Archive for New York Times

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2009 by halmasonberg

Picture 5Well, at least the rest of the world recognizes what our President is trying to do. You weren’t going to see George W. being honored with anything even resembling a Peace Prize. Maybe a “Most Destructive, War-Mongering” Prize, but nothing with the word “Peace” in it.

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” This is sure to be met with very mixed reactions. Especially here in the States. There are those who will celebrate it as a recognition of both what Obama is trying to do and as proof that our reputation around the globe has improved dramatically since Bush left office. “He has created a new international climate,” the committee said. Others will claim it’s awarding a prize for a job yet done; for talk, not action.

As for Obama’s reaction?

“To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.”

Obama will accept the award, calling it an “affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

According to the New York Times:

In one sense, the award was a rebuke to the foreign policies of Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, some of which the president has sought to overturn. Mr. Obama made repairing the fractured relations between the United States and the rest of the world a major theme of his campaign for the presidency. Since taking office as president he has pursued a range of policies intended to fulfill that goal. He has vowed to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, as he did in a speech in Prague earlier this year; reached out to the Muslim world, delivering a major speech in Cairo in June; and sought to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Once again, in the words of the Nobel Committee:

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former prime minister of Norway. “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.”

Congrats, Mr. President.

Obama-Haters: Don’t Believe For A Second This Isn’t About Race

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2009 by halmasonberg

The first thing most anti-Obama people will tell you is that this is not an issue of race. They’ll tell you that claiming it to be about race is just another way in which the liberals are trying to distract the public from their “true” arguments. “Just because we don’t agree with the president doesn’t mean we’re racist.” True enough. And I would much rather believe what’s happening out there is more about ideological differences and not race-related at all. But the level of violent, repugnant, misinformed hatred that is swelling out there suggests much of it is.

You think Joe Wilson’s conduct unbecoming an adult, no less a Congressperson, has no roots in race? You mean the South Carolinian who belonged to the Sons of Confederate Vetarans who led a campaign in 2000 to keep the Confederate flag waving above his state capitol? The one who claimed anyone who said ’48 segregationist candidate for president Strom Thurmond had a black daughter was simply involved in a “smear” campaign? Even after it had been proven and admitted?

And let’s take a look for a moment at what it was that caused Congressman Wilson to yell “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a nationally televised address. Was it the suggestion that we should engage in a preemptive war against another country for a purpose that had no basis in truth or reality? A war that cost us thousands more American lives than the 9/11 attacks themselves? No. It was the misguided notion that illegal immigrants may be able to get health care coverage in the United States. That taxpayer dollars and/or federal funds may go to helping human beings that are here illegally. Human beings from other countries. But suggest spending enough money to create an unheard of deficit and rob over 100,000 human beings of their lives, and we don’t hear a peep from anyone in Congress during that Presidential address. No, it was the horrifying possibility that illegal immigrants may find a way to get health care coverage that caused Congressman Wilson to have his uncontrollable “emotional outburst” and interrupt Obama’s speech to call him a liar. And that’s just assuming Wilson even believes his own accusation. Which opens up a whole other can of worms suggesting a straight-forward attempt to delegitimize President Obama on national television while playing into the xenophobic fears of a segment of Americans already twisted by lies and accusations about our current president.

Folks like Stan, the friendly and well-spoken gentleman who commented on my recent post “Rep. Joe Wilson Of S.C. Calls Obama A Liar During President’s Speech To Congress” and stated that he wasn’t racist because he’d happily vote for Bill Cosby as president while simultaneously calling Obama a “joke of a president” and stating “this man has no business being President until he shows a copy of his birth certificate. He will not because he was born in Kenya.” Stan then went on to tell us how both Obama “and his wife have both quoted excerpts from Saul Alinskys’ book ”Rules For Radicals”.” While continuing to tell us how “not scary” he was and how much he was not a racist, Stan then went on to state that “God loves us all the same, but this man [Obama] managed to get to Harvard despite not having the grades or finances to do so.”

