Cinema in 2013: A Retrospective

popcorn, film reel, and movie clapboard

With the Oscars quickly approaching, it seems an appropriate time to look back on the films of 2013. For some time now, critics have decried the quality of artistic integrity, or lack thereof, in Hollywood. Film as an art form is dead, they say, time and time again. And Hollywood has responded to the criticism with a slate of films that shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that artistic cinema is not going anywhere.

Because of the impending award season, December is usually known for having the year’s best films, and 2013 was no exception. Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyer’s Club were all released in December, leaving the list of potential award nominees clearly stacked.

These films, each critically acclaimed, took the average moviegoer to interesting places. This award award season belongs to the flawed hero. Matthew McConaughey’s phenomenal performance as the homophobic, terminally ill AIDS patient, Ron Woodroof, was done with heartbreaking honesty, and stands as a career best for the veteran actor. Tom Hanks delivered in 2013 with two standout rolls as Captain Phillips, in the film of the same name, and as Walt Disney in the biopic, Saving Mr. Banks. And Martin Scorcese once again showed his directing chops with the decidedly anti-hero centered con film Wolf of Wall Street, with stellar performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

This year also saw some big budget blockbusters, like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the second installation of the wildly successful franchise The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. And while there were some notable duds in the blockbuster realm (looking at you After Earth, and Lone Ranger), Hollywood still proved that there is a place for the big movies.

Cinema will always have its critics and detractors, but when you survey the cinematic landscape in 2013 as a whole, it’s safe to say that the future of film is still bright.

America’s Wealth Gap

America's Wealth Gap

Will 2012 go down in history as the year money took over politics? Both parties will have spent more than a billion dollars electing the next president. More and more of that money comes from a handful of the wealthiest Americans and the corporations they run. On the Democratic side, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, telecommunications pioneer Irwin Mark Jacobs, and hedge fund manager James Simons have donated millions to re-elect the president, but the amount of money the Democrats have received from deep-pocketed supporters pales in comparison to what Republicans have received. A single billionaire, business magnate Sheldon Adelson, had by August spent more than $41 million and promised to spend up to $100 million defeating President Obama and other Democrats. All told, the top .07 percent of donors give more money than the bottom 86 percent. And it pays off. Candidates spend ever more time courting the super rich and then, once in office, try to keep them happy. This summer, for example, Mitt Romney held two fundraisers at which he raised almost $10 million from the oil and gas industry and then announced that as president he would end more than 100 years of federal restraint of oil and gas drilling on public lands. Things like that happen on both sides. How did we get into such a situation? What is to be done about it? Is it threatening our democracy? And doesn’t it go against everything the founding fathers stood for?

Those are big questions. The last one is the easiest to answer. Control of government by the richest wouldn’t have bothered the founders at all. It was just what they believed in. John Jay, the first Chief Justice, put it most directly: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

Many of the founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves among the wealthiest people in the country. They felt their prosperity made them obliged to serve their nation at the highest level. Yes, they declared independence and fought a Revolution to escape the tyranny of English monarchy and might, but they expected to replace aristocracy of birth with aristocracy of accomplishment, rule by elites who had created their wealth and influence, not inherited it. That was why they wrote a Constitution that stated the president was to be elected not by the people but by an elite Electoral College, and the Senate was to be chosen not by the people but by state legislatures. And that was why in most states only men who had money and property were allowed to vote at all.

It didn’t take long for the 99 percent of the day to rebel against that status quo. The notion of true democracy, rule by ordinary people, grew popular in the early 19th century. It was spearheaded by President Andrew Jackson, who hated bankers and banks, especially the national bank that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. He destroyed the bank, partly to counter the power of the richest Americans. At the same time, a new generation of wealthiest Americans emerged, and they were a breed that had never existed in Europe—industrious, self-made men of humble origins, such as John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who began working in a menial job for a fur merchant but came to dominate the trade in furs from the West, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who rose from ferryboat captain to steamboat owner and then railroad baron. In 19th century America, the wealthiest really did have something in common with the common man.

Or at least that was true in the American North. The elite of the South were a breed apart. They grew fantastically rich and powerful from growing rice and cotton with all the hardest labor done by slaves. Seven of the first 12 presidents were from Virginia, the most prosperous part of the South. When the Civil War came, it was a fight not only over slavery but between the power of new Northern industry and urban wealth and the spoils of the Southern slave economy as well.

As extreme as the power of the wealthiest is today, it pales before that of the rich in the pre-Civil War South, for they could own human beings who had no rights whatsoever. Slave owners had such full support of the law that the Constitution originally counted each slave as three-fifths of a man for voting purposes, not so that slaves themselves could vote, but to add to the headcounts on which Congressional districts were based, giving their owners even more political and electoral power than anyone who didn’t keep slaves. Slavery was by far the highest point of the tyranny of the wealthiest in the United States.

But the kind of abuse of power that’s more familiar to us today took off after the Civil War, when four years of bloodshed costing more than a million lives left the South crippled and the North as a new industrial world power. That power corrupted, as it always does. The Gilded Age—which lasted from the end of the Civil War to 1900—was a festival of power grabs among the wealthiest. For instance, to build the Transcontinental Railroad, the owners of the Union Pacific Railroad set up a construction firm called Credit Mobilier to wildly overcharge for the work it did, just so they could bleed their own company and bondholders. Then, to make sure Congress didn’t complain, they gave assorted Congressmen both cash bribes and stock that paid huge dividends. The scam got exposed in 1872. It was estimated to have stolen $42 million in government and bondholder money, and it led to the disgrace of public figures as high up as the vice president, Schuyler Colfax.

By the 1880s the Senate was dominated by millionaires. And by 1892, wealth-fed scandal had become so commonplace that opposition to it gave rise to a new political party, the Populists, whose platform announced, “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. … The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few. … From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he ushered in the Progressive Era­­, one of two major periods in U.S. history when the political tide turned strongly away from the wealthiest—the other was during the presidency of his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt railed against what he called “malefactors of great wealth” and the “criminal rich,” and he pushed through reforms like strengthened railroad regulations and the creation of the Department of Labor. A decade later, President Woodrow Wilson cemented Roosevelt’s accomplishments by establishing the federal income tax and the direct election of senators.

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Though none of that prevented the wild financial bubble fed by coziness between the wealthy and the government in the 1920s. So in the wake of the Great Crash that followed, Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 as a rich New Yorker determined to look out for the common man. He wrote to a friend, “The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government since the days of Andrew Jackson. … The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States—only on a far bigger and broader basis.” He raised taxes on the rich and used much of the money that came in to put the unemployed poor back to work. In 1936 he wrote: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. … I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”

Campaigning with the Kingfish

Arkansas had never seen its like before. With just days remaining in the 1932 Arkansas’ Democratic primary, Huey Long crossed the Mississippi and launched a campaigning blitz across the state that stunned voters and sent shivers through the state’s political establishment.

Seven motor trucks and Senator Long’s private automobile composed the campaign caravan. Two of the trucks were specially designed sound trunks developed by him for his Louisiana forays.

Remember as you read these excerpts from the October 15, 1932 Post that Frankin D. Roosevelt had not yet been elected president. Huey Long was the rising power in radical politics and many Americans people assumed he was an unstoppable demagogue that would destroy the country’s government and business. The media watched him with dread and fascination; he was ‘good copy’ but his ability to stir anger and sell his version of populist socialism could prove dangerous. In Arkansas, the Democratic party was about to learn just how dangerous he could be. On August 1, he brought his support to Hattie Caraway’s campaign for re-election by sweeping into Arkansas with his convoy of trucks:

Each is equipped with four amplifying horns. Inside the vehicle body are the loud­speaker panels, an attachment for play­ing phonograph records, several folding chairs, a folding table, a pitcher and glasses. On the roof of each truck is a slatted platform with two of the four amplifying horns on each side, and with nested takedown iron railings and a portable stairway. Where no speaker’s platform has been provided, the folding table is opened, and the pitcher filled with ice water and set atop, with glasses beside it and a microphone before. The stair­way is hooked into a special iron rail at the side of the truck and lo, there is a complete and commandingly placed speaker’s platform.

Naturally, Mrs. Caraway’s six opponents, accustomed to the frock-coated school of campaigning for high office, with just a dash of baby kissing, perhaps, as a concession from Olympus to the humanities, were bewildered by this high-pressure disturbance which moved across the land with such clock­like regularity, military precision and devastating efficiency. By the time they had rallied their political faculties und begun to strike buck, the damage had been done.

