Friday, February 28, 2014

Why I Don’t Believe in ‘Reverse Racism’

  Australian comedian Aamer Rahman, from his video ‘Fear of a Brown Planet’

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Comic-Book Movie: The New Western?

Which is the more expensive and prestigious production?
Douglas Wilson in the 1942 serial ‘Batman’ (left), Christian
Bale in the 2008 feature film ‘The Dark Knight’ (center), 
and Adam West in the 1966-68 TV series ‘Batman’

Here’s a quick and inchoate thought: Are today’s comic-book (or as some prefer, “graphic-novel”) movies the counterpart of Hollywood’s World War Two-era and postwar westerns?  I don’t mean as the preferred action genres of their respective eras.  I mean as kinds of films with similar histories, two genres that went from pulp to prestige.

While some prestigious westerns were made during Hollywood’s silent era, the genre fell out of favor for most of the 1930s.  This may have been due to the poor box-office performance of expensive examples like The Big Trail (1930).  But for whatever reason, the western genre was relegated to B movies and serials with rather thinly drawn characters, films of poor quality with heavy-handed moral messages.  And these movies seemed aimed more at children than adults. 

John Wayne in ‘The Big Trail’ (1930)
In fact, The Big Trail was John Wayne’s first starring role in an A picture.  Had the film (which, incidentally, was shot in a widescreen process 23 years before the first CinemaScope feature) been a success, it might have been the vehicle that launched him into Hollywood superstardom.  However, The Big Trail’s ticket sales disappointed, and like the genre itself, Wayne was relegated to B movies and serials for most of the decade.  Yes, there were films that were exceptions, like the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931, the only western to win Best Picture in the first 62 years of the award’s history), but that movie was also based on a respected Edna Ferber novel and (like Heaven’s Gate 50 years later) didn’t seem to sell itself as a western. 

The full arrival and flourishing of the sound-era western as a genre for adults as well as children would need to wait until the financial success of Henry King’s Jesse James and John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939.  So, for most of the 1930s, the western was thought of as a low-budget pulp genre with black-and-white stories primarily made for juvenile audiences. I wonder if you told the average moviegoer (or movie critic) at the time that, in a few years, this disdained genre would one day be an esteemed, high-budget vehicle for important themes and Hollywood’s best talent — and especially that the B-movie actor most associated with the genre would become moviedom’s most enduring star — that audience member would have believed you.  Would this filmgoer have been able to take seriously the idea of such adult-oriented and critically acclaimed postwar westerns as Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), and Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), never mind Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)?

John Wayne as 1930s B western star (left) and as postwar Hollywood icon

Fast-forward to the present.  Until the commercial triumphs of George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) (cemented by Steven Spielberg’s serial-inspired megahit Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]), fantasy and super-hero properties weren’t usually thought of as prime adaptation sources for Hollywood.  Like the western of the 1930s, movies made from comic-book-type material were relegated to shabbily made B movies and serials.  The low budgets often produced laughable results because the heroes’ costumes that looked so impressive on the comics page looked less so on the screen, especially when made by second-rate costumers. 

The few super-hero feature films that were made when theatres stopped showing double bills (and therefore no longer needed B movies or serials) were campy, not serious, and still low-budget — such as the 1966 Batman feature that used the resources of the 1966-68 Batman TV series.  And like the B western, such movies were thought of primarily as offerings for juveniles.  I understand that the producers of Donner’s Superman were desperate to sign Marlon Brando for the project so that the rest of Hollywood would take it seriously and not think it was supposed to be a (full-blown) comedy.  When Tim Burton cast comic (as in ha-ha) actor Michael Keaton in his 1989 production of Batman, fans feared that the director would make another spoof like the 1960s TV series.  The fact that Burton did not make a comedy demonstrated the new earnestness with which Hollywood henceforth would deal with comic-book properties.

Kirk Alyn in the 1948 serial ‘Superman’ (left) and Christopher Reeve in the 1981 feature ‘Superman II’

As with the western of the 1930s, I don’t think that the average pre-Star Wars moviegoer would think that this heretofore-risible (when onscreen) comic-book subject matter would one day command Hollywood’s prime talent, and even deal with serious themes.  In the Production Code days, the industry would shy away from solemn subjects like rape and miscegenation, but when placed in the context of a familiar and long-ago genre like the western, the topics could become more palatable to the audience — hence John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).  Today, the issue of our civilized society slipping into anarchy might be too intense and too disturbing for the usual Hollywood patron, but in the guise of a super-hero film, such a subject becomes more digestible — hence Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).  I also wonder if that pre-Star Wars filmgoer, who would have lived in a time when dozens of westerns would be screened theatrically each year, would imagine a day when the genre would become an infrequent anomaly in the major studios’ release schedules.

However, when the western was Hollywood’s most popular genre, the American motion-picture industry still produced a wide variety of films.  But nowadays, with the rise of pop culture’s respectability (at least financial respectability) and the spiraling costs of feature films, most releases from the major studios (with only a few exceptions, such as raunchy or romantic comedies and Oscar bait) need some sort of readily identifiable, pre-sold identity to the audience.  For the past few years, whenever I watch a trailer for a Hollywood movie in a multiplex, the advertised film contains some kind of fantasy/horror/science-fiction/comic-book/super-hero/action/video-game/television-series subject matter.  In twenty-first century mainstream American cinema, the aura of the fantastical that was once associated with the typical comic book has now become the dominant element in most of Hollywood’s big-screen productions — while more down-to-earth subject matter is increasingly relegated to smaller distribution arms and exhibition spaces.  I wonder when the homogenizing ubiquity of Hollywood’s fascination with the fantastical will finally, like the western genre, ride off into the sunset.