There’s a level of fear out there, a level of craziness that one hopes is just the death throes of a segment of America that the educated and grown-up had dreamed would no longer be a part of our culture as we moved into the 21st century. But it is. And having a half-black president has brought it bubbling to the surface for everyone to witness. This is both a frightening thing and a good thing. We need to see it. We need to face it and understand it and address it straight on.

From the loud-mouthed Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys, the juvenile and spoiled Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys, to the “everyman” and “everywoman” out on the street with their signs held high demonstrating for the whole world how easily manipulated they are; how their own fears and hatred can so effortlessly be used to turn them into angry, violent pawns. Here are just a few:

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“This isn’t the Republican Party. This is just the fringe, the crazies,” some will say. Well, Joe Wilson has proven that to be wrong. This isn’t the mentality out on the street alone, this has made its way into Congress. And the support for Wilson’s 1st grade (not to mention completely incorrect) commentary shows us that this is, indeed, the new face of the Republican Party. Just in case Sarah Palin’s nomination for Vice President and her post-election fear-mongering hadn’t convinced you.

So where are the true Republicans? The ones who also recognize that this is not the America anyone has fought for? That this is, by any world standard, backwards and embarrassing. I know they’re out there. There are many Republicans (and even some Democrats) who simply do not agree with Obama and are engaged in healthy debate and not interested in fear-based lies. And once in a while some Republican member speaks up and says, “That was wrong. You should apologize.” But that’s not enough. Where is the movement by the Republican Party to reclaim its own dignity? And in so doing return some dignity to the United States of America?

The roots of racism run deep in this country. And we are a fearful nation. And that fear has been worked on diligently, sculpted and fertilized by the previous administration and many administrations before it. And our country is filled with grown-ups who have yet to mentally or emotionally reach adulthood. We are still an immature nation. But we are not ALL children. And that is not meant as a separation of Democrat and Republican. There are children and adults on both sides. However, right now, the Republican Party has become the embodiment of that racism and immaturity.

Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times Maureen Dowd wrote a piece recently that I highly recommend. In it she observes:

I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race.

…But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

…Now [Obama]‘s at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension. Even if he and the coterie of white male advisers around him don’t choose to openly acknowledge it, this president is the ultimate civil rights figure — a black man whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a loco fringe.

For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both.

The state that fired the first shot of the Civil War has now given us this: Senator Jim DeMint exhorted conservatives to “break” the president by upending his health care plan. Rusty DePass, a G.O.P. activist, said that a gorilla that escaped from a zoo was “just one of Michelle’s ancestors.” Lovelorn Mark Sanford tried to refuse the president’s stimulus money. And now Joe Wilson.

“A good many people in South Carolina really reject the notion that we’re part of the union,” said Don Fowler, the former Democratic Party chief who teaches politics at the University of South Carolina. He observed that when slavery was destroyed by outside forces and segregation was undone by civil rights leaders and Congress, it bred xenophobia.

…It may be President Obama’s very air of elegance and erudition that raises hackles in some. “My father used to say to me, ‘Boy, don’t get above your raising,’ ” Fowler said. “Some people are prejudiced anyway, and then they look at his education and mannerisms and get more angry at him.”

Call it what you want. Mask it behind any cause you tell yourself it is. But what’s happening in America today is clear for all the world to see. And history will recognize it clear as a cloudless sky. How we respond to it, face it, and move beyond it will also be recorded for all to see. And our children’s children will read about it. And some parts of it will be cause for shame. Let’s hope there’s another part to America’s future history that allows us to feel proud as well. And to finally grow up and properly enter adulthood.

Barack Obama’s Op Ed In NEW YORK TIMES

Posted in Politics with tags , , on August 16, 2009 by halmasonberg

If you haven’t already read it, do.

Why We Need

Health Care

Reform

obama190

Cinema Of The Infantile: Welcome To The New Millenium

Posted in Film, Politics, THE PLAGUE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by halmasonberg

HollywoodpeachesI’ve been hard on America lately, it’s true. But with people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and Lou Dobbs and Joe The Plumber and… Well, the list goes on. With these folks popping up every few minutes to force some other piece of dimensionless drivel down the throats of Americans, many of whom are waiting patiently with mouths open like hungry fledgelings, one has to wonder if this country is made up of nothing more than infants intent on not developing their god-given brains.

