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Sound of Metal and the Weight of Oscars



I've dedicated a fair plot of real estate in this column to the idea that movie awards (and award shows) do not matter. For what it's worth, I've wasted even more time thinking than writing about it. But, as I've prattled, American culture, the universe at-large and the sonofabitching third decade of the 21st century have conspired, once again, to both affirm and undermine some of that self-same prattling. The LA Times recently published a comprehensively damning exposé of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the 87-person body with total control of the Golden Globes), revealing it as a self-serving, greed-based (likely racist) cabal currying favor among the cinematic establishment in exchange for awards. This is hardly surprising, living as we do in an era defined by mistrust, misinformation and grotesquely eroticized conspiracy theories. But it squares with the generally perceived irrelevance (and frequent nonsensicality) of both the Globes' nomination and awards processes. They don't matter and the HFPA knows it, but now its opportunistic manipulation of extant systems of bias has been revealed.

The Academy Awards have managed to retain some sense of legitimacy and pomp down the decades, even as they have been embroiled in controversies regarding racial bias and underrepresentation. Perhaps because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of actual professionals within the industry (rather than carrion-bird critics and reporters protected by anonymity), there is a greater imperative to respond to well-founded accusations and to disrupt the status quo. The awards, like the American movie business and the country that harbors it, have a long, odious legacy of both active and passive racism, of cultivated exclusivity and curated access, all veiled by a lack of acknowledgement.

Acknowledgment matters, words matter; somehow we are just starting to figure this out as a culture. In response to the ever-growing movement toward acknowledging this nation's history of genocide and oppression, the Academy has, in its small way, actually done something. Membership has grown almost exponentially in the last few years, with previously unrecognized artists, technicians and entire cultural groups now ostensibly finding a place at the table. Compared to en masse civil disobedience, this seems a little hollow, artificial even. But I think it can also be seen as a bellwether of real momentum, of ground-level unrest beginning to shake the ivory towers.

The Academy appears to have actually taken the temperature of the culture and made a move toward long-term correction of its past ills and oversights, while the HFPA has been caught with its collective pants down (probably literally) when confronted with its clandestine malfeasance.

I still no longer believe movie awards matter, except to the creaking machinery of the powers that be. However, these cultural institutions, anachronistic as they may be, still reflect the complexities and frustrations of the culture that created and informs them, and of which they are a reflection. And the Academy, in what is, of course, a political move, has shaken things up. It also announced the nominees for this year's awards and they are actually quite good: more representative, more inclusive, more thoughtful and (I'll just say it) more fun than they have been for years. It feels like a moment and, despite some notable omissions, an occasion for hope.

Among the best picture, best actor and best supporting actor nominees is Sound of Metal, a dark horse that garnered a surprising six nominations. Written by Darius and Abraham Marder, with contributions from Derek Cianfrance and directed by Darius (who scripted Cianfrance's 2012 The Place Beyond the Pines), Sound details the transition into silence of progressive-metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, in a performance as revelatory as everyone has said). When he loses his hearing, abruptly and entirely, in the midst of a national tour with bandmate and partner Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben is understandably bereft. Fearful that the loss threatens his years of sobriety, Lou finds a rural treatment community for the deaf, overseen by the taciturn but deeply compassionate Joe (Paul Raci). The couple are faced with a period of intense separation after years of relative bliss aboard their Airstream home/studio, and Ruben must sit with the possibility that his life has changed permanently.

The movie isn't perfect, and may be subject to some of the flights of fancy and anti-hero worship that both helped and hindered A Place Beyond the Pines. But it is beautiful, occasionally heart-breaking and made by people who, last year, would likely have gone unrecognized for their work, at least at the upper echelons. R. 120M. AMAZON PRIME.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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