Monday, February 28, 2011

Totem Polls

The Oscar for best picture has become over the years our collective totem pole. Year after year these cinematic creations carve new identities into our American psyche.

Last year The Hurt Locker won for Best Picture. It began with the notion that war is like an addiction. Kathryn Bigelow who directed began the film by quoting Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For a generation of Baby Boomers who fought the Cold War, we still await the promised peace dividend. War is no longer a variable it is a constant. We all seem to be trapped in our own “hurt locker.”

Last night the 83rd Academy Awards honored a new collection of films. This year’s nominees for Best Picture again seemed to resonate with our current national condition.

The Social Network, based on the rise of Facebook, is about more than founder Mark Zuckerberg. This home to over 500 million users has helped to spur revolutions across the Middle East. Social networking is fast changing the way we organize our lives.

Black Swan directed by Darren Aronofsky is a haunting film. Like his earlier film The Wrestler, Aronofsky takes on the performing arts. What you see is not what you get. Appearances are deceiving. These plot lines are not unlike Nassim Taleb’s best selling book The Black Swan. Taleb has written extensively about randomness. As much as we want to control the circumstances of our life using empirical analysis, certainty is allusive. No single word best encapsulates our times like the word uncertainty.

The remaining Best Picture nominees all have something to say about our current condition - The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone, and Inception.

Of these Inception stands out.

Inception is a film about a team of experts, led by Leonardo Dicaprio, who infiltrate dreams in order to alter realities. Often traveling through layers of dreams the participants use personalized objects or totems to determine if they are awake or still asleep. Living in one’s dreams often provides a better place than when faced with stark reality.

The Dicaprio character is case in point. Throughout the film his subconscious memories obstruct his mission. Nevertheless he cannot seem to avoid being haunted by his memories that are alive and well in his dreams. Throughout the film Dicaprio spins a top, his totem, to determine whether or not he is dreaming.

If the top stops spinning he knows he is awake and the dreams are over.

Artist Grant Wood had something to say about dreaming. “Almost all of us have some dream power in our childhood but without encouragement it leaves us and then we become bored and tired and ordinary...We are carefully coached in the most modern and efficient ways of making our bodies comfortable and we become so busy about getting ourselves all nicely placed that we are apt to forget the dream spirit that is born in all of us.”

Pollsters tell us today that so many of our dreams have vanished. Americans no longer look to the future with bright eyes. Austerity rules. The true test for our leaders is can they keep our tops spinning?

Still waiting for answers. Still waiting our king's speech.

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