Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

March 3 2015 10:12 PM

If Wes Anderson Directed X-Men

The X-Men franchise has produced seven movies since 2000, all of which were helmed by big-budget, mainstream directors like Bryan Singer and James Mangold. But in the above parody trailer, YouTube user Patrick Willems puts an indie twist on the series, imagining the mutant world as seen through the eyes of Wes Anderson.

The pairing seems ill-advised, especially given how most parody trailers—and there are a lot—tend to force two random, disparate concepts into an awkward whole. But there is something Andersonian in the social isolation that plagues X-Men’s characters, and Willems does a bang-up job mimicking the director’s style: we get lots of manicured compositions, British Invasion tunes, and wry, deadpan narration. And as the making-of video notes, portions of the trailer were filmed around the very same building that houses the title family of The Royal Tenenbaums.

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March 3 2015 5:11 PM

A Close Read of Bill O’Reilly’s “Nonfiction” Children’s Book

Kennedy’s Last Days, Bill O’Reilly’s illustrated 2013 book for young readers about the JFK assassination, has emerged from retirement. Written for 10- to 18-year-olds, it might have remained harmlessly out to pasture, emitting the occasional flatus of patriotism or self-aggrandizement, had its author not been accused of fabricating part of its epilogue. In the book’s final pages, O’Reilly describes how he, then a young and intrepid TV reporter, tracked down a shadowy associate of Lee Harvey Oswald’s in Florida. The Russian-American businessman George de Mohrenschildt had known Oswald’s wife Marina, and helped Lee get his first job in Dallas. “As I knocked on the door,” O’Reilly writes, “I heard a shotgun blast. He [Mohrenschildt] had killed himself.” But now news outlets are challenging that narrative with reports that O’Reilly was in Texas at the time of Mohrenschildt’s suicide. Said Byron Harris, a former anchor at WFAA-TV: “He stole that article out of the newspaper. I guarantee Channel 8 didn’t send him to Florida to do that story because it was a newspaper story. It was broken by the Dallas Morning News.”

Well! If you missed Kennedy’s Last Days the first time, this is not the most auspicious introduction to a text that bills itself, somewhat defensively, as “completely a work of nonfiction. It’s all true. The actions of each individual and the events that took place really happened.” On the other hand, the book—mostly present tense, told in short chapters that meld charged moments from the lives of its main characters into a dramatic crescendo—doesn’t feel like the kind of document you’d consult for absolute accuracy. It’s a classic feat of O’Reilly storytelling, spiked with his curious blindness about what exactly it is he’s up to. He may think he’s delivering parcels of correct history. Yet his perceptions of reality are so shaded by an obsession with image and reputation, his whole worldview so fundamentally theatrical, that you almost can’t fault him for confusing good stories with true ones. 

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Papa Bear deserves his reputation as an entertainer. Kennedy’s Last Days, riveting and shameless, gleefully pursues immediacy at the cost of taste. There’s a cheesy reliance on meanwhile, back at the ranch transitions. We meet JFK, rising star, and then his nemesis: “About 4,500 miles away, in the Soviet city of Minsk, an American who did not vote for John F. Kennedy is fed up.” Sometimes these devices make you squirm. “Another event … jump-starts John Kennedy’s journey to the Oval Office,” O’Reilly writes. “Kennedy’s older brother, Joe, is not as lucky as John at cheating death.” If that doesn’t seem like the most sensitive/adept way to introduce the tragedy of Joe Kennedy’s plane crash, at least it outclasses the sensational description of the assassination itself. On a single page, there is “explodes,” “slices,” “knocked,” and “exploding.” Then: “Brains, blood, and bone fragments shower the first lady’s face and clothes. The matter sprays as far forward as the limousine’s windshield.”

