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Archive for February, 2009

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, back in the early ’80s I remember watching Sneak Previews on the Chicago public television station, WTTW, Channel 11. This was the very first incarnation of the movie review show that would eventually launch its hosts, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, into pop-culture superstardom. In my opinion, they are the greatest American film critics–and I don’t just say that because they’re Chicago guys, though it was cool to know they were based here.

I still have fond memories of those early Sneak Previews shows. In fact, I can remember how excited I was to see Siskel and Ebert’s reviews of what would become some of my favorite childhood movies–Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans.

Sneak Previews eventually went into commercial syndication as At the Movies and finally Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. I loved those two guys together. Siskel was a Yale graduate and didn’t stomach foolishness that easily; Ebert was often the one with more populist tastes. But they both had very high standards. I loved the way they’d argue about movies. Sometimes it looked like the taller Siskel wanted to strangle his rotund partner, but then in the very next segment they would fall all over each other in agreement. I loved their passion for the movies and celebration of good art. I loved their “two thumbs up” (or “two thumbs down,” when a movie deserved it). But mostly, I loved watching their friendship evolve. Even as they bickered and mixed it up, you could tell these two guys genuinely cared for each other.

In a way, their relationship reminds me of what real reconciliation is about. The goal isn’t to always agree or pretend to get along in a superficial way. It’s about deep, passionate, and honest relationship. One where we might lay into each other sometimes, but by the end of the episode it’s clear that we love each other and that we’ll be back in the same aisle seats next week.

Well, today is the tenth anniversary of Gene Siskel’s untimely death, and his surviving partner Roger Ebert (who has been facing serious health challenges of his own lately) has written one of the most poignant, loving, and profound tributes to a friend that I’ve ever read. He opens with this:

Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren’t supposed to, God help us if one caught the other’s eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.

Gene died ten years ago on February 20, 1999. He is in my mind almost every day. I don’t want to rehearse the old stories about how we had a love/hate relationship, and how we dealt with television, and how we were both so scared the first time we went on Johnny Carson that, backstage, we couldn’t think of the name of a single movie, although that story is absolutely true. Those stories have been told. I want to write about our friendship.

From there, Ebert shares an eloquent flood of memories, both funny and sad. Even if you weren’t fans of this pair, you might want to have some tissue handy. I encourage you to read the piece and think about the depth of the friendships in your own life. And as you do, please say a prayer for Mr. Ebert.

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So how about that New York Post chimpanzee cartoon? There’s plenty of insightful commentary lighting up the blogosphere on it today. But, in my usual self-serving manner, I’ll point you to the current post at UrbanFaith.com (with an assist from Sojo.net) for a nice overview/perspective piece on the controversy.

The debate over whether the cartoon was just boneheaded insensitivity or blatant racism is something that will continue as long as there’s such a thing as monocultural editorial teams (wasn’t there anyone in that NY Post newsroom to raise a caution flag?) and monophonic civil rights activitsts (Al Sharpton leads the charge again). But, as a journalist, one of the most interesting aspects of the controversy for me is the ethical questions it raises for the media and other communication leaders. For an exploration of that dimension, I think Steve Myers and Mallary Tenore’s report at Poynter Online is excellent. In it, Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Cartoonists, won’t label the chimp cartoon as racist, but he does call it a “misfire.” From the article:

The flap over this cartoon does illustrate the difficulty editorial cartoonists, who are generally white men in their 50s, have in dealing with race, Rall said. As for African-American cartoonists, “as far as I know, there’s only one or two working in the entire country.”

If you’re like me, you’re probably weary of this type of thing. It seems every couple months there’s a new brouhaha, whether it’s Obama Waffles or LeBron James on the cover of Vogue.

From my perspective, the question should be: Will we use these incidents to start constructive conversations about race, culture, and understanding (the kind I believe Attorney General Eric Holder was attempting to get at yesterday), or will we use them as justification for our hostility and as vehicles for our continued separation?

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It’s not every day that you see a former KKK member apologize for the attrocities he committed decades ago, but here’s proof that God is still in the reconciliation business. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but this is such an incredible story that I thought I’d post on it anyway, just in case anyone missed it.

UrbanFaith.com has a great article about it, and Anthony Bradley did a fine post about it more than a week ago. Breaking news it ain’t, but this is one of those stories that hopefully will be told again and again.

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Wow! Some strong words today about race relations in America from Eric Holder, our new attorney general. In a speech to Justice Department employees commemorating Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate in their private lives.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder, who is our first black attorney general. Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, he added, but “we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

More from Holder’s speech:

As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.

You can find Holder’s complete speech here. Pretty bold statements for someone who has only been in his job a few weeks. I tend to agree with him. In fact, some of his comments read like things I’ve been saying during my talks at churches, Christian colleges, and conferences. I hope Holder and others in the new administration are able to help America talk about these issues in a more honest and forthright way.

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As you might know by now, thanks to all the media hype, 2009 marks the bicentennial birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. But this year also records the 200th anniversary of the birth of another giant of history.

Okay, Felix Mendelssohn’s influence may not be on the same historic level as Lincoln and Darwin. Still, I’m sure there are very few folks who haven’t heard the first strains of the German composer’s Fourth (“Italian”) Symphony (also see above), or his Violin Concerto, or the ubiquitous “Wedding March” from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn was like a rock star in his day–and he even died at a young age (38), not unlike so many rock legends. Next to Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorak, and Sibelius, Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers from the Romantic era.

I meant to blog sooner on a fascinating story about Mendelssohn that I heard on NPR last week. Conductor Stephen Somary, the founder of The Mendelssohn Project, is engaged in the exciting task of recovering Mendelssohn’s “lost works.” What’s so compelling–and sad–about Mendelssohn’s story is why his works were lost. As Somary put it, after his death Mendelssohn was “posthumously assassinated” by rival composer Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was aimed squarely at the legacy of the Jewish Mendelssohn (even though Mendelssohn’s family had converted to Christianity when he was a child).

Later, during the Nazi regime, Mendelssohn’s name was put on the list of forbidden artists of Jewish descent, and his manuscripts of his works were daringly smuggled out of Germany and around the world by those wishing to preserve the treasure of Mendelssohn’s music. It’s really a thrilling story, worthy of a grand cinematic treatment; I could see it being done similar to Amadeus, the classic film about Mozart. In fact, I’m not sure why Mendelssohn’s story hasn’t been done already. It has passion, pathos, intrigue, and lots of incredible music for the soundtrack. If there are any aspiring novelists out there looking for a fantastic topic to base your book on, you need to check out the Mendelssohn saga.

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In the recently released film New in Town, did you know Renée Zellweger was supposed to be Angela Bassett or Gabrielle Union? That is, Ms. Zellweger’s character was originally written for an African American actress. I honestly didn’t give much thought to the opening of this movie (and based on its weekend box office, neither did anyone else) until I read this piece in The Root, detailing how Kenneth Rance, the African American screenwriter of the movie, watched it go from a vehicle for a black actress, as he originally conceived it, to a vehicle for Ms. Zellweger. Rance’s experience is fascinating, if not a little sad.

Then today, I ran across this post from popular conservative blogger La Shawn Barber about the evolution of the movie and the sacrifices artists sometimes make to get their art out there. Ms. Barber has a personal connection to the story, and she poses a thought-provoking scenario for all of us to ponder:

Imagine yourself in [Kenneth] Rance’s situation. Someone wants to buy your work and make your movie, which no doubt will open doors and build your network of people in the business who can help get subsequent movies off the ground. But there’s a catch.

Is changing the race (sex, religion, nationality, etc.) of your main characters a small price to pay?

Great question. Well, what do you think?

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