The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Forbidden Kingdom"


ᅠI really only have one complaint with this movie: why couldn't it have been made ten years ago? Jackie Chan and Jet Li are past their peak...but still, arguably, better than anyone in the world. Yes, it's a mash-up of every convention of Chinese martial arts epics, and yes, it is Americanized as hell (what would you expect? It's our money. It has to appeal to our audiences. And at 55 million dollars, the box office for "Crouching Tiger" would barely break even--and trust me, this is no "Crouching Tiger.") Micheal Angorano ("Sky High") plays a kung-fu obsessed teenager who must return a sacred staff to the legendary Monkey King in a mythical, magical Imperial China. Along the way he meets a drunken-style indigent (Jackie Chan, who also plays an elderly shopkeeer) and a mysterious monk (Jet Li, who also plays the Monkey king). Look, this isn't the very best of Chinese cinema. But I promise you it's better than LOTS of Chinese epics I enjoyed the hell out of as a boy. And they put honest effort into it. Angorano is a decent actor, and actually moves with a bit of physical fluidity (he compares quite favorably with Keanu Reeves, trained by the same team for "Matrix").

ᅠAnd as for Jackie and Jet. Look. Life isn't perfect. But the chance to see them together is infinitely more satisfying than watching the few moments of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dancing together ("That's Enertainment: Part 2" and the "Babbit and the Bromide" sketch in "Zigfield Follies"). And the comparison is apt. Jet is Astaire--he is the superior martial artist. Jackie Chan is Kelly--who wasn't the dancer Astaire was, but actually made the better, more creative movies. Jackie is simply one of God's gifts, and the fact that we finally got these guys together, wire work and CGI and all, is a miracle. I was grinning like a fool. Yes, they're older, but they move PERFECTLY. And any human performance at that level is a joy to behold.

ᅠI understand there was more of a romantic subtext between Angorano and a gorgeous Chinese girl seeking revenge for the death of her family (Liu Yi Fei), which was excised. Good. Frankly, if he'd kissed her it would have irritated me no end, considering how Jet and Jackie have been emasculated in American film. But by removing that element, I was able to relax and watch this cultural event with perhaps a lingering regret that it couldn't have been better...but a realization that were the shoe on the other foot, I doubt the Chinese would have been better at saluting an eccentric American art form.

ᅠWhatever its failings, "Forbidden Kingdom" is obviously a labor of love with two actual geniuses at play. You don't see much of that these days. Actually, you never saw much of that, ever. For someone like me, this fantasy adventure earns an "A". For a typical American audience, probably a "B". For a Chinese audience, probably a "C" and for stickler purists who are offended by anything less than perfection...maybe a "D+"

Nicki and ᅠI had a hell of a time. Jason is gonna LOVE this.
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008)

This latest comedy from uber-producer Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, etc.) is written by, and stars Jason Segel as Peter Bretter, a television composer for the seedy cop show that stars his girlfriend, the eponymous Sarah Marshall. When she breaks up with him for being a slacker (hilariously) he pretty much melts down, ultimately seeking solace in a Hawaiian vacation, where he ends up in the room next to...his ex and her rock-star boyfriend. Hilarity ensues. The movie is quite raunchy, but not non-stop laugh-out-loud guffaws only. There is a touch of honesty and clarity about human relationships mixed into the stew, and a sweetness that is occasionally surprising. Very entertaining, sexy stuff, and I'll give it a solid "B".




There are two black characters. One is a girl Bretter screws. The other is a grotesquely fat black man who counsels him on romance. So bizarre. The "Breeding Circle" phenomenon in full bloom: all the white guys are sexual (remarkably, athletically so), all women want to screw white men, and black men are either too fat, too old, too gay, too young, too dead, or too busy for nookie.
Remember that this blog is my attempt to externalize my thought patterns, a sort of internet quasi-spiritual autolysis. I don't present this as "fact", only a genuine insight into my thought processes. This is a PERFECT example of the reasoning process that leads me to reject the notion that Obama has an advantage on the basis of race.

These are my assumptions/positions:

1) Human sexuality is a deep and unconscious river. By the time you have accepted that a member of another group is having sex with a member of your group (say, your daughter or sister) without flinching, for all practical purposes, your "racist" tendencies are a non-issue.

2) Box Office in films is a good, fast-and-dirty measurement of what people are comfortable with, or want to see. It is better than surveys (where people might say what is politically correct) because movie theaters are designed to throw audiences into mild trance. The images we hunger for in this state are revelatory of deep emotional needs and desires.

