Friday, November 30, 2012

Film Friday: Is Wreck It Ralph a game-changer for Disney?

We saw Wreck it Ralph  last weekend, in a nice theater in Jersey, in 3-D.   Was lots of fun, clever, charming, etc.   But is it the beginning of another rebirth for Disney Animation?  

I'm not a whiz at forecasting.  Certainly there's a lot of marketing/branding potential in a movie about video games, but there's no way I can tell if the next Disney films will do as well.  What I can tell you is that, watching the film, I wasn't as blown away as I thought I'd be.  

The film's story is a very good variation on the midnight-in-toy-shop theme that animators have been using since the old days.  (Kids, that doesn't mean Toy Story.) Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the Fix-it-Felix Jr game villain, is a working-class Joe who, after two decades, is tired of being the outsider. All he wants, just once, is to get a medal, like the zillions that Felix has. Seizing an opportunity when a soldier from a military game passes out (in the Tap-It game's bar!), Ralph goes to the soldier's game, which involves trying to kill as many bugs as possible.  Seeing a medal in the bugs' next, Ralph seizes it, and eventually takes off in a military vehicle through the electric wire conduits that act like subway trains... and ends up in the ultra-sweet race-car game Sugar Rush, set in a land that makes Candy-Land look like Oatmeal-ville. 

Ralph loses his medal, and it's found by Penelope Von Schweetz, voiced with annoying charm by Sarah Silverman. She wants to participate in the game's overnight race to determine who will be visible in the next day's game. She uses Ralph's medal  as a coin to get herself on the board, but because she is a glitch, she's not supposed to race, and the rest of the community, led by King Candy, will do whatever it takes to keep her out of the race. Recognizing her as a fellow outsider, Ralph and Penelope become friends; he helps her build a go-cart, but then the worm turns: the King explains that if the glitch gets to be part of the videogame, the plug will be pulled from it.  (Ralph's own game is in danger of being unplugged, too, because of his disappearance.)  Ralph is forced to decide between giving his friend what he wants, and doing what he thinks is the right thing for the game community. 

There's also another wrinkle: Ralph accidentally brought a cybug with him into Sugar Rush, and it's been laying eggs underground that will lead to Armageddon for the game...and possibly the whole arcade! You know, like that.  

The videogame effects are terrific but not overwhelmingly so.   The old-school games are lovingly reproduced; the movements of the dwellers in the apartment Ralph wrecks move with hilarious simplicity.   Sugar Rush is dazzling, and the military game is spot-on, too.   It's a very good movie, and it might jumpstart an animation studio that has had some mixed success in recent years.  But Disney Animation is not in as bad a shape as it was in the 1980s, when The Little Mermaid began the Mouse's renaissance. Disney itself is a gigantic media empire now, with an entire animation studio under its wing in Pixar, whose founder John Lasseter is now running Disney Animation (and is responsible for Ralph).   The expectations are not as big for Ralph, but it was touted as a new  beginning, much the way Little Mermaid was.   I don't see that new beginning but I did see an enjoyable film.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baseball Hall of Fame: Let the Hypocrisy... I mean, VOTING! begin!

The Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was released Wednesday.  And on it for the first time, three figures notoriously associated with steroid use (I list them alphabetically):  Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa.  And now, the hypocrisy begins. 

First, let's go with the obvious.  We all know that the Baseball Writers' Association of America members were among the biggest cheerleaders during the great home run chase of 1998 between Sosa and Mark McGwire, who has failed to make the Hall in his previous attempts.  So all their sanctimony about not letting steroid cheaters into Cooperstown is laughable.  At least, most of the writers -- and sportstalk hosts -- have admitted that they screwed up, not paying attention to what was going on, not asking the tough questions, etc. 

Truth is, the BWAA has a lot of holier-than-thou members, who think that they are the Divine Protectors of the Realm.   Five writers did not vote for Tom Seaver when he first showed on the ballot -- not because he didn't deserve it, but because they were protesting the fact that Pete Rose wasn't on the ballot. (Rose, in case you don't know, bet on baseball, which has been explicitly forbidden for almost a century. He's banned for life, and can't be on the ballot.)    There also apparently is this idea that some players are Hall of Famers, but some are first-ballot Hall-of-Famers.   So: you are good enough to make the Hall, but you can wait a year.   Or fourteen, in the case of Jack Morris.

(I understand that some players get evaluated differently in the passage of time.  It took forever for Phil Rizzuto to get in.  But seriously:  either you belong or you don't. )

The Writers can be petty too: Mike Schmidt didn't get a unanimous vote mainly because the guys who didn't vote for him didn't like him personally.   There will probably be a Boston writer or two who won't vote for Derek Jeter the first (and only) time out.   

But this steroids thing is going to bring it to a new level.

