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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

All alone in the night

Years ago when Ireland was still in the dark ages and the only way to get on the internet was a slow, expensive dial-up connection, I had the ritual of driving several miles every morning to pick up The International Herald Tribune at the nearest news agent in the area that carried foreign newspapers. The proprietor was a friendly man who always had a bit of chat for me.

One day when I went in, he genially asked me if I was looking forward to the “big game.” Not being a sports fan, I muttered something about not really following soccer or Gaelic football, and he gave me a strange look. It was only when I got home and read the newspaper I had just bought that I realized that he was talking about the Super Bowl. He must have thought I was thoroughly rubbish at being an American. (For the record, yes, I am aware that the Super Bowl is being played again this weekend.)

It is interesting that, at this time of year, I get the odd comment about the Super Bowl, but people generally don’t ask me if I’ll be watching the Academy Awards. Perhaps understandably, people don’t seem to anticipate and watch the Oscars like people do in the States—although I am sure that there are those who do. Certainly, you have to be a bit strange to watch the telecast in real time, since it runs from about 1:30 until 6:00 in the morning. Most people’s interest would be limited to reading about it a couple of days later (since the final results come well after Monday’s newspaper deadlines) or hearing it on the radio as they wake up on Monday (literally minutes after the ceremony has concluded). Or they might watch an abridged version of the ceremony an evening or two later on television.

This is different from how people regard the Oscars in the U.S. Or at least from how I remember it. When I lived and worked in Seattle, it seemed like most people I knew had some sort of Oscar ritual. One woman I worked with had to watch it sitting on her couch while smoking cigarettes and drinking Diet Coke. Some people had Oscar parties. A couple of times I even paid to go to benefit fundraiser parties on the night for the Seattle International Film Festival. Those were a lot of fun and a good way to support the Seattle film scene, although it wasn’t a particularly good way to actually watch the Oscar telecast. There was so much noise that I couldn’t actually hear anything that was being said on the big TV screen. In a way, it was not unlike my experience of seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a midnight screening at Seattle’s Neptune Theater. The audience was making so much noise talking back to the movie that I couldn’t hear most of the dialog. And I actually wanted to hear the dialog. Clearly, if one actually wants to properly see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the only way to do it is to watch it at home. By oneself.

And maybe that is the best way to watch the Oscars as well. For more than a decade now (including some non-consecutive years before we began living full-time in Eire), I have sat by myself in the early hours of the morning watching the annual spectacle—as the immortal opening lines of the classic sci-fi TV series Babylon 5 memorably put it, “all alone in the night.” A couple of times the Missus has gotten up out of bed and joined me for part of it. I expect that at some point my kid will try the same thing, although I will have to be strict with her since she will have school a few hours hence. But mostly I watch the thing completely on my own. And that’s just fine. There is something nearly spiritual about experiencing one of the major communal experiences on the planet (the TV audience is, of course, huge and worldwide) in a completely solitary fashion.

On the other hand, there is a serious disconnect between using the word spiritual and talking about the Academy Awards. If there is something uniquely American about the Super Bowl, the Oscars reflect another facet of the American character. They are an excessive display of conspicuous consumption and a grandiose exercise in self-congratulation. Which reminds me, I was in Las Vegas last week. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Vegas, but I have making visits there for quite a few years now. (No, I don’t have a gambling habit. My brother lives there.) Vegas has changed a lot over recent decades. There used to be a lot of free entertainment, cheap food and free drinks. Gambling paid for everything. Now the corporate masters are not content to let gambling subsidize anything. As my brother pointed out, now everything has to make money.

Similarly, movies are big business. Consequently, the Oscar telecast has increasingly become one giant commercial in support of box office receipts and DVD and digital sales. That means more predictability, less spontaneity, fewer things left to chance. In other words, fewer memorable moments—the kind for which people create rituals to put themselves on the couch for hours, sometimes in the middle of the night. Of course, if Hollywood is in the business of selling, they realize that their show has to be entertaining. They will try to provide spontaneity, even if it has to be carefully planned weeks in advance. Clearly, this is why Billy Crystal has been brought back, in the wake of the Brett Ratner kerfuffle. While nothing could be direr than the hosting performance turned in last year by James Franco and Anne Hathaway, Crystal’s track record at least promises a reasonable chance of something that is actually better. Having said that, there is always a danger of going back to a reliable old well once too often and coming up dry. But I’m willing to bet that Crystal will deliver like the professional veteran he is.

But what about the seven or eight hours of broadcast time when Crystal won’t be on stage? We can expect the acceptance speeches to be kept to fifteen seconds each, ensuring that no one will have a chance to utter anything too provocative or memorable before the music starts warning them off the stage. But Meryl Streep and George Clooney, should either or both win, will still manage to have plenty of time to congratulate the acting profession (and by extension themselves) for being responsible for everything positive in the world.

Let us hope that, at least, the wizards who put the various retrospective clips together will be inspired to fit classic cinematic segments together in a way that makes them seem fresh and new and not something we have seen over and over in previous telecasts.

Okay, now I’m sounding like it’s not justifiable to stay up all night to watch this program. But I will do it anyway (unless I fall asleep) for the reason that I always do. Habit. And the hope that, this year, something will truly surprise and delight me. Otherwise, I might have to start watching American football games instead.

My inevitably ridiculous forecasts for the night’s winners can be read by clicking here.

-S.L., 3 February 2012

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