalized American Hustle (“Some of this actually happened”) turns a tragedy into a lighthearted farcical caper, pruning its story of complexity by ignoring, for example, that the woman on whom Jennifer Lawrence’s comic-relief character is based committed suicide a few years after the movie’s narrative ends. Even cartoons are not immune: Hayao Miyazaki’s valedictory feature The Wind Rises, about a young Japanese engineer who just wants to design a beautiful plane but ends up contributing to the creation of World War II dive-bombers, has been sharply criticized by Village Voice critic Inkoo Kang as a “morally egregious” whitewash of Japanese brutality and war crimes.
These are all, in a way, arguments about selection, omission, and context — about the gray area that lies between a filmmaker’s right to tell a story his own way and his responsibility to address or at least acknowledge the world that lies just outside wherever he’s chosen to place his frame.1
And they’re not clear-cut; I, for instance, find myself sympathetic to the discontent expressed by critics of The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, firmly on the side of David O. Russell’s right to leave out whatever he wants to leave out of American Hustle, and on the fence about whether The Wind Rises is a depiction of obliviousness or a symptom of it. I’ve got my reasons for this inconsistency — I’m more inclined to forgive an omission like American Hustle’s because it lies outside the chronological scope of the movie than I am to exonerate The Wolf of Wall Street for what feels at times like a repetitive fetishization of Belfort’s appetites at the expense of pulling back for a broader view. But while I could defend each of my positions, I suspect that I am at least partly guilty of doing what most people do, which is to start from whether I viscerally like or dislike a movie and work backward in an at least semi-self-justifying manner from there.
But I find nothing ominous in the decency of particular storytelling approaches now being on the table. For decades, it has been almost impossible to bring up a movie’s morality without it serving as a preemptive announcement that you’re probably on the wrong side of history. The track record of moralists as cultural critics is abysmal. Lack of morality in art has historically been what prigs, bluenoses, and simpletons use to bash Hollywood and dismiss the value of challenging creative work by demanding that popular entertainment reward the virtuous, punish the guilty, and reinforce the certainties of a complacent audience rather than inspire them to reexamine their precepts from fresh vantage points. That is still the caricature to which the anti-moralists want to reduce their opposition: The counteroffensive they mount is that if you find The Wolf of Wall Street objectionable, you must be either incapable of discerning its implicit condemnation of greed or uncomfortable with any movie that doesn’t spell out its lessons. But the old stereotypes — conservatives object to sex, liberals object to violence, and indignation about immorality comes from people who are already primarily disposed to hate pop culture — no longer apply. And, as last year’s warm-up brawls over Argo, Lincoln,2 and Zero Dark Thirty suggested, it’s often coupled with a heightened and progressive political consciousness. (For instance, the people who complain that Dallas Buyers Club elides gay history or that Captain Phillips celebrates American military triumphalism and ignores its culpability in worldwide economic inequity are generally coming from a pretty hard-left perspective.)
The old battle lines were easier to identify: artistic freedom versus “decency,” conservative versus liberal, young versus old, open-minded versus prudish. But the fights over the current crop of awards movies suggest a blurrier and more fungible divide: In some ways, it’s a split between advocates of directors and advocates of writers. If you come out of the high-auteurist tradition of the early 1960s, you are more likely to be interested in what the director chooses to include, how he decides to tell a story, and how his latest film is in dialogue with his previous work. If, on the other hand, your understanding of how movies are made is less overdetermined and more freewheeling, you may get heated up about issues of content and cultural context that auteurists tend to dismiss or ignore.
Personally, I find the new wave of insistence that a movie’s morality and worldview should count at least partially toward its final grade to be heartening, and I’m not willing to dismiss this way of looking at a movie just because it can be dangerous when misapplied. Yes, the new moralists can become humorless scolds about accusing movies of “trivializing” issues they care about. They can be tone-deaf to nuance and ambiguity, and tediously prosecutorial about ideology. But to oppose them by insisting on a purely aestheticized or sensation-driven take on movies — one that artificially walls off political, cultural, and moral perspective — is to use the all-purpose shield of artistic freedom to defend a dully limited view of movies and of the world. “What do you want, censorship?” is no longer a legitimate parry. We’re all good with artistic freedom. Artistic responsibility makes for a much more interesting conversation.
It would be nice to believe that on March 2, the Academy Awards ceremony will somehow serve as a culmination of this discussion, or at least a scorecard about which side won the current round. By this line of thought, if Steve McQueen wins, if Cate Blanchett loses, if The Wolf of Wall Street pulls off an upset in any category, if American Hustle is shut out or Her sneaks in, it will tell us something about The Way We Think About Movies Now. Let me break the news as gently as I can: It won’t. First of all, “we” — the arguers — aren’t voting. And second, there’s no surer way to tell a lie about what the Oscars mean than to narrativize them. And third, history tells us that while Oscar nominees usually reflect something compelling about the year in movies, Oscar winners usually don’t. So, all of this fury and contention could be the prologue to a longstanding and cherished Academy tradition — the massive, sweeping dodge.
I’ll take a deeper dive into oddsmaking once voting begins, but I don’t have to go too far out on a limb to predict that, barring a major surprise, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is going to walk away with more awards than any other movie. In a year when we’ve all been squabbling over Martin Scorsese’s take on excess, McQueen’s and Miyazaki’s senses of history, Spike Jonze’s gender politics, and whether the mere act of seeing a Woody Allen movie constitutes a step into moral murk, don’t be shocked if Academy voters decide that this year, there’s no safer place to be than outer space.