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This Week, in Limerick: From Russia With Love


Thursday, July 28 Trump’s Plea Trump, the apple of Vlad Putin’s eye, Is inviting the Russians to spy! “Come and hack us,” he says, “Help make sure I’m the prez, And you’ll soon be our strongest ally!” Never Can Say Goodbye  I’d like to sit down for some beers With Obama, clink bottles, say “Cheers!” And then, after a few, I’d be feeling quite blue, And I’d say, “Barry, please. Four more years!”

by James Waller

Jul 28, 2016

Netflix in Theaters: Why Traditional Cinemas Are Holding Up the Movie Business


On October 26, 2013, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos argued before a group of film industry insiders—producers, buyers, directors—who had gathered to hear him give the keynote at that year’s Film Independent Forum in Los Angeles, that the movie business will soon die unless cinema owners embrace the distribution model Netflix has championed. Ideally, Sarandos would like to see all films—from big-budget summer blockbuster hopefuls to small, independent documentaries—released simultaneously in traditional movie theaters and via Netflix streaming. In the nearly three years since Sarandos’s chiding speech, theater owners have still not adopted the Netflix model; but neither has the movie business died as a result. Day-and-Date When and where a movie is distributed after its initial cinema release is an issue as old as cable TV and videotape. Traditionally, movies with theatrical releases were not made available on premium cable movie channels (such as HBO or Showtime) or physical home media (like VHS or DVD) for at least three months after the movie’s debut. This window of exclusivity protects the theater owner’s investment by limiting the viewing choices for moviegoers. Netflix would like to shrink the window to nothing. It advocates for so-called “day-and-date” releases, wherein movie viewers would have the option of seeing a newly released film at home on Netflix or in the theater. As Sarandos says, “Just give the viewers what they want.” For their part, the theater owners—who have been shamed as greedy, non-democratic and behind the times—claim to be protectors of the “movie as event.” John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, views the “window” debate to be one of life or death—for movies and theaters. Critical from the beginning of Netflix’s new film distribution plans, Fithian wrote in Variety magazine in early 2015 that “one of the biggest mistakes Hollywood made was allowing subscription services and cheap rentals to come early in the process and devalue movies in the minds of consumers.” Sarandos and Fithian agree that the end of movies as we know them is coming—but only if the other guy gets his way. Qualifying Runs Netflix’s relationship with movie theaters is complicated by the fact that, despite its disruptive, we-know-what-the-users-want attitude, the streaming network still needs the cache of an actual movie theater run in order to validate the quality of its Netflix-branded features. Unlike with the Emmy awards—which has honored Netflix’s TV series House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, despite the fact that neither aired on traditional linear or cable TV—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences requires that, in order for a film to be eligible for an Academy Award, it must have shown, before being seen on Netflix or any other non-theatrical platform, at a theater taking paid admission in Los Angeles County for seven consecutive days. Until Netflix’s millions of subscribers collectively decide that old-school merit-based honors don’t matter anymore, Netflix will seek out projects that can win awards and will endeavor to place them in competition by getting them shown in theaters. Such “qualifying runs” have been orchestrated for the socially worthwhile Netflix documentaries Virunga and The Square (both nominated for, but failing to win, the Academy Award for best documentary feature) and the hard-hitting child-soldier feature film Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba. In other cases, Netflix chose not to pursue even a short “qualifying” theatrical run. The first picture to come out of Netflix’s four-film production deal with comedian Adam Sandler, The Ridiculous 6, debuted via streaming in December 2015, was never seen in theaters and was roundly panned (receiving a 0 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes) even while it rose to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list. Likewise, Special Correspondents with Ricky Gervais, The Fundamentals of Caring with Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, and the long-awaited sequel Pee-wee’s Big Holiday—none were screened in outside select film festivals. Going IMAX Big This bifurcated arrangement—streaming-only vs. streaming-plus-qualifying-run—may