Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Out of Africa

Just saw "Out of Africa" for the first time. It's a stunning film. This has something to do with the combination of Meryl Streep's slow, quiet voice and the expansive, serene vistas of Africa.

Yes, it's also to do with the attacks of lions and with Robert Redford's slow, quiet looks that hide a soul afraid of being caged in. And of course Karen and Dennis's argument before the fireplace cuts to the dilemmas of the 'plot' of the movie: trust, independence, freedom, dependability. Those are the human problems the film presents. Very nice and interesting to talk about, but not what makes the movie so perplexing.

The film's achievement is the lasting impression of peace it gives us despite the incredible disruptions at the end of its narrative. The answers to those human question are presented not by the unfolding plot but by those vistas, by that voice. The serenity of green and the roll of Karen's slightly labored lilt are what make you close your eyes after the movie ends and keep imagining it is still going on. Karen has gone out of Africa, but Africa has not left her, nor us.

From our greatest losses--the film tells us, reminds us, enacts for us--something, an overwhelming something, lasts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Charging for the News

Last night's Daily Show included an interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the recent Time cover story "How to Save Your Newspaper."

Isaacson practically got laughed off the stage with some of his old-fashioned ideas, but they're actually ones that I've come back around to recently.

It all revolves around the idea that one of these days we're going to wake up and realize that professional journalism is a) crumbling before our eyes, and b) the foundation of a stable democracy. Don't believe me? Look! A big stone tablet at the Newseum in DC even says so:

Professional journalism is crumbling before our eyes because we refuse to pay for it. I refuse to pay for it. Remember the New York Times's venture "TimesSelect?" When we all thought paying for just the op-eds and the sports section was ridiculous, and so they quit trying? And when was the last time you bought a print paper? Jon Stewart may have admitted that holding a print newspaper in your hand is just more satisfying, but I doubt that many people under the age of 25 would agree with him. It's these trends that are leading to the massive layoffs at the Times, at the Globe, at the Tribune, at NPR...the list goes on.

Of course, citizen journalists are all the rage right now, from CNN's i-report to bloggers on every topic to people who digg or del.ici.ous or Share stories. I think those folks and these media add a lot to journalism that was lacking before. I just don't think that they're a viable replacement for professional, paid journalists.

That's what it comes down to: paying the guys to go to Baghdad (as Isaacson said), who spend years digging into Madoff's past, who cover the beleaguered state of our crumbling urban schools. Stuff that might be missed by the i-Reports, stuff that takes more hours in a day than a part-time blogger has to devote pro bono. Whether or not the journalists are paid through large, authoritative institutions, they need to be paid.

We need to start getting used to that idea, and we need to figure out how to pay them. (Because even I am not going to pretend that paper newspapers are going to make a comeback.)

Isaacson actually brought up a good idea that I've been thinking about for a while: microcharges. It's like iTunes--you can pay a tiny fee per article that you read online. So you don't need to pay $14.95 a month or whatever--you pay for how much you use, but in small enough increments that it doesn't hit you where it hurts each time you click.

Jon Stewart countered that news articles are different from music in that you're much less likely to go back and consume that content again and again, though. It's a good point. Is it enough to keep people from buying?

My hope is that we realize how valuable professional journalism is before it's gone altogether. My sense is that the crux moment is coming: will we recognize it and suck up the price when it's here?

Disagreement: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/opinion/10kinsley.html

Monday, February 9, 2009

Becoming Un-Jane

"Becoming Jane" ended with a caption that said, "Jane Austen went on to write six of the greatest novels in the English Language." The suckiness that goes into that useless and wrong capitalization of "Language" is reflected throughout the movie. I know, surprise surprise--listen, I like to give these things a chance.

If one put aside historical realities, the movie became merely one of those vapid creations that so often pass for romantic comedies. It was chock-full of approbation for disobeying parents, disregarding prudence, and generally disavowing reason and intelligence.

If you didn't put aside historical realities, of course, you'd find lots more things to be offended by: the number of times Jane takes off her hat in public, how she runs around and plays cricket with the boys, how she's making out with her boytoy beneath that tree in some lady's garden.

The best thing about the movie is that it didn't end happily. I don't mean that vindictively, I swear. I mean that the (historically-forced) ending alone shows a sense of independence from the typical romantic-comedy script--that sense of independence which Jane (in theory) values so very much. That it is missing from the rest of the film--with Jane falling unselfconsciously as she does for the village heartthrob and following him stumblingly from one end of England to the other--is perhaps not a surprise, but no less aggravating as a result. We are left with a sense that this isn't the true Jane, the one with the wit and the shrewd whistle-blowing on middle-high society. The one that's more Dr. Johnson than the Misses Brontë.

If it's this wrong about its heroine, how do we know how much of Jane's history the movie presents is actually true? How can we use it to add any kind of zing to our reading of her novels? What's the point of this movie???

True, I am sure that Jane wrote her heroines to act as she *wished* she acted, and not as she in reality did. Lizzie Bennett's wit is sharper and Eleanor Dashwood's heart is steadier than Jane's, most likely. Jane herself was likely correcting her foibles by the successes of her leading ladies. But if that were the point that this movie were trying to make, it needed to make it more deliberately and not, as I suspect, by pure accident.