Lessons Of The Oscars

by David Yearsley, March 10, 2011

Think back all of a week or less — an eternity as measured by the ADHD chronometers of pop culture — to the conclusion of the Oscar pageant in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood last Sunday evening. The show’s ecstatic finale was to be reveled in not just because it marked the welcome end to over three hours of ritualistic self-congratulation. Rather, the show-stopper with the fifth-grade chorus from P.S. 22 of Staten Island was the perfect allegory of Hollywood, and indeed of America in 2011.

Oscar hostess Anne Hathaway, along with the show’s producer Bruce Cohen, had made an unannounced appearance at the New York City school at the choir’s winter concert back in December to invite the group to perform at the Oscars. In the event itself, Hathaway introduced the award ceremony’s last act by claiming that “each generation discovers the magic of the movies for themselves.” Hathaway then anointed “the fifth grade chorus from P. S. 22” as the very embodiment of this truth. With her incantation to the undying magic of the silver screen, the exuberant kids in their brightly colored t-shirts filed jauntily up  onto the neo-art deco stage to the jubilant applause of the movie elites out in the audience.

Paeans like Hathaway’s to the immortality of the great works of royalty were a staple of the court culture of absolutism, which attempted to ensure its survival by the most lavish ceremonies possible — whether they could be afforded for or not. Had the ancien régime had television they would have thoroughly exploited it for survival purposes, as the biggest Oscar winner, The King’s Speech, asserted in the character of George V (played by Michael Gambon). In the movie the aging monarch browbeats his stammering second son (best actor winner, Colin Firth) in preparation for an eventual radio broadcast, by scoffing that kings had been reduced to the status of “entertainers.” This was the line that probably won the film its Best Picture Oscar from the members of the Academy, pleased that the irreversible triumph of actors over kings had been admitted by a British movie bent on rehabilitating a dubious family of royals.

Fortunately, the crux of that movie — with its double-meaning title referring both to an actual oration and the protagonist’s inability to speak without a stammer — was underscored with the striving, heroic strains of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This seemingly bizarre choice emphatically acknowledged not only the Germanic origins of the Windsor family but also, the House of Windsor’s tropism towards appeasement. As usual music tells the real story in the movies. Ludwig’s triumph, and that of the film he’d elevated towards Hollywood immortality, was sealed when the montage of scenes from the ten Best Picture nominees was screened to that King’s speech and Beethoven’s symphony. Again, music gave the game away.

After that final award had been handed out, the singers of P. S. 22 arrived to brighten the mood and to tell us, at least, what the evening had really been all about.

Led by their founding director, Gregg Breinberg nimbly waving his arms and darting back and forth below the lip of the stage, the chorus launched into the most famous movie song of all time: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

I doubt that the sound we heard was only theirs above the swelling orchestra, back-lit in blue for that timeless Oscars feel. In the Hollywood of the present, things can be fixed not just in post-production. Real time falsification is a crucial aspect of contemporary performance, from presidential inaugurations to “reality” t.v. Hollywood is devoted to the illusion that everyone, from the actors to the audience, is better than they really are. [This should not be to forget real-time tv-quiz fixing in the 1950s. Editors.]

The fifty-plus singers of P. S. 22 are an ethnically diverse lot, reflecting the demographics of the school’s catchment area. Otherwise it was an evening short on varying skin color, save for the appearance of A. R. Rahman, the Mozart of Madras, to perform (or at least pretend to) his song for 127 Hours, and Halle Berry with her tribute to Lena Horne

Many in the audience and out in t.v. land, might have thought that the choir’s appearance was the equivalent of winning the lottery for an ordinary, if very good, inner city elementary school choir — an unexpected once-in-a-time show-biz bonanza for the kids. Given the fact that the group is made up of fifth graders, an individual career in the ensemble is limited to a single academic year.

But as an institution, now over a decade old, the group and its dynamic director have made many appearances at major venues and on television shows and broadcasts: from Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall to the White House, and with popstars, such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and the rapper Common — artists, it might be added, hardly known for their age-appropriate repertoire.

So the kids’ glee at the Academy Awards invite, which can also be seen  on YouTube , was perhaps not as genuine as the Hollywood producer would like us to believe. Indeed some in the choir seem rather nonplussed, not least because they don’t care about the Oscars and probably have never even seen the ceremony, and even if they had would hardly have been able to last through it into the midnight hours of Eastern Standard Time. Indeed, the ratings of the 2011 broadcast admit a decline not just overall, but an especially steep one in the younger demographics. These P. S. 22 kids couldn’t care less about the silly Oscars, even if they relished the chance for another big-time appearance, whatever the pretext.

Would they have cared about the movies’ “timeless” contributions from Hollywood’s past, or thought the seemingly endless minutes given Kirk Douglass, leering at Anne Hathaway like a geriatric satyr, anything other than pointless and boring, if not downright embarrassing? No, what must have been the most thrilling for the kids was not only their nearness to real royalty, but also the glimmering possibility that they one day might be elevated to its ranks.

Embedded in the desolate snows of Upstate New York, some two-hundred miles from the Staten Island home of the choir and three thousand from the royal glow of Hollywood, I imagined the Rainbow of which the P. S. 22 choir sang extending from New York Harbor to the shores of the Pacific, where the biggest pot of gold lay.

In between the ends of that rainbow, evoked by an octave leap even more famous than that of the theme song of Gone with the Wind, lay endless malls and wasted cities, forests of For Sale signs and masses of vacant store fronts, rusted factories and failing bridges. Even though Tara has been foreclosed on, there are riches to be found somewhere far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the rain. The lesson taught to the singing kids of Staten Island and to those caught up in their moment, was that in spite of the quickly dimming prospects of economy of the future, the biggest American Dream is still alive for the next generation blessed by the magic wand of the Oscar princess: to be a movie star. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint  His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia . He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu .)

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