TV and Movies Archive

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the 1970s American Cult Film

This past December (Fall 2014 semester), I took a film studies course entitled “Cultural Perspectives in Film” (FILM 2117). The concentration for the course this semester was American cinema of the 1970s, so we spent our weeks screening all kinds of films from the decade and discussing them in class. From Putney Swope (1969) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) to An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), our class watched films of all genres and analyzed them under the lens of the counterculture audience of the ’70s.

Aside from the in-class screenings, students had to choose one film from a group of four or five selected by Professor Paula Massood to screen at home and answer five questions. This assignment was given three separate times during the semester, and the final assignment had students answer the same questions, but allowed them to choose their own film. The only criteria was that utmost be an American-made film produced in the ’70s.

Since I had asked the professor if she wouldn’t mine me designating this course as an honors course in the beginning of the semester, she allowed me some leeway in choosing a film for my final assignment. After some discussion, I chose to screen and analyze The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for my final writing piece. Professor Massood and I agreed that I would answer an extra question about the American cult film during the ’70s. Below is a selection of questions and answers from the paper. I hope you enjoy reading a “Rocky Horror virgin’s” first-time experience with the film and its rich cult history!

Questions 4 and 6 have been removed since they were pertinent to class discussions and readings. 

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1Q) Please identify the film and provide some production history.

1A) Few spectacles of cinema have gained as much cult popularity as the The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS for short). A British musical comedy film released in 1975, RHPS was produced by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Made on a budget of $1.2 million, the film became the second highest grossing film on 1975, grossing nearly $140 million across theater rentals and box office sales (IMDb). Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the film that beat it in the box office, but clever RHPS advertisers used this to the film’s advantage; posters and merchandise were branded with the RHPS mascot, a red set of lips, and a tagline which read, “A different set of jaws” (Wikipedia).

Despite its overseas origins as a 1973 musical stage show, the film adaptation is perhaps the greatest example of a film “made” in America. “Made” here meaning that it only started profiting and gaining notoriety and popularity in the states. After its initial box office flop at its London and Los Angeles releases, the film was put on the midnight screening circuit in major cities across the United States by Fox executive Tim Deegan (Wikipedia). The idea was to hop on the growing popularity of midnight screenings of strange, low-budget films such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Pink Flamingos (1972) in college towns. RHPS skyrocketed into pop culture stardom when audiences at New York City’s Waverly Theater turned it into what it is now: a cult film that relies almost entirely on a mixture of audience participation and stage play accompaniment.

2Q) Briefly summarize the film’s plot.

2A) RHPS notoriously follows a very strange narrative. The film is based on the 1973 stage production and book, both written by Richard O’Brien. O’Brien would go on to co-write the screenplay with director Jim Sharman, as well as star in the film adaptation as Riff Raff. A love letter to the golden age of science fiction films and B movies (mainly horror), RHPS pays tribute to the films, music and social mentality of the 1940s and 50s, as well as defining the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s.

The film follows the story of Janet and Brad, a newly engaged couple living in Denton, Ohio. As they travel through a storm to meet an ex-tutor and friend, Dr. Scott, they experience an auto-breakdown near the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry). When they approach his gigantic castle in search of a phone, Riff Raff, a house servant, invites them inside. They meet Frank-N-Furter’s other servant, Magenta (Riff Raff’s sister and lover), and eventually the doctor himself. After Janet and Brad realize that they’ve stumbled upon the Annual Transylvanian Convention, Frank-N-Furter sings about how he’s a transsexual transvestite from Transylvania. This begins the couple’s nightlong journey through the castle and a sexual, emotional, and mental transformation.

Frank-N-Furter promises that he’ll help the couple, but first invites the two up to his lab to “see what’s on the slab.” It turns out that Frank-N-Furter has discovered the secret to life itself, and he creates a Greek god-like human being of physical perfection (a reference to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the monster that he creates). This creature, named Rocky Horror, is the newest one in Frank-N-Furter’s line of creations. The doctor says that other beings he brought to life never turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped for, but Rocky is different. One of his past creations/captives, a motorcycle-riding, saxophone-toting rock-and-roller, Eddie (played by Meat Loaf) accidentally escapes from the castle’s deep freezer and causes a ruckus at the convention. Frank-N-Furter silences him by murdering him with an ice axe, horrifying Rocky, Janet, Brad, and the rest of the convention visitors. Realizing his actions have startled the guests, Frank-N-Furter makes up for it by celebrating with his guests the fact that he’s going to “make Rocky a man.”

As he and Rocky retire to the master bedroom, the rest of his guests retire to their own quarters. Frank-N-Furter has his way with Rocky and then disguises himself as Brad and Janet, respectively. He sneaks into Janet and Brad’s bedrooms, one after the other, seducing them both into giving up their virginity. They know they made a commitment to the other to save themselves for after marriage, but Frank-N-Furter’s alien powers of seduction and sensual pleasure prove too much to handle. Rocky’s escape from the master bedroom is what eventually forces Frank-N-Futer to leave Janet and Brad alone. While Frank-N-Furter punishes Riff Raff for doing a poor job of supervising Rocky, Janet finds the “creature of the night” hiding in the lab where he was born. She and Rocky share an intimate moment during which Janet realizes that giving into her carnal desires and sensual pleasures is what she’s always wanted. Her experience with Frank-N-Furter is what made her realize she should be more open to exploring them.

Frank-N-Furter, his servants, Rocky, Janet and Brad all reunite back in the lab. They realize that the man Janet and Brad were going to visit in the beginning of the film, Dr. Scott, has come searching for Eddie, the ex-delivery boy who was being held captive in the deep freezer. Dr. Scott enters the castle and confronts Frank-N-Furter and his servants over dinner, calling them aliens. Frank-N-Furter reveals that dinner was actually meat from Eddie’s corpse, and that they are all transsexual aliens from the galaxy of Transylvania. He “Medusas” all of his guests (a process which freezes them into Greek statues) and transports them all to his final floorshow.

During the show, Frank-N-Furter sings about his ideology to be whatever you want and not just dream of being it. Still in a hypnotic, Medusa-induced state, the rest of his guests sing along with him. Riff Raff and Magenta break up the show, stating that they’re taking over because of Frank-N-Furter excessive decadence and uncontrollable lust on earth. They murder Frank-N-Furter and Rocky, transport the castle and all inside it back to their galaxy, and leave Janet, Brad and Dr. Scott permanently altered and scarred by the experiences of the night.

3Q) Does the film follow any genre conventions?

