Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Quantum of Gravity

Lost in Time and Space (2014) Kodakotype by Pants
It's easy to misinterpret the purpose of the Oscars ceremony. It's not, as you might assume, a showcase for pretty dresses or even a trophy night for movie stars. It's a measure of mood, a tonal talisman. If you want to know how America aspires to feel about itself right here, right now, watch the Oscars. In previous years, the message has been more meandering, more cloaked and also much more about pretty dresses and, actually, movies. This year there were few chortle-inducing sartorial distractions to detour us, (how we miss SJP), so the message came across clearly and unmistakably at a carefully calibrated volume.This year it was all about the dignity of work, the audacity of dreams and the righteousness of reward.

The Question Why and I sat down to view with our traditional glass of cold Chardonnay and plate of warm eggs Vladivostok and immediately realised we would be writing a very different post this year.  From the off, it was apparent that there would be no ostentatious frivolity. No mini-musicals, no being John Malkovich's Alaskan Malamute or whatever, no fantasies involving Alec Baldwin. In fact, not even an Alec Baldwin. (We don't think - we might have blinked.) And no Woody Allen. Definitely no Woody Allen. No off-message merchants of any kind. From the moment host Ellen DeGeneres took to the stage in what appeared to be nineteenth-century clergy clobber and parked herself in front of all those gold statues, it was clear that we were in the temple and about to partake of some serious evangelising - a hunch later confirmed by brother McConaughey's prayer of thanks for his Best Actor prize. 

The subdued designer drapery alone nearly sent us into a coma. Black on white. White on black. A fleeting flurry of turquoise. What we would have done for an emerald velvet jacket. Jared Leto almost made us smile with his burgundy bow tie and non-regulation hair but then he folded himself neatly back into the status quo with this emotional outburst, 

'To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say we are here and as you struggle to… to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible… We’re thinking of you tonight.'

Sorry Jared? Do you like know what's happening in Ukraine and Venezuela? There's no 'the' in front of Ukraine btw bro' - at least try to keep up. It set an unfortunate bar.

Sure, sure, the Oscars are always about heroes and dreams, but this year that's all they were about. The minor detail that some people were getting some awards and seemed to take personal pleasure in same was almost a footnote. The main event was conveying the message that movies are made by ordinary but gritty people with big dreams, lashings of courage (and no bad habits - although noble failings are acceptable up to a point and we'll get to that). No matter how humble your beginnings, provided you work very hard and your dreams recognise no boundaries, you can make it in Hollywood.

Woven into the dominant narrative were several strands of subtext, not least of all implied equality. This is a tenet of the American Dream project that those who benefit from it so disproportionately are very keen to perpetuate. We don't know how they did it given the predominant pale-stale-maleness of the vast voting population in the Academy, but someone managed to coordinate a result that looks very like there really is equality of opportunity in Hollywood. We all know that can't possibly be the case so someone, or a cast of a thousand someones, worked very hard to conjure it. Not so difficult if illusion is your business perhaps?

What did Ellen DeGeneres really mean when she jibed that there were only two ways the night could end? Possibility No. 1: Twelve Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility No. 2: You're all racists. Was it prescience or zeitgeist or something more engineered? Lupita Nyong'o won Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Twelve Years a Slave did indeed win - bagging Director Steve McQueen a first-ever Oscar as the first black director of a Best Picture. And what is to be made of her introducing Anne Hathaway as 'the first white presenter' of the night? Is there perhaps a tear in some indiscernible tissue of delusion? Is someone maybe twigging that they might be participating in a fabrication, or indeed contributing a diversity tick in their own less-than-tiny way? 

Then there was the veritable rainbow tribe that comprised Team Oscar - three men, three woman, every major ethnic group represented. They looked like the culmination of a thoroughly measured cultural nutrition plan. You can cobble together a version of 'equality' that is appearance-based, and let's be clear, the Academy certainly has some catching up to do in that department, but if that's all you do, well here at Seat of Pants, we might call that a sham. Genuine progress does not happen overnight, even if that night is sparkling with all the glitter Hollywood can produce.
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"

Heroes and dreams were more than mere themes. As the night inched on, they appeared to achieve the status of gospels and even managed to anchor themselves in science. Accepting an honorary Oscar on behalf of all film-lab technicans, Dark Knight writer/director Christopher Nolan praised the unsung 'alchemists' who turn 'silver and plastic into dreams — and not just any kind of dreams, but the kind of dreams you can unspool from a reel and hold in your hand, hold up to the light and see, frozen: magic.' And, as it happened, frozen turned out to be a bit of a sub-theme too. More on that later. And then there was the science evoked in the Gospel According to Matthew in which the saintly one cited the little known 'scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.' Oh, and dreams are 'valid' according to Lupita Nyong'o - although we're not clear on the validation methodology as Lupita doesn't have a biblical name to fall back on. 

Frozen, both the film and the state, developed some unscripted momentum thanks to a couple of wins and some unfortunate presenter juxtapositioning. John Travolta's mangling of Idina Menzel's name may have had something to do with the apparent difficulty he was having persuading his facial muscles to respond to instructions. The invocation of Fifties America via the dreams & heroes theme threatened to backfire spectacularly when the real 1950s turned up in the shape of former screen siren Kim Novak. It was like the picture of Dorian Gray had escaped from the attic. The fruit of faux earnestness carries within it the seed of grand irony. Had no one bothered to check the physical and mental state of the elderly star before dragging her from whatever therapeutic exercise she was engaged in at the time? They might have given her a minute to change out of her sweats and comb her hair. Both semi-ossified stars were landed with the unhappy task of having to actually pronounce the word 'frozen' using mouths that were still in the icebox.

