All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

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History Has Its Eyes on You

Every action has an equal, opposite reaction, and so whenever any piece of popular culture becomes a runaway success, you can set your watch to the moment when the backlash comes roaring up behind it.

Seeing as Americans are determined never to agree on anything—albeit some of us more vigorously than others—it is inevitable—and probably for the best—that even the most widely and deeply beloved of our national treasures will sooner or later find a detractor or two hiding under some rock or other.

However, for a good long while, it appeared that in this regard—as in so many others—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was truly one-of-a-kind.  That this audacious, revisionist Broadway musical-cum-history lesson had transcended all the usual cultural mores, rules and laws (including gravity) to emerge as the one thing on which everyone can agree.  Call it the Adele of the Great White Way.

As a true believer, I was perfectly fine with this rarefied mass ecstasy over (of all things) an expensive Broadway show.  As much as I value open debate on practically any subject, listening to the Hamilton cast album over and over has become something approaching a religious experience, and we all know what happens to reasoned dissent once religion enters the picture.

All the same, over the last week or so, a sort of anti-Hamilton faction has finally—finally!—begun to consolidate in various online media outlets.  While I have so far found the arguments in these pieces generally misguided and unconvincing, it is imperative that my fellow fanatics take a break from their unconditional Hamilton love and read them.  They might be surprised how much they learn.

While these critiques are by no means interchangeable—their authors approach Hamilton in different ways and reach different conclusions—they tend to focus on one of two claims:  First, that Hamilton is not as historically accurate as it appears; and second, that it is not as socially progressive or “revolutionary” as its creators and fans have proclaimed.

At first blush, the complaints about accuracy could be dismissed as preposterous—not because they’re false, mind you, but rather because strict adherence to historical truth is so obviously not this show’s primary objective.  To any fair-minded listener, it should become clear—say, during the Cabinet meeting where Hamilton tells Jefferson, “Sittin’ there useless as two shits / Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you / Where my shoe fits”—that Miranda has granted himself certain liberties with the Founding Fathers that are, shall we say, fairly easy to infer.

It is the nature and the right of historical dramas to take history into their own hands for the sake of clarity and entertainment.  One must never let facts get in the way of a good story (as Mark Twain may or may not have said) and while the Revolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time, artists have always manipulated the events of 1776 to their own ends.  It is absurd to hold dramatists to the same academic standard as historians and biographers.  “All we can reasonably ask,” Roger Ebert once wrote about a certain film, “is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

That brings us to the more compelling and provocative critique, which says that—contrary to the prevailing view that Hamilton is a watershed moment in American culture—there is actually nothing historically innovative about Miranda’s take on the Founding Fathers.  Specifically, that despite its ethnically diverse cast and über-contemporary soundtrack, Hamilton is ultimately just one more show that lionizes famous white men—and only white men—who birthed a nation that purposefully and violently excluded African-Americans and other undesirables from realizing their fullest potential as human beings.

In her superb essay, “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro sees Hamilton as a continuation of so-called “founders chic,” observing, “[D]espite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. […] Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.”  (Monteiro then proceeds to name several black individuals who could easily have figured into Miranda’s story.)

Continuing this thought in an equally-thoughtful blog post, “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is,” NYU PhD student James McMaster writes:

“[I]n Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States—colonizers all, slaveholders some—are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States.  Case in point:  During ‘Cabinet Battle #1,’ when the talented Daveed Diggs argues as Thomas Jefferson for the security of the South’s slave-holding economy, the actor’s blackness visually distances his performance of racism from Jefferson’s whiteness, enabling a (largely white) audience to forget the degree to which they are implicated in the violent, anti-black histories of the United States.”

While we should all be extremely grateful for these reminders of the truth—the whole truth—of how this country came into being, my immediate response to these charges with regards to Hamilton is through an old Stephen Hawking line:  “You can’t think of everything.”

Or, to put it slightly less glibly:  Lin-Manuel Miranda devised a particular way to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton that would serve his own interests, which meant that a boatload of other interests—however worthy—would necessarily be left on the cutting room floor.

In point of fact, the writing of every play, movie and book in history has involved including a million little details while omitting a million others.  To be a writer is to be an editor and a synthesizer—as David McCullough once said, “I’m not a writer; I’m a re-writer”—which requires making choices that both sharpen and narrow the focus of one’s work in order not to juggle too many balls at once.

Contra Monteiro, who takes issue with Hamilton’s tagline, “The story of America then, told by American now,” I interpret the race-conscious casting not as a means to conceal the founders’ inherent white supremacy, but rather to demonstrate that the ideals for which they fought apply to people of all races.  That most of the founders clearly didn’t intend this at the time is an irony that cannot (and should not) be overlooked, and part of what makes Hamilton so irresistible is the implicit knowledge that if the real people suddenly materialized and saw themselves being portrayed by the likes of Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs, their expressions would be worth well over 1,000 words each.

In short:  Hamilton does not directly confront the realities and consequences of slavery because, in the end, that’s not what the play is about.  Miranda chose to dramatize the life of Alexander Hamilton and the handful of powerful people with whom he interacted, and that is how the piece should be judged.  Call me old-fashioned, but I find it slightly unfair to critique an artist for the work he didn’t produce rather than the work he did.

This does not mean that objections like the ones above should not be raised and heard.  If Hamilton has any purpose beyond entertainment, it’s to stimulate interest in the history of the United States—including the history that Hamilton does not have the time or inclination to cover.  If Miranda and company truly intend to democratize the country’s founding, they should own the ways in which their own efforts are incomplete.  They don’t need to be complete, but nor should they suggest that they are.

