The significance of Trump’s proposed elimination of arts, humanities spending

By David Walsh
7 April 2017

Various protests have been organized in recent weeks by arts groups opposed to Donald Trump’s plan, part of his budget proposal for 2018, to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The proposal also defunds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Library and Museum Service.

The most sizable rallies took place in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. In addition, a petition opposing the cuts, organized by various liberal groups, including PEN America, People for the American Way, and the Nation, and which warns about “a new Dark Ages in America,” has been signed by some 240,000 people to date.

The NEA and NEH are among 19 government agencies, as the WSWS noted recently, “most of them long targeted for destruction by ultra-right ideologues and Christian fundamentalists,” slated for outright destruction.

The two organizations at present receive a pittance, $148 million each in 2016, a tiny fraction of the nearly $4 trillion federal budget.

The attack on the endowments, each of which received funding last year the equivalent of the cost of one Air Force F-35A fighter, has primarily political and ideological motives.

In keeping with the administration’s thuggish character, Trump officials defended the savage budget plan on the grounds that it was helping move the country “toward fiscal responsibility” and “eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.”

The eradication of the token amount the US government has been spending on culture goes hand in hand with a proposed increase in the Pentagon’s budget to a staggering $639 billion. Money that went to dance companies and libraries and local theaters will go instead to killing people in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, North Korea and other parts of the globe, apparently the “proper role of the Federal Government.”

According to the Hill, “The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.”

Outfits like the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, which do nothing with their time except calculate how every possible penny of the national income can be shoveled into the pockets of the super-rich, like to posture as friends of the “little people” when it comes to the NEA and similar organizations. “The NEA is welfare for cultural elitists,” claims the Foundation. Or, in the words of White House budget Director Mike Mulvaney, “The president finally got to the point where he said, ‘Do I really want to make the coal miner in West Virginia, or the auto worker in Ohio, or the single mom in Detroit pay for the National Endowment of the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?’ And the answer is no.”

One can make all manner of criticism of the NEA and NEH, but for the defenders of unending war and repression and billion-dollar boondoggles for giant corporations to complain about the miserable subsidy of the arts and humanities in the US as an example of “elitism” goes beyond obscene hypocrisy into some other, yet uncharted realm.

The hostility of the extreme right toward the NEA has almost nothing to do with what the toothless, thoroughly cowed agency actually does. The fascistic, militaristic right fears art because of what art might do, has done. This is the significance of one such attack on the NEA and NEH: “These are all propaganda arms for the far-left. They don’t deserve a penny of taxpayer money. Why should American citizens have to pay for globalist, anti-American, socialist propaganda? This budget is urgently needed.”

Utterly absurd, but the fears are legitimate. Socially critical art, very little of which the NEA actually subsidizes, would challenge the status quo and would almost inevitably be “far-left” and “socialist.”

We have commented before: “The assault on art, on the artistic personality itself, by the American political establishment flows from its crisis and its predatory aims. The ruling elite is frightened by everything it cannot control, cannot understand, everything that does not serve the interests of the market. It is instinctively hostile in the US at present to truthful and penetrating depictions of life. Such depictions must show it up for the anti-democratic, authoritarian, rotten husk that it is.

“The ruling elite knows as well that it cannot inspire serious art. In the honest and forthright, it only inspires disgust and loathing. Endless war, a policy of everything for the rich, continuous attacks on the rights of the people—under these conditions only the most miserable toady and the opportunist gravitate toward the powers that be. The artist, particularly the young artist, must find a new orientation, based on opposition to the status quo in every one of its aspects.”

Every civilized society subsidizes serious art work, which, by its very nature, is not geared toward earning a profit. The production of work that reflects on and brings out the deepest character of the society, including its most serious flaws, should be the responsibility of that society. Any healthy society, that is. As we noted in 2004, and things are far more advanced now, American capitalism is so decayed and rotten that its rulers and their apologists cannot bear to see an honest portrait of life in this country. Hence, the instinctive and relentless desire to stifle art and the artist.

The claim that art should rely on the “market” is not, as is claimed, an argument for letting “the people decide.” In fact, the “people” would have absolutely no say in the matter. The decisions would be left entirely to the handful of conglomerates who already determine much of what the American and world’s population sees and hears on a daily basis.

If one wants to know what the “genius” of the market produces, consider the current fare on Broadway or the films in the “Top Box Office” list in the US, which include Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Power Rangers, Kong: Skull Island, Logan, etc. Has such a list ever been more dispiriting? This is what art-by-conglomerate produces, mostly empty bombast. This is the dream of the ultra-right and the American elite as a whole, the suffocation of art as a means of sharpening the critical faculties of the population.

