It’s been a week since the Academy Awards. When reflecting on this year’s show, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is the gaffe, the fiasco, the mess-up — whatever you want to call it. While that’s expected, it’s also quite disappointing.
Announcing the wrong Best Picture winner is something that has never happened in the history of the Oscars, automatically making it headline news. The biggest shame about the mishap, however, is that it will forever overshadow the greatness of the two films involved, La La Land and Moonlight. Not only does it show our tendency to gravitate toward negative events, but it also emphasizes our focus on winning and losing when it comes to things that, in the end, are merely subjective. They shouldn’t matter as much as we think they should.
Every year as I gear up for the Oscars, you’ll hear a grumbling or two from me about how we’re prioritizing things that often times aren’t even comparable. There’s no mathematical scale or formula for figuring out Best Actor or Best Actress, but we still fret about who goes home with metallic mementos from the annual February event. Websites post their predictions and upload printable ballots, while anxious viewers tune in on Sunday night to find out the winners. If you’re like my family, you make your own picks, and if you’re truly crazy (a.k.a. not me), you place money on them.
It’s safe to say the public’s been obsessed for years, but this year sent us over the top over the course of a problematic five minutes. That’s what it was, too: five minutes. This isn’t a sporting event where your mistake changes the outcome. The ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. Chris Webber got the technical foul. Yet, in this case, Moonlight still won. Within a few minutes, the problem was solved, and the cast and crew still got to celebrate. If anything, it was a more exciting finale, a fantastic way to shine light on both La La Land and Moonlight at the same time.
But the same storyline continues, and it’s put quite a damper on what should be considered a celebration more so than a contest.
That’s the inevitability of contests, though, as they create sides. If only we could find more common ground between the two films — and, to look at bigger picture America for while we’re at it, ourselves as well. Blame it on ourselves and our obsession with winning. Whether it’s jobs, elections, our six-year-old kid’s basketball game, or a movie awards show, we’re always thinking about it.
When scrolling online before the Oscars, I became overwhelmed by Twitter rants and comment fields bloated by arguments as to why each film should win. I either saw that Moonlight was “politically correct”, “full of race baiting”, or, quite simply, “boring” or “uninteresting”, and on the other hand, I saw that La La Land was either “not resonant enough”, “empty”, or — my favorite description (as parodied in an SNL sketch) — “just okay”.
Some criticism makes sense. It’s natural for us to want to use social mediums to voice our opinions and participate in discussions. What doesn’t make sense is the overwhelming negativity toward two of the best (if not the two best) films of 2016. It’s obvious that they’re arguably the most critically successful movies of 2016. Moonlight currently holds a score of 99 on Metacritic and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, while La La Land finishes right behind it with scores of 93 and 93% respectively. They’re highly rated and appreciated by moviegoers across the board, including me (they both landed in my top three films of 2016), so it’s hard to justify the grievances.
What our instincts tell us to do is continually focus on the controversy behind the Best Picture announcement. But if we could just hold our thoughts in for a second, we’d realize that Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle, the directors of the two films, haven’t contributed to the cancerous divide in cinema like, say, Donald Trump has with politics. Believe it or not (it’s not that hard to believe), they’re good friends and loved one another’s films.
The directors shared the cover of Variety magazine, and they both spoke about the Oscars in the March cover story.
“It’s weird to be friendly with someone but to feel like there’s a mano-a-mano thing, which I guess is the nature of the Oscars. So it was nice to explode that myth a little bit on a big stage,” Chazelle said.
If anything, the cover image — with Jenkins and Chazelle leaving a building together, trophies in hand and big smiles on their faces — dispels the myth by itself.
It’s not like one of them left the show empty handed as a result of the Best Picture blunder. They both received awards, Chazelle for Best Director, Jenkins for Best Adapted Screenplay, and while Jenkins’ film took home the biggest prize, Chazelle’s film received three more wins in total. To create a rivalry between their films would be of our own making — and ours alone.
Digging deeper into Variety’s store, it becomes apparent that their relationship goes further back. Jenkins and Chazelle may both still be in their 30s and only have five movies between them, but they’ve gone out of their way to praise one another’s films face-to-face. Jenkins was floored by La La Land. Likewise, Chazelle was also floored by Moonlight.
But Jenkins and Chazelle weren’t the first to show the world the connective power of art. In the ‘90s, “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” suggested to British pop and rock listeners that rivalries are a needless distraction. Of course, we always remember the Oasis-Blur arguments from that decade, as Britpop was defined by its offstage drama as well as its rock and roll swagger. But at the end of the day, what matters most is the music. When songs affect people as deeply as it did the members of England’s shoegaze scene, any thought of a rivalry is thrown out the window.
The scene’s nickname was meant as a funny prod at the relationships between bands like Chapterhouse, Lush, and Moose, but it further proves that we assume everything to be a competition, until we’re proven it’s not. In a way, the recent post-game jersey swaps between NFL players is a modern rehashing of that. Even with a sport filled with as much smack and adrenaline as football, its biggest league’s been celebrating itself. Still, we prefer the negative headlines about the feuds and fights. It’s a psychological phenomenon that’s as innate to us as our love for sports.
Competition can be enticing and energizing. But as effectively as it can bring people together, it can also divide and destroy. It separates people into teams opposed to one another, fighting to prove which side is better. I have a hard time believing that’s the purpose of art. But in this day and age (or, heck, long before that), we’ve lost focus on the core of what art’s supposed to do: engage, provoke, and change.
If we’re able to wipe the condensation from our glasses and clearly see the messages of these two movies, we’d realize that their intentions were lost on many of us.
Moonlight’s a beautiful three-part narration of the life of an urban black person living something they’re not. It’s a true battle of self versus environment, and at a deeper level, self versus self. La La Land’s beautiful too, but in different ways. It’s a musically inclined examination of what it takes to achieve your dreams, whether it’s time, dedication, or sacrifice. Both are meant to inspire and affect, and both do an admirable job at both — with technical and artistic mastery allowing them to resonate in full.
Unfortunately, not all of us have seen them in this manner enough to let them engage or provoke. It seems that they haven’t molded us enough into the empathetic beings we should strive to be, and that’s because we haven’t let them. But cinema isn’t fast food. We shouldn’t go to the theater expecting a $10 experience. You can’t put a price on art. You also can’t go into a film with the mindset of, “What’s in it for me?”. Rather, it should be the other way around, as the moviegoing experience often requires our own commitment to what’s on the screen.
But whether it’s our own flaws, our selfish desires, or our Western consumptive expectations, we tend to lose sight of this. It’s why, now a week later, we’re still talking more about how Moonlight won rather than the basic fact that it won.
Perhaps a year or two from now, we’ll forget about the controversy. But perhaps we won’t, either. Regardless of what happens, it’s obvious that the myth of competition in art will persist, and that’s due to our inner combat mentality. If we could put our weapons down for a second, though, we might realize we’re missing the point. Art, as showcased in La La Land and Moonlight, is so much more than the (usually unnecessary) arguments — or even lame conspiracies — I’ve overheard regarding its competitive side.
What we need to realize with film, especially the two filling the headlines over the past week, is that it’s not only inspirational as I’ve stated. It’s aspirational as well, and amid increasing division in the U.S., it might be our most obvious and overlooked hope for change.