If anyone doubts that we live under the domination of a relentless, intolerant inquisition, take a look at why actor Adam Baldwin has just quit Twitter, deleting his entire Twitter history and abandoning (for now) his quarter-million followers.
Baldwin, who has been one of my favorite actors since his youthful performance in My Bodyguard and his more recent work in Firefly and Serenity, is also that most rare of birds in Hollywood: The outspokenly conservative celebrity.
Now, my politics are not Baldwin's, though we overlap here and there. But I respect courage and boldness wherever I find them, and let's face it, any working actor who declares conservative values is begging to be blacklisted.
What triggered Baldwin's departure from Twitter? Apparently, Twitter has created its own arm of the Inquisition: the Trust and Safety Council. Setting aside the deliciously Orwellian naming of this committee whose function is to censor and punish those who do not share "progressive" (i.e., regressive) values, what really griped Baldwin was Twitter's open and obvious punishment of other conservatives.
You might even suppose that Baldwin's departure was a preemptive strike, because he could certainly expect to be on the Inquisition's list for later punishment.
In particular, Baldwin objected to the banning of "prominent conservative tweeter Robert Stacy McCain ... and pointed to a recent article by The Federalist for an explanation of the situation."
Here's the pertinent quotation from that article:
"On Friday, Twitter suspended the account of Robert Stacy McCain, a conservative blogger and dogged critic of feminism, apparently without warning or explanation. This has led, in true Twitter fashion, to protests under the hashtag #FreeStacy.
"Only a few weeks earlier, Twitter had announced the creation of a 'Trust and Safety Council,' to which it appointed Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist known for denouncing 'sexism' in video games, a prominent figure in the Gamergate controversy -- and oh yes, a frequent target of criticism from McCain. So it sure looks like the moment Twitter gave Sarkeesian the power to do so, she started blackballing her critics."
These days, the power of the Inquisition is so naked and unrestrained that blacklisters don't even bother to hide what they're doing, beyond a bit of smoke and a few perfunctory lies.
Other prominent conservative participants on Twitter have had various levels of restriction placed on them, perhaps as a warning ... or a first step.
Since Twitter has decided to join the Inquisition, anybody who believes in free speech should consider taking the same action as Baldwin -- removing their membership in Twitter and moving to an internet site that still believes in free speech and diversity of opinion.
Remember that your presence on Twitter helps them to charge a higher rate for advertisements. If people who believe in free speech quit Twitter en masse, Twitter would either change their policy or reconcile themselves to being the MSNBC of social media -- a marginal site for leftwing fanatics.
Then again, punishing people instead of persuading them is what the Inquisition does.
So the Oscars will be broadcast this Sunday, and in many ways this will be an important one, even though the year in films was not all that exceptional.
It's important because this is the last Academy Awards show in which the voters will be able to give the award to the performance they think is most deserving.
Not that they always got it right; not that they really came all that close, most years. There's a long history of giving the Oscar to an actor that the voters realize should have gotten it years before, for another role, or to an actor who has been ignored completely. Thus John Wayne's True Grit Oscar, the year that Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight split the Midnight Cowboy vote. (Both of them later got Oscars for lesser roles.)
But with all their mistakes, it seems that the Academy members have taken their responsibilities seriously for the last fifty years or so. Not like the days when the studios ruled, and MGM's Academy members -- the largest group by far -- was expected to vote only for MGM nominees. (Which explains some of the laughable Best Picture Oscars in the 1930s that went to musical revues of only passing interest.)
This year, however, because this honest process did not yield any nominations of actors of color, a bunch of older Academy members are being punished by having their voting rights removed.
It used to be that once you were in the Academy, that was it. You were in for life. This allowed you to grow old gracefully and even retire without losing your Academy status.
But no longer. Even though the voting is by secret ballot, so that any of these newly jettisoned Academy members might well have nominated an all-black slate of nominees, it is assumed that it's the old guys who aren't yielding sufficiently politically correct results.
You know, #OscarsSoWhite.
In vain did some level heads, black and white, point out that in recent years blacks have been nominated for and given Oscars at a rate higher than the African-American proportion of the U.S. population.
