The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

They Had the Power

Did you ever notice how some things simply change our culture to the nth degree? It seems the older I get the more I realize just how true that is. I was thinking the other day about what sort of things have come into our world since I can remember ... velcro, microwave ovens, home videos, cell phones, personal computers, internet, and a bloggosphere. The list goes on and on. That’s progress, I suppose. And, it’s okay.

Something really weird happened in the 1980s. There was a cultural shift that was the counter-part of everything the 60s and 70s had to offer... and then some. It went beyond the really big hair, fake everything, and supper tight jeans. So many things were changing fast and as a young mother I was on high alert to protect my kids. Of all the things I controlled for my children I have to say the television was most passionately limited. I allowed a half hour of tv entertainment five days a week and the programs offered were Looney Tunes, Muppets, Mr. Rogers, or Sesame Street. We had a few VCR tapes and PBS reception was fine enough for what limited amount was seen.

Atari - a popular game in the 80s
Those darn Mario Bros and Donkey Kong were introduced then, too. I found myself horrified with the many parents who were sitting their children in front of entertainment boxes, letting them play computer games and Atari for hours on end. I personally couldn’t find the benefit of using that sort of day-care for my kids so we instead found ways to use our imagination and simply play in the real world. It seemed everywhere I turned folks were telling me I was depriving my children of progress. Progress ... there’s that word again.

Marketers figured something out in the 80s ... they understood that Baby Boomers still controlled the dollars, and the children of Baby Boomers controlled their parents. It was obvious that whatever toys these kids wanted, they would get – just research the Cabbage Patch Doll, Coleco years, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Cabbage Patch Doll even hit the UK!
So, how does one better market to the children?  Mattel’s Product Development Department had worked up a line of action figures listed under the series called “Masters of the Universe”, and they sold remarkably well. However, sales could be boosted still further with some clever entertainment coordination so the Marketing Department took control. I do believe that Mattel got more than they parleyed for when they approached Filmation Studio and proposed a deal to produce a cartoon show based on the popular action-figures ... He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was born.

Filmation Studio was an impressive power-house at that time. Their seasoned animators produced an extraordinary amount of quality work when they created the first season of He-Man. By painstakingly rotoscoping live action footage, they created a library of stock character movements that were simply superb. The background artists produced dazzling and dream-like settings for the action to play out. Combine all that with haunting and melodious music and this new cartoon had a style and sensibility that was stunningly different from others ever seen.

He-Man’s storylines were not typical either. In the beginning they were  straightforward enough, but a few episodes in to it the scriptwriters took the simply typical characters and began to explore who they were as people. The personalities grew as they struggled with human issues like parental pride, personal usefulness, friendship, adoption, and learning to cope when things seemed frustratingly wrong.

During the first season of He-Man there was a lot of controversy over the series. Many people were more than unhappy once they understood that corporations were marketing directly to children.  Was He-Man nothing more than a salesman directing a half-hour Mattel commercial that was manipulating children for a profitable end? For me, I immediately saw the blurring of that imagined line that defined distinctions between art and commerce. I have never believed in that line. Picture making has always been used for commerce, even Michelangelo and de’ Vinci knew that truth. The question, really, was how inappropriate was it to market to children? As a young mother I set out to truly ponder this concept; to understand how this He-Man character could be thought of as anything different from Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, Smoky Bear, Charlie Brown and his Great Pumpkin, or what ever. Children have been marketed to for a very, very long time and the only unusual thing that happened in the 80s was over-seas cheap mass production of toys and new technological entertainment tools that virtually reached for potential fans (kids). The protest that got me was when Dr. Thomas Radecki, of the National Coalition for Television Violence, insisted that the He-Man series was "a blatant attempt to sell violence to children through the peddling of violent action toys... The brutal barbarian is still held up as a model."

