Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), suggested that the decline of Greek civilisation was accompanied by its increasing reification, celebration, and systematic self-affirmation in the major works of the period. The more dissolute and decadent Greece became, the more it strove to appear ordered and rational, and the more it harped on about its own greatness.
Nietzsche thus established a rule of inverse proportionality that has always struck me as peculiarly apt.
How many of us have been at a party that was less than great, only to find ourselves vocalising the sheer magnitude of our fun?
Have you ever been to a concert and continually asserted its value to your buddy, before you both admit that it’s actually a terrible show and that you’re merely assuring yourselves that the 300 bucks you forked out for the tickets isn’t lost?
The more something declines and the more it disappears, the more it is spoken about and the more forceful becomes its canonisation. For what is canonisation but a systemic and structural insurance policy against inevitable and actual disappearance?
So – what was notable about this year’s Oscars ceremony, and how can a long dead German misanthrope offer any insights into it?
Apart from the usual heaping of media charade upon media charade – though the slickness of the televised ceremony always seems to gesture towards some kind of awkward horror behind the Wizard’s curtain – and the usual slightly (but not magnificently) below par jokes by excellent comedians, in this case Chris Rock and Louis CK, it seemed that this year’s ceremony was characterised by its participants’ pious performances of an American style of identity politics that has come to dominate the social media age.
This is Politics Lite, appearing in sexual, gendered, and racial incarnations via the narcissistic assertion of self. As contemporary digital denizens, we clap, celebrate and consume our individualism within a socioeconomic context that, regardless, makes life worse for the vast majority of the world’s population.
Several acceptance awards and performances were thus accompanied, this year, by benign political messages – benign for their absolute inoffensiveness to the material powers that run the show.
Lady Gaga’s performance of her song about sexual assault, “Til It Happens to You,” nominated for Best Original Song from the documentary The Hunting Ground, seemed a particularly bizarre way to assert female solidarity – a female solidarity, once again, dictated by male terms and based around masculinist ontological constructions.
This was stunningly evident in the introduction of the song by Joe Biden, one of America’s leading male power-brokers. Biden’s pledge for the crowd to intervene in and report rape when they see it on college campuses struck me as particularly shallow – and, of course, far from certain to be binding.
Likewise, Kevin Hart’s clapping in support of all African-Americans actors could have been seen as embarrassingly condescending, if it didn’t epitomise the tenor of the entire ceremony.
Pundits will, probably, talk about this as the most political Oscars ever. If contemporary politics is about the egoistic assertion of self in the face of the demise of the collective and the social, then these Oscars were, indeed, politics perfected.
As was evident from the Beyoncé/Superbowl debacle, people will continue to think that striking a spectacular pose for the cameras can offer something other than more fodder for the Vision Machine.
This year’s unusually high amount of Establishment posturing is perhaps, recalling Nietzsche, yet another indication of the disappearance of conceptions of actual political struggle from the minds of the well fed cats of the West. Politics is the struggle over resources and thus for power – and, therefore, is never about individual identity, even if Hollywood would have us believe otherwise.
In any case, the Oscars ceremony has long been anchored by the pretension that it exists to celebrate motion picture artistry and creativity. But we all know what it’s really about at its most basic level: celebrating the generation of immense amounts of wealth for a few US and international elites.
Popular film production, as every film-making workshop is quick to emphasise, is a business. And the business of entertainment, in the Society of the Spectacle, is one of the most lucrative. The Academy may benefit from promoting the idea that the ceremony is more artistically significant than a QANTAS AGM, but it isn’t.
This is revealed year in and year out by the comical brutality with which acceptance speeches are cut short and winners are shunted off the stage – especially the more minor winners, in categories like Visual Effects – to the beat of a televisual clock whose rhythm is designed to maximise advertising profits.
All things considered, Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech for Best Actor for The Revenant was resonant, and his message about corporate greed destroying the planet was on point. He was right to emphasise that the biggest losers in environmental destruction will be – already are – the poor amongst us, the least “Hollywood,” those who didn’t reap the rewards of excessive carbon burning in the first place.
Who and what else won?
Spotlight won Best Picture. It’s not a bad film, and its win will be seen by some as timely. Brie Larson is an excellent actor, and she deserved to win Best Actress in a Leading Role; she was terrific in films like 21 Jump Street (2012) and The Gambler (2014), and here offers a moving performance as the emancipated victim of a Fritzl-style villain. Mark Rylance won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his wry turn as the spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies – he was the highlight of the film – and Alicia Vikander won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Danish Girl. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as predicted, won Best Director for The Revenant.
These actors are all good, some of them great, and Iñárritu is a technically accomplished director.
But what do these awards really mean?
On an individual level, winning an Oscar would probably be satisfying. It would, in any case, guarantee you at least another ten years’ not-so-hard labour on the vision mill.