The View from Here – with Updates and Predictions

Unless you live in Seattle, where it’s been hard to lift the head off the pillow to stare into one more day of grey dampness, diversion seems to have been afoot in the world.

UPDATE: this morning the Seattle Times put a number to my kvetching: this winter’s unrelenting rain has broken a 122-year record and we’ve got one week of April TK.

Sigh.  To continue:

Consider the Pulitzers:  I’m always relieved when a Pulitzer is given to work I can at least pretend to know about, but this year’s list was damn near a personal trifecta.  Let me share a little of the good stuff:

At The New Yorker, one went to Hilton Als, whose theatre criticism I read so avidly you’d think my next stop was the Times Square TKTS booth.  The magazine provides ten of his reviews from 2016 that were part of the Pulitzer submission;  try the one titled Dreamgirls for a riveting start, it’s Als’ layered look at a revival of The Color Purple.

Hilton Als’ New Yorker Pulitzer texts

Next was the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose persistent digging buried for all time Donald Trump’s lies about his “charitable” giving. It may even have retired the Trump Foundation for the foreseeable future.

You may have met Fahrenthold as we did, on Rachel Maddow’s show but it you haven’t, be sure to look at the picture with the WAPo’s coverage of his celebration in the newsroom. Reflecting back the grins of everyone in the room, Fahrenthold also has his comforting hands on his young daughter, the only one who doesn’t look thrilled to be there (sparkly T-shirt notwithstanding.)

David Fahrenthold’s winning investigation into Donald Trump’s philanthrophy

Remember the 2015 movie Spotlight and the insider sense it created as we watched those Boston Globe reporters dig into a child molestation coverup within their city’s own Archdiocese?  You get the same “insider” sense reading the Post’s pitch-perfect account of Fahrenthold’s alternately dogged and inspired steps that led to his award.

The 39-year-old Fahrenthold broke journalism’s cardinal rule about keeping your work- in-progress “secret and guarded” by turning to social media for tips and help as he and his assistant called 450-some charities to see if they’d had a donation from Trump. (At the 400 mark they’d found one.) Then he used Twitter to keep his readers up with his progress, and as his coverage grew, so did their encouragement. . .and their confidence in his reporting.

You probably already know the best part of this story: I’ll just say bless a reporter who’s (cautiously) open to a red-hot tip. Actually, it would be no exaggeration to call the self-effacing Farenthold the father of the post-inauguration Woman’s March, pussy hats and all. Then watch him blush.

The last of the Pulitzers I really, really follow is their Photography award, which had a telling note from its nominating jury this year. After considering Daniel Berehulak’s soul-shriving photos of the dead and dying in the nighttime streets and alleys of Manila, the nominating jury moved them from the Feature Photography category to Breaking News — exactly the right call while President Duterte’s so called “drug war” continues.

Slideshow of Daniel Berehulak’s award-winning photographs

If Berehulak’s name is familiar, it may be because two years ago, he was in the Belgian Congo, where his up-far-too-close view of the Ebola crisis won that year’s Pulitzer.  Since I am constitutionally unable to imagine the everyday dimensions of his life (or the lives of any of his photojournalist comrades-in-arms) finding this revealing interview by Jim Colton in which Berehulak describes, among other things, the nuts and bolts of his Congo shoot, was. .  . .comforting.

z PhotoJournal Interview with Daniel Berehulak

UPDATE:  As I was writing this, the I.C.C. filed its first  “mass murder” complaint against the Philippine president, as Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio cited Duterte’s  “terrifying, gruesome and disastrous drug war that has left 7,000 people dead.”   Let us hope that along with Leila de Lima, Duterte’s bravely outspoken opponent in (and out of) the Philippine Senate, lawyer Sabio stays safe.

Now for those predictions:  okay, so not this year, but as soon as it isn’t a drawback to be published in the NY Times (we’re exempting photographers here, obviously), their great book critic Dwight Garner will absolutely take home his overdue Pulitzer.

You can read every one of my exceptionally well-supported reasons in my CQF mash note, Putty in His Hands, from June 5th, 2012.  (Where did the time go?) He has only gotten better.

Putty in His Hands

Then, and this will probably take a little longer – the Committee seems to like to thumb through a thick stack of work for the same publication — check out Justin Chang’s quite astonishing film criticism at the Los Angeles Times.  Then consider that he was writing like that before at Variety, on deadline, which virtually means see it/write it/file it.  Takes the breath away. His Pulitzer will only be a matter of time.

