The 2024 Oscars: The Rise of the New Culture Commissars

The annual rites of Oscar are nigh (Sunday, March 10), in case you hadn’t noticed—and given the sharply declining trend of the show’s ratings over the past decade, you probably hadn’t. Once a momentous occasion of national mind-melding of near-Super Bowl proportions, this increasingly tedious exercise in tacky self-aggrandizement and PC hectoring from gazillionaire celebrities now barely registers a blip on the radar of national consciousness, with scarcely a bounce for its winners at the sacred box office.

But the woke overlords of showbiz aren’t getting the message. Ever since the bold and the beautiful of Hollywood paraded before the cameras in the solemn chic of designer black at the 2017 Golden Globe awards—a brazenly narcissistic turn of sanctimony amid the then-burgeoning me-too movement—the monied players of Tinseltown have doubled and redoubled their contortions of subservience to the orthodoxies of woke, the preferred modality of hipster posturing among the neoliberal corporate and cultural elites.

Chris Hedges, in his essay “Woke Imperialism,” has aptly labeled this kind of empty moral exhibitionism as “boutique activism . . . an advertising gimmick, a brand, used to mask mounting social inequality and imperial folly.” Christopher Lasch noted that “the new social movements—feminism, gay rights, welfare rights, agitation against racial discrimination—have nothing in common, but their only coherent demand aims at inclusion in the dominant structures rather than at a revolutionary transformation in social relations.”

What gives the sham away, of course, is the hearty embrace of woke by corporate establishment, not least in its fostering of the illusion of social mobility through the cosmetic application of a purely representational “diversity” in leadership positions in companies, universities, and public office. As Lasch noted, “High rates of mobility are by no means inconsistent with a system of stratification that concentrates power and privilege in a ruling elite. Indeed, the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy as a function of merit rather than birth.” Or, as Walter Benn Michaels succinctly put it, “You definitely know you’re in a world that loves neoliberalism when the fact that some people of color are rich and powerful is regarded as a victory for all the people of color who aren’t.”

Behind its facade of representational sensitivities, “woke” betrays a troubling elitist propensity for bureaucratic-authoritarian modalities of thought and action: the by-now obligatory, chilling university speech codes; the mandated skittishness over psychological “safety”; and the endlessly ramifying codification of gender and racial quotas for the staffing of corporate and educational hierarchies and public offices. Far from challenging entrenched power, this ominous extension of the modern administrative-bureaucratic Leviathan—by means formal and informal, tacit and explicit—conforms all too well to the authoritarianism of modern governance.

In this amalgam of bureaucratic remedies and elite heterogeneity, one searches in vain for a glimmer of authentic progressivism of the kind that has traditionally addressed itself to the plight of those at the bottom. Like the rest of the neoliberal agenda, woke ideology benefits the few at the expense of the many: in brief, a pseudo-progressive, society-wide PR stunt that ignores ever-widening economic inequality and aims to redress only one social/political problem: the ruling elite’s growing crisis of legitimacy.

It is hardly surprising, then, to find among the Hollywood executives, the past masters of PR stunts, the most dramatic and ostentatious examples of this trend, taken to a serio-comic pitch of pettifogging detail and high-toned arrogance for this year’s Oscars in the form of RAISE: the Representation and Inclusion Standards Entry form, an impressively dystopian-sounding word salad that comprises four DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) “standards” that must be met for a film to qualify for a best picture nomination.

Three of the four RAISE standards (B, C, and D) apply mainly to the makeup of staff and supervisory criteria behind the camera. It is, however, Standard A — “On-Screen Representation, Themes, and Narratives”—that sets off the alarm bells of cultural regimentation. Especially unsettling are the art-destroying implications of A3, the standard that seeks to restrict creative decisions in casting, story, and theme to an iron cage of identarian regulations. This presumption to impose paint-by-the-numbers woke edicts on critical creative decisions is plainly a sacrifice of artistic freedom on the altar of ideological conformity. Nowhere in A3, seemingly a parody from the pen of Orwell, is there a hint of any understanding of the creative and visionary freedom that distinguishes art from propaganda.

It is cold comfort that best picture nominees need follow only one of these three sets of Standard A marching orders: even one is a brazen affront to dignity of the free artistic imagination. It’s bad enough that commercial pressures have imparted to Hollywood’s output an increasing standardization of visual and narrative technique: now the Academy proposes to add woke insult to commercial injury.

