With the Oscars only a few days away, a quartet from the Cinema Studies Department sat down to chat about the 2017 Academy Awards during a Knowledge by the Slice lunchtime event on Wednesday.
The conversation veered from politically charged acceptance speeches to diversity within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to what makes a movie Oscar bait. But as will likely happen at the awards show on Sunday night, one particular film kept surfacing throughout the event—even after Peter Decherney, professor of English and cinema studies and the event’s moderator, asked the panel to hold off on discussing La La Land. (Coincidentally, the movie’s stars include alumnus John Legend C’99 and Marc Platt C’79 was a producer.)
It’s been easy to forget that movies other than La La Land came out this year and will be up for awards: the musical has been on such a winning streak with critics and at awards shows, and it’s shown up everywhere from Saturday Night Live to hundreds of commercial breaks. But during the hour-long discussion, Decherney and the other panelists—film studies professor and art history chair Karen Redrobe and Meta Mazaj and Kathy DeMarco Van Cleve, both senior lecturers in cinema studies—talked about several Oscar contenders that they’ve liked more.
Van Cleve, who teaches screenwriting at Penn, said she especially admired the script for Manchester by the Sea. That movie has her vote for Best Original Screenplay, and she’s expecting Moonlight to win for best adaptation.
In the Cinema Studies Department’s annual Oscar pool, Redrobe said she voted for Moonlight as this year’s Best Picture—not because she thinks it will actually win, but because “what would it mean about this country if something like this could be deemed to be the best? It would be a different kind of country.”
Mazaj also mentioned Moonlight as a standout film from 2016. She liked Hidden Figures, too.
Early on, Decherney asked Mazaj, an expert on the genrefication of films, to talk about what makes a movie Oscar-bait.
“It cannot be a genre film,” Mazaj said, noting that usually Best Picture winners “tackle political, social issues, but not in a very controversial way.” She said they tend to be “safe” films like The King’s Speech or Argo or Spotlight, with “some social relevance but not in a way that’s too provocative.”
Mazaj said Oscar winners are usually sentimental, too. And because the Academy “likes to pat themselves on the back,” they’re often about movies or artists or Hollywood in general.
La La Land in particular fits that last bit of criteria, though it may be the rare exception of a genre film (musical) frontrunner. But the three panelists all raised concerns about the movie. Van Cleve didn’t like the script. Mazaj called it “the film that just makes you feel [but] does not want you to think.” She said its nostalgia is also troubling, adding that “we need to be aware that nostalgia is a privilege.”
For the full discussion, including questions from the audience, Knowledge by the Slice captured this video of the event:
—Molly Petrilla C’06