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Daily Reads: The Fall of Cameron Crowe’s Idealism, The Unbearable Whiteness of ‘Aloha,’ and More

Daily Reads: The Fall of Cameron Crowe's Idealism, The Unbearable Whiteness of 'Aloha,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Decline of Cameron Crowe’s Battered Idealists. Last Friday, Cameron Crowe’s new film “Aloha” opened in theaters to mostly negative reviews and prompted a full-scale reappraisal of his career. Many have said Crowe just lost his way after “Almost Famous,” others said he was never good to begin with. But what happened to Cameron Crowe? The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias argues that it’s his “battered idealist” character that has aged Crowe pre-maturely.

But Crowe’s unwillingness to rethink his “battered idealist” character is stubbornness of a more self-destructive kind. The problems with “Aloha” don’t fall entirely on mercenary military contractor Brian Gilcrest (played by Bradley Cooper), whose war-weary cynicism and hidden reserves of feeling are cast from the mold of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” The film is abysmally plotted and paced, particularly in the first and final third, and contrives an ending that’s both ludicrous and tidy. But Gilcrest is the latest example of a Crowe hero who’s all but interchangeable with Crowe heroes past, and the writer-director’s unwillingness to update him for the times or change the formula that carries him to greatness is doing serious damage to his work. Let’s go all the way back to Crowe’s directorial debut, “Say Anything…,” when his idealist was too young to get much of a battering. When Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), the lovable slacker who wins the unlikely affections of class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), gets asked what he wants to do for a living, his response is a memorable jumble: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” Lloyd doesn’t have to think of the future — pointedly refuses to, in fact — beyond spending the summer with a girl he adores. He’s at an age when such radical idealism is possible, because he hasn’t yet entered the real world, and when Diane’s father (John Mahoney) is arrested for bilking the residents of his retirement home, we can see the terrible compromises that can go along with being an adult. Crowe gets the luxury of ending the movie before Lloyd is truly tested; we’re left with only a hint of uncertainty.

2. Emma Stone’s Eyebrow-Raising Turn as an Asian American in “Aloha”. In “Aloha,” Emma Stone plays Allison Ng, a Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish pilot that falls head over heels for Bradley Cooper’s character. Sounds standard, right? Here’s the problem: it’s hard to accept Stone as an Asian-American in the first place. EW’s Chris Lee claims he just can’t suspend his disbelief enough to accept “Aloha’s” race-bending.

Unlike Stone’s character, I have a darker complexion and black hair. Moreover, like most Eurasian people I know, have never been able to “pass.” If anything, my racial identity has necessarily entailed a great deal of explanation to clarify that I am in fact Chinese-American/French-Canadian and not, say, Brazilian, Tibetan, Colombian or Filipino. Which doesn’t and shouldn’t take anything away from Stone, a commanding screen presence whose bona fides as an Oscar nominee-come-Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battle champion and Millennial lodestar are beyond reproach. It’s just that the actress’ casting begs a number of sticky questions. Chief among them: If Ng’s Hawaiian pedigree is so crucial to the movie’s plot, why not simply cast an actress — Olivia Munn for instance — whose racial profile is within the genetic ballpark? Or, if the endgame was to hire a proven box-office draw like the “Birdman” and “Amazing Spider-Man” co-star, why not back-burner the issue of Ng’s race while focusing dialogue around her cultural heritage as a native Hawaiian? Maybe it’s because multiracial people aren’t known to vote, spend or even patronize films as any kind of cohesive political block; our cinematic presence is exceedingly rare. In the modern movie era, you’re statistically more likely to encounter an alien marauder or murderous android splashed across multiplex screens than any identifiably bi-racial character. Yet, according to a 2013 Census Bureau report, we comprise the fastest-growing population in America. Which makes Crowe’s choice of Stone as the melanin-free embodiment of Hawaiian soul and one of the most prominent part-Asian characters ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film so baffling.

3. The Unbearable Whiteness of “Aloha”. 
Speaking of white-washing, it’s not just Emma Stone who falls under Crowe’s spell of turning everyone and their culture into a cultural version of himself. The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato takes down “Aloha” and Crowe’s insistence on making the film 99 percent white.