A critical sampling of three of this year’s nominees for best picture (Barbie, Maestro, Anatomy of a Fall)—the first crop subject to this heavy hand of bureaucratic interference—confirms one’s worst fears. In the spirit of the age, I will dispense with the conventional rating system of one to four stars, used in the hopelessly dated criteria of evaluating films for artistic merit and audience appeal; I will, instead, get with the program and will rate each film by its RAISE rating: one to three RAISEs for the work’s obedience to the all-important Standard A of the Academy’s Ministry of Truth.

Barbie: I made it to exactly the 52:59 mark, and then shouted, “No mas!” For me it was unendurable, one of the worst movies I have seen outside of high school health class. It manages to combine the two most dreaded tendencies of Hollywood groupthink: demographic pandering (in this case, to preadolescent girls) and woke hectoring—the latter on the grand scale, as though you had been blown by a hurricane from Kansas and landed not in Oz but in a hyperreal, candy-colored seminar on gender theory at Brown University—and with about the same entertainment value. I will award it a special chutzpah Oscar for taking product placement to a new level of blatancy: for the first time in my memory, the entire movie was a product placement, with the word “Mattel” popping up with about the same frequency as “the,” “it,” and “patriarchy.” I rate this one at three RAISEs, sweeping Standard A with a wretched excess of all of the key steps to ideological purity: A1 (a surfeit lead or significant supporting actors from “underrepresented” groups [but with RAISEd standards, under-represented no more!]); A2: (minor supporting cast) a veritable rainbow coalition of buoyant singers and dancers; A3: (main storyline/subject matter)—DING! DING! DING! Jackpot! Women good/men bad from here to eternity.

Maestro: Despite my re-education-camp drubbing in identarian ideology from Barbie, I still could not quite believe the producers turned a film purportedly about Leonard Bernstein into a feminist parable about his thwarted, anguished, and long-suffering wife. There are only sidelong, obligatory nods to Lenny’s earnestness and devotion as an artist. But even granting the absurd woke premise of the screenplay, the whole business smacks of the dilettantism so typical of Hollywood’s recent output: the acting, scripting, directing, and cinematography are all feverishly busy but random, as though the director imagined that a profusion of rapidly flashing images and scenes would somehow magically conjure something like profundity or even minimal entertainment value—but the film achieves neither.

This frenetic fast-forwarding of jump cuts is by now an obligatory Hollywood mannerism, devoid of aesthetic integrity or purpose and cynically contrived to pulse in tandem with the fleeting attention span of viewers with an itchy finger on the remote. We are left with what seem like shards rather than scenes, much less a coherent narrative line, with a predictable over-emphasis on Bernstein’s homoerotic private life obscuring any serious evocation of his evolution as an artist. But sex sells, and art not so much. So if you expect to see robust streaming numbers on Netflix, go big on the gay scenes and mute the Mahler. And we are put on notice of the following identarian hierarchy of martyrdom: gay men rank somewhere near the top, but not as high as women betrayed by men, whether gay or straight.

There are two stunning and telling biographical lapses: there is only a passing glimpse of Jerome Robbins, a major creative force in Bernstein’s life as the choreographer of Bernstein’s first theatrical success, the musical On the Town, and as the director-choreographer of the original Broadway production of West Side Story. Even more astonishingly, there is not one scene with Stephen Sondheim, who was intertwined with Bernstein every day for months, forging the score for West Side Story, which in retrospect seems to be Bernstein’s signal achievement. Not one scene. You learn much more about Lenny from the ninety-minute interview with Sondheim on Bernstein that you can find on YouTube for free. That interview probably cost a hundred dollars to produce and gives us more of Bernstein than the $80 million squandered on Maestro.

This misfire was directed and cowritten by Bradley Cooper, who has scant experience in either field and is not a great actor either; if nightclub impressionists were still a thing, his impersonation of Bernstein would relegate him to a day job. As for Maestro’s RAISE rating: in standard A1 (lead or significant supporting actors): this seemed promising at first, with a gay male and a woman in the leading roles, but it loses credit for making both lead characters white, with the male attaining the rare hat trick of over-representation: white, male, and Jewish —so only a half star; A2 (general ensemble cast): the film flunks this one, with scarcely a person of color in sight, not even a token Pacific Islander; A3 (storyline, theme, or narrative) warrants another half star for dwelling at such length on the angst of the overshadowed if undertalented wife, but at the expense of the title character. So only one RAISE for Maestro—just enough to qualify for a nomination, but a close call.

