The scourge of Oscar pundits

September 30, 2013

pundits

Here’s what I loved about this year’s Emmy Awards:

Well, nothing, really – I didn’t watch them. I avoid award shows like they were herpes – and they tend to spread just that easily.

But there was one thing I thought of afterward that did make me smile: all the pundits who were so drastically wrong in their predictions about who would and wouldn’t win, because the awards were so unpredictably scattered among various shows in the top categories.

I’ve come to hate pundits of all kinds, despite the fact that I occasionally (less and less, I hope) act as one. And just so we’re all talking about the same thing, let me define what I mean by pundit.

I’m referring to anyone who bloviates – in print, online or on the air – about what the outcome of some upcoming competition or event will be and why, based on his or her personal knowledge of the subject, as well as his or her inside (usually unnamed) sources in the field.

I’m referring to political pundits who – even now, more than three years before the next presidential election – are already predicting who will not only be the major party candidates but who will win the presidency.

I’m referring to sports pundits who – even now, before the baseball playoffs have begun – are predicting which teams will slug it out in the World Series. Or, a month into the NFL season, are telling us which teams will be facing off in a snowy Super Bowl in New Jersey next February. (Oops, didn’t mean to be a weather pundit there.)

Most of all, because this is what I do for a living, I’m speaking about the Oscar pundits. I’ve come to regard the Oscars as so much bullshit anyway, an increasingly irrelevant finale to a bloated and meaningless awards season that seems to last forever. There are dozens of year-end films that no one has seen yet, but Oscar pundits have been calculating different movies’ odds since January.

Here’s what pundits have in common: If they don’t have an opinion that attracts attention, if they can’t start an argument with their opining – well, they’re practically out of a job. Not that their predictions or opinions mean anything, certainly not at this time of the year. That doesn’t keep them from expressing them, prominently and loudly.

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Almost since the first images were projected on a screen at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, Oscar pundits have been climbing all over each other to proclaim an early Oscar favorite. After Telluride in late August, the Oscar-favorite tag has been slung about like a caber; the phrase “but it’s only September” has practically become a meme, given how much space has been devoted to these arguments.

Most of this, so far, has to do with Steve McQueen’s gruelingly dramatic “12 Years a Slave,” which some pundits already have proclaimed a sure thing to win best picture. Is it too early? Is the film too harsh? So many imaginary factors to figure in, so many hypotheticals to parse.

Which is, of course, what it is – what all punditry is: examining what MIGHT happen, as though it’s actually going to happen.

Anyone who tries to predict anything six months in advance in ANY area is a fool … or a pundit. Yet it is a burgeoning field, with publications designating actual employees to read the tea leaves about the Oscar race year-round. I would be willing to bet that, if you went back a few years and looked at what Oscar pundits – or sports pundits or political pundits – were saying six months before an event, it would boggle the mind in terms of how ridiculously off-base it all is.

Luckily, no one gives a rat’s ass, really, what Oscar pundits have to say – and if they do, well, what does it matter?

(Unfortunately, that’s not the same with political pundits. That particular nattering class regularly gets things egregiously wrong, yet somehow hangs on to its jobs. Think about what they thought the story was going to be about the Iraq War, how confident even the most liberal were that George W. Bush’s failed war was not only a justified use of men and resources but that it would be a glorious triumph.)

I spent years working for a newspaper and can only repeat how glad I am that I no longer do – because I know that my life would be consumed, from weeks before the Oscar nominations are announced to the date the awards are given, concocting crap to fill column inches. I’m not sure how you do that year-round and not feel as though you’re wasting your life.

Not that being a movie critic is curing cancer. But I’ve come to the conclusion that Oscar punditry – and really, punditry in general – is a blight on our collective existence.

It preoccupies and distracts us in service to a Hollywood system that just keeps churning out substandard product, then celebrates its own glory by giving awards to that tiny fraction of films that don’t make you feel as though you’ve just lost time you’ll never recover because you watched them.

And punditry is that system’s enabler, focusing on the horse race instead of the horses.

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