Here’s a recent trio: Get OutAfter the StormPaterson

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The remarkable Mr. Champlin

It’s rare that you can say that one person changed the trajectory of your life, and for the better. Charles Champlin, who changed mine in every way, died on Sunday. He was 88, and at the end he had Alzheimer’s but the earlier deviltry was that in 1999, he’d developed age-related macular degeneration that left him legally blind.

That must have been purgatory for someone whose life had been the graceful  consideration of books and films, films and books. As the writer that he was, above all else, he wrote about his AMD too, in a sliver of a book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.”  Purportedly, it’s about ways to get the better of the disease; it’s really a look at lifelong  gallantry.

The persona that Champlin presented to the world: a man foursquare as the aviator glasses that became his trademark, wasn’t all of him, not by a Hammondsport mile. The essential Champlin who could shift among a half-dozen settings and arrive intact and unruffled at each one, was compound-complex.  He’d have to be; he was functioning as an editor, an essayist, a critic, most certainly a teacher, a lecturer, a sometimes author and a card-carrying devotee of the hurly-burly of Cannes. And, somewhere in all that, he and his extraordinary wife Peggy were raising a family of six.

Television, which can bring out the worst in the most surprising people, brought out Champlin’s warmth and curiosity; he drew the audience in as close as his guests. He was unparalleled in conversations with filmmakers of every stripe, on television or over a companionable Scotch. They loved him, and why wouldn’t they? They got smart, deep, appreciative conversation without a knife in sight.

Harvard may have given him his humanistic grounding; or perhaps his faith. It may have come from his being wounded during the war, or from finding his way up the ladder at Life magazine or when he was an arts writer in London. Anyone’s guess.Truthfully, it’s innate.

Surprisingly, the one thing Charles Champlin couldn’t — or maybe wouldn’t —  do was color nicely inside the lines. He had a flair for the unpredictable, or perhaps for great escapes. How else to explain his presence at the tiniest of events, a Critic’s Choice Sunday in Marin County, where he brought his almost-favorite film, Beat the Devil, to talk about with as much joy as though he’d made it. (This was the end of the 70s, before film festivals mushroomed after every rain.)

Catalysts can be pretty damn mysterious.

Beat the Devil performed as expected, Champlin probably better, his pleasure was expansive and infectious and he loved a good audience. Every other part of the evening was a disaster.

It was a night of out-of-gas rides from the airport, a missed dinner, a missed early flight home and — as it turned out — an honorarium paid with a bounceable check. Don’t look at me. I was certainly part of the critical melee, but mostly I was on hand because I was the only one of the gang who knew what Champlin looked like.

At the point when he’d missed the early LA flight, Champlin’s urbanity kicked into overtime. He stood us, his shell-shocked hosts, to a round of drinks.Then a second one. And at that moment, eying his briefcase bursting with Loyola students’ papers, I asked if he’d look at some of my stuff, because after 3 years at the Pacific Sun, my great editor had left and I was adrift.

Believe me, no sensible person agrees to read reviews and interviews by the second-string writer on a hippie Marin County weekly, at the end of a semi-disastrous night. For that you have to credit  Champlin’s streak of unpredictability.  

Forever searching for the father/uncle/teacher who knew best, I honestly hoped that he’d point out where I’d gone off the tracks or ask why I hadn’t picked up on Hitchcock’s influences. Did I have the vaguest idea of a critic-editor’s life at a major newspaper?  Please!  I knew. I’d seen The Front Page.   

Still, I was in no way prepared for Champlin’s voice on the phone, many weeks later, saying with no preamble, “Why aren’t you doing this for us?” In some perverse way, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, except that it was.

I wanted a teacher. I got a mentor. He put me to work as a stringer for that terrifying mensch Irv Letovsky, who edited Sunday Calendar and implanted in me the rule I still use for sticky details:  “Write around it! Write around it!”

I came down the next successive summers to review during Kevin Thomas’ vacations. Then I came home to Mill Valley, to my girls, my cats, the intriguing man I had met. Everything seemed in perfect balance, until the afternoon in 1980, when Champlin, on the phone as always, told me that, since he was moving over to Books, he wanted me to take over his chair as the film critic.

That is not predictable behavior . It’s not corporate (certainly not LAT corporate), it’s barely comprehensible, but it is exactly how my life changed, and who changed it, coloring outside the lines in bold zig-zags.

