Movie Reviews - 2011 postsFriday April 27, 2012
Movie Review: Footnote (2011)
This is some Old Testament shit right here.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp, but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s a comedy like the British version of “The Office” was a comedy. Laugh-out loud moments are rare because we’re often struck dumb with embarrassment and anguish.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not, and, as the movie begins, the father is a reluctant audience member at another ceremony in which his son receives another honor, and gives another speech honoring his father. He talks about how, in third grade, asked for his father’s occupation on a school form, he wanted to write “professor,” since that’s what he was, but his father insisted upon the plainer and—to him—more meaningful word “teacher.” When the speech is over, everyone stands and applauds. The last to stand and applaud, and the first to stop and sit, is Eliezer, who is lost in his own bitter world. Later, in bed with his wife, the son reveals that that childhood moment wasn’t so lighthearted. His father forced him to write “teacher” by grabbing his hand hard. His hand hurt for days.
Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins.
This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. He sits back on a nearby rock, stunned. We wonder what he’ll do. Whoop it up? No. He continues on his silent way; but at the library, bursting, he can’t do research, and instead he and an elegant older woman head outside. From a distance, we, and eventually his son, see them talking. He says more to her than he does to his family.
But there’s a wrinkle. The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
When Uriel discovers this, and, worse, discovers that the committee, with Prof. Grossman as its chair, wants him to tell Eliezer of the mistake, he’s distraught. He declines, then thinks about it, then declines, then thinks about it, then flatly refuses. “It will kill him,” he says. “It will bury our relationship.” He wants the committee to honor his father, as it should have done years earlier. He voices his father’s bitter complaints. Does Grossman hold a grudge against Eliezer? Uriel accuses him, shoves are exchanged, and Grossman, the distinguished, elderly professor, whose forehead has the deep folds of a shar pei, winds up on the floor with a bloody nose. In the end, Grossman acquiesces. On two conditions: Uriel must write the judges’ considerations; and Uriel must never again submit for the Israel Prize. The highest honor will thus be denied him forever.
Each section of the movie is given a chapter title—“The most difficult day in the life of Prof. Shkolnik” is the first, for example—and the next chapter is titled “The revenge of Prof. Shkolnik.” And who is this revenge against? His son.
You know that great juxtaposition scene in “The Godfather” when Michael becomes godfather at his nephew’s baptism as he become mafia godfather by taking out his enemies? The dual baptisms scene? It now has a rival. Writer-director Joseph Cedar cuts between the younger Prof. Shkolnik praising his father’s work in the faux judges’ considerations while the elder Prof. Shkolnik trashes his son’s work as unscholarly and unscientific to a visiting journalist (Yuval Scharf). As his son creates a triumphant fiction out of his father’s tattered career, the father trashes the son’s scholarship as fiction. It’s brutal stuff.
So what now? To save his father, Uriel has sacrificed some part of his reputation, which his father, triumphant, has now trashed from the high perch on which his son placed him. He can’t lash back. That would defeat the whole purpose. He can’t go back, either. Grossman’s in the way.
Both men live with long-suffering women. Earlier in the movie, Uriel’s wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), informs her husband , during one of his many complaints about his father, that Eliezer is at least true to himself and says what he means, while he tends to avoid confrontation. He’s certainly done that with the Israel Prize. Eliezer’s wife, meanwhile, hardly says a word. She merely exudes the pain of living with a silent, bitter man for nearly half a century.
So what now? Two things happen. At a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Uriel tells the truth about the Israel Prize, in a whisper, to his mother, and we immediately hate him for it. It’s a small, cowardly act—yet wholly understandable. If the universe won’t know the good he’s done, at least his mother will. But why burden her with this knowledge? Isn’t she burdened enough? Does he hope she will tell the father, who will recant his public criticisms of the son?
Moot point: Eliezer figures it out himself. He shows us what a true scholar he is by realizing the word “fortress” in the judges’ considerations is a word Grossman never uses but his son overuses. His research confirms this. He flashes back to the phone call, and how he was supposed to receive the formal letter the next day but didn’t receive it for several days. It all clicks. His son was supposed to get the honor but honored his father instead.
