Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Judging the movies

I am thinking of changing the name of this web site to Scott’s Media Comments. That’s because I keep getting distracted by things going on in the mass media. Okay, no, I’m not really thinking about doing that. But only because I don’t want to go through the expense and hassle of registering another domain name. Still, I find my mind wandering back to issues I dabbled in last week, i.e. press coverage of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and the templates (often movie-inspired) used by the media.

I’ll return to the topic briefly (before I get into the burning issue I really want to talk about this week) just to correct my American-centric focus of last week. Then I will leave it behind. After all, I am already one major hurricane behind.

Being an American, I naturally concentrated on American press coverage last week. But it is interesting to compare how the press in different countries packaged the news event. For the sake of brevity, I will just focus on the three national press cabals I am personally most familiar with. What was striking about American coverage was how similar it was to coverage of the Iraq war. The anticipation of a Big Event, followed by shock and awe, followed by harrowing tales of people trapped in their homes or else in refugee caravans. Not only this, but in the near-term aftermath phase we heard reports of looting and snipers and lawlessness that was eerily reminiscent of reports out of Baghdad in the weeks after the allied invasion. The following phase in this disaster-as-war template was the focus on shortcomings on the planning and execution by the government in Washington and how it was affecting public opinion. My sense of déjà vu got really overwhelming when I actually heard a report that Cindy Sheehan was calling on the U.S. troops to be withdrawn from New Orleans.

As I suggested last time, the media have an agenda in the way they create these templates (other than the obvious one, which is that they might actually fit the facts on the ground). That agenda is that it makes a good story. Human beings, for whatever reason, always crave a good story. And the media crave to give it to them. Of course, the political spinners have their own agendas as well, and sometimes one or the other of these coincides with the press’s. You can spot these partisan templates by the key phrases the keep getting repeated by each side. From the president on down, the operative phrases was “the blame game.” This term cropped up with a derisive tone among Republican types everywhere, somehow suggesting that it was unseemly to try to assign responsibility for problems to anybody. On the other side, the phrase I kept hearing, mainly from liberal commentators, was that Bush kept looking for a “megaphone moment.” The idea here seemed to be that it was petty and unseemly for a president to make a speech at the scene of a disaster. But it was a good political formulation because it not only capitalized on the idea of Bush out of his depth but also attempted to dim the luster of one of his strongest moments, his speech at ground zero after 9/11.

Interestingly, the inevitable post-disaster partisan debate did not evolve into one side defending the federal response and the other attacking it. Everyone agreed that the government’s response fell short, and the argument was over why. Conservatives said it was because federal bureaucracies are inherently unable to respond quickly and decisively to anything. (I was a bit amused when National Public Radio ran an “exposé” about a FEMA employee who had sent an email to Mike Brown about how serious Katrina was going to be. The employee then went home for the night and couldn’t understand why no one had done anything by the next morning when he came back in.) The liberal position, of course, was that the federal response was botched because Bush was in charge.

So, how did the British and Irish coverage compare to the American reporting? Well, the BBC coverage was pretty consistent with any reporting it has ever done on the American South, which is to say that it approaches the South as it were reporting on apartheid-era South Africa. To that extent, their tone was no different than any major disaster story in a third world country. To the extent that they had plenty of images and sound bites to support that template, it does not reflect well on the United States. Again, that the disaster exposed intolerable poverty in the wealthiest country on earth was not in dispute among the politicos. The argument was over what was perpetuating the poverty. Again, liberals and conservatives had different answers.

What about Irish coverage? At the risk of reviving old stereotypes, I have to say that I was most impressed by the reporter sent into New Orleans by RTÉ radio. At the exact same time that American correspondents were gravely reporting that not a single business was open in the city, the Irish reporter was phoning in his story from a lively pub in the French Quarter that had not closed its doors once before, during or after the storm.

But enough about all that. What I really want to talk about this week is something that is going to have an effect on all our lives for a long time. As you know, the U.S. Senate is, as I write this, about to confirm President Bush’s choice to head the most powerful court in the world, probably for the next several decades. If you watched any of the Senate confirmation hearings, then you probably felt as I did. Judge Roberts sailed through with nearly a free ride. The senators, being senators, could not resist the urge to spend their allotted question time doing most of the talking. It wasn’t that Roberts wouldn’t answer questions. He barely had a chance to get a word in edgewise. After all those hours, what do we really know about the man? Not too much more than we knew before.

Thank God then for Senator Charles Schumer of New York. When all seemed lost, he actually managed to elicit some dynamite information from the other otherwise guardedly cautious Judge Roberts. During the hearings, two weeks ago, Schumer vented at length about the circumspect nature of Roberts’s answers to questions. He created an elaborate metaphor about how Roberts might obfuscate his personal opinion on the classic 1942 movie Casablanca. Roberts, perhaps not picking up on the fact that it was a metaphor, quickly volunteered the title of two of his favorite movies. And with that, we learned volumes about the man. His picks? David Lean’s 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. Interesting choices indeed for an American male born in 1955.

What are we to make of the fact that he named two films made by English-born directors, and ones that ended up being knighted to boot? Or that his picks are both films that were established as classics before he personally had even reached adolescence? On the surface, these seem like safe choices. Both were great commercial successes and audience pleasers. But neither was considered to be the top film ever made by their respective directors. Zhivago is positively middle-brow when compared to the more challenging political themes of such Lean films as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. And Northwest is not nearly as psychologically probing as such Hitchcock fare as Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window.

The most worrying thing about Roberts’s selections is something that is difficult to discuss, for reasons of political correctness. It is something that we all know is true, but everyone is afraid to say publicly. But I will fearlessly cut through all the whispers and innuendo and just say it in black and white. Doctor Zhivago is basically a chick flick. Sure, it won five Oscars, is based on an acclaimed novel and has ostensible geopolitical elements. But we all know that it is mainly women who love this movie and that they sit there watching it while dabbing their eyes with damp tissues. Do we really want a Supreme Court justice who prefers this to nearly any other movie?

But I suspect that the truth is more complicated than this. There is a good reason why normal, healthy, red-blooded guys sometimes say they like movies like Doctor Zhivago. Sometimes it is because they have extremely fond memories of “getting lucky” within hours after seeing it. In Roberts’s case, I strongly suspect that the case is that what he really meant is that Doctor Zhivago is his wife’s favorite movie and, as he is a good husband, that makes it his favorite movie too.

And that reminds me. Today happens to be the Missus’s birthday. I love you, honey! After dinner, let’s settle in and watch our favorite movie, The Way We Were!

-S.L., 29 September 2005

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive