Real Horror

A drama teacher once told me that if an actor plays a scene with enough commitment even the most outlandish choices they make would work on some level.  And maybe many levels. At the very least, it wouldn’t be boring.

Such is the case with the new FX one hour camp scarefest “American Horror Story” from the creators of “Glee” (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk).  If that sounds weird, it is, very.  But it’s not as if the creators don’t know that.  In fact, they revel in it.  Actually, they luxuriate in a bloody bubble bath of it .  Any show that in its first episode shows us:

  1. Evil, ginger-headed twin boys bent on destruction as they enter a haunted house.
  2. A Downs Syndrome girl of indeterminate age warning them they will DIE if they go inside.
  3. Jessica Lange in a stiff sixties wig channeling an L.A. version of Blanche Dubois as she pours Ipecac into chocolate cupcakes for her new neighbor’s teenage daughter.
  4. “Six Feet Under” loony Mom, Frances Conroy, as the uninvited maid of the manor with a lazy eye channeling her best Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca.”

    Mrs. Danvers

  5. Dermot Mulroney Dylan McDermott  shirtless (and with a new fully worked out body) masturbating intensely in front of a window after his wife refuses sex with him and right after he imagines (or does he?) a much younger Conroy furiously pleasuring herself just 50 feet away in the room across the hall.
  6. Beloved “Friday Night Lights” matriarch, Connie Britton as a grieving Mom and distant wife (Dylan (or is it Dermot?) cheated on her) who breaks down enough to have sex with a guy in a black latex suit she’s only guessing to be her husband (will it be revealed to be Dermot?).
  7. And a basement of an L.A. house of indeterminate neighborhood with endless jars of dead body (or is it baby) parts and limitless powers to claw and maim anyone who comes to close while period music from the 50s, sixties, seventies or beyond plays (music like “The Doors” or your favorite 60s girl group) —

— has something less (or perhaps its more?) than the drama of “Sophie’s Choice” or the integrity of a Shakespearean “King Lear” on its mind.  What, if anything,  that will be in the final analysis, I’m not entirely sure.  But what it is right now – in October 2011 —  is unbelievably entertaining.

Why?  I’ll try to elaborate.

In an age when political candidates and movie stars spend the majority of their time pretending to be something they’re clearly not, or worse, trying to be something they think that we want them to be – anything but themselves – it is refreshing to see something, anything, that is telling you exactly what it is – camp outrageousness.  The first episode alone blatantly steals moments from every classic horror film you can imagine: from “Rosemary’s Baby,” to “Carrie,” to “Poltergeist,” to “The Shining” to “Amityville Horror,” “Paranormal Activity,” The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,” “Harvest Home,” and Hitchcock’s (or is it Daphne DeMaurier’s) “Rebecca.”   Yet there is something unbelievably invigorating when something OR SOMEONE owns who he is.  It’s as if they’re saying – “you don’t like it TOUGH! (as my little sister used to tell me when I wanted one of her dolls toys or asked her for the 12th time to leave my room).  You have to admire the spunk, even when the answer or result isn’t exactly the something that you expected or wanted or even dreaded to hear.

You might ask (if you’re still reading) — Why am I writing about a one hour show on FX that is my latest guilty pleasure (should pleasure even be guilty?) when there is so much else going on in the world much more important.  Precisely because “American Horror Story” is absolutely emblematic of what is literally going on in the world.  Every political idea of today feels taken from another era.  Every new big studio movie (they just announced Johnny Depp is starring in a remake of  “The Lone Ranger” – and not even as the title character – as Tonto!) seems like it’s a remake of something from a bygone era that we’ve already seen, probably a remake from an era even more bygone.  Most television shows feel like redirected retreads of a stand up comic’s sitcom act (except Louis CK); or a feeble attempt to cash in on a trend (“Mad Men” begets the infinitely inferior and now defunct after 2 episodes “The Playboy Club,” and the inevitably soon to be defunct “Pan Am.”).  Even Broadway is spending time and money creating new “remake” American musicals like – “The Addams Family” and “Shrek,” waving enough money that even the biggest Broadway talent (yes, Nathan Lane is  THE box-office Brad Pitt of Broadway musicals) can’t say no and thus fostering the endless, unendurable cycle of, well – what we have.

