January 25, 2015

Still No American Sniper

Sorry, I remain in no position to write about "American Sniper," which I hope to see this coming week. I will say right here and now, even without the benefit of knowing what I'm talking about, that it's inconceivable to me, just the horrendous thought of a young guy being made into a sniper--a killing machine, really, with no other reason for being. That said, I am nonetheless interested in the movie. I want to sort of share in the misery the young people WE send to become so terribly altered must (at least, some of them) feel. We know many, if not all, of them do suffer: they return so damaged, and WE do so little to help them. To stay within military context, I see it as something of a "duty," actually, since I have never in my life had to endure anything more severe than a Morning After. I'll let you know.

But for a moment, back to the debate about seeing or not seeing biopics and other films "based on a true story," I report that another reader sent a link to Bill Moyers' blog, on which he says that we should see the movie, because it is powerful and moving and "the closest any movie has come to what the real depth of the whole question is"--or something to that effect. Moyers, who, as you know, was an advisor and press secretary and, well, disciple of, LBJ, points out the film's faults, and they are huge faults, deliberately misleading by the director to fit her own purposes--outright lies, to tell it like it is. But Moyers thinks that it's important to see the movie, if for no other reason than to get very near to the awful hatred whites had and still have for blacks, and to see how terribly they were treated at the time. (Of course, he goes on to demolish Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and others of that, uh, mind-set, but we're not talking politics.)

And yet another correspondent writes that, whatever, he'll go to see a good movie just for the pleasure of it, just to see it--just to have something to do, I guess. I have no problem with this philosophy, which, as you'll recall, has been shared by several readers on this subject. Those who understand, as does another reader in the capital of the Great State of Texas, that it's just a movie, and, he writes, "I would never go to see a biopic of a person, thinking I would come away with any true knowledge of what he was like," will be just fine, enjoying all the in's and out's of moviemaking, the successes and failures of the actors' performances, and picking out the fruit from the pit. The rest of us, though, who believe everything we read, hear or see? Stick to "Singing in the Rain."

Further, I still need to write just a little about "Inherent Vice." And I will, but not today.

Oh, let me add this, which I meant to add in an earlier post, but forgot: I had two or three responses from those who saw "The Imitation Game," then wrote that they left the theater and researched the story. My question was to be how did they research it? As in, I wanted to see if their responses would help me make the point that they surely went to the Internet--Google, Wikipedia--rather than, sob, sob, the library. Am I right? The reason I'm betting that way is that me and Google are tight!

January 23, 2015

Can't We All Just Go to the Picture Show?

The responses to my post about biopics continues to draw response from thoughtful readers, who, as it happens, are this blog's only readers--thoughtful ones, who care about the issues, so long as we can GET TO THE BOTTOM OF IT before Happy Hour.

You'll recall that I've simply been wondering if biopics should even be attended, since they can only be counted on to mislead; they are (in my mind as I write) never fully on the money, but willfully misleading--the director's "spin"; one false bit of information can tarnish both a subject and a historical fact--will tarnish, in fact.

Like most of you, I've loved many biopics in the past, even what most seem to have found execrable--Oliver Stone's "JFK." Now, I am--or was--something of a conspiracy buff, and certainly am "of that time," so I had a fairly solid foundation of fact when I saw that movie. I have experts who are very near and dear to me, who hate that film. It may be the reason they've sworn off biopics altogether. Indeed, other than Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," "JFK" could be as an egregious example of questionable biopics as we could find--of course, what did "Paint Your Wagon" do for the Gold Rush?

A close and constant reader, who had offered her reason for seeing "The Imitation Game" earlier--she had read the reviews (critical) I'd mentioned, so felt polished enough to sift wheat from chaff--writes again, saying that she "forgot to mention" that, following the movie, she, as well as others of her acquaintance, researched the story even more. Bravo! But, she quickly adds that she knows very few will do the same. Finally, she says that she is such a movielover that she will continue to see, basically, whatever she wants to see, knowing not to take those films at face value. "I just love the movies." Well, I do, too, and yet I've just promised not to see another biopic. Hmmm? We'll see how long I can hold out. So far, so good. I have NO interest in stuff like "The Roosevelts" or anything else by Ken Burns, or that Bill Murray travesty about FDR (and one of these days, if I lose what little sense of propriety I have left, I am liable to go OFF on Bill Murray his ownself). I may be pretty safe, so far as biopics go, unless another "Ghandi" hits the screen, but, well, with Richard Attenborough R.I.P.'ng for a little while longer, at least, I'm even all right there.

