Advertisements

No Hoorays for Hollywood

Way back in our younger days we used to take the same rooting interest in the Oscar contests as we did in the American League’s eastern division pennant races, but these days we don’t even know who or what the nominees are. There are still great movies being made from to time, we  assume, but it no longer seems worth the effort to sort through all the dreck to find them. One of Wichita’s premier musicians was giving a final jazz concert at Kirby’s Beer Store on Sunday night before heading off to Poland, of all places, so that’s what we did instead of watching the interminable Academy Awards ceremony on television.
Which is sad, as we always have and still truly do love the cinematic arts. We’re the perfect age for a movie buff, having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s when the still elegant movie houses were showing some very memorably innovative films, and all three channels on pre-cable television were broadcasting the best of the ’30s and ’40s Golden Age of Hollywood during the afternoon and late night hours that the networks didn’t fill, and as teenagers we frequented the art houses and university theaters where the arty and international and silent-era stuff was showing, so by now we’re admittedly hard to impress. Even so, and being as generous to the youngsters as we can muster, we have to say the movies these days seem to reflect the same civilizational decline as the rest of American culture.
So far as we can tell from our occasional perusals most of the movies these days are non-stop computer generated fight-scene action adventure flicks featuring mostly comic book super heroes, deliberately rude comedies starring former “Saturday Night Live” performers, and what have come to be called “chicks flicks.” Friends of ours have highly recommended much of it, with some of our geekier friends insisting that the comic superheroes have something serious to say about modern society, other low-brow types talking about how funny some of those supposedly anti-establishment comedies are, and some man-bashing women we know endorsing those “chick flicks.” As much as we like these friends, we think they’re too young and easily-impressed to know what they’re talking about. At this point in our grumpy middle age, we think the same about the Academy of Motion of Picture Arts and Sciences and its gaudy awards show.
One of the “best picture” nominees this year was a comic book superhero flick called “The Black Panther,” and it got such rave reviews from some of our friends and several of the supposedly more serious movie critics that that we gave it a try when it showed up on Netflix. It had some interesting ideas about a spiritual African culture possessed of highly advanced Western scientific knowledge, but it was mostly improbably buff actors and actresses staging prolonged fight scenes with help from computer generated images, and we quit watching about halfway through. We’ve nothing against action-adventure flicks, and can readily name “The Professionals” and “The Great Escape” and the silent-era “Thief of Baghdad”and the Sean Connery era of the James Bonds movies and countless other as masterpieces of the genre, but all those computer generated images can’t quite compensate for the characters and dialogue and plots and often valid points about the human condition that those movies had.
Some of those rude comedies with the “Saturday Night Live” performers do get a few much-appreciated laughs out of us, but we’ve seen “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and enough of the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton movies for that to satisfy our comedic tastes. We’ve also read Twain and Swift Perelman Jerome, and know all the most fatalistic jokes, and we’ve come to expect more than occasional laughs.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood used to make what was called “women’s pictures,” and when we watched them with our Mom during the afternoon hours of our summer vacation we shared her love of the genre. Some of the of the “women’s pictures” were “screwball comedies,” about dynamic women wooing handsome yet innocent men, and they were the stuff of our earliest romantic fantasies. Other pictures of the genre featured aggressively heroic newspaperwomen and aviatrixes and businesswomen and nurses and nuns, which was also pretty fantastic to our formative selves. Most of the “women’s pictures” were melodramatic dramas about women making selfless sacrifices for themselves and the men and the children they loved, which now renders them politically incorrect, but we still find them more heroic than anything that today’s computer generated images can come up with. We’ll long remember Barbara Stanwyck as the working class single mother watching her daughter marry a nice rich guy from behind the window on a cold and snowy street in “Stella Dallas,” or that ending in “Imitation of Life” where Mahalia Jackson sings the funeral song for the selfless mother whose mixed-race daughter had abounded her selfish reasons, and we defy anyone to watch either flick without teary eyes.
Today’s “chick flicks” — and the term’s undeniably sexist devolution from “women’s picture” should offend our newfangled feminist friends as much as it does old-fashioned selves — seem mostly about women empowering themselves to abandon such inconvenient obligations of the human condition. We’re in no position to judge how any woman should handle the admittedly difficult situations we all find ourselves in our human condition, but we must admit a certain nostalgia for the days when “Casablanca” and other Hollywood movies celebrated both Bogie and Baccall’s selflessness in an even more troubled time in human history.
We stayed up late enough to read that “The Green Book” had won the “best picture” Oscar from the Academy, and as we have’t yet seen it we’ll offer no opinion about that. The entertainment press we still occasionally peruse tell us it’s about a working class white guy driving a talented black musician through the segregation-era south, sort of of the reverse of the the Academy-loved ’80s-era “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a working class black guy driving some rich old white woman around the same area of the human condition at the same time, and as far we can tell both are still controversial in these contentious times of political correctness. We’ll take a look when “The Green Book” eventually shows up on Netflix, but until then we’ll happily have nothing to with Hollywood’s race problems, and regret that Wichita’s most talented black musician is suddenly heading to Poland, and hope for the best for American popular culture.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Hooey for Hollywood