Nice paycheck, Kemo Sabe

But for those of you writing to tell me you want me to be more optimistic and less complaining – here’s the deal – you can do all of these things – “Lone Ranger,” “Addams Family, “Playboy Club,” Pan Am” and many more of, well, anything if you do them terrifically –if you are just, well, OUT there with them.  Twist the unoriginality – come in with your take and commit to it enough (as my acting teacher once said) that it can’t help be anything but original (if only due to its blatant UNoriginality).

The one misnomer of “American Horror Story” is that it is being broadcast against another not so guilty TV pleasure called “Revenge” that I also very much (no – not because a former student is a staff writer) like.  “Revenge” is a well-done Hampton’s story of, uh – revenge.  In this case the poor person, Emily, is now rich and has returned to the Hamptons because her father was destroyed and she was ripped away from him as a wee child by a group of very wealthy, over privileged, immoral residents of the Hamptons.  “Revenge” is the REAL contemporary American Horror Story and should really be titled as such – rich people preying on the poor and downtrodden (less powerful) to such an extent that the poor seek, well, you know.  We root for them all – they’re our surrogates.  (well, 99% of us).

Watch out Hamptons, here she comes!

“Revenge” has already been renewed (for the season back nine) because in this particular American horror story we are gunning (yes, gunning) for someone to get their comeuppance from the community of wealthy powerbrokers who have been so over privileged for so long that they literally don’t suspect or could ever really even conceive why anyone would go to such lengths to get even with them in the first place – so accustomed are they to living their lives the way they do.  Does that sound familiar?  Or Are we (I?) succumbing to Mob rule as ads for this new and uncannily prescient TV program OCCUPYs the billboards on our STREETS?

The late American genius thinker Susan Sontag once wrote about all this and quite a lot more in her seminal essay of the 1960s, “Notes on Camp.”  As she tried to explain it to the rest of us, entertainment that we find “campy” – meaning over-the-top, exaggerated and in some uptight intellectual circles of that (or this) time perhaps a bit inferior, served a very real and necessary function and, perhaps, was anything but.

“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” Ms. Sontag explained. “Camp is playful, anti-serious.  More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’  One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

To my mind, the Camp of “American Horror Story,” and to a more subdued but perhaps even more accurate sense “Revenge,” are exactly what the entertainment Gods have ordered for what ails us at the moment and we should willingly – no – feverishly – take our medicine on Wednesday nights at 10 pm. (or at some other regular DVR or Hulu designated moment at your own discretion). It’ll either make you smile or make your mouth drop in disbelief from its outrageous, audacious and/or yes, hopelessly derivative camp value.  But it most certainly beats checking out the news, worrying about how you will pay back your student loans, looking at your 401K statement or any present or near future uniquely American horror that might await at your door.

Horse Manure

As unemployment soars to new records, the middle class slowly evaporates and young people are so frustrated and angry at the rigged financial system that they’ve taken to (WALL) streets across the country– I am going to talk to you about 20th Century Fox PROUDLY announcing this week its plan to make a big new movie.  That movie is – wait for it – a big screen film version of the 1960s TV show “Mr. Ed.”

For those of you who don’t remember, “Mr. Ed” ran for five years from 1961-1966 (in glorious black and white) and starred a talking horse who alternately helped, hindered and generally wreaked havoc on the life of its poor perpetually befuddled owner.

Full disclosure:  I watched the show as a (very) wee lad and have fond memories of it. But I also have fond memories of “My Mother the Car” — another not as popular sixties TV series about a guy whose mother was reincarnated as his vintage automobile and never stopped talking to him or butting into his life —  so my memories are not necessarily a barometer of anything more than, well, what I would be well-advised to eventually forget.

But back to “Mr. Ed: The Movie.”

I love animals as much as the next guy but —  do we really need a movie version of “Mr. Ed?”  Oh absolutely.  ESPECIALLY if you are an executive at a major film studio OR a major film producer trying to get a movie made in 2011, 12, 13 (or the foreseeable future) at ANY of our major (or even mini-major) movie studios.

And here are some of the reasons.  Check that – Here is the PRIMARY REASON – and in the words of “Mr. Ed”’s very proud veteran movie producer David Friendly:

‘It’s always the perfect time for a FOUR-QUADRANT FAMILY MOVIE.  Those are the movies that have the strongest pull  As a producer I try to envision the poster and this one looks pretty good….”

Really?  Yeah.

We all feel like Biff.

For those not up on the latest movie biz marketing lingo or don’t have “The Google” to look it up, let me translate.

