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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Trio

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Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.

The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).

A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.

Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.

The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.

While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of jazz: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.

If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.

The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.

Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.

Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.

The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.

Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.

The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.

When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.

Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.

The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.


Editor's Note: Review of "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle. Black Label Media, 2016, 128 minutes; "Rules Don’t Apply," directed by Warren Beatty. Regency Enterprises, RatPac Entertainment, 2016, 127 minutes; and "Nocturnal Animals," directed by Tom Ford. Focus Features, 2016, 116 minutes.



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Is He Really She?

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So Bruce Jenner has “always felt like a woman” inside, and ESPN is giving him their “Courage” award for coming out in such a public way. I know you’ve seen his photograph on the cover of Vanity Fair, so fetching with his newly-carved facial structure, his come-hither hair extensions, his pumped-up breasts, and his manly hands and man-parts discreetly hidden behind his back and under his crotch.

“I’ve always felt like a woman.” What exactly does that mean? Does he mean “I know what it feels like to nurture a child and cook a meal and clean a house and bat my eyelashes at a man”? If so — shame on him. That is not what it means to be a woman. And shame on all the pundits and journalists who are falling all over themselves to praise him for thinking that’s what it means, or for letting him get away with making that statement without challenging him to explain what it means.

So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips?

Did Jenner feel like a woman in the 1960s when he was training on the boys’ well-funded high school track team, while the girls spent most of their time dressing and showering for P.E. with perhaps 20 minutes spent on the field? Did he feel like a woman during his Olympic glory days, when men’s track and field events were shown during prime time, and women’s track and field events were mentioned in the middle of the sports page somewhere? Did he spend 35 years finding blood in his underwear once a month, and dealing with all the trauma and embarrassment that goes with that? Does he know how it feels to realize your tampon is leaking and you’re sitting down and there is no way to escape without people watching you walk out of the room? How dare he say he knows how it feels to be a woman, after spending 65 years as a man.

If he means, “I know what it feels like to want to put on a dress and heels and makeup” — well, fine. You don’t have to be a woman to do that. Nor do I have to be a man to put on a tuxedo or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Clothes do not make the man — or the woman. Moreover, I resent Jessica Diehl, who clothed Jenner for the Vanity Fair photo shoot, gushing, “Caitlyn’s proportions are fashion proportions, really. She’s tall, slim, narrow hipped: kind of ideal to dress” (New York Times, June 4, 2015). So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips? My wide hips are perfectly proportioned for a real woman. I earned my hips through eight pregnancies, five births, and three miscarriages. Go through that, Bruce Jenner, and then tell me you know how it feels to be a woman. Even my husband doesn’t know how it felt to lose those three babies. Not from a woman’s perspective.

And let’s talk about Jenner’s supposed transformation. He surgically shaped his facial structure, pumped up his breasts with silicone and hormone therapy, and layered on a pound of makeup. But he kept his penis. What kind of woman has a penis? How does Jenner’s lack of commitment and confidence in his choice qualify him for a Courage award?

Bruce Jenner is welcome to mutilate his body any way he wants to, but please don’t make him a role model, and please don’t call him a woman. He can change his face, change his name, and wear all the dresses he wants. He can call himself transgendered. He can change his name to Caitlyn. But he can’t get rid of that Y chromosome. And he will never know what it feels like to be a woman.




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If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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Privacy? What Privacy?

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The Bling Ring tells the mostly true story of a group of Hollywood Hills teenagers who were convicted of burgling over $3 million in cash and personal items from celebrity homes over the course of a year.

It is as much a tale of stalking as it is of burglary. The thieves would track the whereabouts of glamorous celebs like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge by perusing such websites as TMZ.com and the celebs’ own Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Then they would locate the homes through Internet sites like Google Maps and celebrityaddressaerial.com. They were careful at first to take only a few things at a time, things that would probably not be missed from the overstuffed closets and drawers of the rich and famous. Mainly they wanted to wander around the mansions and pretend to live there. The fact that they were able to do this so effortlessly — letting themselves in through doors that had, incredibly, been left unlocked — made this a fascinating story when it broke in 2010.

