That Idiotic 'Hail, Caesar!" Race-Based Protest
On the town.
Thursday was an annoying online day for me. First that idiotic Frank Underwood meme, then this. Clowns to the right of me, jokers to the left.
On the Daily Beast site, frequent contributor Jen Yamato interviewed the Coen Brothers about their movie, “Hail, Caesar!” and asked them about #OscarSoWhite. They weren't really hip to the protest. Or they thought everyone cares too much about the Oscars. Which is true. Here, too. Although, in my defense, I don't really care so much as I'm intrigued by what the Academy decides to honor each year; what the conversation is. Really, the point of the Oscars is to disappoint, and everyone has their breaking point when they stop caring too much. Mine happened in March 2006.
Anyway, Ms. Yamato brought up why the cast for “Hail, Caesar!” was in fact so white: all of these white 2010s Hollywood stars playing 1950s Hollywood stars. The answer, of course, is obvious, but in the piece she only brings it up to bypass it:
Such overwhelming whiteness could conceivably be explained away by pointing to the milieu of Tinseltown circa the 1950s, when the industry's racial demographic was far less diverse than it is today. I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren't more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?
Then the Coens responded. And they weren't exactly Minnesota Nice about it.
“It's important to tell the story you're telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
“You don't sit down and write a story and say, 'I'm going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,'—right? That's not how stories get written. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about how stories get written and you don't realize that the question you're asking is idiotic.”
“It's not an illegitimate thing to say there should be more diversity in an industry. But that's not what that question is about. That question is about something else.”
In a way, Yamato was brave to include all of this in her piece. She allowed herself to be an idiot in print to make a larger point.
Except she, and a lot of other people, think her smaller point is the legitimate one. Some of these people are friends of mine who are friends of hers, and who defended her on the usual social media outlets. I went the opposite route. I pointed out that all of these hashtag protests actually cancel each other out:
- #OscarSoWhite only because...
- #MovieIndustrySoWhite, and...
- It was incredibly so in the early 1950s, when “Hail, Caesar!” is set, which means ...
- #HailCaesarSoWhite as a protest makes no fucking sense.
So Thursday was a long day.
That Idiotic Frank Underwood Meme
A friend posted this on Facebook the other day:
She leans right, I lean left, and we had the following FB conversation:
Me: Frank Underwood (pictured) succeeds by lying, manipulating, threatening and killing. Is that the message this meme wanted to convey?
She: Didn't make it so I can't speak to author's intent. I prefer to take the words at face value.
Me: If you want the meme to mean something, you have to earn it. This is just sloppy.
She: Think you may be over analyzing it a bit.
So if she didn't make the meme, who did? Ted Nugent, it turns out. Or it came from his FB page. So,yeah, not overanalyzing. It's an anti-entitlement message, which means it's anti-Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. It's saying: If you don't succeed, you only have yourself to blame.
It made me think of a story I'd just read in Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which everyone should be reading. I mean everyone. It's the most infuriating read ever.
The story is about a man named Donald “Bull” Carlson, who began to work at the Koch Refining Company in Rosemount, Minn., in 1974. He often worked 12- and 16-hour days, scrubbing out huge storage tanks that had been filled with leaded gasoline. He vacuumed up fuel spills. Sometimes vapors from the storage tanks were so powerful they blew his helmet off.
In 1995, Carlson became too sick to work any longer at the refinery. When he obtained his company medical records, he and his wife were shocked by what they read.
In the late 1970s, OSHA had issued regulations requiring companies whose workers were exposed to benzene to offer annual blood tests, and to retest, and notify workers if any abnormalities were found. Companies were also required to refer employees with abnormal results to medical specialists. Koch Refining Company had offered the annual blood tests as legally required, and Carlson had dutifully taken advantage of the regular screening. But what he discovered was that even though his tests had shown increasingly serious, abnormal blood cell counts beginning in 1990, as well as in 1992 and 1993, the company had not mentioned it to him until 1994. Charles Koch had disparaged government regulations as “socialistic.” From his standpoint, the regulatory state that had grown out of the Progressive Era was an illegitimate encroachment on free enterprise and a roadblock to initiative and profitability. But while such theories might appeal to the company's owners, the reality was quite different for many of their tens of thousands of employees.
Carlson continued working for another year but grew weaker, needing transfusions of three to five pints of blood a week. Finally, in the summer of 1995, he grew too sick to work at all. At that point, his wife recalls, “they let him go. Six-months' pay is what they gave him. It was basically his accumulated sick pay.” Carlson argued that his illness was job related, but Koch Refining denied this claim, refusing to pay him workers' compensation, which would have covered his medical bills and continued dependency benefits for his wife and their teenage daughter.
