What the Bongslide says about the Academy. Times critics on the Oscars.

Manohla Dargis, Wesley Morris and A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 11 2020 07:37 AM

What the Bongslide says about the Academy. Times critics on the Oscars. 1
Cast and crew of the Korean movie "Parasite" receive the Best Picture award at the at the 92nd Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, on Sunday. "Parasite" made history as the first non-English movie to win Best Picture in Oscars. Bong Joon-ho also won the Best Director award for the movie. Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

The morning after the Oscars and the historic best picture win for Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” the first South Korean film to take that prize in 92 years of competition, we asked Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, our co-chief film critics, and Wesley Morris, a critic at large, to discuss their reactions and what it means, if anything, for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, specifically, and Hollywood in general. Here’s what they said.

MANOHLA DARGIS: Well, that was fun, and delightfully unexpected. I spent much of last night steeling myself to be disappointed, fully expecting that this morning we’d be sighing over the American weakness for British accents (“1917”), parsing the triumph of nihilism (“Joker”) and sighing over a cute Holocaust movie (“Jojo Rabbit”). What I didn’t expect is that a brilliantly directed South Korean story of haves and have-nots would conquer the academy — except of course its members belong to their own profoundly, unfairly hierarchical world, so perhaps game recognizes game?

The success of “Parasite” makes me wonder if the best picture win for a middlebrow nothing like “Green Book” last year was more anomalous than it seemed — that it represented more of a last gasp than a serious retrenchment. In the last decade, the academy has reliably frustrated us, but it’s also embraced new American visionaries like Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and original filmmakers from abroad, including the Three Amigos, as they call themselves (Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro G. Iñárritu). The love in the room last night for Bong Joon Ho was palpable, which was exciting and also makes me hope it will bring a lasting shift in how the white mainstream regards Asian film artists.

A.O. SCOTT: Last night’s Bongslide — best director, original screenplay, international feature and best picture — is one of those things that seems impossible until it happens, when it suddenly looks inevitable. It’s also the kind of contingent occurrence that instantly takes on enormous significance.

A predictable night at the Dolby Theater, with a reasonably lively no-host show, turned historic in its final act, partly because it recovered and extended Hollywood’s history of internationalism. Back in its classical era, American movies built their glamour with the labor of émigré artists from fascist Europe. Over the past decade, the directing category has been at the vanguard of cosmopolitanism (though in the rear guard when it comes to gender equality): Cuarón and Iñárritu each won twice; del Toro, Ang Lee and Michel Hazanavicius have also won.

Of course the triumph of “Parasite” goes beyond those precedents, but in other ways it’s an almost ideal Oscar movie. Admired by critics and adored by audiences. A box office hit all over the world. A wonderfully entertaining movie that tackles serious issues. It was fitting that Bong accepted his directing Oscar from Spike Lee and quoted Martin Scorsese in his acceptance speech, because, like them, he embodied the ideal of the filmmaker as popular artist, with equal emphasis on both of those words.

WESLEY MORRIS: You guys — the Bongslide! I’m still giddy. It makes no sense. It makes all the sense in the world. It makes no sense. Manohla, you just reminded me why I love the Oscars as a process. The winners are the result of passion, politics and math — and despite there being no surprises among the acting nominees — there really should be no predicting what the process does. Never mind that the problem with the modern process (the season, as it’s called) is that it makes the movies, their makers and stars seem processed. “Oscar movie” is practically a genre now, one that undermines good movies and politicizes innocent ones. Manohla, don’t kill me, but I like “1917,” despite its romanticization of war and its glancing backward. It’s just too well made to shrug off. But there was something about its seeming to be the academy’s preferred movie that didn’t thrill me because … it also reeks of Oscar. And I think what’s happened in the last 10 years, even with something like “12 Years a Slave” winning best picture — a rough, imaginative American movie, directed by an Englishman — is that there’s a real churning about what else an Oscar movie can be.

The real question is, what does it mean for the movies going forward? For American movies, in particular? Are there executives who’ll see this and not only want to produce more original scripts but will also want to market those movies and really stand behind them, to stand by people like Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Trey Edward Shults and Ari Aster. Not to make Oscar movies but new, original movies at all.