Crowe might’ve even gotten away with it if he’d cast any of his supporting characters with minorities, more accurately repping the ethnic makeup of the islands. Instead, his “love letter” to Hawaii feels about as authentic as a mainlander’s #TBT to that one exotic Oahu vacay years ago, sipping Mai Tais on the beach at sunset while watching the hula show. And yet Crowe injects “Aloha” with a brief taste of local cultural concerns when Hawaiian nationalist activist and King Kamehameha descendant Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele shows up playing himself, giving voice to the frustrations of Native Hawaiians who see American rule as an unwelcome imposition. Americans took the land away from its rightful owners long ago, he says with friendly reserve, resisting Gilcrest’s offer to get in bed with the U.S. government. But everyone has a price, Gilcrest tells Ng. Responding to the whitewashing backlash, Sony jumped to Crowe’s defense citing years of research and “many months” spent immersed on location in Hawaii. “While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven’t seen and a script they haven’t read, the film Aloha respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people,” the studio said.

4. Director Alex Ross Perry on “Aloha” and What the Animosity Aimed at it Says About the Culture. 
Director Alex Ross Perry released the beloved dark comedy “Listen Up Philip” last year and has made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker with a penchant for 16mm and Philip Roth. But Perry is also a fan of Cameron Crowe’s work and he feels that the vitriol leveled against “Aloha” says something negative about the culture at large. Over at The Talkhouse, where filmmakers talk film, Perry unpacks his feelings about Cameron Crowe, “Aloha,” and film culture in general.

I honestly don’t know why people aren’t more into Cameron Crowe, or at least wanting him to succeed. Maybe it’s some sort of grown-up version of instinctively disliking things that you. I honestly don’t know why people aren’t more into Cameron Crowe, or at least wanting him to succeed. Maybe it’s some sort of grown-up version of instinctively disliking things that your parents either like or are likely to like. People commonly decry the overabundance of Marvel movies, remakes, self-serious Christopher Nolan films, etc., saying there aren’t any original movies “for adults” that don’t insult your intelligence. However, now one such film has come along, and there is, for whatever reason, a sort of eagerness for it to fail, with people anticipating hating exactly the kind of work that is sadly lacking in mainstream film culture.

5. Glenn Kenny on Cameron Crowe, a Victim of Auteurism. 
Or maybe the problem with the negative reception around Crowe’s new film is that everyone’s falling into an auteurist trap. Veteran critic Glenn Kenny breaks down the problem of holding up every director to the standard of an auteurist and how that thinking affects reception.

Not that I’ve seen “Aloha,” or am in a particular hurry to. I began worrying about Cameron Crowe, like so many others, upon seeing “Elizabethtown,” in Toronto in 2005. Actually, not to get all inside baseball, but I had been worried about Crowe even before cameras started rolling on that picture. I knew that Crowe had written the script, an ambitious comedy-drama, with Leonardo DiCaprio in mind, and that DiCaprio was now determined to do only Serious Movies with Serious Directors such as Martin Scorsese, which left Crowe without a bankable leading man. And so it went. Anyway, I was at Toronto for the premiere of “Elizabethtown,” and Crowe personally returned to the scene of his “Almost Famous” triumph to deliver a quasi-apology at the beginning of the press screening of his new film, which was indeed, alas, “Elizabethtown.” I felt bad after seeing it. My thoughts were these: One, that Crowe was maybe the best-intentioned and most big-hearted of American directors (maybe I should have been thinking “of white male American directors,” but I wasn’t, I cannot tell a lie). Two, that because his kind of picture is so difficult to get produced nowadays, prior commercial triumphs or not (and let us not forget that between “Almost Famous” and “Elizabethtown,” there was “Vanilla Sky”), Crowe apparently feels compelled to cram EVERYTHING HE KNOW AND FEELS INTO EACH AND EVERY INDIVIDUAL FILM HE MAKES. The directors Crowe frequently cites as models and mentors, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, working within the studio system (Lubitsch was even, at one point, a studio executive), had the advantage of being able to produce with some consistency; if they couldn’t do something they wanted on Project X, they might be able to get it done on Project Y. They didn’t have the nagging consciousness of each individual film maybe being their last.

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