I’m a broken record about my story. I have to say it over and over so that I can accept it. When I was 16, my father died. That’s the sentence I write to explain myself. You can’t understand me if you don’t know this part. Nothing about me makes sense unless I tell you that, when I was just a teenager, something deeply catastrophic happened to me. Ever since the moment of his death, I’ve struggled to live, to speak, to write, to survive. Only a few things have carried me from that moment to this one: my mother, books, music, art, and cinema. Those are what I clung to in the dark aftermath of his death and they are what I hold on to still.
I exposed a lot just now. You thought you’d read a little story about the Oscars and here I am laying my heartache bare. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. This is how I am. I can’t beat around the bush. I can’t pretend or hold back. I overshare, and the internet rewards that kind of thing. Maybe we all overshare, hoping someone sees what we are sharing. Maybe we’re trying to share the burden of the pain and find others shouldering the same thing. What does any of this have to do with film? It has everything to do with it.
After my father died, I went to cinema like others go to religion. My church was a dark movie theater, often empty except for me and my mom. In my rural North Carolina town, there weren’t too many theaters. This was around 2006. But there was a one dollar theater (it’s now closed) that miraculously would play some art house cinema. It also played its fair share of schlock, but I watched that, too. In my grief, I didn’t care what was on the screen as long as it was a story, another world that sucked me out of the horror I was living. I went to that theater because I wanted to escape an empty, haunted house, a home that no longer existed because my father was dead. I didn’t want to feel it or think about it or live it. I wanted to be in that theater, away from my new, unbearable reality.
What does this have to do with the Oscars? The Oscars have commodified films. The show advertises itself as a celebration of movies, but it’s just a spectacle that has nothing to do with the emotional, transcendent beauty of cinema that I found in that theater all those years ago when I thought I might die of grief and maybe I am slowly dying of it, but the films saved me then and they save me now. For me, the Oscars has no relationship to what I feel when I watch a film. What I see in that ceremony with the beautiful dresses (I do love them) and the fancy food and the golden statues has no connection to the essence of cinema, this glorious art form of light that transports us into other lives.
The moment I know a film is a work of art is when I feel my burden lighten, when I feel in the presence of something that represents the loneliness inside me, when I feel the director is sharing something from his or her own soul that touches my soul, when I feel just for that interval of the film that I am not alone in this senseless, chaotic, and terrifying world. The films that have made me feel all of that often never got nominated for an Oscar. It doesn’t matter. The lack of an Oscar nomination or win doesn’t make those films any less valid or meaningful. I still love those films and will always love them because of what they’ve given me.
I understand why the Oscars matter to many people. I absolutely believe that representation matters, that we need diversity in film, that all kinds of stories should appear on the screen. I know that an Oscar nomination or win can transform someone’s life, give them access to new opportunities, jump-start a career. When people talk about the lack of diversity in nominations and wins, that’s important, and I’d never belittle the fight against the sexism and racism in the film industry. I think all of that goes without saying, but I wanted to make it clear. Outrage is justified when so few women have ever been nominated (let alone won) in the directing category. Outrage is justified when people of color are consistently overlooked.
I’m talking about the need on the part of many to see the Oscars validate their film taste. Because they loved a certain film, of course it should be nominated! They believe their favorites are worthy of recognition. What I’m asking is why do we need this outward validation? Why do we need this institution to acknowledge the films we like? I’ve let it go. I’ve given it up because I do not believe the Oscars represent the vast majority of cinephiles who live and breathe film and dedicate the vast majority of their lives to it. I’m watching films for spiritual sustenance. Cinema is that serious to me. It goes back to that dark theater over a decade ago. That’s what I trace this obsession, this cinemania, back to. But it’s not just obsession, it’s love. Overwhelming love. Maybe it’s unhealthy. It probably is, but as I’ve gone through more loss and more pain and more fear, I’ve turned even more to films.
I could care less if any of the movies I love are ever nominated. Would it be nice for them to be more widely known and for the filmmakers and producers to get recognition for their work? Absolutely. But, for me, the film is enough. The experience of the film. The feeling of the film. The moment of connection. The lessening of loneliness that it provides. The beauty. All of it is enough. It’s what I live for. Somehow, in all the Oscar predictions and bets and watch parties and think pieces, the true meaning of cinema gets lost and forgotten. What it’s really about is your emotional experience of that film, what you see in the images, how the film becomes part of you, how you think about it for days or even years, how scenes come back to you at random moments. That’s what matters to me. Not the red carpet. Not the media coverage. Not the name that’s read aloud after the envelope is opened. Just me and the film and the way we become one.