Saturday, February 26, 2011

The first surprise of this year's Oscars

The majority of those who make predictions see The King's Speech winning best picture at tomorrow night's big Academy Awards gala. Of course, that same majority predicted that Waiting for Superman, the much ballyhooed attack on American public schools and the Teachers Unions, would win the Oscar for best documentary feature. Instead, when nominations were announced last month, Waiting for Superman did not make the cut. Despite efforts by Oprah Winfrey (who devoted two days of her show to promoting the film), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which spent $2 million to market Waiting for Superman for Academy consideration, the Academy nominated five worthier films instead.

"It's all about the kids," Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. schools and one of the stars of Waiting for Superman, is fond of saying. But the kids did not appear on the cover of Time, as Rhee did, and they weren't on the Today Show on the morning of January 11, as Rhee and the film's director, David Guggenheim, were for no other reason than to promote Waiting for Superman for Oscar consideration. By then, the film had been gone from theaters for several months, so their efforts were not aimed at the general movie-going public. Of course, it's not about the kids at all. It's about money and self-glorification.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post believes the Academy saw through the film which has been criticizied as one-sided and for staging several scenes for dramatic purposes. The film promotes charter schools as a miracle cure for the ailing public school system, but as Diane Ravitch reports in "The Myth of Charter Schools," published in the November 11, 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books, Albert Shanker, a former president of the American Federation of Teachers who first championed charter schools, “turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

And you say you don’t believe in conspiracies?

In her article, Ravitch challenges the thesis of Waiting for Superman that America’s public schools are failing because of incompetent teachers, and that publically-funded but privately operated charter schools will save the children. Charter schools have had limited success, however, with only one in five succeeding. The film does not ignore this fact, but Guggenheim sneaks it in so it won't attract much notice.

“Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic,” Ravitch writes.

Perception is everything. The way information is presented is as important as the information itself. Emphasize the trivial, and the trivial becomes momentous. Ignore the momentous, and its importance is diminished. Had the events of September 11, 2001 been buried on page 5A of the newspaper and been reduced to two or three minutes on the nightly TV news instead of being splashed across the front page and subjected to round-the-clock coverage, it might have been regarded as a simple tragedy, a freak occurrence without lasting impact. There are, indeed, gatekeepers in the media who decide what we should know and how much we should know about it. They also decide who we should champion as heroes and who to castigate as villains. It is these gatekeepers who have anointed Michelle Rhee as the leader of education reform in America.

The media is positively in love with Rhee, but how did this attractive young Korea-born woman rise to such prominence? Is it due to her accomplishments? There are no records to back up her claim to have raised test scores when she was a teacher herself. I suspect that Rhee was groomed and propped up by powerful forces, much like the average candidate for political office. Rhee began her teaching career as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., which Ravitch reports is “one of the first for-profit” educational interests. Her domineering personality, minority status, and sexual attractiveness made Rhee an ideal spokesperson for the powerful business interests eager to take over the public school system for their own selfish gain. When Rhee made the cover of Time magazine, she was photographed dressed in black, holding a ruler as if it was a sword, and wearing a stern expression. She resembled nothing less than a dominatrix preparing to dole out discipline to a stable of slaves. No matter what she claims or what her supporters tell us, Rhee is not really a teacher or an educational reformer. She's a media star comparable to Kim Kardashian.

Rhee probably entertained fantasies of accompanying Guggenheim on stage when he collected his Oscar, and being cheered as a hero by the Hollywood elite, many of whom like to make a show of thanking teachers in their own acceptance speeches even though few of them were good students. Now, Rhee will stay home on Oscar night. One of the many things working against Waiting for Superman is the fact that Hollywood is a big union town. The Academy's sympathies probably lie with the Teachers Unions, whom Rhee is dedicated to destroying and which is the chief villain in the film.

The Academy is frequently knocked by film buffs who disagree with their choices, but with this year's nominees for Best Documentary Feature, they deserve a round of applause. They recognize Waiting for Superman for what it is: propaganda for a takeover of public schools by private business.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The King's Speech VS The Social Network: Heart over head?

So now The King's Speech is the frontrunner for the best picture Oscar at this month's 83rd annual Academy Awards. The Social Network, long considered the film to beat after having swept the critics awards and winning the Golden Globe for best motion picture-drama, is now an underdog. The King's Speech rose to its current status after winning awards from three major guilds, most of whose members belong to, or at least wield influence with, the Academy, as critics and members of the Globe bestowing Hollywood Foreign Press do not. Once Oscar nominations were announced, The King's Speech strengthened its lead by garnering 12 nominations, compared to The Social Network's 8, two less than even True Grit, the Coen brothers's western that the Globes and those critics pretty much ignored.

