1) As a Glimpse into the Mindset of an Academy Voter
The dirty little secret of the Oscars is that while they're often derided and dismissed as the self-celebration of a liberal elite, they're actually more conservative than you might think. The average Academy voter is white, male, older and wealthy, and has been insulated in show business for years; the average Academy voter will almost always pick a period piece over a modern film, or pick a feel-good movie that speaks to Hollywood's past over a movie that asks questions about the here-and-now. For the past several years, I've made Oscar Predictions for Cinematical from the perspective of that average Academy voter, who I choose to personify as Ernest Borgnine; when making Oscar pics for what will win (not what should win) I simply ask "What Would Ernest Borgnine Do?" This is why, for example, Pulp Fiction loses Best Picture to Forrest Gump, or Traffic loses to Gladiator. I don't think anything can derail the No Country for Old Men juggernaut at this point -- and I don't think that any film should -- but if Michael Clayton or Atonement take Best Picture, you can thank Borgnine. (This also helps Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody's chances, as a Best Original Screenplay award for Juno isn't just a validation of that film's charms but also a validation of Cody's own, cinematic, obscurity-to-fame journey; often, the Oscar's not for the story in the movie but the story of the movie.)
2) As the Death Throes of a Wounded Industry
When -- not 'if,' but when -- Jon Stewart pauses, deer-in-headlights style on Sunday after a bit bombs, it'll just be a reminder that the Oscar show was cobbled together in a rush after the end of the WGA strike. When the relatively low box-office take of the Oscar nominees is discussed, it'll be a reminder that the movie industry can't figure out how to get grown-ups into the theater. When Variety publishes its round-up of the awards (in an edition made significantly thinner by the absence of the "For Your Consideration" ads that fatten the magazine and the bottom line during the prelude to Awards season), it'll be a reminder that that publication is for sale. Every moment at the Oscars can, potentially, be viewed as a reminder that the landscape of entertainment is changing fast, and that no one knows how to fix it, and all the glitter and glamour is just artfully choreographed re-arrangement of the deck chairs on the proverbial sinking ship.
3) As a Exercise in Pure Number-Crunching
Every seasoned Oscar-watcher knows certain formulas for predicting the winner. Movies without Best Director nominations rarely win Best Picture, for example, and there's a strong correlation between the awards given by various critic's groups and other professional associations and Oscar success. FilmJerk's Edward Havens has done the math for us all this year, and his article makes for a fascinating read that pokes around under the hood of the Oscars -- and also serves as a handy cheat sheet to blow out your office Oscar Pool.
4) As the Worst Possible Kind of Entertainment "Journalism"
Seriously, what the hell is Joey Fatone doing hosting any kind of coverage -- even coverage as dim and dull as red carpet arrivals -- that involves art and culture? What qualifies Fatone to do this in any way, aside from his own experience of celebrity acquired as a boy band member? Do the people who produce Oscars coverage truly fear that if someone competent and informed asks an intelligent question of the stars on the red carpet, the ground in front of the Kodak theater will open up and swallow all of L.A.? If the Academy wonders why viewership is in decline for the Oscars in recent years -- which it is -- they should think about the possibility that liveblogging offers people who enjoy movies more than celebrity to follow Oscar coverage from writers and journalists who actually know what they're talking about (I'll be following Greencine, Hollywood Elsewhere and Cinematical's liveblogging, for a start) as opposed to the numb, dumb fashion discussions and hey-how-are-ya's? of Fatone or Billy Bush.
5) In the Context of What Wasn't Nominated
Watch Away from Her and explain to me why Gordon Pinsent wasn't nominated as a Best Actor contender. Watch I'm Not There and explain to me why Christian Bale isn't nominated for a real, raw performance that blows Cate Blanchett's showy work off the screen. Watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and tell me why that film isn't nominated for Best Picture. Watch Things We Lost in the Fire and tell me why Benicio Del Toro isn't nominated for Best Actor, or watch A Mighty Heart and tell me why Angelina Jolie isn't nominated for Best Actress. And how can a film as creative, as innovative, as expressive and magnificently obsessed as I'm Not There not earn Todd Haynes a Best Director nod? Any film critic worth reading has a list of frustrations and coulda-shoulda-wouldas like the one above; track those lists down, make a few viewing choices based on them, and you'll witness some amazing art and entertainment.
6) As, Shockingly, a Guide to the Best of Movie Making
There's the old saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day. And the Oscars -- no matter how imperfect, shallow, doddering and unjust you and I might think they are -- still honor some amazing creative work; if Sunday's airing of a clip from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly inspires people to see it, wonderful; same for Persepolis, or There Will Be Blood or even No Country For Old Men. In fact, if you want to know the most sure-fire way to put together a slate of fascinating films -- a group of movies that, when watched, will give you not just a glimpse of the best possible moviemaking but also into what Hollywood was thinking about any given year -- all you have to do is watch the 10 Best Screenplay nominees from a given year, Adapted and Original. The Academy Awards aren't perfect, and they aren't simple. What in life is?