Apparently, the Academy is now required to fill a certain quota of nominees of color every year, and they'll kick people out of the Academy until they get it right.
What will be the inevitable result? Voters will read the reviews and guess at which black-actor performances the critics agree were best, then nominate those whether they've seen them or not. I mean, why bother watching them when you'll lose your voting privileges if they don't show up on the ballot? Nobody likes compulsion, especially on a matter which is supposed to reflect your personal judgment.
Isn't it possible that a perfectly honest, completely non-racist process of nominating would get somewhat randomized results?
Isn't it possible that if there's a problem, it's the studios' fault for not making enough films with great roles for black actors?
Back in the 1990s, after Men in Black, I was in a meeting where I proposed Will Smith to play the part of Mazer Rackham in Ender's Game. I was patronizingly told that "Will Smith can't carry a film unless he's teamed with a white actor." To which I responded, "Tommy Lee Jones can't open a movie. Will Smith can." They patted my head and moved on.
At least one person in that meeting was black, but nodded right along with everyone else.
Hollywood executives and producers have bizarre and stupid ideas about what "mainstream" America wants to watch. When you look at the films Hollywood actually puts out, you can only conclude that their ideas border on the insane. It would help if some of them would occasionally have a conversation with an actual human from flyover country, but ... no, they'd just tell that human why he or she is completely wrong about what "the audience" will stand for.
Since studio execs lose their jobs if they greenlight movies that fail at the box office, they feel a great urgency about putting together movies that will make big money. Big money only happens when we ignorant flyover middle-Americans show up in large numbers.
But nobody in Hollywood knows what's going to sell, and because they rarely have even the slightest understanding of storytelling, they keep looking for magic spells with a passion bordering on frenzy.
Gotta have a star! Two stars! Jennifer Lawrence! Get a director who's famous. No, Oscar-winning. No, who had a lot of hits. No, recent hits. Can't get him? Then a young director -- he'll be in touch with, like, the 12-30-year-old males that drive the big budget flick.
And in the midst of all this, there is the openly-discussed assumption that "Middle America" is still as racist as 1955. So, to make money, you gotta put big-name actors, almost always white, in those leading roles.
Making a movie that has blacks in leading roles is still regarded as daring and dangerous, because "nobody" goes to those movies except in special cases. The Help was great -- because it had superwhite Emma Stone in the lead. (This gave Emma Stone a permanent "ethnic" feel in executives' minds, so she could be cast ludicrously as part native Hawaiian in Aloha.)
Blacks tend to be cast in parts that are about race, rather than simply being cast in parts because they'd give really good performances. There are rare exceptions, like casting Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as an aging married couple in 5 Flights Up, which, in the half that I watched the other night, seemed not to be about race, but rather about love and age and keeping control of your life.
But if blacks aren't getting nominated in "sufficient" numbers, isn't it far more likely that the solution would be for studios to move toward talent-based, race-neutral casting rather than punishing Academy members who are too powerless in the industry to defend themselves, and whose votes and nominations are a secret anyway?
Count on it: From now on, there will be a black actor nominated in every acting category, every year, and quite possibly two or three -- because Academy members don't want to lose their Oscar-voter status.
One unintended consequence of this, of course, will be to place an asterisk beside every black actor's nomination from now on. Everyone will assume that the black nominees would not have been nominated were it not for the pressure from #OscarsSoWhite and the new policy of punishing older and less-famous Academy members if blacks aren't nominated.
All Oscar nominations to black actors, from now on, will be the equivalent of that miniature Oscar that was given to Shirley Temple. Here's an award; you didn't earn a real Oscar nomination, but since we're going to be punished if you don't get one, here, take it.
They might as well do what they did for animated feature films -- create a new category. Best Performance by an Actor of Color in a Supporting Role; Best Performance by a White Actor in a Supporting Role. Same statue. But four categories of their own so persons of color would never be left out.
This would be an insult to every African-American actor, but so is #OscarsSoWhite. It's a declaration by the complainers that they don't think black actors can compete.
