race

Worst Best Picture: Is West Side Story Better or Worse Than Crash?

west side story

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1961 winner West Side Story. Is it better than Crash?

Before watching it recently, almost all of my specific West Side Story knowledge came from this Curb Your Enthusiasm clip:

I’ve talked before about my relationship with musicals, and I don’t know how much there is to really say on the subject in general. There’s a handful still to go, but the quintessential American musical just might be this one. It has three songs in the American Film Institute’s top 100 songs in film list: “Somewhere,” “America,” and “Tonight.” The “Sharks vs. Jets” pairing has been mocked in every form of media that exists. West Side Story is ubiquitous, I just didn’t really know how much I knew. I’d heard versions of “America” and “I Feel Pretty” before, but I think I was only loosely aware of their source.

All of that makes for an interesting first viewing in 2014, on par with movies that you somewhat know but don’t really like Driving Miss Daisy and Rain Man. You have a basic understanding of what’s up in West Side Story even if you haven’t seen a moment of it: forbidden love, dance fighting, and race in New York City. You’d end up writing a pretty terrible book report without more details than that, but you really do have most of what you need there. I guess the Driving Miss Daisy version of that is “a black guy drives an old white lady around and they learn they’re not so different after all,” but that would leave out the all-time-terrible performance from Dan Aykroyd, which would be a mistake.

So what’s under the surface of the dance fighting in West Side Story? Well, while “America” may be a pretty straightforward critique of race in the United States, it is a solid update of the Romeo and Juliet class dynamic. There’s some interesting smarm in “Gee, Officer Krupke” about the nature of being latchkey kids and what contributes to “troubled youth.” While it’s primarily an update of Shakespeare, it’s also something a little bit more. I can’t really judge the singing and dancing — reviews of musicals often have strong takes on the matter, and I just don’t have an eye for it — but the storyline is compelling and the pacing carries the nearly three-hour epic better than expected. It won’t be something I revisit very often, but I found myself caught up in an update of a story that I already know. That’s an accomplishment, so my bold take on West Side Story is that it’s “an accomplishment.” Really going out on a limb here.

The Best Part: Probably “America,” but I was really interested in the reaction to the climactic fight. I don’t think it’s possible to “spoil” an update of Romeo and Juliet, but someone dies. It’s not supposed to get that bad, and the reaction of a bunch of kids — that they act like a bunch of kids for the first time — is eye-opening. It adds a touch of realism to a movie that’s mostly people jumping off stoops and throwing their arms wide to show how tough they are. These kids don’t want to be “tough” but they see no other option, and when it all goes bad they can’t handle it.

The Worst Part: Is it bad that it’s the love story itself for me? I don’t care about Tony and Maria. I get that it’s the construct around which the rest of the world turns, but I was never that interested in it. Even the absurd love story of Gigi drew me in more than Tony/Maria, but that’s probably a failing on my part.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Finally, a movie that is directly about race to compare with the worst of the worst. The difference between the two is that in West Side Story race is a complicating factor for an existing plot and in Crash the plot stands in the way of a discussion of race. Race feels a little inserted into West Side Story, so even when the complication of “white vs. Puerto Rican” does come up, it comes up alongside “Sharks vs. Jets.” The battle lines are drawn along racial lines, but sometimes it feels more like they’re talking about the gangs than about the difficulty of race in America. That complication leads to some conversations where everyone appears to be talking about one thing, but really it’s a discussion of race. Race informs the entire movie, which allows for a deeper viewing of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward musical. Crash never lets anything go unsaid. If two people of a different race have a conversation, they both bring it up, angrily, to the other one. The tension of race is something everyone understands without it being shouted at them, but Crash is not at all interested in subtleties.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

How Did I Like This? Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw”

Tim_McGraw_-_Indian_Outlaw

Alex Russell

In “How Did I Like This?” someone looks back at something they loved as a child and wonders how they were ever so wrong. We start it off with Tim McGraw’s 1994 country single “Indian Outlaw.” Introduce yourself (or reintroduce yourself!) to the song and the video below: 

Almost everything is bizarre about Tim McGraw’s song “Indian Outlaw” except that it came out in 1994. This entire music video screams 1994 as loud as possible. This song is 20 years old, but even if you didn’t have a year to go off you could ballpark it with the video. What the hell was going on in 1994?

