Andrew Breitbart was right about the culture

My daughter went to our local library this weekend and brought home a bunch of the library’s recent acquisitions for teens.  The inside jacket blurb describes them as fantasy or high school relationship books.  My daughter said to me, “I don’t know why it is, Mom, but they all turn out to be about lesbians.”  Since she’s neither L or G or B or T or Q, I’m not concerned that these books will “turn” her.  Certainly, though, they’re creating an intellectual dynamic that tells teenage girls where to look for real romance.

I had that in mind when I looked at the New York Times’ movie review page today.  I don’t read reviews anymore, and I never go to movies, and I seldom watch movies, but I occasionally glance at the review page to see what’s going on.  I was much struck by the page’s content:

1 2 3 4 5

One gets the feeling that filmmakers and the New York Times are advancing an agenda.

Andrew Breitbart was right that, because of media’s far reach, culture and politics flow downhill from it, with downhill being the operative word.

Maybe you’re just not as interesting as you think you are

The online magazine IndieWire has noted something interesting:  movies with gay leading characters aren’t doing big box office.  In the 90s, movies such as The Birdcage (based on the audience tested La Cage aux Folles), Philadelphia (about the still-headlining catching scourge AIDS), and In & Out (with a pleasing Kevin Kline as a gay teacher trying to hide in the closet) were big sellers.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the numbers went even higher with Brokeback Mountain (surely one of the most demoralizing movies about gays ever made), which grossed over $80 million in 2005.  Other gay-themed movies didn’t do as well in that decade (topping out in the $60 million range with Sacha Baron Cohen’s gross-out Bruno), but they were still bringing at least $30 million each.

In the last few years, though, gay themed movies (that is, movies with the main protagonists being gay), have failed to bring in the big money.  IndieWire assembles the numbers:

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2010-present)
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010) – $20,811,365
2. I Love You, Phillip Morris (2010) – $2,037,459
3. Farewell My Queen (2012) – $1,347,990
4. I’m So Excited (2013) – $1,216,168
5. La Mission (2010) – $1,062,941

Even the highest grossing of the bunch couldn’t match the lowest grossing gay-themed movie from a decade earlier, well the remaining ones couldn’t even get into the high single digits (when counting by millions).  So what happened?  IndieWire offers five theories, only the fifth of which I’ll quote in its entirety:

1. There’s just not as much of a need for these films anymore. [snip]

2. There are less LGBT films being made, so there will clearly be less of them grossing $1 million. [snip]

3. There are less marketable LGBT films being made. [snip]

4. All the good LGBT representation is on TV.  [snip]

5. The market has simply changed. Here’s where the most significant answer lies, and it very much encompasses the last 4 explanations as well.  The economic world of film is vastly different in 2013 than it was in 1993 or 2003.  Back in the 1990s, studios were making the kind of mid-budget films in which “Philadelphia,” “In & Out, “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Foo” encompass. Then in the 2000s when studios all had started specialty divisions (like Universal’s Focus Features and Fox’s Fox Searchlight), LGBT content seemed to be delegated there with smaller budgets (like with “Brokeback Mountain,” “Kinsey,” “Milk,” and “Capote”).  Nowadays, even those kind of $15-$20 million budgeted LGBT films are rare.

I think that the “market has changed” theory is on the right track, but it’s too narrow an analysis.  The problem for blockbuster gay-themed movies isn’t just the “type” of movies being made (i.e., big budget versus small, art film versus action, etc.).  It seems to me the audience just isn’t that interested anymore.  Depending on which statistics you believe, a generous count is that the entire LGBT spectrum, from “L” all the way through “T” makes up at most 10% of the population.  Straight women who want romances or rom-coms aren’t going to want to see gays or lesbians as the main characters.  Straight men who want action movies aren’t going to be interested in anything but a macho lead, because the little boy part of each men still thinks that, under the right circumstances, he too can be that hero.  Teen boys through to young men in their early 20s, who seem to be homophobic no matter how gay-friendly and supportive their community is, will watch gay stuff only in the context of gross-out sex and feces jokes, a la Bruno.

The gay-themed movies of the past had broad audience reach for reasons very specific to those movies:  Some, like Philadelphia spoke to very big issues with which society was struggling.  Others, like The Birdcage and In & Out, had brilliant (and, I might add, straight) comedic actors with great scripts that happened to tap into a time when audiences still got a sort of thrill from being hip enough to watch a gay-themed movie.  Brokeback Mountain?  Great acting and a serious plot about pathetic human beings.  That’s got to appeal to the nation’s “elite” movie-goers.  Also, it was a sufficiently serious movie that people who would normally only be willing to watch gays in a comedic context could contemplate the spectacle of watching R-rated gay sex in a movie theater without any laugh lines.  (Incidentally, effeminate comic figures have been in Hollywood movies since the dawn of talkies; other than that, they stayed discretely locked away, both on screen and off.)

