Media, politics and culture.
A few weeks back, I reported on a global phenomenon of the past year or so: Flash mobs performing the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, often (though not always) with a political purpose in mind. Venues for the flash mobs or public performances of the “Ode” have ranged from a huge mall in Hong Kong to a public protest with half a million in the streets of Madrid, from the kickoff of the recent demonstrations in Kiev to a farmers’ market in Austin and an IKEA in suburban Detroit. The theme of the “Ode,” of course, is “all are brothers and sisters.”
But you don’t need to live in or near a large city to pull this off in your region. Example: just posted today—a cool video of a wonderful flash mob that I helped organize in Nyack, New York, following a sold-out screening of our Following the Ninth film (which I co-produced) last month.
The hosts for the screening, Rivertown Film Society, shot it from the balcony and with three roving cameras on the floor, then edited the video. The musicians hail from local orchestras, arranged by Arlene Keiser, with singers from Nyack High. They had exactly one rehearsal just before the screening, at another site. Yes, the audience was surprised. The young conductor is Rob Keiser. It was a smashing, inspiring success—people are still talking about it around town, and plans are going forward for an outdoor sequel this spring.
This is all in keeping with the theme of the film (featured in recent segments on Bill Moyers’s PBS show and NPR’s All Things Considered), which explores the amazing politiical and cultural influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony around the world, and our book, Journeys With Beethoven. Concerning the phenomenon of “Ode to Joy” flash mobs: I’ve posted some of them over the past few months. Maybe you’d like to try it in your home town?
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Shirley Temple Black, the child star of all child stars, passed away Monday night, still “only” 85. Like other boomers, I first eyed Shirley Temple via TV airings of her old movies during the 1950s, then followed her later, surprising, career as a GOP fundraiser and diplomat under several Republican presidents.
It made for quite a second act. President Nixon appointed her as a United Nations delegate. President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana and President George H.W. Bush picked her to be his ambassador to Czechoslovakia as the fall of Communism neared.
She even ran for Congress in a special 1967 election in California—famously losing to the antiwar Republican Pete McCloskey. (Later she helped raise breast cancer awareness.)
But my closest connection to her came as one of the featured celebs in my book The Campaign of the Century. The book explores the riotous and highly influential campaign for governor of California in 1934 waged by muckraking writer Upton Sinclair—leading one of the greatest populist movements ever, EPIC (for End Poverty in California).
He swept the Democratic primary and would have won the race if not for the groundbreaking union of big business leaders, conservative GOPers and Dems, religious leaders, and most of the Hollywood moguls. Irving Thalberg even went out and created the first attack ads for the screen, faking anti-Sinclair newsreels.
Anyway: the book also shows how Shirley Temple, then the country’s most popular film star, was wooed by the right-wing moguls to get her—at age 5—to come out against Sinclair and endorse Frank Merriam, the dull incumbent. It’s a pathetic, if funny, tale, and ultimately she, sort of, did go along with that. “It may hearten the cause of conservatism,” a wire service reported, “to know that Shirley Temple has decided, after grave deliberation, that she disapproves of the Sinclair EPIC philosophy and is backing her opposition with a day’s salary, even if she can not with a vote.” Unstated was that this day’s pay was not a request but a demand from the studio. Jean Harlow had recently caved in the same manner. Katharine Hepburn also went along with it.
They even made the tyke sit on Merriam’s lap and say she was going to “vote for the boss.”
And so a lifetime as a key Republican was set by, or for, Shirley Temple. When she ran for Congress in 1967, her campaign managers, the legendary team of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, were the same pair who helped thwart Upton Sinclair in 1934.
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He couldn’t get Obama to bomb Syria—or make a cancer victim stop tweeting. So maybe Bill Keller felt it was time to move on.
Keller, increasingly an embarrassment at The New York Times as a columnist—after an up-and-down tenure as chief editor—announced tonight he is exiting the paper, just a month after he drew wide scorn for a column bullying a cancer victim, which was not mentioned in the Times’s release.
Bill Keller, a columnist at The New York Times and its former executive editor, will leave the paper to become editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism start-up focused on the American criminal justice system.
