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More talking: news in the age of Trump

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 1, 2017

In late February, I gave a talk to the local group Hudson Action Together about news media and Donald Trump. The landscape keeps shifting but I'm still happy with a lot of what my notes said, so I am offering my prepared remarks here. 

Thanks to all of you for this chance to talk. I very much appreciate what your group and others are doing. These are difficult and dangerous times for all of us. And one of the endangered areas is that encompassing news media. I’m going to be talking here about the media, and about the culture and politics more broadly, because of the way they are intertwined.

 Let me first offer a consumer advisory: I have been retired from the Beacon Journal since last September, so I can’t speak about any discussions going on there about how to cover the Trump administration. And when I was there, my specialty was popular culture, particularly TV and movies. But I have written about politics throughout my career, including at the Beacon Journal; I was on assignment at state election headquarters on election night in 2012, and in Cleveland during parts of the GOP convention last summer. I have read still more about politics and am engrossed in what’s been going on lately – I keep going to movies and seeing Trump allegories, and am now free to send cranky emails to Rob Portman. So my comments tonight are both as a former journalist and as a consumer of news.

 While politicians and journalists have a stormy history going back to the republic’s earliest days, I have not seen an anti-press climate this publicly bad since the Nixon years. Those had the playbook for a lot of what we are seeing now. Much the way Trump has decried dishonest media and fake news, so Nixon’s vice president – Spiro Agnew – spoke of the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Nixon had a notorious enemies list including major journalists; Trump has attacked news outlets directly – when he’s not complaining about judges or a department-store chain – and his associate Omarosa Manigault allegedly told one reporter that the administration compiled dossiers on news folks it did not like. (The White House later denied it.) The now legendary press conference with the president last week recalled some of Nixon’s press furies. When Trump spoke of “forgotten men and women” in his inaugural speech, we know that those folks were also part of what Nixon called “the silent majority.” Nixon at one time called some young protesters “bums”; Trump has shared the sentiment while amping up the language. The phrase “alternative facts” had a Nixon-era predecessor in the declaration that previous Nixon statements had become “inoperative.” Occasional honest errors in the press, whether about Watergate or Trump, are offered up as proof that bias and falsehoods are pervasive. And the current Russian-interference controversy has generated hopeful comparisons to Watergate.

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A personal history of "Beauty and the Beast"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: March 31, 2017

 

The bride and I recently saw the new live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast" in a Sunday-morning showing at a local Cinemark. The movie had been out for more than a week, but the theater was crowded, especially with children, although some of the reserved seats ended up unfilled. (The only seats together that were available when we arrived were in the closest front rows -- no thank you -- or in the next to last row, which is where we sat.) 

The movie itself was quite lovely, with good main performances from Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, not to mention the formidable vocals of Audra McDonald. I enjoyed it more than the ambitious but not quite satisfying screen version of "Into the Woods." That said, my admiration for "Beauty" has a couple of caveats:  Angela Lansbury's rendition of the "Beauty and the Beast" song from the 1991 animated movie is unmatchably lovely, always touching my heart. And my favorite Le Fou is my younger son, Conor Heldenfels, who played the part when his high school did the musical. 

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Some thoughts about TV as a teaching tool

By Rich Heldenfels Published: March 31, 2017

About a month ago I did a presentation for the New Explorations In Teaching conference at the University of Akron (where, as you may know, I also teach part-time). My presentation came from conversations with some of my English department colleagues about using TV shows as a tool in teaching composition -- particularly when it came to analyzing and making arguments. Below is the basic text I used for my presentation, with some revisions since, and notes at the end about another telecast I used. So here goes:

As a teacher of freshman composition here at the University of Akron, I am often looking for ways to engage students in the art of argument, both in analyzing it and in using it for their own writing. It’s a tough task. The best classic writing, including that in current textbooks, often proves heavy lifting for students whose patience with the written word is limited; even something as concise as the Gettysburg Address can seem either dense or simply uninteresting. Advertising is a good alternative at times, but its arguments tend to be so concisely presented that they’re not necessarily adaptable for a student writing an essay.

It’s not that students are uninterested in argument. Many readily embrace an issue brought up in class, taking positions pro and con and listening to what other students have to say, both to endorse ideas and to find the flaws in them. Still, I think we all want them to grapple with a text. And my suggestion here is that we turn to television, particularly half-hour television, as a source.

