“Problematic” films to be reframed by Turner Classic Movies

March 7, 2021 • 10:00 am

The good news is that although the Pecksniffs at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have found 18 “problematic”—run when you see that word—movies made between 1920 and 1960, they’re not going to pull them. Rather, as the article from the LA Times below notes, they are going to “reframe them”. That means that they will tell you what parts of the movies are bad in advance. The bad news is that although some of these movies probably should come with a disclaimer, I think they’re overdoing it.

Click on the screenshot to read the article. If it’s paywalled, you can find the same information at other sites by Googling “TCM films”:

The contents:

Turner Classic Movies has decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to timeless but troublesome movies. The result is “Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror,” a new series that kicks off Thursday and runs throughout the month.

Along with screening 18 classics, TCM hosts will discuss what the network calls the “troubling and problematic” aspects of the much-loved flicks, which were released in the 1920s through the 1960s. “The goal is never to censor, but simply provide rich historical context to each classic,” the network said in a statement.

Among the problems: racism, sexism, portrayals of LGBTQ issues and more.

“We’re not saying this is how you should feel about ‘Psycho’ or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone With the Wind.’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie. I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between,” TCM host Jacqueline Stewart recently told the Associated Press.

Stewart and fellow hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller will take turns participating in roundtable introductions that touch on the history and cultural context of the films. They will also prep new viewers about moments they might find upsetting.

“Our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking,’” Mankiewicz told the Hollywood Reporter. “But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.”

Below are all the movies that will be “Reframed” once a week through the end of this month, beginning each Thursday at 5 p.m. Pacific. This is one situation where it’s good to be a night owl or own a DVR, because the films run one after the other — and even overnight. [see below]

Here’s the video discussing the “problematic” content of the TCM films. Again, the video is quite good at defending the need to show these movies, and why (and it’s not just because we need to come to terms with the moral degradation of the past). I’ll put the list of the movies below, but you can get an idea of many of them from this 6-minute video: “Gone with the Wind,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “The Jazz Singer”, “Stagecoach”, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Curiously, three of the movies I recognize, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “No Way Out”, and “Lolita”, aren’t being shown by TCM, or at least aren’t on the list, but do appear in the video, implying that they need to be “reframed”. Perhaps that’s coming when they’re shown in the future.

Well, you know, I don’t have huge objections to this “framing”, but it still irks me a bit, and I’m not sure why. I recognize that there should be guidelines or content warnings, like “Note: racism, blackface, men hitting women, Native American being aggressive,” and so on. But beyond that, do we really need someone to tell us, and in detail, exactly why the movies are problematic? Why not put the discussions online so people can read them if they want to? Will there be any dissent among the discussants? I doubt it: they must convey a unified moral message.

I guess it seems a bit patronizing to me to have other people tell me why the movies are considered offensive.  The racism in the Sidney Poitier movie shown in the video above (“No Way Out,” curiously absent from the list given) is clearly meant to be an offensive display of bigotry, and do we really need to say, “When that guy spits in Poitier’s face, it’s racist”? The movie was intended to show racism in a negative light. That’s different from the “acceptable” racism in movies like “The Jazz Singer”.

Here’s the list of problematic movies; groups of them will be shown on a given night.  If you’ve seen some of these movies, you might want to guess what is “problematic” about them. I’ve put asterisks next to the ones I’ve guessed, and question marks next to ones that I’ve seen but can’t guess what’s problematic about them (granted, I haven’t seen some of these in years, and, given what I know about the Zeitgeist, I’m sure I could spot the bad bits upon rewatching).

March 4

  • “Gone With the Wind” *
  • “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” ?
  • “Rope”
  • “The Four Feathers”

March 11

  • “Woman of the Year” ?
  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” *
  • “Gunga Din” *
  • “Sinbad, the Sailor”
  • “The Jazz Singer” *

March 18

  • “The Searchers”
  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” [I read what is problematic; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to guess]
  • “Swing Time”
  • “Stagecoach” [Ditto for Breakfast at Tiffay’s]
  • “Tarzan, the Ape Man” ?

March 25

  • “My Fair Lady” ?
  • “The Children’s Hour”
  • “Psycho” ?
  • “Dragon Seed”

And a note about other problematic films and television shows Entertainment:

Other networks and streamers are also finding ways to address these issues within their respective libraries. In June, HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind in response to criticism from 12 Years a Slave director John Ridley who said the multiple Academy Award-winning film “glorifies the antebellum south.” It was re-released that same month with a new introduction.

The recent debut of The Muppet Show on Disney+ also arrived with warnings on nearly two dozen episodes due to “negative depictions.”

TV shows are receiving the same treatment, multiple episodes of popular shows like The Golden GirlsThe Office, and30 Rockwere either edited or pulled completely.

Does anyone have any objections to what Turner is doing? Do you think the films need “framing” via a seemingly extensive discussion? If not, is there a better way to single out what’s “problematic”?

The New York Times sinks even deeper

February 13, 2021 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Another sign of the New York Times‘ decline, besides its wokism and suddenly keen interest in astrology, is its attention to celebrity culture. (I use that last word with some hesitation.) This is mere persiflage, but after sharing my thoughts about this with Jerry, he urged me to post it on a Saturday, a day more amenable to such things.

