Tag: Hollywood

The Iron Grip of Polarization

Like a lot of people these days, the actress Kathleen Turner is very concerned about polarization in Washington. She has a special reason to be concerned: She’s coming to Washington’s Arena Stage to do a one-woman show, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,’ based on the life and writings of the sharp-tongued liberal columnist. She tells the Washington Examiner:

“One of these challenges may be getting a wide enough breadth of people to come, you know, because people are so closed-minded now, that if they think it doesn’t represent their point of view, they’re not interested,” she said. “I’m afraid it will be like – if you’re a Republican, don’t go to the show – it’s a real shame both artistically and as a reflection of our nation’s mentality.”

Fortunately, liberals from Hollywood don’t have that sort of us-against-them mentality:

But while Ivins became famous for mocking former President George W. Bush, nicknaming him “Shrub” and “Dubya,” Turner told us that her approach to dealing with the Bush years was a bit more subtle.

“I had to do some real dodging there once in a while, but I pretty much managed it,” she said, explaining that she “purposely” never met Bush. “I used to be on the Kennedy Center artistic, you know, selection board and those events are always held at the White House, and so then I had to bow out for a few years, didn’t I?”

It’s a real shame when Republicans are closed-minded.

Business in the Movies

Libertarians have often complained about the selective and hostile portrayal of business in Hollywood movies. A couple of little-known Hollywood movies that offer a different view are going to be on television this week.

The 1960 film “Cash McCall,” starring James Garner as an early “corporate raider,” was voted ”Best Libertarian Picture” at the 1994 First International Libertarian Film Festival. Take that as you will. But arguably it does show, as the late lamented Miss Liberty website said,  ”a talented investor who overcomes envy and anti-success prejudice.” And it’s on TCM Saturday night at midnight.

USA Network meanwhile, is broadcasting “Taking Woodstock” 22 hours early, at 2 a.m. Saturday (i.e., very late Friday night). I wrote about that movie for Liberty magazine in 2010 (not online):

The movie Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber. I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock Festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture.

In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, N.Y. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer.

The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands.

There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do.

And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a 3-day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of activity. “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, installing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake, N.Y.

Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.”  At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Max Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened.

The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love – and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies (see John Nolte’s movie review at BigHollywood.com – can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary Woodstock….

Tiber writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock—a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about—was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock — and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses — would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. Taking Woodstock (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and capitalism.

Those of a different political persuasion may prefer TCM’s Dalton Trumbo extravaganza tonight.

Internet Censorship Bill Threatens Free Speech, Rule of Law

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. Its backers, including Hollywood and the recording industry, are hoping to rush the legislation through Congress during the current “lame duck” session. The legislation empowers the attorney general to draw up a list of Internet domain names he considers to be “dedicated to infringing activities,” and to obtain a variety of court orders designed to block access to these sites for American Internet users.

To understand the proposal, it helps to know a bit about the Domain Name System, or DNS, that is the focus of the bill. The DNS is the Internet’s directory service. Computers on the Internet are assigned (mostly) unique numbers like “72.32.118.3,” but these numbers are not convenient for human users to remember. So instead websites use domain names like “cato.org,” and our computers use the DNS system to automatically translates these names into their corresponding IP addresses. DNS is a distributed system; thousands of Internet Service Providers operate DNS servers for the use of their own customers.

Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.

The legislation falls far short of constitutional due process requirements. Legal injunctions would be issued upon the attorney general’s mere accusation of “infringing activities.” Not only would the owner of the domain name not have an opportunity to contest the allegations, he would not even have to be notified. And the parties who would receive notice under the legislation—DNS registrars and server administrators—will typically have no knowledge of or connection to the accused domain, which means they would have neither the knowledge or the motivation to dispute unreasonable orders.

This is especially problematic because we are talking about constitutionally-protected speech here. The Supreme Court has long held that prior restraints of speech are unconstitutional. The websites on the government’s blacklist may have a large amount of constitutionally-protected speech on them, in addition to allegedly-infringing material. Not only does COICA not require the government to prove its allegations before a domain name is blocked, it doesn’t require the government to ever prove them.

Earlier this year, my colleague Jim Harper praised Secretary Clinton’s speech making Internet freedom a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda. Secretary Clinton was right to lecture foreign governments about the evils of Internet censorship; her former colleagues in the US Senate should listen to her.

Mao’s Last Dancer

The movie “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a sleeper hit, says the Los Angeles Times:

It features no big-name stars, drew mediocre reviews and traffics in the esoterica of Chinese ballet.

And yet “Mao’s Last Dancer,” the true story of a ballet performer who defected to the United States in 1981, has become one of the season’s biggest art-house hits.

Bruce Beresford’s Australian-produced film tells of Li Cunxin, an 11-year-old Chinese boy plucked from his rural village in 1972 under the reign of Mao Zedong to dance for the Beijing Ballet. While in residence at the Houston Ballet a decade later, he defected to the United States after a politically charged standoff that involved the FBI and diplomats from China and the U.S.

