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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

yes, two liberalish oscar-related posts in a row

I would like to respond briefly to the Roger Ebert argument that "Crash was just the better picture." Note that he didn't say "the Academy, as a group, just preferred this film." If that were the case, it would be begging the question, as I want to know why the Academy, as a group, went for the less-credentialed film. Any individual may hold an opinion as to the relative quality of two films with near-impunity, but a group as large and diverse as the Academy does not take positions on whimsy -- there is causation. As many filmgoers deny aesthetic truth, I think Ebert's position raises some very interesting philosophical questions.

He seems to be suggesting that 1) there IS an aesthetic truth-of-the-matter, 2) that Crash was the better film, and 3) that this was causally related to it winning the Academy Award. Leaving 1) and 3) aside (especially 3, which seems almost ludicrous looking at the Academy's history), let's focus for a second on 2: If there is objective truth about movie quality, how can we discern what it is? Surely not from the opinion of Roger Ebert. In fact, we have certain (imperfect) heuristics that are meant to settle these disputes. They include various critic's awards, guild awards, polls, compendiums of opinion, top-10 lists, and even correlate factors like number of nominations or box-office, etc. Not that these things are wholly accurate, but when there is disagreement, the position that has these things on their side is stronger. Now there are a lot of systematic problems with this method -- for example, it favors bigger films with broader appeal than 'brilliant' films with limited appeal, it favors a particular type of film that appeals to the non-representative sample of people involved, and it frequently includes irrelevant criteria (like who has been 'snubbed' recently). At the end of the day, though, it is clear that this system has endorsed one of these films. With the exception of the Academy, almost every element in this heuristic favored Brokeback, right down to boxoffice.

Of course, this doesn't prove that Ebert's claim that Crash was a better picture is wrong. If he is right, however, we must account for the complete failure of the rest of the credentialing system -- It was so uniform that I doubt it can be chalked up to variance. Either the system is wholly unreliable -- which does not seem to comport with Ebert's belief that the Academy got it right for the right reason -- or you must believe that there was some pro-Brokeback bias that directed those groups to choose it despite it being the lesser film. Perhaps the critics, guilds, brits, and filmgoing public all had a pro-homosexual agenda that mattered more to them than their critical integrity. Or perhaps the bias lay elsewhere.

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