Friday, November 30, 2012

Do the Movies Have a Future?

The first of a four-part series

In his new collection of essays addressing the art and the business of the entertainment world, New Yorker film critic David Denby expresses a deep concern about the decline of the artistic preeminence of films in the face of new technology and a new Golden Age of television. He covers too much fascinating ground to do justice to here; but at the heart of his book is an intriguing question: Do the Movies Have a Future?

Denby laments the waning vigor of a cinema that matters – movies like There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and The Tree of Life. That vigor is threatened by “the way the business structure of movies is now constricting the art of movies.” Sure, Hollywood studios halfheartedly get behind the usual rom-coms, horror flicks, and thrillers; but for the most part, their business model depends on massively-budgeted but shallow spectacles. The problem is that the big profits from those blockbusters don’t get steered toward more adventurous projects; they go instead into the next sequel or franchise.

As an example, he notes that 2010’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which he calls “a thundering farrago of verbal and visual gibberish,” grossed $1 billion worldwide in a month: “Nothing is going to stop such success from laying waste to the movies as an art form.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kim Kardashian’s Prayer for Israel Draws Death Threats

Woe to any celebrity who dares even publicly hint at support for Israel, lest he or she feel the wrath of fans lusting for the destruction of that embattled Middle Eastern democracy. Like pop singer Katy Perry last year, reality TV megastar Kim Kardashian found that out the hard way last week.

As Israel pushed back against Hamas recently with Operation Pillar of Defense, the normally apolitical Kardashian tweeted this simple note of concern: “Praying for everyone in Israel.” Well-meaning, right? Harmless, right? Not to the Israel-haters among her nearly 17 million Twitter followers, whose illiterate response was fast and furious. They bombarded her with angry, insulting tweets, some of which wished death upon her. “Ill pray you will die kim” spewed someone with the Twitter handle nashauzir. AishaJamil tweeted “pray for palestine not that f***ing israel. U're so stupid!! U should die at there! Bitch.” “Go die in a hole full of sh*t” wrote MusUp_.

Realizing that she had accidentally stepped out of her depth into shark-infested political waters, Kardashian quickly backpedaled, tweeting that she was now “Praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!” A saintly sentiment, but there are two problems with that. One, there is no Palestine (except on Arab maps, which feature no Israel), and two, it is a retreat into a moral neutrality so broad as to be meaningless.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"The Soup" – A Smorgasbord of Guilty Pleasures

Pop culture today is bursting with so many guilty pleasure possibilities that it’s impossible to indulge in as many as you’d like without abandoning your job and other responsibilities, like showering. It’s necessary for the serious pop culture observer to keep up, however, not just with the Kardashians but with the whole fascinating, lurid tapestry of it, partly for fun and partly to gauge just how quickly that handbasket with civilization in it is going to Hell. For such aficionados-on-the-go like myself, I’ve found that the most efficient way to get a weekly recap of pop culture is to tune in every Wednesday to E! Entertainment’s The Soup and get a feel for what I’m missing (or not, as the case may be.)

The half-hour show delivers a loopy roundup of television highlights (lowlights, actually) of the past week – the most outrageous, ludicrous moments from the lowest common denominator of pop entertainment, from the unreality of reality shows, to the bombast of Mexican telenovelas, to the manufactured melodrama of singing competitions. Host/comedian Joel McHale adds his (mostly) scripted, snarky commentary to the clips, and a small (and very likely loaded) live audience laughs and hoots along.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharia?

“Sharia-compliant Islam is ascendant.” So writes the incomparable Andrew C. McCarthy in his foreword to Andrew Bostom’s timely new book, Sharia Versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism. And “Western elites have abandoned the field – or better, put it up for sale to Islamic activists and their apologists.” This leaves Bostom as “one of the precious few who dare” to put their considerable scholarly energies into exposing sharia for what it truly is.