The amateur pundits who track the Oscars all year long, debating each film's merits and likely appeal to the Academy, are outraged. To them, The Social Network is a movie that speaks to its time (the word "zeitgeist" is trotted out repeatedly in discussions about the film) and speaks to the intellect (its characters are backstabbing creeps that only other backstabbing creeps could love). The King's Speech, they say, targets the emotions. It touches the heart and tells an uplifting story, mostly true, based on historical fact. There are the usual naysayers, including Christopher Hitchens, who are dumping on the film's distortions (King George VI was not nearly as unsympathetic to the Nazis as the movie claims, Hitchens says), just as they questioned the true character of Oscar Schindler and other subjects of heartwarming biopics.

The quarrel I have with these critics is that they almost always imply, or flat out state, that a film that appeals to the emotions is inferior to one that appeals to the intellect. Compassion and kindness are qualities believed to be related to the heart, and where, oh where, would our society be without compassion and kindness?

Someone whose head overrules his heart would probably not adopt an orphaned child or an abandoned puppy because his head is thinking only of the responsibilities, the expense, and the sacrifices required. The heart has other priorities and it could be argued that they are of greater value than a decision made only by the head. The heart usually proves wiser than the head in the long run because it takes others into consideration, something the main characters in The Social Network never do.

The head VS heart argument is even a little sexist. After all, we have always been told that women let their hearts rule their lives while men favor logical thinking. Ideally, a work of art appeals to both the mind and the emotions, but if it only aims for one, the greatest works of art usually go for the heart. They inspire rather than report, and as Bob Dylan once observed, the greatest thing you can do is inspire someone. Technical writing appeals exclusively to the head. Is it art? If so, does its appeal to the intellect make it superior to poetry?

I haven't seen The King's Speech, but The Social Network and its characters left me cold. Mark Zuckenberg is an obnoxious, fast-talking, opportunistic asshole without one redeeming personality trait. A movie's characters don't have to be noble or even likeable for a film to achieve greatness, as Martin Scorsese's magnificent Goodfellas proves, but it helps to have someone you care about or can identify with.

As for its "hitting the zeitgeist," maybe it does, but The Social Network strikes me as being a little too much of its time to remain relevant in the future. It's about the founding of Facebook (which is, as far as I can tell, nothing more than My Space with a different name), but Facebook will almost certainly fade away once the next big thing arrives. The Internet itself may be subsumed by some other technological innovation before long, and the web that we know now may look as quaint as those cylinders once used to record sound. The Social Network could just as well be a film about the invention of the compact disc. Some have suggested that it's comparable to Citizen Kane, not only because it has a media mogul at its center, but because of its supposedly revolutionary technique. Its certainly well-made, but I didn't see anything I haven't seen before. Furthermore, Zuckenberg is not Charles Foster Kane, and David Fincher, the director of The Social Network, good as he is, is no Orson Welles.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, February 14, 2011

The 2011 Grammy Awards

Bieber fever was strong enough to make Never Say Never, a documentary about the pop singer, a hit at the weekend box-office, but it did not result in enough votes from Grammy voters to make him the Best New Artist. That honor went to someone named Esperanza Spaulding, a jazz artist popular with President Obama, but fairly unknown to the mainstream public who swoon over the helmet-haired Bieber. I don't know much about Spaulding (or even how to spell her name), but the choice seems like a good call. The Monkees weren't even nominated for Best New Artist, and, as far as I know, neither was the Partridge Family, the Archies, Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy, the Osmonds, or Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus. Bieber is just the latest "teen idol." Other than 12-year-old girls, does anyone consider him worthy of serious consideration as an artist?

I'll watch the Grammys if I have nothing else to do, but unlike the Oscars, it's not an event that I mark on my calendar. Back in the 1970s when I still followed popular music, the Grammys went to the likes of Charlie Rich (Record of the Year for "Behind Closed Doors" in 1974) and Olivia Newton John (Record of the Year for "I Honestly Love You" in 1975) while cutting edge rock artists like David Bowie were ignored along with such still innovative '60s artists as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Even someone as mainstream as Elton John usually came up empty-handed at the annual bash. It wasn't until 1978 that the Stones were acknowledged with a nomination, but their Some Girls lost Album of the Year to the Bee Gees's Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. A year later, Dylan picked up his first Grammy for "Gotta Serve Somebody" in the newly introduced category of rock vocalist, but none of his albums or songs, including such mega-classics as "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A Changin'" and "Like a Rolling Stone," received so much as a nomination. In 1997, thirty-five years after his debut album, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, a comeback of sorts, was named Album of the Year. By then, Dylan, like the Stones, had been given a lifetime achievement award to make up for past slights. In 1986, Jagger told Entertainment Tonight that he regarded the Grammys as a "joke" for ignoring rock and roll in favor of the blandest pop.

Neither Jagger nor Dylan were up for any Grammys this year, and neither was Barbra Streisand, but all performed on the show's stage last night. The Grammys have never been the ratings powerhouse that the Oscars once were, and in recent years the ratings have often been embarrassing, so desperate measures are necessary to prop up the show. Instead of limiting the performances to the nominees, the Grammys now invite an assortment of legends to perform their greatest hits in the hope of attracting viewers who don't know or just don't care about Kanye West, Eminem, and Usher. Last year, or maybe it was the year before, Paul McCartney appeared to sing the Beatles oldie "I Saw Her Standing There," while Neil Diamond dug out his 1969 hit, "Sweet Caroline." This year, Jagger gave his first ever performance on the Grammy stage in a tribute to Solomon Burke, the blues singer who died last year. At 67, the rubber-lipped legend could show these youngsters a thing or two about showmanship. Wiggling his hips and belting the blues with full power, Jagger's performance was a highlight of the telecast. Babs was brought out to sing "Evergreen," her Oscar winning hit from 1976's A Star Is Born, and brought many in the audience to tears. Wearing a silk shirt and with his hair as wild as ever, Dylan joined several bands for a rendition of 1965's "Maggie's Farm." Dylan rarely plays guitar on stage these days, preferring to hunker over an organ, but last night he stood before a microphone stand waving his arms, danced a little, and blew a few brief notes on harmonica. My brother called me shortly after the performance and said he thought Dylan sounded like he had laryngitis. His wife, not a fan, said Dylan lives in his own world and got a standing ovation simply because he's Dylan. One of the mannequins who anchor Access Hollywood insisted he loved and respected Dylan ("He's an icon"), but said he sounded like he gargled with Drano. "Why would he agree to perform if he can no longer sing?" the mannequin wondered. Dylan sang very well when performing before President Obama around a year ago at a White House event celebrating the music of the civil rights era. His voice was rough as it always is, but crystal clear. I'm reminded of what Ringo Starr once said about the risk involved in attending a Dylan concert: "Bob gives you what Bob wants to give you." If he feels like giving his best, you'll get his best, as the president and first lady did in 2009. If he doesn't feel like it, screw you. I think that's what Dylan was saying to the Grammy crowd last night: "Screw you, you stupid Justin Bieber/Lady Gaga loving assholes. You are not worthy."

Lady Gaga was present to perform the song she's been accused of plagiarizing from Madonna. Indeed, it was identical melodically to the Material Girl's "Express Yourself." Gaga won the Grammy for Pop Vocal Album, but not Album of the Year as predicted. That honor went to a rock band called R.K. Fire, who, unlike most of today's music makers, actually know how to play instruments rather than distoring other people's records with a phonograph needle. Lady Gaga arrived at the ceremony in a giant egg. Like the "meat dress" she once wore and her gaudy oversized eyeglasses, this is apparently supposed to be an example of how outrageous and shocking she is, but for anyone who was around in the '70s when Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper were in their heyday, the only thing shocking about Lady Gaga is that she thinks there's anything shocking left to do. She's a bore. Give me Leonard Cohen in a suit and tie singing songs with intelligent, literate lyrics in a baritone unaccompanied by electronic effects. In today's world, that is truly shocking.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Remembering John Barry

The first time I noticed the impact that music can have in a movie, other than in an Elvis flick, was probably in Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film which I first saw in December 1965 when I was eight-years-old. There was the Bond theme, heard over the gunbarrel opening, the wailing horns in the pre-title fight sequence, followed by the dramatic title song and lots of moody musical musings accompanying all those scenes underwater. It was the handiwork of John Barry, the British born composer who died January 31 in New York at the age of 77.