We got not one but two montages of random Hollywood heroes from film-making history which ranged imaginatively from Dumbo to Jessica Rabbit, from Eliot Ness to Lawrence of Arabia? (Okay, so hero is a fairly elastic concept then.) There was a feature to mark the 75th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz and a tribute to Judy Garland. The sub-theme of happiness and the pursuit thereof snowballed, not least of all due to the prominent presences of Pharrell Williams and Will Smith. Our hero capes and dream coats found themselves overlocked with thick threads of equality, diversity and happiness. It was all getting a little bit too dopily Disney for our liking. More Chardonnay was needed and some balance too. 

Enter Gravity, both the film and the sentiment. The film deserved a narrative thread all its own as it swooped in at regular intervals to snaffle all the techie awards and remind as that America produces the bravest heroes and the biggest dreams. The Best Director pick-up for Alfonso CuarĂ³n also conveniently ticked another box. He's the first Mexican director to win. The constant mention of the word 'gravity' also acted as a metaphor for the final, sombre narrative thread. The ghost of Phillip Seymour Hoffman hovered over proceedings like an unwanted ectoplasmic guest in the Halliwell mansion. He was the spirit unable to move on and seemingly in need of a rather huge dollop of magic to affect his elevation to the place where St Matthew of McConaughey's daddy is waiting in his underwear with a welcoming pot of gumbo and a Miller Lite. It was the moment of clarity for TQW and me (and by now we wished rather for a moment of claret). Glenn Close arrived in graphically funereal black to introduce the In Memoriam segment. The segment ended with pictures of Hoffman and then Bette Midler flapped in to emotionally chant 'Wind Beneath My Wings'. Thank you, thank you, thank God for you, la-la la-la la-la.

Hollywood hasn't yet worked out how to deal with the way Hoffman exited this life. It was like his character just wouldn't do that. The ending didn't make sense in the Hollywood way. Cory Monteith, who died in a scene eerily similar, was laundered from memory and his picture did not even make the In Memoriam cut. Bad habits vs. noble failings. Given the strong thread of equality running through this year's Oscars, the distinction seems disingenuous, not to mention baffling. Is it so that some drug users are more equal than others? Do these dream-weavers really think that you can edit life the way you edit a movie, removing all the bits that don't perfectly fit the script and leaving any awkward characters on the cutting-room floor?

Despite the intrusion of occasional wafts of darkness, the keynote had been conveyed. It's all Gettysburg-good stateside. From the ordered-in pizza, (see, we get hungry too - not for fame but for good ol' pizza), to the genius selfie stunt, (see, we are family), it was all so relentlessly I'm OK, You're OK. Even the documentary winners were all feelgood fare. When the icing is this perfect, it's advisable to check the cake. The problem is that there is some bad-ass baking under that marzipan. None of the hokum rings true, except maybe inside the Hollywood bubble. Economic inequality in the USA is the worst it's been for nearly a century - and worsening. Cities are going broke. Public infrastructure is crumbling. And the increasingly numerous poor and disadvantaged are too exhausted to have dreams, much less chase them. 

Now is really not the time to morph into Marie Antoinette. Aspiration and reality are on separate paths heading in opposite directions. And no Lupita, the act of wishing upon a star won't 'validate' your dreams, much less make them come true. And no Matthew, 'gratitude' doesn't 'reciprocate', neither can you use it to buy potatoes. And you know what Jared, we doubt that the dreamers of Venezuela and Ukraine will be able to use your inspiring message of support to protect themselves as they strive towards their own version of 'living the impossible' - which looks rather like the carefree life you have always taken for granted.

Meanwhile, back in America's perpetually aspirational Mini-Me, the immediate post-Oscar headline read,

Australia Cleans Up at Oscars.

Did this mean that our controversial and multi-tentacled Transfield Services had won the contract to clear the pizza boxes and sodden hankies from the Dolby Theatre? No. It meant that we won a couple of minor prizes and one big one. All won by women. Women don't normally get a mention unless they get caught smuggling drugs or top themselves tragically when they have so much to be grateful for, but beggars can't be choosers. Catherine Martin is now recognisable to the entire world by her initials alone - she is, after all Australia's most prolific Oscar winner. Right on message, she was eager to demonstrate her down-home unpretentiousness by extracting an A4 sheet of paper from her bra. CM has obviously been spending far too much time down among the sequins as she should have known it would have been far more authentic to have the speech tattooed in a spiral up her forearm.

The insufferable Cate Blanchett, as always, followed her own script, not to mention agenda. Adopting the first-amongst-equals position she reserves for such occasions, she lavished praise on her fellow contestants. No doubt she was keen to demonstrate her rigorous Aussie egalitarianism. Missing the mood entirely, she bragged, 'there is so much talent in Australia!' She apparently overlooked the directive that movie stars are ordinary folk who reach the top because they have big dreams rather than big egos. In explaining to the homespun homies at E! News that she nearly missed the cue for collecting her trinket she revealed her true self,

"The blessing and the curse of this is it happens at the arse end of the evening and so you watch so many other extraordinary people get up there and you lose track of the fact that you're even nominated. And then you get taken by surprise, 'It's my turn', and I was with Julia Roberts in the bar for rather too long and just got back to my seat in time."

'so many other extraordinary people.'  Seems to us there might be a stray 'extra' somewhere in there.

During her speech, Sister Blanchett also blithely inserted an unscheduled and entirely opportunistic ad for her equally odious husband and his parochial little Sydney Theatre Company. Happily, she ditched a few notches from the pitch of her previous gushing when congratulating Woody Allen on his excellent choice of leading lady. Grudging applause for his writer nomination earlier in the evening was evidence of his (no doubt) temporary suspension from favour. Nice work for picking up on that one Cate.

All over for another year. We're off to order more Chardonnay. God travel with you through every limousine journey of your life.