In February 1997, twenty-three years after he joined Koch Industries, Donald Carlson died of leukemia. He was fifty-three. He and his wife had been married thirty-one years. “Almost the worst part,” she said, was that “he died thinking he'd let us down financially.” She added, “My husband was the sort of man who truly believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you would be rewarded.”
The story made me think of Boxer, the strong, loyal horse in George Orwell's “Animal Farm,” who works hard to make the farm succeed, and who is rewarded by the pigs when he's old by being shipped off to the glue factory. The pigs in “Animal Farm” are communists, of course, but it's a leftist critique of communism. The point being that in the end, the pigs are just as bad as the other human farmers; they're just as bad as capitalists like the Koch brothers.
So Ted Nugent's sloppy Frank Underwood meme is more apt than he realizes. Want something? Earn it by being a ruthless sonofabitch. Earn it by being a horrible human being. It's so much easier to get ahead if you don't give a fuck about anyone else.
Speaking of: Ted Nuget has some authentic autographed memorabilia he'd like to sell you.
The Origins and Ironies of the Tea Party
“Critics would later point out that [Rick Santelli's] indignation had not been similarly stirred by the Bush administration's bailouts of the country's largest banks, about which he had grumblingly conceded, 'I agree, something needs to be done.' Yet when Obama proposed help for the over-extended underclasses, Santelli looked into the camera and shrieked, 'This is America! How many of you people want to pay your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom, and can't pay their bills? Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening?'
”As his fellow traders whistled and cheered, he went on to say, 'We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm gonna start organizing.' From the start, the analogy was inapt. As Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a richly reported book about Obama's stimulus plan, observed, 'The Boston Tea Party was a protest against an unelected leader who raised taxes, while Obama was an elected leader who had just cut them.'"
Movie Review: Guilty By Suspicion (1991)
It should’ve been a slam dunk. A Hollywood movie about the blacklist (with its obvious heroes and villains) that was originally written by someone who had been blacklisted (Abraham Polonsky, “Force of Evil”), and starring one of the greatest actors of his generation (Robert De Niro).
So what happened? Why does it lie there?
I think it combines too many stories into too few characters in a way that doesn’t make sense dramatically or historically.
Take the opening. In September 1951, Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) testifies in private session before the white-haired, fat men of HUAC—one literally smoking a cigar—and begs them not to force him to name names. “Don’t make me crawl through the mud,” he says. “They’re my friends.” It’s a powerful scene. The next time we see him, Nolan ruins a welcome-home party for director David Merrill (De Niro) by shouting, to the movie people gathered, “Who are we trying to kid? We’re all dead!” Then he goes home to burn books in his front yard—including, I should add, “The Catcher in the Rye,” which, since it had been published only two months earlier, was hardly on anyone’s list of “subversive” material yet. Upstairs, his wife, Dorothy (Patricia Wettig), drunk and hysterical, makes accusations and throws his clothes/typewriter out the window. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But that’s not the worst of it.
For the rest of the movie, Nolan becomes a major asshole. After naming his wife’s name, he sues her for sole custody of their child, and wins, since she, a former communist, is an unfit mother. (And he? No? Because he ratted?) She winds up alone, unemployable, and eventually kills herself in front of Merrill and his ex-wife, Ruth (Annette Bening), by driving her car off a cliff. At her funeral, Nolan doesn’t bat an eye.
This is a helluva 180: from begging “Don’t make me crawl through the mud” to throwing it on everyone without a thought. It’s like Nolan is two different people. Which he is.
The powerful opening scene is based on the 1951 testimony of Larry Parks (“The Jolson Story”), who used the “crawling through the mud” metaphor before HUAC in ’51, betrayed friends, and was blacklisted anyway. But he didn’t become a major asshole; he and his wife, Betty Garrett, stayed together. The second half of the 180? That’s probably based on someone like Elia Kazan, who named names but took a kind of neocon pride in it. Of his 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” he writes, “When Brando at the end yells . . . ‘I’m glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”
And you can’t do that. You can’t combine two very different people and think you’ve made a whole character.
‘Wait, with who?’
We have a bigger problem with our main character. David Merrill seems bright enough, but at times he’s about as sharp as Homer Simpson.
Merrill, a golden boy director, has the ear of studio chief Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza), and has just returned from a few months in Europe, ready to start his next picture. Then the party; then the book burning, where Nolan warns him about HUAC: “Wait until Karlin and Wood put your nuts in a vise.”
He doesn’t have to wait long. The next morning, Zanuck breaks the news:
We got a problem. I got a board of directors in New York, and ... I gotta listen to ’em when they tell me my movies won’t get played because some guy running for Congress has a hard-on for Hollywood. Business is lousy, the theaters are empty, everyone’s staying home to watch Milton Berle dressed up as a woman. And now this.