Other readers--and both history and movie buffs (not to mention POLITICS)--write: "We agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the harm these so called biopics are doing--not only to those historical figures who are maligned, but also to young people who think they are viewing `the truth' and have no historical perspective to set them straight."Absolutely! And that's the whole point. Thank you.

So, the conversation continues. In the last post, I mentioned that I would see "American Sniper" soon, and I will, for all sorts of reasons. But, again, it, too, is "based on a true story." But I will go in, having read that story, having followed the war, having followed Eastwood (having even cried my eyes out, watching Clint mumble--like Charlton Heston did in Michael Moore's film--for 10 minutes to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention when Romney was nominated. So, I'll go into "Sniper" well-versed and ready. My correspondent, who says studied Turing both before and after seeing "Imitation Game," has also seen "Sniper."

"As the credits rolled at the end, a man in the audience stood at attention," she writes. "It is powerful."Semper fi!

And I meant to write a bit about "Inherent Vice," which I saw yesterday, right before I saw Miranda July read at Powell's, but I'm out of time and energy. Coffee break!

January 21, 2015

Responses to Biopics Post

My post--"Let's Boycott these Biopics"--resulted in quite a little bit of "yessing" and "noing". To remind those of you, who (surely not) may be a bit fuzzy on the particulars of the prior post, I wrote, referring primarily to "Selma" and "The Imitation Game" (and more casually, since I have not--and will not--see it, "The Theory of Everything"), that these biopics are invariably so twisted this way and that to better fit the director's message that they are actually harmful, not only to the subjects of the story but to us, the viewers, who at an almost 100 percent level, go into a biopic not knowing much if anything really about that subject, then leave, thinking we know all about her/him/it when, actually, what we know is at best misleading and, more often than not, flat-out wrong.

One constant and sharp-eyed reader wrote that she will continue to go to the biopics, and that she "knew more about Alan Turing when (she) left the movie" than she'd known when she went in. This person had read both reviews I mentioned in that earlier post--an NYRB piece which blasted the Turing film, and Maureen Dowd's attack on "Selma" in her column in The NYT. But, still, this reader feels she learned something about Turing she had not known. And I won't argue. I know that she did. I'll only wonder what did she learn, when most of what was shown was not real.

Another respondent's position was that the biopics were absolutely worth seeing, even necessary, because, after seeing the film, the viewer could then pursue her own study of, in this instance, Turing and find out for herself what the truth is. All right. Sure, that's exactly what a viewer could do, but which viewer is that, I wonder? Do we really believe that more than, oh, one viewer out of the million who see it will, indeed, go on and get to the bottom of it?

Another agreed with me entirely, noting that there were so many holes in "Imitation" that the whole film leaked out into her popcorn. That's a good one, and a good way to think of it. Billed and ballyhoo'd as being "based on a true story," and filling the screen at movie's end with misleading statements about what happened in the future, to Turing and in the war, et cetera, "Imitation" is just another chance to kill a couple hours and eat a bag of $7 popcorn. That would be A-okay, if that's how it were to be advertised. Wouldn't it?

And yet another long-time reader expanded our topic, noting that he refuses even to attend films like "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," believing that those sorts of--well, basically, biopics, too, huh, in their way?--movies come off to him as having been vetted by our defense industry. I, by the way, liked both those movies, even though I have a brief attention span for Ben Affleck as an actor. I do admire him as a person, after his hugely public and embarrassing Jennifer Lopez flop, and his rebirth as a movie maker and actor--a force, I think.

Interesting point, but how far are we to take it? I'm not sure, but we do have a ready example to probe and poke. "American Sniper" opened last weekend. It was the biggest opening WINTER weekend in movie history, eclipsing Mel Gibson's (remember him?) "The Passion of Christ," which remains the biggest non-English box office success of all time. Now, "American Sniper" is--here we go again--"based on a true story." It's taken from either the diary or at least the much-talked-about experiences of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal(?) from Texas--at least, Texas is where he went to die; he was killed by another veteran Kyle was trying to help through PTSD. I plan to see "American Sniper," but I don't expect to come away, knowing much, if anything, more about snipers or the war than I do now, which is not all that much, I admit. But for our discussion, what about "Sniper" -- or "Zero Dark Thirty" or so many others? I mean, how many filmgoers believe they know all about the West and the Indians because they saw "The Searchers"? Is that a weak example? Look at it this way: We know that the director, Clint Eastwood (one of my all-timers), is a right-wing, Republican war hawk. Suppose that the real truth about this sniper--or snipers in general, or the war, or this or that--makes him (them, the war, the Republicans, whatever)--look bad. Do we think Eastwood's film will show it that way? Can we just enjoy something for the sake of taking a load off, for God's sake? Hmmm! Maybe, maybe not. Does it depend on the "spin" we prefer, the way our minds are set?

