Nostalgia Swamped the Oscars, but Don't Blame 'The Artist'

In a year where small, arty films were being recognized, the ceremony pined for a return to the days of big, iconic blockbusters.

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They don't make films like they used to, do they?

That was the question the 84th Academy Awards asked again and again Sunday. Throwback montages about "movie magic," venerated stars giving their venerated stump speeches, reminiscences about the various good 'ole days: We've seen all these things at past Oscars, but this time it was practically all we got. While this was the safest, slightest ceremony in a while, there was something almost political in its fixation on cinema pre-2011. The here and now, the Oscars implied, is defective.

Yes, 'The Artist' is a nostalgia trip. But it's also pro-future, pro-innovation, and anti-memory-wallowing.

The message was clearest during one of the night's highlights, a mock archival segment from Best In Show/This Is Spinal Tap mastermind Christopher Guest. The set-up: What would have happened if The Wizard of Oz had been focus-grouped for audiences during the FDR administration the way films nowadays are? Some schmuck would want to nix "Over the Rainbow," obviously. Another would colorize the black-and-white stuff. It was a fairly hilarious bit, but also a jab at the way things are done today versus the way things were done back in the day.

Host Billy Crystal, himself a relic, leaned heavily on jokes about how modern society degrades the film-viewing experience, snarking about texting during screenings and watching movies on iPads. Pan-Am-ish hostesses walked down the Kodak Theatre's aisles, offering popcorn the way that movie houses once did. Morgan Freeman was the first of the night to speak, giving a tried/true/tired preface about the magic of movies. Cirque du Soleil, which like Crystal and Freeman was at the peak of its relevance a decade ago, pulled off a spectacular routine paying tribute to not-so-of-the-moment titles like North by Northwest and Gone With the Wind. Peppered throughout the night were self-serious testimonials from well-known actors described their first filmgoing experiences.

This, of course, was all to be expected. An affable but reactionary ceremony was nearly guaranteed after two recent attempts at edginess: the widely panned performances of fresh-faced hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011, and the implosion of a plan for action-film director Brett Ratner to produce and Eddie Murphy to host this year's Oscars. The common advice to the Academy—including from The Atlantic—following Murphy's exodus was to stop trying to be hip, to abandon plans to court young viewers. It's advice that apparently went heeded. And that's fine; Sunday's show was boring but not a train wreck. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging film history. But shouldn't a celebration of the past year's movies feel tied to, well, the past year?

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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