But now, for the majority of straight Americans, the thrill is gone.  Gays are indeed ubiquitous on TV.  They’re also pushing to the forefront of the media everywhere, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the American population.  The vast number of Americans are not homophobic, even if they don’t want the ancient institution of marriage extended to gays.  And as for gay marriage, increasing numbers of Americans support that too.

We no longer see gays as stock comic figures.  We no longer see gays as tragic martyrs to disease.  We no longer see gays as closeted victims.  We no longer see gay images in movies as titillating.  And, assuming we’re heterosexual, we don’t see them as acceptable lead characters in romances, rom-cons, action movies, or teen flicks.  That leaves a very, very small market for movies with gay leading characters.

In other words, now that straights have run out of reasons to see gay movies just because they’re gay, it turns out that gays might not be as interesting as they think they are.  A gay movie has to offer entertainment on its on terms without preaching at audiences.  And gays probably want to make movies that aren’t demeaning to them — which I think Bruno (staring the straight Baron Cohen) was, insofar as it presented gay sexual behaviors as grotesque, disgusting, and perverse.

Until a gay-charactered movie has crossover appeal, offering a solid product that appeals to Americans’ cravings for comedy, romance, action, or serious stuff (which, insofar as gays goes, has mostly been done), I supect gay-themed movies will continue to languish economically.

Schadenfreude at the New York Times

When my friends make mistakes, I’m usually amused and rather pleased, not because I revel in their suffering, but because it shows our shared humanity.  When bad things happen to my friends, I feel genuine distress and wish devoutly for their situation to improve.

The opposite is true, of course, when people or institutions I fear, dislike, or distrust make mistakes or have bad things happen.  For example, if I hear about a would-be terrorist blowing himself up on his own bomb before he even leaves his laboratory, I’m delighted.  The Germans have a word for it:  schadenfreude, which means to take delight in someone else’s misfortune.

Given the smug pleasure a New York Times movie review takes in recounting problems within the American military, I’m pretty sure that the writers and editors at the Times fear, dislike, and distrust that institution — one that, in case they forget, is an all-volunteer organization staffed by ordinary Americans and subordinate to the Constitution the Left so much wants to “adjust” into oblivion.  Here’s the movie review, and please note the glee with which the review recounts the military’s travails (emphasis mine):

It hardly needs to be said that any armed force has the potential for internal as well as external violence. But “The Invisible War,” Kirby Dick’s incendiary documentary about the epidemic of rape within the United States military, is a shocking and infuriating indictment of widespread sexual attacks on women. Such behavior, the film argues, is tacitly condoned and routinely covered up; the victims are often blamed and their reputations destroyed.

This unsettling exposé, which won the audience award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, may be the most outraged film in the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which opened on Thursday and continues at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center through June 28. It is likely to fuel a growing perception of the military as a broken institution, stretched beyond its limits and steeped in a belligerent, hypermasculine mystique that has gone unchecked.

Last week the Pentagon reported that there had been 154 suicides among active-duty troops this year, a rate of nearly one a day. The rate is higher than that of military fatalities in Afghanistan, and it is another sign of incipient breakdown.

The language I highlighted reveals that the liberal audience at Sundance also reveled in the Army’s alleged problem.  I say “alleged” because while I’m perfectly ready to believe that it’s a macho culture with all that this entails, I distrust the source.  In addition, the Army must be doing the world’s worst job in basic training if the women who graduate are incapable of defending themselves.

“Act of Valor” cleared of antisemitism

Of the many, many things I do that irritate my husband, two are pertinent here.  First, I actually listen to what he says.  This can be frustrating for him, because he doesn’t always use his words with precision.  When we’re having a discussion and I say “But you said…” his return is usually “I know that’s what I said, but you know that’s not what I meant.”  Well, no.  If you said one thing, how the heck am I supposed to know that you meant another thing?

My other irritating habit is that I can totally read movies.  Aside from the fact that I don’t generally like what’s coming out of Hollywood, I also have a very low boredom threshold.  If I can figure out character, plot, and motive in the first ten minutes of the movie, and I don’t like where the movie is going, I’m so out of there.  This irritates my husband, although he can also find it useful:  “Why did that women get on the train?”  “But I thought those two characters were married?”  You know . . . questions like that.  If there’s foreshadowing or nuance in a movie, I get it.

