Thursday, December 31, 2009

“I`m sorry…I`m just a guy who cares an awful lot about my classic movie channel...”

I don’t make it a point to visit Big Hollywood too often—mostly because I haven’t had all my shots—but this recent post by editor-in-chief John Nolte sort of started in me an involuntary rolling-of-the-eyeballs. Titled “Will Ben Mankiewicz Be Allowed to Destroy Turner Classic Movies?”, it describes how Johnny-O had to mosey on over to his fainting couch because Big Bad Ben had the unmitigated gall to draw a comparison between the character played by Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and a certain modern-day radio/television demagogue prone to crying jags while on the air:

Not only was Mankiewicz clearly referring to right-wing talk radio, it was just as obvious with his snide ”cry on cue” comment that he was specifically targeting Glenn Beck.

Why is this one comment worth complaining about? Because we all know that this is how it always starts. Those of us who just want to sit back and relax and enjoy something without having to be on guard concerning a cheap sucker shot aimed at who we are and what we believe in have seen it start just like this a thousand times. Once the dam springs a leak … the dam always ends up bursting. Always. And then, once again, we lose something we love.

For the record, had Mankiewicz abused this opportunity to trash Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann it would have been just as gratuitous and unwelcome.

I’m surprised Nolte was able to write that last line with a straight face—but then again: “If you believe it, it’s not a lie.”

The Goatee’d One can interpret the meaning of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece in today’s world all he wants, but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves.

If Mankiewicz isn’t mature enough to understand how important this is to the success of a network that enjoys the affection of a whole swath of Americans who have otherwise given up on Hollywood, he needs to be fired. And if Mankiweicz is too thick to understand that ”A Face In the Crowd” remains as effective a piece of filmmaking today as it was fifty years ago specifically due to the fact that it transcends petty partisan politics, he needs to take a leave of absence and read a book.

(*sigh*) Where to begin?

For the record, I’m not a big fan of Mankiewicz’s. While I will readily concede that the man does carry classic movie bona fides (his grandfather was screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and great uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz, writer-director of classics like A Letter to Three Wives [1949] and All About Eve [1950]) I find him a bit smarmy and lacking in gravitas. But as far as Ben’s comments went—I don’t think they were out of place. Crowd is an unrelentingly scathing portrayal of a media-created demagogue, and regardless of Glenn Beck’s political views (Nolte’s mention of “petty partisan politics” shouldn’t apply here because to my knowledge Beck has never affiliated himself with any particular political party) he fits the description of the word to a T. In all seriousness, if Nolte has an axe to grind about this he should go after Keith Olbermann—who’s been referring to the lachrymose pundit as “Lonesome Rhodes” Beck on MSNBC’s Countdown for quite a while now.

Nolte describes TCM as “a politics-free zone” and laments that “for the first time in my fifteen years of dedication to this irreplaceable reservoir of the medium I love, I felt sucker-punched.” Well, walk it off, crybaby. If you seriously think that TCM is untouched by politics, let’s just take a quick look at some of the movies frequently shown by the channel: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Network (1976), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Coming Home (1978), The Green Berets (1968), Fail-Safe (1964), Spartacus (1960), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), The Parallax View (1974), The Great Dictator (1940), All the King's Men (1949), The Best Man (1964), The Last Hurrah (1958), The Alamo (1960), Seven Days in May (1964)…and too many more to list. TCM has also showcased documentaries like Hidden Values: The Movies of the Fifties (2001) and featured festivals illustrating how blacks, Asians and Latinos have been depicted in films. In January, TCM will showcase a festival entitled Shadows of Russia, and anti-Commie agitprop vehicles like Conspirator (1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1950) and My Son John (1952) will be among the offerings. As director Joe Dante once observed: “All movies are political, either overtly or coded, often unwittingly. Life is political. To pretend otherwise is to kid yourself and your audience.”

