DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of The Notorious Bettie Page, Quiz Show, Starter for Ten, Slumdog Millionaire, Afghan Star, Outsourced


Title:  The Notorious Bettie Page

Release Date:  2005

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 92 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Picturehouse/HBO

Director; Writer: Tommy Lee Jones, wr. Guillermo Arriaga


Cast:  Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris

Technical: Full 1.85 to 1, mostly black-and-white, Duart

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  censorship, COPA

I do remember what movies were like in the Washington area in the 1950s, the days that The Washington Post had a section called “City Life.” We even had The Evening Star then. Movies came to downtown first. The big 3 were the Capitol, the Palace, and the Columbia. RKO Keiths and the Warner were around the corner downtown. Smaller movies came to the Dupont and the Playhouse. Art movies and especially British and foreign movies came to the MacArthur and the Ontario (Adams Morgan), further from downtown. Then the movies would make their rounds at the neighborboods in 2 to 4 day stints, that changed always on Sundays and usually Wednesdays. Theaters were single places then, no megaplexes. And the really small films would come to a place on New York Avenue called The Pix. They were titles like “Burlesque in Harlem” and “Um-boy.” I had to ask my parents what burlesque and striptease were. These were mostly little movies, black-and-white, and probably not nearly as explicit as the porn that would come in the 60s and 70s.


Bettie Page may well have been in some of these. She was the pin-up girl du jour of the Truman and Eisenhower years. She grew up in Tennessee, and was exposed to good old time religion, but came to New York City on a bus and was pretty soon drawn into the world of photography. A black man took pictures of her at Coney Island (near my favorite Seaside Courts, for paddleball), and the police would stop him. Gradually she got into poses of various degrees of nudity, and finally bondage and mild heterosexual S&M. In the mid 50s, the Senate would hold hearings on pornography, especially in the mails, with particular concern about the “effect” on children, a debate that curiously parallels today’s debate over Internet censorship and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), against which I am a litigant with EFF. The hearings would, in tone, anticipate the hearings conducted by Senator Joe McCarthy, the subject of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” reference below.


On the surface, this film is good docudrama journalism, and its official stance on the issues is neutral and “objective.” But film, as an art form, can make powerful statements just through its visual technique. This movie does a good job of composing the moral questions just through the filmmaking technique. It is mostly in black-and-white, but with a soft, bismuth-look focus (reminding one of Pleasantville), not the metallic look of the “Good Night” film above. It moves into a soft, pastel Duart color as her life moves from striptease to “reality,” especially around Miami. There is a critical scene in the middle in the woods, when she is being photographed. The filmmaker allows the minds eye to fill in all the colors of the foliage and even her. She strips, and shows it all, even the “grown up hair.” The photographer worries that he could get arrested unless she turns just a little. Later, the color scenes show her dating a young man on the beach, and engaging in upper class pleasantries of the period like badminton and croquet. (We had those in our own family back yard; remember the colors of the croquet balls? These little details become the stuff of spy novels.)


The fibbies start going after her producers, particularly postal inspectors. This all leads to the hearings. Her promoters claim that Hollywood sometimes shows tidbit nudity, but the government claims, especially in the Senate hearings, that these pinup photos are intended just to promote lewd and lascivious thoughts in men, particularly minors. A man testifies that his teenage son committed suicide somehow imitating the sadomasochistic photos, although this sounds like a contrived connection. Bettie is asked to wait outside the hearing room, and after twelve hours she is told that her testimony is no longer necessary.


She seems a bit depressed and looks at the ocean, as if she could drown herself, but instead she goes to church. She prays in front of the ministers, who offers to take her all the way to being born again. Now the movie is in full color. She goes out and honors the Great Commission and preaches the gospel. Her reparative therapy and conversion are complete. She is changed, she is transformed. She will dedicate her life to actively recruiting others to a “Christian” way of life.


Now this whole sequence does raise the fundamental questions about freedom of speech. Why should the government protect people from bad thoughts? A libertarian says, let any competent person read or look at anything he wants; just hold him responsible for his actions. That is rationalism, that is objectivism. The social reformer says, no, we must make society more hospitable for the vulnerable. “What about those who can’t?” Less successful and less competitive men become vulnerable to some pornography; they may abuse minors, and minors themselves are the most vulnerable. This certainly parallels the debate today about COPA (the “harmful to minors” legal concept). On a broader level, it seems as though speech restriction is about social harmony – look at the debate over Chinese censorship and Google. That is, society needs to make itself hospitable to everyone; certain forms of speech seem intended ultimately to demean those who “don’t make it.”  Authoritarian societies can protect people from themselves and sometimes keep them alive longer and seem to give them some value “as people.” But authoritarian philosophy invites corruption, and certainly feeds the egos of those in charge, who include ministers saving souls in church.


In any case, the resolution of all of this seems to have been the “brown wrapper” in the physical world, with separate sections in bookstores for pornography. COPA, it seems, argues for the “electronic brown wrapper” which is quite difficult to implement in practice.


Quiz Show (1994, Hollywood, dir. Robert Redford, book by Richard N. Goodwin, 133 min, PG-13) also got us into the congressional hearing rooms, to investigate corruption in television quiz shows in the 1950s. I remember “The 64000 Dollar Question” in the early 1950s, and then “21” with the handsome Harold Craig, who only lost one night when he didn’t try to get a full eleven points on the second question. Here Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is set up to keep out Jewish Herbie Stempfel (John Turturro). Today, of course, we have real pop heros such as Ken Jennings on shows like Jeopardy, and you don’t have to be a football player or a pop star to shine.


Starter for Ten (aka "Starter for 10", 2007, Picture House/HBO, dir. Tom Vaughn, novel by David Nicholls, 92 min, PG-13, UK) is sort of a British morality play about "kids aka young adults" turned into comedy. Scottish actor David McAvoy carries the show as a college student Brian Jackson from the working class who wins admission to the University of Bristol (to "read" English literature -- "the better literature"), and then struggles with the paradoxes of his personal life, only to get the opportunity for glory on a quiz show that is a British cross between "Jeopardy" and "It's Academic". At a critical moment, he will have a moral lapse, accidentally get caught, yet the humor keeps him above water. McAvoy can pull this off at the end, and not many actors could.


There is the overriding philosophical question about the love of knowledge for its own sake, which Brian convinces college administrators drives him. It is the kind of belief that led Jimmy Wales to develop Wikipedia, or even me to develop this site. Mastery of knowledge is more important than the experience of real life, but it turns out that it isn't, as Brian stumbles repeatedly. There is the mandatory bathtub shirtless and hairless chest scene, where he is prepping for his date, OK, almost as if here the movie pays homage to 60s British sex comedies -- which this really is not. At one point, on a foggy day during Christmas break (to be followed by snow, which does happen in Britain), Brian's pseudo-mom remarks that she thought he was going to say he is gay; he is not, yet it's easy to imagine a similar movie with the central character as gay. 


The on location scenes of Bristol, with the famous rowhouses along the coast, would befit National Geographic. You need to be into British cinema to really enjoy this one.


Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Fox Searchlight / Warner Bros. / Celadon / Film4, dir. Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, novel by Vikas Swarup, 120 min, R, UK/India) tells the story of an ambitious teen on the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" show in India. Dev Patel, 18 year old British actor with Indian ancestry, gives a riveting performance. Blogger.  Best picture for 2008.


Afghan Star (2009, Zeitgeist/Roast Beef, dir. Havana Marking, UK/Sweden, 94 min) An “American Idol” contest in Afghanistan. Blogger.


Outsourced (2006, Truly Indie / Lantern Lane / Shadow Catcher) to India and then China. Josh Hamilton has good people skills. Blogger


Related reviews:.Good Night, and Good Luck

    Pleasantville  The Last King of Scotland


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