“Shrek” Ethics, Popular Culture, Critics And The Meaning Of “Good”

Shrek

The New York Times today has a feature celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Shrek,” the Dreamworks animated film released on May 18, 2001 that quickly became a box office smash, received wide critical acclaim and went on to win the first Academy Award for best animated feature. Sayeth the Times, “Twenty years later, ‘Shrek’ is still a beloved, offbeat fairy tale whose characters and jokes continue to permeate pop culture, reaching another generation of fans.” There have already been two sequels, with another on the way.

But over at The Guardian, film critic Scott Tobias isn’t looking back on “Shrek” as a cultural watershed, but as a cynical, sloppy, artistic mess. He pooh-poohs the movie with gusto, writing in part,

It’s hard to account for why Shrek hit the cultural moment as squarely as it did – other than, you know, people seemed to enjoy it – or why it will be celebrated in 20th anniversary pieces other than this one. But it’s worth pointing out how comprehensively bad its legacy remains, opening up the floodgates for other major studios to pile celebrities into recording booths, feed them committee-polished one-liners and put those lines in the mouths of sassy CGI animals or human-ish residents of the uncanny valley. Worse yet, it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time. Those once-upon-a-times were now rendered stodgy and lame, literally toilet paper….there’s an excess of anachronisms and buddy-movie riffs from [Mike]Myers and [Eddie] Murphy that have little relation to the backdrop and a woe-is-me soppiness to the love story between two lonely, misunderstood freaks. (Nothing screams “unearned gravitas” like slipping in a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.)…What’s left is an all-ages film that’s somehow more crude and juvenile in its appeals to adults than children. The grownups in the room can snicker knowingly at Farquaad’s name and the repeated references to his penis size while the kids are left with fart jokes and the wanton diminishment of timeless characters and stories. Last year, the National Film Registry added Shrek to the Library of Congress, which seals its canonization, but it’s remarkable how much of an early aughts relic it’s become, an amber-preserved monument to phenomena (Mike Myers, Smash Mouth, Michael Flatley) that hasn’t stood the test of time.

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Merry Christmas Ethics Present, 12/25/2019: On Critics, Climate Change, And…

MERRY CHRISTMAS

EVERYONE!

1. Critic Ethics. A new book about iconic “New Yorker” film critic Pauline Kael reinforces the question that kept coming to mind when she was savaging movies monthly: why would anyone care what she thought about anything? The woman hated “The Sound of Music.” She panned every John Wayne movie because his personal political views were too conservative for her. If someone’s tastes and values are that different from yours, her judgment about just about anything doesn’t provide guidance or perspective.  Pauline Kael thought that the Charles Grodin-Jessica Lange version of “King Kong”—you know, the one where Kong was played by a man in a gorilla suit?—was better than the original.  What good was she? Why would anyone want to read a book about her? Why would anyone write one?  In fact, why am I even wasting a section of a “warm-up” on her?

2. Follow-up on the Democratic debate climate change segment. What is now obvious is that none of the candidates plan on ever telling voters specific facts indicating why they should want to gut the economy and surrender personal freedoms to government mandates. That climate change is a certainty is “settled science,” it’s an “existential crisis,” and anyone who questions the accuracy of apocalyptic models and projections is a science denier. Events like the California wildfires are irrefutable proof that all the projections are correct.  Of course, few of the climate change hysterics could read and translate a climate model, or understand the science involved sufficiently to either critique it or agree with it. (But I agree that it would be lots of fun to hear Joe Biden try.) Meanwhile, they are all telling the public that fossile fuels need to be banned, and with them the industries and jobs they support. All of this depends on the public being ignorant, gullible, and so stupid that they shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house without a chaperone.  For example, is the public aware of this—is the news media reporting it, and are any of the candidates capable of it should be ignored in favor of crushing the economy for speculative benefits? From Axios: Continue reading

Monday Ethics Musings, 10/7/2019: Questions, Questions…

Thinking…

Wait, where are my clothes???

1. When will Mrs. Q make her debut as a regular contributor to Ethics Alarms? I’m working out the details. She’s ready, I’m behind, we’ll get it done. Very excited.

2. If everything is going to be done online, is it reasonable to expect those companies who force us to interact that way to be competent? Case Study: The Boston Globe just offered me a 6 month digital subscription for a buck. But an old password connected to my email address prevented me from entering the new one necessary to accept the deal. All links went to current subscription or subscribing at the regular price. It took 40 minutes of online chats with robots and a human being (who disconnected me one) to fix the problem, which was in how the Globe set up the offer acceptance page. I ended up using a password made up by “Sherry” because I couldn’t reset my password myself. This kind of thing happens all the time. I wouldn’t have a clue how to set up a website response system, but if that was my job, I would be obligated to do better than this.