Did we spend the next decade in perfect professional accord?  Don’t be childish. Did he hire me because I didn’t seem exactly. . .assertive? I have no idea. I do know that, more than once. I wrote something that royally pissed off some of the very old guard, causing him no end of tidying up. It was something we never talked about. I’m sure he had to stand up for me, more than once. Learning by doing can be tricky, and mentorship isn’t all roses.  Did we spend long lunches, talking about books and movies, about people in them, and how best to write about them?  Do you have the vaguest idea of a critic OR an arts editor’s life?

What I know absolutely is that Charles Champlin’s humanity or curiosity or both, let him take a huge risk and because of it, my life expanded like some stop-motion flower, one astonishing layer after another.

Thankfully, I was able to tell him that, in time. But it can’t be said enough:  thank you, dear companionable, singular Chuck, for the riches of my life.

In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

So, after an 8-month effort of digging, cross-referencing, and prying the news out of agents and publicists that their clients are in the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times released its bombshell Sunday.

Academy members are:

  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 54% over 60 years old

Board members, reportedly surprised by the results, reacted with variations of, “We knew it was bad but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  You might think that a quick look around the room. . . . oh, never mind.

Dig a tiny bit more and you’ll find that only 2% of the membership is under the age of 40; those in their 40s make up 11%, and 25% are in their 50s.  (I know, there’s a rogue 8% “Unknown” missing. . don’t look at me, I only lose glasses.)

“Uncomfortable,”  “Profound,” “By Mike Leigh” are not words that propel the well over-60-year-old Academy member into a screening. Do you think those same members liked what they saw, when they threw their For Your Consideration DVD of Shame on their home projection system?

Although it’s essentially a noir love story, how well did the unexpectedly violent moments of Drive play in that comfortable Bel Air living room?  What about the knife-edge walked in Young Adult by both Patton Oswalt and  Charlize Theron?  Their (virtual) shut-out in the nominations was a hint. Drive managed one technical nomination, but nothing for its music, let alone its actors, just ask Albert Brooks. On second thought. .

How do you think the near-perfect A Separation from Iran did in the Foreign Language section, where all five of the nominated films must be seen?  Well, that depends on how many voting members get themselves to those screenings at the Academy, and if they are working (as 42% are, the Times says)  even with two screenings of every film, that could mean that only a tiny, dogged percentage chose the winner. And heaven help any film if word gets around that it’s “difficult” or “challenging.”

Don’t look to hip, young members of the Actors branch to rush to the side of “fringe” work, or even toward an outre performance (Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Adepero Oduye of Pariah.) They’re only 20% of the membership, their median age is 65, and they’re 88% white.

How does one become a member, anyway?  According to the LAT:

“There are three ways to become a candidate for membership: land an Oscar nomination; apply and receive a recommendation from two members of a branch; or earn an endorsement from the branch’s membership committee or the academy staff.

The membership committees then vote on the candidates; those who get a majority are invited to join. The academy says almost everyone accepts the offer.

Actors, for example, now must have three significant credits to be considered for membership, and producers need two solo producing credits or the equivalent. Such criteria benefit people with more experience. “The academy is always going to be slightly older — if just because you have to have about five years of credits before you’re even considered,” said Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner for visual effects.”

Look: they added almost 800 new members to the Academy between 1990, (when I still used to go to Academy screenings) and the year 2000, and nothing has really changed, much as Academy board members say they wish it would.  They have, however, put the brakes on admission since 2000.

Part of the fun of those Academy screenings was watching indignant wives lead the Voting Member straight up the aisle and out the door as soon as a Foreign Film nominee crossed the family line on sex. If you ever wondered about the tepid quality of Oscar Foreign Film winners, start there — and certainly with the guardedly-controversial nature of the “Official” films submitted from across the world.

As the Board looks to its branches to bolster their woeful statistics on race, gender and age, the status quo disturbs some not at all. To return to the Times:

Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership.

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

The late Damien Bona, who wrote the most readable chronicles of the Academy Awards ever, was fond of quoting this from director Milos Forman, who’d won two:

“The Academy Awards are a wonderful game, but if you take them seriously, you’re in trouble.”

Good intentions aside, perhaps that’s the best way to look at the Academy itself, inching its way with no particular haste into the world — as they see it, reflected in the films that they award.