But maybe that’s not really the case. I mean, Obama won the election, not McCain/Palin. And though there are a lot of crazies out there spouting lies to an audience eager to carry on those deceptions to their friends and neighbors, there are also massive groups of individuals who speak out in protest, call these liars out in public, and demand more responsible, adult behavior. Come to think of it, maybe it’s really just the people yelling and screaming and spreading these lies who think their audience is far stupider than they actually are.

While there certainly are a lot of people out there who either don’t want to think or have been trained not to, there are perhaps far more who are eager to think. Some may even be doing it as we speak. Which brings us to the point of this little essay. Cinema has always been a reflection of our society. Despite previous political administrations who showed their disdain for the arts with outrageous funding cuts, film is nonetheless of social, communal, moral, and evolutionary importance.

So why has the film industry been in steady decline since the early eighties? Well, part of the reason is probably due to the odd circumstances that lead to a revitalization of film culture that coincided with both political and social upheavals in the sixties and seventies. For a while there, the “inmates” were running the asylum. And it was wonderful. A little out of control and, at times, misguided, but wonderful. But what should have been a springboard has now become a sad basis for comparison. No growth happens without risk and mistakes. None. And we’ve been growing less and less ever since.

Film critic A.O Scott in his recent article OPEN WIDE: SPOON-FED CINEMA in the New York Times commented on all the excuses used for the making and promoting of thoughtless films over thoughtful ones:

…those reliable axioms about the taste and expectations of the mass movie audience are not so much laws of nature as artifacts of corporate strategy. And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalizes risk, originality and intelligence.

I grew up dreaming of making films at the studios. And why not? As a kid, the studios were still making films. Sure, they also had strong commercial interests, that’s always been a huge piece of the puzzle, but it seemed for a while there, smart sold. People were open to and seeking adult fare. But now it seems the studios are being run by folks who altogether missed that era and, none too bright themselves, believe their audience is even dumber.

I’ve watched some of the best films of our current generation, films that would have garnered awards and inspired lines around the block years ago, fade into obscurity and be publicly proclaimed, not just as financial failures, but artistic failures as well. Ang Lee’s masterful film LUST, CAUTION was all but ignored by legions of American critics and fans alike. Even after the commercial and critical success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, this cinematic haven for smart, subtle, nuanced, adult filmmaking was pushed aside. Or Stanley Kubrick’s swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, a true cinematic undertaking tackling adult subject matter with more artistry than most of the films of its year put together, was battered senseless by film-ignorant critics and studio execs who declared it a failure  despite the fact that  it was Kubrick’s greatest financial success… So what happened? Have audiences just gotten dumber? Or does it just appear that way?

Well, in my experience working in this town called Hollywood, where people travel from far and wide to glimpse that magical sign on the hill, I’ve come to believe that many of the folks working in Hollywood at the studio level are among the most childish and spoiled I’ve ever had the displeasure of working beside. Not all, mind you, but certainly most. And they, like most children, think they know it all. They certainly think their audience is far dumber than they are. The studios are to film what Sarah Palin is to politics.

While directing my first feature THE PLAGUE, I had the unfortunate opportunity to work with a series of folks whose knowledge of film was pre-adolescent at best. They would throw around the occasional classic or foreign film title, usually something extremely obvious, like a movie version of a hit song, only in this case it was CASABLANCA or 8 1/2 or THE SEVENTH SEAL. Jorge Saralegui was one of these guys. Once an exec at Fox, this guy’s knowledge of film could be contained comfortably on the head of a pin. And yet he wielded the kind of power that would ultimately decide the fate of any film he oversaw. And this was a man who spoke few words of kindness about anyone he’d ever known and moved about with an open disdain for those around him. I’ve written previously about his nasty and endlessly negative comments about directors like John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, both of whom he’d worked with. And his list of credits is like a who’s who of artistic (and quite often commercial) failures. My film included. In working closely with this man, I got an insider’s view of how a film intended for adult audiences can be reduced to strained peaches on the end of a small spoon. And who is he trying to feed? Us. And there are those, like Saralegui, who will gladly eat from that spoon themselves. Just like there are those who will drink from the Sarah Palin well and proclaim “Yummy” afterwards.

