You Did Ask

In the Dr. Who episode Frontios, a character asks The Doctor what he thinks about a certain topic. The Doctor then tells him in a straightforward, unvarnished way what he thinks. The other character is a little put off, but The Doctor reminds him, “You did ask what I think.” I’ve been reminded of that interchange a lot this year.

Several weeks ago, my main Facebook page was bombarded with obscenities that I asked to be removed, and of course, they doubled down on more of them. This was in response to the fact that I dislike politics on my page and don’t allow that discussion. Since then, I have been inundated with questions. Why don’t I comment on current events? Why don’t I take a stand on moral issues? Why didn’t I delete that thread and block those people? So I’m afraid I must comment.

The short answer is that I didn’t delete the thread because I hate censorship more than I hate swearing. Since I’m an independent, my opinions will enrage a lot of you and help nothing. That saves most of you from reading a 2500-word rant.

I don’t discuss politics because I don’t think you want to read this stuff on my page. I come to my pages as a respite from the gawdawful complaining about every topic under the sun on Twitter and Facebook. I’d rather read about something I can affect rather than the political landscape. I’m an engineer and film preservationist. Asking me about politics is like asking your meter reader about dentistry. It may be interesting, but who really cares?

I don’t want to be entrapped in the “gotcha” culture of today, which is that we have to wear our allegiances on our sleeves, and any disagreement is tantamount to being evil. Things are too polarized and no meaningful discussion takes place. Life isn’t that way, but our culture has gotten to be. If you want to put them on your page, then fine. I may even interact with you. However, you’ll discover something important…

I’m independent. I often don’t agree with either the left or the right. I have a tendency to read as much as I can and make up my own mind. I try not to dig in my heels and be unmovable on most issues, unless you want to argue with me that The Untouchables is a really great film.

I also don’t advocate a lot because I’m not sure it helps. I learned this in the 5th grade when Channel 4 took my beloved Sammy Terry off the air. I organized a petition and got about 200 people to sign before I realized that I was just a puny mosquito pinging unheard at a double-pane window of NO. I realize that many of you disagree, and that’s fine by me.

Since I have friends, and people who pay me, on both sides of the political spectrum, I think it’s stupid to poke the tiger. Especially in these days of hyper-sensitivity. That does not mean I don’t have beliefs, nor that I won’t stand up for them.

I tend to automatically suspect people who have to parrot their ideals endlessly. If your beliefs are strong, you act in ways that support them. Teach, don’t preach (thanks, Felipe.) I used to work at a place that was “Christian” and the management operated in ways that would have befuddled Christ. And I see that today, too.

I think Jesus would be confused over the “Black Lives Matter” controversy. If I say “Black Lives Matter,” it’s now some sort of code for “I’m a member of ANTIFA and I secretly want the end of the United States.” WHAT? Or if I say, “All Lives Matter,” it’s code for “I’m actually a racist and I hate all African Americans.” There’s no winning here, only arguing. Of course black lives matter and all lives matter, and this bickering over semantics is pointless.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a code, but rather a complaint about some policemen who are out of control. To paraphrase Chris Rock, there are some jobs where we have to have 100% quality people, and being a policeman is one of those jobs. We can’t afford bad apples. No one wants to hear that we got the bad pilot on the day your plane hits a herd of geese. We all want our pilot to be Chesley Sullenberger. We all want our policemen to be Joe Friday. The world would be a better place if they were.

I don’t need to tell Facebook that I dislike jerk policemen. There’s a nasty cop in New Jersey who will testify to that. He wrote me a sucker-punch traffic ticket in 2015 and I think his ears are still ringing. It didn’t do any good. I still had to pay the ticket. I hope that, in the long-term, idiots like that are hounded into unemployment. 

I’m not going to fix these problems. If I were a mayor or Congressman, that would be different. 

But some of you think that by not posting my beliefs incessantly, I am mean and hypocritical, so it’s open season to put obscenities on my page in tag-team style. Well, sure, it may offend some of my clients, but you think it will only offend my clients who are on the “wrong side of history,” so fine, and you’re only proving how right you are to do this.

