Other than special effects fans, who would nominate “Gravity” for Best Picture?

Why was Gravity nominated for Best Picture in the 86th Annual Academy Awards?  News stories about the movie continually emphasize the marvelous special effects.  This is more and more common these days.

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What about the story? There wasn’t much of one.  Sandra Bullock’s character was given an equally slim backstory, about a dead child.  That’ll please or appeal to women viewers.  Still, if you’re honest with yourself, maybe brutally so, then you’ll have to concede that the story is weak with little meat on its bones.

The sub-genre of the isolated survivor(s) story has been done more deftly and memorably: remember Apollo 13?  Heck, as weak of a movie as it was, that story had more meat on its bones and a better-drawn character than Ms. Bullock’s.

I remember hearing about and reading news about the Star Wars era of nearly 40-years-ago when, after its blockbuster success, George Lucas wannabes cranked out superficial retreads of those Science Fiction and Fantasy yarns.

So in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when pale and stale copies of those movies were released, and made far less money than the source material, executives scratched their heads and banged them against brick walls in order to comprehend how they screwed up.

The notorious among these copies include Starcrash, 1978, Galaxina, 1980, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, 1983, and The Last Starfighter, 1984.  By any pseudo-objective or pseudo-subjective standard these won’t land on any Best Picture or Must-Watch movie lists.  In other words they are crap.  But I will admit that, when I saw that last one listed, in high school, I liked it; it was fun.  The subtitle for Spacehunter is actually cool, rousing my attention.

The problem, which movie-makers struggle or refuse to grasp is that people love a great story.  Surely, most every grown-up remembers a time when, as a kid he or she asked his mom or dad to “tell me a story”.  Movie-goers will – and do – settle for any decent distraction or entertainment.

Sadly, we’re used to that.  Settling.

Yes special effects can beautiful.  Still, when people talk about Gravity, I have not heard any of them discuss its story.

A post-racial American reality? Really? Where!

When Pres. Barack Obama a black and bi-racial man was inaugurated in 2009 many Americans assumed (incredibly) that it signaled the end of bigotry and prejudice.

They assumed that America had finally ventured past race. They want to talk about it less. They call it post-racial. The idea and the hope to be past race is partly a hopeful social hype and partly a media creation, and is justly born of an exhale after a dream too-long-deferred finally came into being.

But toying with the idea and image of America having finally ventured beyond a race mindset frustrates me; those who do that aren’t dealing with reality!  Entertainment tends to reflect that reality more effectively.

Chris Rock does his provocative thing.
Chris Rock does his provocative thing.

To use a line from an edgy Chris Rock bit, who’s more sick of America’s racial mind: white people or black people? Black people (or those who are treated like it); we hate it too, but have to deal with the weight and spoils of race. While there are consequences for it, Anglos (white people) don’t!

When we’ve moved past race, then the brownness, blackness, or caramel color of a person’s skin won’t make us think twice about grinning at and greeting strangers. The worst recent example of strangers clashing is when Trayvon Martin met George Zimmerman. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the not guilty verdict for his attacker, George Zimmerman, is only the latest and most offensive, memorable and evocative reflection of our racial, not post-racial, reality. Most perceptive Americans understand that we have not moved past that troublesome subject, that bogeyman, which is race.

Talking about race less often doesn’t move us past it or let it hurt us any less than it used to.

During a July 2013 panel discussion at the Newseum, broadcast on C-Span-3, a professor of rhetoric, a brown man, spoke about the belief one of his students that her world was post-racial.  He told the audience that he wasn’t sure how to respond to that and her; he knew that she or her other classmates had noticed his color when they’d walked into class.

Yes. Will DuBois was prescient in describing the toxic color line and foresaw the crisis in 1903. Sadly, he wasn’t prescient enough. One hundred years later, in 2013, even with a black or bi-racial president and a soon-to-be majority minority, a zealous vigilante murdered a black man, was tried for, and finally acquitted of a crime for which plenty of evidence was against him.

We have not yet moved past “race.”

A grab bag approach to choosing movies.

Mass-market movies rarely appeal to me.   I’m drawn to stories that reveal a personal or distinctive voice.  Production companies are interested in appealing to the broadest audiences and in-turn making the most money possible as soon as possible.  They want the opposite: movies that appeal to the masses.  Personal, distinctive or hard-to-category stories just don’t fly there.

Foreign Letters

People usually forget about or ignore independent, documentary and short films, even though the best stories are often compelling and memorable.  They receive so little publicity that they lay or languish below America’s pop cultural radar.  Well below it.

