Tinseltown's Progressive Turn

Jon Stewart gave it that old college try as the host of this year's Academy Awards. He had a few on-target one-liners but couldn't seem to light the place on fire. If, as the old song goes, "you can't put a tuxedo on the funky blues," you also can't take a comic from the controlled television culture and assume that because he's popular in one medium, he will knock the socks off another.

Jon is in the attitude business, not the news business. He's ridiculing news media and political pretensions every day and, as a result, has become a countercultural, anti-establishment hero.

But the Academy Awards is an establishment function -- an annual spectacle of the movie business and culture. It is deliberately star-studded, packaged to sell the dream machine and, with it, the fashions and personalities of the day.

Putting it down while pumping it up is a contradiction that's hard to resolve, which could be one reason the show's ratings were down this year. But we also saw a concerned Hollywood taking on shallow Hollywood, challenging mindless entertainment with films that matter. That's why we were treated to the montage of "social issues" movies that Stewart smugly joked about ("And none of those issues were ever a problem again," he quipped after the montage).

Still, Jon knows that "Daily Show's" parent company, Viacom (which also owns CBS) never would have made a tough film about the network's glory years, such as George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" (which, sadly, didn't win anything).

But this year's batch of socially conscious films all took battles to make and offered the kind of creative commentary we rarely see on television. The 1976 film "Network" was about TV -- not a product of it -- and was far more radical than "Daily Show." That movie (which Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for) appealed to its viewers, not just to smirk or smile, but to shout, "I am mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" (In some ways, that's what media activists are doing now, with the upcoming protests against media coverage of the war.)

That's also why George Clooney (who won an Oscar for his role in the complex "Syriana," which was situated in the Dubai ports-related Emirates) seemed pissed at Stewart's dismissive attitude when he sneered "congratulations to us" after watching the montage of "movies that matter."

It was remarkable, though, to see film after film -- in this age of Bush -- taking on important subjects, from TV news to sexual harassment to racial tension to homophobia to Israeli assassination squads. That's why Clooney -- who knows what it takes to make critical films -- said he was proud to be part of today's Hollywood. (Watch for a new book by Ben Dickenson, "Hollywood's New Radicalism," which addresses this growing trend towards the "political," and puts it in the context of recent social movements against globalization and war.)

This is also why the right-wing punditocracy loves to bash "the Hollywood agenda" for "homosexualizing America," in the same way it once supported the red hunt in Tinseltown.

As a review in the Independent noted:

"Yet, despite Bush's victory, the mood of opposition among Hollywood talent has not dwindled, as the recent spate of politicized film-making demonstrates. One film, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," summarizes where many Hollywood progressives currently find themselves. It deals with contemporary social issues: distrusted presidents, terrorism, corporate power, racism and war. (Sean) Penn took it on as a pet project. The crucial speech in the film questions the global leaders of government and business: "Who are these men that keep us waiting at their feet? I will not go quietly."
Neither, it seems, will Hollywood's "new radicals."

The Oscar hoopla has a global dimension, too. The world was watching as a French film ("March of the Penguins") won the documentary prize, and a South African film ("Tsotsi") won for Best Foreign Film, with the director championing his colleagues in an unusual act of solidarity. A controversial Palestinian film, "Paradise Now," was also nominated.

In Baghdad, blogger Riverbend was watching and, inspired to propose an Iraqi version of the Oscars, she satirically nominated George W. Bush for "Best Actor," writing,
George W. Bush in "OIF: The War on Terror," the third sequel to the original "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Weapons of Mass Destruction" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Liberating Iraqis." Bush's nomination comes for his convincing portrayal as the world's first mentally challenged president.
Is Escapism Out?

In a closer-to-home assessment in the LA Daily News, Ed Rampell (author of "Progressive Hollywood"), notes that "escapism is out, and thought-provoking topicality is in:
"Not since the 1940s, when the pro-union 'The Grapes of Wrath' and the anti-fascist 'The Great Dictator' were Best Picture nominees, have so many left-tilting studio features, indies and documentaries been in Academy Award contention. Clearly socially conscious movies -- from 'Good Night, and Good Luck' to 'Brokeback Mountain' -- are back ..."
"Grant Heslov, who produced and co-wrote 'Good Night, and Good Luck' with Clooney, explains: "When George and I conceived this it was to (ask): Is the media questioning authority enough? To us, that is the most important job of the fourth estate. Clearly, they weren't doing that during the lead-up to the war." But poor reporting didn't make truth disappear. As Heslov indicates, it moved to other mediums, and progressive Hollywood reemerged as a sort of fifth estate."
Yes, Hollywood is dominated by a handful of big studio moguls. Yes, moviemaking is as much about marketing as messages. And yes, that affluent environment can get self-righteous, clubby and pretentious. But don't underestimate the drive and creativity of those with something to say when they have the means, and the will, to say it. I only wish the top-down environment of TV news could be opened to exploring real issues and real news -- and could include the sometimes sophomoric posturing at Jon Stewart's "Daily Show."

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