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Oscar night: At the movies, we all get a vote

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John Gress/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Oscar statuettes – shown in three stages of metal plating – are manufactured at R.S. Owens in Chicago.

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One tradition of Oscar night – besides the red carpet, the musical numbers, and Jack Nicholson grinning in the front row – is the self-referential film clip. You know the one: Judy Garland, John Wayne, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, or some other combination of famous faces speed by, smiling, grimacing, and dropping signature lines (“Go ahead, make my day”) while the music swells and Hollywood tells us that movies make us laugh and cry, touch our hearts, change our thinking, yadda, yadda.

Movies aren’t as profoundly important as Hollywood wants you to believe. But movies aren’t piffle, either. Some have powerful messages. You can talk movies with strangers. When a must-see blockbuster is at the multiplex, you can feel the national conversation changing. People suddenly start dropping lines like “To infinity and beyond!” or “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Movies mean something, but what? Do they capture the national zeitgeist or are they just escapism? Can they lift a nation’s mood or are they merely made to separate you from your dollars? Critic Neal Gabler, author of this week’s cover essay, makes a strong case that recent movies reflect our mental state, meaning our collective worry and uncertainty because of the economic difficulties we have been going through.

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