Director's Choices Send Bad Message

Oscar 2000 has come and gone and much newsprint has been left in its wake. But most of the critical commentary has centered on the length, the format and, as always, the fashion. Allow me to add a complaint to that list: the director.

When telecast director Louis J. Horvitz allowed the cameras to linger on Oscar-winning documentary subject Dan Keplinger after he fell out of his wheelchair, he got it right. Cutting away would have sent a terrible message. But there were several times in the telecast where Horvitz got it wrong. Dead wrong.

When Pedro Almodovar accepted the Oscar for best foreign language film, whom did Horvitz cut away to for a reaction? Singer Gloria Estefan. The question begs to be asked: Of all the myriad famous faces we could've seen react to the Spanish film's victory, why Estefan? Perhaps to see the joyful reaction of one of the filmmaker's countrymen to his triumphant win? This would be well and good except that Almodovar is from Spain and Estefan is from Cuba. Note to Horvitz: Spain is in Europe; Cuba is in the Caribbean. Spain is a parliamentary monarchy; Cuba is a Communist dictatorship. Spain is full of Spaniards; Cuba is populated by Cubans. But Almodovar and Estefan are both brown and they both speak Spanish and I guess that made the singer's reaction more relevant than others.

In this case, skin color established an arbitrary link.

If that were the only example of race-based reaction shots I could manage to find, it would still be an outrage and worthy of mention. But there was a moment in the telecast when African American actor-singer Isaac Hayes was enveloped in a thick cloud of dry ice. When host Billy Crystal later repeatedly asked the audience, "How do you lose Isaac Hayes?," whose face were we treated to in a cutaway? Denzel Washington.

Why? Was his reaction more relevant than, say, Kevin Spacey's? Why not cut to the "South Park" guys who actually work with Hayes? What was the link if not race? If we're talking about a black man, the image cried out to us, we should cut to a black man.

It's my inescapable conclusion that what was sometimes utilized was a subtle form of racial categorizing that is pervasive and insidious in its apparent harmlessness and ability to pass beneath our collective radar. It may not be racist, but it's knee-jerk, unimaginative and just plain dumb.

I realize that the director's job is a very difficult one, and choices must be made at breakneck speed, but what criterion we use while making these split-second decisions is not innocuous and is certainly worth investigation.

Images are powerful tools; a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, the pictures unconsciously helped perpetuate the pernicious myth that people with the same skin color have more in common with each other--forgoing all other considerations--than they do with members of a different race. That's clearly wrong. Almodovar has more in common with Steven Spielberg than he does with Estefan; Hayes and Washington, as performers, aren't in the same league. And a poor black man in Compton has more in common with a poor Jew from the Lower East Side than either of them has with a wealthy man from their respective races. But you wouldn't know it from how our culture thinks. The telecast's race-based links underscored a dangerous sociological assumption, and then beamed it to tens of millions of people worldwide.

Horvitz has won Emmys for his direction of past Oscar telecasts. The motion picture academy clearly has faith in his abilities. But I would urge him to consider the fact that he is holding a tremendous power in his hands--the power to reflect a reality--and it will not do to be lazy in the booth.

There are those who will argue that I'm making a politically correct mountain out of a perfectly innocent molehill. But Horvitz had a galaxy full of stars with which to tell his story, so which of them he chose to highlight, and at which moment, is no small thing, no matter how one tries to slice it. We cannot celebrate the medium but ignore the message.

Adam Carl of Los Angeles wrote and directed the indie feature "Performance Anxiety." He can be reached at act2scene6@aol.com.

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