Sidney Poitier: The Man On His Generation, Wealth, and Poverty

May 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

Sidney Poitier is one of the most respected actors ever to emerge from Hollywood. As the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in Lilies Of The Field in 1963, he defined his career and life by taking on roles that reflected his beliefs and outlook on humans and society.

I’ve only watched one of Sidney Poitier’s films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968). Thanks to professor Selina Lim’s highly informative World Civilizations lectures back in college, I was armed with a foundational understanding of racial tension in the U.S. and the African American experience throughout the 50’s and 60’s.

Sidney was never a perfect man, but he doesn’t claim to be one. What makes him a worthy icon is his courage and determination in the face of oppression, judgment, and his own sins.

Some term the men and women of his generation as “The Greatest Generation“. As a man who’s experienced the many facets of life,  here’s what he has to say about materialism, poverty, and pleasure seeking of generations after him:

Excerpt from “The Measure of A Man” by Sidney Poitier:

These postwar parents thought they were in nirvana if they had a color TV and two cars and could buy a Winnebago and a house at the lake. But the children they had raised on that pleasure principle of material goods were by then bored to death. They had overdosed on all that stuff. So that was the generation who decided “Hey, guess where the real action is? Forget the Winnebago. Give me sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Incredible mind-blowing experiences, head-banging, screw-your-brains-out experiences in service to immediate and transitory pleasures.

But the one kind of gratification is simply an outgrowth of the other, a more extreme form of the same hedonism, the same need to indulge and consume. Some of those same sixties kids are now themselves forty-eight. Whatever genuine idealism they carried through those love-in days got swept up in the great yuppie gold rush of the eighties and the stock market nirvana of the nineties- and I’m afraid we are still miles away from the higher ground we seek.

For most of human history, most people were only slightly above the starvation level. (In many countries, most people still are.) Families needed every one of their six or nine kids to toe the line. Otherwise, as everyone knew at every moment, the whole family wouldn’t make it. The new postwar prosperity meant that you could laugh at the old duffers who had grown up in the Great Depression and kept crying caution. The great god Necessity was turned aside by “Well, shit. Who cares? Everyone we know is prosperous, everything’s prosperous, and I’m bored.”

I hope that doesn’t put me in the category of old duffers. I don’t mean to be like some old guy from the olden days who says, “I walked thirty miles to school every morning, so you kids should too.” That’s a statement born of envy and resentment. What I’m saying is something quite different. What I’m saying is that by having very little, I had it good. Children need a sense of pulling their own weight, of contributing to the family in some way, and some sense of the family’s interdependence. They take pride in knowing that they’re contributing. They learn responsibility and discipline through meaningful work. The values developed within a family that operates on those principles then extend to the society at large. By not being quite so indulged and “protected” from reality by overflowing abundance, children see the bonds that connect them to others.

Dirt poor and wearing a gunnysack for pants, I inherited such a legacy, and I pity the kids today who are being raised in such a way that they’ll be hard-pressed to enjoy the simple things, to endure the long commitments, and to find true meaning in their lives.

Poverty didn’t kill my soul. Poverty can destroy a person, yes, but I’ve seen prosperity kill many a soul as well. After so much ease and comfort and mindless consumption of commodities, how do we even know that anything resembling a soul is there anymore? One way is to look to people who are still making enduring commitments. That’s where heroes like Nelson Mandela come in. That man broke rocks for thirteen years! You don’t go to prison for twenty-seven years for your beliefs if what you believe in is unbridled pleasure. To make that kind of sacrifice, you have to believe that there’s something more to it all that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But who among us today is going to take that kind of stand? Who among us believes that strongly in any ideal or ideology?

In Pursuit Of Meaningful Experiences: Movies

January 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

picture courtesy of muerdecine

Ah, movies. I hold movies in high regard in terms of cultural significance, even for the fact that I usually watch less then 5 on-screen movies a year. At an average screen time of 90 minutes, films are a considerable investment for time. When it comes to film, the majority of my consumption instead, comes from DVDs of films past. Colin Marshall suggests that for any aspiring quality-film goer, they can apply two criteria to their film selection process:

1. go old
2. go foreign

Unconsciously, I have been applying the former much more than the latter. Being a Singaporean, I’m not sure if American films should be considered “foreign”. Probably not, since they’re mainstream cinema. The National Library at the Esplanade (The “Liu Lian”) stocks some of the best American and Asian films from decades past, and I have been reaping the benefits of having premium membership.

The movie screens near you may be playing the latest blockbuster hits this week, but I believe everyone has their own niche interest in film if they know how or where to gain access to them.

Back to the idea of films being culturally significant. Films don’t get as much respect as books do, don’t they? Films can be equally as life changing, and has impacted how we live our life in the 20th century. Brett McKay puts it this way:

“And for better and for worse, film has had a huge impact on masculinity in the 20th Century. Movies have produced archetypes of manliness that many men judge themselves against today. To view how male characters of cinema have been portrayed over the decades, is to see clearly the ways in which our perception of masculinity has changed and continues to change.”

