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.
Going by the letter of Harris’ definitions, neither La La Land nor Moonlight fit comfortably in their given categories. La La Land isn’t really “bromidic” or “blandly messagey,” unless you take Ryan Gosling’s exhortations about jazz at face value. And Moonlight isn’t dark, cynical, or particularly violent — quite the opposite, in fact. I would even argue that La La Land and Moonlight are more alike than different, at least philosophically — say what you want about either film, but you can’t say that Damien Chazelle or Barry Jenkins got here by turning out conventional Oscar bait. On the contrary, La La Land and Moonlight are both hopeful reminders that it’s still possible for auteurist filmmakers to make deeply personal movies that aren’t obviously commercial but still find a way to connect with audiences.
However, if you’ve been paying attention to how La La Land and Moonlight have been written about, the X/Y binary is more clearly defined. According to thinkpieces, La La Land is the “white jazz” movie, the self-aggrandizing valentine to Hollywood tradition, the feel-good nostalgic hit. And Moonlight is La La Land‘s groundbreaking foil, a testament to the benefits of inclusion in an exclusive industry, a corrective to the sins of a blinkered industry.
You can probably see where this narrative is going: If Moonlight wins, the film industry will be redeemed. If La La Land wins, it’s business as usual. Does this put an unfair (not to mention unrealistic) burden on both films? Undoubtedly. But is there any chance the 2017 Oscars conversation doesn’t go down this way? I highly doubt it, even if Manchester By the Sea or Hidden Figures pull off the upset.
It would be naive to play Pollyanna and ask that we only judge “movies as movies.” The whole point of award shows is to compare and contrast otherwise dissimilar works of art and make judgements based on core values. Even if this annual ritual is frequently risible, you can’t ask to do away with it overnight. It’s too ingrained, so this is the system we’re stuck with.
It’s also true that overturning institutional racism and sexism is more important than any single film’s reputation. And the only way to fix this problem is to keep bringing up disparities in opportunities for artists of color whenever the media happens to be paying attention. So, that conversation must also continue.
I guess my only hope is that we’re able to hold a couple of different thoughts in our heads about these movies moving forward. Yes, it’s valid to regard La La Land and Moonlight as signifiers for what Hollywood, and American culture, puts value in. But it’s also worth remembering that these films started out as idiosyncratic works created by directors who set out to signify nothing but themselves.
This isn’t a typical year for the Oscars – the front-runners for Best Picture don’t appear to have been conceived with awards in mind. If you watched either movie in a bubble, you’d be hard-pressed to locate a plainly telegraphed “message,” like you can with some many Oscar-winning movies of the past. Both films feel like attempts to make something beautiful, as opposed to something “important.” The Oscars typically value importance, but beauty tends to have a longer shelf life.
Presenting La La Land as the epitome of Hollywood’s vanilla establishment disregards how few films like La La Land get made. Do we really want to pretend that a musical about a guy trying to open a jazz club was a slam-dunk no-brainer predestined for inevitable success? Meanwhile, I wonder if couching Moonlight as the film you “should” see rather than want to see might do more harm than good. Take a recent Saturday Night Live sketch that parodied the widespread acclaim for La La Land (ignoring the backlash that has raged online in recent weeks), in which one character begs off from seeing Moonlight, worrying that “it’s going to be a whole thing,” while also piously testifying to the film’s importance.
When I caught a preview screening of Moonlight last fall, without knowing much background, I was blown away by the film’s audacious flaunting of convention — the time-jumping three-part structure, the unlikely arc of the protagonist Chiron, the eccentric but amazing soundtrack. Moonlight isn’t some noble “eat your vegetables” movie, it’s one of the more exciting cinematic experiences I had in a theater last year.
Among the most eloquent defenders of La La Land against the backlash has been Jenkins, who decried the “superficial reading” of La La Land as a middling alternative to his own film. Jenkins has also been insightful about the limitations unwittingly put on Moonlight by some of its most fervent supporters.
“What we have to do is unpack the phrase ‘groundbreaking.’ It’s only groundbreaking because these stories haven’t been told very often,” Jenkins told us back in October. “We think about diverse stories and diverse storytellers telling stories that can only exist in a certain space, but I think in being diverse and being exclusive, because this story is exclusively about a black boy in a predominantly black neighborhood, yet that exclusivity makes it universal. And so I don’t think this story should be compartmentalized, you know?”
I liked both La La Land and Moonlight, but if I have to choose one, I choose Moonlight, because it moved me the most. Perhaps you feel differently. That’s okay. Let’s talk about it! But let’s also agree that “this movie moved me the most” ought to be the predominant metric when we judge cinema.