Let me be explicit: Mediocrity is morally superior
Thanks to Roy Edroso for his hard work in recording the atrocities, specifically the atrocities against good taste committed by conservatives ideologically committed to promoting entertainment perceived as being on “their side”, no matter how ridiculously stupid and insipid. From Roy, I learn that the message has moved from “as long as we can claim that a movie has conservative ‘values’, this matters more than quality” to arguing that quality itself is an affront to their values system. Or, that appears to be Brent Bozell’s argument anyway. You see, the sniffing snobs who probably wouldn’t drink Tang either might claim that the Oscars are a trainwreck of bad taste that puts box office receipts, artistic cowardice, and Hollywood politics in front of quality (I’m one of those snobs, naturally). But Bozell argues that the Oscars are slipping in ratings because they don’t chase the mediocre middle hard enough. But that they’re improving by including more schlock than they usually do in their nominations.
The 2010 Oscar nominations clearly signal that Hollywood is trying to return to a broader vision of the Oscars, as something more than an insular critics’ circle that likes only the self-consciously arty and obscure. That signal came most obviously with the announcement that there would be 10 nominees for Best Picture. That list hadn’t seen 10 nominations since 1943, when the winner was “Casablanca.”
Arty films that almost nobody has seen are still there — like “An Education.” But arty blockbusters are there as well, like “Avatar” — current box office gross: $601 million — and the animated film “Up,” with $293 million.
Those of us who have memories (or at least access to Google) are impressed by the contention that the Oscars don’t work hard enough to reward filmmakers for making mindless crap that sells well because everyone in the household can tolerate it well enough to go see it and get out of the house, and/or is seen by millions because they’re curious about the special effects. Remember, James Cameron won before for “Titanic”, just one of many examples of a movie that’s low on quality but high on WTF factors enough to be entertaining and fill seats. What impresses me is that Bozell has basically taken this faux right wing populism to its logical level, arguing in effect that intelligence and subtlety are in themselves crimes against Real Americans. Probably because thoughtfulness so often leads to the patriotically incorrect conclusions, like all human beings deserve respect or the world doesn’t end if we act like adults about sex.
Bozell’s main goal in this piece is to applaud the Academy for nominating “The Blind Side” for Best Picture. It seems that Bozell would prefer to get rid of the Best Picture award altogether, and replacing it with an award called Strongest Pandering.
But “The Blind Side” is about self-discovery. It’s about a large black teenager who discovers he can be a football star. What in the world is wrong with that?
It’s because this too-quiet black character was loved and housed by white Christian people — and critics hated that.
Well, they probably hated it for what’s obvious from the previews, which is that you’ll get a cavity from watching about 5 minutes of the over-the-top sentimentality. But in order to score tribal points elevating white Christians above everyone else, Bozell plays a little loose with the basics of the story, or at least as I understand them. This movie is about Michael Oher, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens, and how he was adopted by said white Christian family after he demonstrated talent as a football player as a freshman in high school. I don’t want to suggest that his adopted family aren’t nice, generous people by any stretch. Itt seems like Oher was going to school with their kids and bonded with the Tuohys before they brought him in and gave him the help he needed to make it in college, which is a nice story, but this story isn’t being told in a politically neutral zone. Stories about gallant white parents versus bad black parents are alarming enough in our atmosphere, but then you have to ask yourself questions like, “What if other people are inspired by this story to adopt kids because they think they have athletic skills, and it turns out they don’t?” There’s a lot of places on the road between high school freshman player and the NFL where someone’s career might just go off the rails. I’m an elitist, so I guess I get caught up in the nuance and complexity, but the audience that Bozell’s writing for fully intends to pat themselves on the back for being part of a morally superior white Christian culture that just so happens to love football.
Of course, it occurs to me that Bozell’s incessant aesthetic Stalinism has drawn me into arguing about this movie on political merits, which wasn’t my intention. Maybe the movie is good, and actually tackles what is a story that brings up a lot of questions with honesty, nuance, and a real heart. Contrary to Bozell’s claim, the movie got mixed reviews, not across-the-board damning ones. But reading through them, they also suggest that the filmmakers decide to dodge any kind of artistic inquiry into the truly interesting themes, and stick to the feel-good sports stuff, and that perhaps it got mixed reviews because the critics are basically saying, “If you’re bored, this won’t kill you.” In other words, classic mediocrity in mainstream film-making. I bugged Marc a little about this, because he knows so much about football, and he answered some of my questions about Oher and also pointed out that a movie like this is pitched perfectly to sweep the box office by being aggressively non-offensive and having a little something for everyone, particularly in conservative families dedicated to strict gender role-playing: Sandra Bullock in a football movie says, “This is a chick flick that’s not a chick flick, and plus there’s some kids in it.” Which is what it is, but not the sort of stuff that should win awards that are earmarked for artistic integrity.
Which is why Bozell’s question at the heart of this is a fundamentally dishonest one:
Why would anyone suggest, by default or design, that crowd-pleasing is the opposite of artistic? Why would the critics suggest that a movie that’s inspirational is clearly inferior to a movie that “dares” to be demoralizing and grotesque? Why would Hollywood only want to be known as a nightmare factory?
Great questions, if anyone said that. There are in fact movies that genuinely stand out as great films that are fun, heart-warming, whatever. But in general, this tendency towards “crowd-pleasing” does result in mediocrity. To put it in sports terms, the movies are playing not to lose, not playing to win—they’re built around making sure to have a soft hand, to say very little and to put not offending anyone well before actually bothering to say anything meaningful. When you’re trying to avoid the wrath of philistines like Bozell, you’re not going to make great art. You’re too busy thinking about what you’re not saying to bother actually considering what you are trying to say.
It’s telling to me that Bozell got behind “The Blind Side” as an example of what the Oscars should reward, and not a movie like “Up”, which was genuinely a great film and I think by and large something for the whole family. Part of it no doubt is his wallowing in identity politics, trying to suggest that white Christians are the most oppressed people on the planet. But I think it’s also because he genuinely finds mediocrity itself to be valuable, moral even. “Up” actually struggled genuinely with themes of love and loss, and the battle between choosing to live your life or live in the shadows. All I could tell that Bozell got out of it, though, is that someone was married in it, so it hit his non-offensive checklist and he could sign off on it. He missed the point of the rest of the movie! When you’re that dumb, no wonder you think being smart is some crime of “elitism”.