But… Why?: A Movie Story

This is not about hating a film.

It’s just that every so often there is a high-class movie that critics and audiences seem to love and you just don’t get.

At least it starts out that way.

Uh oh — the Chair is about to get real

Here’s the deal.  You’re watching a movie and there are moments in the first half hour that irk you.

-The actors seem to be trying too hard to make you feel something. 

-The story interests you but the choices the characters make feel written, or vague or just plain unbelievable. 

-The conflicts scream drama and real-life comic irony. Yet nothing you’re watching has any urgency.  These people seem to have it all in a 2019 world where land mines can literally lurk around every corner.

Finally, as you watch all of this unfold you want to run from the theatre screaming to every character appearing in this acclaimed work of artistic brilliance:

Jesus, get a real problem!!!!  What would you actually do if crime knocked at your door, your kid got sick, you truly couldn’t pay your bills or even one of the myriad of political issues we see played out on the news daily hit you squarely in the face? 

No comment (but really, comment)

This is all to say, is it enough these days to watch a film that is merely about successful, wealthy characters whose chief challenge in life is a lack of communication with each other and their own super human inability to get out of their own way?

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson poses that question.  Decide for yourself after you see it.  Or better yet, don’t see it and use the money to contribute to any one of the 7,235 Democratic candidates running for president in 2020.

Except this guy. No one should give money to this guy.

There have been wonderful movies about the dissolution of a marriage between wealthy, or at least well-off and politically unaffected, couples and the byproduct of pain it inflicts on both their children and themselves.

The haunting Shoot the Moon (1982) comes to mind (Note: Diane Keaton singing the Beatles’ If I Fell in the bathtub.  Unforgettable.).  More acclaimed and better known are Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982) and the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

Boyhood also fits the bill

So you don’t have to be economically pressed or non-white or non-straight to warrant a big screen dramatization of your issues.

The problem with Marriage Story for what will likely be a vocal minority of many of us is, like its protagonists, it tries to have it all and takes no responsibility for its own actions.  It’s an overwrought and yet underdeveloped attempt to capture the superficial in a non-superficial way.

It is very loosely based on the dissolution of the real-life marriage of its prolific director-writer Baumbach to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh so one immediately presumes it’s operating from a place of honesty.

Ehhhhh… maybe?

Yet some of us will leave the theatre pondering whether what is most difficult is to be honest about ourselves?  A second question might be whether what seemed life threatening, dramatic or even black comedy funny to us will register as anything more than Okay, boomer (Note: Feel free to substitute Gen X, Millennial, et al) to anyone else.

It’s not that we don’t at all care about Charlie, an avant-garde turned breakthrough N.Y. theatre director, his wife Nicole, an L.A. bred commercially acclaimed actress who married him and, in the process, rebranded herself as a deeper, more serious thespian.  Nor is it that we don’t have feelings for Henry, their adorable if somewhat odd, floppy-haired 8-year-old son whom both parents seem devoted to and truly love.

Sounds…. fascinating.  #vanilla  #very

It’s just, well, what do we do with two people who tell us their problems in long monologues about their lives and feelings, none of which seem pressing enough to justify the drastic decision they’ve made to junk the whole deal?  Every marriage has some level of neglect, betrayal, sacrifice and unexpressed anger.  So why is it these two people suddenly decide they can’t take it anymore?

Or, as many a writer instructor poses to their classes at least once every semester:

WHY. THIS. DAY?

Is she thinking what I’m thinking? #butwhy

This story of a marriage becomes a strange juxtaposition of over-explaining the big issues and leaving out the specifics of what would elucidate them.  That leaves it in the hands of two very capable actors, the dynamic duo of Driver and Johansson, to work it out for us.

It’s an unfair place to put them in yet each manages to rise to the occasion and create whatever sparks of resonance the story has.  They are so game and so committed that it is only the looks on their very raw and very photographable faces that drag the movie over its much hoped for finish line.

Is it interesting to spend half of your viewing time watching the onscreen antics of callow California divorce lawyers?  Not to mention, are there still people who think every second person in Los Angeles tries to sell the merits of the city to die hard New Yorkers by constantly proclaiming about our homes and apartments:

But look at all that space! 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love you, Laura Dern #youdeservebetter

It’s a 1980s view of the left coast that only someone steeped on the east could write.

Which is not to say that it’s untrue.  Nor are numerous other moments.  It’s that they’re unchallenged.  They hang in the air as facile explanations for behavior rather than offer us lacerating insight as to why.

