Belshazzar’s Feast: The Retrospect

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On February 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have finally succumbed to its long, slow, self-inflicted descent into irrelevance. The fiasco of the final award provided the only talking point of the evening, and it was a disaster.

Let’s talk about the fiasco first, as though it hasn’t been talked about enough: the final award of the night, Best Picture, was to be presented by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. (Really? Sixty years? Sigh.) Emma Stone had just been awarded the Oscar for Leading Actress. Warren Beatty opened the envelope, but instead of holding the result for Best Picture, it held the duplicate Leading Actress card. Evidently they provide a set of cards on both sides of the stage, in case the presenters enter from the wrong side, and Beatty had been given the unused envelope from the previous award. Confused, he didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie without realizing that it was the wrong award. (Who can blame them? They’re both so over the hill, I’m surprised they could read the cards at all.)

What a disaster for everyone concerned — except, perhaps, for ABC and the producers of the show. Clips of the mixup have been shown all day. Sadly for the actual winners, the story has focused entirely on Jordan Horowitz ("What a good sport he is!"), Warren Beatty ("Not my fault!"), and Jimmy Kimmel ("Not mine either!"), who all grabbed the microphone while the hapless producers of Moonlight stood behind the thunderstruck celebrants of La La Land, waiting for their opportunity to make their speeches. And repeatedly, the news clips about the fiasco end before the actual winners come on stage. What a mess.

Confused, Beatty didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie.

If I were more cynical, I might think that the producers borrowed a page from the free advertising the Miss Universe pageant received after Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in 2015. Certainly the fiasco kept the drab awards show, whose Nielsen ratings have steadily declined for the past nine years, in the news all day. Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become. Moonlight might be a wonderful movie (I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t been able to see it), but best picture of the year? Why would they choose a film whose global box office was a mere $22 million? Compare that to $184 million for the wonderful Hidden Figures and $340 million for La La Land! Not that box office receipts should be the major consideration in determining best picture, lest superhero movies take over the awards, but come on — at least choose a film that people outside of the Academy voters have seen!

And it isn’t just the Best Picture honor that was out of touch. Let’s look at all of the top awards. Best actor went to Casey Affleck for the taut, understated performance of a man traumatized by a family tragedy in Manchester by the Sea. The film’s pacing is so slow, and the traumatizing moment so far into the film, that I actually walked out in boredom the first time I saw it. (See my review.) Yes, Affleck’s performance is a fine study in character control, and the reveal is deeply emotional. But better than Andrew Garfield’s Herculean effort in Hacksaw Ridge? Or Ryan Gosling’s two years of preparation to play a jazz pianist in La La Land? I don’t think so.

Best Actress went to the perky, effervescent Emma Stone, who essentially played herself in La La Land, and didn’t even bother to learn how to dance convincingly — for a tribute to dance musicals! (See my review.) This award belonged to Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. A lesser talent would have turned Jenkins into a pathetic clown, but Streep imbued the character with such convincing joie de vivre that we fully believe that she could be so beloved by her friends and her husband. (My review.) To be perfectly honest, I think the award belonged to Amy Adams, who wasn’t even nominated. As the linguistics professor who had to communicate with alien life forms through eye contact and body language alone in Arrival, she was superb. How does the Academy justify awarding Casey Affleck for his understated performance in Manchester, and not even recognizing Adams with a nomination?

Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become.

And then there’s the Supporting Actress Award. Viola Davis has been getting heat for saying in her acceptance speech, “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Extremis don’t consider every day what it means to live a life? Teachers in underserved school districts don’t know what it means to live a life?

I could go on, but I have another bone to pick with Ms. Davis: what was she doing in the Supporting Actress category? Rose is the only female character in Fences. (The other woman, Alberta, remains offstage throughout the play.) She is strong, confident, and self-assured. Troy (Denzel Washington) is the main character, but Rose stands beside him in their marriage, not behind him and certainly not in a subordinate role. She dominates Act 2. To present her in the Supporting Actress category is not only unfair to the genuine supporting actresses of the season, it is an affront to the character herself.