USA Today's Christine Brennan keeps it simple: no.  The steroid three, and anyone else tainted, don't get in.  On his weekly radio show, Daily News columnist Mike Lupica made it plain: if I think you did steroids, you're not getting my vote.   And, Lupica continued, I'm not going to go on the air and explain my votes after they are cast. 

We always knew that there's nobody more thin-skinned than members of the press, especially sportswriters.   They dish it out, but they don't like to take it.  

It doesn't matter that none of the steroid three ever failed a drug test.  It doesn't matter if any player from the steroid era did or didn't test positive.  If the Gatekeepers of the Hall "believe" that he did steroids, then Mike Piazza, or Jeff Bagwell, or Julio Franco (just kidding) is dirty and can't be in the Hall.   Lupica says, hey, this is not a court of law, I'm not ruling on anyone's life.   True enough, though you are ruling on someone's legacy in a sport that you hold to be sacred.

This is not unlike the Republican state legislators saying "I feel that voter fraud is going on, I can't prove it, there are actually no cases of it in my state, but I'm going to pass voter ID laws because I just feel it will prevent cheating that I can't prove has happened."

What we're going to see from more than a few writers in inconsistency and rationalization.  Bonds and Clemens, so the narrative goes, were already Hall of Famers when they started taking steroids.  (Because we know for sure when they started... even though Clemens denies ever taking PEDs and successfully defended himself against perjury charges on the subject, and Bonds admits nothing.)  Sosa and McGwire would not have their numbers if they had not juiced. 

And we know this how? The same way Bush knew Iraq had WMDs? 

(Digression: when the debates raged over Clemens' trial, why did that become a partisan issue? Why did the Republicans support Clemens and the Dems condemn him?  Really? )

In the fifties, if your name was in Red Channels, you couldn't find work in TV.   It didn't matter that you weren't Communist, that you didn't know any members of the Party, and that all you did was sign some petition about Spain in the thirties:  if the former FBI agents who published the book suspected you, you were done.  The only way to clear yourself: name names. 

I suppose it could be arguably just as wishy-washy to say, "we don't know who did what, let's just forget the steroids, put up a plaque, and hope for the best."    It's really not an easy job, and I don't know that it should be done on a case-by-case basis. 

What bugs me is that these selections seem to be done more on a whim than they are rooted in a specific experience.   And that to me de-legitimizes the process of voting even more than the presence of a Bonds in the Hall of Fame de-legitimizes the Hall itself. 

You're not going to vote for a guy because he was rumored to have juiced?  Such thought process is dangerous. 

I'm not blind or naive.  It's pretty evident that a lot of guys were using PED's    That said, I wish there were some way medical science could prove that people have never taken steroids, and that some guys who didn't get into the Hall because of the the Writers' sanctimony  can prove he never took the stuff. I'd love to see them crawling back and saying, "sorry"!  I'm not defending anybody who took PED's; I just want the writers to get off their horses and stop the hypocrisy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The New York Jets: Greatest Show on Back Pages

The real problem for the New York Jets is not the big-mouth head coach.  Sure, he should shut up more, and he really needs to re-think his philosophy of "ground and pound" in a league that goes out of its way to help the passing game.   It's not the GM, though he's probably better suited to manipulating the salary cap than in evaluating talent, and certainly the Jets botched the off-season by not doing anything to improve their passing game and actually taking a step backward offensively.  (This they did by firing their offensive coordinator and not bringing back their red-zone threat Plaxico Burress, whose height gave him great advantage in the end zone.)  It's not their quarterback, though he's been a disappointment.  

It's the owner, Robert Wood Johnson IV, aka Woody. 

If Rex Ryan loses his job at the end of this season, he will be the second consecutive coach to lose his job because the owner saw a bright shiny object in the window and said, "I want that." 

A few years ago, Johnson made it clear that he wanted Brett Favre, whose time with the Green Bay Packers was finally ending.  Though coach Eric Mangini wasn't too keen on bringing Favre in, Johnson got his wish.  Truth be told, the trade to Green Bay for Favre didn't cost the Jets much of anything, and bringing Favre in to replace Chad Pennington, who was coming off an injury, seemed like a good thing for eleven games.  

Then Favre got hurt, played through the injury anyway, looked bad, the defense seemed to blow games they should have won, and the Jets lost their last game, clinging to a hope for the playoffs -- to the Miami Dolphins, whose quarterback was... Chad Pennington, who was named Comeback Player of the Year as he took a 1-15 team and turned it into an 11-5 division winner.   Mangini was fired because of the team's near-total collapse after an 8-3 start.   (This was after three seasons, two of them with winning records, one leading to a playoff berth.) 

This past off-season, another shiny object appeared in Woody's view: Tim Tebow.   While publicly, the Jets speak about this being a collective decision, with everyone aboard, there's no question in my mind that the trade for Tebow was driven by the owner, who saw in Tebow a chance to make mucho dinero -- and once again steal the back page headlines from his stadium-mates, the Giants, who were too busy winning the Super Bowl to notice. 

