Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Annual Academic Award

The pickings were slim, but the choices were decent. Another fair Academy Awards show has come and gone, but don't forget that next it must be time once again for the annual Academic Awards for the films most deserving of analysis-- whether psychoanalysis or sociological, semiotic, postcolonial, or ideological analysis.

Yes, we're still starting small this year, but we will gradually grow to become another massively rumor-saturated and renowned annual event that seizes global attention by the eye sockets. We've got the glamour and the stellar personalities lined up. Future presenters may include the likes of Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak and Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Winners will be asked to pick up their statuettes, featuring a bust that kind of resembles Christian Metz, at dazzling award ceremonies held in the gothic towers of Princeton.

This year however we're starting out modestly with E. Heroux as presenter, and the winners will be asked to stop by for a free cup of green tea if they're ever in Taipei.

Some further clarification about the nature of this award. It is above all serious. No monkey business, like the annual "Razzies" for the worst movie. Speaking of the Razzie, did you hear that "George W. Bush won the worst actor award for his role in Fahrenheit 9/11, and a poll found that 57 percent of parents would not like their children to grow up to be president" ?!? This item is from HARPER'S WEEKLY March 1, 2005.

Beyond serious, the purpose of the Academic Award is to bring more attention to film-texts that cry out for further analysis. It is true that some films aspire to this status with titles such as "Analyze This!" --starring Robert De Niro-- but such blatant ambition is not enough. Most films that truly deserve recognition for an Academic Award do not yet realize that they actually desire it.

And such analysis has little to do with the current division of labor between marketing for box office versus movie reviewers and professional critics. Sales experts for the box office deal masterfully with public dreams, but the PR folks must keep the open secret on a subliminal level rather than analyzed explicitly. Meanwhile, reviews and critics deal masterfully with aesthetic issues such as reception, influence, originality, acting, coherence, and genre, but the mere mention of Hegel in a review is forbidden by the Code of editors. In contrast, analysis must gather up both sides of this mainstream discourse and incorporate them in a much larger synthesis of current ideological issues as revealed in our most dominant cultural medium: narrative film.

Perhaps an obvious example will illustrate: remember "The Matrix"? The PR sales is one level of discourse -- black leather, spectacular names, hacker aura, etc. Then the critical reviews are another level of discourse -- original, although with echoes of "Blade Runner", the illogical leaps in the plot, no chemistry in the romance, cold but thrilling effects, etc. Meanwhile for the next few years, articles, school papers, whole books, university conferences, and discussion groups arose to release the pressure that "The Matrix" had generated for more analysis. Such films tap into analytical currents running deep beneath our culture.

OK then, you've got the idea. Now without further ado, I will finally introduce the 2005 Academic Award:

  • Picture Most Deserving of Analysis: Hey, coincidence! The Academic Award goes to the same winner as the Academy Award --Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby!! So much should be said about this film that has not yet even been suggested so far. The issues are bubbling up beyond the critics and reviewers. Yet the chief issues crying out for analysis have yet to be broached. Despite the subtle attempt by the Academy Award folks to generate the issue of right-to-die by awarding not one but two films on this topic {the 2nd being The Sea Inside for Best Foreign Picture}, still this is not yet tapped into the level of deeper analysis that Eastwood's film will eventually generate.

Like the Academy Awards ceremony, the Academic Awards also gets bogged down sometimes with long speeches that have to be cut off by a swelling orchestra. Since I feel one of those coming on, I'll have to cut short here by merely suggesting that Million Dollar Baby is a late apology for reactionary masculinity, and it is purveyed so powerfully, with such dramatic impact, that the necessary analysis will have to wade through layers of subtle indirection and polysemic gestures. One of the most intriguing sites of inquiry for this film is in the sublime calmness with which Eastwood has laid out his reactionary political views, wittily using intertextual references to deepen the message. Remember, for example, that the last time co-winner Morgan Freeman played the aging sidekick to Eastwood's faded hero routine was in the equally well-made film of 1992, Unforgiven, an anti gun-control movie that slipped in the American flag for 2.4 seconds in a scene at the height of its dramatic revenge.... here comes that orchestra again.

To get a more definite sense of what is meant here, it is highly recommended to read a study along this line of analysis by Susan Jeffords, titled Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era . Her book treated Clint Eastwood & company so thoroughly that she almost predicted that he would make a film like "Million Dollar Baby" a full decade before he decided to do so.

In the future, the Academic Awards will include more winners in more categories, but this year we can hardly afford that many cups of green tea. Good night.


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