Film

CinemaDope: End Times?

The future of the Gray Lady

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Thursday, July 07, 2011
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
David Carr in Page One: Inside the New York Times

Andrew Rossi's new documentary about old media is titled Page One: Inside The New York Times. It's a look into the engine room of the country's most famous daily newspaper, and it's by turns fascinating and dispiriting. As it charts the paper's fortunes over the course of a year, it nearly—but not quite—sounds a death knell for traditional pulp-and-ink news.

Certainly, there are times when one wonders if the film's original title wasn't meant to be Page None, so swamped does the Times sometimes seem by the onslaught of online outlets: Twitter, WikiLeaks, and all manner of news-breaking blogs—Nick Denton's Gawker empire first and foremost—whose usual coverage would likely be deemed too gossipy for the Times, but whose occasional scoops make the traditional news outlet seem stodgy by comparison.

And yet the film makes a good case for the Times, and for papers everywhere, even if, eventually, they aren't printed on paper at all. Thrilling us with the highs of the Pentagon Papers makes for a good bit of journalistic history, but the point is really driven home by Times writer David Carr, a one-time drug addict who now writes a regular column for the paper, focusing on media issues. Debating the future of mainstream media during a panel discussion with Michael Wolff—founder of Newser.com, a news aggregator site—Carr holds up a printout of the Newser home page, filled with an attractive layout of stories. Then he holds up the same page with all the stories sourced from traditional media cut out; the result is Swiss cheese.

Carr, it turns out, is a great advocate for the Times as old and new collide. Unafraid to puncture the arrogance of new media's young lions, he is also willing to recognize where he has fallen behind the times: at first he jokes about how blogger-turned-Times writer Brian Stelter is a "robot built in the New York Times basement to come and destroy me," but eventually he comes around to Stelter's view of Twitter as an important tool in a journalist's arsenal. Carr's saltiness adds a lot to a film that sometimes plays it too safe with the reputation of the Gray Lady.

In the end, the question of print media's direction is still open. The best answer so far seems to lie in how the Times worked with WikiLeaks to distribute material that WikiLeaks would have otherwise simply dumped onto the Web. By partnering with the Times, Wikileaks got better distribution and a bit of a shot to their reputation; in return, the Times got a much needed jolt of online credibility. Whether it can last is a harder question.

*

Also this week: Amherst Cinema rolls into the second week of its summer-long Humphrey Bogart retrospective with what is surely the actor's most recognized and beloved work: Casablanca. So ingrained in our collective subconscious is Casablanca that people quote it without even realizing it: "Here's looking at you, kid"; "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"; "Of all the gin joints..." are all lifted from the Casablanca script. Not only that, but the film is famous enough that people misquote it, too: the infamous "play it again, Sam" is never once uttered in the picture—the line is "play it, Sam," or "play it once, Sam," or simply "play it!" depending on the scene.

But for the few who haven't seen it, a summing up: Michael Curtiz' 1942 picture is the epitome of wartime romance, languorous cool, and expatriate chic. Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, a cynical American living in French-occupied Morocco. He runs a bar—the "gin joint" of all the gin joints—that caters to a seedy sort; Rick's connections help him fly under the radar of the local constabulary. Until, that is, his ex-lover Ilsa strolls in one night (the "kid" in "here's looking at you") with her new husband Victor Laszlo, a leader of the Resistance. She is the one who first asks Sam to play it (you get the idea).

What follows that fateful piano request is the stuff of movie legend. It's probably not fair to say that if you haven't seen Casablanca then you have no real business seeing any movie that came after it, but it's a very close call. Curtiz' 102 minutes have helped inspire or prop up scads of films over the last 70 years, and while it didn't necessarily invent what it made famous, it certainly made it stick. See it on the big screen in Amherst Sunday at 2 p.m. or Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

Coming to Northampton this Friday is The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a one of a kind documentary about a one of a kind farmer. Screening at the Media Education Foundation as part of the Northampton Committee to Stop The War in Iraq's Friday Night Free Film Series, this 2005 portrait of farmer and performance artist John Peterson will turn any preconceived notions of the Midwestern land-man upside down—this is a farmer who is known less for his overalls than his feather boas.

Peterson comes from a long line of farmers, but by the time his turn came it was the 1970s, and he and his college friends turned the farm into a part-time art commune. When farm fortunes fell in the '80s, his neighbors pointed fingers, but Peterson too felt the sting, and was eventually forced to sell off the farm equipment that was his family's legacy. Ten years later Peterson would return to his ancestral land with a new goal: transform his tired soil into a thriving organic farm. Feather boas and all.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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