Cinema Paradiso Revisited

This past weekend I had the pleasure of watching one of my favorite movies of all time and one the worst movies I have ever seen. Talk about conflict!

CinemaParadiso

The first one is an Italian film, Cinema Paradiso, focused on family and personnel growth. The second is soft porn, Good Luck Chuck, masquerading as a comedy.

Cinema Paradiso came out about twenty years ago. Good Luck Chuck is much more recent.  Chronologically, the time between them is a blip; but, examining them culturally, the rapid degradation of the art form is nothing short of riveting.

Cinema Paradiso begins right after World War II in a small town in Italy. The story line centers around a young boy named Toto and his friend Fredo. Fredo becomes a father figure to Toto as Toto’s father was killed during World War II.

The two develop a relationship around Fredo’s job, where he runs the only movie theater in town. He teaches Toto how to run a screen projector which, at the time, was an actual trade. Fredo teaches and mentors Toto on cinema, generally but more importantly, on life. In so doing, Fredo sees in Toto the seeds of greatness.

When Toto becomes a young man, Fredo forces Toto to promise to leave the town and never return. Toto’s gifts and talents are so great that Fredo knows they were meant to be shared with the world and not confined within such a small community. Fredo tells Toto that if he ever returns, he will never speak to him again.

The scene is beautiful and poignant in that Toto leaves the only place wherein he is truly loved. He leaves  his widowed mother and sister, as well as Fredo, to explore and conquer the rest of the world.

Many years later, having become a fabulously successful businessman, Toto returns to attend Fredo’s funeral.  The town is clearly in awe of Toto’s fame as his dealings are well documented in the press.  He returns a conquer, of sorts, but without family. In essence, that was the price he had paid for the life he lived. His true loves had been formed, and left, in this small town — friends, family and the unrequited love of a girl with whom he had attended school. Toto and Fredo sacrificed much having loved each other as only father and son can. Yet, both knew the price of greatness. The love that Fredo (and Toto’s family) felt for him would have only slowed him down.

There is something special about human nature that compels us to want to keep those we love and cherish close to us; but, to truly love someone is about encouraging, then allowing, them out into the world so that their greatness can be revealed. Cinema Paradiso captured this with beauty and grace..

Fast forward twenty years later to “Good Luck Chuck.”

It centers around Chuck, who at age thirteen, was cursed by a girl for not kissing her during a game of spin the bottle. Chuck’s curse is that women can find their “one true love” after having sex with him. Chuck is forever destined to be alone since anybody he “loves” i.e “has sex with him” then leaves him to find their true love.

As women discover that “Chuck” is a good luck charm, they throw themselves at him with reckless abandon. He begins to have sex with anybody and everybody. He is shown having rampant sex in every conceivable position. So plentiful and frenzied is Chuck’s sex life that the director splits the screen into four mini-screens so that we can fully capture his prowess. In one particularly depressing scene, Chuck goes to visit his friend for advice only to find him pleasuring himself with a grapefruit.

The movie, though billed as a comedy, is really soft porn. I never once laughed during the movie and I was beside myself to think that a director would actually think that a man pleasuring himself with a grapefruit was somehow funny.

Good Luck Chuck” featured Jessica Alba and Dane Cook, both of whom are considered talented professionals. Many people were involved in the to direction, production and marketing of this movie. Yet no one involved intervened to stop this abomination. It is a sad state of affairs that this film made it to the movie theaters. It’s showing only reinforces my belief that our culture has descended to a nearly unprecedented low

I don’t know when sex got linked to humor, but it seems that those lacking in creativity or talent resort to it for cheap laughs. I saw it up close around 2000 when I went to see Susie Essman, from “Curb your Enthusiasm” preform at a comedy club. I thought she was funny and quite talented so I wanted to see her live. Sadly, her whole show revolved around her haranguing a family of ten from Ohio.  Like me, I imagined they came in hoping to see a talented comedian.  Instead she asked everyone’s preference regarding sex (anal- homosexual-positions, etc.). She even asked the elderly mother and father about their sexual history. They laughed nervously, so as to go along with the routine, but I knew they had been humiliated. They had come as a  family to have a few laughs. Instead were psychoanalyzed by a middle-aged-sex-obsessed (now pseudo) comic. Her performance was truly pathetic. I felt sorry for the family that had been unwittingly subjected to Essman’s maliciousness as she tore into them for cheap laughs. Perhaps I should take solace in the fact that not one person  laughed during her entire set.

The degradation found now in our “arts”…movies and television… is truly frightening.  During the last decade or two, television has gone so far as to develop a new archetype, the anti-hero, which is on full display with shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” These are “heroes” so flawed we root against them.

Our heroes no longer inspire. They are, however, on display as a reflection of our culture and how far we have fallen.

When “Cinema Paradiso” came out it coincided with the end of the First Gulf War.  Since that time, Hollywood has harangued the political class and the military for the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And yet, Hollywood can not, or will not, acknowledge that much of the anti-American sentiment now in full display throughout the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) is also a result of the cultural rot that America exports through its cinema and television  programing.

Movies have the ability to raise us up or tear us down. In service to its own political agenda and cultural demise, Hollywood is hell bent on lowering society’s cultural norms. I only hope that new mediums such as YouTube will seek to inspire a new generation of artists to acknowledge and seek to produce the greatness and power of human creativity.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com

 

The Oscars and Race

I introduced my kids to ice skating when my two oldest daughters were three and four. We would go every Saturday morning down to the Chelsea Piers Skating Rink and get our fill for the day. Eventually, they grew to love the sport and skated competitively for many years

Oscars

In order to get proficient in the sport, and then excel at it, required years and years of continual practice. The commitment was enormous, the training both difficult and time consuming. By the time they were seven years old they were training four times a week between ice skating, choreography and strength coaching just to be able to enter the arena and compete with their peers.

They were both good but my oldest daughter was exceptional. Exceptional in the sense that her talent was apparent to anyone who saw her skate. I was approached many times by coaches asking if they could train her. On one particular occasion, one of the top coaches from Russia was visiting to teach a seminar. He immediately took note of her talent. By the second day, my daughter had become his favorite demonstrator and was being used to show the other skaters the proper way to execute certain moves. Even though many of the skaters in the group were far senior to her in age and experience, she simply had more natural talent.

Given her talent and unquestioned ability, I anticipated that she would win most of her competitions, but this was not the case. Her winning percentage was at 50% even though, to the naked eye, she looked like the best skater on the ice.

The reason for this is that the sport is decided by the judges. There is no absolute objective truth in which to measure the winners versus the losers. An ice skating competition usually lasts only two minutes per competitor in which a skater performs a routine set to music. During that two minutes a skater is evaluated for only a handful of moves…such as how they landed a jump or if the skater used their edges properly on a turn.

Over time, she became so frustrated with her results that she ended up leaving the sport even though she had world class talent. One of her  longtime coaches, Christine, who had competed in two Olympics and placed in the top ten twice, understood her frustration. You see even though Christine was a top skater in the world, she would never be able to place any higher. She skated for a small country that would never achieve scores higher than the skaters from larger countries such as France, U.S., Canada and Russia. It was part of how the game was played. The sport was subjective. Judges preferred skaters from the biggest skating powerhouses which made it virtually impossible for skaters from smaller countries to crack higher than the top 10. When I asked my daughter if she felt slighted in any way, she said no. In the end, people skate because they love to and not for the trophies given.

Sporting events like ice skating are therefore always hard to evaluate with laser-like precision. This is the case with other sporting events as well, such as gymnastics and diving.  But this problem is not limited to the sporting world. The art world is much the same. The art forms of painting, drawing, film and T.V are all judged by a subjective standard.  Art critics can simultaneously love and hate a particular work depending on who the artist is. Nobody complains because we all inherently know that the work of art is being evaluated by a critic with a certain point of view.

In film, especially with the Oscars,  voter bias has always been a known factor. Big action films and comedies always fair poorly at the Oscars. Its a total outlier if either of these genres can even snag a nomination. Nobody seems to complain because filmmakers know the bias exists. The phenomenal comedy “Groundhog Day”, now considered one of the 100 greatest movies of all time, didn’t garner even a single nomination. The lead actor, Bill Murray, and the director, Harold Ramis, are highly regarded for their comedic and storytelling abilities. They, too, did not complain.

The very public groaning over this years Oscar nominations is that two acclaimed films, “Straight Outta Compton” and “Concussion” both star black actors; yet. they received no nominations. Activists and many artists claim that these works, as well as others, prove that the Oscars nominating Committee is racist. But given the Oscars penchant for voting for certain types of movies, it seemed to me par for the course.  As it is every year, there are great works and talents not recognized for their accomplishments regardless of their race.

After the backlash subsidies, I fear the Oscar voters will cave. I  believe going forward, the Academy of Arts and Sciences that oversees the nominations  will now have to look for a Black artist to nominate every year… lest they be called racists. Taking this logic to its zenith,  Latinos, Transgender, Indians, Native Americans, and Catholics, etc.. will protest as well until all the minorities are represented by nominations at the detriment of true artistic ability.

We already have groups and organizations that have artistic awards broken down by race. For example, the B.E.T  has its own channel where they nominate only Blacks. The A.L.M.A, awards only Latinos. We are getting to a point where we will no longer have any inclusive award shows, but rather awards divided by gender, religion, race and culture lest no one be offended.

Which leads me back to “subject evaluations” in art. There are no right answers only points of view in subjective mediums. What seems lost in the discussion is that the true meaning we get from creating anything is gained in the process and the creation.  If we allow ourselves to need validation from something or someone else, we are give our power over to it or them. The Black activists protesting the Oscars are no longer content with the work, the money or the fame.  They want the nomination that Oscar voters can give them and, by so wanting, abdicate their power in the process.

No man can validate or redeem  another. Only we can do that for ourselves. What the Oscar nominating Committee does not realize is that even if every award went to a Black artist it would still not satiate the protesters. What the Black activists are asking for is something the Oscar voters can’t give: validation.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com