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.

Why not preserve minority-made movies from the silent era?

I’m a film geek who is interested in people of color being seen on-screen, accurately.  The thematic intersection of politics, movies, history and race fascinates me when done well.

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When I heard about the alarm that “The Hollywood Reporter” sounded this month over American movies circa 1910 having been lost instead of preserved and cataloged, I chuckled.  I think that any student of film history understands why they weren’t preserved: in cinema’s teen years, movies weren’t a part of any organized industry.  Nobody had their minds on plots, stories, stars or box office numbers.

Only in 1915, after David W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” came out, did anyone begin to think that those little flicker shows, as folks called them, might amount to anything.

After seeing that article I began to wonder about how many movies made by black-, Asian-, Hispanic-Americans or different groups of American others had been kept or preserved.

One way to consider it is to ask whether any of them have been entered into the National Film Registry.  That is one way for American culture to acknowledge the undeniable in motion picture achievements.  Every year since 1988 National Film Preservation Board has choosen 25 films to add to that registry.  There aren’t many silent movies by people of color on the registry, but Marion E. Wong, an American-born Chinese woman, and Oscar Micheaux, a black man, are two of the best known.  That is if anyone other than film scholars know them at all.

Ms. Wong made one film, which may have qualified as a feature-length because it is said to have consisted of at least two reels.  Made in 1916, it was “The Curse of Quon Gwon”. The National Film Registry chose to preserve it in 2006.

Mr. Micheaux made many feature-length films, some of which were silent.  One of those was “Within Our Gates”.  Made in 1920, the National Film Registry preserved it in 1992.

Some history of American racial politics, and the ways in which politics, history and race mix within movie stories are definitely reflected here.  Non-white Americans who, while they increase in numbers and proportion to whites, still occupy America’s margins, have made movies since the medium’s birth.  Fortunately, the National Film Preservation Board has preserved at least a few of them in order acknowledge ethnic diversity.

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.”

April 9 is Renaissance Man, actor, activist Paul Robeson’s 115 birthday.

Lately Paul Robeson is on my mind.  Unless they’ve chosen or been assigned to study him most people don’t know more than a few details about him.

If they know about him, they think he was a singer, or an athlete, or an actor, or an activist, or that he somehow spoke as many as 20 languages.  The average American doesn’t know that each of these described him and helped to define him, and his legacy, and his meaning to his people.  It’s a great and terrible thing: the great is that he was all of these, and more.  The terrible: too few people know this.

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Why the hubbub? April 9th marks his 115th birthday.  He was unique; as a black American he was extraordinary.

Unfortunately, today he is barely remembered or even seen as a role model.

His college days hinted at his extraordinary range of interests and high standard of excellence:

According to a faculty blog of Marquette University, “few college students have ever excelled at the level at which Robeson performed at Rutgers.  He graduated first in his class; was elected Phi Beta Kappa as a junior; and won the college’s oratory contest each year that he was enrolled.  He also won twelve varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track.”  Too boot, he was an All-American football player.

Here Robeson briefly describes his comprehension of William Shakespeare the his play, Othello, and its title character.

He left his mark on the National Football League, the Harlem Renaissance, the Red Scare, Shakespeare and human rights activism.  How have we forgotten him or his feats?  Granted, he died in 1976, nearly 40-years-ago.  The year when “The Bionic Woman” premiered on ABC, and Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple.  Time passes.  Memories fade.

Paul_Robeson_1938While college educations and professions are available to young people, most of them seem to aspire to be pro athletes, or rap, rock or Reality TV stars.  Young people are rarely exposed to the exploits of people, like Robeson, who aspired and excelled across diverse and divergent fields.

If you want to understand him beyond the superficial, then read; there are books about him: Here I Stand, in which he reflects on how the House of Representatives mistreated him for standing with his convictions, or the Undiscovered Paul Robeson.  There are two volumes: An Artist’s Journey, and Quest for Freedom.

Robeson may have been more impressive and more extraordinary in his time, than Pres. Barack Obama is in ours, given the racial and economic obstacles of 40-years-ago.

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!

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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 “Intouchables,” France’s choice to compete for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, France’s best?

France submitted one of the most profitable and popular films, if not the most, in its recent history, Intouchables, as its entry in the Best Foreign Language film category for the Oscars.  That’s great, and maybe problematic: it sparked controversy in the U.S. because its lead character, Driss, reflects to America’s most chronic persistent racial stereotypes.  The New York Times wrote about and criticized it in the spring.

In America race is one of the hardest, most awkward, most personal and most prickly subjects to raise, much less confront.  When I think about Intouchables, on one hand, I understand the nearly universal enthusiasm and delight in response to it, based on a true life story.  It’s an exuberant tale that joins two of the least likely men, from two of the edges of society.  On another hand, if you’re sensitized to and paying attention to them, you’ll soon find a few major stereotypes at play.

In the last 20 years, only a few Francophone films have dealt with race with forthright courage: Café au Lait, (1993) and La Haine (1995) (which translates literally as “hate”), both by Mathieu Kassovitz, who was called France’s own Spike Lee, when Lee was at the zenith of his polemical and popular works.  Café au Lait is the story about a mixed-race 20-something woman who has a choice between two lovers: a white Jew or a black Muslim.  La Haine looks at race from a neighborhood and economic point of view

In 2010 Le Nom des Gens came from France.  It’s at least as exuberant as, but I believe more memorable and smarter than, Intouchables.  And it contends with race, politics and religion in a deft, subtle, hilarious and sophisticated way.  Unfortunately Intouchables doesn’t.

The actor, Omar Sy, a star in France, spoke to this briefly but pithily on Shadow and Act.

Omar Sy: I was a bit surprised to hear the criticism, because it’s a film that I believe in, I defend the film, and I would never be involved in a film that has racist overtones. It’s a French movie and it has to be read in the context of a French society. If you look at it with a different set of criteria you can come up with a different meaning.

 

In France, the banlieues (suburbs) is a completely different environment than what you have in the United States. It’s not as racially segmented. The people from the banlieues, be they from Hispanic origin or black origin, they’re in the same socio-economic slice. In America, [people of color] may have ancestry tied to slavery or immigration.

Daphnee Denis discussed this ably in her posting for Slate.

After I saw the film at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, I faced a fork in the road of discussing it.  I could choose between leveling a critique or criticism.  When people asked for my opinion or review of it, their interest in a conversation would rapidly dissipate if I raised my concerns about the stereotypes, and the bigotry that their presence implied.

(left to right) Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy

What’ll this bode for how well or how much better either country digs the other’s point of view on race, or recognizing it?  At the least (and maybe least useful) it reminds us, yet once more, of how much farther each country has to venture in order to shed our connection of everything in life to color and features (or the denial of that as a social reality).

Talking about is a part of the power of a provocative movie.  Isn’t it the movies that leave us with blank minds and nothing to say that are the problems?

So, this impass at a movie theater, and between countries and cultures, presents an opportunity to discuss how race, too often discussed in divisive and agonizing ways in the US and “never” officially in France, is understood in a hit film.  I regret that as seldom as these opportunities come, it is just as rare when any of us handles them as smoothly as most of us say we want.

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.