These two traits are relevant to my perception of antisemitism in Act of Valor.  First, I was paying close attention to the dialog, so I heard what I heard.  Second, had there been nuance, foreshadowing, character development, etc., I would have gotten it.  The line “You’re a Jew,” was out there, and the nuance, foreshadowing, plot, or character development that would normally have explained that line’s meaning were missing, both before and after the line was uttered.  That’s my defense.

BUT — and this is a really important “but,” so please stick with me here.

I just got an email from someone purporting to be close to the SEALS involved in the production, and for the time being, I’m comfortable believing that this person is who he says he is, and that what he’s saying is the truth.  I won’t quote the bulk of the email verbatim, because I haven’t been given permission to do so.  I will, however, pass on the pertinent data, along with my apologies to the SEALS generally and the Senior Chief specifically for having misinterpreted their motives and for having done so very publicly.

First, I have been assured that the Senior Chief is not an antisemite, and I absolutely believe that to be true.  I actually never meant to accuse the real Senior Chief of being antisemitic, so I apologize for creating the perception that I did.  I didn’t even perceive his character as being antisemitic.  I perceived the movie as being antisemitic or, rather, having a rather stunningly antisemitic moment.  To the extent, though, that perception becomes reality, I apologize directly to the Senior Chief for accusing him of being antisemitic.

Second, the email writer explained to me that, in the context of the scene (and I am going to quote here) “it was a device to try to separate Christo from Shabal by appealing to the natural enmity between Jews and radical islamists.”  Further, the actor, Alex Veadov is, in fact, Jewish, so that charge against him in the movie was a form of method acting that brings together both reality and fiction that, to my mind, meshed in an unfortunate way.

I totally believe the above is true.  Indeed, in my earlier posts, I even explored the possibility that it might be true — but rejected it because the line “you’re a Jew” existed in a vacuum.  I don’t doubt that the SEALS and the other actors understood the subtext, but for the audience, the line stood there in glorious isolation.  The second, missing, line should have been “How can you make common cause with a man who is dedicated to your people’s destruction?”  Except that line wasn’t there.  As a literalist who listens, its absence was a potent force for me.  And I have to say that, as someone who reads movies, there was nothing else in the movie to help me understand that there was an unspoken line driving this scene.

My sense here is that, much as I really dislike Hollywood, Hollywood is adept at one thing, and that is telling the story at both the big, obvious level, and at the lower, more subliminal level.  When it’s doing pure entertainment, this works.  When it’s doing propaganda, this facility is irritating.  This movie bypassed Hollywood, something that I really appreciate.  It made an amateur mistake, however, which is to forget that the audience has to have things spelled out, and that’s true whether they’re spelled out explicitly or implicitly.  I can’t know what the movie’s makers intend; I can know only what they tell me.

The letter writer closed by asking me to correct my earlier email as quickly as possible lest it create dangerous risks for the men and women in the field.  He could have just appealed to my conscience, because I do have one.  If I do something wrong, I say so.  If I hurt someone’s feelings, I apologize.  And if I create the incorrect impression that a person or group has bad motives, I move as quickly as possibly to remedy that error.  I now have data showing I was wrong and created a bad impression.  This post, written as soon as possible, is meant to correct that, and I’m disseminating this post as widely as possible.  And I do most heartily apologize to the Senior Chief and the SEALS for wrongly impugning them.

 

When stars were stars

I watched a dreadful movie last night, really dreadful.  But here’s the interesting thing:  even though it was a terrible movie, with a creepy plot, I didn’t turn it off and walk away.  Instead, I watched it from beginning to end.  Why?  Star power.

The movie was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day classic from 1961 called Lover Come Back.  Rock and Doris play feuding Madison Avenue ad executives.  Although billed as a romantic comedy (it is Rock and Doris, after all), Rock’s character can best be described as sociopathic.  In order to win clients, he’s willing to pour alcohol into people, pimp women, lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate.  As one of his lies, he pretends to Doris to be a naive scientist, and she falls in love with him.  When the truth is revealed — when she learns that Rock has lied to her and has confirmed the fact that, in his real identity, he’s a terrible human being — she still loves him.

If this was a modern movie, I would have walked out in the first half hour, with my husband calling after me, “You hate everything.”  I’m not sure I hate everything, but I definitely hate watching creepy, whiny, modern Hollywood actors play distasteful roles.  I have better things to do with my time.

Why, then, did I stick around for this movie?  Star power.  Rock Hudson is wonderful.  Even though I know he was gay and that the macho man thing was an act, what an act.  Every time he was on the screen, all I could think of was how gorgeous he was.  He epitomized tall, dark and handsome, with his towering height, perfect face, deep voice, and, despite all that manliness, a warm, puppy-dog charm.  He took a despicable character, and through the force of his own personality, made him lovable.

Doris Day was no slouch either.  She looks exactly like a beautiful petit four, with her platinum hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and, most importantly of all, that radiant, sunny smile.  She spends a large part of the movie huffing and mincing, but it doesn’t matter.  Get her together with Rock, and after about five minutes, that husky voice relaxes, the radiant smile bursts out, and Rock smiles at her in return.  Sigh….

I can’t think of any modern actor who is so delightful to spend time with that I’d stick around for what is otherwise a boring movie.  There are some actors I like more than others, but if the movie is bad, they don’t have enough charm to hold me to my chair.  Take Anne Hathaway, for example.  She’s a very talented young woman, who can appear delightful, sing and even do splits.  When she’s in a good movie, I enjoy watching her.  But when she’s in a bad movie, one that sees her emoting and posing and baring her breasts . . . I am gone.  Despite her many talents, she is only as good as her roles.

The same is true for Meryl Streep.  For years, I’ve really thought that there must be something wrong with me, because I do not like Meryl Streep.  I readily concede that she’s hugely talented in a technical way as an actress, but I find her boring.  Once I’ve finished admiring how beautiful she imitates someone, such as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, there’s not usually that much left to enjoy.  She’s like a high-end, carefully scripted Rich Little or a not-very-funny Frank Caliendo.  It was such a relief, the other day, to read Steve Dowty’s post positing that Streep is, in fact, a very talented mimic who brings little warmth or charisma to a role.  She’s workmanlike, but no star:

Streep is perhaps the exemplar of the modern Hollywood theory of acting, which holds that the perfection of the craft lies in the total immersion of the actor in the character. This is “The Method,” which began to take over Hollywood in the late 40s, and really hit its stride when Marlon Brando burst onto the scene, alternately mumbling and screaming, in 1951. Since then actors have competed to become as invisible as possible, hiding behind accents, tics, quirks, foibles, or disabilities, or simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of a real person.

[snip]

When Streep acts, no matter the role, every single word and gesture looks perfectly studied, considered, and prepared, as though she’s trying to give the story a manicure. She hasn’t the knack of convincing the audience that what they’re watching is actually happening. We can’t believe that what we’re seeing is real, and often it’s precisely because the excellence of the mimicry calls attention to the essential falsity of the situation.

By way of contrast, Jimmy Stewart never completely left himself out of his characters (which was okay, because we liked him).  He was always, in his voice and mannerisms, Jimmy Stewart, even when he was called George Bailey or Rance Stoddard or Elwood P. Dowd.  But Stewart had the ability to make any film seem like a hidden-camera documentary, capturing events as they happened. Even if the characters never rise much beyond the level of Archetype or Everyman (and here’s another interesting question: what’s wrong with that?), it’s the ability to achieve the impression of spontaneous action that made great actors of Stewart and others like Lionel Barrymore.

Without a good script, Streep offers nothing worth sticking around for.  There is no there there.

John Nolte has latched onto the same problem with his suggestion that Hollywood can cure its woes and become a money-making machine again.  Aside from such obvious points as making movies people want to see, and telling stars to stop insulting their audiences, Nolte tells Hollywood to bring back the star:

You can trace most of Hollywood’s problems back to the death of the movie star. At first, the industry was thrilled with this development. No movie star meant no big payday, no ego, and none of the baggage too many stahs carry with them. The industry also found that, at least for a while, they could get away with this. Audiences were still packing theatres to see pre-packaged brands developed from high concepts, comic books, novels, and television shows. Sequels, remakes, and prequels were still sure-fire. Who needs to pay Tom Cruise $30 million to run around with CGI’d dinosaurs when just as many people will pay to see Jeff Goldblum do the same?

This was all well and good until the “brands” ran out. Now Hollywood is down to “The Green Lantern” and board games like “Battleship.”

Movie stars, on the other hand, are the most reliable brands out there. People come to see them and if you have enough of them and if you keep developing them, the inventory is limitless. From the 1920s straight through to right around 1990, if you built it with movie stars, audiences would come. Hollywood didn’t need to rely on “brands” because they built pictures around their stars.

Having been charmed by Rock, I’ve now told TiVo to look for his films.  No matter how bad they are, I’ll probably stick through to the end, just to see him.  After all, I do the same thing with films starring Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Fred & Ginger, and myriad other class acts from the old days.  Watching all of them was sheer pleasure, no matter the usually foolish scripts.