Tag Archives: Robert Caro

SYNDICATED COLUMN: “Selma” and Hollywood’s Sleazy Perversion of History

Movies are the historical record.

Americans experience the Vietnam War by watching “Apocalypse Now,” slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” and D-Day through “Saving Private Ryan.” A lot more Americans watch historical movies than read history books. Which, when done well, is not a bad thing. I’ve read countless books about the collapse of Nazi Germany, but the brilliantly-acted and directed reenactment of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker depicted in the masterful 2004 German film “Downfall” can’t be beat.

When a film purports to depict a historical event, it becomes the only version of what most people believe really happened. So, as we move further into a post-literate society, misleading historical filmmaking isn’t just a waste of 2-1/2 hours.

It’s a crime against the truth.

The Ava DuVernay-directed film “Selma” is at the center of controversy, both due to its semi-snubbing by the Oscars – viewed as backtracking from last year’s relatively racially diverse choice of nominees – and accusations that it plays loose with history.

Former LBJ aide and Democratic Party stalwart Joe Califano fired the first shot with a Washington Post op-ed. “Selma,” wrote Califano, “falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.”

He’s right.

Robert Caro’s magisterial four-volume biography of Johnson portrays him as a deeply flawed man, but one whose passion to push for desegregation and an end to discrimination against blacks informed his political career throughout his life, though it wasn’t always obvious to his detractors.

It was only after JFK’s assassination brought him to power – actually, a movie portraying Kennedy as reluctant to support civil rights would have been accurate – that he had the chance to push through both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he did aggressively and quickly, despite what he famously predicted would be the loss of the South to the Democratic Party for a generation or more.

Johnson gave J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI too much latitude, which Hoover used to harass King, but there’s no evidence that, as the movie depicts, it was LBJ who ordered Hoover to send audiotapes of King having sex with other women to his wife. And let’s be clear: every important conversation in the Oval Office was being taped. We have the transcripts. We would know if that had happened.

Califano takes his defense of his former boss too far when he says “[the march on] Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Otherwise, the facts are on his side: the LBJ in “Selma” is not the LBJ King knew.

Fans of the film argue that it doesn’t matter.

“Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story? Why yes — just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made,” the media writer David Carr writes in The New York Times.

Yes, in a movie the story is the thing. It’s hard to imagine “The Queen” — about the inner workings of the British monarchy and its relationship to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana — working without a lot of made-up dialogue between the principals. However, the great detail of these obviously private conversations signals to the audience that they don’t come out of a transcript, and that we must be witnessing a fictionalized account.

There comes a point, on the other hand, where so many corners get cut and so many characters get tilted that a film ceases to resemble history and enters the territory of complete fabulism and, in the case of “Selma” and LBJ, retroactive character assassination.

The clash between MLK and LBJ – King pushing, Johnson resisting – isn’t merely some extraneous detail of the script in “Selma.” It’s the main plot of the film.

It didn’t go down like that, yet thanks to this BS film, a generation of Americans will grow up thinking that it did.

Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post repeatedly calls “Selma” “fiction.” As in: “film and other fiction.” To her, apparently, film is always fiction. But it’s not.

Like books, film is a medium.

Film can be nonfiction.

Film can be fiction.

“Califano’s approach,” she writes, “besides setting a [sic] odd standard for how fiction ought to work…suggests that we should check fiction for inaccuracies.”

As usual, the crux of the debate boils down to an inability to agree on definitions of terms. For those like Rosenberg who believe that everyone knows movies are just for fun, it doesn’t matter that “Schindler’s List” depicts showers at Auschwitz spraying water rather than Zyklon B — even though that never happened, and thus serves to understate one of the horrors of the Holocaust. To the all-movies-are-fiction crowd, “Zero Dark Forty” is cool despite its completely false claim that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” director DuVernay told PBS. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

That’s sleazy. Truth is, her film is being marketed as fact, as she knew it would be. And it’s doing better because of it.

Audiences need a ratings system to separate films that purport to recount actual historical events from those like “Selma,” which are fictional tales using historical figures as hand puppets.

I suggest that the MPAA institute the following ratings:

Rated H for Historical: a film that makes a good faith effort to recount history accurately.

Rated S-H for Semi-Historical: a film that relies on devices like made-up dialogue and encounters, but whose basic plot line reflects history to the best of our knowledge.

Rated H-F for Historical Fiction: a film in which anything, including the basic plot line, can be made up out of whole cloth.

If the movies are going to lie to me, I deserve to know before shelling out my $12.50.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Obama’s Governus Interruptus

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Obama is a Uniquely Lazy, Ignorant, Weird President Who Has Done More to Undermine Faith in American Democracy Than We Could Have Imagined In Our Worst Nightmare

Obama will go down in history as a unique president. Because he’s black*, obviously.