The Jets are constantly talked about.  They are made fun of, debated, and everyone has something to say about them.   They sure grab headlines: players in trouble, players opening their mouths, coaches opening theirs, etc.  But they haven't won anything.  

The Jets screwed up this offseason every which way.   They didn't upgrade their offensive line.  They didn't get additional quality running back support.  They didn't bring in receiving talent to help their quarterback Mark Sanchez, who'd guided the Jets to the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons.   But they did bring in Tebow, and the press continues to flock to his locker. 

Tebow has been a complete non-factor this season.  He's hardly been used, and I don't think offensive coordinator Tony Sparano really wanted to use him anyway, and doesn't know how.  He's pretty much wasting his time, but Woody says Tebow will be around next season.  "You can never have too much Tebow," Johnson has been quoted as having said. 

And this is why he needs to go.  Too bad we can't fire owners. 

Johnson has owned the team for about a dozen years.   He's on his fifth head coach and his third general manager.   The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969; no team has more Lombardi trophies.   The New York Giants have had three GMs since 1979; they have been to five Super Bowls, winning four.  See a pattern? Stability.  

Woody Johnson is not interested in winning championships.   He's interested in headlines.  And he's got them: even this week's ridiculous story of Fireman Ed's decision not to come to Jets home games anymore made the back pages, while their rivals just keep winning. The Giants and the New England Patriots have met in the Super Bowl twice in the last five seasons, and they could meet a third time this year too.  

But that's all right with Woody.  As long as the papers and the sportstalk radio-sphere is full of the ot air the Jets bring, he'll be happy. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Harvey Milk died 34 years ago today

I was a kid when Harvey Milk became the first openly gay public official, serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until his assassination by Dan White, who had also served on the board.  White had initially thought Milk to be an ally on certain issues, but when Milk voted against him, White became an antagonist, his instability and hatred coming through.  He actually resigned, then sought to take back his resignation, but Mayor Moscone refused to let him un-resign.   On this day in 1978, White entered city hall, shot Moscone and then Harvey Milk.

I remember a little bit about the story.   Open discussions about gay people were really only emerging in pop culture; mostly, such discussions had been jokes, ranging from relatively innocuous to blatantly bigoted.  The story in San Francisco also got a lot of attention because of Moscone's friendship with the Reverend Jim Jones, who'd recently taken his followers to Guyana, where they drank poisoned Kool-Aid in a mass-suicide/murder, just nine days before White's murders of Milk and Moscone.  

A few years later I saw the Rob Epstein documentary about Milk on PBS, excerpts of which can be heard in a play about the case written in the eighties (whose name escapes me at the moment).   One of the most impressive persons was the head of the local teamsters, who speaks seriously and respectfully about Milk's support of labor.   It was a clear instance of prejudices being overcome by virtue of a simple idea: get to know people.  

Harvey Milk would certainly be quite thrilled at many of the legal protections for homosexuals that are now in place, even as some states are rejecting such protections.  He would also be dismayed at the stories of teenagers committing suicide because of homophobia.  He clearly understood his position as the first one through the door marked "this way for the public sphere."   Without question, he became a martyr for equality, no less than Dr. King.    

I've always admired Harvey Milk, nice Jewish kid from New York who found happiness in the Castro district of San Francisco, and helped changed lives.    I'm sorry he's gone, but grateful to know he is not forgotten. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What is a "Rich, Cultural Gift"?

A couple days ago, Anne Rice, the vampire writer (she created the moody Lestat), asked on Facebook the following question:  Can you name your top five picks for great films -- dvds you'd give to a young person as a rich cultural gift for Christmas? One of my friends asked me for my five.  Of course I ended up giving her fifteen, but that's not really the point, and I don't intend to do a list here; it's one of my principles for this blog: resist the urge to make lists.  

I wanted to know, from my friend and from Anne Rice, how are you defining a "young person"?   There are plenty of great films I could think of for the wee ones, some of which might interest the middle-graders, too.  Where is the line being drawn?   (Rice's choices gave me some indication of what age range she was thinking of, though my friend was looking at a slightly younger age bracket.)  Taxi Driver might be a rich cultural gift, but not for a ten-year-old.  

But then, after having made some suggestions, I began to think: well, what does Anne Rice mean by a "rich cultural gift"?   Is she talking about some kind of "uplifting" or "moral" film? Given that her list includes The Godfather, I'm not sure you can say the former.   Is it about the breadth and range of human experience?   Is it about films that demonstrate the great, evocative power of the medium itself, like, say 2001? (I'm leaving aside the fact that watching a DVD at home is not like watching a film in a quality 35- or 70-mm print -- especially if you can see Kubrick's film as it was originally screened, in Cinerama.)   And that got my anti-snob sensors on full-alert.   After all, the Abbott and Costello box set was in my shopping car at Amazon at the time.

I'm very happy that I've offered my kids a decent mix of what Rice means by "rich cultural gift" and what I prefer to call "mindless entertainment."  There are plenty of films that might connect to young people's emotional experiences; none of them have anything to do with John Hughes, but Nick Ray's Rebel Without a Cause is as evocative of teen alienation as Hollywood ever made.   It's also nice to try and give them worthwhile history lessons: Gandhi and Amistad I think make great ones.   I'd also recommend pretty much every Billy Wilder film as an alternative to reading Catcher in the Rye.  (Ace in the Hole is definitive in its cynicism, but really, you can pick anything; my personal fave is Stalag 17, my favorite Christmas movie.) To understand the power of film, watch certain foreign classics like Wings of Desire or The Last Laugh -- or, if you prefer the English language, any works from the great Hollywood auteurs -- Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford -- are accessible and, at their best, brilliant.

But don't ignore the apparently silly business.   Airplane! is as much a rich cultural gift as Godfather II.   Likewise Monty Python and the Holy Grail.   Arthur Hiller's The In-Laws; the first Ghostbusters; and yes even the movies made fun of by Mystery Science Theater 3000: treasures all.   I'd put Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein right up there with many of the original horror classics from Universal.   And while Woody Allen's later films are beautiful masterpieces (Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, Hannah, Crimes and Misdemeanors), the "early funny films" are worth sharing with the adolescent crowd, flawed as they may be at times.

Nothing wrong with Fellini, Truffaut, or Ozu.   But young persons have to understand that rich cultural gifts come in very odd packages.   

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Memory Jump Start

Had to jump-start my wife's car, then drove it around for a while to charge it.  Eventually, I brought it to the service station where we had the battery replaced just a little while ago, and they tested the battery, and it was fine.  Before I got to the station, I took a drive along the highway, just really driving a couple exits, getting off, and getting back on and going home again.  

Driving along the water reminded me of the many rides I took with my children, mainly in an effort to help them take a nap .   My youngest especially always had trouble unless she was either nursing or on wheels.   (In bad weather I took to strolling her to sleep, around the living room table, on nights when my wife was working.)   Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get them to conk out.   More than once I'd exit the highway, only to hear them cry at a nearby traffic light.   I'd sometimes tell a story, or sing a song, or play something on the radio. 

This trip was quiet, and solitary.  Just me listening to the car's engine and watching for the police -- I found a car just beyond a curve, waiting to trap someone for speeding.  Good thing I'd got a glimpse early enough to make sure I was at the speed limit.  

My children are 12 and 9 now.   The rides we take are always boisterous, except late at night, from a party or a busy day trip.   Of course I'd rather they not fall asleep on the way home, since there's no way I can carry them anymore.   How small they once were, so soft to hold and gently put to bed after they fell asleep in the car.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Film Friday: One Thanksgiving Classic

Now, I know that for many of us, the greatest five minutes of Thanksgiving pop culture is the turkey-drop from WKRP in Cincinnati.  But this being Film Friday, I wanted to remind everyone of this classic. 

This is the trailer to Woody Allen's 1984 Broadway Danny Rose, which is to the Catskills-Borscht Belt entertainment scene what This is Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music and documentaries.  It's probably the funniest movie Woody Allen has ever made, and the last time you can really see him acting -- not just showing up and being "the Woody Allen character."  

The premise: Danny Rose is a small-time theatrical manager.  Very small time.  His acts? A blind xylophone player, a dancing penguin, an elderly balloon-folding duo; a woman who plays music from glasses filled with water at varying heights -- and has-been Italian singer named Lou Canova. Almost out of nowhere, a nostalgia craze kicks in, and Lou is in more demand on places like cruise ships. Problem is: he's got a big ego, a bit of a drinking problem, and he's fallen in love, even though he's still married.  

The crisis:  Milton Berle is going to see Lou's act at the Waldorf Astoria, and if he likes the act, Lou will get a spot on a tv special and be Milton's opening act at Caesar's.   But Lou wants Danny to bring his mistress, Tina, and pretend she's Danny's date until after Lou's wife goes home.   Danny reluctantly agrees, but finds that Tina doesn't want to go, because she thinks Lou is two-timing her. ("No, darling -- he's cheating only with you!" Danny pleads.)   Tina, a sharp-tongued interior decorator with some mob ties in her past, eventually leads Danny on a hilarious wild-goose chase that ends with them being kidnapped by hoodlums and escaping into the warehouse where the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons are stored. This leads to this:

Yep. it's that funny. 

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I'll go back to the beginning: the entire movie is a flashback.  A bunch of veteran comics -- Will Jordan, Corbett Monica, even Woody's manager, Jack Rollins -- are sitting around a table at the Carnegie deli, talking about the life and remembering Danny, and telling hilarious stories.  Sandy Barron tops them all with the story of Danny and Lou and Tina.   During the story, we sometimes cut back to the comics in the deli.   The final shot brings us back to the outside, in a loving black and white tribute to Manhattan that's just as sweet as the one that finishes Allen's 1979 classic.  