Music videos at the time had stories (every Aerosmith music video from the 90s is roughly 34 minutes long) presumably because every famous band in the 1990s looked like they belonged in the 1990s. Nothing looked good. Everything looked like a foreign language textbook. If you don’t believe me, dig up an old photo of yourself and return to this once you have died of shame twice.

Even if you don’t know country music from the 1990s –which you shouldn’t, but I’m from Tennessee, so I took it third period in school for three years– you probably still know Tim McGraw. He was one of the biggest names in music. He did a song with Nelly. He hosted Saturday Night LivePlaygirl magazine once named him one of the sexiest men in the world. I’m just listing the weird stuff from his Wikipedia now, so I’m just going to assume that you are at least vaguely aware of Tim “Live Like You Were Dying” McGraw.

He eventually became a massive success outside of his own genre (when country music started to show up in college students’ AIM profile quotes and every terrible bar’s “white trash” nights), but even before then he had chart success with songs like “Indian Outlaw.”

I don’t hate country music. I don’t really listen to it now, but a lot of the songs I liked when I was younger I can still listen to with a sort of wistful attitude. I regret that I was listening to Garth Brooks when other kids were getting music from their cool older brothers (television has told me that this is the experience of every other kid alive, so I have adopted this as true) but I cannot stand this song.

I pulled it up on YouTube a few months ago while listening to other things gone by. I found it, I watched it, and I was horrified. This shit is absolutely not okay. I mentioned I grew up in Tennessee, but not, you know, Tennessee.

The South has a complicated history (and present, and future, and any other parallel concept of time) with race but often the discussion of race leaves out Native Americans. There’s a certain blindness to it all that comes up whenever the debate over the name “Washington Redskins” flares up and a lot of us are forced to deal with the fact that whoa that is like, insanely racist that we say that!

But if the wheel of time on that change feels like it’s moving slowly, does this sound like something that only came out two decades ago?

You can find me in my wigwam
I’ll be beatin’ on my tom-tom
Pull out the pipe and smoke you some
Hey and pass it around

What would your guess of a release date be if you didn’t know? Would it be during Bill Clinton’s presidency? I damn well hope not.

People who didn’t grow up with this song get really uncomfortable when they hear it, rightfully so. I get uncomfortable with it. It’s racist — insensitive at best — but it’s also got this weird sexual element to it. A lot of country music talks about sex without talking about sex, but check it:

They all gather ’round my teepee
Late at night tryin’ to catch a peek
At me in nothin’ but my buffalo briefs
I got em standin’ in line

Gross, Tim McGraw. He followed this up with his first real monster hit, “Don’t Take the Girl.” That song is about a boy who learns to love a woman so much that he’d rather die than see ill will befall her. This song is… not about that. If you aren’t totally sold on hating this song, check out the dance mix. (Pro tip: Do not check out the dance mix.) It’s not even that different, but I guess this was too early for the Dubstep Indian Outlaw Remix… which I refuse to think about for another second.)

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image source: Wiki

Worst Best Picture: Is 12 Years a Slave Better or Worse Than Crash?

slave11n-9-web

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2013 winner 12 Years a Slave. Is it better than Crash?

It’s tough to get perspective on a Best Picture winner in seven days, but it’s also tough to get perspective on generations of slavery in American history. 12 Years a Slave hasn’t even been crowned for a full week yet, but we have to check everything. How does the most recent winner match up with the supposed worst one ever?

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: 12 Years a Slave is hard to talk about. It’s the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was drugged, kidnapped from New York, and transported into slavery in the American South in 1842. There is no easy way to approach a movie about slavery. It is brutal, violent, cruel, and inhumane. Slavery is the single most difficult topic in American history because it encompasses everything difficult. There is rape, economic subjugation, violence, and dehumanization. The entire story of human suffering in American history can be told through the lens of slavery.

12 Years a Slave handles it masterfully. Everyone in it — save for Brad Pitt, but we’ll get to that — is perfect. It is a hero’s journey told with a passive hero. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is taken into slavery and forced to face the impossible reality of the worst of his time under slavemasters in Louisiana. His tale is gruesome, but the tale of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is even more unimaginable. To tell more is to rob her Oscar-winning debut performance, so let it just be said that her life is harder than the character described in the title of a movie called 12 Years a Slave.

There’s no need to tell people to see 12 Years a Slave or to tell more about what happens in it. It was just named Best Picture. It has the very definition of “heat” right now. It’s a movie about slavery and it’s a damn good one. It’s also a fantastic place from which to approach Crash.

Both movies are about racism. 12 Years a Slave is about the inhumane practice of slavery in America’s history and what it does to a person. Crash is about how people encounter each other in the supposed melting pot of America and don’t like what they find. Both are about institutionalized racism and the failure of the justice system – in the 1840s or the 2000s – to seriously do anything about it.

So why is the movie where the main character is sold into slavery, dehumanized, and beaten somehow the quieter take on the topic? How is the movie with lynchings and rapes… calmer and more reasonable than, well, Crash?

In a way, 12 Years a Slave has an easier point to make: Slavery is bad. Everyone is on board with being against slavery, even though some people would diminish the effects across the world. Not everyone would agree with the aspect of Crash‘s message that racism controls the world. Not everyone would want to see Crash as the supposed sequel, picking up where a biography of a former slave left off.

Crash isn’t a spiritual sequel, though, and not because race has no place in modern film. It isn’t because it tries and fails to make a point. It tries to put modern Los Angeles on display as a false melting pot full of racists, but the world rings false. The true story of 12 Years a Slave shines through and feels like an older version of our own world, for the worse. As an audience we believe this world. We know it is true. We are saddened by the reality of our past. We’re still living in the world of Crash. We know that the world has room to grow to defeat institutionalized racism – but Crash isn’t describing an actual place. It’s describing some high school drama student’s hellscape of humanity that never has and never could exist.

I will pause here to say again that when someone’s manhood is questioned in Crash his response is to get into an armed standoff with the LAPD.

One of the tough things about talking about slavery and racism is that we all generally agree. Every rational person would say they are not a racist. A film like 12 Years a Slave still matters, even in that light, because we must stare into the darkness of men’s souls. Gentleman’s Agreement, a Best Picture winner from half a century previous, is about how even “good” people have darkness, and they must face that darkness and process it or succumb to it. 12 Years a Slave has relative “good” and “bad” slaveowners, but as much as it is about the evils of slavery in one period of America, it is about the darkness of all of us. We may not think of ourselves as capable of slavery, but we watch movies like this to remind ourselves of the starkness of others — and to reinforce the power of evil that we often deny.

The Best Part: The acting award for this movie went to the supporting actress, and she is certainly great in it. Time deserves to remember that some of the other films that stole other awards from this movie — Dallas Buyer’s Club and Gravity were both excellent — earned what they got. The acting (though maybe not better than an AIDS patient battling for his own treatment, he deserved that win) is phenomenal. It never goes over the top, it always works. Except…

The Worst Part: Brad Pitt, plain and simple. He’s a fantastic actor but he just showed up to this one. He delivers a 0/10 accent as a Canadian carpenter willing to help deliver the main character from slavery. 103 of the 134 minutes of the movie happen before he shows up, and those 103 minutes are perfect. People in the 1840s absolutely were not uniform in their view of slavery, but Brad Pitt’s character’s benevolence still just comes off as so damned weird right after a consistent barrage of brutality for 103 straight minutes. He’s also a producer, and the weirdness of heroic Executive Producer Hero Brad Pitt is the only problem with a perfect movie. It’s downright strange.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashThe fact that these two movies have been now linked by this award is a kind of crime. 12 Years a Slave is surely “Oscar Bait” as they say, but Crash is the definition of “Oscar Bait” that is also not good. This is a good movie that tackles race – Crash is a collection of scenes about race that is only technically a movie and is certainly, insistently, not good.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |

 Image credit: NY Daily News

Worst Best Picture: Is Gentleman’s Agreement Better or Worse Than Crash?

gentlemans

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1947 winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Is it better than Crash?

The year was 1948. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Doris Day performed at the ceremony. It was only four years after Casablanca‘s win. It was the year that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article, won Best Motion Picture.

