The 2014 Oscars: Pay No Attention to The Slave in the Mirror

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Nothing can be soothed, let alone rectified, by one big night at an All-You-Can-Eat cupcake buffet. 

I watched a Pixar executive on the red carpet kvelling to an interviewer about the gross earnings of Pixar/Disney’s Frozen:  Right before the Academy Awards, the film crossed the billion dollar mark in earnings. 

This transported me into a reverie about the vault of super-8 films that Walt Disney supposedly made to direct the company for generations from beyond the grave.  

(Numbers count down from 8 in a jumpy sequence of bullseye targets. Walt Disney flickers onscreen in a dark boardroom to the rattle of yellowing celluloid. He is seated casually on his mahogany desk in a grey flannel suit, addressing Camera One). 

Now that America is so prosperous that nobody needs to physically work anymore, and all citizens are gliding in a delightful orbit on the convex halo of luminous rails around my Holy Matterhorn in our clean, magnetic, gravity-defying Ladybug sport-trams,  perhaps we may persuade the Academy Awards to devote this year’s celebration to the spirit of noblesse oblige. 

(Walt turns in Cronkite-esque conversational fashion to face Camera 2: ) 

It is my projection that the Jewish people might be convinced for one year to relax their Holocaust outrage, in order that the much-beleaguered Negro might finally feel himself worthy of the sympathies of the American entertainment audience: the seven foot tall, blonde-haired, eugenically-engineered, worry and disease-free Master Beings who by now regard our gleaming, emerald-domed hilltop movie palaces as places of divine worship. 

The Oscars weren’t all bad this year.  They were really quite enjoyable.

This is the only year I’ve watched the Oscars that I haven’t wanted to adjust the color balance. 

The Academy, under its new leadership, seemed to have a bold and refreshing new mantra underpinning its decisions this year, to wit: Burn, motherfucker, burn –

perhaps my favorite mantra of all time. The whole event seemed decked-out to be a noble effort to correct centuries of cultural apartheid with one big trophy night.

It was exciting when Tyler Perry walked out. He’s made planets of money for years, but never got so much as an onion in recognition from the Academy. 

But like a binge on any street drug, diet wafer, or reform-free pantomime of social justice, it was a short sugary high that crashed very quickly and resulted in louder cravings afterward. 

After years of psychotherapy and nearly three decades of cultural vivisection staring at advertising and politics, there are a few things I feel I have learned.

When any engine of mass-consent-engineering as powerful as the Academy Awards starts playing me new versions of Bobby McFerrin’s  “Don’t Worry Be Happy” – e.g. Pharrell Williams’ utterly contagious, Oscar-nominated dance hit, “Happy” –  I get so hinky and suspicious I start wanting to refoil my helmet.

There is no not dancing to that “Happy” song. In my bedroom, the dancing was spastic and compulsory enough for me to know I was being expertly manipulated. When bullets are being shot at my feet in a way I find ticklish and fun, my critical engine starts to overheat, because I am old enough to know that such intoxicating pleasures come with heavy blowback.

During the Great Depression, Hollywood strung us out on all the Shirley Temple we could handle.  Shirley Temple was uplifting enough to keep people’s better selves alive; she generated enough mass-amusement to keep forgotten men and women from feeling desperate enough to collectively murder the handful of war-profiteers and robber-barons who broke the stock market and created the soup-lines.

When the cultural zeitgeist is working so hard to encourage the public to be self-regulating “happiness machines,” (to quote Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations) it is usually because actual economic prosperity is going to be a long fucking way off for anyone but Pharrell Williams.

While obviously this year’s best song, “Happy” nonetheless lost the Best Song Oscar to Idina Menzel’s tween power ballad, which she delivered with atom-shredding scientific might. Ms. Menzel’s voice is an unsettling combination of such intense technical virtuosity and animal brawn that listening to her is like receiving a 3-dimensional windburn. In trying to describe her weirdly too-perfect performance on Twitter, I wrote that she sounded like a cross between Boolean mathematics and ice-sculpting with a molecular chainsaw. I later remembered that Idina Menzel is actually a crypto-black person, which made me wonder if the win over Mr. Williams wasn’t an incredibly complicated MacGuffin related to the rest of the evening’s heavy reparations agenda.

Lately, Hollywood has been acting out the part of America’s Moral Conscience – the straight man to the unleashed Powers Gone Wild in Washington DC, which has lost all pretense of id control and has been acting out its own version of Animal House for the last 25 years.

We’re all big kids now, and I think most of us can admit to ourselves that there is no Easter Bunny; we know, at least on a dog-level, that the Oscars aren’t really a meritocracy – at least not in real-time. 

There is an empathy lag happening in Hollywood.  We are not really encouraged as a movie audience to experience a dramatic catharses for current or ongoing tragedies – we are allowed the dramatization of problems that have have been tamped down for a few decades to the point where they aren’t urgently relevant anymore – e.g. plantation-era slavery, or AIDS in 1985.