The argument that the loss of public funding would be more than made for up by private sources, even if it were true, reveals the kind of art the American establishment—including figures like the wealthy, preternaturally pompous and smug George Will (“Abolish the National Endowment for the Arts,” March 15)—has in mind: work that is acceptable to wealthy benefactors, produced by artists who are in the humiliating position of being beholden to these “philanthropist” millionaires and billionaires. As we wrote in 2010: “This dependence on the largess of the wealthy is degrading and intellectually restrictive in the best of times. In a period of crisis, it threatens catastrophe. Now the very presence of music, art and drama in a given community may depend on the financial vicissitudes of the ultra-rich.”

The recent protests against the Trump assault on the arts have not been especially large and, if one reads between the lines of the media accounts, not all that inspiring. No wonder, since they are dominated by Democratic Party politicians and their allies.

The New York City rally, for example, was organized by the City Council’s Democratic Party leader, Jimmy Van Bramer. Among those in attendance, according to Artforum, were “New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, and a number of arts organizations, such as the protest group We Make America and the Actors’ Equity Association.” Furthermore, “Council members from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens were in attendance to make mention of the positive effects the arts have on all manner of community, great and small.” Beloved figures, these council members, every one of them!

Van Bramer made a demagogic statement, including these comments: “Just as the President assaulted healthcare for millions of Americans, he’s now assaulting the arts, culture, humanities, and libraries, and seeking to deprive hundreds of millions of Americans the right to experience and express themselves through art and culture. We want to have the same kind of resistance movement against Trump’s assault on the arts.”

The record of the Democratic Party is miserable and right-wing on every one of these counts. The Obama administration presided over unprecedented social inequality, while launching illegal drone strikes and stepping up mass surveillance and attacks on democratic rights. In this regard, the comments of warmonger Representative Nancy Pelosi of California about the proposed arts cuts are especially repugnant: “It’s about enjoyment and inspiration and jobs, but it’s also about our humanity. This is about America and who we are as a nation.”

Going further back, the record of the Clinton administration record on civil liberties and the arts was generally atrocious, from support for the so-called Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, to strengthening the police ability to obtain wiretaps, to speeding up the death penalty process. It was the Clinton Justice Department that appealed a federal court’s ruling that the anti-democratic law requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency” was unconstitutional to the Supreme Court and won, against artist Karen Finley and three others.

The NEA hierarchy itself, establishment to its core, is largely impotent and incapable of appealing to wide layers of the population, having spent the past 30 years or so retreating from the attacks of semi-fascists like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and his ilk. The argument of the NEA leadership that its programs are essentially civic-minded and harmless and even generate income will do nothing to arouse popular interest or support.

The arts in America will have to be defended through the emergence of a mass socialist-minded working class movement directed against the foundations of the profit system, the source of the unrelenting assault on art and culture.

Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts

Laurel Lawson and Alice Sheppard performing in December 2016. CreditRobbie Sweeny

In 1937, ascending leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition,” featured art Adolf Hitler deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society: representational, featuring blond people in heroic poses and pastoral landscapes of the German countryside. The other featured what Hitler and his followers referred to as “degenerate art”: work that was modern or abstract, and art produced by people disavowed by Nazis — Jewish people, Communists, or those suspected of being one or the other. The “degenerate art” was presented in chaos and disarray, accompanied by derogatory labels, graffiti and catalog entries describing “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.” Hitler and those close to him strictly controlled how artists lived and worked in Nazi Germany, because they understood that art could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship and the realization of their vision for Germany’s future.

“Degenerate Art,” a Nazi-curated exhibition, at the Haus der Kunst in Berlin, February 1938. CreditReuters

Last month, the Trump administration proposed a national budget that includes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA operates with a budget of about $150 million a year. As critics have observed, this amount is about 0.004 percent of the federal budget, making the move a fairly inefficient approach to trimming government spending. Many Americans have been protesting the cuts by pointing out the many ways that art enriches our lives — as they should. The arts bring us joy and entertainment; they can offer a reprieve from the trials of life or a way to understand them.

But as Hitler understood, artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. The Stalinist government of the 1930s required art to meet strict criteria of style and content to ensure that it exclusively served the purposes of state leadership. In his memoir, the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich writes that the Stalinist government systematically executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets. When Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, muralists were arrested, tortured and exiled. Soon after the coup, the singer and theater artist Víctor Jara was killed, his body riddled with bullets and displayed publicly as a warning to others. In her book “Brazilian Art Under Dictatorship,” Claudia Calirman writes that the museum director Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt had to hide works of art and advise artists to leave Brazil after authorities entered her museum, blocked the exhibition and demanded the work be dismantled because it contained dangerous images like a photograph of a member of the military falling off a motorcycle, which was seen as embarrassing to the police. Such extreme intervention may seem far removed from the United States today, until we consider episodes like the president’s public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast after it issued a fairly tame commentary directed at Mike Pence.