And, finally, does it really make any difference? Artists--from Rembrandt to Julian Schnabel (I suppose)--draw and paint and dribble what they do, intending for the viewers of that art to learn something about, not the art so much, but about themselves. They try to do what they do in some different, some way new, than whatever way it has been done before so that our eyes will be opened, and then our minds. Can we say that, if "The Imitation Game" causes some viewers to have their eyes opened to, oh, say, the government-sponsored cruelty of homophobia "back in the day" (though not all that long ago), it has accomplished something? Something worthwhile, no matter that most of the information about Turing's homosexuality and so forth and so on, was wrong? Maybe. Certainly, artists have no responsibility to "the truth," whatever the truth might be; only to the truth as they see it. Misrepresentation in the movie theater is, as yet, not a felony.

But still, somehow, I feel the citizens of this world--all of us--are being mistreated, wronged. We are so overwhelmed, and constantly, by bad information, so much of it willfully bad information, that lines must be drawn. We're not all so progressed and elevated that we will leave "Selma" and go to the library to learn the real facts about LBJ, Civil Rights and Martin Luther King. If we were so progressed, I guess, the film could not have been made the way it was made: the "message" would have to be changed because we'd know. But that director had an axe to grind, and she ground it on the poor old head of LBJ, who has plenty of weak spots, without someone who hates him, hated Vietnam, hates politicians, Texans, whatever--or who simply thinks her "spin" makes for a better story--fabricating another one. Civil Rights is not one of those weak spots. She misleads us on purpose, but how many who see "Selma" will ever know that?

On the other hand, what will we be left with? Woody Allen? Oops! I learned all I know about Cuba from "Bananas." Will we find, after seeing "Still Alice," that Alzheimer's can be easy enough, perhaps even beautiful, at the end? Is "Whiplash" (one of my favorites) "based on a true story?" What about "The Departed"? Is that the way police departments really behave? Please do not tell me I was hoodwinked in "Ali"!

Hmmm? Help me, someone! Help me GET TO THE BOTTOM OF IT!

January 18, 2015

Let's Boycott These "Biopics"

I have no excuse. I am simply a slow learner. Finally, though, I've learned. For me, no more "biopics," those "based on a true story" movies that are totally misleading, but why? To satisfy some self-proclaimed "artiste's" vision--ALL CAPS VISION. No! These biopics must be condemned as being willfully wrong.

I speak of "The Imitation Game" and "Selma," big movies on countless screens right now, being lauded as "real." Both have even been nominated for Best Picture, along with--hey, another one!--"The Theory of Everything," which is shot full of so many holes it will leak off the screen into your lap and soak your popcorn. And guess what? Yes! Another Best Picture nominee!

Now, I thought for a long, long time--forever, in fact, just not including now--that, well, so what, it's ART! Art does not have to be right, correct, for God's sake. It just has to be, well, art. But I apologize. I've been full of beans all this time. It is just not right for a filmmaker to KNOWINGLY mis-portray even LBJ, for example. And the director of "Selma" is adamant, even rude, about having done so. The story is what she wanted to make of it. "I'm not a documentarian," she said, among other equally ridiculous--well, just a minute, Mike. Until now, you've been on her side. She, too, in other words, needs to wise up.

I have, BTW (I must quit using all these uber whatever whatevers because I know how far ahead of the pack I am when it comes to these whatever whatevers--what do you call them, these BTW's, these TMI's?), or will soon, include two links. Click on them, and read about "Selma" and "The Imitation Game," and see what you think.

It's not enough for these filmmakers to mislead us, to have us leave the theater, saying, "I didn't realize that LBJ was actually not in favor of pushing for Civil Rights," or "Man, that Alan Turing! Was he a goofball or what?" We even come away, believing that the (admittedly egregious) British government drove Turing to commit suicide, when, according to the latest and most exhaustive study of his life, he may well have killed himself accidentally, during an experiment with cyanide. Yes. But, well, you can read it yourself, if you click on these links.

