The Talented Mr. Ginsberg

A very famous actor once told me that although he did study, acting was something he could always do.  It came natural.  Almost easy.  That is not to say it didn’t take effort.  And an emotional toll at times.  But it bears repeating,  from a very early age he knew it was something he could do.

My path as a writer was similar.  It’s not as if I thought as a kid I could make my living putting words together.  When I was young there were three professions being offered a. doctor b. lawyer 3. accountant.  Well, we can scratch a. and 3 right off the bat.  I skipped high school chemistry and I was not a numbers man.  That left me and my mouth – so lawyer would seem like a perfect fit.  You’d think.

But one business law class (yes, it was at 8am every Tuesday and Thursday but still…) changed all that.  I always thought there were at least 2 or 3 right answers under the law because isn’t life all about shades of gray and spinning a tale to prove your point?  Uh, no.  Being a lawyer was more than arguing.  It was also about memorizing.  Well, screw that.

Thankfully that left me with only this thing I could always do – write.  But geeez – how do you get paid for this?  Uh, if anyone still knows the answer to this question please email me back?  PLEASE?

I’m only half-kidding for dramatic effect about the paying part (sort of).  If you have talent and really want to, you can find a way to get paid for it in some form.  It might not be in the arena you prefer (at least not yet) or you might not be using it in the exact form you had in mind, but what you learn as time progresses is that no matter how screwed up things or people are, no one can take away your innate ability at what you can, almost instinctively, do well.  (Note: This is not to say that you don’t need to practice or that you even have to pursue payment for your talent – talent is just the raw material.  But both of these are subjects of another discussion).

Guess the famous "raw" talent?

Insecurities, comparisons and the infernal American system of rating who is the “best of” in any category of life (from the Oscars to nursery school certificates) convince many people to believe that they have no real talent.  In a word – WRONG.

My belief in my soul of souls is that everyone has a talent, especially those who are convinced they don’t.  It might not be your preferred one, or perhaps it is but you don’t know it because you don’t think of it as a talent.  Well, why would you if it’s something you could always do?  That’s not talent, if it comes so naturally is it?  Uh, yeah, it is.

I truly marvel at anyone who is mechanical and can put together something without it immediately collapsing or eventually falling apart. ( I used to think this was a nerdy, Woody Allen-ish Jewish thing until I became friends with a Jewish best friend in college who proved this theory very and quite wrong).  I also don’t understand how someone invents something, anything.  And how does a television work?  Yeah, I’ve read how countless times.   But sound waves?  What about electricity?  I just don’t get it.  I can wire a sound system if the wires are color-coded but that’s about it.   How about fixing stuff?  Plumbing?  A car?  Or why would anyone take the chance of surgically opening something or someone up, even after 10 years of schooling?  What if you’re having a bad day?  And — how about raising a child?  Uh, no thank you.  I don’t have the patience and would surely screw them up worse than myself.  Thankfully, there are others who want to do all of that.  Yet I teach.  And I’m good at that.   And then they even say, those who can do, and those who can’t teach – as if it takes no talent to teach?  Oh please, give me a break.  Try going through a time machine and sitting through my 9th grade social studies class and see if you don’t agree with me and disagree with that.  But I digress.

The other funny thing about talent is how easily it can be misused.  As Glinda asks Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” and it too bears repeating.  For example, I’ve always been wary if my actor friend is being real with me in conversation, if he’s that good at pretend.    As for me, I can write my way out of anything I don’t want to know.  Why acknowledge it’s real if I can make it into my own story and change it (or at least fix the ending?).  It took me a very long time to recognize this because, truly, in my heart this wasn’t an ability but simply a way of being.  And anyway, this wasn’t a talent.   If I were talented it would be something else.  Because the talent I really wanted was to sing.  Like, really sing.  Broadway, movies, Carnegie Hall.  I’m not kidding.

Yet at some point it becomes apparent that there is both talent and destiny and that John Lennon was right – “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”  If you’re lucky enough, at some point you begin to not give up learning new stuff but also begin to embrace all that you can do really well.  At first it might feel like you’re settling for the next best thing, especially when you want to star in Hugh Jackman’s one-man show.  But I can acknowledge what is real if I can make it into my own story and change (or at least fix) the ending.

