Aside from the (curiously) emotional experience of seeing artists whose work you enjoy getting recognized by their peers—not your peers, their peers—on TV, the 2018 Oscars had an undeniable whiff of anticlimax.
That’s not because the political posturing wasn’t sincere or welcome. It absolutely was both of those things. (All three, is probably more accurate.) The notion that Hollywood is actually making strides toward redressing its historical lapses in gender and racial representation behind and before the camera is an encouraging sign.
So why didn’t it feel that good? Maybe because they were celebrating the wrong movies—or, more to the point, too many of them.
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and author of last year’s fantastic Fantasyland, has a salient take on the relationship between the grim age we are living through, and the way we talk about art in direct response to it. It’s a complex argument, but it rings massively true—especially now when the passionate cries of resistance have resolved into less glamorous, more quotidian forms of resentment.
Andersen first posits that there has been a kind of “grade inflation” applied by the critical establishment in response to the abundance of Marvel comics “franchise fantasy” films that dominate the marketplace and keep studios afloat. Films that represent an alternative to this trend tend to get hoisted up onto the culture’s shoulders and paraded around as examples of great work, even if they’re not actually, you know… great.
Through this lens, any film that isn’t Iron Man begins to look like The Third Man, which leads to a general lowering of standards that is complicated by the fact that fewer people are seeing movies altogether. In Andersen’s estimation, “realistic, but so-so movies get more acclaim from critics and awards voters than they deserve.”
(He cites Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and its 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the best screenplay nomination for Aaron Sorkin’s script for Molly’s Game, and the over-the-top praise and nominations for the “perverse and baffling, effete and neurasthenic” Phantom Thread, which, he argues, is “arty, which in this era of cartoony cinematic spectacle, passes easily for great art. A masterpiece.”)
Next up is the degree to which Hollywood, critics, and audiences use film as a means of responding to the supervillain in the White House. The fact that the current president actively encourages white supremacists and antagonizes immigrants and journalists makes the creation and support of films that challenge Trump’s values feel like a form of resistance. It might even be one. But that doesn’t mean the art is good. That used to matter.
The tragic idea that art has a job, and that that job is to righteously advocate for politically palatable ideologies seems to be throttling the perception of people who ought to know better. That’s part of the process by which, in Andersen’s estimation, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which “embodies so many of today’s big, zeitgeist themes” (disenfranchised white rural working class woman, racist police brutality), came to “seem better than it is—more important.”
Likewise Steven Spielberg’s leaden The Post, which puts you in a position where you can cheer for good old-fashioned newspaper journalists who risk it all to tell the truth. But you know that from the trailer. Despite an excellent performance by Meryl Streep (and a sweet little Mr. Show reunion), the film is credulous, pious, and anti-dramatic.
Still, who wants to be the one rooting against a film about journalists busting the government in an age where the government is trying so hard to bust journalists?
And then there’s the thing of having “as many as 10” best picture nominees. Up until 2009, there were only five, which made the category a lot more competitive, and, despite the Academy’s penchant for self- delusion and congratulations, a little more credible. Andersen comes right out with the contention that among this year’s nine nominees, he’d have axed The Post, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and either Three Billboards… or Phantom Thread.
I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly, though I don’t see how you cut those and leave the one that wound up winning, The Shape of Water, which, while lovely to look at and diverting enough, is way more an exponent of the franchise fantasy dilemma currently infecting Hollywood than an alternative to it, which makes the whole idea of reform seem like so much window dressing.
You can listen to Andersen’s full five-minute piece here: