Existentialism at the Oscars
February 8, 2009
Existentialism makes people feel smart. You don’t have to be particularly smart, and certainly not particularly well-read, but if you are one of the few enlightened ones who perceive the blind absurd competing with our illusions of optimism — then you are a cut above.
That’s how I psychoanalyze the rationale behind the Academy’s nominations for the Oscars, especially in the last few years. What makes this year’s nominees particularly interesting is not the movie nominees themselves (needless to say, a Jerry Bruckheimer film is not nominated), but that the one undeniably intelligent and, moreover, existential movie of the year — The Dark Knight — did not receive a nomination for best picture, best screenplay, or even best producer. It is truly incomprehensible. I can’t understand it except that the Academy simply will not recognize brilliance if the masses love it. It is as if popularity is a litmus test and the Academy knows that the masses cannot recognize excellence. There is surely no other explanation.
Or maybe The Dark Knight was too intelligent for the Academy. Maybe they just didn’t get it. Most of what passes for existentialism in the cinema is not actually dealing with authentic existential themes of moral dilemma. The “moral” as a serious category has long-been rejected by the artistic intelligentsia that forms the Academy. So when the Joker tries to reveal the absurd telos of created reality, linking this to evil as blind mechanistic forces — maybe that just went over the heads of the Academy. The masses may not know, either, what I just said, but they do, in general, take morality and its grounding (meta-ethics) seriously. The average person, I suspect, grasped the moral profundity in The Dark Knight, along with the cool action sequences. The Dark Knight took seriously that humans cannot be treated as means in a relative utility, even if such an ethic ultimately requires a hope beyond the absurd that runs adjacent with fallen humanity. There has never been a movie that dealt with these themes with the precision and power of The Dark Knight.
We should all protest the Oscars this year and not watch (of course, there has never been much reason to watch). The Best Motion Picture this past year was The Dark Knight, and everyone knows it. The Oscars have gotten it right in the past, a lot of times actually — Rebecca, My Fair Lady, The Godfather I and II, Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, to name a few. It is a shame they will fail to add The Dark Knight to that list.