Category Archives: Arts

Elizabeth Taylor and the American Century

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor at 15 in 1947. Photo by Bob Landry for LIFE

Elizabeth Taylor‘s death last week made me sad, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t sad for her; by all accounts, she lived a long and fulfilling life, brought joy to millions through her movies, and did enormous good through her philanthropy and activism. Rather the sadness came from the sense, as it did when her friend Michael Jackson died, that a more blissful era had passed.

The day Taylor died, I began working on a project for LIFE, captioning photos for an upcoming book commemorating the photojournalism magazine’s 75th anniversary. Poring through LIFE‘s archives, I was reminded again what a repository of our shared cultural memory it has been. So many familiar images — the sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, Jackie Robinson stealing home, the Beatles frolicking in a swimming pool during their first visit to America, a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, a student at Kent State screaming over the body of a classmate killed by National Guardsmen, the Zapruder film — all of them encoded in our DNA and burned into our retinas as if they had happened to us, even if we’re too young to have been there.

There were Hollywood pictures, too, of Marilyn Monroe in thoughtful repose, James Dean walking down a rainy street, and many pictures of Taylor, including the one at the top of this post, taken in 1947, when she was just 15 but already impossibly beautiful, already a star, yet with a lifetime of tumult and triumph and endless scrutiny still ahead, about to crash over her like an ocean wave. Who could have imagined it? And yet, she looks prepared and unafraid. Continue reading

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Filed under Arts, Books, In Memoriam, Movies

Mark Twain, Sarah Palin, Tucson, and the Follies of Censorship

Mark Twain

Mark Twain (Library of Congress No. LC-USZ62-5513)

Your elites don’t trust you. They don’t trust you to be able to read certain historical or literary documents, listen to TV and radio pundits, or even look at certain billboards and posters without getting the wrong ideas and letting them poison your mind to the extent that you turn to violence.

We’ve seen that a lot this month, with censorship efforts against a broad spectrum of source material, from Huckleberry Finn to the U.S. Constitution to Sarah Palin’s website, in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Continue reading

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Farewell to a Focked-Up Year

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in "Little Fockers"Visiting Colorado this week, I was chatting with a couple, family friends, who remarked that I was the first person they’d met who admitted to having voted for Obama. Of course, where I live, in a New York City suburb full of elite media folk, no one will admit to not having voted for Obama. Except for the politics, we had a pleasant conversation, but it dismayed me that we continue to live in two countries with seemingly irreconcilable views, not only on which policies and politicians should govern, but on how to interpret real events we all experienced.

There’s Fox Nation, where Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are distinguished sages, where Juan Williams is rewarded for the thoughtless bigotry for which NPR punished him, where Obama is an alien bent on destroying capitalism, where Andrew Breitbart is the wronged party after he’s condemned for making Shirley Sherrod notorious and costing her her job, where a proposed YMCMA a few blocks from Ground Zero is a shrine to a terrorist victory, where the midterm elections are a sign of genuine populist rejection of the Democrats’ big-government agenda, and where white Christian male privilege is a sign of embattled martyrdom and not still at the centers of power in most places.

And then there’s the place where the rest of us live, a place that doesn’t even have a name because we’re too disorganized, disputatious, and dispirited to give it one (per Yeats: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity); call it Colbert Nation — a place where jesters Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are taken seriously because they’re the only media/political watchdogs still actually doing their jobs, where Obama is a  Wall Street sellout who’s been too deferential to implacable obstructionists, where the midterm elections are a sign that a well-funded right-wing astroturf campaign beats an ineffectual Democratic party any time, and where the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the only sign that we’re not on the verge of a wholesale repeal of every positive social advance of the last century.

During my brief visit to Fox Nation, I found only a couple of signs of hope that an America riven into two seemingly irreconcilable camps can find something to agree upon. Continue reading

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Filed under 2008 Election, Arts, Barack Obama, Feuds, Media, Movies, TV

Immigration Backlash Over “Machete” in 5…4…3…2…

Danny Trejo in "Machete"I’m just waiting for the right blogosphere, the op-ed pages, and the folks at Fox News to  get riled over Robert Rodriguez’ surprisingly fiery take on illegal immigration (shorter Rodriguez: powerful business and political interests are cynically exploiting the issue for their own gain, though racism is also a factor) in his otherwise cartoonishly over-the-top (but cathartically enjoyable) Mexploitation film Machete.