Trailer for the sci-fi film ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011), based on the graphic novel: virtually the only way you can get anything like a western made these days

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Got to Be a Joker

After watching the TV special The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles (for the second time) last night, I recall this anecdote:

About 15 years ago, I used to vist a British pub in L.A. that hosted a Beatles tribute band every Saturday.  In a twist, this tribute band’s “Ringo” was a long-haired young woman.  Watching the band set up one night, I recalled a phrase that I used to hear in my childhood and thought I’d make a joke. “Hey, Ringo,” I called across the room, “get a haircut! You look like a girl!”

The joke was completely lost on her. She didn’t know a time when it wasn’t acceptable for men to have long hair.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What’s in a Name?

“I wish the Washington Redskins would change their name,” I said, apropos of nothing.

My Dad gave me this strange look, as though desiring that Washington’s National Football League team would go by a different moniker was the most bizarre statement that anyone anywhere could make.

This happened about three years ago.  I can’t really remember anything else about the incident.  I don’t remember the context of my statement.  I think I made the comment in my Dad’s kitchen, where the two of us would often congregate whenever I visited him at his home not far from the team’s District of Columbia stomping ground.  I don’t remember if I was sitting or standing.  I don’t remember if we were just passing through the kitchen on our way to somewhere else or if we had settled ourselves next to the stove.

I can only remember my Dad’s expression: a look that mixed both puzzlement and pity, worried incredulity that such a trivial and useless thought would ever occupy anyone’s head.

Why did I say it?  Maybe the two of us were sitting at the kitchen table and watching the small portable TV on the counter, as the monitor beamed a football game.  Maybe I was sitting at the table reading the Washington Post, as I often did.  Whatever the reason, it’s a thought I had harbored for a long time.

Coming from the Washington area, I was closer to this issue than I would have been if I had grown up in another part of the country.  I’m not into sports, but I always wanted to root for my hometown-area teams whenever I caught them playing a game on my local Los Angeles bar’s TV.  However, rooting for Washington’s NFL team was always difficult for me.  Although several other professional sports teams are saddled with problematic names referencing Native Americans — the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs — Washington’s football team is the only one whose name is an outright racial slur.  So, whenever I want to cheer on a hometown-area NFL team, I root for the Baltimore Ravens.  (The Ravens are named after a poem by Baltimore resident Edgar Allan Poe.  How cool is that?!)

Although I dislike the Washington NFL team’s name, I had no intention of doing anything about it.  The issue of the team changing what it’s called had come up many years before, and its fans — in interviews on the local news, in letters to newspapers, and elsewhere — made an adamant show of defending the name.  I knew that if I ever made any kind of gesture advocating a change of the team’s nickname, I would be hit by gale-force blowback that I’d never want to deal with.  If the name ever changed, I thought to myself, it would do so when Washington football fans grew away from it.  However, I occasionally fantasized about Native American casino owners buying the team and transforming the appellation that way.  (My choice: the Washington Whities — turn the tables.)

So, it’s something of a surprise to me that the issue of the Washington NFL team changing its name has picked up steam in recent months.  Why did the topic suddenly become so pressing that owner Dan Snyder felt compelled to write an open letter in the Washington Post last October defending what the team is called? After searching the Internet for the reason, I came upon this recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune:

That debate [about its name] has more traction now because the team faces a critic that is more persistent and has deep pockets to finance a campaign. As The Washington Post recently reported, the Oneida Indian Nation, which is leading the campaign, has become a financial and political powerhouse thanks to its huge interests in casino gambling in New York state.

So, that’s the reason!  Native American casino owners didn’t need to go to the extent of actually buying the team to make their displeasure with the name palpable and relevant.

As for Snyder’s letter, his defense of the team moniker was mostly about its emotional associations for him and other fans.  The team, which was originally based in Beantown, was first known as the “Boston Braves” but changed its name in 1933 to avoid confusion with an identically titled baseball club.  So, the phenomenon of the franchise changing its name is not unheard of, and I wonder if the 1933 alteration of nomenclature met with similar resistance.  But words change connotations all of the time, and if a majority (not just those whom Snyder cites) of those most directly affected by the word (in this case, Native Americans) object to it, shouldn’t that trump the emotional associations that outside groups have with that word?  Missing for me in Snyder’s letter was why the name “Redskins” conveyed “strength, courage, honor, and respect” in a way that no other name ever could, and in a way that outweighs this country’s troubled history of race — for that history is what the name denotes.

More recently, lawmakers in Washington have sent letters urging Snyder to change the name, and some have even introduced legislation to disallow “the federal registrations of trademarks using the word redskin in reference to Native Americans.”  I would advise these legislators to back off now that they have made their opinions on the matter known.  If the Washington NFL team ever changes its sobriquet due to political pressure directly from Congress, fans would become especially resentful, and conservatives and libertarians would gain a new scapegoat to epitomize the Heavy Hand of Government.  Leave this issue to the private market and Native American activists.

Good luck, folks of the Oneida Indian Nation.  Your cause is a good one, and I’ve supported it for a long time.  You’re obviously ready to deal with the blowback from the name’s defenders in a way I never was.  You can look forward to some passionate advocacy of the name from die-hard Washington football fans.  And maybe some vituperation, too. 

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: if the subject of the Washington NFL team changing its name ever comes up again between me and my Dad, he probably won’t give me such an incredulous look the next time.