I was grateful a few years ago it dawned on me just what kind of eclectic selection I could have in movies if I simply visited my local library a couple time a week!  While the feature-length movies are supposed to be organized by genre, after borrowers’ hands touch them they don’t stay so strictly organized.  That makes it adventurous.

I’ve found several films that way, which I might not or flatly would not have noticed if I’d relied on a social media queue or searched for those, which my friends recommend.

I recently discovered Foreign Letters, which documents the childhood bond between two almost teenaged American immigrants.  Their bond helped to insulate them from the cruelties that children can levy on one another.  And it stuck with or sustained them into their adult lives.  Most children know what it’s like to move to a strange place, be the new kid and have to carve out a new social life.  The girls’ story is sweet, smart, perceptive and dramatic.  Rare!

You just don’t find these stories at your local mall’s multiplex anymore!

hollywood sign index

While social media movie queues have their places, there is a pleasure, an old-school (or maybe just mid-20th century) pleasure in the randomness and adventure of watching what a grab bag give you.  A grab bag approach to choosing movies is a fun and novel way to accidently find some of the best and most unappreciated films you might not have otherwise found.  You could probably do this via Facebook or Flixster, but those media lack the hands-on and face-to-face satisfaction that I appreciate.

The Banned Books Are Back for Their 30th Anniv. Either Run from Or Read ‘Em.

September 30 through October 6th is Banned Books Week.

I wrote about this two years ago; here are my thoughts.

Those books that are frequently challenged have ideas for which some young, formative minds are rarely or barely prepared.  For some people this type of censorship is a matter of questioning loose morals, open minds, and an interest in or inclination toward critical thinking.

Sometimes people feel threatened by books or topics that challenge or question their home spun convictions.  These books are not yet ready for primetime when it comes to young people, who are not yet sure of whom they are, their own convictions, or what they want to accomplish once they’re grown.  This, at least, according to parents.

What about when those classic stories are made into films and put into movie theaters?  You wonder: how much better do people respond to or accept “Of Mice and Man” or “The Scarlet Letter” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a film than a book, of if there is a remarkable difference?  It’s that great question that I could only speculate on; it’s worthy of a coffee table conversation.

Lauren Myracle is the author of many wildly popular books, which teen and tween girls just eat up, and which parents often seem to be bent on banning.

According to her, during an interview with ABC Radio, she observed, “It’s fear, swear to God.  Fear that turns into anger.  …They (parents) want to keep people wrapped in a bubble condom…”

Sometimes books are knocked for simple objections to profanity, or for frank portrayals of sex or sexuality, violence, or other reasons.  Reasons, which are unsuitable to the youngster’s age, or which clash with or confuse local communities’ standards.  By far the parents are the main objectors, unless you consider when it comes from an institution’s voice; then, it’s the school or its library.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Challenged in Eden Valley, MN (1977) and temporarily banned due to words “damn” and “whore lady” used in the novel. A resident had objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression.  The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it.

“Of Mice and Men”: Challenged in Greenville, SC (1977) by the Fourth Province of the Knights of the Ku Klux KIan; Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980); St. David, AZ (1981) and Tell City, IN (1982) due to “profanity and using God’s name in vain.”

The ALA has documented the voluminous reasons or rationales for challenging many of our world’s classics.

Here’s a video, from high schoolers, reminding us of why this censorship is at best or at beast silly.  All but two of the classics mentioned here, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Catcher in the Rye,” have been made into big screen films.

Is dissent in post-Sept. 11 America, and during wartime, still touchy?

September 10th and 11th are upon us again.  In the post-Sept. 11th era, in terms of politics and emotions, that date affects us in ways that, on Sept. 10th, we couldn’t calculate or anticipate.

In our collective national grief, disbelief, fragility and rage, it was easy to find the enemy in the other.

That’s common.  What was unseemly was that we took it farther: reducing a whole people or whole faith to that.

The more critically thoughtful and open-minded of us chastised those who clung to their “facts” about Arabs and Muslims.  I usually discuss subjects that involve the mass media or politics, or the intersection of that duo.  Dissent is vital to both, as we hope that civility might also be…one day.

When this date, September 11, comes around, someone usually says something foolish, or ignorant or outright brain dead, one of those peoples.  Do we respond to this with any more grace or civility than we used to, as we did on Sept 10, 2001?

