Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Oscar 2012

Nominations for the 64th Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo leads the pack with 11 nominations, followed by The Artist with 10. This year there are 9 best picture nominees, but it’s obvious that the awkwardly titled Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with only one other nomination (supporting actor for Max Von Sydow) doesn’t stand a chance, and neither does Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris even though its 3 mentions include director and screenplay. War Horse has 6, but not for director Steven Spielberg, and The Tree of Life has 3 including one for director Terence Malick, but it would likely need to be recognized for more than its cinematography to be a serious contender. Moneyball managed 6 nominations, but none for its director, and The Help has 4, but other than best picture it’s competing only in acting categories.

So, it’s ultimately a three picture race: Hugo VS The Artist with The Descendants the possible spoiler. The latter film has 5 nods with its director, star, screenplay, and editing all in the running. The Artist has two acting nominations while Hugo has none, and with actors dominating the voting membership of the Academy, The Artist would seem to have the edge.

The nicest surprise is the best actor nomination for Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s the veteran actor’s first recognition from Oscar and somewhat unexpected since he’s been passed over by many of the preliminary awards - and what are the other awards but preliminaries for the only prize that counts? Those broadcast film critics, who like to pretend they’re somehow independent thinkers and above the more show-bizzy and supposedly compromised Oscars, merely imitate their every move. When Oscar expanded its best picture category from 5 to 10 nominees, they did the same. This year, when Oscar was more flexible, with 5 nominees the minimum with 10 a possibility, they followed suit. Whether or not one agrees with their choices, the Academy still has the award that matters, the one that will be remembered, if only in the winners’ obituaries, while the others are forgotten.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of nods for J. Edgar. Leonardo DiCaprio seemed a shoo-in, but the film failed to earn a single mention. Christopher Plummer was recognized for supporting actor and I’m betting he’ll win.

Among the 5 documentary short subject nominees is something called God Is the Bigger Elvis. After googling the title, I learned it’s about Dolores Hart, Presley’s co-star in Loving You and King Creole, who gave up acting to become a nun.

The big show airs Sunday February 26 on ABC.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Garner and Belafone Look Back

When I noticed not long ago that James Garner was “trending” on Yahoo, I assumed he had died. After all, he’s 83 and has been inactive for the past few years, unusually so for a guy who juggled movies, TV, and commercials throughout his long career and even joined the cast of 8 Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, a sitcom, after its star, John Ritter, died suddenly in 2002. I recall reading that Garner has suffered a stroke, but that came from a fan’s post on the IMDb message boards. Garner, it turns out, was “trending” because his memoir, The Garner Files, had just been published, and as I did with Harry Belafonte’s much heftier book of remembrances, I checked it out of a public library but didn’t start on page one and read through to the conclusion. I’ve been jumping around, reading a bit here and a bit there. I’m more interested in the man’s career than his childhood, although Garner had a difficult one thanks to an abusive stepmother who made him wear a dress and tell everyone to call him “Louise.”

“I tell you, it got to me. I became introverted, and it took a long time before I came out of my shell. I hated being ridiculed and never wanted to feel that way again. I think the experience shaped my acting style: I’ve always kept my tongue in my cheek and a twinkle in my eye because I want people to laugh with me, not at me. I don’t want them to think I take this play-acting too seriously. I think it also gave me sympathy for the underdog. I can’t stand to see big people picking on little people. If a director starts abusing someone in the crew, I’ll butt in.”

Garner doesn’t dish much dirt, but he has his say on some of his co-stars.

“Someone once asked me if Steve (McQueen) was ‘trouble.’ Steve was trouble if you invited him for breakfast. He didn’t like anything. Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set. Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star, a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man. Steve wasn’t a bad guy; I think he was just insecure.”

Then there was Charles Bronson who, like McQueen, appeared with Garner in 1963's The Great Escape. “Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too. He used and abused people . . . a bitter, belligerent SOB. I don’t know why he had a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t a barrel of laughs on the set, I can tell you.”

Garner never worked with Charlton Heston, but both participated in the March on Washington in 1963. “I was not a fan of Heston’s, either as an actor - he was stiff as a board - or as a defender of civil rights.” Garner points to Heston’s later support of the NRA as proof that he was never a liberal which Garner says he is proud to be.

In his memoir, My Song, Harry Belafonte remembers Heston being invited to the march because Martin Luther King, Jr wanted him there. Though pleased that “a lot of friends of liberal causes from the Hollywood community had agreed to participate, King asked Belafonte if he had “reached out to anyone across the divide?” Belafonte knew Heston and also knew he was a conservative, but hadn’t spoken to him about the march. “I think it would be in our interest,” King said, “to have such a presence.”

Marlon Brando groaned when Belafonte suggested that Heston co-chair the delegation with him. “Charlton Heston marching with us would be a powerful image for mainstream America,” Belafonte writes, and Heston agreed to join the march and co-chair the delegation with Brando. Belafonte believes that Heston came around because he “yearned for the approval of his peers. Co-chairing a delegation with Marlon was exactly the blessing he needed.”