This is never more exemplified than when Mr. Driver’s Charlie is tasked with performing Being Alive, Stephen Sondheim’s famed eleven o’clock number from Company, in its entirety.

As he sings: But alone, Is alone, Not alive as some sort of tremulous reflection and revelation for a marriage gone bad, we feel for the actor.

ADAM DRIVER SINGS?!

But it’s more for him and what he’s managing to pull off in the name of his character. He deserves the Oscar nomination surely coming his way for the herculean task of simply getting through it.

That cannot be said for anything else in the film, speaking for the very vocal minority of us who simply don’t get it.

Tina Turner – “Let’s Stay Together”

Is The Irishman why we go to the movies?

After spending three and a half hours seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, financed by Netflix, at a screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, there are lots of thoughts and feelings to be sorted out.

None of these have to do with the future of film exhibition or whether Netflix is justified in its release pattern for the new Scorsese film.  For those who don’t know, that would be only eight theatres in NY and LA this week, followed by additional movie screens in more cities seven days later and, finally, its streaming debut just ten days after that (Nov. 27) for anyone with a Netflix subscription or the ability to hop on to someone else’s account.

Netflix is so needy #validation

Scorsese, who turns 77 years old on Nov. 17, is one of THE best American filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries, or any century.  Yeah, he’s publicly expressed his disinterest in superhero films and sounded the alarm bells about a money guzzling, tent-pole-driven, market-researched-to-death movie industry obsessed with the Marvel/DC Universe at the expense of cinema dealing with humans and the complexity and nuance of their emotions.

But, for the record, he’s right about that.  Most of us would tire of potato chips and chocolate bars if we ate them 75% of the time.  Even if we didn’t, think of the affect it would have not only on our bodies but our souls, assuming it already hasn’t.

Avengers: Age of Gluttony

Point being, Scorsese not only has a good argument about what passes for present-day cinema but has earned the right to grouse.  For Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, New York, New York, The Aviator, Casino and The Departed alone, he can opine from now until the end of time about what displeases him and/or makes him happy about any one group of films or the movie industry in general.

also thank you for this gif

Which makes one wonder if the same goes for his audience.  If you’ve been a Scorsese admirer and mostly loyal fan all these years, do you have the right to be disappointed in the latest entry into the master’s oeuvre that everyone else seems to be calling brilliant?

Well, of course you have the right.  This is still a free(ish) country.  But is it called for, or even worth it to bring up?

Yeah, it is.

Oh there’s more…

Movies by their very nature are a communal experience.  Sure, many of us now too often watch in the confines of our own homes, and too often do it alone.  But the cinema Scorsese makes and presents is shared with others in a dark room where it’s then debated and dissected afterwards.  It’s part of the gift he’s given us for over half a century and to ignore real life discussion of a new Scorsese film would be like negating the very existence of the artist himself.

So here’s the thing…

Is that Ray Romano?

The Irishman is extremely well made, brilliantly acted and doubtless couldn’t be directed better by anyone else on the planet.  But it’s as cold as a tray of ice cubes on a bleak winter’s day and about as revelatory and/or insightful.

Ouch, Chairy!

After 209 minutes it’s difficult to not wonder aloud, Why did I just spend all of this time watching this?  What did this film tell me that I didn’t already know?  In what way was I touched, repelled or even slightly moved by the lives of these “wise guys” and the people around them?  (Note: Not to mention, I already knew the Mob murdered Jimmy Hoffa!!!).

This is especially true if you’ve ever seen a mob film by Scorsese.  Or watched one in that genre by his friend and contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola.  Or even binge watched the HBO series The Sopranos.

Don’t drag me into this! #cuttoblack

It’s unfair to say that with The Irishman Scorsese has made his version of a sequel to a sequel of his latest superhero film.  The Irishman has many flaws (Note: Despite what the critics are saying), but once it reaches the three-hour mark it forges some new ground.  In its last half hour, one begins to realize why the director spent all of these years trying to make this story and why it is likely the final chapter of every mob story he has ever told.

You can trust the Chair

But suffice it to say that dark and foreboding as it might be, that third act ending doesn’t so much surprise as simply…play out.  It takes you down a road you didn’t expect to see onscreen but pretty much could have imagined would have happened exactly that way off screen.

Would you have imagined it, if left to your own devices?  The answer is probably not if you weren’t a contemporary of Scorsese.  So in that sense, it does play in to the director’s own definition of cinema and, in its way, far surpasses anything you will see in the latest Marvel/DC superhero film.   Which is not to say it is Scorsese, or even cinema, at its best.

