Early Animation “Followed Only One Rule”: “Anything Goes”

(p. C5) The story of Disney Studios is a central strand in Mitenbuler’s narrative; Disney became the formidable force that the other animation studios would look toward, compete with and rail against. Max Fleischer, whose studio was responsible for the likes of Popeye and Betty Boop, groused that Disney’s “Snow White,” released in 1937, was “too arty.”  . . .  The wife of one of the Fleischer brothers, though, said they had better watch out: “Disney is doing art, and you guys are still slapping characters on the butt with sticks!”

But what if those slapped butts were part of what had made animation so revolutionary in the first place? Mitenbuler suggests as much, beginning “Wild Minds” with the early days of animation, in the first decades of the 20th century, when the technology of moving pictures was still in its infancy. Like the movie business in general, the field of animation contained few barriers to entry, and a number of Jewish immigrants shut out from other careers found they could make a decent living working for a studio or opening up their own. Even Disney, who grew up in the Midwest, was an outsider without any connections.

The work created in those early decades was often gleefully contemptuous of anything that aspired to good taste. Until the movie studios started self-censoring in the early ’30s, in a bid to avoid government regulation, animators typically followed only one rule to the letter: Anything goes.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Ehh, What’s Animation, Doc?” The New York Times (Thursday, December 17, 2020): C5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 16, 2020, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White,’ Betty Boop, Popeye and the First Golden Age of Animation.”)

The book under review is:

Mitenbuler, Reid. Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.

“Hillbilly Elegy” Book (but Not the Movie) Suggests a “Culture of Poverty”

(p. C3) “Hillbilly Elegy,” published in June of 2016, attracted an extra measure of attention (and controversy) after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed to offer a firsthand report, both personal and analytical, on the condition of the white American working class.

And while the book didn’t really explain the election — Vance is reticent about his family’s voting habits and ideological tendencies — it did venture a hypothesis about how that family and others like it encountered such persistent household dysfunction and economic distress. His answer wasn’t political or economic, but cultural.

He suggests that the same traits that make his people distinctive — suspicion of outsiders, resistance to authority, devotion to kin, eagerness to fight — make it hard for them to thrive in modern American society. Essentially, “Hillbilly Elegy” updates the old “culture of poverty” thesis associated with the anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s research on Mexican peasants (and later with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ideas about Black Americans) and applies it to disadvantaged white communities.

Howard and Taylor mostly sidestep this argument, which has been widely criticized. They focus on the characters and their predicaments, and on themes that are likely to be familiar and accessible to a broad range of viewers. The film is a chronicle of addiction entwined with a bootstrapper’s tale — Bev’s story and J.D.’s, with Mamaw as the link between them.

But it sacrifices the intimacy, and the specificity, of those stories by pretending to link them to something bigger without providing a coherent sense of what that something might be. The Vances are presented as a representative family, but what exactly do they represent? A class? A culture? A place? A history? The louder they yell, the less you understand — about them or the world they inhabit.

For the full movie review, see:

A.O. Scott. “I Remember Bev and Mamaw.” The New York Times (Friday, November 27, 2020): C3.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 23, 2020, and has the title “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review: I Remember Mamaw.”)

J.D. Vance’s book is:

Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

Chris Rock on Covid-19, Blackface, and Cancel Culture

(p. 7) [Rock:] Part of the reason we’re in the predicament we’re in is, the president’s a landlord. No one has less compassion for humans than a landlord. [Laughs.] And we’re shocked he’s not engaged.

Did you ever see that movie “The Last Emperor,” where like a 5-year-old is the emperor of China? There’s a kid and he’s the king. So I’m like, it’s all the Democrats’ fault. Because you knew that the emperor was 5 years old. And when the emperor’s 5 years old, they only lead in theory. There’s usually an adult who’s like, “OK, this is what we’re really going to do.” And it was totally up to Pelosi and the Democrats. Their thing was, “We’re going to get him impeached,” which was never going to happen. You let the pandemic come in. Yes, we can blame Trump, but he’s really the 5-year-old.

Put it this way: Republicans tell outright lies. Democrats leave out key pieces of the truth that would lead to a more nuanced argument. In a sense, it’s all fake news.

. . .

[Itzkoff:] Jimmy Fallon drew significant criticism this past spring for a 20-year-old clip of himself playing you in blackface on “Saturday Night Live.” How did you feel about that segment?

[Rock:] Hey, man, I’m friends with Jimmy. Jimmy’s a great guy. And he didn’t mean anything. A lot of people want to say intention doesn’t matter, but it does. And I don’t think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn’t.

. . .

