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The Oscars Were Pretty Sad

Never have the movies felt more distant than they did last night.

Regina King presents an award at the 2021 Oscars
ABC

This year’s Oscars were a curious beast, in ways not quite explainable by the impositions of the pandemic. The jazzy, seductive energy of the show’s Regina King-fronted opening credits turned out to be a bit of a fake. We were not actually in for Oscar’s Eleven. Instead, we got a deeply serious (like, really—it took two hours and 43 minutes for a comedy bit to emerge), indulgent (there was no orchestra to play any winners off, and people eagerly seized the opportunity to speak for as long as they wanted) and austere show. Perhaps that was appropriate for the times, but, while there were some great speeches and memorable moments, some of the show’s more notable choices—like the almost complete ban on film clips and montages…in a show about the movies—were baffling, and the decision to reshuffle the order of the final prizes in order to end the night with a tearjerking win for the late Chadwick Boseman went horribly wrong when Boseman lost to Anthony Hopkins, who hadn’t even shown up.

As with so many things these days, it all felt like an experience that nobody would particularly want to repeat. But I have some sympathy for the show’s producers, because the past year has proven exactly how damaging it is when you take the best part of movies away: seeing them in a theater.

I try to be an Oscars completist, at least for the top categories, and I did pretty well this year. I watched all but one of the Best Picture nominees, and most of the ones in the other major categories. But I have never felt more distant or alienated from the movies I was watching than I did this time around, even with the ones I liked very much, like Minari. Time and again, I found myself wondering what I would have thought of these movies if I was watching them in a theater, and time and again, I concluded that I would have liked them more—that maybe I would even have loved one of them.

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The reason for that is simple: when you watch a movie in your house, you are in charge. You get to press pause, to rewind or fast forward through stuff you’d rather not deal with. You can put it down and come back to it days later. You get to talk as much as you want, and, most of all, you get to be on your phone. (I couldn’t even count the number of movies I’ve recently managed to watch all the way through at home without looking at my phone once, because I don’t think there are any.) The movie has to bend to your will. It’s a guest in your space. And, if you watch it on a streaming service, it is just another piece of content. They don’t even wait for the credits to start rolling before they’re trying to push you onto something else.

When you go to a theater, the movie is in charge. You are there in the dark. You are in a public place. The screen is bigger than anything you could ever fit in your home. If you step away, the movie does not wait for you. There is no getting around the tough parts. There is nothing to do but submit to the movie’s rhythms, to go where it tells you to go. When the movie is done, there is nothing else waiting for you. It is the beginning and the end.

The theater enhances almost every movie, but it especially makes it easier and more meaningful to watch the slow, the sad, and the difficult ones—you know, all the things you inevitably recoil from when you’re just at home and not wanting to deal with all that. (I have yet to watch The Father, the movie which yielded Anthony Hopkins that shock Oscar, for exactly this reason—a dementia movie, oy vey.) Watching a movie at home allows us to indulge our cowardice. Watching a movie in theaters forces us to be brave.

I’m not saying that watching a movie at home is pointless—it’s the only way we’re going to watch the vast majority of movies we’ll ever see—but an entire year of enforced absence from theaters has shown, in an intense way, what a lesser experience home viewing is. The pandemic, by collapsing all space, time, habit, and feeling into our homes for a year, has only exacerbated the problems that have, to a certain extent, always been there. And the strange, dislocated, and diffuse Oscars underscored what a loss it would be if television’s takeover of film culture is allowed to bloom further, as I fear it inevitably will. The show felt like it was speaking to the smallest number of people in its history, in ways that I’m not certain are just COVID-related.

The movies will be back in theaters this year, and the Oscars will be back to some kind of normal next year (I know, be careful what you wish for), but something feels like it has changed permanently. Watching the show with that hanging over my head made me kind of sad in the end.