“It’s a chance to build something from scratch, which I’ve never done before,” Mr. Keller said, “and to use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and to present on a subject that really matters personally.”
Keller had recently supported a US attack on Syria—apparently learning nothing from his boosterism of the US invasion of Iraq. He fully backed Judith Miller in the Scooter Libby case. He also famously mocked Julian Assange (after exploiting all those WikiLeaks leaks). Did not allow his paper to call torture torture. Held that James Risen scoop—for a year—that might have elected John Kerry in 2004. Mocked Baby Boomers with far less money than he has for expecting so much in “entitlements.” I could go on.
Top executives at the Times nevertheless expressed surprise and wished him well.
“Bill has made so many contributions to The Times over his 30 years here, it’s difficult to quantify them,” said Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times. “He challenged his newsroom colleagues to innovate while remaining true to the highest journalistic standards, and we’re all better for it.
One could have some fun with that, but I will try to resist.
Note: Keller figures prominently in my book on the US media and the Iraq war, So Wrong for So Long.
Back in 1979, my wife (then my girlfriend) and I saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan in… Manhattan, where we lived. I was something of a Woody fan at the time, going back to some of his goofy early films and then Sleeper and Annie Hall. But Manhattan left me profoundly uneasy.
Trying to recall my reaction the other night, I consulted my wife and we agreed that back in 1979 we shared the same opinion about Manhattan. Much of the film was very good, but it was severely compromised by its depiction of Woody’s character, at age 42, having an affair (including sex) with the Mariel Hemingway character, age 17, a senior in high school. It wasn’t the usual professor-and-college-student—more April/December than May/November.
But we also recalled that we were amazed back then how few critics at the time expressed any concern or complaint about that depiction. Of course, the film critic crowd was then overwhelmingly male. Yes, Woody at the end of the film decides that, hey, maybe she is too young, but still…
When Roger Ebert re-visited the film in 2001 he observed that the only criticism of the Woody-Mariel relationship by reviewers of the film was that it was not very credible—because the two “seemed to have so little in common” and Mariel idealized Woody more than he idealized her.
This seemed to sustain my recollection that very few critics shared our view when the film came out. I knew it was a critical favorite. Andrew Sarris called it the only great American film of the entire decade. Time magazine put the Woody man on the cover, and called him a “genius,” and their piece was titled (ouch) “Woody Allen Comes of Age.” Jack Kroll in Newsweek declared that his “growth in every department is lovely to behold.” And so on.
Sadly, Google let me down, as I searched for 1979 reviews, producing only a few from that year. I’ll keep searching. But for now, here are reviews from two leading male critics (which sustain my memory of how most critics responded) along with critiques from, ahem, two well-known women. I’m excerpting only comments about the aging man’s affair with the Mariel Hemingway character. Note Canby’s reference to Mariel as a “nymphet.”
Vincent Canby, The New York Times, April 25, 1979:
“Manhattan” is, of course, about love, or, more accurately, about relationships. Among those who are attempting to relate to Isaac Davis are Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a journalist who carries on like an Annie Hall who has been analyzed out of her shyness into the shape of an aggressively neurotic woman doomed to make a mess of things, and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a beautiful. 17-year-old nymphet with a turned-down mouth and a trust in her 42-year-old lover, Isaac, that is also doomed…
Roger Ebert, January 1, 1979:
The story follows several characters through several affairs. Woody himself is twice-divorced as the movie opens—most recently from a lesbian who is writing a book that will tell all about their marriage. He is having an affair with a seventeen-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway). His best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), is married and is having an affair with a girl he met at a party (Diane Keaton)….
I’m most disturbed by the final scene between Woody and Mariel Hemingway. It’s not really thought out; Allen hasn’t found the line between the irony the scene needs and the sentiment he wants his character to feel…
And yet this is a very good movie. Woody Allen is … Woody, sublimely. Diane Keaton gives us a fresh and nicely edged New York intellectual. And Mariel Hemingway deserves some kind of special award for what’s in some ways the most difficult role in the film. It wouldn’t do, you see, for the love scenes between Woody and Mariel to feel awkward or to hint at cradle-snatching or an unhealthy interest on Woody’s part in innocent young girls. But they don’t feel that way: Hemingway’s character has a certain grave intelligence, a quietly fierce pride, that, strangely enough, suggest that even at seventeen she’s the one Woody should be thinking of during Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Pauline Kael, October 27, 1980, The New Yorker:
What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?
