2013 - %3, May

How Michael Pollan Inspired Zac Efron's Latest Movie

| Fri May 3, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

At Any Price
Sony Pictures Classics
105 minutes

At Any Price, a bleak family drama set against the backdrop of the Corn Belt, is essentially Death of a Salesman, but with genetically modified superseeds.

The film is co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who the late critic Roger Ebert dubbed the new "director of the decade," soon after seeing Bahrani's 2007 film Chop Shop. At Any Price stars Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron (last seen getting peed on by Nicole Kidman in a Lee Daniels art film last year) as a father and son living their lives of noisy desperation.

Quaid plays Henry Whipple (no, not that Henry Whipple), an adulterous farmer and salesman entrenched in the ruthless, multimillion-dollar rivalry between Iowa's big-business farmers. Henry becomes the target of a corporate investigation after illegally washing and reselling patented genetically modified seeds. Efron plays Dean, a local stock car racing champion who dreams of ditching the family business and making a name for himself as a NASCAR driver.

The pair's disenchantment and bitterness result in a wave of betrayal, anger, and violence in their otherwise peaceful Midwestern town. The film is a quietly disturbing little picture, and features some magnificent acting, especially by Quaid.

The film is not (as Bahrani is quick to point out) in any way political, even though the story prominently involves GMOs, a controversial and extremely political topic these days. The origin of this apolitical film, however, is indeed rooted in Bahrani's very political interests. In a conversation I had with Bahrani and Quaid, the 38-year-old director explained how he went about writing At Any Price:

I was curious where my food was coming from. I was reading authors like Michael Pollan...And I started realizing that farms aren't romantic places anymore—they're big businesses. So Michael Pollan and I became email friends, and I asked him to introduce me to George Naylor, who's a farmer in Iowa who was featured in [Pollan's 2006 book] The Omnivore's Dilemma. So I went out and I lived with George for many months, and when I went out there, all the farmers kept telling me, "expand or die, get big or get out." And I met a seed salesman, [and] I never knew there was such an occupation as "GMO seed salesman"...And [he] made me think of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. And I thought combining these things would be a way to tell a human and emotional story...When you have a lot of race cars and infidelity, it's hard to be an "agenda film."

(So there you have it: You can thank Michael Pollan for indirectly causing the development of Zac Efron's newest movie.)

Bahrani pulled from John Steinbeck, John Ford, and Peter Bogdanovich for narrative and stylistic influences. He also shadowed several Iowa farmers, incorporating their sentiments and commentary into his screenplay. One day, Bahrani noticed that a customer of one of the farmers owned a stock car for figure 8 racing—an observation he used to craft Efron's character. "I YouTube'd [figure 8 racing] that night, and I made a point to keep going to Iowa to go see races," Bahrani says. "I thought it would be a good contrast [for the two characters]...It had a different pace, and a different energy, and a different adrenaline."

Dennis Quaid didn't have time to conduct anything close to this level of research for his role. His learning experiences were all in the midst of production: "We shot it on a real farm," Quaid says. "I didn't have a trailer for this; it was my car or the living-room couch of the Hermans, the family [whose] farm we were shooting on... I spent my time with them, trying to soak up the atmosphere."

Check out the trailer for this tense and surprising drama:

At Any Price gets a wider release on Friday, May 3. The film is rated R for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

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HBO's "Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden": Way Cooler Than "Zero Dark Thirty"

| Wed May 1, 2013 8:31 PM EDT

Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden
HBO Documentary Films
100 minutes

Forget Zero Dark Thirty. Instead, check out director Greg Barker's intimate look at the dogged nerds and tough-guy CIA officials who spent decades on Osama bin Laden's trail. This doc (based on Peter Bergen's 2012 book) has the pulse of a Michael Mann thriller, tracing the hunt from long before Al Qaeda became a household name. It offers a fascinating glimpse at "the Sisterhood," a crew of female CIA analysts who were "borderline obsessed" with nailing bin Laden in the 1990s. Details of their vital desk work are contrasted with interviews with former CIA higher-up (and torture advocate) Marty Martin, who refers to his "gangsta"-like role harvesting intel overseas.

Manhunt premieres Wednesday, May 1 (the two-year anniversary of the mission that killed bin Laden) at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check out the trailer:

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones.

This review originally appeared in the May/June issue of Mother Jones.

Don't Use Jason Collins As an Excuse to Blame Homophobia on Black People

| Wed May 1, 2013 5:54 PM EDT
NBA center Jason Collins.

