Friday, July 29, 2011
The axiomatic Depression-era Warner Brothers star Joan Blondell shows up frequently in Film Forum's ongoing Essential Pre-Code series, including this weekend, including Saturday's double feature of The Public Enemy and Blonde Crazy, as well as Thursday's Three on a Match and Union Depot on Tuesday the 9th.
Forget those diamonds, sisters; Blondell is a girl’s best friend. Especially in the films she made during the Depression, when she and the country were young and brave and cracking wise, Joan Blondell comes off as the kind of loyal and level-headed, funny and fun-loving pal who can make even bad times fun, her big eyes shining and her bullshit meter clicking like a Fukushima Geiger counter.
The cheery nature and bedrock reliability Blondell radiated sometimes got her miscast as a wide-eyed innocent in films like the vacuous Good Girls Go to Paris, in which she seems chagrined as the one-note title character, tossing off what feels like a half-hearted Shirley Temple impersonation. But she spent most of her onscreen time in a niche that fit her much better, playing a broad with a heart of gold. In Public Enemy, which screens this Saturday, Blondell plays the girl who marries the James Cagney’s character’s best friend, their happy relationship providing a counterpoint to Cagney’s tortured tap dances with his mistreated molls. And in Night Nurse, which screened earlier in the series, she plays a droll, eye-rolling, gum-chewing nurse who shows Barbara Stanwyck the ropes. Blondell’s B. Maloney is too cynical to object to the corruption she sees everywhere, but she’s too good a friend not to support Stanwyck when she rises up against it.
With her kewpie-doll eyes and lips, bright smile, and voluptuous curves, Blondell was gorgeous in a ripe, pre-War way. That lush beauty was undoubtedly part of her appeal (check out all the shots of her peeling off or putting on clothes in Film Forum's series), but she never seemed vain about her looks. In Center Door Fancy, her lightly fictionalized biography, she explains having won a beauty contest by saying she entered only for the $2,000 prize (her family, which did a vaudeville act that she was part of from the age of three, was perennially broke), and she won not because of her looks but because of her experience onstage. “I said to myself: ‘I’m going to pretend I’m a great actress, and I’m playing the part of the most beautiful contestant in the world,’” she writes. In Gold Diggers of 1933, which also screened last week, her Carol is by far the best-looking of her gang of gal pals, standing out enough to be “featured” in the play-within-a-movie that they all put on (the gruff producer says he can’t wait to see “This gorgeous woman singin’ a song that’ll tear their hearts out”), yet she never preens or claims extra attention, blending happily into the background in the group scenes.
Maybe growing up on the road in that close-knit showbiz family knit teamwork into her bones. Or maybe her story is just another chapter in the ancient saga of women putting family before work. (“You’re an enigma in a lot of ways, Nora,” a boyfriend tells her alter ego in Center Stage Fancy. “No drive to be an actress, really. It’s just a job to you that may pay off and take care of your troupe, as you call them, in style… Yet it seems you’re more pleased with yourself when you’ve placed a vase of flowers strategically in your room than—than at the sound of applause!”)
Whatever the reason, her cheery, we’re-in-this-together attitude was as good a fit as her looks for the Depression era. Blondell made 56 features between 1930 and 1940 (29 of then came out before 1934, the year Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code). Her tough-but-tender vibe and feisty attitude (“Don’t you dare!” is the first line she speaks in Gold Diggers of 1933) made her a particularly good fit for scrappy movies about people fighting their way through hard times. No wonder she costarred seven times with Cagney, more than any other actress, and appeared in more Warner Brothers movies than any other actress.
Maybe she was too much of a team player for her own good. In her book, she writes that she “yearned for deeper, more meaningful roles” than “the happy-go-lucky chorus girl, saucy secretary, flip reporter, dumb-blond waitress, I’ll-stick-by-you broad,” but hints that she wasn’t ambitious enough to land them. “Once in a while I’d like a real heavyweight part, like the kind they give to Garson or Bette,” she wrote. “I can do them, too, but I don’t fight for them.”
I bet she could have done them. You can see her range in Gold Diggers of 1933, a slapdash variety show whose high points are its Busby Berkeley choreography—and a couple of scenes featuring Blondell. In the first one, she tries to fight off the man she’s falling for when he makes a drunken pass, convinced that he has only contempt for her and won’t be interested once he sobers up. She plays the scene in profile, so she can’t rely too much on those expressive eyes, but her alternately stiffening and melting body tells us all we need to know. The second is the final number that producer was talking about. In it, she sing-talks her way, Rex Harrison-style, through a sad song about “the forgotten man,” the Depression’s metaphor for the fast-growing army of indigents spawned by that grim era. It’s a corny number, but Blondell succeeds where the rest of the film mostly falls flat, injecting a flimsy backstage dramedy with real dignity and feeling.
Written for The L Magazine
Thursday, July 28, 2011
It’s hard to imagine a better pairing of talent and material than director/producer Steve James, producer Alex Kotlowitz, and the street-savvy, impassioned antiviolence crusaders of The Interrupters. The documentary addresses a problem that couldn’t be more serious—the violence that literally plagues the streets of Chicago and other American cities—but talking to its open, unpretentious creators was a lot of fun. That’s partly because James likes to tease Kotlowitz, noodging his long-time friend out of the somber sincerity that seems to be his fallback position. It was also nice to hear that Kotlowitz had fond memories of my husband, who hired him in the ‘80s to write copy to accompany a photo essay on children living in Chicago’s Henry Horner housing project for Chicago Magazine (Kotlowitz parlayed that assignment into his excellent book on the subject, There Are No Children Here.)
So, Alex got this started with your New York Times article. How did you initially find this group?
AK: It goes back to your husband, in some ways. I say that because, working on There are No Children Here was following these two boys over the course of two years, but in many ways it was about the violence that affects their lives, and that was pretty overwhelming. I remember being pretty depressed in the midst of that, and subsequent to the book coming out, three of the kids I befriended were murdered. It haunts you.
I’ve been trying to figure out a way, as a storyteller and as somebody who cares about these issues, to grapple with it. And then this guy that worked with them who I play basketball with convinced me to go spend some time with Cease Fire, and I came away impressed.
I think there are two things that really most impressed me. One, that it offered a different way to look at the violence. Gary Slutkin, who founded Cease Fire, is an epidemiologist who looks at violence as an infectious disease. That takes the moral judgment out of the equation, so it’s not about good and bad people, and I think that’s really important. And the other thing is that I began to spend time at that Wednesday meeting where the interrupters gather every week, and after that first meeting I was hooked. You look at the faces of all of these men, and there are a couple of women there, and you just think, my God, there’s just a bundle of stories there.
And 500 years of prison time.
AK: [laughs] Right. So I ended up doing a story for the magazine about it, and it was one of those rare experiences as a writer where I felt, boy, if you could get the kind of access you need, this would be a great film.
I knew the access would be tough. One of the things that eluded me in working on the magazine piece was getting at the personal stories of the interrupters. It was one of the things that really intrigued me.
Well, you sure got it. I often found myself watching a scene and thinking: “Damn, there was a camera in here?” You get into the middle of some pretty deep stuff, and you obviously had to develop real trust to get that kind of access.
AK: The access question was not so much a question of trust. Partly, but it was really a question of whether you were going to compromise their situations--
SJ: Whether they’d let us close with a camera. These are delicate negotiations, some of them, and there are legal issues involved.
Did you start with the individual interrupters you wanted and then follow them, or did you look for dramatic mediations and then follow whoever happened to be involved?
SJ: We knew from the get-go that we wanted to follow interrupters, but we didn’t know which ones or how many, except that we knew we didn’t want too many. We knew Ameena was one, and then the process became one of filming the meetings they had every Wednesday. That helped with getting our finger on the pulse of what was going on week to week and getting them comfortable with us. That was also our way into getting to know more of the people around the table.
Tio Hardiman, who created the program, would tell these guys about us every week. He’d say, “They’re here; they’re trying to make this film; it’s important to us that we do this film. I want you guys to step up and get them into some mediations.” Cobe was the guy who really took it to heart and started calling us. We didn’t even notice him at the table until he started calling us. He wasn’t a guy that took over the room. He’s a gregarious and wonderful and funny guy, but not a guy that just kind of jumps out at you in a meeting.
Like China Joe.
AK: Yeah, China Joe!
SJ: China Joe was one of the guys we were interested in, but it just never happened with him.
Looking around that table at those meetings, it’s striking how charismatic most of these former gangbangers are: so good looking and smart and personally powerful. It makes you wonder if some of the best and the brightest people in that neighborhood became gangsters.
AK: Well, they were the leaders. Each of them, in their own right, were leaders when they were in the gangs. People would listen to them, just as they do now. One of the things Steve and I talked about is, the easy thing to say would be that they’ve changed, but in many ways I think they’ve figured out who they were all along, using all the same skills and tools and assets that they had back then, just for something very different. So you’re absolutely right. There’s no question. When Cobe was running the streets, that affability, that humor, that disarming nature – it got him places.
SJ: He wasn’t that threatening leader. He’s the best kind of leader. He’s the guy you want to do right by because he’s a good guy and he’s a fair guy and he’s a man of his word. And Ameena, of course, you can see that powerful charisma that would make her a good force. It’s almost like she took her dad’s power and charisma. [Ameena’s father, Jeff Fort, was one of the most famous and powerful gang leaders of his time.] And now look what she’s doing with it.
AK: You had asked whether certain people jumped out at us. We pursued Ameena, in fact, Steve and I would joke early on about how it reminded us of high school, chasing some beautiful girl. She would sometimes return your call and sometimes she wouldn’t –
SJ: I was calling her for a while and then she wouldn’t call me back, so I said, Alex, you call her, since she wouldn’t recognize the number. That worked once. [laughs]
AK: With Eddie, we knew we wanted a Latino. And Eddie, of course, is this incredibly thoughtful guy, who’s still wrestling with --
Doing penance, basically, every day, for having killed someone when he was on the street as a kid.
AK: Yeah, trying to find a way to forgive himself. He constantly questions himself, and he’s also questioning Cease Fire. He believes in their philosophy but he asked questions about what they’re doing.
SJ: “Are we a Band-Aid?”
AK: Yeah. It was really important to have that self-questioning voice in there.
He was also great with kids, as were all three of the people you followed. You’ve both done a lot of stories about people who never really had got to have a childhood. In this film, a lot of why the interrupters want to do what they’re doing is that they regret what they did when they were young. They want to help other young people who are falling into the same trap, and they understand the importance of having a supportive adult in your life. [To Alex] I mean, the title of your book was There Are No Children Here. are you conscious of that as a theme in your work?
AK: I hadn’t really thought about that, but I think you’re right. I think it’s a really interesting observation. You do see that here, certainly with Eddie. He talks about when that young girl is crying because she’s seen a shooting, about not wanting the kids he works with to have to go through what he’s been through. He identifies with them.
And Ameena identifies with Caprysha, the girl she’s working with.
AK: Right. She tells her at one point, “You’re a little Ameena.” I think that’s what makes the interrupters so effective, their ability to put themselves in the shoes of these kids.
SJ: One of the themes I’ve noticed, not just in the films I’ve done but really in life– because there is a difference. Not much, but a little – is that the people that make seemingly profound change in their lives, like the interrupters, have a real anchor at a crucial moment in their life. With the kids from Hoop Dreams, it was their mothers. With Ameena, it was her grandmother. With Cobe, it was his grandparents. With Stevie, it wasn’t there.
I think what’s really moving to me about what the interrupters are doing is that they’re trying to fill a vacuum in these people’s lives. You see this especially strongly with Caprysha. [Ameena] is in essence, trying to be that surrogate mother.
Yeah. And with Cobe and Flamo. At the end of the movie, after he’s been turned around, Flamo tells Cobe something to the effect of: “You just would not give up on me. You kept calling and coming around.”
SJ: It’s crucial. That’s why we picked that song at the end, Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me. Jack Piper, our coproducer, found it, and we felt like it really encapsulated what we want the audience to walk away with. Which is: Don’t give up on the Flamos of the world. Don’t give up on these communities. Don’t give up.
In the past, both of you have generally told stories to middle- and upper-middle-class people about low-income people. You could say the message was always “don’t give up”—don’t demonize these people; don’t write them off; don’t oversimplify or overlook them or just give up on them. The Interrupters could work for those same audiences in that same way, but it seems like it could also work for the people in communities like the one that’s being portrayed, give them ideas and inspiration that could help them improve their lives. I know Kartemquin likes to use its films as a catalyst for community organizing. What do they have planned for this one?
SJ: We totally agree. This is a film that can work for those two audiences, in a big way.
One of the many great things about Kartemquin as an organization is that they take seriously the whole civic outreach part of filmmaking. They just did an outreach with The Interrupters a couple weeks ago in Chicago, where they brought together about 80 kids who are part of various youth media groups in Chicago. These are kids from the same kind of neighborhoods that this film takes place in. they watched the movie, and they went for it big-time. They were like, this movie needs to be in my school; people need to see this movie. They were laughing at the funny moments.