What? I had to ask myself ... where were the parents? Must we depend on a national coalition to tell a business what they can or cannot try to sell because a parent can’t say no? Is that product development team so supreme that they are controlling children by preaching buy, buy, buy while parents are stunned helplessly on the side lines in disbelief? I had to see that power for myself, so I sent my kids to their room every afternoon for a week while I watched He-Man to learn how violent and barbaric this muscle-bound character was. What I learned was that reasoned discussion was ignored while polarizing rhetoric ruled the day. I didn’t just approve of He-Man, I thought it a marvelous and entertaining thing that I could comfortably show my children.  Since we were in Alaska and riding behind times in the lower-48, our first year for He-Man coincided with the first year of She-Ra, so both shows where played back to back each afternoon from 3:00 to 4:00.  My children’s entertainment time instantly doubled to one hour, five days a week.

For the record, standards during those years did not allow either He-Man or She-Ra to be violent characters. They could not use their swords as offensive weapons, nor could they directly punch or kick anyone. Only robotic enemies were allowed to be destroyed. When pushed, simple body throws where shown, though most often both He-Man and She-Ra cleverly outsmarted their adversaries. Moral lessons were shown at the end of each episode which promoted good civic behavior on many levels ... no littering, no lying, clean your room, think of the consequences, be respectful, courteous, kind, and forgiving.

Both of my children adored He-Man and She-Ra and for many years their play did reflect those cartoons. They also drew them and, at the end of it all, those heroes played a very big part in my girl’s young lives. I did the unthinkable and purchased He-Man and She-Ra cartoon bed linens for them, and play swords, masks, and shields (I never did buy the action figures though, I’m too practical for that). They never whacked each other with the toy weapons, they only held them high, touching tips as they’d bellow, “For the honour of Grayskull ... I ... HAVE ... THE ... POWER!!”

My children showing how they have the power.
Years passed and my children grew into wonderful young women. I owned and worked a Giclée print shop and one of the artists who used our services was a lady named Karen Grandpre. After a time we were comparing art stories and I was delighted to learn she was an animator for He-Man and She-Ra (specifically responsible for Swift Wind, She-Ra’s horse).

Animation sketch for Swift Wind by Karen (Haus) Grandpre

I was able to thank her for the good influence her work had on my children, and I eagerly questioned her about animation work and process. I learned her masterful hand also animated such notables as Uncle Sam McGoo, Robin Hood (Disney animated movie), The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Horton Hears a Who (original), Wonder Woman, Peanuts, Tarzan, Lone Ranger, Zorro, Tom & Jerry, Mighty Mouse, Fritz the Cat, The Archie’s, Fat Albert, and much more. She worked with three of the world’s top animation studios: Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Filmation. Karen’s credit name is Karen Haus and she is one of the finest draftsmen I know. She can draw a horse from any angle without reference or animal at hand. She knows design and form so well it’s no different than taking a breath. When my grown children heard that I had met that lady who brought She-Ra and He-Man to life they begged that I introduce them. The girls dug out their old pillow-cases and asked Karen to autograph the fading cotton images.  They were still in awe of the lady who made the magic they enjoyed as children.

Working out details of Swift Wind, a flying unicorn horse.
Studio sketch by Karen (Haus) Grandpre

This past week She-Ra turned 25 years old. I found myself thinking about progress ... those microwaves, cell phones, internet, and personal computers ... How they have changed our lives. I also thought a lot about art and creation, heroes and raising children, responsibility and good civic behavior. He-Man and She-Ra were attacked back in the day because they represented a shift in the state of commerce. They were accused of marketing to children simply because a toy came first and the parents couldn’t say no.

A story board for Skeletor.  All story lines were well worked through before the animators took to their tasks and created the cartoons so many children loved. 

I disagreed about the badness of the cartoon back then because I saw that it built it’s own personalities and situations, and those were centered on a good moral base that encouraged children to be the best people they could be. That aspect of this story was very good. The bad aspect was the parents who spoiled the child and paid a thousand dollars for a stupid Cabbage Patch doll ... the ones who let progress babysit while not teaching the wisdom of moderation and good sense. I called  Karen and asked if I could spend a little time with her, hoping to capture a sense of who she is for the tale I wanted to tell about animation. We spent a couple of afternoons talking and going through old sketches and drawings. I asked what she thought about modern animation and she quickly and pointedly stated they are “retarded cartoons with too much agenda” ... from her perspective, progress is destroying her craft ... Progress.

So many episodes ended with Skeletor feeling down in the dumps about the turn of events. 