3) With the single exception of a short period between about 1968-1973 when black film first matured, minorities have always been presented in films as partial human beings-specifically in the arena of sexuality. When sex is present in these films, the box office suffers. Thus, no film featuring sexual behavior in non-white males has ever earned over 100 million dollars, regardless of the fact that about 15% of 100-million plus films feature non-white male stars, and that about 25% of over-100 million movies feature sexuality. One exception to this: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

4) Because the filmmakers in Hollywood come from all over the country, and because Los Angeles is one of the most diverse areas in the country, and due also to personal experience traveling and working around the country, I completely reject the notion that Hollywood is more racist than America as whole. I actually find that notion almost comical. The results of the box office, over the thirty years I've been watching, match my social experience...and have allowed me to actually predict box office performance.

Add these things up. Remember I said that "If Will Smith can't get laid, Obama can't get elected?" The reverse is true: "If Obama can get elected, Will Smith can get laid" (in a movie). This means that I acknowledge that public acceptance might lead the (economically conservative) decisions that drive the movie industry. My guess right now is that Smith COULD get laid in a movie, and still get it across 100 million. But that it would hurt the box office of his NEXT film. Is this cynical? Well, if you'd been right in your predictions about something as painful as this for more than half your life, you might be cynical too.

So then, while I can see that it is POSSIBLE for things to have changed, my whole life I've talked to white people who say "gee, Steve, you're behind the times..." based pretty much on wishful thinking. And not one of them had noticed the sex thing. Which makes me think that there are countless other, subtler clues and cues they miss as well. Point these things out and they get depressed: "gee. I'd hoped things have changed. What can I do?" I've heard variations on these two sentences countless times.
Because of these statistics, and the fact that whites are oblivious to it until their noses are actively rubbed in it (I'm sure men can be this way about women's issues, straights that way about gay issues, etc: if you're winning, you don't ask if the deck is stacked) I listen to someone say "Obama has an advantage because he's black" and it makes about as much sense as saying "he has an advantage because he's Muslim" or "he has an advantage because he's a Junior Senator." Given my other belief systems and observations, it would make sense that my position is: "no, in all probability, he's where he is DESPITE these things. And that without those disadvantages, he would have smashed Clinton out of the race months ago. His advantage is that a large number of people see him as extraordinarily intelligent, charismatic, and uncommonly honest and direct. I think that most of those who disagree disagree not because they are racist, but because individual perceptions make the world look different to different people. I think that the Ann Coulter-ish belief that people who think him extraordinary are lowering their standards because he's black are exactly as reasonable as people who think those who DON'T think him extraordinary hold that opinion on the basis of race.

They are your mirror: look carefully, and tell me if you like what you see.
I'm not saying I'm right. I'm saying that this is honestly what I think, and why I think it. These are the voices that buzz behind my ears. Chances are very good every black person you know has thoughts similar to this, whether they will admit it to you or not.

This stuff also seems to be consistent with my other thought patterns--it's turtles "all the way down" so to speak.
1) People who are in favor of Obama are because they have positive regard for his mind and heart, and because he "makes them feel good" (this isn't a pejorative or a complement on my part. A large stack of money makes me feel better than a small one. Ice cream makes me feel better [in the short term] than liver. Emotions can be connected to logical reasons or not).
2) People who are not for Obama feel that others surpass him in the arena of mind or emotions, making them feel good, or they do not share his vision.
3) While a higher percentage of black people probably support Obama for racial reasons than white people who reject him for racial reasons, numerically the number of whites voting against him for racial reasons would surpass the NUMBER of blacks whose votes he has won on that basis.
4) the percentage of whites who would vote for him based on race and the percentage who would vote against him on the same basis cannot be established to my satisfaction. I therefore cancel these out.
5) Since I used "blacks having sex in films" as a standard to measure when the playing field is level, and this has not happened, it would be illogical, in the absence of outside evidence, for ME to believe that Obama has an advantage based on race. It would be inconsistent with an entire rubrical architecture (is that a word) which has helped me make sense of the world most of my adult life. Not that it is CORRECT, but when you have something that allows you to predict with confidence, only a fool would discard it without solid reasons.

I would LOVE to think that things have changed enough for Obama to have some kind of an advantage based on race. But I see nothing, nothing at all in the culture to support that other than a lot of wishful thinking by very nice people. And a bit of venomous thinking by others who are not nice at all.

When black men have sex in movies, and white audiences come out to see it, I'll admit the playing field is level. Until then, I will extend no benefit of the doubt at all, except to believe that human beings are basically good, and motivated to evil and oppression primarily by fear. I can look at blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims, Conservatives and Liberals and love all of them from that position. Any other position seems to lead me into some pretty ugly conclusions...about everyone.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded a bit of this:

"The movies that come out of the Judd Apatow comedy factory are the real revenge of the nerds. In them the human male at his most woebegone manages to score with women who in the real world wouldn't touch him with a pair of tweezers. The heroes are pudges, mouthbreathers, loners, stoners - the average guy on a less-than-average day. It's a hell of a fantasy, and audiences of both genders seem to love it. (So why hasn't anyone made a movie about a schlumpy woman with dandruff attracting a himbo? Because it wouldn't make any money. Figure that one out.)..."

Seems to me it's less revenge of the nerds and more revenge of the white male nerds against black men and female nerds.

Steven Barnes said...

Well...maybe. I don't think its as much revenge as simply wish-fullfilment. I don't notice Apatow's movies wanting bad things to happen to the female characters.And bad things don't happen to the non-white characters, either. I think it's more a matter of intimidation: that in order to reduce non-white characters from the "threat" category, the subconscious mind gives them characteristics that remove them from the "Mating Circle" (this explains the obesity, gayness, and Morgan Freeman as God). As for not-hot guys wanting hot girls...again, that's as much a fantasy as a little girl wanting a Prince. Heck, who wouldn't like to score out of his/her league once in a while?

Steven Barnes said...

Oh...and as someone who doesn't find Sarah Jessica Parker particularly attractive, I've always considered "Sex and the City" to be a shlumpy woman's fantasy about dating out of her league.

mjholt said...

I would LOVE to think that things have changed enough for Obama to have some kind of an advantage based on race. But I see nothing, nothing at all in the culture to support that other than a lot of wishful thinking by very nice people. And a bit of venomous thinking by others who are not nice at all.

Here is a link to a video of a protest held at ABC/Disney studios the other day over the ABC "debate". No Sambo here, just a lot of people of different races, ethnicities, genders, and ages being very articulate about the disgusting show ABC put on.

It is from from The BRAD BLOG!
I believe this was made by Alan Breslauer and Brad Freidman.

'VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: ABC News Democratic Debate Protest In Los Angeles' at:

mjholt said...

Steve, reading Dar Kush is changing how I look at TV. I don't have time for much, but I like and watch Numb3rs. The characters are diverse, the religion sketchy, and the nerdy talents of the characters very much front and center.

One of the characters, David Sinclair played by Alimi Ballard, caught my attention when the show started because he is a very handsome, very dark skinned African-American. The depth of tone of his skin made him stand out. He and Dylan Bruno (character is Colby Granger) play the second banana partners. Their screen time and importance increased through the first season as the show became more of a group piece.

I was torn by the episode from two Friday's ago about a chess playing kid from the 'hood who is unwittingly taking messages from a black gang leader who is in prison to his thugs on the streets as the gang leader teaches him high-level chess. The messages are embedded in chess moves he gives the boy to practice. What's wrong with chess playing black gangsters and smart but abandoned black kids? Nothing, in one sense. In another, I am so tired of black men being shown as gangsters and black women shown as whores I cringe when such images flash on my screen. Sometimes I turn it off. Sometimes I don't, depending on the show. Part of the pay off in this story is the handsome black FBI agent making friends with the kid. That was done with a deft hand, too.

I admit that I don't watch the black sitcoms. I don't watch the white ones either. Hate sit coms.

I'd like to see a middle-class black drama show. Monk and 7th Heaven come to mind as examples of middle-class white drama shows. I am tired of tokens. I would like to see a show that portrayed black women like the one's I know. J.T. Steward and Nisi Shawl come to mind.

One thing I do like about Numb3rs is it is the revenge of the nerds of any race and background. They are the FBI and like Elliot Ness they get their men.

One show last season was about a Warren Jeffs sort. If you can catch it, its worth the time.

mjholt said...

Oh...and as someone who doesn't find Sarah Jessica Parker particularly attractive, I've always considered "Sex and the City" to be a shlumpy woman's fantasy about dating out of her league.

Anonymous said...

"Oh...and as someone who doesn't find Sarah Jessica Parker particularly attractive, I've always considered 'Sex and the City' to be a shlumpy woman's fantasy about dating out of her league."

Cool. I read the novel and didn't watch Parker's version (books beat TV for me :) ).

Frank said...

The big deal around these parts is that Forbidden Kingdom was written by a local guy.

Screenwriter John Fusco not only wrote the script, but he wrote it while living in Vermont, not LA or New York.

According to VPR "Fusco has written a number of Hollywood screenplays including Young Guns, Thunderheart and Hidalgo. He has himself studied martial arts at the Vermont Kung Fu Academy in Essex."

The character in the film, Lupo, also has ties to Vermont. He is played by Morgan Benoit who is a Vermont native.

When Morgan was about nine years old, he started taking classes in martial arts but, he didn't get serious about it until he was enrolled in the Vermont Kung Fu Academy at the age of 15 and started training in the Shaolin praying mantis and tan tui systems. Learning mostly northern styles suited him best. At eighteen he went to China to train at the Beijing Sports University as well as the Shi Cha Hai sports school where he had a private instructor. (Shi Cha Hai is also the school where Jet Li trained in his youth.)

Morgan remained in China for nine years, not only training in martial arts but also developing an interest in film stunt work. He soon was featured in several Chinese and Hong Kong TV series and films.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

What are the patterns that are more subtle than sex in the movies?

I've been tracking the sex thing in books, and it's remarkably horrifying in Farnham's Freehold. Recently, we get a replay in Inkheart-- the Arab boy (who's been in the adventure with a white family which includes a girl since fairly early in the book) leaves them at the end because he "doesn't belong". To be fair, I haven't read the sequel(s) yet.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Is there historical evidence for whether movies (and, presumably, tv) lead political power or follow it?

Where does the portrayal of blacks as respectworthy and/or not getting killed for the sake of white characters fit with how black people are actually treated?

Anonymous said...

mjholt said she would like to see a middle class drama centered on black characters. Lincoln Heights on ABC Family seems to me to fit the bill. I am wondering how anyone else who's seen the show views it.

Marty S

Josh Jasper said...

This reminds me, I can't remember if you mentioned if you got the copy of Richard Morgan's "Black Man" AKA "Thirteen".

It's not something I'd cast Will Smith in, but with enough modification it would make an amazing movie.

I'm glad you liked Forbidden Kingdom. I'll have to go see it with an eye for the action. The only action movie that really did anything for me of late was Shoot 'Em Up.

Steven Barnes said...

The writer of "Forbidden Kingdom" is supposedly a sparring partner for Jet Ji. Wow. Wish fullfillment fantasy, indeed.
I know of no study re: televised images and political power. My guess is that television mostly follows the zeitgeist, but can have some influence.
I do see a vastly wider variety of roles in film and television. There are still problems, but the only one I can quantify easily is the one about sex. In general, I am extremely proud of the way things are going.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Southern California, but when I was in the military, I went to teacher college in Council Bluffs, Iowa, right in the middle of the midwest. I remember one class discussion on race where many of the students were so proud because they had bought their children little black doll babies to play with. They felt they were doing their share to combat racism in future generations. Then, I asked them whether any of them would mind if their child ended up marrying someone of another race. There was a long silence, and then the teacher moved on to another topic. I think that we're racists until we're at the point where we would be comfortable welcoming a decent person of another race into our family.

Jerry S.

Steven Barnes said...


I agree that that is a major threshold. My former father in law had real problems with my race at first, but he grew into it superbly. I remember his wedding present was negligee, with a command to "start making some Grandkids!" Wow. He later wrote an article for some organization he belonged to called "my son-in-law used to be black." I get where he was coming from, totally. In life, it's not where we start. Its where we end up, and the way we shared love along the way.

Anonymous said...

"Well...maybe. I don't think its as much revenge as simply wish-fullfilment."

I was also reminded of how some men claim "nice guys finish last" when they end up alone after being rejected by women who prefer jerks. As if the women who do prefer nice men (and whom even these self-proclaimed "nice guys" reject) don't finish even further behind.


Seems to me that the wish being fulfilled often includes (a) the women "out of their league" dating them and (b) the women "in their league" not even existing never mind being in the "mating circle" (if they admitted we exist they couldn't claim to be finishing last...).

Anonymous said...

