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Culture Tantrum: The Oscars

Stephanie DePrez | Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sunday evening marked the greatest night of the year—probably not for you, but certainly for me. Oscar Sunday is the evening when the joy of Christmas, the patriotism of Independence Day and the egocentricity of my birthday all come together in one glorious event. Hollywood drops a couple million on a party(s) and pats itself on the back for four hours. Most people find watching the Oscar telecast tedious or irrelevant. But I think it’s necessary — nay, essential — for any self-respecting movie-goer to pay attention to the Oscars.

The Oscars are the Grand Poobah of the entertainment circuit. Everyone in Hollywood cares, and everyone watches. If you want to take the temperature of entertainment media, you have to look at who and what they honor. This means plopping down in front of your TV the last Sunday in February and getting your front row seat to the telecast that never fails to disappoint, from the hosts’ performances to the star walking away with a statue. (Have you ever noticed that no matter how many of your guesses are right, you still feel someone was snubbed?)

You may be wondering why I care so much about an awards show that is basically four hours of talking about movies without actually showing any. This is a point worth making: If someone loves movies, why bother with an event that tells you how valid your opinion is? My favorite movie of the year was “True Grit.” It was fabulously done. Simple, delicate, powerful and slay-me-in-the-aisles funny. It was massively ignored (even the orchestral score, which was composed by Carter Burwell, the Grand Poobah of my heart). I liked “The King’s Speech.” I thought it was swell. I recommend it to anyone. But I don’t need 6,000 Hollywood voters to tell me I’m wrong to think Hailee Stanfield could eat Colin Firth for breakfast. But I digress.

So why bother with the Academy? Movies are the storytelling medium of our age. I’m not talking only about those that hit the theatres, swarm our Netflix and end up on our roommates’ DVD shelves. I’m talking about any motion picture narrative. This includes television, YouTube and the video message you just left on your brother’s Facebook wall. We have begun to communicate primarily through snippets of words that convey our mood, location and message via text, Twitter and status update. Since words are so simple and so available, the more elaborate video-update has followed suit. Nowadays, we don’t just tell people stories, we show them.

Two weeks ago, in addition to inciting a riot to convince fans to raise enough money to buy the rights to “Firefly,” Nathan Fillion told Entertainment Weekly, “We’re the most story-literate society the world has ever seen.” Does this mean we have read/watched/seen more stories than any other generation? I don’t think so. I think it means that we know how a story goes — or can go — better than any other generation.

We know how to take a moment and characterize it, match it up to our day and spread it around to our community in mere seconds. We have so much access to so many different visual narrative forms (Funny or Die, TV webisodes, The Onion Online) that we no longer need to categorize “movies” as “those beastly events that cost three times more than my tuition.” Now, “movies” happen on your digital camera. Which has become your phone. Filmmaking is hardly reserved for the film majors. My friend Eileen can kick my butt in the editing room, and she’s majoring in political science.

Which brings us back to the Oscars. The fact remains that Hollywood did it first and still sets the curve. Funny or Die would have nothing if it didn’t draw on our visual narrative expectations as dictated by major motion pictures. My friend showed me a series of movies with little kids acting out all the Best Picture nominees on AOL. It was hilarious, but only because I had seen the movies beforehand. Hollywood sets the precedent that eventually trickles down into our hands-on video sharing.

So why watch the Academy dole out golden fodder for the celebrity media wheel? Because it is the first place to learn what you will be imitating with your iPhone. I may think “True Grit” was tops, but next week’s viral video will be tipping its hat to World War II era England before post-Civil War America. That is the power of the Oscars.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Stephanie DePrez at [email protected]