What it means for Hollywood if Argo wins

UPDATE (2/25): And it did win! Hollywood is really in love with itself.

In a moment of pre-Oscar jitters, I thought it apt to discuss what I think Hollywood means if it chooses Argo as Best Picture tonight. Yes, there are eight other films in the running, four of which I've seen, so I can't be a decisive predictor of the outcome. Lincoln will probably sweep, and Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook will probably be overlooked somehow, but if Argo wins, it sends a particularly strong signal to Hollywood and the movie-making corners of the world. Here's why:

Remember in 2010 when the conventional, Academy-schmoozing The King's Speech beat out the more progressive, innovative films like The Social Network, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right for the top prize? It was because the Academy responsible for doling out the award, with an average voter age of 62, loves that kind of sappy underdog story about the bravery and selflessness of the world's elite. Especially when it's got those grand cinematic contents like the threat of war and a man overcoming obstacles for the good of others.

If Argo wins, it means that Hollywood has similarly patted itself on the back.

The true hero of Ben Affleck's hostage thriller is Hollywood itself. Affleck's character Tony Mendez, despite working for the CIA, owes more to the movie-making business for his mission's success than his own moves. He uses the finely tuned motion picture system that will support and promote even a "bullshit fake movie" modeled after Star Wars to get his hostages out of Iran, so we can argue that this vision of Hollywood is quite self-congratulatory. Especially since this "based on a true" story is now a movie.

You could argue that Argo is not self-congratulatory with regards to its production system, but rather aware of its self-indulgence, because the entire operation relies on Hollywood's ability to produce bad films, and on its disregard for politics--why the hell would anyone in their right mind enter a pre-revolutionary territory to make a silly scifi movie? This can be a meta-commentary on Hollywood's selfish moneymaking interests at the expense of political sensitivity and awareness.

I think, however, that the thriller form of Argo sends the message that Hollywood advocates for its own importance over politics. The opening sets the tone as a political thriller with a prelude that gives a quick history of the Shah and the coup situation in Tehran in 1979--so we start off feeling as though we will get a film steeped in negotiations and political tension. But this is not the case; instead, the story focuses on using a movie cover to relieve six foreign service workers from the Canadian Embassy instead of the 60 more that were held hostage, under real danger, in the embassy itself. It only cuts back periodically to the embassy and its hostages, while it uses a lot of screen time following Mendez as he sets up the operation in L.A., and then follows him to Tehran. The film is surely a thrilling nail biter as we watch him carry it out, and we even get a car/airplane chase at the end--a typical action wowzer that reminds us again that this is a Hollywood thriller. Of course we worry for those six Americans, but I can't help but feel as though the whole thing is indicative of the fact that Hollywood champions the paradoxically apolitical and yet nationalist stories that make itself look good. In other words, Hollywood's version of history tends to honor Hollywood over history itself. It uses its own version of events, with a layer of aesthetics and storytelling, which actually presents a version of itself more than any true, active involvement in what really happened. The same thing goes for Zero Dark Thirty, a highly contested runner for Best Picture this year, which presents the events in a compelling way but refuses to take political sides.

Finally, it's interesting to note that America doesn't take credit for their CIA involvement in the operation, giving the spotlight over to Canada. But yet the light shines on Hollywood, both within the diegesis of Argo's America of 1980 and the production system that created the 2012 film.  So, while political imperialism may have been quieted in this instance, cultural imperialism still stands. Simply put, the movies rule.

So if Argo wins, the Academy is applauding its own production system once again (which it essentially does every year), but this time with particular self-importance.

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