If Hollywood had a Hammer

Posted: Mar 07, 2006 12:01 AM

When writer/director, and now Oscar winner, Paul Haggis accepted his best original screenplay award for Crash, he revealed something fundamental about the way Hollywood looks at art.

“Bertolt Brecht said that art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it. So I guess this is ours,” said Haggis as he held up his golden statuette.

Of course, that is not what Brecht actually said. The correct quote reads, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” It may seem like a small difference, but it is a significant one.

Brecht’s line represents a broad vision of how the individual relates to the world around him, including how he relates to politics and society. Haggis’ version is a narrow observation about how to get other people, apparently movie audiences, to conform to the filmmaker’s point-of-view.

Both the quote and the misquote are instructive.

There were no Michael Moore moments of “Shame on you, Mr. President” at this year’s Academy Awards. Paradise Now, the suicide-bomber-celebrating foreign nominee didn’t win, so the question of whether it would be catcalled was avoided. Though Brokeback Mountain took Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay honors, neither director Ang Lee nor screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana used the opportunity to say anything specific about gay marriage or homophobia.

Even faux politico Jon Stewart’s barbs were mostly made at the expense of the elite crowd before him and not the everyman crowd watching at home. When he quipped "I can't wait till we get Oscar's salute to montages” after the third clip series of the night, he couldn’t have nailed the self-congratulatory nature of the business more squarely.

Of course, being the Oscars, there were still a couple of embarrassingly out-of- touch moments, like George Clooney patting the Academy on the back for confronting the subject of AIDS when, he says, society was only whispering about the disease. (Umm, George, I was in high school when Tom Hanks won Best Actor for Philadelphia, the first major film to address HIV, so I can assure you there was plenty of loud discussion about the sexual menace as the condoms were being passed around).

And there were some pathetic moments like having best-supporting actor nominee Jake Gyllenhaal literally beg audiences to come back to the movie theaters. But even if the industry’s in-crowd did come off a bit desperate, overall, everyone behaved themselves.

In fact, it all seemed very staid and respectable--the kind of show that Douglas Fairbanks himself would have been proud of.

But before we conclude that Tinsel Town has learned its lesson about alienating the public, let’s remember the films nominated (which, granted, is tough considering that nobody saw them).

These were films that sympathized with terrorists, demonized capitalism, and turned uniquely American icons into subversive sexual punch lines. These were films that led to lowest box-office receipts in decades and the second-worst Oscar ratings since 1987. No matter how much velvet the Academy wraps its agenda in, its clear the public now knows the truth.

Hollywood wants to hammer us.