Turning Back Time

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We all came to America in different ships – but we are all in the same boat now

– Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) outside the Capitol Building last week to a mostly young crowd supporting a Democratic-led sit-in demanding a vote on gun legislation

John Lewis has been a congressman for almost 30 years but is still best known to most Americans as one of the young protégés of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In that realm, he is also renowned as the young Black man whose skull was brutally fractured by nightstick-wielding Alabama state troopers during the 1965 March on Selma when he, Dr. King, and hundreds of others merely decided to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in non-violent demonstration in order to integrate the South.

Living legend

Living legend

Now 76-years old and bald, one entire side of Rep. Lewis’ head still very clearly bears the bold, visible scars of that fateful day. So as he encouraged demonstrators to never give up on their goals it is also unsurprising that a veteran lawmaker like himself would admonish them to also not give in to their anger over 200 mass shootings since 2006 (the latest of which was responsible for a record body count of 49 inside an Orlando gay nightclub) despite absolutely ZERO modifications of laws that allowed those gunmen to purchase their often quite sophisticated military grade weapons.

The way of peace is the way of love, Rep. Lewis shouted out towards the crowd as he went on to further share with them what he said Dr. King related to him all of those decades ago.

Hate is too heavy a burden to bear, so we need to lay it down – it is better to love.

And to even that he then added this 21st century addendum.

So with all of you working together — we can turn our nation around. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, Latino American, Asian American, Native American, Straight or Gay – we are all Americans.

My head is still spinning over this....

My head is still spinning over this….

I am hesitant to say a few unexpected tears welled in my eyes as Rep. Lewis spoke. As a gay guy of a certain age I have not yet grown used to national leaders openly including us in the multi-layered cloth of identities in this country. Yeah, I know it’s been at least a couple of years but I’m not sure you ever relax about this sort of thing when more of your life has been spent battling inequality than basking in the rewards of the opposite. In this way, I can only begin to imagine how he must feel as the purveyor of this message after what he has managed to live through.

By the way, I know his above quotes to be accurate because I watched him say them on live television during the many multi-hours of coverage this 2016 demonstration received and then sped it back using my Direct TV rewind button in order to write it down exactly and remember it. That’s yet another way the world has changed for the better since the 1960s. Not only do you get to see government and civil disobedience live and unedited, you have the opportunity to record it permanently in case you forget it, don’t pay attention in the first place or if anyone doubts you.

I have the power!

I have the power!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sixties, seventies, fifties and even forties for several reasons this week. No, they don’t all have to do with the passage of Brexit and the anti-immigration wave not only blowing throughout England but back on to and throughout this country via our current Republican presidential nominee. They also have to do with my home TV viewing habits via one of our own fave channels – at least in this household — Turner Classic Movies.

This month TCM’s been showing musicals from the 1960s and I was seduced into too many off hours of diversion in the last few weeks somehow – mostly recently several days ago by the film versions of The Music Man (1962) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Now don’t get me wrong, neither of these are great films but they are infinitely watchable and entertaining. So evocative are they of another time and place and naiveté that doesn’t exist anymore that it becomes impossible to turn away.

Saturated with glee

Saturated with glee

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine that there is a town still as rosy as Sweet Apple, Ohio where all teenage girls looked like Ann-Margret; with fathers who had the gay sensibilities of Paul Lynde (Note: But you didn’t have to talk about them) and where the country’s biggest problem was just how on earth we could all handle the departure into the military of our own #1 word famous swivel-hipped pop star? (Note: And one with no discernible bloodshed because we clearly were fighting no discernible war).

Well, the only thing that could be better is viewing a kind-hearted con man re-energize one of our small towns citizen by citizen and, through his deeds (and unbeknownst to himself until the end), finding that he does have a soul underneath it all. So much so that he decides to leave his life of capitalistic crime, fall in love with and marry the local spinster librarian, and spend the rest of his life as a mere private citizen in the very town that at the beginning of the story he was determined to massively rip off?

Oh sweet Americana

Oh sweet Americana

Those are the thumbnail plots of Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man and a pretty good representation of where we were sociologically in the early 1960s. No wonder such a significant portion of white America, not to mention white England, are nostalgic for the past and want to take our country(ies) back….there????

Yes. Make no mistake about it. That’s where they want to be. To a place that, well, never existed.

