J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

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The Right Stuff

Posted by J on August 5, 2009

So after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, we were curious about its right-stuff-DVDcovercinematic depiction.  We’ve read the book too recently to make this judgment, but Wolfe’s book might be in our top-15.  That’s top 15 books we’ve ever read, which includes many books written before 1900, FYI.

Anyway, as is typical of white people like us, the movie just doesn’t compare, and that darn sure makes us upset.

The Right Stuff movie is simply a collection of the best scenes from the book, all strung together without an obvious point.  For example, we get the scene where Alan Shepherd, preparing to become the first American in space, has to urinate while sitting in his capsule waiting for launch.  Should he go, or not?  Wolfe has dozens of funny, unexpected moments of the early American space program, tied together with two or three key themes.  The movie tries but ultimately fails in communicating those themes.

One of them is the pilot hierarchy, the ziggurat that all pilots attempt to ascend, in order to become the best.  Those at the top of the ziggurat have “the right stuff,” which Wolfe cleverly rephrases several times as “the righteous stuff.”  Basically, in the early ’60s, the astronauts-turned-pilots were a modern version of an ancient warrior-class, and they were treated as such by American citizens and their media.

Wolfe contrasts one part of the pilot hierarchy, the rocket plane pilots, which included Chuck Yeager, with the Mercury astronauts.  Wolfe’s implicit point is that the rocket pilots were really the ones who deserved the glory that the astronauts received.  After all, the rocket pilots were breaking air speed records regularly, flying into space, and actually controlling the crafts they were flying in.  By contrast, the Mercury astronauts were doing the same things that NASA-trained chimpanzees were trained to do: push a bunch of buttons, sit on a rocket, and don’t panic.  The Mercury astronauts weren’t really piloting anything, even though they really wanted to be.

The movie attempts this contrast, especially with Yeager’s character, but the whole point of the difference between the two sets of pilots is lost because there is no narrator to explain it.  We are left to infer the pilot group differences from the images, but a lot of explanation was apparently left out in the editing room.  So Yeager in this movie becomes just another brave American hero; he’s almost kind of a throw-in here, and so it would’ve made sense to leave him out.  Whereas the book ends with the bravest exploit of all — Yeager’s last flight, in which he had to eject and nearly had his finger and face burnt off — the movie ends with a minor Mercury astronaut flying into space right after Yeager’s insane flight.

What then is this movie’s thesis?  It is difficult to tell.  Maybe it’s that the early astronauts were ordinary guys with ordinary gals as wives, all caught up in a world-historical event.  But that’s a maybe.  It’s really hard to tell.

There’s more we could say, but let’s forego that and end with a simple, constant piece of advice: don’t watch the movie, and instead read the book.  The book is far better than the movie.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 5

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Ideology Matters

Posted by J on February 16, 2009

From elsewhere on the web.  Both of these quotes are taken from the late ’80s/early ’90s, and judging by what we’ve seen lately, things haven’t really changed:

[…] The study contrasted “TV’s Dream Girls” in three different decades (those beginning in 1955, 1965, and 1975). It concluded that women in all three decades are depicted in ways suggesting they are not truly equal to men. The femmes come across as less important than men in TV dramas; they “are less likely to be mature adults, are less well educated, and hold lower status jobs.” Furthermore, women in the dramas tended to derive their identities from their marital status. “A majority of women are identified as either married or single, compared to about one in four men.”

We are edging up on the interesting part. Even though women in dramas are stuck in fairly traditional roles, the story line always takes the feminist side of any argument. (“Characters who deride women’s abilities are invariably put down by the script.”) This was not always true: Before 1965, say authors S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman, “22% of the episodes . .. rejected the feminist positions.” But not today — and here comes our fascinating fact. Of the thousands of dramas studied since 1965, “not a single episode derided notions of sexual equality.” Not one. Not even to break the monotony.

And then:

[C]rime is a far greater theme on TV than in the real world: The 263 programs reviewed by the Lichters showed 250 criminals committing 417 crimes. Second, murder is heavily overrepresented in TV crime: Homicides accounted for almost 25% of the crimes in the Lichters’ sample (vs. less than 1% in FBI crime reports). Third, business is wildly overrepresented among TV criminals: It was responsible for 26% of all the murders, for example. Also upping the unreality quotient was another finding of the study: that characters who are young, poor, unemployed, or nonwhite hardly ever commit violent crimes on the tube. For those seeking reality in prime time, we continue to recommend the ball game.

If we were to make TV shows and movies that reflected the federal government’s own crime statistics, we would be seeing a vastly different set of heroes and villains.

In the Leapfrog phonics videos that our children watch, there’s a character named Mr. Websley, basically a replica of Scrooge McDuck.  As a rich entrepreneur, Mr. Websley is always depicted as negative and gruff.  Each time we hear his name, the music plays an ominous DAHN-DAHN to indicate that this guy is somewhere between Captain Hook and Darth Vader on the evil scale.

Anyway, in one episode Mr. Websley puts an order into a factory that triples the factory workers’ workload.  This is seen as a slight negative, as it takes a father away from a child for a day and creates stress for everyone.  As if tripling business is a bad thing!  We need a few Mr. Websley to triple business today.  At least he is not depicted as a murderer, but we have probably seen a thousand businessmen who have murdered in Hollywood dramas — but we’ve never known one personally in real life.

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