The Times has put a lot of effort into producing, and now heavily promoting, a > 1 hour long documentary about Britney Spears, titled “Framing Britney Spears”, available on Hulu. Britney Spears, for the unfamiliar, was a 90’s pop star singer, who had some issues. (As Joe Walsh said, “it’s tough to handle this fortune and fame.”) She then had something of a comeback, including a stint at that old standby for fading pop stars, Las Vegas. She has been involved in various court cases over control of her assets.

JAC: Here’s a trailer for the Official New York Times video, more appropriate for the National Enquirer or TMZ than the Times.

Two things are wrong with this. First, why is the Times doing investigative journalism on Britney Spears? Who cares? There’s an extremely slim stab at justification on the grounds that her story reveals flaws in the legal practice of ‘conservatorship’, but they spend almost no time on this. It could also be justified as an examination of the bizarre manifestations of celebrity culture, but instead the documentary revels in and glorifies that culture.

Much of the program is taken up with interviews of obviously loony cultists of the “Free Britney” movement, who are slavishly devoted to carrying out what they perceive to be the wishes of a hidden figure whom none of them are actually in communication with. If this sounds like QAnon to you—bingo! That’s exactly what it seemed like to me. The conspiracy addled, sartorially conforming, group thinking, and delusional ways of both groups are striking. I immediately thought: “This is just like the nuts at the Capitol.” This might reveal deep and recurring dysfunction in human social dynamics, but that is not at all what the Times is exploring here, except inadvertently.

Second, they got bupkus! The investigation was a bust. No one who actually knew anything would talk to the paper. Everything they had was either old footage, not terribly relevant, or three Times talking heads. They had two modestly interesting people willing to talk. One was a woman hired to be Britney’s “assistant” back when she was a kid, but was eventually dismissed. Her interview is primarily of interest for the pathos of how this woman clings to memorabilia of her time in Britney’s entourage.

The other was a lawyer who represented Britney Spears for a brief while many years ago. He knows essentially nothing about the case, since he was dismissed by the judge before it really got started. But he is apparently an experienced conservatorship attorney, and makes a few enlightening remarks about how conservatorships are supposed to work; but not enough to give real understanding. This is a real missed opportunity. Is there widespread abuse of conservatorships? Are conservators failing in their duty to look out for the conservatees? This is strongly suggested to be so in Britney Spears’ case, but since the facts of the case are in sealed court documents, and no one who does know was willing to talk, we got nuthin’.

As one of my favorite movie critics, Ryan Jay, says, “Skip it.”

 

JAC: Greg should be praised here because I believe he had to pay to see that video!

GCM: Well, I paid for the Hulu subscription, but not for this particular program. A Hulu subscription is much like a New York Times subscription– there’s some good stuff in there, but also a lot of dreck. But while copious dreck is tolerable in a streaming TV service, it is not tolerable in the paper of record.

Christopher Plummer, 1929-2021

February 5, 2021 • 4:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Christopher Plummer, the distinguished Canadian actor, has died. Playing many roles on stage, film, and television, he had won an Oscar, two Tonys, and two Emmys during his very long career. The New York Times‘ obituarist, while noting that most will remember him for his role in the film version of The Sound of Music, writes that he was “a Shakespearean foremost.”

Given my own, perhaps odd, combination of cultural tastes, I recall him best as General Chang, the Shakespeare-quoting chief of staff to Chancellor Gorkon of the Klingon Empire who desires peace with the Federation in Star trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The title is a phrase from Hamlet, and Gorkon, as well as Chang, is a Shakespeare-quoter. Plummer speaks lines from several of Shakespeare’s plays, including lines he has spoken on stage and screen in performances of those very plays.

Chang opposes peace, and Plummer’s final line in the film, as Federation starships breach his ship’s defenses and blow it to smithereens, is “To be, or not to be.”

If you watch the whole of the preceding clip, you’ll hear several more lines of Shakespeare from Plummer. The following are two slightly different compilations of some of Plummer’s Shakespearean lines from throughout the film, including from the preceding clip.

The second, with references:

To perhaps explain the prominence of Shakespeare in the mouths of Klingons, Gorkon (played by David Warner, himself a prominent Shakespearean) says, at 42 seconds, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon”; right afterwards Plummer says “To be, or not to be” in Klingon.

Alas, poor Christopher; he has come not to be.

New Yorker review of “Soul”: why I’m not renewing my subscription

January 27, 2021 • 1:45 pm

The New Yorker gets woker and woker, and it’s reached the point where I will not renew my subscription. It’s not the magazine’s ubiquitous emphasis on race, or that race manages to seep into articles about other stuff (as it does in the New York Times), but that the issue is treated as if there’s only one acceptable point of view about race, and one acceptable way of portraying it.

And that, at least, is the take of Namwali Serpell, a Zambian critic who works in the U.S.; she’s a Ph.D. from Harvard and now a Professor of English at that school.  When I read her highly critical review of the new Pixar movie “Soul” in the online New Yorker, which took out after the movie because it didn’t accurately reflect the black experience (indeed, Serpell argues that it’s a “white savior movie”), I didn’t know what to think. I knew the movie had done very well, that my friends who had seen it with their kids loved it, and that it received a terrific critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes (see below): 96%. Was it really as racially insensitive, or racially patronizing, as Serpell asserts?

