Culture postsThursday May 11, 2017
My Impossibly Snobbish Salon Piece
The “Seven Samurai” photo Salon used confuses the issue, but I like the old “Jaws” paperback cover. This was everywhere in the summer of '75.
While I was in Rochester, Minn., last week I had another article on Salon: “Lost in translation: How often does Hollywood turn a great book into a great movie?” It's a piece that grew out of a Facebook conversation. As for my answer to the question in the subhed? I'd go with “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” but mostly throw up my hands. The bigger point is that it doesn't happen often.
The piece generated a lot of comments, which I thought it would, since most people have an opinion on the subject. What I didn't see coming but should have? The commments inspired by this graf:
I was a bit thrown by the second category of answers because it's not what I had in mind and it's not in my wheelhouse. They're great genre novels that have been turned into great movies. Think sci-fi/fantasy (“The Lord of the Rings”; “Blade Runner”), westerns (“Shane,” along with two Coens: “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men”), and crime (“L.A. Confidential”). I don't really read genre novels, so you can assess for yourself the greatness of those books.
I was saying “I don't really read genre novels” with a kind of shrug, not to mention laziness (I didn't want to read all those books just to write the piece), but that's not how it was interpretted. Here's the first comment, from a dude in Chapel Hill:
“I don't really read genre novels.” Reminds me of the woman on an episode of the '60s classic The Dick Van Dyke Show, who says snootily: “I don't own a television machine”.
Others piled on. It's kind of fun reading through them: “The snobbish dismissal of...” “This article is impossibly pompous...” Etc. etc.
Here's the sad part: These people don't know they've won. The movies they're championing, “Lord of the Rings” et al., are everywhere in the culture, while great authors like E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer are nowhere. We've become a candyland culture. If I'm snobbish, if I'm dismissive, it's because I think this is a problem.
Your Olympic Moment
From George W.S. Trow's “Within the Context of No Context,” about American culture/pop culture, which was originally published in The New Yorker in November 1980:
The most important programming deals with people with a serious problem who make it to the Olympics. It is the powerful metaphor of our time—babies given up for dead who struggle toward national life and make it just for a minute. It's a long distance to come. People feel it very deeply and cheer the babies on.
That's dead on, prescient even, since coverage of the Olympics was fairly straightforward back in 1980. One wonders, though, if this Olympic moment is still the most powerful metaphor of our time. In some ways, it's been usurped by Simon Cowell and the “X's Got Talent” showrunners, who play down their talent, let it stand before Cowell's withering gaze, and then let it shine (and watch Cowell melt, with dollar signs in his eyes). The most famous of these is Susan Boyle. The most extreme version is probably from “Korea's Got Talent”: the homeless boy, abandoned at an orphanage at 3, who fled the beatings there at the age of 5 and lived on the streets, selling gum, and now doing manual labor; he makes the pretty lady judge cry with his western opera. It's a long distance to come.
The Man Standing Beside the Men Who Applied for the First Same-Sex Marriage License in 1970
As the year ends, I'm clearing the digital house and I came across this photo that I meant to post earlier. It came to me via my sister, Karen, an editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who got it from a colleague. It shows the two men who first applied for a same-sex marriage licenese: Jack Baker and James McConnell. It happened in Hennepin County, Minn., in 1970. They were denied, of course, sued, and were further denied by 1) the Court of Appeals, 2) the Minnesota State Supreme Court, 3) the U.S. Supreme Court. This last one, I assume, didn't even bother to hear the case.
This year, of course, the Obergefell decision, just six short months ago, recognized a federal, constitutional right to same-sex marriage. We've come a long way, baby.
And the man standing beside the men applying for that 1970 marriage license? My father, Bob Lundegaard, reporting for The Minneapolis Tribune.
“Yeah, that's me,” he said when Karen and I asked him about it. “Always in the front lines of history. No, I don't remember anything about it. Who knew it was such a big deal?”
Front lines of history.
When is it OK for an Actor to Play Someone of Another Race?
Crossing a line? On the one hand, without Depp's interest in playing Tonto, the movie wouldn't have been made; on the other hand, the movie wouldn't have been made.
In a recent New York Times piece called “On Acting, Race and Hollywood” actor-comedian Aziz Ansari (“Parks and Recreation”) recounts his first experience seeing an Indian actor on a movie screen; it had a profound effect on him. Years later, it had a more profound effect on him when he discovered the actor wasn't Indian. The movie was “Short Circuit 2,” and the actor was Fisher Stevens. So Ansari’s first movie encounter with his own kind was a fraud. It was a white guy in make-up using a funny accent.
That’s his initial complaint about acting, race and Hollywood, and it’s two-fold:
- How come we don't see more Indian characters on screen?
- When we do, how come they’re not played by Indian actors?
Then things gets trickier.
At one point, Ansari wonders why Max Minghella, “a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor,” was chosen to play Indian-American Divya Narendra in “The Social Network.” If I were a struggling Indian actor I’d wonder that, too, but it raises a whole host of questions—the usual questions, to be honest—about acting and border crossings and what constitutes racial theft.
Essentially: When is it OK for an actor to stretch and when is he/she engaging in a modern minstrel show?
Here are a few follow-ups to try to narrow things down:
- Is it OK for Chinese to play Japanese, and vice-versa?
- Can Italians play Spaniards, and Spaniards Mexicans, and Mexicans Iranians?
- Was it cool for Robert De Niro, an Italian-American, to play a Jewish gangster in ”Ca$ino,“ or Javier Bardem, a straight Spaniard, to play a gay Cuban poet in ”Before Night Falls,” or Al Pacino, an Italian-American, to play a Cuban gangster in “Scarface”?
- What about all the white actors and opera singers who have played Othello over the years?
- How South do you have to be to play someone from the South? How Boston do you have to be to play someone from Southie?
I’d be curious where Ansari puts up his own artistic border guards. It’s a trickier topic than people admit.
Messaging of Cocktails, and Other Notes from the Culture's End
This afternoon I read Lizzie Widdicombe's piece on entrepreneur (I guess) Bethenny Frankel, who has parlayed a gig on “The Apprentice with Martha Stewart” into a regular turn on “The Real Housewives of New York,” on which she began to promote her Skinnygirl products: margaritas and other adult beverages, as well as chips and popcorn and salad dressing. It's not my thing—none of it—but it's a good window into the world that runs things now.
Here's Frankel with her assistant, Alexandra Cohen, blonde and 26, in a black SUV on the way to a promo appearance:
Frankel would be meeting a group of life-style bloggers who had been hired by [Jim] Beam to act as “influencers” for Skinnygirl Cocktails. “These are ten bloggers who are going to share with every single follower that they met you, and that you're inspirational,” Cohen said. She added, firmly, “It's important that you message the right things to these people. Because these people have a ton of followers.”
“O.K.,” Frankel said. “Why did they only pick ten, though?” She's active on Twitter, but the nuances of social media sometimes escape her. (An agency called DM2 manages most of her social-media accounts.)
“Because they're the most influential.”
“Influential of what?”
“Messaging of cocktails,” Cohen said.
Amid the awfulness, comedy.