Sunday, February 27, 2011

King's Speech, Queen's Wave, Facebook Fury

This year's Oscars are about something.

One marvelous movie recalls a day in June, 1939 at the New York World's Fair, a 15-year-old boy watching an open car with the King and Queen of England slowly driving by, less than fifty feet from his excited eyes.

Until then, the outside world had been grainy newspaper pictures and black-and-white newsreels, but here was a flesh-and-blood couple, he in resplendent uniform, she in a pale blue dress doing a languid backhand wave as if strewing invisible rose petals to the crowd.

Within weeks, Hitler would invade Poland to start World War II and four years later the boy, now in uniform, would be in a truck, speeding past manicured English fields greener than any he had ever seen before.

These sensual memories arise from this year's Academy Awards as "The King's Speech" competes with "The Social Network"--contrasting two worlds in which mass media create totally different realities.

A radio address is at the heart of the former, a kind of reverse "My Fair Lady," wherein a commoner tutors a speech-impaired monarch. Instead of turning a flower girl into a duchess, this Pygmalion teaches a king to reach out to people like the flower girl.

In today's world, communication is infinitely more complex. When "The Social Network" came out months ago, critics complained that Facebook was more likely to flood the world with trivia rather than foster social change.

Now we know better as crowds across the Middle East topple repressive regimes, communicate with each other online and evade official censorship with cell-phone videos while demonstrations here at home echo public disaffection.

As actors, directors and producers make their dazed acceptance speeches at the Oscars, they will be taking part in something beyond Hollywood's usual self-glorification over pandering to public tastes.

The scene may evoke that endless hall of mirrors in the climax of Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai," in which multiple images merge reflections and real life. But isn't that what movies are supposed to do, even as today's journalism unwittingly competes with them?

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