Yikes. But some of the stage effects are less offensive, and more head-slappingly fun. A daftly disarming account of JFK’s heroism after a Japanese destroyer ploughs into his WWII boat has the young lieutenant stranded on an island, “choking down live snails and licking the moisture off leaves.” You see, he and his men had to evacuate their ship because “remaining with the wreckage meant either certain capture by Japanese troops or death by shark attack.” (The 1940s axis of evil: Germany, Japan, sharks!)

O’Reilly has a knack for simplifying or blurring historical details without exactly falsifying them. He just…makes them fit his overarching design. And so we learn that the athletic Kennedy swam for Harvard, but not that the president’s coaches remember him as “frail” and “mediocre.” An aura of accuracy emerges from an onslaught of numbers: JFK “naps for exactly 45 minutes” every day; he “can read and understand 1,200 words per minute”; his presidential limousine boasts “three rows of seats” and a 54-year-old driver. The book, its trivia bobbing around in a soup of assumptions, is disingenuously crafted as if readers care how many heads of state attended JFK’s funeral.

These scraps of data attempt to conceal O’Reilly’s biases, which list toward Great Man theories of history and cartoonish notions about fate, good, and evil. (No dice. Nor, for that matter, does O’Reilly’s “helpful teacher” voice—“The Secret Service’s job is to protect the president”—make him seem less grandiose or self-regarding.) Other feints at fair-and- balanced are so laughable they backfire. “Oswald finds strength in the ideals of communism. He believes that the profit from everybody’s work should be shared equally by all,” O’Reilly intones piously. (Look at him being all generous about socialism!) An extravagant hagiography of Birmingham’s Civil Rights marchers is equally crazy-making. (Now he’s bravely, patiently explaining that segregation is wrong! What a guy.)

But slamming O’Reilly for O’Reilly-osity surely misses the point. It’s more interesting to mine the characterization of Kennedy and his assassin for insight into what the author might value and fear. O’Reilly’s president is two things: a Hero and a Performer. As both, he is admired, beloved. Oswald is his opposite—the Envious Nobody. There goes LHO, “unhappy that his return to the United States has not attracted widespread media attention,” needing “to be noticed and appreciated,” with “little to show for his time on earth.” See his power fantasies and spasms of shame—how he measures “Marina’s cheap dresses” against Jackie O’s glamor. On the other side, Kennedy. Courageous, handsome, anointed, “deadly serious about defending his country at all costs.” He “exudes fearlessness and vigor.” His “greenish-gray eyes” sparkle above a “dazzling smile and a deep tan.” You can feel O’Reilly reaching for both the highest compliment he can give JFK and the cruelest insult he can hurl at Oswald. They are these: Kennedy is Great. Oswald is small. Were the “slightly built drifter” given the opportunity, you could almost imagine him lying about his reportage on Fox News.

And that is another star of Kennedy’s Last Days: the idiot box. O’Reilly keeps returning to John and Jackie’s camera-readiness. He lingers over the aspirational force of their bond, their poise, their clothes and hair. JFK, he notes approvingly, “was our first president who liked to be on television.” In Camelot (as on The O’Reilly Factor?) image-consciousness counts as a virtue. Communicators are champions. There is a strange passage where O’Reilly unfolds the origins of Kennedy’s commitment to racial integration; the literary curtain rises on the president as he encounters a newspaper photo of a Birmingham police officer siccing his dog on a student protestor:

Just one look, and JFK instinctively knows that America and the world will be outraged by Hudson’s image. Civil rights are sure to be a major issue of the 1964 presidential election. And Kennedy now understands he can no longer be a passive observer … he must take a stand … he makes a point of telling reporters that the picture is ‘sick’ and ‘shameful.’”

Is O’Reilly subtly critiquing Kennedy here? Implying that his morals are up for grabs, or only accessible through his eyeballs? I don’t think so. Sick and shameful are among the news anchor’s favorite words. Here is what he wants his young readers to admire: the president’s knack for self-mythology, his ability to spur change by presenting an inspirational face to the world. And, Papa Bear takes care to remind us, JFK is not the only crusader to hang his dreams on stage presence and the gift of gab. “If I see injustice, I say something,” he writes in his epilogue, right after the Mohrenschildt passage. Of course he does. He should run for office.