[Itzkoff:] There’s been a wider push to expunge blackface from any movies or TV shows where it previously appeared. Have people taken it too far?

[Rock:] If I say they are, then I’m the worst guy in the world. There’s literally one answer that ends my whole career. Blackface ain’t cool, OK? That’s my quote. Blackface is bad.

For the full interview, see:

Dave Itzkoff, interviewer. “Chris Rock’s New Universe.” The New York Times, Arts&Leisure Section (Sunday, September 20, 2020): 6-7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed names, added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview was updated Sept. 24, 2020, and has the title “Chris Rock Tried to Warn Us.”)

Home Viewing Allows Movies to Bloom Late

(p. C9) It’s no overstatement to say that “Rudy’s” reputation was revived thanks to Blockbuster Video. Audiences saw the film on home video, a technology also responsible for the late success of another notable box-office underperformer, “The Shawshank Redemption,” which came out a year later. “Maybe this was the opening wedge of what’s become a very modern phenomenon, which was films that do not work well in theaters working well at home,” Mr. Turan said.

Perhaps the naked sentimentality of “Rudy” was better experienced at home rather than among rowdy multiplex-goers. “When it’s something you bring home…you don’t have to answer to anything,” Mr. Thomson said. “You’re just in direct conversation with your own heart as to what you want.”

For the full review, see:

Peter Tonguette. “For a Football-Deprived Fall, the Inspiration of ‘Rudy’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 5, 2020): C9.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the same date and title as the print version.)

Disney’s Mulan Movie Credits Chinese Communists Who Force Uighur Muslims Into Prison Camps

(p. A10) Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” has drawn a fresh wave of criticism for being filmed partly in Xinjiang, the region in China where Uighur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps.

The outcry, which has spread to include U.S. lawmakers, was the latest example of how the new film, released on Disney+ over the weekend, has become a magnet for anger over the Chinese Communist Party’s policies promoting nationalism and ethnic Han chauvinism.

. . .

The film was already coming under fire months ago, facing calls for a boycott by supporters of the Hong Kong antigovernment protests after the movie’s star, Liu Yifei, said she backed the city’s police, who have been criticized for their use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Last month, as Disney ramped up promotion for the new film, supporters of the Hong Kong protests anointed Agnes Chow, a prominent democracy activist who was recently arrested under the territory’s new national security law, as their own, “real” Mulan.

Rayhan Asat, an ethnic Uighur lawyer in Washington whose younger brother, Ekpar Asat, has been imprisoned in Xinjiang, said in an interview that Disney giving credit to Xinjiang government agencies “runs counter to the ideals of those in the artistic, business and entertainment communities.”

“Devastatingly, Disney’s support amounts to collaboration and enables repression,” she added. “Those who claim to champion freedom in the world cannot afford to ignore such complicity.”

. . .

Last year, Mr. Pence criticized American companies for trying to silence speech in order to maintain access to the Chinese market. He accused Nike of checking its “conscience at the door” and owners and players in the N.B.A. of “siding with the Chinese Communist Party” by suppressing support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

In July [2020], an ESPN investigation described reports of abuse of young players at the National Basketball Association’s player-development training camps in China, including in Xinjiang. After the investigation was published, the N.B.A. acknowledged for the first time that it had ended its relationship with the Xinjiang academy more than a year earlier, but declined to say whether human rights had been a factor.

On Monday, calls to boycott “Mulan” began growing on social media. Among the critics was Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, who accused Disney of bowing to pressure from Beijing. Supporters in Thailand and Taiwan had also urged a boycott of the movie, citing concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.

For the full story, see:

Amy Qin and Edward Wong. “Calls Grow to Boycott ‘Mulan’ Over China’s Treatment of Uighur Muslims.” The New York Times (Wednesday, September 9, 2020): A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 8, 2020, and has the title “Why Calls to Boycott ‘Mulan’ Over Concerns About China Are Growing.” Where the online and print versions differ, the passages above follow the print version.)

Chinese Communist Response to Covid-19 “Shows an Increasingly Nervous, Fragile Country”

(p. A7) LONDON — In January [2020], the Chinese city of Wuhan became the first in the world to undergo a lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways this crucial period remains a mystery, with few images escaping the censors’ grasp.

A new film by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei helps fill in some of that missing history. Although now living in Europe, Ai remotely directed dozens of volunteers across China to create “Coronation,” a portrait of Wuhan’s draconian lockdown — and of a country able to mobilize huge resources, if at great human cost.

. . .

The overall impression, especially in the film’s first half-hour, is one of awesome efficiency. Crews quickly bolt prefabricated rooms together, I.C.U. machines beep and purr. The new party members are sworn in with their right fists raised up and the crematory laborers work so hard that they complain that their hands ache.

As the film progresses, the human costs become more apparent. A volunteer worker whose job is finished is not allowed to leave the quarantine zone, so he sleeps in his car in a parking garage. Mourners wail inconsolably at a crematory, and a man fights to be allowed to collect his father’s urn without government officials present — something authorities do not permit because they are afraid the mourning will turn to anger at the government for having allowed the virus to spin out of control.

. . .

The film is available in the United States on Alamo on Demand and in other parts of the world on Vimeo on Demand. Ai said he had hoped to show it first at a film festival, but festivals in New York, Toronto and Venice, after first expressing interest, turned him down. He said that Amazon and Netflix also rejected the movie.

He says his impression is that this was because many of these festivals and companies want to do business in China and so avoid topics that might anger Beijing, something other Chinese directors say is common.

. . .

Rather than providing the world with a model for how to govern, China’s response to the virus shows an increasingly nervous, fragile country, he said. In the scenes where mourners collect ashes, for example, Ai said viewers should note that all the people in white suits and full personal protective gear lurking in the background are members of state organizations trying to make sure that a lid is kept on the grief.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “‘This Is About China’: Artist Shines a Light on What Wuhan Went Through.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 23, 2020): A7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “From Ai Weiwei, a Portrait of Wuhan’s Draconian Covid Lockdown.”)

“There’s No Wolf Warrior Coming to” Rescue the “Little Pinks”

(p. B1) When China came under attack online, Mr. Liu was one of the legions of Chinese students studying abroad who posted in its defense. He condemned the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which he saw as an effort to split a uniting China. After President Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” Mr. Liu turned to Twitter to correct those who used the term.

“I was a real little pink,” he said, using a somewhat derogatory term for the young, Communist-red Chinese nationalists who use the internet as a patriotic battleground to fight those who disparage China.

Then Mr. Liu, 21, discovered that the country he had long defended didn’t want him back.

. . .

Mr. Liu and many other countless Chinese people stranded overseas are, for the first time, running afoul of one of their country’s bedrock political prin-(p. B5)ciples: National interests come before an individual’s needs.

. . .

“Can you imagine what it was like when one day someone told you what you believed firmly wasn’t actually true?” Mr. Liu said.

. . .

“In the real world, there’s no wolf warrior coming to my rescue,” a Chinese student in Japan posted on Weibo.

. . .

While the students were outspoken in their anonymous social media comments, they were more reserved in interviews. Mr. Liu, for example, focused his frustration on China’s aviation regulator, which recently backed down after U.S. officials challenged its limits on foreign airlines. Ms. Leng, of Troy University, said she understood the regulator’s motivations.

But some admitted to what might be a new feeling: fear. The student from Japan who invoked “Wolf Warrior 2” said she feared retribution by the Chinese government if she spoke to me.

Then she invited me into a WeChat group of nearly 500 Chinese students exchanging information about flights, visas, schools and frustrations. They told one another not to give news interviews, not even to the Chinese media, for fear of government punishment.

When they sometimes couldn’t help curse the government or the policy, someone would quickly warn that they had better shut up or risk losing their WeChat accounts or even being invited for a chat once they’re back in China.

One student, after being warned, posted an emoticon of the 12 core socialist values that every Chinese citizen is supposed to live by, posting it five times in a row, as if pledging his loyalty to the surveillance state.

“I grew up under the red flag and received the red education,” Mr. Liu said to me. “But what can I say now?”

For the full story, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; Little Pinks’ Rethink China After Being Trapped Abroad.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 30, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 24, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; Trapped Abroad, China’s ‘Little Pinks’ Rethink Their Country.”)

Chinese Communists Threaten Foreign Universities That Screen Hu’s Films

(p. C5) For more than 20 years, the filmmaker Hu Jie has been trawling the deep waters of Chinese history to create a series of harrowing documentaries about the early years of Communist Party rule.

. . .

“Spark” — a film that has undergone many iterations, alternations and expansions — reconstructs the fate of a group of young people who started an underground journal 60 years ago. And “The Observer,” a documentary about Hu by the Italian director Rita Andreetti, is at once a sympathetic portrait of the filmmaker and an introduction to his films.

Both are being distributed by Icarus Films as part of dGenerate Films’ collection of independent Chinese movies, curated by the American film producer Karin Chien.

. . .

Hu’s films are personal takes on several critical turning points in modern Chinese history, especially the persecution of independent thinkers in the 1950s, the famine that followed it, and the Cultural Revolution a decade later. He hunts down survivors, finds rare written material, and creates a composite history in which he is also very much present as a narrator and judge, clearly taking sides with the victims of Maoist China.