AK: Another great thing is that, in Chicago, the film opens in the Siskel but it’s going to open at the I.C.E. theaters in Lawndale and Chatham, which are similar to the neighborhood where we shot.
SJ: Chatham is just a little south.
AK: And Lawndale is on the west side.
Are you going to go to those openings?
SJ: Our VIP premier of the film, which is on the 27th of next week, is at the Chatham I.C.E. theater, and Cobe’s aunt is catering it. And we’re going to have everybody who’s in the movie there.
[To James] You said in the press notes for this film that you became a documentary filmmaker because you “wanted to understand people and communities other than the ones I’ve lived in.” I was interested to see that because I have this theory that all really good filmmakers make movies partly to learn more about whatever they’re filming. So to what extent is that still your driving force? What else have you gotten from making documentaries over the years?
SJ: Well, I have found over the years that it’s not always obvious or conscious, but I end up making films about subjects that I am either troubled by or troubled by my own feelings. Like The New Americans, which is an excellent example.
Why The New Americans?
SJ: Well, this was at a time when there was much debate about where was America going ethnically with all this immigration. And if I looked in my own heart at the time, I had my own questions, if I was really honest with myself, even though I’m a good liberal. Part of what I wanted to do with that series – and it’s not the reason in total we made the series, but it’s what sparked my interest – was to try and understand who the immigrants really are who are coming to American today. With Stevie, I think it’s fairly self-evident what drove that. With Hoop Dreams, it was realizing that I had grown up playing basketball with a lot of African American players and never really been their friend, just their teammate. And I knew that this game meant more to them—the stakes were higher for them than for me, much as I love the game.
And the same in the Iverson film too.
SJ: Yeah, in the Iverson film I kind of articulate that. I think, for this film, like Alex was saying with his book, the issue of urban violence has haunted me since seeing Bo Agee [the father of one of Hoop Dreams’ two main characters] murdered in 2004 and William Gates’ [the other main character] brother Curtis murdered in 2001 and seeing the devastating impact that both those senseless losses had on those families and those young men. So that was, for me, the personal part of this that made me want to engage with this and try to understand it, just like Alex wanted to understand it.
So, yeah, I feel like every film should be an act of discovery.
For the filmmaker as well as the audience?
SJ: Absolutely. In fact, I think when a film works best, it is, for you as a viewer, the distillation of the years that we spent making it and all the discoveries we made and all the ways that it surprised us.
Alex, you’ve worked in newspapers and magazines and books, but is this the first movie you’ve been involved in?
AK: I’ve done TV. I used to be, years ago, a correspondent on the NewsHour and I’ve done some Frontline documentaries. This was my first film.
So how does this film compare to the other things you’ve done as a way of telling your story and getting it out into the world?
AK: There’s a real power in doing intimate filmmaking. There really is a sense that you’ve really gotten to know the characters.
My big concern going in, given my experience, was twofold. One, the last film I had worked on, we had a seven-member crew going in to film seven people. It felt incredibly unwieldy, even clumsy at times. It took away any sense of intimacy. And the other thing was that we would always—which is common in TV—go in and pre-interview people, so that took out all the freshness and spontaneity from what they said.
What I appreciated, working with Steve, is that we kept our crew really small, just three of us: Steve with the camera, and myself, and Zak Piper, our co-producer.
SJ: Zak did sound.
AK: And for the interviews, we didn’t pre-interview anybody, and they were long, often marathon interviews. I think you get the sense of intimacy [created in those wide-ranging talks] in the film.
The other challenge with film is that you really have to be there. When I’m writing, I can sit in a room and reconstruct a scene without being there –
SJ: Yeah, I always used to complain: that’s cheating! [pretending to mock Kotlowitz] “And then you make it sound like you’re the-e-ere.” [sincerely again] Which is an art, really, to make people feel like they’re there.
AK: So there was something exhilarating about that. For the course of the year when we were filming, we were on call 24 hours a day, essentially. You’re going out at all hours of the day and night. And every time we went out, I felt like there was something new to discover.
Another thing that’s been a little scary and also exhilarating is that, when people read my books, they do it in private. If they don’t like it, I’ll never hear, and if they love it, maybe I’ll hear from them, maybe not. But in the film, you’re watching and listening to the reactions as the film unfolds.
SJ: But, I have to say, it’s been mostly a blast—
AK: Right! It’s been a blast! They get it.
The final thing is that writing is such a solitary experience, and this was so much fun. I mean, it’s fun to work with Steve, and then also with the interrupters. There’s something to be said for having a collaborative experience.
SJ: Yeah. Film is an inherently collaborative experience, in the best sense. I must say, it doesn't get any better than doing this film, even though the subject matter at times was hard, obviously, and upsetting and depressing and tragic. The overall experience, and what we took away from it, was a blessing.
You think you guys are going to work together on something else?
SJ: Never. [laughter]
AK: We’ll probably work together on something else. Probably a fiction film.
Really? [to James] You’d want to do a fiction film? You’ve never done one, have you?
SJ: Well, I’ve never one a strict fiction film because when Hollywood was willing to let me do some things, they were always biopics. I did the lowest-budget feature in the history of the studio system, Prefontaine, and then I did a couple of cable movies. But they were always biopics – and always sports biopics. That’s what they would let me do.
AK: That’ll change.
SJ: So, yeah, I would like to do a fiction film. We’ve talked about different ideas. ‘Cause Alex wants to write.
AK: I want to write.
SJ: He wants to write a script. [pause] And I want to rewrite it. [laughter]
AK: That was a good one.
SJ: Well, they say writing is rewriting.
Written for Slant Magazine
Friday through Sunday, Animation Block Party holds its Animation Weekend in Brooklyn: after tomorrow night's outdoor opening night, at Rooftop Films, BAM hosts five additional shorts programs and an animation trade show/gallery exhibition. The films discussed below screen on Friday night at Rooftop.
In La Plage, a lively animated short drawn in pretty pastels, a lovely summer beach is ruined by an invasion of loud, fat, chain-smoking, beached-fish-tormenting, butt-scratching boors—until a giant hand descends on the sand and shovels them into a mammoth catbox pooper scooper. That one-joke plot makes La Plage less subtle and/or ambitious than most of its companions at this year’s Animation Block Party, but nearly all share its wry take on stupid human tricks—and its empathy for the non-human animals who put up with us.