The story of how He-Man ended sums up the fate of good animation better than I ever could.  He-Man was a victim of his own success because once corporate manufacturers understood his ascendency came about through the merchandising of toy-based cartoons, greed took over and everyone seized the opportunity to profit from an out of control parental base that could not satisfy their whiny children without giving the brats whatever they wanted. Within two years the syndicated cartoon market was saturated and programs began to hopelessly fail while newer and flashier things where constantly introduced. He-Man was one of those casualties.

Filmation sold it’s animation studio to a French cosmetic company, L'Oreal. This cosmetic firm wasn’t interested in actually doing any new animation, they simply wanted the European rights to past-productions. In one day L’Oreal cut off Filmation’s future by firing the entire production staff. On a Friday afternoon all of the artists were told to put down their pencils and leave. The doors were closed and production was silenced on February 3, 1989. Two hundred and thirty employees (mostly animators) were cast out without warning and the end of an era was at hand.

This animation sequence is for Bo's (She-Ra's friend) horse running.
Karen (Haus) Grandpre was the master horse animator for many years.

When I think of progress, I often think of greed. He-Man or She-Ra would have done a moral of the story about this, if they were only given the chance. Instead, films like Avitar neglect traditional production processes and let computers build a sterilized and perfect world where the agenda rules supreme. Ironically, this old gal thinks a big-budget CGI movie can't stand in comparison to the low-budget animated TV series which spawned it all.  Now that is something worth thinking about.


*The drawings included in this blog have never been shown public before. They are but a very few of the collection that Karen keeps at her home today. I had the great privilege of scanning nearly 100 of them, as well as enjoying seeing hundreds more when I recently spent a day with Karen. Not only He-Man and She-Ra sketches are there, but so were Fat Albert, Daffy Duck, Charlie the Tuna, The Archies, and more horse sketches than I thought possible for one artist ... the list goes on and on. Honestly, a good animator is truly a champion draftsman. Thank you Karen, for sharing your creations with me, and allowing me to post a few for my friends who enjoy this blog and good creativity. You are simply the best.

The Arabian horse was the breed for Swift Wind. Karen's knowledge of horse anatomy is very evident in her study works for full blown animation.
On the left, He-Man is running into the frame - his figure is  more refined than the  next entry animation (right), which is shown in an early stage of working out details.
I remember this episode!  Vines just about took He-Man out!
But he kept on struggling ....
and struggling.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

All for One, and One for All

The following is a recently published article I wrote for Women in Racing magazine (Australia). The subject of this story is Donna Hillman-Walsh, who was also featured in There's No Crying in Baseball (Blog post May 25, 2010)
In 1974, twenty-five year old American jockey Donna Hillman was invited to participate in the first-ever International Female Jockey Race in Brisbane, Australia. A field of twelve rode; representing Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and the USA. Hillman energetically remembers, “The crowd cheered loudly as we entered the track. The air was thick with excitement.” She pauses a few moments, then guns a conclusion home. “What it all boiled down to was … we not only brought in the crowds … they loved to bet on us! It doesn’t get any better than that!” After the race, headlines around the world proclaimed “Lady Jockeys Have Their Day” announcing that Pam O’Neill placed first for Australia. Undoubtedly, that Australian run wrote another significant page in the exciting history of horse racing.

Donna (Hillman) Walsh newspaper clippings about her
riding in Australia.

Racing Down Under was “a fantastic experience” for the young athlete and she remembers as though it were yesterday. By that time in her career, Hillman had ridden many top eastern US tracks, including Belmont and Aqueduct, and was the leading female rider at Calder. As thrilling as racing was, in 1976, Donna turned in her silks for canvas, retiring from horse-racing and forging a solid career as Donna Walsh, fine artist.

Racing was not part of Donna’s life again until 2008, when Jason Neff asked her for interviews for his upcoming feature length documentary, JOCK, which tells the stories of pioneer female jockeys. Through Jason, Donna was asked to once again touch an extraordinary moment of ‘first’ in the world. Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes, 2nd leg of the Triple Crown) in Baltimore, Maryland, would host the first ever parimutuel race consisting of retired female jockeys, The Lady Legends Race for the Cure.

