At a little after midnight eastern time last night, I was scrubbing the stubborn stains of a meatloaf pan with a heavy-duty dish brush. The television was on in the living room, a window from mundanity into a night of Hollywood glamour. La La Land was winning the Oscar for Best Picture.
That’s predictable. I thought.
“Wait!” shouted my Oscars-viewing companion from the couch. “They made a mistake! It’s Moonlight!”
I wiped the greasy water from my puckering hands and walked to the television in time to see the high-glitz bedlam unfold. Concerned people with headsets and spiking blood pressure paced the stage. Warren Beatty had the wrong envelope. And he announced the wrong winner. He was very sorry. Everybody was very sorry. The stage was crowded with the wrong people. Emma Stone’s mouth was a sideways capital D. The winner of Best Picture wasn’t her film, the frontrunner, the shiny Hooray For Everything film Hollywood has been historically wont to shower with praise. It was the scrappy underdog that had actually won. Nobody could believe it.
That’s predictable. I thought.
“Moonlight’s” against-all-the-odds win is certainly laudable. The groundbreaking film featured an all-black cast and tackled an oft-overlooked subject. Critics loved it. It’s not unreasonable to think a movie of its caliber would win an award like Best Picture.
But Moonlight was up against a movie that seemed like as shoo-in. It grossed less than all of the other films in its category. Based on the Oscars’ history of giving awards to movies that are exactly what Moonlight was not, whether or not it should win, it did not seem like it would win.
In a mini-era characterized by last minute chaos and come-from-behind against-all-odds victories, of course last night’s Oscar screw-up happened. This is how things happen now. There’s a loose bolt somewhere in the universe. The Etch-a-Sketch of reality has been violently shaken. The only surprising occurrence now is for everything to turn out the way it was supposed to.
I always wondered why, in films that depict wedding ceremonies, everybody from the bride on down to the ring bearer glances around nervously at the part where the officiant asks attendees who object to the union to “speak now, or forever hold your peace.” I’ve never been to a wedding where anybody has said anything at that moment, not even as a joke. But to the characters in movies, this is an excruciatingly tense inflection point, because every character recognizes the potential for spontaneous disarray in every moment, in a way that real human beings do not. Because they exist inside a world that relies on it, and we, in theory, do not.
Reality isn’t supposed to be that exciting. Entire industries exist to assure us that it is not that exciting. Polls, pundits, sports broadcasters, random strangers with opinions all claim to know what’s going to happen next in sports, in entertainment, in politics. This saves us, theoretically, from jump scares, from the sort of event so inconceivable that the brain processes it in flashes, as it would process trauma.
The Leicester City football team was not supposed to win the English Premier League championship. They’d never won it before, and were given 5,000 to 1 odds. The executive chairman of the EPL called their victory a one-in-5,000 year event. But it happened last year.
The citizens of the UK were not supposed to vote for Brexit. It was a regressive, xenophobic plan that critics say amounted to the country cutting off its nose to spite its face. Its leaders were a gaggle of goofs who spouted easily disprovable lies. Pundits were sure it wouldn’t happen. But the citizens of the UK did vote for Brexit. That happened, the same year as the Leicester thing happened. Within a month of it happening, actually.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were not supposed to win the NBA championship. They were playing the defending champion Golden State Warriors, arguably one of the greatest basketball teams in the history of the sport. The Warriors jumped ahead of the Cavaliers three games to one in the best of seven series, only to lose three games in a row. They were the first team in NBA history to blow it that spectacularly. But they did it, right around Brexit time.
Serena Williams, one of the world’s greatest living athletes, was not supposed to lose in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. She did.
The Cubs were not supposed to win the World Series. They are the team that exists to be made fun of by fans of the better but less adored baseball team in Chicago. They are heartbreak fodder, they are a foolish pursuit. But in the last 12 months, the Cubs broke a 108-year World Series drought.
Donald Trump was not supposed to win any primaries. He is a ridiculous person with ridiculous ideas. His presidential campaign announcement occurred at the bottom of an escalator, because he is afraid of descending stairs. The crowds that greeted him had been compensated. Pundits laughed at him.
In the general election, Trump ran against one of the most experienced establishment candidates in American history, a woman who stood poised to take the helm of our nation just in time to occupy the Oval Office on the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote. Going into election night, oddsmakers had Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning at nearly 100 percent. And we all know how that story ended.
In the ensuing months, a Gambian dictator was shockingly unseated. Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe pageant. The New England Patriots were not supposed to win the Super Bowl, especially after falling significantly behind the Atlanta Falcons after three quarters of play. Somehow, the Atlanta Falcons figured out a way to lose. Tumult became manageable, like a disobedient foster dog whose habits I’d finally mastered.
Of course Warren Beatty accidentally grabbed the incorrect card and announced that La La Land had won best picture. Of course he was wrong. Of course he had to correct himself before millions of viewers suddenly sitting up on their couches, or wandering in from the kitchen. This is how things are now, I suppose.
As I stood watching the gobsmacked team behind Moonlight accept their award on waves of adrenaline and serotonin, I tried to fathom what the next impossible occurrence would be. I tried to reorder reality into something I could manage, to blunt its sharpness. But that’s a fool’s errand. When the exception is the norm, nothing is predictable. Once-in-a-lifetime events might be occurring once a month from here to eternity. Or they might never happen again. For now, it feels like I’m getting used to the sound of the universe’s loose bolt knocking around.