This is not a new idea. In his 1966 textbook Language And Reality, Neil Postman -- no fan of television – said that “the material of television may be used as a kind of index to the social values of the American community,” that in TV you can find “a wide variety of social situations” reflecting “values, attitudes, and beliefs.”

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Some Oscars thoughts

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 26, 2017

UPDATE: I got what I wanted in both screenplay categories, both supporting acting categories, and lead actor. And, while I still wanted "Manchester by the Sea" for best picture, I said I would be happy with "Moonlight," so its surprise -- wait! who won? -- victory worked for me; I don't think "La La Land" was a bad picture, but it wasn't as good as a lot of the other contenders, as I say below. Best director was a disappointment, since I wanted either Barry Jenkins or Kenneth Lonergan, but you can't have everything. Here's what I wrote earlier:

I don't do the who-will-win thing. I just say which films and people I would like to see win. So here goes ...

This year is tough when it comes to best picture. The consensus appears to be that it's "La La Land's" year in several categories, including this one. But while I enjoyed that film, I don't think it has the artistry or the heft of several others in the category; as I have said before, this recalls "The Artist," another slight film which enchanted the voters but is hardly worth talking about later. 

Still, my problem is that there are so many very, very good movies among the other contenders. For a long time, "Manchester by the Sea" was my pick for best film. But the more I think (and see how enduring were the emotions they generated), the more I admire about "Moonlight" and "Lion" and "Arrival," any of which I would be happy to see win, and I wouldn't knock "Hidden Figures," either, old-fashioned as it is, because it is an intelligent, feel-good kind of old-fashioned in a year when there is so much pain and sorrow in the nominees.

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Nightlight to show "1984." You can guess why.

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

 

The official word: On April 4th, the same day that Orwell’s novel opens on protagonist Winston Smith jotting down thoughts in a forbidden diary, more than 90 art house movie theaters will each screen the cinematic adaptation of 1984 from the year 1984, starring John Hurt. And The Nightlight Cinema is holding it down for Northeast Ohio.

We’re joining in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of “The United State of Cinema,” who’ve made the following statement:

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The tragedy of Leroy Jethro Gibbs: Thinking about "NCIS"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

(Updated with tonight's episode; some spoilers.)

“NCIS” is one of those shows that is merely popular – the people who watch it love it, but critics don’t for the most part share that feeling, if they are watching the show at all. In Uproxx’s poll of 59 critics about the best shows of 2016 (a list topped by the excellent “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Horror Story"), "NCIS" was not among the 103 shows getting votes.

I get how it can be overlooked. There’s a deliberately mainstream quality to “NCIS”: clear narrative that does not ask the viewer to figure out a timeline, stories usually wrapped up in a commercial hour (though with room for multi-episode arcs), a sense of who is good and who is bad, characters who are likable but don’t at a glance to seem tortured or flawed. You don’t go to “NCIS” for a Don Draper or Tony Soprano.

The spin-offs have seemed even milder and more formulaic than the original. And in the aftermath of some high-profile departures most recently including Michael Weatherly (and the ongoing resentment over Cote de Pablo’s absence), the show has struggled to fit in new characters; while Jennifer Esposito gets it, I am not sure Wilmer Valderrama will ever feel settled, and Duane Henry’s character is still sketchy. The death last year of longtime showrunner Gary Glasberg may be one reason for the challenges of the new characters; in any case, Glasberg was a steady hand on the show for years, and losing him had to have hurt.

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Watching movies: "Logan"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

When I was young and trying to be an author -- and, like now, fascinated by superheroes -- I wrote a short story called "Parker in Retirement," in which Peter Parker aka Spider-Man was dying of radiation poisoning stemming from that long-ago spider bite. It wasn't a very good story, and I've only sporadically tried fiction since, but it did have me thinking about superheroes and their eventual mortality -- an idea that also drives "Logan," the latest movie featuring Hugh Jackman as the title character, best known as the Wolverine.

We last saw Wolverine on his own onscreen in 2013's "The Wolverine," a fine piece of pulp fiction until it lapsed into these movies' conventions. (We also glimpsed him last year in "X-Men: Apocalypse," a movie better  not discussed.) Here we are encountering him, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), in the not too distant future, and it's a time laden with melancholy. Charles is deep in some sort of mutant dementia, unable to control his powers, taking medication Logan acquires in order to keep his powers from dangerously manifesting. Logan, meanwhile, has given up the superhero game to work as a chauffeur -- but is also unwell. As for the other X-Men and -Women, as far as we know, they are all gone. It's just a matter of time, it seems, before Charles and Logan are gone, too.

But they are not forgotten. We soon meet a little girl entrusted to Logan's care, and bad guys wanting her, and a faraway sanctuary. There are scenes of violence far beyond what you usually expect in an X-Men movie -- this one has an R rating, as well as the implicit blessing of the bloody, R-rated "Deadpool's success." And you have to expect some kind of conclusion to the Wolverine saga, since Jackman has indicated this will be his last Wolverine film.

Writer-director James Mangold, who worked with Jackman on "The Wolverine" as well as "Logan," told Vanity Fair that "Hugh wanted to go out with a bang—'bang' not being bigger, but more interesting. He’d bring up movies like 'The Wrestler' and 'Unforgiven,' and I’d bring up movies like 'Paper Moon' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'The Gauntlet.' A lot of 70s movies were discussed, a lot of westerns were talked about; 'Shane.'We just really focused on trying to skew the movie toward character."

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Pop culture in the age of Trump

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

I can't get away from the guy. Channel hopping last week, I came across an episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" from 2009, with this line via Jeff Goldblum: "What about real estate developers? Did we canvas the scene for Donald Trump's hair?" 

I recently finished Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton and, in the process, kept seeing echoes of our president in Aaron Burr, the vice president who shot Hamilton in a duel. There was, for example, this passage of Hamilton describing Burr: " ... there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement. ... If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth." 

That then had me musing about "Sleepy Hollow," which has been in Washington, D.C., this season and imagining an arc where Burr has become a demon -- and taken over Trump, body and soul. Would that be any worse than all the other explanations for his behavior.

When Trump said he had "watched and read a lot over the last two days" on the way to picking a national security adviser, I wondered what exactly he had watched. (We have been told again and again that he does not like to read, which inspired this regretful essay.) Did he draw wisdom from the Jack Ryan movies? From "24" (or even "24: Legacy")? 

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Yvette Nicole Brown to host new Syfy series

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 16, 2017

The official word:  The world’s most innovative cosplayers go head to head each week in Syfy’s new transformation competition series COSPLAY MELEE – an epic showdown of creativity, eye popping costumes and one of a kind characters. Premiering on Tuesday, March 21 at 10/9c, the hour-long battle is hosted by actress and self-described “super fan girl” Yvette Nicole Brown (“The New Edition Story,” “Community”) and executive produced by Jay Peterson and Todd Lubin of Matador Content (“Lip Sync Battle”).

Each week, four world class cosplayers compete to create not only intricate full-body costumes – but fully-formed characters that they must bring to life through their own realistic performance. Guiding and critiquing them are a panel of judges including world class cosplayer LeeAnna Vamp, and A-list costume creator, Christian Beckman (“The Hunger Games,” “TRON: Legacy”). At the end of every episode, the winner will walk away with $10,000 … and the right to claim cosplay supremacy.

“Cosplay is passion, artistry, engineering and theater all rolled into one,” said Heather Olander, Senior Vice President, Alternative Development and Production at USA/Syfy. “At the intersection of the maker world and fandom, the incredible artists of COSPLAY MELEE will blow your minds with their transformational creations.”

“As a huge fan of the creativity cosplayers bring to their craft, nothing makes me happier than having a front row seat for the amazing creations set to hit the COSPLAY MELEE runway,” said host Brown. “These talented artists are going to shine!”

Best known for her roles on NBC’s “Community” and having recently starred in “The New Edition Story,” Brown began her television career on “Girlfriends” and currently stars as Dani on the reboot of “The Odd Couple.” Previous film credits include “Little Black Book,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Meet Dave,” “Dreamgirls” and more. Brown can also be seen peeking through prosthetic makeup as one of the Three Fates in the Percy Jackson sequel “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and has lent her voice for several characters on the big and small screens, including roles on “Family Guy,” “Pound Puppies” and, most recently, “Yellowbird.”
 

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ICYMI: Rhea Butcher's show among GLAAD Media Awards nominees

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 1, 2017

Butcher co-stars with her wife, Cameron Esposito, in the online comedy "Take My Wife," inspired by their relationship. It's one of the 10 nominees for best comedy series.You may have seen my interview with her in 2014 or our 2016 chat about the show and her new comedy album.

You can find all the GLAAD nominees here.

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