They point to Straight Outta Compton as the film that should have dominated the Oscar nominations. But wait a minute. This is a movie whose trailer promises that it will be self-righteous about race, that it will hate most white people, that it will be absurdly pretentious about "art," and that it will condone having black characters toting guns everywhere. Above all, it promises that it will have a soundtrack that is wall-to-wall hip-hop.
Can I give a better definition of a niche film? A film designed to exclude mainstream America which is, after all, 88% non-black? Tyler Perry does a much better job of inviting middle America to his niche films, because at least he promises that sometimes the audience will actually have fun, and nobody will ever, ever talk about "art."
Niche films rarely lead to nominations, because most audience members decline to see them. Take 2004's The Passion of the Christ. Even though this was one of the biggest money-makers of its year, it was still a niche film, because the millions of people who went to see it were not from Hollywood, which wrote the whole project off as another proof that Mel Gibson is wacko.
There were some great performances in it, but because most critics were not part of that niche audience, nobody nominated any of those performances. Passion got three Oscar nominations -- cinematography, original score, and makeup.
Straight Outta Compton got a nomination for best original screenplay. Yeah, that's "only" the writers, not the actors -- but it shows way more respect for the movie than niche films usually get.
Oh, but wait. The Compton writers are all white. So that's, like, even more proof of racism, because only the white writers were nominated in this racist Oscar competition.
So from now on, all black actors who receive Oscar nominations will be assumed to have that "honor" only because of their race, and not because of the quality of their work. Though of course nobody will dare to say that out loud at the Oscar ceremony.
It's like getting on the New York Times bestseller list, after they moved J.K. Rowling to the newly created children's book category in order to allow writers of "real" novels to "win."
From then on, there was an invisible asterisk. "Number One New York Times Bestseller"* -- and the asterisk leads you to the explanation, "(Actually #6, because five Harry Potter novels sold way, way more copies, but they were moved into the children's book category so this clown could brag about being #1.)"
That's the kind of asterisk that will attach to all black acting nominations after this year: "(There may have been several performances more Oscar-worthy, but this is the black actor we all kind of agreed on so they don't take away our voting rights.)"
Isn't that the opposite of all the progress that led to black nominations and Oscars in the last three decades?
Let's look category by category since the mid-1980s: In Best Actress there were eight years between Whoopi Goldberg and Angela Basset, and another eight till Halle Berry was nominated and won, and eight more before Gabourey Sidibe was nominated in 2009. But then there were black actresses nominated in 2011 and 2012, so the pace had really picked up.
Still, when was it decided that after one Best Actress nomination every eight years, suddenly it was a racism emergency if we went two years in a row without a black actress nominated in that category?
In Best Actor, there was never so long a gap. After 1986, the longest was the five years between Morgan Freeman for Shawshank and Denzel Washington for The Hurricane in 1999. After that, there were two gaps of three years each. Oh, and three actual Best Actor Oscars awarded to blacks.
From 1981's nomination of Howard Rollins for Ragtime, the Best Supporting Actor category had one gap of seven years -- from 2006 to 2014. Three gaps of three years. And otherwise, every other year or back to back -- and two years with two black nominees.
In Best Supporting Actress, from Alfre Woodard in 1983, there were two gaps of six years and one gap of five. There were also five Oscars for black actresses. Five in thirty years, or one-sixth of the awards in that category. A greater portion than the black percentage of the U.S. population -- but they earned those nominations and Oscars, and the Academy had no problem giving them.
Black performers got more nominations and awards in "supporting" categories for the obvious reason that black actors got more supporting than leading roles. That's the racism of the studios, not any sign of racism in the Oscars.
What's the point of this? Since roughly the mid-1980s, black performers have been steadily honored with nominations and awards, but in each category, there have been periods of several years in a row with no nominations, in that category, for black performers.
Why should we think it's anything but coincidence when those gaps occasionally overlap? Nobody thought there was some black conspiracy in years when blacks were nominated in multiple categories. There was no #OscarSoBlack complaint. We simply enjoyed the clips and the speeches and then, as always, completely forgot who won within a few weeks of the ceremony.
There is no evidence that, since the mid-80s, racism has in any way restricted black actors and actresses in the Oscar nominations or voting.