Jason Neff grew up in the horse-racing world hearing stories about pioneering female jockeys and admiring them for all the challenges they overcame to follow their passion. His feature length documentary, JOCK, tells how they fought for the right to ride as professional jockeys

On May 14, 2010, eight ladies saddled up for one last hurrah and a chance to thunder across the finish line. They would come from around the US, setting aside jobs and family for training, and to compete in this historic allowance race. Donna would not ride that day, but knew the names and talents of those that did:

PJ Cooksey, 52, the third all-time leading female jockey with over 2000 wins and breast cancer survivor. Gwen Jocson, 43, record holder for the most wins in a single year by a woman. Andrea Seefeldt, 46, Kentucky Derby and Preakness jockey. Barbara Jo Rubin, 60, first woman to win against a man at a recognized racetrack. Jennifer Rowland57, top pioneer female rider on the Maryland Circuit. Mary Russ Tortora, 56, first woman to win a Grade 1 stakes race. Mary Wiley Wagner, 46, top five apprentice jockey in the nation in 1987 and breast cancer survivor. Cheryl White, 56, the first African-American female jockey.

Lady Legends Jockeys – (from left) Mary Russ Tortora, Andrea Seefeldt Knight, Barbara Jo Rubin, Jennifer Rowland, Mary Wiley Wagner, Cheryl White, Gwen Jocson, Patti Cooksey.

The Lady Legends Race served a three-fold purpose. First, it was for a good cause that raised money for Breast Cancer Awareness. Second, it was filmed as the climactic ending
for Neff’s movie, JOCK. And third, it gave the women one last opportunity to officially reunite with lost friends.

Neff asked Donna to go to Baltimore for the reunion, for not only riders were celebrated that day, so were many others who were veterans of the sport but couldn’t return to the saddle. This once-in-a-life-time event gathered such notable names as Kathy Kusner, Diane Crump, Patti Barton, and more. Donna was touched, yet nervous, about going. It had been many years since she lived the racing world and she couldn’t grasp what to expect.

Donna, like other non-riding jockeys, had very good reason for not climbing on a horse at Pimlico. She looks wistful as she states matter-of-factly why she can’t ride, “Plates, screws, and pins would never allow my legs to hold. I would be a danger on the track.” Diane Crump expresses a similar fate. “My joints were too worn out to take any more stress. I just didn’t think they would hold up to the work it would take to get fit again.” Listening to the voices of these gallant ladies, it’s safe to say their heart’s desire to ride was strong, but intellect said racing was impossible. One has to admire their sense of safety and honest evaluation.

The public had great opportunity to meet these retired legends at the autograph-signing the morning of the race. At first, only the star eight riders were sitting at tables with men jockeys, scribbling their name for fans. Donna and the others stood along the ropes with the fans, observing, waiting for their turn in line.

One of the eight at the tables hollered loudly, “Hey, Donna, get in here. You’re a legend too!” Donna and the rest joined in the signing, and a long line of people stood waiting to briefly chat with them and have their prized posters autographed. It was overwhelming for Donna, “We must have signed, smiled, chatted, and posed for photos for at least two hours. I had no idea there would be so many adoring fans willing to stand in line so long just to meet us.” When asked about her unexpected time at the tables, Donna humbly said, “That’s why I felt so accepted there. They are the best group of women you’d ever want to know.” They all sound this way when they speak of each other: All for one, and one for all. That may be a little corny for some people, but I think it gives a clue as to what these women went through together, and how bonded they actually are.

By race day, all the ladies were having a great time getting reacquainted and comparing stories. Some had never met and they were curious about what they would find.  "I always wondered if they were remarkably strong women, or just crazy to ride when they did,” Andrea explains about the earliest riders. “After meeting them, I found we were all like-minded. They are remarkable women who, like me, just
wanted to ride races.” Others, like Cooksey found satisfaction in comparisons. “I was honoured to be in the presence of such accomplished horsewomen, and to share our stories of the trials of competing in a male-dominated sport.” Their time together before the race most likely helped them mentally find their zone. The eight riders went to the jockey room to prepare. The others found their places in the VIP area and waited for the pre-race parade.

