Sunday, November 28News That Matters

Why the 2021 Oscars Weren’t So Different From the Past

In the streaming era, it’s hard to find the answer. But if movies are in existential limbo, at least there are still movie stars. Maybe the message in giving them the hoped-for big finish was equally a hedge, a reminder and a promise. We like these people, and we’ll look forward to seeing them again in better times.

MORRIS Boy, do I hope you’re right. But it was such a perplexing night for showing those off, too. It had that great opening with Regina King picking up a statue, then taking charge, first guided by Soderbergh’s priorities of motion and verve, then in deploying her refulgence to honor the screenwriting nominees. A coming attraction for the caper to follow.

But after that start, which promised so much fun and swagger and cinema, the show became … the Oscars. But even less so than usual, since after that opening strut, there wasn’t even very much television on display. The seminal cutaway to Kaluuya’s mother was wonderful, and the glimpse of Chloé Zhao in the background of someone else’s close-up, back at her table after being named best director, still stunned, shaking her head in disbelief that, indeed, she is an Oscar winner, was a fleeting highlight. I just don’t know what the show wanted us to know about the academy or the movies. It felt defensive and desperate and hubristically abstemious. No musical performances! No comedians! No clips of anybody doing any acting!

There was no bait for anyone to stick around. When you tune in to watch the Super Bowl or a debate, you know at least what the stakes are. You have a sense of somebody’s narrative. Last night was the night for some kind of M.C. to guide us through what mattered, to make a case for remaining tuned in. This used to be the greatest commercial Hollywood could concoct for itself. That sort of pride now feels shameful. That’s in part because the industry, courtesy of this show, has a lot to reconsider in terms of who’s doing what both in the C-suites and among the craft guilds. But it’s also because the industry continues to forsake itself.

I mean, it’s eight years to the week that Steven Soderbergh, in a major speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, tolled the movies’ death knell, at least as he saw it. And there he was last night helping do the academy’s custodial work after having proved himself highly adaptable to whatever it is cinema, to use his term, is becoming — or being turned into. Am I overstating this? Are we beyond the point of no return when it comes to any of these distinctions? Should a Steven Soderbergh, one of our great filmmakers and sharpest thinkers about film as a philosophy, just be happy to have a job at this point?

SCOTT But what, really, is the shape of that crisis? Whatever the preoccupations and blind spots of our jobs, you and I are people who like movies. In 14 months since the last time we did this, I’ve liked a lot of movies, including a handful — “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” — that took home some statues. Those aren’t just good movies; they’re also movies that seem to me to hold a lot of promise for the future of the art form, whether audiences find them on big screens or small.