Belafonte’s book (like Garner’s, it was co-written by someone who probably did the actual writing) is a hefty 469 pages compared to Garner’s 273. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, it even has “A Note on the Type” (“The text of this book was set in a typeface called Aldus, designed by the celebrated typographer Hermann Zapf in 1952-53"), a sure sign of its “literary” aspirations.

Belafonte was signed to RCA Victor in 1952. After several failed singles, his second album, Belafonte, would reach number two on the Billboard chart, and had healthy sales for months to come.

“Just as Belafonte hit record stores,” he recalls, “so did the debut album by some kid from Memphis named Elvis Presley . . . Different as our sounds were, I could see that in one way, at least, we were on parallel tracks. Elvis was interpreting one kind of black music - rhythm and blues - while I found my inspiration in black folk songs, spirituals, and calypso, and also in African music, which would one day be put under the heading of world music.”

The two label-mates had yet to meet when they were recording at the same Manhattan studios, but “we’d had a bit of a run-in” after Belafonte’s sound engineer noticed they were picking up a “leak” from an adjoining studio where Presley and his band were “playing louder than the studio designers had ever imagined anyone would play.” Belafonte complained to RCA’s CEO. “Back came the word from Presley’s famous manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker: Either I could become his new client or he would destroy me. There was also a nicely wrapped box of chocolates with a note that said ‘From your friend the Colonel.’”

Once RCA executives “managed to sooth all the ruffled egos” both albums were completed, and would compete with each other on the charts. “All though the last half of 1956, Elvis and I traded top places with each other on that Billboard chart,” but Belafonte notes, at the end of that year in which rock ‘n’ roll began to overwhelm the charts, “the best-selling album wasn’t Elvis Presley or Elvis. It was Calypso.”

The two singers would finally meet when Belafonte played the Riviera in Las Vegas. “One night Elvis caught the show with Ann-Margret as his date, and came backstage to say hello. Elvis couldn’t have been more decorous; he insisted on calling me ‘Mr. Belafonte.’ Maybe it was just everything I was felling at the time, or maybe our year of chasing each other on the charts had made me competitive, but his manner seemed country-boy slick, and his music seemed derivative. Only later would I learn that Elvis had hung out for years with a lot of black musicians and come by his style legitimately. But he did perform with such put-on flash that over the next years, I noticed, he inspired a whole generation of rhythm-and-blues players who thought they could put that flash on and be Elvis, too.”

Thought not a rock ‘n’ roller himself, Belafonte can claim at least a footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history. For his Midnight Special album, he had wanted Sonny Terry to play harmonica, but the “world’s greatest blues harp player” was sick in bed. Belafonte’s guitarist recommended “a skinny, scraggly-haired kid no more than twenty years old” who arrived with four or five harmonicas in a brown paper bag. After Belafonte and the band agreed to run through the album’s title song for him, Bob Dylan asked for a glass of water. He didn’t want a drink, but rather dipped a harmonica into the water, shook it off, played on the track, then “tossed the harmonica he’d just played into the trash” on his way out. Belafonte took that as a bit of an insult, and assumed Dylan didn’t like him, just as he took it for granted that Dylan’s mentor and sometime vocal partner, Joan Baez, didn’t like him since someone called him “Belaphony” in Time’s Baez cover story.

For years, Belafonte “nursed a wounded ego” over these imagined slights, but eventually realized he was wrong. Dylan threw the harmonica away because it was cheap, an advantage for achieving the crude sound he was seeking, and once it was dipped in water, it was useless. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Dylan praised Belafonte to the heavens (“Everything about him was gigantic”), and recalled his Midnight Special session as “the only one memorable recording date that would stand out in my mind for years to come.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh Wow

On his deathbed, Steve Jobs, the Apple computer czar, was surrounded by loved ones. In the eulogy published in The New York Times on October 30 that radio talker Dennis Prager quoted yesterday, Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, described the scene, saying her father gazed silently at her and his "life partner," apologized to the latter because they could not grow old together, then, before taking his final breath, said, "OW WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW." (The caps are hers.)

I know nothing of Jobs’ spiritual beliefs. If he had any spiritual beliefs, I would assume they had roots in New Age ideas, the likes of which Oprah Winfrey has embraced. I doubt there are many Bible believers in the hi-tech world in which Jobs made his name, but then I have a sneaking suspicion that most of what we regard as science, including computers, are "indistinguishable from magic," to quote the late Arthur C. Clarke. Magic is not of God but of the devil.

But I digress.

