Man From Decency

Every now and then you need to take a break from all the Hollywood crap, and I got a really nice one last Saturday from an encounter with former U.S. Senator George McGovern. In so doing I felt an emotion that I haven’t had much contact with lately. I felt a kind of familial love.
The occasion was an early-Saturday-evening showing at Laemmle’s Music Hall of Stephen Vittoria’s One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, which I’ve been trying to catch since last July or so, when I happened to see a poster for it in the lobby of Manhattan’s Quad Cinema.

Stephen Vittoria, director of One Brief Shining Moment, and George McGovern in lobby of Laemmle’s Music Hall — Saturday, 11.19, 8:23 pm.

I’ve always admired McGovern, the longtime South Dakota liberal who’s mainly known for his catastrophic run as the Democratic President candidate in 1972 against President Richard Nixon. Hurt by a campaign that was chaotically mana- ged but also unlucky, McGovern got less than 40% of the vote and took only two states, Massachucetts and the District of Columbia.
I’ve long respected McGovern for having thetorically guided the last plain-spoken, genuinely liberal Democratic Presidential campaign. But my affection has mainly been about a long-held feeling that profound currents of decency and compassion run within him.
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It sure felt that way as he spoke to a middle-aged crowd that had just seen Vittoria’s film around 7:30 pm, and later as he posed for photos and signed autographs and whatnot in front of the theatre on Wilshire Blvd.
He’s 83 now and seems to be in excellent health — tanned, trim — and he told the crowd he wants to live to be at least 100. He needs that much time, he said, to accomplish all his goals, which include doing what he can to eliminate hunger in third-world countries.
He’s been the World Food Program’s first global ambassador on hunger since ’01, and before that served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agencies, based in Rome, Italy, from ’98 to ’01.
He said that his favorite line in Vittoria’s doc is when Gloria Steinem says that looking back on the ’72 campaign, the McGovern loyalists have a lot more to be proud of than do the supporters of Nixon’s campaign, who have all that Water- gate-related skullduggery to contend with.

Salon‘s Andrew O’Heir recently wrote than “when the long lens of history finally focuses on McGovern’s contentious era, he’ll appear in the main text, named as a prophet, while Nixon will be a twisted king consigned to the footnotes.”
But when asked last Saturday evening what he thinks about the present White House occupant, McGovern said he’d rather have Nixon there.
Nixon, he pointed out, was fairly practical and forward-thinking on domestic issues and the economy. He created the Environmental Protection Agency, advocated gun control, imposed wage and price controls, etc. And he wasn’t indebted to the neocons and their absolutist agendas.
The talking heads in One Bright Shining Moment include McGovern, Steinem, Gore Vidal, Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart, Frank Mankiewicz, Jim Bouton, Rev. Malcolm Boyd and Ron Kovic.
Vittoria’s film is, for my money, a little too admiring, strident and one-sided. I wish he’d talked to some conservatives and maybe even a former enemy or two. It would have given the film some added intrigue without compromising McGovern’s image.
Some liberals still flinch at the memory of the ’72 campaign, but when a man has lasted as long as McGovern has and consistently stood for caring and compassion in public afairs, what’s not to admire? We’re speaking of one of the most steadily principled men to succeed in big-time politics in the 20th Century.

McGovern and admirers on sidewalk in front of Laemmle’s Music Hall on Wilshire near Doheny — Saturday, 11.19, 8:25 pm.

The Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson has complained that Vittoria’s doc is filled with “exactly the sort of starry-eyed, bullet-spraying hyperbole that drains credibility from any brand of political discourse,” adding that it “may be useful as home-front history, if only it didn’t rant, yowl, and wet its pants so much.”
Still, it’s a good thing to have a film out there that doesn’t just train your attention on who George McGovern really is and was, and what his campaign was all about, but which pays the proper respect.
One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern has been moving from city to city since its New York debut on 9.16. It doesn’t appear to have played a lot of the big liberal cities — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, etc.
The distributor, First Run features, is obviously operating on a shoe-string, but you’d think they’d at least manage to get it booked in the above-named cities and get it seem by as many devoted lefties as possible before the DVD debut in April ’06.

USC Interlude

Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny and yours truly paid a visit Monday night to Charles Fleming’s “Entertainment, Business and Media in Today’s Society” class at the USC School of Journalism. We talked about internet journalism, industry politics, survival skills, the shortcomings of Tom Rothman and what the students think about the hot new movies. Defamer’s Mark Lisanti, profiled in the current issue of Los Angeles magazine, was supposed to show but bowed out at the last minute….something about his girlfriend having told him they already had “plans” (does that sound like a crock or what?). Thanks to Fleming (pictured at left with the suit and tie) for having us down.