Joan Didion, August 16, 1979, The New York Review of Books:
In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.)…
The message that large numbers of people are getting from Manhattan and Interiors and Annie Hall is that this kind of emotional shopping around is the proper business of life’s better students, that adolescence can now extend to middle age.
Note: Janet Maslin in the Times, in a profile of Mariel Hemingway at the time, observed that the affair might have come off as “sleazy”—that’s more than the male reviewers were admitting—but Mariel’s performance saved it.
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It’s being hailed as one of the great TV segments of the season: two members of Pussy Riot interviewed by Stephen Colbert on his Comedy Central show last night. As one wag—Jeff Jarvis—pointed out on my Twitter feed, it’s amazing that they were even very funny despite the need for translation. Mediaite commented, “Pussy Riot Gives the Funniest, Best Colbert Report Interview Ever.”
The young women, in prison not long ago, felt free to mock Putin and the whole idea of a man on a horse with his shirt off leading their country. But they had a fun give and take with Stephen throughout, while making serious points about human rights and the “gay crackdown” in Russia. Asked why they decided to call themselves Pussy Riot they explained that it was simply to allow English speakers to have some fun saying it. Here’s Part I and Part II. Hey, they might get their own US show after this…
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Jury selection started yesterday in the case of the Jacksonville, Florida, teen Jordan Davis, shot and killed by a white man who had protested the loud hip-hop music emanating from the car where Davis was a passenger. The man, Michael Dunn, 47, claimed Davis, 17, seemed to brandish a shotgun, so he took his pistol from the glove compartment and shot him dead. Now he faces murder charges. The shotgun was never found.
The New York Times has its latest “Op-Doc” up on online (see below), a video commentary on the case, with an interview with Davis’s father and excerpts from the jail house interview with Dunn. He is offering a Stand Your Ground defense. Davis had no arrest record.
Dunn’s attorney, Cory Strolla of West Palm Beach, said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday that his client “feels that he was the victim of a political system pressured to appease a certain body of constituents.”
“It has been a very long and tenuous year for my client, spent in isolation in the Duval County jail. Mr. Dunn has been continually threatened, harassed and tormented by inmates for over a year now, and has received almost no mental health counseling by staff,” Strolla wrote.
Angela Corey, the state’s attorney in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial, is also prosecuting this case. Unlike Zimmerman, Dunn fled the scene and was not arrested until the following day.
A local TV station last week released excerpts from letters Dunn has written while in prison with racial comments. Here’s one:
It’s spooky how racist everyone is up here and how biased toward blacks the courts are. This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs.… This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these **** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.
The Times video posted today:
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With his tragic passing, movie lovers have been tweeting, posting or just thinking about their favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman films. Indeed there’s a very long list—from Boogie Nights to Capote—though his memorable performances were often in mediocre or worse films. That epic scene with John Slattery in Charlie Wilson’s War remains one of my personal favorites. Even: as Art Howe in Moneyball.
Yet few, I’ve noticed, even mention his most “political” film, The Party’s Over: An Uncensored Journey Into Democracy in America (originally titled Last Party). You may only vaguely recall it yourself. Cameras followed PSH—who says at the start that he’s never been much interested in politics—as he navigated the final months of the disputed 2000 election to make some sense of 2004.
So he visits the political conventions and chats with Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson, Bill Maher, Ben Harper and…Newt Gingrich. Barney Frank insists that street demos are a waste of time—look what the NRA and AARP have accomplished without them. It was directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Donovan Leitch Jr.
Here’s the trailer, plus some bonus excerpts and commentary.
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Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, tweeted late Saturday, “Dylan says she’s VERY grateful to all: ‘The outpouring of support has been monumental, and I’m so immensely grateful. Thank you.’” Minutes before, he had observed: “Quite a gender gap in reaction to Dylan’s essay. Many men are denouncing me for publishing it; many women thanking me for the same.”
