My Back Pages: Academy Awards

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Liam Farrell, alumni editor

By now, the only thing more culturally insufferable than the Academy Awards is criticism of the Academy Awards. The explosion of feedback on Twitter and blogs during and in the aftermath of the inevitably disappointing show has turned the entire evening into a snake eating its tail.

Everyone probably has a moment where they realize award shows, in general, are fairly ludicrous. For one, there is the inherent egotism of the whole enterprise, with a small group choosing “the best” of something and proclaiming it to the masses. Then there are the selections beset by a love of the safe (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction), a recognition of longevity rather than singular achievement (Scorsese winning for The Departed instead of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull_) or self-congratulatory prestige picks (_The King’s Speech).

That last dynamic is particularly grating, and can be lumped together with the love of “spectacle” — the sheer fawning over empty movies that aspire to be Movies!, be it with outlandish historical sweep, feel-good conquest or unrestrained showmanship in celebration of Hollywood itself. It’s the condition that ends up with Titanic beating L.A. Confidential, Shakespeare in Love besting Saving Private Ryan, and Chicago trumping Gangs of New York and The Hours.

Ultimately, the Academy Awards crystallize how foolish it is to try and pick the best and most significant movie from an era you are still living in. Would there be a real harm in only awarding the best picture for 2012 in, say, 2017? Argo, which won best picture this year, is a well-directed and entertaining thriller, but who can say what sort of impact on our culture it will have in a few years?

The Oscars for 2008 films already highlight this problem. Pixar’s WALL-E, which won best animated feature but was sequestered from the overall best picture category, has already achieved its place as a transcendental meditation on love for planet and love for each other. Its virtually dialogue-free first act, where a small, quirky robot carves a life for himself in the detritus left behind by a careless human race, is as eloquent an elegy for the modern world as can be found. Although a cartoon, it is an indelible portrait of a society unable to deal with its demise because people would rather look at screens than each other’s eyes. It’s doubtful Slumdog Millionaire, that year’s winner, will ever be as discussed, as loved or as compelling as WALL-E.

Perhaps more time would also allow for other, less-heralded films to rise to the top. Few films in the past decade have been as resonant as Children of Men, a dystopian fever dream where the human race has lost the ability to have children. When a group of rebels finds a pregnant teenager, they try to shepherd her to a possibly apocryphal safe haven. Its striking scenes — a harrowing car chase in woods where bandits descend like feral wolves; a baby’s cries echoing through a collapsing tenement and stopping dozens of soldiers in their wide-eyed tracks — are underscored by a troubling but very real question: what do you do when you have no future?

There is always room for levity and song, and movies, like music and television and all other aspects of culture, are deeply individual touchstones. Personal circumstances can often turn a mediocre film or song into a nostalgia trip that would never be recognized by a group of critics or panel of judges. But the passage of time is what helps form the meaning of art. We need time to learn what a film is trying to say about our world and whether it is successful.

Award shows aren’t able to carry that weight. They are “shows,” after all, just as intent on displaying designer gowns and cramming in commercials as honoring artistic achievement. In the end, we all have to be the true deciders.

The Oscars may have had the stage for a single night, but for the rest of the year, we can be the ones who pick what movies are honored far into the future by taking them off shelves or clicking them on computers, with no thought to what anyone else may think of our decisions.

Liam Farrell is the senior alumni editor of this magazine. Contact him at