The producers of Fences aren’t the first to play this category con-game; several films have downgraded their leading actors or actresses in order to strengthen their chance of winning. The most egregious, in my opinion, was the decision to submit Javier Bardem in the Best Supporting Actor for his powerful, dominating, leading role in No Country for Old Men (2007). The ploy worked for him too, and he won his Oscar. But it came at the expense of Hal Holbrook’s tender, heart wrenching role as Ron Franz, the lonely man who befriends Chris McCandless in Into the Wild (see pp. 47–49). It was a small scene, but I’ve never forgotten it. That’s what the supporting category was designed for — an opportunity to reward actors who turn small parts into deeply memorable experiences.

Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families don’t consider every day what it means to live a life?

I have no opinion about Mahershala Ali’s Supporting Actor as Juan in Moonlight. That’s because, as I mentioned, I was never able to see it. The film was released briefly in a few select theaters in late 2016, long enough to qualify for Oscar consideration. Then it came back to a few theaters in February, after it had been nominated for Best Picture. I went to my local theater that Wednesday to see it, but it had already been knocked off the marquee by multiple screenings of 50 Shades Darker — it was Valentines week, after all. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges gave the performance of a lifetime as Sheriff Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water. Here’s what I wrote about him in my review:

Marcus is an old-fashioned ‘man’s man’ who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Damien Chazelle’s award for Best Director (La La Land) was a deserving choice, although I was rooting for Mel Gibson to win Best Director for the brilliant Hacksaw Ridge. But considering how Hollywood has ostracized him, it was truly an honor for him just to be nominated. Hacksaw’s award for sound editing was well deserved.

In sum, the 89-year-old Oscars have become whiny, pedantic, self-important, and out of touch with their audience. The Golden Globes have nudged them nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

A concluding note:

The Oscar Shorts (Animated, Narrative, and Documentary) are the most overlooked category in film, since few people have the chance to see them. But I must comment on this year’s short narrative winner, Sing, because I think it says a lot about what’s wrong in Hollywood, and what’s wrong in America. A little girl joins her school’s choir because she loves music and loves to sing. The principal is proud of his choir, and has a policy that anyone who wants to participate is allowed to join. It’s a competitive choir, however, and the teacher wants to win. She takes the girl aside after class and tells her that she can be part of the choir, but she cannot sing out until her voice is stronger. The girl is, of course, devastated. She loves to sing. It turns out that several of the children are only miming, and when the stronger singers find out, they stand up for their friends and refuse to sing at all unless all of them are allowed to sing out. We’re supposed to applaud this show of unity, and in the theater where I saw the shorts, many in the audience did.

The Golden Globes have nudged The Oscars nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

But let’s think about this. Would members of the varsity basketball team have the same attitude about letting everyone play? Or do they expect players to earn their way onto the varsity team? Would the school’s choir continue to win the state awards of which they are so proud of mediocre singers are allowed to be part of the competition choir? More to the point — would the singers enjoy singing if half their group was off-key? As a choir singer myself, I can tell you that it is painful to sing next to someone who is off-key. And it’s painful to be in the audience as well. The teacher made the best of a difficult situation: required by the principal to accept all applicants, she gently told the weaker students to hold their voices back until their skills had improved.




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Advance Notice

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With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.

It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.

The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.

For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?

Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.

Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).

Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.

Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.

Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.

Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.

The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.

William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.

Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.

One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”

Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.

Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.

Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.

How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.

Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.

The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.

This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.

Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)

Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.

Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.

Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.

Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.

Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.

I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.




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Vox Populi

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At almost every really snazzy party I’ve been allowed to attend during the past few years, the conversation lagged until one among the elegant guests brought up American Idol — the TV show on which people compete by displaying the “skill” of shrieking in falsetto voices and manifesting faux emotions. As soon as that subject was introduced, everyone became enthusiastic. At last, they had something to share. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for one or another of the contestants, although there was general agreement that all of them were wonderful and deserved the highest praise. This was enough to dash any illusions I might have harbored about the cultural level of the wealthy and powerful.

Imagine my horror when I found that someone named Clay Aiken was running for Congress and attracting attention, for no other reason than the fact that he had been a contestant on American Idol. What next, I thought — Hillary Clinton running for president?