As for “interpret[ing] the meaning of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece in today’s world all he wants. but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves”—perhaps Nolte is unaware of this article written by the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman from February 2008, in which Hoberman discusses Crowd with the late screenwriter Budd Schulberg:

In the '80s, Kazan began saying that he and Schulberg had made a movie about Ronald Reagan back in the days when Reagan was still shilling for GE. Although Reagan's election might have rendered A Face in the Crowd passé, the idea of a remake was floated throughout his presidency. Afterward, it simply became conventional wisdom. No great stretch of the imagination is required to see Lee Atwater as George H.W. Bush's Lonesome Rhodes or Ross Perot as a Rhodes knockoff—and only a mild sense of tabloid melodrama is necessary to appreciate Hillary playing Patricia Neal to Bill's Andy Griffith (now vice versa). To watch Bush II work his down-home magic on a preselected crowd is to be reminded of Rhodes's modus operandi. More recently, A Face in the Crowd can seem to presage the media-manufactured candidacy and TV-honed persona of failed hopeful Senator Fred Thompson. I asked Schulberg if he saw another Arkansas fellow traveler in the 2008 race: "Huckabee has some touches," he replied.

Poor John-John. Maybe he should heed his own advice of taking “a leave of absence and read a book.”

(Note: When I made the decision to write this post, I was unaware that the subject had been covered by Vadim Rizov at The Independent Eye at His piece—hilariously titled “What year did they invent politics again?”—is a bit more concise than mine, so you owe it to yourself to give it a glance.)

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Samuel Wilson said...

Well, I can understand what bugs Nolte. I heard Mankiewicz say it and I was taken aback even while agreeing with him. It's one thing to acknowledge any film's political significance as a matter of history, another to assign it contemporary political relevance. Then you're editorializing in a way that I do think is inapprorpriate for a movie channel. The fact that Olbermann calls Beck "Lonesome Rhodes" made it look worse because it creates an impression that Mankiewicz is following a party line. But this is the first time that I've seen Mankiewicz comment that way, and one is not a trend. As a rule I see no evidence of political agendas from him or Osborne. Nolte's over-reaction to one incident is typical of the hypersensitivity to poltical insult that marks our age.

hobbyfan said...

Ol' Benji must still be stewing after getting canned from his other gig, trying to replace Roger Ebert on "At the Movies", after 1 season. If he isn't fired from TCM for a rant that had, really, no place on TCM, there's something wrong.

Tom (Motion Picture Gems) said...

I think the main point of Nolte's article was about the commentary. In your example of Green Berets, if director John Wayne were given a platform to discuss his own movie on TCM, he might have very different views of his own film than the former Air-America host Mankiewicz. It would be interesting to see if the so-called fairness doctrine would require("balanced) commentaries. Sigh!

KC said...

I'm glad you wrote something about this. That editorial bothered me as well. I didn't see the commentary that so set off Nolte, but if the incident took place in the manner he described, then I agree that he seriously overreacted. The whole time I read that thing I was thinking--sheesh, calm down fella! It's obvious that the liberal bias rankled him more than anything else. That's the thing about highly-pitched, emotional rants like Nolte's--no matter how you try to present it, people are going to be able to read through the lines and see the truth.

comicsnstories said...

I frankly can't take anyone seriously who refers to Beck as "who we are and what we believe". That kind of voids anything else that he has to say as far as I'm concerned.

frank said...

I really do turn to TCM to avoid the wacky political stuff all over the sitcom and network dramaverse. All the hype about Obama and we are still mired in war and hiding behind executive privilege while the leader of the free world hits the links. These movies transcend that kind of muck and it is distressing to hear about it even by allusion, on a classic movie network. Olbermann and Beck and Colbert and Limbaugh and all the rest make me realize how shallow we can all be and make me want to rush back to classic movie land.

Scott C. said...

People should regard movies purely as entertainment and ought never to go hunting for subtext, deeper meanings, or political sympathies, unless those messages can be construed to support current conservative talking points (see the "pro-Bush," anti-terrorism agenda of The Dark Knight.

Big Hollywood exists to complain, ad nauseum, about the perceived leftist tilt of current movies. And rightly so, for as we all know, politics never intruded upon, nor informed the movies of the Golden Age ( The Grapes of Wrath is an informative, even-handed treatment of American agriculture, no more political than that industrial short subject about truck farming they ran on MST3K, while I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a delightful farce full of slamming doors, mistaken identities, and sweat boxes).

How can Nolte even pretend to be a cultural critic when someone's interpretation of a film -- valid or no -- hurts his feelings?

The Derelict said...

I'll stick up for Nolte only in that I hope it gets TCM to get rid of that awful, smarmy, smug Ben Mankiewicz -- I can't stand him! His comment for "A Face in the Crowd" wasn't annoying because of the supposed political content but simply because Mankiewicz is a bad host who really adds nothing of interest in his intros and outros.

