Uncanny Oscars

Investigations in cinema astrology

by by Adrian Randall

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The Oscars are the anti-Superbowl. Any real pathos over victory and defeat quickly gets lost in the pomp and circumstance. Just like the trailer is usually better than the movie, the red carpet catwalk is usually better than the show. Not like that’s a bad thing—the ritual regalia offers a nice pacemaker for those of us who could care less about confetti-blasted victories and vuvuzela hangovers. Forget inflammatory nipple slips and middle fingers, I spend most of the show pondering what kind of Faustian bargain led to Matt Damon’s teeth.

As far as this year’s lineup goes, The Artist, a black and white homage to silent films, looks set to win. Not much of a surprise, given that it has already been nominated for over 200 honors (and won many of them) from other awards shows, festivals, industry groups, and critics. Personally, I folded my hand after finding out that 2011’s best film, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, was off the roster. I’m also curious how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, currently shouldering a 45 percent rating on RottenTomatoes, snuck onto the best picture list. The Help is another oddity sure to be lost in the sheen, after receiving a fair share of criticism for its portrayal of racial stereotypes.

This might all be attributed to the Oscars’ commerciality, but I think that is missing the bigger picture. Each year there are literally hundreds of awards and accolades available to films, plus all the blogs, critics, aggregators, and the reality that everyone’s an expert when it comes to movies.

This is how I remain unoffended when The King’s Speech—a feel-good movie with a questionable allegiance to nationalism and aristocrats—can be nominated for 217 awards and win more than a third of them.

Arguing over the better movie has become totally obsolete. What’s much more profound to me are the strange alignments that occur in film, the paranormal phenomena of cinema. Why is it that the top two runners for this year’s Oscars, The Artist and Hugo, both loudly relish the early days of cinema? Even Midnight in Paris (also up for the big prize) has a rosy-cheeked tango with the beginning of the last century.

In that sense, I wonder about the Hollywood machine the same way I wonder about think tanks, investment firms, the Bilderberg Group, and Switzerland—lands of closed doors and secure phone lines. Cinema’s dyad of art and commerce tends to be more pronounced than any other art form, which makes it especially potent for reading the cultural unconscious. Two years ago, The Hurt Locker-Avatar best picture standoff looked like Tom versus Jerry (especially considering Cameron and Bigelow’s status as ex-wife and husband). Not far under the skin, though, were competing narratives over neocolonialism, the nightmare of staying in Iraq against the glossy-eyed fairy tale of leaving.

This kind of synchronicity is far from uncommon, and I don’t think it’s the cause of coincidence or conspiracy. Too often have the most mystifying incidents shunned explanation. Consider when in 2006 The Prestige and The Illusionist debuted a month apart. Both were films about magicians in a steampunk Victorian England. Even stylistically the films looked identical. The uncanniness was too much for filmgoers, who couldn’t tell the films apart. Both crumbled at the box office.

In 2011, why is it that dumbwaiters feature as prominent motifs in both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (up for three Oscar nominations) and The Skin I Live In?  Besides their European setting, these films could not be more different: historical fiction vs. fantasy, spy games vs. trans-sexuality, sickly faded colors vs. oversaturation, understated vs. melodramatic.  But there is a little wormhole that connects these two films; a vial of morphine starts in a mad scientist’s mansion-cum-laboratory and comes out an attaché case in a ‘70s MI6. A dumbwaiter ride through space, time, and cinema.

We need to read this like we read astrology: too occult to explain, too parallel to ignore. I also mean this literally. The last two winners of Cannes both feature cosmological narratives. The Tree of Life exhibits the beginning of the universe, Melancholia its end. Or the 2011 sleeper film Another Earth which, exactly like Melancholia, depicts an Earth-sized planet approaching ours (there are scenes in these two films which match up almost identically, the foil planet raised off the horizon in the distance, ready for a face-off with Mother Gaia).

Movie buffs love to argue over evasive symbols—the end of L’Eclisse, Herzog’s animals, almost all of Mulholland Drive. A new film, Room 237, consists entirely of film critics speculating on meanings in The Shining. I’m proposing something different, something to do with the artist-industrial unconscious of filmmaking, the spiral tapestry of films. Humans are the best known machines for recognizing patterns. The question is how to interpret them. Freud would take the scientific route, Jung the mystical one (see them debate this in A Dangerous Method).

Do dueling dumbwaiters reveal the world? In a way, yes. They mark the intimacy and separation of modernity. They are indulgent technologies that connect and divide, that always suggest another space, one which is very close to ours and yet somehow unreachable, even destructive. Or maybe they are just dumbwaiters. In such fabricated environments as films, or the Oscars, the outbursts are always less interesting than the silent synchronicities. Difference will always try to stand in front of the dead ringers.

ADRIAN RANDALL B’12’s Ouija board told him who wins best picture.