20231203 oscars
A worker moves an Oscar statue before being placed out for display in Los Angeles, California Image Credit: Reuters

And the Oscar goes to ...

That well-known set phrase has held film lovers breathless with anticipation year in, year out since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its first ceremony on the night of May 16, 1921, at a private dinner in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, where the 270 guests who attended the event were each made to pay as much as $5 for their tickets.

Look, you heard it here first: this year’s Oscar Night, held this past Sunday, was fun and classy. Unlike last year’s — when actor Will Smith walked onstage and wacked comedian Chris Smith across the face — it was slap-free.

And unlike that in 2017 — when a mix-up in the sealed envelope containing the name of the winner for Best Picture led to “Lala Land” getting mistakenly announced as the winner instead of “Moonlight” — snafu-free.

Fun and classy, as well as slap-free and snafu-free it was, which made this year’s Oscar Night a pleasure for cineastes everywhere, including those in their midst who subscribe to Cahiers du Cinema and are known to dismiss the event as Hollywood kitsch.

That posture, you must admit, takes snobbery to a lunatic extreme, given the fact that Oscar Night is nowadays watched reportedly by close to a billion people living in 225 countries and by roughly 45 million in the United States, a time when, among other things, filmmakers often give emotional acceptance speeches about their struggles in the art world or memorable ones about important social issues that they think should be addressed by society at large.

Recall, for example, Rami Malek, who as king of Oscar Night in 2019, having won the Best Actor Award for his portrayal of Queen’s lead vocalist, Fredrick Mercury, in the film Bohemian Rhapsody, stood in front of the microphone while holding on to his Oscar and told the world in his own speech: “I am the son of immigrants from Egypt, a first generation American, and part of my story is written right now”.

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Intersect of cinema and culture

The snobbery of these finicky cineastes appears to lean toward lunacy because of the other the other fact that cinematic art is a serious medium — regardless of how we qualitatively rate its effusions — that shapes culture us as much as it is shaped by the culture that it is the product of, reflecting its prevailing concerns, anxieties and inward preoccupations.

Indeed, so serious a medium is it now considered that ever since the Silent Film era, when the German American psychologist Hugo Munsterberger (d. 1916) sought to understand what it was about film that made it conceptually different from theatre, the study of cinematic art has become a branch of aesthetics known as the philosophy of film.

It is axiomatic to film critics today that cinema and culture intersect as one, much as would — were we to use a metaphor here, a beloved tool of film lovers — the waters of Euphrates and the Tigris, after flowing in parallel along the high mountains of the Hazer region, eventually join at Shat Al-Arab, where they become so conjoined at their meeting point that they become indistinguishable.

America - a force for the good

Thus, over the years American cinema came to be mirrored by American culture, as diverse as the population and culture that forms it.

Notice, in this regard, how after America was drawn into the war in Europe after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hollywood found itself producing films that inspired pride in being American and a belief that America was a force for the good in the world.

Meanwhile, in like manner, mainstream films in the 1950s reflected the conservatism and anti-communism that defined the ethos of the decade, whereas the turbulence of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, which stood in opposition to “the establishment”, found its way into movies like Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H”, Michael Cimino’s “Deer Hunter”, Stanley Kubric’s “Heavy Metal Jacket” and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”.

The impact of movies on society, as we know, can be so trivial as to do no more than to popularise a fashion trend and a catchy colloquialism, or so profound as to lead to a reset in culture’s social values. But impact is one thing that filmic art never fails to leave on the repertoire of our consciousness.

Oh, dear me, forgot about it. Sunday’s Oscar Night. The 95th ceremony of the Academy Awards.

Look, I was bereft to see that my second most favourite actress of all time, Cate Blanchett — my most favourite being Vanessa Redgrave, now 85, memory of whose electrifying roles she has played in her six-decade career remains etched in my mind — did not win a Best Actress Award for her performance in Tar.

And equally bereft I was to see my pick for Best International Feature Film also failed to win.

Fragile nature of our human being

This film, “The Quiet Girl”, the first Irish language movie to be nominated in that category, a gem of a coming-of-age drama where seemingly — only seemingly — nothing happens, and where, though the characters say little, the story speaks loudly about the fragile nature of our human being, as if, in this case, silence is itself an eloquent rhetoric.

It was bad enough that a loopy, absurdist fantasy like “Everyone and Everything All at Once” swept them, winning seven of its 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director, and that fluff like “Avatar”, “Elvis” and “Top Gun” was seen as belonging to a “branch of aesthetics known as the philosophy of film”.

But what was worse, after three and a half hours of watching this unassuming, understated ceremony this year, nothing seemed to go off the rails — not one single slap, not one single snafu, not one single cheap thrill. That ain’t right for a traditional Oscar Night, is it?

Fawaz Turki is a noted journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.