Oliver Stone and Christopher Hitchens Spar Over Hollywood’s Efforts to be Relevant

On the morning of Saturday, Oct.

6,  a group of filmmakers, Hollywood

executives and writers left little doubt that the age of irony should not be

laid to rest just yet.

The panelists took part in a discussion

called “Making Movies That Matter: The Role of Cinema in the National Debate”

at Avery Fisher Hall. The debate which was sponsored by the New York Film

Festival and HBO, could very well have worked as a segment of WWF Smackdown .

Killer Films’ producer Christine

Vachon, Lumumba director Raoul Peck,

former Universal Studios chief Tom Pollock, New Line founder Bob Shaye,

acid-tongued British journalist Christopher Hitchens, feminist scholar Bell

Hooks, and leading Hollywood conspiracy theorist and director Oliver Stone

needled and prodded each other as they wrestled with the question of what makes

a movie political.

Mr. Stone’s take seemed to be that a

film was political if it was directed by- Oliver

Stone ! “I made a movie in which the President’s head gets blown off in the

middle of Dealey Plaza, and it was entertaining because it was a thriller!” he

said in a voice as loud as his pink socks.

The sound of Mr. Stone patting himself

on the back provoked a “Hey, now!” exclamation from Ms. Hooks. A few minutes

later, she said that her idea of a political film was Neil LaBute’s 2000 comedy

Nurse Betty , because the film had

made her “laugh, and made [her] cry, and made us think about class, which few

movies in this culture do.”

Mr. Pollock, on the other hand, said

that Babe , the 1995 movie about “one

gallant pig” that he’d greenlighted, was political filmmaking because it

advocated vegetarianism.

Many of these comments prompted some

theatrical eye-rolling from Mr. Hitchens, who alternated between clutching and

sucking on an unlit cigarette. Mr. Hitchens is allowed to smoke when he appears

on Politically Incorrect .

Mr. Shaye used the opportunity to plug

New Line’s upcoming $300 million Lord of

the Rings trilogy. “I just received a note that said, ‘What the world needs

now is Hobbits!'” he claimed.

Mr. Shaye then explained what was

political about a series of movies featuring actors with pointy ears and

characters with phallic names like Bilbo. Mr. Shaye said he was “fascinated to

learn” that some readers consider the sought-after ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s

1950’s trilogy to represent the quest to harness nuclear power during World War

II. Thus, he explained, New Line had made a movie that incorporated politics,

but by setting the pictures in Middle Earth, those politics had been made

“palatable.”

Christine Vachon, who has produced

actual social commentaries such as Boys

Don’t Cry and Happiness, argued

that despite her political predilections, her first consideration has to be

creating a salable project. 

“As far as producers go, you probably

can’t get artsier or more independent than me,” she said. “But I need people to

give me the money to get these films made.”

Mr. Stone jumped into the conversation

and began to complain about the skyrocketing costs of filmmaking. He said that

he could no longer make Born on the

Fourth of July for the $17 million it had cost in 1989, despite the fact

that there’s been “no significant inflation” in the past 13 years.

“We have a system that has gone

bananas!” he exclaimed. 

Other members of the panel tried to join

in the conversation, but the Wall Street

director steamrollered over them.

Ranting about the “kings and barons”

who run the media, he pointed specifically to the Telecommunications Act that

Congress passed “at midnight,” allowing movie moguls to own television

stations.

“Six people control the world!” Mr.

Stone said. He mentioned Michael Eisner and Rupert Murdoch by name, but left

the audience to guess the identity of the other four. It was this “new world

order,” he said, that had incited “the revolt of Sept. 11.”

Hey,

now!  

The crowd started to boo, but stopped

when Mr. Hitchens spoke up. “What happened on Sept. 11 was state-supported mass

murder using human beings as missiles!” the

Vanity Fair writer corrected.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shaye was doing a slow

burn over Mr. Stone’s “bananas” speech. He told the director he disagreed with

his implication that studios were-sweet fancy Moses!-profiting at the expense

of filmmakers. 

“The last guys who get paid are the

studios who put up the money! If there is a tyranny, it is a tyranny of

talent!” Mr. Shaye said. He added that directors now earn “way too much.” 

The audience, which had been booing

almost indiscriminately throughout the discussion, now began to actually

hiss-like Gollum.  

Mr. Stone scornfully leaned back in his

chair and rolled his eyes.

Mr. Hitchens capitalized on the silence

to chastise the panelists for their collective navel-gazing. He said he wasn’t

surprised that the panelists from the film industry were using this discussion

about culture and the events of Sept. 11 to complain about “what a hard time

they were having anyway.”

“I don’t remember a time when rich

people didn’t control the press … and I’ll be damned if I come here and moan

about what a hard time I have making ends meet,” Mr. Hitchens said.

Mr. Stone didn’t seem to be listening,

though. He was still trying to make his point. “Directors have been

marginalized,” he said. Again he blamed “the new world order,” and said that

the six guys who control the universe had teamed up with the banks and the

World Trade Organization.

“The Arabs have a point, whether they

did it right or not. And they’re going to be joined by the people from Seattle

and by the 10 percent who disagree with everything,” Mr. Stone said. More than

10 percent of the audience proceeded to boo Mr. Stone.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hitchens’ remarks about

the self-involvement of the panelists had worked Ms. Hooks into a lather, with

a small L. “I appreciate Christopher’s wit, appreciate some of his points, but

will not tolerate his disrespect!” she said.

Mr. Hitchens’ eyes flashed. “How would

you know?” he said. “I haven’t dissed you yet.”

