If you have an iPhone or an iPad, and you like political news and exceedingly dorky writing about Star Wars (which you probably do because come on, you’re reading this), you should totally get our new app! Our awesome development team has been working on this for a while, and because I know the mobile site can be a little finicky, I think you’ll find this a considerable improvement. It’s not quite candy, but Happy Halloween!
The history of Meredith’s enrollment and the riots that ensued on a campus that still openly celebrated the Confederacy is one that goes under-taught in history books across the South, and the story of the all-white Ole Miss football team that conquered the Southeastern Conference that fall is one that doesn’t get remembered much by SEC football fans outside Oxford. But ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native, and documentary director Fritz Mitchell captured both stories beautifully — and addressed the past, present, and future of racial relations in Mississippi and at its flagship university — in “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” a documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, last night.
The hour-long film weaves through the history of Mississippi segregation and racism, and the pride Ole Miss fans take in the school’s football program, up until Meredith’s enrollment, when riots that remain a sore spot for the campus and the community erupted. Football played a role both in exacerbating and alleviating the warfare that took place on the Ole Miss campus. It was at halftime of a football game between Ole Miss and Kentucky that a Nuremberg-like rally broke out when Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett fed off a frenzied, rebel flag-waving crowd and ultimately reneged on a secret deal he had made with the Kennedy brothers to allow Meredith to enroll. It was a football player, Buck Randall, who saw the carnage of the original riots and attempted, to no avail, to stop them. And it was football that both acted as a point of pride for ashamed Mississippians — “We’ve got to show the world that we’re not all bad,” head coach Johnny Vaught told the team before a game against Houston — and highlighted the lack of true equality afforded Meredith, who couldn’t attend football games because of safety concerns.
Despite the connection, though, football and the 1962 Ole Miss team are a mere proxy for the overall story of self-exploration undertaken by Thompson, who wrote in an introductory piece yesterday that he hoped the lesson of “Ghosts of Ole Miss” would be that people from outside Mississippi would see how far it has come, while people from inside Mississippi would see how far the state had to go. Perhaps to an outsider, that seems a convenient narrative, a wishing away of the South’s racist past with a “yes, but” tale of how Mississippi has changed. But as a “southerner” (I’m a native Kentuckian, southern to some, not as much to others) whose native state has its own seminal racial moments in college sports, Thompson’s inner struggle with the history of his home state and its home school felt familiar. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is proud to be where they’re from but who has waded into our history, anyone who has resisted Southern tradition and conformity on racial issues or any other. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is constantly reminded by the inside world that we want to change too fast and by the outside world that we are not changing fast enough.
That struggle is apparent today on the Ole Miss campus, where the Confederate flags are gone but the Confederate statues remain; where the school has abandoned Colonel Reb but still uses the “Rebels” nickname that was spawned by the students who left to join the Confederate army in 1862; where students elected a black student body president this year but the band still plays “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, during football games.
Those are conflicts Thompson addresses, and they are complicated. There are moments of reflection from players from the 1962 team (“I’m appalled that we treated another human being that way,” one admits. “You sit by, and you wonder why.”) and there are moments of introspection about the present from Thompson himself. “I like ‘Dixie’ too,” he says near the end of the film, “even as I know how it must sound to black Mississippians. It’s hard to reconcile these thoughts.”
But you can feel the pain of truth in Thompson’s narration as he says it: it may be hard to reconcile those thoughts, but to continue, we must. “There are questions Mississippians won’t ask because we’re not prepared to hear the answer,” Thompson says. And as much as his story is about Mississippi, it is really about us all. Without those answers and the exploration it takes to find them, from Mississippians, Southerners, and Americans in general, it will always be impossible to reconcile the ghosts of our past with the promises of our future.
This post discusses plot points from the October 30 episode of Sons of Anarchy.
“What you going to do, prez?” Nero asks Jax towards the end of last night’s episode of Sons of Anarchy. “You going to beat the shit out of your mom? Ain’t that been done enough by your family?” It’s telling that, even though Nero hasn’t known Gemma and her family very long, he can already see the toxic dynamics embedded in it even more clearly than the Teller-Morrows can. One of the best things in this flawed season of Sons has been the presence of Nero and Damon Pope, men who are more competent at violence and corruption than SAMCRO is, but who also have much more clearly articulated values outside of their criminal activities. As the Teller-Morrows have become increasingly contemptible and incompetent, Nero and Pope serve to illustrate the gap between who Jax Teller is and who he might have been.
