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
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
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
“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.”
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
“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
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.”
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,”
Mr. Conarroe said that he’s gotten a
lot of letters in response to his decision to step down, but that one stood out
“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.”
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?”
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.