Jason Collins began his coming out essay in Sports Illustrated with the words, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

There's a reason Collins chose to mention he was black and gay—as though those two things were in as much tension as being the first openly gay male athlete active in one of America's favorite sports—but it deserves a more thoughtful examination than the one offered by Charles P. Pierce in Grantland. Pierce, feigning a familiarity with the history of the civil rights movement and the black church belied by the weakness of the evidence he's able to provide, writes:

His explanation for his decision to come out is rich with the historical "dual identity" forced on black Americans under Jim Crow, and the similar dynamic within which he lived as a gay man. Homophobia in the black community—indeed, even among the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s—was some of the most virulent and stubborn of all, and there are still some who resent the equation of the gay rights movement with their struggle. In his announcement in Sports Illustrated, then, Collins gave every indication that he's fully aware of the historic and cultural dimensions of his decision, and of the sacrifices made elsewhere so that he would be free to make it now.

Look, man: It's called "double consciousness," not "dual identity," and it's an intellectual concept applicable to black existence in America prior to Jim Crow and after its demise. "Dual identity" is what Batman has. And Pierce's mangling of W.E.B. DuBois is the least of the problems with this paragraph.

There was certainly homophobia in the civil rights movement—but in the 1950s and '60s, American society was homophobic, and Pierce offers no evidence that the civil rights movement was more homophobic than any other American institution during that period. Given that one of the architects of the civil rights movement's nonviolent strategy was Bayard Rustin, it was arguably less homophobic than much of society at the time. With a few notable exceptions, surviving leaders of the movement—from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to Rev. James Lawson to Jesse Jackson to Julian Bond—are all in favor of gay and lesbian rights.

There's also little evidence for the proposition that black homophobia is "the most virulent and stubborn of all." Black folks, who were disenfranchised for centuries, didn't put any of those old anti-sodomy laws on the books. The legal architecture of discrimination based on sexual orientation is one of the few things in America that dates back to colonial times that wasn't built by black people.

Rather than black homophobia, "stubborn" better describes black resistance to conservative appeals based on homophobia, or the determination of black voters in 2012 who defied a nationwide voter suppression campaign to elect a black president who has himself endorsed the right of same-sex couples to marry. "Virulent and stubborn" doesn't really explain the sharp reversal in public opinion on gay rights happening not just in the black community but also everywhere else, a reversal so dramatic that the state with the fourth-largest black population in the country became one of the first to adopt marriage equality by a popular vote. In some polls, black voters lag behind other groups in approving of same-sex marriage, but the trend is clear, and black Americans' loyalty to a party that supports marriage equality makes it clear that however broad the remaining opposition is, it isn't very deep.

Worst of all, the only evidence Pierce offers for the idea that "the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s" were the "most virulent and stubborn" homophobes of all (a description that doesn't even fit Marion Barry) is a link to an article about Rev. William Owens, a Tennessee pastor bankrolled by the National Organization for Marriage as part of their (failed) racial-wedge strategy in 2012 who claims he was a leader of the Nashville sit-in movement.

Well he used to, anyway. Last year, I reached out to three actual surviving leaders of the Nashville sit-in movement, Lewis, Lawson, and Vivian. Not one of them had ever heard of Owens, and Lawson and Vivian were astonished that anyone who might have been part of that movement at that time would be fighting gay rights now. In the last NOM press release I saw, Owens had demoted himself from "leader" to "participant." If you're going to slander some of the greatest people America has ever been lucky enough to call her own, you need more examples than one guy history can't even characterize as a backbencher.

Other than that, sure, he's a perfect example of how homophobia in the civil rights movement was the most "stubborn and virulent" of all. Cool history, bro.

Quick Reads: "Big, Hot, Cheap and Right" by Erica Grieder

| Wed May 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas

By Erica Grieder

PUBLIC AFFAIRS

You know that college friend, the big, boisterous, obstinate one who was always up to party, quick to fight, said the most regrettable things, and embarrassed you—but for some reason you just couldn't drop? Well, if Texas were a person, it would be that guy. In this folksy read, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder explores her home state and its idiosyncrasies, from its fiercely independent streak to its zany characters to its deep distrust of government. While the "Texas Model"—low taxes, low services—isn't perfect, Grieder argues that the state remains an economic powerhouse with low unemployment. And if the rest of the country would quit rolling its eyes, it might just learn a thing or two.