Birdboy introduces a happy little mouse family in an apparently placid world only to vaporize it all in a mushroom cloud (talk about your nuclear families). In the film’s best sequence, the explosion turns the colorful landscape into a somber black-and-white dance of death, nuclear rain and blackened leaves from dead trees morphing into dead animals and fish as they fall. Birdboy, a bird who can’t yet fly, is one of the few survivors. The filmmakers seem to want to say something through him about how we demonize “others,” but that part of his story never quite comes into focus. Birdboy’s longing for the adored daughter of that happy family is never in doubt, though, and it’s even more poignant after the disaster makes his dream of being with her seem not just improbable but impossible.
She Was the One, one of the self-recorded oral histories captured and then animated by Story Corps, is another sad love story set in the aftermath of a manmade disaster. Comically exaggerated figures represent the teller, Richard Pecorella, and his fiancée, Karen Juday, one of the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. Pecorella’s Brooklyn-accented tribute to the woman who “toned me down” and “taught me to be nicer to people” is touching in its straightforward simplicity, which is well served by the warmly funny animation style.
The danger is mostly imaginary in The Girl and the Fox and 7th, two tales of young girls making their way through perilous landscapes—but that doesn’t leave the people in them off the hook. The girl of The Girl and the Fox, a latter-day Red Riding Hood lost in a desaturated woods, is rescued by a sweet silver fox, but she mistakes it at first for an enemy, nearly killing it before realizing her error. The fox-POV shot of her snarling face above a raised knife makes it clear who is the scarier of the two predators. In 7th, a terrified young woman takes the bus into the outerboroughs at night and gets off on an underlit street, her fears imbuing both the bus and the street with exaggerated menace. Afraid she got off at the wrong stop, she’s terrorized by a man who seems to be pursing her—and turns out to be returning the cellphone she dropped. A happy ending follows, but it’s upended in a crisp post-credits coda.
Notes on Biology uses stop-motion in an interesting way, making live action appear animated by presenting it in a stuttery style, as if several frames had been taken out for every one left in. An arty kid stuck in a high school biology class amuses himself—and us—by creating a flip-book cartoon hero: Robot Elephant, a gun-toting vigilante who flies through the kid’s notebook, blowing stuff up as he goes. The filmmakers make Robot Elephant feel much more real to us than the biology teacher, as he does to the kid, shooting the teacher from above and at such an angle that you never see his face and turning his voice into a background drone that disappears altogether—until he asks the question whose answer tidily wraps up this cleverly told story.
A more traditional use of stop motion, complete with Claymation figures, is used to tell the non-traditional love story in Venus. A couple suffering from the seven-year itch visits a sex club, where the woman, who was initially reluctant to go, winds up making the dolls in Team America: World Police look pretty tame.
The Inkwell Shuffle also looks familiar if you’ve ever seen a Max Fleischer cartoon. In the black-and-white film, little critters of some indeterminate species jump out of an inkwell and dance to old-fashioned jazz, until a big pig comes out and tries to destroy them. Flesicher did it all much better close to 100 years ago in his Out of the Inkwell series, but this homage is pleasant enough, and maybe it’ll lead some people back to the originals.
Written for The L Magazine
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Proving that anything can serve as a platform for self-actualization and ethnic pride, Fire in Babylon tells the story of the record-setting West Indian athletes who used cricket to beat their former colonizers at their own game, "like slaves whipping the ass of the masters," as graying Rastaman Bunny Wailer says with a carnivorous grin.
Yup, cricket. The game we Americans think of as a leisurely pastime played by polite men in white, that imperialist leftover Robin Williams called "baseball on valium," became a whole different thing in the hands of the West Indian players of the late '70s and '80s. Fast bowlers like Colin Croft and Michael Holding and hard-swinging batsmen like "master blaster" Viv Richards injected as much fire, flash, and eye-popping athleticism into their sport as the African American stars of the same era did to basketball—though, to be fair, the cricketers learned their fast-bowl style from the Aussies.
A humiliating loss to the trash-talking Australian team in 1975 motivated the West Indians to find a new way of playing, inspiring them to prove that they were, as Richards puts it, "Just as good as anyone. Equal, for that matter." After a symbolically significant win against England, they dropped back into first gear for a while before getting fired up for real. The catalyst was a pep talk by the backer who bankrolled them for an unofficial "World Series," but the ultimate inspiration was the Black Power movement and the team’s newfound sense of responsibility to a multitude of fans hungry for yes-we-can role models.
Roaring back to glorious life, and beautiful to watch in the clips from old games, the team launched a 15-year run as the champions of cricket’s prestigious test series. As a crawl at the end of the film informs us, it was the longest winning streak achieved by a professional team in any sport.
Thicker than they were in their youth but just as charismatic, the middle-aged former stars of the team provide most of the narrative, looking back on their glory days in talking-head interviews. Clive Lloyd, the coach and mentor who first inspired them to prove themselves to the world, adds context about the team’s significance to members of the African diaspora worldwide. A few musicians and other cultural observers also chime in, some literally singing the team’s praises.
The film is as slow off the block as its subjects were, pounding away on some issues like a woodpecker working a log while leaving others almost unexamined. Did those fire-breathing Aussie bad boys of the 70s, who had the English "literally running for cover and begging for mercy," as Richards recalls, get any heat from the press and the public for their potentially lethal fastball? We don’t know, since Fire in Babylon reports only on the vitriol heaped on the West Indians for their life-threatening speed. If the Aussies got a pass for the same thing, showing us the evidence would have shored up the statements made by the talking heads in the film, who credit the criticism of their team entirely to racism. And if the Aussies caught flak too, exploring the differences in how the two teams were treated might have let to a subtler and more enlightening discussion of how racism affected the media’s and the public’s reaction to the team.
Meanwhile, way after we’ve gotten the point, people keep talking (and talking and talking) about how cricket was a way for West Indians to reclaim their pride. The war metaphors got tiresome after a while—does every game really have to be a battle and every player a warrior?—and there’s nothing particularly artful about the narrative, which follows an arc burned into our DNA by countless sports films about underdogs that bite back. The camera work and editing are strictly utilitarian, too.
This is one of those features that would probably work better trimmed down to an hour and shown on TV, yet even at a bloated 84 minutes, it’s generally engaging and occasionally inspirational. The story and subjects deserve a better film, but they’re appealing enough to make even this one worth seeing.
Opens July 22 at the reRun Gastropub Theater
Written for The L Magazine
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Tonight, Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and the forthcoming-next-week The Interrupters, will be at IFC Center's Stranger Than Fiction series for a Q&A following a screening of his 2003 documentary Stevie.