Anatomy of a Fall: The jury at Cannes must have overdone the red wine this year to have awarded the Palme d’or to Anatomy of a Fall, as protracted, amateurish, and anticlimactic an exercise in tedium and PC psychobabble as you are likely to encounter this or any other year. (Trivial RAISE-rating spoiler alert: the hero is the woman, and the fall guy—literally, in this case—is the querulous loser of a husband.) So the identarian credentials are in perfect order—including its candidacy for finest achievement in trendy victimology by making the sainted son of this dysfunctional marriage a half-blind sensitive lad who taps out fragments of Chopin in his spare time between family crises and courtroom appearances.

This nominee never really gelled even as a basic murder mystery, much less as the probing family psychodrama it aspired to be. Its character insights seem typed out in boldface rather than developed organically, steeped in a therapeutic never-land where the lingua franca seems to consist mostly of zingers out of Penguin Freud, and from all directions: the spouses, the lawyers, even from the tormented preadolescent son, so preternaturally gifted in that vein that he’s sure to be soon hosting his own call-in show for troubled teens.

The element of suspense is diluted and finally defeated by the filmmaker’s refusal to divulge, once and for all, the circumstances of the death. The scenarists make us privy in minute visual detail to every intimate scene of family life, including, retroactively. the climactic dust-up between the husband and wife, but somehow the film or video of the actual death must have been misplaced, because the literal-minded exposition stops in its tracks for that most important detail.

Through this fog of vaporous suspense, TV-talk-show couples therapy, and maudlin victimology, I couldn’t detect a scintilla of an original or heartfelt truth; the closest the film comes to an actual idea is its pandering to the woke prejudice that any male writer whose wife is more successful than he must be so consumed with resentment and jealousy that life is no longer worth living. It’s the usual PC shiv between the ribs of the uncool side of the identity game, along with the sentimental kvelling over the doughty, long-suffering woman who not only triumphs and yes, even laughs through her tears in surmounting every adversity, but is a part-time lesbian to boot, just to round out the smorgasbord of idpol virtues.

This entry sweeps the RAISE ratings: the lead character is both a woman and bisexual with a visually impaired son, surely this year’s outstanding achievement in RAISE A1 casting; for A2, there are sufficient notes of ethnic correctness in the minor roles; and for A3, the main story line celebrates the superior emotional stamina of the successful woman over the prematurely dispatched male failure: surely as fully realized a PC cartoon for adults as any ideological fashionista could hope for. Three RAISEs.

Yet all three of these underwhelming productions scored well with the professional movie reviewers: the critical approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are as follows: Barbie 88 percent; Maestro 79 percent; and Anatomy of a Fall 96 percent. This is only a small sample size of a widespread dilution of standards among film critics, a regression noted by Pauline Kael (one of the few great critics of the past half century) in her final interview in 2001. She attributed this in part to the encroachment of political correctness in the culture, engendering what she called “the cinema of good intentions,” which career-minded critics, educated in woke ideology and opportunistically attuned to public taste, are all too ready to embrace.

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In the United States, identity politics originated as an obscure postmodernist fashion of the professoriate at the elite universities. Its real birthplace, however, was France, in the abstruse writings of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, purveyors of a historicist-relativist epistemology that disputes the objectivity of knowledge—especially theories of society and culture—and reduces it to a byproduct of prevailing power relations. Migrating from sociology to literature and history departments and thence, in adulterated variants, to the broader society, the power-knowledge equation has promoted a facile, culture-wide reductivist outlook that seeks to debunk any universal aspirations to truth and accepts only the validity of “my” truth—an ideological complement and spur to the narcissistic proclivities of contemporary society. The insistence on a pluralistic, relativist theory of knowledge undermines any search for meaningful realities or truths that are common to all humans, one of the traditional functions and glories of the arts. The tragedies of ancient Greece and Shakespeare, like the films of Ingmar Bergman, stir us because they evoke profound realities of the human condition, not merely those of fifth-century BC Athens, sixteenth-century England, or twentieth-century Sweden.

