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Culture Warrior: Mickey, Sean, and Paul Haggis Progressivism

First of all I need to preface this post by saying that I don’t believe the Oscars matter in the least. Sure, they’re fun to vote on, discuss, and are (apparently) a great excuse to party on a boat, but, ultimately, whoever takes home the gold at the end of the night only matters to those who actually attended the ceremony.
By  · Published on February 28th, 2009

Okay, first of all I need to preface this post by saying that I don’t believe the Oscars matter in the least. Sure, they’re fun to vote on, discuss, and are (apparently) a great excuse to party on a boat, but, ultimately, whoever takes home the gold at the end of the night only matters to those who actually attended the ceremony. The Oscars have arguably not reached the irrelevance of the Grammys, but they have had a long history of embarrassing mistakes nonetheless, and the politics of campaigning, nominating, and voting prevent the Academy from assessing good filmic work critically (not to mention the multitude of films that are snubbed by simple lack of a voice within cultural dialogue because they can’t afford to widely distribute, or the Academy’s arbitrary rules for nomination). While I enjoy watching the ceremony, the forced, immediate canonization and “authority” of the Oscars lack the overall hindsight to truly be able to judge which films of a given year contain real cultural resonance (in other words, it would be easier and more accurate to determine the best movie of 2008 in, say, 2028). Time is the only true test of a film’s worth. Also, the set number of nominations in each category inevitably leaves something out (the Academy either omits notable performances or “fills out” categories in order to satisfy the arbitrary number of five).

All that being said, Mickey Rourke deserved the Oscar—not because his magnificent performance is somehow rendered meaningless or insignificant without the presence of a statue bestowed by his peers, but simply because he deserved his moment in the spotlight.

There exists a methodology of analysis within film theory (originated by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni) which argues that films present varying degrees of orthodoxy through form and content. For instance, most Hollywood films are conventional in both form and content, while other types of films—art, independent, experimental—can be conventional in form while radical in content, radical in form while conventional in content, or radical in both form and content (also, the term “radical” here can be substituted for a great many terms, like progressive, confrontational, or simply any type of counterpoint to the traditions of Hollywood cinema—and this radicalism is not necessarily exercised through leftist politics, or any politics whatsoever, but is simply anything that prevents itself as alternative to conventional expectations).

Gus Van Sant’s Milk, like Brokeback Mountain three years ago, is conventional in form while progressive in its content. Both Milk and Brokeback took familiar genre formulas—the biopic and the western/tragic romantic drama—and embedded them with a comparatively unconventional storyline and message—a same-sex love story or exploring issues of inequality in the conservative landscape. While I would classify neither film as radical in either form or content, it is the very familiarity and conventionality of each films’ form (the popular genre, the formulaic narrative structure) that makes their content seem, by comparison, rather progressive and unusual. The combination of conventionality in form and progressivism in content allows these films to be more accessible to audiences that may otherwise disagree with their politics or not usually flock to the more numerous and confrontational independent LGBT films, like those of Gregg Araki.

One could apply the same methodology to the Oscar ceremony itself, which this year adopted full-on conventionality in both form and content. Last year, Jon Stewart, for the second time, packed his role as host with jokes intended more so for those at home than those present at the ceremony, usually with the expense of their laughter. The choices of Stewart and Chris Rock as host in years past—with their ironic and sometimes subversive styles of comedy forcing the Hollywood elite to laugh at themselves, thereby diminishing the significance of the very ceremony they’re attending—is the closest the Academy awards have come to radicalism in content. By choosing a host this year that is not a comedian, but a movie star, the host’s job is rendered free of such self-effacing satire, thus preventing those partaking in the ceremony to acknowledge its insignificance in the whole scheme of things. This was, by far, the “safest” Oscars ever, trading standup for badly executed musical numbers by the most photogenic host in a long time.

While the awards bestowed on Milk for screenwriting and acting would seem to argue that, at least politically, there was some progressivism amidst the otherwise squeaky-clean safe atmosphere that was the Oscars (especially in regard to the content of Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn’s acceptance speeches), I would argue that this is simply another indicator of the exorbitant conventionality and safeness of this year’s awards show. In the context of Rourke’s expletive and gaffe-filled acceptance speeches at the BAFTA and Independent Spirit Awards, I don’t think the Academy voters wanted the actor’s loose lips spoiling what was otherwise a predictable and meticulously executed show, and giving the award to Penn (giving it to a previous winner also seems safer) allowed them to pat themselves on the back (like they did three years ago for Crash) once again for their purely symbolic social progressivism in honoring…a straight, white actor. (Let’s call this form of misdirected social activism “Paul Haggis Progressivism,” as the straight white men in Hollywood apparently know more about inequality than anyone else.)

So while The Wrestler may be a film that, at least on the surface, contains more politically conservative subject matter than Milk, in the context of the actors themselves at an illustrious Hollywood ceremony being broadcast all over the globe, Penn—the content of whose speech was even predictable—is rendered the safe bet while Rourke is made, once again, the radical underdog.

If the Academy wanted to display true progressivism in a way that would actually warrant the eager patting on their respective backs, they should have given Milk the Best Picture award. While it may not be the best film of the year, it’s certainly the most immediately relevant of the nominees, and such a win would have more than made up for the Crash/Brokeback upset three years ago. They instead chose to don Penn with a second award while ignoring the man who deserved a moment in the spotlight more than anybody else in that room. Like Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman rather than Dog Day Afternoon, giving Rourke the Oscar later in his career (even if he has that opportunity) simply won’t be the same.

Lastly, I think giving the award to Penn took weight away from the far better speech made by the less famous Dustin Lance Black, who effectively used the opportunity to explain the resounding importance of a figure like Harvey Milk in our current political culture and give a heartfelt beacon of hope for legal same-sex marriage in the future. By telling those maligned LGBT that may be watching that they are valuable and loved despite what others around them may say, Black himself sounded a great deal more like the real Milk than the man who played him. Yet the more remembered speech will go to the heterosexual winner whose “you commie, homo-loving sons of guns” joke somehow didn’t contain the weight of Black’s eloquent, inclusive plea.

…But, then again, would Rourke be Rourke if he wasn’t still the underdog?

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