A few months before Capturing the Friedmans nabbed an Oscar nomination and torrents of positive press for its portrayal of a suburban father and son accused of child molestation, this documentary about a downscale young man facing the same charges slipped by without much notice. Maybe Steve James’ portrait of the messed-up manchild he’d tried to mentor years earlier as a Big Brother is just too damn depressing for most people, but those who stick with it are in for an engrossing meditation on the necessity for and limits of personal responsibility.
The film starts when James returns to rural Illinois to try to reconnect to Stevie after having lost touch for a decade. Feeling guilty for having abandoned a boy who was failed by so many others and who needed so much, he says in his voiceover that he wants “to understand Stevie in a way that I and others had failed to all those years.”
What he finds is a fiercely defensive bearded boy who was beaten and then abandoned by his mother, raped in the group foster home where he lived for several years, and used as an emotional pawn in a feud between his mother and the step-grandmother who helped raise him. Bubbling over with rage and insecurity, Stevie tests the patience of everyone who gets near him. And then he molests his eight-year-old niece and has to grapple with being a victimizer as well as a victim, leaning hard on his two old friends, denial and drunkenness.
The slow progress of Stevie’s case provides the narrative through-line for the movie, which ends shortly after his sentencing. In the meantime, James gets to know Stevie, inserting himself into his world with deceptively gentle persistence. (“Why do you get into all this shit?” Stevie’s mother asks as he interrupts a pleasant exchange between her and her daughter to probe into why the two were feuding a few days earlier.)
A lot of people—including James himself and his social worker wife—care a lot about Stevie, and we both hear about and feel for ourselves the mangled charm that attracts them to him. As his girlfriend Tanya puts it, with a shy smile: “I don’t know what it is about Stevie, but I love him.” James earns the trust of everyone in Stevie’s circle, putting them sufficiently at ease to collect revealing comments about and interactions with him. In the process, without ever forgetting or condoning Stevie’s heinous act, he pushes through it, showing us the “12-year-old boy that’s lost” that his aunt, the mother of the girl he molested, still sees in him.
So why couldn’t any of those people help that boy grow up and decide not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse he was born into? Maybe, as James’ wife says, the system was doomed to fail because no system can fill the hole left by parental abuse and neglect. But James keeps asking the question, either mulling over his own guilt or filming others as they wonder what they might have done differently. As one of Stevie’s former teachers says: “We had a lot of intelligent people working on him over the years, trying to come up with something that would either motivate him or help him control himself, and we never came up with it.”
Written for The L Magazine
Monday, July 18, 2011
From Roger Ebert's excellent blog:
Christopher Walken reads The Three Little Pigs (above) and
Roger's take on the rise and fall (could it be?) of Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Sun Times while Roger was working there
Christopher Walken reads The Three Little Pigs (above) and
Roger's take on the rise and fall (could it be?) of Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Sun Times while Roger was working there
Saturday, July 16, 2011
BAM's "Marilyn!" concludes this weekend; All About Eve screens today.
As long as she’s strategically parked in Margo Channing’s stairwell, a radiant young Marilyn Monroe walks away with every scene she plays as a cunning young climber in All About Eve. But even she can’t upstage Bette Davis’s Margo when they meet at the older actress’ real home turf, the thee-ah-tah, and that’s as it should be. All About Eve is all about Davis, a lioness raging against the onrushing winter with a rare opportunity to play one of her own breed.
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose genius was strictly on the left-hand side of that hyphen, staged All About Eve pretty much like one of the plays its characters’ lives revolve around, filming mostly stationary actors as they pour out torrents of talk before a mostly stationary camera. But the syncopated symphony of wised-up wisecracks, snide asides, and perfect putdowns they throw down is so intoxicating I don’t mind the staid camerawork.
“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” says Margo’s dresser, Birdie (Thelma Ritter, God love her) after Margo’s meek acolyte, Eve (Anne Baxter), tells Margo and her friends her pathetic backstory—and that’s before Birdie sees through the cotton candy Eve’s spinning. And when Monroe’s Miss Caswell is pointed in the direction of a powerful producer, she pauses before going after him to ask: “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”
In fact, it’s Eve’s overplayed meekness and false humility that marks her as untrustworthy—and, ultimately, as an operator of the worst kind, “a true killer,” as cynical critic Addison Dewitt (the always imperious George Sanders) observes. Margo, in contrast, is all heart and soul. “Lloyd says Margo compensates for underplaying onstage by overplaying reality,” says her best friend, Karen (Celeste Holm), quoting her beloved husband, as usual.
Margo’s penchant for melodrama sometimes irritates her closest friends and boyfriend—Eve worms her way into their inner circle by exploiting its weakest link, Karen’s desire to take Margo down a peg or two—but it also makes her a complex and compelling character. Margo may “detest cheap sentiment,” but she loves the real thing, and she’s never shy about broadcasting her most vulnerable feelings and fears. “Infants behave the way I do, you know,” she tells Karen. “They carry on and misbehave—they'd get drunk if they knew how—when they can't have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure, or unloved.”
Not that she doesn't have plenty of reasons to “carry on.” All About Eve is a tragedy disguised as a comedy, the portrait of an artist forced to face her own obsolescence just as she’s coming into her prime. Its two main arcs are the ascent of Eve and the descent of Margo, and though it looks for a while as if the first one is causing the second, Margo actually bows out of her own free will. The real villain isn’t Eve after all: it’s sexism and ageism that make this great star, whose talent is never in question, feel over the hill at 40, mortified by the thought of playing another ingenue and terrified of losing her 32-year-old lover. Davis, who was almost exactly Margo’s age when she played the part, was struggling with the same problem in her own career, and she gives a sometimes bravely unglamorous performance, perhaps her least mannered ever, encompassing everything from maudlin self-pity to loving generosity to diamond-sharp sarcasm.
So I’ve always hated the self-denigrating speech Margo makes to Karen as they sit in a stalled car. “Funny business, a woman’s career,” she says. “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.”
Granted, there’s some hard-won midlife wisdom in what she says. Most of us come to terms with the limitations of our options and our once seemingly boundless potential at some point—usually right around age 40. And with that realization tends to come a greater appreciation of the little things in life, and of the importance of having someone to share them with.
But that wisdom is all but drowned by the sexism drenching that speech. Mankiewicz was enough a man of the theater to love his magnificent heroine, but he was enough a man of his time to believe that she couldn’t be a real woman without at man at her side, and that having a career was somehow incompatible with being a woman. So how did he solve a problem called Margo? By marrying her off.
