On a night intended to celebrate the art of filmmaking, the Oscars flaunted their contempt for cinematographers, editors, and other craftspeople.
Basking in the afterglow of Parasite’s historic Best Picture win, it is tempting to pronounce the Oscars a good show. Yet, nearly all of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony’s most memorable moments, from Bong Joon-ho’s shout outs to fellow directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, to Best Lead Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix’s tribute to his late brother River, happened spontaneously, with no input from the people who organized it.
From a production standpoint, the 92nd Academy Awards were a mess. Things got off to a shaky start with an energetic yet nonsensical musical number by Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter and a stand-up bit by Chris Rock and Steve Martin that offered a couple chuckles only to end on a sour note, reducing women to “vaginas.” Then, there were the presenters like Beanie Feldstein trotted out solely to introduce other presenters, the Best Original Song nominee performances presented without introductions, and the awkward camerawork that forced viewers to watch clip packages from afar.
Most aggravating of all, however, was the show’s dismissive treatment of the technical categories. It became clear early on that the winners of so-called below-the-line awards such as visual effects and sound mixing were told to keep their speeches short, resulting in a litany of harried acknowledgements from people who should have been savoring a rare moment in the national spotlight. At one point, Bombshell make-up artist Kazu Hiro tried to cede the mic to his colleagues, Anne Morgan and Vivian Baker, only for all three of them to be ushered off the stage.
To add insult to injury, the introductions of those categories seemed designed to emphasize just how unimportant Hollywood thinks they are. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig pretended to use Best Production Design as an audition to demonstrate their “serious” acting skills for the directors in the audience; the joke, it seems, being that obviously, they aren’t actually passionate about production design. But at least they (briefly) remarked that the category refers to “the look and feel of a film.”
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, pretended to not even know what cinematography is, equating it to catering before concluding that it has something to do with the camera. (It is, in fact, the process of designing and capturing the images that constitute a film, which encompasses everything from the lighting to the camera movement and aspect ratio, and, as last year’s winner Alfonso Cuarón tweeted, the very medium of cinema wouldn’t exist without it.)
Yes, these were jokes, and yes, I’m probably being a killjoy. But I can only imagine what it must be like for a cinematographer or editor or visual effects artist to have to listen to your peers, who are supposedly honoring your work, brag that they can’t be bothered to learn the basic definition of your job. Even if in this case, the ignorance is ironic, in many cases, it isn’t. It doesn’t seem like a tall order to ask actors to speak just a couple sentences about people other than themselves, especially when those people are the ones responsible for making them look like stars.
Also, as a viewer, I routinely find the technical categories among the highlights of the show. The Oscars are the reason I know what cinematography, art direction, production design, sound editing, and sound mixing are, and the videos depicting costumes being assembled and sets being built are the reason I fell in love with movies. They are what make cinema not just a vehicle for stories but a form of art. Perhaps those of us old enough to develop our own taste and understand industry politics don’t get much out of the Oscars other than a fleeting diversion. But for a kid just starting to develop an interest in movies, they offer a gateway to a whole new world.
At a time when the medium is in flux, with the increasing domination of big-budget tent-poles and the rise of streaming services, it’s more crucial than ever to recognize the history and craft of film, to put artists’ work into context. If only the Oscars remembered that instead of relying on Bong Joon-ho and Taika Waititi to do it for them.