White Eyeballs

As everyone presumably knows, I spend a lot of my spare time thinking up new ways to rip Peter Jackson. I’m kidding, but seriously…this is not one of those articles.
This is about a significant difference between Jackson’s King Kong — the big digital simian we’ll soon be seeing on the big screen — and Merian C. Cooper and Willis O’Brien’s classic stop-motion, herky-jerky version.

When this hit me the other day I was so excited I almost had to pull over and stop the car. The odd thing is that Jackson and a couple of his model-and-visual-effects guys talk about this very issue on the making-of-King Kong doc on the just-relea- sed Warner Home Video DVD of Cooper’s 1933 film.
I’m not saying Jackson has made the right or the wrong call in the fashioning of his own Kong, but stills from King Kong (Universal, 12.14) make it clear that his version is modelled pretty closely on the shape and musculature of real gorillas.
There may be some creative interpretation but compare Jackson’s ape with the shot [see below] of a Dianne Fossey gorilla…okay? Same deal. Grayish brown coat, big long Popeye arms, stubby hind legs, brown eyes.

Cooper’s Kong didn’t look like any gorilla, chimp or orangutan that had ever walked the earth. He was something between a prehistoric hybrid and an imaginary mon- ster of the id…a raging nightmare beast designed to scare the bejeesus out of 1933 moviegoers.
O’Brien, the legendary stop-motion phtography pioneer, used three slightly different-looking Kong models during filming, but for me the master stroke was deciding to give his Kong a set of gleaming white teeth and a pair of very bright white eyes.
In some of the darker shots of Kong in the 1933 film those teeth and those eyes just pop right out, and the effect is still primal as hell. Those white eyes and black pupils look so fierce and almost demonic…contrasting as they do with that black bear fur that Kong was covered in…that they almost give you the willies, even now.

Judging solely by the stills, there’s no such aura with Jackson’s National Geogra- phic Kong. The realism element is awesome but the guy doesn’t look all that spooky. I mean, not even a little bit. Ferocious and all, but he makes me think of Michael Apted and Sigourney Weaver.
There’s anothing wrong with this approach. It is what it is, and Jackson is going for his own thing. The stills and the trailer clearly suggest that his Kong is going to be one of the richest visual banquets in monster-movie history, if not movie history itself.
But in going for anthropological realism Jackson has thrown out that creepy, better-than-reality, only-in-the-movies element that gives the 1933 film a little- boy’s-nightmare quality.

Step On It

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (Columbia, 12.9) is this year’s model of the big bland Best Picture contender that everyone who isn’t a sucker for this kind of thing — expensive, beautifully produced, Oscar-hungry, terminally boring — needs to throw tomatoes at.
Seriously…let’s start the ball rolling now. IM your friends and coworkers and tell them you’ve heard it’s a tedious costume-movie drag, but also that it’s caught a certain headwind and there’s a slight chance it could metastasize into this year’s Chicago.

Ziyi Zhang during her big geisha-in-a-snowfall performance number that has zip to do with her character but a lot to do with Rob Marshall’s creative sensibility

The best thing about it is Gong Li’s performance as a jealous-bitch geisha in a Bette Davis mode. Otherwise the film is all costumes and pretty photography and a rags-to-riches story that creeps along at a petty pace.
It’s porcelain, nothing, stupefying…and every Godforsaken line of Chinese-accent English-language dialogue is like screeching chalk.
The first Academy-member Geisha screening happens tonight (11.21) so no pulse- readings until tomorrow, but there’s a poll of nine connected journos that just went up today on Movie City News called “Gurus of Gold,” and Geisha is being project- ed as one the top five Best Picture contenders.
Two of the respondents — Variety guy and Maxim critic Pete Hammond and USA Today‘s Scott Bowles — are actually projecting it as the most likely Best Picture winner…at this juncture.
The stars of Memoirs of A Geisha are Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li… three famed Chinese actresses played Japanese geishas and speaking English …and the feeling of Hollywood fakery and retrograde attitudes is fairly relentless.
The same Anglos-first mentality that led to the casting of Marlon Brando as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (’56) and Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura in Sayonara (’57) has prevailed once again.