I could never quite buy her final retreat into happy housewifery—especially since it happens entirely off-screen, making me wonder if even Mankiewicz really believed that keeping house would keep Margo happy. But what lingers after watching All About Eve is not that unconvincing resolution but the tension underlying Margo’s gallant struggle—and the ever-younger, ever more ambitious wannabes crowding the wings as she fought to maintain her place, both onstage and in her partner’s heart.
Written for The L Magazine
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Tomorrow, Film Forum starts their "Essential Pre-Code" series, a monthlong compilation of many of the early-30s gems they've returned to circulation in recent years. Things kick off tomorrow and Saturday with a double feature of Two Seconds and Baby Face.
One of the last tough tales of a poor girl on the make to slide into theaters mostly intact before the Hays Code kicked in the following year, Baby Face (1933) shocked the New York censors enough that it had to lose or tone down several scenes. But the shock to me, when I recently revisited the film for the first time in years, was the sappy-happy ending. What had stuck was not where brazen, bad-ass Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) winds up but how she gets there: sleeping her way to the top of the heap after a grim start as a sullen victim tricked out by her own father.
But that happy ending, which has a suddenly softhearted Lily giving up all her hard-won loot for her hubby, is no post-Code coda intended to put an uppity woman in her place. That kind of ending did get tacked onto the version that made it into theaters: Lily and her husband wound up doing hard labor back in the steel—country Pennsylvania of her youth. But the original conclusion is just the logical extension of a screenplay that never sells out its heroine, making it clear that—no matter how heartless she may seem—she’s a good kid making the best of a bad situation.
Lily’s innate decency is revealed mainly through her bond with Chico (Theresa Harris), the black woman who works at her father’s sleazy speakeasy and then lights out with Lily, becoming her personal assistant/maid. In the opening scene, Lily’s father yells at Chico, firing her as Lily enters the room. “Hey, easy on the whip,” she tells her father contemptuously. “If Chico goes, I go!”
The relationship between the two, which inspired Lynn Nottage to write By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, is as much of a revelation as anything else in Baby Face, owing nothing to the template, typical to movies of the that era, of an imperial white mistress and a sycophantic and childlike (and often morbidly obese) black maid. Until Lily finally lets herself fall for her husband, Chico is her true life companion. She expresses her love for her comrade in the unsentimental, mostly unspoken way in which she deals with all her softer feelings, but the two clearly cherish and understand one another, and Lily remains staunchly loyal to her friend even as she motors through men like a speedboat roaring through a herd of manatees. When one of her conquests suggests that she “get rid of that fantastic colored girl,” she drops the baby talk and gives him a look that would have cut like a laser, if only he’d had the sense to notice it.
Film Forum is showing the original version of the movie, which was discovered in a Library of Congress vault in 2004. It may not seem scandalous by today’s standards, but there’s nothing coy about it either. Perhaps the biggest loss to 1933 audiences was the speech Lily got in the original from her fairy godfather, a crusty old customer at the speakeasy who sees her “potentialities” before she does. Schooling her on Nietzsche (why is it always Nietzsche?), he urges her to “get out before it’s too late” and use the power she has over men for her own good. “Look here!” he says, “Nietzsche says ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation….’ Use men! Be strong, defiant! Use men to get the things you want!”
Taking his advice to “go to some big city where you will find opportunities,” Lily gets a free ride to New York by seducing the railyard goon who comes to throw her and Chico off the empty freight car they’d hopped. Shots of Lily retreating into the shadows at the back of the car, the railyard man’s gloves hitting the straw, and his hand turning out the lantern leave no doubt as to what came next—not that the long, slow slide of his eyes up and down her body and her exchange of looks with Chico left much to the imagination. (The theatrical version cuts from the two on the train to the city, leaving the man out altogether.)
Once in New York, Lily heads straight to a bank, of course—like Willie Sutton said, it’s where the money is—and seduces the chubby mark in personnel. “Have you had any experience?” he asks. “Plenty,” she says, before disappearing behind a door with a coy backward glance. She starts as a file clerk and promptly works her way up, literally moving higher as the camera pans up the skyscraper that houses the bank, showing us the ever-classier departments on ever-higher floors that she sleeps her way into.
Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck (under a pen name), the screenplay is as efficient as its heroine, moving forward as smoothly and inexorably as a shark. It’s not exactly subtle (Lily’s last name is Powers, after all), but it’s knowing, smart, and often slyly funny. “Would you like to motor through the chateau country?” one suitor asks. “And see all those lovely 14th-century ceilings?” she replies.
John Wayne makes a surprising cameo as the sap who nicknames Lily Baby Face, a wage slave she uses and then shoulders aside at the start of her climb. But the real draw here is Stanwyck, whose coolly dignified, always calculating Lily wins our love because she never asks for or expects it. Like Stanwyck’s Jean in The Lady Eve and Nora in Night Nurse (also at Essential Pre-Code), Lily is one of the great broads of the American cinema, a heroine whose measuring gaze, dry wit, determined stride, and unself-pitying pragmatism feel as fresh and refreshing now as they must have back then.
Written for The L Magazine
Friday, July 8, 2011
The New York Asian Film Festival continues this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; Bedevilled screens on Sunday evening.
Bedevilled opens on a black screen as a disembodied male voice tells a forgettable tale he builds up as “the story of the week.” Then we see a busy street where two boys brutally beat a young woman and then saunter after her as she tries to escape, pleading for help from an uncaring crowd. One of the bystanders is the unseen driver from whose perspective we’re watching (the calm male voice we hear is on her radio), who rolls up her tinted window as the terrorized woman bangs on the car. Welcome to the world of Bedevilled, a soulless Seoul and an even harsher nearby island, where men brutalize at will and women go along with it.
The woman in the car is Hae-won (Seong-won Ji), an ice-queen loan officer who seems to have shut out every instinct or shred of human feeling except self-preservation. At first, the film seems to be heading into Drag Me to Hell territory as Hae-won denies a mortgage to a desperate old woman. But things take a much more interesting turn when she takes a forced vacation to the island of Moo-do.
Once there, the focus shifts to Bok-nam (a vibrant Yeong-hie Seo), Hae-won’s friend from girlhood summers on the island. Her big brown eyes glittering with emotion in her expressive face, Bok-nam brims with the humanity and essential decency Hae-won has repressed, despite being treated with cruelty and contempt by everyone on the island. Raped, beaten, mocked, and treated like a pack animal, it’s no wonder she doesn’t know enough to realize what a false friend Hae-won is, though it’s clear to us when we see Hae-won being dismissive in the present and cruel in childhood flashbacks.