Also because he’s a uniquely weird guy: a politician who knows nothing about politics — and doesn’t seem interested in figuring it out. Even while his presidency is in crisis, he’s so obliviously impassively oblivious you have to wonder if he’s living in the same dimension as the rest of us.

Officially (Dow Jones Industrial Average, rich people’s incomes, the fake unemployment and inflation figures issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the economy is recovering. Officially, the wars are ending. (“On the ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan, not so much.) Yet Obama’s approval ratings are plunging, even lower than other recent two-term presidents at the same point in time — including the vile, insipid, illegitimate usurper Bush.

No wonder: Obama’s messaging is lousy. John McCain, a zillion years older than the president he lost to and operating with a brain damaged under torture, can see it — so why can’t Obama?

That’s what McCain was wondering aloud after a panel convened to advise Obama about the NSA issued its report: “Most presidents would have now given a speech and said, ‘OK, here’s what the recommendations are; here’s what I think we ought to do.’ Instead, it just came out.” Like a wet turd. “There’s not a translation of facts and events to remedies that the president supports.” How hard is it to tell the panel to submit their ideas to him first so he can repackage the ones he agrees with as his own? That’s Management 101.

Obama is ignorant. Doesn’t have a clue what his minions are up to. Which is bad. Obama’s ignorance is devastating because he lets us know that he doesn’t know. Reagan only read single-page memos, and though Americans suspected he was daft, they didn’t know. It makes a difference.

Chiming in from the even-a-right-winger-who-loved-Bush-can-be-right-twice-a-year corner of The Washington Post op-ed page, Charles Krauthammer marvels: “With alarming regularity, [Obama] professes obliviousness to the workings of his own government. He claims, for example, to have known nothing about the IRS targeting scandal, the AP phone records scandal, the NSA tapping of Angela Merkel. And had not a clue that the centerpiece of his signature legislative achievement — the online Obamacare exchange, three years in the making — would fail catastrophically upon launch. Or that Obamacare would cause millions of Americans to lose their private health plans.”

Dude went to Columbia and Harvard. He seems smart. What’s wrong with him? Is he — as his former colleagues at the University of Chicago, who noticed that he never published — lazy? He’s certainly a far cry from the LBJ who, according to his biographer Robert Caro, routinely burned the midnight oil committing every sentence of every bill, ever, to memory.

Obviously, a president who finds time to watch sports, play golf and kick off for vacations for weeks at a time — while the global economy is melting down — hell, while his signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare has all but completely imploded — is lazy as all get up. Still, there’s nothing new about presidential sloth. Reagan, Clinton and Bush all worked less than the average minimum-wage worker whose misery they were steadfastly ignoring.

Obama is unique, though. It goes beyond laziness. He doesn’t follow tried and true practices of presidential governance that have served his predecessors for more than two centuries. Intentional? Who knows? It seems more than likely that (and this is so outlandish that I’ve literally waited years to write these words) he is so ignorant of history that he doesn’t know why and how previous presidents have failed and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, if this is three-dimensional chess, he’s down three queens.

The most blinding example of Obama’s ignorance of/unwillingness to/disdain for the act of governing/politicking is what I call Governus Interruptus — delivering a major speech on a problem, then failing to follow up with a policy initiative (a bill, say).

“President Obama’s speeches…are often thoughtful, nuanced, highly evocative, and exceptionally well-delivered — and worse than inconsequential,” Amitai Etzioni writes in The Atlantic. “They raise expectations — a world without nukes! Ending global warming! Finally curbing gun violence! — but are not followed by much of anything. These barren speeches are one reason the public, and especially the young, are becoming disaffected from politics, bad news for any democracy.”

Speaking of LBJ: When he announced “a national war on poverty” with one objective — “total victory” — to lift up the people “who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us, and on whom the gates of opportunity have been closed” — he didn’t leave it at that. Food stamps, Head Start and other anti-poverty programs followed…laws that began as bills. Bills drafted by the White House and proposed to Congress, which the president strong-armed into passing.

Where is Obama’s nuclear disarmament bill? Why hasn’t he convened a global summit to address the environmental emergency, with the U.S. leading the way with dramatic initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases? Where is his gun control proposal?

Obama jawboned his way into the White House. Evidently Obama hasn’t read enough to know that talking isn’t governing.

Either that, or he doesn’t care.

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COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Save Books

Why E-Books Need Print to Thrive

Borders and Barnes & Noble killed independent bookstores. Amazon killed Borders. Now Barnes & Noble, which sells more than 20 percent of pulp-and-ink books in the U.S., is under siege.

If B&N collapses: the death of books.

Cultural apocalypse.

Neo-feudalism.

You may remember such classics as “How the Internet Slaughtered Newspapers” and “How Napster Decimated the Music Business.” It’s always the same story: Digitalization destroys profits.

Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, CDs or books (“pBooks,” they call them now), the electronic assault on tangible media follows a familiar pattern.

First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.

I pay $43 a month to get The New York Times delivered; new digital-only subscribers get the app for $5. In the book biz per-unit net to publishers is actually a few cents higher for e-books. But that margin is deceptive. “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.

Second: Piracy runs rampant.

Piracy of print media was virtually unheard of. But digitalization makes piracy tough for even the most honest consumer to resist. It’s easy and it’s fast. E-book knock-offs look and feel exactly the same as the real thing. As of the end of 2011 an estimated 20 percent of all e-books downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads were pirated. That’s a 20 percent pay cut to authors, agents and publishers—a number that will only go up.

And “legal piratization” is on the horizon. On February 6th a federal court in New York City ruled that ReDigi, an online marketplace for “pre-owned” MP3 files, can continue to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Capitol Records. And public libraries are already “lending” e-books to multiple “borrowers” with the click of a mouse—the same process as buying them. But free.

Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.

Twenty years ago if you liked a song you heard on the radio you paid $14 for a CD that had 14 songs on it—13 of which might be filler. iTunes’ 99-cent songs brought back the single—but cheaper. (45s used to cost $3.) The result: the collapse of the music biz. According to Forrester Research, total U.S. music sales and licensing revenues fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—a decline of 57 percent in a decade. People still liked music. They just didn’t have to pay for it anymore.

There are already apps that sell e-books by the chapter. Some publishers give away free chapters as samples. Why should a college student assigned to read chapter two pay $40 for the whole thing? À la carte book sales will further depress profits.

Why should you care if traditional publishers go under? What about the democratizing effect of the Internet, which allows anyone—not just big-name authors hooked-up with fancy well-connected agents—to publish a book?

Granted, digitalization opens doors for writers who might never have been able to break through the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall that surrounded old-media gatekeepers. Elitism was and remains a problem.

But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture. The historian Robert Caro began working on his brilliant five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in 1982. He expects to finish in 2015. Tiny digital royalties eaten away by piracy couldn’t have sustained Caro’s research for three years—much less 32.

“Inside [the Kindle’s] plastic case, other things lurk,” Sarah Lee writes in the UK Guardian. “Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls. The e-book world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliché is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.”

Goodbye, Mr. Caro. Hello, 99-cent fan fiction.

You might not care. But you should.

Fourth but not last: the loss of a product’s brick-and-mortar distribution outlets reduces consumer consciousness of a product. In New York, where I live, all the music megastores—Tower, HMV and Virgin—are gone. So are most small record stores.

I used to spend at least one day a week hopping from one CD store to the next. I probably spent $50 to $100 a week on music. Now I spend the same amount in three months. I still love music. I just don’t think about it as often. iTunes is just a list of names and titles.

Now Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the independents are all that’s standing between an uncertain present and a disastrous—music-like—future.

“Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books,” notes The New York Times. A broad, deep book industry requires retailers willing to sell midlist titles and books that don’t do well—i.e., most of them.

Publishers say they want to save B&N, which is locked in an existential fight against Amazon. Things turned ugly after Amazon urged bookbuyers to visit stores in order to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of titles so they could buy them elsewhere—online, from Amazon, at a discount. B&N retaliated by banning books directly published by Amazon from its stores.

Amazon says it doesn’t want to drive B&N and other brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Their actions belie that. But if Amazon management were smart, they would subsidize stores like B&N. Remember what happened to the music biz when record stores disappeared—the overall music business cratered. All music sales, including those of iTunes, would be higher today if Tower et al. were still around.

Sadly, Amazon doesn’t seem smart. Like most American companies, it’s looting its own future in favor of short-term, quarterly lucre.

“Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you’re looking for,” says Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press. “But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel? When independent bookstores were in a healthier state, staff picks and hand selling could bring attention to great books people didn’t know they wanted. Now that’s much harder.”

And many of those bookstore “customers” would have eventually bought that book from Amazon.

E-books are here to stay. But there’s a way to save the overall book business for both print and electronic editions. The solution requires three parts.

Congress should join the other countries that have major book industries in passing a Fixed Book Price Agreement, in which booksellers and publishers agree on what price books may be sold nationally—i.e., no $25 books selling for $10 at Costco. In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.

Recognizing the unique cultural contribution of books as well as the threat to our national heritage posed by digitalization, Congress should exempt publishers from antitrust laws. This would allow publishers to collude to set prices and hold the line against predatory discounting.

Finally, publishers should flip the current arrangement, in which Amazon enjoys steeper discounts than brick-and-mortar stores. Even if Amazon gets charged a higher wholesale price they still have big advantages; many people don’t live near a store or are simply too lazy to visit one. And they carry everything.

It’s more than a question of preserving print as a fetish commodity. E-books won’t thrive if their print forebears vanish.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL