Don’t Get Oscar-Baited



Red carpets and glimmering statuettes are fun, but don’t let the haters convince you it’s all smoke and mirrors. Whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or a carefully crafted YouTube video, visual storytelling puts our lives and our experiences in context.

What have stories done for you lately? How have they enhanced your life, changed your thinking, revealed an unexpected insight, or just allowed you to check out from the world for a couple of hours and indulge in a little fantasy?

I ask this question because I think that sometimes we lose sight of the reasons behind storytelling. From Joseph Campbell to the Bhagavad Gita to the Little Red Riding Hood, stories enlighten and inspire.

Narrative doesn’t just entertain us – it helps us develop a context for our lives, our ambitions, and how we relate to the world around us.

There’s no doubt stories can be cheapened or manipulated with ill intent and a desire for endless revenue. At its most crass, Hollywood has the propensity to mangle plot points and characters, blending them into an unpalatable mess designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

It’s easy to point the finger at the money men behind the film industry and blame them for every slapdash, disposal celluloid nightmare that pollutes our local Cineplex, but profit motive can operate independently of imagination and creativity. Good movies…no…GREAT MOVIES…can make a profit and sometimes shitty films die a quick and easy death without any of us ever being forced to see one frame.

In a perfect world, motion pictures would live in a vacuum where marketing and opening weekends had no impact on which projects are greenlighted and what stories get told.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but that’s no reason to give up on movies or popular entertainment. There’s value to be had in the characters that capture our hearts and the plots that provide us with a new perspective. Because I was a film scholar* in a former life, I also champion films for their historical significance. Movies capture a time and place in a way wholly independent of other media. Whether it’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Big Chill or Independence Day, films operate like amber – preserving and protecting tiny moments so that future generations can look upon a wholly unspoiled representation of the past.

Think back to your first introduction to storytelling. Perhaps your parents read you Where the Wild Things are at bedtime. Maybe you got up early and binged on sugary cereal while the Jetsons (yes…I’m dating myself) sparked your mind’s eye with their robots and flying cars. What about the thrill of a scary tale told ‘round the campfire as shadows distorted the faces of your friends and each crack and rustle from the darkness felt ominous and full of portent? I can still remember the terror I felt huddled in my sleeping bag at friend’s house the first time I heard about that hapless babysitter who discovers “the phone call is coming from inside the house!”

Yikes! That one still freaks me out!

The red carpet will be out this Sunday as the Oscars once again hand out golden statues in recognition of a job well done, and this year, in particular, I’m in the happy position of having seen many of the nominated films. I’m looking forward to the tacky overkill and the slightly affected pomp-and-circumstance. I’ll be sipping wine and cheering my favorites while daydreaming about who I might someday should I ever find myself clutching the diminutive Mr. Oscar in my sweaty palms.

Listen…I know the Academy Awards are deeply flawed (I’m still not quite over Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves). I know there’s a lack of diversity and an inability to look beyond the obvious when it comes to the nominations. After all, foreign films are usually relegated to one measly category  – how do you confine world cinema to four slots on a ballot?! (Correction: there are nine films in the category this year – but that’s still a paltry line-up if you ask me.)

While I agree with many of the criticisms hurled at the Oscars this year (and the critique of award shows in general), I don’t believe the flaws negate the benefits. For starters, only four of Sunday night’s winners will come from the acting category. The rest of the evening’s honorees will come from all branches of film creation – writers, costume designers, documentary filmmakers, composers, special effects, makeup! In fact, the telecast is egalitarian (in attempt if not execution). All the categories get equal time at the podium, and whether you’re George Clooney or Graham Moore, the music will start to play when your acceptance speech goes over the time limit.

At the end of the day, regardless of who grabs a win and who’s left on the sidelines, what will come out of Sunday’s Oscar show will be stories – stories about outfits and quirky speeches. Stories about flubs and snubs and “who wore it better?”

For the next few weeks, some of the recognized films will see a boost in ticket sales or Amazon rentals, but as the months unfold, audiences will ultimately find the storyline that suits them best. The tale that thrills them like that campfire yarn, or makes them smile at the protagonist’s antics in the same way we championed Max’s wild rumpus. Maybe Brooklyn’s love story will stick with you for years, compelling you to reflect on your own romantic choices, your own heartaches. Maybe The Big Short will make you angry enough that you show up in November ready to kick some civic butt.

Maybe the Oscars will pique your curiosity about some of the films that seemed to slip through the cracks, like Beasts of No Nation, Carol, or Straight Outta Compton.

As the lights dim and the images dance across the screen, you’ll soon forget about this “winner” or that “loser” and instead find yourself immersed in the story.

What have stories done for you lately?

Where will you let them take you next?

In his acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Graham Moore took a moment to acknowledge how stories give us hope and connect us to each other, giving us a sense of belonging.

“…in this brief time here, what I want to use it to do is to say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here and, so, I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different, or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn, and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.

And THAT’s why I love the Oscars!

*Film Scholar is an inside joke – a way my friends tease me about my Film Studies degree 🙂

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