Friday, February 25th, 2011

An Oscar for our times

The Oscars are upon us! I normally don’t have anything to say about this. But this year I have a candidate for the title of best picture: The King’s Speech.

My choice has nothing to do with the quality of the film. I couldn’t tell you whether it’s any better than the other movies in contention. I understand that, as a rendering of history, it is terminally flawed. But the King’s Speech —about an English King more than 70 years ago— is special because of its power as a cultural marker of the present era.

The British movie about King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stutter, which has been nominated for 12 Oscars, apparently improved on several historical facts —including Winston Churchill’s loyalties and even the severity of the stutter.

But if it screws up the past, the movie’s representation of the King’s arc of redemption, overcoming the daunting obstacles cast in his path, is a perfect fit for our gilded new age in which the rich and entitled, long cast in frivolous and pampered roles, want to be seen as heroes too.

The Western canon is full of aristocratic heroes and (fewer) heroines, of course. Think of King Arthur’s round table. In Greek myth you pretty much had to be a Demigod or a King to aspire to any sort of heroism. But 20th century American pop culture was supposed to have changed all that.

Think Audie Murphy in the Red Badge of Courage, John Wayne in Stagecoach or even Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter. The American mythology exported by Hollywood around the world throughout the 20th century replaced Odysseus with everyman.

We’re in a different era now. As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, the belief in equality of opportunity — once thought a central component of liberal democracy — has taken the role of a quaint but unworkable residue of a bygone era.

Today, one percent of the nation’s population claim more than 20 percent of the nation’s income and it’s on its way to claim more. Not to get in the way of this historical tide, our government has passed new tax laws to ensure our prosperous top citizens can keep their prosperity —and pass it intact down to their rightful heirs.

You might think that The Social Network –another Oscar contender– might be a better candidate to represent the zeitgeist. It is, to be sure a strong contender. For starters, it’s about the Internet.  Its portrayal of the creation of an business empire from scratch does fit the made-in-the-garage picture of capitalism embodied by Google, Facebook and eBay. But it’s representation of wealth is all wrong. For all his programming chops, Mark Zuckerberg is rendered as a power hungry cheat — a standard trope of 20th century movie making.

King George VI, crusty and undeserving though he might have been, offers a much more forgiving representation of wealth and power. Just as the king faced up to the responsibilities imposed by his august bloodline, so the aspiring heroes of our new gilded age will not shirk the duties inherent to their station. They will deploy their billions to cure disease and educate the poor. They will adopt babies from poor countries and give them better lives. They will gather in top-end resorts high in the Swiss Alps to plan how to save the world.

An Oscar for The King’s Speech might be a nice way of wishing them well.

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