The film is timely and important as a cautionary tale. Americans today routinely “check in” when they’re at the restaurant, the theater, the sporting event, or wherever else they happen to be. They post happy, smiling pictures from vacations while they are still away from home. Ostensibly they do this to say, “Hey, come join me,” or “Look at how much fun I’m having.” But they tell every person who has access to Facebook (and that’s everyone, period), “I’m not home. Now would be a good time to rob me.”

I avoided using the collective “we” because I never “check in” on Facebook, no matter how glamorous or exciting the place may be. I don’t even put my real address into my car’s GPS map; I use the nearby shopping center as the address to help me find my way home. But how many people drop their cars off at a parking garage and never think twice about leaving house keys, garage door openers, and home addresses along with the important detail, “I’ll be back in four hours”? Sheesh! We complain about the NSA and its Utah spying center, and then blithely violate our own privacy every day.

Although The Bling Ring focuses on this important topic, it is not a very good movie. The characters are thinly drawn and the actors are overdirected. They know their lines, but they wait patiently for their turn to deliver them. They don’t seem to be having genuine conversations. It’s almost like watching a middle-school play. One can almost hear Sofia Coppola in the background saying, “Okay, look like you’re excited. Now look like you’re more excited. Now look like you’re stoned.”

But perhaps Coppola simply didn’t have much to work with. Much of the dialog for the film is taken directly from interviews that were taken with the shallow, star-struck thieves and published in Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Marc (Israel Broussard), based on Nick Prugo, is the gay kid who just wants to fit in; Rebecca (Katie Chang), based on Rachel Lee, is the ringleader who wants to be “part of the lifestyle”; and Nicki (Emma Watson), based on Alexis Neiers, wants to be noticed by celebrities and literally walk around in their shoes. In fact, when told that the victims of their crimes knew who they were, Nicki asks excitedly, “What did Lindsay [Lohan] say?”

The real life Alexis Neiers was involved in creating a reality TV show for E! about the life of a party girl, when she got involved with the Burglary Bunch. Consequently, the reality film crew was following her around during this time, filming her at parties wearing stolen clothing. When she was arrested, according to Sales’ article, they began filming her arrest and directing the family’s reaction to it. (Let’s say it together: what an idiot!)

The irony of having a camera crew following Nicki around might have made this film more interesting and suspenseful, but Coppola chose to leave that out. Instead, Nicki’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann) is a self-appointed guru who raises her children on the “principle of attraction” found in that inane self-help book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006). (See my review of The Secret, “Better Living Through Fluff,” in the October 2007 Liberty.) The premise of homeschooling based on such a cockamamie book could be turned into a hilarious comedy. Laurie greets her three girls in the morning with a cheery, “Time for your Adderall!” She leads them in inane affirmations that she calls prayers and teaches them the principle of attraction from a series of poster boards demonstrating Angelina Jolie as a role model whose characteristics the girls should “attract.” Meanwhile the girls languish on the couch as virtual prisoners. One almost thinks that jail would be a relief.

During a post-arrest media interview, as Nicki and Laurie vie for attention and screen time, Nicki makes a statement she seems to think is extremely profound: “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”

This is exactly what Alexis Neiers said on-camera in her post-arrest interview. But despite being based on real life, these scenes are simply overdone and out of place. Coppola is not skilled enough to create a meaningful juxtaposition between the family scenes and the scenes of out-of-control night-clubbing and “closet shopping.” We don’t see enough of the characters’ backgrounds, beyond what the kids choose to tell us. We see glimpses of what this film might have been in the hands of a better scriptwriter, but those glimpses emphasize the fact that the film has no real point of view, other than recreating an interesting crime spree.

If you are interested in this story, save yourself the price of admission and popcorn, and just read Nancy Jo Sales’ article.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Bling Ring," directed by Sofia Coppola. American Zoetrope, 2013, 90 minutes.



