I should really stop watching Scarborough Country. I flip through the channels when a commercial comes on and I stop at Scarborough Country. It never fails. I want to like Joe Scarborough. I really do. I enjoyed his coverage of the nominating conventions with Chris Mathews and Ron Reagan. But when I watch his show I want to scream and throw things at the television. I think it’s the sneer—that total contempt he shows for me and mine, for all liberals, for all secularists, for all academics. He claims to speak for “mainstream America,” and I suppose he does speak for about 51% of America, but for the other 49% of us would prefer he shut the hell up. Like, who died and made him Pope of this joint?
Last night he was going on about the Oscars. His main beef was that “The Passion of the Christ,” which ended the year as the number three movie in box office receipts, wasn’t nominated. To Joe, this indicated that religion scares Hollywood, and he concluded that it was because Hollywood is “a cesspool of secularism.” As self appointed guardian of American values, he felt obligated to say something about it.
First some words about “The Passion.” It was a decent movie, but it had some problems. Obviously, it touched a bunch of people, and I was moved by it as well. But it wasn’t all that. I thought the little demon anti-Christ baby was way over the top, as were the demonic faces that appeared on the children who tormented Judas. But that is nit-picking. If Joe wants to thing The Passion deserved an Oscar nod he’s entitled.
Next some words about politics. That I heard, Joe didn’t mention the other big movie of last year, “Fahrenheit 9/11. If Joe can be outraged that “The Passion” didn’t get nominated, I’m certainly entitled to be outraged that “Fahrenheit 9/11” didn’t get nominated. It did amazing business, it broke records for a documentary, and it was many people’s pick for the best movie all year. And therein lies the rub. If Hollywood is the bastion of liberalism Joe always claims it to be, and if it is making some kind of statement with the films that get nominated for the Oscars, why wasn’t “Fahrenheit 9/11” nominated? Might it be that the academy was avoiding controversy? Or perhaps the academy is actually as divided as the rest of the country. I don’t know. Looking at both movies together, I think, gives a great deal of insight into their relative success. Both films made a powerful statement that a large segment of the population wanted to hear: “Fahrenheit 9/11” said a lot of things about Bush that not only people on the left but moderates who don’t like the president instinctively believed. “The Passion” was a celebration of the foundations of conservative Christianity, and in the great tradition of Medieval passion plays graphically displayed the horrors of the crucifixion. They were both released into a politically charged atmosphere during an election year, one in which the whole country was participating, which was particularly divisive, and more then just a bit nasty. Notably, both did well in all sections of the country: “The Passion” did great business in the blue states, “Fahrenheit 9/11” did great business in the red states—so much so that, in both cases, they were obviously being viewed by people who did not agree with their respective messages. And both were highly controversial. Critics pounded on Michael Moore for his leftist politics and his Bush Bashing, Mel Gibson was accused of Anti Semitism, to the point that statements his father had made years ago were brought into the argument. And this is probably the biggest reason for both films success: while both movies struck a chord with their respective audiences, they also did great box because of the controversies surrounding them. It is an axiom in show biz, and has been since David Merrick staged fist-fights in the lobby during opening night intermissions: controversy puts butts in the seats. Nothing can replace the buzz created by pissing off a vocal group of people.
Joe thinks Hollywood is out of touch. He thinks uplifting films like “Spiderman 2,” “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles” should have been nominated over the dark, gloomy and ultimately depressing films that got the nod this year. He sees it as a back lash against the success of “Titanic,” (interestingly, he doesn’t mention “Return of the King” which broke box office records and tied with “Titanic” and “Ben Hur” for the most Oscars ever at 11: I suppose it’s because the fantasy element of LOTR is a bit touchy for his Christian sensibilities). According to Joe, what the Hollywood cesspool thinks is “art” is completely out of touch with mainstream American values.
I want to point out that I am an American and I resent Joe Scarborough telling me what my values are supposed to be, but I digress.
Aside from the fact that he is banging the drum on that totally over hyped 22% of voters who claim moral superiority over the rest of us, his argument is actually not new and not new to him. Other critics have phrased it a bit differently in the past, that is all. People have complained for years that Hollywood pretends to care about art one night a year for the Oscars, and spends the rest of the time on crass commercialism: sentimental melodramas, spectacular melodramas, and scatological farces. Normally, Hollywood is accused of hypocrisy for pretending to like good movies. Joe has simply turned it around, calling Hollywood out of touch for not pretending to like bad movies.
Ok, not all bad. “The Incredibles” was a great film, and I can’t call “Spiderman 2” or “Shrek 2” bad because I didn’t see them. But I wonder how many of the nominated films Joe saw that he could dismiss them out of hand like that.
It is an age old argument, the one that Joe is making, one that has pitted artists against producers and consumers for years. I had a girlfriend once who hated what most critics think to be good movies—that is movies that make you think—because she didn’t go to the movies to think, she went to escape. She wanted to see good looking heroes with tight butts kicking the bad guy’s ass, and not be psychoanalyzed. I’m down with that. We went to a lot of action flicks together, and I just took my mom when I went to a Woody Allen picture. Back in the 19th century this same battle was being waged on the stage by the likes of Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola and George Bernard Shaw. They decried the crass commercialism of the popular theatre of their own day—the sentimental melodramas, the spectacle melodramas, the well made melodramatic comedies that dominated the stage back in the days before film came along and melodrama moved on to a new medium. Playwrights like Dion Boucicalut and Guilbert de Pixericourt and William Gillette wrote the great, uplifting, fun, exciting entertainment of the day. But to Shaw and his ilk their plays were unrealistic, sentimental, and in no way artistic. And he might have had a point. After all, Pixericourt, Boucicault, Scribe, and Sardou are mostly known only to academics, while Chekhov and Shaw are constantly in revival, and Ibsen is considered the Shakespeare of Modern Drama.
Looked at that way Joe’s complaints seem particularly hollow. The Oscars are a professional award, one in which a professional association honors what they consider to be the best work of their peers. It does not need to reflect popular taste, nor should it necessarily do so. “Shrek 2” and “The Passion of the Christ” won their award at the box office. The Oscars are a time for people in the business to vote on what they think was good from a professional standpoint. They reflect the professional opinion and professional tastes of people in the industry, and that will often differ from popular taste. A lot of movies have won Oscars that I thought sucked, and a lot of great films have, in my opinion, been ignored, but I don’t’ get a vote (yet—I’m working on that). I vote at the box office, like Joe and everybody else.
So please, Joe, just shut up and watch the movie.