Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

I’m A Little Sexpot, Short And Stout — Shirley Temple and Graham Greene

February 14th, 2014 No Comments

Shirley Temple’s movie studio 20th Century Fox successfully sued author Graham Greene for libel when he described her in a 1937 review of Wee Willie Winkie as “a fancy little piece . . . her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance; her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry . . . watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity.”

When I wrote about Shirley Temple Black in 1989, on the publication of her bestselling autobiography Child Star, I was shocked that anyone could label her a “totsy.” Every weekend of my young childhood her movies beamed out from the tiny black and white set my mom had in the living room of our shabby apartment. I was deeply in love with the little girl who was portrayed by Shirley Temple.

Shirley was everything I wanted to be, starting with the fact that she usually played an orphan. Cast loose from adults, she freely chose her companions from rogues: sailors, gamblers, soldiers and down-at-heels Vaudevillians. These ruffians got her into one fix after another, but with pluck and charm, she got out of every scrape. When I read Greene’s review in 1989 I was sure he had been joking. How could anyone accuse my sweet Shirley of coquetry? Particularly if his example was Wee Willie Winkie where Shirley played a brave little girl in the British Raj.

In 2014, though, we have YouTube and people can make up their own minds about Greene’s intent, as I have.

He cited Shirley’s first performance as a four-year-old in “Baby Burlesks”, short films that satirized big box office hits. In War Babies she was a pint-sized Dolores Del Rio in an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, a rose behind her ear, super short padded diapers and a garter just below the knee. The other actors are  shirtless boys all under the age of five in similarly overstuffed diapers. As the boys belly up to the bar tossing back big glasses of milk, they all appear to want to make sweet love to Shirley. She dances around the barroom pausing from time to time to shake that well-developed rump in a twerking performance that is part Honey Boo Boo with a dash of Miley Ray Cyrus.

These films were meant to be broad comedy, but it’s hard to ignore the sexuality when Shirley is playing a character named “Morelegs Sweettrick” a play on Marlene Dietrich, in Kid N Hollywood .

And  Mademoiselle Cradlebait in the outrageously racist Kid N Africa.

I didn’t see these films when I was a child. They weren’t part of the weekend matinee fare available on local television. After Shirley Temple died Wednesday I searched out my favorite Shirley film, Poor Little Rich Girl, which I must have watched 20 times when I was young. From the first frame I saw on YouTube, I was back in that little girl feeling of wonder that Shirley was free in the world and very much on her own.

In Poor Little Rich Girl Shirley is only partially orphaned. Her mother has died leaving her in the care of her dashing leading man father, played by Michael Whalen. They live in an Art Deco world right out of a Noel Coward play with sweeping staircases and evenings spent in formal wear sipping cocktails. Shirley is hovered over by a fussy staff that sends her to bed each time she so much as sneezes. Those of us who were forced to stay home alone when sick could only dream of such restrictive affection.

At one point in Poor Little Rich Girl she and her father are listening to a radio program when a love song comes on. (The duet I’m referring to starts at 14:47 and ends at 18:02) Her father holds her inches from his face as he lip synchs, “Every street I walk along becomes a lover’s lane when I’m with you/I can see the sun though we’re out in the rain when I’m with you.” As he mouthed these romantic sentiments to his little girl, I was swept right back to being that fatherless girl in a grey apartment who yearned to have a dad whose world lit up when I walked in the room. How could anyone see this as sexual?

That was until Shirley responded with lyrics her character claimed she’d made up on her own.

“An ordinary day becomes a holiday
When I’m with you.
I have lots of toys but I don’t want to play
When I’m with you.
Oh daddy how I miss you.
You’re busy all your life.
I long to hug and kiss you.
Marry me and let me be your wife.”

When she proposes to her father, she places a pudgy hand on his chin and draws him centimeters from her lips.
At this point in my screening of these films I was sitting up in my chair in horror at the naked pedophilia expressed in this scene. In the recovery phase, though, I remembered singing love songs to my own children when they were toddlers and how I kissed them on their little bellies and held them tightly, as if I was clinging on to their very innocence as it slipped away. That was affectionate and not in the slightest bit sexual.

It seemed pretty clear to me that if directors and producers were manipulating Shirley as a sexual object, she wasn’t in on the joke. The power of Graham Greene’s writing, be it a joke or not, is that once read it forever colors the way you see this bit of popular culture. As my friend Jeremy Larner noted, “It’s a particularly empty, non-evocative kind of sexuality, if sexuality it be.”

