Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Bereft screens

I was quite prepared to let last week’s rant about compulsory TV licenses and national broadcasters in the British Isles stand as written. But a couple of things happened, which made me want to elaborate.

For one thing, I went back and read what I wrote and realized that I probably came off as some kind of right-wing reactionary, who is an anti-environment and pro-Iraq War. Well, maybe I am. Or maybe I’m not. Either way, it doesn’t matter—since my point was strictly about how, in a media situation insulated from serious competition, there is a tendency to report one’s own perception rather than dig for facts. Such an abuse of a country’s institutional news source can be a dagger in the heart of either the left or the right, depending on the prevailing mindset in the state media.

In describing how the Hutton Report chastised the BBC because a radio presenter made an assertion that was not supported by any known facts, my point was not that the Blair government was justified (or for that matter, not justified) in participating in the invasion of Iraq. It was that there is something a bit scary about the fact that this presenter felt that he could just say something over the air (that the British government knew full well that there were no WMDs in Iraq) because he felt that it must be true. If it is true, then go out and dig and find the evidence. That is what journalism is all about.

Another thing that happened since last week to keep me thinking about all this was the sudden death of NBC political honcho and premier Sunday morning interviewer Tim Russert. There was a huge outpouring of emotion from his colleagues, as well as from those who had been interrogated by him over the years, all of which was clearly heartfelt and certainly justified. As fate would have it, a couple of days after Russert’s untimely passing, I was catching up on the previous week’s podcasts and happened to hear Russert’s name invoked several times as emblematic of what is wrong with the current state of journalism. The program was NPR’s On the Media, and interviewee Arianna Huffington, aided and abetted by host Bob Garfield, was raking Russert over the coals.

Said Huffinton, “'[C]ritics will say’ is the way that many in the media, including Tim Russert, try to bring that fake balance. Very often ‘critics will say’ is the spin of the administration in the last seven and a half years.” What Huffinton ignored was that Russert used this devil’s advocate gambit on people on all sides of an issue, not just opponents of the Bush administration. The truth is that this formulation actually helps interviewees, by giving them the chance to argue their positions more effectively. It tells us a lot about Huffington that, for certain news show guests, she would prefer that the fact that there might be opposing points of view not to be mentioned.

She continued, “And it’s not surprising that Cathie Martin, who is the communications director in Cheney’s office, called Meet the Press our, quote, unquote, ‘best format,’ because we can, quote, unquote, ‘control the message.'”

Replied interviewer Garfield, “Well now, one of the reasons the White House and most other political figures prefer the Sunday talk show format is because it’s unedited, and if a question is asked they can not answer it. So, in that sense, they control the message, not because they’re pulling the strings of the Tim Russert puppet.” Is it just me or is it an Orwellian use of language to call a live TV interview not subject to editing as somehow being “controlled” by the interviewee? Sure, interviewees can refuse to answer a question, but the whole world sees them refusing to answer and can draw its own conclusion.

Added Huffington, “I think they control the message because of the lack of critical follow-up questions.” I’m sorry, but anybody who thinks that anyone who appeared on Meet the Press was not subjected to critical follow-up questions simply was not watching the show. Nobody drilled down with his questioning until he got some kind of substantive answer like Tim Russert. We invariably gleaned tons more useful information from five minutes of listening to a Tim Russert interview than we ever will from listening to hours of interviews conducted by Bob Garfield.

The creator of creatures (1946-2008)

Every so often, when a versatile veteran character actor dies, we look at the list of their screen roles and go, wow, was that the same guy playing all those characters? Now, fantastical movie creatures like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the queen alien in Aliens were not, strictly speaking, played by actors. But one talent was behind them all. And also behind the titular scissor hands in Edward Scissorhands and the vampires in Interview with the Vampire and the cyborgs in the three Terminator movies and the suit that recently turned Robert Downey Jr. into Iron Man.

That talent was Stan Winston, who died on Sunday, at 62. He was nominated ten times for Academy Awards in make-up or special effects, and he won four times—for Aliens, Jurassic Park and twice for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. He was nominated for four Emmys and won two—for the horror movie Gargoyles and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which he and Rick Baker aged Cicely Tyson from 19 to 110.

Among his many other credits were W.C Fields and Me (in which he magically transformed Rod Steiger into the title character), The Wiz, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Predator, Batman Returns, Congo, Inspector Gadget, Galaxy Quest, Artificial Intelligence: AI and Big Fish.

By bringing the fantastic to life for our visual enjoyment, Winston was at the heart of what cinema is all about. Going back to the father of cinema, Georges Méliès, this medium was always about creating the perfect illusion of the improbable or impossible. Stan Winston was one of its best practitioners.

Dancing Ninotchka (1921-2008)

It was Cyd Charisse’s fate to inevitably be identified by the men she danced with. But then her dance partners (specifically, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) were charter members of the movie dancing pantheon. The story went that MGM had her legs insured for $5 million, but she later said in an interview that this was an invention of the studio PR department. Still, it says something that the story was credible.

She was trained as a classical ballerina from the age of 6, as a kind of therapy after a mild case of polio. She joined the Ballet Russe at 13. Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, she came by her fancy-sounding professional name more or less honestly. Cyd (or Sid) was a family nickname, and she was married for eight years to her former dance teacher, Nico Charise. She is survived by her second husband, the singer Tony Martin. They were married 60 years.

In our house, we thought of Cyd Charisse as the woman Fred Astaire started dancing with when Ginger Rogers got too old to keep up with him. But Charisse was a formidable dancing talent in her own right, although usually in combination with a partner. We will always remember her steamy ballet with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, as well as their dances in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather. And, of course, her performances with Astaire in The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings, the musical remake of Ninotchka, which was her favorite movie.

-S.L., 19 June 2008

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