Are Spielberg and Bigelow artists or slackers!


What hath Zero Dark wrought: We fled the Oscars not too long after Seth MacFarlane performed “We Saw Your Boobs,” which the Washington Post’s Hank Stuever has now described as the gent’s “best number.”

Plainly, the Howard Stern formula owns the culture. That formula has two parts:

First, determine the thing you “shouldn’t” say. Then, proceed to say it, knowing that the mandarin class will treat your piffle as humor.

Ah, those mandarins! We have continued to ponder Megan McArdle’s review of the current mandarin class, even as we have been rereading The Feminine Mystique, in which Betty Freidan savagely flayed the 1950s’ version of same. Even as McArdle pummels our modern order, she does make one major giant misstatement:

“As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart.”

Except no—our mandarins actually aren’t “very smart.” We thought of that problem as we read (perhaps) the final few analyses of Zero Dark Thirty over the weekend.

Is our long national nightmare over? Will woolly-headed ruminations on Zero Dark Thirty finally stop? In Saturday’s New York Times, two top film critics, Dargis and Scott, combined to consider the endless debate about this particular film’s treatment of torture.

We thought their long piece was extremely light. In our view, they used their verbal skills to serve the main role of the mandarin class—to give the impression that enlightened debate is taking place within the national press.

Is there a potential problem when Films like Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln offer dramatic portrayals of real historical figures and/or real historical events? In our view, the critics swerved off the rails early on, with this one highlighted phrase:
DARGIS/SCOTT (2/23/13): The rules of journalism seem clear enough, at least when they are violated. But where, in a work of imagination drawn from real life, are we supposed to draw the line between acceptable invention and irresponsible fabrication? Can we shrug off, say, the preposterous fancies of “Shakespeare in Love” and playful untruths in “The King’s Speech” and still object to the paranoid embroideries of “JFK”? Historians know that facts are not separate from interpretation and the same can be said of taste in movies. There is no single standard that would condemn (or excuse) both the whimsical inventions of “Marie Antoinette,” in which the Queen of France is glimpsed wearing high-top sneakers, and the wholesale revisionism of “Mississippi Burning,” which ridiculously credited white F.B.I. agents for the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.
Can Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln be described as “works of imagination drawn from real life?” Yes, but so can classic political films like Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. The distinction: The latter films don’t pretend to show us real historical figures in the midst of real historical events. The latter films are purely fiction, although their themes and concerns are plainly “drawn from real life.”

Inevitably, the first type of “work of imagination drawn from real life” can confuse people about real events and real facts in a way the second type cannot. But the critics avoided this distinction throughout their piece.

Predictably, they ended by saying that the mandarins to whom they fawn for a living haven’t done something problematic or wrong. Also, they flirted with the hoariest cliche of the mandarin class: The American people are pretty sharp:
DARGIS/SCOTT: Audiences are used to reading the words “based on a true story” as a hedge rather than a promise (or a threat!). And we are often in the dark about just what has been changed or omitted. Even devoted history buffs may not remember the tally of votes in Congress nearly 150 years ago. But thinking adults can tell the difference between a fiction film and a nonfiction one, despite the worried warnings from politicians and others who have recently been moonlighting as movie critics. Behind some of the most inflamed concern over works like “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thinly veiled distrust of the American public—that, well, moviegoers are just not smart or sophisticated or schooled enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, on-screen lies and off-screen ones.

Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism—punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment—movies are hardly immune.

But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.
It can seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time? At this point, everyone is making stuff up all the time, from our history professors on down, and the people cast as journalists rarely seem to notice. That said, films which pretend to be showing us historical figures and/or events have a unique ability to spread flawed or bogus information. As they mouth undifferentiated piffle like “invention remains one of the prerogatives of art,” Dargis and Scott never quite manage to confront this obvious problem.

Is it “the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities?” We’re not sure, but it seems to be the job of the mandarin class to create the counterfeit impression that an intelligent watchdog class is considering important problems in our leading publications.

We don’t think Dargis and Scott did that. We don’t think their piece was smart, let alone “very smart.”