Pope, in this episode, represents the value of patience and the danger of impulsiveness. “Five years from now, this will be affordable housing. Multi-family units. Retail. Park. MARC Station,” Pope tells Jax meditatively when they meet at the rail yard. “Where do they put your bronze statue?” Jax asks him sarcastically. “Somewhere they can’t chop the hands off,” Pope tells him. Their immediate conversation is Jax’s belief that Pope targeted him for assassination, but of course Jax is both wrong about that, and missing Pope’s larger point. SAMCRO’s protected Charming from outside harm for years, but it’s rarely done much to build the town up. Jax sees Jacob Hale’s Charming Heights project as a tool rather than as a potential legacy. And even when he looks to tools, he misidentifies them. “What was I supposed to think?” Jax asks of the hit. “That someone wants you dead and hired a black guy to do it,” Pope tells him patiently. “Unemployment’s crushing the hood. Brothers need work.” If Jax wants to not just survive, but thrive, he needs to develop the ability to see around corners when right now, he can barely see what’s in front of him.
If Pope represents the possibility of becoming a criminal mastermind, Nero’s begging Jax to consider an exit strategy. “You got a beautiful wife, you got two healthy kids, you need to accelerate the end game,” he tells the younger man. “Get away from this shit that’s trying to kill you.” But Gemma and Jax may be too deeply enmeshed in their family culture to start living a new way, and making a living by new means. As Clay put it to Juice, after learning the secret of his parentage, “Everybody at that table’s done something that puts them outside the Reaper. Self-disclosure kills the group.” That’s not just a rule for the club. Gemma and Clay have long hid the secrets of John’s death from Jax, and as they’ve been revealed bit by bit, those half-truths have given the family gangrene. They’re like a patient that can’t bear to give a limb up as lost, and risk dying as a result.
The bridge is yours.
-If you are a journalist, seriously, how are you complaining about someone quoting your public tweets, much less threatening to sue?
-The entertainment industry starts work again post-Sandy.
-Bryan Singer is coming back to X-Men.
-I’ll be curious to see if Disney continues with the long-planned Star Wars TV show.
-For a dose of happy, re-watch Pixar’s La Luna:
You guys, I’m pretty sure we don’t need John McClane to beat the Russians because we already won the goddamn Cold War:
I get the nostalgia factor on this. But I’m increasingly exhausted by the fact that our inability to get over the idea of Russia as the Evil Empire and our rush to obtain Chinese and Middle Eastern co-production means that our action movies are totally stagnant and unable to think creatively about current geopolitical tensions, and as a result, to come up with new formulas for our movie conflicts. There are times it feels like that old chestnut James Bond is the only franchise that’s been able to think about non-state actors with any amount of creativity, whether in Tomorrow Never Dies or Casino Royale. Even the X-Men stuck with discrimination metaphors rather than bring in the geopolitics of Genosha or Wakanda via Storm. I love Saint Basil’s Cathedral. But I sort of wish that one of these days the movies would decide to leave it exploded for a while and move on to some other landscapes, and some other fears.
As I was reading through the coverage of the announcement that Star Wars Episode VII will be arriving in movie theaters in 2015, I clicked on over to my friend Alex Knapp’s post on the subject on Forbes. And then I lowered my head slowly and repeatedly to my desk. It’s not that I think Alex’s ideas for storylines for a new trilogy are bad ones—they definitely aren’t. But it was that the post fell prey to a symptom I’m finding more and more deadly in criticism these days: the idea that we should just hand the keys to all pop culture over to Joss Whedon and sit back and enjoy the ride.
It’s not that I dislike Whedon, or many of the products he’s given us over the years. But I think there’s something disturbing about the idea that Joss Whedon is good at everything, or that the things that Joss Whedon is excellent at are necessarily the best things that our mass culture can do. It’s a homogenizing impulse—I shudder to think of a world with one dominant action movie sensibility, especially one that particular. And it ignores the fact that for all of Whedon’s strengths, he has weaknesses, a number of which would be particularly tricky for a revitalized Star Wars franchise.