I’m Just Asking…

Between Sept. 10th and 11th, a lot of our American culture changed.  Dissent in time of war didn’t become bad, it became worse than bad.  Why is dissent a disgrace in some peoples’ eyes?  And why are those people so often conservative?

Please think about Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words:

Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.

We Americans have a devil of a time understanding, absorbing and acting on this fact.

When I think about September 11th, what hangs in my mind, after memories of the TV news coverage of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, are the American voices that became louder and shriller saying, on one hand, get the Arabs and Muslims, and, on the other, all the Arabs and Muslims; why all?   Soon it became a pissing context between conservatives and progressives over what makes an American, true American.

The last eleven years have been scary for dissent: Do you remember when Bill Maher lost his job after having stood fast in criticizing Pres Bush’s policies and politics?  How about when the Dixie Chicks did, after lead singer Natalie Maines apologized to Great Britain because Pres. Bush was from Texas?

I’m Just Asking…

An historical and iconic CBS News reporter, Edward R. Murrow, said that

“we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

Thinking about “woman’s work” on Labor Day

These days when people plan activities for Labor Day they have nothing to do with a nod to those people who have work-a-day jobs, and who could use at least one day of appreciation, and a day away from work.

That’s typical, and contrary to the day’s raison d’être.  If you look at the website of the U.S. Dept of Labor, the commemoration of a “workingmen’s holiday” dates to 1882 and the actions of the Central Labor Union in New York.  By 1894 most of the United States had agreed to take the first Monday in September to celebrate working people.  But how often are they on our minds on that Labor Day?

If few of us think about America’s workers during Labor Day – and if TV programming on that day reflects our prevailing psyche, we don’t – then probably even fewer people think about women in the work force or what “women’s work” means today.

I remember the most pointed and indelible symbol I’ve seen of the struggle for gender equity in the work force.  When I was a temp with a huge American bank in the 1990s, I stepped into a file room where someone had posted a laminated photocopy of a section of newspaper want ads circa 1970s; it read “Woman’s Work.”  I’m in favor of women’s equity, and when I saw that my jaw dropped.  But I couldn’t gawk.  I had to get back to work for my boss.  A woman.

Depending on what part of the 1970s that section of the newspaper hailed from, about two generations have passed.  That means four decades.  America’s working women have gone from the affirmation of Betty Friedan’s seminal book “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, and wondering why domestic work left them unsatisfied and on to asking many questions about what and who defines women’s work and women themselves, to Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton University.  She “came clean” in The Atlantic Monthly about why, in her esteemed and sage opinion, the heart rending compromises and absences from family mean that the vast majority of women cannot “have it all.”

Our most popular images and notions of American culture come from mass entertainment: movies, TV, music and more, no matter the platform.  When you consider the portrayals of working women in movies, Norma Rae, 1979, 9-to-5 1980, Working Girl, 1988, North Country, 2005, about a crisis of sexual harrassment that dated back to a 1984 lawsuit.

As the Virginia Slims box read circa 1970 women have “come a long way, baby” from the notions of woman’s work.  There are still many chronic, persistent quandaries that hinder progress, such as divisions over personalities and politics.  Still you cannot deny or ignore the progress, only its pace, velocity or ferocity.

Aside from the occasional feature or issue-oriented story on evening news programs, the only program that concentrates on and advocates for gender equity in life and work may be “To the Contrary,” a 30-minute weekly talk program that airs Sunday mornings on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Americans are talking about women in the workplace, but when they seem to be only women.  And the men who still set company culture and make the policies can make women and feminist men feel like Chicken Little.

Of course with gains, a prickly question arises.  Women must answer them for themselves: what does it mean to be a working woman, and what kind do you want to be?  Never mind what Whitney Houston sang about being every woman in 1993.  No one professional woman can stand in for any of her sisters.

As students return to school, will they escape into a movie or a book?

When’s the last time you watched or even thought about the movie The Princess Bride (1987)?  It’s smart, funny, and whimsical, and the plot and pacing hinge on a book.  It’s the old-fashioned notion of an elder reading to a child, in this case it’s a grandfather reading a bedtime story to his headstrong grandson.  The story, a fairy tale, rouses him and that memorable movie reminds us of the transportive power of reading.

In the midst of August, and with an imminent return to classrooms, students gird themselves for the rigors of classes and reading.  As usual, in terms of this, students feel torn between watching a movie, a passive escape, and reading a book, an active engagement.  With that in-mind I wondered how movies portray reading and books in positive ways.