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the public to pay attention to its annual awards show again, but not in the way they attended. Like most Americans we didn’t bother to watch any of it, but like most Americans we couldn’t help hearing about the big moment at the end of the interminable broadcast when they announced the wrong winner of the “best picture” contest.
All of the conservative media couldn’t helping laughing at the ineptitude of all those glitzy show biz types with their high-minded political pronouncements, and one can hardly blame them. The smug is even worse than the smog in Hollywood, and one can’t resist a certain schadenfreude at seeing its overpaid denizens figuratively rather than the usual literally with their pants down. In the liberal media they were noticing that a mostly white movie was wrongly announced rather than the mostly black movie that actually won, and recalling all the concerns in recent years that the statuettes weren’t being handed out according to some sort of racial quota system, and worrying that might undermine the moral authority of all those high-minded political pronouncements that everybody makes. Most folks, we suspect, merely chuckled when they heard about it.
Our reaction was to stop and wonder whatever the hell became of the movies. We’re old enough to remember when movies were a big deal, and so were the Academy Awards, so this slapstick reminder of their continued existence made us realize how relatively irrelevant they have now become. The youngsters might be surprised to learn that back in the days before video games and internet porn going to the local bijou was a frequent ritual for most Americans, and along with books on paper and records spun by a local disc jockey and playing games with sticks and balls and no electricity it was one of America’s most favorite pastimes. It always sounds horrible to the young ears we tell about it, but it actually quite great.
To this day we retain vivid memories of our movie-going experiences dating back to youngest childhood. We can still recall the elegant art deco theater where our mother took us to see “A Boy Teen Feet Tall,” a terrific flick about a kid slightly older than we were at the time whose mother and father are killed during the Suez Canal conflict and winds up walking from Egypt to South Africa, and it still thrills even our middle-aged hearts. Our first experience of “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is permanently in our memory, as is that night we stayed up way too late at our grandparents’ house and caught the night owl airing of the sultry and fishnet-stockinged Marlene Dietrich destroying a sensitive intellectual’s life in “The Blue Angel” when we were way too young for such fare, and some shrink might suggest that has also left some psychic mark, for better for worse.
Some of the movies we saw in those swank old theaters were so overwhelming to our youthful imagination that we fell in love with flicks, and instinctively realized at the earliest age that was an art form. Back then television sets only had three channels on a clear day, and the big national networks only provided so many hours of programming, so all the local stations would fill the rest of the time with kiddie shows and hints for housewives and some gospel and mostly old movies. They’d all had their runs in the theater and were just sitting on shelves, so the movie studios would sell the broadcast rights on the cheap for the afternoon slot and the post-Johnny Carson hours, and all through our summer vacations and on every Friday and Saturday night we were as absorbed by the golden era of Hollywood as our nostalgic parents and grandparents had been. Not all of it was good, and some of it was hilariously bad even to our youthful tastes, but the best of it had Fred Astaire dancing with a series of beautiful and talented women, Cary Grant being as handsome and well-dressed and charming as we aspired to be, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck being every bit as gorgeous and smart and tough as the women we aspired to have fall in love with, and they had guys such as W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx and Jack Benny who not only made us laugh until our stomachs ached but also had a wised up smartness we also aspired to. Even an old-fashioned oater such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” had a very literary smartness about that we still aspire to.
There were some darned good movies playing their first runs in the theaters back then, too, and such sophisticated fare as “The Graduate” and the still-haunting “Sterile Cuckoo” gave us a head start on understanding the increasingly crazy adult world that was going on. At some point in the ’70s all those grand old downtown theaters had been replaced by cinderblock multiplexes on the far east and west sides of town, but they featured such memorable fare as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” series and “The Conversation,” Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Ranging Bull,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” and although a lot of it was hilariously bad a lot of it was also pretty good. By that point we were checking out old silent films from the public library and going to the local university and the occasional art houses that never lasted very long to see Akira Kurosawa’s awesome Japanese flicks and anything we could find with Buster Keaton and all the Stanley Kubrick releases and anything else we’d read the more high-brow critics raving about. The movies were so great, we thought they’d never run out of greatness.
At some point, though, the art form somehow petered out. Thinking back, we figured it started around the time of the first “Star Wars.” It’s by no means the worst movie ever made, and we remember leaving some unmemorable theater or another feeling as well entertained as our Pop had once been after a Saturday morning “Buck Rogers” serial, but its effect has been insidious. The movie and its parts two and three proved so popular, and produced so much revenue from toys and bedsheets and jigsaw puzzles and every other form of merchandising that Hollywood decided to that kind of thing instead of something smart. Special effects and explosions and implausibly invincible superheroes took precedence over real people and their real lives, a technological revolution proceeded faster than a slowing pace of artistic evolution, foreign distribution to countries that it’s hard to translate American dialogue and cultural context is suddenly the biggest share of the box office, and the next thing you know all the big blockbusters are based on kids’ comic books. There’s nothing wrong with comic books movies and the latest “Star Wars,” but there’s something very wrong if that’s all that’s playing at the local bijou.
There’s still some more adult fare out there, of course, which sooner or later or turns up on Netflix or some other newfangled way for us to watch it, but it rarely meets the high standards we acquired in our lucky youth. It used to be that the quality pictures were the big hits, with people lining up around the block for a screening of such diverse classics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Cabaret,” but these none of the top-ten grossers were deemed worthy of the Academy’s award nominations, and most of the young movie-goers we know have no familiarity and no interest in how good movies used to be. At least one newspaper columnist sees this as proof of Hollywood’s elitism, but we’re movie snobs enough that we agree it just wouldn’t do to hand out the industry’s highest award to some comic book movie.
What they do nominate, though, is so quickly forgotten that we dare you to name any recent winners. Unmoored from the responsibility of creating something that satisfies the desires of a vast yet discerning audience, the artier directors of the day too often leap into masturbatory self-indulgence, and some of the movies that the highbrow critics rave about these days strike us as hilariously bad. Maybe some day Netflix will provide us with an edifying two hours or so with one of this year’s award winners, and we hate to think about how there’s a really good new movie out there that haven’t seen, but at this point Hollywood needs a slapstick screw-up to make the news.