Prager, an observant Jew, interprets Jobs’ final words as evidence of an afterlife. I do, as well, but of what afterlife? If the Bible is true, as I believe it to be, and if I understand it as well as I like to think I do, which is clearly not as well as I’d like, there is a different afterlife for the saved than there is for the damned. If the only way to Heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ, a glimpse of whom could explain why Jobs or another dying man would say “OH WOW” in the final moment before death, then who or what did Jobs see?

Atheists would likely explain away any vision by insisting that endorphins kicked in, bringing on a euphoric feeling that Jobs probably experienced in his last seconds on earth. If Jobs’ sister is a Christian (and I have no reason to think she is), unbelievers may even accuse her of lying about her father’s last words to promulgate her own beliefs. Christopher Hitchens accused various believers of putting last words into the mouths of such notable atheists as Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin and expressed the fear that they might do the same to him. So far, there have been no reports concerning Hitchens’ last words, if he uttered any, before he passed away last month.

But I digress again.

The point is, Steve Jobs apparently saw something, and what he saw was so dazzling that the normally articulate whiz-kid was, if not entirely speechless, then at a loss for the more precise language one might expect from one so brilliant. To say “OH WOW” is almost akin to saying you don’t know what to say. But even if we knew what he saw, even if he had found the words to describe it, questions would remain. From where did the vision originate? “Well,” the atheist might say, “it was those endorphins produced by the brain to ease our physical suffering. Science can explain it just as science can explain everything, rendering foolish all religious beliefs.” This by no means settles the matter. The believer in God would ask, “Who gave us endorphins?”

Since Jobs’ sister does not report that her father expressed anything resembling fear, we can only assume the vision he saw was pleasant, positive. If he was a believer in Jesus, it would make sense that he saw his savior, perhaps with arms outstretched, welcoming him home. If he was not a believer, and still saw Jesus, or Heaven, perhaps some of the preachers are wrong in thinking that salvation is available only to those who accept Jesus, “in their heart,” as they are fond of saying, and that even the relatively decent soul who nonetheless questions Jesus’ divinity, is lost, denied entry through the pearly gates and consigned to eternal hellfire. Of course, any vision of Jesus by an unbeliever could also be a deception of Satan.

Still, preachers and the most outspoken representatives of all religions generally make salvation more complicated than Jesus ever did, perhaps to justify their position as "experts." Jesus made it as simple as can be. When the thief on the cross turned to Jesus and asked Him to "remember me when You come into Your kingdom," that brief moment of faith was sufficient for the thief’s salvation. "Today," Jesus told him, "shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that "whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21).

Turn on the TV some Sunday morning (not Saturday, the true Sabbath), and things get more complex and a lot more confusing. The average Protestant preacher with access to the airwaves is a money-grubbing charlatan who emphasizes the "works" that Jesus said are like "filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6), simply not good enough to please a Creator who demands the perfection of which fallen man is incapable. The works that the TV preacher encourages usually involve a donation to his ministry which will pay his broadcasting bills and maybe help him buy a new Cadillac.

The Catholic Church also places priority on works and goes even further than the Protestants by dividing sins into categories: mortal and venial. A mortal sin is one from which there is no salvation and presumably includes murder, but I remember that as a child I was told that failure to attend Sunday Mass also qualified as a mortal sin. The message is that though Jesus died for our sins, He did not die for all of them. Shoplifting, jaywalking, and nose picking are probably covered, but His blood could only cover so much, and it missed man’s more flamboyant offenses. If true, then Jesus was either lying or misinformed when He said, "It is finished" (John 19:30) before commending His spirit to the Father. These days, I don’t regard the Catholic Church as anything more than a tool of the devil, a source of disinformation, the most effective of which is 90 percent true. There is truth in Catholic doctrine, but it is polluted with contradictions, including the elevation of Mary, Jesus’ earthy mother, to divine status.

But I digress again.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus said. "No man cometh unto the Father but by me" (John 14:6). Anyone who reaches Heaven does so because, and only because, of what Jesus accomplished on the cross at Calvary. Furthermore, we read in John 3:16 that "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). The latter passage clearly emphasizes that belief is required. The indecisive agnostic (as opposed to the atheist) who says, "I just don’t know," is seemingly doomed. The former passage is more open to interpretation. "No man cometh unto the Father but by me" could be read to mean that Jesus could decide in favor of a non-believer if He chose to do so, perhaps letting a sincere believer from a false religion enter the kingdom of Heaven because, hey, he was sincere in his belief, and did not reject Jesus, the way many atheists do, out of a surly spirit of rebellion. In God’s view, sin is sin, and though we may regard one sin as more serious than another, God does not. Taking more sugar than you need for the small coffee you ordered at McDonald’s so you can use it for the coffee you make at home is a sin, as is taking napkins for later use as tissues. Such behavior does not alarm us as much as the guy who takes a machine gun to his fellow diners, but it still falls below God’s standards of perfection and would bar one from entering Heaven without the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.

I’m digressing again.

Steve Jobs saw something on his deathbed. What did he see?

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks