I had a good time watching The Artist over the weekend, but from what I could tell, I may have been one of the few in the theater who did. You can hear a lot when you’re watching a silent film and what I could hear around me in the theater were sounds of impatience, if not exasperation. My companion says she timed someone’s huffing in our row at ten-minute intervals. I didn’t stay long enough to see whether these dissatisfied customers asked for their money back as they did in Liverpool. I presume that unlike those Liverpool audiences, everybody must know by now that they’re paying $10-plus for a black-and-white movie in which people speak in title cards – especially since it’s looking more and more as though that movie’s about to own Oscar Night.
Does it deserve to? About as much as The King’s Speech did last year. Which is not to say, by any means, that they’re the best pictures of their respective years. The dedicated movie dork in me loves the audacity of conceiving and releasing a vintage-1920s movie in this Wide Wired World we live in now. But too many questions follow me out of the theater: What exactly was George Valentin’s problem with the talkies? Are we to assume he’s self-conscious about his voice? (His accent? Really? Garbo’s accent was thick as sausage gravy and she did just fine in the sound era.) Does the whole generation gap trope really jibe with what’s known or remembered about the transition to sound pictures? (Rhetorical question. Singin’ in the Rain remains your first & finest big-screen source for what that historical interlude felt like.) And, yeah, I guess the same movie dorkiness that piqued my curiosity about The Artist makes me wonder, along with small multitudes, why it was necessary to appropriate Bernard Herrmann for an emotional peak when the original score seemed to be doing just fine on its own. But not even Kim Novak’s plaints on Vertigo’s behalf will keep the Academy’s dorks and would-be dorks from embracing a movie that embraces them – or at least their most romantic ideas about themselves.
With or without Oscar’s approbation, however, I suspect The Artist will have more people huffing and puffing in their seats, Not because it’s relatively minor (which compared to a half-dozen other 2011 movies, it is) or even slow, (which it is, in patches), but because we now have at least a couple generations of moviegoers who are conditioned to expect the pictures to do all their thinking for them. People have to work a little harder to acclimate themselves to a moving picture without sound and while that process may be a thing of joy to Dorks Like Me, it’s a trial for those whose biggest accomplishment last year was getting a bigger digital sound system for the home entertainment center.
Maybe if The Artist had taken off some of its sweetness and replaced it with more cinematic magic, it would have rewired audience’s expectations for film so much that they would have been inspired to seek out the masterworks of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. (Just saw the latter’s Safety Last again. There’s a lot more to that movie than a man hanging off a clock’s arm.) An Oscar sweep may still do the job, but I doubt it. Just as I wonder whether anyone will even try to make a cerebral spy thriller after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has collected a few Oscar nominations of its own, but from what I’ve seen and heard, bewildered and even angered audiences for its relative lack of distracting mayhem. (On its opening day in New York, I witnessed the abrupt, mid-movie departures of not one, not two, but three couples.) You want more explosions and tortures, fine. I’ll settle for that glorious moment when Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is sitting placidly in a car as its other occupants desperately try to smash a fly. All he does, impassive expression intact, is open a window and let the fly out. To me, THAT is movie magic. But then, Smiley’s a dork. And so am I.
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Someday, perhaps even in my lifetime, there will be a feature film about the Tuskegee Airmen where the triumph of African American pilots proving themselves in combat will be attentively offset by the absurdity of making them prove themselves in the first place. Such a movie likewise won’t need to “prove” anything to skeptical bean-counters or rouse audiences from their plush seats with gaudy rhetoric, adamant sincerity or noisy anthems. With the foxy humanism of a Jean Renoir and the informed passion of a Nicholas Ray, such a film would vividly display how these men weren’t just colored-people-in-khakis but the bright, bold vanguard of a generation that would, over time, help invent bebop and the civil rights movement. I have, so to speak, a dream. And such dreams don’t cost me anything.
But dreams are much more than a dime-a-dozen when they’re mass-produced in factories. Because it’s the toy-makers and not the humanists who now more than ever command Hollywood’s ever-wavering attention span, Red Tails is quite likely the best possible Tuskegee Airmen epic we can expect at the millennial hinge. Viewed solely as a product packaged with gleaming action figures, sleek machinery and keen visual effects, this George Lucas production turns out to be – let’s say – not unworthy of its (relatively) widespread publicity campaign or its ($19 million, as of this writing) respectable box-office take. Just as the original 332nd Fighter Group had to settle for bomber escort duty to gain even minimum appreciation, so do those of us awaiting a serious, nuanced Tuskegee Airmen movie have to settle for a gung-ho, by-the-numbers genre picture.
Granted, a gung-ho, by-the-numbers genre picture about black World War II aces is long overdue by about fifty to sixty years; this would be roughly about the time when the great American drive-in rotated such motley guts-and-glory fare as Attack, Battle Cry, Pork Chop Hill, The Steel Helmet, Flying Leathernecks, Hell is for Heroes and Red Ball Express, a 1952 Budd Boetticher film featuring a 25-year-old Sidney Poitier in just his third film role. These days, guts-and-glory WWII movies, as with the Western, tend to be put through the irony shaker after which they come out as Inglorius Basterds. African-American-oriented commercial films tend to have all or most irony sifted out, unless it’s unintentional or so-over-the-top-it’s-campy. Red Tails isn’t immune to the latter tendency, especially with its snarling, scar-faced Nazi villains and the grandiloquent things the movie makes Terrence Howard say to white and black officers alike. (At one point, he even tells one of the brothers to “man up,” which is so NOT 1945 it stings your ears.)
I refuse to believe that such excesses can be attributed to the sophisticated keyboards of screenwriters John Ridley (“Undercover Brother”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks”), though I imagine that both understand the dynamics of classic pulp to keep some “Terry and the Pirates”-style brashness out front. Nor can I quite bring myself to blame director Anthony Hemingway, whose hand I can detect more indelibly in those scenes where the guys are just hanging loose and trading quips, much like those deceptively languid interludes in the project courtyards one remembers from The Wire, where Hemingway and some of the movie’s actors plied their trade. (Hey, Bubbles, aint no skag in that fuselage! So what you doon messin’ with those planes?)
It’s possible that Hemingway may lack some compositional chops, but I still believe it’s Lucas who’s basically the command pilot for this mission, keeping the plot elements flying in tight formation, brushing aside as many wood chips in the dialogue as he wants to, but concerned mostly with keeping things simple and sweet enough for your nine-year-old to retain. In publicizing the film, Lucas even assumed the role usually reserved for aggrieved minority filmmakers by calling out the suits who refused right up till the movie’s release to consider its commercial potential. Some accused Lucas of using a cynical ploy. Whether it was or not, his grievance managed to mobilize minority moviegoers for whom the carpet-bombing of glossy trailers for Red Tails during the NFL playoffs weren’t enough of an incentive. So far it’s working. And besides, who among the studio elite would dare chide the Baron of Skywalker Ranch for being a whiny and/or uppity black man?
Other grievances, of course, have emerged, mostly from African American women who not only feel underrepresented in this mostly male enclave, but are insulted that the movie’s sole romance involves the squadron’s ace (David Oyelowo) with an Italian local (Daniela Ruah). I understand the feeling — and am especially charmed a reference in a review by my old friend Esther Iverem where she notes that the woman’s photo and a picture of a black Christ are the only decorations in the pilots’ cockpits: “Makes it seem like the Tuskegee Airmen were fighting for Jesus and white women. I don’t know whether to laugh or sigh.”
Other critics have chided Lucas and company for not emphasizing the racism enough. And on some level, it may only double the inequity that the great Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad has limited screen time as the lone surrogate for all the brass hats openly cheering for theTuskegee experiment to crash on takeoff. On the other hand, who needs to hear all those dreary tapes over and over again? Howard’s Colonel A.J. Bullard (really Benjamin O. Davis Jr., but you already knew that, right?) speaks for all of us in the Age of Obama when he says to theCranston character that (in essence) he doesn’t give a fuck what the palefaces think of his men.
So now that’s over with, we can just let the fellas fly. And as you’ve probably heard by now, the movie soars highest when the planes do. Though there isn’t anything here that matches the best set pieces in any of the six films in Lucas’ Skywalker Chronicles, it’s as gratifying as it is thrilling to watch black pilots carrying out barrel rolls, loops and dogfights without thinking of them as victims first. They’re not quite characters either. They’re more archetypes with quirks and foibles writ large (The One Who Drinks Too Much, The One Who Nods Sagely & Smokes a Pipe, The One Who Drawls Down-Home Jokes and so forth.) Once again, old genre conventions, like Massa’s old hand-me-downs, are presented to African Americans as fresh togs with the challenge to make them look brand new. As always, the talent manages to do just that, though not quite enough to make you forget that you’re watching action figures in a comic book. But that’s what movies are, mostly because of George Lucas. So we’ll settle for Red Tails until it’s time for the movies to grow up again.
Rooting for a baseball team is a heart-soul function nourished by one’s childhood or community, ideally both. Same goes for a college team in any sport. I am one with the point-of-view that says unless you went to the school you’re rooting for, you’re not a legitimate member of that school’s fan base. I’m willing to expand the rules to include spouses or children who attended or are attending the school in question. But that’s as far as I go.
Professional tackle football, on the other hand, is a different animal; a bigger, furrier, wealthier animal with retractable claws, a broad reach and a twelve-room mansion in Amagansett. The National Football League is a brand-name product with thirty-two littler brand-name products that, whatever their regional loyalties, have the same mass recognition as Colgate, Nissan and Olive Garden. Loyalty to the home team is, for many, a consummation devoutly to be wished. But no one seems to make a big deal if you glom onto a sexier, sleeker product playing the same day as your regional telecast. Hence, your Green Bay Packers fans shouting about the power of cheese in Albuquerque, your Philadelphia Eagles fans in a midtown Manhattan bar throwing darts at LT’s picture or Dallas Cowboys fans in Warwick, Rhode Island who wouldn’t venture south of Delaware on a bet.
So do I have to explain why, this weekend, I shall be rooting for theSan Francisco 49ers to beat the New York Giants? I might, rabbit, I just might…
I am not from the Bay Area, NoCal or anywhere else west of West Hartford,Connecticut. I have visited San Francisco a handful of times in my life and, as has been the case with many visitors before and since, came away every time more in love with it than before. I wanted to live there, maybe could have lived there, but didn’t. I have a few good friends and at least one relative living there now. But I have no ancestral link to Baghdad-on-the-Bay or any of the surrounding territories now served by BART.
Nevertheless, I am a 49ers fan of forty years standing. If you’re counting correctly, that pre-dates the Camelot that came into being thirty years ago last month with Joe Montana’s epoch-making heave at Dwight Clark’s out-stretched hands in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, to whom (as any true red-and-gold-veined Niner fan knows) the team used to perennially lose in perennially heart-breaking fashion in those same title games in the early seventies (and would again in the early nineties, but I digress…) I mention this at the outset to prove I didn’t clamber onto the bus when Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo put it into high gear. I remember rooting for John Brodie launching surface-to-air-missiles to Gene Washington and Ted Kwalik. I know who the Fudge Hammer was and read up on enough team history to know who constituted the Million-Dollar Backfield of the fabulous fifties. I never went to Kezar when the team played there, but showed the proper reverence when I actually encountered the place on one of those aforementioned visits. And I made the trip to Candlestick for the 1984 NFC title and screamed like a banshee when the Big Bad Bears were shut down 24-0.
We get it, you say. You like the 49ers. But why? A good question, given that I grew up in a New York Giants household. My late father lived and died and, every once in a while, rose from the dead by the G-Men since the distant days when you actually had to say, “New York Football Giants,” to distinguish them from the baseball version, Every fall, through several decades, men-in-blue named Andy Robustelli, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Alex Webster, Dick Lynch, Ernie Wheelwright, Homer Jones, Joe Morrison, Pete Gogolak, Carl “Spider” Lockhart, Dave Jennings, Harry Carson and many others showed up for Sunday dinner to either get chewed out or backslapped by the Old Man. In the wilderness period between 1964 and 1980, a.k.a. “Sixteen Years of Lousy Football,” Dad was especially fond of Lockhart, Carson and the now-forgotten Morrison, an all-purpose player whose dogged, unassuming excellence at the nadir of the Giants’ decline was a source of solace and pride.
My younger brother, however, had adopted the then-Los Angeles Rams as his team. I always assumed it was the helmet design that initially grabbed him. (And I admit, the logo’s coolness has traveled well to St. Louis, whether the team sucks or not.) As has been historically the case with younger brothers, he became protective of his Rams to the point of being utterly obnoxious about it. So one October afternoon during the 1969 season, I watched as his belligerence began to wither under the televised assault of a Rams-Niners game during which L.A., by far the better team that year, couldn’t shake their long-time rivals loose, even though the game ended with the Rams winning by a touchdown. I figured any team that could shut my brother up was worth adopting as one’s own.
It was an impulse buy that grew on me in a relatively short time. And here, basically, is why I kept faith: The 49ers played, to me, like artists. Their methods, on both sides of the ball, appealed to my aesthetic sense of what pro football should be: a ground game based on quicksilver slashing over head-first pounding, defense that dueled more with swift, martial-arts flair, especially in the backfield, than with relentless, stone-fisted pummeling. And an aerial attack that looked especially grand when going long and deep in several directions. Win or lose, that style of play was what made the 49ers distinctive, especially during the dynasty years when the Niners were habitually labeled – or, to some, slandered – with the classification of “finesse team.” Fine, we Niner fans insisted. We’ll be your “finesse team” as long as whatever you imply by that image keeps your teams from noticing how beat up and bruised they get from trying to outrun, outshoot and outwit our guys.
Now the 49ers are emerging from their own wilderness years – and doing so mostly with a hard-assed defense and a formidable ground game. As long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve never known a 49er team that entered the playoffs wielding the most dominant defense of any other NFC title contender. Not that our team has never engaged in effective brutality (or do you all need to be reminded after all these years of the Greatest Free Safety in Human History?) But this swaggering brick-wall-and-mailed-fist image is something one will have to get used to, especially now that it seems to have brought the team to the brink of its sixth Super Bowl.
Do I think they’ll get there? Of course I do. That last couple of drives Saturday almost screeched “Destiny!” I can already imagine an episode of “America’s Game” with Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, the latter still getting choked up over what I’m calling, “The Catch 3.” Who at this point can you imagine appearing in a comparable installment for any of the other four contenders? I thought not.
Still…oh, hell, as long as we’re here, let’s weigh all the possible combinations for the Rilly Big Shew in Indy:
1.) Pats vs. Giants – This is the re-match everybody wants, most especially the respective constituencies of each franchise; the former, to avenge the shocking denial of their bid for undefeated immortality; the latter, to prove to America, the world and maybe even (especially) themselves that the 2007 championship wasn’t a fluke. I’d throw a party for that contest, but you KNOW what happens to games that everyone wants to happen, right? The football gods, including former commissionersBell and Rozelle, believe granting fans’ fervent wishes makes mortals too soft, too spoiled. (In case you’re wondering, in a pinch, the G-Men can always count on my vote in situations such as this. I ate too many Sunday dinners with those guys to cut them out of my life completely.)
2.) Giants vs. Ravens – This is the re-match that hardly anyone cares about, not even the two franchises. Who’s left of the 2000 Giants on the team now? On the other hand, there are at least a couple of Ravens still active who played in that game. But what’s in it for them besides a sentimental journey to their finest hour? Which, for what it’s worth, won’t be repeated in this hypothetical bowl. Different teams, different times…
3.) Ravens vs. 49ers – Bro vs. Bro helped fill a couple of Thanksgiving pre-game TV dinners for a day or two. America, be honest: Do you really, really, really want two whole weeks of talking heads breaking down the Harbaugh family tree in search of exotic blood compounds? Me neither, so let’s move on.