Well, I figured I couldn’t judge the review unless I had seen the movie, so I watched it. And I’m glad I did. It’s just as good as the critics make out. In fact, it’s both visually and emotionally rich—almost too rich and subtle for young children.  The thesis—that when you walk a mile in another person’s shoes, or in a cat’s paws, you can re-evaluate the meaning of your own life—is a heavy one, and it’s portrayed in an artistically masterful way. The final moral is “live life to the fullest” but that sounds way too trite for such a complex film. You have to go through the journey of the movie to see how the protagonist realizes this. He’s a black jazz musician named Joe Gardner, teaching school band but aspiring to high-class, on-stage performance. Through a quasi-mystical experience involving soul transference, Joe comes to regard his frustrations with more equanimity, and to smell the roses. One of my friend’s daughters, only nine, realized that his was the movie’s point, loved it, and then cried.

I’ll let you get an idea of what the movie’s like from its trailers. Here’s one official trailer, and there’s an alternative “official” trailer here.

It’s hard to evaluate Serpell’s critique on its own, so see the movie if you can: you should anyway. The one good part about Serpell’s piece is that her summary of the plot is pretty good. You can read her article by clicking on the screenshot.

The filmmakers took a lot of trouble to make sure the movie wasn’t racially insensitive, and reflected in part the experience of African-Americans. Here’s part of the Wikipedia article:

Pixar chose to portray the film’s main character as a musician, because they wanted a “profession the audience could root for”, and settled for a musician after trying for a scientist, which “[didn’t feel] so naturally pure as a musician’s life”. Docter [the co-director] described Soul as “an exploration of, where should your focus be? What are the things that, at the end of the day, are really going to be the important things that you look back on and go, ‘I spent a worthy amount of my limited time on Earth worrying or focused on that’?”

Docter and Jones [co-writer] worked on the development of the main character for about two years. According to Docter, once they settled on the main character being a jazz musician, the filmmakers chose to make the character African-American, as they felt it made sense due to how closely African-Americans have been tied to jazz history. [Kemp] Powers originally joined as co-writer early in development to help write the character of Joe, and was initially given a 12-week contract, which was then extended. He was subsequently promoted to co-director after his extensive contributions to the film, making him Pixar’s first African-American co-director. Powers based several elements of Joe on his personal life, as the character’s story shared several elements with Powers’ own, but also wanted him to “transcend [his] own experience” in order to make the character more accessible. Powers also placed additional emphasis on authentically depicting the black community as well as Joe’s relationships with them. In order to portray accurately African-American culture within the film, Pixar created an internal culture trust composed of black Pixar employees, and hired several consultants, among whom were musicians Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Quincy Jones and Jon Batiste, educator Johnnetta Cole, and stars Questlove and Daveed Diggs. The filmmakers worked closely with them through the film’s development.

The idea for the therapy cat and Joe landing inside its body came from Jones. Docter and Powers appreciated the idea, as it offered the filmmakers a much needed way for Joe to “be able to look at his own life from a different perspective” and appreciate it.

and this. . .

Soul is Pixar’s first film to feature an African-American protagonist. Pixar was mindful of the history of racist imagery in animation, and set out to create characters who were recognizably black while avoiding the stereotypes in old cartoons. Acknowledging this effort, Docter stated that “There’s a long and painful history of caricatured racist design tropes that were used to mock African-Americans.” According to Powers, the animators used lighting as a way to highlight the ethnic diversity in the living world. Pixar sought to capture the fine details of these black characters, including the textures of black hair and the way light plays on various tones of black skin. Cinematographer Bradford Young worked as a lighting consultant on the film.

Animators used footage of several music performers, including jazz composer Jon Batiste, performing as reference for the film’s musical sequences. By capturing MIDI data from the sessions, animators were able to retrace the exact key being played on the piano with each note and create the performances authentically. According to Docter, the animators assigned to specific musical instruments often either had experience playing them or a great appreciation for them.

The filmmakers animated the souls featured in the film in a “vaporous”, “ethereal”, and “non physical” way, having based their designs on definitions about souls given to them by various religious and cultural representatives. At the same time, they did not want the souls to look overly similar to ghosts, and adjusted their color palette accordingly. Docter described the design as “a huge challenge”, as the animators are “used to toys, cars, things that are much more substantial and easily referenced”, though he felt the animation team “really put some cool stuff together that’s really indicative of those words but also relatable”. According to Murray, several artists helped create the souls’ designs by giving their suggestions and opinions on how they should look. The designs were also inspired by early drawings made by Docter. Animators created two designs for the souls in the film; one for the new souls in “The Great Before”, which animation supervisor Jude Brownbill described as “very cute, very appealing, with simple, rounded shapes and no distinguishing features just yet”, and one for mentor souls, which do feature distinctive characteristics due to having been on Earth already.

Despite the fact that the movie, whose protagonist is a black jazz musician, which was co-directed and co-written by an African-American (Kemp Powers), is voiced by a largely black cast (Jamie Foxx as Joe, also with Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett), and involved all this research, Professor Serpell’s beef is that the movie isn’t black enough. In fact, I conclude from reading her piece is that it’s not sufficiently infused with stereotypes of blacks and black culture. Of course there’s black culture in the movie and in real life, but African-Americans aren’t homogeneous, and one gets the feeling—or at least I did—that when I finished the movie I had seen a portrayal of a human, not a black human—someone I could identify with, which is the point of much great art.  And the moral, of course, is universal. The movie is meant to appeal to all people, not just African-Americans.