3A) RHPS follows many genre conventions while also creating an entirely new one. The main genres that the film pays homage to are movie musicals and science fiction, although there are also aspects of horror (through set design and gore), drama (during romantic encounters between leading ladies and male heroes), and comedy (in crisp, stinging dialogue and satirical views of marriage, chastity and concern over physical appearance). As far as movie musicals go, RHPS is fairly conventional. The characters express their feelings and ideas through song and dance, the plot is advanced with each song, and as Tim Curry says, “it’s very much a musical [because] a lot of the energy of the whole event is in the music” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Where the film breaks movie musical conventions is in the content of the song and dance, and how it’s all portrayed visually on-screen. Everything is highly sexualized and sensational, with bare-naked bodies, men in women’s clothing (corsets, fishnet stockings, heels), and sexual acts all shown throughout the film. These subjects were very taboo prior to the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. When American youth lost trust in their government during the Vietnam War and scandals of President Nixon, their generation formed a niche audience that yearned for any and everything that was against what their parents had raised them to believe. Sex, violence and rock-n-roll music are just a few of the things that make RHPS so appealing to this audience.

The science fiction side of the film also followed a lot of conventions while starting new ones. The way that Rocky Horror is born is almost identical to the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (from Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein film). The powers of giving life, aliens from another galaxy visiting earth, and the setting of a castle on a dark, stormy night have always been traditions of the sci-fi genre. The story of RHPS being narrated from the perspective of a knowledgeable narrator (in this case, a criminologist) is another genre tradition the film kept alive. Many of the sci-fi films from the 1940’s and 50s featured the bringing in of a professional, some detective or physic or specialist who could explain to the rest of the characters what was going on. What RHPS changes is the idea of the classic version of Dr. Frankenstein dressing in drag and having sexual relations with the townspeople rather than fleeing from them. The film takes a lot of pre-used plot points and characters and then sensualizes are fetishizes them.

Director Jim Sharman called his film a “1970s version of The Wizard of Oz” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Like The Wiz (1978), which truly was a ‘70s version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), RHPS took the idea of a group of characters exploring a fantastical, magical world led by an eccentric ringmaster and made it raunchy, gothic, and infectiously good fun for audiences to listen to. Meat Loaf being featured in the film is a clear sign the music was written specifically to please younger fans of rock and roll. Sharman also commented that he was excited for the piece because “for once there wasn’t something that was created by a very small group of people to be turned over to a [studio] to be pulped out, but in fact the people that originally created it and the actors had a lot to do with it.” The independent, low budget nature of RHPS shines through in obvious technical ways (i.e., boom microphone shadows and stunt wires in shots), but also in very meaningful musical and narrative ways. The story being unlike anything before it is of integral importance to its cult popularity.

5Q) Can you compare the film with any of the titles we’ve screened in class?

5A) In a 1975 interview with STOIC (Student Television Of Imperial College), Curry remarked “he was hesitant [to take the role] in that if it worked, it might be a difficult image to shake off” (STOIC Interview). Acting generally is a high-risk business, in that the actor is the thing that everyone working on a film crew or going to see a movie focuses on. The lighting, camera work, directing, makeup, art and costumes are all there, but it’s the performance that people immediately look at. Curry’s portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter is certainly no exception: it was a high-energy role which required him to dress in drag, act as a bisexual alien, and strip down in front of the camera. This is immediately comparable to Duane Jones’ portrayal of Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Robert La Tourneaux’s portrayal of Cowboy Tex in The Boys in the Band (1970). Both roles required a great deal of commitment to jump into the unknown. Ben slapped a white woman and took charge of a fully white team of survivors in a time when racism and segregation were boiling in the United States. Cowboy Tex sold himself off as a male stripper and homosexual callboy in New York City, a place where the LGBT scene was often heavily discriminated against. Risqué roles are never easy for an actor to play, but the subsequent performances are usually worth their weight in gold (the emotions and feelings are often all the more real when actors have personal stakes involved).

Putney Swope (1969) is another film that can be juxtaposed with RHPS. Aside from the obvious difference that the former focuses on racial tension on the latter on sci-fi sexuality, both share one very big similarity: the main character, whom the film was named after, is completely dubbed over. In Putney Swope, the title character’s dialogue was dubbed by director Robert Downey Sr. He stated in an interview that it was because the actor couldn’t remember his lines, but it’s hard to believe that Downey’s interest in French New Wave films and his desire to play off of conventions in a white and black relationship didn’t influence the decision (Massood Lecture 1). In RHPS, Peter Hinwood played Rocky Horror, and was selected primarily for his physical features. “He was an underwear model with no acting experience; all of his speaking lines were cut, and his singing voice was dubbed by singer Trevor White” (Broadway). With each film, the director made a major decision during post-production to alter the main character of the film. The result in both films is a character that looks and sounds like a puppet. Swope is an African American man who restructures a predominantly white business into a black one, but he ends up running it into the ground. Did Swope really ever have control of the situation? Rocky starts out as a creation of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and is killed as a creation of the Transylvanian race. Did he ever have a say over his own fate, or was he doomed from birth?

Lastly, Days of Heaven (1978) also strikes a very familiar chord with RHPS. Terrence Malick crafted a storybook-style auteur film about a family trying to make it (Massood Lecture 2). The picture’s setting is the Texas panhandle during the 1910s, but it’s a timeless film in that it could really happen during any time at any place. The film isn’t necessarily set in the moment, and RHPS is very similar. The director did lock the film in the 70s by having a car radio play a news broadcast about President Nixon, but the idea of aliens from another planet visiting the earth to explore and spread their ideas is timeless. The science fiction genre is generally about questioning reality and our human understanding of the world we live in, so who knows: maybe there is a galaxy full of transsexuals somewhere in our universe. Days of Heaven may explore a different genre and its corresponding conventions, but the parable of The Farmer getting entrapped in a love triangle alongside Abby and Bill juxtaposes well with Dr. Frank-N-Furter getting involved with Rocky and a newly engaged couple.

Honors Question: What contributions did The Rocky Horror Picture Show make to the midnight movie? Are there any cult film genre conventions it paved the way for?

HQA) As a continuation from the previous question, the most important reason I’d replace Putney Swope with RHPS is because it kick started an American film genre: audience participation-based cult films. Beginning in NYC’s Waverly Theater (called by theatergoers a “mecca for midnight movies,” holding midnight screenings of films like Night of the Living Dead on a regular basis), a small group of audience members who went to see RHPS started dressing like the film’s characters, shouting back dialogue at the screen, and performing bits of the film on the stage in front of the projection screen. These traditions would spread to other theaters in NYC and catch on like wildfire, eventually becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

It should be noted that midnight movies “were far from being an exclusively American phenomenon,” with theater exhibitionists holding midnight screenings across the United States, Britain and France for years prior (Midnight Movies, 3). RHPS even pays homage to this fact in the opening song, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is about late night B science fiction films being screened for cheap, good times. Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s floorshow is another tribute to theater activities of the past, mixing live burlesque and carnival performance (dressing in costume, wearing makeup and masks, pretending to be someone one isn’t) with classic Hollywood movie musical ideas and themes (the RKO Pictures logo towers over the stage, harkening back to upbeat song and dance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals).