What makes this movie so funny? It just seems so wonderfully believable.  Allen's Danny is a perfect schlep, full of confidence despite clearly being a failure.  He shows off a picture of "me and Frank," but he's not even in the picture, telling Tina, "I was just off the frame."   He gathers his clients together for a Thanksgiving feast -- of frozen turkey tv dinners.   When he speaks of acts who've gone to bigger and better things after leaving him, you can see the heartbreak despite his persistent optimism.   The mob types may be just that, but there is something so funny about them when you see them all at a party that Tina visits.  (Look for Michael Balalducco at the party -- he's tearing money, and he's got what's still my favorite line in the film.)   The music is also funny and touching; the original songs were written by the man who plays Lou, Nick Apollo Forte, a real lounge singer cast despite having never acted before.  (It is said that Danny Ailleo, who'd worked on one of Allen's plays on Broadway, lobbied to get the part, but Allen wanted someone who really was a lounge act; to make up for it, Allen wrote a part for Aiello for his next film, the part of the brutish husband Monk in The Purple Rose of Cairo.)  Nothing like a little "Agita" to get you through the night. 

Supposedly, Woody Allen stopped making howl-out funny movies in the late seventies; after Annie Hall, no more outrageous cartoony films like Sleeper or Bananas.   But Broadway Danny Rose is just as hilarious as those "early funny films," yet somehow manages to make what happens to Danny quite believable, and heartfelt.    The whole thing is still up on YouTube. Go get it!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Film Friday: Darth Disney

Okay, so you've all seen the goofy (no pun intended) pictures that have suggested the implications of Disney's buyout of the Star Wars franchise.  (Here's my fave:) 

But what does this really mean for the franchise that started out as an homage to the cheesy Flash Gordon serials of George Lucas's youth and became thanks to clever merchandising and Joseph Campbell's mythologizing the epic tale of the late twentieth century? 

Well, for one thing, Star Wars won't simply be a line of toys or amusement park rides; they will re-boot the series and presumably finish the tale, which Lucas had originally conceived as a nine-part serial.  (His original intention was to make the second trilogy, Episodes I through III, right after the first trilogy was finished, allowing the actors from IV through VI to get old enough to play their parts at the right time to film the last trilogy.  Obviously, that's not how it went down.)  

But Disney didn't buy Lucasfilm to profit from the creative forces behind the company, the way they did with Pixar.   The Star Wars deal is much more like its buyout of Marvel, or the Muppets: Disney gets a built-in brand with lots of possibilities to work with for a generation.  They're not relying on Lucas, who sees this deal as passing the torch.  

Disney is not just going to finish the final trilogy; it will produce additional films, possibly a tv series or two, and obviously, sell a lot of toys. Some of it will be great, and some trash, but I bet all will bring in a profit.  And in some respects, Disney will return Star Wars to its roots. 

At its heart, Star Wars is a Saturday afternoon serial, complete with cheesy dialogue and black and white heroes and villains.   Watch the original film on a small screen; it's pretty lifeless.   Part of the impact of the film is the experience of it on as large a screen as possible; there, it's overwhelming, and it makes up for the weak writing and uneven acting.   A lot of factors went into the film's becoming THE event of the summer of 77.   Joseph Campbell explained it through his understanding of myth, and a little old blockbuster  became an epic that "spoke" to an entire civilization.   Such mythologizing is ridiculous, of course -- for some perspective I recommend the writings of Robin Wood -- but one cannot escape the reality of the epic's influence.  

If Disney is serious about an all-out expansion of the brand, then Star Wars will no longer hold its place in a mythic pantheon of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.   It will be another piece of real estate, like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Muppets, and the all the tv networks it owns.   Yes, a special piece of real estate, but  still one that knows its place. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

O'Reilly's Traditional America: Losing Its Stuff?

It couldn't have been just me who heard the racism implicit in Bill O'Reilly's lament for America that supposedly passed for an analysis of the significance of Barack O'bama (sorry, couldn't help adding the apostrophe) being reelected despite all the confidence that Karl Rove espoused for weeks prior to the election.   (Note: the link above is merely to a Google search. Find the clip yourself.  Not going to give Fox the plug here.)

We know that the Stewart/Colbert fake news machinery got it, and you can find a few other locales where people are analyzing O'Reilly's remarks.  (I liked this one myself.)  While O'Reilly was one of the few who spoke publicly what was on a lot of the rightwing pundits' minds anyway,  he also represents one major aspect of the "analysis" rhetoric: the absolute refusal to look inward to understand how come your guy lost.   As I noted in a post from yesterday, the network's interests do not necessarily overlap the party's, and the talking heads are quite content to spew out distortions of reality that they know their audience wants, and for that audience, it's easier to believe that the liberal media lie to them, that people who support universal healthcare are commies, that the President is a Kenyan Muslim, etc. 

