Monday, February 23, 2015

The Academy Awards were held last evening. 

As usual, I didn't watch; even if I had cable (or even digital-broadcast) TV, I probably wouldn't have bothered. The program itself is too boring to watch, I find.

Still, the Oscars are of inherent cultural fascination. Before I get into that, I wanted to discuss hunting. In books on human prehistory, authors usually describe agriculture as “succeeding” the hunter-gathering economy. But hunting remained a feature of the rural environment in every society right up to modern times, and until recent centuries, life in cities, or even large towns, was relatively uncommon.

It wasn’t only hunting for “game”, important as this was to rural people throughout civilized times. In less arable lands, or in the very common circumstances of crop failure, hunting made the difference for many populations between life and starvation. Predation thereby, was by no means rendered obsolete by the mere invention of farming.

 The hunt only ceased to be commonplace, at least in Britain, when during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, agricultural techniques were transformed through crop-rotation and the enclosure of land. This farming revolution not only increased harvest yields to such an extent as to make crop-failure and starvation a thing of the past. Land enclosure, and the complementary clearing of wasteland and wilderness for agricultural purposes, drastically reduced the amount of wildlife available to be hunted. The inequities of the cash-crop system introduced by agricultural improvements, were highlighted by the drastic curtailment of traditional rights of hunting.  Hunting upon enclosed lands was redefined legally as “poaching”, subject to severe penalty, up to and including death. Meanwhile, the feudal right of lords to hunt anywhere they wished to, was maintained.

The centrality of the hunt among feudal lords, and indeed, of hunting for sport generally, attests to the importance of hunting behaviour, indifferent to subsistence needs. The “goal” of game-hunting is the trophy — the head of the animal hung upon a wall, the remnants of the great feast held to conclude, and to celebrate, a successful hunt.Sports involve most or all the physical faculties required of hunting. The quarry is now a ball, instead of a beast, and the playing field replaces the happy hunting-ground. But the aim of the sport-contest is the same — a trophy, representing not the head of the opponent, but in contemporary times at least, an icon representing the player of the sport, or some kind of vessel. Sport-trophies are also handed out at a feast — the banquet.

Naturally, the champion gets the biggest trophy of all which, like the head of a slain beast, is usually hung on a wall, or placed on a mantel. As usual, what is apparently fun and frivolous, has deep roots in the human psychology. So primordial, in fact, that trophies are handed out for lots of activities that have nothing to do with athletics. Returning to the Academy Awards telecast, then. Observing the glee which with celebrated movie stars reacted when they were announced as the winner of the best-actor or actress awards, it struck me that this event, and others like it, is a kind of pagan-technological feast.

The actual trophy given out for winning an Academy Award is fascinating in its banality. Featureless, almost out-of-focus seeming, the statuette is nicknamed “Oscar” in spite of its androgyny. The design is a relic, a fragment of the Art Deco style, which often incorporated statuary shorn of distinctive individuality in its architecture and decor. The Oscar is, in other words, significant of absolutely nothing at all. But one gets the impression that winners of the year’s Oscar in what-you-have category, have to do everything in their power to remain dignified when rising to accept the award. Some don’t even bother. My idea as to the underlying nature of the Academy Awards, perhaps came to light as I watched Jack Nicholson, the now-venerable actor, rise to the stage and do a little dance across the floor to the podium, collecting the Oscar for the lead performance in As Good As It Gets.

Nicholson had already won the Oscar for best actor as a relatively young man (for Chinatown, in 1974). It should have been no big deal for him; instead Nicholson as much as levitated across the stage to get his trophy. I think this was when I decided that the attraction of the Oscars, was not merely hype.

There is a whole lot of hype involved with the Academy Awards. It is the most watched programme on the planet, seen throughout every country in the world. The manifest elation of Oscar winners, and the corresponding disappointment of the also-ran, would seem to indicate that the whole world actually voted for them. In reality, Oscars are awarded by an organization called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — hence the official name of the awards ceremony.

There are prominent members of the Academy, but its membership as a whole remains confidential, as do the methods for polling as to which movies and performances are to be judged the best of the year. In spite of its name, the Academy exists virtually to give out awards. The shadowy character of is inner workings, actually seems to lend prestige to the “race.” It’s almost as though the Hollywood community, and by extension, millions of people throughout the world, treat the decisions of the Academy as sacred, the word of some kind of priesthood of wise elders of the industry.

This is so, even when (as often occurs) the selection of this film, or that performer, as the best of the year, is met with general disapproval. In spite of it, the next year Hollywood players avidly campaign to be included on the nominee list.

 The Academy Awards are just one of many annual, industry-specific awards’ banquets, almost all of which are of interest only to those directly involved. Aside from the attention given the Oscars, the latter differs from the others in that no feasting is to be had at all during the ceremony. Originally, the awarding of the Academy “Merit” trophies (as per their formal title) followed a formal dinner, but this was judged too cumbersome for live telecasts.

Less prestigious shows, such as the Golden Globes (these awarded by even more shadowy entity known as the Hollywood Foreign Critics Association or some such) are staged with the nominees sat at tables. In any case, the “real show”, as the saying goes, comes not during the awards show, but with the after-parties, when the Hollywood elite carouses well into daylight.

In pagan lore, charms and idols are associated with luck — both good and bad. If, as I believe, the Oscar trophy is a subliminal fetish, it is perhaps inevitable that the Academy Awards have bred their own superstition. There is talk of an Oscar “curse,” the career bust that supposedly dogs winners of the best-acting categories. Empirically, the case for such a phenomenon cannot be made by mere observation of the number instances when this did, in fact, occur. A more careful approach would be to compare the success of Oscar-winning performers with those who were nominated and did not win, and those who were not nominated at all. The latter’s diminishing prospects couldn’t be blamed on an Oscar-trophy “curse”.

My quick analysis on exactly this question, done several years ago, led me to believe that for most movie-stars, Oscar winners or not, box-office “cred” is relatively fleeting. A very minuscule number of film stars are successful over many decades; most have less than a decade as bankable actors, and many have five years or less. This is regardless of Oscar-approval or not. What is clear, is that success at the Oscars is essentially irrelevant to an actor or actress’s commercial potential. Even otherwise highly-praised film stars have remained active for long periods without winning the trophy, while the vast majority of performers who have not won an Oscar, are also not stars for very long. In spite of all the Oscar hype, the Academy Awards are a commercial irrelevance, at least in the long-term. They are, at base, as irrational as the worship of any icon can be — more so than with sports even, as the criteria for “victory” at the Oscars is so mysterious and arbitrary.

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