I have been a Steve McQueen fan for some time – he is an eloquently visual director. I loved Hunger, his paean to the suffering of incarcerated Irish Republicans.  For 12 Years A Slave – which I have nicknamed Django Chained  – It seemed like McQueen, not unlike Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto, was required to pull a drag-queen-style tuck-job on his oversize intelligence, which needed to be taped-up into his body-cavity to satisfy the constrictive stupidity of an American audience.

I am probably thinking too much. 

Ellen is a very competent Oscar host, but there is something unsettlingly easy about her. Maybe it’s just all the brain-damage I suffered as a result of traumatic disillusionment during the Bush administration, but Ellen has an aura that tends to make everyone feel that nothing is too serious and everything is ultimately going to be okay. This is why I can’t trust her. She’s just such a likable goofy normal gal with her wacky pizzas and her panhandling with a bespoke beaver-felt fedora, and that freaky sorcery she does that enables her to good-naturedly break the internet at will. 

Ellen’s likability was an interesting counterpoint to Matthew McConaughey, whose dunced-out Best Actor acceptance speech was an immediate antidote to all the redeeming humanity accumulating around the great roles he’s had lately. 

It was a perfect example of the weird ability of actors to portray deeper, smarter, more courageous people than they really are. McConaughey is a human mirage – the roles he’s played so well were written by other, better men; the lines he spoke so movingly aren’t engraved anywhere in his being.  He’s a hall of mirrors in which one may occasionally glimpse infinity, but when allowed to be himself, his enormous bobblehead obscures all other reflection. 

It occurred to me that the whole Oscar phenomenon is a similarly synthetic illusion.  It’s a dazzling trick of light, air, and soap, followed by a wet pop that leaves nothing but a sticky, irritating residue on the eyeballs.

12 Years A Slave is a solid movie, but it isn’t Steve McQueen’s best, and I didn’t find it to be as powerful a statement about American slavery as Django Unchained. For that matter, no movie that has ever won an Oscar has been, or probably will be, as good as Season 3 of The Wire.   

The Wire dealt with actual problems in real time, while they were (and still are) actively painful. It didn’t dramatize societal issues from such a safe distance that they were small enough to fit inside a chocolate Easter egg (or between the thumb and forefinger of a hyper-privileged young auteur like Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze.)

It’s nice that Hollywood is no longer in appalling denial of the African American movie-going audience, which has been demographically providing a disproportional amount of movie box-office receipts than has ever been recognized by the Academy before. But as another select group of oppressed peoples who have won a shitload of Academy Awards might attest, your family starving to death in a concentration camp isn’t something that can be soothed, let alone rectified, by one big night at an All-You-Can-Eat cupcake buffet, no matter how many mylar balloons they tape to the table.  

When movies about slavery take home all the trophies on Oscar night, an unfortunate subliminal message trickles down, telephone-style, to the murkiest, most powerful and stone-dumb section of your unconscious mind. 

It doesn’t matter where your attention turns, as long as it turns there.  Your limbic system regulates 80 to 90 percent of your decision-making with all of the nuance and sophistication of an ON/OFF switch.

After we pay attention to a long, brightly-lit pageant in which slavery-themed movies and slave-playing actors win valuable prizes, the message implanted in the back of our dumb, infantile, and reductionist lizard-brains is an alarmingly bad and counterintuitive one.

Lizard brain logic is as simple as evil is banal:







(In other words, OBEY). 

The Powers that Be have always known that humans are this bafflingly stupid in the basic survival zone, and they have always manipulated and exploited everyone else with this voodoo.  

Today, there are literally 87 people who own nearly 60 percent of the world’s total wealth. It is as frustrating as films in which 17 slaves with axes are barked into submission by two concave hillbillies. 

There is only one question the viewer can ask during such scenes:

Why aren’t the slaves killing their asshole tormentors? They so outnumber them. 

What match would 87 people be for everyone else, if everyone else could stop whacking off into their camera-phones long enough to summon the courage to protect each other? 

But wait! You may already be a winner! Pay no attention to the anaconda around your thighs! Don’t worry, be happy. Sing your gratitude to a plastic Jared Leto Jesus for the gift of sight, even as your superiors strap you into the movie seat with your eyelids clamped open for a nourishing dose of the old Ludovico Technique.

Your happiness depends exclusively on your innate human ability to deny, block-out, withstand and survive whatever tortures, restrictions and humiliations the people that own you are moved to mete out. Your rewards will come in your next life, provided you strictly police yourself now.

But – be Happy!  There’s lottery tickets, and sparkly dresses on fancy ladies at a party you’re not invited to – yet. If a Somalian cab driver with bad teeth can be elevated from a taxicab in Minnesota to the red carpet of the Academy Awards then the American Dream is somehow not dead yet in the backwater swamp of your mythological subconscious.  If your secret cherished dream of winning a golden statue for singing on TV doesn’t dissuade you from the ordeal of standing up for your criminalized humanity, well, there’s still free porn, for the time being.  

But now it is time for you to return to your cubicles.

Lights out. 

Culture Critic/performer Cintra Wilson is the author of A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease, the novel Colors Insulting to Nature, Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny, and the upcoming Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny. Please follow her @xintra.

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Image via The Oscars