What the Oscars said about the state of our culture

Well, the numbers are in and they’re not good: With a score of 22.4 on the Nielsen scale and an estimated total of 32.9 million viewers, the 89th Academy Awards’ ratings constitute a 9-year low in the show’s 64-year old televised history, making it the 6th least watched ceremony overall. As if to twist the knife even further, the one moment likely to rescue the ceremony from pop-cultural obscurity turned out to be one of the most spectacular embarrassments ever seen on live television, as panicked La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz abruptly ended his colleagues’ merriment to announce that the real Best Picture winner was, in fact, Moonlight.

While no doubt a disappointment for the show’s organizers, these numbers aren’t exactly surprising; the Oscars have been struggling to bring in audiences for over a decade now. Gone are the golden years where an Oscar telecast was sure to reach over 40 million households in America alone – these days, even reaching that threshold is considered a triumph. Despite being more widely available to the viewing public than ever before, the Academy Awards’ popularity remains unsteady at best.

In truth, this ongoing ratings problem is but the symptom of a broader crisis of confidence between Hollywood and filmgoers, itself partially the result of an ever-growing decades-old sociocultural divide. Simply put, large portions of the American public feel that their values are neither shared nor adequately represented by the film industry and its figureheads. Conservative bloggers are quick to point to the prevalence of secular liberal opinions among Hollywood’s major stars and filmmakers as proof that the industry is out of touch with the common man, and data certainly indicates they have a point. But they’re not the only ones to feel that way; if anything, the left has been just as critical – if not moreso – of the values and behaviours championed in Hollywood as the right has. Deeper than a simple left/right schism, the divide between Hollywood and the rest of the world is rooted in a complex interplay of class, culture and lifestyle, something presenters and winners were only too happy to remind us of throughout the evening.

The tone was set, fittingly, by Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, during which he encouraged viewers to bridge America’s ever-widening political gaps by reaching out to people they disagreed with. No doubt did he hope that his humour would be part of that bridging process but it amounted to little more than a series of feeble jabs directed at the Trump administration, culminating in an embarrassing attempt to needle the notoriously thin-skinned president by tweeting directly at him for a response that never came. Ironically, this juvenile provocation ended up being the most revealing moment of the evening in that it inadvertently exposed the common need for attention and validation much of the entertainment class share with Trump. Instead of drawing attention to the many, many specks of sawdust in the Trump administration’s collective eye, Jimmy Kimmel only succeeded in reminding us of the very large plank with which Hollywood blinds itself to its own privileges.

That plank emerged again and again throughout the ceremony, in Kimmel’s jokes as well as seemingly apolitical moments such as Viola Davis winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a long-suffering working-class housewife, a performance whose vicarious realism was slightly undercut by its actress’s self-aggrandizing acceptance speech, in which she lionized acting as “the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life” as if doctors, teachers, priests, imams, rabbis, therapists and social workers didn’t exist. The same kind of unconscious arrogance permeated Gael García Bernal’s introduction of the Best Animated Feature Film contenders, which took a well-meaning but irrelevant political detour when he criticized the Trump administration’s border wall project and claimed moral authority to do so on the basis of being a “migrant worker”, thus implying an obscene parallel between the lives of poor oppressed working people and that of a rich actor born and raised in the show-business whose socioeconomic status allows him to work on international projects.

To be clear: the political commentary was not in and of itself the problem; Bernal and his fellow actors’ poor timing and lack of self-awareness were the problem. Delivered in the form of more subtly apropos allusions by someone like Barkhad Abdi, whose background and experiences actually mirror that of most migrant workers, a well-placed critique of Trump’s immigration policies could have had significant resonance. A few of the evening’s winners provided such examples: Asghar Farhadi’s in abstentia acceptance speech for Best Foreign Film infused righteous indignation towards the travel ban with the same empathetic humanism demonstrated within his films, while The White Helmets director Orlando Von Einsiedel’s acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short appealed to our common humanity with short, simple efficiency. These political messages worked because they related directly to the context and significance of their authors’ works, andwere delivered without the smugness that permeated much of the other speakers’ comments.

But nowhere was the socio-cultural gap between the entertainment class and its audience moreapparent than in the ceremony’s lowest point, when Jimmy Kimmel and the organizers supposedly tricked a busload of tourists into “crashing” the Oscars in front of millions of viewers worldwide. What may have been intended as a sincere effort to reach out to common folk ended up looking like a scene straight out of a satirical dystopia, as unsuspecting members of the public (including, as it would later turn out, a registered sex offender) were given an impromptu guided tour of their rich and famous overlords, many of whom were magnanimous enough to shake hands with them, share selfies with them and even let them touch their Oscars. Any semblance of respect was belied by the tone of Kimmel’s interactions with his “guests”, which lay somewhere between a party clown hosting a child’s birthday party and a court ambassador teasing peasants with a glimpse of the riches and lifestyle they could never hope to afford. Not even the graciousness shown by Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling or Mahershala Ali was enough to overcome the sheer amount of tone-deaf classism and unchecked privilege on display.

If anything, the entire spectacle gave us an eloquent illustration of the strange place our culture is currently in: We pride ourselves on encouraging inclusive, compassionate and accurate representations of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in order to multiply perspectives and experiences that deviate from the default, yet we surround ourselves with people and media whose ideas and values differ very little from each other. Too obtuse to think outside of our own boxes, too proud to question the circumstances that shape the base assumptions behind our beliefs, we choose to lock ourselves in our own private circles and mistake them for the world. What we saw on the night of the 89th Academy Awards was simply a million-dollar application of that very mindset we helped create and continue to entertain by rewarding the flatteries of celebrity culture with more flattery, thus perpetuating an endless loop of positive feedback without any kind of communication ever taking place. Unless we break away from that culture and avoid confusing cultural self-improvement with personal self-congratulation, these communication problems will only get worse.

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