For a number of reasons, I’ve been more fascinated than usual by the Oscar chatter. Although some of the “scandals” and controversies over The Hurt Locker have begun to get a little tiresome, they have, in some cases at least, provoked some highly pertinent questions about cinematic realism, especially when it comes to depictions of war. But, aside from prolonging public discussions about some films that I find thought-provoking, the Oscars (and the anticipation of them, which may, in fact, be more important) are also worth thinking about because they offer us one of the more explicit and privileged public narratives available about the film industry. They are, in short, Hollywood’s best opportunity to represent itself to a movie-consuming public (while remaining mindful of any number of other audiences, including film industry personnel and film journalists).
I addressed this issue briefly in Reinventing Cinema when I discussed a couple of Oscar sketches and speeches, one of which featured Jake Gyllenhaal telling the audience to see movies on the big screen. A comedy sketch featuring Jon Stewart mocking the “wide screen” on his video iPod had a similar effect. This is also why the Hollywood history montages, even if they often feel like filler, are so important by selling Hollywood as a popular art (and as a quick search through my blog illustrates I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while).
But the Oscars are also fun because they invite the same water-cooler discussions associated with other forms of “event TV,” such as the Super Bowl and, to a lesser extent, the Emmys and Golden Globes, an issue addressed in Sheila Seles’ Convergence Culture Consortium blog post. Like her, I enjoy live-blogging (or, more likely in our evolved social media climate, live-tweeting) the Oscars and sharing my fascination about the awards with others. Seles mentions in passing a New York Times article that reports that many of these TV event shows have been receiving record ratings. This past Super Bowl even surpassed the final episode of M*A*S*H for total number of viewers, a fact that would likely bother me slightly if I wasn’t a huge Drew Brees fan. The New York Times article attributes this reversal–TV ratings for top shows have been declining for some time–to the “water-cooler effect” associated with social media tools like Twitter, a phenomenon echoed in Max Dawson’s discussion of “watching Twitter on TV.”
The Oscar producers have been thinking about these social media issues quite a bit and have created an Oscars Facebook page and an iPhone application in support of the show, while also seeking to make the awards more “relevant” by having ten Best Picture nominees rather than five. I have to wonder if the latter move will have any significant effect once viewers catch on to the fact that usually the race boils down to two or three films (this year, The Hurt Locker or Avatar). It’s also less than clear what effect a Facebook page might have on attracting younger audiences. Now that having a Facebook profile is becoming common across generations, I wonder if the people who “become fans” of the Oscars will be the same people who were already fans when it was just a 4-hour annual TV show. Also, as with the death of film criticism, concerns that the Oscars aren’t relevant to today’s youth is an ongoing complaint. Still, the tension between old media and new media is an interesting one, especially when it’s connected to Hollywood’s ongoing narrative about itself and the movies it creates.
Update: To some extent, I’ve been trying to think through the relationship between the Oscars and fandom in this post. Obviously, the Oscars tow a fascinating line between traditional fandom and what Jonathan Gray has called anti-fandom. The Oscars are, in many ways, a celebration of stardom and celebrity (“ooh…look at Julia Roberts’ dress”) and a way of mocking some of these institutions of celebrity, whether through celebrity-watchers like Joan Rivers or through political screeds like those at Big Hollywood. Gray is especially attentive to the pleasures of being an “anti-fan,” and the Oscar water-cooler invites both kinds of responses equally successfully.
Update 2: Just a few minutes after my first update, I came across this Auteurs post that compiles some of the recent Oscar chatter, including Armond White’s entertaining (or eye-rolling, take your pick) New York Press article about how the annual awards are contributing to the media’s effect of ensuring that “the public stays culturally illiterate, intellectually docile and aesthetically numb.” Talk about anti-fandom. The Oscar-bashing is utterly incoherent politically (the Auteurs post nails its politics as a surreal cross between Guy Debord and Milton Friedman), but I do think his read of The Hurt Locker as an investigation into constructions of masculinity has some merit.