Alternately reviling and exalting the “other”—depending on its perceived status in the woke hierarchy of over/under representation—identarian ideology has, ironically, undermined diversity in academic studies, promoting instead a parochial confinement to the limited horizons of one’s own milieu in the comfort zones of women’s studies for women, black studies for blacks, and so on. Philip Roth was dismayed by these developments when he addressed a class of mostly female literature students at Bard College in 1999. One young woman stated, “I think that it’s important to maybe understand that for people our age, for women . . . most of the literature that we’re exposed to and read growing up is about men.” Roth replied, “I grew up in an extremely Jewish environment. And when I read English literature, there were no Jews in it—except in T. S. Eliot there were Jews to make fun of. . . . Do I have to read books with just Jews in them? What would I have read? Sholem Aleichem until the cows come home?”

Likewise, Christopher Lasch noted a hypocrisy lurking in the woke insistence that an identity tribe should experience mainly or only works populated by people who “look like me” or that privileged whites should be required to assimilate the culture of “under-represented” groups but not the other way around—the unspoken but glaring assumption behind Hollywood’s RAISE standards.

At best, exposure to “otherness” turns out to be a one-way street. The children of privilege are urged—even required—to learn something about “marginalized, suppressed interests, situations, traditions,” but blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are exempted from exposure to “otherness” in the work of “Western white males.” An insidious double standard, masking as tolerance, denies those minorities the fruits of the victory they struggled so long to achieve: access to the world’s culture. The underlying message that they are incapable of appreciating or entering into that culture comes through just as clearly in the new academic “pluralism” as in the old intolerance and exclusion.

Lasch cites the example of Frederick Douglass, whose reading of eighteenth-century English authors such as Pitt, Sheridan, Burke, and Fox helped to inspire his awakening to the world of ideas and his hunger for freedom for himself and his people. “The reading of these speeches,” he said, “added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had recently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance.”

In fostering a relativist fracturing of notions of truth, the woke sensibility undermines the possibility of arriving at a unifying social/political theory and practice among the oppressed majority most in need of it.

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As many commentators and filmmakers have noted, the straightjacketing of artistic invention by the ethos of woke is far from the only reason for the steady deterioration in the quality of American movies; it is merely the latest in a long series of extra-artistic pressures and mass-marketing exigencies: the post-Star Wars profit-hungry tilt toward big blockbusters, followed by the rise of VHS, DVD, and streaming video, have all taken their toll on what was long deemed the preeminent art form of the twentieth century. Pauline Kael wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “Why Movies Are So Bad? or, The Numbers.” The year was 1980. Sixteen years later, the outlook for the art of film was even bleaker when The New York Times published Susan Sontag’s variation on the same theme, “The Decay of Cinema.”   These obituaries for cinema have continued to unfurl at a steady pace: in 2022 Ross Douthat of The New York Times brought the bad news up to date with an op-ed elaborately titled “We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies.”

In her 2001 interview, Kael summarized the downfall of film in a few brisk strokes, saying that she retired from reviewing movies in 1991 because “[Movies] were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies.” She added that around 1980, “a few movies made inordinate amounts of money, and everything we hoped for from movies went kerplooie. . . . [W]ith Star Wars. . . that awful Star Wars and its successors—movies have just never been the same. The direction in which we thought they were moving, they’ve gone the other way. There are hardly any small movies that people go to, and some of the more interesting ones they won’t go to.”

Sontag also noted the cumulative force of commercial pressures, “the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world—which is to say, everywhere. And ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, are astonishingly witless,” the byproduct of “a policy of bloated, derivative film-making, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes,” a process that has fostered “the reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing.” The result has produced “a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.”

This was the grim reality of 1996, twenty years before the onrush of streaming media submerged first-run films into a steady junk stream of TV series/reality shows/game shows/news channels/home-made videos that bleed into one other 24/7, blurring genres, truncating attention spans, and breeding a dulling, market-tested leveling and uniformity of taste among an increasingly stupefied audience. That cascade of nonstop, flashing images, at once chaotic and hypnotic, is where excellence in cinema as an entertainment medium, much less as an art form, goes to drown and die.

