The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: The name wreaks of genteel respectability. In 1927, at a time when movies weren't taken very seriously, either as art or as science, this august body instituted an annual awards ceremony as a bid for greater legitimacy. And it worked. Millions who enjoy watching Hollywood's finest slosh about in their own drool in an orgy of self-congratulation, year after year, still accept the awards as a gauge of real excellence. Those who recognize the Oscars as nothing but an elaborate promotional gimmick know the awards say very little about the state of the art. But they reveal a lot about the state of the industry.
If you wanted to explore the influence of independent cinema on "mainstream" American film, for instance, you could track the Best Picture awards of the last decade, from Pulp Fiction to American Beauty. Neither of these films is as challenging as any single work of a true independent like, say, Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley. But both are a thousand times more challenging than Gladiator, this year's top nominee. It's probably as big a historical fallacy to assume that things are getting worse and worse as it is to assume they're getting better and better, and I doubt that this year's nominations are any worse or any better than they've ever been. But they do suggest sea-changes underway in American film culture.
What the Oscars can gauge quite powerfully, aside from the seismic condition of Hollywood, is the permutation of mass taste--which may be hard to measure, but which is what the Oscars, at base, are all about. This year we have three kinds of films to choose from: populist melodramas, middlebrow romances and fight-movie spectaculars. (For a complete list of nominees, see www.infilmbox.com.) Such preferences are nothing new, of course, though the prevalence of fight movies, this year, is a troubling trend. Gladiator is a big-budget version--with the trappings of a well-designed video game--of a 1960s Italian epic starring Steve Reeves. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does for Hong Kong action movies what, ten years ago, Silence of the Lambs did for slasher films: It decks out the previously "low" genre in respectability, and makes it palatable to slightly higher-brow audiences.
On the one hand, then, this year's Oscars are typical in presenting as novelty long-standing popular forms that have finally gone mainstream. On the other hand, they represent the mainstreaming of what had, a few years ago, seemed authentically new in a film like Pulp Fiction: the mixture of indie spirit with Hollywood star power. Steven Soderbergh's dual nominations for Erin Brockovich and Traffic serve as an example. A child of the indie boom of the late '80s, when his film sex, lies and videotape won at Cannes, Soderbergh seemed throughout the '90s to be trying to integrate his indie pedigree into Hollywood genres. Those who feared that Hollywood would swallow the rising independent movement in American film watched Soderbergh's career with apprehension. The watch is over, and Soderbergh is now a Hollywood director, honored as such. One way a dominant culture can neutralize an alternative one is by subsuming it. If this year's Oscar nominations are any indication, that's exactly what is happening in American movies.
One art that persists in American film is the art of performance, and as usual, the acting nominations yield the finest achievements being honored this year. In suggesting alternatives or oversights in these categories, I don't mean to slight the nominees--nor even to counter the philistine preferences of the academy with my own impeccable tastes. Rather, I mean to suggest larger trends in the culture of the Oscars. Absent Russell Crowe's and Joaquin Phoenix's staunch-faced strutting in Gladiator, or Geoffrey Rush's arch-highbrow mugging in Quills, there are no real losers among these performances. My own favorites include Julia Roberts' forthright, sweetly unmannered turn in Erin Brockovich and Laura Linney's sensitive, varied performance in You Can Count on Me, both nominated for Best Actress. Then there's Willem Dafoe's vivid campiness in Shadow of the Vampire and Kate Hudson's smiling-through-tears buoyancy in Almost Famous.
But what about--to name only one alternative in each of the four acting categories--Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me, Elaine May in Small Time Crooks, or Ian Holm in Joe Gould's Secret? If I'm right that the Oscars enshrine only the established and the faux-novel, it's no mystery why Björk's name is missing from this lineup. Her performance as a provincial factory worker slowly going blind is like nothing that has ever been seen on a movie screen before. It has none of the sly, knowing quality of Emily Watson's Oscar-winning performance in an earlier Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves. It is both highly self-conscious and completely immediate; its exploratory momentum--giddy, autistic and bracingly severe--won't win any Oscars.
As the charming but irresponsible brother in You Can Count on Me, Mark Ruffalo brilliantly plays a loser, and Best Actors are supposed to be winners, like Russell Crowe. Best Supporting Actors can be losers--so long as they're loveable--but Ian Holm's intricately detailed portrayal of Joe Gould confronts homelessness too directly, and homelessness is only one of the social problems the academy, like America at large, would prefer to consider already solved. Elaine May, as the ditzy sister-in-law in Small Time Crooks, is hilarious and touching, but she can't be forgiven for Ishtar--nor for a whole career that mounts, in effect, a sustained assault on the Hollywood mindset.
There's no conspiracy behind such omissions, of course, but a very coherent worldview is visible behind all the nominations, especially those for Best Picture. In that category, all the nominees affirm the Triumph of the Individual, and of the status quo. Only a year ago, key nominees challenged this affirmative viewpoint. This year, even my favorite, Erin Brockovich, ends its attack on corporate greed by celebrating the new-found riches of its main character, as if acquiring personal wealth were the only real solution. Traffic ends with an impassioned speech by Michael Douglas that flaunts his new social awareness, suggesting that as long as you get to tell off the bad people, and as long as individuals thereby achieve their little epiphanies, then social problems can be left to their own devices.
This doggedly affirmative nature of a typical Best Picture nominee predictably generates fervent allegiances. If one dares to breathe a word of dissent concerning the glories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one's interlocutors are likely to be seized by apoplectic rage. It's different from the others, they'll tell you. Yet this glitzy parable, exalting obeisance to masters, ends with a feat of self-sacrifice in the name of that obeisance, a feat presented with intense sentiment, and meant to be seen as gloriously transcendent. This is an especially scary variation on the theme of individualism.
What if, in place of Traffic, we could imagine something like Jesus' Son, a film about drug culture that neither exploits the subject for arty thrills, nor minimizes its effects? What if, in place of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we could imagine Ghost Dog? Jim Jarmusch's film uses samurai legend to explore the violence of romanticism, by contrast to Crouching Tiger's romance of violence. And both these alternatives are skeptical, questioning, humanely pessimistic. That they are unthinkable as Oscar nominees may be heartening, in the end. It could mean there are some alternatives in film culture that remain beyond the reach of Hollywood's grasp.