Merrill’s quiet response: “What do you mean, ‘Now this,’ Darryl?”
Zanuck then gives him the name of an attorney, Felix Graff (Sam Wanamaker, who was himself blacklisted), to get straightened out.
Merrill’s quiet response: “I’m sorry, Darryl, I don’t get this.”
Then he goes to see Graff in a dingy hotel room (to preserve his rep, Graff says), and Graff talks about clearing his name with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Merrill’s response: “Wait. With who?”
Then HUAC stooge Ray Karlin (Tom Sizemore, playing essentially Roy Cohn) emerges from the shadows, and says, “It’s probably no surprise to you that your name has come up as a communist sympathizer.”
Yes. Yes, it is a surprise. “Wait a minute,” Merrill says, “I’m no communist. I went to a couple of meetings 10 or 12 years ago—that’s it.”
I guess the point is to show how innocent Merrill is. It takes him this long to get up-to-speed. But man is it boring.
Since Merrill refuses to cooperate, the Zanuck gig, and other gigs, disappear. People won’t take his phone calls; friends desert him. They accuse him. They think he named their names, since they know how much making movies means to him. That’s a dull little subplot, actually: Merrill realizing that he spent too much time on work, and not enough with family, and with his kid, Paulie (Luke Edwards, soon seen in “Little Big League”). So he amends his ways. He becomes a better father. Yay.
Eventually he goes to New York to see about work there. He visits old theater friends, the Barrons (Stuart Margolin and Roxann Dawson), but doesn’t let them know he’s been named. Which is, again, not smart. Doesn’t he get it? He’s got the plague. Everyone he’s with can get contaminated. A good scene at the Barrons’ apartment exemplifies this. It’s just Merrill and Felicia. She’s drinking, acting flirty, and lets him know Abe is away for the weekend. Then Merrill mentions he’s being followed by HUAC investigators. Talk about your cold water! She says the following in rapid order:
- “Do you think they followed you here?”
- “I think you’d better go, honey.”
- “And stay away from the theater, OK? I don’t want Abe to have any problems.”
She’s supposed to be awful in this scene, but he isn’t much better. His innocence is a liability.
Is De Niro a liability? He internalizes everything. He’s just there. When Martin Scorsese shows up in a small role as Joe Lesser (i.e., Joseph Losey), a director who flees to England to keep working, and gives us that Scorsese rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, it’s a relief. It’s pizzazz and excitement and life. As opposed to what De Niro is giving us.
The one lively moment with Merrill is when he gets a B western and begins directing again; he takes over and the cast and crew suddenly light up because they know they’re in the hands of a pro. But it calls attention to what’s been missing. The movie is about a guy who does one thing well, and we don’t get to watch him do that one thing. Which, yes, is the point. But surely there’s a better way to dramatize it.
An ounce of decency
That western, by the way, is another odd amalgamation. It’s a B version of “High Noon,” in which the lead is a young, B-list actor named Jerry Cooper, rather than an old, A-list actor named Gary Cooper. Jerry even tries to defend Merrill the way Gary did with Carl Foreman, “High Noon”’s blacklisted screenwriter; but Jerry, unlike Gary, has no clout, and the producer questions his loyalty. It leads to one of the movie’s best lines:
Jerry (angrily, to producer): If you want to call me a commie, you got to back it up!
David (quietly, to Jerry): Jerry, if he wants to call you a commie, he doesn't need to back it up.
In Polonsky’s original version, Merrill actually was a communist; but writer-director Irwin Winkler took over and turned Merrill into a fairly apolitical everyman. It pissed off Polonsky so much he took his name off the product and badmouthed the movie all the way to the theaters.
He was right. Even the final dramatic showdown against HUAC, with flashbulbs popping, doesn’t quite work. I like that Merrill doesn’t know what he’ll do until he does it. I also like the fact that the members of HUAC don’t back down even after he gets all Joseph Welch in their faces. “Don’t you have an ounce of decency?” he tells them when they ask about Dorothy Nolan. “Don’t you have an ounce of shame? She’s DEAD!” But, no, they don’t have any shame; they keep talking. As in life. What’s the significance of the line: “I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch?” It’s what Sen. Joseph McCarthy says after Welch asks him if he has no sense of decency. We think of Welch’s line as a game-changer; but it didn’t change the game immediately, only historically. In the moment, McCarthy kept attacking. Because he had no sense of decency.