make sense for indies and documentaries, but Netflix’s feature film ambitions have forced a conflict with theater owners over larger films they hoped to show more widely. In February of this year, Netflix released Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the sequel to the 2000 breakout martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Netflix had originally wanted to make a big splash with the sequel by simultaneously releasing it in IMAX theaters throughout the U.S. and on Netflix streaming. But immediately upon hearing about Netflix’s day-and-date release plans, theater chains AMC, Regal Entertainment Group, Carmike Cinemark Theaters and Cineworld refused to go along, even though Netflix had already received support for its strategy from the IMAX organization itself. In the end, Sword of Destiny opened on only a dozen or so IMAX screens. Not all theater owners reject Netflix’s ideas about film distribution. Indeed, while the big theater chains refused to show Beasts of No Nation because of its day-and-date release, others had no problem with it. Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, a small food and film theater chain, told Variety magazine, “I don’t look at myself as a competitor to Netflix. I think that argument is a little bit of a red herring. I watch a lot of movies at home, but there comes a time where I want to get out of the house. I look at cinemas as one of those options that compete with restaurants or baseball games or all of those things I can’t do in my living room.” Alamo Drafthouse showed Beast of No Nation, even while it was available to Netflix’s millions of subscribers for streaming. A New Normal? Will Netflix succeed in winning over theater owners, thereby making its movies more widely available? The fates of two soon-to-stream Netflix feature films will be a good test. On July 29, Netflix will begin streaming a film the company bought just before its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Tallulah, the story of a lost young woman who believes she is doing good when she kidnaps a baby from an irresponsible mother, is directed by Sian Heder (a writer on Orange Is the New Black) and stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney. Reviewers have praised the women’s performances, even if the remorselessness of Page’s character stretches credulity. Netflix has plans to show Tallulah at theaters in five U.S. cities, including New York (at Village East Cinemas) and Los Angeles. The day-and-date release will most likely not include screens operated by the large chains that have previously boycotted Netflix films. The Little Prince will be released in select theaters and on Netflix in the U.S. on August 5. Next up for Netflix is a new 3-D animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book The Little Prince. Netflix became a savior of sorts when, in March 2016, Paramount Pictures abruptly canceled its plans to release The Little Prince in American theaters. Seeing an opportunity, Netflix snapped it up. The film, which features the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Benicio del Toro, had shown in festivals in 2015 and 2016 and was released in theaters in France, Canada, U.K. and other countries. In the U.S., The Little Prince will be released on Alamo Drafthouse movie screens and via Netflix streaming on August 5. Many more Netflix feature films are on the horizon. Some, like War Machine with Brad Pitt and The Discovery with Rooney Mara and Robert Redford, might, with a traditional distributor, find wide theatrical success. But with Netflix, they will most likely be screened like Tallulah and The Little Prince, in a limited way. Does Netflix’s involvement with these projects somehow devalue them as cinema? Is their inaccessibility, caused by the large theater owners’ refusal to “innovate,” doing harm? Consider: If Netflix had been the company to distribute the record-busting Star Wars: The Force Awakens, would the theaters have capitulated? Would the public have stayed home to watch the movie premiere on Netflix? Or would they have braved the crowds, sticky floors and $11 popcorn in order to see the film on the glorious big screen? As Netflix continues to push its theatrical window-smashing day-and-date agenda, the line separating the movies we want to see in the theater and the ones we are satisfied seeing exclusively at home will become better defined. Netflix is not going away, and theaters like Alamo Drafthouse believe there’s little downside to experimenting with the day-and-date release format. But we can also applaud the larger chains for wanting to go slow. Even if our homes are capable of hosting a near-cinema experience, there’s something magical about the communal experience of the movie house. There’s room for many in this industry. Here’s to not killing off movies, theaters or the $9.99 Netflix subscription. Feature photo: iStockphoto

