How can you mark Int’l Holocaust Remembrance Day with a movie?

Neither the Holocaust nor Nazism is a fun subject, makes for light conversation or big-screen fun! Nothing about them is entertainment-bound! And yet movies, like The Producers, and entertainment in general do make it easier for us to swallow hard-to-swallow stories.

There might be no harder-to-swallow story than the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was one of the most notorious of the Nazi’s death camps. And this day also marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

If you’ve educated or even edified yourself by watching a film about this subject, then you’ve probably seen the obvious, go-to films: Au Revoir Les Enfants, Triumph of the Spirit, Europa, Europa, Homicide, Schindler’s List, or The Reader.

Before those titles came, well before, was Mel Brook’s comedy movie The Producers. How do you make light of life under the Nazi’s? Well, imagination. Have you forgotten about the TV show Hogan’s Heroes? It wasn’t somber. That coterie of allied prisoners of war wasn’t in a concentration camp. But they weren’t happy campers either. At least one storytelling trait was vital to put together the idea for that show. Imagination.

That’s what distinguishes films like The Producers and others of its ilk from the somberness of other Holocaust stories is a special power.

Films about the Holocaust are almost always somber. In dealing with the politics at the heart of the arts and race, some subjects are simply somber. But some choices among Holocaust-themed stories dazzle us with remarkable imagination! That virtue lifts them beyond competence; it also makes them into something that you want to watch. That makes them special and memorable.

Some of you remember The Twilight Zone warmly because of late-night TV or nostalgia channels on cable or Hulu, etc. Its creator, Rod Serling, produced a brilliant story, Deaths-Head Revisited, that was just as compelling as it was distressing.

Here is a clip from it; this is the opening monologue from host and writer, Rod Serling.

In November 1961, this episode relates the story of the fictitious commandant of Dachau as he returns to it. Soon, he finds himself confronted by the ghosts of some of the prisoners. As with many of the episodes that Mr. Serling wrote, this one was and is…haunting. It transports you. Brilliantly.

Do you know how many times Mr. Serling’s writing dealt with this monstrosity? At least twice.

In 1960 he wrote a TV movie for a genre of television that morosely no longer exists for fictive works: Live TV. For Playhouse 90 he produced In the Presence of Mine Enemies. The New York Times summarized it thusly: “a study of members of a Jewish family in the infamous Warsaw ghetto that was exterminated by Nazi bestiality”. It’s hard to find video of the original production. But here is a link to the Times’ reporting on it.

Both of these Serling stories seem to have been forgotten to the sands of time, and in a rush for the average person to be immersed in web-centric distractions. That’s disappointing.

What is it you used to ask your mom or dad when you were a child: Tell me a story…

These are two of Mr. Serling’s best, and most imaginative! It’s a shame to pass them by. The most vital message of this anniversary of the Holocaust is to not forget.

Dr. Martin L. King is arrested.

What connects Dr. Martin L. King Day with Al Madrigal’s comedy: being “Half Like Me”.

It’s been a week of racial and identity politics. We commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Day on Monday. Al Madrigal’s special Half Like Me which premiered on Fusion on Thursday. He’s known as the Senior Latino Correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. There must be a connection between the concerns about freedom and identity which Martin Luther King, Jr Day raises and those which Half Like Me has the potential to.

Dr. Martin L. King is arrested.

Dr. Martin L. King is arrested.

But the events seem to be separated by generations and traditional ideas of propriety; As in, it’s hard to connect comedy to Martin Luther King, Jr even though he must have had a great sense of humor in order to stomach his opponents’ biases! For example, a series of events called him to write a Letter from A Birmingham Jail. If he didn’t have a sense of humor then those events might have crumpled him like an exhausted worker does a flimsy piece of paper into a ball at the end of an endless day.

Really, the right and freedom to be half or mixed in America without being judged by anyone from any of the slices of your ethnic pie is a part of what Dr. King fought to respect and protect. Without him Half Like Me might not be seen.

Good Morning America’s Lara Spencer had a nice conversatory with Al Madrigal about being Half Like Me.

I have to bring comedy in because that genre has historically been the most effective secret agent against bigotry, e.g., if different peoples can laugh together then they can’t fight or hate each other (supposedly). Like Russell Peters’ equal-opportunity “hating” comedy, Mr. Madrigal’s special promises to take on this hard and personal subject. But does so from a different vantage point. That is vital because it lands squarely in Dr. King’s arena: racial diplomacy and activism.