So, from now on, no "biops" for me. I swear. No "42" even. Nope. I don't care if it IS just a sports movie...the thing is, it's not. It's supposed to be real life, history. I am dumb enough, without having some smartass wannabe auteur lie to me, tell me everything I don't need to know about Jackie Robinson.

I just now asked myself if these biopics and these directors are any different, any better, than, oh, say, the Texas Textbook Selection Committee, which is constantly, and justifiably, the brunt of attack from the rest of the country for trying to rearrange the facts in that state's science and history books. Hmmmm.

What is ART's responsibility to the truth?



January 17, 2015

Something Grand Will Remain

Today, in The New York Times, I came across two stories about the resurgence of old movie houses, one in Serbia, which, scheduled by a developer for demolition, has been occupied for six weeks by movie activists (count me in!) determined to not only stave off the demolition (a protest which, the story pointed out, won't be successful) but to also use the occupation as demonstration of the importance of movies, ie: art and art houses, to our culture, to our very life. Architecture, you know, counts. Go to a movie here at, say, The Hollywood, a historically designated non-profit movie theater, and another at, oh, The Regal Fox Tower downtown. I swear you could see Dumb and Dumber To at The Hollywood and wind up with a better experience than you'd come away with, having seen Blade Runner at The Fox. That's the importance of these great landmarks.

The second story is set in NYC itself. Majestic historic movie theaters, abandoned or in some other way in decline, are being reclaimed. My subscription to the Times has expired and I'm loathe to re-up, so all I know at this point is the headline and first few lines AND the picture of the interior of one of these theaters. I'm without words to describe its wonder. I mean, there are many old theaters here in Portland that have been saved and refurbished and are very active, and they are great. But take a look at just this one shot and get, once more, a whiff of what it is that makes New York City like a swan in the barn yard.


I'm just reading Rebecca Solnit's newest, "The Faraway Nearby," and thinking of the way visual art can, at its best, be literature, be actually read--be a part of the thread of the story that is our world and our life, the thread that ties this world together, that, indeed, makes this world. She writes about the viewer's responsibility to see what the artist intends for her to see, about the necessity that stories be a give and take between teller and listener. She writes that "hearing" is not the same as "listening." We hear, whether we want to hear or not. We listen only if we want to. Here comes the word through the labyrinth that is our inner ear. Without doubt, we'll "hear" it. But if we want to "listen," to understand and to take part, we meet that sound, that word, halfway--and so should we with visual art.

I have a friend here who is expert at (at? with? in?) art, or knowing about art--as well as literature and music, and, even, Paris and hockey; smart guy. Just before Christmas, he and his wife, along with his sister and brother-in-law, went to Paris, where, he says, if he had any money, he would live. He took them to the Louvre. He knows it like the back of his hand. They spent seven hours in the Louvre. None of them got tired of it. They saw the art. My friend helped them see it, hear and read it. They'll never forget it, nor will he--and for that matter, neither will I. At least, I haven't forgotten it yet.

Can't say that about too much, though, but I'm hanging in there, and right now I'm suggesting that "empathy" is as imperative in our understanding of art as it is in our understanding of our fellow citizens and their suffering and problems and even their successes. We have to act, if we are to hear what they are saying. Otherwise, it's another tree down in the forest, all by itself. What a waste!

January 15, 2015

Has It Come To This?

Several days ago, flossing, a crown popped off one of my remaining ragged teeth. Expecting sympathy--no, that's not right; I know, after all these years, not to expect THAT--I said, "A crown popped off one of my remaining ragged teeth." Susan said, "At your age, you should just stop flossing."

Has it come to "just stop flossing?" just stop, I don't know, eating? May as well be now as later, I guess. Maybe, if I follow Susan's suggestion, I'll trade in my remaining ragged teeth for $230. Hey, I can live with that, if barely.

But I've written before, about "last things," about our friend who bought a new car, got it home, realized it might be her last  car, and said, in that case, she wished she'd bought something "a little more sporty."

I know what she means. We bought a vacuum cleaner a couple weeks ago. I think we might have written about it--the first one we were shown was almost $1600? As we stood there, stunned, to put it lightly, me thinking something like "$1600? That's what it cost me to go to COLLEGE!"(And I got my money's worth.) Susan said, you guessed it, "This is the last vacuum cleaner we'll ever buy." When she said those words, I thought of our friend and her new car, and, well, that expensive vacuum cleaner surely was mighty "sporty." No, we didn't buy it. We're more the old-fashioned Hoover types.