Well, here are a few of Serpell’s beefs (the cat, by the way, named Twenty-two for the number of its pre-life soul, is voiced by Tina Fey):

Black English says, He’s got soul. The most glaring artistic error in “Soul” is its misprision—its elision, really—of what soul means for black culture. The word is used to signify not just an individual unit but also an indivisible substrate, a communal energy, a vibe. For all of the creators’ efforts to thread the needle of racial representation, their desperate wish to be authentic without being stereotypical, “Soul” never utters a sentence like “She’s got soul,” never says “soul brother” or “soul sister” or “soul music.” Perhaps those terms are too antiquated, but there isn’t even a mention of the still popular “soul food”; the film’s universal delicacy is pepperoni pizza, not fried chicken, and we all know why.

There is pizza because much of the action takes place on the streets of New York City, and when you’re roaming those streets, the fastest thing you can get is, yes, a SLICE. That’s why the cat (now in the body of Joe) gets pizza, and likes it. You can’t get a plate of fried chicken on every New York street corner. And, by the way, there’s also a scene of Joe eating a piece of pecan pie, and that is soul food. The movie is not about James Brown; it’s about Joe Gardner, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. But if you want “soul” implicitly, well, there are the barbershop and tailor shop scenes, clearly drawn from black culture. But there’s no fried chicken. And no watermelon. In other words, not enough stereotypes. Don’t black folk like pizza?

But wait: there’s more:

As [Toni] Morrison writes in “Playing in the Dark,” the “Africanist presence” in white American cultural forms has long been “a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.” So, in “Soul,” we find the soul counter hunting Joe down for messing up the count: “Gotcha!” Terry says after he lassos Joe’s soul with a set of square laser beams. A more literal net is used to try to capture Twenty-two, as well—but by then she is a Lost Soul, trapped inside a leaden, soot-black body. Whether on Earth or in the heavens, whiteness is ethereal, mindful; blackness is heavy, obsessive. Whiteness knows that the point of subway grilles is to lie on them and let the train’s wind rush up through you. Only blackness would be paranoid about the risks of such public whimsy. You might think that this is all leading to some Obamian synthesis of the two spirits. But surprise, surprise: Joe must sacrifice himself, must give up a life of jazz so that Twenty-two has a chance to “jazz” her life.

“Whiteness knows”? What the deuce does this mean? First of all, Joe doesn’t give up a life of jazz; the ending of the movie is ambiguous, and deliberately so. You don’t know whether Joe will resume teaching band, will go for the Big Jazz Quartet that wants him, or whatever; but we do know he’s going to savor what remains of his life. As for lying on subway grilles and enjoying the wind, I didn’t know that was a White Thing, and that black people are supposed to be fearful of it.

The review goes on like this, and you can read for yourself. Still, only a Pecksniffian Harvard professor could write stuff like this:

The most striking glimpse of Morrison’s “Africanist presence” in this film is its most seemingly subconscious. Shortly after the barbershop scene, Terry, the soul counter who is hunting for Joe, captures the wrong black man. Paul, Joe’s hater, is accidentally riven from his body and his soul is flung, for a moment, into a depthless outer space that looks like nothing so much as “the sunken place” in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” When Terry realizes his error, he brings Paul back into his body, and, with a dismissive “No harm, no foul,” leaves the poor man in an alley, crouched in a ball, shaking, eyes wide with horror. The film has already been playing obliquely with the idea of a Du Boisian double consciousness: Joe’s soul watching his own body taken over by Twenty-two, racial identity doubled within one entity. But this moment dabbles with the souls of black folk without truly reckoning with the kind of perversion that would rend personhood from human flesh. For a split second, the film cracks, yawns open, and shows us what it’s been working so hard to conceal: the limbo of black existence, the history of the slaveship hold, the terror of death at the hand of a mistaken cop.

Watch the movie, and see if you don’t thinks this is pure bullpucky. A customer makes fun of Joe (or rather, the cat inside Joe’s body), and is inadvertently given his due by being taken for the wrong person by the soul-hunter. The last three sentences are ridiculous: this scene is not about the limbo of black existence, or slavery, or George Floyd, or anything but the plot of bringing Joe’s soul into tally with the number of souls totted up by the Head Soul Counter.  Again, only a Harvard professor could make this scene into a metaphor for slavery and the Middle Passage. See for yourself. If the movie really was trying to conceal the real nature of black existence and tout whiteness, I think the writer and the African-American vetters would have sensed it.  Even the whiteness of heaven (departed souls take a long escalator through space up to the light) is taken to symbolize racism (the author uses the color trope repeatedly throughout her review):

One of the strangest aspects of the film is that, while Joe has a mother, a muted love interest, sweet and lazy students, and acquaintances at the barbershop, he doesn’t really have people. His epiphany, conjoined with Twenty-two’s, is a solitary one: the seed in the palm, an individual’s communion with vast nature. Similarly, each departed soul, once freed from its earthly body, shoots alone into a blur of blinding whiteness. In black American culture, a funeral is called a homegoing, partly owing to a syncretic conflation of the afterlife with Africa, the originary freedom. To cross over is to cross back, over the sea—which, by the way, is likely the origin of the English word soul, from the Proto-Germanic saiwaz, the idea being that water, not air, is the dwelling place of souls. And at the end of that voyage home there isn’t a spark of bright light but your people, welcoming you ashore.

Oy! Well, this is the typical grandiose and pompous New Yorker ending, where even the quotidian must be couched in hifalutin scholarship and reams of purple prose.