What his successors did from their vantage point, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Franklyn Ajaye and others did in order for Mr. Madrigal to be embraced for telling those silly bigots and the silly racial barriers we cling to that their pants have fallen.

So I see an arc connecting that which Dr. King fought for and that which Al Madrigal can and has said about color and race and the politics involved in blurring those not just in real life, but on screen. A screen where comedy reminds us that, while those convictions which Dr. King fought for were not silly, the fight over color & class, which “everyone” says they want to end is.

The 87th Oscar nominations are out and #OscarsSoWhite! How do film snobs choose better?

Over the weekend the 72nd annual Golden Globes awards came and went, and snubbed some and surprised others. Today the 87th annual Academy Awards nominations were announced, with directing nominations for Anglo (read: “white”) men only. I ignored the Golden Globes, and hope to ignore – or try to – the Oscars; the rest of the world and pop culture followers are already watching. They don’t need me!

But let’s return and refer to the Golden Globes. This tweet from @Melsil (Melissa Silverstein), of Indiewire’s blog Women and Hollywood, caught my attention:

oscarssowhite

@melsil  ·  Jan 11 I don’t know how Selma could walk away with only best song. Really HFPA?

That was just a taste of the backlash that the #OscarsSoWhite twitter protest and reporters would unleash.

perfectly encapsulates our rage: First time all 20 acting nominees have been white since 1998 http://bit.ly/1CdNo9K

Newsweek ‏@Newsweek The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is all over Twitter in response to the lack of diversity in nominations —http://bit.ly/1CbAeKo

The Last Time the Oscars Were This White Was 1998 (By ) #OscarsSoWhite
they announced their ‘whites only’ nominees on MLK’s 86th birthday
Upset about ? Here are some reasons to be optimistic about this year’s crop of nominations.
They didn’t see Selma but their housekeeper said it was really good.
All the gift bags will have copies of ‘Birth Of A Nation’

And people look at me like a nuts when I describe my disdain for the Academy Awards, and for most Hollywood movies?

Hollywood movies aren’t bad or evil or worthless – But I find them to be worth less than we deserve; Most of their movies are insipid retreads, lacking substance and nuance, and most kinds of ethnic diversity or otherness. The 87th annual Academy Awards nominations are an example of this, and the twitter #OscarsSoWhite backlash was a nice affirmation!

This friction between Hollywood tastes and indie movie tastes reminds us of its bigotry. Then we have to resolve ourselves to ignore as much of its mediocre products and its small minds as we can possibly tolerate.

So how do film geeks organize or prepare for a year of film watching, while largely sidestepping Hollywood movies? Maybe, in describing how I do it, that will serve as advice for how movie-lovers will curate their viewing.

I’m a film geek. Rather than looking to and following the mass Zeitgeist usually a film geek wants to see stuff that they haven’t yet. The stories that few others have seen.

Realistically, then you have to look for independent and foreign voices. So, that’s my goal with most films I watch; and considering how few films from among the 1000s that are released show that promise, I curate my viewing according to a merciless stanmindledard and watch very little of the movies that come out. You have to be willing to see far fewer films, and waste less of your time!

By setting a higher bar for what you watch, you’ll see fewer films, but hopefully more of them will have characters of color, and you’ll find yourself advocating for more movies be of that ilk! (But some folks just want to kill 90-minutes with something mindless, which is their prerogative.)

Here is my video commentary about how I curate:

Will popular social & viral videos make movie theaters obsolete?

I love going to the movies – Or, more accurately, I love going to small, independent theaters. But I feel like I’m one among the few, and like those theaters are too.

Some cinemas used to resemble Canton, Ohio's Palace Theater.

Some cinemas used to resemble Canton, Ohio’s Palace Theater.

Americans used to love the communal experience of movie-going. But with the popularity of social and mobile media content raises a vital question in these 2010s: Have movie theaters gone the ways of the boom box or dial-up internet connection?

Blockbuster, Hollywood and independent video stores have fell prey to the reigning popularity of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other streaming services. (But the Redbox kiosks remain.) We can agree on one fact: Things are changing!

Peter Gregg, a senior lecturer in digital media production at the University of Minnesota opined via email on a forecast of movie theaters’ demise:

No, I don’t think it will die until people no longer see movie-watching as a communal act. It’s not dead yet, just changing.

