Friday, December 30, 2005

The Best Picture of the Year is King Kong.

It is good that I saw King Kong in the cinema of my youth.

I was home for Christmas. We couldn’t get out to the Century in Folsom to make the early show, so we went to the Century on Ethan Way, the old century, out by the State Fairgrounds. I grew up about a quarter mile from here. This is the cinema where I saw the Sting seven times—at least once sneaking in by prying open a fire door with a ball point pin. This is the cinema where I dressed up in a stupid costume to get in to see Star Wars for free the weekend it opened, and where it actually played for an entire year. This was the theatre of my youth. Not only that, but King Kong was showing on one of the old screens, in one of the domes, those huge round auditoriums that always made me feel like the movie was beings shown in a planetarium—a total cinema experience.

It is good that I saw King Kong in the theatre of my youth because it was the kind of movie I saw there when I was eight, nine, and ten—or rather, it made me feel the same sense of awe and exhilaration I felt when I first saw Star Wars. This was a movie like movies are supposed to be. Peter Jackson has created a fantastic entertainment—an action pic that doesn’t let you down, an epic that can wrench your heart out, a romance (bestial, to be sure) that is pathetic in the original sense of the word—deeply emotionally moving. Of course he started with a great story (to which he paid homage in a lot of amusing ways—especially using identical titles, much of the same music, and recreating the ridiculous “Kong Dance” for the theatre scene). And we already know how great the effects are that come out of his shop. Considering what they were able to do with Gollum, it’s not surprising how real and believable Kong was, but it still amazed, and his interactions with Anne were…I’m out of superlatives…they were complete; complete in the sense that there was nothing missing. You (I at least) really truly believed that these two characters cared deeply for one another. Not believed in the usual viewing a performance and saying “that was believable” sense, but believed as in I was totally lost in their interaction to the point that, for the moments when they were on the screen, I believed that they were real and I was spying on them. The movie ceased to exist and I came to believe that it was real. That hasn’t happened to me since I was a kid.

And that is why King Kong should win best picture. It probably won’t, and there are a lot of pictures out there that are deserving (this is a great year: has anybody besides me seen Capote? Wow!). But this, like Lord of the Rings before it (currently, probably, my favorite movie, The President’ Analyst not withstanding), and Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jaws, and The Godfather, this movie returned movies to what they should be—jaw dropping, awe inspiring, pure entertainment bordering on a religious experience. It was simply great.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Reports from the left coast

So here I am in Cali. I expect this to be my only post between now and January 11, when I get back to New York. I am having too good a time to think about the media, about spin, about politics and punditry. People who read this blog might think I enjoy all that stuff, and that’s why I write about it. I used to—I used to be a total policy wonk. Now I’m not. Now it gives me headache. Now I mostly write this stuff because I’m mad. Since the conservatives came to power I get incensed at least once a day over their policies, their bullying, their misinformation and their lies.

And here’s the latest: as I predicted, (not a big insight: anybody could have predicted it) the conservative press has gone after *Brokeback Mountain*. One critic even noted that, because it is such a good movie technically by such a good director, it is more important to challenge it’s social themes because it does a better job of “promoting homosexuality” then a bad film would. That was one of the more reasoned criticisms. Others called it boring, disgusting, etc.: all the adjectives you would expect.

Where do these people get off? Their stated and acknowledged purpose is to eliminate from American culture the things that I enjoy. They want to force me to conform to their world view. As a movie goer they want to restrict the types of films I can watch. As a filmmaker they want to censor me, to prevent me from writing the scripts I want to write or to direct the films I want to direct.

I know they think I want to do the same to them, to force them to conform to my world view, but I don’t. I have a live and let live attitude. They are free to worship in anyway they want. But I should be free to say anything I want. They want to restrict me while I really do not want to restrict them. I mean, what’s it to them if Ang Lee makes a movie about gay cowboys? What’s it to them if some people like it? If some people feel affirmed by it? They act as though it is a big conspiracy to destroy their way of life, when in fact they are actively, blatantly, trying to destroy mine.

How dare they?

I know, I am sounding like a broken record. I’ll shut up now.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spin Cycle

I tend to go against the grain with Bush Bashers. I don't think he's stupid. I think he is really very smart, committed, and effective at getting what he wants for his constituents. The problem is that his constituents--the Christian Right and big Business, especially the Oil Industry--represent a very negative side of the American electorate, and I believe do far more harm then good to America and to the world. 9/11 gave both of them an opportunity to re-write the rules in their favor, creating a pro-busines, pro-God, Chrisitan America: an America which I find opressive and antitheical to the principals of liberty and freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

I only bring this up because the George Bush who has emerged over the last few weeks demonstrates that I am right. He is now a changed president, a frankly more presidential president, and it's very effective. Once his poll numbers hit 35%, and he suffered a string of setbacks and a newly emboldened opposition, he switched into campaign mode, and this guy is nothing if not a great campaigner. His speech last night didn't sway me, not one bit, but the arrogant idiot most liberals see when they look at Bush was nowhere to be seen. He was humble and direct. He acknowledged criticisms agaisnt his policies and actually attempted to build arguments against them. He looked like the comander in chief, not like some dumb frat boy who had faked his way into the studio in a suit that didn't fit him. He was presidential.

