Apparently the 2021 Oscars are yet another subject conservative pundit Ben Shapiro and I disagree on.
In one of his rants, Shapiro noted the Oscars declining viewership. Did he blame this on the price of movie tickets? on the fact that a lot of Oscar winners make boring speeches that are just lists of thank yous? on the endless parade of commercials? No. Shapiro’s argument was that the Oscars are declining in popularity because Hollywood makes movies for itself. “Every once in a while,” he argues, they make a “$100 million dollar movie” for you. But that, he says, is just to fund the movies Hollywood really wants to make.
And what movies does Hollywood “really want to make?” According to Shapiro, these are those preachy, social commentary movies that no ordinary American would want to see. Shapiro goes on to make dismissive remarks about The Father, Nomadland, Judas and the Black Panther, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Borat 2, Mank, Sound of Metal, Promising Young Woman and Minari.
There was plenty on a visceral level that aggravated me about Shapiro’s position. He characterized Minari, for instance, as a sob story about how the American system is rigged against immigrants. In fact, the movie is largely about dynamics internal to its immigrant family, and portrays its non-Korean characters in a neutral to positive light.
But it would be wrong to get into a fight with Shapiro over the minutiae of his positions. Shapiro is a professional conservative ideologue, and he will likely continue to say wrong and offensive things, far more consequential than his opinion on Minari.
I do think it is worth responding, however, to the broader cultural power of Shapiro’s words. As a child of the George W. Bush era, I grew up thinking of conservatives as Christian fanatics who advocated absurd, alienating positions.
In recent years, however, pundits like Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, have sought to rebrand conservatism as a big-tent, common-sense coalition, opposed to leftist dogmatism.
So when Ben Shapiro criticizes the Oscars, it is not just another case of Jerry Falwell stirring up moral panic about the teletubbies. Rather, it is the case of a savvier conservative trying to tap into a bigger part of the mainstream American psyche. He wants you to believe that cinema as a whole, is a bunch of liberal-nonsense, and as such, all decent people, conservative or not, should ignore it all together.
Shapiro’s critique of the Oscars has the potential to be persuasive. He rightfully points out the elite trappings of the award show, cynically, raising a very valid concern about the displacement of a Los Angeles homeless encampment. And even in observing that the Oscars often nominates pieces with overt social-commentary, he is making a valid point about how the Oscars will sometimes nominate movies because of their surface-level virtuousness, at the expense of more artistic works (I will never forgive the 2017 Academy for giving unsubtly-written The Post a best picture nomination, while ignoring The Florida Project).
And it’s not just Shapiro who thinks this way. Two programs I respect far more than The Ben Shapiro Show, the bipartisan talk show Rising, and the leftist podcast Useful Idiots both remarked on the general public’s lack of interest in the Oscars, and the 2021 nominees. Useful Idiots mostly played the issue for light humor, but Rising hosts Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti opined about how movies were increasingly irrelevant to younger generations who can now get all their entertainment from TikTok and Youtube.
On the one hand, I cannot deny reality. The average person I run into on the street, probably goes to the theatre to see Marvel releases and not much else. But just because our culture has taught us that “$100 million dollar movies” are the only ones worth seeing, that doesn’t mean they are the only films “ordinary” people can enjoy.
I recently watched the winner of the best foreign-language film category: a Danish release called Druk (Binge Drinking.) The film is in essence popular comedy The Hangover (2009), reimagined as a serious drama. What would it take for actual, long-grown up professionals to take up a life of buffoonish debauchery, the film asks? The answer is equal parts hilarious and tragically thought provoking.
What Druk and best picture winner Nomadland have in common is that both tell stories that their audiences, can at least to a small degree engage in. Nomadland’s beautiful cinematography brings out the color and excitement in life on America’s highways. Many viewers can relate to the experience of abusing alcohol or overcoming the stuffy expectations of one’s professional life. And similarly, many viewers probably haven’t travelled to a foreign planet to fight the mad-titan Thanos, but we have travelled down highways, and marveled at how far we have gotten from our homes.
It’s counterintuitive, but I would argue that well-made movies about ordinary people are more exciting than action-blockbusters. Blockbusters merely present us with the spectacle of an adventure. Movies like The Florida Project, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Faces and Places, by contrast, help us think of our own real lives as adventures.
Prior to making Minari, then 41-year old filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung was all but ready to give up on his dream of becoming a filmmaker. But he got his shot, and told a story that had largely unfolded before his own eyes. Chung saw Oscar-worthy personalities in his family members. He saw scenic beauty in a hardy Korean plant, that could grow on American riverbanks. When you watch Minari you may not get to see explosions, but you do get to marvel (pun intended) at how much humor and drama a man found looking back at his childhood and then try to do such looking back yourself. Could your grandmother be the basis for a best-supporting actress trophy? Could you, like Chung before you, develop and perhaps even live out, the dream of making a movie?
There is a lot to dislike about the Oscars and about Hollywood. But its hard not to see the absurdity in the claim that movies with Jeff Bezos-sized budgets are the antidote to the establishment. Due to studios hesitating to release profitable works while theatres were closed, the 2021 Oscars actually did a better job of honoring truly inspired cinema, than have past ceremonies. So no, Nomadland, Minari, Druk and the rest, are not your enemy. Rather, they are cinema of the people. To paraphrase Bong Joon-Ho, you shouldn’t let “the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles,” or conservative propaganda, keep you from enjoying them.