In its last round of grants, the NEA gave $10,000 to a music festival in Oregon to commission a dance performance by people in wheelchairs and dance classes for people who use mobility devices. A cultural center in California received $10,000 to host workshops led by Muslim artists, including a hip-hop artist, a comedian and filmmakers. A chorus in Minnesota was granted $10,000 to create a concert highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ youth, to be performed in St. Paul public schools. Each of these grants supports the voices of the very people the current presidential administration has mocked, dismissed and outright harmed. Young people, queer people, immigrants, and minorities have long used art as a means of dismantling the institutions that would silence us first and kill us later, and the NEA is one of the few wide-reaching institutions that support that work.

Ai Weiwei and remnants of an installation for the Venice Biennale in 2013. CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times

American observers shook their heads in disapproval when the performance artist Danilo Maldonado was arrested and jailed for criticizing the Castro regime, and when the Chinese sculptor and photographer Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest and had his studio demolished by the government. But closer to home, it is imperative that we understand what Trump’s attack on the arts is really about. It’s not about making America a drab and miserable place, nor is it about a belief in austerity or denying resources to communities in need. Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced.

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Life and heroism in wartime Warsaw

By Joanne Laurier
5 April 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; screenplay by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman

New Zealand-born filmmaker Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper s Wife recounts the true story of the rescue of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland that began in 1939.

Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman, Caro’s movie dramatizes the heroic efforts by Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński, to turn their bombed out Warsaw zoo into a safe haven and route to freedom for some 300 Jewish men, women and children. Ackerman’s work relied on various sources, particularly Antonina’s memoirs and letters, along with diaries, memoirs, articles and other writings by Ghetto inhabitants.

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

It is an intriguing and little known episode of the Holocaust. Metaphorically, this “zoo” story underscores the vile character of the Nazis’ racist-chauvinist view that other peoples, especially the Jews, were subhuman species.

The Żabińskis put themselves and their children at grave risk at a time when even offering a Jewish person a cup of water in Warsaw was punishable by death.

Spanning seven years, starting in 1939, the movie opens with sequences revealing the intensely compassionate relationship that Antonina (Jessica Chastain) has with the zoo animals. On the eve of the German army’s assault, she awakens her young son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, and later by Val Maloku), who is peacefully sleeping alongside two lion cubs. Antonia makes her morning rounds, cycling through the zoo, followed by a galloping baby camel. It is feeding time when she greets her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and other staff members. The relationship between the Żabińskis and their exotic beasts seems idyllic.

But soon German bombs rain down on Warsaw, and whistling fire-balls destroy much of the city and devastate the zoo. Buildings and cages collapse, killing a good many of the animals. (Ackerman writes: “Miraculously, some animals survived at the zoo and many escaped across the bridge, entering Old Town while the capital burned. People brave enough to stand by their windows, or unlucky enough to be outside, watched a biblical hallucination unfolding as the zoo emptied into Warsaw’s streets. Seals waddled along the banks of the Vistula, camels and llamas wandered down alleyways, hooves skidding on cobblestone, ostriches and antelope trotted beside foxes and wolves, anteaters called out hatchee, hatchee as they scuttled over bricks.”)

German forces enter the zoo and shoot many of the remaining animals and confiscate others. After an unsuccessful attempt to flee Warsaw, the Żabińskis are forced to make a proposal to an acquaintance and fellow zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), head of Berlin’s zoo and now a committed Nazi. Antonina and Jan request permission from Heck to transform the shattered facility into a pig farm. They suggest that the garbage from the Jewish Ghetto be used to feed the swine that, in turn, will feed the German army.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Heck is thrilled with the prospect of using the zoo’s facility in his attempt to genetically resurrect the long-extinct bull, the aurochs, and promote it as a symbol of Aryan strength and purity. Under Heck’s nose, however, Jan begins smuggling out Ghetto residents hidden in large containers of garbage. The refugees are then concealed in the cages and tunnels of the zoo.

“I was raised with these people,” Jan tells Antonina. “Jews, Gentiles, it never mattered to me.” For Antonina, her “human zoo” will help mend the wounds of those like Urszule (Shira Haas), a traumatized teenage girl brutally raped by two German soldiers. The cunning and dangerous operation also involves fabricating identity papers. Of all the hundreds of Jews brought out by the Żabińskis, only two were murdered.

When the liquidation of the Ghetto begins in July 1942 and thousands of people are herded into trains bound for concentration camps, Jan joins the uprising (Ackerman: “Sixty-three days of ferocious street-to-street fighting”) and stockpiles weapons in the zoo. During the fighting, he is shot and wounded, and sent to a German internment camp. Antonina, who has given birth to their daughter, is kept in the dark about his fate, forcing her to once again tangle with the pernicious Heck.

A commercial production like The Zookeepers Wife—and, in fact, perhaps any artistic rendering—almost inevitably involves a smoothing and rounding off of complex history. But despite weaknesses on this score, the film makes a genuine effort to show that the Żabińskis compassion is extended to all living creatures. They are non-Jews (Jan was raised as an atheist), a cultured pair who felt compelled to make a supreme sacrifice to oppose the Nazi onslaught.

Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, McFarland, USA) has chosen a legitimate subject to recreate, treating it with a degree of skill and imagination. The scenes of the zoo’s demolishing are wrenching. As Ackerman puts it, the menagerie was “guillotined by the war.” While the movie is not the be-all-and-end-all in terms of psychological depth, it takes a stand for solidarity and unity.

This has elicited a negative reaction from a number of critics, who see the film as insufficiently dark, i.e., The Zookeeper’s Wife does not argue that human beings are essentially rotten and selfish.

There is much to be said for the performances. The English-language film requires the actors to speak with a Polish accent, not an easy task for Chastain. But regardless of the flaws in her delivery, she embodies sincere human emotion, an appropriate counterweight to the fascist inhumanity.

In an interview, Caro describes the remarkable scene in which Chastain’s Antonina saves a newborn elephant from suffocation: “We shot overnight for two nights in the freezing cold. Jessica was barefoot, on her knees, in a tiny cocktail dress, on concrete, underneath the feet of an elephant. And the rest of us were wearing four pairs of pants, millions of ski jackets. And Lily’s [the elephant who had just given birth] trunk was all over Jessica, searching for apples that Jessica had concealed under her skirt. All of the animal work was all completely natural. I never wanted an animal to have to do a particular trick or action.”

One of the most haunting sequences occurs when the Nazis are packing the Ghetto inmates into cattle cars. As scores of children are lifted onto the train, German soldiers are throwing suitcases into a big pile—the cold, impersonal discarding of possessions and identities of those headed for the gas chambers. Other notable moments include the evocative image of ashes falling like snow from the Ghetto’s incineration and the children’s colored drawings on the walls of the Żabińskis’ dank basement sanctuary.

Lacking in The Zookeeper’s Wife, as in almost every other recent film on the subject of the Holocaust and World War II, is a significant historical framework and context. How did fascism arise and conquer? What political forces were responsible?

The Zookeeper’s Wife

In her book, Ackerman observes that the “Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to ‘kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the Lebensraum we need.’” But this does not help explain how Hitler came to power in the first place.

Abram Leon (1918-1944), a Jewish Trotskyist born in Warsaw who fought against the Nazi occupation of Belgium, wrote, “The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth.” In the face of the ruinous crisis of German imperialism following World War I, the betrayals of the working class by social democracy and Stalinism opened the door to the fascist barbarism.

Caro told an interviewer: “We started out making a historical drama and world events have shown us that we’ve made a profoundly contemporary film. I hope people go and see it and revisit what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, and recognize that there are horrifying parallels to what is happening right now.” It seems fair to assume that she is referring to developments like the Donald Trump presidency and the general rise of right-wing, nationalist parties.

The Żabińskis’ daughter, Teresa, explained to People magazine, “My parents told me that they did only what should have been done—it was their obligation to do that. They were just decent people. They said decent people should do the same, nothing else. I’d like as many people as possible to understand what actually happened here in Warsaw during the war, and how much humanity and love can do.”

Also cited in People article was Stephania Kenigswain Stibon, three years old when she, her mother and brother escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and were saved by the Żabińskis in 1943: “I remember that we ran around the house when we could, because usually we were in the basement or in the cages. But what I remember most is that the Germans used to come from time to time, and when the people at the gate saw them coming, they gave a signal to the villa and Antonina used to sit by the piano and start to play and my brother and I knew we had to hide. My brother would always say, ‘Come, come, we have to hide so they don’t kill mom.’”

Stibon’s family hid in the zoo for over two months—the longest period anyone stayed there.


Get Out: The horror of racism, and racialist politics

By Hiram Lee
28 March 2017

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

The horror film Get Out has been popular with both audiences and critics. It is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known for his work as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. With Get Out, Peele has said he wanted to make a film to “combat the lie that America had become post-racial.” The monster at the heart of this horror film is racism itself.

Get Out

Get Out tells the story of African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The couple is planning to visit Rose’s parents for the first time. But when Chris discovers Rose hasn’t told her parents that he is black, he worries the visit won’t go well. Rose reassures him that her parents are anything but racist, and the trip goes ahead as planned.

Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) turns out to be a wealthy surgeon. Her mother (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis therapy. They go out of their way to make Chris feel at home. Rose’s father makes awkward gestures to Chris, at one point telling him that he would have voted for Obama a third time given the chance. What seem at first like well meaning but misguided attempts to relate to Chris and put him at ease soon turn into something else. There is something even darker than such “micro aggressions” lurking beneath this white liberal family.

Most troubling to Chris are the African-American servants the family employs. They appear brainwashed, too satisfied with the family and their duties. They don’t behave as real people would. When the family later throws a party and the white guests appear to be sizing him up for something, it puts him further on edge.