In a world where Netflix, videogames, Facebook and twitter prevail, books and literature command ever less of our attention.  Some folks just don’t “get” books, and, of course, if your family or friends don’t make a habit of reading near or with you, that could explain it.

What if your friends or neighbors think an interest in books is a sell-out or uppity trait?  Freedom Writers (2007) gives us a rousing and rare take on that problem.  A white teacher comes from a suburb into a harrowing neighborhood in Long Beach, CA wearing pearls, and tries to persuade her students to read.  For some communities and people the pleasures of reading are far from their work-a-day struggles.  But an assignment to read “Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl” reaches and touches them; some of them see their poor, urban plight reflected in Anne’s ordeal.

Reading isn’t cool to everyone; they’re not used to using or appreciating their imaginations, at least not in that way.  That’s a crisis that some research points to: NEA Reading at Risk.  Folks are concentrating on surviving, paying rent and the simple pursuit of a safe and stable life.

Well, what if you can’t read?  That is a problem.  A crisis.  To the presumably “average” and basically educated American that disability is absurd.  We can “all” read.  But what if you couldn’t, at least not fluidly or with self-confidence?  Stanley & Iris (1989) provides a poignant and sometimes pointed wake-up call for the skill, which we who can often take for granted.

A disparate and less sentimental but bittersweet story about a consequence of illiteracy.  What if a book granted you a power, a connection to, or a feeling of gratification that something else just couldn’t do or would be a poor imitation of?  The Reader (2008) is a compelling and profound tale, whether read or watched, about a teenager in post-war Germany who reads some of the classics to a beautiful, but disturbed older woman, with a troubled war-time past, in exchange for sex.  He reads to her, and then she has sex with him.  The act of reading has a pivotal and turbulent effect on the young man that stunts his growth as a man in subtle, profound and unforeseeable ways.  All of this happens because he reads to her?  Yip.

What do you get out of movies that are about but not necessarily adapted from books: each story is a portal to an adventure, to a different world, or a foreign but surprisingly similar one, that engages you in ways that a movie probably can’t in all of two hours.

Movies about thinkers rarely become money trees.  Movies are about entertainment, appealing to the masses, and making money, not teaching.  It is nice though to see the occasional one that tips its hat to the hero who reads, thinks, and uses his or her wit as a weapon instead of just brawn.

How does a movie snob make peace with a summer of blockbusters?

For most movie-goers summer movies emphasize escapism and distractions from that which Pablo Picasso called the dust of everyday life.  But, while many viewers want a break, film snobs like a diet of movies that defies the tradition of escapism and grand distractions.

When summer arrives I know that need to await a film festival or wait until the fall, when the “important” movies come.  I’m peculiar in this tweeted world, where Facebook is a verb:  I believe that patience is a virtue, and vital.  Still, I hate that wait.

Are you the kind of movie-goer who is hungry for stories that defy the tradition of escapism and grand distractions; those smart ones that take risks and push viewers beyond their comfort zones?  Summer’s not your season; you already knew that.

The first idea: hold your nose up, and abstain from the summer of escapism and distractions that serve the masses.  So, you’ll await the “important” movies in the fall.  That’ll test your patience; that’s a long wait!  That’s a bad idea.  It won’t work.

The second idea: in summer 2012, the movie theaters won’t be empty of substance.  “The Dark Knight Rises” promises to provide a smart and sophisticated plot.  And then “Brave,” provides a story of what the Spice Girls called Girl Power; the girl must defy traditions and authorities as she discovers her strengths and herself.  Another one, “Beasts of Southern Wild” provides a story that Imdb describes thusly, “faced with her father’s fading health and environmental changes that release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy leaves her Delta-community home in search of her mother. ”  And “Safety Not Guaranteed” tells the story that Imdb describes as “three magazine employees head out on an assignment to interview a guy who placed a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel.”  These stories themselves might hold you over until September when the substance enters theaters.

The third idea is ambitious: remember the loads of movies that you forgot or ignored in the last how many years because of timing, and catch up.  For example, here’s a list of the most important film for each year in the history of film, or some viewer’s take on the 50 most important documentaries. You probably have a “bucket list” of movies.  Why not use it?

You may want to consider what makes a movie “important” or “serious.”  Here’s a link to a story that I reported in fall 2011.

Are the creators of YouTube web shows more ethnically diverse than elsewhere?

YouTube is a haven for a democratic media market, where independence and risky ideas could be shown, and where producers of color can shine.  Still, why are so few doing so?  For sure, YouTube is a place where independent voices can be recognized.