Okay, well, maybe not Fox News, since News Corp. has a vested interest in this movie’s success, as it did with Avatar,  another movie that presented an easy political target but which Fox News largely avoided out of apparent deference to its parent company. Similarly, you wouldn’t expect Fox to distribute a movie this politically radical, unless you figure the company doesn’t fear that the film will have any real impact on the issues it addresses.

At any rate, I’ve written an in-depth analysis of Machete, the political firestorm it seems eager to spark, the actual likelihood of such a firestorm igniting, and the potential chilling effect on free speech for filmmakers in Texas (whose film commission is currently mulling whether or not to deny Rodriguez state incentives because Machete paints an occasionally unflattering portrait of the Lone Star state). It’s live now at Moviefone.

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The Late-Night Wars: Politics by Other Means

No, I probably won’t be watching tonight when Jay Leno returns to the Tonight Show, but I’m still fascinated with how this whole mess is going to play out. Certainly, the late-night wars are far from over, with Jay once again going head to head with longtime-rival-turned-Super-Bowl-buddy David Letterman, or with the deposed Conan O’Brien possibly barnstorming America with a live show before his likely face-off against both Dave and Jay if he lands on Fox this fall. The struggle is still of interest because. as seemed clear during the depths of the public Jay-vs.-everyone-else battle that played out in January, this is about a lot more than which pampered white guy gets to tell jokes at 11:35 p.m. It’s about great fault lines criss-crossing both our popular and political culture.

Some of those fault lines are: Continue reading

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Filed under 2008 Election, Arts, Barack Obama, Feuds, Late Night TV, Media, TV

“Miss Gorightry, I protest!”: Racism in the Movies


I really don’t want to be the movie-racism police, especially after the flame war that started after I pointed out the lazy and thoughtless stereotyping in Avatar, but hey, Moviefone asked me to, so here’s my commentary on this Complex.com list that supposedly documents the 50 most racist movies you didn’t know were racist. (No. 1 is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which you wouldn’t know was racist only if you’ve forgotten Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing and entirely gratuitous yellowface performance, shown above. Which would be a pretty normal thing to want to forget.)

I don’t have much to add to what I already wrote, except to note (with dismay but not surprise) the comments that demonstrate that many people still remain in denial about this, to the point of violence (figurative, so far, though someone named Buffmuffin thinks I should be “summarily executed”). I’m not saying that people who disagree with my essay are racists, but there’s an awful lot of entrenched sentiment that moviegoers and critics who will no longer sit idly by and allow racist imagery and narrative to pass without remarking on it are somehow impinging on creative freedom, that freedom being the privilege of insulting people according to group affiliation without ever being called on it.

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Filed under Arts, Censorship, Feuds, Media, Movies

“Avatar” Makes Me Blue Over Our Dumb Discourse

Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana in "Avatar."

Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana in Avatar. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

When I launched this blog a year ago, one of my hopes was that it would support the tendency of our popular culture to serve as a medium of discussion through which people of all ideological stripes comment on issues of the day. Unfortunately, it seems that pop culture is no longer serving this function. Rather, according to a recent Newsweek cover story, our movies, TV, music, and books have ceded this function to our ongoing obsession with celebrities’ private lives.

The article’s author, Neal Gabler, who wrote despairingly of this trend a decade ago in his book Life the Movie, seems entirely too sanguine today about conceding that the morality plays that make up celebrities’ personal lives have become more compelling to us than movies or TV or books as a way of having a national conversation about what matters to us. According to Gabler, our tendency to privilege celebrity gossip is more a function of our fascination with new media (and our boredom with old media) than a reflection of increased shallowness on our part, or on the part of our professional storytellers. But it seems to me that even our best storytellers have fallen down on the job here, and exhibit A is James Cameron’s visually stunning, well-meaning, ultimately unsubstantial message movie Avatar. Continue reading

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