The moment that RHPS became the American phenomenon that it did was on Labor Day weekend of 1976, when “Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher form Staten Island, felt compelled to speak to the [Waverly Theater] screen. He is credited as the first person to yell lines at the movie” (RHPS Official Fan Site) He coined the term “counterpoint dialogue,” using it to express his joy in having off-screen conversations with the onscreen characters. More theatergoers began reserving weekly seats in the Waverly Theater balconies, and joined Farese in shouting at the screen and dancing to the film’s soundtrack. Around Halloween of that same year, some came in dressed as their favorite leather and lace-toting characters. These traditions caught on and continued well past Halloween. Live performance was mixed into the RHPS experience when audience members got up for the “Time Warp” dance sequence. Others began to walk to the front of the theater to perform as the characters onscreen, and eventually a full floorshow version of the film would be performed live on the stage in front of the projection screen as RHPS played (RHPS Official Fan Site).

By 1977, “newspapers, magazines, you name it, had begun to pick up on what was going on at the Waverly” (RHPS Official Fan Site). Word spread across the country as NYC residents who had been part of the Waverly phenomenon moved out. Many of them carried their RHPS traditions over to new theaters around the country, and the film became what it is today: a cult film experience relying on audience participation. In a 1990 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that RHPS “is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon” (RogerEbert.com). Midnight audiences of the 1970s didn’t just want to sit back and watch another Hollywood film with clear heroes and villains. They clearly wanted to have their own unique experience, where they were really paying for their own show. They wouldn’t go into a theater to sit down, watch a film, and discuss it afterwards. They would dress up, act out, sing and dance, and reinterpret scenes from RHPS in their own unique way, creating their own special kind of blockbuster film.

Other films have carried on the audience participation cinema torch. For example, interest in The Sound of Music (1965, considered by many to be the last successful Hollywood movie musical) was rekindled after the success of RHPS. In 2005, the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater began hosting live sing-along screenings to the movie musical. Many audience members and critics have referred to the experience as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac.” The greatest modern example of audience participation cinema is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). This was another film that bombed upon its initial release, but was reinterpreted by college students on the midnight movie circuit. Actions like throwing spoons at the projection screen, playing football, dressing in tuxedos, and quoting lines from the film as they’re screened live have all become time-honored traditions of The Room experience.

O’Brien mentioned that “there was a surreal dreamlike quality to the movie that was never present in the stage show” (RHPS BTS Featurette). This surreal quality is the main convention for audience-participation cinema that RHPS was the first to capture. Contemporary audience participation cinema and cult films such as The Room, Eraserhead (1977), Re-Animator (1985), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Sharknado (2013), and many others all share in this same surreal feeling: you can’t really believe it’s happening as you watch it. Whether it’s because of poorly designed or decorated sets, terrible acting, strange and non-sensical stories, etc. Maybe Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s call to “[not] dream it, [but] be it” is what made RHPS the longest running theatrical release in history (it’s still screened nationwide today). Despite it being a British-born film, this is an American-made movie in every sense that forever changed the midnight movie culture and the audience participation cult film.

 

References:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick. 1975. 20th Century Fox, 2002. DVD.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” IMDb. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073629/?ref_=nv_sr_1 >

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Wikipedia. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show >

“Rocky Horror Picture Show – Behind The Scenes Featurette (Remastered).” YouTube. Web. 15 December 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfL98tLN1t8 >

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff. 1931. Universal Pictures, 2009. DVD.

The Wiz. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor. 1978. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Wood, Robin. The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s. 1979. 25 – 32.

“STOIC Interview – Time Curry Talks About The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” Student Television of Imperial College. 1975. YouTube. Web. 16 December 2014.
< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5sTIGLo79g >

Night of the Living Dead. Dir, George Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. 1968. American Pop Classics: The Archive Collection, 2012. DVD.

The Boys in the Band. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Fray. Paramount, 2008. DVD.

Putney Swope. Dir. Robert Downey Sr. Perf. Arnold Johnson. 1969. Homevision, 2006. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 1, “Putney Swope (Robert Downey Sr., 1969).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 3 September 2014. Lecture.

Champion, Lindsay. “Happy Birthday, Dear Rocky! 38 Freaky Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” August 2013. Broadway. Web. 16 December 2014
http://www.broadway.com/buzz/171159/happy-birthday-dear-rocky-38-freaky-facts-about-the-rocky-horror-picture-show/ >

Days of Heaven. Dir. Terrence Malick. Perf. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard. 1978. Criterion, 2007. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 2, “Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 10 December 2014. Lecture.

Hoberman, J, and Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Midnight Movies. Boston: HarperCollins & DaCapo Press, 1983. Print.

Piro, Sal. “How it Began.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show Official Fan Site. Web. 16 December 2014.
http://www.rockyhorror.com/history/howapbegan.php >

Ebert, Roger. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Review (1975).” Roger Ebert Website 1975. Web. 15 December 2014.
< http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975 >

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Klaus – A Christmas Thriller Short Film

To all of my friends at The Utopia of Daniel: the IndieGoGo campaign for my undergraduate thesis film has officially arrived!

This is one of the most humbling moments of my filmmaking life. It goes without saying (hopefully, haha) that a lot of time and effort went into making this campaign unique, informative and rewarding. I’d very much appreciate if any and all readers would take a look at the campaign.

So click on the link, learn about the project, see the rewards, and contribute what you can (sharing the project counts)! 

http://igg.me/at/klaus

The Klaus cover art was designed by my friend and Macaulay Brooklyn colleague, Sarah Allam.

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Nostalgia Critic Jurassic Park 3 Review – A Tribute Turned Reality

In June 2013, my friend Eric Kramer, a Criminal Justice major over at St. Joseph’s College, and I got together to pay tribute to two things we greatly love. One was Jurassic Park, my favorite film of all time and a favorite of Eric’s. Last summer marked the 20th anniversary since the film’s release, and we decided to celebrate by not only going to see Jurassic Park 3D in theaters, but reviewing the third film in the JP trilogy.

The review is where the second thing comes in. Doug Walker, an internet comedian over at ThatGuyWithTheGlasses / Channel Awesome, had created a character called the Nostalgia Critic and had been doing reviews of old movies, TV shows and other nostalgic things since 2008. Last summer, Doug announced the end of the NC character and his reviews–he hoped to move onto bigger and better things. This was the other thing we wanted to pay tribute to: Doug, the NC, and all of Channel Awesome. Our video came out, and has since reached almost 19,000 views on YouTube (as of June 2014).

 

Since the video was made, JP has grown one year older and Walker announced the NC’s return, based on the outcry from fans. The NC has been back in the film/TV reviewing business since January 2013, and just this week he released his review of JP3.

 

My friend Eric and I were ecstatic to see how correctly we interpreted the NC! These two videos match in nearly 70% of all jokes, clips, and references used/made, and that makes us very proud oft our tribute to him and the JP Trilogy.

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These Past Few Weeks

So, I figured that a Summer 2013 update was in order for all of the UOD followers out there. These past few weeks have been fairly hectic for me, but in a very good way!

One of the big things I’ve been working on has been an internship with the Investigation Discovery Channel. Last summer, I met a wonderful women who was the executive producer of an ABC show called Final Witness. I wasn’t able to work with her then due to time constrictions, but after staying in touch with her throughout the academic year, she was able to bring me on board her new project with Discovery ID.