I'm remind by all of this of a great episode of the West Wing, one in which the president's press secretary engineers a coup of sorts as the president is being investigated. She aranges to have the special prosecutor, who is more or less fair minded and friendly with the Whitehouse counsel to be replaced by a pit bull who will come after tem with guns blazing, because she believes it will be better political theatre if they are seen to be fighting an unfair and overzealous partizan prosecutore then simply taking their lumps for something they did wrong. Oliver Platt, as the Whitehouse Chief Counsel, says to her (something like) "just becuase this whitehouse is most comfortable when their in a nasty political dogfight doesn't make it a good idea." I'm not saying that Karl Rove engineered the current dissent, but I am saying that the Bush people are much more comfortable campaigning then they are governing. They are better at it too. Did you see the way he came out swinging over his secret inteligence program durring the press conference this morning (and hte fact that he's taking real questions is, in itself, a big deal)? It was something. Of course his poll numbers will get a bounce. they have little room to fall, after all. but what's interesting to me is how much better he looks now then at any time since last January. Scary, really, because if he manages to hang on to the patriot act and the secret unwarrented wire taps, he will be proving himself to be the fascist we've all believed him to be. No, I'm not being hyperbolic. I didn't say he was Hitler. I said he is a fascist, and I believe that he is. His attempts to concentrate and expand the power of the executive combined with his flag waving, State centered governmment and quashing of dissent, mark him as such. There were other fascists besides Hitler: Franco, Mussilini, Peron; and Bush fits in well with them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The War on Me

Hola, Amigos!

I am going to be annoying and continue to harp on this War on Me the Christians are waging. I call it a War on Me because I am thin skinned and take everything personally. Ever since the Christians bussed in protestors to New York City to try to shut down Terrance McNally’s Corpus Christi, I’ve taken this culture war personally. That is because I personally went out to the barricades to march in support of McNally’s freedom of speech, and I experienced the bigotry and hatred of the Christian Right first hand.

In discussing The Chronicles of Narnia with my Media Studies class this week, I asked them if they thought Hollywood was hostile toward Christians. After all, the Christians are always claiming so. In an article in the Times on the rising influence of Christians producers in Hollywood—primarily Walden Films and Icon aka Phil Anschutz and Mel Gibson—one Christian was quoted as saying he suspected that liberals feared “that we will be as hostile and unfair as they have been.” (I’m paraphrasing—I threw that issue out). Personally, I have never thought Hollywood was openly hostile to Christians, or even discretely hostile to Christians. Obviously a lot of films are offensive to Christians, but only in the Christians’ world does this equal hostility. Conservative Christians genuinely believe that representations of sex, violence, homosexuality, or liberal thinking are sinful and therefore come from the devil and are therefore hostile to Christianity. But those of us who don’t agree with them should not be shackled by their orthodoxy.

After a lot of discussion my students came to the conclusion that Hollywood is not hostile to Christians but that Christians are definitely hostile to Hollywood—and to the Arts in general, and to academia. They came up with numerous examples, from the Fatty Arbuckle fiasco, to the Hayes office and the production code, to the “Jew baiting” of Hollywood producers in the 30s, to the NEA Four, to campaigns against the Harry Potter movies as being “Satanic,” in which Christian orthodoxy was employed in attempts to confine and control film, television and theatre. It is as bad now, I think, as it was in the late twenties when the Hayes Office was founded, because the new Right, drunk with power, is trying to turn back the clock to the days of the Production Code and steamroll any and all opposition.

Here’s my prediction. When Brokeback Mountain is nominated for the best Picture Oscar (which it will be) and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not (which it won’t be), conservatives on TV and Christian groups all over the country will go ballistic and complain that Hollywood is a cesspool and the Oscars are hostile toward Christians. They did it last year when Million dollar Baby and Sideways were nominated but The Passion wasn’t. This year will be worse. Just watch.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The War on Christmas

I don’t understand Christians sometimes. Now, I’m not saying I don’t understand the Christian religion. That one I got down. What I don’t get is this sense of persecution conservative Christians feel. Like this war on Christmas which is supposed to be going on in America. First of all, as far as I can tell, it’s only going on Fox Network News. All around me I see signs that say “Merry Christmas,” I see trees and plastic singing Santas and even crosses and angels and nativity scenes. Where is this oppressed minority of Christians? 80 % of Americans are Christian. How oppressed can they be?