Shirley portrayed a genuine little girl, just the sort of girl I was when I watched her films as a child. As she expressed affection for her daddy the camera held on her wide, high forehead, tight curls, narrow chin and bow mouth that made her look just like a baby doll. Even the cheapest dolls you could pick up at the drug store mimicked that cherubic face, cute and sweet and bland enough that the audience could project onto it yearnings, as I did for a father and, I suppose, Graham Greene did when he saw nothing but sex in her adorable sashay.

Or perhaps he was really having us on, in an essay so well written that writers seventy years later are still trying to parse out what he really meant.

What innocence is and how it is expressed is subjective, as demonstrated by the difference between what I saw as a childhood fan of Shirley and what I see now as an adult whose head has been crammed with thousands of hours of crime shows, child porn exposes, Amber Alerts and stories about pedophilia.

I had an image of Shirley I carried in my mind, one that West magazine used to illustrate my Shirley Temple story. It is of her standing facing a big white sphere that comes up to her shoulder level. Her hands rest on the top rim as she looks over her shoulder with a sweet-yet-knowing smile. Most of what I pick up from that image now is how short her skirt is, purposely cut up to her rump by the studio’s costumers who were instructed to expose as much as possible of her chubby legs to keep her looking like a toddler.

I used to see that image as one of Shirley happily playing with a big ball. Now I see Shirley as Mae West, and I wish I that was not the case. Along with Shirley, that innocence of mine was just hanging by a thread, or as Greene put it, “Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin deep.”

(My consideration of her career and her work as a diplomat is on Al Jazeera )

Going Deeper Into The Meme

December 19th, 2013 6 Comments

Someone from the tech world wrote me back!

Last week I was caught in a false internet meme of a tech guy yelling at the protestors who body-blocked the Google bus to call attention to the housing crisis in San Francisco. He was quickly identified not as a man from Google, but a labor organizer who wanted to provoke a debate.

I was humiliated by being duped by this, as I confessed in my last blog post. I was so ready to believe this angry man was a Google employee because he said what I feared those people think as their huge flood of cash cleanses the city of natives like me. Yet, as I said when I confessed I’d been duped, I don’t know anyone from Google. I don’t know what they think or how they feel and it was wrong to make those assumptions.

Taking up that challenge is a man who rides in the Apple bus from San Francisco to Cupertino to work every day. He responded to my blog post because he has been stung in his own way by the hostility to him and his co-workers.

As he wrote:

Danelle, thank you for the honest explanation of how we can be duped by things you want to believe. I hope you’ll take the broader opportunity to reassess what you believe about tech employees that live in the city, of which I am one.

No one that I have ever met thinks that it’s just OK for long-time SF residents to be kicked out. None of us is out there evicting people. Most of us would support community efforts to improve things for everyone, even if it means higher taxes for those of us that can afford it.

At the same time, though, I can believe that you have a right to live here, but that *I have a right to live here too*, even though I was not born here. I support local shops, restaurants, the arts, and civic organizations. I vote here. I hope to live here the rest of my life, if I can. How am I not a part of this community too?

It seems ungenerous, and, well, un-San-Franciscan to demonize newcomers, in this case just because they can afford to live here. The busses are not the problem; they’ve just become a convenient symbol for other things that *are* problems. Why don’t we work together to solve those?

I agree with the writer that it is very un-San Francisco to demonize newcomers. One thing this city is known for is acceptance, but in my mind that is acceptance of artists, people who think differently, those who don’t participate in the conventional hustle for money, those who just are a little, or maybe a lot, off kilter. There were reasons the beats, the hippies, and gays came here: rent was cheap and the atmosphere was more tolerant than most places. What the writer is asking is for me to see those who have brought the on-rush of this huge amount of capital into the confined world of San Francisco real estate with the same tolerance as I see artists, free thinkers, radicals and outliers. I don’t.

There’s been an 8 percent rent increase in the last quarter alone creating a situation where the median monthly rent is $3,400. The number of evictions in the last year, according to the SF chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was a record 1,700 and that doesn’t include the buyouts renters are taking to vacate their apartments for the wealthy. So while the writer and his friends are not posting eviction notices on the doors of my friends’ homes and tossing their belongings out into the street, the staggering increase in prices has driven landlords to use a number of unethical and even cruel tactics to chase out the rent controlled tenants who might be paying $800 for an apartment the landlord could now rent for $4000. He and his friends may be great people with empathetic souls, but their money is brutal.

San Francisco is a boom town, and those of us who grew up here have seen these cycles before. This time, though, it seems like an assault, not just a temporary spike in the economy and here’s why. My income has fallen dramatically because of the digital economy. As a writer I never made that much, but I raised two children on a pretty decent salary as a journalist and then as an author. The digital world has upended the way people pay, or don’t pay, for content. I’m at the top of my skills, but I’m making less now than I did when I was a pup journalist just hired by The New York Times. And while I am an enthusiastic consumer of tech, I am also its victim.

These dual assaults on my livelihood and on my ability to afford a place to live in my hometown is what makes it very easy for me to think my world would be better if the tech people lived some place else, like in those apartments Facebook is building next to its new Menlo Park campus.

The writer says he and many of his friends would be willing to pay more taxes, which shows a lack of understanding of how local taxes are collected. He can’t pay more taxes on his salary here as it is constitutionally illegal in California to impose an individual municipal income tax. Property tax is set at the state level by Prop. 13.
And although it’s not the writer’s fault, San Francisco tax policy favors millionaires. The city gave Twitter a break on payroll taxes that will cost the residents of San Francisco $22 million. The voters just changed that to a gross receipts tax, but mid-Market tech companies get breaks on that tax too. With the Twitter IPO creating an estimated 1600 new millionaires (who won’t have to pay much tax on their stock options) more money is about to flood into the real estate market, making my position here weaker still. He’s right that my anger about that is more properly directed at the Mayor and the griftocrat Board of Supervisors.

He says he wants to live here for the rest of his life and enjoy the shops, cafes and the arts. I hope he is able to do that. Yet if the evictions and the rent increases persist, it won’t be the same place he was attracted to originally.

He’s right the buses are a symbol that stimulates strong emotions in me as it is difficult to identify individuals with whom I can discuss my anger and frustration. I see the huge buses gliding through the narrow streets of the little village of my old neighborhood, Noe Valley, where I cannot afford to live.

Google bus stranded at 23rd and Noe in Noe Valley

There are the tech workers in their shiny cocoons already working on their laptops, oblivious to how much their presence increases the fragility of my connection to the things I hold dear. The urge to stop them at the bus stop is an urge to get them to take their eyes off their screens and look at me and those like me and acknowledge for a moment that they must do something besides have kind sentiments if they want the San Francisco they love to have the qualities that drew them here in the first place.

Anyway I am grateful to him for responding and for expressing his opinion in a reasonable fashion, as I have tried to do.  I hope others write to do the same.  It’s good to have a conversation about this and there is plenty more to say.

Just Trying To Do My Job In The Age of Surveillance

December 2nd, 2013 No Comments

Edward Snowden says encryption works but, after attending an evening about protecting your sources as an investigative journalist, it was pretty clear to me that encryption works only for those technically adept enough to get it up and running. And that journalist must be communicating with people who are also geeky and determined enough to do the same.

The presentation, which was sponsored by Hacks and Hackers, featured Parker Higgins, freedom of speech activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a place that knows better than most what the NSA is up to.

I approached the evening thinking that there I would find a solution to my journalism dilemma. I work with a number of sources who want to remain private but, in the age of universal surveillance, I can’t guarantee them that someone isn’t eavesdropping on us.

Parker said there were four basic tools journalists can use to shield themselves and their sources from surveillance, methods that will be encrypted, untraceable, verifiable, and private.

• OTR – secure instant messaging
• PGP/GPG – encrypted email
• TOR – anonymous browsing
• HTTPS – encrypts your communications with many websites

Each of them has advantages, and each has flaws.

With OTR, if both parties are using the protocol, the messages are encrypted, but the metadata (which shows who you communicated with and for how long) is still available. Therefore OTR doesn’t provide any deniability. This means it’s traceable and not really private.

With PGP/GPG communications are encrypted and secure, but again both parties must be using it and have exchanged encryption keys. One could download the encrypted message onto a thumb drive, move it to an air gap computer (one that has never been hooked up to the internet) and decrypt it using the key. But PGP/GPG is pretty hard to install, Parker said. If either partner fumbles any of the steps, the whole system won’t work.

TOR, in contrast, is simple to use and ensures that your communications ricochet around the globe eight or more times, thereby making them untraceable. The problem comes when these communications arrive at the destination. When they leave TOR and arrive in your correspondent’s computer, they are easily captured by whatever entity is watching you.

HTTPS is also an established and easy-to-use protocol, but it’s not always available and therefore you don’t always know if your communications remain private.

At the conclusion of his talk Parker said that if the government wants to get you, they’ll get you. You can use all these tools and tricks, but in the end, they have better tools available to them than you’ll be able to lay your hands on and have a big staff of skilled and determined specialists.

I left the evening understanding that I was looking for something that doesn’t exist: a secure communications bundle of software that I could install easily and provide to sources that would offer all of us freedom, security and anonymity. Parker said that doesn’t yet exist.

“If you want to get paranoid, you can get really paranoid,” he said.

I think most of us don’t want to be any more paranoid than we already are. We just want to be able to do our work and live our lives with a reasonable expectation of freedom, just like the constitution promises us we can.

Ah the constitution, that quaint little artifact of the pre-digital era.