-Rebecca Traister

Conarroe Steps Down

In a letter to the fellowship of the

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation dated “September 2001,” the

organization’s president, Joel Conarroe, announced that he will be stepping

down from his post at the end of 2002. 

Having presided over the foundation

that gives grants to professionals in the fields of natural sciences, social

sciences, humanities and creative arts for some 16 years now, Mr. Conarroe-who

turns 67 on Oct. 23-wrote that it was time to pass the baton, even though one

friend had said of his decision: “You have clearly lost your mind.”

“A certain amount of turnover in

philanthropic institutions-and, for that matter, in academic administrations,

the U.S. Senate, and fish markets-seems to me in order,” Mr. Conarroe wrote.

“The readiness is all.”

Trustees at the foundation said that

the gregarious and popular president will be missed when he departs. Playwright

Wendy Wasserstein, who sits on the board, praised Mr. Conarroe’s “contagious

enthusiasm for the arts” and said: “He had this wonderful ability to make you

feel it wasn’t an anonymous world of fellowships; it was a community. You would

read the pamphlet about who else won and never meet them, but now there’s an

annual meeting and dinners with committee heads.”

“He’s left some very large shoes to

fill,” said fellow board member and composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. “Joe’s

enthusiasm-it’s not business, it’s love.”

Mr. Conarroe is the former dean of the

faculty of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the

editor of several American poetry anthologies for Vintage Books. He received a

Guggenheim fellowship himself in 1977. “For anybody who’s ever had one, it’s a

life-changing event,” he said recently. “I was able to get away from the

English department at Penn and go off and write a book in the country. It

restored a sense of myself as a writer and an academic.”

With his departure 14 months away, Mr.

Conarroe has begun musing on life after the Guggenheim. He hinted at “an

interesting assignment” he couldn’t yet divulge, and relished the prospect of

writing impolitic letters-to-the-editor. Mr. Conarroe told The Transom that his

letters “can be even more impolitic” once his name will no longer be associated

with the top job at a major philanthropic foundation. “If I write that I can’t

stand listening to John McEnroe when I’m watching tennis, I’m speaking for myself,”

he said.

Mr. Conarroe said that he’s gotten a

lot of letters in response to his decision to step down, but that one stood out

in particular.

“You’ll be getting a lot of letters

saying you can’t leave and you’re indispensable,” the letter apparently read.

“But don’t forget, the graveyards are full of indispensable people.”

-Elisabeth Franck

Harvey’s Favorite Critic

The crowd went wild when Miramax

co-chairman Harvey Weinstein stood in front of the crowd at the Ziegfeld

Theater and introduced his company’s latest release, Serendipity , as “a movie … about New York” and “filmed in New

York.” It didn’t seem to bother too many people that a lot of the film was

actually shot in Toronto, or that the director, Peter Chelsom, located the New

York Times Building on 42nd Street instead of 43rd. Everyone just seemed damned

glad to be attending the first premiere in the city since Sept. 11.

Except maybe John Cusack. Mr. Cusack

didn’t take his seat-on the aisle in front of Mr. Weinstein and behind his

co-star, Kate Beckinsale-until right before the opening credits rolled. When

the music started, he and Ms. Beckinsale laughed conspiratorially and made a

quick escape to the back of the theater, where they watched the opening

sequence but mostly whispered to each other and giggled. After a short time,

they left the room entirely.

Ms. Beckinsale came back several

minutes later, but Mr. Cusack was gone for a long time. Eventually, he did come

back. He sat and watched the movie for a while and then left again. When the

movie ended, he was nowhere to be found. He arrived hours late at the

after-party at the Central Park Boathouse and spent a lot of it skulking

outside with a cigarette in his hand.

Mr. Weinstein was definitely happy.

“We’re gonna have fun tonight!” he told one premiere-goer. “It’s good to be

back!” he said to someone else. Everyone wanted to talk to him. He turned down

an offer to appear on The O’Reilly Factor ,

not to mention a request to speak with The Transom. Instead, he found Molly

Shannon-who starred as Ms. Beckinsale’s bitter New Age friend-to tell her that

a critic was planning on singling out her performance.  “In 35 years of reviewing movies, he said

this is one of the best romantic comedies he’d ever seen,” he said.

Not all the critics agreed, though.

After the screening, Mr. Weinstein ran into Elvis Mitchell, a movie reviewer

for The New York Times . Mr. Weinstein

introduced Mr. Mitchell to his wife, saying, “I’d like you to meet my favorite

film critic-other than myself-Elvis Mitchell.” He and Mr. Mitchell had a few

laughs about the movie and about show business in general. “Oh, yeah,” Mr.

Weinstein said with a demonic laugh, “I pay him off.”

Mr. Weinstein should talk to payroll

about giving Mr. Mitchell a little bump. The Times critic’s review, which ran on Oct. 5, concludes:

“‘Serendipity’ asks us to believe that Fate’s will is influenced by old movies

and a few seasons’ worth of ‘Mad About You . ‘

Don’t the gods have better things to do? Or at least have more cable channels

than mere mortals?”

-Ian Blecher

The Transom

Also Hears …

Rocker Lou Reed was one of the few

artists worthy of performing at the John Lennon tribute that took place Oct. 2

at Radio City Music Hall. Too bad Mr. Reed’s performance-a punked-up version of

“Jealous Guy” involving cringe-inducing shrieks from both him and his

guitar-wasn’t worthy of him, let alone Mr. Lennon. The tempo kept changing, and

the notes blended together into a sloppy mess. Mr. Reed didn’t seem too

concerned about his performance, either: He was the only artist who needed a

teleprompter to feed him not only the song’s lyrics, but also the guitar chords

he was supposed to play. Mr.  Reed’s

publicist declined to comment.

-I.B.