(As I write this, BTW, Susan is sitting beside me with a review of a best-seller about old age and death, and regularly reading to me particularly impressive passages from it. Again, Has It Come To This? I mean, every night?)

Back to that crown that popped off one of my remaining ragged teeth, the dentist charged me $230 to glue it back on. Five minutes. I've read, in John McPhee's "Coming Into The Country," about a guy in Alaska who had an abcessed tooth and pulled it out with pliers, all by himself, in a freezing cabin, etc. etc. You've read similar stories, and wondered, I'll bet, how in the world could a guy do something like that. I thought of that chapter in McPhee's book when the dentist told me he'd rather build me a new crown for $1700. Somehow, I could have guessed it. I almost reached for the pliers, but opted for the $230. But still. I mean, what's next? Dentists always lead the league in most suicides, or did, once. Now, it's their patients.

Because We The Chosen are spoiled so rotten, having lived so loose and comfortably for so long, we expect not only sympathy, but almost whatever it is we want at the very moment we want it. My thought is, so? What's wrong with that? Unlike citizens of Spain or Mexico or Greece, for God's sake (or, I'll also wager, Russia...well, forget Russia, the Gulag and all), I pay my taxes. I deserve the best, especially since the best appears to also be my last.

All right, no pliers, but Super Glue? I've got to figure something out. Another crown popped off last night! And, no, Susan, I was NOT flossing!

January 14, 2015

Variety Is the Spice of Life -- Isn't It?

Watching today The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing's invention of a computer that broke the Enigma Code the Nazis used in WWII and was considered impenetrable, I could not avoid thinking of how rudely we treat those who are not like "us." We see it so clearly now in the racism that cannot keep from creeping back from the shadows fired by the rage inspired by our having a black family in the White House. The Supreme Court, such as it is, will soon revisit the tired topic of same sex marriage. And before long, I have no doubt that Roe v. Wade will return to the stage. Always two steps forward, one back, and after the last 15 years, if I was not convinced of the truth in that old axiom, I've been baptized, turned into a believer.

But all that is old hat, not interesting, ho-hum, here we go again. The connection I made in the theater with the attacks dealt to Alan Turing, which led to his terrible suffering and ultimate suicide (in 1954, after the British courts gave him a choice: he could serve two years in prison for his homosexuality, or he could take a "hormonal" drug treatment to cure him of it - "oral castration," he called it. Oh, well.)

The thing is, Turing was all his life different. He was not only homosexual, and therefore a criminal under British, and I suppose our, law, and at least as bad if not worse, bullied in his childhood. He was also very strange. He was a mathematical genius, very nearly autistic, and absolutely antisocial (though the film has him almost come around, sort of, though at his best he was about like a fish living on dry land). He truly did not understand jokes or the idea of jokes, or even what people meant by what they said. There was no wiggle room with Turing, no feel for nuance or irony, no gray area at all. It was a black and white view of life.

From childhood, he was badgered and bullied and threatened and forced, because of his general weirdness, to live a secret life, and he lived it more often than not in fear. It was only in the recent past that he was granted a "pardon" - a pardon for what, we might ask - though he'd been dead for almost 50 years.

Okay, okay, the thing about my reaction? I do that all the time - no, I don't solve Enigma Codes, at least not regularly, nor do I harass homosexuals or make fun of math prodigies. I do, though, hardly see a person on the street or in the grocery store without passing some kind of judgment - "Fatso," or "El Stupido," or...well, whatever - as in "what a goofball" about, oh, it does not matter; could be anything or anybody. It's just one after another. And driving? Don't get me started!

Will we/I ever get past our harsh and knee-jerk judgments of others? I don't think so, but I'm trying. I am really trying. I still think "goofball" when I see, well, let's say a "sagger" - pants hanging at his knees - walking along, one hand constantly occupied, holding up his pants, but, hey, he's got the swagger going. What a moron. What a...

See, there I go again. It's not easy.

And Alan Turing didn't have it easy. If we are to believe what we are told at movie's end, because of his work, the war ended two years sooner than it would have (hmmm, which side would have won? We weren't told.), and 14 million lives were saved. How did they come up with that number? It must have been the result of statistics, pure numbers and math. Turing would know; that was the kind of thing he could understand. In fact, I think the reason lots of people love mathematics is that numbers do not change. This 2 is the same as that 2 over there. But come on. It's not that simple. Put this 2 with that 2 over there and we'll have 4, which is different from those 2's, and, yep, we've got trouble again.