Re-Examining Oliver Stone

Twins.

“You can’t even make a movie critical of America practically, unless you do it in a very lighthearted way,” Stone says. The ‘70s were “a time where people were re-examining — what were we doing in Vietnam? But that hasn’t happened (since). What are we doing in Iraq? What are we doing in Afghanistan? There’s just no questioning in movies.”

Source: Oliver Stone still seeking movie truth in ‘Snowden’

Reading this quote, offered by the director upon the release of Snowden, one was left with the unmistakable impression that Oliver Stone was already making excuses for what would rank as one of his most egregious box-office flops, almost – but not quite as bad – as Heaven and Earth.

I was tempted upon reading this to ask Mr. Stone whether he is familiar with the vast corpus of documentary work that is scathingly critical of America? Or, indeed, whether he has heard of films like Lions for Lambs, Syriana, In the Valley of Elah, Margin Call, The Big Short, or Redacted, all of which were critical of the nation’s faults without descending into the cauldron of angry demagogic revisionism that is Mr. Stone’s customary swimming pool.

Regardless of whether it is hyperbole, ignorance, egregious self-promotion, or studied disinformation, Mr. Stone’s comment reflects poorly upon him and his exceedingly narrow world-view. Such a tunneled perspective in an auteur is only a problem when it is a reflected in his work. Unfortunately, given Mr. Stone’s choices of subject matter – recent American political history – this is indeed a problem.

Oliver Stone is no documentarian, and he has made clear his willingness to interpret historical events through the prism of his political beliefs. As Snowden drips its way into our living rooms, it is worth remembering that what Stone creates is works of interpretive fiction, not histories with dramatic license, and that in the end, his cause is not so much to reveal truth as it is the promotion of Oliver Stone.

 

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Singing Los Angeles

The essence of Los Angeles is not easily expressed, but that has not kept everyone from essayists to auteurs to muralists from trying to capture it. Perhaps this is part of the eternal allure of the city: the fact that it can neither be easily described, nor readily dismissed. The upside to all of this is that we are now the inheritors of some magnificent works that, while failing to capture the city in full, continue to add definition to the Angeleno Mosaic.

Music, as we have suggested here before, is a part of that mosaic, and a serious effort has begun to revive and rejuvenate some of the earliest efforts to capture Los Angeles in song. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun have collaborated in a project to select some of those early tunes and provide a modern interpretation. More than just covers, these are thoroughly modern renditions of almost forgotten tunes that give them a modern feel.

The songs are available for free download in a link from this story. I will not critique the music – I leave that to better tuned ears. What appeals to me about each of these tunes, though, is that their ability to transcend time also suggests something timeless about Los Angeles. I recognize that this thought will stick in the craw of a lot of people: the suggestion that there are timeless elements to American cities less than three centuries old – much less one whose maturity is of a far more recent vintage – is probably a joke to a denizen of London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, or Beijing.

But this music is guaranteed to touch something deep inside any Greater Angeleno, local-born or immigrant. There are themes, feelings, ideas in all of these that resonate to us today in a way that they did to locals eighty or more years ago, and that certainly still enchant those among us who live far away yet are still, somehow, Angelenos.

Hollywood Will Listen

I never paid much attention to the artfully manufactured bubble-gum pop Robbie Williams cranked out under the fist of Take That leadman Gary Barlow, so when Williams parted ways with the band in the mid-nineties I found it all-too easy to dismiss him as another moderately-successful musician who had fallen under the twin spell of his own ego and Columbian marching powder.

Flash forward to September 1998, and I was sitting in a nearly-empty Leicester Square movie house with my wife waiting for the matinee to start, when William’s anthem “Millenium” came over the speaker system. I was enthralled. The unforgettable string-figure from John Barry’s superb 1967 James Bond soundtrack for You Only Live Twice was woven throughout the song, and that grabbed me long enough to listen to the lyrics. At its heart the song was an anthem, a heartfelt cri de coeur wherein a jaded star realizes that while celebrity is great, it is going to kill him unless he slows down. Williams could have taken that theme down a darker but better-traveled road, but he chose instead to keep it forward looking and hopeful rather than mournful and hopeless.

Nearly every album he has delivered since (and, make no mistake, Williams is best enjoyed by the album, not by the song) has offered us some combination of Williams’ dark wit accompanied (mostly) by a thumping dance beat, the former aimed as often at himself as at others, and sometimes (“Handsome Man”) in both directions.

Cover of "Swing When You're Winning"
Cover of Swing When You’re Winning

On Swing When You’re Winning, though, Williams took a hard detour into Big Band territory. Channeling his abiding admiration for The Chairman of the Board, Williams followed Harry Connick, Jr. into Sinatra territory, recording fourteen standards from the 40s and 50s with the appropriate (and sometimes misbehaving) assistance of Rupert Everett, Nicole Kidman, Jon Lovitz, Jane Horrocks, and Jonathan Wilkes. Each song is brilliant in its way. Music lovers, though, will dwell over his rendition of “One for My Baby,” sung to the accompaniment of pianist Bill Miller, who played for Sinatra when he recorded the standard fifty years prior at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles.

All of this is prelude, though, to the anthem Williams placed at the beginning of Swing When You’re Winning. “Hollywood Will Listen,” penned by Williams and longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, is subtly iconic, a musical artifact that is in its execution pure Hollywood big-production, and in its words captures the hopes of every naif who ever walked through a studio gate.

Shamelessly dropping names, but of people he hopes will eventually revere him rather than those he “knows,” Williams plays the part of L.A. newcomer, facing a Tinseltown he knows to be hard and impersonal yet swearing it will eventually be at his feet. Anyone who has ever mustered the courage and confidence to take an audition knows the feeling, and, with the orchestra swelling to dramatic crescendos behind him, Williams almost makes you believe it.

But then he does something even more powerful: he just ends the song. There is no triumphant climax, no musical cue that suggests the dreamer has or will reach his dream. The final chorus ends as almost a fade-out, an anti-climax. You can almost see the orchestra fading out of existence, leaving the singer alone in an empty sound stage into which he has wandered, the dreams echoing away in the face of the cold reality of another casting call, another audition.

Once again, Williams is laughing at his own ambition, letting his aspirations soar but never forgetting that no matter what he brings with him, Hollywood is and ever will be a cruel crap-shoot.

Williams’ anthem, then, is neither a celebration of success nor a blues-laden wallow in failure, but a subtle reflection on the reality of life for dreamers inside the Thirty Mile Zone. This is Southern California in the cold bright light of a winter Monday morning, a tribute to Hollywood-as-dream-machine in the 21st Century.

Responsa: The Problem of Flower Drum Song

A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the m...
A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the movie “Flower Drum Song.”  (Photo credit: kaffeinebuzz)

In a comment on my post about the GWR’s favorite San Francisco films, Bay Area pal Will Lee noted that the Chinese community fairly hated Flower Drum Song for its rather ham-handed casting that had Japanese actors playing Chinese roles.

To tell the truth, I don’t care much for the film either. I think it insults the intelligence not just of Asians, but of all viewers who could tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Part of the problem was almost certainly the studio’s choice of director, the German-born Henry Koster, a fine filmmaker who was in the sunset phase of his career. Had Universal cared to give the helm to a younger, more savvy director, the result might have been better.

But maybe not. Koster wasn’t the only issue. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, who brought C.Y. Lee‘s original novel to the stage and eventually to film, saw the world – and Asians – through the eyes of their core audience of American moviegoers, few of whom had either knowledge of or regular interaction with Asians, or had ever been to Asia out of uniform. Indeed, I would wager that, in their own eyes, the composer and the librettist felt that, they were offering Americans a glimpse into a subculture of which most were ignorant.

A blatant example of that ignorance shared screens in 1961 with Flower Drum Song. Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing characterization of Holly Golightly’s Japanese-American building superintendent I.Y. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s was greeted across America with laughter and nodding heads. In that context, in that time, the casting of a Japanese to play a Chinese seems a minor offense.* Thus, to a degree, Flower Drum Song was an artifact of its moment in history.

Step back a quarter century, though, and Hollywood was not even comfortable casting Asians in what were purely Asian leading roles. The top six billings in The Good Earth went to Anglo actors, despite the wishes of novelist Pearl S. Buck and producer Irving Thalberg. The best way to see Flower Drum Song, then, is as a midpoint in the evolution of how Hollywood portrayed Asian characters between The Good Earth and The Joy Luck Club. Koster’s film may be offensive to us today, but at the time, it was a minor breakthrough.

* Today, it seems more of an offense. I have had an earful from Chinese and Japanese offended by Rob Marshall’s choice of three Chinese actresses to play Japanese women in his 2005 adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. I agree.

California has the Most ArtPlaces

 

Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Commi...
Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Committee Chair Dennis Scholl (@dennisscholl) (Photo credit: petermello)

America’s Top Twelve ArtPlaces 2013 | ArtPlace.

ArtPlace, an organization offering grants and other support to communities that combine art, artists, and venues to encourage creativity and expression, has named the most vibrant art neighborhoods in America. Of the twelve, three are in California, the most of any state.

The top ArtPlaces of the Golden West are Central Hollywood, The Mission District in San Francisco, and, surprising us a bit, downtown Oakland, encompassing Chinatown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. The neighborhoods were singled out for criteria including their walkability, for nurturing independent businesses, and for making art and artists a core part of the community.

Downtown Oakland was singled out by the organization as the “true underdog” in the competition, but noted that the transformation that has taken place in the city over the last decade would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. What brought it about was a grassroots effort – Oakland Art Murmur – very unlike the high-minded but doomed postwar urban renewal plans.

