I was somewhat entertained during parts of last night's 83rd Academy Awards show (promoted as "Oscar" this year), but far more struck by how irrelevant it has become. It used to matter much more, and fit into a broader continuum of community and engagement.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 to give shape and meaning to a nascent industry based in a state that still seemed somewhat far away from the rest of America (or at least removed from its live theatre entertainment hub in New York City). The first awards ceremony in the late 1920s honored 15 people, many of whom had job titles involving cutting-edge technology activities in support of the day's new media, film. Synchronized dialogue had been introduced in 1927's "The Jazz Singer." It also celebrated a new cadre of performers whose skills were better suited to big cinema screens than they were to little live stages.
So, like any trade group or guild of guilds, the Academy set about formalizing the perception of an industry in which its members toiled. Its Oscars party proved to be an excellent propaganda device, also.
Any contest is inherently interesting, if only because we’re curious about winners and losers. Make the contestants beautiful and available to be seen in somewhat unscripted and perhaps surprising circumstances and it's all the better. The limitations of distribution technology in the old days required the "sealing" of results so they could be shared with newspapers to get set in type before the ceremony occurred, adding a great prop that’s still used to this day. A vast publicity machine emerged as the industry grew, involving a symbiotic relationship between moviemakers, distributors, reviewers, and hangers-on. By the time the show was first broadcast live on television in 1953, it had already become a huge event, and it helped sell movies and actors.
Now, it's really just a community talking about itself...to itself.
Sure, they're talented, often better looking, and sometimes boatloads richer than we are, but the members of the Academy are in most other ways no different than the members of, say, the local carpenters union, Elks lodge, Facebook friends of a toothpaste brand, or fellow denizens of a cable customer online support group. Voting for their favorite movies must reflect some of their particular expertise, but the results say much more about the tastes, habits, and biases of their community. "Best" awards are best to them, for whatever reasons (there's no criteria or transparency on how categories are judged).
And they're no longer the only community talking about the best and worst movies. Professional and self-anointed bloggers do it. So do viewer communities. Each community is credible in its own right, even if members wouldn't look as good in tuxes and gowns as the Academy folks. There's really nothing that an Oscar can tell me about a movie that I couldn't learn from a number of other sources. And the fact that some technical person gets recognized is great but doesn't really affect my plans for what I’ll watch next.
That's not to say that there's anything wrong with the moviemaker community throwing itself a party and letting us snoop. But if that were the ultimate point, they could have done a far better job scripting and executing the program. Variety programming is dicey in this day and age anyway, and the thing was kinda uneven and sometimes outright dull.
(Image credit: Oscarbating)