Christians need to be Martyrs. That’s all I can figure out.

The cynic in me sees this as yet another conservative bit of slight of hand, another non-story to distract us from the real stories that make Christian Conservatives and their republican allies uncomfortable. But I’m paranoid.

Along with this Christmas brouhaha, I see Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s official censor for, what, forty years, got called on the carpet by congress this week in yet another ridiculous set of hearings on sex and violence on film.

Let’s get this out in the open: I am an absolutist when it comes to free speech, and the censors in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, both infuriate and scare the pants off of me.

But this is more then that. Like I said yesterday these hearings seem to me just a big smoke screen. Let’s pretend we are actually doing something by saving Christmas from those evil secularists, let’s save baseball from drugs, lets save our children from those sex-mongers in Hollywood, let’s save college football from ABC (ok, that might not be a bad idea). Like anyone is actually going to stand up AGAINST children, baseball, football, and Christmas. These are stupid arguments because the threat is made up. Meanwhile the 9/11 commission issues a report this week giving the administration failing grades on making the US safer from terrorism. America is still vulnerable and Congress is going after juiced ball players.

But back to my Christian brethren. Those who think that because Kmart markets to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Satanists, Pagans, Sikhs, Agnostics and Atheists as well as Christians that they somehow want to throw them to the lions. Get real.

Christians think ANYTHING that does not adhere to their orthodoxy, anything that smacks of sex, anything that smacks of secularism, anything they disagree with is from the devil, and needs to be shouted down, tarred and feathered, and either run out of town or burned at the stake like the heretics back during the inquisition. Go ahead and tell me Pat Robertson doesn’t envy the freedom to deal with troublemakers that Torquemada once had. You see, I know that they would gladly put me on that stake given half a chance. Me and everyone else who believes in freedom of speech.

Or freedom of religion.

Because, you see, in the guise of expressing their religious freedom they are shoving their religion down the throats of people who don’t want it. There’s not a war on Christmas going on in this country, but sometimes I think that there is a war against freedom, and it’s being waged by the conservative Christian right.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I want to say a couple of things…..

It’s really depressing to be a San Francisco Giants fan during the winter meetings. We never get *anything* for Christmas! Please! Santa! Send us some pitching!!!

That being said, I think the Giants are going to win the World Series next year. Why, you ask? Because the Red Socks won last year and the White Socks won this year. We are the last cursed team left: the last former powerhouse to do something heinous and not win since. Well, some people think the Cubs are cursed, since they won the first world series and haven’t won since, but I’m not so sure they are cursed as simply in love with failure.

I’ve said often on this site that the various Law and Order TV shows are among the most conservative shows on TV. Even the title says so—law and order being conservative issues (and the ones that got Ronald Regan elected). But I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t mention that they have taken a solid stance against the war in Iraq. On this week’s Law and Order: Criminal intent, for example, the story revolved around a psychiatrist who had helped to torture inmates at Guantanamo Bay. It wasn’t as strident as say, Boston Legal, but it was still pretty damning. For the sake of consistency, I thought I should point it out. It’s still one of the most conservative shows on TV overall, but it has given the opponents of the media yet more ammunition.

Somebody recently called Dick Cheney “the Velcro Veep.” I kind of like it.

If a free and independent press is the faoundation of a healthy democracy, what are we to make of a Presidential administration that is openly contemptuous of the press, rarely stages presidential press conferences, and pays reporters for positive press coverage, a president who refuses to read the papers, and a staff that routinely intimidates the fourth estate? One Whitehouse staffer told a reporter that it didn’t matter what the press wrote because the Whitehouse creates its own reality. We all know that the first thing a tyrant does is seize the TV and radio stations. What do we make of an administration that manipulates the press through a spin campaign so blatant it can only be analyzed in Orwellian terms? Can democracy flourish under this administration, with its allies in the conservative press and on the Christian right?

Or do we even care?

Just asking.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

BCS Bull

Yesterday Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce sub-committee, announced that he would hold hearings looking into the “deeply flawed” bowl championship series.

Right. It’s not like there’s a war going on or anything.