In fact, Joe does have people: his students, one of whom loves him, his mother and her friends, one of whom demands a kiss from Joe when she sees him, and a girlfriend who doesn’t appear.  One cannot expect Joe to embody every aspect of what Serpell sees as black culture, which in this case is apparently deeply social. Are there no solitary black men in this country?  And is it a flaw that pre-life souls float down to earth through space (which happens to be dark) to fuse with their bodies, and that the departed souls take a Big Escalator to the Sky? Does there have to be water and gatherings?

In the end, even the black critics (save one) liked “Soul”, as you can see by clicking on the screenshot.

 

 

As for the New Yorker, I’ve had it. When a movie is dissed because it doesn’t have enough stereotypical black culture, because it isn’t fundamentally about blackness instead of humanity, when it doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the “nuances of the black experience”—as if every black person has the same nuances—and when it spurns the overarching point of the movie, which is to show the commonality of people rather than their differences, then I’m done. This movie was not made to impart lessons about racism; it was made to show people of all races to embrace the good things of life, for before you know it your own soul will be ascending that Big Escalator.

A captious Harvard professor can take the movie apart, but you be the judge, and if you’ve seen it, weigh in below. The fact is that not everything is or should be about race and racism, even if it involves a black jazz musician starring in an animated movie. Nor should it be. The New Yorker apparently feels otherwise.

Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

January 4, 2021 • 11:00 am

It’s strange: I feel an unaccountable malaise today, unable to get down to doing anything, and I’ve already heard from three other people who have the same symptoms. Could it be that the first Monday of 2021 is giving us the blues?

All I’m capable of this morning is reviewing a movie I watched this weekend. There’s been a lot of buzz about 2020s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix film adaptation of the eponymous play by the celebrated August Wilson. The movie was recommended by an old friend, but also by a reader here in the comments on my last movie post.

I haven’t seen the play—indeed, I hardly see any plays—so I was keen to see something by August Wilson. My overall take: it was a good movie but not a great one, seeming to me to be too much of a play with episodes and set pieces that, while very well acted, seemed contrived, as if the screenwriter was trying to cram too much into a 90-minute movie.

If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give any spoilers, but a brief summary is this: the movie is about power: the power that whites have over blacks, and how blacks try to fight it by asserting their own power. This theme is played out through two characters, the famous blues singer Ma Rainey, acted terrifically by Viola Davis, an Oscar winner. It’s 1925, and Ma has traveled north to Chicago with her lesbian lover and young nephew to record a few blues songs for a “race records” outfit. (The cinematography and re-creation of Chicago in that era is wonderful.) Having been at the mercy of whites all her life, Ma realizes that she is a gold mine for the white owners of the record company, and so demands to be treated like a queen. As she is the queen—of blues—the whites truckle before her, but only because she is a source of cash. She doesn’t come off as a likable person though, for she’s just plain nasty to everyone, black or white. If she’s to be the heroine of the movie, it didn’t work well. But maybe Ma Rainey really was a jerk.

Ma’s backed up at the studio by four black musicians, with the second protagonist being the trumpet player Levee, who has his own reasons to hate whites. Levee takes out his frustration in several ways, one of them being to make his own musical arrangements of Ma’s songs—something that she’ll have no part of. He also has ambitions to write his own songs and create his own band, a plan that the white studio owners have stymied. Levee is played by another terrific actor: the late Chadwick Boseman, who died last August of colon cancer, only 43 years old.

This is one movie that gives me trouble articulating why I don’t think it’s great, though it’s very good and you should see it. I suppose it’s because the pace is too fast, the language too quick and unrealistic (this was the problem with the execrable television show The Gilmore Girls, though the movie is far superior.) The movie, then, is a showcase for Davis and Boseman, each having episodes that made the movie seem play-like, and the dialogue pretty contrived. Boseman, for example, has three “telling” episodes: one in which he describes the incident that made him hate whites, another in which he curses God, arguing that no good god could exist given what Levee’s seen, and the final scene, which I won’t spoil.

Boseman’s acting is wonderful, and he’s been justly celebrated for his range and ability. I suppose I would have liked to see a longer movie with a slower pace, slower dialogue, and with an ending that didn’t seem so contrived.  Oh, and there wasn’t nearly enough music, but I guess since it’s an adaptation of a play, that’s understandable. After all, it’s about power, not the music itself.

But I do recommend it; it’s far better than most stuff you can see these days. After I finish this I’ll go look at the Rotten Tomato reviews, which I’ve avoided reading (and note them in an addendum below) to see if how many critics agree with me.

In the meantime, here’s the movie’s trailer, Netflix’s “making of” video, and a recording by Ma Rainey herself.

Netflix’s seven-minute “making of the movie” video, with biographical information about Rainey.

Here’s the original recording, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, recorded in Chicago, but in 1927, not 1925.

And here’s her band (photo from the link right above).

ADDENDUM: Okay, I went to Rotten Tomatoes after I wrote the above, and found that the movie has about the highest critics’ rating possible: 99% (233 critics!), with 80% of the audience liking it. (Click on screenshot):

Of the 68 “top critics” who weighed in, only two—Angelica Jade Bastién from New York Magazine and Rafer Guzman from Newsday—didn’t give it the high “tomato” rating. Bastién is far harder on the movie than I am (she’s black, by the way), and you can read her review to see why she didn’t care for the movie at all (I also see that she agrees with me that Davis’s character is not a sympathetic one). An excerpt:

I don’t want to obscure the rot at the heart of this film. August Wilson may be a beloved playwright, as evidenced by how keen Hollywood is to adapt his work, but Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s version of Ma Rainey does nothing to show us why this is the case. The script touches on issues that have the potential to be powerful — Black intra-racial relations, the tension between northern and southern Black folks, the ways Black artists must navigate white power structures that seek to strip their work bare. But these issues are merely touched on, and the dialogue that otherwise surrounds them is stilted, laughable even. Take, for example, the moment when Levee, in seducing Dussie Mae [Ma’s lover] asks, “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” A line that deserves an eye roll is instead received as if it is the height of seduction. Ma Rainey has the weight of Hollywood power players behind it, but it seems incapable or uninterested in taking advantage of the delights of what film can do.

