A Rainbow of Emotions

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In a moment where the nation reels in our own yin and yang versions of pain and pleasure – from the continued assassination of innocent Black people by White racists or the passage of marriage equality by the Supreme Court that ensures LGBT people can now legally tie the knot in all 50 states – it seems reductive to compare life to a Pixar movie. Yet it feels like no karmic coincidence that Disney has just released Inside Out – one of its most thoughtfully psychological animated films ever – not to mention one that in particular deals with how our upbeat innermost emotions must always co-exist with the ever present darker feelings not so way down deep in our soul.

Of course, none of us have the vivacious voice of Amy Poehler to personify our Joy (Note: Perhaps not even Amy herself) nor do we have the gleeful rantings of Lewis Black to substitute for our own virulent misdirected Anger at the world. Or even the pathetically depressing tones of Phyllis Smith, a former assistant casting director who we know as the frumpy, humdrum, monotone-voiced Phyllis on The Office, to so brilliantly express our own inner Sadness.

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

What we do have is real life – which is never as entertaining as the best or even very good Pixar movie. But it can be if we think about it just a little more than we indulge in our own pity or happiness parties (depending on our moods) without a thought to the karmic realities that comprise what we like to refer to as the rest of the/our worlds.

Full confession – I’m more guilty than most of not following the strategies I’m putting forth here for Living Your Best Life (Note: Trademark Oprah).

Say what now?

Say what now?

Not to be a giant buzz kill but on the day SCOTUS ruled on marriage equality most of what I thought about were gay friends who contributed to the struggle but didn’t live to see this day. This was due, in no small part, to the double whammy of the ruling coinciding with the nationally televised funeral for Clementa Pinckney, the senior pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston who was one of the nine assassinated last week by a 21 year-old White supremacist after the latter had spent the previous hour in a Bible study class praying with them in their own aforementioned house of worship.

Pres. Obama eulogized Pastor Pinckney, also a state senator representing Charleston, and led the mourners in his own very compelling acapella version of “Amazing Grace” – certainly a first in POTUS history. Previously he and others have talked about the idea of reaching a state of grace and spreading that out into the world to others. Presumably this includes the forgiveness of those who have done a person wrong and nowhere were those teachings more apparent than from the mouths of the next of kin of the recently slain who only days before faced the accused murderer of their loved ones. Without exception they all forgave him to his face, or at least chose not to dwell in the bile he had elicited by looking backwards at the loss of all their relative or forward to all the blessings that would never be in the future.

This idea of grace, the ongoing struggle, the bright future – no matter what has happened to you and where it lands on the fairness scale – it’s a wonderful and noble thought, one that is an undeniably positive and useful goal. But full confession: It works for me only some of the time, and even then barely. Part of my personal fight is also fueled by anger and the quest for fairness – the idea that one is not roused to action until one – okay, me – is more personally impacted by the issue at hand.

This was a reason to think about all of the dead of the LGBT community, most especially the thousands from the AIDS epidemic, when marriage equality was announced. For, and this is my own personal belief, the movement would not have gained the steam that it had if not, in great part, due to the AIDS epidemic. Certainly, it wasn’t the only motor but just as certainly it clearly sped things up.

What would Vito think of today?

What would Vito think of today?

To be clear: we would all trade marriage equality in a nanosecond if we could wipe away the Plague and bring back those that fell – meaning died – in its wake. Clearly, we can’t. But what we also can’t do is to deny that the fact that this awful pandemic forced gay people to make themselves publicly known, many times against our own will or perhaps choice, and this inadvertently contributed greatly to forcing people to know us – the real us – rather than the sanitized version groups usually choose to present (or not present) to society at large. And that – along with a lot of grass roots work – is primarily what accelerated change and led us to where we are today.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – or Aunt Ruth as I like to call her – said as much in an interview last week – and I immediately surmised, in a moment of total self-indulgence, that these thoughts must ‘run in the family.’ Though I (and perhaps she) have been thinking this for years it’s hardly an original idea. I heard the filmmaker/novelist Clive Barker say pretty much the same thing about gay rights five or 10 years ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time (or perhaps it was Politically Incorrect – who can remember which fabulous liberal spewfest it was) – and clearly he is no relative of mine. The hair, the body, the horror – not a Ginsberg in his gene pool, let’s be honest.

Not a Ginsberg (but he's welcome anytime)

Not a Ginsberg (but he’s welcome anytime)

Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t clear that brother Clive (who has been out and proud for years), Aunt Ruth, myself and perhaps many of you don’t share something. And that is the recognition that the world is very much about the good and the bad each informing the other – the yin and the yang. That just as it seems one’s world is going to end, and perhaps in some ways it does, it is simultaneously the birth of something else.

caglecartoon

‘nough said

One supposes this is just our mutual human condition – one of many aspects of humanness we have in common, though so often we don’t want that to be the case. Still, it’s important to remember when the next big civil rights issue arises – that civil rights of all kinds for all people are intertwined. Charleston, Stonewall, Israel, Iraq, and ad infinitum back and forth through time. How often one writes about this (or performs it or films it) and how even more frequently the message is ignored, the world goes on and we continue with our days as if it’s all new to us or, even worse, in that particular case it doesn’t really apply. Bitchy, twitchy, witchy, kitschy and all else in between.

It’s important to recall our collective history and our mass behavior when one is feeling down – or perhaps even too hopeful. Not in so much a fatalistic, sad way but an inevitably accepting, understanding and eventually life-affirming way. Dark and light, light and dark, dark and light – neither of them lasts – certainly not forever – nor would you probably want either of them to on their own. If you really think about it. The folks at Pixar obviously thought about it for the six years it took to bring Inside Out to the screen and simplified it so even a CHAIR could make sense of it and use it to understand the current events of the day.

Go figure.

Skin Deep

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I used to joke that even though I appeared to be a white, gay Jewish male I was, really, a big Black woman – preferably one who could sing like Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson or, if I chose to go a bit more exotic, Nina Simone. Well, live long enough and any metaphor becomes obsolete and somewhat offensive – or even timely.

Chairy, is that you?

Chairy, is that you?

It’s difficult to know what one can joke about anymore. Certainly, it’s impossible to decide just what is timely. I decided late this week to bite the bullet and write about Rachel Dolezal, the just resigned former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who was exposed as biologically White after a decade or more passing as Black (Note: Though there was and is still some debate on just what constitutes being Black). But then the idiocy of our national obsession with Ms. Dolezal was swiftly shifted by the actions of one truly undebatable WHITE 21 year-old Southern male.

When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., one of the first Black churches in the country, and shot nine innocent Black people dead after spending an hour as part of their Bible study group on Wednesday night, the meaning of being Black in America once again became crystal clear.

It is not about releasing your inner Aretha Franklin. It is not about crimping your hair, fighting for civil rights, having friends and family members who are African-American in bearing, or possessing any appreciation or talent for rapping, soul food recipes, community service or the historical nature of oppression.

NoSMDH

To be Black in the U.S. means to be at risk and to always be, in some small or even miniscule fashion, and despite your apparent economic or social status, looking over your shoulder. It means to be in danger even when you feel 100% safe. And, if one makes the decision to survive and live a relatively happy life, it means deciding, given those parameters, to figure out a way to turn the other cheek on all that and – like all the rest of us – play the hand you were dealt to the best you can so you can fulfill your destiny.

On the other hand, what the hell do I know about being Black in America? What can any White person every REALLY know? Not very much. Because on some very, very teeny tiny level being Black in America is NOT yet like being like all the rest of us – as I just so cavalierly mentioned in the last line of the paragraph above. I guess I will have to be on a journalistic learning curve for the time being on that one for, as we now once again know, old habits die hard.

As a screenwriter and journalist I’ve imagined myself as characters in countless scenarios. I have been male, female and various other animals of all kinds of ages, races and heights with extremely moral codes and deadly murderous streaks. I’ve been a Hispanic single mother, a wealthy Black politician, a white female cabaret singer, a nerdy Jewish boy (Note: That one was soooooo easy) and, currently, a very young white newspaper editor from the Midwest in the mid 1970s with a penchant for justice so strong that I am now in the process of risking my job, friends and family for my principals despite all seeming logic to the contrary. (Note: Don’t worry, that character’s story WILL have a somewhat victorious ending. I mean, please – it’s Hollywood).

something like this...

something like this…

All of these imaginations, presumed personalities and dramatic machinations, as a therapist told me years ago, are merely outgrowths of a personal talent for invention, or more precisely, reinvention, that helps the real me deal with life. I concoct stories as a coping method to deal with difficult situations (both fictional and from my real life) and create my very own convincing beginnings, middles and ends around them. But this only works as a way to make me feel better about who I am and the events around me – as I have painfully learned over the years. Although it can certainly be the impetus for me – and perhaps my limited or maybe one day vast audience – for seeing the truth/my truth and creating personal change it is a fiction. In other words, it is not, nor can it ever be, real life. Meaning – it was not reality.

In other words:

One can’t walk in someone else’s skin because we are all born with our own very specific skin.

Marvel Studios made this abundantly clear in a recently leaked Sony email that reveals that in its contract for the Spiderman movies with Sony it is a legal requirement that the movie Spiderman’s human alter ego, Peter Parker, must always be CAUCASIAN and HETEROSEXUAL and that Spiderman himself NOT be a HOMOSEXUAL.

oh spidey....

oh spidey

As if there were ever a chance any of these could ever thus be so.

When a rumor recently floated that renowned British actor Idris Elba could one day be the future and first Black James Bond it created an international Twitter exchange, culminating not only with eventual denials from Elba but a public statement by 1970s movie star and former Bond co-star Yaphet Kotto that the mere idea of that was ridiculous and silly.

And that’s only in the movies. Imagine how uppity it could get in other areas. For instance, let’s take politics. Can you consider that one day that we might actually have…I mean, that there could sometime in the future really be…a Black president of the United Sates?

wait a second....

wait a second….

Oh. Right.

Of course, this says nothing of how Black you have to be in order to be categorized as BLACK. Pres. Obama is half-Black and half-White, which seems to count as being Black. Yet some years ago, it surfaced that Broadway star Carol Channing’s paternal grandfather was Black, making her about 25% Black. Yet this seems to be enough for her to still be considered White, though perhaps that’s just because she’s 94 years old and we’ve always thought of her as such. Still, it doesn’t make it good for the public racial future of Rachel Dolezal. She might have two children with a Black man who identify as Black and several adopted siblings who are Black but now that the closet door has been opened she can never truly change her public face – meaning skin color.

That this would count for anything seems so odd, doesn’t it? I mean, don’t we all require or at least hope our houses and apartments are painted a new, fresh color before we move in? Yes, that color has traditionally been white but lately eggshell, gray, putty or even…well, pick you choice are starting to become popular. Though not yet Black. Can you ever imagine Black walls? I mean, really….

I just can't get behind this...

I just can’t get behind this

My husband and I have just moved into a new home that is set against a hillside. It’s safe but over a three week period we’d noticed more than a small rock or two falling into our patio and decided to hire some experienced people to haul out some of the dirt and gravel and build some small barriers for reinforcement and ensure (as much as possible) the safety of ourselves and our dog.

The head of the crew we hired to do this is not Black but he is Mexican (Note: Let’s call him Walter, just for fun) and over the last few days we’ve bonded over a mutual respect for the machinations of Mother Nature and a shared penchant for somewhat politically incorrect humor. Walter and I have joked about everything from my lack of knowledge about plants and building things to the fact that all of his siblings have advanced and multiple college degrees in various “professional” occupations while he decided to go into the family business of taking care of the yards (Note: In his case it’s usually grounds, he’s slumming with us) of many of these same professional people.

the tao of snoopy

the tao of snoopy

Nowhere was this more apparent to Walter than when his working class self went to his local bank to cash a large (well, by my standards) check for supplies I had written to him personally. No sooner had he gotten to the teller for the deposit than a manager was called over to look over the check. After a few minutes, the guy looked Walter dead on and the following conversation ensued:

Bank Manager: This check looks washed.

Walter: Huh? What are you talking about?

Bank Manager: It looks like a fake.

Walter: Well, I saw the guy (Note: That would be me, Your Chair) writing it from his own checkbook.

Bank: Well, just remember, it’s gonna come out of your account if it’s no good.

Walter pauses, thinks. Then –

Walter: Well, okay, but I mean, I trust the dude.

Bank Manager: Okay, but — remember — it’s your responsibility.

um... what?

um… what?

The first thing I did when Walter related this story – after reassuring him about the money – was to ask him what the heck it meant for a check to be washed. He explained it’s when someone takes a check, washes off the ink and then fills in their own amount. Okay, I thought, that’s nervy and inventive – but these checks are brand new – is there something about my signature or writing that makes them look dirty?

My second reaction, as I thought about it, was outrage. I mean, really? Walter may be a big Mexican guy who lives in the hood, albeit in a nice house with a wife and two kids, and has an accent, but really – he has a business account there and he comes in all the time. Is he really going to pass a bad check?

This guy that questioned you about the check, this really pisses me off, I confess to Walter.

Ah, I don’t let those things bother me, dude. It is what it is.

Yeah, but I mean, I bet if I were trying to cash the check, I wouldn’t have gotten that remark, I tell him.

Probably not, Walter replies. But I’m used to it.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of things he could probably say about me, though it would have nothing to do with whether he’d cash my check.

Yeah, I hear that, Walter says.

One more thing, I tell him. I’ll bet this was a White guy, right? Probably like a middle-aged, middle class white guy, right?

Actually, Walter replied, it was a young Black dude. The Blacks and Mexicans, they got a thing going. But, well — I try not to take it personally.

Well, that makes one of us. I guess that’s some sort of start.  Though only kind of.

A Twee Too Much

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There are a few things I need to get off my chest.

  1. I won’t be seeing the Jurassic Park reboot.   I found the first one interminably dull after a short while and this was at a packed screening in cushy seats where other people were loving it.
  1. My flat screen TVs, all of which are smart (certainly much smarter than me) have become the enemy. If I so much as graze one of their buttons in the wrong way I am left with nothing. No sound, no picture, snow or a frozen image. This can then only be remedied by calling one of five sources for help (all of whom I’ve bothered more times than I can remember) – a call which is even more embarrassing than admitting this problem publicly to all of you.
  1. I’m tired of people who can’t carry a tune or barely can sing but seem to do so quite well because of modern technology, passing themselves off as musicians and singers – and convincing the record industry and downloading public this is so.   You can’t croon or play if you are unable to achieve the effect without the help of heavy machinery.giphy
  1. Losing ones hair and figure is not fun nor is working out more than you ever did in your lifetime just to maintain status quo, health or to just look presentable enough to avoid scaring small children. On the other hand, cutting into your face or having fairly recent medical school graduates inject you with poisonous waste products from exotic animals so your skin can seem as taut as the sheets on a new recruit’s army cot seems even worse. And certainly more expensive.
  1. Ronald Reagan was a TERRIBLE president and don’t let anyone reinventing history in the forthcoming election year try to tell you any different.
because a picture of Reagan would make me barf, enjoy this litter of puppies

because a picture of Reagan would make me barf, enjoy this litter of puppies

This all started with a screening I attended of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl this weekend. No one likes a good cancer movie more than me, and certainly there isn’t a guy on the planet who gravitates more to an indie tearjerker – especially one that sold for near record millions at Sundance like such predecessors as Little Miss Sunshine – one of my all-time film festival (or any other kind of festival) favorites.

Now I hope all the filmmakers who made Earl go on to have long and happy careers (Note: They all inevitably will), not to mention most of the actors, who mostly did stellar work (Note #2: You can decide the muggers for yourself when/if you see it) and seem to have been enjoying themselves during filming. But if I have to watch one more hip, young, piece of cinema demographic filled with endless snide, deprecating dialogue bouncing off of colorful, macramé-like images shot through endless gradations of a fisheye/crooked/or skewed lens, I WILL just spend the rest of my life inside, watching my smart TVs, where I vow I WILL call one or more of you to figure out the problems with each and every one of them.

And just know by that time there will be many, many more.

It’s writer-director Wes Anderson time – meaning that’s what 100 minutes of Earl longs to give you via an unfresh and un-new visual and storytelling style– which in turn is unsurprising since WA’s frequent producer, Indian Paintbrush, distributes this one. Yup, it’s Quirky McQuirk-Quirk, Jr. with just a dash of sincere 60s/70s film homage and postmodern emotionless emotion thrown in.

And now I'm exhausted

And now I’m exhausted…

Question: If Odd is the New Norm then what is the New Odd? Would that be Mundane? It brings to mind the master originator of contemporary postmodern, David Lynch, and when he made The Straight Story in 1999, a pretty conventional tale of an older man crossing several states to visit his dying brother. The director publicly admitted that he had gone just as far as he could go with strange in his past so he decided the truly revolutionary strategy for him was to go plain. So just who will step up and assume the mantle of the then mid-career David Lynch? Anyone? Bueller?

Or perhaps let’s put it another way:

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE — will someone make an impression out there doing PLAIN – which these days merely means unadorned and with a lack of tricks???

And not from this guy.. please

And not from this guy.. please

I knew the moment I saw Wes Anderson’s Rushmore 17 years ago and was left dazed and confused – something I have never been when watching a Richard Linklater film, by the way – that I was in trouble. But never did I dream that Mr. Anderson would be responsible for a commercial cottage industry of distanced, strange and bizarre just for strange’s sake.

This, of course, is how I also felt as a very, very young man when everyone was making such a fuss about National Lampoon’s Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters. I mean, they were fine, all fine – but the notion that they’d spawn endless sequels, reboots and their own cottage industries? Well, no wonder the president of Columbia Pictures didn’t hire me for that film development job in the 1980s – especially when I answered my personal favorite studio film of the previous year was Ordinary People. What an idiot I was. Though Ordinarily People could clearly be rebooted today – albeit with hand drawn animated inserts for the teary parts and with Mark Ruffalo and Parker Posey playing the parents of – the young new Miles Teller?

Coming soon to a theater near you

Coming soon to a theater near you

By the way, I think Miles Teller is among the best of the best in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now. He might yet one day win an Oscar even though his older generational acting doppelganger, Michael Keaton, never has (Note: He should have this past year). I also believe Miley Cyrus is very talented, imaginative and not a flash-in-the-pan, Amy Winehouse was not for a moment ever overrated and that the pastiche conceits of American Horror Story works every bit as well in its way as do the broad and stylized comic turns of both Broad City and Girls do in theirs. (Note: Coincidentally, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl was written by American Horror Story alumn Alfonso Gomez-Rejon).

But sometimes it is the job of each of us, especially those who have no other platform to do so other than in an obscure personal blog, to rail against the popular – to call out what we perceive to be The Emperor’s New Clothes.

pitch-perfect-enough-gif

The gay community, not to mention any number of other un-American US citizens tried unsuccessfully to do this all through the Reagan years of the eighties – when during that president’s stewardship AIDS became a pandemic and tax cuts for the rich and corporate deregulation helped spawn the economic meltdown of the late 2000 naughts we are all still recovering from.

Yes, I am on a soapbox but how else do our collective voices forestall Jurassic Park 33 – which you all may think you want now but, trust me, your grandkids will be cursing you for. Those same kids will also likely be listening to the new 2100-age, as-of-yet unborn Sinatra singing live in each of their rooms through some kind of still undiscovered clone entertainment mechanism.   And by the way, these kids will have all also adopted their own brands of voluntary male pattern baldness for their inevitably overweight selves because certainly by that time they won’t want to look like their grandparents – since at that point they will all be sporting perfect bodies without exercise and be tossing around their long luxurious manes of intact original hair thanks to some new, priceless and certainly voluntary (Note: Though we all know socially it won’t be, not really) medical option.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

I’m not sure I’ll be around then – yet given the aforementioned advances there is a possibility I could at least still be carted about like an old embryo in a trendy Mason jar. However, I am 100% positive I still won’t get Rushmore, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or Ronald Reagan.

Generation gap, my eye – the latter of which might actually be all that is left of me. If so, it will still be just as discerning as it ever was despite what the majority is saying.

This, as Martha Stewart says – and you know that SHE will definitely still be around then – is a good thing.

Good Vibrations

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I used to fly from L.A. to N.Y. twice a year on week-long visits in the eighties and nineties where I’d stay at the small apartment of a friend on the upper west side of Manhattan who was one of the most talented people I knew and probably will ever know. Whenever I’d arrive, we had a running bit where he’d stand back, look me over, and about half the time would say:

Wow, you look fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. You must not be working hard enough.

Whether the correlation was true or not (Note: About half the time it was) I knew what he meant. There is something about a creative person who is a non-actor looking great on the outside that seems to indicate that they’re not pushing what’s inside (nee – their talents) far enough.

#nocomment

#nocomment

That, of course, is bull crap. Or is it? I’ve never quite figured it out and at some point I stopped trying. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the only thing to be sure of about one’s own creativity is that the more you focus on whether what you’re doing in terms of time and effort is too little, too much or just the right amount is that much more time you’re not spending focusing on the job at hand – which is to simply employ your talents as best and as often as you can for whatever project is at hand and at whatever pace you can manage.

In the midst of summer film sequel/cartoon/superhero-itis there is a quite imaginative movie currently playing across the country that, among other things, focuses generally on this issue and more specifically on the vagaries of the creative mind. It’s a sort of anti-biopic and tells the story of one of the most talented musicians of the last century, presenting his creative process –which in this case is tantamount to musical genius – in a way most of us has never seen before. The movie is called Love and Mercy and its subject is Brian Wilson, the musician-songwriter prodigy who was the driving musical force of the iconic Beach Boys. Oh, and what’s also worth mentioning is – it’s pretty unforgettable.

America's original boy band

America’s original boy band

Love and Mercy has many things going for it but what makes it more unique than any movie out at the moment is that is a film about both a real person and about something. Set it two time periods – the 1960s and the 1980s – it tackles the young Mr. Wilson’s recording of the Beach Boys’ iconic Pet Sounds album and the mental illness of a broken, middle-aged Mr. Wilson and how he was saved at the time by his now second wife – a former model and unlikely Cadillac salesperson named Melinda Ledbetter.

Yes, Mr. Wilson’s story has a combination of elements that none of ours do – the once in a lifetime genius browbeaten by an abusive father, show business fame, success and money far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, drugs in the 1960s, depression, possible schizophrenia and an evil abusive doctor – all of which exist against the sparkling backdrop of beautiful, coastal southern California. Then, of course, there is also the music – an instantly recognizable soundtrack of tunes to three and possibly even four generations of musical tastes.

But strip that all away – which its director, writer and cast often does – and it’s not that much different than our own. An insecure, sort of nerdy guy tries to do work most of his family and friends can’t relate to. The guy knows he’s different and strange and doesn’t really fit in but tries to and sometimes succeeds. People tell him they love him but he can’t quite take it in. And even after he does and he gets some acceptance, he is not always sure who he really is or if what they love about him even exists the way they think it does.

There are few Hollywood movies these days that move back and forth between two time periods where two famous actors, who don’t much look alike, play the same lead character in two distinctly different decades. Not to mention, I can’t really think of any summer film in recent years that was the least bit impressionistic and whose screenplay and/or scenes within weren’t either telegraphed or spelled out – either through action, dialogue or music cues – within an inch of its life. Yet somehow Paul Dano and John Cusack – who resemble each other about as much as I bring to mind Meg Ryan – manage to make us believe they are the same person while we, the audience, can not only merely follow but also really feel the story they’re in without the benefit of time cards and a studio approved list of overpaid and overqualified, un-credited screenwriters dumbing it down for us.

Imagine that.

That's a lot of haircuts

That’s a lot of haircuts

There is something to be said for feeling oneself through the creative process as either a creator or audience member. Not everything has to be made clear within an inch of its life. Not every effort has to spawn a toy or a fast food product. And not every subject or piece of work lends itself to a Twitter handle or is a complete failure if it doesn’t appeal to a reality TV show audience. There is room for more – a lot more. And both the work and the audience might surprise all of us and emerge as not only crystal clear but exciting – certainly enough of both that a good enough majority of people get it. No, I mean like – REALLY get it.

Not to bring this back to myself – though after all this is MY blog – but I watch some reality television, have over 1000 Tweets (@notesfromachair… impressed?), AND have been known to play with a toy of two and I could actually stay with this one. Not only that, but I am by no means an experimental screenwriter and have even been accused by several of the students I’ve taught over the years of being a bit too square because I tend to heavily emphasize traditional dramatic structure and detailed scene outlines in my classrooms. Yet, miracle of miracles, this one also really worked for me on that score.

Me?? Square??

Me?? Square??

However, the reason for all that is pretty easy. It’s because whatever methods one employs in the quest for self-expression, it’s really only the end result that matters. Of course we all use something slightly different or even similar to get there (Note: Which is as it should be) and we all take multiple and varied wrong turns along the way as we attempt to get what’s inside of us out. This goes not only for those of us who make art but for all of the many rest of us who are just trying to live a decent life.

And this is where Love and Mercy’s first time director Bill Pohlad succeeds far beyond what one might expect for someone who has never been behind a camera before. Somehow he manages to take the elusive subject of artistic self-expression – which often seems either unbearably ponderous or impossibly precious on film – and make it universally representative of what it’s like for all the rest of us average Joes who feel a bit weird inside just being ourselves in everyday life. It’s all a struggle – whether we’re Brian Wilson or not.

the “elusive subject of artistic self-expression”

I don’t know all the ins and outs of Mr. Pohlad’s process even after listening to an afternoon panel where he and much of the cast and crew of his film spoke about how they did it.   It’s not that they weren’t clear or concise it’s that you can never quite quantify the precise elements of the formula it takes to make a creative effort people are responding to that is both unique and unusual.   Mostly because –- there is no formula.

This became apparent when one listened to not only Brian Wilson’s music during the film about him but when one heard the actual Brian Wilson speak in person, as I did after the showing of his movie.   Receiving a long-standing ovation, his responses to questions were limited to a few simple words and an uncomplicated sentence or two.   The only time things got complicated were when others asked questions about his music. Luckily, he and everyone else there were smart enough not to try to answer those but to merely let the actual songs and film’s images speak for themselves.

Seeing the music

Seeing the music

It’s a good lesson for the rest of us to remember when trying to create our own work or do our own jobs – or explain how we do our jobs – show business or not. You’re only as good as what you produce and how you do it is up to you and perhaps, often times, unexplainable. Oh sure – some of it will make sense to others – you take a little bit from here, a little bit of that. But most of it, well – good luck trying to get what’s on your mind onto the proverbial written or oral page. Not to mention explaining the whole ordeal (process?) to anyone else. Which again, is as it should be.

This all begs the question of how good or not good it might seem to others. Does the fact that Love and Mercy didn’t make as much money as San Andreas at the box-office this weekend mean it’s not a better film? Or even that SA is worse?

It could. Or it could not.

Mostly, it just is.

 

How Many Kids (and who’s counting)?

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Since Sept. 2008 Arkansas’ first family of TLC, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, have been reality television royalty with their 17 18 19 Kids and Counting – a top rated network series following the exploits of the couple and their almost score (Note: Score=20) of God-fearing, home-schooled, fundamentalist born and bred brood of biological children.

Millions of people have been fascinated by the loves and lives of the Duggars as they continued to have children, their children began to have children (Note: Though all were married first) and all of these many, many children (Note #2: Presided over by two adults) made many, many, many more millions of dollars for everyone through the requisite cross-pollination of books, personal appearances and Lord knows what other kinds of entertainment industry vertical integration the law allows.

Bigger than Jesus

Bigger than Jesus

Well, the gravy train has now stopped and soon all they will be able to do is wipe their ASSES with those ASSETS. This is thanks not to any left wing, gay agenda but merely to the fact that the oldest of that near score of children, 27-year-old Josh Duggar, has admitted to molesting five underage girls when he was 14 and 15 years-old, including many of his own sisters.

Compounding the matter is that both his parents knew of his crimes but instead of sending him to therapy or seeking other type of medical or police intervention, they instead chose to have their son confess his crimes to a local state trooper friend who himself was subsequently sent away to prison on multiple counts of child pornography. Needless to say the family trooper friend never officially reported the crimes.   Instead, he gave Josh a talking to, Josh was sent away to work on a relative’s farm for a while and the family prayed a lot that all would be okay for everyone.

#preach

#preach

Though none of those prayers included any type of, well much of anything except more prayers for the under age women in question, they clearly did include requests to the powers-that-be above (or below) us that this would all stay quiet. That seems clear because their Duggar television show subsequently debuted, became a huge success and would continue to be so for quite some time to come. I mean, answered prayers would have to be the case because, well, I don’t know about you but, like all great things, the family’s TV success would seem to simply be a question of God’s will, right?

The Duggars believe a lot in God’s will. In fact, they credit God Himself (or, one supposes, Herself) for granting them fame and fortune by way of one of nature’s miracles – their second born of nineteen children. As they tell their story, back when Jim Bob and Michelle first were married they actually did practice birth control. But when Michelle conceived their second child despite being on The Pill and then miscarried said child, they realized they had actually interfered with God’s plan and decided to never again decide to second-guess the Lord by using modern medical science. The result? Well, you can see – 19 Kids and Counting. Though, as of several days ago, no more TV show.   Hmmm, you don’t suspect this time they started using condoms, do y..? Nahhhh…….

Look at these sinners

Look at these sinners

None of this explains how they managed to conceive Josh, who managed to sneak in as a planned pregnancy back when they believed in oral contraception and back when their use of The Pill was working as it should. Wait, you don’t suppose this was the reason for Josh’s predilection towards molestation, do you??? Could it be some sort of grand punishment for their legitimate use of…The Pill???? The mind reels.

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Incidentally, this would not be a gigantic leap of logical in the Rules According to Duggar. Aside from their opposition to birth control, just about last year at this time Michelle recorded statewide robo-calls urging voters to vote “no” on an Arkansas law intended to address discrimination against the LGBT community since it is one of dozens of states that do not include housing and discrimination protection in cases of sexual identity and gender discrimination.

Her exact words? Well, that passage of the law would allow males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.”

Well, certainly one would not want to allow any male to improperly enter private areas reserved specifically for females, especially if they were young girls. Right??? That must be right since Mrs. Duggar, a local heroine if nothing else, won her crusade and saw the law voted down. Unless, um, maybe that was God’s will, too??

Josh Duggar, himself now the father of a five year-old daughter and two younger sons, with another unborn child along the way, was up until several days ago executive director of the Family Research Council’s Washington, DC legislative affiliate, FRC Action. In his post, #1 of 19 was responsible for lobbying lawmakers to advance the political and social agendas of the organization, which includes abstinence-only education, intelligent design, prayer in public schools and regulation of pornography and other obscene, indecent or profane programming on broadcast and cable television. It is also opposed to legalized abortion, stem-cell research and all forms of gambling.

You won't like him when he's angry

You won’t like him when he’s angry

The FRC is perhaps best known for its virulent opposition to same-sex marriage and gay adoption. FRC president Tony Perkins has publicly and repeatedly stated the research is overwhelming that homosexuality poses a danger to children and in the past the organization has gone so far as to say “one of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age consent laws and to eventually recognize pedophiles as the prophets of a new sexual order.” For these and many other statements excoriating the LGBT community and its rights, the Family Research Council was several years ago officially classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Regrets?

Regrets?

Regarding homosexuality, Josh Duggar himself was last year quoted as saying the LGBT community and its agenda wasa threat to children” and that his own lesbian aunt (his mother Michelle’s older sister) “chooses her lifestyle.”

There was a time in the previous century, 100 years ago to be exact, where a whole subculture of women in the U.S. freely made love with other women.   Not only that but some of these were Black women who smoked, drank and generally hung out as they occasionally dressed as the men did; and no one cared or even said much about it. Among the women in this enclave was one of the most famous blues singers who ever lived – Bessie Smith – and if you have a couple of hours, which you know you do, it might be worth your time to relive these very olden times and morals via the very wonderfully bold and impressionistic HBO film Bessie, starring Queen Latifah in the title role and Mo’Nique as her mentor, friend and fellow trailblazer, Ma Rainey. Both are superb in it.

Lessons in fabulousity

Lessons in fabulousity

But what’s even more incredible, at least in FRC and Duggar world, is that 100 years later these women are both lauded as creative legends and heirs to a new era where the idea of two women (or men for that matter) making love legally and within the protection of a marriage contract, if they so desire, has become the norm in more states than not – as has their ability to create, adopt or raise children if they so choose. One sort of wants to ask the Duggars if that, too, could be attributed to God’s will, or do they perhaps predict a Biblical October surprise along the lines of locusts and pestilence as retribution against such un-Christian, nee immoral, yet perfectly legal social activities.

Well, it’s all enough to make you want to send Josh Duggar not to jail for his admitted inexcusable behavior which he this week publicly apologized for but to Ireland where 60% of the citizenry voted to make themselves the first country in the world to totally and 100% legalize same sex marriage by popular vote.

Putting the Gae in Gaelic!

Putting the Gae in Gaelic!

He might see it as punishment and, okay I for one would oppose it. Because we all know that clearly Ireland will emerge as THE place to be for fun and frolic as this decade comes to a close.

As for the future of TLC and the Duggar brand –- God knows it doesn’t look good.

The Real Thing

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Can people substantially change who they are? Or do they, as they get older, just become more of who they are?

Mad Men – one of the best-written series ever on television – grappled with the question of change and identity via the lens of the American psyche throughout its eight-year,seven-season, run. So it seemed only fitting – and simultaneously both obvious and brilliant – that this would be the primary question it answered in its finale episode.

A television program can only do so much but for my money and time there has not ever been a show to so accurately yet obtusely capture how Americans think, change or refuse to budge as this one. We have taken a lot of heat as a country for being a bit self-obsessed just as we have also always been lauded for our sometimes unsolicited generosity of spirit to others when their or our backs are to the wall. Perhaps America as a bastion of freedom that will always lend a helping hand and open door to those less fortunate has taken a beating in recent years. But the idea of the U.S. – and the desire for there to be a place where people can live free and be who they really are regardless of what they may or may not really be, observe or come from – is a concept that seems to only grow with power as time goes on and the world grows more (yet seemingly less) connected.

Don Draper's 1960 utopia

Don Draper’s 1960 utopia

The reason Mad Men was so often able to address these questions so brilliantly is that series creator Matthew Weiner chose exactly the right decade – the 1960’s – to tackle them. There has not been, nor probably will there ever be in the future, a ten-year period with so great a shift in cultural, political and social mores. It saw an unprecedented period of sweeping changes in how we thought, felt, and even dressed. Free love, the peace movement, a relaxing of social conventions that caused us to become (Note: Sometimes kicking and screaming) more inclusive and less discriminatory against the marginalized or less fortunate? Well, five plus decades later some of it would last – for a while – until segments of the majority in power (Note: Did I say the 1980s? Oh, now I did) decided to take a few more steps backwards from that advancing direction. But then again, all of this societal stuff tends to be cyclical anyway if you look at the rise and fall of any the world’s great super powers. At least we – well, many of the most fortunate of us, that is – still have a few more choices now than we did back then.

When one says Mad Men was about the sixties let’s be clear about something – it was really about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The decade we really think was the sixties didn’t actually begin until after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Before that it was just the 1950s but with a more youthful glow. The 1960s then happened and took us through Vietnam, rock ’n roll, drugs and the search for love and that dirty term nowadays: self-actualization. But that ended after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, television bringing the atrocities of the Vietnam War home, and the unmasking of all of the rest of the American dream for every bit of the invented sham it always was. That, in essence, was where our slow recovery – meaning the 1970s – began and continues to this very day.

Don's reading materials

Don’s reading materials

None of this is meant as an insult to the American dream or to negate the fact that many beneficial aspects to it still do exist. But make no mistake – it was and is invented and made up. The very nature of all dreams is that they are NOT REAL. Which, on the other hand, makes them no less true (or potentially true) in some form. I tell this to my students in every writing class I’ve ever taught when they voice concerns that their stories are too contrived. Well, of course they’re contrived! I answer. All of this stuff is made up, even if it’s based on real life. The task is to make it not seem like it is – to somehow have it evoke reality. That was hard fought advice I gave to myself after decades of self-flagellation whenever I myself grew overly frustrated that nothing I ever wrote seemed real ENOUGH.

There is no main character – nee protagonist, nee anti-hero or hero, depending on how you want to see him – to dramatically travel so effectively in, around and through these issues as a man whose job it is to manufacture American dreams, wants and desires – meaning an American advertising man.

From the pilot episode

From the pilot episode

And what kind of ad guy – how about one whose entire personal identity is made up from the very beginning – both literally in Matt Weiner’s mind and figuratively in the character of Don Draper, a man who is really named something else he didn’t like or want to be and instead chose to assume the name and new life of a dead man. This is a guy who is so perfect looking, so talented, and so continuously successful in everything he does even when he is failing miserably – that he couldn’t be real. In fact, he couldn’t be anything more than the invention of some smart and savvy mind on Madison Avenue – which is what he is.

Don Draper’s journey from stud, to family man, to phony man, to rich man who remembers being a poor man, to rogue, alcoholic, reformed rogue with half a heart back to pseudo real, tortured American stripped bare at the end of the decade, seemed iconic and ironic enough. But it was only in the last episode this weekend, where the flawed yet somehow always enviable Don Draper took center stage alongside such other fictional American icons as Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad and even All in the Family’s Archie Bunker.

Television's (now) former leading men... casting long shadows

Television’s (now) former leading men… casting long shadows

It is giving nothing away (Note: Or perhaps it is so if you’re a stickler for these kind of things you might want to skip over the paragraph) to say that at his seemingly lowest point in the series Don decides not so much to change but to pull himself together the best he can and achieve what in his heart of hearts he’s always wanted – something uniquely his own and thus personally iconic.

But he does this not through the personal epiphany he has in the scene before when, in a burst of uncharacteristic, unguarded emotion, he is able to identify with and even hug a fellow lost male soul in a California encounter group when the man compares himself to an unchosen item in a refrigerator and laments that people “look right through you” and don’t see you. I mean in that moment you wonder if what Don feels is not so much kinship for a guy to whom he is essentially saying – that’s right, I feel the same way, they don’t see me either and I know how you feel – or whether as he’s hugging this poor shlub he is really saying – Listen bud, I AM the ideal, the guy you always think they see and who, in fact, they do see and always choose, and it’s no better on this side either. I don’t feel like anyone really knows me because I don’t know me, and let me tell you, just like you that feels like shit.

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season's "The Forecast"): "Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere."

Sally gets it. Especially when she tells her father (in this season’s “The Forecast”): “Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere.”

This would seem to be Don’s emotional catharsis and moment of self-actualization and perhaps it is in that moment. But like all heroes in very American art this hero has to take what he’s learned and apply it to real life. Or as they say via our take on modern dramatic film and TV writing, The Hero’s Journey — he needs to Return with the Elixir from whence he came and put his knowledge into practice in his own ordinary world.

Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems that Mr. Weiner’s (and Mad Men’s) answer to all this is NOT to have Don go home and become a better father, join the Peace Corp or set up a foundation for other lost souls less fortunate than he.

No – what happens is that during a subsequent day of mediation (complete with a joint OHM and all that entails) a literal bell goes off in Don’s head and he smiles – presumably with an idea.

Suffice it to say this is not a notion for how to achieve world peace or the beginnings of a cure for cancer. Though perhaps it is the ad man’s equivalent of that – a brilliant idea for a …Coke Commercial?

Say what you want about all of us as a culture, or as artists, but there is no idea too pure or life event too personal that we are above cannibalizing if we can turn it to our benefit into great art or at least a great business idea – though hopefully both.

Which I couldn’t help thinking about when Mr. Weiner revealed Mad Men’s final song and image – Don Draper’s last great idea. Cue one of the most famous television ads ever seen – a multi-cultural group of young people of different colors and nationalities atop a mountaintop having HIS Kumbaya moment but singing a song espousing the benefits and joys of us humans one day existing in perfect harmony as we each drink…our Coca-Colas.

You tell 'em, Rita!

You tell ’em, Rita!

Anyone who is of a certain age remembers I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.  If not click here. First it was an ad jingle, then it was one of the first world videos, and then, and only then, was it re-recorded with new lyrics where it would become an…international hit record.

It was the beginning of another era – that of media cross-pollination, which would eventually give way to mass corporate ownership of the arts and vertical integration of all its divisions into a new world order.

Yes, we do have the Don Drapers of the world to thank for that.

But only THE Don Draper – and those who created him – to thank for seven seasons of appointment TV that, even in our current and vast media landscape, will sorely be missed.