But Saralegui is just one of thousands of men and women projecting their ignorance into the mouths of babes eager to consume whatever mindless drivel they are handed. Even if the original intent of the creative filmmakers behind those films were grander and more daring than the final products ultimately revealed. Just look at the glut of quality studio films out there now. Sure, it’s summer, the time of “escapist” cinema, but even before summer hit, the best films were already being coined failures while the most mindless of the batch were being lauded as successes. And if you repeat the mantra that any film that isn’t a total financial blockbuster opening weekend is a “failure” while the artistically devoid TRANSFORMERS is a success, many people will listen. Just like when we tell people that Obama isn’t really an American.

A.O. Scott again:

Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it has made nearly $400 million domestically.

…The studios, housed in large and beleaguered media conglomerates, have grown more cautious as the economy has faltered, releasing fewer movies and concentrating resources on dependable formulas. Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand.

…What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one! …Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.

So when people ask me why I’m still fighting four years later for the release of my cut of THE PLAGUE, it’s not because I think it’s god’s gift to cinema or the holy grail of intelligent movies, but because it was meant for an adult audience and, at every step of the way, was chipped away at by its producers and ultimately the studio that distributed it until it was indistinguishable from all the other pablum out there. It’s a film that never reached its audience because its audience was never given a chance to see it. And this is just a $3.5 million thriller, mind you. Not a big-budget studio flick. I know what the film is and I know what it isn’t. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit back and have any film of mine turned into drivel without fighting tooth and nail for its life. Part of it is that I abhor the thought of my name being listed as the creative entity behind something as mindless and offensive as the producers cut of that film. The other part is that if people don’t start demanding something better now, then we should just accept Sarah Palin and stop looking any further. Let’s just put on our bibs and ask for more, please.

The conventional wisdom within the industry is to accept what has happened and to move on. We’ve been doing that for almost 30 years and I’m yearning for film and filmmakers to take back the art form, to allow the audience to have both its escapist fun AND its intelligence, its creativity, its originality, and its ability to ask some hard questions, to challenge, to assume its audience is smart with a hunger to grow. If I can’t fight for that within my own world, with my own film, then I have no right to ask more from anyone else. Not even the studios.

The Power Of Bill Clinton And Talking To Your Enemies

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2009 by halmasonberg

04korea3-600It seems former president Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea in the hopes of freeing jailed American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Ling has been successful. According to the New York Times:

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, pardoned two jailed American journalists, the official KCNA news agency has reported… Mr. Kim granted “a special pardon,” KCNA said in a statement. It was not clear how rapidly the two journalists… might be allowed to leave the country… The pardon added to speculation among analysts in Seoul that North Korea, after months of raising tensions and hostile rhetoric towards Washington, may be ready to return to dialogue with Washington.

While I’m certain before Mr. Clinton left for North Korea that he had some assurances that the journalists would be released, I am still thrilled to see that the visit and talks resulted in a positive outcome.

While this was a private mission undertaken by Mr. Clinton, it was, most certainly, with the blessings of the White House.

I’m not saying anything would have been different, but how do you think the Bush Administration would have dealt with this issue?

Hollywood Studios: More Afraid Than Ever?

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by halmasonberg

For what seems an eternity, I have mourned the loss of the days when Hollywood studios managed to mix films that were simply meant to have mass appeal, with films that focused on a more demanding audience. But those days are long gone and seem, for the moment, to be drifting farther and farther away. Even many of the studio’s more sophisticated arms like Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage have seen their doors close. Quite possibly forever.

Whether it’s the state of the economy or the fact that studios simply don’t tend to hire people who truly love film (more than the film business), the quality of American cinema has continued to nosedive.