On May 13, the electorate of North Carolina — working folks, mostly, not members of the mentally idle rich — laid my fears to rest. At least my fears about Clay Aiken. The media, ever zealous for the cause of Democrats, heralded his victory in the Democratic primary. What many stories didn’t mention was that he won by a mere 400 votes, beating a man who had died the day before.

Aiken may not get elected.

In fact, he will not get elected. His Republican opponent, now running for a third term, got 56% of the November vote last time. Even if she dies of campaign injuries, she’ll stand a very good chance of beating him.

As for Hillary — even if the Republicans nominate a dead man, which they probably will, chances are she’ll get beat.




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Suffering from PODADS (Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome)?

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Downton Abbey is one of the most widely watched and highly acclaimed television series ever broadcast, anywhere in the world. It is set in north Yorkshire, and the story concerns the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their servants, who are seen against a backdrop of the economic, political, and social changes from 1912 through the 1920s.

Since the series was written for independent TV by staunch Thatcherite (and Oscar winner) Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it is no coincidence that Lord Grantham bears the name of Lady T’s birthplace to the south in Lincolnshire. I recall Julian striding down the aisle, west to east, in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the day of Lady T’s funeral. He certainly looked the part!

In real life Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, southwest of London, where all the exterior and most of the interior scenes are filmed. It is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, friends of Fellowes, and there are many parallels between the estate management issues faced by today’s Carnarvons and yesterday’s Granthams. There are also strong parallels on the marriage front, with a propensity for people in both families to marry loaded American women to keep the estate going. (Also of note is the role of the Carnarvon family in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, led by the fourth earl, the great-great-grandfather of the present, eighth earl.)

Fans of the series have been descending on Highclere Castle in large numbers. It is open to the public on certain days, at advertised times. These arrangements are not prompted mainly by a desire to make money, much as that is welcome to fix leaky roofs. Rather, as the seventh earl told me on a visit in 1993, it was advisable for people such as him to open their estates to the public for inheritance tax purposes. Under UK law all these vast places have a huge incentive to open for a minimum of days — 90 comes to mind — because on the death of the owner the act of opening to the public for at least this minimum removes the property from the inheritance tax calculation. Tax avoidance, not tax evasion.

The number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee.

Such is the popularity of Downton Abbey that as an Englishman resident in Florida I cannot open my mouth in front of strangers without being greeted with questions about the program or comments such as “you sound just like you stepped off the set of Downton Abbey!” With the ending of the latest (and reputedly penultimate) series, a new question has arisen: “Oh John, what can we watch now, to get over Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome?”

Here are six other series that should hold you over until Downton Abbey returns. After listing them, I will return with a discussion of private versus public funding of such UK programs as come to PBS.

  1. Upstairs, Downstairs

    Made for independent TV (not the taxpayer funded BBC), its 68 episodes were broadcast from 1971 through 1975 and cover the years 1903 through 1930. The setting is a grand London townhouse — 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, close to Lady T’s home in her final two decades. “Downstairs” work the servants, while the family lives, dines, and entertains “Upstairs,” much as in Downton Abbey. And again as in Downton Abbey, current events, from the grand to the less grand, permeate the plot.

    Such is the closeness of the respective story lines that at Wikipedia the first entry for “See Also” under Downton Abbey is Upstairs, Downstairs, and vice versa.

    Most of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed in color, but be aware that the early episodes are in black and white, because of a strike by cameramen operating the then new technology — a reminder of labor relations pre-Thatcher.
     
  2. The Forsyte Saga

    Based on novels by Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy, the Saga covers 1906 through 1921. It was first made in black and white by the BBC (26 episodes, 1967) and then remade by the independent sector in color (13 episodes, 2002–2003). The plot is strong, but there is less of political economy and more of social change, as the Forsytes, unlike the Crawleys, are new to wealth.
     
  3. Cranford

    Made by the BBC, Cranford is based on the eponymous 1851 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and related works. The original five episodes were broadcast in 2007, with two more episodes in 2009 that were marketed as Return to Cranford. Judi Dench stars throughout as Miss Matty, one of a group, mostly composed of spinsters and widows, who observe life in a small Cheshire town some 12 miles from the big city of Manchester. Weak on plot, it is really a series of vignettes, albeit quite well done. In later episodes, however, the effects of the expansion of the railroad system and the struggles of the local landowning family resonate in an interesting way.
     
