It was one of those years when a movie that was made to sweep the Oscars didn’t, and a movie that wasn’t made to sweep the Oscars did (or, at least, it came close enough to a sweep to feel like one). That may sound unfair to Sam Mendes’ “1917,” which is no doubt a skillfully sincere war film, crafted by Mendes in homage to his grandfather, who fought in World War I. Yet let’s be honest: One of the key reasons that everyone in the known universe thought “1917” was a slam-dunk to win the Academy Award for best picture is that the film checked so many made-to-order boxes of Oscar comfort-zone classicism.
It was a big, prestigious combat film that came bedecked with what we used to call an “anti-war” message. It was popular with critics and audiences alike (though from my perspective, the critics who praised it unconditionally should have known better). And, of course, “1917” had the technological wow factor that helped turn the film into a gotta-see-it phenomenon: the way it created the illusion of being filmed in a single, extended, how-did-they-do-that? roving video-game shot. In its final scene, the movie even gave rise to the proverbial lump in the throat. With all that going for it, how could “1917” lose?
It could lose because “Parasite,” a savagely funny and suspenseful tale of domestic class war directed and co-written by Bong Joon Ho, was not only an infinitely superior movie. It was one that became a phenomenon in its own right — a South Korean crossover sensation, a drama-flecked-with-satire that smashed through barriers, singlehandedly revolutionizing the possibilities of what a phrase like “the art-house audience” might mean in our relatively young century.
On Oscar night, “Parasite” ruled, but perhaps the key reference point the night kept swinging back to was director Martin Scorsese. He was singled out over and over again, to the point that his wizened grinning face, now happy, now aging-Catholic-boy abashed, now grateful, now smiling through tears (at least, I thought I detected a few), became an emblem of what the night symbolized, of what everyone was there for.
Bong himself gave Marty the evening’s most moving shout-out, when during his acceptance speech for best director he quoted an anonymous source who said that in making films, “the most personal is the most creative,” only to reveal that the quote had come from Scorsese himself. Talk about a line that spoke volumes! That one simple, telltale word — personal — sums up everything that has leaked out of Hollywood movies. No one is saying that all comic-book films are bad, or that they aren’t sometimes creative or exciting, or a lot of other good things.
But personal? It’s the rare comic-book film — or franchise sequel, or reboot, or horror/comedy/action smash of the week— that’s personal. Bong’s speech, delivered in short bursts of Korean, reminded us that the very essence of cinema is how personal it is. His nod to Scorsese expressed more than a touch of class. It had an aura of grace, because Bong wasn’t just tipping his hat, or even his heart, to a fellow nominee (which is now such a de rigueur ritual that it’s starting to lose its luster). He was making a cosmic connection between himself and Scorsese, between the two of them and everyone in the room, and between them and everyone in the world who still loves movies.
Which nevertheless leaves a question hanging in the air: Why “Parasite,” why now? How did Bong’s film, beloved and acclaimed as it is, become the first foreign-language film ever to win best picture? Many will insist that its victory represents nothing more or less than the fact that more voting members of the Academy preferred it to any other movie. Many will say: Yes, it’s really that simple.
But I think that ignores the way that the Oscar race, in recent years, has taken on the intensely heated quality of a culture war — and, what’s more, the way that culture war has now merged, to a major degree, with the larger culture war taking place in America.
You could feel that dynamic on the rise last year with the controversy over “Green Book.” The view that that picture was racially reactionary — that it represented not just a conventional black-and-white-buddy-road-drama aesthetic, but a retrograde worldview — is not an opinion that I share. But “Green Book,” in a lot of people’s eyes, became a mere chapter in the larger drama of diversity and inclusion. The film was said to represent a strike against those things because its narrative was controlled by the gaze of white people (the director, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, who co-wrote the script based on his father Tony’s experiences). That made it, in the eyes of some, a step backward in the larger cultural crossfire.
I bring this up not to rehash the “Green Book” debate but to make the point that these issues, as played out during Oscar season, have carved out a colossal life of their own. It started the year of #OscarsSoWhite, and continued with the “Moonlight” upset of “La La Land,” a movie that was itself called on the carpet, at least in some quarters, because of its white jazzbo hero. And the widespread anger over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, even as that protest spotlighted an issue of supreme importance, can’t be separated from those earlier blowups. In a real sense, it built on them. That roiling passion was part of the context in which this year’s awards voting took place.
Of course, there was another movie debate taking place, one that’s now walking hand-in-hand with the diversity debate. Scorsese, in the interview he gave where he dismissed Marvel movies as something other than “cinema,” was standing up — appropriately, in my view — for what the future of movies should be. Those fighting for a more inclusive entertainment industry are also standing up for what the future of movies should be. Movies that reflect the world around us, that aren’t totally lost in fantasy, are better movies. And that means movies that reflect all the voices in our society and our world.
The vote for “Parasite” for best picture was a vote for that future. A future of storytellers who come from fresh places, who see our passions and dilemmas with new eyes, who invent new forms. That’s a diversity-and-inclusion thing, and it’s a here’s-what-makes-cinema-sublime thing. On Oscar night, Hollywood sent a message out to the world — as it always does during the Academy Awards — about the kind of movie it has now chosen to represent the industry. And in honoring a film that wasn’t even made within the industry, it was saying: We can look to lights from outside. In a year when the debate was framed as “Marvel vs. cinema,” the Oscars voted for cinema.
But who, exactly, is that message aimed at? Moviegoers? They already voted for “Parasite” simply by going out in droves to see it. No, the message that Hollywood sent is really a message to itself. The Academy said: We believe in movies like this. Now that the Oscars are over, we’ll find out if they listened to what they voted for.