Dr. Andrew Bostom, Associate Professor of Medicine at Rhode Island Hospital, has published articles and commentary on Islam here on FrontPage and in the Washington Times, National Review, American Thinker, and elsewhere in print and online. Bostom is the author of two essential, extraordinary, and meticulously documented works of scholarship, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (about which I interviewed him here and here for FrontPage). Now he has built upon and transcended those books with his newest and most important work thus far.

Sharia Versus Freedom is a sobering collection of Bostom’s recent essays elucidating what is arguably the most threatening ideology of our time. His distinctive erudition is on full display in this impossibly encyclopedic work. Allow me to break the book down to present an idea of the depth and breadth of its wide-ranging contents:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Judd Apatow’s Family Values

I’ve done more than my share of decoding culture for political subtexts. But sometimes cultural messages are best articulated in terms of values rather than politics.
Last week, for example, an interviewer for Film Comment commented to director Judd Apatow that

Time and again, you show us couples trying really hard to work out their problems rather than simply calling it quits and getting that divorce (or, in the case of Knocked Up, that abortion), which is something I think some critics have misconstrued as a strain of neoconservatism or family-values propaganda in your work.

I was struck by the phrase “family-values propaganda,” which implies an insidious political agenda. Critics have indeed fretted over whether there is a strain of social conservatism in Apatow’s movies. But he responds to them in terms of relationships, not politics:

I grew up on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H and All in the Family and Taxi, and what that imprinted on me was that families are complicated but we love each other and at the end of the day we’re there for each other.

The Last Man: An Interview with Vince Flynn

Vince Flynn is the author of fourteen thriller novels, every one of which has hit the New York Times bestseller list, and all but one of which feature Flynn’s no-nonsense, politically incorrect, scourge-of-Islamic-evil, protagonist Mitch Rapp. Flynn is so clued in to our national security apparatus that his books have actually been put on security review by the Pentagon before being released, and used by the Secret Service to modify their protocols. One high-ranking CIA official has even told his people, “I want you to read Flynn's books and start thinking about how we can more effectively wage this war on terror.”

I received an advance copy of Flynn’s latest, The Last Man, which releases November 13. A typical Flynn page-turner, it revolves around the kidnapping of a valuable CIA asset in Afghanistan, and Mitch Rapp’s mission to retrieve him.

Mark Tapson: The Last Man is your thirteenth novel to feature Mitch Rapp. What is it about him that you think resonates with so many readers?

Vince Flynn: I go back to that Churchill quote, “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Most Americans know there are bad people out there who want to do bad things and hurt Americans.

When I sat down to create the character, I’d graduated high school and college in the ‘80s, and I had seen the rise of Islamic radical fundamentalism and also the decline of communism. So I thought, what’s going to be the next big threat? And I thought these crazy, racist, bigoted Islamofascists were going to be the problem, and we’d better go on the offensive. This sounds harsh, but I thought we’d better start killing them before they kill us. I think a lot of Americans would prefer it if they could live their lives and have somebody like Mitch Rapp go over there and take care of these problems before they get to our shore. Unfortunately our politicians don’t often have the stomach to handle these problems that way.

MT:    Speaking of politicians, not only are Presidents Clinton and Bush both big fans, but you’ve heard now that even Obama may be. Are you surprised that a politically incorrect character like Mitch Rapp has fans on both sides of the political aisle?

Monday, November 12, 2012

In Praise of American Warriors

(The following is a Memorial Day piece I wrote for Big Peace in 2009. I usually repost it every Memorial Day, but not this year, so here it is for Veteran's Day instead)

My father Roger E. Tapson, a former United States Army Staff Sergeant and veteran of World War II, died five years ago and was buried near a small lake in the rolling, pastoral grounds of the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery alongside thousands of other veterans - their names, as poet Stephen Spender might say, "feted by the waving grass, and by the streamers of white cloud, and whispers of wind in the listening sky, the names of those who…left the vivid air signed with their honor." It’s exactly the kind of place my dad would have described – without a hint of Oprah-fied, feminized, New Age devaluation of the word – as “spiritual.” It was the way I once heard him describe a still, brisk, early autumn morning on a gorgeously wooded golf course, his favorite place to be.

