Birdman, the Oscars and the Flying Narcissist

By rewarding Birdman at the Oscars, Hollywood signals that it’s more interested in itself than the world around it.

Hollywood creators insist that they have no capitalist motives while they laugh all the way to the bank · They even a shed a tear at PC platitudes at the annual Academy Awards · Birdman, the big winner at the Oscars, perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age in America, which forfeits any desire to change anything and instead holes up in its room

מופע של טהרנות, נוסח הוליווד; פסלון פרס האוסקר. צילום: lincolnblues CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 VIA FLICKR
Moral Puritanism to atone for avarice. Photo: lincolnblues

Even an old institution has a moment of birth. Even in an election period, when the gap between lofty slogans and low-brow content couldn’t be more stark, Hollywood, the city of American cinema, seems to stand out as the very embodiment of that dissonance. The eyebrows are raised: is there another place whose name is so mismatched with its essence? What does a glittering capitalist assembly line for producing synthetic mass-market cinematic products have to do with the unworked holiness of the fruits of the earth?

The Wilcox family, those who entered the grove at the foot of Santa Monica in 1887, claimed they gave the place its name because of a feeling of spiritual uplifting they felt there. Still, the distance between that feeling and the present films industry is akin to that between Kansas and the Wizard of Oz.

But the mocking of Hollywood’s integrity, which it justly earned, is also a case of missing the forest by focusing too much on its unholy trees. Since its birth, Hollywood has refused to see itself as nothing more than a money-making machine. They saw movies as more than just a chance to make money and create art. A good movie, a proper movie, also has to be an important movie, the kind that is not only measured by its aesthetic qualities but also – perhaps primarily – in its ability to deliver a valuable message.

Hollywood producers wanted to believe that a movie that is shown around the world is meant to have a positive effect on its viewers and that they – as creators –are entitled to esteem for their achievement. A short time after the American film industry got on its feet, its creators started to give themselves prizes; the Oscars especially were meant as a celebration of the contribution of the elite in creating immortal masterpieces. Except that most of the movies which won were not revolutionary, and very few “immortal masterpieces” got a statue. Again and again, the barbs of criticism were aimed at Hollywood for choosing an artistically worthless movie like Going My Way over Double Indemnity; In the Heat of the Night which in 1968 beat out The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and The Artist which left the ceremony with five statues, while Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life went home empty-handed.

Over the years, great directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino were left in the cold because their nihilistic world view was inappropriate for the Hollywood world of happy endings. Their movies had no chance against Crash, Argo, Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave – movies whose cinematic importance is marginal but whose social importance, pretensions to fix the world and readiness to put tortured martyrs as the main protagonists was far more important for the denizens of the Holy Wood.

These self-styled modern saints refused to attribute capitalist motives to themselves; They would never be caught dead agreeing with Gordon Gekko that “Greed is Good.” All this, of course, while raking in innumerable millions of often tax exempt or tax deductible dollars. For European critics this is hypocrisy; for the American practitioners, it’s a worldview – one which received a serious shock at the most recent Oscar ceremony.

A Birdman’s Ant’s Eye Worldview

The decision to award most of the main prizes to Birdman, the film of Alejandro González Iñárritu, should be seen as a fascinating precedent. The movie, a journey within the declining consciousness of an aging actor suffering from an ongoing creativity block and who can’t seem to break out of the mold of a successful movie character he once played, is a brilliant, clever, creative and utterly un-Hollywood-like movie. The Birdman has an ant’s eye view of the world. Everything in the movie revolves around the caprices and frustrations of people in the theater and movie industries. The main struggle of the protagonist, trying to find some last corners of authenticity in a world of fakery, is one familiar mostly to people of said industries. The world around the protagonist does not exist; all that remains is intensive focusing on his navel.

In its choice to give Birdman the prizes and no less than that – in its decision to entirely ignore American Sniper and almost entirely ignore Boyhood – Hollywood has turned its back on its own tradition. Hollywood, it seems, wants the Greta Garbo treatment: it just wants to be left alone. It doesn’t want to deal with what’s important, but what it truly cares about most: itself.

This act of the Flying Narcissist – and after all, narcissists can be extremely charming – is a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the age in America, where everyone prefers to hide in their room rather than take on the world. Some people will see this as Hollywood taking a sober account of its own limits. Some will see this as an abandonment of one of the primary functions of art. In place of the Birds band which played Bob Dylan’s social demands, we now have the isolated Birdman. Instead of flying with others, Hollywood – and America – now prefers to hide among the trees.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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