Except Merrill can’t be Welch. Welch was an attorney sparring with McCarthy in 1954, not an accused director dealing with HUAC in 1952. Winkler has Merrill take a principled stand, and he’s followed by a friend, screenwriter Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), who takes the same principled stand: I will answer any questions about me but not about my friends. It’s seen as a kind of victory, this ending. Merrill and his wife walk out of the hearings in triumph. But can’t HUAC find Merrill and Baxter in contempt—as it did with the Hollywood Ten? Won’t they go to jail? Won’t they still be blacklisted for another 10 years? The movie wants it to be a happy ending but it isn’t. Hollywood wants the hero to come from Hollywood but he didn’t.
Hail, Joel and Ethan!
From an interview with Joel and Ethan Coen by Ramin Setoodeh in Variety:
Has [the movie business] gotten more or less crazy with time?
Ethan: Probably less crazy, sadly.
Is that because studios are less inclined to take risks?
Joel: Is that what it is? I’m not so sure, to tell you the truth. Studios have always been, in a certain way, risk-averse.
Ethan: I agree — I wouldn’t blame the studios. Like Barney Frank once said: “People talk about how horrible politicians are. Sometimes the electorate is no prize either.” The audience for movies, their tastes have gotten more homogeneous. Mainstream movies used to be more adventurous because people went to them.
As someone who pays attention to box office, all I can say is: Amen.
Worst Movie Critics Ever: The FBI Notes on Anti-American Movies of the 1940s and '50s
Red propaganda. Obviously.
At the end of “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War” (recommended), author John Sbardellati includes a glossary of movies that the FBI tagged as suspect. It's a lot of fun. Some highlights:
- “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947), starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello: “One scene portrays a party given for a General, while other scenes reflect an enlisted man on KP duty, making the audience unnecessarily class conscious.”
- “Crossfire” (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk: “This picture is a good example of placing over-emphasis on the racial problem.”
- Gentlemen's Agreement“ (1947), directed by Elia Kazan; starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield: ”A Police Lieutenant is a party to anti-Semitism and as such is subjected to much criticism.... This was a deliberate effort to discredit law enforcement.“
- ”The Marrying Kind“ (1952), directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; starring Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray: ”The [Counterattack] article reflected that pickets led by Catholic war veterans would protest [Judy Holliday's] appearance in this picture because of her impressive front record which included affiliations with such organizations as the Civil Rights Congress, the Council of African Affairs, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions and many others.“
- ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“ (1939), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains: ”First Hollywood movie to show tie-up between Congressman and Big Business.“
- ”State of the Union“ (1948), directed by Frank Capra; starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn: ”Seems to be a deep seated dislike for most of the things America is and stands for.“
- ”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“ (1948), directed by John Huston; starring Humphrey Bogart: ”Walter Huston makes a speech in this picture which ... is practically a direct quotation from Marx's 'Das Kapital.'“
- ”It's a Wonderful Life“ (1947), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart: ”The picture represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers."
Why I Stopped Reading Fiction
I’m 53, but I still think of myself as the person I was from about 18 to 35, the one who found an author he liked and kept reading them: Salinger to Irving to Vonnegut to Roth to Doctorow. Baldwin to Updike to Vidal to Mailer to Kundera. The best of Hemingway and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I liked being that person but I think I stopped being that person around 1998. Maybe reviewing crap books for The Seattle Times killed some spark in me. Or maybe working at Microsoft in its games division did.
But I think the biggest factor is that I went online.
Reading, I think, made me feel less lonely. It gave me a connection to somebody—the author—and now online does that. Social media does that. Or tries to do it. But really it does it poorly. It’s salt water for a thirsty man. Even when it works, it’s a simulacrum of a connection. It’s connection in everything but the connecting.
So I should go back to fiction, I should go back to literature, to assuage this feeling; to drink real water after the salt variety. But I don’t. And I think I don’t because reading literature, in some way, actually makes me feel more lonely now. Because I know so few people do it.
But that doesn't explain why I read non-fiction, since, apparently, even fewer people do that. Maybe because non-fiction, on almost any topic, at least connects you to an ongoing conversation on that topic. Read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and you can talk about the Koch brothers, or the funding of think tanks, or the rightward drift of our country since the mid-1970s. A fictional book simply connects you back to that book. It should, of course, connect you to a larger discussion about aesthetics, but that conversation seems reserved for academics. And it helps if you have a book group, but ... sometimes those make me feel a little lonely too.
Quote of the Day
“Blaming Obama for the GOP diehard strategy. Like blaming the town's first black family for the burnt spot in their front yard.”
-- Illustrator Eric Hanson, on Facebook, responding to the book “Buyer's Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down,” which includes a blurb by Sen. Bernie Sanders.