It was another time, to be sure. That’s the entire point: Gentleman’s Agreement is about Philip Green (Gregory Peck) becoming “Phil Greenberg” to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in the 40s. He’s new in town, his wife is dead, and he wants to make a big impression at work by taking on a tough assignment. He’s had success in the past by “becoming” the subject of his work, and he figures that writing about being Jewish can only be achieved by, well, “being” Jewish.

After the game is on, his Jewish secretary (who thinks he’s also Jewish) starts a conversation with him about how much she doesn’t like “the wrong type” of Jews. Peck takes her to task for what she expects to be an easy conversation full of slurs and stereotypes. He straight up lectures her on how he can’t stand even internalized racism (she says she even says those things about herself!) or racism against other members of the same group. Gregory Peck being Gregory Peck, this scene works even though it’s pretty broad when he starts listing the slurs he can’t tolerate.

Crash does the same thing, but Crash doesn’t have Gregory Peck. It’s too simple to say that one of the greatest actors in American history is the only difference, but he absolutely is one of them. The rest of it is the proving ground for this whole damn argument: Crash is already a travesty of a Best Picture winner because it already feels like it handled a sensitive subject poorly and it hasn’t even been a decade yet.

Gentleman’s Agreement is nearly 70 years old. The film centers on the idea that it’s difficult to be an “other,” even if you’re just perceived as one. Crash is about nothing but others, but much in the way that a little salt makes beef taste more like beef and a lot of salt makes beef taste like salty garbage, Crash is about ten tons too much.

Gentleman’s Agreement was a controversial film in the 40s. America was still in the business of yelling at people for standing up for minorities of all types (well, we still are, but now we’re at least a little more guarded about it, since there’s no specific government-sanctioned committee for it anymore) and there was a lot of fear of a movie willing to put a spotlight on that.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place when Gregory Peck tries to secure a reservation at a hotel rumored to be “restricted.” He causes a scene in the lobby (insofar as Gregory Peck can “cause a scene” – you really have to see it) and ends up leaving angry with the tacit bigotry of the world.

The movie’s greatest success is that it doesn’t have a lot of people screaming about Nazis or throwing rocks at people in the street. It deals with the quiet racism in people, even supposedly good people. It exists to show that it’s easy to label people in white hoods racists, but it’s hard to face up to smaller, more insidious racism. Peck takes issue with his fiance’s “smaller” bigoted moments, and delivers the should-be Oscar-winning speech:

“But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”

Crash is worried that if someone doesn’t very literally try to murder someone of another race, the audience won’t understand the racial tensions between them. Sandra Bullock’s poor character yells slurs constantly, to the point where she is essentially a See ‘N Say of racial epithets. Crash is like trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t work, but it certainly does make a mess.

Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t exactly using modern tools for that same surgery, but it isn’t trying to deliberately kill the patient. There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.

It must have been that much more difficult seven decades ago (just a few years after Hitler’s death) and the fact that Gentleman’s Agreement is still a solid look at de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation all these years later is astounding. Crash doesn’t understand the basic difference between the two in the first place, so the idea that it could have any nuance is a bridge too far, entirely.

The Best Part: In looking up how people remember Gentleman’s Agreement I’ve found that people take issue with the fact that it came out just after World War II but never really addresses Hitler. It makes the film timeless, because outside of a few of the slurs being completely out of fashion now, this could happen 10 or 20 or 30 years later and be mostly unchanged. It handles tacit racism well.

The Worst Part: That said, it doesn’t go very far beyond that. Blackness comes up twice in the movie (in the form of unacceptable slurs to use) but only in reference. No one ever discusses race beyond Jewishness as present or absent. When Gregory Peck comes out as “not really Jewish” he’s immediately Christian. When his son asks him about different religions he names… three. Baby steps, 1947, but it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashBoth movies supposedly aim to do the same thing. Crash is a failure as a movie, but it only comes across as a failure as a lesson about racism when compared to something that does it well. The ultimate lesson of Crash is that race defines all interactions, at all times, and must always be considered as divisive. The lesson of Gentleman’s Agreement is the most important thing to remember about evil in general: You need to be equally afraid of the person who does nothing to stop it as the person that perpetrates it.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men |

 Image credit: The Telegraph