Because you can’t return to Sweet Apple, Ohio without returning to a time when Rep. Lewis types not only did not serve in Congress but would get their skulls bashed in or worse in some (many?) places if they dared to eat at the same lunch counter with you. And to return to the kind of Europe that Brexit proponents are suggesting – a time where citizens of one country were not free to emigrate and work in another nearby European country as legal citizens – means also going back to a place in history not that far removed from our most horrific example of nationalistic pride and anti-other/immigration gone amuck – Nazi Germany.   You just don’t get to say that brown and black and yellow and every shade in between of people are taking your jobs and your opportunities so you’re going to outlaw them from coming any where near you without also owning the idea that you are opening the door of advocacy for a time you would most likely publicly eschew.

Sounds about right

Sounds about right

This appears to be the dilemma now. Do we trudge forward in love as Rep. Lewis suggests? Or do we go back to the real time – not the fantasy of it – that Brexit, Trump, and the brewing worldwide nativism movements suggest?

As much as I like a good or even decently nostalgic movie musical – I’ll choose to follow a battle-scarred leader like Rep. Lewis any time of the day, week or year.

I mean what could happen, right?

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The Oscar Race

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There is not much to count on in life anymore but one of the constants is that upon the announcement of the Academy Award nominations there will be a significant group of people outraged by the choices made by the group’s almost 6,000 voting members. This is not to denigrate the passionate emotions those who are outraged display. I myself have still not gotten over the fact that Mia Farrow was not nominated for her star turn in Rosemary’s Baby and that movie was released before I reached adolescence (Note: Yes, it’s true, I had opinions even then). Not to mention, we’re not taking into account the biggest Oscar slight of all – Judy Garland losing the best actress race to Grace Kelly in 1955. I mean, all things being equal could you honestly say that you’d rather watch The Country Girl on a loop until the end of time rather than A Star Is Born??? Please.

Lest we forget 1951's blasphemy

Lest we forget 1951’s blasphemy

So you see where I’m going with this.

This year the principal outrage is about the movie Selma receiving only two Academy Award nominations – one for best picture and the other for best song. So powerful were the passions stirred that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending almost instantly. Among my favorites was:

#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a person of color.

Oh snap!

Oh snap!

Bravo! (or Brava!) to whoever thought of that one.

As a lifelong Oscar watcher, former entertainment reporter, person who has been going to Academy screenings for 30 years, and screenwriter who admittedly would LOVE to at some point get nominated for one of those things as I’m simultaneously made fun of by 50 million people from their beds and/or living rooms, let me just say this:

None of this is fair. And it is NOT a conspiracy of exclusion. The day that the creative types and non-creative types who make up the membership of the Academy could truly agree on what is a good movie is the day when Oscar watching will cease to be an attraction. Or even vaguely interesting. Which, in laymen’s terms means — IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

Here’s the deal. Minorities ARE underrepresented in movies. But if you take the entire list of films in distribution in each year, so are — intelligence, depth, humanity, and individuality.

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

There are a MINORITY number of films in release these days with many of the above qualities and most of those are the ones being considered for Oscar statuettes. That’s a small number compared to the amount of movies each year that can qualify for consideration by the Academy but a large number when taken as a group unto themselves. So given that most categories are limited to five nominees means that when it comes down to it there is A LOT of competition for those top slots.

What happens then is that it becomes a matter of taste. Well, all you have to do is go into the recently revamped bland, near empty, high-tech nightmare that accounts for the new lobby of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and you can see that its ingenuity in that area is – to be kind – sorely lacking. While it does deserve credit for keeping the traditional cushy red velvet seats in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – still the best sound and best place in town overall to see a movie – the design of the new lobby itself tells you all you need to know about the organization’s taste level at this moment – or really, any moment. And that is – well, go down the list of nominations and judge for yourself. The one thing that is for certain is that you can find quite a bit not to like.

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

It’s difficult to defend the Academy’s record for the employment and recognition of non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual people on the whole. On the same token, it’s equally difficult to find much consistency in many of their choices. For instance, if the 21st century of Academy voters were truly white-centric why did they award Oscars to 12 Years A Slave last year for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress, among the film’s nine nominations? If they are so white, traditional and such an insular club, how is it that they failed to even NOMINATE the unofficial KING of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg, for best director on The Color Purple in 1986 yet saw fit to vote the movie a whopping 11 nominations back then?

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Don’t try to answer because none of it makes any sense and it’s about as fair as who wins the lottery or is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Though it is a lot more fun to watch than either. Especially when the right people lose and the wrong people win. Admittedly those are sad facts but undoubtedly true ones.

