It’s a sort of mise en abyme, really, this curious fact about the Academy Awards telecast: it has won a huge number of Emmys—54, with 293 nominations overall—since the television awards themselves were inaugurated in 1949. Mise en abyme (literally, “placed in the abyss”) being the French expression that best encapsulates the vertiginous sensation one has when the world recedes into infinite and self-reflective copies of itself—a workaday version of which would be the queasiness one feels sitting in a restaurant booth that has mirrors on either side, such that you see receding copies of yourself chowing down ad infinitum, and by extension ad nauseam.
Will Self talks Oscars with Alta Live on Wednesday, February 9 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
However, I don’t think it sickened Hollywood—understood metonymically—to see itself reflected in the infinitely receding mirrors of the nation’s television screens. Rather, the fact that the industry’s own festival of self-congratulation should, in turn, be endorsed by anything up to 55 million viewers only confirmed the major players’ narcissism, a self-absorption that was by no means delusional, since fame is indeed a form of love, albeit one in which the object of desire is forever unattainable.
But that was then—1998, to be precise, when the nation tuned in to see James Cameron’s superlative piece of mega-schlock, Titanic, scoop 11 of the coveted gold-plated statuettes. It’s often said of the real-life Titanic that when it set sail from Southampton, England, in April of 1912, it became the world’s largest metaphor. By extension, its celluloid namesake stands as the largest available metaphor for the collapse of the movie industry, because après ça le déluge. (I humbly ask to be forgiven for deploying two French phrases in three short paragraphs. Of course, some readers may feel it’s a subliminal reference to a nation with a rather more modest community of filmmakers—and they’d be right.)
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
The deluge being, paradoxically, the great ebbing away of interest in Hollywood qua Hollywood, a process that began with the inception of nationwide television broadcasting in the late 1940s, continued with the introduction of home videos in the 1970s, and then—notwithstanding the success of numerous blockbusters—accelerated rapidly as successive new media made it increasingly easy for the humble viewer to take back control. Control that filmmakers had been lording over him or her or them ever since 1899, when George Albert Smith spliced together the strips of celluloid necessary to create The Kiss in the Tunnel, adjudged to be the first film in which editing was used to create narrative. Now, it would seem, the smallest metaphor in the world—that pesky SARS-CoV-2 virion, measuring between about 50 and 140 nanometers—may well supply the coup de grâce (oops!).
Is it only I who sees the so-called tyranny of film, whereby contemporary editors use a combination of shorter and shorter shots and increasingly rapid crosscutting to reliably fixate viewers’ attention, as a strange sort of specular correlate to those same viewers’ increasing indifference to Hollywood and the monopoly on their attention its spectacle once exercised? After all, when people stop looking at narcissists, they’ll do anything they can to get those eyes back on. But it’s been to no avail: 2021’s Academy Awards telecast saw a 56 percent collapse in the ratings, down from the preceding year’s 23.6 million to a pitiful 9.85 million viewers.
That this loss of interest coincided with a determined, if sometimes laughable, attempt by the academy—and, by extension, Hollywood overall—to clean up its act in terms of diversity and representation should, I feel, be seen as more coincidental than causal. It is true, though, that glamour doesn’t sit well with godliness: the former is all about a beautiful illusion, while the latter—at least if you’re a believer—is vitally concerned with the skull beneath the skin. Natalie Portman appearing on the red carpet at the 2020 ceremony in a cloak embroidered with the names of female directors who had allegedly been denied Oscars that were deservedly theirs was a grotesque mirroring of an equally grotesque fashion statement by the directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, who stopped on the red carpet to open their black-and-gold tuxedos and give a flash to the cameras of the names of 17 Black Americans killed by police, names that had been embroidered on their jackets by Dolce & Gabbana. (I mean, obviously not personally, but by some needle-wielding minion.)
This is the sort of virtue signaling that—along with vicious backbiting—has come to define contemporary social media, and frankly it’s just as feeble (or faible) in the real(ish) world occupied by Hollywood actors and filmmakers. Which isn’t for a second to suggest that there’s anything wrong with protesting the killings by police of African Americans or the snubbing of talented female directors: both these phenomena are also grotesque reflections, but of realities that can’t be addressed by mere upstream cultural change, any more than 2021’s winner for Best Picture, Nomadland, will halt the gathering crisis of homelessness in the United States.
So who needs the Oscars anymore? Faced with a vast smorgasbord of cinematic entertainment available at a swipe or a click, who requires these stylized maquettes of nude men to act as cultural and entertainment gatekeepers? Who needs the dumb telecast, with its unfunny presenters and its A-list egotists shaking their overpaid booties in the latest bit of stupidly overpriced schmatte? It hardly matters whether the academy’s electoral roll is old, white, and male or young, multiracial, and nonbinary; the end result will be the same while everyone’s still following the money. Paying to get the vote out has a long and ignoble tradition in so-called U.S. democracy, so perhaps credit is due to the Republic of La-La Land for at least putting on a show of equality. But money is still what it’s all about, even as Hollywood’s share of global cinematic revenues has shrunk: with a smaller seaful of viewers to prey on, the sharks get increasingly frenzied—and end up jumping themselves in a desperate effort to attract attention. Which explains all-conquering Nomadland: a saccharine piece of work fêted almost wholly for contingent factors concerning its cast and crew (and, to be fair, also criticized on this basis) rather than for its script, cinematography, or performances.
With theaters still largely empty, no sign of the Biden White House transforming into a beacon of liberty in a darkening world, and the industry’s economic woes continuing, you’d have expected some Hollywood insiders to happily break ranks and dis the system. I reached out through one such—an old friend, no less—to see whether anyone would be prepared to talk off the record. She approached the following: the head of one of the largest literary and talent agencies in Los Angeles; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a liberal, politically active screenwriter; an old-school producer; and an attorney for very high level talent. None of them would talk to me—even wearing the most advanced prosthetics.
It made me think of a photo shown to me by the Australian director John Hillcoat when he was editing his film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel, The Road. The picture showed an amply stuffed chair in a screening room surrounded by a blast pattern of discarded candy bars (their wrappers torn open, a single bite taken before having been jettisoned), crumpled-up soda cups, strewn popcorn, and all manner of other half-eaten junky comestibles. It looked as if some sort of giant and psychopathic baby had been sitting there to watch the daily rushes of a movie that concentrated in obsessive detail on the realities of a world without…food.
And of course one such had: to wit, Harvey Weinstein, The Road’s coproducer, who exerted heavy pressure on Hillcoat to edit the film so as to showcase the performance of its male lead, Viggo Mortensen. This with the avowed intent of—you guessed it—winning him the Oscar. Or at least that’s what Hillcoat told me—and I have no reason to doubt him. Weinstein’s behavior was a sitting—if not standing—affront to any idea Hollywood might have had of its own moral compass: I first heard rumors of his sexual abuse and bullying in the mid-1990s at the Frankfurt Book Fair, of all places. And if an English writer knew thousands of miles away, how much more cognizant must have been those on the spot and in the screening rooms?
Weinstein may have gone, but the mentality he epitomized lingers on, like the rotten smile of some Cheshire cat: nothing succeeds like success, and we’ll do anything necessary to obtain it, whether it entails public virtue…or private vice. So never be deceived for a second into thinking any of the following about the Oscars: that the Best Film is the best film, the Best Actor or Actress the best actor or actress, or indeed that any of the winners are people you’d want to stick with.•