But what O'Reilly's remarks also reveal is another layer of the deeply felt white resentment at a perceived loss of power.   His comment on the slight majority -- enough to win a  Presidential election despite lots of GOP voter-suppression efforts -- as the side that just "wants stuff" was of course laughable, as Stewart pointed out, since the Fox audience also gets stuff too (like Medicare and for the very top of the food chain, obscene tax breaks).   O'Reilly doesn't specify much about what the traditional America was, but obviously, it is overwhelmingly white (recall how hard it was to see any people of color at the GOP convention), and it is also the hard-working "half" of the country.  It's not much different than Romney's 47 percent remarks, really.  Yep, that's right: we voted for Obama so that we can sit our our lazy black and brown asses and still get paid.  

There is something more insidious about "Traditional America."  It implies that before "we" did such "wrong" things like enfranchise blacks and women, offer degrees of amnesty to illegals, and stop stigmatizing homosexuality, America was this serene place where all good people can work hard and hope to reach a dream, even if it meant working 100 hours a week at a steel mill or coal mine.   "We went downhill when we began handing out money to the 25 percent of the population that went out of work when the Depression hit, further still when Lyndon Johnson tried to secure the rights of blacks promised by Emancipation AND create more welfare programs.  

It's a distorted reading of history, to say the least.  (This is not surprising, since O'Reilly is the guy who once tried to claim that the Klan started in the north and then said that its founder was a former Confederate general.)    The America O'Reilly imagines is one before Brown v Board of Ed, before Roe v Wade, before Stonewall, before the full recognition that people who are not white actually live in this country.  (It's worth noting that over a century ago, the Irish were not considered truly white Americans.  So much for traditional America, Mr. O'Reilly.)

We have to be wary about rhetorical evocations of a "traditional" past that more often than not never really existed.   I think sometimes about those who opposes changes in the rules of baseball, who are often called "purists."  I worry about that notion, because to be a purist 65 years ago could have meant opposing integration of the sport.  Just because it's the way it's "always been" doesn't make it right -- and that's especially the case when the way it's always been isn't really true to begin with.  

The stuff those who voted for Obama want is summed up nicely by xojane: 

 being able to marry who they want, and full autonomy over their own internal organs, and a well-funded educational system, and access to affordable health care, and taxes that don't fleece the middle class to benefit the rich, and a fair shot at success in this world. 

Oh, that's right, that stuff.   Somehow, O'Reilly, who tries to present himself as a working-class-hero, misses that point:  he thinks that if the Obama voters get more stuff, he has to give up more stuff.  Traditional America has lost something: its grip on reality, though "Traditional America" has little basis in reality, too. 

Film Friday: Hitchcock, anyone?

I'm a bit annoyed that I was in two hotels over the course of four nights, had HBO, and didn't get to see their film about Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, The Girl.   I arrived at one hotel on Halloween, and it happened not to be on by the time I'd checked in late that night.   Then, the hotel I stayed in the following few nights didn't give me the new November HBO schedule so I'd no idea when it'd be on.   I was curious, knowing what I did about the troubled relationship between Hedren and Hitchcock.    Perhaps I'll make it a screening for my course next term on Hitchcock.

My class is under the umbrella title "Film/Media Authorship," which is broad enough to cover theoretical issues surrounding the idea of authorship in a collaborative medium like film but also to allow a focus on one or two directors over the course of a term.   Obviously, Hitchcock makes an ideal subject for both topics:  more has been written about Hitchcock than any other English-language film-maker.  

I was very pleased that my oldest daughter has taken such a liking to Hitchcock, though she's seen very few of the films so far.  Even so, she wanted to have an Alfred-Hitchcock-themed birthday party: her friends  came over and played my Hitchcock edition of Clue and later we watched Rear Window, which I thought a relatively safe choice since you don't see the murder take place, and it's probably a lot easier for 12 yr olds to follow than Vertigo.

But of course, now comes the making of the syllabus.

Recently when I taught a course in film adaptation, I used survey monkey to ask registered students what they might like to see in the class.  I'm not going to do that this time, since I suspect most of the students will only have heard of the films, and probably only seen one or two.   What this does mean is that I'm making a list, right here.