With so many toxins, commercial and cultural, depleting the elan vital of cinema as an art form or even as a mass entertainment, why emphasize the influence of woke? The problem is that pressures for standardization from any source discourage freshness and inventiveness; the dictates of the RAISE politburo intensify the already-stifling industry pressures toward the standardization of “product.” Art—even compelling entertainment—thrives on bold freedom of expression and untrammeled imagination, not the routine replication of a stock of pre-approved formulas, whether they emanate from the accounting or woke-enforcement divisions of the corporate bureaucracy.

Herein lies the lost promise and potential of cinema as an art form, which reached its creative peak in the quarter century from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, when the great auteurs of international cinema seemed to turn out masterpieces every year and American independent mavericks like Robert Altman, Elaine May, Nancy Savoca, Carl Franklin, and Alan Rudolph were pushing the boundaries of commercial possibility in American movies. These innovators and visionaries challenged inherited visual cliches, re-imagined narrative conventions, and managed to transform a technology of external appearances, of ephemeral sound and light and shadow, into a vehicle of interior truth, a visionary quest that is inimical to the contemporary woke demands for starkly arrayed good guys and bad guys and guaranteed social/political uplift.

It seems now that the entire epoch of the cinema as an art form is now irretrievably lost: surf and click as you will through today’s glutted cinematic multiverse of replicant streaming sedatives, but you will never see a contemporary production that comes close to rivaling treasures like Antonioni’s Red Desert, Godard’s Weekend, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, or Fellini’s 8 ½, and so on. Let’s consider briefly the case of Red Desert: It is surely one of the most visceral and uncanny conjurings of our environmental/industrial hell ever committed to film—not in the lurid, sensational way you might expect, but as an encroaching spiritual claustrophobia that envelops every pore of being, external and internal, to the point that inner and outer, mind and body, consciousness and world meld into each other in an unyielding hallucination of despair. It is one of the most powerful cinematic evocations of the merciless technological assault on the natural world, its haunting cinematography blending beauty and dread in luring the viewer ever deeper into the protagonist’s waking nightmare—but quietly, insistently, in hypnotically leisurely takes, like a dream that seems more real as it becomes more absurd and disconnected. As the woman at the center of the nightmare says, “Reality is terrible, but I don’t know why. No one will tell me.”

Released in 1964, this masterwork could not find financial backing or a receptive audience now even though the lead character is a woman, for she succumbs to madness, whereas our current officially mandated zeitgeist of cheap solace and reassuring bedtime stories requires women who triumph over every adversity, laughing through their tears. Watching the current crop of Hollywood woke films—which describes nearly all of them—you get the feeling that the entire depth dimension of life has been run through Google Gemini to emerge as a thin Dick and Jane primer on DEI, yielding a “truth” so sanitized and simplified that it has turned into a comforting lie. As Saul Bellow put it, “[T]he truth is not loved because it is improving or progressive. We hunger and thirst for it—for its own sake.”

The issue, then, is whether any kind of art, cinematic or otherwise, can survive in a culture marching in ideological lockstep. Woke, with its stark polarities of good and evil, heroes and villains, conflict and resolution, repels perplexity in favor of reductive, illusory simplicities and stereotypes; art, in its highest expressions, dwells in perplexity, revels in it, exalts and distills it as the essence of being human—any color or gender of human. Ideology and propaganda dispense the opiate of certainty, the infallibility of “my” truth. Art, by contrast, is a leap into the unknown—hence the ethos of woke is its death knell.

Immersed in a world of symbols and rhetoric, cloistered from the real material suffering of real masses of people, these identity-politics shock troops—in Hollywood, Big Tech, the universities, and politics—are the enforcers of a leaden standardization of word and deed that crushes the critical thought and independence of spirit needed for truly radical change. Notwithstanding their modish leftish posturing, they are a new breed of conservatives, the ideological vanguard of the neoliberal elites. They are our new culture commissars. Welcome to the dark night of the mind.

List of sources not embedded as hyperlinks:

Bailey, Blake. Philip Roth: The Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Bellow, Saul. There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction. Edited by Benjamin Taylor. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.

Davis, Francis. Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Michaels, Walter Benn, and Adolph Reed, Jr. No Politics but Class Politics. Edited with a foreword by Anton Jager and Daniel Zamora. London: Eris Press, 2023.

William Kaufman is an educational writer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at: Read other articles by William.