This year’s nominated films have a boutique audience of indie people
This year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees appeal to the narrowest possible slice of the moviegoing public. Not that there is a moviegoing public right now, because only suicidal fools like me go to the movies, but if there were, not many of them would have seen these movies. For most of the 1990s, I happily worked at the Chicago Reader, one of the U.S.’s best “alternative weekly” newspapers. This year’s Oscar movies could have come out of any one of our ad-bloated four-section issues. Alt weeklies are basically gone now, but this is the year the Oscars caught up to their concerns.
The Oscar list includes two separate movies about left-wing Chicago politics in the 1960s. The Reader ran a bunch of articles about Fred Hampton, and people still talked about the Chicago 7 in bars. Back in the 1990s, when I went to apartment parties thrown by left-wingers, you could hear people shout, “let me tell you about Dave Dellinger!” Three decades later, Aaron Sorkin is still harping on about Dave Dellinger, and the Academy has taken notice. Now it’s safe for to bravely say the Vietnam War is bad, and for Hollywood to decry the murder of Fred Hampton.
The rest of the movies sound ripped straight from an alt-weekly featurette: A widow who lives in her van. A Korean immigrant family struggles to start a farm. A punk-rock drummer loses his hearing. An old intellectual goes senile. “The making of Citizen Kane.” If they had also included “The Straight Dope” and a “Life In Hell” strip and maybe some Lynda Barry comics and some Missed Connections personals, it would have been the full issue.
Of all the Oscar movies, only ‘Sound of Metal’, a film so indie it designed its own band T-shirts, and ‘Promising Young Woman’ take place in anything resembling the present day. I don’t know if Promising Young Woman actually would have fit into an alt-weekly slot. Its concerns are very #metoo, whereas alt-weekly feminism was very much of the riot grrl variety. And PYW has a bizarre pop sensibility with a modern aesthetic, so it kind of breaks up my thesis. But let’s slot it into the ‘Savage Love’ category. That seems accurate.
This doesn’t even speak to the quality of the films. The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank are definitely bad films, and Mank is a truly terrible one. The other nominated movies range from some degree of good to, in the case of Minari, quite excellent. But it’s also a very muted, indie movie. I read ‘Nomadland,’ the Jessica Bruder book on which Chloe Zhao based the movie. It’s a comprehensive work of reporting, an extended riff on something you could easily read in Mother Jones. The resulting film is the movie industry forcing viewers to eat their vegetables. You will see the dark side of the American Dream. That’s the alt-weekly way.
There was a time when Hollywood uploaded its most bloated nonsense onto us at Oscar time. Gladiator and Titanic were Best Pictures in recent memory. Dreck like Braveheart and Forrest Gump won big, and people still use those GIFs today. The popular culture in 2020, the stuff pretty much everyone watched, was limited to Tiger King, The Mandalorian, and WandaVision. None of those were movies. But all had the pulse of our culture in hand better than any of the Oscar films, except maybe Promising Young Woman. But this is what happens when you deliberately bury an entire industry for a year. You get the indie dregs.
The whole point of alt weeklies was to tell minor stories that the mainstream missed, whether the general public cared about those stories or not. They had a loyal audience, like NPR’s but smaller. Now the Oscars have adopted that mode of operation. If the nomination of Minari for Best Picture came with an Academy recommendation for a good out-of-the-way Korean restaurant, they could really bring in the ad dollars.