I don't want to make lists on my blog.  I just think it screams "GEEK!"  But  I'll try rationalizing it by saying it's not really a list as much as it is a bullet-item list of possible films to screen.  I get I think thirteen weeks to show stuff, which somehow, seems apropos for Hitchcock.   Here are my thoughts:

  • The Lodger (everyone begins with this one important silent film that he made)
  • Blackmail (again, crucial in UK film history as first sound film) 
  • Murder! (important themes)
  • Sabotage (defining suspense -- Sylvia Sidney's kid brother carrying the bomb...) 
  • Rebecca ("If you covered him with garbage/George Sanders would still have style.." -- Ray Davies, "Celluloid Heroes," truer words never did he write; a brilliant cast top to bottom)
  • Suspicion (maybe this is why I'm lactose-intolerant: Cary Grant bringing up the scariest class of milk in movie history)
  • Shadow of a Doubt (incredibly important Freudian stuff)
  • Notorious (dangerous, sexy, and Claude Rains, too)
  • Rope (important if failed experiment)
  • Strangers on a Train (Robert Walker's greatest role, CRISS-CROSS!) 
  • Rear Window
  • Vertigo
  • Psycho  
The last three are obvious, but  there are so many others I want to get to: Marnie is a favorite of mine, and though I don't remember Frenzy  well, I know enough writers have championed it that it's probably worth looking at, too.  The Wrong Man also seems like a great case study in the politics of race and representation, and how does one not show The Birds?   A student can do a research paper comparing the two versions of Man Who Knew Too Much, so I feel fine leaving both out.   I love Lifeboat, wishing I could get to that.  North by Northwest is so much fun, and on the other end, I Confess is quite serious.   

If I recall my own undergrad Hitchcock course correctly, we only covered I think three British films, the rest being Hollywood.  It was there that I first saw Marnie, and because the class was taught by Dana Polan, we watched his only comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  (You can see Polan's essay on the film in a number of anthologies.)    It's always difficult to narrow down.  Even going with what I like -- usually the best pedagogy anyway -- is hard to do.   At least with Orson Welles, you're dealing with a relatively smaller body of work.   And in the age of home video, pretty much the entire corpus of Hitchcock's work is out there for the students to screen privately.  

The "easiest" organization is chronological; it allows one to examine the context of film history at the time of the given film. Because the course also concerns authorship, it might make sense to address the matters thematically: representation of police, blondes, voyeurism, transference of guilt, etc.  Or, given the question of authorship, consider the collaborators, too: there are books associated with the various script-writers out there now; many essays address the roles of his various cameramen and editors; some concern the influence of his wife Alma; and most famously, the role of composer Bernard Herrmann has been very thoroughly considered.  

So many possibilities.   I suppose there are worse problems to have: though I live in the Sandy-zone, I never lost power, and I have enough gas in my car for now to get to work one more day.  If anyone wishes to suggest a film or two, feel free, but I hope you explain why, even if it's something that's so obvious (like, for example, The Birds really is).   

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Global Village gets Whacked by Sandy

In my freshman seminar, we've been reading Marshall McLuhan's most famous book, Understanding Media.   Ironically, this past week's reading assignments concerned chapters that covered modes of transportation: roads and paper routes (chapter 10); wheel, bicycle, and airplane (chapter 19); and motorcar (chapter 22).

McLuhan speaks, as most media scholars know, about the social consequences of these various "media."  (His definition of a medium is a bit broad: it refers to any extension of the human body or, in the case of electric media, the central nervous system.)  Societes organize themselves differently as they adapt to newer media.  The old Roman roads were central to a specific mode of political organization; the airplane creates a different kind of city planning, etc.  The car itself is without a doubt the most crucial invention of the 20th century; structuring cities around the automobile has had a profound impact on daily life in America.   The scandal of the tearing down of the public transit system of Los Angeles by General Motors (alluded to in, of all movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) led to the city becoming the smog capital of the nation.   As Ken Burns' documentary on New York City pointed out (with assistance from Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses), the hitching of the city's future to the automobile, and the building up of highways and gutting of whole neighborhoods (like those in the Bronx that were destroyed by the Cross Bronx Expressway) transformed the postwar landscape and in its own way contributed to the kind of bleak image New York had in the sevnties. 

As you all know, all these systems basically were shut down when Sandy hit the Jersey shore and didn't really leave for about 48 or so hours.  Many people lost power and/or heat; trees fell on cars and homes; airports were shut down (and many airlines canceled flights even when the airports re-opened). Even after the storm passed, fuel became a prized commodity; most gas stations were either drained of gas by panicked motorists or had been shut down because of a loss of electrical power.  (You can't pump the gas if the pump has no electricity.)  For the past two weeks, many citizens in the Northeast have been disconnected from the global village that elecrticity provides for them.  

(Please note: I am not specifically talking about those who lost their homes, especially in the Rockaways.  Nor am I referring to the lives that were taken by Sandy. Such losses are of a tragic proportion beyond the focus of my blog post.) 

When circumstances like these arise, one can see the way that indeed our extensions of ourselves are really part of a central nervous system.  Without these various media at our disposal -- car, airplane, etc. -- we become immobilized.  

The mobile phone (McLuhan's chapter on the telephone was also on our list this week) did allow us to keep connections -- but only so long as one had power to use it.  If you couldn't recharge your phone anywhere, you were off the grid completely when your battery died.  