And that set! Lamesauce! I'm in my twenties, but I hate it when TCM tries to be "hip" and appeal to a younger crowd, as I suspect they are doing with Ben and his hipster bachelor pad set.

So if Nolte has to get his undies in a wad over something as slight as this, I say go for it for the sake of getting rid of Ben. Then they can move on to getting rid of the annoying (relatively new) intro bumpers for the morning, afternoon, and primetime programing.

Kliph Nesteroff said...

it is ridiculous to assume that Robert and Ben write all the copy they recite on the air. They don't. the words are certainly written in a manner that they will suit the voice of either host, and yes, they do contribute to what they say to a degree, but they are not solely responsible for the introductions they give on the air.

Secondly, anybody who refers to TCM as a politics free zone when it programs month long themes like Donald Bogle's great Black images on Film is simply naive or doesn't watch it very often.

i wonder how up in arms the religious right would get if they knew the charming old man introducing their fave classics is gay. Would they see it as more of that fabricated conspiracy to corrupt America?

The Derelict said...

Wow, I just reread my comment and I kinda went on a rant there, didn't I? Heh. Well, I love TCM, but there are some things about the channel that *really* bug me (mostly aesthetic stuff, but Ben Mankiewicz has always rubbed me the wrong way).

Yeah, I wondered if John Nolte would mention the race and Hollywood festivals TCM has been doing for the past few years, since I found those to be *slightly* political. But really, they're not that political because I think even conservatives can admit that Hollywood had (and to some extent still has) a problem with race/minorities (as a grade-A certified member of the vast right wing conspiracy, I can confirm that conservatives will admit this fact ;) ).

I think what the Big Hollywood crowd is upset about is not that TCM shows political films (no one is denying this as far as I can tell), but that Mankiewicz is bringing current day partisan politics into a *classic* movie forum. "Grapes of Wrath" is a highly political film, but the politics it deals with are Great Depression/1930s specific (not entirely, of course, but for the most part), so a conservative can view it as a historical document and not feel assaulted by its politics.

I don't have much of a problem with Mankiewicz's comments, but for some conservatives, it gets kind of annoying when even a classic movie channel is "not safe" (as they see it) from modern-day liberal commentary. I think this whole thing is a mountain out of a molehill, but if conservatives are touchy it's because TCM does act as a refuge for many from the modern-day political culture wars they see everyday on TV and movie screens.

Frankly, I wish we'd criticize Mankiewicz for being a lukewarm movie fan with an annoying on-screen personality and get rid of him for that. This moaning about politics just makes my fellow conservatives seem like scolds.

Stacia said...

The Derelict, there are multiple levels of irony in you complaining about Ben M being too hipstery while using the word "Lamesauce!" A word used to complain about the set, no less.

I gotta say that it's pretty distressing that some people can't learn about the present by watching movies of the past. To actively state that you should NOT try to see parallels to our current situation through past films boggles my mind even more. I just can't believe anyone would advocate such a thing.

The Derelict said...

I didn't actually complain about Mankiewicz being too hipstery, only that the set for his weekend intros seemed to me like a misguided attempt by TCM to be hip and appeal to a younger generation. Kinda like Nixon going on Laugh In -- it's just painfully obvious to anyone who is *hip* that that set isn't.

There's nothing wrong with being hip, but what TCM has going on with that set and with their revamped primetime opening thing-y (the one where all the digitally-enhanced people stare up at the billboard like a bunch of yuppie zombies, one I suspect TCM instituted because they thought it would appeal to a younger demo) is NOT HIP.

The opening for TCM Underground? Hip. This promo? Hip. The set for the weekend afternoon movies? Not hip.

My complaint re: Mankiewicz is that he's smarmy and seems less-than-enthusiastic about a lot of the movies he introduces. I actually like him when he does the TCM Fanatic featurettes, but when he's hosting, he bugs.

And I'm not saying don't watch older movies to learn something about the present day. I do it all the time. It's part of the fun of watching older films. But that's me. I can't entirely blame people who watch older movies for different reasons and don't want to have to deal with partisan politics being inserted into the viewing experience through the on-air host. I don't mind it personally, I kinda enjoy the intellectual exercise of it all. But I can understand why it bugs some people.