The Oscars do not give awards for the most popular movies — that would simply be redundant. The Oscars also do not give awards for the best movies — they will make their presence felt over time. The Oscars instead operate in the uncertain terrain of the middle-brow. They have to hit a mark that’s snobbish enough not to simply endorse popular taste, but not so snobbish as to be a serious engagement with cinema as an artform. In short, they have to make moderately educated people feel smarter than average without accidentally making them feel dumb.
This dynamic has become clearer since they expanded the list of best picture nominees, as this has made more room for the genuinely popular (Avatar) as well as for the genuninely artful (Amour) — making it that much easier to plot the incoherent middle course (Argo). There is no plausible definition under which Argo is actually the best film that was released last year. But it speaks to the power of film (hence minimally meta), it has a political element, it’s set in a foreign culture — all of that adds up to something that’s just right for the NPR set. The Hurt Locker hits a similar sweet spot of making people feel like they’ve thought about serious issues without actually making them do so. Etc., etc.
It seems that the Oscars are the last place in American culture where the specifically middle-brow has any particular cachet, and that’s presumably because film is the one contemporary art form that combines mass appeal with a relatively unified field of “high art” aspiration — i.e., where there is still some kind of unity to the art as such that overcomes the centrifugal force of genre diversification. The Grammy awards have so little cultural authority because their task seems inherently meaningless. Who could presume to judge, out of all the many genres of music, what was the “best music” of that year? The choices aren’t frustrating so much as irrelevant. The same could be said for other types of awards, ranging from the Emmys to the National Book Award. Sure, the choices often don’t seem to make sense, but who honestly cares?
The Oscars, by contrast, are still frustrating to people, because it seems as though they have a coherent task, ranging over an important field of cultural endevor, and that they could conceivably fulfill that task well. It could even turn out, in fact, that the Oscars are something like the katechon, holding the field of movies together against the chaos of genre dissolution — making it plausible that Thor and Chinatown are, in an important and meaningful way, the same kind of thing.
A similar katechontic effect can be seen in the Oscars’ specifically American focus — if not for that focus, the field of film would again seem to be radically heterogenous. A film award aspiring to universality that simply omitted foreign film would be farcical, however, and hence we see the deployment of the category of “Best Foreign Film,” which carefully filters out all but one film from each country each year. Surely this is the dangerous upper limit of the middle brow, where it threatens to turn into genuine artistic discernment and knowledge — but it must be included as a kind of innoculation against exploring further. If I’m not satisfied with seeing all the regular nominees, I can go for something really edgy and advanced and see all the foreign films! Imagine how smart I’ll look at the Oscar party!
It’s unclear how long this awkward synthesis can continue to exert cultural authority — but we see again and again how often a system’s pull becomes all the stronger as it breaks down. The phenomenon of live-tweeting, where people watch programs specifically in order to complain about them, may have breathed new life into the Oscars (though it seems that people in my timeline last night were struggling!). Behind all the criticism, though, there is still the underlying demand to do it right, to do justice to the unified field of film that the Oscars hegemonically establish, to tell us what to watch already.
There’s also the sense in which we’re all in on the joke now, in which we can all pick out which self-congratulatory mediocrity will be a serious Oscar contender — almost as though “Oscar contenders” is a genre all its own. But if we can predict the outcome so easily, why do we need the awards at all? And if the “Oscar contender” is often such an unwatchable genre, why don’t we just seek out things that we, you know, actually enjoy? That’s the problem, though. The middle brow subject isn’t seeking out something to enjoy. The middle brow subject is seeking out a way of signalling cultural prestige. Hence the self-congratulatory mediocrity is a feature, not a bug.
The real danger to their position isn’t that they continue to choose so poorly (by their own standards, they choose well!) — but that they risk undermining their tenuous cultural authority by, for example, having Seth MacFarlane host. If the show itself becomes unwatchable, then the spell is gone — because the ritual element of watching the show is part of the cultural authority as well. Indeed, one might take the risk of viewing the Superbowl and the Oscars as part of one coherent “holiday season” that includes Thanksgiving and Christmas. The events are spaced out more or less evenly, one per month; they all involve obligatory gatherings of some kind or other; and they all celebrate some kind of American ideal, with an undercurrent of American reality. (I leave the elaboration of this claim as an exercise for the reader.)
Perhaps it is telling that the “holiday season” continues to expand (beyond its expansion to include “adult Halloween”) — perhaps it takes more and more work to hold American culture together, to force it into some kind of coherence. The increasing militarization of the holidays is a symptom that plays out here with the elevation of more or less nakedly propagandistic films to the dubious level of “Oscar contenders.” And here one thinks of the prohibition of political protest at the first Oscars that occurred during the Iraq War — a prohibition that is clearly unnecessary now. If “official” Hollywood’s hold on American culture is more tenuous, its integration into the apparatus is becoming tighter and more ham-fisted.
In any case, I’ve written enough for now. Please let me know if I’m horribly wrong.