Culture Warrior

The Oscar montage reel is a genre on its own. It’s transparently demonstrative of the overall function of the Academy Awards. These montage reels summarize and make explicit what the annual ceremony attempts to accomplish writ large: to create and solidify a canon of important American films, along with a delimited understanding of their importance. Yes, the Oscars have occasionally given a voice to the indie underdog and rush through their obligatory movies-with-subtitles category, but besides the occasional screenplay nomination for a truly innovative film and the rare foreign language film that broaches through the marginal categories, the Oscars are by and large a celebration of American cinema, specifically Hollywood cinema.

During the 2006 ceremony, a moment occurred that has been seared into my memory. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it online since it aired six years ago, so I hope this isn’t wishful or inaccurate. The 2006 ceremony consisted of a spate of overtly political films, as Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck competed for top honors, and Syriana was in the running for other awards. In likely hopes of gaining cultural capital from celebrating mainstream cinema’s rarely explored but ever-present political function, the Academy aired a self-congratulatory reel of past Oscar-nominated films that have addressed other topical social problems, from In the Heat of the Night to Philadelphia. When the lights came back and the audience applauded with anticipated decorum, host Jon Stewart then graced the stage and stated, in a perfect move of dry deflation, “…And none of those were ever problems again.”

Point taken, Mr. Stewart. In celebrating the “tackling” of social issues of Oscars’ past, the institution by association situates itself as actively involved in progressive social change rather than merely reflective of it. And in manufacturing dominant histories of Hollywood cinema through the montage reel and the canonizing function of the statue, the Oscars draw a false equivalence between “Hollywood” and “movies,” suggesting that the Academy Awards have not only recognized the most topical and socially relevant films contemporaneously with their release, but that such films come largely from the studio system. As I’ve stated elsewhere, there’s a reason you’ll see In the Heat of the Night and Brokeback Mountain in montages that celebrate narratives of racial equality and LGBTQ representation rather than John Cassavetes’s Shadows or Todd Haynes’s Poison.

But the problem of Oscar canonization is greater than the annihilation of other, marginalized but equally important works of cinema. The Oscar ceremony, and the Oscar montage in particular, creates a dominant history that limits our interpretation of and historical inquiry into Hollywood itself. Not only do the Oscars celebrate Hollywood almost exclusively, but also purport a limited interpretation of the significance of that institution.

Which brings me to the anomaly that is the first Best Picture winner, William A. Wellman’s silent film Wings (1927). Besides being a damn good film, it’s notable (as the comprehensive near-documentary The Celluloid Closet points out) for having one of the first same-sex kisses onscreen. While it’s difficult to say how the film played for audiences in 1927, Wings’s gay subtext hardly even reads subtextually now. The film follows a love triangle with two best friends fighting over Clara Bow’s character, but as Kevin Sessums summarized on his facebook page last week when linking to this post (in which the film’s nudity is also mentioned), “Neither of them shows as much love for her, however, than they do for each other.”

Wings provides a lens into the fascinating era of pre-Code Hollywood, where films were permitted to engage in subject matter that they would be barred from exploring for several decades. Pre-Code Hollywood remains an unending treat to cinephiles because it forces us to ponder what an unregulated Hollywood would have had in store for us had the Hays Code never exercised the hegemony over representation that it did. How would Hollywood history look different? And, by association, how would the films that are venerated by institutions like the Academy Awards have looked different? Would Brokeback Mountain have seemed like such a belated landmark, or simply run of the mill in this alternative Hollywood? Wings demonstrates that, even amongst the films that the Academy Awards have honored, there are still important aspects about them which are rarely acknowledged by dominant history.

You likely won’t see Wings’s same-sex kiss on any Oscar montage. By even suggesting that the first ever Oscars honored films which potentially explored more progressive content than in the decades since, this violates the dominant narrative manufactured by Hollywood/The Oscars, which purports an easily comprehendible and perfectly linear understanding of the progress of motion pictures. But the history of American movies is anything but. What other stories of film history, from Hollywood and elsewhere, are being elided by the work of the Oscar montage?

Perhaps more so than any year, 2012’s slate is inundated with films about the past. The Help reinforces Hollywood’s feel-good, whitewashed Civil Rights story. War Horse takes us back to the good old days of WWI and sweeping John Williams scores. The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris explore the nostalgic conflict between past and present. There are even two films (Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that tell stories of the very recent past. But two films, The Artist and Hugo, are about how we understand the past through film. They serve as reminders that, over 120 years after its invention, we are still a culture whose understanding of itself is rendered largely through the moving image. And when film history is made into something accessible, simple, and quick, what histories are being left out, and what false assumptions are maintained?

Common wisdom suggests that with the progression of linear time, we experience progressive change. Technologies – and thus, quality of life – improves; unjust laws are eventually taken down in favor of a push toward equality; we become more knowledgeable as there is more to know. Basically, we assume that people of the past are not as enlightened as those privileged to live in the present. By association, we assume that movies address progressive topics in a linear fashion. But the real history of motion pictures is far more complex than this, and it doesn’t fit into the dominant, accepted narrative that persists through Oscar montages. The very first Best Picture winner should throw the history manufactured by the Oscars into deep question. What if talkies had never been invented? What if the Hays Code had never dominated over film content for the better part of Classical Hollywood history? Why do we automatically assume that audiences aren’t “ready” for certain material when a history of Hollywood on the margins suggests otherwise?

The common reaction to the Oscars is twofold: either that it’s a waste of time, or a silly but fun ritual. Either way, after years of falling ratings, it’s become acceptable to deem the Oscars inconsequential. Yet this is still a powerful institution invested in maintaining its authority. And by existing as the major awards ceremony for American films, its library of statues compels on popular culture a dominant history of the medium that follows a simplistic narrative – in other words, a history that can fit into a short montage.

The Academy Awards do not simply reflect on or preserve history. They write it, and even sometimes erase it. It’s always important, then, for multiple histories to be heard.

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