Spiritual indeed, but not in the same degree or kind as "civilian” burial grounds. Not to diminish the final resting place of anyone interred in the latter; but to stand in a military cemetery among the unadorned, uniform white markers that stretch out in precise rows like an army-in-waiting, is to feel a spiritually heightened quality to your surroundings that demands humility, gratitude, and a more solemn reverence. The “vivid air” of a military cemetery is undeniably suffused with something extra, because it’s not merely a graveyard, but a memorial to qualities that constitute the best of humanity – honor, courage, dignity, service and sacrifice – and to warriors who once embodied them. Their grave markers stand as a challenge to those of us who remain.

The Lesson of Mr. Holland’s Opus

Earlier this week, Ryan Murphy posted a thought-provoking piece on Acculturated that posed the question, “If we have a career dream, should we go after it at all costs?” He answered it by noting that the single-minded pursuit of one’s passion is fine for those who can afford the risk, but in the real world, few have the luxury of committing themselves wholly to achieving their dreams and maybe even stardom. Most of us must make sacrifices for real-world responsibilities like bills and families.

But that doesn’t mean we must abandon our dreams, Murphy says:

Instead of looking at dreams as a yes or no, maybe it’s best to look at dreams on a continuum, allowing enough time outside of work to quench that thirst and keep that passion alive. This can ensure that down the road, after working for twenty five years in that cubicle in order to give your child a better life, you can tell him or her (while juggling four balls at once) that you did pursue your dream, just part time.

Pursue your dream part-time? To many, this may seem like what was called, in the idealistic 1960s, a cop-out. But I was reminded of the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, starring Richard Dreyfuss as an aspiring young composer with dreams of stardom, who grudgingly takes a position teaching high school music. In his mind, this is merely a temporary day job.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Alone, Together

In Program or Be Programmed, his compelling short guide to seizing control of your life back from the seductive embrace of technology, Douglas Rushkoff describes the oddly detached lifestyle of a young trendsetter named Gina who has an “always on” relationship to her social media. She hops from one hip party to another, but is never truly present:

Instead of turning the phone off and enjoying herself, however, she turns her phone around, activates the camera, and proceeds to take pictures of herself and her friends – instantly uploading them to her Facebook page for the world to see…

She relates to her friends through the network, while practically ignoring whomever she is with at the moment. She relates to the places and people she is actually with only insofar as they are suitable for transmission to others in remote locations. The most social girl in her class doesn’t really socialize in the real world at all. [Emphasis added]

In this era of easy worldwide connectedness, our youth are suffering an unprecedented degree of emotional detachment, depression and loneliness. “The more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” argues Atlantic writer Stephen Marche in “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” MIT’s Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, concurs that our relentless online connection ironically leads to alienation and solitude. Marche nails it: “A connection is not the same thing as a bond.”

Hollywood’s Last-Minute Push for Obama

Right on the heels of President Obama’s very revealing statement encouraging his supporters to vote out of a sense of revenge, comes a spate of last-minute pushes by his loyal (but gradually dwindling) supporters in Hollywood, attempting to help him get those voters to the polls.

In a video posted Saturday on the Obama campaign camp’s YouTube Channel, comedian Will Ferrell addresses the camera with “I will do anything to get you to go out and vote November sixth. I’m not kidding.” In a smoking jacket adorned with an Obama 2012 pin, he promises to do a little dance, eat anything we tell him to, even punch himself in the face, if we go to the polls and vote Obama. Ferrell helped raise funds for Hollywood’s President in 2008, and co-hosted a $38,000 a person fundraiser for him in February.

An anti-Romney political spot, paid for by the pro-Obama Jewish Council for Education and Research, was released by former singer Cher and buzzsaw-voiced comedienne Kathy Griffin. The idiotically-titled “Don't Let Mitt Turn Back Time on Women's Rights” features footage of Romney stumping for Richard Mourdock, the U.S. Senate candidate who came under fire for saying that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” The video also attempts to link Romney to Senate candidate Todd Akin, who said in August that women’s bodies could prevent pregnancy in instances of “legitimate rape.”