Look, I learned all the bad words, just the same as you did, but I’ve learned a few other things. Swear words really offend some people, even good people, even the people you think are on the “right side of history.” All you’re doing is making yourself look bad and trying to make me look bad in doing it. I hope it makes you feel better and more powerful, but you convinced no one of your arguments, you saved no black lives, and you changed the minds of no criminal policemen.

You’re also showing an ignorance about how culture is different in various places. About 20 years ago I was in a restaurant in Syracuse NY, and a couple there were yelling at the top of their lungs at each other, swearing, wondering if sausage came with the standard breakfast. This is normal for New York. New Yorkers will tell you that these are people being their true, genuine selves. If this had happened in Minnesota, the people would have been asked to leave. They would have ben considered rude and inconsiderate of others.

If I wanted to have discussions with only New York people, I would need an f-bomb on every page. But a lot of people take it at face value. They’re not all just “clueless red-state old biddies,” as you seem to think.  Some of them are even on your “right side of history.”

I have posted jokes, articles about science, and film, as befits my background and interests. Given the fact that I do this, it should be pretty obvious that I don’t subscribe to anti-science conspiracies that “smart people” are planning a pandemic just to make your president look bad. That’s generally a sign that your guy already looks bad and it’s being exploited by the other side.

Being pro-science doesn’t automatically make me a pinko lefty, as again, many of you seem to think. The left has its ideology that looks bad too. In this case, it’s “cancel culture.” When someone is cancelled, they are shunned permanently and no longer allowed to earn a living. If dead, they are expunged from history, their works ignored. They are unworthy of polite society. This is done by social agreement, not any justice organization.

There is a theory that right-wingers are digging up any unsavory thing on anyone they can find. This is being done to enrage left-wingers and encourage them to cancel people who might not otherwise deserve it. In this way, left-wingers look bad. 

I would politely suggest that maybe the real problem is that the left-wingers are going over the edge on cancel culture just as the right-wingers are going over the edge on conspiracy theories. Perhaps a little introspection is in order here!

One of my friends has said that he adores cancel culture. He loves the idea that all these people who have been wronged have a way to fight back.

When it applied to Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer, I thought OK. These people abused others and deserved what they got. But then it applied to Al Franken and I started to wonder. Then Randy Rainbow. Now it applies to dead people like Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Lillian Gish. Even worse, it applies to movies and genres of movies. So any film that has racism in it, or depicts sexism, or a raft of other things, is bad. Never mind if it’s an accurate depiction of the times in which they were made.

They should be cancelled. Never shown. Permanently. 

I hate this. Let’s call it censorship, because that’s what it is. I despise all forms of censorship.

I have spent my entire life crusading against censorship. To me, the cruelest form of it is the subtlest: “We’re not going to make this available because it costs too much to release and we’ll never make our money back on it.”

I have deleted a couple hundred words here discussing just how much I have always fought against censorship. We’ll read it into the record.

Then my friend who adores cancelling talks abut how Disney (and by extension every other studio) shouldn’t ever release films like Song of the South because they are under no obligation and can do what they want. That only feeds into their pre-existing bias to lock away all films made before 2000.

He says cancel culture is a voice for the unheard. That’s true, but so is terrorism. Cancel culture is being abused and is becoming what I term cultural terrorism. Anyone or anything we want to cancel, justified or not, can be erased. See the Twilight Zone story “To See the Invisible Man,” or read the story by Robert Silverberg.

Song of the South is not worthy of being cancelled. It has much artistic merit.  It was shot by one of the greatest directors of photography who ever lived, Gregg Toland. It’s got groundbreaking special effects. It’s some of the earliest well-done combination of live actors and animation in color. Is it racist? Yes. Is it offensive? Yes, in parts. I can see why Disney won’t put it out. They don’t want to be cancelled. 

Make it available and put disclaimers at the front and end.  If you stream it, make it TV-MA, so kids won’t stumble over it. Keep Whoopi Goldberg and Leonard Maltin employed doing introductions to every possibly offensive film. BUT MAKE THEM AVAILABLE. If you don’t then surrender the copyright to an archive and let others do it.

