There was plenty to celebrate on this Oscar Sunday

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 6, 2014 

This past Sunday was high-holy day in my house. Along with 43 million other people around the world, we tuned in for the Oscars.

Like most holidays, the day is rife with rituals.

I plan a menu – this year we kept it simple with a nacho bar and cupcakes. And then there is my stylist, who saunters into my bedroom to help me pick out an outfit, and it is only his persnickety ways that I trust.

“Edgy, yes,” I tell him,” but don’t make me look like circus material.”

I can’t afford a real stylist, so my cat, Coco Rico, plays the part. Rico meows at something fleece and stretchy, and I have to agree, thinking of course of the nachos and cupcakes.

I celebrate movies because I love them, in the way that movie stars love their plastic surgery. I just can’t help myself. Growing up, I spent beautiful Saturday afternoons sitting too close to the TV watching Andy Hardy movies, and then whatever movie came on after that.

“Go outside and play!” was the condemnation thrown at me by any passing adult.

And get hit with a ball? Forget it.

My first job was at a movie theater. I’d fill customer’s popcorn buckets and ask what they were seeing. Along with free “butter flavoring” – we weren’t allowed to call it butter – patrons in my line got a free critique.

“You’re going to like it,” I’d tell them, or maybe I’d say nothing and pour on some extra “flavoring” to make up for the money they just wasted.

Being a cinephile is in my DNA. I found letters my grandmother and dad exchanged while he was in the Army, and once news was told and weather reported, the subject always turned to movies. My dad lamented the ones he missed, so my grandmother went in his stead.

The best movies offer an escape, if only for awhile – from an achy heart, or a tired spirit. But they also call our attention to the stuff that’s not so pretty. The best movies work like the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, holding up a mirror to our collective selves and making us take a good look.

This Oscar season I had special reason to celebrate – we all did – when “12 Years a Slave” won best picture. This singular experience of slavery, taken from the diary of survivor Soloman Northup, gave us an unflinching look at the horrors of our nation’s past.

Many of my friends chose not to see it.

“It won’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” said a gal-pal, but for me, bearing witness to a piece of Northup’s pain allowed me to honor his experience and grieve in community.

Other films this year did the same: “42,” “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” They did what all art is supposed to do; they got to my brain via the heart.

Mark Twain was the best at that. His character Huck Finn was willing to “go to hell” for the runaway slave, Jim. Huck’s choice is moral and clear today, viewed through our 21st-century lens, but in the 19th century, aiding and abetting a slave was a criminal act, and worse, an act many Christians viewed as a one-way ticket to sit at Satan’s feet.

Huck didn’t care, in the same way Twain didn’t care that his storytelling might be offending America’s puffed-up view of itself.

Twain forced us to look at hypocrisy and cruelty, and hopefully see some of it in ourselves, but he couched it in humor and sent a freckled boy to do his bidding. That’s what you had to do in the 19th century when the truth was a hard pill to swallow.

But swallow the pill we must. Then and now.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

And maybe that’s why I love movies most of all.

Today’s audience can and should take a little full-frontal reality. As I was telling my stylist just this morning, I hope next year’s Oscars dish up more of the same.

Karen Irwin of Tacoma teaches writing at Clover Park Technical College. Email her at irwinkd@ yahoo.com.

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