In some ways it’s easy to understand: the ticket prices rise, as do those of the concessions, and, on-demand content is in demand. This is in an era where the virtue of patience is derided as much as that of intellect is.

According to MovieGuide.org, most movie goers occupy the age group 25-39 making up 22 percent of the audience, with the age group 18-24 following right behind at 21 percent.

(Part of me is just as eager to opine on the moroseness of that trend, but I won’t…)

Mohannad Gwanameh, a doctoral student of Arab cinema at the University of California at Los Angeles and curator of the Twin Cities’ Arab American Film Festival, wrote in response to this question of cinemas fading to black, for good:

You may have noticed exhibitors’ scrambling to enhance the cinema going experience, by way of mutliple IMAX formats, Dolby Atmos, and 4D Theatres.

Still, we’re not calling a medical examiner to pronounce the cinema’s death. Some theater concepts are working despite a seeming decline in interest. There are outliers. Mavericks. The Charleston City Paper has an informative story about some special cinemas.

As the Charleston City Paper described to a 2008 piece, “Movie Theater Death?” about the manners in which theaters have changed cyclically in response to technological leaps. “When TV emerged in the 1950s, the death knell was tolling. When VHS ascended in the ’70s, Gabriel was calling. When DVDs triumphed in the ’90s, theaters were knocking on heaven’s door. But death? Not yet.”

Yes, eash time movie theaters had to change and innovate in response to threats, both foreseen and fictional. But in the 2010s those threats seem closer and more fatal than ever.

But, that written, Charleston City Paper describes theaters in that area, in Summerville and Mt. Pleasant, have programmed unconventional and even non-cinematic choices along with the typical in order to appeal to both the young and the old.

Mr. Gwanameh continued, “I think that cinemas will all but disappear from smaller cities as the cost of their construction climes to levels that cannot be supported with a small city or smaller audience numbers.”

It also points out that, while the Facebook & Netflix generation seems to be too impatient to take part in the communal cinema experience, they aren’t yet the thought-leading trend setters.

As skeptical as I am about the staying power of movie theaters in our era of mobile and social content, they haven’t yet faded out to black, permanently!

Here’s my video commenary about what we’d miss if we stopped going to the movies.

Everyone Needs a Hero; Even Children Who Aren’t White!

The breach of Sony Picture’s email accounts has revealed a fun piece of gossip; Amy Pascal, their chief executive would like Idris Elba, a Briton, an actor and a rapper, to take the baton from Daniel Craig and play James Bond.

If your skin is caramel- or chocolate-colored, and you watch enough action movies, then you really wish there was a James Bond or Jason Bourne who looked like you. Everybody needs a hero. But what happens if you never see a James Bond or Jason Bourne that looks like you?

ShaftShooting

 

Movies have a paltry number of action heroes that are fully-faceted, smart, or even urbane or stylish. and if they’re not white then the number of that special type of action hero plummets. If you’re not white then that number shrinks! You get tired of watching the original Shaft movie over and over again. After a year of tumult and racial tension and with a New Year here, maybe we need new brown hero; or a new, refreshing take on an established one?

Consider the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest heroes and villains, from 2003 (the last year for which they compiled one), you’ll find a person of color, a man in the 19th spot. Those who are seasoned enough can guess whom it is: Sidney Poitier from In the Heat of the Night. That’s high spot and a progressive one compared to other lists google or bing will give you. Another list places him at 22nd.

Virgil Tibbs is fine. But what about a grittier hero; the kinds that gets dirty, and gets the girl, like Bonnie Tyler sang about in Holding Out For a Hero (press here for that anthem)? The only black hero I remember who was larger than life and found that kind of cultural staying power is Shaft. John Shaft. Now, let’s translate that into an MI 5 operative!

CBS had one such character in The Unit. Sgt Major Blaine was a team leader who is clever, cool-headed, handsome and authoritative. The show purported to tell tales of the US Army’s Delta Force. Those who yearned to find a heroic dark-brown-skinned man rejoiced! To that extent the show was refreshing. Unfortunately, for a viewer with high standards the show was not great. And given that the matter of contention is film heroes The Unit wasn’t on film.

dennis images

Aside from the number of black heroes on film, ask yourself an equally important question: How many Hispanic, Asian (that isn’t a Martial Artist) or Native American heroes do we find in movie theaters? My dad used to say “they’re scarce as hens’ teeth”. (Supposedly “everyone’s” concerned, but how many people make a stink about it?)