The show is called The Bad Old Days, and it’s all about telling the true tales of crazy murderers and their unfortunate victims from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Beyond that, I’m not really able to say anything else other than I’ve been working nonstop as assistant to the locations manager and general pre-production, production and post-production assistant. The cast and crew has been doing loads of great work, and I’ve been learning quite a bit about shooting in and around NYC.

A beautiful sunset seen onset in upstate NY.

A beautiful sunset seen onset in upstate NY.

 

Other than that, my company, Passing Planes Productions, has been working on a few projects with some local businesses and companies. I don’t want to give anything away yet, but I should have some promotional and business tour videos up and available within the coming weeks. Be sure to like Passing Planes Productions on Facebook if you haven’t already!

A couple of other final updates include:

– I’ve made a Vine account–be sure to follow Danny Boy Scarpati

– A few ideas for some summer short films are in the works… stay tuned for more

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More Than Great Legs – Sloan Sabbith Character Study

If there’s one character that really stands out to me on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, it’s Sloan Sabbith. Played by the devilishly gorgeous Olivia Munn, Sloan is the only female character that has a truly complete character arc in the first season. As she transitions from a shy, socially awkward college girl to a dominating force and true student of honest news and investigative journalism, the audience has the chance to learn, grow and experience News Night alongside her.

A stunningly beautiful actress, comedian and Atlantis Cable News personality!

A stunningly beautiful actress, comedian and Atlantis Cable News personality!

 

When The Newsroom began, Sloan really wasn’t an integral part of any single story. At first, I assumed that she was a lower-level staffer on the News Night team, someone who was there to fact check and work out statistics and data. Since she was thrown in the corner and wasn’t given any real screen time, I didn’t think anything else was possible. Don even called her his “fourth and only choice”  when he needed her to fill in another newscaster’s time slot in one of the first episodes. As the season progressed however, people like McAvoy and MacKenzie started letting the audience know how smart she really was–who knew that she received a PhD in Economics at Duke University and studied under some of the country’s greatest economic minds!?

After being acknowledged as News Night’s Senior Financial Reporter, Sloan was given five minutes every night to “tell us where we are and how we got here” by MacKenzie. At this point in the show, the audience really started getting to know Sloan as a female professional in the American broadcast television workplace. Compassionate, quirky and knowledgable, Sloan captured the attention of a lot of ACN people very quickly. She was given more tasks to discuss the state of the economy and was asked to cover more stories, occasionally being allowed to fill in for missing reporters.

The most notable instance where she filled in for someone else was during the Fukushima power plant meltdown.At this point in the show, Sloan had really only focused on financial stories and helping MacKenzie try to better understand economics for a speech she had to give. Always helpful and always eager to learn, Sloan didn’t back down–she accepted the story and made the egregious mistake of using off-the-record information on live television. This is one of the parts of the show that I remember the most, specifically because it’s such an honest human error. When I worked for the Queens Chronicle newspaper, I spoke to assemblymen and local politicians off the record multiple times, and it was always hard to hear them say things to me that they didn’t necessarily say in public. No matter how much journalists would like to publish or broadcast everything they hear off-the-record, they simply can’t–it’s a matter of not only ethics and principle, but legal responsibility and overal believability.

In Sloan’s case, she caused panic in Japan based on information that hadn’t been formally released yet. Although she thought she would save lives and prove that the nuclear plant and government was not being truthful in their assessments of the meltdown level at the plant, she caused more problems than fixed them. It’s moments like this that remind the audience that everyone makes mistakes. Sloan was still learning how to do the news and do it well, and it’s safe to say that she learned a lot from that experience. Thankfully for her, McAvoy and Skinner loved her too much to let her get fired, so they had her lie (one of the only times they allowed a blatant lie to be aired) to save her job and the honor of the Japanese spokesperson she quoted.

In a video interview with Munn, she said that newsworthy is defined as something that the people “need to know.” Even during and after het worst mistake, Sloan was only thinking about the people and what they needed to know.

 

By the end of the show, Sloan had become extremely comfortable with live reporting. So much so that we would often only catch the ending of her segments on the economy and finances today. When it reached that point that MacKenzie, McAvoy and Skinner were confident that she knew what she was doing and how to get it done right, they didn’t have to watch her do it anymore.

As for Sloan’s social life, she also stood out to me as a character that went from a state of total social awkwardness to emotional understanding and bravery. In the first half of season one, she was always trying to help McAvoy, Don and MacKenzie with emotional issues and problems. Even though she didn’t have a boyfriend herself (or any real relationship experience at all, for that matter), she did her best to answer the questions of her coworkers and friends. I can really connect to this, because I’ve been helping friends with relationship problems and dating issues ever since the start of high school even though I’ve never really been involved in a relationship myself. Most people would think that this would limit the amount of help you can give, but I find that when you listen to everyone else’s problems and experiences, you’re able to form a database of knowledge that you can access to help others–and I definitely see Sloan accessing hers.

Always watching and always learning, Sloan has carried herself through one hectic season of work for News Night.

Always watching and always learning, Sloan has carried herself through one hectic season of work for News Night.

 

Towards the second half of the season, Sloan began standing up for what she thought was right. She began telling people like McAvoy, Neal and Don how she felt about them and what they should really think of themselves. In Don’s case, Sloan was courageous enough to say that she was “only single because [Don] never asked [her] out,” which was no doubt a hugh emotional boundary for her to jump. Although this did finalize her character’s emotional arc and bring her into a new stage of bravery and honesty, I did find it odd that she admitted this when she never really displayed any feelings or affection towards Don throughout the show. Don had asked her questions about problems with Maggie before, but Sloan only helped him as much as she did everyone else. Since she never gave Don any special attention or praise, it makes the audience wonder why she feels the way she does for a guy that really isn’t all that great.

Since she admitted to turning down an annual salary of four million dollars with a financial firm to serve the country and the News Night team, Sloan has clearly grown attached to the people involved in the News Night team. If I were her, I would stay with the News Night 2.0 team, too. Through the bonds she’s developed and trust she’s gained as the Senior Financial Reporter, Sloan is definitely learning that some things in life mean more than money and notoriety (cliche, sure, but Sloan absolutely displays this level of understanding by the final episode). Compared to other women on the show like Maggie and MacKenzie, Sloan comes off as smarter, sexier and more dominating (both physically and verbally) than anyone else. Getting thrown up against the wall by Sloan after calling her butt big must’ve been some experience, Neal!

For Sloan’s character in season two, I really hope to see her continuously becoming a more important, dominating force on the News Night team. As she takes on more stories and projects and continues to work under and alongside McAvoy and MacKenzie, I’m fairly confident that she’s on the straight path to success. Even if News Night were to fail or be cancelled, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a financial company (investing, marketing, actuarial services, etc.) would hire her in a heart beat.

Ms. Sabbith, you’re one strong women. If there’s anything I have to say to you, it’s keep your eyes clear and your heart open. You’re smart enough to know (on book-smart and street-smart levels) when someone or something is good for you and when that same person or thing is bad for you, and that kind of knowledge mixed with a PhD from Duke and McAvoy’s tutelage will take you places. Stay beautiful, sistah.

 

References:

HBO’s The Newsroom – Sloan Sabbith, HBO Website

@SloanSabbithACN, Twitter

The Newsroom Season One, Episodes One – Ten

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“We Told the News” – The Newsroom Season One Reflection

I worked in a newsroom once. Only it was called “The War Room” in my case. It wasn’t for a televised news show like Atlantis Cable News, but for the Queens Chronicle, the most widely read and distributed print newspaper in Queens.

During my time at the QC, I leaned a lot about print journalism, advertising, marketing and bureaucracy. I got to experience all different kinds of events and occurrences, from the Wiener scandals and Queens-based political campaigns to NYPD raids and health care festivals. All the while, I was meeting new people, both journalists I worked with at the QC and reporters from other papers.

Despite all of the aforementioned benefits of working on a very popular and widely-read newspaper, there are a few things that I never saw or heard take place: in-office relationships, verbal wars with publishers/the media gatekeepers, and scandalous choices to publish controversial news stories, just to list a few examples. Others who have worked in newsrooms (and even other workplaces) have experienced one or two of these things here and there, but I’ve never seen or heard of anyone who saw them all pile up together.

This all leads me to pretty much the main thing I dislike about The Newsroom: its unrealistic nature. Despite its accurate representation of various people, politicians and corporate bigwigs, Aaron Sorkin’s show has proven time and time again that all it is is a fictional television show meant to draw in an audience and entertain. For any television show this is pretty much necessary for survival, and I completely understand that. But for a show that goes to great lengths to convey messages about the current state of investigative journalism and the US fourth estate as well as the nation’s interpretation of what purpose television serves in society today, I wonder why so much of it stands out as unreal.

The Newsroom perfectly portrays life in a bustling news room. Go figure!

The Newsroom perfectly portrays life in a bustling news room.

 

Take for example the way characters talk to one another. There’s not enough fumbling with words! There’s never a loss for some great emotional revelation or realization about why we humans do what we do (why we love who we love, hate who we hate, side with who we side with, etc). Even in the cases of the love triangles (McAvoy and MacKenzie, and Maggie, Jim, Don and Sloan) there’s never a point where things stop and nothing is said. There’s always something going on, and the rapid pace of these relationships almost never slows.

These relationships are also the only other thing that I think works against the show. In real life, love triangles and quadrangles like the ones portrayed on The Newsroom are simply too perfect. Throughout the first season, I always had issues in believing that Maggie continuously wanted to stay with Don even though Jim offered her so much more love and respect. Granted, Jim continuously chose to stay with Lisa, so it wouldn’t have really mattered what Maggie chose anyway.

These kinds of crazy triangles not only draw attention to the way The Newsroom tries to appeal to viewers of soap operas, but it detracts from the intelligence these women are supposed to have. They’re all double and triple major college and graduate school scholars who, despite all of their collective knowledge, continuously make such ridiculous relationship and emotional choices. I can understand that they’re socially awkward and even inept at times, but being lulled into a false sense of security and love by a room full of flowers and light candles just wouldn’t work after going through countless stand-ups, multiple missed dinners with parents, continuos verbal abuse and overall emotional stress (this particular example is taken from the final episode, where Maggie and Don have one final make-up session).

Some other plot points like McAvoy smoking pot before going on air and Jim having sing-along music sessions with coworkers outside of the always-heated office space just add to the ridiculousness of certain aspects of the show. Critics like Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal, Mary MacNamara of the L.A. Times and Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker all seem to agree that The Newsroom has tremendous potential, but due to its often silly dialouge and plot points, plus a semi-unrealistic nature, it falters on multiple levels.

A Newsroom bingo card with just about every cliche/pun/repetitious act the show uses.

A Newsroom bingo card with just about every cliche/pun/repetitious act the show uses.

 

Regardless, let’s look at The Newsroom from the scope of it being a drama television show and nothing more. It does a fantastic job of telling the story of a team of investigative journalists who want nothing more than to tell the news. Many characters were written well and had a very clear and serious arc (even if the arc wasn’t integral to the core story, like Neal going from being a shy office nerd to standing up for what he believes in and taking chances with the News Night producers).

Even with debatable arcs and sub-plots like Don transitioning from a “bad guy” to a “good guy” throughout the first season (I personally think he went from a “bad guy” to a “self-aware bad guy,” but to each his/her own), I still found the show very enjoyable. Viewers were able to relive important events in the US’ past few years in a new way, looking at them from the eyes of reporters who attempt to report as objectively as possible. We were transported directly into an American workplace where things didn’t always go as planned, people sometimes got hurt, and there was always a new issue to deal with.

Watching a show like a television show should be was also refreshing–meaning that I only watched The Newsroom once a week for the ten weeks. Nowadays, everything is about instant gratification and being able to do anything you want whenever you want. So to be able to relax and take the time to really critique and review the show has been a positive media experience to say the least.

The news desk is left open for a whole series of sub-plots and stories in the show's second season. Here's hoping it takes the best of the first season and only makes it better!

The news desk is left open for a whole series of sub-plots and stories in the show’s second season. Here’s hoping it takes the best of the first season and only makes it better!

 

To complete the ‘fan service package,’ I’m a massive fan of how perfectly The Newsroom ended its first season: just enough was revealed to satiate, but just enough was left open to keep viewers coming back for more. As I think more and more about what I’d like to see during the second season (which I intend to try and watch online since my family doesn’t own cable–ironic, since it’s to watch a show about a cable news network), I keep coming back to my desire to see the show develop into less of a romantic dramedy and more of a well-balanced personal and interpersonal exploration of the media and its influence in everyday life.

Besides that, hopefully Don and Sloan will get together (a really unexpected plot twist, might I add), McAvoy and MacKenzie will become the perfect news duo and couple, Skinner will continue to fight for justice in the ranks of William Paley (and avenge the self-inflicted death of his newfound friend, Hancock), Leona will agree to work with Skinner and McAvoy (or at least allow them to survive), Sorkin will learn how to better write women in screenplays, and the show will do one heck of a job at representing the honest and true viewpoints behind Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential elections (a topic I’m very excited to see analyzed and discussed).

My overall Newsroom season one rating: 7.5 out of 10 Dunphys. Well done, Mr. Sorkin. =u)

And thank you for the experience, Professor Dunphy! This last clip is for you (it describes how I felt after finishing my blog posts):

 

References:

The Newsroom Season One Reviews Collection, MetaCritic (full online collection)

The Newsroom Season One WSJ Preview, Dorothy Rabinowitz

The Newsroom Season One LA Times Review, Mary McNamara

The Newsroom Season One New Yorker Review, Emily Nussbaum

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S1E10, The Greater Fool – Good Night, And Hire Her

In the finale of it’s first season, The Newsroom’s two sides come full circle. The first side of the show revolves around the emotional, mental and physical relationships between office couples (mainly McAvoy and MacKenzie, Maggie and Jim, and Maggie and Don). The second side of the show revolves around what the word “news” really means, and how it’s constantly influenced by people, power and politics (not only in the government, but in the corporations and networks that run the news shows).