The recognition of Central Hollywood echoes one of our own regular themes: a new kind of arts and entertainment industry is growing on the weed patch of Old Hollywood. Moviegoing is an event again, thanks to Mann’s Chinese, the Arclight, and Disney’s stunning El Capitan. Music is coming back, as we noted last year:

But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.

And all of this is taking place in a way that attracts tourists and neighborhood people alike.

When I read about what’s happening in the Mission District, I kick myself for not going there when I was in San Francisco in December. Absorbed in the myriad culinary delights in Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach, I never thought to wander south of Market. I won’t make that mistake again. San Francisco is suffused with art, but ArtPlaces notes that the edgier, more affordable art can be found in The Mission, along with antiques, music, and some incredible eats. I won’t be missing it next trip.

Take a look at the full report on the ArtPlaces site at artplaceamerica.org.

Los Angeles and The Noir Fiction

“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Steve Erickson

Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012

In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.

There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.

Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.

That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.

This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.

Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.

James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.

I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.

The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.

Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…

The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.

Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.

And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.

A Screenwriter, Act Two

Screenwriting
Screenwriting (Photo credit: pietroizzo)

“A Three Act Journey In The Land Of The Screenwriting Gurus
Jonathan Zimmerman
Los Angeles Review of Books
November 21, 2012

For those of us who love movies and fancy ourselves as “writers,” there is something mysteriously alluring about screenwriting. Essays are hard. History is harder. Novels are a stone bitch. But what can be so difficult about the mechanics of plot, dialogue, and stage direction? “Surely,” one thinks, “I could write a better script than half of the idiots doing so for a living.”

Obligingly, a small industry has emerged designed to help the cinephile scribe get his scriptwriting thing on. For those of us hovering on the edge of writing our first treatment, Jonathan Zimmerman offers a warning that is at once delightful and foreboding: don’t even go there.

Leaving aside the possibility that Mr. Zimmerman is simply trying to limit his potential competition, there is something that rings true in his gently recounted frustration with the modest-sized shelf of books he has devoured about the screenwriting craft. This is not a success story – yet. Mr. Zimmerman is still writing “spec” scripts, cranked out in the hopes that someone will buy them or, seeing a talent in the words, hire him for some paid work.

I am pulling for Mr. Zimmerman to succeed. Even though it is a fickle business and the screenwriter is as dumped on by the literary establishment as by everyone else in the Hollywood food chain (from the studio heads all the way down to craft service), the work is underrated. My favorite films are the well-written ones, and I have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s competitive future depends more on great writing than anything else.

What I am not sure is that certificate programs at UCLA, seminars at The Writer’s Store, Final Draft 8, and a shelf of how-to books are going to get us there. We need something more.

The question is “what?”

Meanwhile, I’m back to work on my treatment of a Miami Vice-meets-China pilot.

The Murphy Auto Museum

Murphy Car Museum-16
Murphy Auto Museum (Photo credit: IvyMike)

Nowhere in the world in the automobile more an integral part of a place’s culture and lifestyle than in California. Even as we find ourselves facing a world where the supply of unleaded is becoming ever more dear, Californians are leading the effort to make car culture more sustainable, guilt-free, and politically correct. Yet the car remains a celebrated icon of the California lifestyle, so, unsurprisingly, the Golden State is blessed with a number of automotive collections, two of them in Ventura County. Of those two, the arguable leader is the Murphy Auto Museum.

The Murphy is a labor of love of a handful of local car enthusiasts who tired of hiding their lovingly restored classics in garages and only wheeling them out for weekend events. The result is a gift for anyone with even the least appreciation for the automobile as historical artifact and art form.

The docents are knowledgeable and helpful, but are happy to simply let you wander the museum and appreciate the cars. The restorations have been loving and the attention to detail ensures that what you see are not “hot rods,” but vehicles that look like they are almost fresh off of the production line. Little surprise that Hollywood often comes into the museum looking for cars to use in period movies.

The museum is strictly a weekend affair, open Saturdays and Sundays only, so make it a part of a weekend itinerary when you are in the area.

MURPHY CLASSIC CAR FOUNDATION
2230 Statham Blvd.
Oxnard, California 93033

Open Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Malibu’s First Surf Punks

 

English: Paradise cove pier in Malibu, CA Espa...
English: Paradise cove pier in Malibu, CA Español: Playa en Malibu, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Malibu’s Lost Boys | Hollywood | Vanity Fair.

Sheila Weller takes us back to the 1960s, where a tiny cult of personality born in the early days of California’s surfing craze became a plunge into dysfunction and criminality.

Juicy reading, regardless of whether you grew up in that era, especially if you knew or were a part of the surf culture yourself growing up (as were many of us who went to high school within an hour’s drive of a SoCal beach.)