Does this mean I’m insensitive to African Americans? NO. But we don’t get to rewrite and whitewash history. History can be ugly and undulating. Ideas and interpretations change, both for good and ill. Until we can come to terms with that, we can’t really move forward, and heaven knows we’re not moving forward right now.

Yes, I realize that it’s painful and as a society we are in distress. I’ve got a heads-up for you: we’re not going to be healed by cancelling people and erasing the past. Nelson Mandela had it right. Read about his peace and reconciliation ideas. Open up everything. Admit to all, apologize for injustices and move forward. (Oh, and stop committing injustices… that helps most of all.)

So why am I so skittish about politics but I’ll take on censorship and cancel culture? I can’t do much about politics, but I AM in a position to make films available and undo censorship, and I will continue to do that. As Carrie Newcomer says, I can’t change the world, but I can change three feet in front of me. And I am.

I will probably be always remembered (if at all) for saving a bad serial that everyone told me I was crazy to work on. They’re probably right. But it’s getting saved.

Remember, I’m racist, sexist, and politically incorrect, at least according to many of you.

I’m one of the nervous old biddies who’s afraid to confront the people who are on the wrong side of history.

You should probably put me in my place by posting profanities on my page.

As an old white guy I’m societally irrelevant.

But I’m going to remind you of one thing:

You did ask.

“That should be banned!”

I remember a play I was in many years ago.  I was playing a Supreme Court Justice in First Monday in October.  One of the main questions in it concerns an obscenity case in which the justices are called upon to decide whether a particular porno movie is so obscene that it cannot be shown.  The justices all gather together and watch the movie,  except one.

The holdout justice insists he doesn’t need to see the movie.  He’s voting for it to be shown, no matter what.  He feels that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and any chipping at it lessens us all.


There’s been a lot of hubbub on one of the movie collector forums about Disney’s Song of the South (1946).  This is one of the few films Disney has never released on home video… well, one of the few popular color and sound films.  I’ve never seen it.  Its last theatrical release was a rather sparse one in 1986.


And the cries come out against it: “It’s racist.”  “It’s antiquated.”  “It would offend people.”  “We shouldn’t show it in case it does offend people.”  “It’s not a great work of art, in part because it’s offensive.”

I never understand this stuff.  It cuts across political barriers, too.  Basically, the criterion for banning something is “I don’t like it.”  Books, movies, music, you name it, someone wants to ban it.  It’s often in the name of “the children.”  We wouldn’t want to expose children to this sort of thing, would we?

Let’s look at what this is, instead of our opinions about it:
James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for the film.
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel appears, the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar.
Walt Disney considered Baskett a discovery, one of the best actors he’d found.
The work with animated characters superimposed over live action is groundbreaking, especially in a color film (this was shot with the three-color Technicolor camera.)
It’s one of the last works of legendary photographer Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

Is there racial stuff it it?  Sure.  Is it insensitive by modern standards?  I have no doubt it is.

Should parents plop their kids in front of it without explaining it to them first?  NO!  But that goes for a lot of stuff.  The television is not an electronic babysitter,  nor is the iPhone or any other device.  Sure, there’s a lot of mindless stuff out there that can just be watched, and this isn’t one of them.

I haven’t seen Song of the South.  I don’t need to.  It should be out there to be seen.  If we have to get Leonard Maltin, Whoopi Goldberg, or Bill Cosby to do an introduction, then fine.  It should be seen.

This reminds me of an interchange I had with a friend of mine who I’ll only identify as “Chef Carl.”  I was asked to come up with a program for Black History Month.  OK, I said, let’s show how racism once rocked the movies.  Let’s really show it.  I had some good examples.  They wouldn’t let me do it.  The manager of the theater said it would be perceived as insensitive because I’m white.  OK.

So I thought about all the African-American folks I know and thought, “Who’d be the best one to introduce these pictures and explain the history of them?”  I thought of Chef Carl.  He even agreed to do it.  Then the manager came forward and wouldn’t allow Carl to do it either.  Why?  Well, they were afraid that Carl would be seen as a “token black,” which was bad, too.  I told Carl about it.  I still remember his answer:

“So you can’t introduce the movies because you’re white and I can’t introduce them because I’m black.”  BINGO.  The most accurate response I can imagine.

botnsmallThere’s a similar uproar with Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a DW Griffith film.  Birth of a Nation changed the world.  It was the first time that it was clear that a long, feature-length film could make money and keep making money.  It caused the landscape of movies to change.  Vaudeville houses switched over to movies.  Movie houses changed from flat Nickelodeons to raked, long theaters.  Theaters put in extra projectors to make smoother changeovers.  It was a big deal, and it made money in the North and South, wherever it played.  It’s a good film, it’s a landmark film, and it’s one of the key films in the history of the motion picture.