3. What good are movie critics whose opinions and tastes aren’t shared by their readers? My view: not much. The job of a critic is to let readers know if readers would appreciate the movie or not. A critic who can’t or won’t do that, and most don’t, is useless. I was thinking about this when I encountered this article in The Guardian listing the films for which audience ratings and critical ratings diverged the most.

Much of the disparity today is caused by critics who allow their ideological biases to dominate their judgment: yes, bias makes them stupid. Another problem, harder to over-come, is that the judgment of people who see hundreds of movies a year and who are often steeped in the art of film-making often has no relevance to the movie average audience member at all. Yet another is the unavoidable fact that few critics are equally qualified to review all genres. Horror movies are especially frequent victims of this problem.

Incidentally, yesterday I watched a new horror movie, “A.M.I.” that exploited the inherent creepiness of online personal assistants like Siri and Alexa. It was pretty bad, but the final scene was so ridiculous (and predictable) that it almost justified the film. Almost. Continue reading

Ethics Warm-Up, 2/28/2019: No Birthday For Frederick Edition [UPDATED]

Good Morning!

Back last night from a whirlwind day of ethics in NYC, and leaving today on an auto safari to Washington County, Pennsylvania, where I will address bar members to kick off their annual meeting. See Facebook? THEY don’t think I should be muzzled! Meanwhile, I will be celebrating the non-birthday of the pirate apprentice hero of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” who was, you recall, indentured to a pirate band until his 2ist birthday, and since he was born on Leap Year, legally committed to a life of crime until he was 84 years old.

1. Nah, Democrats don’t automatically default to race-baiting… Well this was certainly ugly and embarrassing. During  House Oversight Committee hearing with Michael Cohen, the fallen Trump fixer accused the President of making racist comments about African Americans. Let me interject here that this was obvious pandering to Cohen’s new pals in “the resistance.” It would have no probative value as hearsay even if the speaker wasn’t testifying with his pants on fire. Thus there was no need for Rep. Mark Meadows to try to rebut Cohen by asking Housing and Urban Development staffer Lynne Patton, who is black, to silently stand before the committee to (somehow) disprove that Trump is racist. Meadows (R-N.C.) said that Patton had told him there was “no way that she would work for an individual who was racist.”

Then Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) characterized Meadow’s stunt as racist, saying, “Just because someone has a person of color, a black person working for them does not mean they aren’t racist,” Tlaib said. “And it is insensitive that some would even say — the fact that some would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber in this committee is alone racist in itself.”

“You’re one of my best friends,” Cummings said to Meadows. “And I can see and I feel your pain, and I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain.”

Tlaib then apologized to Meadows, saying it wasn’t her intention to call him racist. She just said that what he did was racist.

Oh.

2. Stop making me defend the Northam family! Gotcha! Just as Virginia Governor Northam was beginning to extract himself from the embarrassment of having to confess to being a Michael Jackson imitator via shoe polish, an enterprising black legislative page decided to nab her 15 minutes of fame by accusing Mrs. Northam of the dreaded “racial insensitivity.” It appears that Virginia’s First Lady, while narrating a tour of the Governor, triggered her my alluding to slavery.

“When in the cottage house you were speaking about cotton, and how the slaves had to pick it,” the teenaged page’s letter says. “There are only three Black pages in the page class of 2019. When you went to hand out the cotton you handed it straight to another African American page, then you proceeded to hand it to me, I did not take it. The other page took the cotton, but it made her very uncomfortable. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, because you gave it to some other pages. But you followed this up by asking: ‘Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?'”

“The comments and just the way you carried yourself during this time was beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events with the Governor. From the time we walked into the mansion to the time in the cottage house, I did not receive a welcoming vibe.”

Ah. Now we see why Bernie Sanders was attacked by Democrats for saying that race shouldn’t matter. Mrs. Northam treated the black pages like she treated the rest, and that made this page feel unwelcome. And if Virginia’s First Lady had only given the cotton to the white pages? That would have been insensitive too, I’m sure.

To her credit, the Governor’s wife has not apologized. She responded that she has given “the same educational tour to Executive Mansion visitors over the last few months and used a variety of artifacts and agricultural crops.” Her intent is to illustrate “a painful period of Virginia history.” She said that she began last year to tell the “full story” of the governor’s mansion, including the Historic Kitchen. “I believe it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there — that’s why I have been engaged in an effort to thoughtfully and honestly share this important story since I arrived in Richmond. I regret that I have upset anyone,” she wrote, but she reiterated that she is  still committed to chronicling the history of the Historic Kitchen, and “will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future.”

