Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Rusurrecting the Champ, The Hoax, Shattered Glass: exploring journalistic and authorial ethics

The Yari Film Group (YFG, apparently founded by Bob Yari) seems to be a new kid on the block of film production companies and distributors, apparently a small company that arranges projects for established directors and actors who want to get beyond the big studio bean counters and tell their own stories. The films from this company so far all have a lot of substance. The latest effort is “Resurrecting the Champ,” produced with Phoenix Pictures (a well-established production company) and directed by Canadian Rod Lurie (yes, this movie has the good old DGC stamp in the end credits, and was shot in both Denver and Calgary).

The subject is journalism, specifically ethics in journalism. Wholesome Minnesota hunk Josh Hartnett plays Erik, a twentyish sports reporter for a Denver paper, an ambitious young man who got his personal life on too fast a track, with a result that he has a six-year old son at a young age himself, and an older wife from whom he is separated. The crux of the story is that he meets a homeless man (“Champ”, played by a scraggly Samuel L. Jackson), and, at first out of kindness (they kind that Garry Marshall talked about “On the Lot”) gets taken in by the codger’s story that he is the former boxing champ Bob Satterfield, now living in the streets after brain injuries and falling into skid row. Erik, after being told by his boss (Alan Alda) at the paper that his “copy” is trite, is eager for a big story, something more than a scoop from the Parker Brothers game “Star Reporter.” He is had, and that sets up the ethical dilemmas of the story, which Erik has to explain to his son.

The very first words in the film come in Hartnett’s voice: a writer puts his words out to the world, and they are permanent. In that sense, a writer is like a boxer, or any sportsman: he suddenly becomes famous. That happened to Hartnett himself in 2001 one late spring weekend with Touchstone’s “ Pearl Harbor” – that applies to “actors” too. But actors have to be much more than that. In April 2003, Hartnett spoke at a benefit showing of “Blue Car” (Miramax, dir. Karen Moncrieff, with Agnes Bruckner) in Minneapolis for a battered women’s shelter.

There is a scene in a restaurant where Erik aka Hartnett explains to the son why you don’t go up to famous people in restaurants or public places and plunk yourself down in front of them. “It’s a grown up thing,” he says. In fact, Hartnett used to “hide out” with a stocking cap (a trick that works better in the Minneapolis winters) at the Bryant Lake Bowl on Lake Street when the IFPMSP had its free screenings ("Cinema Lounge"), once on the take next to me as I was showing my own “movies” about a 4th of July Celebration on East Bank (relative to the Mississippi River) and about a simulated “attack” at the U of M (where the houses have been TP-ed.) MPEG Link also 2-4). I got to show these at a “Flaming Film Festival” at the Minneapolis Intermedia Arts Center in 2002.), and they looked and sounded menacing in an auditorium with digital projection. (I put these clips on my own domain before there was a YouTube.)

There are a number of other movies about ethics in journalism. The most important was probably Billy Ray’s "Shattered Glass" (2004, Lions Gate), about Stephen Glass’s fall from grace as a young columnist (played by Hayden Christiansen) at The New Republic, after making up a story about a hacker’s convention. Glass would follow up with the novel “The Fabulist.” Peter Sarsgaard is the contemporary kindly boss who hates to fire him.

The Yari Group also helped produce "The Hoax", (dir. Lasse Halstrom) which was distributed by the “new” (Disney only, without Weinstein) Miramax, based on a “novel” by Clifford Irving, played by Richard Gere, who invents a fictitious interview with Howard Hughes in order to write an “autobiography” for which he had a huge advance from New York publishing bean counters. He gets caught, and like Glass (and unlike Erik, above), his deception is deliberate.

There is even Raja Gosnell’s “Never Been Kissed” (1999, 20th Century Fox) where a female reporter Josie (Drew Barrymore) goes undercover and pretends to be a high school student. (Oh, remember the lengths that Brian Herzlinger would go to, on his $1000 budget, allowing his body to be plucked, to win "My Date With Drew" (2004)?)

All of this brings one back to the question of how writers get “established.” The Authors Guild expects its members to be able to earn a living off of publisher’s advances. The pressure on reporters and columnists to sell newspapers or periodicals (even online) does lead to temptation to invent things. David Callahan discusses the pressures on professional journalists in his 2004 book "The Cheating Culture".

On Aug. 24, this blog discussed the Fox Faith film "Saving Sarah Cain," in which a single female reporter takes over custody of a sibling's Amish children (after a tragedy) and gains professionally by writing about it. But this sort of issue also shows up in the 1948 RKO George Stevens film "I Remember Mama" (novel by Kathryn Forbes), where writing about family members is first considered rude and then vindicated, even exalted, and even in George Cukor's 1933 RKO film "Little Women" based on Louise May Alcott's famous novel, and her, for her time, controversial life and ideas.

We come full circle to the riddle of self-publishing, which some people says “doesn’t count.” Maybe it counts if you can sell. (When I arrived in Minneapolis in 1997 with a corporate transfer, St. Paul novelist Vince Flynn had a smashing commercial success with his self-published suspense novel "Term Limits" that would lead to a contract with Pocket Books.) Maybe just if you can attract attention (through search engines) and affect things, especially difficult political arguments. Bloggers set out to do just that and it seems are often successful. As Mr. Hartnett vocalizes in the opening line, once you put your words out with your name (or identity) on it, you’ve instantiated (or constructed) yourself. Just as in a java program.

Update: Sept. 22.
MGM / TWC (dir. Richard Shepard) have a tall tale "The Hunting Party" about three journalists (a discredited veteran played by Richard Gere, a cameraman played by Terence Howard, and a Harvard rookie Ben played by Jesse Eisenberg) who uncover Bosnia's most wanted war criminal (Ben improvises the tale that they are CIA) when the real CIA and government really don't want to find him. Is so, what about Osama bin Laden?

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