March 3 2015 3:49 PM

Nutella’s Attempts to Keep People From Calling It “Poop” Are Valiant but Futile

Last week, Nutella launched a campaign in France called “Say It With Nutella.” This campaign did not, as I’d hoped, involve putting Nutella in frosting pens and letting people scrawl notes on toast with it. Rather, Nutella invited fans to visit a website on which they could enter personalized messages and see them plastered on pictures of Nutella jars, which they could then share on social media.

What could go wrong? If you think the answer to that question is that pranksters might put rude, offensive, or otherwise off-brand messages on their virtual Nutella jars—well, not quite. The social media mavens behind the campaign anticipated such mischief and disallowed certain words from appearing in its users’ personalized images. For instance, if you wanted to put the word sextoy on a Nutella jar, you’d get a message saying “Your message contains a word that doesn’t conform to Nutella’s terms of use.”

This might not have been anything but an annoyance for puerile trolls if enterprising programmers hadn’t gone looking through the source code and found the (extremely comprehensive) list of banned words. And to the extent that people are talking about this campaign, it’s because not all of those banned words were scatological—some were political. The French words for diabetes, obese, bisphenol, phthalates, Indonesia, palm oil, and orangutan were all banned. (Palm oil—huile de palm in French—is an ingredient in Nutella whose harvest threatens the natural habitats of orangutans in Indonesia; phthalates and bisphenols are endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastic packaging.) And then there were a few head-scratchers on the blacklist: lesbian, Jewish, and Muslim were also disallowed by the “Say It With Nutella” algorithm.

March 3 2015 3:33 PM

The Community Season 6 Trailer Suggests We May Be in for the Darkest Timeline Yet

I’ve gone on the record before to express my disappointment over Community’s last-minute resuscitation by, weirdly enough, Yahoo. With two of its main characters long gone by the end of Season 5, and the dread that came with the knowledge that its once-consistent streak of brilliance was a thing of the past, it seemed obvious that the series’ legacy would be best maintained if all of us finally just let go. Yet as a longtime fan, I knew that if there was going to be more Community, I couldn’t stop myself checking it out—after all, the mastermind behind Community, Dan Harmon, is returning. So how terrible could it get?

Well, in the time since Yahoo announced itself as the “hero” to save the day, a third original member of the study group, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), has left, too. And now there’s the first official trailer, and it’s not any more encouraging.

March 3 2015 12:18 PM

Will Forte on His Unusual New Sitcom, The Last Man on Earth

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

About 20 minutes into my conversation with Will Forte, his publicist tells him it’s time to move on to the next scheduled interview in this particular brick of publicity for his new Fox series, The Last Man on Earth. I press for a quick quote but tell him not to worry if he can’t get back to me.

“Oh, no, you’re getting a callback,” Forte says. “Don’t even think you’re not.” Forte, who has a reputation as one of the friendliest and most engaging folks in Hollywood, calls back a few hours later, at the time he said it would.

The Last Man on Earth stars Forte as Phil Miller, a 40-something loser who finds himself alone on earth in 2020 after a virus wipes out the planet’s population. The new series is the product of a partnership between Forte—who also acts as showrunner and writer on Last Man—and Lego Movie directors and old pals Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It takes an unconventional approach for a sitcom: Forte’s character is often onscreen alone for long stretches of time, and a lack of dialogue is accounted for by the show’s visual imagination. Vulture spoke with Forte about Last ManMacGruber 2, and his SNL 40 after-party experience.

March 3 2015 8:45 AM

What Hitting “Rock Bottom” Looks Like in the Movies

Hollywood loves a dramatic downfall. The formula is as old as the movies: after a series of bad decisions and wrong turns, a protagonist reaches his or her most debilitated, wretched state—that is, they hit “rock bottom.” Sometimes that moment can be terrifying to witness, as it was in Requiem For a DreamDrugstore Cowboy, and The Basketball Diaries. And yet this scene isn’t always such a downer: AsBridesmaids and Anchorman prove, it can also be mined for great comedy.