4.) 49ers vs. Pats – Unimaginable – and hard to hype unless you want to make it all about Tom Brady playing against the team he grew up idolizing and, by the by, getting psyched to match his hero Joe Montana in the number of Super Bowl wins (four). You know what? That would be altogether ideal for the Niner Nation since the gasbags would be so busy talking about Brady that they’d barely notice the relatively anonymous slugs on the other side of the field. Guess who wins that one.
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Among the questions I used to get asked a lot on the back-nine of my newspaper days, “Who’s the best film critic working today?” didn’t pop up as frequently as, say, “What’s the best way to get into jazz?” or “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” or “What’s that on your shirt?” Nevertheless, I was always prepared with an answer – and very careful of whom I gave it to. After all, I was colleague to all these critics and friendly with most of them and if their egos were anything like mine, they would bruise like ripe peaches. And, no, I never answered with my name – as I remain certain that none of my aforementioned colleagues did either.
But throughout the time I worked as a full-time film reviewer, the answer I gave most often to that question was J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. I say “most often,” because on some occasions I would say Stuart Klawans of The Nation. Pinned to the mat, I might say that Jim — for that is what the “J” stands for — was number one and Stuart was one-A. It was that close. You will have a long wait for numbers two-through-fifteen. I’m still good friends with a lot of those people – though I’d be surprised if any of them would disagree with my numbers one and one-A, even if they didn’t always agree with their opinions. I didn’t either. But I always learned something from their reviews I hadn’t before, saw things differently enough to, if not change my mind, at least broaden my field of vision for the next movie. If I gave a slight edge to Jim, it may have been only because the Voice ran his reviews every week while The Nation runs Stuart’s less regularly.
Note the tense shift in that last sentence. Because, at least for the time being, only one of those guys is still in business.
The Village Voice announced yesterday it was laying Jim Hoberman off after almost 20 years as a staff writer. The once-proud weekly has already lost such longtime distinctive voices as Gary Giddins, Robert Christgau, Dennis Lim, Wayne Barrett, Deborah Jowett and Nat Hentoff (though he still contributes as a non-staffer) and I always thought it was a miracle that Jim lasted as long as he did after the corporation formerly known as New Times (now Village Voice Media) became the paper’s owners five years ago.
Jim said he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the decision and that pretty much sums up everyone else’s reaction, except mine. Nothing about this avaricious, crabbed, chronically short-sighted period in corporate publishing surprises OR shocks me anymore. As noted, I’m more surprised when someone like Hoberman survives in the prevailing atmosphere of perpetual cutbacks in both personnel and writing space. I’m even more surprised when people persist in seeing such upheaval and uncertainty as a relatively recent phenomenon. Wiser, larger heads than mine date the decline from the mid-1970s, when journalism was supposedly basking in post-Watergate glory. Someday, when we’ve touched the ocean floor on this era, we’ll be better able to look up and see precisely when we started tumbling.
I’m not too worried about Hoberman. His reputation should carry him to better places than the one he’s leaving, though I should hope it’s someplace where I could read him regularly. Maybe I shouldn’t hope. There aren’t many venues around where someone who thinks as deeply about movies as Jim will be given a platform. Nor am I optimistic that the exquisite sense of history with which Jim frames everything he writes will be seen as anything other than excess baggage in a media world, on- and off-line, where snark and knee-jerk contrarianism are better situated to grab the peanut galleries illegally downloading the latest 3D Hollywood product. When people wonder if I miss (or don’t) professional movie-going, I can now at least bring up this latest egregious insult to whatever’s left of said profession, though I admit it’s still amazing that these same people even bother to ask whether I miss it.
And I still don’t have a clear answer yet. Soon. Maybe.