confronting film prejudices

On Grantland today I stumbled upon a fantastic essay about the Academy Awards by Mark Harris. It takes issue with a certain strain of Oscar criticism, one with which I am personally quite familiar: the idea that the winner of the Best Picture award is never actually the year's finest exemplar of quality filmmaking. Harris is put out by the fact that this omnipresent claim takes such a standard form. In this telling, the Academy's choices are never framed as a question of poor taste, but of a lack of integrity. The core of the argument, explains Harris, goes like this:

If Academy voters had any balls, they would give the Best Picture Oscar to “X.” However, Academy voters have no balls. Therefore, they will give Best Picture to “Y.”

Thus in order to reach the appropriate levels of righteous indignation, the offended film buff requires not only a winning film of dubious virtue, but also another movie that the Academy has wronged in anointing the inferior filmmaking specimen. Harris dates this way of thinking at least as far back as 1941, when the original "Y" film, How Green Was My Valley, won over Citizen Kane. The most recent object of this particular animosity is the 2011 The King's Speech (whose "X" was The Social Network), though 2005's Crash (which beat Brokeback Mountain) still occupies a special place in this pantheon of loathing.

I found the piece so interesting because I personally am quite guilty of the hackneyed analysis that Harris diagnoses. Though a reasonably devoted filmgoer, I haven't watched the Academy Awards on TV, or even really cared who won, since 1989. That was the year that Driving Miss Daisy became my personal "Y" by winning the Oscar over Do The Right Thing. To my twenty-one year old self, Spike Lee's movie simply had too much power and integrity to be even nominated for the award. I've carried on like this for several decades now, pretty content in my convictions. My self-righteousness on the topic has been so delicious for so long that I have had a hard time seeing that it wasn't really earned. Harris forced me to realize that my own convictions express little more than the commonly-held values of a tribe or, even worse, a herd.

For “X” aficionados, “Y” movies—the apparently ball-less, soft-centered, complacent choices of past-it, anti-art AMPAS voters—embody a set of values that they find especially repellent: they’re seen as bromidic, blandly messagey, or hopelessly anodyne (there’s potential in all of us; you never know what might happen; everyone has something to overcome)—and when they’re not telling you that everything will be OK, they’re addressing important subjects with noncontroversial philosophical shrugs (racism is bad; if you repress emotions, they’ll come back to hurt you; we’re all connected).

OK, I think pretty much all of those things. And Harris has shamed me out of believing that such positions are particularly unique. But don't they still have the virtue of being true? And it is here that Harris makes the crucial point: no, they don't! The particular qualities that "Y" movies seek to embody--geniality, accessibility, reliability, optimism, narrative coherence--"are not, in themselves, inferior, lazy or weak." "X" movies have their own tropes: they "are often by, about, and for the alienated, the skeptical, and the enraged." But merely by taking on such themes, the films themselves are not necessarily more intelligent, insightful or honest. "The least of them," writes Harris, "still reassure and flatter their target audience by congratulating it for its worldview in exactly the same way that 'Y' movies do."

That is, I think, a pretty powerful point. Once Harris gets it out in the open, it is hard to deny. At minimum, I cannot say that I've heard anyone explain exactly why films made in a certain style or with a certain message are inherently possessed of greater value than are others. Certainly, such a case needs to be made better than it has been.

But I am still hesitant to get on board with Harris's larger point. Part of me just can't accept the idea that a truly excellent "Y" movie can even exist. (And I don't even hate "Y" movies the way some people do. It's true that as soon as I saw the ads for The Help, I knew I wasn't going to see it. But I enjoyed American Beauty, Crash and even Dances with Wolves.) I can't think of some oft-cited classic that "Y" aficionados claim never gets its due. More to the point, I can't even imagine such a movie. That fact might signify only that I have the same prejudices as do as the other "X" viewers. In fact, I suspect that if someone were to suggest some really great "Y" movie, I would likely deny it was a "Y" movie at all. So I certainly share in the prejudice that Harris is diagnosing. It's a hard one to shake, but I will reluctantly and begrudgingly try to work on it.

interview on New Books in Political Science

economic inequality and the midterms