But there’s a limit to what even Bok-nam can tolerate. In the classic revenge scenario, women and children get raped and/or murdered and men get revenge, but Bok-nam has to rely on herself for everything, including revenge. In stalking and dispatching her tormentors, she follows in the bloody footsteps left by The Bride in Kill Bill, the Jennifers of I Spit on Your Grave and Jennifer’s Body, and the mothers of them all, Thelma and Louise.
It’s a feminist twist on an old formula, but that doesn’t mean women are let off the hook. The first people Bok-nam goes after are the women who went along with the sadistic men, empowering them with their silence and their outright collusion. And the last is Hae-won, whose betrayal cut deepest of all.
There’s some sickening satisfaction in seeing Bok-nam wreak her revenge, but Bedevilled doesn’t luxuriate in its own gore. The killings are gruesome: Bok-nam’s victims don’t do much screaming or pleading or even crying out in pain much, and there’s almost no background music to distract from the magnified sound of blades ripping through stubborn sinew. This is no reactionary exercise in bloodlust; it’s a condemnation of the evil men do and, counter-intuitively, a battle cry for kindness and social consciousness. The triumph in Bedevilled isn’t that Bok-nam gets back at the people who abused her. It’s that her killing spree breaks down her former friend’s apparently unbreachable defenses and inspires her to abandon the code of silence she has been living by, fingering the thugs from the opening scene who she had been too afraid to identify.
Gi-tae Kim’s beautiful camerawork and Mi-joo Kim’s editing quietly reinforce the mood without drawing attention to themselves (an exception is a series of jump cuts, shot from below, of Bok-nam chopping away at her unseen husband while red “blood” sprays onto her face and the camera’s lens). One example is the way the dark tale is shot, mostly at night or under the sickly greenish cast of fluorescent lighting at first and then blossoming into bright daylight after Bok-nam roars into action.
The final scene is a stunner, too: a cut from Hae-won’s prone body to a long shot of Moo-do that reveals the fact that the tormented island is shaped like a woman on her back. It’s an eloquent metaphor for the oppression of women, and an elegant end to this thinking person’s revenge movie.
Written for The L Magazine
Thursday, July 7, 2011
I got the last interview of the last day James Marsh (Man on Wire) devoted to flacking his latest documentary. The story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp ripped from his mother’s arms in the ‘70s to become the subject of an aborted sign language experiment, Project Nim is a sometimes funny, often horrifying parade of stupid human tricks, attempts at penance, and occasional acts of unalloyed kindness. Tired but engaging in our 20-minute talk, Marsh was a winning combination of nonjudgmental grace and forthright observations—especially while insisting that he’d never throw his shit at me.
You’re English, but all but one of your documentaries is set in America.
There’s a connection between those two things. I’m a sort of a refugee. I lived in New York for 14 years, and I live in Copenhagen now. As a filmmaker, one wants to look beyond the immediate horizons of the place where one lives, and I, of course found so much interesting culture, stories, whatever here. New York is the very first place I came to in America, and I totally adored it—thought I should actually have been born here. It became my second home.
At the same time, as an outsider, you’re responding to things with a slightly different kind of background and agenda. This film is a New York story and a very American story, but no one had yet to do it, so I came and did it. And I guess that’s true of other films I’ve done too.
Herb Terrace [the Columbia University scientist in charge of the Project Nim language experiment] – what a hissable villain. And some of the other people in the movie didn’t come off much better, yet they all seem so comfortable on camera, saying these often very self-incriminating things. How did you manage that?
I’m asking them to tell me their view of things, their recollection of things I’m not asking them to judge themselves or to incriminate themselves. Clearly, some of the things that happen in the story don’t reflect terribly well on some of the people involved, but I’m not trying, in the film, to make a judgment about that. You can, as an audience member, and you should. But we try to tell a story that did happen, as opposed to one that didn’t happen or should have happened.
Also, people like talking about experiences that mean something to them. Sort of in line of what I’m doing here now. (Laughs) I think the people in this story, this relationship they had with the chimpanzee was very important to them and had a big impact on their lives, and they recall it with a great deal of detail, clarity and emotion.
Of course I pushed it into also the human relationships, and that got into a trust one had to establish with the people involved, so they were able to talk about these personal things. Not all of them did. The professor [Terrace] resisted talking about personal things. That was very revealing.
One of the things I found most interesting in Man on Wire was the group dynamics, the way the people on Petit’s team—his friends and especially his girlfriend—were drawn to his vision, which was so much stronger than their own, and then wound up feeling betrayed by him. There’s a similar dynamic in this movie, with all the faux families that form and disband around Nim, and the kind of shady sex.
Yes, even interspecies sex. Chimpanzee and cat, for example. (Laughs)
The reason it’s relevant in this story is these relationships that start and finish around Nim have an impact on his life. When both Stephanie and Laura end up leading the project or being kicked out of the project, it’s because of the complications they’re having with the authority figure, the professor, which are colored with the romantic and sexual dealings that have gone on.
Your film intentionally skirts the question of what scientists think they learned by teaching Nim sign language.
I don’t think it skirts it, but I don't think there’s much to say about it. One of the reasons the film skimps on the science is that the project was a failure. Well, not a failure: We learned something from it. But the experiment concludes that Nim is imitating using language very superficially for his own ends, not being grammatical with it.
Well, yes, Herb Terrace says that in the movie, but do you think he was right? I felt like there was plenty of room for other interpretations.
There are two things that I think about this, on reflection. One is that the question [Terrace] asked in his experiment was very narrow: Can a chimpanzee construct a sentence, i.e., use an exclusively human kind of grammatical construct? The answer to that, we find out, is probably not. The question being asked was not: Can we communicate with a chimpanzee? Can we have an exchange of ideas, a dialogue? And that does appear to be a much more open-ended and debatable question.
The other observation I had was that they spent four and a half years looking at this chimp, doing all this stuff, interacting with him, and no one said, “Guess what, he’s cheating.” Terrace looked at the data later and said, “Guess what, he’s having us on.” And yet all these humans were there, signing with this chimp and having these interactions and saying yes, this is working well. But then, they were perhaps blinded by their expectations and higher hopes.
The Clever Hans thing.
Yes, that’s exactly it. That you’re seeing what you want to see. But these are scientists, and therefore one would hope that they would be more sensitive to what’s going on. Perhaps.
So what do you think this experiment teaches us about our species, if not about language?
Well, that’s a very good question. There’s a debate about nature and nurture that’s dramatized in this chimpanzee’s early life. Can you take a creature that’s hardwired to behave a certain way and inhibit that behavior to allow him to live with us? I think we learn, from this part of the story, that nature will out, and that whatever kind of adjustments they try to make to Nim to change his behavior, it’s very superficial. Nature is a very, very powerful force in this chimpanzee’s life. And probably in our own too.