  4. Lark Rise to Candleford

    Again made by the taxpayer-funded BBC, four series of this intelligent soap were broadcast between 2008 and 2011. Here the social contrasts lie between the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and the wealthier small town of Candleford. Set in the late 1890s, the 40 episodes are a bit light on the news and issues of the day but do examine the liberal tendencies of the hamlet versus the more Tory proclivities of the townies. One later episode includes extensive discussion of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, while another deals with the spread of the railroad. Those of you who so admired Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have a treat in store as he appears as the stonemason Mr. Timmins, de facto leader of Lark Rise.
     
  5. Foyle’s War

    This independent production leaps us forward to World War II and the southern coastal town of Hastings, where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is faced with crimes generated by wartime rules, restrictions, and regulations. The twenty-plus episodes approach 100 minutes each. While they can be viewed out of order, there are connecting story lines.

    The research behind each episode is awesome, and the series does move noticeably from one focused on crimes against a backdrop of wartime order to a wartime order with crime. The setting in Hastings helps hugely, as the first few miles inland from the coast were subject to even more draconian state intervention than truly inland areas. You may recognize Michael Kitchen who plays Foyle as Bill Tanner from Bond movies.
     
  6. Doc Martin

    Made by independent TV, some six series of over 40 episodes have been broadcast to date, with a seventh and final series promised.

    In a series set in present-day West Country, UK, Doc Martin is a top London surgeon who opts for the life of a small coastal port’s only family doctor. Tensions emerge along with a strong love line. Little is made of the fact that all his patients come through socialized medicine, and the portrayal of the NHS is extremely gentle. The horrendous backlogs and delays of the NHS are simply ignored. However, the overall effect is addictive.

I have been careful to note who funded, made, or broadcast each of the seven series. You will have noticed the mix of private and the taxpayer funded BBC. So what? I hear you ask. (Also I am vague at times on exact episode numbers, as they vary from country to country. A Christmas special in the UK for example often becomes two episodes in the US.)

Well, the BBC is not funded out of general tax revenues; it is funded by a license fee. If you buy a TV you have to buy a license (say $200-$250 per annum), and you have to renew it every year or eventually face prison time. The state even employs a special police force equipped with license evasion radar detection vans to hunt down folk who have not paid. Parliament fixes the level of the fee every few years, and the total revenue raised goes in a block grant to fund the Beeb, as it is called, or the Big Bunch of Communists chez moi. I promise I am not joking here at all.

To keep the MPs and Lords in Parliament happy, the BBC maintains a huge lobbying effort within a 3-iron of the Palace of Westminster. Its office is on the very same block as the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, where I served as CEO for 17 years, as in 1993–2009.

The private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Soon after moving to the IEA I discovered the following astonishing fact: the number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee. Of course it was not billed as nonpayment of the BBC fee. Rather a household would not have the money to pay; they would evade and they’d be caught and ordered to pay; they’d fail and the lady of the household would do the time for something dressed up as failure to obey a court order. It just happened that by far the greatest number of such orders were BBC-related.

I was just appalled by this. The then-boss of the BBC was called Greg Dyke, and his Parliamentary henchman was my friend Michael Hastings.

For several years I would look for them on the street or at receptions and the like. I used to get right in their faces: “Hi Greg. Hi Michael. How many decent working-class ladies got imprisoned today because of you?” I was relentless. And the numbers dropped from the hundreds to something like ten — still disgusting but an improvement.

So how does this story of the funding of the BBC link back to my list of Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome Antidotes?

A key argument for taxpayer funding of the BBC is that the private sector is bound to sink to the lowest common denominator, while a release from commercial considerations is vital to produce the great period dramas with their fantastic wardrobes and glorious settings for which the BBC is supposedly world famous.

Downton Abbey clearly blows this argument to Mars and back.

And when you look at my antidotes, my list of six picked (I promise) with no reference to funding source, the private sector clearly trumps the public.