02moneyball2_190Take Steven Soderbergh’s latest almost-film, MONEYBALL. Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction baseball story and set to star Brad Pitt, the plug was pulled by Sony Pictures just days before shooting was scheduled to begin. The reason given for such a rare and surprising last minute decision? According to the New York Times:

…accounts from more than a dozen people involved with the film, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships, described a process in which the heady rush toward production was halted by a studio suddenly confronted by plans for something artier and more complex than bargained for.

It seems a new version of the script was rewritten by Soderbergh himself. Now without having read the script myself, it’s hard to say if this decision was made because a film with a $57 million price tag simply needs to appeal to as many people as possible, or because the execs at the top simply don’t, themselves, appreciate more demanding films. I mean, let’s face it, Sony used to be the studio that made films like REMAINS OF THE DAY. What was the last film to come from that studio (or any other) that approached the quality of that one? Also from the Times:

The swift mothballing of “Moneyball” may also increase doubts that Hollywood can still deliver tricky but appealing pictures like “Michael Clayton,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

While films like REMAINS OF THE DAY haven’t had a place at the studios for quite some time, it’s truly sad to consider that films like the above-mentioned might also not be able to find a home at our once beloved studios.

And maybe that’s why I rarely see films produced and developed by a studio unless I happen to be in the mood for something, well, mindless. And they are good at that. And that has its place.

But I still miss the films that inspire and move me, the ones that allow me to think, that challenge me, that remind me that I am a human being, with complexities, questions, thoughts, ideas, curiosities, a sense of adventure, a desire for something poetic, profound, daring… something that can reach deep inside me and move me with the sheer energy of its cinematic storytelling…

But alas… I guess, for the time being, I will have to depend on the rest of the world to supply those. And to the handful of American independent filmmakers out there who are making films more for themselves, and less for that much-coveted directing slot at their favorite studio of choice… I am depending on you.

Addendum: it looks like MONEYBALL is back in the game, but Soderbergh is not. Sony has brought in SPORTS NIGHT creator Aaron Sorkin to do a polish on an earlier, more commercially-minded version of the script written by Steve Zaillian. Pitt is still attached.

Cheney Behind CIA Concealment Of Secret Counterterrorism Program

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2009 by halmasonberg

12intel_190No surprise here. And the odds are that little-to-nothing will come of it, but according to CIA agency director Leon P. Panetta, former VP Dick Cheney gave the direct order for the CIA to withhold information from Congress for 8 years regarding a secret counterterrorism program.

The program in question is still unidentified and never became fully operational. Panetta himself only learned of the program on June 23rd and quickly put an end to it and briefed two Congressional intelligence committees in separate closed sessions.

This is not the first time Congress has discovered that critical information was being withheld by Cheney and the Bush Administration. The recent waterboarding “scandal” was one of the more publicly discussed.

According to the New York Times:

The law requires the president to make sure the intelligence committees “are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity.” But the language of the statute, the amended National Security Act of 1947, leaves some leeway for judgment, saying such briefings should be done “to the extent consistent with due regard for the protection from unauthorized disclosure of classified information relating to sensitive intelligence sources and methods or other exceptionally sensitive matters.”

In addition, for covert action programs, a particularly secret category in which the role of the United States is hidden, the law says that briefings can be limited to the so-called Gang of Eight, consisting of the Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress and of their intelligence committees.

All this comes one day after the inspector general’s report that Cheney restricted knowledge of the National Security Agency’s program of eavesdropping without warrants, “a degree of secrecy that the report concluded had hurt the effectiveness of the counterterrorism surveillance effort,” according to the Times.

While Mr. Cheney will most likely be found to have been within the limits of the law or, at worst, skirting the edges of it, it’s important info to know. And while some may agree that Cheney’s decision to keep this information concealed was the right one, Panetta’s decision to end the program and inform Congress right away suggests a different school of thought.

The effectiveness of our entire system is compromised if information that is meant to be shared with Congress is not. There must be some measure of oversight if the government is to remain “for the people.” Otherwise, we find ourselves in danger of living in the type of society the Republican’s keep warning us that those “liberal Democrats” are trying to create wherein the government has far too much control.

The pot calling the kettle black, I’d say.

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