Nothing like a bizarre Oscars to trigger desire for magic of cinema

Single remark from Frances McDormand is enough reminder of what we’ve missed

Nomadland, a recession-era tale about a community of van dwellers in the American West, wins the Oscar for best picture as the ceremony takes on a different feel due to Covid-19 restrictions. Video: Reuters

 

There was a moment deep into Sunday night’s strange Day-Glo railway-station Oscars when Frances McDormand implored people to watch Nomadland, the best picture winner, “on the largest screen possible”, and the other nominated films, too, in a particular way they likely won’t.

“One day very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theatre, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space and watch every film represented here tonight,” said McDormand, then, in tribute to Nomadland’s late sound mixer Michael Wolf Snyder, she released a sudden lupine howl.

Her line stood out not because it was an unexpected thing for an actor to say, but because of how comparatively little cinephilia had laced the ceremony, which felt like a cross between a sober corporate obligation and a wedding without a top table – some nice Art Deco touches, but light on jokes and shy of much real point, even for the people involved.

The heavy-handed message delivered on a loop since the ascent of streaming services is that film, without the cinemas, is just not the same art

Normally, in normal years, when things are normal, the Oscars lays on the “magic” so thick, you want to shake the producers and tell them to just accept the inevitable next-day disappointment of the telecast ratings.

All awards ceremonies are as much if not more about collective industry marketing as they are about individual recognition, and at the Academy, this typically takes the form of an extended clip sequence with grandiose musical accompaniment, earnest narration, some CGI-flexing and an unbilled appearance by Steven Spielberg.

The heavy-handed message delivered on a loop since the ascent of streaming services is that film, without the cinemas, is just not the same art – there is nothing that can replicate the immersive experience of a darkened cinema and how dare anyone even try.

As a consequence, even the most fervent big-screen enthusiasts, when suffering through these extended odes to the craft, can wind up thinking that when Netflix defended itself (pre-pandemic) by saying not everyone has access to a local cinema or the ability to attend theirs, it did indeed have a solid point.

This year, in an awards season that felt almost as long as the pandemic itself, the Oscars dispensed with all its special majesty in favour of much lower-key hustling, awkward explanations of who everybody was and only the occasional “thank you for your work”.

Several nominees made glorious efforts on the red carpet fashion front, but when the floating cameras caught the languid body language in the various venues, I was reminded that the sequel to Disney’s lost-princess film Enchanted, now filming in Enniskerry, goes by the wonderful title Disenchanted.

Running order

Much face-palming has been directed at the decision to eschew the tradition of ending on the best picture award in favour of best actor, in the apparent belief that this would yield a posthumous victory and climactic tribute to Chadwick Boseman, rather than a second Oscar for Anthony Hopkins, who wisely wasn’t in LA’s Union Station or any of the designated international outposts.

But there was other oddness: an In Memoriam segment that bordered on the jaunty, a room that was so brightly lit it gave off a “lunchtime” vibe, and a steadfast refusal to indulge in any montages, as if the producers knew that not many people had seen these films – on any size screen – and thought it was too late to show them off. Better to concede that this year’s Academy Awards would seem a bit academic, and just get on with it.

Cinemas in the US are open now, but most people who have already seen Nomadland – directed by Chloé Zhao, only the second woman ever to win best director – will have done so at home on Hulu. On this side of the Atlantic, the film, which is distributed by Disney subsidiary Searchlight Pictures, will debut on Disney Plus from next Friday.

Acting winners Yuh-Jung Youn (left), Daniel Kaluuya and Frances McDormand at Union Station in Los Angeles. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AFP
Acting winners Yuh-Jung Youn (left), Daniel Kaluuya and Frances McDormand at Union Station in Los Angeles. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AFP

You can switch off your own lights and watch it shoulder-to-shoulder with members of your own household or support bubble, but that’s as far as you can answer McDormand’s call for the time being.

Streamers haven’t just had a good pandemic, they’ve had a great one. Last week’s quarterly earnings from Netflix showed how this effect is already tapering off, with the streaming market leader adding just 4 million subscribers compared to 16 million in the same quarter in 2020. But its subscriber base is still up 14 per cent year-on-year, while Disney soared past 100 million in just 16 months.

It now seems likely – despite the high-wire financial wobbling of the major chains – that most Irish screens will reopen when they are permitted to do so.

There’s no denying that both services will remain popular and prevalent in households in the decade to come. And yet, judging by how regularly people are declaring how sick they are of the twin lockdown staples of walks and television, it would be foolish to bet against post-pandemic jadedness with the streamers. Whether the cinemas can be beneficiaries of this, or whether the spell they cast has been broken, is another question.

Financial wobbling

It now seems likely – despite the high-wire financial wobbling of the major chains – that most Irish screens will reopen when they are permitted to do so. Those popcorn machines are waiting to whirr again.

It’s been so long since I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire in Dublin’s Light House, waiting for coronavirus to show up on that windswept French island and adopting a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude to everyone else in the sparse cinema. I’m ready to do whatever Frances McDormand says I should when the Government says I can.

So the allure of the cinema is maybe not quite as romantic or as mystical as the overpaid of Hollywood usually like to insist. But its appeal, in an age of attention spans shot to pieces, is that there are no pause and no exit buttons – you can concentrate and escape simultaneously, and if you want to leave before the end credits, you have to go to the trouble of fumbling your way out.

After a year of non-events, that alone sounds enchanting.

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