The evidence is clear, the jury is in, and the foreman is addressing the judge: Your Honor, we the jury find the private sector innocent of dumbing down. Indeed we find that the private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Note: Immediately following my submission of this article, The Daily Telegraph of London published a report by Christopher Hope (March 21, 2014) under the headline “Not paying TV licence set to be decriminalised.” A group of 140 British MPs has won the support of the government for this change. It will, however, entail a year-long review and will form part of the negotiations that will take place ahead of the BBC Charter renewal due in 2017.


Editor's Note: Mr. Blundell thanks Mrs. Rashmi Ferris of Tampa, FL for prompting this article.



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Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

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Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.

Best Picture

American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.

Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.

The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.

Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.

Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.

Best Director

Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.

Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.

Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.

Best Actor

My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)

Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.

All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.

Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.

Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.

But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.

Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.

Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.

Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.

Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.

So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.

rsquo;s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in




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Restoring a Lost Art

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Most contemporary filmgoers do not well understand — much less appreciate — that early, unique cinematic art form known as the silent movie or silent film. The silent era in cinema lasted roughly from the mid-1890s to the early 1930s. It created thousands of films. It created the film industry, both in America and worldwide. That era is the focus of a fine little art flick called The Artist,playing now at selected locations.

Silent films were made, not because filmmakers didn’t want to incorporate sound (dialogue, music, and sound effects) into their productions, but simply because of the formidable technological challenge of coordinating (“synchronizing”) the sound to the rapidly moving frames. So while the first primitive moving pictures appeared in the late 1870s, and the first narrative film in 1888, and movies were popular throughout the industrialized world from the late 1890s on, sound took a generation more to develop.

The first attempt to create sound pictures began at the Edison Company in 1896, but really viable film-sound technology only emerged during the period from 1921 to 1929. (To be precise, there were a number of competing sound technologies during this time.) The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first movie that included sound and was a commercial success, but most movies in 1928 and 1929 were still silent. Only in the early 1930s did silent films essentially disappear. A few movies were specifically made as silent films by the artistic choice of the producers. Especially notable was the choice of Charlie Chaplin to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) as silent flicks.

The earnings of the top silent films show how popular they could be, despite their limitations. My figures may be a little off — I had to convert early-20th-century dollar earnings into 2011 dollars — but the top ten American silent films earned big dollars. The top grossing silent movie was The Birth of a Nation (1915)at $217 million, followed by $81 million for The Big Parade (1925), $70 million for Ben-Hur (1925), $58 million for Way Down East (1920), $54 million for The Gold Rush (1925), $49 million for The Covered Wagon (1923), $48 million for The Circus (1928), $45 million for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), $45 million for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and $44 million for The Ten Commandments (1923).

Playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.

These are very impressive gross earnings, especially when you remember that the nation had a much smaller population back then — about 100 million in 1915 and maybe 120 million in 1928, which is only about 30% to 40% of our present population. The nation was also much poorer. The average household had dramatically less money for entertainment than today’s household. Finally, the distribution channel was much smaller, with many rural communities not having any theaters at all.

Despite the accomplishments, artistic as well as commercial, of the silent era, it is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate them. The reasons arise from the nature of the medium.

Begin with acting. Obviously, silent movies had to convey their stories by pantomime. True, the pantomime was aided by “title cards” (also called “intertitles,” key lines of dialogue or commentary about the action, printed out on screen) and typically a musical score. The score was played on piano, organ, or (in larger setttings) a pit orchestra. At the peak of their popularity, silent film theaters were the largest source of employment for instrumental musicians.

But music — while a vital tool in conveying tone and enhancing emotion — can’t supply much if any narrative detail. Indeed, to try to do so — as did some early scores, by, say, using an ascending scale to mirror a movie character's ascending a stair — is apt to create a cartoonish effect. And the title cards were inherently limited. If producers had tried to put any appreciable amount of dialog text on screen, the audience would have spent most of the evening reading.

So pantomime bore the brunt of conveying the narrative. And in many cases (early on, at least), directors encouraged actors to accentuate their gestures, facial expressions, and other body language in the hope of amplifying communication. Unfortunately, this led to a kind of acting that strikes modern viewers as “mugging,” and at best a kind of campy comedy. There was a gem of a TV comedy series that played in 1963–64 that exploited the hamminess of some of the silent films: Fractured Flickers, produced by Jay Scott and hosted by Hans Conried. The series would take classic silent films and do funny voiceovers.

But it is fair to observe that the movie-going public in the silent era increasingly preferred more naturalistic acting, and major actors such as Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Sessue Hayakawa, and Mary Pickford accommodated their work to a more restrained style. Still, silent film acting does take some time to get used to.

Another problem is that during the silent era, film shooting and projection speeds were not standardized. Projection speed became so only early in the sound era. Silent films were shot at speeds (“frame rates”) ranging from 12 to 26 frames per second (fps), depending on the country or even studio of origin. Complicating things even further is the practice of some directors who consciously intended their films to be projected at variable speeds and gave instructions to projectionists accordingly. (They did this because playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.) Also, projecting cellulose nitrate film (the standard medium of the silent era) too slowly dramatically increased the risk of fire.

As a consequence, when early TV showed silent movies, they were often played at incorrect speeds. Add to this the fact that the films were by then often severely deteriorated, and the unintended consequence was to make audiences simply dismiss as inferior an artistic medium that was in fact quite powerful.

Film directors, critics, and historians long have tried to combat that sorry consequence. Many university film departments worldwide have worked to preserve and restore silent films, and the Turner Classic Movie channel shows some of the best of them.

Moreover, directors throughout the sound era have occasionally produced homages to the silent era. Need I mention the great film Sunset Boulevard, in which actual silent era movie star Gloria Swanson plays fictional movie star Norma Desmond, a woman unable to come to grips with her eclipse by talking pictures? Or perhaps the greatest of musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, which was based on the transition of cinema from the silent to the sound era?

It is in light of all these factors that we should consider the film under review. The Artist is a joint French-American production, and it is a well-written comedy-drama. It is mainly silent, though sound enters toward the end. It is therefore reminiscent of some 1940s films — such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Picture of Dorian Gray — that were shot in black and white, but shifted to color to accentuate an effect; and the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, in which the scenes that take place in presumably dull, real-life rural Kansas are done in black and white, while the scenes that happen in the magical, imaginary world of Oz are shot in color.

Some silent film stars were disdainful of the talkies’ new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old.

The protagonist of The Artist is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular “leading man” in silent films. We see clips of his (fictional) movies, in which he comes across as a combination of Rudolf Valentino (hence his name) and a Douglas Fairbanks type of screen action hero. While he is meeting the press after the screening of his new movie, a very beautiful young admirer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) literally bumps into him. She is photographed with him and winds up on the front page of Variety with the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”

A short time later, George runs into Peppy on the lot as she stands in line for an audition to be part of a chorus line in a musical. He pushes the studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a minor part in his new film.

This sets up the story's central dynamic. Peppy’s career rapidly rises, but two years later, when talkies take over the industry, George's plummets. He can’t make the transition — for reasons initially unclear — and takes to drink, hitting bottom when he sets fire to his own home.

He is rescued in the short term by his exceptional dog, and in the long term by Peppy’s exceptional love. She not only saves him — she works to save his career.

Now, it is historically true that some silent film stars wouldn’t or couldn’t make the transition to sound flicks. There were a variety of reasons. Some actors (especially those who directed their own films) were disdainful of the new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old. Some had pronounced foreign accents, which audiences didn’t expect, at a time — like our own — when anti-immigrant feelings were running high among the general public. Others, especially actors without extensive stage experience, had diction and grammar problems. And some had weak or — in the case of a few male action leads — effeminate voices.

When George finally does speak at the end of the film, we get a clue as to why he had problems making the transition. I won't spoil the film by telling you what it is.

How is the acting in this film about actors? It's outstanding, with strong performances by Dujardin as George and Bejo as Peppy. Bejo is particularly appealing. To me, she is very reminiscent of the marvelous French actress and dancer Leslie Caron, and that's saying a lot.

Absolutely delightful in support — doing silent acting as if it were their first careers — are veteran American actors John Goodman as studio head Zimmer, and James Cromwell as Clifton, George’s faithful chauffeur and valet. And I simply must mention Uggie, who plays Dog, George’s dog. I can’t recall a better performance by a, yes, again, dog in any recent film.

