Category Archives: film

“certainly no bimbo”

Did you know the current president of the University of Missouri — Michael Middleton, the man they chose to replace Tim Wolfe — testified about pubic hair and Coke?

This is relevant, I promise. Let’s back up a bit.

Last night, the film Confirmation aired on HBO. Kerry Washington played Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked under Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education. Clarence Thomas. You know, the Supreme Court justice who asked a question in court in February for the first time in ten years. 

When Thomas was going through his confirmation hearings to be on the Supreme Court, Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss.

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Well, you know the ending to this story. He was confirmed anyway. And he’s not spoken much since.

I’m not going to write about the film, because I haven’t seen it. I am going to talk about the hearings, though.

I don’t remember the hearings. They were in 1991, the year I was born. In fact, the first time I’d heard of those hearings was two years ago on an episode of This American Life.  And then, back in December 2015, I found myself reading about the hearings again.

I was backgrounding the University of Missouri Pres. Middleton for a story when I found something that struck me.

Middleton was an aide to Thomas during the time when Hill and Thomas worked together. So, he was called to testify.

This is from a Wall Street Journal article:

One of the oddest of Ms. Hill’s allegations was that one day when she and Mr. Thomas were working in his office, he got up from the table where he had been sitting with her, went over to his desk to retrieve a can of Coca-Cola and, after staring at it, demanded to know, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

Thomas aide Michael Middleton also says that he heard the pubic hair story associated with Mr. Thomas before 1985, when he too left the EEOC. “I have this vision of Clarence at the EEOC picking up a Coke and saying, ` Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?”‘ says Mr. Middleton, now a professor of law at Missouri North Central University. Mr. Middleton adds that he told his wife about it at the time and that years later, during the confirmation hearings, he turned to her and asked if she remembered the story, and she did.

But the memory, Mr. Middleton says, is quite hazy. He says he isn’t sure whether he heard Mr. Thomas say it or just had it described to him back then. “It could have been a joke I heard him tell in the office,” Mr. Middleton says. “It’s vague. I just know that pubic hair in a Coke can was not new to me {during the hearings} with Clarence Thomas.”

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And this is from a Time Magazine story: 

“She was a real straight arrow,” says Michael Middleton, who worked with both Hill and Thomas at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Very proper and straitlaced. She was certainly no bimbo.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Now, back to work.

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r.i.p. philip seymour hoffman

This wasn’t the post I was going to publish today, but life happens and apparently so does death. Philip Seymour Hoffman was allegedly found dead in his home after a drug overdose. He was 46 years old. He left behind three children. Celebrity deaths don’t usually shake me, but Hoffman was magic in everything he touched. So it goes.

So here’s a scene from one of his arguably lesser-known films, Charlie Wilson’s War, but one of my favorites.

so what about breakfast at tiffany’s?

In case you’ve failed to look outside your window today, I’ll update you: snow. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, there’s a 96% chance that there is currently snow on the ground. (Sure I made that statistic up on the spot, but this is the Internet. I’m allowed to.) I’ve heard that there are some people who enjoy the snow, but I haven’t witnessed this madness myself for about two years. The rest of us, I’m guessing, are keeping warm inside by way of our Netflix accounts.

Netflix recently added several films to their collection for 2014, so I decided to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a Hollywood classic, or so I’ve been told, by people who stare at me with their eyes bulging in disbelief. “You’ve never watched it? You need to, Kasia. It has Audrey Hepburn. Classic film. Watch it. Watch it.” I knew that Audrey Hepburn’s beehive haircut and black dress are iconic, and this was reason enough for me. So I watched it.

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I was left with mixed feelings about the film. I enjoyed it so much on a visceral and aesthetic level, but I cringed at the grotesque depiction of the Japanese landlord and was disappointed that the resolution bowed into more conservative cultural norms of 1961.

Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, a well-respected comedic actor during this time. Rooney was white, but his character was a Japanese man. In order to depict this caricature of a Japanese person, he wore makeup and a prosthetic mouthpiece to change his features. He spoke with an exaggerated ‘rrr’ in every word, and there were hints of perversion, as when he hoped to have Holly Golightly in his apartment for a private photo shoot. A 1961 review in the New York Times concluded that “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.”

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Contextualizing the film historically is important, of course. It was made about 15 years after the Second World War, when the Japanese in America were sent to internment camps. This doesn’t excuse this disturbing brand of racism for humor’s sake by any means, but it does raise questions about art as a product of its time. I’m still struggling to understand the dynamics of this cause-effect relationship between culture and representations of culture. Does the historical context of an art piece somehow absolve or justifiably explain the bigoted parts of the dominant culture during that time, or is the art piece at fault of actively perpetuating racism?