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Censoring South Park

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Earlier this year I read an interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creative duo behind the hit animated comedy South Park, in conjunction with their new Broadway play The Book of Mormon. What struck me was one of them saying that in the episode of South Park in which they lambasted the cult of Scientology, they had wanted to say that Tom Cruise is in the closet. Their lawyer advised them that Cruise could sue them for defamation, so instead they put the cartoon version of Tom Cruise in a literal closet that he refused to come out of. The result was laugh-out-loud comedic gold, but it highlights one of my major peeves about legal causes of action, which is the law of defamation.

Defamation is a cause of action under which a plaintiff can sue a defendant for damage to his reputation. In For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard wrote that he believed defamation law should be abolished, because a person’s reputation exists in the brains of other people and the plaintiff has no property right in other people’s minds. My concern is broader; I believe that defamation law scares people away from making statements that might offend those among us with the money to hire lawyers. This fear of being sued for defamation chills people's ability to say what they want. It scares them away from criticizing others, even when the criticism might be justified and deserved.

This danger is often poignant in the case of such artistic representations as South Park, which makes deep, meaningful social commentary by making jokes, often offensive ones, directed at people who could easily take offense and who generally have money. The strange thing is that the first amendment has a clause that guarantees freedom of speech. Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

There is a larger and a smaller answer. The larger answer is that the members of the Supreme Court, even the supposedly “textualist” and “originalist” conservatives, do not take the words of the Constitution literally. They make interpretations that twist and mangle it into something that looks like what they want, something that deforms the meaning of the words on paper, written by the Founders. The smaller, more specific answer is that the Supreme Court has grappled with the conflict between free speech and defamation, and has chosen a middle ground that tries reconciles the two.

Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

In the landmark case of New York Times v.Sullivan (1964), an overseer of Southern police officers, sued the Times and members of the civil rights movement under a defamation theory, accusing them of damaging the policemen’s reputation by publishing an ad indicating that the police had committed crimes against demonstrators. Instead of holding defamation unconstitutional, the Supreme Court found for the defendants, holding that when public officials assert defamation they must prove “actual malice,” meaning that the defendant knew his statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for truth. This is a much higher standard than the “negligence” requirement that applies to defamation against private individuals on matters of public concern or the mere “publication” requirement that applies to defamation by private citizens on a matter of private concern. However, after Sullivan the Supreme Court expanded the actual malice rule to cover “public figures” as well as public officials, so most celebrities, such Tom Cruise, must prove actual malice.

Actual malice was designed to prevent censorship. I am sure that the Court believed it was being quite generous by creating such a high barrier to recovery. But because defamation continued to exist, the fear of being sued and the expense of litigation remain a serious impediment to American free speech and to our ability to criticize people of political and social importance. Speaking freely about the flaws (real or alleged) of our political and cultural leadership is a basic requirement for democracy to function.

A more recent important case is Hustler Magazine & Larry Flynt v.Jerry Falwell, a 1988 United States Supreme Court case in which evangelist Jerry Falwell sued a pornographic magazine for printing a joke that accused him of having sex with his mother. The accusation was obviously a joke that no one could take seriously. It was also clearly an example of the use of charges of defamation to censor criticism and take revenge against people who offend you. The jury found against Falwell on his libel claim, but found against Hustler on the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim, which is a somewhat similar cause of action that is also used to censor criticism and punish offensive behavior. The jury awarded substantial monetary damages. The Supreme Court, however, found in favor of the magazine on the “IIED” (as lawyers call it) claim, citing the need to protect the American tradition of political satire cartoons, and held that the New York Times v.Sullivan “actual malice” standard for defamation against public figures should also be used in cases involved intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against public figures, in order to protect free speech and create breathing room for vigorous debate. Regarding the right to be offensive towards other people, the court said that offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But again, the Court refused to see the truth sitting right under its nose, which is that the only real purpose of claims of defamation (or intentional infliction of emotion distress claims alleged against plaintiffs because of what they say or write) is to censor speech; and this violates the first amendment. The law of defamation has no place in a society that believes in intellectual freedom for all citizens. We libertarians are basically the only group of people in America who say that the emperor has no clothes and who criticize governmental mistakes that modern-liberals and conservatives ignore or condone. Defamation is an obvious abuse of the law and of the state’s coercive power to repress independent thinking, and we should all get angry about it.




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