Despite all the warning signs, Chris hesitates, hoping for the best until it is almost too late. The family intends to capture him and force him into a kind of servitude, though not quite the kind he was expecting. His failure to act sooner nearly gets him killed. This complacency in the face of racism is one of the main themes of the film.

Get Out accepts a number of conventions about race relations and begins from there. Racism, for Peele, simply exists—in the same way that evil does, or original sin. Everyone is infected by it. Its historical origins and the social forces which nourish and promote it are beside the point. Accepting this, the film is left to offer pseudo-psychological explanations for the beliefs and activities of its antagonists. This leads it into rather disturbing territory. At one point the film seems to suggest that the white family terrorizing Chris is jealous of the genetically endowed superior physical abilities of its African-American victims. Given Rose’s involvement in the conspiracy, one could even be forgiven for interpreting the film as a warning against interracial relationships. Like all such works based on racialist conceptions, one doesn’t have to follow the logic very far before one arrives at positions virtually identical to those of the extreme right.

Get Out

Since its release, Peele’s film has generated a great deal of media attention, including its share of hype and controversy. In recent weeks, Peele has been celebrated in the media as the first African-American writer-director to have earned more than $100 million with his debut film. He has cracked a key financial threshold and his success as an artist is thus confirmed for certain layers. There is a lot of talk about what it means for black filmmakers in Hollywood. Opportunity is on the horizon.

But does Get Out tell the truth about the world? Several interviews make clear Peele’s own outlook.

In an interview with the New York Times, Peele affirmed his intention to target the “liberal elite” with the film. “The liberal elite,” said Peele, “who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgement that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”

In another interview with GQ magazine, Peele seeks to explain why there haven’t been more horror films dealing with race:

“Black creators have not been given a platform, and the African-American experience can only be dealt with by an African-American. That might be problematic to say. And now that I think about it, [The Stepford Wives author] Ira Levin is a man, and he and Roman Polanski wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Let’s say it would be scary for a white writer and director to do something that includes the victimization of black people in this way. Of course, we have this trope where the black guy is the first to die in every horror movie—that’s a way for [white filmmakers] to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The division of the world along such racial lines has the most reactionary implications. Indeed, we saw only last week how “scary” it could be when a white artist, Dana Schutz, dared to depict the victimization of a black person, Emmett Till, in her work.

Interestingly, the reactionary notion that only an African-American can deal with the so-called “African-American experience” (a racialist term that throws class and history out the window) has also been used to attack Peele’s film. In a recent radio interview, actor Samuel L. Jackson complained that the film’s star, Daniel Kaluuya, was British, saying that an African American actor would have been better suited to the role. He went on to lament the prevalence of black British actors currently employed in Hollywood. “They’re cheaper than us,” he said. In these bitter, career-motivated comments, Jackson united racialism with its perfect complement, nationalism.




It’s not an attack on the arts, it’s an attack on communities

Art and architecture critic March 16 at 3:03 PM
Things could get worse, much worse. The president’s proposed budget eliminates much of the government’s long-standing commitment to the arts, to science, to education, to culture, to public broadcasting and community development. It calls not only for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, but also proposes the elimination of groups such as the Woodrow Wilson Center, a highly respected think tank that studies national and international affairs and just happens to be hosting a program Thursday called “The Muse of Urban Delirium: How the Performing Arts Paradoxically Transform Conflict-Ridden Cities Into Centers of Cultural Innovation.” It’s almost as if someone tried to fit as many dirty words — dirty in the current administration’s way of thinking — into one evening: Arts, Cities, Culture, Paradox, Innovation.

These cuts aren’t about cost savings — they’re far too small to make even a ding in the federal budget. They are carefully calculated attacks on communities, especially those that promote independent thinking and expression, or didn’t line up behind the Trump movement as it swept to power through the electoral college in November. But the president’s proposed budget also includes attacks on communities that did indeed support Trump but that are too powerless to resist. Among the independent agencies set for elimination: the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports things such as job training, economic diversification (including the arts), tourism initiatives and Internet access in states like West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky.

The strategy, perfectly calculated for a new era of rancor and resentment amplified by social media, is to focus people not on what will be lost, but who will lose. Why attack communities that support you? Because losing isn’t just a question of what side, what arguments, what ideology prevails in the political debate. Rather, losing is a stigma, a scarlet letter to hang on the necks of people who are losers. Losers are essential to the project of building a new political coalition, a coalition that celebrates winning. Winners are strong; losers are sad. If your aversion to being branded a loser is strong enough, you may even embrace policies that cause you harm.

President Trump’s proposed budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Small and rural programs would be hit hardest. (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

Read through The Washington Post’s coverage of the budget proposal, and you hear what begins to sound like a broken record: These cuts will primarily affect marginalized or minority communities, people on the losing end of the American Dream. From an article about the Interior Department: “Historic-sites funding is important,” according to one expert, “because it supports tribal preservation officers and provides grants to underrepresented communities.” Or from the Labor Department: “The Trump administration proposed $2.5 billion in cuts for the Labor Department in a plan that would significantly reduce funding for job training programs for seniors and disadvantaged youth.”

Just in time for today’s announcement is an op-ed by Washington Post columnist George Will, who also calls for the elimination of the NEA. Will’s article would be a risible period piece — he is still seething over culture-war debates from more than a quarter century ago — if his hostility to the arts were not politically empowered by the democratic peculiarities of the last election, which brought into office a deeply unpopular president allied (for now) to a Congress pursuing deeply unpopular policies because many of its members are protected by gerrymandering.

Will rehashes the usual arguments: He reminds readers of a handful of grants that were deemed offensive by some in the early 1990s; he asserts that people will pay for the arts if they want the arts, and that state and local arts agencies will step up if the federal government (which helps fund these agencies) forsakes them; and argues that the arts are no different, no more a social good, have no more utility or spiritual value than “macaroni and cheese.” He not only fails to understand the nature of the arts, he also fails to understand the uniquely American three-legged stool system of federal stimulus allied to state and local support and bolstered by private donations that has enriched the arts and the country for more than half a century.

“The myriad entities with financial interests in preserving the NEA cloyingly call themselves the ‘arts community,’ a clever branding that other grasping factions should emulate,” he writes, cloyingly. “The ‘arts community’ has its pitter-patter down pat. The rhetorical cotton candy — sugary, jargon-clotted arts gush — asserts that the arts nurture ‘civically valuable dispositions’ and a sense of ‘community and connectedness.’ And, of course, ‘diversity’ and ‘self-esteem.’ ”

The arts have a powerful economic effect on our society and employ vast numbers of people, but the arts community is hardly an assemblage of cynical, self-interested, deep-pocketed financial interests (for that, look to the president’s Cabinet). The “pitter-patter” of this rapacious arts juggernaut is indeed well practiced by now, but only because attacks on the arts are now a seasonal performance from a determined minority political faction. The arts do indeed foster a sense of “community and connectedness” . . . in places like Nebraska, Alaska, Missouri, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. And the other 43 states of the Union. And not only do they nurture diversity, they also express and preserve the variegated richness of culture celebrated in that musty old Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” (it’s on the money, if you want to check).

But the most jejune moment of Will’s extraordinary performance is this: “What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are.” For a few centuries now, it has been the nature of art to wonder what art is. That’s how the arts think, how they operate, how they define the parameters of aesthetic experience. And for the entire history of the species, art has been fundamentally different, less tangible, less utilitarian in its function, than soybeans. These things are obvious, if you’ve ever spent time with the arts community, which in fact exists and adds immeasurably to the stability, cohesion, intelligence, beauty and resilience of the nation.

A comment on Robert Osborne (1932-2017), host of Turner Classic Movies

By David Walsh
8 March 2017

Robert Osborne, the longtime principal host for cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), died March 6 at 84. He had been largely absent from the channel since early 2016. The cause of his death has not been announced.

Osborne was a calming, affable and intelligent presence on American television—something terribly rare! He came across as a decent person and clearly had a genuine commitment to the films he introduced.

In recent years, in the face of the overall condition of American television, it felt at times not simply that TCM was the best channel, but that it was the onlychannel one could watch.

Robert Osborne in 2014 (Photo credit: The Peabody Awards)

Osborne was born in the small town of Colfax, in eastern Washington. His father was a high school principal. Osborne fell in love with the movies at an early age. After graduating from the University of Washington, he tried to find work as an actor, with limited success. Lucille Ball, at whose Desilu Productions Osborne was under contract as an actor, suggested he concentrate on writing about American film history. He eventually became a critic and columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. He also wrote Academy Awards Illustrated (1965), with an introduction by Bette Davis. He became a host at TCM on its launch in 1994.

What role Osborne played in TCM film programming over the years is difficult to say, but clearly intriguing things happened in an undertaking with which he was associated. He certainly had a feeling for film history and traditions. Turner Classic Movies began operations, quite deliberately, on April 14, 1994, in New York City. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016), Osborne explains: “That day marked the 100th anniversary of film in the United States. It had been on April 14, 1894, that the first kinetoscope [early moving picture device] parlor opened in New York City—the launch of the film industry in the U.S. of A.”

Interior view of Kinetoscope with peephole viewer at top of cabinet

Over the past 23 years, in a generally difficult cultural landscape, TCM has proved one of the few locales in the American media-entertainment universe where decisions were made largely on the basis of artistic merit. However and by whoever it was established, a certain integrity seemed to reign there. The cable channel continues to broadcast several hundred older films a week, most made before 1970, uncut and without commercials.