In past episodes, Aaron Sorkin (creator of The Newsroom) has clearly had a hard time balancing the two sides out. Sometimes, an episode would focus almost entirely on the relationship side and not pay any attention to the actual ACN News Night newsroom. “News Night 2.0” and “The 112th Congress” are two examples. These were the episodes that I had the hardest time paying attention to, as well as the ones that I found most critics and reviewers calling more of a romantic comedy sitcom than a fictional narrative about news in our non-fictional world.

On the other hand, some episodes focused much more on the news and the powers that are always influencing it. Episodes like “Amen” and “We Got Him” did this, and I definitely preferred them to episodes that focused mainly on relationships. Despite that fact, I found myself having a hard time connecting to the characters and getting into their mindset, or becoming emotionally involved with them. So it was clear to me from early on that Sorkin’s biggest challenge would be balancing these two sides out.

“The Greater Fool” accomplishes this perfectly. I was admittedly a little confused about where the episode was headed in the beginning, mainly while we were jumping between McAvoy reporting on air and McAvoy in his apartment bathroom, bleeding out. However as the gap between the two places in time decreased, motives behind this story structure became more clear.

Will McAvoy: The Greater Fool. The seasone one finale investigates just what that caption really means.

Will McAvoy: The Greater Fool. The seasone one finale investigates just what that caption really means.

 

One critic, Lesley Goldberg of The Hollywood Reporter, said that the biggest reveals of this episode were on the relationship side. On her list of the top six reveals of the episode, she included McAvoy’s message about him still loving MacKenzie, Jim and Maggie finally kissing, Maggie and Don moving in together, and Don figuring out that Sloan is still single because he never asked her out. (The Hollywood Reporter Six Biggest Reveals List) These were definitely the emotional high points of the show, but I’m more interested in the news-related high points.

For one thing, the article about McAvoy and the News Night team written by MacKenzie’s old boyfriend was finally released. In it, McAvoy was called “the greater fool,” which he originally thought of as an insult. After fighting to not only keep an honest news show afloat in the middle of a world filled with TMZ and The Real Housewives of New Jersey look-alikes, but attempting to change the Republican primary debate format, alter the way that ACN operates, and going on a “mission to civilize,” McAvoy thinks that maybe he is just a fool.

Sloan eventually steps in and explains that “the greater fool” is an economic term used to described people who think outside the box and break free of the popular norm. It’s “someone with the perfect blend of self delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.” After that, McAvoy not only has a renewed feeling for himself and what the entire News Night team is doing, but he’s proud of Sloan and the person that she’s become after having worked there.

Another big news-related high point of the episode was the confrontation of the gatekeepers of ACN. After Skinner’s newfound friend Solomon commits suicide, Skinner knows that what he was telling him about was 100% truthful (the illegal hacking of cell phones by Leona’s son). Armed with that knowledge, he led McAvoy and MacKenzie on a mission to put Leona and her son in their place while trying their best to get them to work with the News Night team and “start producing the news again.” Instead of focusing on lying, celebrity slander stories and making more money than anyone would ever need, all the three want to do is provide the American people with the news, the whole news, and nothing but the news.

McAvoy, MacKenzie and Skinner appear to have succeeded in keeping those pesky gatekeepers at bay. Will it stay the same way next season?

McAvoy, MacKenzie and Skinner appear to have succeeded in keeping those pesky gatekeepers at bay. Will it stay the same way next season?

 

The one other plot point that needs to be discussed is the reintroduction of “sorority girl” into the show. Since The Newsroom quite literally began with her being assaulted by McAvoy, it’s fantastic to see it end (the first season) with her wanting to work for/alongside him. The best way to be a fool is to learn from one, and that’s the reasoning she uses to get McAvoy to hire her on the spot. In a review on the media criticism site Zap2It, Carina MacKenzie writes that “[‘sorority girl’s’] obviously got some cojones, and her arrival at ACN is definitely a sign that despite his struggles, Will has made a difference in the time since he first met her.” (Zap2It Newsroom Finale Review) It’s going to be very interesting to see what influence she’ll have on McAvoy and the rest of the team.

It’s season finales like this that really prove to me that great television show writing still exists. Many problems were solved and their solutions revealed, but there are still plenty of things left unsaid. Will McAvoy and MacKenzie ever get back together? Will Sloan stay with the network and become the next McAvoy (or will “sorority girl” take her place)? Will ACN clean up its act and become the leading force in the Fourth Estate? All of these and more will hopefully be answered in season two, but this finale holds up extremely well regardless. The combination of relationships reaching their emotional and mental climaxes with the News Night team telling the true stories of Americans like Dorothy Cooper and kicking some gatekeeper ass while doing it works extremely well.

Enough has happened that us viewers would be content if the show were to end here, and at the same time enough has been left unsaid that we would come back for a second season. Getting an ending so, so right is enough for me to give any show’s season finale episode a 6/5 (yep, 6/5) rating.

Here’s to season two!

 

References:

The Hollywood Reporter Six Biggest Reveals List, Lesley Goldberg

Zap2It Newsroom Finale Review, Carina MacKenzie

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TV Journalism In Its Prime, Filmmaking Not So Much – Good Night, And Good Luck Review

I’d like to make this clarification right off the bat: as a historically accurate representation of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s quest to expose Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communism insanity, Good Night, And Good Luck is a fantastic movie. Life if the 1950s wasn’t easy–especially when you were someone known and seen by a very large part of the nation on a regular basis. Although I feel this aspect of the movie stands strong, I do believe that Good Night, And Good Luck is not as successful in the aspect of filmmaking.

In terms of story,  Good Night, And Good Luck focuses in one a small part of Murrow’s life–the time when he fought against the government (mainly Senator Joseph McCarthy) after hearing of the dismissal of Air Force Pilot Milo Radulovich. Senator McCarthy accused him of being a communist, which in turn led the Air Force and government to fire him without a fair trial or hearing. This gained the interest of Murrow and the rest of the CBS News team. In one of Murrow’s shows, See It Now, an air wave battle took place as both men traded blows on who was the real communist infiltrating our nation’s soil. In the end, Radulovich was reinstated and McCarthy defeated (in a sense, at least), but Murrow paid the price through his show being moved to a very bad time slot and the suppressing of his presence on the network.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

 

As a film, there are very clear pros and cons. Regardless of what I have to say here, the film was nominated for six oscars and won 40 other miscellaneous awards when released in 2005, so it must have done something right. The first real noticable thing about it is that is’s presented in full black and white. This serves the story well considering it’s representing a time when television was on the rise and the world could really only see it in black and white. The world had color, but print and television journalism was colorless.

The other main thing the film does is constantly use real footage from the original Murrow broadcasts, television commercials, McCarthy announcements and trials/hearings of the time. This, I believe, has the opposite effect on the film in some cases. While the audience is trying to connect with the vast amount of characters that are being presented to them (another problem with the film–the fact that there’s so many characters and no real time given to form emotional connections with each and every one), they’re constantly given full-length original television clips to watch. Although this helps tell the story because, well, it IS the story, I didn’t like how frequently these clips were shown. If the film had focused only on the actors it was using to portray the real-life characters, audiences would have been able to connect to them more.

Another issue putting characters back to back with the real people brings about is that audiences will tend to start to look for similarities and differences among actors and who is supposed to be playing who. Now for the most part, this is a good thing–historical films should encourage viewers to focus on the real people behind the stories and compare them with the actors portraying them in the film, but since it happens so frequently here, I feel that it has an opposite effect. I found myself focusing more on the production design of the sets and the makeup and accuracy of the actors and their historically-accurate counterparts more than I did any of the stories presented throughout the film.

Besides focusing on the technical aspects of the film rather than focusing on its story and the messages and meanings behind the real-life events it was recounting, I also had a hard time waiting for the main conflicts to arise. When you get right down to it, this film is about a very really and potentially life-threatening battle between Murrow and McCarthy. There were other prominent sub-plots revolving around the extent of government and network censorship as well as dealing with the stress and emotionally-tasking nature of broadcast journalism during a time when there were very few faces traveling across the airwaves, but none of them were as focused on. Going back to what I was commenting on before, the large amount of characters played by prominent, well-known actors in this film didn’t help me to get inside the heads of the characters at all.

One of Murrow's trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

One of Murrow’s trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

 

This argument is especially clear in the sub-plot regarding one of Murrow’s fellow CBS newscasters, Don Hollenbeck. Without giving any major plot points away, Hollenbeck has a very hard time dealing with the aggressive comments and criticisms printed in the newspapers and recounted by other television reporters. This is an age old issue (being open to criticism, but drawing a fine line between what’s constructive and what’s insulting), something that truly began in Hollenbeck’s era, but is much more prominent today. In The Insider, a film that investigates choices made during on of the United States largest cases regarding tobacco companies and investigative journalism’s role in the assault on those companies, television newscasters have to constantly deal with whatever is said about them by whomever–whether or not it’s true.

A character like Lowell Bergman (the main protagonist of The Insider) has a full film almost exclusively to himself to investigate how he feels about what people around him do and say, and the audience forms a strong connection with him over the two hour movie. In Hollenbeck’s case, the story feels very rushed, and it’s not as clear why he feels so strongly about the criticisms thrown against him. Again, it’s important to understand that in the 1950s, any hint of opressive verbal violence or slander could lead someone to worry for countless hours that they would be marked as a communist, but Good Night, And Good Luck never really helps the audience to form that connection.

Just as stated in the beginning of this post, I feel that Good Night, And Good Luck has some serious pros as well as some serious cons. The production value and A-List actors who worked on this project add a lot of realism, believability and integrity to the recreation of one of the nation’s turning points (at least for the fields of television broadcasting and investigative journalism). At the same time, the amount of information and characters mixed with the lack of clarity for certain motives as well as the constant use of original source material makes the film a little hard to sit through. I have a strong feeling that with the same artistic and storytelling formula and less characters, this movie could work extremely well as a long short (around 50 minutes long or so). I give it a 3/5 rating.

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S1E9, The Blackout Part Two – The Great Debates

McAvoy and MacKenzie’s relationship is slowly leading towards either a total make-up or complete disintegration, Don is finally getting the message about how Maggie feels for Jim, Neal and Sloan have worked their way into upper-level journalist ranks, and Terry Crews is still a recurring character (every now and then, at least).

Now that I’ve gotten the story-related plot point of The Newsroom’s ninth episode out of the way, I can focus on what I’m really interested in: the “new debate format” suggested by McAvoy and the rest of the News Night team.

The mock debate scene from The Newsroom's ninth episode.

The mock debate scene from The Newsroom’s ninth episode.

 

A few months back, sometime before I started my Mass Media class with Professor Dunphy, a friend of mine shared the mock debate scene from this episode on Facebook. At the time, I had no idea who any of the characters were, why they were all pretending to be the potential Republican presidential candidates, or what The Newsroom even was. Now, months later, I know all about the show and its characters. Despite this newfound knowledge, I didn’t feel any different watching the scene a second time around.

This is something that really stand out to me. If we’re not supposed to be looking at the characters or anything onscreen, it’s pretty clear that Sorkin wants us to look deeper, at something beyond the composition of the shot.

To me, this debate format is amazing and horrifying at the same time. As I get older, I pay more attention to the way politicians speak and how the questions they’re asked by the media differ greatly compared to the questions the average everyday person has. Most of the time, the questions asked by the media (radio and television news shows, talk shows, etc.) are somewhat vauge and can be answered in a very broad way. Especially when it comes to presidential elections, Q&A sessions and debates become very long-winded and very repetitive very quickly. The people asking the questions don’t get to the point, nor do they speak like human beings. They spit the questions out as if they’re coming from a robot, almost never sounding natural.

McAvoy, MacKenzie and the rest of the team have devised a formula that breaks all of these habits. Not only does McAvoy get straight to the point and not waste a single breath by beating around the bush, but he stops the candidates when they don’t answer the questions, constantly switches between various subject matter and topics to keep everyone on their toes, and even confronts some candidates on a personal, real, human level (asking about sexual and racial stereotyping scandals, for example).

In the episode, the representative from the Republican National Committee isn’t please at all by what McAvoy is offering, but his boyhood friend working alongside the representative does see the positive points about this new debate format. For one thing, McAvoy and his friend agree that if the candidates are going to be running for the position of the president of the United States they should be able to answer questions in this manner. What they’ll have to do in office will no doubt be much more urgent and serious than being completely honest with the American public. Even more on honesty, McAvoy’s debate style doesn’t allow for any freedom to beat around the bush or to be untruthful–the candidates are stopped when they’re not answering the question asked by the moderator and called out when they’re stating incorrect information (again, by the moderator, not by themselves).

I did find it interesting that most other reviews of this episode didn’t feel that the mock debates worked very well in bringing anything new to the table. Since the Republican pre-primaries (and the entire presidential election process) has obviously already passed, it’s pretty clear that the Republicans “still ended up seeing through all those guys and nominating the one who, judging from the lack of abuse he’s taken on The Newsroom, seems to be the one Sorkin views as least evil.” (Newsroom Episode Nine Recap)

I don’t think it’s clear if the kind of debate method presented in episode nine of The Newsroom could ever work. It brings a lot to the table, but also takes some away. By giving the moderator complete control over the pacing, topics and subjects of the deabtes with no limitations or off-limits questions, it seems that stings step backwards just as much as they step forwards. There needs to be some form of order in the court while maintaing the ability to stay on topic and on point (cut the fat).

