Three years ago, film writer Mark Harris perfectly summed up how conversations about Best Picture nominees tend to go down. He called it The Balls Argument, and it goes like this: “If Academy voters had any balls, they would give the Best Picture Oscar to ‘X.’ However, Academy voters have no balls. Therefore, they will give Best Picture to ‘Y.'”
As Harris explained, an “X” film is usually “dark, cynical, existential or nihilist, physically or emotionally violent, R-rated, and somewhat savage in outlook. They are often by, about, and for the alienated, the skeptical, and the enraged.” Examples of “X” films from Oscars’ past include Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, and Brokeback Mountain – each one a wronged masterpiece that was overlooked in the Best Picture category in favor of a “Y” film.
Harris defined a “Y” film is as “bromidic, blandly messagey, or hopelessly anodyne … When they’re not telling you that everything will be OK, they’re addressing important subjects with noncontroversial philosophical shrugs (racism is bad; if you repress emotions, they’ll come back to hurt you; we’re all connected).” Example include Best Picture winners such as Ordinary People, Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, and Crash.
I’ve though a lot about this X/Y binary, because it’s handy for exploring how audiences often pit two things against each other in order to work out their feelings about some other issue that is bigger and more abstract. (I even wrote a book about this topic as it pertains to pop music.) If you’re invested in the binary, preferring X or Y (as opposed to liking both of them) isn’t merely an aesthetic choice, but it’s also a statement about what you value and how you view the world.
For the Oscars, debates about edgy “X” films versus reassuring “Y” films are can be related to overarching differences in culture and politics. While opposing ideologies square off in elections every few years, proxy referendums weighing the merits of oppositional ideas take place all the time in pop culture. The world is filled with Rorschach tests; viewers see their values being challenged or affirmed in everything they watch, whether it’s a Ghostbusters remake, a Beyoncé halftime show, or an episode of black-ish.
Some artists want us to to view their work in this way. But many others don’t. Unfortunately, artists don’t get to choose how their work resonates with people. Sometimes, art created for art’s sake gets reduced to agitprop by the audience and the media.
For the 2017 Oscars, the early headlines have concerned Mel Gibson’s unlikely comeback and the gains the Academy has made in nominating artists of color in the aftermath of last year’s humiliating #oscarssowhite controversy. But in the weeks ahead, I suspect the dominant narrative will be another X/Y binary, this time pitting leading Oscar contender La La Land as the “Y” movie and critical favorite Moonlight as the “X” movie.