Friday, March 2, 2012

I Don't Agree with the Academy

I told Mom today that I am done with Hollywood for a very long time after I write Mayday! Mayday!: The Making of the Airport Movies. Even though I stopped writing movie reviews in 2009, after 10 years, I was still connected to it, its history at least, through What If They Lived?, and now this. I don't mind its history so much, but rather how its history is treated nowadays. Not by the public at large, but by the industry, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

I loved visiting the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. It is a marvelous temple devoted to movie history, and treats the books and papers of that history with the same respect afforded a church or temple, as it should, because those papers age, and great care needs to be taken to be sure they don't crumble from age and remain accessible to those who are interested in the inner workings of Hollywood.

But I don't believe that history should be limited only to researchers or students or authors or whatever the standards are by which people are deemed worthy to examine that history. I think of that recent Los Angeles Times article that says membership in the Academy is overwhelmingly white and skewed toward old (click here), and it's not so much the statistics that bother me, although it is a factor, but rather what those statistics represent: A closed-off members-only club that's hard to get into and even harder for it to bloom with good ideas. I understand membership being relegated to those who work in the industry. That's fine. Those people work hard enough as it is. But what about the outsiders? What about those who love movies, who want to know more about their favorite movies beyond the audio commentaries and documentaries on DVDs, if there even are any for some favorite movies?

I think the Margaret Herrick Library should be opened up to the public, but with a few caveats. First, visitors should be 18 years of age or older. No teens. There are important papers in that library and while reaching 18 doesn't guarantee maturity, it does set the possibility of it. Secondly, the same rules should remain, such as only pencils, paper of some kind (Legal pads, notepads, etc.), and/or laptops being permitted in the reading rooms. And drivers' licenses should be given at the desk as well in exchange for that one-day library card, given back when one is finished, just as they are now. That is a necessary level of accountability.

This may trigger some consternation among those who work there, but there should be increased supervision until this idea pans out. Not walking around like guards in a prison, but just glancing, making sure everything's calm, that papers aren't being squirreled away in pockets, nor bent, nor crumpled. I think that those who come to this library have a vested interest in movies, and would display a certain reverence toward being in that library.

I could be totally wrong. Perhaps the public is allowed to visit in some respect. But when I filled out the required form at the Special Collections desk, one of the questions was about the purpose of your research, and I had a purpose: I was doing research for my book. If there's not a sufficient purpose written, would the staff still allow access to those materials? I'm not sure, and even though I was grateful for the opportunity to be in that library and to read Charlton Heston's copy of the Airport 1975 script, and see one day's shooting schedule of The Concorde: Airport '79, I didn't feel a sense of openness. In my entry from January about my visit, I called the Library an American monastery, and that's true. There is total silence in that library and fierce concentration all around, but there isn't that sense of joy about movies, about what they bring to us. This is just work for us researchers. It's not how I felt when I got the folder containing that shooting schedule, but looking around me, it seemed so. There were probably many goals developing around me, such as writing a bestselling movie history book that could help its author dominate the movie world (Not me. I got that sense from others. I just want my books to be published, first of all, and then sell well enough so I can make some money from them, perhaps enough for some travel), but amazement about the movies seemed to be at a minimum.

Mind you, I didn't expect anyone to jump out of their chairs in excitement or start dancing like they were in a Busby Berkeley musical, but there was never that buzz in either reading room that we were looking at history that many giants had created. Here was proof that they had roamed the earth. I think if there was more of an effort to be more open to the general public, to invite them in, more excitement could be injected into that library. Keep to the same rules as necessary, but let everyone see what exists. The big excitement among the staff when I was there was the library's acquisition of director Hal Ashby's papers. Ashby had made Shampoo, Coming Home, and Being There. Why should the excitement be limited to the staff? Surely Hal Ashby fans across the country, those with travel plans, might want to see all that. 1930s movie fans would have a field day at this library too.

The Library is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, with the longest hours being from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, two hours longer than the other days, which also begin at 10 a.m. In a little room across from, and to the right of, the security desk, there's a set of lockers to store bags and other items that aren't allowed in the Library, including cell phones. If you need to call anyone, you either have to go outside, or you could call from that room like I did when I was checking up with Mom, Dad, and Meridith, who were at Universal CityWalk. There's not a lot of lockers because they don't expect a lot of people at the library. And they've got that down accurately. But this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They have the history. They should be more open with it. Is it just because the general public doesn't work in the industry, but pays exorbitant prices to see a movie, that the Academy looks down on them in so many ways, that they don't believe the Great Unwashed is worthy of knowing what they know? I'm not talking corporate dealings, but just more openness. Most people love movies and if they want to know more, they should have the opportunity to find out whenever they want. It shouldn't only be limited to audio commentaries and documentaries on DVDs.

