Hey! You There! Read This!!
January 21st, 2015
It’s Oscar season, which naturally occurs during the shittiest part of the shittiest season of the year. You’ve probably heard of the Selma “snub” by now. I was annoyed by pretty much everything I saw on Facebook (I usually am) yet all this hoopla got me out of the apartment on a national holiday to go see the film – and it was pretty damn good. Here are my big takeaways from the solo viewing venture:
1. Bradford Young is the best cinematographer in the world.
2. Most of the objections to LBJ’s portrayal in the film are bullshit.
3. Most of the apologies for LBJ’s portrayal in the film are bullshit.
In case you haven’t heard, a lot of the controversy over Ava DuVernay’s film concerns her depiction of the Civil Rights Era president, which begins with the casting of an exceptionally glumpy Tom Wilkinson and involves several tense scenes of stodginess and sagginess before a climactic n-bomb in a conversation with overall bag-of-shit George Wallace. Some – including former aides and associates of Johnson – think LBJ comes off as a villain, or, at best, a Scrooge that he never was in the flesh. Some disagree. DuVernay is a black woman director, which of course adds a racial-socio-economic-genderneutrological edge to every bit of criticism (and praise) Selma has received.
I’m not going to dissect both sides of this debate. Want to weigh in on how LBJ is treated in the movie? Go see it. And do yourself a favor: don’t read any op-ed pieces written about it.
Last week, my friends’ inflammatory posts prompted me to Google “Selma LBJ” – this article in Forbes was one of the first that popped up:
Catchy title, huh? Again, don’t read it. This guy, in particular, writes like a horse. I’ll give you a brief synopsis. Basically this guy Mark Hughes says that the decrying of DuVernay’s LBJ is founded on a misunderstanding of how cinema works. Filmmakers (via the fundamental process of montage, ya see) can only show a few select, precious moments of any person’s screen-life (or, arc). The elision of these moments naturally betrays other moments where the character may have behaved differently. Therefore, in the scene that ends with LBJ telling his aide “get me J. Edgar Hoover,” the President does not necessarily succumb to Hoover’s suggestion of digging up dirt on MLK – they might have just ended up playing golf later, talking about the wives!
Okay, that’s a snarky (albeit mostly accurate) synopsis. There are actually some valid points made throughout. Here’s what really stinks: Mark Hughes’ op-ed is 7 pages long.
7 pages??? Who’s going to read all that, man?? How did Forbes publish that?? I bet your wife didn’t even make it through page 4 with sentences like this:
Showing history through the eyes of specific people in specific circumstances means their context and their outlook and their expectations can and should have significant impact on the presentation of that history through their eyes.
If it wasn’t equally important to LBJ or other liberal whites or whomever, that doesn’t translate into universal objective fact that it’s not as important as those things.
What are “those things”? That sentence literally makes no sense at all. Hughes’ piece is just plain bad writing, and I know Forbes is not the only major publication courting such confusing milieus. That’s the problem – no, wait. The problem is that everything needs to have a problem.
In the world of social media, a clickable headline has to be a “problem,” or “what’s wrong with x” (and if you’re BuzzFeed or Upworthy, everything is either “beautiful” or “heartbreaking”). Here’s a more recent headline from The Washington Post:
The clickbait thing, y’know, I get it. It works – I clicked. No qualms with that. But this piece is really just a benign informational article about Coretta Scott King, posed as a contrarian diatribe. Mark Hughes’ piece is an essay on cinematic portrayals of historical figures, posed as – yep – a contrarian diatribe. I’m sure many of us have seen this kind of thing before, and my problem with the trend is that it takes someone who is probably not a bad writer and turns them into, well, you know.
There is always too much to say, especially about a movie like Selma. Great art deserves a strong response, but it feels like everyone is trying to get the last word (“the biggest problem,” et al). Call it the hubris of social media, call it whatever you want – we all just wanna be right, or do our best sounding like it. For the sake of us readers, though, focus more on the second part. I bet this Mark Hughes guy has enough to say about a single scene in Selma to fill 3 pages. Dude, do that. It would be unique, it would be interesting, it would be 3 pages. Hopefully fewer.
I’m almost at 1,000 words, writing about how people should write less. Let me conclude: people should stop trying to write all these argumentative essays like they’re still in high school. The Internet has more for us.