“This is not a joke.”
So said Jordan Horowitz, producer of La La Land, amid the minor chaos occurring on stage at the 2017 Academy Awards. As we all know by now, Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope and, after a bit of confused hesitation, announced La La Land as winner of Best Picture (I couldn’t help but think of Beatty’s performance in the 1975 film Shampoo, in which he played a hair stylist gigolo whose seduction strategy usually amounted to confused hesitation). He was, it turns out, holding the envelope from the previous award, which had gone to Emma Stone for her performance in the film. Horowitz and the La La Land entourage ascended to the stage amid much understandable celebration. And then, midway through the third (!) acceptance speech, the mistake was announced – Moonlight, not La La Land, had won Best Picture. As the La La Land Entourage stood bewildered, Horowitz took to the microphone and invited the Moonlight team onto the stage, announcing “guys, guys, I’m sorry, no. ‘Moonlight’ won best picture.” To prove that, indeed, this was not a joke, Horowitz held up the real card, which, of course, read “Moonlight Best Picture.”
For viewers at home, the camera zoomed in on the card, so that we, too, could feel the shock of truth revealed. While Horowitz may have been gracious in what had to be an emotionally strange situation,(in contrast to the show’s host, Jimmy Kimmel – more on him later), he also did nothing more than what would be expected. And yet, the following morning the Washington Post dubbed Horowtiz “the truth-teller we need right now” and “the closest thing the Oscars can get to a folk hero.” Horowitz did virtually nothing, and yet we are being told to celebrate him, thus overshadowing recognition of Moonlight.
But what if the mistake also tells a truth? What if we take the announcement of La La Land as Best Picture as a moment of truth the Academy would rather not tell (even as it staged the truth)? What if we treat this mistake as an instance of what Sigmund Freud called “parapraxes” and which we more commonly call (with a gesture to the patronymic) “Freudian slips”? We all know and love a good Freudian slip hen we hear one, like when George H.W. Bush told us “For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan, we’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex…uh…setbacks.” Or when Kanye West announced to his Twitter followers that he was “up early in the morning taking meetings in Silicone Valley.” So, apparently, in pop culture, Freudian slips are funny and often about sex. And the advent of autocorrect may just have ushered in the age of parapraxis.
But that’s not all. “Parapraxes” was a neologism invented to translate into English the German term Fehlleistungen, which literally means “faulty acts” or “faulty functions.” While these slips, these mistakes, these faulty acts may appear of little consequence, Freud asks, “are there not very important things which can only reveal themselves, under certain conditions and at certain times, by quite feeble indications?” Freud was concerned not only with the relation between the slip and its origin – how did one word come to substitute for another – but also, and more importantly, with the “sense” of the parapraxis itself. “We are bound in the end,” Freud wrote,
to find the courage to say that in a few examples what results from the slip of the tongue has a sense of its own…the slip of the tongue may perhaps itself have a right to be regarded as a completely valid psychical act, pursuing an aim of its own, as a statement with a content and a significance. So far we have always spoke on ‘parapraxes (faulty acts)’, but it seems now as though sometimes the faulty act was itself a normal act, which merely took the place of the other act which was the one expected or intended.
So what is the sense – the content and the significance – of the mistaken announcement of La La Land? What was the “normal” psychical act contained therein? The Oscars have been criticized – and rightly so –for their steadfast attachment to whiteness. Indeed, in the run up to this year’s awards, many critics acknowledged Moonlight as the better film but assumed La La Land would win. In addition to its heteronormative whiteness, it’s a film about Hollywood itself, a love letter to the fantastical power of the of golden age of musicals, of white attachment to the seductive power of jazz, of the hyper-cathected image that was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
And yet, this year’s list of nominees and some winners suggested that the academy seemed to be attempting to rise to the meager heights of liberal diversity and inclusion. In addition to Moonlight, the Best Picture nominees included Hidden Figures and Fences. Among the winners were Mahershala Ali for best supporting actor, Viola Davis for best supporting actress, and Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for best adapted screenplay. Zootopia, an uplifting tale of interspecies tolerance produced by the largest animation studio in the world, won best animated film (an allegory of the Oscars, perhaps).
Of course, among the nominees and winners were anti-Semitic lunatic Mel Gibson’s latest entry into his catalogue of violence porn, Hacksaw Ridge, and Casey Affleck, who may really capture that most desired of acting accents – Boston! – but has also been the subject of several sexual harassment suits. Wrapped around the winners and nominees was the show’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, who mixed the “witty” banter of an awards show host with his predictable “cute” racism, among other things asking Mahershala Ali “With a name like Mahershala what do you name the kid?”
This amiable racism sat alongside a kaleidoscope of subtle and not so subtle rebukes of Trump and Trumpism across the night’s acceptance speeches. These included a letter written by best foreign language film winner, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and read by Iranian-American scientist Anousheh Ansari, who accepted the award in place of the boycotting director. “Dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories,” Farhadi wrote, “creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” Yet, more of the acceptance speeches combined a general condemnation of Trump and xenophobia with a celebration of Hollywood’s liberal, do-gooder charity magic: the normal kind of self-congratulation that has long marked the Academy Awards.
So, then, what truth did the mistaken announcement tell? It is, perhaps, obvious. At a moment when a queer, African-American film wins best picture – a symptomatic event, to be sure, and one that portends, possibly, a different future – the mistake tells the truth of the Motion Picture Academy of America moving towards “diversity” and “inclusion” on its own terms. From the perspective of Moonlight, like that of Black Lives Matter and other insurgencies, the Oscar win not only forced the door open but reconstituted the terrain on which we all are operating. What other worlds are possible, a question that only the arts and humanities can even imagine?
But from the perspective of the Academy, the mistake, the parapraxis, staged an invitation to join, and a highly policed one at that. From the paragons of an older Hollywood presenting the award, to the pitting of Moonlight against La La Land (a pitting that Jenkins and Horowitz have refused), to a cadre of white men inviting Jenkins and Moonlight entourage onto the stage to accept the award, the truth is obvious – white, heteronormative Hollywood will continue to operate on its own terms until forced to change dramatically.
This is not about intentionality – I do not believe the conspiracy theories circulating on social media about the Oscars working to upstage Moonlight. Mistakes happen, from multinational accounting firms like PwC to celebrity monuments to Hollywood’s glorious past. But they mean something, and more often than not the truth comes out even when we’d prefer it remain buried. At this moment of overt racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, all encouraged and maintained by the office of the president, the unintentional slip remains a distinction worth noting. The vicious fools let loose by Trump don’t want the cover of parapraxis. Yet, we need to remember that sometimes, the parapraxis is the insidious, unintentional support of those regimes of oppression, offered up by those — such as Hollywood’s award winners — even as they make speeches against them.
—Brian Connolly hates everything.