— Bud Norman

The Idleness of March

The month of March always brings severe weather and post-season college basketball on this part of the Great Plains, both of which can be quite rivetingly turbulent, but until they begin in earnest this quadrennial year we’re finding nothing of interest in the news but those already tiresome presidential races.
For a while now we’ve barely heard a peep out of President Barack Obama, much less anything to work up a rant about, and we’ll begrudgingly concede that he was gracious in his remarks about the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, and acknowledge our appreciation for all the half-mast flags that are flying around town. The economy is still awful, but only awful in more or less the same awful way it’s been for the past eight years or so, and not awful in a way that any of the candidates or the world’s bankers seem to know how to fix. Despite a recent brief lull in terror attacks on the west, that whole world-on-fire situation is still also awful, but one party is insisting that climate change is a bigger problem and the front-runner in the other party is telling apocryphal stories about solving it all with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, and that’s about the only reason all that foreign policy blah-blah-blah is in the news these days.
We note that ace quarterback Peyton Manning is retiring from football, and we wish him well, as he always seemed a nice enough guy and made our brother in Colorado quite happy by winning a Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos last month, but that’s only so interesting. There were some Academy Awards recently, but we couldn’t possibly care less about that, and we’re sure there’s some sex scandal afoot involving some reality television stars or another, and although the cast likely involves a future president we don’t care to keep track of that stuff.
We’re coming up on the Ides of March, and have been forewarned about them by our Shakespearian education, but until the coming catastrophes we’re searching about hopeful news.