I’ve wanted to see a caramel-colored Jason Bourne (or James Bond) for a while; black and brown heroes are rare on-screen, especially of a certain type. Brown children need to see that white isn’t always right, even if that’s still the majority.

The silly uproar over a black Bond reminds me of a different clash, which I do not understand. PBS’ Independent Lens aired a documentary called Wham. Bam. Islam. about a comic book which espoused Islam’s virtues by presenting 99 superheroes who embodied each of Islam’s 99 virtues. It’s a fantastic and rousing idea – except that the powers that be, Middle Easterners & Muslim said “no”.

The discussion if not the contention over a brown Bond is not new; in 2013 Colin Salmon, a well-known black British actor, who has been in three Bond movies, was being considered.  Although I could’ve sworn that Mr. Salmon’s candidacy had been discussed at least a few years prior to that.

An expert would be able to explain the lattice work ways in which Hollywood’s bias reflects the psychological warfare that was wages against slaves. I am not that expert!

But The Daily Beast had a provocative quote from Joss Whedon about this and America’s terror over non-white superheroes “I read a Junot Diaz quote, ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”

Here’s my video commentary where I elaborate on this point.

What does it tell black kids (or brown ones) when James Bond (or Jason Bourne) never looks like them, never plays hero, and never gets the girl in that “for Queen and country” context? So, Idris Elba as James Bond? We’ll see…and We’ll have to press Sony!

A Change is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke …for Christmas?

Along with Christmas, this week marks the 50th anniversary of Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come”. Everybody knows the song. Whether they’ll admit it or not, they love and are moved by it. It connects, and connects people, to so many different memories and life moments. Unless A Charlie Brown Christmas is an easier way to swallow the essential message.

Of course, most Americans let that slip off their radars – or rather don’t have it on theirs – in favor of that holiday for gifts: Christmas.

samcooke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While singing “but I know…!” before he even sings of what he knows, that “a change is gonna come” he sings it with a tone of faith not of belief. Nothing in his experience with bigots encourages him to be optimistic.

(Why is that when Mr. Cooke sings about his having been “born on a river” that that sends my imagination to Langston Hughes’ opus poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”…?) Each of them asserts their innate value and dignity in to the ether.

While it wasn’t meant to be an explicit anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, many people consider it one. As you listen to the rousing and soul-stirring song, you can feel the weight of the angst, of the troubles, of the burdens of other’s prejudices, and of dreams deferred because of those.

The anthem makes a statement. When he used it more than 20-years-ago to precede the assassination scene in Malcolm X, Spike Lee made it more contemporary than it might have otherwise been. That appears to be the rare usage of the song in a feature-length film.

The magazine The Week, in its special style, actually reported on the historical and irreligious (and often bluntly commercial) origins of Christmas gift giving. While it’s unAmerican to write so, I find it distressing just how eager Christmas celebrants (children are exempt) and American businesses are to put gifts and materials before The Golden Rule and the other most-palatable of Christian dogma.

The heart of the message of change comes when Mr. Cooke laments…

“then I go to my brother, and I say brother, ‘help me, please’. But he winds up knockin’ me…”

 

The real message of Christmas, which we eagerly ignore in favor of a windfall of gifts was explored in the easiest-to-swallow form of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The fundamentals are so simple (not to be mistaken for easy) and given the pace at which life passes and happens, are easily forgotten or ignored. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an informative and nostalgic piece about Charlie Brown’s durable message.

At the end of the year, this one in particular, people of color and progressive-minded folks yearn, hope, and rise to “fight” for change; when police officers can plead fears of a black menace, and kill brown people, unarmed ones, with no consequences then mustn’t a change come?

It’s when everyone – well the introspective and those given to reflection – when the ambitious find at least random kitchen-table moments to wish that they were better people, and could be a part of the world around them being getter, warmer, more united.

Can you name 10 films that changed your life?

The end of the year is just about on us. Some movie lovers are considering the best or their favorites films of this year. A lot of people ask year-end questions (i.e., which of this year’s movies were the “best;” which of this year’s movies made the most money; which of those movies were your favorites?) but I find the less routine, less annual, and less common ones the most interesting. I mean everyone has their list of the favorite ___________ of the year. While I suppose it has to be done in order to satisfy the typical reader, I find it banal.