Now, if she had given the tour made up as Janet Jackson, that would have been inappropriate.

3. My own private boycott: I will not buy products that continue the coarsening of our culture by employing juvenile references to gutter language to sell their wares. Now Mr. Clean joins the list, with the ad for “his” Clean Freak Mist. Today’s TV ad screamed out “Big freaking news!” As with Booking.com’s evocation of “fucking” its ads, this is neither clever nor novel. Shrug it off if you like. Continue reading

Now THIS Is Gender Bias: The Undeserved And Dishonest Hyping Of Elaine May

BRILLIANT!

As someone who tried, often unsuccessfully, to promote female stage directors in Washington, D.C.’s professional theater scene, I am sympathetic to the cause of providing more opportunities  for women to direct at a high level, including Hollywood, as well as addressing directly the many and varied obstacles women face. One is a dearth of historical role models in the field. Quick, now, name five successful and respected female film directors. One just died, Penny Marshall. The pioneer in the field, actress Ida Lupino, always turns up on such lists, but which of her six films in the 50’s is a classic? “Hard, Fast and Beautiful?” “The Bigamist?” I’ve seen all of the films she directed, and she was a solid, professional director (and also an excellent actress). But Stanley Kubrick she wasn’t.  Katheryn Bigelow has to be on the list, and she’s directed several excellent films, including “The Hurt Locker,” which won a
“Best Picture” Oscar. But her resume would rank somewhere around 500 or so in a gender-blind list. Okay, that’s three.

The reasons for this are not merely discrimination in the show business industries, though that is certainly a major factor. However, as we have seen and continue to see among activists for other traditionally marginalized groups, admitting inconvenient truths that counter a group identify narrative is neither popular nor common. Unfortunately, such activists have a bad and unethical habit of hyping the accomplishments of members of their favored groups, perpetuating falsehood “for the common good” and making themselves less credible and respectable advocates as a result. In politics, we saw this repeatedly during the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton was described as being one of the “most qualified” Presidential candidates in American history, as assertion that is simply untrue by any objective standard. As with the Clinton hyping, it is particularly troubling when the talents and accomplishments of a an individual are hyped by journalists to advance an agenda. Journalists are not practicing their craft ethically when they intentionally try to deceive the public and distort the record, regardless of their supposedly good intentions.

Now, you might say, and I might be inclined to agree, that when current journalism standards have sunk as low as they are now, and when the news media appears to be capable of previously unimaginable deceptions in an effort to advance one political party over another, a New York Times female film critic’s efforts to bootstrap the cause of female directors by absurdly hyping the directing skills of Elaine May is small potatoes indeed. However, “The Marvelous Ms. Elaine May,” by chief Times film critic Manohla Dargis, is worthy of genuine alarm. In it, an accepted “authority” sets out to claim that black is white, that May has been an outstanding film director when she hasn’t even been a good one. She relies on the ignorance of her readers to make this argument, because May’s films—she’s directed four–have been such flops that the odds of a readers having seen all of them are daunting. Worse, I have to assume that Dargis is doing this for political reasons. Either that, or she is so gender-biased that she can’t see straight.

The article’s existence in the pages of the Times tells us that even arts reporting is now polluted beyond trust and recognition by political agendas and propaganda. Moreover, its goal is to intentionally misinform the public.

Let me note here that I admire the talents of Elaine May, whom I first encountered when she and her long-time partner Mike Nichols did a series of beer commercials tha ran during Red Sox games. She  was a deft sketch comedian, and also a sharp writer of satire. My theater company in Arlington, Virginia produced her most successful play, the Off-Broadway hit “Adaptation.” However, after the team of Nichols and May broke up, Nichols became on of the most critically-acclaimed and successful film directors of the last 50 years, and May didn’t. Dargis hints that sexism and discrimination were the culprits, because May was also a “brilliant” director. This is worse than claiming the Hillary was the most qualified candidate in history. It’s more like saying that she ran one of the best campaigns in history. I’ve watched all four of Elaine May’s movies.  Can’t fool me! Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-up, 3/4/18: Special Academy Awards I Won’t Be Watching Edition!

Good morning!

1 One more institution falls to partisan poisoning. Tonight is the Academy Awards show, and outside of some suspense as to whether Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway will botch the Best Picture reveal again (whoever had the idea to have them do an encore of their legendary fail is brilliant), I cannot imagine why anyone would waste their time and raise their blood pressure watching the show. I used to love the Oscars because I love movies. Except for periodic embarrassments where infamous jerks like Marlon Brando and Richard Gere defiantly injected politics into the party, it was fun, if usually too long. Now the show is just a platform for presumptuous performers to parade their ignorance and egos, virtue-signalling, grandstanding, lobbying and politicking. At this they are no better, and often worse, than plumbers, teachers and mail-carriers. What they are good at is looking good and making movies, and in most cases, not much else, including critical thought.