God, he’s so rich

There are many different reasons why we go to the movies.  Though let’s qualify that to reflect a 2019 reality.  There are many different reasons why we watch movies.

Escape comes to mind.  File this under the category of general entertainment.  We want to laugh and forget or, if we are addicted to catharsis, we want (and need) to cry and commiserate.

I already know I’ll be a disaster during this movie

Perhaps we want to feel superior to a person or class of people being portrayed onscreen.  Taken one step further, we might even joyfully hate watch something we know will be hopelessly dumb, awful or not to our taste just because we can, especially if we’re the type that has no empathy for its own highly overpaid craftspeople boring us.  (Note: Rest assured the latter also includes ALL of its above-the-line talent [nee actors, producers, writers AND directors] despite what they might say or admit to in interviews.  Though this should never, ever include Scorsese or anyone of his caliber).

But mostly, many of us go to and/or watch movies simply because we are true blue fans, Scorsese or otherwise.

… and for the popcorn #arteriesclogging #delicious

We hope for the best, realize we may be disappointed and yet still are pleased that we saw it.  Some but not all of us in that category can usually find something to like in almost anything, even if it’s the good intentions of those who might have let us down.   (Note: See a few paragraphs above). More importantly, there is always a chance we will see something we like, perhaps even love, and be transported.

And for that experience, we will be grateful, perhaps forever grateful.

With so many other ways to spend our time these days there is still nothing quite like sitting in the dark (or semi-dark, or even light) and watching someone else’s idea of life unfold.  For a short time we get to feel something we might have never felt before, or in that particular way

I have a lot of feelings, OK?!?!

There are Scorsese films where we have that for a few fleeting moments, for numerous moments or, sometimes, all the way through.

You (okay, I) want The Irishman to be the latter even though the best you can say about it is that it’s in the former.  But like all great cinema, the movie and its director contain some moments where you feel as if you are in the presence of screen super heroes.

And that says something.  Actually, it says a lot.

Muddy Waters – “Mannish Boy” (from soundtrack for The Irishman)

 

Super Harriet

Harriet Tubman’s face was scheduled to be on the $20 bill next year but the Trump administration put an end to that.  In May it was announced the redesign would be delayed until 2026 due to counterfeiting and… (ahem)…security features.

This means the soonest an image of a Black female can grace our currency for the first time will be when Trump is out of office, that is if he were to win a second term and survive his pending impeachment.

AHHHHH! #methinkingabout2020

It also means the soonest any of us will be able to proudly pull a wad of Tubmans from our wallets instead of our current stack of twenties bearing the likeness of Andrew Jackson, a slave owning, Southern cotton plantation master who forcibly removed two major native American tribes from their homelands in the early 1800s, will also have to wait.   (Note: FYI, Andrew Jackson is Trump’s favorite American president, so much so that a portrait of the former POTUS now hangs in his Oval Office).

Typical

Still, what didn’t wait and what even Trump couldn’t stop was this weekend’s release of Focus Features’ Harriet, a long overdue major studio biopic about one of the most legendary and unexplored historical figures in American history.

One can easily picture Trump reveling in the flat image of Jackson on his wall as he figures out more ways to pit various regions of the country against each other in a new 21st century Civil War.

Can we hire Daniel Day Lewis to recreate this?

But after watching the superbly made screen version of Harriet Tubman emerge as a sort of mainstream cinematic superhero for everything that is just and right about the world, past and present, it’s clear Trump and his favorite predecessor better take cover. A cultural shift of the tides is beginning and it’s being led once again by a petite, very dark-skinned young woman who has no difficulty in speaking truth to White Power, past or present.

It is no accident that the image of Harriet Tubman one walks away from after Harriet is one of our nation’s first female superheroes, a woman who has been historically documented to have helped many hundreds of slaves escape the South, often by using her own amazingly unerring and mystical sense of direction and focus.

Also, good hats!

Tubman herself claimed that God spoke to her and helped guide her and the many people she saved to freedom.  This is literally represented in the film through images of both past trauma and future dangers right around the bend each time certain death rears its ugly head.  These are also shown in other moments in the film as nothing more than possible delusions from minor brain damage she received after a slave master broke her skull when she was 13 years old and she lied comatose for several months.

At a recent screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, Harriet’s director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons addressed a question about Tubman’s real-life and cinematic feats by noting that at the very least she had prefect instincts.  But her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans), who wrote the first draft of the script 25 years ago, decided early on to approach Tubman’s story not so much literally but as an action film…with a superhero.