As it stands, we are left with exactly what we’ve always had:  A brilliant, addictive piece of theatre that we can love and question at the same time.  A guaranteed job creator for every talented non-white actor in New York that is nonetheless a celebration of dead, white slavers.

The truth is that Hamilton invited this minefield of hypocrisy the moment it took on America as its primary subject.  As a wise man said:  It’s full of contradictions, but so is independence.

Stirring the Pudding Pot

Is it finally time to let boys be girls and girls be boys?

That question has been wafting across the culture for a while now.  Last week, it made it all the way to Harvard.

Or, more precisely, to a beloved Harvard institution called Hasty Pudding Theatricals.  In this case, the question is:  Can women perform in a comedy show whose entire appeal depends on its total lack of women?

To explain:  Hasty Pudding Theatricals—Hasty Pudding for short, “The Pudding” for shorter—is a 220-year-old troupe of Harvard undergrads who every year write, direct and perform an original musical farce, complete with dazzling costumes and sets, knockout song-and-dance numbers and the sorts of juvenile puns and double entendres that one can expect from America’s greatest university.  The show runs in Cambridge six days a week from early February through early March, followed by a brief tour in New York and Bermuda.

The catch—or should I say, the draw—is that, although roughly half the characters in the show are women, all of the performers are men.  Basically, it’s a drag show with a storyline and a full orchestra, and however the plot unfolds, it always ends with the entire cast in matching dresses and heels, flawlessly pulling off elaborate dance formations and Rockette-style high kicks.

In short, it’s a grand old time at the theater.  When I first experienced it in 2003, I thought it was just about the funniest damn thing I’d ever seen on the stage.  A dozen years later, my enthusiasm has waned barely at all.  For sheer cheeky ridiculousness, it’s still one of the best shows in town.

Today, however, change is in the air.  In our 21st century culture of gender equality and limitless opportunity for all, the elephant in the theater has finally been addressed:  Shouldn’t we get a few women up there on the Hasty Pudding stage?

That’s what 17 women in particular wondered this past week when they turned up to audition for roles in this year’s production.  However serious some of them might have been, several made it plain that their presence at the auditions was largely symbolic—a means of forcing the issue as to how much longer Hasty Pudding can remain a male-only clique before modernity catches up with it.

To be clear:  Hasty Pudding Theatricals is not actually an all-male organization.  For decades, female students have been equal partners in the show’s writing, music, costumes, set design and every other component of the technical and creative process.  It is only in the casting that the “no girls allowed” rule takes effect, and the reasons for this—up until now, at least—have made absolutely perfect sense.

To wit:  If the whole joke is that men are pretending to be women, how can you toss actual women into the mix while still making the joke work?  If Hasty Pudding is to welcome women into its cast, won’t it require changing the very nature of Hasty Pudding itself?

Neither of those is any great mystery.  In reverse order, the answers are “sort of” and “fairly easily.”

I mentioned how, in a typical Pudding production, half the characters are male and the other half are female.  Well, then:  Why not cast men to play the women, as usual, and then cast women to play the men?  If cross-dressing is the show’s core competence, why not take it to the max?  Why subvert the conventions of one sex when you could just as easily subvert both?

Through the prism of today’s sensibilities, it becomes evident that, by restricting its cast to only men, Hasty Pudding may well have deprived itself of a great deal of priceless comedic material during the 167 productions it has created thus far.  After all, is there any reason to think that a woman dressed as a man would be any less funny than a man dressed as a woman?

To the extent that we don’t know this already—i.e. we don’t have too many examples to draw from—we can blame several millennia of sexism that allowed men to do whatever the heck they wanted and women to do very little at all.  (In Shakespeare’s time, for instance, it was perfectly normal for male actors to play Juliet and Lady Macbeth, while female actors weren’t even a thing.)

And sure, expanding the Pudding cast would alter the club’s identity a bit and cause a certain chunk of Harvard traditionalists to bow their heads in mourning over the death of a tradition that has existed since the Van Buren administration.

But once that happens, it will almost surely give way—as every other ceiling-breaking moment has—to the collective realization that we should’ve taken care of this years ago and there’s really no excuse for why it took so damned long.

The more difficult issue, though, is whether there are instances—even today—in which discrimination based on gender is justified.  Even if Hasty Pudding doesn’t qualify, its continued existence demonstrates how the imperative of gender equality is not always as black and white as it seems.

In the 1970s, there was a prolonged, highly contentious showdown on this subject in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment.  This proposal—first introduced in 1923, shortly after women secured voting rights— stipulated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

It sounds innocuous enough—a no-brainer if there ever was one—but opponents of the ERA quickly alerted the public to various unintended consequences that such a law would, or might, create.  Among these were the end of certain special protections traditionally afforded women, such as alimony and child custody, as well as the integration of all the country’s women-only colleges and universities.  After all, what are Wellesley and Bryn Mawr if not institutions that deny admission to male applicants on account of sex?  In 2015, does this really make any more sense than a college that denies admission to girls?

Then there are sports.  Professional leagues like the NFL and Major League Baseball currently contain no female players, but we all know it’s only a matter of time before they do.  Now that Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver have become the first women to survive Army Ranger School—a feat that will likely accelerate the integration of the Armed Forces themselves—systematically shunning female athletes from traditionally male sports leagues will increasingly be seen as quaint, pointless and unacceptable, as it already has in the fields of business, politics, science and the arts.

Or perhaps not.  In the end, it all depends on whether we think men and women are more different than they are similar, and whether the differences are significant enough that they need to continue to be enshrined in law.

Or, in this case, the Harvard student handbook.