Donna could hardly hold still as she anxiously paced by her seat. She knew many things could go wrong that day. The pilot must be an ace when reading her mount, with many decisions snapped in nano seconds. The wrong move would spell disaster; injury or death could happen in the blink of an eye. There’s a fine art to horse racing and the idea that a 100-125 pound human could control a speeding, 1200 pound, high-strung thoroughbred is amazing in itself. Add to that, the truth is all risks were amplified that day. Those ladies had been away from the game for many years and their strength and reflexes could come into question because of that. How could they be as sharp as they were 10, 20, even 40 years ago?

The crowd roared as the jockeys emerged from the saddling paddock, making their way to the track. Aboard their ride, each lady paired with their pony-horse and all eyes watched as they began warming-up their mount. The crowd went wild and hollered individual names; Barbara Jo, PJ, and so on. And every early rider there noticed how the yells from the audience had changed from their racing days. What used to be, “Go back to the dishes where you belong!” turned into “Go girl … we’re with you!” Ambivalence had changed to support and fans and jockeys were loving this!

Feeding off energy, the jocks smiled and responded, encouraging the excitement that was building stronger by the moment. Jocson played it up with particular flair. She knew why she was  there, “I love the crowd. If it wasn’t for them there would never have been an us.” It wasn’t until they made their way to the starting gate that grins faded and serious concentration took hold. The horses, girls, and crowd were ready.

Donna stood at ramrod attention and stretched for a better view. For a fleeting instant she was back on a horse and part of this momentous occasion. Yearning pulled at her heart with that ever persistent desire to ride and compete again. She was beyond proud of those that were racing, and she could still hear the voice from earlier that day. “Hey, Donna, get in here. You’re a legend too!” Her friends were making history while she watched from a distance. It was highly emotional for her as they started loading at the gate; the announcer saying each jockey’s name in turn … all for one … and one for all.

Donna had been welcomed as one of the Legends by these ladies, even though she couldn’t ride that day. Aggressive competition had mellowed and now the girls were comrades in a tough sport that had been hard on them all. A uniform desire to perform well and support each other was being fulfilled, and Donna wiped a small tear from the corner of her eye as the drama of it all was at crest. She prayed no one would be hurt. The gates where about to open and everyone would soon know if the ol’ girls could be as sharp as they needed to be.

“And they’re off!” the announcer boomed. She stood with the cheering crowd as the horses rocketed out the gate. The audience was pounding louder as a good clean break led to a race along the backside, where riders jockied for position. As they approached the Club House turn Gwen Jocson took the lead from Mary Wagner, and was in great order when Andrea came flying up from way off the pace, closing fast. She couldn’t quite catch Jocson, though, and a very electric rider in white/red silks took home the final win of her career. The crowd erupted in response, cameras flashed from every angle, news crews and interviewers descended. The race was everything people hoped it would be. Andrea expressed it well when she spoke of her part, “Before we loaded into the gate, I was still apprehensive. Not sure if I was fit enough.” Once in the race she quickly found her truth. “The doors opened and it all came back to me. I felt strong riding, came from behind and passed horses to finish second. It was thrilling.”

Down the Stretch – Mary Russ Tortora (green and white silks), Gwen Jocson (red and white silks, blue helmet), Patti Cooksey (green and yellow silks), and Barbara Jo Rubin (turqouise and white silks).
Credit: Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire

The end of this event was a heart-felt moment for the girls. They gathered at a local restaurant that is famous for it’s Maryland blue crab cakes and steak, and spent the evening bonding and
securing lifetime friendships. At one telling point, they all looked at their picture on the cover of America’s turf authority, and Cooksey made a notable observation, “In the 25 years that I rode, I was never on the front page of The Daily Racing Form, until today!” It was as though, finally, the Lady Legends gained a little respect from the Racing community, which is something they were always fighting for.

Pioneer reunion – Diane Crump (first woman to ride against men on a recognized race track in the US). Mary Russ Tortora (first woman to win a Grade 1 race in the US), Barbara Jo Rubin (1st woman to win against a man on a recognized race track in the US), Kathy Kusner (was part of the US equestrienne team that participated in the ’64, ’68, and ’72 Olympics – silver medalist. She spent over a year in the court system fighting the Maryland Racing Commission for the right to ride. Shortly after winning, she broke her leg at a horse show at Madison Square Garden.), Patti Cooksey (3rd all-time leading female jockey with over 2,100 wins).

