Xenophon, the Oscars, Barton Fink, and More


The Athenian soldier, philosopher, and historian Xenophon chronicled the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, wrote apologetics for Socrates, and dealt with a diverse array of other subjects in a plain, powerful prose that won him the sobriquet “The Attic Muse.” His best-known work, however, is his Anabasis. Here, the critically acclaimed novelist and decorated combat veteran Elliot Ackerman explains why this story still resonates, and the disturbing lessons it holds for contemporary America.

ON THIS DAY IN 1927 . . .

Now that the Golden Globes have come and gone, we look ahead to the Oscars. Who would Hollywood’s best and brightest stars thank if not for the mysterious Academy? When the media blasts the famous awards ceremony for being too white, who exactly are they pointing fingers at? That would be none other than the elite Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and its creation was announced on this day in 1927 by Louis B. Mayer, head of the legendary film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM, at a banquet in Los Angeles in 1927 with 36 of tinsel town’s most influential players.

But the idea was originally not rooted in any desire to create a powerhouse awards-ceremony which could rule the lands. Mayer’s vision was far more about creating a body which could facilitate agreement between all the moving parts of the film industry, from actors to producers to technicians. Was this a crafty way of dodging the expensive possibility that one of those moving parts unionize and make life for a studio like MGM very hard — this was probably very much on Mayer’s mind, but that’s definitely not how we think of the academy today. Because before a few months had passed by the nascent Academy decided to start offering yearly awards for outstanding performance in motion pictures. As Mayer himself later remarked: “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.” It might be worth considering at this point that, just maybe, a lot of businesses are like the show business.


Speaking of awards, how about a film that swept not only the Best Director and Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 but the crème de la crème prize as well, the Palme d’Or — a feat so rare that it raised more than a little bit of ire from fans of other very good movies on show that year, and in fact led to Cannes ruling afterwards that movies could at most receive two awards. In short, we’re talking about a real tried and true classic that, in a really tragic way, never made it to too many viewers in the movie theater.

It’s Barton Fink, a Coen Brothers classic before they had really made it big with FargoThe Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. If you have a taste for a little bit more of Classical Hollywood, here’s your fix. The eponymous Fink is a nervous scriptwriter who indecisively wants to somewhat toe the line between life as a hotshot Hollywood writer and — as he seems to really prefer ultimately — keeping in touch with the common man. But life as a writer tied to a contract in the film business can be brutal, and the movie captures this through an array of visual and narrative devices that are touching, thrilling, and suitably nightmarish. In true Coen Brothers fashion, things turn dark very fast and very thoughtfully.


One last plug for anyone interested in an industry classic, this one a whole lot more technical than Barton Fink. Great novelist and screenwriter William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. His pitch is simple: Goldman, who has won two Academy Awards for his excellent screenplays — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as All the President’s Men — and, by the way, wrote some fantastic novels, including The Princess Bridge, which he adapted for film. The man is a bonafide legend and this book from 1983 runs through Goldman’s experience working on various Hollywood projects, his personal thoughts about the industry, and a play by play on how, exactly, you design a screenplay. If writing for the silver screen is your itch, pick up this book and get scratching, it’s treasured for a reason.