But when it becomes apparent what your personal destiny is calling you to, you slowly (or for some, quickly) begin to recognize, enjoy, hone and appreciate it.  It takes work but in my case I’m grateful that I can, well, do something.   And though it took me awhile, I finally got the point to where I wouldn’t trade it because, well, then I wouldn’t be me.   Besides, how happy can Hugh Jackman be anyway — singing and dancing on Broadway in a one man show with his name over the title.  Or, actually, as the title.

I hate him... I love him... I want to be him!

Thanksgiving is a time where you’re supposed to appreciate/look at what you have and give thanks.  But this is difficult when you don’t appreciate it or don’t honor it.  I think we’re taught not to value something that is natural and that achievement is only about when something is (or seems) impossible.  It’s kind of backwards, if you think about it.  Give thanks for the talent.  Own it.  Love it.  And appreciate what you have.  And then – try to make it better.

Unless you can sing – then all bets are off.


Is every day like the perfect wedding or is every day the end of the world?  And which is more accurate?  (No, you can’t say it depends; it’s somewhere in the middle; or why are you asking me this question).         

Survey says..... NO

We’re talking choice here.  And not just by me.  These are the questions asked (literally!) in the new Lars Von Trier movie “Melancholia” – a film that doesn’t leave your brain easily and, unlike most of what we see nowadays, deserves some sort of response other than, as they used to say in my grandmother’s native language, “Oy vey” (translation:  Oy).

For those who hate, are annoyed by or are simply not fans of the crazily brilliant or just plain crazy Danish director, rest assured this is not a mad recap review of the film (I stopped doing those in 1983 when I left Daily Variety – probably because one of the last movies I had to review was Chuck Connors’ horror extravaganza, “The Tourist Trap” at a 12:30 afternoon show on Hollywood Boulevard.  But I digress).

Where was I?  Ah, yes, “Melancholia.”  Though I happened to be floored by the film, which doesn’t necessarily mean I loved it, or I think it’s flawless or can even recommend it (God knows my parents would HATE it!!!), I will tell you that it affects audiences like few movies do nowadays – simply BECAUSE you (actually I) still can’t get it out of your mind days after seeing it.

This is a great thing for a filmmaker though perhaps not so great for you as an audience member since “Melancholia” does not evoke a particularly pleasant world.  In truth, it makes “On The Beach” and “Testament,” my former two most depressing movies ever made, seem like “His Girl Friday.”   But even those who would rather have their wisdom teeth removed than sit through any film of this genre ever again, would have to admit that Mr. Von Trier does, if nothing else, have a strong, distinctive point of view.  He makes very specific choices, even outrageous and perhaps indulgent ones – never shying away from alienating or thrilling you often managing to do both at the same time.

Spending the last day on earth with Mr. Skarsgård... Not. Too. Shabby.

How many filmmakers or any artists nowadays approach their work with the intensity he does?  Okay, let’s count………………….

How many do you have?  My list is, well, paltry.

Baa! Baa!

And that’s the point.

I said publicly this week that I’m not sure if “Melancholia” is brilliantly depressing or depressingly brilliant.  The latter because it reminds me of classic films – the kind that aren’t really made anymore  – sort of Ingmar Bergman by way of Fassbinder (or vice-versa) with a little plain old post millennium nastiness thrown in.  The nasty, clinically depressed heroine, one might say, is actually the writer-director surrogate, by his own admission.  Mr. VT has done some brilliant and some controversial and some thoroughly misfired movies over the years but the one thing you can say is that he often gets his borderline (again, literally), nihilistic POV on screen.  I say that with admiration,  and will tell you it’s such a cop OUT to dismiss this with lines like, “well, he has all this power, talent, financing,” blah, blah blah, blah. I know that because I say this all the time. (Though never in front of my students, and hopefully none are reading this.  And if you are – stop right now.  Oh, and I better also take this off the school website – that is if I knew how to do that – but hey, that’s another story).