by Jeffrey Broesche

Jul 28, 2016

A New Biography Dispels the Myths of RFK


The operative word in the title of Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, is making. Admirers of the 1960s liberal standard-bearer and younger brother of President John F. Kennedy may be surprised to learn that Robert F. Kennedy began his public service career as counsel to the Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, never liked or trusted Martin Luther King, plotted to have Fidel Castro killed and was terribly intolerant of gays. Tye’s book offers extensive and deeply analytical coverage of the early, conservative work of the famous liberal and fully exposes the less-than-heroic aspects of the man many found ruthless and rude. But more important, what distinguishes Tye’s biography from the plethora of previous ones is its focus on RFK’s transformation, which is shown to be a gradual process of natural growth, resulting not from any sudden conversion, but from accumulated personal experience. Chronologically delineating the influential events of RFK’s life, Tye reveals how a rich kid originally indifferent to the particular problems of blacks, opposed to interracial marriage and swayed by his father Joseph P. Kennedy’s antisemitism grew into a great civil rights warrior, especially respectful and understanding of the suffering of Jews. Forever anti-gay, RFK’s progressive transformation never extended to gender or sexuality issues, as macho manliness remained important to him. Tye writes that, in getting the family ready for JFK’s funeral, “when Jackie dressed little John in white gloves, Bobby took them off, deciding it was unmanly even for a boy of barely two.” Though it may make you like RFK a little less than you did before, Tye’s thoroughly researched, myth-dispelling portrait of him is now the definitive one. Despite worthy efforts by the likes of Evan Thomas (Robert Kennedy: His Life) and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Robert Kennedy and His Times), Tye’s work supersedes the others as it draws on sources to which earlier writers had no access, including interviews with intimates who never spoke out before, unpublished memoirs, unreleased government files and 58 boxes of papers that had been locked up for 40 years. The last of RFK’s archives weren’t opened until 2014. Tye’s writing fluidly integrates the personal and professional realms of RFK’s life, underlining their inter-connectedness as well as placing them within larger cultural contexts. Unlike many academic biographies—where the author takes extended breaks from the story to “set the scene” and explain what’s going on in the world at large—Tye dances back and forth between scene-setting and storytelling, so we never lose the forward glide of the narrative, even as he gracefully sidesteps into historical references or delightfully observant comparisons between JFK and RFK. Masterful in this regard is the book’s section on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which is framed by a critique of the untruthfulness of RFK’s own book on the events, Thirteen Days. In his recollection, RFK gives himself too much credit for being the “artful pacifist” influencing JFK’s brilliant handling of the situation, when in reality RFK’s advice was indisputably hawkish. But when RFK ultimately finished writing his book, five years later, it was not to polish JFK’s image in advance of a reelection campaign, as it was originally intended, but rather to fuel his own presidential bid as an anti-war candidate in the Vietnam era. Tye suggests that RFK’s fictionalized account led Americans to derive erroneous lessons from the historic nuclear showdown, lessons that had ramifications for Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and even George W. Bush’s actions in the invasion of Iraq. The insights in this chapter alone make Tye’s perceptive biography a must-read for all concerned citizens. Photo: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Jul 27, 2016