The ending also left me uneasy. (Note: spoilers follow. If spoilers count as a thing for a movie made 53 years ago.) Holly Golightly had such a grand speech in that New York City taxi cab: “I’m like cat here, a no-name slob. We belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.” But the film ended with her running back into the embrace of Mr. Fred-or-Paul-Valjack, so I suppose a woman in mid-century America really couldn’t belong to nobody.

Despite these notes, the dialogue in the film was the kind that I mull over in my head for days, the kind that I put on repeat when I’m bored at work because those little snippets of conversation cheer me right up.

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As soon as this horrible snow melts, I plan on driving to Prospero’s Books to find the original novel by Truman Capote. In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, so I expect to enjoy Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I hope that the novel will be markedly different from the Hollywood-ized version in film.

skip ender’s game?

The film science fiction film Ender’s Game, starring Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, and Asa Butterfield, is set for release in November. It’s about a strategically brilliant child (Butterfield) who is chosen to lead an international army to fight an alien race that attacks Earth. The story itself isn’t the most compelling part of Ender’s Game to me; rather, I’m curious if the film will match the $110 million budget used to create it, particularly since there’s an enormous campaign called Skip Ender’s Game that encourages people to boycott it.

Asa Butterfield in Ender's Game

Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game

You see, Ender’s Game is based on a 1984 novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card, a former board member of the National Organization for Marriage which actively works against the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. Card has called homosexuality a “disfunction” and has said that “many people become gay because of rape, molestation or abuse.” According to Jono Jarrett of the online LGBT geek organization Geek’s OUT!, Card actively funds “kill-the-gays” bills in developing nations around the globe. Further, Card wrote a sort of manifesto in the 1990s which called for the recriminalization of homosexuality and instead an instatement of sexual rules that all citizens need to follow, which include a strict adherence to traditional gender roles.

In the interview with CBC’s radio show Q (you can listen to the podcast here), Jarrett makes clear that Card is not simply writing in his diary nor having private conversation, but financially active in the (sometimes violent) oppression of gay rights. Jarrett also notes that Lionsgate will be paying Card for the film’s profits, as he is both the author of the book and a producer for the film. So, Jarrett reasons, people should refuse to give Lionsgate and Ender’s Game their money, as it puts financial aid in the hands of a man who exploits the rights of queer people.

The Skip Ender’s Game movement–founded by Jarrett and Geeks OUT!–has garnered criticism of its own, especially from those who argue that it is necessary to separate the film from its creator. The gay rights advocacy group GLAAD has reviewed the screenplay, and found no language or material that contributes to anti-LGBT rhetoric.

Plus, the author is dead, isn’t he? That’s what we’ve been told, after all. Roland Barthes, one of my favorite literary critics, published an essay called the “The Death of the Author” in 1968. He wrote that to consider the author’s intention of the text and thus impose a single, corresponding interpretation imposes a limit for analysis upon that text. The joy of reading the text (in this case, the film Ender’s Game) is the play of meaning that comes form numerous interpretations. Indeed, people who have responded to the Skip Ender’s Game campaign argue that potential viewers should not punish the film, or the art, for its creator’s bigoted perspective. It follows that there should be a separation between art and artist, especially when the art is good.

I certainly cannot comment on whether the film Ender’s Game is any good, as it hasn’t yet been released and it has received no critical response. Regardless, Jarrett seems frustrated at this “separate art from artist to justify seeing the film” argument. In the Q interview, he said that given the choice between punishing art or punishing the real people and their right to have legitimate relationships with one another through marriage (or, in other nations, simply to live as a gay or transgender person without being beaten or killed), there is no question. Human rights, implies Jarrett, are more important than art.

Moreover, he clarifies that the Skip Ender’s Game campaign has no problem with the content of the film itself. The issue at hand is heaps of cash that Card has the potential to earn from the film’s success. Jarrett said that “if [Card] were giving tickets away for free, we might drive the bus to the theaters ourselves.” If any die-hard fans have been waiting their whole life, Jarrett suggests that they wait until the film is on cable, Netflix, or available to check out for free at their local library. That way, Card does not receive any money to help promote his warped and narrow-minded goals.

The financial territory of art (whether it be a blockbuster sci-fi flick like Ender’s Game or a novel in classic literature) should be taken into account in literary or artistic criticism. The material relations that construct and distribute art are hugely significant in the conversation concerning art and politics; what humans do we exploit in order to consume and witness art? Is there any validity in an argument that maintains art over human rights? How does the manufacturing of art contribute to the encompassing discourse of art for art’s sake?