It’s been in theaters for three months, and I finally saw it this weekend. You can’t usually wait that long to see an indie film, but this one’s been hanging on under the radar. It’s a great story about Chinese communism, politically controlled art, and one individual who chooses freedom. In a climactic scene, the Chinese consul tells Li “the Party knows what’s best for you” and Li responds, “I know what’s best for me.” (The language is a little different in Li’s autobiography.)

The New York Times dismisses the movie as “nothing more than an old-fashioned tear-jerker,” complaining that it is

stuck in an earlier era of heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience. The juxtaposition of wide-eyed villagers and labored aphorisms with shopping malls and casual sex may accurately reflect Mr. Li’s book, but on screen it feels absurdly outdated.

Um, yes. The movie is set between 1972 and 1981. That was Mao’s China, even the China of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, and then the very earliest days of the liberalization under Deng Xiao-ping. Today it looks dated, as do most movies set 30 or more years in the past. Anyone who has visited China recently might not realize just how stunning the Houston skyline would have looked to Li in 1981. But I saw the Shanghai skyline seven years later, in 1988, and I know that Houston would have seemed a different world to Li at that time.

No doubt the Times reviewer also disliked the scenes in Chinese schools where students are told that China has the highest standard of living in the world, while the “capitalist and imperialist nations” live in unimaginable horror. And maybe the scene of Madame Mao visiting the Beijing ballet academy and demanding that the students perform only revolutionary ballet. But that was the reality of Maoist China.

I’ve written before about the remarkable dearth of anti-communist movies in Hollywood, especially when you consider that communism lasted far longer and killed far more people than national socialism, about which there have been many movies. Of course, this movie wasn’t produced in Hollywood; it was produced in Australia by the Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” “Tender Mercies,” “Driving Miss Daisy”). And “Mao’s Last Dancer” is as much a story of individualism and breaking out of a world that would hold you down (not unlike “Billy Elliott” or “October Sky”) as it is a political movie.

The fact that Li was allowed to visit the Houston Ballet temporarily in 1981 was a sign of the changes that were happening in China, and the country has made much more progress since then. But China is still not comfortable with this story, and the producers were forced to shoot some scenes in secret after being denied permission to film in China.

With Christmas movies coming, “Mao’s Last Dancer” won’t be in theaters much longer. See it now.

Ms. Weaver Goes to Washington

Today in Washington: actress Sigourney Weaver testifies before the  Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the topic of ocean acidification. Because, you know, she played an environmental scientist in Avatar. It’s the best fit since Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek – all of whom had played farm women – testified on America’s agricultural crisis.

Congress doesn’t have time to vote on presidential nominations. It doesn’t bother engaging in serious oversight of presidential power and civil liberties abuses. It looks at the ceiling and whistles as the national debt approaches Greek levels. But members of Congress have time to listen to an actress discuss the topic of ocean acidification.

This seems like a topic for “Really!?! with Seth and Amy” on Saturday Night Live. Really, Senate Commerce Committee? You think Sigourney Weaver has important information that you need to know? Really? And you’re not just doing this to get yourselves on television? Really!?! And you think the most important thing members of Congress could be doing today is getting their pictures taken with Sigourney Weaver? Really!?!

Of course, this is not just a one-day thing for Sigourney Weaver. She also traveled this month to Brazil to try to stop the construction of a dam. Because who would know better than a Hollywood-Manhattan actress how to make tradeoffs between energy needs and environmental risks in Brazil?

Now let me just say that I’m not arguing that ocean acidification isn’t an important topic. And I’m not criticizing Avatar or its defense of property rights. I’m just questioning whether Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Jeff Daniels, Nick Jonas, and the Backstreet Boys have the kind of expertise that Congress ought to draw on in deciding how to run my life. Or then again, maybe planning the economy and running other people’s lives is farce at best, and Congress should just hold hearings with Will Ferrell and John Cleese.

‘Avatar’ Is about Property Rights

In the Los Angeles Times today, I write about “Avatar”, which has just become the biggest-grossing movie in Hollywood history, and how conservatives have missed the issue at its core:

Conservatives see this as anti-American, anti-military and anti-corporate or anti-capitalist. But they’re just reacting to the leftist ethos of the film.

They fail to see what’s really happening. People have traveled to Pandora to take something that belongs to the Na’vi: their land and the minerals under it. That’s a stark violation of property rights, the foundation of the free market and indeed of civilization….

“Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. Jake rallies the Na’vi with the stirring cry “And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this is our land!”

Economists may wonder about the claim that “Avatar” is the highest-grossing film of all time. The Hollywood Reporter estimates that so far it may only have sold half as many tickets as the 1997 “Titanic,” and Box Office Mojo says that adjusted for inflation “Gone with the Wind” remains the movie with the highest U.S. revenue, followed by “Star Wars.”