It’s worth remembering, for example, that Whedon’s main accomplishment is revitalizing and critiquing the horror genre, and that he’s actually weak when it comes to one of the most important components of truly transcendent action filmmaking. He often seems relatively indifferent to actual action sequences. The fights in Buffy and Angel (which I’m working my way through now) are almost deliberately indifferent and schlocky in a way that robs tension from them. Matchups may be exciting because of their outcomes, like Buffy sending Angel to Hell, but not because of any clash of styles, or often, any real sense that the outcome itself is at stake. Dollhouse was more attuned to standard-issue training montages than any particular difference in style. Like Buffy, River Tam’s fight scenes in Firefly and Serenity are plausible because of things we’ve told that have been done to her, and she wins because that’s integral to the story’s needs. We don’t see the decisions or things other than the generic martial arts skills she has, that give her an advantage and let her think her way out of corners, because she’s never really in any. If anything, I’d say Whedon has an interest in the artificiality of action sequences, which lends itself to valid critiques of genre conventions, but not always to fight choreography that stands on its own.
The action sequences in The Avengers are somewhat more distinctive than his previous batting average, are mostly better because they involve the Hulk, a fighter who can be used with particular wit and violence, or amusing team-ups of fighters, rather than because Whedon got much better at choreographing actual duels. I shudder to think what Whedon would do with a lightsaber duel—why not at least call in a wuxia action choreographer, given the potential of the Force to shape duels, like Yuen Woo-ping, who did the amazing fights in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?
Then, there’s Whedon’s witty banter addiction and his approach to sexuality, both of which I think are strengths for him almost all the time, in part because he has a smart sense of scenarios where they fit, among them group dynamics or emotional situations that need to be deescalated. Whedon’s characters often use references or wit to defuse situations or to distance themselves from difficult emotions. I love Buffy telling Angel “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.” But that’s not remotely the same thing as Han Solo leaning in to tell Princess Leia “I’m nice men.” The line is an abstraction, but to totally different effect. The menu of movies available to us needs both cuteness and sensuality, lines that deflect and others than pull characters closer to greater intimacy.
The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff joked yesterday that he and I are the only people interested in the independent television movement and the problems surrounding finding a successful business model for it that doesn’t include distribution over established networks. But the report he filed from the New York Television Festival is indispensable for anyone who cares about connecting up genuinely fresh voices, ideas, and faces with the audience we believe is hungry for them but isn’t finding them, or isn’t paying for them. Todd explains why it’s been so much harder to find that business model in independent television than in independent film:
No one has quite figured out the independent TV business model just yet—a problem even Grey will admit exists. Attending NYTVF feels a bit like how I imagine attending Sundance in the mid-’80s must have felt: There’s a whole bunch of valuable product that could attract an audience if given a chance, but no one’s yet sure how to make money from that product. It was Sex, Lies, And Videotape that helped Sundance break through into the mainstream consciousness, and I’m not sure that independent TV has found its Steven Soderbergh yet. And even considering that factor, there’s the fact that running a TV show is a vastly different undertaking from directing a film. An independent film can be released to theaters, where it will hopefully recoup its budget. An independent TV pilot will ideally lead to a larger series, and that would mean a substantial investment of network funds to keep the show going, while an independent film is, ultimately, a much smaller investment of cash. Until a show as self-evidently good as Sex, Lies, And Videotape breaks through, independent TV may remain a curiosity too costly for networks to indulge in.
I’d note that in certain ways, independent film in recent years has also been gaining access to alternative distribution methods that audiences are already using. You have to find your way to an independent movie theater, but it isn’t a totally different experience from going to the multiplex. Same with ordering independent movies on demand: indies like Margin Call and Bachelorette have gone to VOD sometimes without even going to theaters and done fine there because audiences are so familiar with the experience of ordering movies. But indie television hasn’t broken in there, because that would mean striking details with cable carriers, which is no small task of its own for producers who, and would probably be something the networks would frown on, however little competition the indies would provide. Right now, indie television isn’t getting access either networks like PBS or even bigger distribution networks like Netflix and Hulu, which would be obvious outlets for them. However easy it is to distribute on the web or through YouTube, it still requires determined consumers who are already used to looking for content outside normal channels to find those shows.
That, of course, comes second to the issue of just producing enough material independently to actually constitute a television season, much less a television episode. Todd explains, for both reasons of creativity and resources, that most shows at the festival just aren’t coming up with even a full episode’s worth of material, though the best shows, like Husbands, are coming close. He’s right it’s going to take a big breakthrough show that becomes a massive hit despite the distributional challenges—and then it’s going to take people working out the rather more complicated business infrastructure to provide the huge, long-term support indie television makers are going to need to keep turning out product.