Michel Hazanavicius has done a marvelous job of directing, eliciting robust but still restrained performances from actors none of whom — including the canine! — had ever done a silent film. He also wrote the script, aiming to fulfill a long-standing desire to create a contemporary silent film. (He is also married to the beautiful Bejo.) It's a risky and exciting enterprise, and Hazanavicius succeeded. He clearly spent a good deal of time studying silent film, and profiting from his studies. He performs with panache the difficult task of writing melodrama with comedic touches — and using few title cards.

The film has already won Dujardin a Best Actor award at Cannes, Hazanavicius a nomination for a Palme d’Or, and Uggie a Palm Dog award. The New York Film Critics Circle just awarded Hazanavicius the Best Director award, and gave the film the Best Picture.award. I have no doubt that many more awards are in store.

I recommend seeing this picture with young people if possible. I brought my daughter and her two friends, all young women in their twenties. None had ever seen a silent film before. All of them were entranced by this film, and had no trouble following the action or keeping their interest.

em


Editor's Note: Review of "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius. La Petite Reine-La Classe Americaine, 2011, 100 minutes.



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True for Me

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I’ve reflected before on the unintended comedy that flows from people in positions of authority or influence in our society denying the existence of objective reality. In the far future, enlightened people will look back on this era of American history and marvel at the fact that the children of a system built on reason could behave so irrationally.

A recent example: the slightly past-her-prime movie actress Ashley Judd (née Ciminella) recently made the rounds of television talk shows to promote a memoir. As expected of such a project, Judd included salacious tales of incestuous sexual abuse suffered when she was a young girl and edgy sex when she was a young woman. Also, occasional bouts of manic depression.

In the book, Judd recalls when she was in middle school and her mother — the country music singer Naomi Judd — started dating her second (and current) husband:

"Mom and pop were wildly sexually inappropriate in front of my sister and me ... a horrific reality for me was that when pop was around I would have to listen to a lot of loud sex in a house with thin walls. . . . I now know this situation is called covert sexual abuse."

It’s too bad that Judd has been reduced to this. She made some pretty good films in the 1990s and early 2000s — including my personal favorite, the surreal 1999 whodunit Eye of the Beholder.

But her deepest self-abasement doesn’t appear in her book. Asked on the Today show what her family thought of the book, Judd said:

"You know, the book is very honest [but] it’s not necessarily accurate, because everyone in my family has their own perspective and their own experiences. But it’s very true for me."

Ugh. Beware “true for me” memoirists.

Of course, some people go for this situational twaddle. One of the half-wit columnists at the website Salon.com wrote:

"Judd’s admission that her memoir is “true for me” allows for an acknowledgment of the real trauma she’s experienced while also making room in the narrative for other versions of events. Memory might not hold up in a court of law, but that doesn’t matter much to a scarred heart. One that’s suffering depression and a host of other hurts. And, by admitting that, Judd’s telling others that if it feels like abuse to you, it was abuse. And that’s good enough."

No, it’s not. As James Frey, Greg Mortenson, and a growing list of other fabulists and swindlers will attest, “true for me” memoirists are a sleazy lot. Often full of sanctimonious, politically-correct hypocrisy. Usually tripped up by undeserved self-regard.

Sadly, these same faults apply to the younger Ms. Judd. Less than three years ago, she appeared in a series of videos produced by a statist political advocacy group called Defenders Action Fund; in those videos, she castigated Sarah Palin for supporting the sport killing of wolves from helicopters. To wit: “Now back in Alaska, Palin is again casting aside science and championing the slaughter of wildlife.”

So, a woman who doesn’t hold herself to a standard of factual accuracy in her salacious memoir damns another woman for “casting aside science” when dealing with wildlife management. This selective embrace of objective reality is part of the reason that American culture is on the decline.

Statists thrive when people doubt objective reality and use terms like “true for me.”

Ashley Judd’s loud and libidinous mother probably summed up the real ethics of such people when — asked by the Today show for a response to her daughter’s stories — she said: “I love my daughter. I hope her book does well.” Cha-ching.




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