What the Cher-Griffin ad doesn’t mention is that the Romney camp stated that “he disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views." Romney also denounced Akin’s comments as “inexcusable,” “insulting,” and “wrong.”

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Putting the Sportsmanship Back in Sports

It’s long been a familiar sight to National Football League fans: a player scores a touchdown and celebrates with a rehearsed dance routine for the fans and the cameras, sometimes in choreographed collaboration with a few teammates.

This kind of end-zone celebration has been the norm now for decades – and not only after touchdowns. Frequently a defensive player will jump up after a mere tackle in the backfield and congratulate himself like a breast-beating gorilla. You’d think no one had ever made a tackle before. There is an off-putting conceitedness about such displays that simply smacks of bad sportsmanship.

Passions run high on the football field, and players can’t be expected not to celebrate a great play – nor should they be. But there is a difference between sincere jubilation and what comes across as taunting. “Exultation” is from a Latin word origin that suggests jumping for joy, and joy is infectious and uplifting. When the line is crossed from that genuine exultation to self-promotion and gloating, it’s not uplifting – it’s obnoxious, and the sport then is no longer healthy competition but vainglorious one-upmanship.

Michael Moore and Obama Smear the Greatest Generation

Just when hateful documentary propagandist Michael Moore was becoming a distant, bad memory, he returns with a deeply disrespectful political ad that he produced in conjunction with the radical left It is one of the saddest and most revolting spots yet associated with the Obama campaign, which has turned this election into a carnival of vulgarity.

The virulently radical Moore, who is vastly wealthy but affects solidarity with the working-class, is not only responsible for a corpus of film work that is bloated with anti-American lies and distortions, including Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, he is also a friend to every enemy America and capitalism have, from Hezbollah to the Muslim Public Affairs Council to Occupy Wall Street to Code Pink to Fidel Castro and more, all the while proclaiming, “I love this country!” is a grassroots political network that organizes online activists, raises money for Democrat candidates through pop culture events, generates political ads, and wins young recruits through its appeal to the MTV subculture. The ad they co-produced with Moore steers viewers to, where they can donate or sign up to volunteer with MoveOn. The site asserts that Romney and Ryan “want to destroy Medicare, cut taxes for the rich, and take us back into a recession.” Blah blah blah.

Moore fell off the filmmaking map after his 2009 movie Capitalism: A Love Story. But now he’s back as the producer of a pro-Obama spot called “A Message from the Greatest Generation,” which depicts a handful of elderly people residing at the “Rosebud Nursing Home” stressing the urgency of not only voting – but voting for President Obama. The scenario is obviously staged, the elderly participants are obviously actors, and thus the script too is presumably not actually the words and sentiments of “the greatest generation,” but of gutter-brained radicals with the imprimatur of Moore and MoveOn.

PBS’ Electioneering

The PBS slogan for its coverage of the upcoming presidential election is “PBS Election 2012: Trusted. In-depth. Independent.” But if a Frontline documentary which aired on that network last weekend is any indication, the slogan could be more appropriately rephrased as “PBS Electioneering 2012: Untrustworthy. Shallow. Slanted.”

PBS and its Sesame Street icon Big Bird became a political football recently when candidate Romney mentioned in a presidential debate that, as President, he would wean PBS from the government teat. The Obama campaign foolishly responded by trying to elevate the beloved Big Bird into a symbol of victimization at the hands of cruel Republicans who hate children and art. The move backfired by trivializing the nation’s real problems and focusing on a goofy kids’ show character instead. Even PBS distanced itself from being politicized. But to avoid ending up on the chopping block after the election, perhaps PBS is now attempting a pre-emptive strike at Romney with a little electioneering.