Almost all of his films come across as radically low-tech. For years he used a battered Sony Handycam, and he almost never uses lights or multiple cameras — largely because he works alone, but also to give the feeling of authenticity and discovery, as if the viewer were on a journey with Hu to discover a forbidden past.

. . .

. . . he became famous among China’s intelligentsia for his 2004 film, “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul,” one of the films being released by Icarus. It recounts the story of a political prisoner who was executed in 1968 for refusing to renounce her political convictions. Hu traces Lin’s story through her classmates and friends, and especially through letters that she wrote with her own blood for lack of ink.

That led to “Spark,” about the magazine for which Lin Zhao wrote an epic poem describing the struggle for freedom from tyranny. First released in 2013, “Spark,” like all of Hu’s films, has been added to and re-edited, most recently to include testimony by a witness to the famine who wanted to wait until retiring to speak out.

. . .

. . . he said he hoped his films would resonate today. “Spark,” he said, shows how even in the darkest era of the Mao period — the great famine of 1958 to 1961, which killed at least 30 million people — some were willing to stand up and be counted.

“This story has great significance today,” Hu said. “This country is a country with a unified governing structure, so if no one dares speak truth, a mistake will continue for a long time.”

. . .

Though Hu’s critical works are now being made available to foreign audiences, pressure from the Chinese government makes it hard to arrange public showings there, Chien said.

This scrutiny began around 2015 when she and others put together a touring film festival called “Cinema on the Edge.” Hailed as “beyond the censors’ reach,” the film series ended up coming under intense pressure from the Chinese government. Filmmakers in China were warned to drop out and when the festival went ahead, but with less publicity, foreign outlets, especially universities, were told that screening the films could endanger their chance to work with China.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “‘To Show Reality as It Really Was’.” The New York Times (Monday, June 29, 2020): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 28, 2020, and has the title “Excavating Chinese History, One Harrowing Film at a Time.”)

Facebook’s “Lord of the Rings” Defense of Free Speech

(p. B1) On Dec. 30, [2019] Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump. But citing the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and the philosopher John Rawls, Mr. Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.

“I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result,” he wrote. “So what stays my hand? I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment.

“Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her,” he said, misspelling the name of the character Galadriel. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.”

For the full story, see:

Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac. “Agonizing at Facebook Over Trump.” The New York Times (Wednesday, January 8, 2020): B1 & B7.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 7, 2020, and has the title “Don’t Tilt Scales Against Trump, Facebook Executive Warns.”)

Clint Eastwood’s “Stubborn Libertarian Streak”

(p. C6) Though he acts bravely and responsibly at a moment of crisis, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) isn’t entirely a hero, and “Richard Jewell” doesn’t quite belong in the gallery with “Sully” and “American Sniper,” Eastwood’s other recent portraits of exceptional Americans in trying circumstances.

. . .

Eastwood, Ray and Hauser (who is nothing short of brilliant) cleverly invite the audience to judge Jewell the way his tormentors eventually will: on the basis of prejudices we might not even admit to ourselves. He’s overweight. He lives with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates). He has a habit of taking things too seriously — like his job as a campus police officer at a small liberal-arts college — and of trying a little too hard to fit in. He treats members of the Atlanta Police Department and the F.B.I. like his professional peers, and seems blind to their condescension. “I’m law enforcement too” he says to the agents who are investigating him as a potential terrorist, with an earnestness that is both comical and pathetic.

Most movies, if they bothered with someone like Jewell at all, would make fun of him or relegate him to a sidekick role. Eastwood, instead, makes the radical decision to respect him as he is, and to show how easily both his everyday shortcomings and his honesty and decency are distorted and exploited by the predators who descend on him at what should be his moment of glory.

. . .

Eastwood has always had a stubborn libertarian streak, and a fascination with law enforcement that, like Jewell’s, is shadowed by ambivalence and outright disillusionment.

. . .

“Richard Jewell” is a rebuke to institutional arrogance and a defense of individual dignity, sometimes clumsy in its finger-pointing but mostly shrewd and sensitive in its effort to understand its protagonist and what happened to him. The political implications of his ordeal are interesting to contemplate, but its essential nature is clear enough. He was bullied.

For the full film review, see:

A.O. Scott. “The Jagged Shrapnel Still Flies Years Later.” The New York Times (Friday, December 13, 2019): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the film review was last updated December 23 [sic], 2019, and has the title “‘Richard Jewell’ Review: The Wrong Man.”)