I’m on record as saying that I think the BCS was a mistake, not because a playoff would be better, but because I don’t really care about a national championship. All the BCS managed to do was increase the pressure for a playoff system, and a playoff would be terrible for college football. The bowl system is better then any playoff could be. Currently there are twenty seven bowl games in the post season. That means that fifty two teams get to play a post-season game on national television over the holidays, between the New Orleans Bowl on December 20th and the rose Bowl on January 3rd. Fifty two schools will get bowl money that help them support not only their football programs but all athletic programs at their schools. It is a well known fact that it is football money—much of it bowl money—that pays for wrestling, swimming, and volleyball throughout the country. Over five thousand student athletes (assuming approximately 100 players per squad) will travel to a bowl game. Not only that, but 27 schools will finish the year with a victory. That is much better for athletes and students, for school pride, for recruiting and for the financial well being of our institutions of higher learning then to have one team end the year with a victory and be able to claim the mantle of national champion. A playoff would—no matter what people say about matching it to the bowl system—fundamentally alter college football and college athletics. Let’s assume they add five bowls, expanding to thirty two, with sixty four teams getting into the tournament. That means you would need a six round playoff to determine the national championship. That’s adding six weeks to the football schedule. This year, if you began on the weekend of the 17th of December, you would finish on the 21st of January. Teams would end up playing right through finals (colleges on the semester system begin finals right around the seventeenth, colleges on the quarter system will have finals in January). Now all the games happen over the winter break. Student athletes and student fans are able to participate without sacrificing their schooling. Mind you, this is not, to my mind, the best argument against a playoff. The best argument against a playoff is that having an undisputed national champion is football really doesn’t mean anything. Who really cares? I’ve been a college football fan my whole life, and I don’t care. Hell, I think it’s better for football to have the controversy. It builds buzz around the game. The more I think about it the more I come to believe that the only group of people that would benefit from a playoff would be ABC and ESPN, as they would broadcast most of the games (they already have the BCS and all but two of the bowl games right now—FOX has the Cotton Bowl and NBC Gator Bowl, the two biggest non-BCS bowl games). Why, I ask you, should we harm student in order so that the Walt Disney Corporation, the parent company of ABC and ESPN, can increase their profits?

But this is about more then the bowl series. This is about spin doctoring at its best. Why on earth would congress want to regulate college football? Ok: it can be considered interstate commerce in a weird sort of way, but only if you look at colleges as businesses and not as institutions of learning (I do not believe any of the colleges that play NCAA division 1-A football are for-profit corporations). Why is congress meddling in the BCS? The reason is simple. Like steroids, the BCS is a nice, juicy target that will earn a lot of press for the chairman while distracting people from the real problems in the world. As long as BCS and Steroid hearings are getting all the attention from the liberal press, then congressional scandals, senatorial scandals, Whitehouse scandals, the president’s low approval ratings, oil prices, and God forbid the war, will not be the focus of the evening news. It makes Congress look like they are tough on evil doers, so long as those evil doers are people who play games that we all watch but which really don’t matter. There is nothing substantive about going after either athletes or the BCS. It has nothing to do with the duties of congress, especially in times like this. It is all about playing for the cameras. That’s it. It is cynical and disgusting. Congress has more important things to do. So Congressman Barton, stop wasting our time.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Pop Culture TV

Right now I’m listening to Roger Daltry sing “Behind Blue Eyes,” one of the saddest songs ever written. He’s being accompanied by the Chieftains. It is easily my favorite version of the song, and I am a big Who fan. I’ve got a recording of it on a Chieftain’s album, but this one is from a T.V. special from 1994 called “Daltry sings Townshend,” (also called “Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and the Who”). It’s got a great bridge duet between John Entwistle and Kevin Conneff. Awesome. The show also has Lou Reed, Sinead O’Connor, and Michael Kaman conducting the Julliard orchestra. The music is, well, it’s Who music, meaning it’s the best damn rock and roll on the planet. Greg Koski, an amazing actor I went to school with, once said “they pack more energy into three minutes then most people manage to put into a lifetime.” The show was shot in 1994 at Carnegie Hall, and it’s weird to watch knowing that Darek Bell, Michael Kaman and John Entwistle are all now dead. Yeah, I know, everybody is The Wizard of Oz is dead too and they still show that every year, but this is different. Most of the cast of Wizard of Oz died along time ago.

The show is being broadcast on Trio. I am a fan of Trio as well. Subtitled “Pop Culture TV,” Trio has the most consistently interesting programming on cable. Yes, HBO has by far the best shows over all, and USA and FX run the best shows that are interrupted by commercials, but Trio is just fascinating. They have a series called “Brilliant but Cancelled,” in which they show T.V. series that are just that. A lot of it comes from England. No surprise: England is the homeland of cutting edge pop these days, as it was in the Austin Powers 60s. The other day I saw a British broadcast of a public autopsy: brilliant, but disgusting. Tonight they are showing the brilliant but cancelled “Parenthood” with David Arquet, Ed beagly Jr. and Leo Dicaprio, and a Bob Marley concert. They show better theatre broadcasts then Ovation or even PBS—today it was Three Sisters with Sir Lawrence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Alan Bates. A while back I saw Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros. Seriously, if you never have, watch it. You will be mesmerized. It is everything that T.V. should be, and it proves what I’ve been telling my media studies students for years. We are living in the Golden Age of Television right now.