Paul Newman

My own interests tend to follow directors and actors. An actor’s choice in films (or the lack of it) in his or her career can be worth looking into. Paul Newman mentioned during the Actor’s Studio interview that he “stole little pieces” every character he played into his own personality. Specifically, Paul mentions that those leading male roles of his famous 50’s-60’s movies like Luke (Cool Hand Luke), Brick (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), and Eddie Felson (The Hustler) were all “damaged goods”: hurt men.  Very different from the strong silent types that were John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, of the late 40’s and early 50’s.

In Hud, Paul plays a despicable, selfish, and lust-driven cow rancher, but still somehow comes across in the end as charming. Paul likes to say that it might be natural that men and women would be attracted to the bad boy image of Hud. He hets the girls, lives a carefree life, guys look up to him. Paul warns that Hud’s tale is a cautionary tale. Because Hud is nothing but an empty shell.

You want to root for the hero, and he’s got his tale to tell, sometime not with words.

Munich

During college, I wrote a paper on mass media effects and impact. I chose Steven Spielberg’s Munich. The film tells the tale of a Mossad agent that is sent throughout Europe to hunt down those responsible for the murder of 11 Palestinian athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. I had watched the movie no less than six times to write the paper, and like any other writing exercise (including this one), I had difficulty putting pen to paper. Mostly because the themes that revolve around it are complex, and invoked a lot of emotional stir-up within me. The obvious one was the larger idea of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the director’s idea that tit for tat will never resolve the issue. The second was the theme of revenge, or the desire and satisfaction of getting it. Like Park Chan Wook’s Revenge trilogy, the movie explores the desire for revenge and the means of getting it. The end result is some stunning visual scenes that involve the assassinations. Upon completion of my paper, I swore to never watch this movie again for at least five years. This movie resulted in many sleepless nights.

But that’s a meaningful experience from a culturally  underestimated and inexpensive medium.

Ed Murrow’s Prophecy

December 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
-Ed Murrow

I’ve been looking forward to my second screening of George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck. I give credit to Dr Bob Armstrong for screening the story of Edward R Murrow and U.S Senator Joseph McCarthy during Mass Media Theory class. The one thing that stuck on my mind that made me revisit GN, &GL is its central message of media responsibility and its role as the Fourth Estate. That and subsequent views of George explaining the movie on Newseum’s Reel Journalism feature that was hosted by veteran journalist Nick Clooney.

Why the interest on the media as the Fourth Estate? That’s an easy one to answer for me: Because traditional media may never play such a role here in Singapore.  Ed Murrow’s words echo the fundamental truth about the need for media to provide the truth and key issues to its people.  For me, this resonates  loud and clear in the Singapore context.

Here in Singapore, media is always under careful regulation and monitoring by the de-facto ruling party, the PAP. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Yet this doesn’t stop many Singaporeans from hoping for more press freedom.

If you asked Ziqi Koey, circa high school and Army days, he might have told you about a career interest in journalism and media,  for my interest in those fields stem from a desire to learn and master the power of words to convey true messages. I have witnessed how the careful and precise use of this art can cause monumental shifts. Mr Murrow and many journalists of his generation have demonstrated this.

Journalism as a career choice in Singapore has an entirely different meaning though. My enthusiasm of finding a job with the biggest media companies in Singapore (SPH and Mediacorp) was doused, for the fact that media in Singapore never always represent the true hard facts in an objective way. Here in Singapore, the media functions more of a broadcast-and-disseminate tool, as opposed to a check-and-balance function of American media. Quality of television programming in Singapore has degenerated to that of mere profit making, the lack of any real substance and depth.

That is why Good Night And Good Luck struck a chord within me. It was the spirit of journalism that I looked up to.

The opening and ending of Good Night, And Good Luck highlights Ed Murrow’s  speech  to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention.  Highly prophetic  and relevant, Ed Murrow’s words stirred up thoughts within me about:

  • The state of mass media in Singapore today (TV, Radio, Newspapers)
  • Social Media: Its ability to teach, inspire, or become merely part of “wires and lights in a box”
  • Intelligence, maturity, and perceived apathy of the Singaporean with regards to hard issues

****

Excerpt from Ed Murrow’s  speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago 15th October 1958 ( Article Total Read Time: 12 minutes, Text in Bold, 8 minutes)

This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television.

….

Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then some courageous soul with a small budget might be able to do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained and more mature than most of our industry’s program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is–an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales or show business. But by the nature of the coporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.

We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex or Silex-it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

***

Additional Reading:

Article 19’s report on Freedom of Expression in Singapore

National Geographic: The Singapore Solution

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