With the list I’ve compiled of almost 400 favorite films, it’s child’s play to choose a portable list of titles (Hint: start with a decade, a genre, and a country, and your notion of what makes a movie best…)

celluloid-film-shutterstock-130614

On IndieWire I saw a different and more difficult take on the “what’re your favorite films” question: “Name 10 films that changed your life”.

That’s a daunting and off-putting question; one for an introspective film lover. And still, that’s a heavy question! Everyone has formative years when you’re trying to figure stuff out; to tie those to film experiences is a novel challenge. A movie means one thing at one age and something else 10 years later. So it’s hard to look back on them with any accuracy. It’s one thing to live the examined life, as Socrates espoused. It’s another (and maybe off-the-charts geeky) to apply that to films.

What’s more, the movies that changed me expressed a clear and sure voice, and posed questions that no others did. Almost no movies bother to ask questions of viewers, or even to wield a voice. And experience shows that I’m one of the few people that approaches cinema in that discriminating & cerebral manner.

In the 1980s I just wanted to fit in at my high school. For some reason, even though most people consider me black, that meant seeing myself as more non-descript racially or even more white than black; gravitating to and identifying (trying to) with the white kids.

Comedian and actor Franklyn Ajaye, who’s often called the Conscious Comic has a funny bit where he says he was a black studies major; “now, I’m qualified to be black all over the world”. No matter how much studying I did about my background, in school or out, it would be a while before I felt qualified to be black. But if I contintue on that tangent then that’ll be a turn onto the on ramp of the book How to be Black. That’s not why we’re here. Even though being or finding out that you’re black will change your life, that’s a disparate kind of life change.

Being introspective Dead Poets Society from 1989 caught my attention. Even though none of those boys would have related to or understood my origins or color, I understood their introspective natures and needs. The ideas were provocative. Heck, they were iconoclastic.

When I studied film history during the 1990s the provocatism and polemics of Spike Lee and Oliver Stone’s films had my attention. Still I won’t say that Do The Right Thing or Platoon or Talk Radio or When the Levees Broke changed me. It was more Messrs Lee and Stone’s ways of thinking, and their approaches to art and politics, and their ideas and questions about them that did that. Martin Scorsese’s art and straight-shooting point of view affected me too.

Now if you’re a typical college student, then all of this is just bull; over-thought and overwrought. You want to see the fun, carefree and bawdy movies over everything else; nothing that’d make you think. You already dropped this.

I remember something that Martin Scorsese, one of America’s undisputed film art icons, whose Goodfellas, from 1990, put him in the zeitgeist then, said: when watching movies “…just maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe you’ll learn something about yourself”.

So far Dead Poet’s Society changed me. Do the Right Thing, Platoon, Talk Radio or When the Levees Broke? No. None of them did.

Nonetheless, after my dad died in 1991 I saw the movie Dad, from 1989, which surely had no brown people in it. But it helped me to accept and make peace with the loss. Later in 1992 The Prince of Tides connected with me in ways that I didn’t understand, and to some extent I still don’t. I related to the psychological torment that the lead character, Tom Wingo, had to escape from.

On a totally different side of my mind, I was curious about blackness. My blackness. I was trying to grasp the facets of blackness in America and their complexity while dealing with the realities that “nobody” cares about the complexities of anything unless they have to or are paid to. And I only look black if you’ve never left the US. Investigating my blackness, I saw nothing of myself or for myself in any of those stories of ghettos, struggles, thugs or grit from the black movie boom came that in 1991. None of them reflected my passion for words, ideas or troubling questions about society and conformity…

Many years later when Akeelah and the Bee came in 2006 and while finishing my degree that didn’t change me. But it affirmed my passion for words and ideas, and my concerns about conformity. A few years later, a different independent film, Winter’s Bone, affected me. While Akeelah was a junior high school student whose wit seemed to be a thorn in her side, the lead character from Winter Bone, a high school girl had to rely on her wits to come out the other end of a brief Odyssey.

Both of those films are novel, remarkable, and only in part because they offer varying degrees of fully faceted female lead characters. At least one of them changed me.

So of the 400 favorite films I can name only a handful changed me. That almost surprises me.

Does this question appeal to you?