Oscar Opining

​On January 3, 2015, I arrived back in Los Angeles after visiting seven continents in one year as part of my ‘Year of Re-Investment and Recovery’ and was overcome by a sense of motionlessness, an utter pause. For anyone who knows me, I am in an almost constant state of planning and action, so this peculiar state was quite curious to me. As I had designed it, the Year was not our calendar year, but the lunar year and so I had a fair swath of time in which to do… What? It seemed premature to launch into the next phase of life, but the recent travels seemed utterly indigestible at that moment too. But what better way to pause and re-focus than to watch and listen to other’s stories? I’ve always been moderately Oscar-obsessed, but this year I launched into a full blitzkrieg campaign to see every one of the 60 nominated films this year before the big night. And so I did. As of yesterday, I had seen 56 of 60 films in just over one month. And here’s my take…

​I had thought initially that I would provide some sort of compressive, objective perspective on my Oscar-nominee viewing. Nothing particularly noteworthy in that, but it seemed mildly pointless to see all the films and then not have any record of my opining on them. But the idea of my objectivity became increasingly laughable as so many of the stories struck such a personal cord. It’s not without some Universal irony that the first film after my year of travel to recover from trauma just so happened to be Wild. We all tell stories to identify and resonate with others, simply to connect, and so ultimately the idea of pure objectivity in evaluating a film on its merits becomes laughable. Not Siskel, not Ebert, and certainly not lowly Jen could ever genuinely pretend to say we favor a story because of its technical prowess without also admitting on some level it resonated with us personally.

​The truth is that I roared when Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 and The Phone Call both won Oscars and the recipients both acknowledged my underutilized, often criticized, but desperately essential present career calling from the stage. I cried when Poland received its first Oscar for Ida, despite my conflicted and complicated feelings, I wanted nothing more than to hear my uncle’s thoughts on the film and missed his national pride and our conversations about foreign language films. Even in documentaries, Finding Vivian Maier had me breathlessly squinting at the screen as shot after shot of my beloved hometown had me scanning for a sneaked snap of my grandmother, my mother, or even perhaps me. Even in fiction, I couldn’t help to root for Reese Witherspoon to win for best actress because it felt as though the story she told was my own. I favored The Imitation Game because (although certainly no Alan Turing) I can identify with a character that is working so hard to utilize his own intelligence and feels so profoundly lonely in the world. Even in technical categories, I favored Interstellar because of the simple notion that love is as profound a force of physics as gravity. After seven continents and a whole lot of trauma, not only did I return right back to Los Angeles, but I reset the pieces of the story, trying to send the message in the best way I could, just like Matthew McConaughey floating in that place between dimensions, hoping that love would carry his message through. The things that resonate may even seem silly, but Feast’s portrayal of a pup who loves food, but ultimately loves the happiness of his person more than anything… How could I possibly be objective about these films? How could any of us?

​Just as I loved the films that resonated so personally with me, I loathed the ones that rang hollow despite their technical merits. Boyhood just seemed a celebration of mediocrity; Foxcatcher was small and vicious; Gone Girl was ultimately ugly and hopeless, and Inherent Vice exuded a hazy nihilism that made it one of my absolute least favorite films in a long time. It should also be no surprise that an Academy made up of story-making professionals ultimately loved Birdman, a film that celebrated and redeemed all their frailty, but ignored Selma, a story that they would honor if they could only truly identify with that degree of injustice. In the same breath, they roared at Graham Moore’s acceptance speech (a high point in the evening), because they could identify with his and Alan Turing’s own suffered injustices. Despite Neil Patrick Harris’ awkward and flat attempts to make light of the accusations of Academy racism for all but ignoring Selma, I can’t believe race played much of a role this year. It was just there were films that actors and film types could identify with and in the process Selma got crowded out.

​Politics are always at play in the Academy as they are in life. Virunga and Last Days in Vietnam were technically much more perfect films. Citizenfour’s ending is so abrupt you may think your projectionist fell asleep on the job, but the film is so temporally important that it seemed obvious to win Oscar. Glory is a wonderful song worthy of a… Grammy, but a classic example of Academy guilt throwing an award away. In the category of best song, Everything is Awesome is so completely central to the film, that it’s almost impossible to conceive of a better example of best original song. Glory is fantastic, but not utilized in the film and stylistically inappropriate for a period piece. It won because the voting membership had guilt over the furor surrounding the lack of nominations for Selma; the win is a consolation prize, but the acceptance speech was priceless.

​Even in the ceremony, we want a story that resonates with us. We love the Oscar hysterics, the unbelieving acceptance speeches, the Jennifer Lawrence trip, and the Sally Field, “You like me!” because we can see us in them and them in us. Neil Patrick Harris delivered an Oscars that was too stilted to resonate. Although Lady Gaga’s performance was perfect and it was delightful to see Julie Andrews, more time was spent on this perfectly choreographed performance than the ‘In Memoriam’ segment, a part of the Oscars that more people look forward to than any other award or production during the show. It’s not some macabre fascination; it allows us to reflect on the true humanity that make these stories happen. To relegate so many lives to a flaccid watercolor in order spare the collective the celebration of a few notables had everyone who passed washed out in a mute shade of unmemorable gray and did a huge disservice to the luminaries who passed this year.

​Oscar night has become the ultimate celebration of our own humanity. The films of the year that tell the story that most resonates with us are the ones that we argue about in coffee shops and around water coolers the next day. We fundamentally can’t detach ourselves from the stories because it’s meaning making that expresses our humanity and it’s story telling that makes us immortal. I can’t objectively evaluate a film and I would argue that neither can you. We seek out our own stories. We want to know that we matter… And we want to know that there may be a happy ending for us, even if we don’t actually get to see it. Someone will. We ultimately want to know that some one hears and understands… And when they do, we celebrate that. So, here’s to Oscar and all the storytellers.