There is literally a comic book called “Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer” #really #saysitall

Since Howard’s first draft screenplay, a plethora of historical records, including photographs and diaries, have been unearthed and several Tubman biographies have been written.  These all verify Harriet’s seemingly superhuman abilities as an expert guide leading scores of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad as well as what she claimed to be a very specific and deep personal communication with God himself.

Of course, like any great leaders in a particular field of endeavor, especially in the past, it is difficult to know exactly how they do it and why they are able to be so exceptionally successful when the odds, and reality, were and are so severely stacked against them.

Some of us even look at Trump and wonder that very same thing, even as his Wizard of Oz-ish curtain is currently being pulled back for all of us Dorothys to see in real time, if we choose to.

There’s no place like the polls #votehimout #2020comefaster

But at the end of the day what’s important are results, be it a Trump, a Harriet Tubman or any particular major studio film beckoning for box-office receipts or at least a blaze of glory as its launched into the zeitgeist.

We know what Tubman achieved and what Trump did.  Right now, and after just a few days, Harriet has so far managed to land the number two spot at the box-office nationally this weekend — no small achievement for a historical biopic.   Yes, that’s no small feat but one suspects, like it’s namesake, its more impressive achievement will be a slow burn into the cultural conversation of who we are and where we are as a nation.

You know it

This might start with Cynthia Erivo’s riveting film debut and sure bet lead actress Oscar nomination for her lead performance, move towards the clear parallel of Civil War era 1% attitude to those carrying the torch for Trumpism today and then wander off into why the heck it took a century and a half of cinema for Hollywood to finally tell the real life Hollywood story of Harriet Tubman.

Yeah, for real

Of course, we all know why it took so long for Harriet to reach the big screen.  As cowriter Howard so aptly put it, you needed Black Panther to blow the doors wide open.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take as long for the superpowers exhibited by Ms. Tubman in Harriet to blow the doors of the Oval Office open and escort the likes of POTUS’ Trump and Jackson out for good.

Cynthia Erivo – “Stand Up” (From Harriet)

Modern Love

As I binge watched Amazon’s eight-episode Modern Love series this week I wondered what part of my relationship with my husband would serve as the jumping off point for our episode.

Nothing came to mind.

That is not because there wasn’t drama, comedy, love, hate and everything in between. (Note: Please, we’re talking about two gay men here).  It’s because after celebrating 32 years together this Oct. 24 there are too many stories.

There are also too many risks that the one story I did choose to tell would only come across to the collective YOU as a painfully self-satisfied humble brag.

what can I say?

Maybe something along the theme lines of:

— See, we almost broke up but then a series of inspired events where we both took chances brought us together!

— You think the perfect mate for you will never come along, well let me tell you about how many toads I had to kiss.

— Share your deepest secret publicly with the world and perhaps get some therapy, or meditate, or give someone a chance that you NEVER would have dated or befriended in the past and you too can be as happy as the ME in MY love story.  Why NOT, right?

I just can’t do it for numerous reasons, and one other, which we’ll get to in a minute.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Modern Love (Note: And which of us isn’t in some shape or form in the broader sense), the series is loosely based on real-life love stories that appear in a recurring column in the NY Times Style section.  It began 15 years ago and grew exponentially in popularity.  Four years ago it became a podcast.  This month it debuted as a half-hour streaming show and this past week it was renewed for season two.

… and that’s not even half the cast!

I guess that means it has good ratings but, seriously, with streaming platforms like Amazon (Note: And Netflix and Hulu and…) we don’t really know.  I mean, would you swear to it?  I certainly wouldn’t.  Maybe it’s a loss leader, like the perfect sized 125 inch Hi-Def TV on sale in limited quantities just to get you into Target on Christmas Day.

Losing interest, already?

Well, don’t.

Before deciding this universe is only for romance novel fans, rom-coms addicts, or those looking for a very special brand of reassuringly Hallmark non-holiday movies (i.e. women and gay men of certain age), not quite.  Actually, not at all.

Modern Love is not necessarily focused on romantic love and not always about happy endings for all concerned.  It can be about weird friendships, familial connections, unsettling dysfunction between parents and kids, old people too close to death’s door or mental illness.  Years ago I read one about a dog that I barely got over, though quickly decided I could have written better from my own experience.   (Note: See humble brag).  Yet on reflection I recently decided the latter was not true, it would have only been different.

Did I mention I love my dog?

The half hour format gives the show a bit of a kick as does the limited space the Times reserves for its frequent Sunday column.  You don’t like that particular story, you won’t be bored or annoyed for long.  But every so often you get whacked upside the head in a great, unexpected way by one of them.

To call them inspiring is to imply too much bathos.  The best ones emerge as unusually true and atypically heartfelt.  In fact, the best ones are the anti rom-com.

This is why actors such as Dev Patel, Catherine Keener, Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Jane Alexander, Andrew Scott and Andy Garcia were attracted to emotional season one roles that these days are scarce to sometimes non-existent (Note: Depending on the way you look and your age and your race) on the big screen.

YES, Catherine Keener, YES.

As Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and many others have opined in the last few weeks, not everyone – meaning actors AND moviegoers – can fit into the Marvel/DC Universe.

This came into specific focus when I began reading the extremely mixed and varied reactions to Amazon’s eight episodes.  Numerous critics felt at least half of them were flat and phony while others loved most of the entire series.  A reviewer for Entertainment Weekly rated them from best to worst and had the nerve to put MY LEAST FAVORITE at number one.  Imagine!

But that’s the way it is with love, modern or old-fashioned.  What floats your boat is a repellent to someone else.  This is fortunate because if reactions were universal I am fairly confident I would not be in a loving relationship for 32 years.

Very romantic

Which reminds me, towards the end of my binge something happened in my own story that may or may not read like a humble brag but stopped me right in my tracks at the moment.

My husband had come upstairs (Note: No, we didn’t couple binge it together!) for an Energy Drink to sustain him long enough to focus on finishing a chapter for the long overdue textbook he was writing.  He went to the fridge, looked up, poured the drink into a glass and finally noticed I was searching, frantically and frustrated, through the cupboards and drawers for something.

What are you looking for?

Do you have any gum?  I just really need a piece of gum.

Yes, I am addicted to Extra’s sugarless bubble gum.  A nasty habit but certainly better than drugs, McDonald’s or indiscriminate anything at this point in time for me.

Actually, I do.  It just so happens that I keep a secret package downstairs in a drawer in my office for this very reason.

.. and now I’m a puddle #thesweetest

At which point he proceeded to go down and up the stairs in less than a minute and proudly produce that pretty pink pack of overly sweet, plastic-wrapped, chemical deliciousness.

This might not make a good episode of Modern Love but it says everything I could possibly tell you about what might still float your boat after 32 years.

David Bowie – “Modern Love”

My Other Half

This is not a reflection on marriage or relationships.  It’s far more self-centered than that.

The still miraculously ageless Paul Rudd, our Dorian Gray of the 21st century, stars in a new Netflix series called Living with Yourself.  In it he plays a man in seemingly middle-aged malaise (Note:  Because really, it’s Paul Rudd).

There is actually a “Which Paul Rudd is Older” Quiz and it’s SO hard. Click here to take it and fail miserably like me #HEISAVAMPIRE

Life has turned against him and it’s mostly not his fault, more a circumstance of battle scars and, well, age if you don’t count his still voluminous hairline and the suppleness of his skin.

This man is 50 years old #dealwiththeDevil

In any event, after a sad public semi-meltdown at the office, his newly reenergized work friend takes pity on him and gives him a card with the key to his secret of rejuvenation.   What it turns out to be is the number of a slightly seedy storefront in a strip mall where, for a small pile of money, you will become the BEST of you.

Or, put more succinctly, a CLONE of you; the rested, hottest, most well adjusted version of yourself, the best of yourself and without having to endure painful psychotherapy or tedious self-help courses.

You will wake up and walk out as strong and as vibrant and as in demand as, say, football quarterback Tom Brady.  Because, as the series more than implies, that is how Tom Brady manages it.

Ugh, forget it

Though since nothing is that easy in our actual reality these days AND because all good TV shows and movies need some conflict, it’s not that easy.  Rather than killing off the world-weary version of Paul Rudd, as this storefront usually does (Note:  Ha, imagine that they thought they could even nick Paul!) with no one the wiser, things go awry.

The real, down-in-the-mouth Paul Rudd somehow manages to live (Note:  Was there ever a doubt?), emerging through dirt and plastic wrap from sex feet under clad only a diaper, where he then walks six hours home to his nice house and nice wife and angrily confronts…HIS OTHER HALF.

These pics are 11 years apart… I just can’t get over it

No, it’s not his wife who he encounters when he enters back into the world that was once, more sadly, his own.  What he sees instead is the best version of him; someone that he instantly recognizes physically but for all intents and purposes is now a psychological stranger.  Right before his eyes is his truly OPTIMUM self.  The can-do guy without the bumps and dings and self-sabotaging either life or he saddled himself with.

It’s infuriating and yet strangely comforting.  It makes him sad and resentful and, yet, gives him a sliver of hope.

In short, it allows him and us to look in a three dimensional mirror and try to somehow rectify what it means to be the best AND most world-weary versions of each of us in any given moment, mindful that every option is always available and every alternative has its perks and minuses.

We agree, Keanu.

This gets you to thinking.

If even ageless Paul Rudd is world-weary and tired and angry and bitter what hope is there for me?

But if there is indeed an age defying, bouncier version of the Paul Rudd that we all know and love hiding from even Mr. Rudd himself, perhaps each of us suffers from the very same malady?

Maybe there is a better version of yourself lurking somewhere deep inside.  This would be a person less jaded and certainly less fed up.  This would be a guy (or a gal, obviously) able to take a different, more positive road to, well, everything, and make his or her choices accordingly.  This could be someone WE’D envy and, more positively, even aspire to be if we weren’t already them.

Imagine if we had access to that?

My better version would look like Matt Bomer, right? #please

Who would Donald Trump be?  Is there a better version?  What would Vladimir Putin do?  Or maybe there are even worse choices and what we are now experiencing is actually his best self?

Or vice-versa.

Again, it gets you thinking.   Though that can be a perilous course depending on which version of yourself you are.

Jekyll or Hyde?

Difficult though it might be to accept that we are not set in stone, condemned to act in a certain way given our all of our specific life experiences up to that very point in time, it is worth considering.

What would it be like it be like if my mind and body could get serviced by the best human garage in town and emerge as a nearly refurbished version?  Not only could I be freshly painted and waxed on the exterior (Note:  Because, please, that’s the first thing you notice, no matter how much psychotherapy you’ve had or not had) your outlook could be a sharpened, shiny and certainly more electrifying version of that very same DNA.

We call that Fonda-ing

This does not mean you’d be anyone else but you.  It only allows you to be the very best of who YOU are and choose what actions YOU take accordingly in any given situation.

It also allows for a more limber point of view from which to make these choices.  Not necessarily younger, since we all must choose unwisely when we’re young, but simply less cynical and jaded.

It gets you to thinking again, and again, and again.

What are the possibilities contained within all of our inner operating systems?

Fiona Apple – “Better Version of Me”

We’re Secular, Bitch

I watched El Camino, the Netflix film that continues the story of one of the best TV series of all time, Breaking Bad.

It’s a respectable effort to complete the arc of the series from BB’s creator Vince Gilligan even if it doesn’t soar to the same heights.  Still, we get to know what happens to our favorite dim bulb sweetheart of a crystal meth maker, Jesse Pinkman, witness a brief encounter between him and… (Note: Okay, NO SPOILERS HERE!) and realize once again that once you heavily enter into the world of drug dealing and drug taking no good will come of it.

Nothing de-glorified the illicit worlds of drugs and toxic masculinity better than Breaking Bad.  It’s certainly not the only example of that in popular culture but its ability to eschew proselytizing and instead focus on the lives of the people who choose this road made it one of the most respected, watched and memorable TV series of all time.

Quality TV, bitch

Jesse Pinkman grew up in a two parent household with a Christian mom and dad who, by his own admission, did the best they could to raise him with the moral values he needed to sustain himself in the world.  He was fictional yet somehow familiar, like the lovable doofus next door who once showed potential but somehow, and in some way, went on to break bad.

Jesse came of age in the early nineties, right around time our current U.S. attorney general, William Barr, first served in that post (1991-1993).  This was under then Pres. George Bush, Sr. and at the time, as now, it was Mr. Barr’s task to set the standard for the legal, and, in turn, moral tone for the country.  In other words, he is the custodian of what passes as the rule of law.

Preach

A devout Catholic, Mr. Barr’s tone and morality have remained constant and virtually unchanged since the time young Jesse Pinkman was looking for guidance on how to be an adult.

By way of explanation, here are some nuggets from a speech Mr. Barr, our sitting A.G.,  gave this week to an audience of law students at Notre Dame Law School, many of whom never heard it because they were too busy protesting his appearance outside of the auditorium on campus from which he spoke.

…Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian for human conduct…We are told we are living in a post-Christian era, but what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system?… Among the militant secularists are many so-called progressives, but where is the progress?…

We see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism…Basically every measure of this social pathology continues to gain ground…Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic.

….New Jersey recently passed a law requiring schools to adopt a LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching,

….Over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. …But I won’t dwell on the bitter results of the new secular age. 

Jesse is not a fan

Attorney General Barr is on a familiar frontline of American governmental religious fervor and his perception is that there is a decided lack of it that is causing the moral decay or our world.  Or at the very least, it’s lack is the primary reason for our social problems and the key to why so many people, both young and old, disobey the law, misbehave in general and seem so, well…unhappy.

If you lived through the thirties, the fifties, the eighties/nineties or were paying attention in the latter half of this decade, aka yesterday on Fox News or the Christian Broadcasting Network, you’ve heard this before.  If not, you can go through the speeches of Father Coughlin (1930s), Joseph McCarthy (1950s), both Bush POTUSes and Barr himself (1980s/1990s/2000s) and catch up.  Or better yet, view Mr. Barr’s Notre Dame speech here:

… and prepare to lose your lunch

What it boils down to is a society whose problems have mostly to do with straying from a strict RELIGIOUS doctrine. It is a school of thought that conveniently (and very purposefully) ignores the many secular advances in the world like, say, women having equal rights or laws against them being stoned in town square for cheating on their husbands – to – laws preventing members of the LGBTQ community from being fired from their place of employment, barred from their local marriage license offices or, say…being stoned in town square for simply…being.

Most importantly what it seeks to do is blame the Jesse Pinkmans of the world – either fictional or real – on the fact that they were raised in a country or household where government and home teachings of the Bible were not somehow enshrined in their being and viewed as the gold standard of citizenry, if not the requirement and guiding principle of its government and its leaders. (Note:  This would presumably include our current American “leader”).

pretty much sums up my thoughts

In times like these it is important to remember, repeat, and rinse and repeat again, that this line of thought was precisely the opposite type of doctrinaire thinking on which our country was first founded.

One of the essential pillars of American democracy is and always has been the separation of church and state.  Don’t take my word for it.  It’s the very FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What this means is feel free to NOT BELIEVE in God and religion or BELIEVE in any God or religion you want.  But bottom line – leave RELIGION and whatever you believe it to be out of our government.

It is also important to note that the very definition of secularism (Note: Barr’s dreaded word) is: the principle of the separation of the state from religious institutions.

You know.. unless you live in this universe  #seeyourselfoutRudy

This in no way means that we can’t consult many sources, include our religion, to define what is right and wrong individually for us.  But as a government, a basic tenant of American law is that we leave our religion at the door.

As Americans we are guided by a set of norms and law that evolve over time, not ones enshrined in early A.D or B.C.  We have our problems, particularly these days, but this freedom to think any way we like, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, is in our DNA.  It has made us the most prosperous nation in modern history and, until recently, the one country the vast majority of immigrants in the world have chosen to migrate to.

Hmmm, perhaps what this attorney general and his cohorts from up above are trying to do by him speechifying about the enshrining of our country with an old/new religion is nothing more than their latest strategy to stem immigration?

Unlikely.

The game Barr and his ilk are playing is far simpler.  In fact, it’s all about the simplicity of thought.  Quiet the masses by evoking a past that never existed and ignore, prosecute, condemn and persecute (legally or by any means necessary) anyone who dare speak against them.  When all that fails, claim the sinners are the ones taking away THEIR freedom of choice, their religion, and stifling their ability to simply be who THEY ARE.

There is an immoral majority in American society right now but it’s not the Jesse Pinkmans of the world.  Rather, it’s the members of our top government elite, such as Barr, who think we’re all too dumb to catch on to their bait and switch game of immoral strategy to retain power and do what they please behind closed doors. (Note: I’m trying NOT to imagine anything I can’t unsee or unthank).

Well, they underestimate all the rest of us sinners at their own peril, don’t they?

Hopefully.

Nick Lutsko – “The Ballad of Jesse Pinkman” 

Not Joking

I’ve decided to wait a bit to see Joker.

Not that you asked and not that I’m afraid to venture out to a movie theatre showing Joker on its opening weekend.

Oh, yes.  Apparently, there is reason to be afraid.

My students actually brought this to my attention, noting more than several sets of their parents called them this week to warn them of the perils of venturing out.  These were mothers and fathers who were truly afraid their college juniors and seniors could possibly be shot at in a public venue that dared to show a movie that addressed the evolution of a cartoon villain into a gun toting vigilante who wanted revenge.

America, 2019 #sad

But it never even occurred to me to be scared and I have fears about pretty much everything.