But starting next year, the Oscars will be corrupted by racism. And the blacks who are nominated under this new threat of punishment will be up for an Oscar much reduced in value.
All because, after 30 years of blacks receiving at least their demographic share of nominations through honest voting, the racists of #OscarSoWhite don't think today's black performers are good enough to earn such honors without intimidation.
I think they're wrong, and only blacks will suffer from this newly racist Oscar system.
But then, I'm an old white male, so in our open-minded, anti-discriminatory, diverse society, my race, age, and gender mean that nobody has to pay attention to anything I say.
Every year at our Oscar-watching party, we all cast a vote for each film or person that we wish would win, and another for each that we expect will win. I am never even close to winning the prize in either category.
But it's fun to watch the Oscar show, and hoot and make jokes about the stupider speeches and jokes and dresses.
I haven't felt the need to see all the nominees in most categories, because I've learned that any movie which, from the promos, looks unwatchable to me, is probably going to be unwatchable. I'm old, I've already had one stroke, and so why in the world should I waste two precious hours of whatever life I have left watching a movie that I don't care about?
I'm so radical that I don't even finish books that I began but didn't enjoy. I don't owe either the authors or the filmmakers one more minute of my time than they earn.
Sometimes I avoid movies because, even though I assume they're excellent, the subject matter is unbearable. That's why I couldn't watch Room, even though my wife assures me that the book and the movie are both brilliant and moving and nowhere near as disturbing as I fear.
But I can't watch the mistreatment of children. I just can't. So ... you have my wife's thumbs-up on Room, and I assume she's right.
(Ditto with Spotlight. I've seen all the reporter-as-hero movies I need to see in my life, and I know too many people who have been victims of abuse from trusted caregivers to want to live through any retellings that are enhanced for my viewing pleasure.)
Here's what I have seen, among the Best Picture nominees, that I recommend.
I think Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the two best science fiction movies of the year. In most years, that isn't saying much, because there isn't all that much good sci-fi. But Fury Road was not only a non-stop, inventive chase with lots of flames and explosions and falling rocks and gruesome deaths -- it was also a story of courage and hope and redemption, in which people discovered that there were causes and people they would die for.
The other sci-fi movie worth its nomination is The Martian. They did a beautiful job of adapting an excellent novel, but with the passage of time, I've come to realize that much of my enthusiasm for the movie was a carryover from the novel. The movie is very good, memorably good, but I'm not sure it has the emotional power or artistic achievements of Fury Road.
I didn't see Bridge of Spies because it was directed by Steven Spielberg, and I can only take so much utterly dishonest filmmaking in my life. Spielberg has, as far as I can remember, directed only one honest movie, Empire of the Sun. And when he is filming a "true" story, he is at his most pandering and dishonest. Why, then, would I see Bridge of Spies?
I didn't see The Revenant because I saw the promos and there was nothing in the promos to make me want to see the movie. I don't actually care what CGI bears do to overrated actors.
The Big Short tackled the enormous challenge of getting an audience to care about complex financial manipulations, and brought it off very, very well. Sometimes it was a little too self-consciously clever; some of the performances were a bit too cute in their eccentricity. But overall, it was an excellent movie that kept me completely involved.
Never mind that the movie completely ignored any contributing causes of the 2008 crash in the housing market stemming from laws passed by mostly-left-wing Congresswights responding to pressure from civil rights activists. The filmmakers have to live in Hollywood, where the Inquisition punishes that kind of honesty. The parts they do explain are important and, as far as my knowledge extends, reasonably accurate.
Best of all, though: It's really entertaining, with a cast of actors who are not overrated, so it's a pleasure to watch them work. And the writing sizzles.
If Matt Damon won Best Actor for The Martian, I'd be delighted. It was a harder role to play than it might have seemed, because the whole point of the story is that the character, faced with certain death, stays calm and saves his life with science. No scenery-chewing. No tears. Just excellence.
But in truth the actor that I'm rooting for is Michael Fassbender, whose performance in Steve Jobs was spot on, as he acted out a motto that I've been saying for forty years: Genius excuses nothing.
Fassbender's task was enormously complicated, interacting with co-workers, friends, and, above all, his daughter -- though he was helped by the most brilliant screenplay of the year. Fassbender made every speech, every word, every silence count. It was the most masterful and subtle performance of the year.
If Bryan Cranston wins for Trumbo, I'll just assume he's really winning for Breaking Bad. Stories about writers are always boring -- especially "persecuted" Communist writers who took orders from Stalin during the 1930s and then denied it. Trumbo isn't a hero or a martyr, and I have no interest in a movie that distorts history to try to make him into either.
Jennifer Lawrence was the main reason Joy was watchable, but she deserves a purple heart for saving that awful script, not an Oscar. My wife assures me that Brie Larson gave a truly brilliant, moving, and real performance in Room, and so I'll join her in rooting for Larson to win.
Is it possible that Sylvester Stallone, who gave an Oscar-worthy performance in Rocky back in 1976, will finally receive an Oscar for his supporting role in Creed?
Anything's possible. But Christian Bale is wonderful in The Big Short; Tom Hardy should have been nominated for Fury Road and so might pick up the supporting award for The Revenant, and Mark Ruffalo is always wonderful and I assume he gives a great performance in Spotlight. Therefore I assume the award will go to Mark Rylance for his role in the Spielberg movie.
The only performance I've seen among the nominated actresses in a supporting role is Kate Winslet's performance in Steve Jobs. She is absolutely brilliant, and it's worth saying that Fassbender's performance would have been impossible without Kate Winslet partnering with him so perfectly. Since I usually find Winslet annoying (see Titanic), which worked for her in Sense & Sensibility, I was not prepared for how powerful and yet natural she was in Steve Jobs. I wouldn't mind a bit if she won.
Inside Out will win for animated feature. If it doesn't, then the whole Academy should lose their voting rights.
In our house, we view The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Room as viable contenders for the Best Director award. Of course, I haven't seen Room and my wife hasn't seen Fury Road, but look, at least Tarantino and Scorsese aren't nominated, so I probably won't hate the outcome.
It is ludicrous that Aaron Sorkin is not nominated for Best Screenplay for Steve Jobs. No, not ludicrous: shameful. This is a written movie, a movie of words and relationships. Only The Big Short is comparable for the sheer difficulty of the task, and Steve Jobs is simply better. A towering achievement. Not nominated.
But Sorkin was nominated a few years ago for an Oscar for co-writing Moneyball, and he won the writing Oscar for The Social Network, so ... even though Steve Jobs is a better script than either of those, Sorkin surely knows by now that people don't usually win the top awards for their best work. It's enough to win an Oscar for something. I won't cry for you, Aaron Sorkin. Instead, you have my invisible standing ovation.
Of the nominated screenplays, I'm afraid my personal favorites are The Martian in Adapted Screenplay, and Inside Out in Original Screenplay. Why? Because both of these scripts were almost impossible to write well.
Inside Out should have been tacky, smarmy, and filled with pop-psychology bushwa. Instead, Pete Docter and his writing partners, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, gave us a movie that was sensible, compassionate, and entertaining every moment.
The Martian had to tell a story whose best moments, in the novel, were completely unfilmable. Instead, Drew Goddard found ways to bring off the same results using visually coherent methods, and his screenplay is truly an Oscar-worthy achievement. In all likelihood, the award will go to splashier movies. But as a writer, I know what is very, very hard to do -- and Goddard did it.
I've skipped categories where I don't know enough to have an opinion.
Well, no. I always have an opinion. Let's just say that in those categories I know so little about the art that I have no respect for my own opinion.
But there are two categories where I saw every nominee: Short Animated and Short Live Action Film. That's because Red Cinemas has continued the tradition of showing the Oscar-nominated shorts during the days prior to the Oscar broadcast.
Last Monday evening I was one of a group of five who sat through some wonderful movies, and, unlike many past years, every single one of them was worth watching.
In Live Action, Ave Maria took a weird and wonderful approach to religion. A Jewish family is driving through the Arab Muslim West Bank when their car breaks down. This is not safe for Jews, but fortunately they are at a convent. Unfortunately, they damage the statue of the Holy Mother, and then have to deal with the nuns' vow of silence.