To honor the many different forms of cinematic existential crisis, we’ve put together a montage of some of the most memorable “rock bottom” moments in film. 

March 3 2015 8:02 AM

What Has Downton Learned From Reality TV? We Discuss the Latest Episode.

Each week, Slate culture critic and Outward editor June Thomas will join frequent contributor Seth Stevenson to dissect the latest developments on the new season ofDownton Abbey.

In this installment of the podcast, Thomas and Stevenson discuss the Dowager Countess’ romantic past with Prince Kuragin, how Rose’s quick thinking earned Lord Sinderby’s trust, and what lessons Downton Abbey has learned from reality TV.

Spoilers for Episodes 4 to 9 will be made available to Slate Plus members on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern, at the conclusion of the PBS broadcast—and to non-members on Tuesdays morning. (Want early access? Join Slate Plus!)

Note: As the name implies, this podcast contains spoilers, and is meant to be listened to after you watch each episode.

March 2 2015 10:14 PM

Bob Dylan Gets Stuck in a Noir Love Triangle in the  “Night We Called It a Day” Music Video

In February, Bob Dylan released his 36th studio album, Shadows in the Night, which comprises 10 Frank Sinatra ballads that Dylan aimed to reinterpret and bring “into the light of day.” Now one of those songs, “The Night We Called It a Day,” has a music video, and like the album it’s a lovely, idiosyncratic tribute to a bygone era.

The video is shot in the classic film noir style—faces cloaked in shadow, rooms hazy with cigarette smoke—and it follows the story of an ill-fated love triangle. Dylan, of course, is a third of that triangle, and it’s good fun to see the 73-year-old engage in some hard-boiled hijinks.

March 2 2015 6:26 PM

Is Kanye West’s New Song Based on This Obscure, 45-Year-Old Outtake From Paul McCartney?

After months of leaked snippets, a flamethrower-assisted performance at last week’s BRIT Awards, and the widespread circulation of a radio rip earlier this afternoon, you can finally hear the complete, studio version of Kanye West’s “All Day” below, via iHeartRadio. (You can also purcahse is on iTunes.)

While the studio version, for the most part, closely matches the live version, it departs most dramatically in the last minute. While the song seems designed to be this album’s “Ni**as in Paris”-like club favorite (it even reprises that hit’s “ball”/“mall” rhymes and “that shit cray” refrain), the last minute takes an abrupt left turn into acoustic strumming and whistling. Though it’s the last thing you’d expect on a track like this, it actually comes courtesy of new frequent collaborator Paul McCartney (as confirmed by rapper and singer Theophilus London, who also features on the track), from back when McCartney had his own first child with his wife Linda.  

You can listen to Paul tell the whole story below, but here’s the gist.

March 2 2015 3:17 PM

Spock’s Struggle Was His Fans’ Struggle, Too

“It hasn’t been easy on Spock,” the half-breed scientist’s mother tells Captain Kirk in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Journey to Babel”: “Neither human nor Vulcan…at home nowhere except Starfleet.” And being Spock wasn’t easy on Leonard Nimoy, either—for much of his career, the actor, like his character, was trapped between two worlds and never quite comfortable in either.

By the time Star Trek was in its second season, the Boston-born theater actor with a Method background was already imprisoned in a gilded science-fiction cage. At 36, after more than a decade of acting and teaching, Nimoy was suddenly the breakout star of NBC’s hit show, receiving more fan mail than the rest of the cast combined. Meanwhile the “official” star of the series, William Shatner, resented that he was not the center of attention, famously counting lines of dialogue to ensure that Spock didn’t get more screen time than Captain Kirk. But it made no difference: Spock was the show’s lightning rod, even though the actor who played him viewed the character and its cultish impedimenta as a detour in a more serious career that was permanently forestalled.

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