When Good is Bad

Photo credit: Steve Tropiano; Editing by: Jon Bassinger-Flores

Praise and positive reinforcement (treats) work extremely well in dog training and with humans.  The difference is, with dogs one can’t give too much praise when they do something good because of their simple and pure natures.   They like repetition in general, and when we add (even minimal) compliments to it, they’re sold.

Not so with us humans.   Our culture is caught in a time suck of overpraise.  Nothing is “good” anymore.  It’s fantastic!  Unbelievable!  Genius!  Imagine a canine demanding you up the ante from “good boy!” to fantastic, brilliant super dog?  Sure, they (and us) have a weakness for treats.  A dog might want to consume 12 steaks instead of a small plate of beef if we weren’t around to stop them.  But they have us to dole out the treats because our brains are bigger.  Yet who is really going to tell you to stop indulging?  (Note: Do NOT try this with your spouse, date or significant other, trust me).  Or be honest when the praise has gotten a little out of control?

Isn’t it okay for a movie or TV show or political candidate or business deal to be just good anymore?  Does it have to be BRILLIANT?  On the flip side, can’t a play just be disappointing or fair instead of being awful, offensive or a waste of time so great that one wants to see the producer/writer/director run out of town on a rail hanging by their toes?

I went to see “Super 8” this weekend and was so annoyed with its gargantuan plot holes that I left angrily just as the credits rolled and began to talk to anyone I could about just how much I “hated” it.  Of course, I didn’t hate it.  I loved Elle Fanning (on what plane of reality were she and her sister Dakota raised and can I redo my childhood?) and thought the lead young boy was wonderfully real.  In fact, I was so taken with their story that once the (spoilers, sorry) train crashed, the alien was hunted, the superheroes survived, and the unexplained bad guy government stuff started it was as if someone had told me I could never have pizza again and I started rebelling.  So much so that I missed what I’m told was the best part of the film – the short, finished Super 8 movie over the end of the end credits. (Have no fear, I’ll watch someone’s Academy screener because I’m still so mad at these filmmakers that I will not give them one more cent of DVD/Netflix or cable streaming revenue).  I guess I’m still p.o.’d, even now, which, I’ll admit is only slightly embarrassing because I think I’m right.

More Elle, less everything else

Speaking of the Academy, we spend about 50 years with only five best picture Oscar nominees and two years ago some committee decides to DOUBLE the nominees to 10.   Really?   As if to say they were wrong, the Academy several weeks ago announced it will now have 5-10 best picture nominees per year, all to be dictated by a top secret mathematical formula they hired a fancy accounting firm to design in order to better serve the membership.  In a further cost cutting measure, here’s some free advice.  JUST CHOOSE FIVE FILMS!  There must be a way to cut down this year’s list of “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “Inception” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The King’s Speech, “ “127 Hours,” “Social Network,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit” and “Winter’s Bone” and have the losing filmmakers still survive.  In fact, it might even make them stronger and give them something further to strive for (or totally defeat them and break their spirit but hey, survival of the fittest).

In the case of the Oscars, the issue is deeper than overpraise.  It’s marketing – selling – hype!!  Everyone knows it’s worth many more bucks (though it’s unclear how many more) if you can slap a “best picture nominee” and a little Oscar on your DVD box or in your advertising.  But the more people or things that have a logo, the less its worth.  Remember when Louis Vuitton, Beanie Babies and Cabbage patch dolls were something to crave?

I actually do have some friends with young children and occasionally they do (perhaps unwisely) let me around them.  Lately, I’ve noticed even their rooms are littered with awards.  (Third place?  Runner up? ) Here’s a thought — do kids in camp all really need a trophy, even when they’re lousy ball players?  I mean, I never won a sports trophy ever and I’ve only been in therapy on and off for 24 years.  Okay, 25.

Has anyone gone to a screening, performance or reading of the work of a friend recently?  What do you do when it’s over and it’s not brilliant, amazing and genius?  What do you say?   In my case, I was at something that I thought was good.  Solid.  It wasn’t great but it didn’t have to be.  Yet I found myself…well….stymied.  Good really isn’t good enough, is it?  Because then you’re met with – “what’s wrong with it?”  Or others suggesting – “hmm, maybe he’s jealous?”  (moi?)  Perhaps it has nothing to do with any of those.  Perhaps good is exactly what it seems to indicate in the dictionary – “to be desired (I’ll take that!) or approved of.”

Like the animals we love, we humans do crave approval.  But if everything is genius or great, then nothing is. Or is it?  People nowadays love to say – “no worries,” or “it’s all good.”  But if it’s ALL good, then does that mean spending two hours at “The Green Lantern” is equal to two hours watching, uh, “Star Wars?”  Or “The Seventh Seal?”  Or “The Godfather?”  At least one of them has to be a dog.  Sorry creatures of beautifully simple and pure natures.

Please don't make me see "The Green Lantern"

I’m not sure where this all ends.  I was planning to include a list of films (and TV) that I felt were good, but not great/fair but not awful – but I chickend out. OK.  It started with “Forrest Gump,” which I claimed to have hated at the time, but now admit is just fair, well-made but not at all my cup of tea.  It was going to end with “The Voice,” which I seem to love and am addicted to because I have wished my whole life that I could be a singer.  I know it’s not a brilliant TV show and just a good, well-made one.  But in the case of “The Voice” good is good enough.  In a really good (meaning positive and desirable) way.

Except, for some reason, I think that show is JUST GREAT!!!!!!

Something for Everyone?

William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry:  “Nobody knows anything.”  I never truly believed this, though I said I did.  After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.

Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit.  You might not believe me because, well, why should you?  Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s.  But trust me, it’s true.

Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime.  It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway.  Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”

Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.

Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.

Oh please.

All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck.  But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad.  If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count.  And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper.  Would that be considered your good luck?  Well, I certainly think so.

I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent):  Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star).  Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.

Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know?  Or anyone know? Hint:  If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t.  And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too.  Google or IMDB him.  You’ll see.


If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY.  As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing.  The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)

Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott.  This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago.  (see this or this).

But that’s not the only thing.  Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence?  What changed?  Was it CHANCE?  Or were they the EXCEPTION?  Or —

Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them?  Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway.  And not even gay.  (As far as I know).  Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.

Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of)  is a man named Larry Kramer.  For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds.  Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action.  He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self.  Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time.  As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance.    (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).

The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR?  WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT?  Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it.  It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun).  Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone.   But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable.  Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.”  Or much more than that.  Ask Larry or Trey or Matt.  Chance is strange that way.

Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:

“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”

Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.

But isn’t it all the same thing?  Take a chance.