There’s an interesting quote at the end about how chimps are a forgiving species. Do you think we should be forgiven for what we’ve done to them?
Well, I’m not sure about that. But the idea is offered by the vet, Jim Mahoney [who did medical experiments on chimps for years before becoming an advocate for freeing primates from labs], and I think he would know, as someone who probably needs their forgiveness. I was wary of the idea of ascribing such a complicated mental attribute to a chimpanzee as the idea of forgiveness. But the way I would put it is, he [Nim] does not bear grudges against people.
As you studied the footage of Nim, did you find yourself liking him?
I did. I liked him, but I wouldn't want to meet him as a fully grown chimpanzee on my own. I would be scared of him, and he’d know that, and he would then monster me, or try to hump me, or something.
Before I made the film, I spent a couple days with chimpanzees here and in a place in Louisiana that I knew about, just to be near them. They try to entice you. They’ll put out a stick [through the bars of their cages] and try to invite you over to hang out with them. Of course, I knew by this point that one would never put your hand through a cage, but they’re always trying to get you to do that so they can bite you. Because they’re not really happy in cages. They don’t like it. They spit at you. They throw their shit at you. And can you blame them?
Yeah. It’s like prison.
Absolutely. Nim was treated like a prisoner who’s put in solitary confinement. That’s exactly what happened to him. The story of his life is one of increasing confinement and lack of freedom that gets progressively worse.
Who can blame them for being utterly pissed off about that and throwing their shit at us? I would do the same.
What struck me …
Well, no, I wouldn’t throw my shit at you. I wouldn't be happy to see you, if you came to stare at me in a cage. But I wouldn’t throw my shit at you.
Well, hey, you can’t know until you’ve been there, right?
No, I take that back. I wouldn’t throw my shit at you. Or at anybody else.
Okay, I believe you. What struck me about this story was how it highlighted the arrogance and the ignorance of our species.
The word I’ve always thought of is hubris, which is the attempt to overreach on something that might be honorable, might be noble, might be worth doing. If there’s a sin here, it’s a sin of hubris.
In science, we need people to think big and boldly and imaginatively about the frontiers of knowledge, so I’m glad scientists ask these kinds of questions. But clearly there wasn’t any consideration of the chimp’s well-being. We owned him. We controlled him. And he was a sentient, intelligent creature. The question the film poses is: What responsibility do we have if that’s the relationship we have with him?
We don’t come off only badly, because it doesn't end as badly as it might have done. Ultimately he is behind bars, but there’s an effort to understand what he might need. Jim Mahoney, the vet, actually becomes a heroic figure by providing Nim with chimpanzee companions he can live with and interact with. That’s what he needs. He doesn’t need people, at this point. They’ve let him down.
Written for The L Magazine
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Ironically, this is the last of more than nine years' worth of weekly reviews I wrote for TimeOFF, the entertainment supplement for about a dozen papers in Central Jersey. Last week I got a call I'd been braced for: In the latest of a series of cuts, they'd trimmed the pages down too far to accommodate more than the occasional movie review.
Page One: Inside the New York Times ends with a series of updates on journalists featured in the film. Tim Arango, a young general-interest reporter, becomes head of the Times’ Baghdad bureau six months after his arrival in Iraq. An executive of the Tribune Company resigns after media reporter David Carr’s investigation of that company explains how it brought several great newspapers to their knees. And technology reporter Brian Stelter loses 80 pounds.
That hodgepodge pretty much sums up what’s wrong with this movie—and what it gets right. Listening in on Carr’s phone interviews and consultations with his editor as he develops the Tribune story is thrilling, but director Andrew Rossi has an irritating inability to distinguish between hugely important issues like that one and mere trivia, like Stelter’s weight loss. Worse yet, as the bit about Arango illustrates, Rossi almost always fails to ask the questions any decent journalist would ask. We’re told that Arango is diligent and talented, but we also hear him joke with his colleagues about how the old pros at the Baghdad bureau are bristling at the news of his impending arrival, sure he’ll soon be on TV opining about the situation after just two or three weeks in country. So what are we to make of the news of his promotion? Is it another example of the kind of clubby favoritism that often operates at places like the Times, or is it a bracing example of the recognition and promotion of outstanding talent that helps makes the paper great?
Unfortunately, Rossi never makes room for that kind of introspection. Despite the movie’s title, we don’t get far inside the Times: Aside from a few privileged glimpses of reporters at work, all we see of the paper are some not terribly interesting conversations at the daily editorial confab and a few self-congratulatory speeches.
What’s worse, the film provides almost no insight into the media revolution that has the Times’ knickers in a twist, its editors and writers fretting about how to respond to Wikipedia or whether they need to start Twitter accounts.
As you may have noticed, the paper you’re reading is struggling to survive, and we’re hardly alone. The bad economy isn’t helping, but the main reason most papers are fighting for their lives is the Internet, whose ever-growing gusher of facts and factoids is redefining how we get our news and how we pay for it—or, more often, don’t.
How will this mass migration from print to pixels affect the content and quality of the information we receive? Will anyone pay for real reporting, not to mention the non-factual content provided by people like me? And if the traditional gatekeepers fall, will we find other ways of getting at the truth that are just as effective—perhaps even better, since our current news media are hardly paragons of virtue? Rossi touches on some of these urgent questions but he doesn’t explore any in depth, flitting from issue to issue like a hyperactive five-year-old.
Half video press release and half time capsule, Page One starts and ends with the premise that journalism as we know it and need it cannot survive without the Times. Now and then someone questions that premise, but only so he can be swatted down by a Times loyalist, most often Carr. The perpetually hoarse old warhorse is well cast as the paper’s chief booster. A gifted writer and reporter, he promotes his employer as fiercely as he does himself, riding his redemption story about being a reformed crack addict hard to establish his grizzled hipster cred.
It’s fun, I gotta admit, to watch Carr take down a self-styled citizen journalist from the Vice website who talks about having reported on things the Times missed. (“Just because you put on a f---ing safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you a right to insult what we do,” Carr snarls.) But it would have been more enlightening to have heard more about what Vice does and why its users like it.
We don’t even learn anything about the Times’ own website, long lauded as one of the best in the news business. Rossi was shooting when the paper started charging nonsubscribers for access to its site, so we hear a few references to that decision, but we learn nothing about why they decided to charge what they did or what they hope for or fear as a result.
Instead, we just keep hearing how much the world needs the Times. Didn’t anyone ever tell Rossi that reporters are supposed to show, not tell?
Written for TimeOFF