I’m still keen to watch movies these days, so recommend some others below.

Three brief movie reviews

December 27, 2020 • 2:15 pm

I mentioned the new 99-minute movie “Mighty Ira” the other day: it’s a documentary about former ACLU head Ira Glasser.  Here’s the trailer:

I quite liked it, and recommend it if you have any interest in civil liberties. It’s a montage of clips about a diversity of subjects, centered on Glasser’s work with the famous Skokie case of 1977, when the American Nazi party challenged the suburb of Skokie’s denial of their demand to march through the town (Skokie was largely Jewish). The ACLU, defending the Nazis, won, but the brownshirts didn’t march there, doing so in Chicago instead. The footage of these pathetic bigots is entertaining, especially when their Big March in Chicago is drowned out by shouting opponents exercising their right of counter-speech.

What’s worth noticing is that nearly everyone involved with the ACLU back then, including those who defended Nazis, were Jews. They had no love for National Socialism, but they loved civil liberties, and the articulation by Glasser and others of why they felt they had to defend the Nazis by itself makes the movie worth watching. Glasser and most of his ACLU colleagues were really in the organization to defend the civil liberties of blacks, and it’s sad to remember that the blacks and the Jews used to be friends.

But there’s a lot more. The intellectual clashes between William Buckley and Glasser are epic, especially when you realize that they liked each other (you can see Glasser taking the patrician Buckley on his first NYC subway ride).  Likewise, Glasser becomes pals with Ben Stern, a concentration-camp survivor who adamantly fought against the Nazis coming into Skokie. The final scene, in which Stern tells Glasser that he loves him anyway, is a weepy moment. There are bits about the recent trouble in Charlottesville, and a lot about baseball, for Glasser was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan—because of Jackie Robinson.  It wasn’t that Robinson was the first black man to play major-league ball, but simply because he was a world-class player who energized the team and made its fans go nuts. When they moved to Los Angeles, Glasser was bereft.

Anyway, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this movie to everyone, as there are no chase scenes or superheroes, but if you’re into civil liberties and free speech, and want to meet an icon who promulgated those values for many years, watch “Mighty Ira”.

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“Mank” is the nickname of the protagonist, Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who shared an Oscar with Orson Welles for the script of “Citizen Kane”. As the trailer below shows, it was filmed in black and white (we need more movies like that), and the cinematography and style hearken back to the Forties.

The topic is about Mank’s struggles to produce a script on short notice, and his battles with Welles for credit. But there’s a lot of narrative about the studio system in Hollywood, and so we also get to see Mank’s battles with Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer (like the movie above, most of the big players were Jewish), as well as his schmoozing (and falling out) with William Randolph Hearst, who of course was one of the inspirations for “Citizen Kane”.

There are two excellent performances here: Gary Oldman’s, who plays Mank (often drunk), and Amanda Seyfried’s, who plays Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress who was the hostess at San Simeon. It’s a testament to Oldman’s versatility that he can transform from Winston Churchill (he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Winnie in “Darkest Hour”) to a sarcastic and alcoholic screenwriter, completely believable. Do see this movie, and if you don’t believe me, go look at the critics’ reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

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I didn’t know that Sarah Silverman did a serious movie, and of course, being smitten with her, I had to see it. Sure enough, the movie, “I Smile Back“, is five years old, and I hadn’t heard of it. Perhaps that’s for a good reason, for while it was a watchable movie, it wasn’t a great one. It chronicles the degeneration of a seemingly perfect marriage between Silverman and her tolerant husband (they have two kids), with the degeneration due entirely to Silverman’s problems with alcohol, drugs, and depression.  Here’s the trailer:

While the plot is no great shakes, I have to say—and this isn’t because I love her—Silverman gives a really good performance. Perhaps it’s because The Divine Sarah has had her own lifelong struggles with depression, but her portrayal of the misery and malaise of the ailment is absolutely convincing.  If you’re a Silvermanophile like me, I’d recommend the movie, but don’t expect something Oscar-worthy.

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Of course all of this is also to induce you to list and say a few words of the movies you’ve seen lately. It’s been a tough year for film, and the last time I was in a theater was to see Ford V. Ferrari (also a good movie). If you’ve seen something good (or bad, and want to warn us off), please comment below.

Peter Jackson’s new Beatles movie

December 23, 2020 • 2:15 pm

I was so excited to hear that Peter Jackson, who’s a terrific director (did you see “They Shall Not Grow Old”?), was doing a documentary on the Beatles—one based on a lot of previously unseen video and unheard audio. Yes, Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary will be released on August 27 of next year, and I’ll be the first in the theater (assuming that theaters are open then!).

Just as a teaser, Jackson has released four minutes of new Beatles footage (below), which is remarkable. For once you can see that it wasn’t all work in the recording studio—that the boys were really having a good time. What a great job—if you have the talent!