Is the mandarin class very smart? Are they confronting important problems in our leading publications? Over the weekend, we’ve been thrilled to revisit the way Friedan tore that illusion apart in the summer of 63, describing the work of the mandarin class all through the post-war period. Reading Dargis and Scott blather on to their mandated ends, you can perhaps see that a mandarin class is still employed to create that type of illusion today.

For our money, a fair amount of hubris is involved in pretending to show us what Lincoln said to his son (or to his cabinet) in the White House. When film-makers pretend to show us how bin Laden was tracked, powerful misinformation can be conveyed—and yes, that’s an actual problem.

Some people make purely fictional films to convey ideas about the real world. Others dress up actors as Lincoln—or as Maya. Their work gains speed from this potent illusion. This frees them from the need to invent a compelling story from scratch.

In the process, such slackers actually may transmit bogus ideas and notions. If they do, mandarin critics will be on hand to call them “artists.” They will tell us “it’s their job” to confuse us the rubes in such ways.


  1. I understand why Bob questions whether the mandarins are really smart. I would add, speaking as a numbers guy, that many of the mandarins aren't particularly good at properly using numbers and statistics.

    OTOH they write very well. The NYT column Bob criticizes may not have much real content, but it's beautifully written. Perhaps it should be viewed as an exercise in good writing, rather than as something that's supposed to inform readers.

    1. Just to clear something up, David, you have no cred "as a numbers guy" 'round here.

      You burned that a long, long time ago.

  2. It's not Howard Stern's formula for humor. Speaking about topics that cause embarrassment or are otherwise socially frowned upon (sex, drugs, pointless wars) has been a formula for comedy forever.

    1. Howard Stern is a "shock jock" and he didn't even create that formula.

      Bob, as a stand-up comic himself, should at least pay homage to Lenny Bruce, if not to scores of bawdy, risque comics that came before him, even long before the days of burlesque and vaudeville.

  3. I finally saw ZD30 last night. What a disappointment. It was like All The President's Men, but with torture and a one-sided shootout at the end, less appealing stars and, in the end, less important subject matter, because it focuses on the small end of governmental abuse. We're using drones to kill countless people, some of them American citizens without the benefit of trial, and here the media class is all up in arms about how a mediocre movie treats torture that occurred several years ago. The real discussions, the ones that go over the kind of nation we were vs the kind of nation we have become, simply aren't being had, and movies like this aren't going to spark them.

    1. Thanks for this as we saw it this weekend and thought it long and quite boring. If anything, I thought it celebrated an Imperial America which can invade a sovereign country because it felt like killing someone who had engineered a terror attack on it. Pakistan borders? Collateral damage? Not to worry, they deserved it.
      US rhetoric has fallen way behind the facts on the ground.

  4. I found the program too boring to watch after the song about boobs, who I take for the program's writers. But, from the results I was ever so pleased at the snub to the horrid "Zero" which the voters actually understood as opposed to most professional critics.


  5. Terrific criticism, Bob.


  6. When "Deer Hunter" won "Best Picture" over "Sophie's Choice", I was disappointed. Although "Deer Hunter" was a powerful film "Sophie's Choice" was a masterpiece. I haven't been much interested in the Oscars since that time.

    Thinking back on the black and white propaganda films made during and shortly after WWII they appeared ridiculous. All the Japanese were suicidal maniacs and all the Germans were psychopaths. The damage caused by superficial depictions of reality and the stereotypical portrayals of human beings is difficult to measure, but whatever amount of impact they have, the creation of illusions that capture the imagination of the public are a part of our culture with only written history with which to compare the illusions.

    A couple of decades ago some academics began a project to write less magical and more realistic portrayals of historic events. The project began in celebration of reality, but eventually died from lack of funding and/or interest. The idea that historians would embark on such a project I found inspiring, but the fact that it was never completed may be a great loss as people continue to live out the illusions..

    1. Just try conducting a war while portraying the enemy as human beings with the same wants and needs as you. Why, it would be like waging foreign wars on behalf of business interests with a conscripted army. Eventually the peasants would begin to question their leaders and perhaps even revolt.

  7. I've never been an admirer of "Family Guy" or even "Ted," but Seth wasn't any worse than other recent Oscar hosts and better than some. I'm surprised to hear myself say this. His best joke was about the Argo story being so recently declassified the film's director was still unknown to Hollywood.

    How many knew Seth was an Oscar nominee that night? He was the lyricist for the song sung by Nora Jones. (He was probably the lyricist for "I Saw Your Boobs," too. Oh, well, we can't all be Lorenz Hart.)

    Artistic license with historical events seems to be on an elastic scale. Lincoln the Vampire Killer offends only one's taste in cinema. Tony Kushner offended only a few nit-pickers like that fact-stickler Maureen Dowd. Movies ripped from the headlines have to be more careful. People connected with such events one way or another are still alive and scrappy.

    I like the Gore Vidal model of historical fiction. Everything spoken comes from a letter, document, or some other kind of historical reference, he claims.

  8. Bigelow yeah maybe. Spielberg........ what are you smoking? Break the Prozac in half. Compared to Stephen Spielberg, Bob, you have the I.Q. of a carrot. I guess what I'm saying is..... "move along now, these aren't the droids you're looking for." Now, before you get all puffed up, remember........ the ego is like a hat.......... you always "check it" at the door.

  9. Bob, the descriptive phrase you are looking for is "claim to historicity." That's the distinction between works of fiction that are claiming to representing history vs. those that are merely "dealing with" real life issues and concerns.

  10. Bob, really, get as far as possible from McArdle. Flee her. She really is everything you loathe and detest, and more. And no, she hasn't had a conversion, nor do you look generous and intellectually honest for paying her two seconds of your time. Really. Research her a little before you start using her as a springboard. This is nuts.

    1. Amazing, isn't it? Megan McArdle is yet another over-privileged neo-libertarian who claims "working class" roots because her grandfather worked at a job that got his hands dirty, much like the late Tim Russert did in his awful book about his father.

      And Somerby thinks she is exposing the "mandarin class"? After spending her entire adult life in service to it?

  11. Let me ask this question, Bob.

    Shakespeare wrote Henry V some 180 years after the Battle of Agincourt. Does anybody seeing that play, from the first production to today, think they are hearing a verbatim transcript when Henry delivers his famous speech to his army?

    And I am scratching my head over how you made the quantum leap from McArdle to Spielberg and Bigelow.

    In short, this post is pretty much a muddled mess and one of the poorer attempts to advance your narrative.

    In fact, both you and McArdle are covering the same ground that James Fallows covered with much more skill 20 years ago in "Breaking the News."

    I also hate to break the news (pun intended) to both you and McArdle who are so hopelessly disconnected from the working class that you don't realize that journalism has never been an "elite" profession.

    Sure, it is to the handful of celebrity "pundits." But the vast majority of working "journalists" are kids working ungodly hours peanuts for small newspapers and small TV stations, sitting through mind-numbingly boring city council and school board meetings, hoping to build a clipbook and get that big break to a job that will pay a living wage, and that break almost never comes.

    And these days, even that model is disappearing fast, as so many kids with communications and journalism degrees turn to blogging, hoping against hope that their blogs catch on through the Tower of Babel that is the Internet.

    And McArdle, as connected as she is to the working class, ought to know that there is no such thing any mo4re as a "gas station" like her granddaddy used to own or lease.

    The oil companies pretty much began driving the owner/leasees out of business 40 years ago. What we have now are chain convenience stores with do-it-yourself gas pumps.

    Of course, McArdle would know that if she ever pumped her own gas.

  12. "Is there a potential problem when Films like ... offer dramatic portrayals of real historical figures and/or real historical events?"
    Yes, there is, and it is good you bring it up. After all, it seems to me that most Americans' view of the Civil War and old South is derived from "Gone with the Wind," and whatever was studied in high school history class is long forgotten (if ever taught correctly, even there).