The Oscars as Inducers of Cosmic Disillusionment

Many, many years ago, as a mad-about-the-movies young–very young!–lad, I was in the habit of eagerly awaiting the announcement of the year’s Oscars, my cinematic antennae quivering with anticipation as the suspense mounted. My spatio-temporal geographic location being what it was, this enthusiasm manifested itself most visibly in a speedy dash to our front balcony where I would scour about for the morning newspaper, expertly tossed up some twenty-five feet by the delivery man. (If my calculations are correct, this undignified scramble took place on Wednesday mornings, in the days when the Oscar ceremonies were staged on Monday nights on the US West Coast; I was some ten hours away.) A bizarre notion underwrote this enthusiasm: that the Oscars picked out, somehow, magically, from on high, ‘The Best Movie in the World’ or ‘The Best Actor in the World’ or whatever. The Oscars seemed like a definitive anointment of movie royalty; a final, beyond-reach placement and establishment of the Real beyond the Apparent.

Then, still, I think, a pre-teen, I read a pulp novel–the name escapes me now–that proved an unlikely vehicle for a radical species of disillusionment. In it, an elaborate intrigue is mounted to sneak into the offices of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, break into the safe containing the envelopes with the names of the Oscar winners and to replace them with  envelopes containing our miscreants’ favored candidates. (I have forgotten why this elaborate, Watergate-style conspiracy was required; I dimly remember a studio’s box-office fate resting on the success of the bait-n-switch.)

When I reached this point in my reading, I remember being stunned: Wait, that’s ALL the Oscars were? Just the result of voting by some Academy? Made up of humans voting their preferences? Why was that so special? Couldn’t they just vote for their favorite movies? I knew somehow, dimly, that human beings often differed in their utility allocations; schoolyard rumbles had at least taught me that much. Somehow, I had imagined that the Oscars resulted from a non-earthly assessment of cinematic quality, that their awards were free of the taint of human subjectivity and bias. A second wave of paradigm-shattering debunk soon washed over me: Even if I had always imagined the US as the Center-of-the-World, this Academy seemed to be located in a very particular place, California, and–of course!–the movies were all American or seemed to be, all in English, with a special award for ‘Foreign Language Film’. (I knew, thankfully, that movies were made elsewhere in the world. How could I not, living in India?)

Clearly, I was then in the grip of a deep confusion, an unawareness as it were, that the ‘trail of the human serpent is over everything.’ To be debunked of such unawareness at a young age can only be a good thing; but it isn’t so easy to get rid of. A fully-lived life is often required, a little humility, and the realization that when it comes to naming, lower case letters do much better work than upper-case.

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