Not being a parent and never one to miss the opening weekend of a movie I was desperate to see (Note:  Yes, I did see Judy on opening night.  Please.) I thought of venturing out to Joker.  But it wasn’t the prospect of the ridiculous crowds that go hand in hand with those huge box-office projections that made me stay home.

Reserved seating ensures you don’t have to wait in line for a ticket and I was willing to take my chances in the off chance of a flesh and blood gunman given I survived the eighties.  But, well, the rat f-ck in the parking lot, the talking in the theatre during the film, the inevitable crying kid who shouldn’t be there or texting teens with neon-screened phones who have to be there– I mean, really, I can wait.

I’m fine with this

And anyway, Martin Scorsese says any film that’s part of the Marvel Universe isn’t real cinema so I doubt that he feels any differently about DC/Batman origins.

Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” —  Martin Scorsese to Empire magazine this week.

Scorsese throws it down

If Scorsese is venting about high and low art we moviegoers are really in trouble.

Still, I get it, don’t you?  A steady diet of anything eventually makes it less special and inevitably, less than satisfying.  So how frustrating must it be for someone who is acknowledged as one of the best filmmakers of the century to watch the market for what he produces narrow further and further.

It’s the slow execution of everything he has given his life to.  The existential extinction of a widespread and very particular art form.

On the other hand, (and quite honestly) I can’t say I’m excited to see another Scorsese gangster movie, are you? Really excited?  I mean, are you really, really excited about the release of his latest three and a half hour long epic The Irishman early next month?  As excited as you were to see Goodfellas, Casino or even, say, The Departed?  Be honest.

I feel seen #truth

A superhero movie fan could argue a new gangster film from the director is the cinematic equivalent of a Scorsese theme park ride.   Others might, too.

This in no way lets the glut of Marvel/DC comic book movies off the hook.  Looking at what’s playing at what we used to refer to as real movie theatres at any given moment is a far, far cry from the last true golden age of cinema in the late sixties through the early to mid-seventies.

You know… before this #imissyoucarrie

The entertainment business has always revolved around making money, especially easy money.  So no one can blame movie studios, producers, directors, actors, et al for focusing on the broadest possible market with an emphasis on the key 18-24 year old demographic.

It’s said studios are most interested in a four-quadrant film, meaning the movie that will appeal to the widest swath of the population (Note:  What quadrant are you in?) but this is no longer the case.  It’s not even the case that whom they want to most appeal to are 18-24 year olds.

Most people when they go to a comic book movie #ifeelold

What is true is that superhero films accounted for more than 25% of total movie ticket sales last year, the equivalent of $11.38 billion.

Truth be told, this is a lot it is still far less than what we (okay I) might have imagined.  Until we realize, large as it is, it’s still a misleading statistic.  Those films might account for a quarter plus of releases but how wide of a release do the non-superhero movies get and how long do they really stick around?

In other words, 75% of the movies we have the option of going out to see might not have anything to do with Marvel or DC but if these films only play just one or two weeks in smaller, not easy to get to (or particularly desirable) theatres in not many cities, than what are the chances any of us will get to see them?  If a comic book hero is monopolizing 5 screens at an 8-screen multiplex do you want to brave the crowds on the weekend in order to see the latest indie offering starring Catherine Keener?  You might not even show up for a Jennifer Aniston rom-com or a Spike Lee joint.

Forget about the cost of a helmet or your bulletproof vest.

… and yet this is the film Catherine Keener did in 2018 #sigh

This is especially the case if you can wait a week or two and view them in the comfort of your large screened living room, which, in some cases, will offer images almost as large as the ones you might be treated to at one of the smaller multiplex screens that the non Marvel/DC movie you chose to attend would be relegated to.

It’s not an accident that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is backed by Netflix, which will make it available online three weeks after it debuts nationwide at what Steven Spielberg refers to as real movie theatres.

in unison: “you talking to me?”

Okay, I’m paraphrasing.

What he actually said is that Netflix films (and those from other streaming services) should not receive equal treatment at the Academy Awards and should be nominated for Emmys.  His belief is once you commit to the TV format you are a television movie and not a film.

But does his point of view extend to movies primarily backed or financed by Netflix and other similar platforms?  Or does Scorsese’s The Irishman get a pass because clearly HE makes cinema?

What IS 2019 cinema, anyway?   What is NOT 2019 cinema?

.. and what the hell is this??? #geminiman

As famed multiple Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman once said of those of us in and around the film business, nobody knows anything.

And that, unlike most of what’s offered at your local multiplex, includes everyone.

The Late Ones – “The Joker” (cover of Steve Miller Band)