These women have proven they have the courage and strength of champions. Diane Crump sums up their significance when she spoke of her own career, “It’s quite awesome when you look back and know that you were a true part of American history and possibly women’s history around the world.”

Donna came home to her studio with a renewed understanding of her racing past. Her time with memories and friends gave her a gift of appreciation and pride in something that had lived in her closet for years. As she studied her newest piece on the easel, one representing Barbara Jo in her blue riding silks and pigtails, she thoughtfully considered the purpose of her art, “This painting will forever be a fond reminder of that great experience at Pimlico, that exciting race and the best of times!”

This article was published in Women in Racing, Spring/Summer 2010 ISSUE 7

Friday, September 24, 2010

Two for One - part II

I had to watch the second Affleck movie a second time since the double feature night of quite a while ago. It’s not that this movie is bad, nor that Affleck did a terrible job ... it actually is, in my opinion, one of his best performances. As I said in part one, I think this movie helped me understand what it is that I don’t care for with Ben Affleck’s acting. There is a thing I call ‘regional nuance’ that everybody takes on. For me, I am a northern girl with about as much social class as a rock. For Affleck, he’s an east-er who has a certain polished sense about him. Perhaps it’s the way he speaks, the slickness of his hair, the stylish way clothes hang on him, or maybe his voice just isn’t quite low enough to feel truly manly and commanding. Maybe it’s a combination of all those things. Whatever it is, the aspects of regional nuance helped make this movie more enjoyable for me simply because I believed all the characters the performers played. Yes ... even Ben Affleck. But why have I not been able to write about it?

As I batted excuses around in my brain this week I believe I came up with the reason. Honestly, I think this movie hit too close to reality for me. Many things written into this drama that were meant to twist and surprise the viewer are part of our everyday way of life, and my moments to escape took me nowhere but to the here and the now. After the movie, I think the first thing my husband and I said to each other was, “Why the hell can’t we find a reporter like that today?” And then it hit me .... that’s what they WANTED me to think! All the cliche good guy/bad guy stuff is in our face and I refuse to play into the emotions of military bad, newspapers good, corporations bad, politicians slimy, bloggers bad, police stupid, uhhh ... wait ... what was that politician slimy part? I might buy into that! Seriously, though, if you forget any sort of agenda and simply follow the tale along, the movie is entertaining and thought provoking.  I don’t mean social conscience sort of thought provoking – I mean once all the pieces fall into place I had to sit and ponder to try to figure out who in the story knew what and when .... especially the politician’s wife. I enjoy being intrigued that way.

Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck play their parts well in State of Play
The movie I’m talking about is called State of Play (2009). It stars Russell Crowe as a street-smart Washington D.C. reporter (Cal McCaffrey), Ben Affleck as the slimy congressman (Stephen Collins), Rachel McAdams as the feisty little blogger/junior political reporter (Della Frye), Helen Mirren as the totally in control ruthless editor (Cameron Lynne, of the Washington Globe),

Helen Mirren maintains queenly control over her newsroom.

and we mustn’t forget the memorable performance by Jason Bateman as a wealthy pill popping bisexual public relations executive (Dominic Foy) who has information Cal McCaffrey really wants. Finally, who is it that plays the nut-job killer in this thriller? Michael Berresse handles that role and he’s just too creepy to talk about. Though I will mention this is the biggest role he ever landed. Good job, Michael.

Rachel McAdams is marvelous as Della Frye. 

There are other players, of course, who make this film work (the police, national media with some cameos, other politicians and minor bad guys) but they were so typical there’s no need to high-light them. What is truly an interesting thing in respect of this motion picture is the truth of what it could have been had certain people had their way. Russell Crowe was not the expected lead player. That was Brad Pitt. He signed on to the script in August, 2007 but dropped out of the production one week before filming was to begin. He didn’t approve of a re-write and wanted the film delayed until after a writer’s strike was settled and a compromise script could be created. No dice, the director said, and he instead spent his time going to Australia so he could talk Russell Crowe into acting the lead. There was nearly a scheduling conflict, since Crowe was then filming Nottingham (later released as Robin Hood), but the studios managed a schedule that allowed Crowe’s participation in both films. The biggest problem for State of Play was Russell’s need for exceptionally long hair. It was cut pretty short for his part in Nottingham and that required him to spend three hours a day in Hair and Make-up trying to create new  length for his mop (which explains his funky hair in this movie).

