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February 3, 2006

The Politics of Oscar

I've been intrigued by the recent discussion of what might be called the "Politics of Oscar," the ongoing discussion of the films that have been nominated for Academy Awards and how they might serve as a barometer for whether Hollywood is liberal or conservative or whether the nominated films reflect the values of this mysterious heartland that I keep hearing about.

The Oscar argument has taken on two distinct flavors. On the one hand, several observers have speculated that the Bush propaganda machine may have had a hand in preventing some of this year's more explicitly political documentaries, such as Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, from receiving a documentary nomination, as reported in this New York Times article. Politex at Bushwatch speculates that Michael Moore's speech at the March 2003 Oscar ceremony after he won the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine (not Fahrenheit 9/11) may have been seen as too threatening: "what we're seeing now are attempts to prevent such an event from happening again. Given what we have learned over the years about Bush news management and propaganda, a White House hand in Hollywood is hardly out of the question."

In this context, I agree with Alternet's Laura Barcella that such influence is unlikely, and this lack of influence is not something I would ascribe to Hollywood liberalism real or imagined. In the first place, attributing a discrete set of politics to an entire industry is reductive at best. There are obviously indivduals and production companies that are making films with politically progressive aims in mind, such as Jeffrey Skoll's Participant Productions, profiled in this Washington Post article (more on Skoll, who professes to be politically "centrist," and Participant Productions later).

And dsepite these claims, several of the nominated documentaries can be read as strongly critical of Bush administration policies, particularly Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, in which Bush contributor Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay is one of the film's chief villains. More crucially, an Oscar nomination (or the Oscar itself) is no guarantee that the winning documentary's "message" will reach a wider audience in the way that the filmmaker intends or that the documentary will provoke political change. In fact, if anything Moore's visibility as a documentary filmmaker after Bowling and Fahrenheit has been quite useful to the conservative noise machine.

But others, such as Jason Apuzzo, have argued that this year's Oscar nominees represent a "trend" towards honoring "message" [read liberal] films, a trend Apuzzo describes as The New Triviality. In my opinion, this is a more sinister claim because it redefines triviality so that it becomes its opposite. Films that attempt to have an effect socially or politically are "trivial" by his definition when it is clear that they are clearly far from trivial, esecially given that they are shaping political dialogue in a way that Apuzzo doesn't like. In fact, Apuzzo offers no clear definition of what a non-trivial film might be. He complains that the most recent Star Wars was snubbed at the Oscars, but Lucas himself has acknowledged some relationship between his film's political intrigue and the Bush administration's behavior, and given his maverick status, his film's lack of nominations may have nothing to do with either the content of the film or its quality.

Apuzzo further posits that these films are alienating heatland audiences. Apuzzo glosses the fact that Brokeback Mountain appears to have turned a tidy little profit ($52 million so far on a $14 million budget, with enthusiastic audiences across the country). He also ignores the fact that the "message" film has been a staple of Hollywood since D. W. Griffith picked up a camera in the 1910s, if not earlier (Griffith's message wasn't a good one, of course, but it was a message). Ceratinly many critically acclaimed films, such as 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, and even many of Frank Capra's films show that this trend is not a recent one. In short, many of this year's nominees feature "social issue" topics, but that is nothing new by any stretch of the imagination (thanks to tbogg, whose critique of The New Triviality is far more effective than mine, for the link).

Note: I've also submitted this story to Agoravox, where I'll be publishing articles and reviews from time to time.

Posted by chuck at February 3, 2006 3:08 PM

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Kungfu Monkey's rebuttal against Apuzzo's article might interest you, if you haven't read it already.

Posted by: Edmund Yeo at February 10, 2006 9:26 AM

Edmund, I found his rebuttal a few days later and mentioned it in a separate blog entry. And I really enjoyed it, btw. Thanks for suggesting it, though.

Posted by: Chuck at February 10, 2006 10:03 AM

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