Regrettably, Boston Legal, the excellent TV drama that probes social issues with biting satire,is marred by the Sambo Affliction. Its longest running Black character is Clarence, an obese, effeminate male transvestite given to torrential temper tantrums. Whereas James Spader's character and the other White male attorneys regularly win cases and bed their ravishing co-workers and clients, poor Clarence makes due with playing Court Jester to his sultry, dark-eyed boss.

Anonymous said...

"Whereas James Spader's character and the other White male attorneys regularly win cases and bed their ravishing co-workers and clients, poor Clarence makes due with playing Court Jester to his sultry, dark-eyed boss."

Seems like in later episodes they oughtta have Clarence fall in love with a cool character who totally loves him back, who's neither his co-worker nor his client (so it's clearer that her love is real instead of trying to keep her job or manipulate her lawyer), and stays with him for the rest of the series. :)

Anonymous said...

I stopped watching the show this year. While their view on social issues was frequently more liberal than mine it was tolerable, but when they went on a liberal one sided crusade on political issues I stopped watching. With respect to the Clarence character
1) they have several other outrageous characters on the show. Even Shatner's character is something of a buffoon.
2) the fact that they have a black play such an outrageous roll to me says that blacks are like anyone else. We can put them in unusual role without fear of being criticized as being racist.

Marty S

Steven Barnes said...

" the fact that they have a black play such an outrageous roll to me says that blacks are like anyone else. We can put them in unusual role without fear of being criticized as being racist."
--Marty, that would be true IF the distribution of black characters is roughly proportional to their statistical presence in the population OR if, when black characters are present, they are sexual and lean-bodied at the approximate rate their white counterparts are. IF their presence (on average) is WAY below statistical real-world presence, OR if when they are presented, they are very disproportunately "non-breeders" or held to ridicule, then I suggest it is hardly evidence of "lack of racism" but rather the very epitome of it.

Steve Perry said...

Danny Glover has done a nice six- episode turn on Brothers & Sisters as a Republican campaign advisor. Wound up in a sexual relationship with Sally Field's character.

Of course, you don't see them in bed together; best the producers can manage is an onscreen kiss and a few hugs. (Don't see the gay kid getting it on, either. Only bed stuff is between the white heteros, and it's TV PG.)

In the Glover/Fields case, they won't live happily ever after, since he's gone back to D.C. and no way that mom was gonna leave her brood. Still, there was a time when a black man kissing a white woman on the tube would have been unthinkable.

So slow. Makes a glacier look like the Road Runner ...

Anonymous said...

Under your assumptions I would agree. Instinctively, I didn't feel your characterization of blacks on TV was currently true. Several shows I watch have black lead characters(the unit,kville,Lincoln Heights) and a number of others have black secondary characters like the show Numbers. Younger ones both male and female I think are attractive and don't seem to be more non breeders than whites on television. However, as I thought about your comments I realized there were a number of shows I watch, like NCIS which have no major black characters and so overall you may be right at least about the under representation.

Marty S

Mark Jones said...

I'll echo Marty's sentiment. I stopped watching Boston Legal a while back for similar reasons. The show has a MUCH more liberal POV than mine, but that was fine when it was, you know, FUNNY. But it's turned into political soapbox issue (or three) of the week with one or another of our heroes pontificating in court. If I want to be lectured by humorless sorts, I'll go read Kos, thanks.

As for Clarence, yeah, that's an issue. But still--given the choice, I'd much rather spend time with Clarence than Jerry (the twitchy white guy)...or most of the other characters, for that matter. Yeah, he dresses in drag and all the rest, but he's much more pleasant person (in any of his personas) than those others.

Steven Barnes said...

The problem is that you compare the ONLY black character with the most objectionable white character--not factoring in the fact that there are plenty of other white characters to balance the imagery.
Black sexuality in Television isn't something I track the same way I do with film:
1) I have no way of keeping track of everything on TV, so I have no idea what percentages any particular image represents.
2) I have no way of keeping precise track of the impact of such scenes on the ratings. Remember: it's not whether Hollywood will use the image, it's whether America buys it.
3) The fact that Sally Fields has a romantic involvement with Danny Glover is a VERY clear example of the "Breeding Circle" phenomenon. It's all about making kids. Fields, being post-menopausal...well, I hate to say this, but it simply isn't considered as offensive, because Glover isn't keeping a white penis from a baby socket.
4) The sheer number of hours of television per week make room for all kinds of imagery. The fact that an interracial image crops up...or a black sexual image crops meaningless unless I can look at the percentage of overall images, and the degree of acceptance by the audience. I just can't track that stuff--too much data. So I stick with movies.