What had just happened? Finally we got the voice of the daughter, Dylan Farrow, in the long-simmering charges against Woody Allen: that he allegedly sexually abused her in a closet, at the age of seven. Kristof wrote a column about it and then turned his blog over to Farrow, saying this was the first time she had written about her experience. So the story has been not only heard but amplified.
Read the whole thing and then you’ll know why Woody Allen getting the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes set off a firestorm, partly pushed by a tweet from Dylan’s brother Ronan Farrow (who is about to get his own MSNBC show). Bob Weide had written a lengthy Allen defense at the Daily Beast this week. Kristof reveals, “I reached out to Allen several days ago, and he declined to comment on the record.”
Here’s Dylan Farrow’s conclusion:
What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?
Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.
Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
“I know it’s ‘he said, she said,’ ” Dylan told me. “But, to me, it’s black and white, because I was there.”
I asked her why she’s speaking out now. She said she wants to set the record straight and give courage to victims: “I was thinking, if I don’t speak out, I’ll regret it on my death bed.”
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It’s been building for the past week and finally the dam—or damning—broke late last night. Scarlett Johansson announced she would be quitting as Oxfam ambassador in the wake of wide criticism over her support—including commercial pitches—for an Israeli company that operates in the West Bank.
The statement from her handlers declared:
Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years. She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam.
The actress just recently became the first global brand ambassador of SodaStream International Ltd. She’ll appear in an ad for the at-home soda maker during the Super Bowl this Sunday (see preview below). That’s about as high-profile as it gets.
SodaStream has come under fire from some in the media and pro-Palestinian activists for maintaining a large factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Johansson said last week she was a “supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.”
But Oxfam, which has been wary of taking sides in the current boycott of Israeli products, announced it was “considering the implications of her new statement and what it means for Ms. Johansson’s role as an Oxfam global ambassador.” Today it responded to her departure:
Oxfam has accepted Scarlett Johansson’s decision to step down after eight years as a Global Ambassador and we are grateful for her many contributions. While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.
Perhaps she should have stayed inside that computer in Her awhile longer this winter.
All of this is sure to spark varied media response. For starters, a post at Mondoweiss charges that the actress not only quit but threw Oxfam “under the bus.” Ali Abunimah on Twitter: “While Scarlett Johansson’s departure from @Oxfam is welcome, she should have been fired long ago, not allowed to quit.” But he added: “And thanks to
#ScarJo, boycott, divestment and sanctions (on apartheid Israel) is now a huge international story.”
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I paid loving tribute to Pete Seeger here yesterday, as did a few others at this site, and so many elsewhere, of course. But one of the most affecting pieces appears today at The New York Times, and reveals another, private side, of Pete.
When I read it, I knew I’d heard the outline of the story before, but couldn’t place it.
It seems that on a mid-1970s night shortly before my old friend Phil Ochs decided to hang himself, he had been drinking and chatting morosely in New York with Pete Seeger, who had to leave to catch the last train for his home far up the Hudson. Pete knew Phil was utterly depressed, at the bottom of bipolarity. The last time I saw Phil, in contrast, he was in the manic phase, swinging a golf club over his head at a party in the apartment of William Kunstler in the Village (he was soon ushered out).
For decades Pete carried that final night with Phil with him, feeling he maybe should have stayed in New York for the night. This he told to Neil Young backstage up in Saratoga Springs, where Pete was making a surprise appearance, at age 94, at Neil’s latest FarmAid last year. Apparently, Neil had a somewhat similar experience with Kurt Cobain, before he shot himself. Neil advised Pete to let it go, but Pete could not. Another measure of the man.
Now I’ve realized where I’d heard this story before. A few weeks back I posted a video of Neil from that night at Farm Aid, where his encounter with Pete took place. I posted it because Neil performed a moving version of Phil Ochs’s “Changes.” But in this intro to the song, Neil recounted his chat with Pete, and referred to his own experience with an unnamed great musician who later “blew his brains out.” Here’s the video:
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