Hattie Caraway wasn’t just a bystander in this campaign. She quickly found her feet, spoke out, and developed her own style.

At the start of the march, one could not even properly have referred to her brief preliminary remarks as a speech. They were awkwardly couched and awkwardly delivered, a bumpy performance, which not even her shy closing remark that “I know I don’t talk like a statesman, but I’ve always tried to vote like one for you,” could quite make palatable.

Two days later she was an effective stump speaker in her own right. She had caught the knack of leading up to a climax, and then waiting for the burst of applause which is practically sure to follow when the audience is friendly. She did not need much tu­toring, for she possessed a happy gift for phrase making.

Nothing in the way of spectacular showmanship that could or would draw crowds to the meetings was over­looked, and the Arkansas electorate was jamming the highway to see and hear this much-discussed Kingfish, in the bundle compartment of whose automobile reposed, side by side, a well-thumbed Bible and a loaded atomizer of throat spray. However, the real task was not merely one of assembling crowds, but of proselyting, of evangelizing, of making converts and staunch believers out of voters to whom it had never occurred that a woman could be a serious contender for a Senate seat

So there were many, that week when Huey Long dashed over Arkansas, who came to scoff and who remained as prey. Farmers drove to town in their own automobiles—and no few of the cars were this year’s models—in such numbers that highways were con­gested in every direction. Fifteen min­utes after he began to talk, Huey Long would have these same farmers con­vinced that they were starving and would have to boil their old boots and discarded tires to have something to feed the babies till the Red Cross brought around a sack of meal and a bushel of sweet potatoes to tide them over; that Wall Street’s control of the leaders—not the rank and file—of both Democratic and Republican parties was directly responsible for this awful condition; that the only road to salvation lay in the reelection of Hattie W. Caraway.

Huey knew what worked with these voters and he delivered it better than anyone. He offered sympathy, outrage, a list of enemies to despise and heroes to admire, rounded off with old-time religion and garnished with humor.

“Think of it, my friend! In 1930 there were 540 men in Wall Street who made $100,000,000 more than all the wheat farmers and all the cotton farmers and all the cane farmers of this country put together! Millions and millions and millions of farmers in this country, and yet 540 men in Wall Street made $100,000,000 more than all those millions of farmers. And you people wonder why your belly’s flat up against your backbone!”

“You don’t have to look far as to how you can correct this condition. Herbert Hoover is calling together boards and commissions to find out what he should do about it. The only dad-blamed thing on the living face of the earth that he needs to do is read his Bible. The Lord tells us in Chapters 24, 26 and 27 of Leviticus, in Chapter 5 Of Nehemiah, and Chapter 5 of James, not only what to do but how to do it. He tells you that unless you redistribute the wealth of a country into the hands of all the people every fifty years, your country’s got to go to ruination. The trouble is we’ve got too many men running things in this country that think they’re smarter than the Lord.”

“I’m for [Winnie Caraway] like I was for an uncle of mine, the time he joined the church and got baptized… This uncle of mine was over forty, and we were all worried about him because we heard he was sit­ting in on card games at night, and if he didn’t hurry up and join the church before it got too late, he’d die an un­saved man and the devil’d get him sure. However, one time a real good preacher come through our town and preached one of these special hell-fire­-and-damnation sermons, and he scared my uncle up, so that be joined the church and offered himself as a candi­date for baptism.

Well, the next Sunday afternoon about three o’clock they took my uncle out to Dugdemona Creek to baptize him, and my aunt, his wife, was sitting on the bank with their little boy, and a big crowd was standing all around. And as the preacher led my uncle out into the waters of old Dugdemona, there floated out of my uncle’s pocket the ace of spades, face up. And a couple of steps farther, out come the king of spades and the queen, and finally the jack and ten-spot of spades following along behind.

“My aunt jumped up and flung out her arms and cried: “Don’t baptize him, parson! It’s no use! He’s lost! My husband’s lost!”

But the little boy said: ‘Now, don’t you get excited, ma. Pa ain’t lost. If he can’t win with that hand he’s got there, he can’t win at all.” And I’m here to tell you, my friends, that if we can’t win with Mrs. Cara­way’s record of standing by you people through thick and through thin, then we can’t win at all and we might just as well admit Wall Street is too strong for us.”

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