Monday, December 5, 2022

Being A Part Of History – What Draws Us To The Oscars?

By Matthew Underwood 

How many times have you watched Jane Fonda open the envelope and read “Parasite?” How many reaction videos have you come across on Twitter? And in the two weeks since its historic triumph at the 92nd Academy Awards, how many times have you turned on “Parasite” to descend into the basement with the Kim family?

​This year, the Academy shocked the world when it gave its Best Picture Oscar to “Parasite,” making it the first foreign-language film to be awarded the honor. The news cannot escape the headlines, from speculation on what Director Bong Joon-ho’s next project will be to talk of a statue being erected in his native South Korea to honor him and the film. Even President Trump took notice. At a recent campaign rally, the president openly mocked the Academy for its selection when he said, “How bad were the Academy Awards this year? Did you see? ‘And the winner is … a movie from South Korea.’”  

It would appear that the president is not a member of the Bong Hive. That’s ok. The thrill of the announcement remains. For so many, that moment was akin to watching your team win the championship after a long season. And given recent Oscar history, it would appear that the Academy has been a team of futility for quite some time. Now, if the sports metaphor works for you and you thrive on the competition the Oscar season showcases, that’s great! But I don’t think that’s why most of us come back to the Oscars year after year.

In my teens, my parents bought a book. A big tan reference book the size of a dictionary. The New York Public Library Desk Reference. This was the third edition, and I was drawn to it as I was drawn all types of almanacs and encyclopedias. I loved trivia, and since this was the time when connecting to the internet required a phone cord, I devoured books.

​Now, this particular reference book had a section on film history, and that included a list of all the Academy Award winners in the top six categories up until its printing. Names like Greer Garson and Claudette Colbert and Walter Huston and John Ford sparked a burgeoning interest in films that were much older than I was. Before, the Oscars was just something my mom watched once a year. But now, it was part of a history that I just had to learn.

A part of history. Much in the way the Louvre displays only the artwork it deems worthy, so too does the Academy. “Parasite” has been put on display. Other films like “1917” and “Jojo Rabbit” have been loaned to other museums. And some films the Academy leaves in storage. Films like “Uncut Gems” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” But rather than collect dust in a basement or boxed up in someone’s attic, those films live on, they live on through us. Every year, the film industry decides which films should be a part of the historical record, and every year we debate how right or wrong the industry is. Whether it be through podcast discussions, Twitter threads, top ten lists, or simple recommendations to friends, we spread the word about what other films should be part of film history.

This month, the Criterion Channel has a collection highlighting Foreign-Language Oscar winners. I can’t get through it. I watched “La Strada” and that sent me down a rabbit hole of Fellini films. Tati’s “Mon Oncle” was next, but of course, I first had to watch Monsieur Hulot’s “Holiday” because that was the first in series. But that led me to another great French film, “Pickpocket.” And on and on. Much like that collection, the Oscars have offered a great gateway for me to explore films I’d never seen. And I’ll pass these on to my kids and my friends and even certain presidents who could have their horizons broadened. The same way I spread the word about “Parasite.” The way so many of us did. We all contribute to the oral history of film and occasionally that history gets written down.

It’s all so metaphorical.

You can follow Matthew and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @matthewdavidstl

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