Messy Crowe looks like every report whoever interviewed me.

The Pitt fiasco set the film’s schedule back by one week. The original actor who signed on to play the slimy politician was Edward Norton ... the delay created a scheduling conflict for him and he had to leave State of Play under amicable conditions. His agent also represented Ben Affleck and the new east-er was quickly signed to play the roll of congressman Collins.  Affleck rushed  to Washington D.C. to prepare, meeting with Nancy Pelosi and other notable politicians. He said to perfect his character he drew on the experiences of Gary Condit, Elliot Spitzer, and John Edwards (I can see that in his performance ... especially John Edwards).

For certain, State of Play would have been a much different film had Brad Pitt and Edward Norton played the leads. I don’t think I would have watched it. As a general rule, I don’t care for political thrillers unless they are from a time long, long ago. (Like, how about something de’ Medici, Hollywood?) Most modern films stress too much about the ‘message’ ... rather ... spend too much energy tilting a story to promote their message and I think we get enough of that from every other turn. This film would have media bias, parallels regarding questionable home-land security deals (Blackwater?), corporate greed, calculated political coverups, etc. I could just watch some evening news or other television dribble for that. But, I like Russell Crowe enough and have come to learn that he has a wonderful sense about scripts and story lines, so I brought this one home. I figured Ben Affleck would suck ... but he didn’t. He is completely believable as a slimy up and coming politician.

I have to say, too, that the fellows who played the other politicians were marvelous. Many times I thought they were actual sitting elites who simply stopped in to give a sense of authenticity to the film ... especially the fellow who played Rep. George Fergus.

I know that politician on the left, I KNOW I do!

Another thing I truly enjoyed about his movie is the manner in which it was filmed. As it plays, you should notice that while you are in the reporter’s world, it feels grimy, dingy, the lighting is a bit harsher and often the rains are driving hard. While you are in the congressman’s world the space feels cleaner, depth of field has deeply shifted, and the crispness of a well ironed world is amazingly strong. It’s an attitude displayed visually. To pull this off, the director of photography shot media scenes in the anamorphic format on 35mm film, while the world of politics were shot in high-definition video using digital cameras. The effect is pretty cool and very cogent.

Jason Bateman's character is about to learn the will of the press. 

As the story goes, this is a high-paced thriller that holds attention well. There are so many twists, turns, and added information that it’s important you pay attention. It starts with a random and apparent drug dealer pop-off, then leads to a seemingly unrelated capital-hill-lower-level-employee suicide. As the reporting characters piece the puzzle, we are walked through the ethical struggles of old time investigative reporting versus modern shoot-from-the-hip blogging. I did enjoy the idea that the old-school would take the time to mentor the new school and the resulting product was good and honest. Too bad it’s make believe. The part that’s not make believe, and is shown honestly in this story, is the relationship between the media and politicians. It’s grittingly harsh to hear deals made and stories tilted according to the reporters whim. We all know it happens, and I think Crowe plays that angle of the tale really well – especially when he confronts Jason Bateman’s character. It makes sense that he would ... Crowe has a bunch of experience with real press. Regarding his attraction to this role, he explains:
"I wanted to explore the ambiguity of journalism... It's a kind of a conceit that journalists live under, that they remain objective. That's never been my experience. They're all too human, all too emotionally affected. Someone could write absolute rubbish about you because their aunty's having a problem with cancer or something. It's the way they re-balance themselves. So I think examining that conceit and examining the true input of human experience in the journalism that we read, it was very interesting for me." 
** quote from “Blazers Brush with Fame” by Anika Manzoor - Silver Chips Online
Even the reporter's apartment hints to the notion that a newsman's personal life may well affect his work.  Notice the campaign sign pinned to the bulletin board in the back.

Again, Russell Crowe carried a movie well, as I expected him to. Ben Affleck for the first time surprised me and I liked that. If you want to see a good movie centered around modern times and problems ... check this one out ... it really is worth your time.