Me and the Big O

“Everyone wants to be heard.”

So says Oprah and I think she’s right.  Besides, who would know better than someone who’s been listening to people for the last 25 years?   But what do you want to say?  What do we choose to tell each other?

Rather than concentrating on how the message is delivered, the real post-millennium question seems to be – what the hell are we saying???  It is quite popular right now to get caught up in the “method of delivery,” the “media platform.”  Are your eyes glazing over yet?  If so, all that means is – do you watch it on film, television, online on your iPad or  iPhone, in a live theatre, on the radio (that’s not watching, that’s listening) or just hear/see it in person from a friend or through the gossip grapevine (which could be on any of the platforms mentioned above).

But who really cares except the people who run those media platforms how we get the information?  iPads are great (do NOT even think of taking mine away) and certainly there’s an argument to be made for giant big screen televisions that permit you NOT to have to watch the teenage girl with the long red fingernails sitting next to you at the movie theatre brazenly and unapologetically text her best friend on her bejeweled cell phone during one of the few movies you were looking forward to seeing that year.

But once you get beyond the visuals, convenience and the idea of justifiable homicide of teenagers,  you’re left with – the information.  The message.  The, well, Oprahisms.  That’s what’s important.  Not the TV set, or abc.com or the OWN site you’re watching it on.

(Note: If Oprah is/was a religion I’ve/I’d finally found my place of worship only to have had it yanked right out from under me this week – so please be kind).

There was a lot being said and/or messaged this week and most of it wasn’t encouraging or, at least, Oprah reaffirming.  In fact, it was downright disturbing and depressing.  (except Oprah herself, but she’s now gone so…).  As a writer who probably would have preferred authoring the searing theatrical dramas of the 50s, 60s and 70s rather than struggling to find my way in the more action-based and futuristically oriented 80s, 90s and 00’s of this millennium, you’d think this would be great fodder for me.  In reality, it wasn’t.  In fact, I found myself thrown for a loop. How could  I feel unmoved (bored) and barely annoyed after watching HBO’s dramatic chronicle of our recent financial meltdown in “Too Big Too Fail?” I hate those friggin’ big banks (even though I have yet to close my big bank checking account) and the shit eating grins on their mega-rich guiltless faces.  Never a fan of our former California “Governator” as either movie star or politician, why was I thoroughly uninterested when Arnold Schwarzenegger was finally unmasked (and exposed) as the kind of crude, classless person I always suspected him of being.  I can remember laughing uncontrollably in 1982 after a screening of “Conan, the Barbarian,” sure that this no-talent could never become a movie star as everyone predicted.  Also, it was barely even yesterday when I guffawed at the thought that the Republican party could be silly enough to think a majority of Californians could vote for this, uh….cigar-smoker as the leader of our state (Of course, I felt the same way when Ronald Reagan ran for president so that should have been some kind of signal).  How could I not be gloating, or at least nodding my head in the latest version of ‘I told you so,” just even a little?

I don’t know the answers to these questions because I was plagued this week by something even more disturbing.  I find this total bon-bon of a movie, this ridiculous fantasy called Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” to be thoroughly enchanting from beginning to end despite the fact that I’m not particularly Francophile in nature and have grown used to being disappointed more often than not by one of my former favorite filmmakers of all time in recent decades.  Why would I buy into the premise that a Hollywood screenwriter about to marry a superficially shrew rich girl could walk around France at midnight and suddenly run into Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald AND wind up with (spoiler alert) a great piece of art AND the person of his dreams?  Life doesn’t work like that!  It’s too ridiculous!  And I don’t like unexplained, absurdist illogical non-stories.  At all.   I find them totally and thoroughly just too…silly.

But maybe they’re not in an age when the pretty images on my IPad captivate me more than the ugly images on the news, both here and overseas.

Or when the suffering of my unemployed friends and family members move me more than getting back (or watching dramatizations) of the sociopathic greed meisters who almost (or did – remains to be seen) brought down the US economy as we know/knew it.

Or when my/our real-life expectations for politicians/movie stars and hybrids of the two are so low, that what would be shocking would be to meet one of them who had NOT lied to their devoted spouse and family for 14 years.  Because, I’ll cop to it for us,  we’ve seen so much of that behavior delivered in so many of our TV reality programs or yes, favorite talk show(s) through countless media platforms in recent years.

Oprah might know the answer but, sadly, she’s not available to me/us anymore. At least for now.  Though she did give all loyal viewers her email (oprah@oprah.com) and tell you could write her and if you got a response it’d be directly from her but, hey, not even I believe everything she says.  No – the real answer probably comes from a 70-year-old movie from writer-director Preston Sturges called “Sullivan’s Travels.”  It’s about a successful director who makes silly, escapist films and decides to go on the road and live life as a hobo (nee homeless person) so he can see the underbelly of the world and come up with a work of art that is truly important and speaks to the truths of the day.  Of course, what he finds (final spoiler alert) is that the tougher the times, the more people want to laugh, be entertained and fantasize.  Not in a reality show, mean-spirited kind of non-Oprah way.  But perhaps in an old-fashioned, roaming the streets in Paris, kind-of life-affirming, Oprahesque (?) fantasy, best-of-ourselves, the-world-is-one, kind of style.

…No wonder I’ll miss her.

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Why I’ll Never Be Baryshnikov

“Honey, if it’s good, it lasts.”

Those were the words of 83 year old Broadway and cabaret singing legend Barbara Cook, who I had the pleasure of hearing at UCLA on Monday night.  That was after being treated to four brilliant actors named Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, in a no-holds barred evening of couples dysfunction called “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.   These four actors, whose ages range from 47-56, have been working at their craft for more than a quarter of a century each (that’s 100 years or more of total stage experience) and are so adept at what they do and having so much fun at it that they take what is certainly a solid good play and make it into a great evening.  Great actors can do that for writers.  Great writers can even do that for good actors.  But it takes practice.  A lot of it.

I’m consistently amazed by people who are experts at things that I  suck in  am somewhat “challenged” in.  I moved into a new house this week (it’s a rental, don’t think I’ve hit pay dirt…yet) for the first time in 23 years and have found that expertise does indeed extend beyond the entertainment industry.  Rewire switches?  Are you kidding?  Fix the injector thingy on the cook top?  I don’t think so.  Hang blinds to perfection with my significant other while we tear each other’s hair out as the true issues of our relationship begin to surface (Spoiler alert: a la “God of Carnage”)  Hah!!!! Not on your life!!! I’m expert enough at relationships to know that NOT doing this is one of the reasons I’ve been in a successful relationship for 23 years!

Not doing certain things has nothing to do with laziness, a caste system, or my lack of ambition to try new things.  It has to do simply with this  — there are only so many hours in the day and there are people that truly know and are experts at this stuff.  Like a great actor, a great (and honest) electrician can do it fast and make it look easy.  This costs money and you’re lucky you can afford to pay someone, you say?  Well…true.  But when I couldn’t afford to I quickly realized as I stared in awe at the people who could do these things that there were other things I was practiced in and could do well and that a deal might be worked out where I could do that thing for them.  You scratch my back.  I scratch yours.  So to speak.  Life works like that.  So does show business.  Though the two should never be confused.

But let’s get back to skills and annoying but true phrases like “practice makes perfect.”  Or old jokes like: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall — practice.”

Certainly there are prodigies in every field but for the rest of us mere mortals expertise takes time.  In his bestseller, “Outliers,” sociologist gadfly Malcolm Gladwell (cheap but I couldn’t resist the sort of rhyme) estimates it takes 6-10 years or 10,000 hours to become expert at something.  And even then there is no guarantee.  His suggestions:

  1. You must learn it by reading or listening to others who know how to do it, but most especially by doing.
  2. Then do some more.  At this point, you’ll start to understand it, but you’ll suck.  This could take months.
  3. Do some more.  After a couple of years, you’ll get good at it.
  4. Then do some more.  If you learn from mistakes, and aren’t afraid to make mistakes in the first place, you’ll go from good to great.

Yes, there are several holes in this theory.  I could spend the next 10 years studying ballet, but I will never be Baryshnikov.  Because there is only one him.  Or 20 years doing music, performance art and whiskey shots and never ever attain Gaga status.  Because there is only one of her (I think).  We’re just talking expertise and adeptness.  Not brilliance, which certainly rises out of this but is not necessarily a by-product of such.  Or as Joe Gideon, the fictionalized version of the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse, says to a discouraged female dancer in the yes, brilliant film, “All That Jazz”:  “I can’t make you a great dancer.  I don’t know if I can make you a good dancer.  But if you keep trying and don’t quit, I KNOW I can make you a better dancer.”  Sometimes it takes a person who is brilliant and has gone through the rigors of the Gladwell program and then some, to convince us of these things. (By the way, that dialogue was written in the early seventies.  Even before we had final draft or computer programs guaranteed to tell us how to expertly write a script or do pretty much anything else expertly).

As for Barbara Cook, she wasn’t mentioning my opening quote in reference to herself but famed composter Irving Berlin and a 60-year-old song of his.  Most true experts I know are, indeed, like this.  They don’t need to constantly remind you of how good they are because they know it is pretty powerful and obvious to those who aren’t  all on its own.  But what the most generous of them do is to share their gifts with you.  Especially if you ask.  Or charge you a nominal fee to see them.  Or offer you expertise in return for some of your own.

It (expertise) doesn’t happen overnight.  And it might even take more than 10,000 hours.  But consider how happy you can make others (thank you, master electrician and blinds hanger and most of all my dear designer friend who is showing me where to properly and most efficiently place a couch, two chairs, a table and treasured photographs and not make it look all like a big dorm room).  Not to mention how good you can feel about doing an honest day’s work at something you love.  As for Harden, Gandolfini, Daniels and Davis – hurry – the play closes on Sunday.  For a nominal fee you can see four really expert masters work seeming effortlessly at their crafts.

Sitting in for the Chair

Hi there Chair fans!

Our favorite blogger, Steve Ginsberg, knows a thing or two about having a hectic week. The kind of hectic that involves moving for the first time in 20 years, all the while reading and grading student screenplays. Not to mention this week’s devastating blow on American Idol…

Yes, Durbs, we will still love you tomorrow… and forever after that.

Sigh.

Anyway, check back next week for some fresh insights from The Chair. Go see Bridesmaids. Spend the weekend brainstorming plotlines for Ashton on Two and a Half Men (I’m calling love-child son of Sheen… anyone?). Get some fresh air. Keep on keepin’ on.

In the meantime, check out an inspired blogpost from one of The Chair’s former pupils. A great piece on Osama bin Laden and American exceptionalism:

http://dionrabouin.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/rashard-mendenhall-angela-merkel-osama-bin-laden-and-american-exceptionalism/

– HVB

Casting Calls: Heroes, Villains and Punch lines

Osama Bin Laden is a great villain.  For one, he’s a Hollywood villain – in the truest sense of the word.  He does/did really awful things like mass murdering 3000 people at a time (and that’s only in the American version), in a creative way (getting others to fly planes into buildings), to fulfill his nefarious agenda (bringing America/the infidels to its knees).  He also looks the part.  He has/had a really, really, really long beard (and it’s graying), dresses in foreign garb (long white robes and a turban) and speaks in a foreign language with a weird accent (well, whatever it is, it’s not English, right?).   Finally, he’s filthy rich – a man of seemingly unlimited means (millions? billions?), who communicates with a terrified public (the world) in unusual ways (taped messages) and does it all despite great and obvious physical limitations (kidney dialysis) that seem to make him even more unstoppable than would seem humanly possible.  Even when he is finally discovered after years of eluding the law, it’s the quintessential film coda.  It turns out he’s hiding in plain sight in the most clever of places (a mansion-like compound, at least by Pakistani standards) right before our/their eyes.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a punch line because, let’s face it, he looks like a punch line.  The bad hair weave (or dead Fox on his head, as Jon Stewart puts it); the heavy, almost working class New York accent despite a lifetime of NY society privilege; and the laughing all the way to the bank persona of a television reality show star.  Though Trump is rich and presumably doesn’t have to, he joyfully presides over a place (his show) where people scream, fight and pull hair (all under his watchful auspices) until he finally gets to repeat ad nausea his infernal catchphrase, (Dyn-O-Mite) “You’re fired!” year in and year out, for the rest of eternity. Add to this the gaudy, Vegas-like, new money tackiness of his hotels, apartment buildings and, well, pretty much anything else he touches, which, despite his punch line status, comforts the rest of us even further because we know that no matter who much real gold, diamonds and gazillions of dollars he spends on something, his punch line life ensures it all looks and feels to as if it could easily be transplanted into a 1960’s Flamingo Hotel by way of a really bad version of the Dubai or even Hanoi Hilton. Of course, punch lines don’t quite feel that way about themselves, and Trump is no exception.  They usually believe they have great taste of which everyone else is envious. Which is, indeed, what makes them punch lines in the first place.  Rich ones, but still, punch lines nonetheless.

And then, finally, there’s the hero. Some would even say – the dreaded hero.  Barrack Obama is central casting for, well, probably the most boring role in this scenario.  Ask a room full of actors and they will tell you – playing the hero is a lot less fun and a lot more difficult than being the villain.   Or even the comic relief (nee punch line).  Writers innately understand this after penning a few screenplays, TV shows (pilots or episodes) or plays.  Because our heroes (traditional ones, at least) must thanklessly carry the burden of the entire story and stay on some sort of moral compass while villains and punch lines and all the rest of the cast are allowed to misbehave outrageously or make us laugh to ridiculous measures.  Obama can’t swear, he can’t misspeak, he can barely even sweat (assuming he, indeed, does) or joke around the way he probably wants to.  This is because our heroes are tasked with trying to save the world over and over and over again (especially when they star in more than one film, ask Bruce Willis), ensuring their even-handed approach to all of this eventually just gets to be – well – a drag, or at least wearing or grating, even to their most devoted fans. Even when they manage to man up and get it right in a new and exciting chapter (like killing the villain Bin Laden), there are a sizeable number of people/viewers who resent him/them for always somehow coming out of a situation smelling like a rose (how believable is that?) while still vanquishing the fortunes of the (infidels) evildoers, keeping other enemies at bay, and still managing to get the girl (his devoted wife) and remain rich, comfortable and happy (yes, there are his daughters, the press and all those book residuals).  Heroes do sometimes fail and get scandalized, but in true Hollywood hero fashion, none of these misfortunes ever seem to really stick (ask Ronald Reagan or his heirs) because the very nature of heroes is that they/he are so damned charming/smart/manipulative, that he/they have the majority, or at least plurality, of the audience forever and perpetually snowed.

Are you still wondering why big, Hollywood movies seem corny or cliché?  Well, the next time you do, look around you and consider – does life really imitate art or, as Carrie Fisher’s alter ego Suzanna Vail so ably pondered in “Postcards from the Edge,” is it that you “want life to BE art.”

For just as it’s written people get the governments they deserve, perhaps right now we are getting the art (TV, plays, movies) we deserve – heroes, villains, punch lines and all.