The two-hour Frontline special called “The Choice 2012” ostensibly presented a balanced portrait of the candidates Obama and Romney, to better educate the PBS audience about the choice to be made on November 6. Sure, it’s structurally balanced enough, cutting back and forth to compare and contrast the candidates’ formative years, political development, triumphs and failures; but by the end Obama has been depicted not as a divisive radical who is driving the country to the brink of ruin, but as a bipartisan idealist who strove to unite the country behind a plan for Obamacare, only to be thwarted by Republican racists and hard political realities. Romney, on the other hand, is painted as a calculating, politically cynical flip-flopper whose ruthless managerial style benefits the wealthy and ravages the working class.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Orson Welles: Work as an Expression of Life

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity

So began what is probably the greatest Halloween scare of all time, the radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” broadcast in 1938, 74 years ago tonight. Directed and narrated by 23-year-old actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was adapted from the H. G. Wells novel of the same name (it would later be adapted on film a couple of times, including a 2005 Steven Spielberg version starring Tom Cruise).

The show was presented in such realistic fashion that more than a million (by some estimates) Americans tuning in were convinced that an actual invasion from Mars was underway. There is some question as to whether the ensuing panic was actually as widespread as the media reported at the time, but one thing is certain: the extraordinary event propelled the brilliant and audacious Orson Welles to fame.

Like a Virgin: Obama Ad Sets a New Low

You’re Barack Obama. It’s less than two weeks before the election, and your competition Mitt Romney is overtaking you. As with your first election, you depend heavily on new young voters, because grownups know you’re a bull****ter (as you projected onto Romney in your Rolling Stone interview), so you need to send out a compelling message that wins them over in this final stretch of the race. What do you do? Why naturally, you approve a stunningly ridiculous political message featuring a vapid young woman comparing voting for you to having sex with you.

If you haven’t heard of Lena Dunham before, it’s because you’re not obsessed with the degrading hookup culture among today’s young people as depicted in HBO’s series Girls, a sort of poor woman’s Sex and the City. Dunham, 26, is the creator, writer, and star of the show, which has made her such an icon of her lost generation that her upcoming memoir of sexual experiences just netted a $3.7 million advance from Random House.

The Obama campaign released a one-minute video last week featuring Dunham encouraging first-time voters to take the plunge, speaking intimately to the camera as if giving advice to a teenager or fellow twenty-something female about losing her virginity. You read that right. You have to see this video to believe it – and even then, you might not. As Kevin Eder at Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center put it, “I’ve now watched it four times. I refuse to believe that it’s a real, actual thing.”

It is a real, actual thing. It is the Obama campaign hitting a new, simultaneously desperate and contemptuous (and contemptible) low.

RIP, Rogers and Ross

Not long ago PBS and its Sesame Street icon Big Bird became a political football as the presidential election contest heated up. Overshadowed by that controversy, two other PBS icons who passed away years ago were recently memorialized in video “mashups” that beautifully capture their unique, gentle personas – children’s show host Fred Rogers and painting instructor Bob Ross.

On June 7, PBS released the video tribute to one of their most beloved TV shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. To date, the “Garden of Your Mind” has well over seven million views on PBS’ YouTube channel. On the heels of that success, PBS followed up in late July with a similar mashup of Bob Ross and his show The Joy of Painting called “The Happy Painter,” which has garnered over three and a half million views (a third, celebrating cooking giant Julia Child, has over one million hits thus far). Both respectful musical tributes (and Child’s) are the work of John D. Boswell of melodysheep.

For decades, the half hour Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a place on the TV dial where parents could entrust their preschool kids to the soft-spoken Rogers, in his familiar canvas sneakers and zip-up cardigan (one of which now actually hangs in the Smithsonian). He encouraged children to cultivate their intellect, imagination and curiosity, and to explore the world around them with confidence. He addressed them directly, gently, and reassuringly about issues like fear and anger.

The Joy of Painting was an instructional show in which the beatific and welcoming Ross would, in barely twenty astounding minutes of real time, turn a blank canvas into a soothing wooded pastoral, a warm ocean sunset, or a majestic mountainscape, dotting it with “happy little clouds” and making sure to give a lonely tree a “friend.” We don’t make mistakes, the Afro-headed Ross would encourage viewers in his hypnotically soothing baritone – we just have happy accidents.”