At the great hall where the ceremony takes place, we watch Eliezer watch dancers rehearse a surreal number, and for a moment we wonder whether he’s dreaming. But then it all becomes too ordinary for a dream. We get Uriel in the audience, suffering in silence as his father suffered in silence, estranged from his son as his father had been estranged from his son, not communicating with his wife as his father had not communicated with his wife. He spies the elegant older woman he’d seen with his father. What’s her deal? What’s their deal? Is it an affair? The movie doesn’t say. Things are unknowable. His father is unknowable. The ways of God are unknowable while the smallness of man is overwhelming. We’re all footnotes.
In the end, Eliezer, silent and bitter, waits to go onstage to receive his honor, just as, in the beginning, he sat in the audience, silent and bitter, waiting for his son to receive his honor. We wonder: Will he go through with this charade? Or will he remain true to himself, and to science, and to scholarly research? He listens to the accolades being told about him, the fabrications and fictions, and at that moment, as he’s about to be introduced, the movie ends. It cuts off, goes dark, rolls credits. The movie ends with Eliezer doing what he’s always done: waiting in the wings.
Talk about brutal—and for the audience this time, too. Because we’ll never know. My guess? Everyone goes through with the charade, and everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. But that’s just my guess. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
Movie Review: Les Hommes libres (Free Men) (2011)
Most movies about civilian life in Nazi-occupied Europe are pretty straightforward, whether they’re set in France (“La rafle”), the Netherlands (“Oorlogswinter,”), or Poland (“Katyn”). The Nazis are occupying your country. They’re rounding up Jews. They’re killing your friends. Everyone knows who to root for and against.
“Les Hommes libres” (“Free Men”), directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, focuses on Algerian Muslims living in occupied Paris, and thus adds a twist. The country that has occupied your country for more than 100 years is itself now occupied. So is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Younes (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), a black marketeer, begins the film as the classic disinterested protagonist, a kind of less-connected, rootless Rick Blaine. His cousin, Ali (Farid Larbi), a communist, tries to involve him in union issues. “We’re getting organized,” Ali says. But Younes sticks his neck out for nobody. “I’m not interested,” Younes responds. He says he wants to “make my pile and go home.”
Then he’s fingered—by Ali?—and the authorities swarm in, take his goods, put him in jail. There, L’inspecteur (Bruno Fleury) offers him a deal. He’ll let him go if he hangs out at the Grand Mosque of Paris and reports back what’s going on. Younes, conflicted, accepts.
Younes, we’re told, is an amalgamation of several World War II-era Algerians, but two of the folks he meets at the Grand Mosque are based on historical people: Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), the founder of the Mosque, and a French loyalist; and Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby), an up-and-coming Algerian singer with Elvis sideburns and amazing eyes. To the latter, Younes sells, for 800 francs, an Algerian drum he had acquired for two packs of cigarettes. For a moment, as he calculates his profit, he’s a happy man.
The authorities are watching the Grand Mosque because they suspect—rightly—that the Muslims are harboring Jews. The number of Jews Ben Ghabrit’s Mosque saved is debated these days, but both sides agree it’s somewhere between 500 and 1600. That’s Oskar Schindler territory.
Younes discovers all of this but feeds the authorities harmless information. He discovers Salim is part Jewish but warns Salim rather than telling the authorities. Ben Ghabrit actually makes short work of Younes’ snitching activities by complaining to a German official with whom he’s friendly, Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz), that the Vichy French have sent in spies. Word gets back to L’inspecteur, who grabs Younes off the street, threatens his life, but ultimately lets him go. Younes is now free from that double life, about to enter another one.
The more he hangs out at the Mosque, and the more he sees the fiery-eyed Leila (Lubna Azabel), the more he’s drawn into the resistance. At first he reluctantly goes on errands. Then he volunteers. By the end, he’s a part of it rather than apart from it. He’s a leader.
In this way Younes is similar to Malik, the role Rahim played in “Un Prophete”: the loner who becomes a leader for his people after being co-opted by the enemy. Both characters never seem particularly strong, smart, or calculating, and yet, because they’re underestimated, they come out ahead. Rahim is an interesting actor. He exudes calm rather than intensity. I like his small gestures. The surprise on his face when he witnesses Salim kissing a French girl (“You can do that?”). Asked how he’s doing after being let go by the authorities, he gestures, without heat but vaguely annoyed, at the scar on his cheek. You feel his shame as a snitch and his awful grogginess waking up from his first hangover.