I was raised with the belief that everyone has an even chance. I live with the firm conviction that no one is above me and no one is below me. When I moved to Southern California, and got closer to Hollywood, I got the sense that it was cliquish, but it's not. It's incredibly cliquish. If you're not in the industry, you don't deserve to breathe the same air as them. Now, in light of this, it may be odd that I'm writing a book about a piece of Hollywood history that gave birth to the disaster movies that we know today, but this was also not long before a time when Hollywood was actually open to ideas, which led to some of the greatest movies ever made. They were willing to take risks in the '70s. I don't know what the politics of the industry were like during that time, but they sure were willing to give audiences what they believed they wanted, and it paid off enormously for them.

I want this book to be the last time I write about Hollywood for a very long time (despite thinking about a biography of an actor who's not one of my favorites, but who I very much admire, and a book about people in the 1930s who weren't as famous as the names we know, but who still helped Hollywood run, such as the makeup departments, research departments, commissaries, clothing departments, secretaries, etc.) because I can't give more attention to an industry that doesn't share my ideals. I hate hierarchical systems. If you come in every day and do your job well, why should office politics matter?

I figure that I'm not speaking in tandem with the reality of the times, but I believe in equality. I also believe in the saying, "You pays your money and you takes your chances." Everyone should have the same chance, but it's up to each person what they want to do with it. If someone squanders it, that's their choice.

I'm not exactly sure how much sense I make with this. I worry about being yanked into a philosophical discussion that finds me woefully unprepared to explain my ideals coherently. But I do know that I do not want to continue to write about the history of an industry that isn't open more to public perusal. They can position it any way they like, play up their strengths, play down their weaknesses. Universal is already doing that with their 100th Anniversary, conveniently forgetting that Airport single-handedly pulled the studio from the brink of bankruptcy. Or maybe the current executives have no idea. Why on earth should they study the history of their own company in order to be better informed? Undercover Boss is a prime example of this cluelessness. But if people want to know more about movies beyond the DVDs and books offered in local libraries, they should be more open to it. It could produce more profits if inclined to go that way. Possibly not a high number in comparison to the corporations that own these studios, but it would still be a worthy endeavor. Maybe it's a matter of a better-educated public being a danger to the aims of a corporation. I don't know.

I just figure that we're all on the same planet, we're all going to meet the same end one day, so what's so bad about opening up movie history more to a public that puts so much money into it as it is? Art should have no hierarchy.

My next books are going to be about, I think, more accessible histories, though one may be dicey at first. I've got some maneuvering to do on that one. I want people to know what I've learned, and not to make them jump through so many hoops to find out. I think maybe all this stems from elementary school, when I had enough of an interest in vending machines to stay after school at Riverside Elementary to page through encyclopedias to learn more, and to see if there were any other books about them (this was before the Internet came along, kids). One day was fine, two days was fine, but the third day, it was either the librarian or someone else who questioned why I was there, and said that I couldn't be there after school. First off, it's a library. Wouldn't those working in a library normally be pleased that a kid is there, curious enough about something to take books off the shelf to read? (Rhetorical question. I know the truth of it by other examples as well.) And I wasn't defacing books, and had asked my mom to pick me up a little later. That's all. Plus, I obviously couldn't go while I was in class. Knowledge shouldn't be locked up like that.

I would have liked to see more people at the Margaret Herrick Library. There should be more people there. I doubt the Academy would open part of itself up like that, but I will never stop believing that everything should be accessible to everyone. I got tired of movie reviewing not only because of the hamster-wheel feeling of the same things happening at the same times throughout the year, but because it felt like a hierarchy, of fellow film critics scrambling to try to get to the top. Of what, I really don't know. They all want to be Ebert, and they don't realize that that's not going to happen. Ebert was in the right place at the right time (upon the retirement of his predecessor at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967) and he parlayed it into what he is today.

I can't stand all that. You and I are human. We have that in common, and therefore we should have the same chances. I'm probably repeating myself, so I'll stop here. But I will say, again, that it's what I've always been and what I always will be.


  1. Very well said, Rory. You are absolutely right.


  2. I think it's one of those facts of life that the higher you climb in an organisation the less you know about the day to day operation. I love Undercover Bosses just for the power of revelation it brings to people. It's also something I bang on about it work until I sound like a broken record. There is no point in us setting a vision and strategy for our area if we're not listening to the guys at the frontline and bringing them with us.

    Great post as always :)