Do You Still Watch The Oscars?

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/22

This YouTube video from CNBC says the Oscars and Emmys have lost more than 80% of their peak viewership. CNBC claims this is due to a generation shift, and because of cord-cutting. It reminds me of another news story I read about The Gilded Age on HBO Max. That report said the good news was the show was a hit, the bad news was only people over 65 watched it. Of course, that was devastating news to people who sell things.

Are the Oscars really a generation thing? Just how relevant are those awards to anyone nowadays? Why do we watch movies? Is it important that they be awarded prizes? Is it even important that the movies we love, win awards? Do we crave validation for our favorites? I used to use the awards as a checklist of what to try, but I stopped that years ago. However, I do love March, when TCM has 31 Days of Oscar.

I don’t know if it’s a generation thing either. I quit watching the Oscars decades ago. Even though I’m a big movie fan, it’s been years since I could remember the names of any of the new movie stars or directors, and the award ceremony always seemed to really be about and for them.

Before the pandemic, I went to the movies once a week. I haven’t seen a movie at a theater in over two years. When the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced I thought I’d stream all the films that were up for the best picture to catch up. I don’t really care who wins and don’t plan to watch the ceremony. This year ten movies are up for best picture:

This made me wonder just how many movies came out in 2021? Checking Rotten Tomatoes, they list 235 with over 70% positive reviews — there must have been many hundreds made. There are just 30 in their Golden Tomato Awards. Only 4 of the Oscar-nominated best pictures were in that 30. Indie Wire lists their 50 favorites, which have some overlap with both the Oscar nominees and Rotten Tomatoes but rank them differently. Paste Magazine remembers 2021 with another list of 50 films, and with a different slant of opinion. The web could provide me with many more lists, and if you look at enough of these lists, some movies do seem to pop up on many of these top movie lists. In recent years, that’s how I measure movie success — if a film got on multiple best-of-the-year lists.

I’m realizing by following the Oscar best picture nominee list I’m doing myself a big disservice. If I consider the other award categories that involve a feature film, there are 21 other films to consider, for a total of 31 (assuming my ability to count is accurate). I was surprised by how often the 10 best picture nominees were also nominated in the other categories. The movie business is big on promoting their films for the Oscars, often spending millions according to the CNBC report above. They said Netflix spent $60 million to promote Roma. So the Oscar awards feel incestuous, picking the same films over and over again in each category.

I also expected the ten films nominated for best pictures would all be stunning and obvious choices, but I loved only a few of them, and two of them I found tedious and boring. I thought it interesting that three of the ten were remakes. I thought all three remakes were technically superior to the originals, but I prefer the originals for Nightmare Alley and West Side Story. I’m not sure if I care about any version of Dune.

I saw the 1947 black and white version of Nightmare Alley just weeks before seeing the beautiful color 2021 version. I liked everything about the 2021 production, yet I thought the 1947 version was creepier. I wondered if time-period had anything to do with it? Nightmare Alley (1947) seemed to be about something real, something contemporary, whereas Nightmare Alley (2021) felt like a pulp noir fantasy. This was also true for West Side Story. The original felt relevant to when I saw it back in the 1960s. The 2021 version seemed like a perfect recreation of the past but without any current significance. Nowadays gangs kill each other with assault rifles, so a musical about angry teens with switchblades seems out of date.

Dune was gorgeous, but it felt like I was looking at the Illustrated Classics comic version of the story. I read Dune back in the 1960s, and again about ten years ago, and the story felt heavy and rich. The movie versions feel cliche. But science fiction movies about galactic empires have become so common that they now seem silly parodies of each other. While watching Dune my eyes were delighted by the visuals. Yet, intellectually I was wondering if the reason why science fiction movies don’t win awards is because they feel aimed at childish minds? There’s nothing wrong with children’s stories and YA fiction, but the awards appear aimed at stories for grownups.

I’m afraid Drive My Car mostly bored me. I love foreign films, so that isn’t the issue. The problem is Drive My Car felt like MFA literary writing. It’s the kind of story that academics love to analyze and admire. That kind of fiction works on me sometimes, such as The Wonder Boys, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the way Birdman played with Raymond Carver. I just didn’t pick up on Uncle Vanya as a subtext like I did with “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in Birdman.

But what I like and don’t like isn’t really the point. What I’m asking is: Do the Oscars help us find the best films to watch from the previous year? In recent years I haven’t paid attention to the Oscars but this year I’m using the ten nominees to catch up on what I missed during the pandemic. While I didn’t go to the theater in 2021, I did stream a couple dozen films from that year. CODA and King Richard were my top favorites. I admired The Power of the Dog and Belfast but didn’t love them. I really enjoyed Being the Ricardos. Why wasn’t it up for the best picture Oscar? Who decides these things?

This makes me wonder about how we determine what makes a great movie. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, so there’s no objective way to measure movies. Looking at what I liked, King Richard and CODA makes me wonder if feel-good movies might be my yardstick. Both were riveting stories that left me feeling like I learned something, and they made me feel good about people. (Many movies push my misanthrope tendencies.)

Dune and Nightmare Alley were just fun stories. I would add The Dig and The Last Duel to that kind of story. Don’t Look Up was a very relevant satire, but very uneven to watch. I thought Some Kind of Heaven, another fun satire, was a far better film.

I won’t be around in 50 years, but in 2072 how many movies from 2021 will be shown on TCM in March? If you look back to the 1972 Oscars, I’m still watching many of the films it picked. Professional and critical recognition might matter after all. Then, on the other hand, how many movies do you love that are unrecognized, obscure, and forgotten?

We mostly find the movies we love by accident. It would be interesting if there were a system that would identify films we’d resonate with for sure. Giving films an Oscar doesn’t predict anything for sure, but it might help some in finding movies to watch. Watching the nine nominees for best picture was an interesting education.

I’m planning to watch Licorice Pizza tonight to finish out the ten.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?

JWH

The Post-Doom Reading List

by James Wallace Harris, 12/23/21

I’m listening to a wonderful book right now, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams which came out in August. It’s set in London. Someone is going around leaving little notes that say:

Just in case you need it:

- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Rebecca
- The Kite Runner
- The Life of Pi
- Pride and Prejudice
- Little Women
- Beloved
- A Suitable Boy

The novel is about the people who find those lists, read the books, and how reading changed their lives. Any bookworm should love this book, and most Goodreads reviewers do. I highly recommend the audiobook version because the narrators do the ethnic accents which make the book extra charming.

This inspires me to create my own list of favorite feel-good novels. If I went around leaving a list of books for people to read in these trying times, my eight would be:

We’re living through some hard times and I appreciate books with characters who overcome big difficulties. I’m moving into what I call my Post-Doom Philosophy. I’ve concluded that humanity will not solve its existential problems. Just not in our nature. And it will be better to concentrate on uplifting outselves.

I’m reminded of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Our present situation is beyond absurd, one I can’t change. I accept that we’re already in a collapsing civilization, we just don’t know how long it will take before a new paradigm shift emerges. Some civilizations collapse in decades, Rome took centuries. Everyone eventually dies, and all civilizations eventually collapse. We can’t wish either away. We’ve always had the problem of what to do in our last years of life, and just by coincidence this century, we’ll also have to consider what to do in the last decades of our civilization. It’s an interesting philosophical and spiritual challenge.

Just because the future looks bleak we shouldn’t feel all gloom and doom.

My friend Linda and I have a two-person book club where we read mostly nonfiction books together and discuss them on the phone each Sunday afternoon. We’ve read many books about the problems of the world. Linda just texted me asking if we could avoid such books in 2022 and pick books like The Soul of the Octopus by Sy Montgomery. She wants more delightful books. I couldn’t agree more.

If you were making a list of eight nonfiction books to leave around to inspire people, what would they be? What would your list of favorite inspiring novels be?

JWH

The End of Civilization – Again

by James Wallace Harris, 11/29/21

When I was growing up in the 1950s annihilation by atomic war was a common worry. Kids were taught duck and cover drills, people built fallout shelters, we routinely heard Conalrad tests on the radio, and popular culture was full of stories about WWIII. The famous Doomsday Clock stayed set just minutes from doomsday.

Over the decades there has always been the world is ending forecasts. Some chicken little is always yelling the sky is falling. The new vogue is to claim civilization is collapsing. Routinely following the news makes it hard to ignore such fears.

What if civilization is collapsing? What should we do? The science is quite solid on climate change, and we’ve been warned for decades, but for decades we’ve done nothing significant. A fair number of folks are buying rural plots of land and AR15s but that hardly seems to be a practical solution for everyone.

My guess is most people are ignoring all the gloom and doom, or else going crazy in their own quiet squirrely way. I don’t think there is much we can do. The reason why many analyzed trends lead to possible apocalypses is that the natural thing for everyone to do is to keep doing what we’re always been doing. Humans aren’t big on intentionally making drastic changes to their lives.

If we’re not going to do anything to avert the forecasted catastrophes, then what are we going to do instead? Anxiety and depression are so self-destructive. It’s much too early to panic. We could party like it’s 1999, but the end isn’t that close yet. Enduring resignation will probably be a common plan, but that’s emotionally draining. Taking up Zen Buddhism or meditation might be useful. Enjoying the simple pleasures of life has always been an excellent choice. Ditto for pursuing creative hobbies.

Developing a positive perspective should be helpful. Civilizations always collapse, but often over decades or centuries. There will be a rush to hoard or consume everything left. The well-to-do will grab what they want, which is always more than they need. The practical will learn to live with less without agonizing over what they no longer have. For most citizens the collapse of civilization will be in such slow motion they will hardly notice it. It’s only the unfortunate who become refugees from random catastrophes that will feel the harshest impacts. So knowing how to relocate will be a valuable skill. There are certain preparedness precautions to take, but since nothing is certain, it’s not practical to go overboard with such measures.

Probably most useful is the ability for understanding the true reality of things. Don’t get caught up in delusions, fears, panics, but also avoid over-optimism and Pollyanish thinking.

I bring all this up because of some videos I’ve been watching. I have no idea how valid they are, but I consider the increase of such thinking as a kind of pulse-taking. What do you think of these videos? These three accept doom but try to find a positive perspective with dealing with such doom. They offer wisdom.

If you are a routine YouTube watcher and are signed in, watching these three videos will cause YouTube to offer you more of the same. There are quite a lot of these videos, so be careful. Don’t get overwhelmed.

JWH

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