This is French drama so there’s less force driving the narrative; there’s a randomness that feels real. Younes saves two Jewish kids during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up but we only see them again at the end. He begins a flirtation with Leila but she’s rounded up before their first date. As she’s being led away in the back of a military vehicle, their eyes lock, and in those few seconds their eyes say everything that time and circumstances won’t allow.
So why the Hollywood moments? The rain falling on Salim after the cemetery subterfuge; the look the Jewish girl gives Younes after he guides her to the getaway boat on the Seine; the unnecessary introduction of Salim’s homosexuality; the emaciated cheekbones of the Gestapo agent.
“Les Hommes libres” is a good film but no more. There’s a simplicity and economy to the story, an almost conscious attempt to avoid histrionics and melodrama—which is appreciated after the recent spate of melodramatic World War II fare: “Le Rafle,” “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe.” The movie ends after D-Day and liberation, but a better ending might have been the moment Younes, again by the Seine, takes out Omar (Zakariya Gouram), his original black-market source, and a true snitch. It’s Younes killing the man he might have been.
Movie Review: Le gamin au velo (2011)
Has there been a more misleading movie poster in recent years? After the movie was over I assumed the U.S. distributor pulled a Weinstein to draw in American crowds but the poster is the same abroad. We all want that happy, breezy, leggy image. We all want to see that kind of movie.
Which isn’t this movie.
It begins with Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), 10 or 11 or 12, on the phone, listening with a worried brow, and being told by an unseen adult to hang up. He doesn’t. He clings to the phone like it’s a lifeline, which it is, and accuses the adult of misdialing. The world is not right, he knows that much, and assumes it’s this adult’s fault. So the adult lets Cyril dial the number himself, and they put it on speaker phone, and we hear those three annoying tones—which apparently are international—before the equally annoying message, which doesn’t sound any better for being in French: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service...” But Cyril continues to hang by the phone as if to will a different response. When the adult, an educator at an orphanage or “youth farm,” tries to guide him away, Cyril attacks, runs away, is chased, caught, brought back.
This scene is repeated throughout the movie in different ways. Cyril is a boy in perpetual motion. He’s a kid who’s running away from the truth. He’s also running toward the truth.
A month earlier, his father, Guy (Dardenne brothers’ staple Jérémie Renier), placed Cyril in the orphanage, telling him he’d be back for him within 30 days. Those 30 days are now up but he hasn’t returned, hasn’t called, and his home phone is no longer in service. When Cyril bolts the youth farm and makes his way back to their old apartment building, he’s told, through the intercom, that his father doesn’t live there anymore. He sneaks inside the building anyway, is chased, grabs onto the nearest adult, a local hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France—smart kid), and refuses to let go until he’s allowed inside the apartment. But it’s like with the phone all over again. The apartment is empty. He inspects each room carefully, looking for evidence but really looking for a different reality. At this point he refuses to believe any adult, any evidence, because the truth is too painful. It means his father abandoned him. It means he’s alone.
Back at the youth farm, Samantha shows up with his bike. Cyril had accused another kid of stealing it, but the father of the kid claims he bought the bike off Cyril’s dad, so Samantha simply buys it back. Cyril refuses to believe this story but he does show Samantha some stunts: how long he can stay still and upright; how long he can pop a wheelie. He flits around her car, almost dangerously, but even when showing off he never loses his dour, pinched expression. The movie will be half over before we see him smile.
His father had his own bike, a motorcycle, and Cyril, widening his search with the bike, keeps asking for a man with “a golden helmet.” It’s great image. It brings to mind Greek gods.
In a sense, that’s what Cyril is searching for but he finds the fallen kind. His father now works prepping food in a restaurant in a small town, and, when Cyril shows up, Dad acts distracted and claustrophobic around him. I was going to write he’s uncaring, but that’s not quite it, even though he obviously doesn’t care. Put it this way: there’s no guilt over what he’s done. On Cyril’s part, there’s no anger, either. Around his father he affects the nonchalance of boys. “C’est pas grave,” he keeps saying, even though it’s all grave. He clings to his belief in the man with the golden helmet. Eventually Samantha steps in and demands that Guy tell Cyril the truth to his face.
Three times during the movie we get a noticeable, almost distracting blast of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, and each blast seems to follow a moment of realization for Cyril. The first blast comes shortly after Cyril learns about his father.
So what happens to a fatherless boy? He looks for substitutes. In this case, substitutes come looking for him. Another boy, a different boy, steals his bike, and Cyril chases him into the woods, where he meets Wes (Egon di Mateo), a local tough who admires Cyril’s tenacity, calls him “pitbull,” and takes him under his wing. Do we trust this guy? He gives off a bad vibe. In his room, he gives Cyril a sodapop and lets him play his PS3, and Cyril, unsmiling, feigning his usual nonchalance, is nonetheless captivated by this new father figure. It never shows in his face—the way it would in a Hollywood film—just in his actions. It’s heartbreaking the lengths he’ll go for Wes’ approval. He winds up fighting Samantha, with whom he’s staying weekends, and who’s the only good thing in his life, in order to commit crimes for Wes. When things go awry, Wes refuses his money, which Cyril then takes to his father, who also refuses it. Neither is particularly magnanimous in their refusal. They just don’t want to get caught. They leave Cyril holding the bag. Cue second blast of Beethoven’s piano concerto.
Thomas Doret, I should add, is heartbreaking and annoying and completely believable in the title role. After the father revelation, Samantha tries to comfort him and he jerks his shoulder violently away from her. When he first enters Wes’ cramped room, with the bed the only sitting option, he seems awkward and confused, out of either etiquette or fear. For much of the movie, he keeps pursuing the wrong path even though the right path is right there. In this, he’s like most of us.
Most people will have two questions after watching “The Kid with a Bike”:
- Why does Samantha care so much about him?
- What’s with the end?
Cyril raises the first question within the movie but the movie smartly doesn’t answer. Most movies would give us a facile rationale for her actions: oh, she can’t have kids, or she was an orphan, too, or she lost her brother when he was 10. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian writer-director brother team (“La Promesse,” “L’enfant”), are smarter than that. They leave it unknowable to us, and to Cyril, and maybe even to Samantha. Much of life is like this. We don’t know why we do what we do.
It’s the third act that’s weak. Cyril, with Samantha’s help, finds the right path, and he’s riding on it, when stuff from the wrong path—in the form of the father and son he attacked for Wes—appears before him. The boy attacks him, chases him into the woods and up a tree, and throws rocks at him. One rock finds its mark and Cyril falls. Motionless. Dead? After the son retrieves the father, Cyril recovers. He wakes up groggily, makes his way back to his bike, gets on, rides off. We get our third blast of Beethoven. The end. It’s a very European ending but I didn’t find it meaningful or resonant. The past always catches up? The right path doesn’t mean a clean path? What?
“The Kid with a Bike” is an honest movie with a dishonest poster and a weak ending. I wanted to like it more.
Movie Review: Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
WARNING: MARVELOUS, EXOTIC SPOILERS OF PARADISE
“He who seeks beauty will find it.”
Bill Cunningham, quotidian fashion photographer for The New York Times, says this near the end of Richard Press’ excellent, moving documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” while accepting an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France; and it’s so true to him, so meaningful to him—and, really, to the documentary about him—that his voice begins to crack. He’s not just espousing something he read. He’s telling us his life philosophy. The point of what he does, he says, is “not the celebrity, and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.” Then he thanks the French and leaves the stage.
Cunningham is an American original. He covers the tux-and-gown society scene for The New York Times on a Schwinn bicycle. He covers the haut couture fashion shows wearing the sturdy blue jackets of French street cleaners. He is one of the better known fashion photographers in the country even though he’s the first to admit he’s not really a fashion photographer. He has an overwhelming joie de vivre that covers an overwhelming personal sadness.
His “On the Street” column is an American original. Screw the models; screw high society; what are the people wearing?
“The best fashion show is definitely on the streets,” he tells us early in the doc. “Always has been and always will be.”
What trends are forming? What’s interesting? What’s fun? Who’s fun? What “marvelous, exotic bird of paradise,” as he calls them, might he spot today? His frequent subjects include: Iris Apfel, the nonagenarian teenager wearing her great, round glasses; Patrick McDonald, the carefully chapeaued and eyelined dandy; and Shail Upadhya, the former U.N. official from Nepal, whose loud, colorful, homemade suits are at humorous odds with his dour visage.
“You’ve just got to stay out there and see what it is,” says Cunningham. “You’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is. There are no shortcuts, believe me.”
A gentleman in the age of snark
Cunningham is in his early 80s, and so, despite his pep—and he’s someone who actually deserves that word—there’s something inevitably old school about him. He still uses film in the digital age, for example. He’s also a gentleman in the age of snark.
“He’s incredibly kind,” says socialite Annette de la Renta. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill. And he’s certainly had the opportunity.”
Back in the day, and for a time, Cunningham wrote a millinery column for Women’s Wear Daily. Then he wrote a piece, similar to what he does now, on women in the street wearing the clothes of the models of the runway. It was a positive piece about style: how each woman made the fashion her own.
“And they changed his copy to make fun of the women,” says Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details magazine. “He didn’t think he’d ever get over it, because he was so embarrassed and upset. ... That was the end of his career at Women’s Wear Daily.”
Tellingly, Cunningham doesn’t say a word on the subject. He’s someone who focuses on the positive: the fashion he likes and the stories he likes.
Who’s that boy?
So who is he? Where does he live? Is he from an upper-class family? Is that why he fits in so well with socialites? Is he straight? Gay? Why is someone so passionately interested in fashion so disinterested in fashion for himself?
“People don’t get to know him very well, do they?” asks Iris Apfel. “I get the feeling he doesn’t sit down and talk to people very much.”
“I have no idea of his private life,” says Annette de la Renta. “I have no idea if he’s lonely.”
Answers come by and by. He lives at Carnegie Hall, of all New York places, in a room so cluttered, so full of file cabinets and old magazines, it could be used to torture claustrophobes. Part of the drama of the doc is that Cunningham, and the few remaining artists living there, are being evicted by the grandees of Carnegie Hall. By doc’s end, he’s in an apartment overlooking Central Park. We should all be so displaced.
His background is working class. That helps explain the blue jacket and the taped poncho, and the egg sandwich and coffee lunches, but Women’s Wear Daily also helps explain these things. If you spend less, you need less, and you need to work less with folks whose purpose is the opposite of yours. That torn poncho, looking almost like a garbage bag, which he happily fixes with electrician’s tape, is a kind of freedom.
So: a fascinating man. A good documentary. Then, in the last 10 minutes, it becomes a great documentary.
The patron saint of unspecified sorrows
Press, the documentarian, gets Cunningham to do what Iris Apfel suggested he doesn’t do. He sits him down and asks him questions. He says has two very personal questions for him, which Cunningham may or may not want to answer. He says it’s up to him.
First: Have you ever had a romantic relationship in your entire life?
Cunningham, elfin and buoyant as usual, laughs at the question and answers it with one of his own: “Now do you want to know if I’m gay?” Then he answers it—his own question—but elliptically, with a callback to his working-class family, and how they most likely discouraged him from entering the fashion world for that very reason. Because they suspected. Even if he didn’t. Not then.
When he gets back to the romantic relationship question, he answers in the negative. “There was no time,” he says, his smile now strained. “I was working night and day. In my family, things like that were never discussed.”
His answers simply bring up more questions. Was his work a means to ignore, or cover up, what he didn’t want to face? Early in the doc, Cunningham calls fashion “the armor to survive everyday life.” Is that what his camera, and his work, is for him? A means of staying on the sidelines and not getting in the game?
Press’ second personal question isn’t a question at all. It’s a pretty innocuous statement. But it releases the deluge.
“I know you go to church every Sunday,” Press says.