DARGIS: I don’t have much faith that a “Parasite” win will have a significant impact on the American movie industry, which at the major studio level remains dedicated to recycling formulas, as all those Disney ads last night reminded us. The best we can hope for in the wake of “Parasite,” I think, is some kind of cultural shift in the kinds of movies that are taken seriously, including by the mainstream media. Every year there’s one foreign-language movie that seems to break through — last year it was Netflix’s “Roma” — but there’s a whole wonderful world of exciting cinema to discover, from Asia to Africa and beyond.

So, while I’m thrilled for Bong, the other most deeply moving thing about its multiple wins is that a movie with subtitles won two of the highest honors from the academy, a body that at least this morning looks nearly radical when compared to the industry’s corporate leadership. The academy has been busily diversifying its ranks, and that effort paid off in meaningful ways. Notably, these folks clearly don’t mind reading subtitles, though it’s worth noting that apparently Neon, which distributed “Parasite” in the States, didn’t send out screeners until later in the awards race, which was smart. It tried to get voters to watch “Parasite” in theaters, where it could keep you delightfully captive (unlike at home, where it was too easy to turn off “The Irishman”).

SCOTT: Maybe it’s the Bong hangover, but on this morning after, when I was fully expecting to endorse Wesley’s thoughts of breaking up with the academy and propose that we all sleep in next year, I’m thinking that “Parasite” may actually have rescued the Oscars, or at least thrown the ceremonies a lifeline.

Part of the identity crisis that has afflicted the awards in recent years is the sense that they serve too many incompatible constituencies. An industry that likes continuity and tradition, a global audience that wants a big spectacle, younger voters interested in aesthetic risk and social awareness, a domestic public that somehow both hates politics and insists on politicizing everything. The broadcasts of recent years have exposed some of the contradictions between Hollywood’s universalist aspirations and its parochial realities.

How can the show continue to attract a global audience? By focusing on the big-budget, IP-driven franchise movies that are Hollywood’s leading global export? That has been an obvious, dreary answer for quite some time, but “Parasite” suggests a different one. There’s a whole world of movies out there — exciting, surprising, popular movies — that deserve audiences and accolades in America.

MORRIS: You’re both pointing out two possible outcomes in the wake of “Parasite.” First that the enormous skepticism (within the industry and in the average living room) of the Netflix way alters the company’s relationship to movies. They’ll still make them, of course, because we want them (Martin Scorsese’s and Tyler Perry’s). But, frankly, I’m tired of the jokes about “The Irishman” as a TV show, even the funny ones (like Chris Rock’s during the ceremony). That was supposed to be the appeal of “1917,” too — it’s a theatrical experience. Fewer people saw “The Irishman” the old way but maybe in a theater more people took it seriously. “Joker” felt like it was treated with far more reverence. (Going into Sunday night, it led the nomination field.) Or maybe it’s just a matter of “Roma” and “The Irishman” being bellwethers of an experience that certain people resent right now but that won’t be so exasperating to future movie audiences. Either way, we’re deep in the creases of an industrial pivot.

Second, Tony, you’re right. This win does feel like a lifeline. And, obviously, a turning apart from the milestones of Ang Lee and the Three Amigos. I was thinking last night about all the movies made by great directors who once would have stood no chance at the Oscars. Great, non-American filmmakers who make big, challenging movies that used to represent a major artery of the North American cinematic circulatory system. Does this win reinstate those moviegoing and movie-distribution priorities?

Bong Joon Ho operates in an increasingly less unique class. Like the Mexicans, he’s a regionalist, an internationalist and an entertainer. He does as much quoting as Quentin Tarantino and can take big, polemical ideas and do so many funny and suspenseful and strange and audacious things with them. I left his hit “Snowpiercer” convinced that that would be the movie that took him to the Oscars. (This is why you don’t take predictions from me.) But that was a grand, conceptual production with a multinational cast and Bong’s reliably downbeat worries about capitalism, ecology and human nature. I’m happy it’s “Parasite” the academy noticed in such a major way. It’s “Snowpiercer” writ smaller, intimately. He wasn’t aiming to conquer the planet with this one. He was listening to himself, thinking out loud. And we all heard him.