In regard to the latter issue, Osborne told an interviewer, “It’s so essential to see films without commercial breaks and interruptions. If you see Hitchcock’s Rebecca … that whole movie is predicated on mood and slow suspense. You can’t break that mood for a commercial. You lose the rhythm and the impact of it.” Readers around the world may not find the thought of commercial-free film presentation so startling, but, unhappily, in the US, where television is largely a scaffolding for corporate promotion—in November 2015, nearly 20 percent of all programming minutes were devoted to paid advertising (the figure is closer to 25 percent on major networks)—it is extremely, almost provocatively, unusual.

Speaking of a certain integrity, Osborne publicly identified himself with opposition to the Hollywood purges, hosting “Survivors of the Blacklist: A Panel Discussion” in November 2009 in New York. Actress and blacklist victim Lee Grant, along with Christopher Trumbo (son of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and Joe Gilford (son of Jack Gilford) were among the panelists.

It is not necessary, of course, to make Osborne into more than he was. At its weakest, Osborne and TCM pandered to Hollywood nostalgia, small talk and star worship. Not every one of his introductions was especially profound.

But then on TCM, out of the blue, one would encounter Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, or Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite or a program of 26 films by Akira Kurosawa (in March 2010, to mark 100 years since the Japanese filmmaker’s birth)—and one’s jaw would drop. This—something that doesn’t obviously and immediately earn large profits, something that seems to be done merely for the beauty or the interest of it—on American television! It won’t last, someone will see to that!

Poster for Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) (1933)

It is probably true that no other enterprise has done as much to make important films accessible to a wide audience. According to media reports, TCM has an audience in the US of some 62 million people a month, many of them unswervingly loyal.

To Osborne’s credit, he insisted on showing a variety of films. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies, he wrote: “The programming plan for the channel was always to show movies from all countries and from all eras, big productions, small ones, legendary ones, as well as B-budget movies.”

Where else on American television would you have had the chance to see Nine Days in One Year, the 1962 Soviet black-and-white drama film directed by Mikhail Romm, or The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), another Soviet film? Or R.W. Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire ? Or various Italian neo-realist works? Or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959)? Or films by Michael Powell, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Federico Fellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Abbas Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls, Yasujiro Ozu and Alain Resnais?

Aside from introducing younger audiences, and others, to some of the remarkable and complex efforts made by American studio directors from the 1930s to the 1960s, TCM programmers have made genuine efforts to broaden its viewers’ tastes, showing silent films, short films, and documentaries and raising the issue as well of those who have been largely excluded from Hollywood productions. The cable channel broadcast “Black Images on Film” in 2006, “Asian Images on Film” in 2008, “Latino Images on Film” in 2009, “Native American Images on Film” in 2010 and “Arab Images on Film” in 2011. In 2007, TCM aired the series “Screened Out,” on the history of the representation of homosexuality on film.

In its “Star of the Month” segment, TCM focuses on dozens of films by a particular performer, often bringing to light relatively obscure or forgotten works. Aside from the obvious luminaries, those performers have included Leslie Howard, Christopher Lee, Jane Wyman, Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Robert Ryan, Jean Harlow, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, Marie Dressler, Ava Gardner, Ann Sothern, Rita Hayworth, Sterling Hayden, Lauren Bacall, Stewart Granger, David Niven, John Garfield and many others.

In one of the more intimate and often charming TCM segments, various contemporary performers or commentators (or offspring) pay brief tribute to actors and actresses of a previous period. So, over film imagery, we hear Elizabeth Taylor on Montgomery Clift, Robert Redford on Natalie Wood, Kevin Spacey on Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh on Norma Shearer, Julianne Moore on Myrna Loy, Bill Irwin on Harold Lloyd, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Laura Dern on Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Curtis on Cary Grant, Claire Bloom on Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda on Henry Fonda, Ernest Borgnine on Robert Ryan and so on.

There are many reasons for the decline of American filmmaking, and this is not the occasion to discuss them. But just let it be said here that, without for one second intending to, the mild-mannered, unassuming Osborne and the countless films he introduced stood as a sharp and constant rebuke to the generally empty, crude, noisy and dull efforts of the contemporary movie industry.


La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism

Show me the money: 

How post-Depression movie musicals choose the dollar bill over happy endings

Show me the money: La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism
La La Land (Credit: Summit Entertainment)

From its opening number — a cross between a restrained “Gotta Dance” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and a demure “Hot Lunch” from “Fame”— “La La Land” promises a Hollywood musical about fools who dare to dream and dreamers who dare to be fooled, both about love and career, though never the twain shall meet. From the moment the nameless hopefuls hopefully leap from their cars on a stalled Los Angeles freeway and begin singing about how they left their small towns for Tinseltown and Emma Stone gives Ryan Gosling the finger, director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle promises both screwball comedy and a nostalgic paean to the gilded age of musicals past. For the most part, he delivers.