“Oh yeah,” Cunningham answers. Then he bows his head, and his shoulders begin to shake, and a second later one realizes he’s crying. He sobs for 10 to 15 seconds. Then he lifts his head and answers. He seems to be clarifying things for himself as much as for Press:
Yeah, I think it’s a good guidance in your life. Yeah, it’s something I need. Yeah, I guess maybe it’s part of your upbringing, I don’t know. Whatever it is. Everyone... You do whatever it is you do as best you... Yeah, I find it very important. For whatever reason. I don’t know. (Laughs) As a kid, when I went to church, all I did was look at women’s hats. (Serious again, nodding.) But later, when you mature, for different reasons.
In the very next scene, his colleagues at The New York Times celebrate his birthday by wearing Bill Cunningham masks (photos of his face attached to sticks), but it’s in this scene where his mask slips, and a huge pool of sorrow is revealed, and we’re not quite sure what to make of it. What is the sorrow? What are the different reasons he goes to church? It seems mixed up with the usual: love and family and sex and relationships and loneliness and work and faith, and the things we try to leave behind but which stay with us, and the things we hope will eventually catch up with us but never do.
We never find out. I think this makes the doc better. Up to this point, Cunningham is admirable. He’s a professional and an original and a gentleman: someone who set out to do what he wanted and is still doing it on his own terms. Once he breaks down, he becomes us. Because we all have our pools of sorrow. We all have questions that might release a deluge. It’s part of the reason why, like Bill Cunningham, patron saint of specific joys and unspecified sorrows, we go out, every day, and seek beauty.
Movie Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)
WARNING: INK-STAINED SPOILERS
I was talking about this documentary with Evan, the friend who recommended it, and admitted it made me realize why I never became a true journalist. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious enough or a good-enough writer or a fast-enough writer when I needed to be. It’s because I wasn’t tough enough.
In the doc you watch David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, take on various bombastic elements and shut them up. He stares them down, calls them on their bullshit, then moves on. Even when I’m able to do the first two things, I don’t move on. I allow the first two actions to linger and infect the surroundings. Carr, who looks like nothing much, Bilbo Baggins’ after a bad night, with a hoarse voice and a skinny neck and a wide middle and a face that seems permanently bent toward the ground, is able to cut so surgically through situations that there’s actually little bleeding. It’s like those scenes where Zorro takes a swipe at a candle and it doesn’t move, causing the villain to laugh at Zorro’s ineptitude and anticipate his demise. Which is when Zorro holds up the tip of the candle, or pushes the tip off with his sword, or stomps on the ground and the candle crumbles to bits.
That’s what Carr is like. The other guy laughs at his ineptitude and then David stomps on the ground and the dude’s argument crumbles to bits.
As both Evan and I admired this ability of Carr’s, and lamented our own ability to cry bullshit in social situations, he added, “You know what I could use? A David-Carr-in-the-box. So when I get in those situations, I can take out my David-Carr-in-the-box, and just, you know, pop. Let him loose.”
I agreed. We could all use a David-Carr-in-the-box. The New York Times should get on that. Talk about your revenue streams.
Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolff?
“Page One: Inside the New York Times” also reminded me, of course, of something I lamented daily about two years ago: the death of newspapers; the death of print. I’m in the business, an offshoot of journalism, a small, momentarily protected niche, but I haven’t worried about the death of investigative journalism much in the last year. I’m not sure why. The problem certainly hasn’t gone away.
It’s a seemingly insurmountable problem. Investigative journalism, done right, is expensive, and in the past was paid for by two revenue streams: ads and subscribers. The Internet, our new, more democratic printing press, has cut into, if not obliterated, both of these. Craig’s List killed classified ads, online ads pay a fraction of print ads, and online readers, those spoiled, spoiled children, have been conditioned to expect content for free.
There’s also the problem of audience. Investigative journalism is not only tough to do but tough to read. It takes work. How much better to go to an aggregate/opinion site/blog that boils it all down and also gives you pictures of celebrities in bikinis or with baby bumps or in the midst of divorces. How much easier to just be distracted. How much more fun.
One of the pivotal and most satisfying scenes in “Page One” occurs about halfway thorough, at a debate by a group called “Intelligence Squared,” which, for its topic of the night, raises a purposely provocative one: GOOD RIDDANCE TO THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA.
Carr, the schlub, gets to represent the mainstream. His opponent, at least as far as we see in the doc, is Michael Wolff, founder of newser.com, an aggregate site. Wolff looks a bit like Alvy Singer’s balding, viral man. He seems fit, and tough, and his bald head gleams like he’s from the future. And he brings us a message from the future:
What you’re going to hear tonight is that the media is necessary for the commonweal. An informed citizenry is what this nation is about. That is self-serving crap. The New York Times is a good newspaper—sometimes... But after that it’s off the cliff. It’s oblivion. The news business in this country is nothing to be proud of. The media is a technology business. That’s what it is. That’s what it has always been. Technology changes, the media changes.
Carr obliterates him. He begins politely by holding up a print copy of the home page of Wolff’s site. “Newser is a great-looking site,” he says, “you might want to check it out. It aggregates all manner of content. But I wonder if Michael’s really thought this through. Get rid of mainstream media content...” Then he holds up that index page without the aggregated mainstream articles. It’s mostly holes. It barely exists. He peeks through it at the audience, which is applauding, and says, “OK, go ahead.”
Great scene. It not only reveals Wolff’s hypocrisy—how he’s making money off the very thing he’s disparaging—but it reveals the hypocrisy of the Web. Much of the Web simply repurposes someone else’s work. The Web doesn’t care for originality or accountability; and it’s creating a society that doesn’t care for originality or accountability.
Is the Times necessary because it’s good?
At the same time ... OK, Carr makes a salient point. What happens when mainstream sites like the New York Times, which still drive much of the discussion on the Web, disappear? What replaces them? Don’t we need vegetables? Don’t we need meat? Or are we just going to keep popping the content equivalent of Milk Duds in our mouths?
But it doesn’t address all of Wolff’s points. From the above, two remain:
- The Times says it’s necessary because it’s good but Wolff says it’s not that good so it’s not that necessary. So: Is the Times good?
- Media means technology. Technology changes. You can gripe all you want but it’s going to change.
To the first point. The Times has its weaknesses. It’s a serious paper—it’s not sensationalistic like most of the mainstream media—but it has a love for, or at least a trust of, the institutional voice. The doc treats Judith Miller’s reporting on WMDs like it’s an anomaly but that was based upon institutional trust—upon getting access to the institutional voice and printing it—and the Times does this all of the time. Its coverage of Hollywood, say, is almost always from the studio perspective. Its coverage of business is almost always from the Wall Street perspective.
And in politics? It gets played. It assumes an opposition voice, no matter how marginalized, provides balance. It assumes that an institutional voice is legitimate even if it’s in the middle of a lie. It won’t call a lie a lie. Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane’s recent column, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?,” is indicative of this attitude. Brisbane wrote:
[Some readers] fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?
That sound you heard was people around the country exclaiming, “WTF!?!”
The answer to Brisbane’s dilemma is obvious. If a public figure says something demonstrably false, you call him on it, and as high up in the article as possible. If a public figure says something harder to disprove (or prove), but without evidence, then that’s your story: X ACCUSES Y OF Z: PROVIDES NO EVIDENCE. It’s less choosing to correct one fact over another than printing what facts we have. And if an institutional voice proclaims factual what is not factual, that’s your story. Objectivity is not stupidity.
But the doc doesn’t own up to this or any weakness in the Times. It’s basically saying: we’re good so we’re necessary. So please don’t kill us. For your own good. It's saying, as Carr said to the Intelligence Squared audience, “OK, go ahead.”
The Times they are a changing
For the most part, I agree. But then we get into the second of Wolff’s unaddressed points: It doesn’t matter if the Times is good or not. Its model, the printing press, is now obsolete. Everyone has a printing press. Most everyone’s printing. Or posting. Or uploading. The Times used to have to compete against however many newspapers in New York City, and maybe two or three nationally, and another one or two internationally. Now the competition is everyone and everywhere. Even this little ol’ site is competition. You’re reading it, after all, instead of the Times. Wastrel.
“Page One” is a fine-enough doc, particularly when David Carr’s onscreen, but, in journalistic parlance, it misses the story. Can one support serious investigative journalism in the digital age and on a digital budget? If not, what replaces it? And what becomes of our misinformed and malinformed and don’t-want-to-be informed citizenry—and, by extension, our democracy—then?