Friday, March 2, 2012

Nostalgia's Not What It Used to Be

Amid the usual hand-wringing about how the Oscars were boring, out of touch, silly, meaningless, etc, one point mentioned in various outlets was that the Academy itself is comprised of older white men, making it unsurprising that the Oscars are so, well, unsurprising. It's only natural that these members, though well-meaning and often politically liberal – if not progressive – would cast their votes for things white men like.

Much like Mark Twain's complaint that everyone talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it, it's worth a quick thought as to why the Academy is so white and male, and considering what to do. One need only look at all the teams of men winning the technical awards (the ones everyone always thinks are so boring and yet it's the good work of these teams that make movies look and sound terrific so a bit more respect might be warranted – no reason not to give them a moment in the sun after all the time they spend in the dark. Besides, they often give the speeches that have the most spontaneity and humor). The women who work behind the scenes tend to be in the expected fields of costume, makeup, hair, and set decoration. They are brilliant, but they aren't doing sound effects editing. That's the sort of job a man gets into after having spent an adolescence developing wicked computer skills (social skills questionable).

So that's why there are so many men – the issue of why they are almost uniformly white can be answered with a few depressing considerations. Clearly, the stars in this field should be engaging in outreach, finding young women and people of color with strong aptitude and offering classes, internships, and fellowships to bring them into the audiovisuals room.

As to age, well, it's a lifetime membership and a numbers game. But considering most people don't perfect their skills to award level until they are at least in their late twenties, it's unreasonable to expect a younger Academy. In point of fact, the Oscars is just the big show – what the Academy really does year round (it works in film preservation, education, outreach) is far more involved and demands members who know what they're doing. By last count, that isn't going to be the average 14-year-old, no matter how many movie tickets he buys.

But the other question begged in considering the average age of the Oscar voter is, "So?" Does age mean an end of discretion, or talent? Christopher Plummer's Oscar is of the sort people insultingly refer to as an award for longevity and a body of work, but his work in Beginners was almost universally hailed as very fine, some of his best. So why not allow that everything came together and this was his time to win an award for a specific job and not denigrate it by insisting that it's only because everyone felt guilty?

Then there's Woody Allen.

As everyone carped that the nominees and winners this year were all about nostalgia and had nothing to do with the modern world and what life really is, Woody Allen and his film Midnight in Paris was dropped into the category of "irrelevant film written by irrelevant old white man." Never mind that Midnight earned glowing reviews and made extremely respectable box office returns – the best of Mr. Allen's career. Once he won the award, plenty of people had to comment on his age and the "nostalgia trip" his film was – an old man's yearning for youth and a glittering past. Which completely ignores the film's full story. It's not about wallowing in the past, but embracing the present…and the future.

The film's hero, Gil, is obsessed with Paris of the 1920s, as is just about any lover of art and literature. By chance, he is able to visit that long-gone world and take part in its glories, meeting Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and Hemingway, among others. He also falls in love, despite the fact that he's in Paris with his fiancée and her family. Frustrated with his writing and lost in his life, Gil is renewed by these jaunts into the past. Stein advises him on his work and the others advise him on his life. But in the end, though sorely tempted to stay in this past he loves so much, Gil opts for the possibility of a new life for himself in the modern world. Which is to say, he learns from history and uses that knowledge to inform his decisions in the present and the future. The movie is about looking back only to guide you in going forward.

In other words, exactly what the study of history is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Plummer's award may have been based on his performance rather than the usual lifetime achievement award that some older actors who have never won an Oscar get when they reach a certain age, regardless of their performance in the film for which they are nominated, but I still think Streep shouldn't have won this time. She has a shelf full, give someone else the nod.