On Sunday night, I tuned in to the Academy Awards ceremony for a change, because for the first time in a while I had a movie to root for. (Les Misérables, of course.)
The evening was a bit of a disappointment on that front, particularly because I think Hugh Jackman deserves more credit as an actor—though I suppose he doesn’t need to feel ashamed about losing the Best Actor award to Daniel Day-Lewis.
But the big disappointment was host Seth MacFarlane, the latest sarcastic comedian imported by the Academy in its mindless chase after the youth demographic. MacFarlane is generally considered to have bombed. (Here’s a typical review.) He was not the worst host—James Franco seems to have taken that dishonor from David Letterman—but he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.
What was interesting was how MacFarlane bombed. Brought in to appeal to youth, he was presumably supposed to represent the newness and vibrancy of contemporary popular culture. Instead, he demonstrated how drab and worn out it is—and why.
I found MacFarlane tolerable for the first few minutes of his opening monologue, with a few wry comments on Hollywood like his line about how the story behind Argo was so secret that the Academy didn’t even know who directed the film—a reference to the fact that although Argo was nominated for (and won) Best Picture, Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director. These were Hollywood inside jokes, but we expect that at the Oscars, and they were witty.
Then the monologue took a bizarre and unpleasant lurch into a series of offensive jokes. I’m not all that impressed when the politically correct crowd denounces something as racist and sexist, but in this case, they have a point. I’ll quote an analysis from The New Yorker, partly because I think it puts the point well, but mostly because it allows me to avoid having to describe MacFarlane’s antics in my own words.
“We Saw Your Boobs” was as a song-and-dance routine in which MacFarlane and some grinning guys named actresses in the audience and the movies in which their breasts were visible. That’s about it. What made it worse was that most of the movies mentioned, if not all (Gia), were pretty great—Silkwood, Brokeback Mountain, Monster’s Ball, Monster, The Accused, Iris—and not exactly teen-exploitation pictures. The women were not showing their bodies to amuse Seth MacFarlane but, rather, to do their job. Or did they just think they were doing serious work? You girls think you’re making art, the Academy, through MacFarlane, seemed to say, but all we—and the “we” was resolutely male—really see is that we got you to undress. The joke’s on you.
Not only was the humor crude, it was boring. Later on, MacFarlane characterized the dedication of the female CIA agent who tracks down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty as “a celebration of every woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go.” Gee, how old is that? I half expected his next line to be, “Take my wife—please.” Except that Henny Youngman was funnier.
But this is not what was interesting about the night. How could such stale material be interesting? What was interesting is that the offensive material was introduced as being offensive. This was accomplished in a weird, awkward bit where William Shatner, in character as Captain Kirk, comes back from the future to warn MacFarlane that he is in danger of being panned as the worst Oscar host ever, on account of these offensive bits—which are then broadcast anyway!
The point of this set-up is that MacFarlane then intersperses the crude, offensive modern humor with attempts to salvage the show with a couple of classic, old-fashioned song-and-dance numbers. They’re the sort of thing Billy Crystal might have done—but he would not have done them with a showy sense of self-parody. Crystal would have done them because he actually believed (correctly) that they were entertaining.
So notice the common element in MacFarlane’s approach. The crass and offensive bits were introduced as crass and offensive, as if to apologize for them in advance and assure us that we shouldn’t take them seriously. He then oscillates back to classic song-and-dance numbers—but with the understanding that he doesn’t really mean them, either.
MacFarlane doesn’t have the courage to be either crude and sarcastic or classy and old-fashioned. He is afraid to decide who and what he is and to stand by it.
So I guess the Academy got what it wanted, after all, because this is the essence of contemporary youth popular culture. It is a culture suffused with ridicule and sarcasm intended to tear down all values. But of course, people still pursue values anyway because this is a necessity of life. So they insulate their values from criticism by apologizing for them in advance, presenting everything as a sarcastic or “ironic” joke and begging not to be taken seriously.
The New York Times recently offered a searing self-examination of this “hipster” culture.
The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness….
For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s—members of Generation Y, or Millennials—particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt….
Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself.
All of which perfectly describes MacFarlane’s performance.
But “irony” is not the right word to describe this culture. Irony implies an element of intelligence, wit, and judgment. The hipster tells himself that what he is doing is “ironic” to make himself feel sophisticated. But the real motive for the pre-emptive apology, for not daring to take anything seriously, is clearly fear: the fear of having to stand up for and defend a value, particularly against ridicule from a contemporary culture ruled by sneering sarcasm. So hipster “irony” really just turns out to be a form of awkward self-consciousness. Behind every modern comedian of the Seth MacFarlane-Jon Stewart variety, there is a neurotic teenager paralyzed with fear that the cool kids are going to make fun of him.
Incidentally, this explains what William Shatner was doing there. On one level, it made no sense. Shatner hasn’t made a Star Trek film in years, and the franchise has already been rebooted with younger actors. If you’re trying to create an awards show that appeals to younger viewers, why feature an 81-year-old actor from a 47-year old television show? On another level, though, Shatner’s career fully tracks popular culture’s collapse into pseudo-ironic self-consciousness. He spent the first half of his career creating an earnestly meant film and television hero—and he has spent the second half of his career as an increasingly cartoonish parody of that character.
This is the dead end of Modernist culture, which sought to break down traditional values and rules but was unable to replace them with anything better. It left us in a cultural void where, as the New York Times piece puts it, everyone is afraid that “serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst.” In the second half of the 20th century, this corrosive Modernist skepticism brought us the ruling concept of contemporary popular culture: the “cool.” Remember the original meaning of the term. To be “cool” is to be emotionally cool, to refuse to be caught up in enthusiasm. Early on, this could be taken to mean a kind of manly reserve, the ability to be calm, cool, and collected in the face of strife, or to refuse to be carried away by momentary or trivial emotions. This is the sense in which James Bond was “cool.” But by the end of the 20th century, the culture of cool increasingly came to mean a studied lack of response to values. It meant refusing to be carried away by enthusiasm about anything.
That is why I found the Oscars so disappointing, because the reason I tuned in was to look for Hollywood’s response to a very different cultural influence. The most important thing about Les Misérables is its characters’ total dedication to their values, without irony, apology, or reserve. As I have described elsewhere, that is the whole theme and message of the story. The characters in Les Mis stand for different and even irreconcilable things, but whatever they stand for, they are willing to live and die for it. Director Tom Hooper’s obsession with visual and emotional realism doubles down on this sense of moral earnestness, making Les Misérables perhaps the most un-”ironic” film ever made and the absolute antithesis of contemporary hipster culture.
The message of Hugo’s story is how great human beings can be when they believe in a cause and give everything they have for it. MacFarlane’s performance illustrated the same theme, I suppose, but in reverse: how tired and empty, how small and bland we become when we stand for nothing.