A “four quadrant” movie crosses across all genders and all ages we can measure.  The quadrants are men or women (that makes two quadrants) who are under age 25 or over age 25 (that makes four quadrants total).  From a business perspective, the more quadrants you can potentially attract, the more money you will make.

In other words, if you have a broad enough appeal to your film (or as these biz folks call it, your ASSET), you are designing a blockbuster.  Which is, of course, the ultimate goal.  Because, as you may or may not know, creating a real 2011 blockbuster by today’s movie standards doesn’t mean you’ve created solely a movie. No – you’re actually the BIRTHER of an ASSET that can be associated with toys, games, restaurant tie-ins, theme park rides and many other more avenues of replication (including numerous sequels) that should set up you and your employer/partner quite nicely for many moons to come.

Notice:  Nowhere in that analysis does the idea of storytelling, creativity, emotionality or passion come into the equation.  This in, in fact, NOT a criticism of studios or the people who love or work for them.  This is merely a retelling/relating of 2011 FACT.

Now, before any and all creative people go ringing their hands or ripping down the door of the closest marketing executive or even hedge fund manager (something tells me the latter are all quickly relocating to numerous secret worldwide underground bunkers even as we speak), I am also happy to report that the very day  “Mr. Ed: The Movie” was announced it was proudly proclaimed that rock star PINK (using her real name of  Alecia Moore) would star in a very different type of other film with the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins and many others.  This new film is written and will be directed by Stuart Blumberg, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of “The Kids Are All Right.”  And this film is called “Thanks for Sharing” and is about – wait for it – a group of recovering sex addicts.  Yes, it’s true.  And that is about as far from “Mr. Ed” as you can get (unless you consider the plotline of Edward Albee’s brilliant 2002 play, “The Goat,” but I digress).

FYI, “Thanks for Sharing,” is being produced by William Migliore and David Koplan, two well-known NY indie producers  for Class 5 Films, a company where Mr. Blumberg’s Oscar nominated self (you get a lovely certificate and A LOT of cache even when you’re nominated) is also PARTNERED.

NOW — aspiring screenwriters, producers and directors (and veterans who still aspire to get our current projects made one day)  listen up:

There is NO major studio attached to Mr. Blumberg’s cutting edge subject matter film nor will there ever be until a distribution deal gets made after at least a rough cut is favorably screened. Film studios (for the overwhelming most part), are NOT in the “Thanks for Sharing” business any longer nor have they been for some time.  Nor can they be expected to be… ever again.  That’s like waiting for your bankers to thank you personally for bailing them out or expecting Barack Obama to suddenly morph into Franklin, or even Eleanor, Roosevelt.  Economics, logic and reality tells us this is not going to happen no matter how much we keep hoping that it just might.

However – and it’s a big however but I absolutely know it to be true right down to the core of my bloodied, bruised self and the selves of all my close friends –  there is more than one way to fight a fight; win a game; or get the “spoils.”  And for aspiring writers, producers and directors we’ve lucked out because that is where our secret weapon – our CREATIVITY – comes in.

I am writing this as much for me and my frustrated other contemporaries as I am for you.  Do NOT expect the film studio(s) who are making “Mr. Ed” to be interested in your passion projects, or even most of your perceived mainstream projects.  And don’t spend another millisecond even being slightly or marginally upset about it.  Be powered by the knowledge that you have the ultimate solution – your creative self – to figure out a way to make it work (No, this is not a new age rant – merely truth).

Maybe “Mr. Ed” is your thing . Then – good for you!  (FYI, they’re using a real horse but CGI’ing his mouth).  But if you’d rather see a movie about a group of recovering sex addicts, or a movie about anything that wasn’t the subject of a TV show in the sixties or in some other way doesn’t aspire to or fit into the “four quadrant” paradigm, then:

  1. Do you work and make it the best that you can.  And –
  2. Take all of the original thinking it took to bring your work to this point and use it to enlist people you like, admire or respect or even whom others respect who will help you get your project (effort) realized.

No one does it alone.  But letting the movie studios dictate what you are going to do or what kind of professional life you are going to have, is like giving Bank of America the power to charge you a $5 monthly fee for the use of your debit card when there are plenty of other ways to purchase goods and pay your bills.  You, and only you, are the CEO of your own company.  Which means that you and only you are in charge of the company (or companies) that you choose to keep.

More simply put, what would Steve Jobs do?