Some production companies that make content for YouTube have A-List Hollywood connections and budgets; some others want to, and list almost enough above-the-line crew to resemble that; still others have ambitions that are independent and riskier.

Until a generation ago, aspiring media makers went to film schools for formal training.  Some people called them the film school generation.

I discovered the draw of professional-grade YouTube videos when I spontaneously clicked on “FunEmployed” from Wong Fu Productions, in Pasadena, CA.

Now, a shining few make their livings and their dreams come true on YouTube, and make it seem easy!  YouTube, all of seven-years-old is the best known place to “broadcast yourself.”  That’s their tagline.  The latest New York Times feature, “On YouTube, Amateur is the New Pro,” about YouTube’s growth, indicates that a few are making big money, while others who find inspiration in them, are trying to make sense of it and make enough to live on their own creativity and ingenuity.

But as with the politics and biases of traditional media productions, it’s harder if you’re note white.  Prof. Aymar Christian, at Northwestern University, has a  blog provides a list of programs by creators of color, particularly Latinos and blacks.  Each is a long list.  But there are complications.  First, he deems few of them to be worth watching, and second, few of the teams that produce the series have recent or new content.  Truly, several of the series or short films are at least 18-months-old.

Some of the successes are  “Awkward Black Girl,” and “Fly Guys,” but these programs provide a narrow range of images similar to that, which viewers find in the traditional media.

YouTube is one of the proven, least costly and most accessible distribution channels.  Some people also use Vimeo and DailyMotion.  YouTube also incubates talent and inspires the next generation.  A question remains.  A pivotal one: why aren’t there more creators of color, those who take risks?  A change in technology and distribution methods does not mean increased ethnic diversity in the videos.

Asians are represented.  With Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa and KevJumba, at least one slice of that tremendously diverse group is covered.  Wong Fu has nearly 200-million views, and more than 1-million subscribers.  And Mr. Higa more than 1-billion views and more than 5-million subscribers.

What about other, browner minorities’ stories?  A harsh economic reality, in regard to programming for small or niche audiences, according to Prof. Christian, is that “there’s not much money in web media generally, and even less for content geared toward minority audiences.”  With ever more productions, viewers’ standards raise the bar to a similarly demanding level.  If you’re a minority producer, good won’t cut it.  Your work has to be great, as often as possible.

But Prof. Christian says, “most of the inequalities we see in traditional media are replicated online, particularly with regard to race.  From film students to advertising executives, most people in the industry are white” and men.  “Still,” he says, “there’s a great diversity in production.  …Black audiences have Issa Rae” the woman behind ‘Awkward Black Girl’ “and Al Thompson. Latinos have the creators of ‘East WillyB.’  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”  In the end, in terms of durability and critical acclaim, entertainment history has proven that distinctiveness wins out.  If you think about it, ethnic diversity is one side of that complex artistic prism.

Another question pops up, though, when you remember that most of the videos on YouTube seem to come from amateur producers who just have too much time on their hands.  The title of that New York Times feature story clearly emphasizes amateurs.

Furthermore, according to that same story, “with or without Hollywood, it’s getting tougher to break through to YouTube stardom and become the next Phil DeFranco.  …Perhaps inevitably, the weird originality gets harder to maintain as new aspirants try to replicate what is already popular.”

One YouTube producer and star, Matt Sloan, made a related point on the “Director’s Cut” program from Wisconsin Public Television in 2010.  He is a co-creator of and actor in the “Chad Vader” series from Blame Society Productions.  “I think a lot of people think that you have to make something that appeals to the masses.  That’s not true; you have to make something that appeals to yourself.  It’s gonna be unexpected, personal and interesting to watch,” Sloan said.

That idea is not news unless, of course, you’re young enough that…it is.  As is often the case, youth rules.

I regret that, after having contacted the people at Wong Fu Productions, Blame Society Productions and Sweet Irony Productions (begun by Jaleel White), none responded in time to press publish.

Where are the web series by people of color other than Wong Fu?

The increasing success and acclaim that web series from production companies like Wong Fu Productions, Blame Society Productions and other ones have garnered is changing America’s media culture.  Wong Fu, a Chinese-American company in Pasadena, CA, has produced several well respected short films and series, and Blame Society, in Madison, WI, has “Chad Vader.”

One question nags me: other than Wong Fu, where are the other minority-made web series?  I am working on a feature about that.  The answers aren’t as easily found as they are with other questions.

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