— Bud Norman

Keeping Up With the Fashions

Being a movie star seems awfully hard work, if only because of the effort involved in keeping up with the latest fashions. We don’t mean the latest in haute couture, as there are no doubt well-paid consultants to deal with all that, but rather the even more exhausting chore of keeping up with the even faster-changing trends in liberalism. Consider the case of screen actress Patricia Arquette, who offered up the obligatory political rant at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony and then found out in the trades that her opinions as well as her hair style are embarrassingly out-of-date.
Arquette seized the opportunity of her award for best supporting actress to cry out for equal pay for women, which seems a safe cause, having already been enshrined in federal law for the past several decades, but she managed to offend the more sensitive sensibilities by asking “all the gay men, and people of color, to fight for us now.” This strikes us as a meticulously inclusive invitation, and a solid if slightly hackneyed statement of solidarity with the right sorts of people, but that shows how much we know about the latest in liberalism. A writer at Buzzfeed scoffed that “Patricia’s comments show the danger in not being hip to this whole intersectionality thing,” and the “reproductive rights” web site HR Reality Check lamented that Arquette “erased gay women and women of color and all intersecting iterations of those identities,” and the United Kingdom’s Independent ran a round-up of outraged “tweets” that was summarized as “Many pointed out the irony of a wealthy white woman begging people who are worse off in society to help her out.”
Not being hip to this whole intersectionality thing ourselves, and realizing that an acceptance speech’s mention of all the endlessly extrapolating intersecting iterations of political identity groups would take so long that the band would start playing and Bob Hope himself would arise out of the grave to drag a mere best supporting actress off the stage, we can only sympathize with Arquette. She did get some fawning coverage from the likes of The Christian Science Monitor, which is apparently also un-hip to the whole intersectionality thing, and her reputation for Hollywood bravery will be burnished by the criticism she received from the conservatives at Fox News and elsewhere, who rightly pointed out that her “77 cents” figure is pure nonsense and that the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton senatorial office had wage discrepancies between their male and female employees more glaring that, but those unkind “tweets” must surely sting. We are unfamiliar with Arquette’s work but understand that she is the granddaughter of Cliff Arquette, who created the lovable “Charley Weaver” character, and the sister of Rosanna Arquette, who has contributed many memorable nude scenes to the America cinema, so we’d like to assume the best about her intentions.
Even such an impeccably up-to-date liberal as the actor Sean Penn managed to stir up a bit of indignation from the left by greeting an Academy Award winner from Mexico with a joke about green cards. We are familiar with Penn’s work, which is occasionally quite good but all too often in the service of preachy liberal melodrama, but he’s better known for his outspoken political views. He’s sort of the Paul Muni of the present day, and if you’re not one of those hard-core old-time film buffs who still remember Paul Muni that only makes our point. Penn’s liberal credentials include palling around with Latin American dictators, and he used to show up at such George W. Bush-made disasters as Hurricane Katrina to paddle canoes through waters so treacherous only the most brave paparazzi would follow, and he probably assumed that entitled him to some friendly joshing with the Academy Award winner from Mexico, who is reputedly Penn’s friend, and reportedly not at all offended by the joke, but he should have seen the criticisms coming. The joke wasn’t very funny, and Penn is a famously humorless fellow who once chastised another Academy Award presenter for making jokes about an actor named Jude Law, whose work we are also unfamiliar with, but the bigger problem seems to be that the old liberal tradition of making ironically racist jokes to prove that one isn’t racist has been lost. This is a shame, as we know lots of racist jokes and are ever eager to prove ourselves not racist, and we can be just an ironic as any liberal, but Penn should have seen it coming.
Race was the big theme of this year’s pre-Oscar hype, after all, what with so many of the nominees being people of non-color, or non-people of color, or whatever the currently correct locution for white people might be. Having seen absolutely none of this year’s contending movies we have no idea if the nominations and awards reflect racial prejudice or aesthetic discernment, yet we’re still weary of the topic. America still hasn’t achieved a perfection of racial justice, and will likely fail to do so as long as Americans remain humans, but surely there’s been enough progress to have an Academy Awards show not devoted to the topic.
The most intriguing brouhaha to come out of the Academy Awards started the day after, when a former beauty queen turned local news station morning show hostess was having a televised chat with her co-host about Lady Gaga’s performance of a medley of songs from “Sound of Music.” Effusing about the usually lurid chanteuse’s well-reviewed ability with such wholesome material, the young hostess blurted out that “It’s hard to really hear her voice with all that ‘jigaboo’ music that she does, or whatever you want to call it.” This rather jaw-dropping language naturally provoked numerous protests, even if she was on a Fox affiliate, with an audience presumably comprised entirely of racists well-accustomed to such language, and she immediately “tweeted” an apology with the explanation that she had no idea the word “jigaboo” carried any offensive racial connotation.
It is an unusually pleasing sign of the times that her explanation is entirely plausible. This seemingly ambitious young woman spoke the term without apparent embarrassment or defiance in front a black co-host, who was hired despite the Fox affiliation, and seemed slightly befuddled by the word as she spoke it a second time. More importantly, “jigaboo,” like a number of other once-familiar racial slurs, is by now virtually extinct from the American language, to the extent that the darned spell-check system on our computer keeps wanting to change it to “gigabyte,” and we can easily believe that a 20-something woman of sufficiently good rearing to win a beauty pageant and landed a local affiliate morning’s show has somewhere heard the term but not in any context that she was able to discern its meaning. The term is hardly apt for Lady Gaga’s usual material, which we would describe as techno-caucasian, and probably hasn’t been used to describe any musician since Al Jolson was singing “Swanee,” and even at a Klan rally the word would probably sound as dated “copacetic” or “twenty-three-skidoo.” There’s still a stubbornly persistent use of the “n-word,” mostly among people of color, or certain colors, although they substitute an “a” for the “er” and thus render it into an acceptable political statement, but otherwise racial slurs have become so uncommon that a reader would not know what we were talking about if we tried to clean up the “j-word.”
Even right-wing bastards such as ourselves refrain from such foul language, except when the news forces our hand, but at least we’re old enough and right-wing enough to have the advantage of knowing all the terms that we’re not using. Another advantage of conservatism is that it does not require keeping up with the latest fashions.  Conservatism is a consistent philosophy based on a timeless understanding of human nature,  will always be out of style, and none of us are likely to ever be standing on stage of the Academy Awards ceremony accepting a gold statuette. Liberalism has its career advantages, we suppose, but our bemusement is ample compensation.

— Bud Norman