Because this new debate style is presented in such an interesting way that leaves the audience really comparing and contrasting our real-life system to a fictional system, this episode gets a 5/5 (and yes, that rating is completely disregarding the silly emotional/relationship side of the episode–mainly because I’m rather sick of it now). Here’s hoping McAvoy finds a way to get his pants on in the Season One finale!

Did I forget to mention that? There was a silly recurring joke all episode about Will's "pants problem." It reminded me of Ted Striker's "drinking problem" from Airplane.

Did I forget to mention that? There was a silly recurring joke all episode about Will’s “pants problem.” It reminded me of Ted Striker’s “drinking problem” from Airplane.

 

Reference:

The Newsroom Episode Nine Recap, Jeff Bercovici

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Ordinary People In Extraordinary Situations – The Insider Review

Imagine a well-written, fully-arced show like The Newsroom (the parts that focus on the conflict between legitimate investigative journalism and station bureaucracy, at least) with a focus placed on investigative journalism in corporate America, and you’ve got The Insider.

Released in 1999, The Insider “tells the true story of a man who decided to tell the world what the seven major tobacco companies knew (and concealed) about the dangers of their product.” (Rotten Tomatoes) The film was nominated for seven Oscars ranging from Best Director to Best Editing, and went on to win not only many more awards, but the praise of film critics from across the nation.

 

At the most basic level, the film’s story revolves around Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), a research scientist at Brown and Williamson who was fired in March 1993 due to the fact that he ‘did his job too well.’ (Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline) To retaliate against the tobacco industry and fight for what he believed was right in the terms of American public health, Wigand decided to blow the whistle with the help of Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), a producer of CBS’ news show 60 Minutes. As threats against his family were made by Brown and Williamson (the film states that in the real life story, it was never discovered who sparked the harassment and mafe the threats), Wigand hoped that the threats would stop and he would gain safety, approval and support in the court of public appeal by whistle blowing.

Unfortunately for Wigand, things didn’t go as planned. As he pursued exposing companies like Brown and Williamson, the threats only became more serious, his wife left him due to the stress and constant fear of being “silenced,” and reporters began to dig further and further into his past. All of these things on top of one another created a very intense, dark and stressful situation for Wigand, and the feelings his character was experiencing spilled off onto the audience. Through the constant use of high-pitched musical scores, dark shots with heavy shadow compositions and close-ups on Wigand and Bergman’s faces, The Insider masterfully conveys the feeling of what it’s like to be an insider–someone with information that everyone wants to know, even though they don’t know that they want it.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes like this one.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes in the film, ones like this one (where Wigand calls Bergman in a fit of paranoia and fear).

 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the film also conveys what it’s like to be an investigative journalist in the midst of a real, savage, sometimes unfair world. The film’s opening scene is where this side of the storytelling really shines: the audience gets to experience a military humvee ride in the desert through the eyes of a prisoner with a cloth bag over his/her head. It’s revealed that Bergman is the man under the bag, and he’s being transported to the location of an terrorist/sheik who may or may not agree to do an interview with Mike Wallace (the main face behind 60 Minutes, a reporter who has worked on the show for over 50 years). After ironically telling the sheik that the interview would help to give him a face while his face as covered, Bergman is told that the interview will happen in two days.

After the interview with Wallace takes place in a following scene, the main story (involving Wigand and the big tobacco companies) really begins. After such a shift in story, I was really left wondering why such a scene would be placed right at the beginning of the movie. At that point, I though that the film was going to be more about terrorism and negotiations with Islamic fundamentalists than nicotine and corporate greed. So this clear clash between stories and worlds really draws attention to itself.

As I researched what other critics and reviewers had to say about this part of the film, the words of Andy Markowitz, a film critic for the Baltimore City Paper, stood out: “The opening scenes of The Insider are all about how brave, resourceful, and idealistic Lowell Bergman is.” Markowitz sees the entire film as a commentary on the status of investigative reporters in the context of the world of The Insider. I immediately found myself agree with him because as I worked my way further and further into the film’s stories, the lives of the characters and the desires of each and every party, I also drew the conclusion that this film is meant to focus more on the journalism aspect rather than the big business, tobacco aspect.

Bergman's job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

Bergman’s job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

 

Even after the opening scene where Bergman and Wallace drive right into the heart of evil and danger by interviewing terrorists on their soil, many scenes further their “no-bullcrap, we’re here to do our job and nothing less” policies. When Wigand begins to think that informing the public about what’s really going on behind their backs might not actually win them over or make them care, he questions Bergman’s loyalty. Bergman, in a very assertive manner, tells Wigand that he’s “been out in the world, giving [his] word and backing it up with action.”

Even Wallace questions whose side Bergman is on later in the film, which leads to the supressing of Wigand’s interview and the tobacco story by CBS News. In real life, Wallace and Don Hewitt (the executive producer of the show) sided with CBS News on the choice not to air the original Wigand interview due to potential legal issues/lawsuits that Brown and Williamson might have raised against them. In an interview with the real Lowell Bergman on PBS’ Frontline, it was addressed that Wallace and Hewitt both “called the film an inaccurate record of events and an unfair characterization of their respective positions on the decision not to air the Wigand interview.” (A Talk With Lowell Bergman) Because of statements like this coming from the real life people, it’s hard to tell which opinions and beliefs were real and which were dramatized for effect in The Insider.

Regardless of the true personal beliefs of each person involved in the decision, the interview was only aired after the news of CBS declaring not to air Wigand’s interview was leaked to The New York Times. The fact that it had to come to the court of public opinion for CBS to allow the interview to be aired is ironic to say the least. The people that fought so hard to provide information to the public so they could in turn fight against an organization who was denying that information to them in the first place were chained back by another organization denying the public that information. As Bergman said in the film, “the more truth [Wigand] tells, the worse it gets.”

Looking back at this film after having researched and analyzed it, I can understand why it was so highly praised and meant so much for investigative journalism. It accurately depicts the vigorous, powerful and moving hunt for the truth that true journalists must go through constantly, especially when it comes to stories that could fundamentally change the way some of the nation’s largest industries work.

Stepping even further back and viewing the film for Markowitz’s point of view, that it’s an exploration of the bravery, resourcefulness and idealism of investigative journalists in the rapidly expanding (approaching, at the time of the film’s release) 21st century, The Insider stands out as a film that inspects human nature in one of the greatest legal cases in our country’s history. It tries to analyze why some people believe what they do, how they change over time, how others betray them and for what reasons, and why journalism is such a necessary part of this modern society we all live in. The film takes occasional liberties in modifying the story and creating a few fictional emotional responses and decisions, but it explores each and every character, their motives, their fears, their idiosyncrasies, their level of power and their place in society masterfully.

When “ordinary people are under extraordinary pressure,” it’s never clear what’s going to happen next. I give The Insider a 10/10.

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References:

Rotten Tomatoes, Film Review Aggregator

Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline, PBS Frontline

Baltimore City Paper The Insider Review, Andy Markowitz

 A Talk With Lowell Bergman, PBS Frontline