Aristotle, referring to commodities, said “there are two uses… one is the proper, and the other the improper.” For example, a shoe is used for footwear, its proper use, but as a commodity it is also used for exchange (for money), its improper use.
The film industry the world over has made fi lm into a commodity. Hollywood just happens to be the best at it, with the strongest focus on the improper use (profit). But once a year members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Hollywood elite) will attempt to celebrate film for its proper use. However, what is the proper use of film? Film, like all art, should be a reflection of society, with something to say about the world we live in. It should communicate a perspective to the audience.
You don’t need to be a hardcore film geek to know that Hollywood is far from meeting this standard. There are a few minor exceptions. Babel, while shallow and pretentious, was at least an attempt to explore important themes. Children of Men was a genuine diamond in the rough, reminding us of science fiction’s potential as a social commentary. These films, and a few others, present a small glimmer of what is possible. They also represent films that endeavour to overcome the contradiction inherent in all commodities. In the same way that it’s more profitable for a corporation to let mountains of food rot while people starve, a film studio will green-light a film for instant profit (longevity is not an attribute of modern Hollywood) over films with more substance. Filmmakers may be forced to remove aspects of a film that could be seen as controversial or subversive. Conformity and playing it safe are seen as sure ways of maintaining revenue. Several thousand years after Aristotle, another great philosopher named this contradiction ‘alienation.’ The proper use of a commodity is ‘alienated’ by its use for exchange. This means Hollywood is not making film for the sake of film but as a commodity to be sold. Profit gets in the way of making good films.
The Academy, which primarily makes films for profit, tries once a year to figure out which films are the best, despite the fact that they were not made to be good, only sold. The result of this somewhat bizarre process? Confusion. It is possible for the Academy to get it right every now and then. The Godfather (part 1 & 2), One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, All Quiet on the Western Front, Casablanca and From Here to Eternity have all been deserving winners. In contrast, Titanic, The Greatest Show on Earth, Rocky (which beat Network and Taxi Driver) and Gone with the Wind are extreme examples of bad choices. Most of the Academy knows this perfectly well. After all, they are not idiots and many are very talented in certain ways, but their only solution is to paper over the cracks with glitz and so-called glamour. This parallels the way that many of them try to cover up the weakness in their own films with special effects.
So, for the 79th time the Academy will pat themselves on the back. But you can’t behave like Jerry Bruckheimer 364 days of the year and then try to spend a few hours acting like Orson Welles. Any undertaking to do so, no matter how well dressed up, will end up in a bewildering mess. Any sincere celebration of film will be infused with a healthy contempt for the commodification of film, striving for films to tell meaningful stories, their proper use.