Stereotypes about Jews and Catholics are dealt with humorously and affectionately. Yes, the family is kosher -- except that the aging, crippled mother is thirsty and nobody asked you to look in the kitchen and see how non-kosher this beverage is. Yes, the family desperately needs a ride, but no, the husband is not going to pay such a ludicrous amount for a cab ride.
Day One is an unforgettable film about a female interpreter during her first day working with a squad of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. She's ready linguistically, but not emotionally, as she finds herself trying to cope with a woman who goes into labor just as the soldiers are arresting her husband for owning and, presumably, deploying explosives. By the end, we love everybody involved -- this film doesn't hate anybody and it isn't about whether this war or any war is good or bad. It's about people trying to be decent to each other at a terrible time.
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut) is a German film about a divorced man whose afternoon with his beloved daughter turns into an attempt to spirit her out of the country before she can be taken completely away from him. Everything happens so gradually that he could almost have married and had a second child before it's done, but ... the performances are excellent, especially the little girl.
Shok is set in Kosovo during the Serbian persecution of the Kosovars. We Americans were repeatedly told that the Kosovars were Albanians who had moved or migrated into Serbia, but this is simply false.
Albanians are the original population of huge swathes of the Balkans, and the Albanian-speakers in Kosovo are there because that's where their ancestors have lived for two thousand years, and it's not their fault that Serbians became their political and military masters when Yugoslavia broke up.
Knowing this makes the story of a friendship between two Kosovar boys all the more poignant. One boy is collaborating with the Serbian overlords in order to make some money, but it's his friend who pays the price for his mistakes. It's a story of regret and remorse, and I found it moving. The title Shok suggests that I should also be taken by surprise, but I was not. Like any good tragedy, the ending is completely foreseeable; watching it approach while knowing more than the characters is part of the catharsis.
Any one of these live-action shorts would be a worthy Oscar winner, though I would lean toward Day One or Shok. But my favorite is the painfully sweet Stutterer. Greenwood (Matthew Needham) has such a terrible stutter that even though he spends most of his waking hours planning what he's going to say, he can barely get any words out.
But he has a wonderful text-message relationship with a delightful woman to whom words are very important, she says. And then she springs it on him that she's in London for a couple of days and she wants to meet him.
He almost blows it by trying to hide from an encounter where he knows he'll disgust her; but then he keeps the rendezvous. I'm not going to spoil anything about it. Let's just say that despite the fact that she gets very little screen time, Chloe Pirrie is wonderful as Ellie, and even though the movie ends with them still across a busy street from each other, I can't think how it could have ended better.
No, Stutterer does not have the raw power of Day One or Shok, and it isn't played for laughs like Ave Maria. But for beauty and heart, it stands alone, and I hope, though I do not expect, that it will win.
The Animated Short Film category is a little more uneven in quality. Bear Story was entertaining, but the best thing about it was a wonderful show-within-the-show, in which tiny clockwork mechanical bears act out a story of love and loss.
Prologue was a disturbing depiction of pre-technological men finding different ways to fight, injure, and kill each other. At the end we're shown a woman and child and I suppose we're supposed to see them as innocent victims of the violence of men -- but that only shows the filmmakers' ignorance of history, since violence is within the toolkit of every category of human.
In a perverse way, you could view it as a kind of pro-Second Amendment movie, since all the killing is done without the use of any guns. If you're squeamish, though, make it a point to avoid this movie.
I loved We Can't Live without Cosmos, a Russian film about a pair of cosmonauts who have been inseparable since childhood, and who help each other become the best-qualified cosmonauts to be launched into space. It's whimsical and funny and poignant and sad.
But my favorite -- and the funniest -- was World of Tomorrow, written, directed, produced, and everything elsed by Don Hertzfeldt. With the very simplest of line-drawing animation, we meet a little girl of our time who is visited by her future self and told way more information than young Emily can possibly absorb.
In fact, it is young Emily's childish innocence that makes this story work, since the picture of the future, full of technological marvels, is quite appalling, and we're very glad when Emily returns to her own time, where she can live out the rest of her childhood before things start going horribly wrong.