And at no point does Memoirs of a Geisha feel like anything more than a colorful but perfunctory corporate tour of an exotic culture, tailor-made for Disney World Americans who won’t pay to see movies with subtitles.
I can tolerate the three Chinese actresses playing Japanese (although Ziyi doesn’t look Japanese for a second, and there’s a clear genetic difference in the faces of the two peoples), but the language and accent barriers are impossible.
Marshall should have shot a Japanese-language version concurrently, which Columbia could have concurrently released into select big-city theatres. Difficult but not impossible, and then people like me would have had an easier time of it.
There’s a scene early on in which a pair of young sisters are about to be forcibly separated. A very traumatic thing, but if this were to happen in real life the sisters would be in such shock they’d probably whimper a little bit and spend most of their last few seconds just staring at each other. Not in Rob Marshall’s world. When Geisha‘s sisters are torn apart the more spirited of the two goes, “Noooooo!!”
That’s a bullshit Hollywood reaction. People in bad Hollywood movies always go “noooo!!” when something bad happens. In a way, the whole movie is like this one scene. I didn’t believe a word of it.
And I wonder if the women for whom it’s been made will either. And I doubt if any real critical support will manifest. A publicist friend tells me all the journos he’s spoken are saying “pretty to look at, but cold.”
Robin Swicord and Doug Wright’s script is based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, which is a huge international best-seller. I think it’s safe to say that the movie will dampen interest in anyone who hasn’t yet read it wanting to do so. My God, who would want to take this journey twice?

Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanebe

Set in Japan in the 1930s and ’40s, Geisha is essentially a Cinderella story, and there’s not a hint of story tension or rooting interest in any part of it.
A little Japanese girl (Suzuka Ohgo) who will eventually be called Sayuri is sold to a geisha house (called an “okiya”), kicked around and treated like a slave. She’s quite pretty as an adolescent and is considered a special standout because of a pair of very weird-looking blue eyes (which throw you completely out of the film because they look like dopey contact lenses, pure and simple).
And then she grows up to be Ziyi Zhang, who doesn’t resemble Ohgo in the slightest.
This much-celebrated 26 year-old actress gives her first nothing performance here. She brought a fierce glaring passion and a taut physicality to her roles in Crouch- ing Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and found a sense of emotional truth in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, but here she’s a piece of wood.
Gong Li wields a much sharper blade as Sayuri’s wicked geisha nemesis Hatsu- momo. She’s stuck in the same mediocre Rob Marshall movie, but there’s fire in her veins and the heat burns through, and right away she has you thinking impure thoughts.
Sayuri, in any event, is trained to be a geisha and soon gets into an ongoing generational cat-fight with the older Hatsumomo. Her ally is Yeoh’s Mameha, a 40ish geisha playing a stock older-mentor character, dispensing sage advice with the usual kindly-patient smile.

Suzuka Ohgo (l.), Gong Li

Eventually Sayuri meets Prince Charming in the form of a businessman called “The Chairman” (Ken Watanabe) and falls for him. The usual hurdles and compli- cations have to be overcome before Watanebe finally recognizes what a treasure she is and tells her he loves her.
I think I was a little happier than Sayuri was when this happened.
The most irritating performance is given by Kaori Memoi, who plays the crusty and conniving Mother, the head of Sayuri’s geisha house. Her English is so bad and so grating I literally twitched in my seat at one point.
The movie stays with the explanation in Golden’s novel about what being a geisha is all about, which is that geishas are in no way prostitutes and are more about being a very refined form of arm candy…a poised and disciplined ideal of Japanese femininity.
And yet somehow, despite all the talk about no sexual favors, Sayuri and Mameha end up doing some nocturnal skinny-dipping with a bunch of Japanese business- men and an American colonel (Ted Levine) in the third act.
A Japanese businessman admirer of Sayuri has asked her to cuddle up to the American Colonel so he get get a business deal out of him, and when Levine’s character makes a move a few minutes later Sayuri is shocked and offended.
This is ridiculous, and another reason I didn’t believe what the film was selling. Geishas are not hookers, okay, but all my life I’ve been told that carnal knowledge is sometimes part of the equation. You just have to be the right guy with the right attitude, the good manners of a gentleman and a lot of money.

No one will argue with Geisha getting the usual below-the-line nominations that are always handed to a film of this type. Dion Beebe’s cinematography, John Myhre’s production design, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and John Williams’ score are all topnotch. What the hell, throw in nominations for the editor and the sound editing guys.
Geisha was mostly shot in the Los Angeles area (an outdoor Japanese village was built north of the city), including the Sony soundstages in Culver City. That means a lot of local people were paid top dollar, which tends to produce in the minds of Academy people an urge to reciprocate in the form of handing out Oscar nomina- tions in the less-important categories.
But classy window-dressings aren’t enough to justify nominating a film for Best Pic- ture. The above-the-line nutrition in Memoirs of a Geisha simply isn’t there, and no amount of cheerleading by its supporters is going to change that fact.