Obivously, a storm like Sandy generates new questions about the status of our infrastructure; in many ways the grids that we use -- electrical, road, water, natural gas, oil -- are several generations old.  They were not meant to handle this much volume.   Whatever specific energy sources we use, we need to fully rebuild the networks that transport these sources to us, or we will become stuck again the next hurricane that comes our way.  But as we do this, let's think in the long-term about what are the social implications for these various extensions of ourselves.  

Fox News and the Election: Paying for Mark Fowler's Toaster

In the 1980s, the deregulation of American Broadcasting began full-tilt.  Many of the rules that restricted forms of ownership and content were altered to allow for greater consolidation of corporate power and fewer requirements for broadcasting content "in the public interest, convenience, or necessity" (the phrase used in the old books about licensing).

Now, American broadcasting has always been a predominantly a commercial medium, when compared to, say, the BBC in the UK.   The quiz show scandals of the 1950s ended the sponsors' direct control of programming content, and broadcasters were obligated to varying degrees to provide content that served the greater public good.  One crucial requirement, always a controversial one, was the Fairness Doctrine, which required that broadcasters present a fair and balanced (stop laughing) representation of important issues relevant to their broadcasting community.   Broadcasters had often opposed such a rule, but the courts held up the FCC's rights to enforce it, though in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC wasn't required to.

When Mark Fowler became chair of the FCC in 1981, he set about dismantling the regulations that have led to, among other things, the massive consolidation of media into a handful of conglomerates, the proliferation of infomercials, and the rise of partisan talk radio.   Requirements about station ownership were relaxed; not only could networks actually own more numbers of affiliate stations, but now individuals could speculate in buying and "flipping" stations. (Previous rules required that a broadcaster had to own a station for at least three years and in order to obtain a license had to demonstrate clear financial solvency.)    Rules were relaxed to allow media cross-ownership; this allowed Rupert Murdoch, then owner of the New York Post, to make WNEW his flagship station for his planned Fox Network. (Rules also were bent regarding citizenship to allow Murdoch to do this.)

Fowler's arguments were that television should be seen not as a public trust, but as a commercial entitity.  Most famously, Fowler described television as an appliance, like any other: it's "a toaster with picutures."  Using that reasoning, Fowler dereulagetd the industrty and made it even more commercial than it had been before.  In eliminating the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC (at that time, 1987, no longer chaired by Fowler) effectively removed any requirement that broadcasters had to present a range of viewpoints on political issues.   All these factors led to the emergence of right-wing talk-radio blowhards, whose views stirred up listeners and drove ratings, which dominated programming decisions even more than before 1981.

Which brings me to Fox News and the 2012 election.

As my old high school friend and columnist  Gil Smart blogged recently, one of the most important causes of the failure of the Romney campaign -- aside from, well, the flip-flopping, the 47 percent comment, and the threats on Big Bird -- was the role that Fox played.   While the network was created by former Reagan aide Roger Ailes, it's not quite fair (or balanced?) to say that the network is merely the mouth of the Republican party.   As Gil points out, Fox News is a business, and their interest is in in generating audience numbers first and foremost.   And in a media landscape where information has become a commodity, the network succeeds by giving its audience what they want, regardless of its relation to reality.  

Gil cites a post by Connor Friedersdorf,  which focuses on the harm Fox News did to its political patrons.  By not presenting its audience a picture of what was really going on, especially in terms of the polls, Fox News did the party and its audience a dissservice.   By continuing to have "journalists" who present out-of-whack information as facts, the network generates lots of money and interest, but there are still enough people in "the reality-based community" who go out and vote against those who have idiotic thoughts about rape, ostrich-like opinions about climate change, etc.  

This state of affairs is in many ways what News Corp wants, because controversial loudmouths make lots of money for Murdoch.  And it is precisely the point of Mark Fowler's idea of tv as a toaster: news is just another commodity that is sold; give the people what they want, regardless of the truth.  

For intelligent conservatives who can present reasoned arguments against Obamacare and tax hikes on the rich, let the lesson sink in: irrational ideas might reap in the profits, but they are sinking the party.   And this is what deregulation of broadcasting wrought.  

A busy two weeks: Sorry!

I'm sure you've all been waiting for the latest post, and I'm sorry to have bailed on y'all.   There were two basic events keeping me from getting here.  First, as I noted a week before, I was working on producing a paper to present at the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association conference in Pittsburgh; second, Sandy came and kept me busy, not so much with issues like loss of power -- we were fine -- as with keeping the kids entertained for the time they had off from school.   This left with me less time to prepare, which is why i was still working on the damn thing in the hotel before I presented.   (As it also turned out, I ended up driving instead of flying, because the airline canceled my flight. I enjoyed the trip, but it was obviously time-consuming.)

So what have I missed?