"I don't know what it feels like at home," Danny Boyle gushed onstage as he picked up his directing Oscar last night, "but here in the theater [this show] looks wonderful."
Well, Danny, I was watching at home, so I can tell you-- on TV, it looked awful.
In saying this, I'm not knocking any of the winners, or lodging a protest that a favorite didn't take home an award. Richard Jenkins and Robert Downey, Jr. aside, I had no dogs in any of these hunts. I happily congratulate Kate Winslet for winning this year's "Color of Money" award, given to the wonderful performer who wins an career-honoring Oscar for a film no one really cares about; I thought Sean Penn gave a very gracious and thoughtful speech; I liked Danny Boyle's Tigger reference; and while it was difficult to watch, there was something moving about seeing Heath Ledger's family accept his posthumous award.
No, my complaints aren't with the winners, but with the show itself, and specifically how the show failed to recognize the screen on which it was broadcast.
There was a big article in the Sunday Times in which the show's production designer, David Rockwell, spoke of his desire to "redefine the show’s DNA,” a process the paper said might "recapture the show’s nightclubby, Champagne-popping, convivial, communal roots." This echoed an earlier piece in the Times, where show producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark explained, "“Once upon a time, if I’m not mistaken, it was a party...We’d like to bring back a little bit of party flavor.” In what might have been an ominous foreshadowing, Rockwell described the show as "community theater on amazing steroids."
Reading the article last week, and Rockwell's plans to craft "immersive environments," I kept thinking, "They do know they're crafting a show for television, right?" Everything Rockwell, Condon and Mark talked about suggested that it would be a really exciting experience for the folks in the room (and Boyle's comments seem to suggest they succeeded in thrilling that audience), but that the viewers at home would almost be an afterthought.
After an incredibly dragging, close-to-four-hour show, that hunch turned out to be correct. The lowered, close-to-the-audience stage allowed for some fun initial moments, but eventually felt too shallow, too spread out at either end, and too cramped at the bottom: it was sometimes difficult to see figures in long shot, and the screens in the background were too far away (and hence too small to see on TV). That wide expanse of stage ironically looked cramped on TV because the produers insisted on filling it with stagy props and set-pieces for presenters to incorporate into their routine. The smushed rows of performers made it harder to do reaction shots and close-ups, which further took me out of the experience. Having a jazz band off to the side might have sounded cool in the theater, but the distance from the performers onstage meant that cues were missed and technical snafus occasionally drowned out introductions (also, what's the point of having a snazzy-looking, neon-lit band if they're so crammed to the side that the TV audience can barely see them?).
All this came to a head during the "In Memoriam" section, which came at a very late 11:30 or so. In theory, the idea of the lovely Queen Latifah singing a song over clips of those movie folk who passed away last year is a good one. In practice, it really didn't work. In part that's because having a performer onstage means we're distracted from the clips (which are, after all, the point of the segment), as the camera spent an inordinate amount of time on Latifah before sloooowly zooming into the flat screens that dotted the stage (which meant the divine Cyd Charisse got shafted: you could barely see her, and by the time the camera reached her screen, the clip had changed). In part it's because the broad width of the stage means it took the cameras longer to move around and capture the multiple screens showing clips one after the next. But that multiple screens notion is the heart of the problem: it took clips meant to honor a life and fractured them into Tetris pieces, transforming one of the more contemplative moments in this smarmy, self-aggrandizing ceremony into an exhausting exercise in toggling. It was actually kind of offensive: instead of honoring the dead, it was a "gee whiz! Look at our set!" moment that completely flattened any emotional impact it might have had.
None of this means there weren't nice moments in the show. Hugh Jackman was a smashing host: funny, talented, charming and smooth, he entered the stage with a great deal of good humor and seemed to really love being the MC. His opening song with Anne Hathaway was a delight (and kudos to Hathaway for being a good sport, and singing surprisingly well). There wasn't nearly enough of Jackman-- why have such an appealing host if you're barely going to have him onstage?-- but when he was there he was quite enjoyable. Steve Martin and Tina Fey were predictably terrific. Many of the other presenters were duds (if I never see Sarah Jessica Parker again, I will be a very happy man, and if Daniel Craig's pained smile was any indication as he stood next to her, he agrees), but I did enjoy the actor ensembles that gave out the performing awards; particularly when they had a personal connection to the actor (as with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn), their tributes were touching and insightful, and more interesting than just reading names on a card (a shame they didn't extend this idea to the non-movie-star awards). The almost pedagogical structure of the show (moving from pre- to post-production of an imaginary film) was a welcome experiment, even if its slow pace meant it was ultimately a failed one. And some of the musical numbers were cute (seeing Beyonce is never a bad thing).
But those musical numbers also suggest the central problem: that Condon, et. al., were staging a Broadway show, instead of a TV show about the movies. I love Broadway very, very much, and Jackman's two numbers definitely hit my musical geek spot. But after awhile, it felt a little much, and more than a little out of place. I never thought I'd say this, but I started missing the montages, the self-congratulatory clip shows, the dull mini-docs about technical awards: not because those moments are great, but because they let us see stuff about movies (when they did a brilliant montage of political film clips towards the end, as the lead-in to Best Picture, it was a cool drink after a long desert walk, and it really gave me a new appreciation for what skillful editors can do with that form).
As the Times pieces suggested, the Oscars are a strange melange of media: a live show, broadcast on TV, about the movies. Generations of producers have grappled with those gaps and contradictions, and in doing so have offered us some deliciously strange moments.
But good or bad, those moments were generally structured around the recognition that they were pitching the show to two audiences: those in the theater, and those at home. By fetishizing the immediacy of the staging space, and further fetishizing the song-and-dance aspects of their talent (Rockwell happily admitted he's a child of theater, not the movies), this year's Oscars lost that balance (what, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, we might call the whole equation of the awards show). In a weird way, our connection to the immediacy of that space can only come through a mediation provided by the camera and the screen-- like the movies themselves, their "authenticity" works only through a gauze of artificiality. Minus that, we're on the outside of the temple with our faces pressed up against the stained glass: the gods inside might be beautiful, but what's the point of the ceremony if they won't let us in to worship them?