I watched a recent interview in which outspoken actress Jennifer Lawrence became visibly uncomfortable when she had to admit that she dropped out of middle school. It’s obvious that Lawrence is intelligent (she is also the most exciting and talented young actress to come along in a long, long time), but all of her noisy opinions are based on gut instincts. She is untrained and not very grounded in history, law or government: there is no reason for her opinions on politics or finance to be newsworthy. This is also true of her colleagues. Yet we have been informed that tonight will be “about” sexual abuse and gun control, so we will have to endure periodic outbursts all night long about “Time’s Up” and  “Never Again.”  There are side political controversies, like whether or not “woke” stars like Lawrence will snub E! red carpet host Ryan Seacrest because he has been accused of sexual misconduct by a former stylist. Never mind that Seacrest may be innocent, or that she decided to reinterpret what happened in order to join the #MeToo club. (“Oh come on!”)

We already know that the Oscar voting is now polluted by an unspoken demand that black actors and artists get their EEOC quota of honors. This year, we have the special treat of cheering for a nominated a movie that represented all white people as conspiring to make mind-controlled slaves out of blacks.

In the most bitter and divisive political climate in more than a century, institutions like Hollywood have a duty to unite us and emphasize what we have in common, which is a lot. The Oscars and the industry has abandoned that mission. Let them suffer the consequences.

2. The return of “Death Wish.”  Critics are already panning Bruce Willis’ “Death Wish” remake, which has  12 percent “Rotten” at RottenTomatoes.com.  Just from the trailer, it is pretty clear that this reboot has to be much better than the incredibly successful original and its progressively worse sequels. Here are some typical critic rants: Continue reading

“Get Out” Is About Racism, All Right: Anti-White Racism

I was looking forward to “Get Out,” the critically acclaimed horror film that has been described as “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” crossed with “Rosemary’s Baby.” It has been called “brilliant.” I just watched it on a large flat-screen TV in an Erie, PA. Marriott.

It is not brilliant, except in that it appeals to progressive-biased critics who love its anti-white propaganda. Granted, it is that rare beast,  a political horror movie, the genre best represented by the original “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers,” Don Seigel’s paranoid metaphor about the Red Scare. “Get Out,” however has no surprises worthy of the shock genre. Its basic plot, an innocent, trusting victim finds himself the object of a sick and widespread conspiracy aimed at controlling his mind and taking away his autonomy, is familiar to anyone who has seen “The Stepford Wives,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and too many lesser efforts to mention.

I see a lot of horror movies, good, bad, brilliant and terrible, slasher films, gorefests, zombie and vampire movies, paranormal, discovered footage and scifi/horror hybrids, from the best/worst of Ed Wood, to the genuine masterpieces and soon to be classics. They are an acquired taste, and most critics give all horror movies bad reviews, because they don’t respect the genre and look down on it and the artists that create them. Why did they fall all over themselves praising “Get Out”, particularly since it was not especially original in its horror elements? Easy. It is an anti-white movie.

It is a movie that takes place in a world that lives in the hateful fantasies of Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama and Black Lives Matters. Every single white character in the film, and there are over twenty of them, are condescending, rude, clueless bigots, unaware of their microaggressions (which are really macoaggressions) toward African Americans. Every black character, in contrast, is benign, wise, perceptive and fair, or a helpless victim. The guileless young black hero is betrayed at every turn by every white individual he trusts, even the one he loves. Because, you see, that’s what whites are like, that’s how they secretly and not so secretly feel about African Americans, and this is what black Americans need to understand. Continue reading

“True Grit” Ethics

I haven’t seen the remake of “True Grit,” but I know I will, and like many other fans of the original 1969 version, I’m trying to conquer my biases. The latest effort by the usually brilliant Coen brothers creates ethical conflicts for me, and I am hoping I can resolve them right now. Can I be fair to their work, while being loyal to a film that is important to me for many reasons?

The original, 1969 “True Grit” won John Wayne his only Oscar for his self-mocking portrayal of fat, seedy law man Rooster Cogburn, 

who is hired by a young girl to track down her father’s murderer. I love the film; I saw it on the big screen nine times, in fact. Remaking it with anyone else in the starring role feels like an insult, somehow, as if the Duke’s version was somehow inadequate.

Intellectually, I know that’s nonsense. Artists have a right to revisit classic stories and put their personal stamp on them, and they should be encouraged to do it. Every new version of a good story, if done well, will discover some unmined treasure in the material. Why discourage the exploration? Continue reading