It’s Moonlight that deserves the Oscar
The Oscars do not, as a general rule, reward quality in cinema. A cursory glance through the Best Picture competitions of years past illustrates this point: Birdman beat Boyhood, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, The English Patient beat Fargo, and so on and so forth. The history of the Oscars is one of failures of imagination, astonishingly stupid critical choices, and masturbatory celebrations of the entertainment industry. Why, then, do they still have cultural capital? And why am I writing this piece about them?
Well, they shouldn’t, and I wish I wasn’t. But they do, and I am. As someone who cares about movies, I can’t help but care about the Oscars every year, even though they so often crush my modest expectations.
To my mind, there is only one rational reason to care about the Oscars: when an artist wins an Oscar, the likelihood increases that that artist will be able to fund and freely create their next project. Oscars landing in the hands of young, brilliant artists brightens the future of cinema; Oscars in the old, scary hands of Mel Gibson do not.
Aside from that stands a more fundamental reason: the desire to see good work rewarded. The Oscars are the most high-profile film awards in the world, and it would be satisfying if they could hand out awards to people and films that deserve them. And when I say “deserve,” I don’t mean to imply that there is one objective “best” film each year that the Oscars fail to recognize. I mean the Oscars often fail to even get close.
This year, the Oscars are veering straight towards such a failure, for at the front of the awards race stands La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s bad-for-so-many-reasons musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It received 14 Oscar nominations, a number matched only by All About Eve (a great film) and Titanic (no comment). Critics and audiences alike adore La La Land for its unabashed love of the MGM musicals of yesteryear and its present-day story of young people navigating ambition, industry, and the workings of the heart.
Also in the Oscar race, with eight nominations, is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ film that shows a queer black male at three different stages in his life; first as a young boy, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult man.
The films could hardly be more different. Where La La Land basks in the Los Angeles sun, fills its frame with bright colors, and focuses its camera mostly on white people, Moonlight places many of its most powerful moments in the quiet of night, has a palette of deeper and darker hues, and trains its camera exclusively on people of color.
Unsurprisingly, these films have been positioned as enemies of each other in the Oscar race. La La Land is, at least in part, a celebration of artists pursuing their dreams—standard Oscar fare, essentially. Moonlight, on the other hand, quietly celebrates and explores black lives and queer sexuality. La La Land may be fun, posits the Oscar media, but Moonlight is important. I have an instinctive resistance to Oscar narratives such as this one. It wrongly frames artists as rivals (Barry Jenkins even tweeted that he loved La La Land). But this year, I think the narrative gets it right, largely because I believe that this country would be a marginally better place if everyone in it saw Moonlight. If everyone saw La La Land, on the other hand, we’d be unchanged, except maybe more likely to wax poetic on the wonders of jazz in the presence of any second-rate Holiday Inn lounge band.
But the relationship between La La Land and Moonlight isn’t just one fraught with questions of social importance. The difference in artistic achievement between the two films is monumental. Moonlight has an ocean’s worth of wisdom and beauty, while La La Land is a colorful splash of disappointing mediocrity.
In many ways, I am the ideal La La Land audience member. I love old movies. I love musicals. I love jazz. La La Land belts out its alleged affection for all three. It has a bright and audacious opening number and a dream ballet. It tosses out references to old films and jazz stars. In ways implicit and explicit, it insists on its love of our cultural past. But in the actual execution of the film, Chazelle disregards what makes these traditions great. Instead, he employs shallow, self-satisfied nostalgia that serves only to make the film gratingly anti-contemporary.
The film follows two young, aspiring artists living in Los Angeles. Mia (Stone) hopes to be an actress. Sebastian (Gosling) hopes to find success as a jazz pianist and club owner. Before long, they’re in a relationship, two hopefuls in an unkind world, working at their respective passions.
In a scene near the middle of the film, Mia performs a one-woman show she’s working on for Sebastian. Of course, we don’t see any of the show, as Chazelle (and his gentle misogyny) has little interest in Mia’s art, but in the suffering and anxiety around it. Once Mia finishes her performance for Seb, she tells him that she is worried that the show may be too nostalgic, and that people won’t like it. “Fuck ‘em,” Seb responds.
It’s hard not to read this scene as Chazelle’s conception of his own artistic mission statement. Sure, his work may be nostalgic, it seems to go, but who cares what people think. Sebastian’s trajectory reinforces this idea, and amends it, when his club finds success: if you stick to what you love (in Seb’s case, “pure jazz,” a sterling example of Chazelle’s dumb phraseology) then eventually you will find an audience.
The first part of this idea rests upon a false premise: that people don’t like nostalgia, and that nostalgic art is thus a brave thing to create. This is demonstrably false. From The Birth of a Nation to Forrest Gump to The Artist, nostalgia has had a long run of success in film, rewarded both at the box office and, to an even greater degree, at the Oscars. The dishonesty here insults the audience’s intelligence, and becomes even more aggravating when you think about how it positions Chazelle himself as a paragon of artistic integrity, as if we should be inspired by his courage in making an unapologetically nostalgic film—a movie musical, no less. I hate to sound like a typically zealous undergraduate, but Chazelle’s tactics here revolt me.
Something akin to Chazelle’s dishonesty comes through in the film’s sections concerning jazz: his shocking ignorance. Some critics explain this away by positing that the film isn’t really about jazz, and thus can be excused for not being insightful or respectful or even remotely accurate in its portrayal of the music. In some sense, they’re right. Jazz functions in the film as a proxy for passion of any kind. So, the movie isn’t really about jazz. I just wish someone would tell Damien Chazelle that.
Take, for instance the much-mocked scene wherein Seb takes Mia to a jazz-club to “mansplain” the music to her. The film shows the drummer’s ride cymbal, shimmering and alive, and then cuts to the horn players, enthralled in their craft, as Seb unspools a lesson for the unversed on the wonders of jazz. There’s no ironic distance here; the film clearly shares Seb’s reverence for the music, even if it pokes fun at the little manifestations of it, like Seb’s jealous protection of a stool once used by Hoagy Carmichael.
Unfortunately, the film’s reverence can’t make up for its ignorance. This comes through most clearly in a scene depicting Seb at a cocktail piano gig. His boss tells him he doesn’t want any of that “free jazz,” and to stick to the set list. The set list, it turns out, contains nothing but the squarest imaginable arrangements of Christmas carols. Seb plays them, looking humiliated. Eventually, though, he can no longer take it, and goes into a pianistic flight of fancy that we assume is what the boss meant when he said “free jazz.” It is also, we understand, Seb’s beloved “pure jazz,” the unadulterated artistic expression that Seb lives for, and that exists in a sphere apart from the hopelessly unexciting tastes of the cocktail elite.
The problem, though, is that the “pure jazz” Seb plays is anything but musically profound or artistically adventurous. Essentially, he plays cocktail piano music—pretty and unexceptional, with a grand finish to show us the depths of passion that purportedly live in Seb’s bourgeois ivory-tickling. He even jolts up as he plays the final chord, as if zapped in his beautifully-sculpted butt by the spirit of “pure jazz.” As New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote on Twitter, Seb plays like “Liberace on an off night.”
This may all seem like an inconsequential critique, but in fact it gets to a larger idea: the audacity of Chazelle’s ignorance, and how it allows him to make points he didn’t earn. In the cocktail lounge scene, Chazelle makes the audience understand that expressing yourself artistically can sometimes be a fight against public tastes. But to make his point, he plays directly to public tastes, and thus fails to challenge the audience’s own ideas about art. Instead, he positions the audience comfortably on the side of the enlightened, where they can enjoy Seb’s playing and feel like they “get it,” unlike all the other tasteless schmucks sitting in the restaurant. If Chazelle had Seb play genuinely exciting, but less sweet and pleasing jazz piano—if Seb played like Vijay Iyer, or even Fred Hersch—the audience might not be so comfortable. Instead, Chazelle just makes his facile little point.
Chazelle’s ignorance about jazz also stains the film with racism. Jazz is a historically black music, with roots in ragtime and the blues and a period of tremendous vitality during the Harlem Renaissance. Yet in swoops Chazelle, making three consecutive films (including Whiplash and La La Land) that involve jazz, all while having only a shallow understanding of the music. It’s a classic but still galling example of a white man trampling over a culture he only thinks he understands.
This extensive rant is all to say: La La Land does not deserve the Best Picture Oscar. The film indulges the Academy’s worst instincts, and for it to win this year, of all the motherfucking years, would be unnecessarily cruel.
Fortunately, another option waits in the wings: Moonlight. I will not write much about it here, as I would be far too scared of not doing it justice. For thoughtful and sensitive reviews, I recommend Hilton Als’ in The New Yorker or A.O. Scott’s in the New York Times. I can say, however, that no film has ever moved me so much. The film tells the deeply tragic story of a man oppressed because of his identity, and yet it approaches everything with a vibrant humanity. After seeing it, I wanted both to cry and to sing from the rooftops. I’ll stop gushing, but please, see it. For no film from the past year reaches such cinematic heights. And no film from the past year acts as such a powerful antidote to the toxic bile currently erupting from the White House.
I realize that in Trump’s America, every high-profile contest can feel like a referendum on the president, from Beyonce vs. Adele, to Falcons vs. Patriots, to Moonlight vs. La La Land. I realize, also, that this is slightly absurd. Every contest can not possibly be so pregnant with sociopolitical meaning. But I also believe that Moonlight’s performance at the Oscars does have some small bearing on the wider world. Moonlight on its own has accomplished a magnificent feat, and for it to win Best Picture would simply, but powerfully, affirm that. And no, it wouldn’t solve all our problems, and it wouldn’t protect all the people that so dearly need protection right now. But it would affirm the value of black lives. It would affirm the value of fluid sexuality. It would affirm the value of great art. And, of course, it would deal a blow to Damien Chazelle’s ego. In these dark times, I’ll take what small pleasures I can get.