It also sparked a resurgence of the KKK in America.  There was a lot of racist content, and one of the Klansmen is a hero.  It was true to the book it was based on, which was also racist.  Without even really understanding what he did, DW Griffith made a racially polarizing film in 1915.  It was so polarizing that he got death threats and there were Klan rallies that showed the film to whip up support for a new (and very different) Klan.

Griffith (a child of Kentucky) felt so awful about the film’s reception and what it did that he made a followup called Intolerance (1916) that made the age-old plea of “Why can’t we just get along?”  Just how racist Griffith himself was is the stuff of much speculation.  I can simply state that Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) a long-lived African American actress, appeared in Birth of a Nation.  There’s also a reel of home movies shot at DW Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  She’s in that reel, too, crying and needing support from others, the only person in the whole reel who seemed to be moved at the occasion.

If DW Griffith was the evil, racist pig that many modern authors make him out to be, then why was Madame Sul-Te-Wan so moved at his funeral?  She knew him… we didn’t.

Shouldn’t we see the film for ourselves to find out?  Or, if we choose not to, shouldn’t we be free in that choice, too?  There have been protests at showings of Birth of a Nation even as recently as a few years ago, rife with cries of “It should be banned!”

No, it shouldn’t.  The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.  I’ll repeat that, and it’s key: The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.

Let me give you an example of what I’m saying.  When FW Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922, he stole it from the novel Dracula.  Let’s be honest, he stole it.  They changed all the names around, but the plot is barefaced and recognizable.  The book was very much in copyright and Murnau was sued.  The studio lost, and the film was ordered destroyed.  All prints, and the negative, too.


Nosferatu became forbidden fruit!  Film pirates the world over clamored for “the last print.”  There were a lot of “last prints” saved, duped, and bootlegged.  It got way more release in foreign countries than any of other Murnau’s films did.  He became a popular director mostly because of the fame of a movie that no one was supposed to see.

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (left, in makeup) in one of the most famous lost films
Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (center, with cape) in one of the most famous lost films

So consider Der Januskopf (1920).  This was another FW Murnau film pirated illegally from a novel and play.  In this case it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It became Janus-kopf (Janus head) and the two characters were Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.  The dual role was played by Conrad Veidt.  Veidt’s butler was played by Bela Lugosi, who was on his way from war-torn Hungary to America.  This is one of his few appearances in a German film.

Historically important?  You bet.  But no one sued over this film, and there was no clamor over its illegal piracy.  No one bootlegged the last prints or the negative, which stayed in storage until it rotted.

Two films, one director, both pirated, one forbidden fruit, and one completely legal.  The forbidden fruit survived.  Stamping out the idea perpetuated it.  Today, you can get a version of Nosferatu on any street corner, in various versions, cuts, tints, and speeds.

And is that different now?  Nope.  Song of the South is forbidden fruit.  It’s out there.  As of this writing, there are 85 copies on eBay for sale.  Those are just the ones who are brazen enough to post them.

Just 10 copies of Steamboat Willie for sale, though.  That one… it’s always been available.  It’s a landmark Disney picture, the first cartoon with sound, the first big Mickey Mouse picture, and 10 copies.

So is Song of the South a great film?  I have no idea.  I might like it, I might not.  I might be offended, and I might not.  My advice to Disney is to make it available and therefore control the dialogue about the film.  Now it’s forbidden fruit.  You can make it a “Never Forget” historical item, which it needs to be.  You can also make sure that everyone knows why it’s historically important.

By the way, I don’t want political comments in the comments section or I’ll shut it down.  “Those liberals” and “Those Republicans” are equally guilty of censorship, albeit often for different reasons.  This isn’t a political forum.  It’s a film forum.