I took myself to see Selma a few days ago before I weighed in on any of this. I liked the film, which gained power as it went on – not unlike the march for voting rights did in Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay did a fine job and David Oyelowo so powerfully evoked the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King in such a uniquely human fashion that there were occasional moments that felt like discarded behind-the-scenes documentary footage rather than beats of a large scale, mainstream Hollywood-type movie.

And to think he's British!

And to think he’s British!

Yes, it would have been just to finally have an African American woman nominated for best director. In fact, it’s beyond ridiculous that it hasn’t yet happened. But when going over the list of nominees, who clearly doesn’t belong and should absolutely be eliminated?

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Not going to happen. Those two are the frontrunners of arguably the most unusual and complicated films made this year. So that leaves three more slots.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten D. Tydlum, The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

One thing's for sure: they all need a haircut.

One thing’s for sure: they all need a haircut.

Well, I for one always feel left in the lurch with Wes Anderson movies (Note: Students don’t hate me and yes, it’s probably a bit generational). Yet given the complicated visual execution here and the fact that the Academy has a new and growing group of younger voters who have finally brought the average age down to somewhere around 60, you can see why it’s hard to argue a case against this. It’s a film that feels hip and quirky and there almost always seems to be one slot for that.

The Imitation Game is, like Selma, somewhat of a film about injustice but unlike the march for civil rights it centers on the life of a little known previously unsung GAY man who pioneered the use of computers which significantly contributed to the Allies winning WWII (Note: Never underestimate WWII stories in Academy circles).

OK... maybe not all of the time.  #sorryangie

OK… maybe not all of the time. #sorryangie

It’s also strangely about humanity and civil rights but also manages to make the puzzles surrounding the computers that baffle most Academy voters in daily life seem decipherable. All told that’s a triple relevance factor overall and it’s hard to compete with that.

That leaves Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher, a rather unsavory, artsily-disturbing look at a murder. It has a lot of sparse, directorial flourishes and features a beloved comic actor who has not been recognized previously by the Academy in a stomach churning, disturbing star turn. One can’t imagine it’s the White choice or even the commercial choice. The oddness of it feels like the choice of the director’s branch – a group composed primarily of men who probably related to its themes of maleness.

And yet THIS is the Academy president

And yet THIS is the Academy president

The latter could alone validate the reasons of the outraged and the fact that certainly more female-driven stories need to be made, hopefully by more female directors. Meanwhile, the one female to actually win best director, Kathryn Bigelow, did so seven years ago for The Hurt Locker – a war film with maleness written all over it, despite its female director. 12 Years A Slave had an even more violent underpinning and also got recognized in spite of, or perhaps because of, its quite violent subject matter. Hmmm.

This all does not address the best director omission this year of perennial Oscar alpha male favorite Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh’s unique take on Stephen Hawking, or why Whiplash could get a best picture, screenplay and supporting actor nod while Damien Chazelle was completely left out of the aforementioned category. Did that movie direct itself?

Ageism?

Ageism?

Best actor is an even more impossible competition. Do you by pass by Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Imitation Game? Those three were locks. That leaves two major movie star, star turns. Both Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell left behind all traces of their charismatic and jovial selves in American Sniper and Foxcatcher and if nothing else the acting branch are suckers for that. I would wager at least a box of Red Vines and a small Diet Coke that Mr. Oyelowo came in sixth for a performance that was so good it managed to blend into the movie rather than stand above it. That is a credit to him as an actor, regardless of race. It is just not always the best strategy to net an Oscar nomination in a super competitive year. One only needs to look at the Oscar nominated best actor performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave last year to see the difference. Which begs the question of why Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler was overlooked this year for totally transforming into…well, see it. My guess is he was #7 even though he clearly delivered one of the three best acting jobs of any sex or race in 2014.

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Of course, this and all other Oscar analyses and prognostications are sheer guesswork.   Yes, we all need a lot more work on inclusion and equal opportunity. But like most of us, Oscar is primarily an equal opportunity offender. Which is to say there is no coherent reason for why they are doing the offending in the first place.  This makes it quite different from the events in Selma and near impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that film received a paucity of nominations.   Or why some of the others you and I didn’t care for received a plethora of them.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t be watching, waiting and ready to comment when they give out those little suckers for the 87th time next month – along with most of the rest of you.