As for POV, if you’re going to work as any kind of communicator, that IS the story.  Sadly, it’s not always what you’re saying but if you have a commitment to not only say it – if you’ve chosen and staked out a position and ran with it.  (For example, look at the popularity of various political candidates right now, okay, sorry, I know that is even more depressing than “Melancholia.”)

Well... we're screwed.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people on television writing staffs recently and it seems the greatest challenge is to write in a voice so universal that you won’t actually be able to tell it apart from any other member of the writing staff – in other words – the voice of the show (while keeping something of yourself).  This is certainly financially and sometimes artistically quite profitable.  But it is light years away from what you have to do in the kind of film I’m talking about.  Or even what you have to do to be noticed as a writer.  The irony is that almost all writers – film, TV, theatre – have that kind of voice.  It’s actually what gets you noticed.  Only to then get tempered by reality.

Much like how you wake up in the morning, you can choose to see that either as depressing as the end of the world or as fantastic as your dream wedding.  Fantastic because a) you’re getting paid handsomely to be creative, b) you get your take in on the material in some small way, and c) months after your shows get aired receive these cool checks in the mail for nice chunks of money called residuals.  Depressing because , well, if you want to be yourself and can’t fit in, it’s goodbye, Buster.  This is not much different in the film world, where studios seem more and more bent on some bizarre cookie cutter version of film-a-tainment to form the hub of a cottage industry that produces simultaneous Happy Meals, theme park rides and distinctive movie star roles guaranteed to draw in audiences from 6-60. If you’re past that age, let’s face it, you’ve died.  But don’t tell that to, oh – Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Helen Mirren, Sylvester Stallone, Diane Keaton or any number of big time movie stars you’re used to consistently seeing on the big screen.

Food for thought. Maybe this isn’t bad either.  You (we?) might not belong in that world, compellingly wedding-like though it might be.  You might belong in Mr. Von Trier’s world.  Or in Arianna’s Huffington’s blogosphere (perish the thought of starting a blog!).  Or in the realm of someone like Henry Jaglom. For those who don’t remember – he’s a writer/director who outside the studio system on his own did, oh, 15 movies and often made a tidy profit from them, getting to say EXACTLY what he wanted in indie rom coms in the seventies long before they became cool again.  Mr. Jaglom once had a nasty thing or two to say about Hollywood and Steven Speilberg, criticizing the latter for his work on “The Color Purple” and how he reduced a gritty book into what he considered Hollywood pabulum.  It was sort of a low blow from a fellow director.  Yes – you could argue that Steven Spielberg is probably the only one who could have made a film about the Nazis killing Jews and still come up with a sympathetic non-Jewish hero and a happy ending – but what is wrong with that?   “Schindler’s List” was a terrific film and manages to still have Spielberg’s POV.  In pretty much the same way as “The Color Purple.”  Had Woody Allen tried to direct either of those well, I guess you might have gotten something else.  “Interiors?”  “Another Woman?”  With Alan Pakula would it have been “Sophie’s Choice?”  Roberto Begnini  — “Life Is Beautiful.”  Jerry Lewis – a still unreleased rumored Razzie for the notorious “The Day The Clown Cried?

The point of all this is that in order to get in a position of REAL power in anything you need to BE PRO-CHOICE.  Not in the same sense as in the issue of abortion (for the record, I’m for a woman’s right to choose – like you couldn’t surmise that), but on the issue of –- you.  There’s nothing worse than not making a choice because you’re marching to someone else’s drummer.

To put it in another perspective – I think of choice this way – take a stand, any stand, any stand at all.  I don’t care if you’re as bleak as Ingmar Lars Fassbinder Von Trier or as happy go lucky as a Sandra Bullock rom com (Isn’t it about time for a new one?).  The worst punishment is to be “Michael Bay’d” to death with Transformers 4 6 863.  That is anything but fun and actually pretty depressing itself because it will mark the end of a certain kind of world as we know it.  The one Mr. VT, in his perhaps very small way, is trying to bring back in full force.