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February 27, 2005

Oscar Goes to Babylon

It's Oscar night in Bush's America, one of the most public and most lavish displays of self-congratulation that you'll ever see. With an auditorium full of people professionally trained in the art of creating eye-pleasing spectacles, you can count on carefully choreographed dances, witty musical numbers, and dazzling costumes. And Dargis is right that the Oscars make public the Hollywood industry's non-stop conversation about itslef, making the event a translucent window into the belly of the culture industry, or at least one branch of it. But, apparently nobody in Bush's America is watching (or at least not watching the whole shebang), and Hollywood is worried, because if nobody watches, it's almost like the whole thing didn't happen. So, how to recapture audience interest when there are so many distractions in the media landscape?

As Frank Rich notes, this year's nominees for best picture, as measured by box office numbers, seem to have little cultural relevance. Oscar faves Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator have both made less than $100 million, making the Oscars a less anticipated event than usual. Even I'd forgotten that the Oscars were on Sunday (until Chris Rock reminded me), and I'm a film junkie whose cinema fix can never be truly satiated. But, as Rich notes, those Hollywood types know what sells. There's a reason why Hollywood seeks out the assiatnace of an accounting firm to ensure the fairness of the Oscar races. And Hollywood knows that indecency (or the possibility of indecency) is hot right now.

Quick aside: is it an accident that these indecency debates often hover around "unscripted" or live events? Is there something about the continegcy of live TV (in which anything could potentially happen) that provokes the cultural police? Even with the countless cameras and quick-fingered producers ready to press the mute button, there seems to be a tremendous fear of the event itself, that it could cycle into something beyond control of the cultural scriptwriters.

Rich notes that the big "live" spectacles--the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Golden Globes--have all seen their ratings decline in this post-TiVo, post-wardrobe malfunction society where the unscripted is dangerous, a potential threat to innocent eyes and ears. Rich then reasons that Hollywood's response to this ratings decline is not to promise a cleaned-up Oscars, safe for the children of Bush's America, but quite the opposite. By tabbing Chris Rock to host, the marketers of the show are selling the idea that they'll be pushing boundaries. Rock has been happily playing along, stirring up controversy in interviews all week long (the Oscars have a "gay following?" the technical awards are "boring?"), until someone, Matt Drudge, finally took the bait and complained about the potential for offense on Oscar night. Even discussions of Oscar's self-censorship, in this case Robin Williams' political hot potato musical number, feed the anticipation of potential controversy. Just what will that Patch Doubtfire guy do next?

Of course, as Rich points out, it's no secret that many of the same right-wing organizations that rail against indecency are also part of the same media conglomerates, such as Comcast and, until recently, Adelphia, that sell "indecent" materials. Fox is the classic example here, with Rupert Murdoch's FOX News openly supporting family values canddiates while the FOX network traffics in some of the sleazier network TV shows currently being broadcast. This game is beatifully supported by organizations such as the Parents Television Council, which features a concept known as the "Worst TV Clip of the Week," allowing "concerned parents" to view the worst that TV has to offer. Such an approach only feeds the shows' notoreity, and I'd be willing to bet that being featured on the "Wosrt Clip of the Week" only increases one's audience as a show, which is why Desperate Housewives, love or hate it, has become such a ratings machine. In my own experience, those Sunday School classes during my teenage years that warned against the seductions of rock-and/or-roll only fueled my desire to go out and listen to Led Zeppelin and the Eagles (and, yes, those classes were about ten to fifteen years behind the rest of the music world).

So what we have, yet again, is another giant distraction. Media watchdog organizations will continue to decry the state of entertainment, while the market for controversial material will prevail. As Rich notes, "it is still the American way to lament indecency even while gobbling it up." So, yes, the name of the game is profit, and since controversy sells, that's what we'll see on Oscar night, even if there really isn't any controversy. The illusion of potential controversy is enough to keep us tuned in (except druing the technical awards montage). Meanwhile, this family values rhetoric does have real consequences in silencing certain PBS shows, making the network far more timid than it used to be, as the documentary about soldiers ilustrates. The blackmail of PBS also prevents potentially productive conversations about sexuality, especially if Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has her way. Of course, I'll probably be right in front of my TV, waiting for any potential controversy, any disruption in Oscar's seamless spectacle. And like last year, I may live blog the whole thing if I'm in the mood.

Posted by chuck at February 27, 2005 9:43 AM

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