As CNN notes:

“The Lord of the Rings” director is assembling the film drawing from 56 hours of previously unseen footage of the band shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1969, as well as 150 hours of audio. The project is currently scheduled to hit US theaters in August.

“Get Back” is described as the story of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star when the Fab Four were preparing for their first live show in two years, showcasing their camaraderie and spirit as they wrote and rehearsed 14 new songs.

And from Rolling Stone:

Featuring footage shot in early 1969 — including clips from the band’s legendary 1969 rooftop concert in London — the film promises to be “the ultimate ‘fly on the wall’ experience that Beatles fans have long dreamt about — it’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together,” according to Jackson.

Get Back will build on 1970’s Let It Be — also shot during those sessions — but will present a much sunnier vision of the Beatles’ breakup. As Ringo Starr said in a release: “There were hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the version that came out. There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that. I think this version will be a lot more peace and loving, like we really were.”

See if you can spot a very young George Martin in there. Yoko is omnipresent, of course, sitting right by John in the studio during the recording.  And, amidst all the pandemonium and fun, I wonder if anyone thought about how musical history was being made.

It’s going to be a great movie!

Five movies about lesbians, with a brief review of “Ammonite”

December 6, 2020 • 10:00 am

Yesterday I watched the new movie Ammoniteloosely based on the life of Mary Anning (1799-1847), famous as one of the first women paleontologists and fossil collectors, as well as an influential scientist whose ambit was limited because of her sex. Anning found some of the best pterosaur and plesiosaur skeletons known, though details of her private life are sketchy. Ammonite attempts to fill in those details by confecting a romance between Anning and a rich London lady put out to apprentice with her, a completely made-up story for which there’s not a scintilla of evidence. But never mind—it’s fiction, Jake.

I realized, after I watched the movie, that it was one of five good movies I watched in the last year about lesbian relationships. All are worth watching, and in all of them (and I’ll try not to give spoilers), a married/betrothed woman falls in love with a lesbian, and lives get overturned.

Here are the movies in order of when they were made. After a brief review of Ammonite, I’ll rank them from best to worst and show the official trailers. But I think all are worth watching (except perhaps Ammonite, which, despite its star power, isn’t that great, but certainly better than the comic book/sci fi/chase movies that dominate the screen):

Carol (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara
Disobedience
(2017), starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams
My Days of Mercy (2017) starring Ellen (now Elliot) Page and Kate Mara
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel
Ammonite (2020), starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan

I’m not a professional critic, so all I can do is give a layperson’s take on Ammonite. very brief plot summary, with a little bit of a spoiler: Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet), who lives with her mother in Lyme Regis, is a solitary and dedicated woman, collecting and selling fossils on the Jurassic coast. A gentleman drops into her shop to buy a fossil and then asks to follow her around and watch her work, for a fee. Anning, unwilling to have her routine disrupted, refuses.

The man returns with his wife, Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan), asking Anning to help relieve her malaise (perhaps caused by a miscarriage) by letting Charlotte apprentice with her instead, for Charlotte has been prescribed quiet and sea air. After Charlotte collapses, Anning takes her in and, gradually, teaches her the way of fossil collecting. Slowly, the women fall in love and then have sex, depicted rather graphically. After a month or so, Charlotte’s “rest cure” is ended and her husband summons her back to London.

Charlotte, unable to live without Anning, asks her to London, intending Charlotte to live with her and her husband, something Charlotte doesn’t know when she visits. Dedicated to her work as always, Anning turns down the live-in offer, but the ending is ambiguous—and that’s all I’ll say. (I’ll add, though, that, save for one of the movies, the endings of all these films are ambiguous.)

Of all the movies in the list above, Ammonite is to me the least satisfying. For one thing, it gives short shrift to Anning’s paleontological work. Yes, it shows her striding the shores near Lyme Regis, and finding and preparing fossils, but says little else about her science save a few-seconds shot of one of her fossils being labeled with a credit to a man.  To a scientist, at least, the dearth of science in the movie is disturbing. And I’ll add that it should be disconcerting to others, too, for, after all, why should we care about Mary Anning?

For if she was not the famous paleontologist she was, this would be a rather slow-moving and unengaging story of a romance. Given the dour personality portrayed by Winslet, there are few sparks, and while the sex scenes are, let us say, “vigorous,” one doesn’t feel drawn into the romance. The passion between the women, aside from the sex, seems laid on rather than growing from the story itself. That the romance is a fictional one doesn’t help, either.

Granted, both Winslet and Ronan are superb actors (both are Oscar nominees, with Winslet winning one), and give creditable performances; but the almost psychotic nature of new love, evident in the other four films, is missing. That’s what I mean by lack of “spark”. Perhaps British lesbians in the early 19th century were, in private, subdued in this way, but I can’t bring myself to believe that. Love is love, and should be even more passionate when it’s forbidden.

So that’s my brief review. Yes, see the movie, but don’t expect to be blown away. I’d put it at the bottom of my ranking of the five movies above. Here’s my ranking of all five from best to worst.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire.  I may be the odd person out here, but I think this movie is a masterpiece—one of the best I’ve seen in quite a few years. I wrote a brief review here.

Carol

Disobedience (perhaps ranked too highly because it’s about Orthodox Judaism and thus has a special interest for me. It’s not far behind Carol.)

My Days of Mercy

Ammonite

And here are the trailers for all the movies, with two for Ammonite.  If you’ve seen any of these movies, please weigh in below.