Listen, no one will ever be Fred and Ginger. As my wife would say, Fred Astaire is the Michael Jordan of dance. There is, however, a certain dreamy, floating quality to Mia and Seb — Stone and Gosling — that is more reminiscent of Astaire movies than, say, the deranged earnestness of Garland and Rooney. The hopeful hopefuls trying to make it in the big town and put on a show. And by make it, I mean, make hay and make hay. Let’s remember that Fred Astaire movies were big at the height of the Depression. In fact, all movie musicals of this era are about class and entitlement. (See “Gold Diggers of 1933.”) Thus the obsession with the rich people falling down in the mud and the idea of the madcap heiress in a gilded cage or the girl who struggles as a dance instructor becoming a big star (“Swing Time”). Interestingly, aside from the Golden Age — the forties and fifties — the leaning of the Hollywood musical is more rom-trag than rom-com. For one, the music people were listening to on the radio had changed. “Hair” happened. While Broadway is mostly built on nostalgia and happy endings, “Hair” was a takedown of the establishment that basically ruined musical theater for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, “Grease,” a puff-piece valentine about a nice girl who puts on hot pants so everyone will like her, stole America’s left ventricle and reminded us how fun it was to be a slut and a delinquent and then get into a car and fly away.

When you really think about it, the “Grease” blip makes total sense after Watergate, as “La La Land” does in the era of 45. America hated all agents of power. Hollywood began banking on the fact that people were trapped in a nostalgic reverie of epic proportions. People knew America was in the shitter. The country witnessed an expansion of an earlier trend from pre-Depression capitalism that operated in a narrow band of faith. In short, the Depression, put on pause, merely popped up in the seventies. Thus the message of musicals: Democracy is a lie, capitalism is flawed, so forget that sunset, kids.

Capitalism may also be why the ol’ juggling-love-and-career trope rears its seemingly sexist head in “La La Land.” It’s not that Mia should choose a man over vocation as Annie Oakley was forced to in “Annie Get Your Gun,” as much as a bittersweet reminder of what still keeps us apart. How who we were make us who we are and what you have to sacrifice to make it in this lousy world. Is Seb a sellout? Is Mia? Does it matter? In America, the two most coveted dream gigs are movie star and rock star and this film kinda brass-rings it for both, at least from a bank account perspective. Aside from the song “The Fools Who Dream,” one of the most poignant moments in “La La Land” is when Seb listens to Mia talking to her mother on the phone about his lack of work as he gazes sadly at a rust stain on his popcorn ceiling. The rust stain is his stalled career. The death of jazz. Maybe even Hollywood itself.

True, class tension exists in all comedy, especially musical comedy. See Plautus or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The low-person-brought-high gives itself over to certain types of story that make it easy for a storyteller to expose a certain tension in certain systems about power and desire. This is what commedia is about. Love and money, the girl and the gold, hearts and dollar signs and the itchy impossibility of trying to get both simultaneously. In “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Millie, a lovable gold digger, comes to the big city to get a job and marry a rich man but instead ends up with a “green-glass love,” AKA the dorky loser who, lucky for her, turns out to be the son of an heiress.

What’s more, as Watergate made America embarrassed about itself, the idea that sad endings were more real and relevant pervaded.” Grit was good. Movie musicals, even those with “happy” endings, moved into complex territory. Even “Sound of Music,” the most successful movie musical pre-Nixon, was a harbinger of bittersweet endings to come — The von Trapps cross the Swiss mountains on foot only, oh wait: all the Jews died in an oven. “Cabaret” is both about the Holocaust and wacky broads who make life out of tragedy. “Chicago” has a happy ending about two vaudevillian murderers who manage to get away with it, and in “Rent,” Mimi, another performer, somehow rises from the dead, though we can only assume this will be short-lived.

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” we see the entire debate between love and money writ large. Will the hooker with a heart of iron pick the penniless artist or will she sell herself out to the wealthy man? Obviously, we’re supposed to root for Ewan McGregor and hope that Nicole Kidman joins him to starve in a garret. Because rich people are villains and capitalism equals the root of all evil. Money bad. Heart good. Only Nicky Kid dies in a big musical number in front of all of Paris, so not only does the whore die — yeah, yeah— but capitalism dies; so what are we left with? A new kind of story, where the nice rebel boychik gets his start in show biz by writing a tale that will live forever. Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Arnstein.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the anti-“Moulin Rouge!” yet with a more rueful intensity. It’s about love and life and what could have been and can never be because of class and family and war. At the end of it all, Geneviève rolls up at Guy’s gas station in a Mercedes looking fab and they have a chat and then they say a wistful goodbye. Snow is falling. He kisses his children. There is, in this film as in “La La Land,” a sense that these characters wound up with the life they needed to have. I mean, Catherine Deneuve pumping gas? Get real. It’s not that they shouldn’t love each other, it’s that they cannot have a happily ever after. What’s romantic about “Umbrellas” is that they tried. . .

Maybe it’s not that love and commerce can’t intermarry, or that the girl can’t get the guy and the gig and the gold. Indeed, the pull of rich versus poor wages a strange war on a country’s heart. Who knows. Maybe they can still be friends.

Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.