Once a Target of Hate, Jonah Lehrer Is Now All About Love


The first line of Jonah Lehrer’s Wikipedia page says nothing of his best-selling books, his Rhodes scholarship, his myriad contributions to Wired and The New Yorker or the fact that he has spent most of his adult years as a pop science wunderkind. What it mentions, first and foremost, is Lehrer’s plagiarism scandal, which precipitated his fall from grace four years ago this summer. Lehrer himself acknowledges this fact early on in the author’s note to his latest book, A Book About Love: “I broke the most basic rules of my profession. I am ashamed of what I’ve done. I will regret it for the rest of my life.” Lehrer’s undoing began in June 2012, when two of his books, Imagine and How We Decide, were taken out of print for alleged plagiarism and fabrication. He lost his staff positions at Wired and The New Yorker shortly after. But now, after four years out of the spotlight, Lehrer is back, and his latest book—his first since the plagiarism charges—is different. It is heavily annotated and independently fact-checked, and the author’s note certifies that all relevant text has been sent to subjects “to ensure accuracy.” After all this reassurance, I was willing to give Lehrer a chance. The footnotes alone made it feel relatively safe, as did the fact that I was reading for fun, with nothing but my own edification at stake. In A Book About Love, Lehrer uses research about parenting to comment on the broader notion of love and relationships. His main thesis­—that “love is the only meaning that lasts”—might make you think, Gee, for pop science of the Gladwellian type, this feels an awful lot like a cliché. And it is. But in a book about love, clichés can hardly be avoided. Lehrer is quick to acknowledge the platitudinous nature of his subject. But his focus on science has the effect of reminding readers that “common sense” doesn’t always start out as common—and, in fact, what seems banal and cliché changes from age to age as we gain and assimilate new information. When it comes to studying love, Lehrer focuses not on the temporary (the initial spark of new love, etc.) but on “the long-term and the everyday.” His interest, as he puts it, is in the “prose” of love rather than the “poetry.” How do we form relationships? Why do some last while others don’t? Why are some people so adept at maintaining love while others burn through relationship after relationship? Lehrer’s answers to these questions, perhaps unsurprisingly, start in childhood. The first chapter, “Attachment,” provides a plethora of scientific and anecdotal evidence that parental love evokes a sense of security, which gives kids the confidence needed to take risks. This “attachment theory” of parenting is built on the “dependency paradox.” “It’s a paradox,” Lehrer writes, “because it suggests that true independence requires that we become dependent on someone else. Children don’t explore because they are lacking something essential. They explore because they already have everything they need.” Whether you apply these ideas to your parenting style or retrofit it to your own childhood, the information is both fascinating and useful, an endorsement I would also assign to the book as a whole. Much of A Book About Love relies on what’s known as the Grant Study. Launched in 1938 and continuing to this day, the Grant Study began by tracking the physical characteristics of 278 Harvard undergraduates. Studying these successful men, researchers hoped, would yield correlations between biology and happiness. It didn’t; the study was a failure. That is, until a young researcher named George Vaillant read the case files and noticed that the upper-class lives of the Harvard men “hid a vast amount of angst and illness, just like his own.” Intrigued, Vaillant revived the project, interviewing the men and listening carefully to their answers. Vaillant’s recognition that suffering is unavoidable, even for privileged people, Lehrer writes, “led to Vaillant’s first revelation, which is that our mental health is defined by how we cope” with difficulty, not the amount of difficulty we encounter. Our experience of love, Vaillant concludes, “most closely predicts how we react to the hardships of life; human attachments are the ultimate form of resilience.” Lehrer points out that this is not just an existential truth; according to the data, “among the [Grant Study] men who never formed intimate relationships, roughly 13 percent have survived into their late eighties and early nineties. However, among subjects who were better at attachment, the survival rate is closer to 40 percent.” The news is no less pragmatic regarding romantic relationships. Lehrer provides insight on what to look for in a partner. Hint: It’s not someone just like you. Enjoying the same books or vacation locals, Lehrer says, is not enough to sustain a lasting relationship. Rather, it’s similarity of temperament that matters, a trait that algorithms (and therefore online dating sites) cannot predict. Temperament means how you feel about and deal with your feelings (in other words, how you cope). I appreciated this tidbit from psychologist John Gottman: “Spouses who complain to each other the most, and complain about the least important things, end up having more lasting relationships.” (When I told my husband this he complained that I was interrupting him. I protested that I had asked for his attention, actually, and he had granted it, so maybe it was a matter of him not really listening. According to Gottman, we’re on the right track.) The latter part of the book focuses on the fallibility of memory. Perhaps counterintuitively, Lehrer’s research suggests that the plasticity of memory is a benefit rather than a curse. The telling and retelling of stories, whether or not they perfectly “match” the original, helps us create a coherent narrative about our lives. Once again, the science is closely linked to family dynamics. “Children with higher scores [on a test measuring knowledge of family history] showed higher levels of self-esteem and felt more in control of their lives.” These results are not so much about “the content of what is known” but rather “the process by which these things came to be known”—i.e., conversation. “The single best predictor of a young child’s academic achievement,” Lehrer writes, “is the amount of ‘home-based family meal time’ they experience. Shared dinners were a better predictor of classroom performance than time spent in school, doing homework, playing organized sports, or going to church.” Stats like these make A Book About Love work for the self-help seeker and armchair scholar alike. Lehrer knows how to turn an enjoyable phrase; he’s adept at making complicated scientific ideas accessible and packaging those ideas in ways that readers can easily apply to their own lives. It would seem that Lehrer himself has done the same. The overwhelming message that emerges here is that effort is required to make love work. Referring sparingly but effectively to his own life throughout the text, Lehrer concludes, “What matters most in life also requires the most effort.” Whether it’s a writing career or a 50-year marriage, “when a relationship endures, it is not because the flame never burns out. It is because the flame is always being relit.” Feature photo: Patrick Farrell/Knight Foundation

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 26, 2016

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