I heard this story on the radio one day a couple of weeks ago on a Missouri-hot day (trust me, that’s hot) as I drove around in my car with broken AC and desperately looking for an apartment. Since then, I’ve found my own place (AC is still broken), but I still feel unnerved when I remember this story. It’s made me realize that sometimes the author and his or her work should be considered two connected entities–perhaps not by way of interpretation, but definitely in terms of the material and financial benefit. So, from my perspective, the relationship between politics and art just got a bit more complicated. Brilliant!

fact-checking argo: history vs. film

Argo came out almost exactly a year ago, and since I do everything in a timely manner, I picked it up from Redbox last night and watched it for the first time.

I loved it, which is unsurprising. History gets me giddy, and the Cold War is one of my favorite time periods to study. My parents grew up in Poland and Hungary from the 1960s to the 80s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions, so on one hand, my interest is a personal one, but the corruption of the U.S. government during that time is also fascinating. Watergate and Nixon make a great story, of course, but it’s impossible to ignore CIA’s astounding covert operations as they actively aided military coups to overthrow democratically-elected governments around the world, from Guatemala to Iran (hence, Argo).

For those who don’t know the story of the Iran Hostage Crisis on which the film is based, here’s an unfairly brief summary: In November 1979, 52 Americans were taken hostage from the U.S. Embassy in Iran by a group of Iranian students and militants. All of the hostages eventually returned home, but the last of them were held until January 1981. There’s no question that the taking of hostages was a serious violation of human rights, but in context, this incident is much more complex than Iran=evil and U.S.=good. The States had supported the rule of the recently overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and was now treating his health on American soil.  The Shah was happy to live lavishly while his people starved, were executed for no reason, and became destitute–and the U.S. had no problem with that, as long as they got their oil as cheap as possible. When the States would not hand the Shah over to be tried for his crimes, the Iranians responded by taking hostages.

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Argo deals with the first rescue of six Americans by way of C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez (played by non-Hispanic Ben Affleck) and the Canadian government. These Americans had barely managed to escape capture by the militants and were trapped in the Canadian Embassy in Iran (of course, if they stepped outside, they would be captured or shot by the Iranians as soon as they were recognized as Americans). Mendez concocted a radical plan: he created fake identities for the Americans as a parts of a Canadian film crew for a fake movie production, Argo, which is all very Wag the Dog. Except, you know, Argo was fake for a real purpose.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was actually in its postscript, when they showed photos of the real hostages and compared them to their fictional counterparts. Here’s one with President Carter:

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Kathleen & Joseph Stafford, Lee Schatz , President Carter, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lije, and Robert Anders.

I knew that Affleck had white-washed Tony Mendez’s character by casting himself in the role, but I noticed that Ms. Ambrun-Lijek wasn’t a white woman either.

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Nope, she’s definitely an Asian-American.

I wondered what other creative licenses Affleck took with history to create his film, and this is what I found (spoilers follow, but as it happens, I seem to have already told you the plot and conclusion of the movie with my historical context above).

1. In the film, the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and employee John Sheardown who housed the six Americans were portrayed as gracious hosts–as I’m sure they were–but in reality, played a much more involved role. Taylor actually telephoned D.C. to start the escape plan and begin the whole process. Plus, they “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets,” and “even coached the six in sounding Canadian.”

2. The climax of the movie depicts the American hostages and Mendez just barely escaping several obstacles as they lie to make it through airport security, and then their plane is chased by Iranian militants in police cars on the runway. In reality, Mendez has written that the trip through the airport was “as smooth as silk.”

3. The script behind the fake film Argo was thought of by make up artist John Chambers (played in the movie by John Goodman), and it was based on the science fiction novel Lord of Light by Robert Zelazny. Mendez decided that the script needed a knew name and suggested Argo, based on his favorite knock knock joke.

“Who’s there?”
“Argo.”
“Argo who?”
“Argo fuck yourself.”

The line made it into the film as a running gag, though with a different backstory. I now use it as my farewell message of choice when ending any conversation.

4. The fictional film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) was, indeed, the only major fictional character in the movie.

5. That whole Mendez-family-reconciliation storyline that added so much heart to the movie? That was fictional too. In reality, Mendez has two sons and daughter with his first wife, who passed away from cancer in 1986.

Despite these changes, as I said before, I enjoyed the film enormously. But it makes me wonder: how important is historical accuracy in film?

Research credit goes to Slate, NPR, and Screenrant.