Ammonite:

Disobedience:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

Carol:

My Days of Mercy:

 

A quick book review, movie review, and a new movie to see

September 20, 2020 • 1:30 pm

The book: I just finished this book for the second time (I read an earlier edition without the introduction; click on image for Amazon link):

This is the memoir of pilot, horse trainer, and adventurer Beryl Markham (1902-1986), recounting her years in Africa with the Happy Valley set, which included Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa), her estranged husband Baron von Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton, Blixen’s lover (and, as I discovered, also Markham’s). The book wasn’t that popular when it came out in 1942, and went out of print, only to be rediscovered by Ernest Hemingway and brought back into print in 1982. Markham, who returned to Africa at fifty, then enjoyed a few years of literary fame before she died.

She deserves that fame based on this book, as it’s a wonderful and beautifully written memoir—a perfect complement to Out of Africa, published five years earlier. Both describe the same part of Africa (Kenya) at the same time, but one from the vantage point of a coffee-farm owner and the other from an aviator. They both approach the memoir not as a seamless narrative, but as a series of incidents, each illuminating one moment of time. And both describe women who refused to accept the subordinate status afforded to females at the time, and thus are, as they say, “empowering.” Both women were brave and admirable, and you need to read both books, especially if you love good prose.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Out of Africa. That’s because at times Markham’s prose becomes a bit—well, not exactly purple—but strained as she strives for literary effect.  I’m not sure if she was trying to match the graceful writing of Blixen (I’m not even sure if Markham had read Out of Africa), but she didn’t have the tools to do what Blixen did.  For example, she could not have matched what I consider one of the finest set pieces in English literature: the description in Out of Africa of Finch Hatton’s grave, which I reproduced here.

That said, the book is still well above most memoirs, and deservedly a classic. Read it soon.

The movie: This documentary from 2018, deserves the high ratings it got on Rotten Tomatoes (a 94% critics’ rating).

Nearly two hours long, it’s not long enough, for Williams contained multitudes. It’s full of clips showing the man’s quicksilver mind, riotous humor, and embellished with remembrances from his wives and friends, especially Billy Crystal. I thought Williams was always “on”, but it becomes clear that when he was with his family, he was very quiet and withdrawn, perhaps recharging. As we know, he killed himself at 63. Many say this was unexplainable, but he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was furious at not being able to control his thoughts; as he said, “I need to reboot my mind.”

The one omission here is that Williams’s movies are given short shrift, and they were an important part of how many people remember him: Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Awakenings, and so on. That alone is a wonderful c.v., but then there was also the comedy onstage and on television. The guy was sui generis, fizzling with energy, and, as they say, we won’t see his like again. But you can see it in this wonderful HBO documentary.

Upcoming movie. I haven’t seen the new movie Ammonite yet (it comes out in the U.S. November 13), but reader Kurt sent me a five-star review from the BBC. You’ve likely heard of paleontologist Mary Anning, and this tells her story, embellished with a fictionalized lesbian romance. Wonderful casting: Anning is played by Kate Winslet, and her protege and later lover Charlotte Murchison, (a real person who was friends with Anning) played by the great young actor Saoirse Ronan. I’ll reserve judgment until I see it, of course, but I will see it. Here’s a trailer:

An enthusiastic movie recommendation

September 10, 2020 • 9:00 am

During my allotted reading time yesterday, I treated myself to a movie instead. I’ve seen many of the most recent ones that were highly regarded, so I Googled “best movies 2019” and came up with one I hadn’t seen that got wide acclaim: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire“, a French film directed by Céline Sciamma.

I won’t give a spoiler, though there’s really just one spoiler. The film, which takes place in the mid-18th century, stars Noémie Merlant as Marianne, a painter who travels to an island off of Brittany to paint Héloise, played by Adèle Haenel, who recently left a convent. Héloise’s mom, the Countess, wants to marry her off to a man in Milan, and to do so she must send a picture of her daughter to the prospective groom. As there were no photographs then, the Countess commissions a painter to come to the island to do the job. But since Héloise doesn’t really want to get married to the guy, she refuses to sit for any painters. Marianne, then, is instructed to act as a companion for Héloise, observing her surreptitiously during the day so she can paint a portrait at night.

Although the film really has just four characters, all women (there’s also a servant girl in a subsidiary role), Marianne and Héloise occupy nearly all the screen time, and the film’s about how their relationship develops as they spend time together. Eventually they fall in love, Marianne confesses her mission and Héloise decides to sit for her portrait. The denouement of the two-hour film is sad but moving.

Here’s the official trailer:

And a clip from the movie showing the women during a portrait session:

I was surprised that this movie wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. It’s mesmerizing, the acting is superb, and the cinematography is beautiful (it won Best Screenplay at Cannes).

This is a slow-paced movie about characters, not events, and won’t appeal to those who go to action movies that consist of one long chase scene (the default blockbuster these days). Rather, it’s like “Tokyo Story”, in my view one of the best movies ever made but one that I hesitate to recommend to friends because there’s no action, and some have found it boring.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” blew me away, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, though I don’t think it got much publicity. It certainly did get approbation: here’s the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and audience’s summary (click on screenshot):

You can see a very positive video review here.

If you’re a movie fan (the kind they call “cinemaphile”), you’ll like it a lot. See it online.

And be sure to put in the comments the names and a few words about movies you’ve seen lately—good or bad. Since nearly all theaters are closed because of the pandemic, nearly all of us must be watching our movies online.