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The Academy Awards once again full of surprises

| Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lindsey Meyers

We can all identify at least one thing that surprised us about the 89th Academy Awards.

It’s hard to be alive in the United States with functional Internet access and not possess at least an inkling of Sunday night’s dramatics: mayhem, Steve Harvey memes, justified anger, public statements of apology, awkward celebrity interviews and the New York Times dissecting “What It Was Like Onstage” with rigor akin to that of detectives investigating a crime scene.

This year’s Oscars debacle — the accidental awarding of Best Picture to “La La Land” instead of “Moonlight” — reminds us that the Academy Awards do not descend miraculously, flawlessly, from the heavens. For all of the sparkling special effects and slick choreography, the awarding process — like all other human productions — is an inherently imperfect event.

On their website, the New York Times has divided coverage of the event into four parts: “Briefing,” “Red Carpet,” “Winners” and, ominously, “The Mistake.” I’d like to argue that this year’s Oscars offered more than just “The Mistake.” In fact, award shows in general commit countless “mistakes” in every show – albeit in a range of perhaps less noticeable ways.

For instance, direct your attention to a much earlier moment in the night, which went largely ignored in the tempest of media coverage: the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

The winner in this category was “Sing” — a charming story about two young girls who devise a plan to thwart their oppressive, power-hungry choir teacher. “Sing” was praised by critics as a compelling portrait of childhood desires of belonging and perceptions of authority, carried by striking lighting and skilled child actors.

“Sing” won against hefty competition from the other nominees. The French short “Le Femme et le TGV,” for instance, is based on the true account of a lonely, technophobe French woman who begins to correspond with a mysterious passenger on the train that passes her house every day. The film is as witty and uplifting as it is visually stunning — the lush use of color in the film surpassed all other nominees.

“Silent Nights,” a much darker short, depicts the tangled intersection of relationships, the European refugee crisis, racism and love through the story of a Danish woman who, while working at the local Salvation Army, falls in love with a homeless Ghanaian refugee. Another powerful work on the same topic of refugees, “Ennemis Interieurs” tracks a single conversation between an Algerian man applying for citizenship and a French government official, slowly but steadily unfolding the layers of bias and personal factors which mold both men’s attitudes toward nationality and French society. In “Ennemis interieurs,” the unconventional format of the short film is complemented by the film’s innovative manipulation of light, which changes in response to the progressively intense emotions of the two men.

My personal favorite of the five nominees was “Timecode,” the story of two security guards who find one another via the seemingly unromantic medium of parking garage security camera footage. When the two security guards in “Timecode” dance together, they move like a pair of twinned souls — perfectly in sync, leaping and gliding across the screen in outright defiance of their concrete surroundings.

All this being said, I was floored by the fact that “Sing” won the Oscar — in a bad way. “Sing” pales dramatically in comparison to the ingenuity of “Timecode” or the incisive and devastating complexity of “Silent Nights.” The beauty of short films derives from the fact that they can breathe life into plots, characters and ideas in narrow timeframes. For me, “Sing” only managed that halfway.

When I heard that “Sing” had won, I texted my friends that this was a mistake. One of them replied that he had liked the film — he didn’t see what the problem was. “Sure, you liked it,” I wanted to reply — “but was it the ‘Best’?”

I soon realized, of course, the futile impossibility of this distinction. And herein lies the problem — while some of the things that went wrong onstage at the Oscars were obvious, many of them weren’t. Judging films along a loosely-articulated scale of “taste,” “beauty” and relative “quality” is a slippery endeavor at best. Many critics were dismayed by the fact that “La La Land” didn’t sweep in all categories. Plenty of people thought that “La La Land,” not “Moonlight,” should have won Best Picture after all. Plenty of people would answer that opinion with vehement disapproval.

In short, depending on who you ask, the Oscars were riddled with human mistakes from start to finish. Mishaps of cosmic scale occur once or twice in an era; just because the grandiose error on Sunday night so publicly flubbed the illusion of Academy Award magic doesn’t mean that other discrepancies and confusions don’t crop up in awards shows with persistent frequency.

Outside of the constraints of award shows, critics make their living debating the merits of one film or another, always with the implicit understanding that, when it comes to art, one can never definitively select a “Best” of anything. Yet in the contrived world of award show logic, art is pitted against other art. The show necessarily compels its viewers to hold a limited selection of works in a reductionist paradigm, loaded with unanswerable questions and false equivalencies.

In reality, both “Moonlight” and “La La Land” succeed, but they succeed in radically different ways. Tacking the qualifier of “Best” onto the front of either of these titles, while nice in theory, is in reality quite meaningless. Sunday night’s spectacle provided an ironic and powerful exposition of that reality – either film could have won, but to assume that any of the nominees in any category fully deserved their shiny new awards is probably a mistake in and of itself.

At the end of the day, maybe the other surprise of the 89th Academy Awards is the fact that we, the audience, continue to attach so much significance to that mistake in the first place.

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