Sean Connery was James Bond, but John Barry was James Bond in a way, too. His distinctive music was as important in making 007 a phenomenon in the 1960s as Connery, that witty dialogue, those sexy Bondgirls, Ken Adam's mind-blowing sets, the Aston Martin, and all those ingenious gadgets. According to the legend, Barry, who had already enjoyed some success recording with Adam Faith (one of England's Elvis knockoffs) and with his own jazz group, the John Barry Seven, was brought in to "arrange" the James Bond Theme when Monty Norman's music proved inadequate for the opening titles of the first Bond film, 1962's Dr. No. Working from a Norman song called ""Bad Sign, Good Sign," Barry revamped the composition and with the aid of guitarist Vic Flick, produced the recording that would be heard in Bond films for decades to come, as well as be endlessly imitated by other composers seeking that distinctive Barry created "Bond Sound." Through the years, Norman has successfully sued those who have suggested that he did not write the most recognizable theme in movie history but was simply credited because contracts had been signed before emergency surgery was required on the score. Norman probably did "write" the theme, but it was Barry's arrangement, adding notes and flourishes, that made all the difference. Certainly, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers of the Bond films, were aware of the importance of Barry's contribution because it was Barry, not Norman, who was hired to compose, conduct, and arrange the score for the next film in the series, 1963's From Russia With Love. Lionel Bart composed the title song, but Barry handled all the other musical duties, and with 1964's Goldfinger, Barry took complete charge of the score, including the title song.

Goldfinger was the film that truly kicked off Bondmania, and ushered in an era when superspies dominated the movie and television screens in the hope of cashing in on the public's obsession with 007. Barry's title song, with lyrics by Anthony Newley, became a major hit as recorded by Shirley Bassey, reaching number 8 on the Billboard chart. The soundtrack album outsold records by every rock group except the Beatles that year, and Barry was now the hottest film composer in the world. He won three Oscars that decade - best song and musical score for 1966's Born Free and for his choral music in 1968's The Lion in Winter - but he made his name with Bond, James Bond whose screen adventures are unimaginable without Barry's dynamic scores.

The Bond films are known for action, sex (of a PG nature), risque dialogue, and hi-tech gadgetry, but Barry's music had a haunting, melancholy quality that gave the films a depth that was rarely present in the screenplays. The scores for You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are among Barry's finest work, and though other composers imitated his style for competing superspy projects like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series and the Flint and Matt Helm movies, they succeeded only in duplicating the bang-bang of Bond, and on a less grander scale, but failed to invest their work with the heart and soul that made Barry's Bond scores so special, and capable of providing rich listening experiences apart from the films.

Following 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery left the series for good, and Barry also took a break, returning for five more Bond films from 1974-1987, but turning over the baton to George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, and Bill Conti for several films. Paul McCartney's title song for 1973's Live and Let Die is terrific, but George Martin's score for that film, like the others in which Barry did not participate, is as lightweight as Roger Moore was when filling in for Connery as Bond. Ironically, though Barry would add two more Oscars to his mantle (Best Original Score for 1985's Out of Africa and 1990's Dances With Wolves), none of his Bond music was ever nominated by the Academy, which did nominate the themes composed by McCartney, Hamlisch, and Conti, as well as honored The Spy Who Loved Me with a nomination for best original score. These composers also had bigger chart hits with their Bond songs, with McCartney, Carly Simon, and Sheena Easton all taking the themes from those films to the top ten. Other than "Goldfinger" and 1995's "A View to a Kill," which Duran Duran (credited as co-authors of the song) took to number one, only a few of Barry's theme songs reached the top 40. Tom Jones's powerful performance of "Thunderball" reached number 25, but, surprisingly, "You Only Live Twice," my choice as the best title song in the series, climbed no higher than number 44. It was certainly the highlight in the recording career of Nancy Sinatra, then riding high on the heels of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and, therefore, favored over Barry's original choice, Aretha Franklin.

But Barry's themes saw impressive chart action in various cover versions. Pianist Roger Williams took the Oscar winning "Born Free" to number seven in 1966, and the piano playing duo, Ferrante and Teicher, who specialized in cover versions of film themes, took Barry's "Midnight Cowboy" to number ten in January 1970, a moody recording distinguished by the "water sound" guitar of Vincent Bell. Although only credited with "musical supervision" on the latter film (the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1969), Barry composed the haunting harmonica driven theme that underscored the tragic lives of the film's characters and provided a stunning contrast to "Everybody's Talkin'," the Fred Neil song that Harry Nilsson memorably sang over the opening titles.

Barry's other scores include Deadfall, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Zulu, The Ipcress File, King Rat, Robin and Marian, Touched by Love, Body Heat, Howard the Duck (yes, the George Lucas fiasco), Enigma, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, and his best-selling score of all, 1979's achingly romantic Somewhere in Time.

Somebody once said that the best film scores are those that the viewer doesn't notice. John Barry disproved that notion just as Bernard Herrmann did with his Hitchcock scores and Ennio Morricone did with his work for Sergio Leone. James Bond would not have been nearly as exciting or successful without John Barry's musical accompaniment, and every film he worked on was enhanced by his contribution.

Rest in peace, Maestro. Your music lives forever.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks