Cultural spray

Over the next 48 hours, I’m going to be posting my predictions for Sunday’s 81st Academy Awards.  I’m pretty good at it — I went 14-of-24 last year, and most of my misses were ones almost everyone missed, Tilda Swinton and the like.   Part of it is that I have an almost foolproof method, not so much for the picks themselves as for making sure I bring as little bias as possible to the picking process.

The method is simple: I rarely watch the nominated movies.

It’s not that I avoid them specifically; I usually just don’t have both the time and the money to watch them in the theaters or rent them once they’re out on DVD.  This year, of the nominated feature films, I’ve only watched “Iron Man”, “Wall-E” and “Bolt” (plus four of the five nominees for Animated Short, thank you YouTube).  No “Milk”, no “Slumdog”, no “Frost/Nixon”, no “Reader”.  (I probably wouldn’t go to see “The Reader” anyway — I was the guy who sat with his eyes closed during the sketching scene in “Titanic”!  Of course, I was on my first date with the Supermodel at the time …)  So I can come to the prediction process bias-free, able to choose without my own emotions getting in the way.

Some of you are thinking to yourself, “that is nuts — how can you know who to select if you haven’t seen the movies?!?  How would that be different from just picking names out of a hat?”  Actually, it’s very different — I only said I hadn’t seen the films, not that I didn’t know anything about the films.  It comes back to a phenomenon that probably has some sociological title I don’t know, but which I refer to as “cultural spray.”

Cultural spray is a state peculiar to our current Age of Information, a societal condition that occurs when the amount of reporting begins to exceed the amount of news being reported.  (In America, we reached that point sometime in the early ’90s, I think.)  When that happens, enough bits and pieces of popular culture become so widely disseminated through the media that one can become very knowledgeable about a subject or event — say, a particular film or TV show or record — without having any direct personal experience with the subject or event.

Let me give you an example.  A lot of you reading this blog have never watched either of the “Wayne’s World” movies, and most of you never saw even one of the “Saturday Night Live” sketches from which the “Wayne’s World” concept originated.  But most of you HAVE used the phrase “as if” to sarcastically dismiss another’s idea or interjected a loud “NOT!” to disagree with an assertion or viewpoint.  (If you’re male, you may have even said “schwing!” to yourself when a beautiful girl walks by.)  All of these tag lines, in regard to those meanings at least, originated with the SNL “Wayne’s World” sketches — the same ones you (and I) never saw!  That’s cultural spray — words and ideas that have become so part of the culture around us, part of the media air we breathe, that we don’t need to experience (or even know of) the original source material to understand and apply them.

There are hundreds more examples I could cite.  The phrase “rooting for laundry” to describe devotion to a sports team when its lineup of players in in constant flux?  That’s from a “Seinfeld” episode I never saw.  Saying “D’oh!” after you’ve done something dumb?  A hallmark of “The Simpsons” — a program I’ve never seen a single episode of.  I never watched a full showing of “Beavis and Butthead” either — and I don’t think I missed much — but I can do credible imitations of both lead characters because I’ve heard it done by others, picked it up from them, and been told that I’m at least close to the mark.  All of this is cultural spray.  (Huh-huh, huh-huh … you said “spray” …)

The Internet is without a doubt the biggest boon in history to cultural spray because there’sjust so dang much out there.  The World Wide Web, on its various servers, probably holds more information than all of the books ever published in history — everything from the contents of many of those books to reviews and analyses of the same, audio, video, news reports … even blogs.  If I want to know the definition of a slang phrase I just heard, I can go to the Urban Dictionary website and they’ll usually have it.  If I need information on some historical event or personage, one click and I can get a pretty accurate summation at Wikipedia.  Almost anything I want to know can be turned up with a Google search.  It’s all out there — all I need to do is access it.

So if I want to know about the Oscar nominees, often I don’t need to watch a single second of video (though I can find clips and trailers with relative ease if I want).  The Rotten Tomatoes website gives me professional reviews by the bushel. has cast lists, quotes, trivia and awards nominated and won for every movie and person in the history of film going back to Thomas Edison.  The Los Angeles Times and New York Times websites devote plenty of bandwidth to rumors and political considerations about who will win, not to mention expert predictions and speculations.  And if I want really, really snarky opinions, the Onion AV Club is happy to provide them.

So, if I wanted to gauge the chances of, say, Anne Hathaway winning Best Actress for her role in “Rachel Getting Married”, I can find that:

  • She’s already won Best Actress awards from the Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Southeastern Film Critics Associations, the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (where she tied with Meryl Streep), but lost out on the major trophies — the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild prizes.
  • She’s won praise for her handling of her split from an Italian fiancee now in jail on money laundering charges (possibly garnering some sympathy votes).
  • She probably won’t be hurt by her film not being nominated for Best Picture (though a Best Actor candidate might be).
  • She will be hurt by being the youngest nominee in the category (voters will assume she’ll get another chance down the road) and being a first-time nominee (other competitors will get sympathy votes for having previously lost), but helped by being a beautiful woman playing an “ugly” character, and by playing a drug addict (both considered more difficult for an actress).
  • She’s a long shot to win, because she’s going up against two older multiple-time Oscar losers who are highly respected as artists and had roles just as showy as hers (Kate Winslet — who’s been nominated for five Oscars but never won — as the Nazi camp guard/illiterate seductress in “The Reader”, and Meryl Streep — fifteen nominations lifetime, only two wins — as the grim nun investigation possible child abuse in “Doubt”).

Now, how much have I seen of the movie “Rachel Getting Married”?  The trailer, all two minutes or so of it.  (And as trailers go, it was mediocre.)  But that’s the thing — there is so much information out there about the movie (and Hathaway’s part in it) that if you’re willing to do a little research, you don’t need to see the film to understand it, aprreciate it, or even gauge its award odds.  Knowledge is knowledge, and facts are facts, no matter how they’re acquired.  Cultural spray in action.

Not to mention you save $10 from buying a ticket.  $15 if you’re in the habit of getting popcorn too.


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