I’ve made a habit of getting lost, taking afternoon trips out of Boston to Portsmouth or Plymouth, Walden Pond or Rockport and wandering comfortably for the afternoon with a minimal mental map. So I understand the appeal, the romance of losing a familiar place for a little while, of being temporarily gone from everyday life and the concerns therein. Leaving your territory, and exploring, outside the realm of the real or at least of the usual.
And right on the heels of driving back from Portsmouth comes another, vastly more glamorous escape out of the world, into much more well-charted and popular terrain: the Oscars. Like a circus with its three rings spread wide across pop culture and far into the past, the Oscars give Hollywood’s cast of characters broad permission to lift us out of our lives, to lose ourselves as if in one of its top-tier movies. Or so the Academy would happily like to believe; in reality, the circus’s lights have been dimmed and its laughter grown more forced under the gravity of #OscarsSoWhite hashtags.
To me the Oscars are a circus, a daylight version of Erin Morgenstern’s fabulous, illusion-filled Night Circus, where the only truths are well disguised. And of course, you do go to the circus to get lost, to step into a parallel world so absurd it soars quickly into the dazzling realm of pure entertainment. At the Oscars, though, we haven’t ventured into a world of pure imagination, but of dollar signs and gilding. The prestige ascribed to the Oscars seems to go against its jubilant, elegant Cloud Nine glamor: the event still makes some claims on solemnity, through its formality, formula, and star power. That prestige also demands that, quite apart from the institution’s inherent self-importance, we treat the circus with a degree of seriousness as well, addressing its behavior—that is to say, lack of diversity and opportunity.
The would-be circus gives the opportunity for filmgoers to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground too, to look past the costumes and recognize familiar territory, as well as the chain of prestige-film bait and biases that shape the nominee pool. It is a chance to boycott the broadcast so as to give a small indication of discontent through ratings. (And of course, to take eloquently to the Twitter-sphere with hashtags.) But millions upon millions of viewers certainly will attend the circus. And the paradoxical anti-humor of this year’s circus saw our favorite movie stars laughing brightly at lynching jokes.
One of the frontrunners this year—which ultimately walked away with the night’s top award—is the journalistic drama Spotlight, agreed by most critical accounts to be a phenomenal and well-managed film which, from day one, didn’t give itself an easy subject. The film follows the long and emotionally fraught investigation by Boston Globe reporters to uncover, and publish, the facts of the monumental Catholic Church abuse scandal of only several years ago. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery are among the top-billed (and, as so very often with the Oscars, entirely white) stars.
The film circles a very different kind of loss: that the scandal will go undiscovered and victims will continue to suffer. It is the danger that unspeakable harm—unacknowledged, missing from the public consciousness—will be allowed to continue if the truth isn’t put forward. Harrowed and frazzled reporters sink cinematically into their stories. The hard-line hunt for truth dogs them around the clock, in the face of governmental or organizational opposition from powerful, institutionalized upper echelons.
The 2016 Oscar favorite communicates a level of desperation, a dramatic sense of risk. Perseverance is the name of the game. The journalistic hunt for truth is fierce, it is relentless, it is a reassuring display that capable, articulate, and devoted professionals, even in this headlong-rush digital age, are devoted to finding and rescuing a difficult but important truth from obscurity.
In this narrative, following the trope of the perennial All the President’s Men, the journalists are the last true link between the shocking truth and the consciousness of the public. Their determination gives this almost-lost truth a super-charged vitality. It is their desperation that makes the potential loss of that truth matter to an audience in the headlong rush of the plot. And it is their individualistic drive, against all obstacles, that change the course of public perception. What was almost lost is now on Page One, not only rescued but heroically elevated to the forefront of the news like an unknown athlete suddenly on an Olympic podium. This is Truth, capitalized, rescued, and vital—but very nearly lost to oblivion.
That narrative—seeking for the truth and acknowledging it bravely, even in the face of one’s own complicity—was elevated to a pedestal in the midst of the Oscars’ diversity debacle. And yet, this is only further evidence that the stories we tell and celebrate often don’t make it out of the screen in a meaningful way. Like my day trips out of the city, when I’m liable to take a wrong turn in the Concord woods, the meaning glances sideways, off an armor of Academy prestige. But whereas my woodland wrong turns lead into an enjoyable sense of placelessness, of having lost myself pleasantly off the trail, the lost sense of the Oscars reduce the dignity of the films themselves. The genuine content and theses are missing under the stage lights. They become only products. We’ve all been dazzled and entertained. In the grand show, what have we been forced to confront? The circus’s curtains come down.
The Oscar circus—thinly, paradoxically—is an incredible moment where millions come together to honor high achievement of serious drama, but very much as part of the entertainment industry. Perhaps there is something significant to be read in that Spotlight’s Truth, as opposed to All the President’s Men’s ultra-secret conspiracy, already seems to be out in the world. Rather than a discovery, Spotlight strives to unbury a determinedly buried, ugly, and widely known truth. In that movie, psychologists have studied the “crisis” for decades. Survivors suffer from it and discuss it. Lawyers accumulate masses of evidence in imposing stacks. The truth is evidenced down on paper. It feels too explosive to be silent. It’s the line “I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important,” and “I tried to tell you this years ago, and you buried it.” The risk of further burial, of loss, is the central fear. It would be crushing. And in the hours leading up to Spotlight’s victory, Chris Rock piles on acidic parody, a loud, real-life truth at the front of the circus stage. The circus’s ugly undercurrents ran at the surface last Sunday night—that is to say, Chris Rock eloquently paraded Hollywood’s “sorority racism” in front of the Academy on its most revered stage.
And within the broader circus-show institution that is the Oscars, the Academy, and the massive-scale media coverage of both, there certainly were losses. Truths with a capital T that slipped comfortably out of sight as soon as the acceptance speech was done. The well-meaning conviction of celebrities championing various causes, momentarily and under the pressure of walking-off music. In the aftermath, hyperbolic headlines already dotted the internet: the show crushed Hollywood racism, or the show barely scratched the surface, or it propped up racism with humor: celebration, offense, but very few options landing moderately in-between. Readers’ opportunities to self-edit for extreme, exciting, click-bait opinions only broaden those divisions, gaps in which to lose our sense of context.
But the Oscars are the Oscars; their import, as I’ve said, is part remnant, part illusion, and part budget. But this willingness to so readily lose our hold on truths delivered in front of our eyes, to applaud them as they go by, to laugh at the morbid and the uncomfortable—that willingness to lose, during this particular election season, rang a little frighteningly close. The voices around both the Oscars and the election are vitriolic, bruising, divisive, and difficult to parse in finer terms. It is easier to be entertained. And for millions of Americans, the readiness to lose, to let go of difficulties, and bluster on with pageantry and excitement, has led to the state of the Republican nomination as it stands, as I write, just before Super Tuesday.
Wandering in the woods is all well and good: only I am along for that ride. As the Oscars demonstrate though, losing ourselves to the dazzling lights, simply letting the current run as it always has, is not only unrewarding. Spotlight puts so much of its emotional weight toward answering the question of what to do, when you know that you yourself have no small hand in the harm done. It does the movie industry no favors, in dignity or otherwise, to try to claim they do not have a responsibility to hold themselves accountable. Rather, such attitudes send a tremor that pushes undercurrents to the surface to cause waves. After the Oscars nominations—and as the primary results roll out—we want to know, concretely, how did this come about? Like the Oscars though, those waves of dissatisfaction may only rise, ineffectually questioning, wanting a better result—and recognizing ugly truths speaking loudly from a podium—in dismal hindsight.
Photo credit: Spotlight ensemble by Kerry Hayes