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.


If your parents never told you that you are your worst enemy they should have.  (My Mom did and look how much it’s done for me!).  Nothing, nothing – not all of the unfairness in the world or the injustices you might face at the hands of your friends, co-workers or the industry you work in (yes, even the entertainment industry is included) can sink you faster than yourself.  And if you find yourself sinking and are still playing the blame game you might as well tattoo a big neon Titanic sign across your ass because truly – you will wind up so far down below the bottom of the ocean that not even James Cameron’s newfangled crane/camera technology and a slew of nimbly written and expensive press releases plus a year of community service will be able to excavate you to dry land.   At the very least you’d have to join a church, synagogue or mosque, do a year or two out of the public spotlight and write a book and, let’s face it, who has time to consider all of that.

We’re speaking of course of the debacle this week that is called Brett Ratner and Herman Cain.  I use the royal “we” as an homage to Mr. Cain – who seems intent on continually speaking about himself in the third person as if he were the title of a new reality show and not, simply, starring in a real life version of one.

(Charles Foster) Cain

As for Mr. Ratner, the purveyor of the gay slur (“rehearsals are for fags” – I guess I can use the word because I like to rehearse), and kiss and teller of his mastery of oral sex (oy…) and avoiding STD’s to Howard Stern on the radio, he seems to have been banished from the Royal Hollywood Kingdom for the time being by who really knows whom (I suspect more than a few MAJOR Hollywood director/producers dialed him directly) and says he will be helping in the synagogue of GLAAD as a way to stop anybody who speaks or represents said rehearsers in movies the way he referred to them.  For my money, I’d prefer he’d just stop talking and not make it any worse for us rehearsers but hey, that’s probably why I’m not in a position of power or even someone with consultation rights.  Still, I will offer that a better strategy is to just go away and make a good movie but “good,” as all of the rest of us learn as each day of the media circus goes by, is truly in the eye and ear of the beholder – rehearser or not.

For the one or two who don’t know what the hell we’re (royal, again) speaking about, here goes.  U.S. Presidential candidate and former Godfather Pizza founder Herman Cain was accused this week of sexually harassing one  two  three  FOUR women in the nineties (that is at blog press time).  Brett Ratner spouted his use of the homophobic slur this past week while trying to promote his new movie at the Arclight for no reason at all other than, well, he did.  But that wasn’t all — for dessert he kissed and then voluntarily told about his exploits with women in and out of the bedroom on Siruis Radio.  Even though the industry looks at the Stern show on SIRIUS as a bit of a non cost effective audience disappointment and anything but serious, the remarks eventually did land on the ears of enough influential people by the end of the week in the Motion Picture Academy (obviously not Stern listeners, though Stern ironically himself does qualify for membership in the Academy as the star and writer of his 1997 film “Private Parts”) to give Mr. Ratner the final push over the cliff as the producer of this year’s Oscar show.

The latter gave me pause as an “out” rehearser because I couldn’t help but wonder why Academy president Tom Sherak was willing to stand behind Mr. Ratner after his offensive comment about those of us who like to “prepare” (nee rehearse) but yet when he talked grossly about his sex life he was put in the inevitable position of resigning.  Is it worse to talk publicly about your sex life than it is to malign a particular social or ethnic group with a 4-letter slur?  Obviously.  Somewhere in the Academy rule book it must state that using a mean word about the rehearsers in the business is a hand slap but talking about the size of your private part and/or your prowess as a non-rehearser is a fireable offense.  Hmm.  Not sure I would have called it that way but it could account for the sorry state of most studio movies nowadays.  (Perhaps if us rehearsers were a little more represented things might be different.  Not necessarily better but different, which in itself might be at least a momentary blessing).

Who has one thumb and is a huge jerk? THIS GUY!

The drama that is (Charles Foster) Cain continues this week in light of vehement denials and a perhaps planned public press conference with at least two and possibly four of his accusers on some public stage or forum for the no doubt benefit of the public.  In his own press conference several days ago, Mr. Cain, as is his right, categorized one of his accusers as a “troubled woman” and lamented that there were forces that wanted to stop a “businessman by the name of Herman Cain” from being president.   That businessman/presidential candidate’s cigarette smoking campaign manager then separately accused Politico, the publication that first broke the unsavory story of one of Cain’s sexual accusers, of having an axe to grind because it employed the son of said accuser but the following day that allegation was proven to be false and the employment disproven.  As to the sexual allegation, Mr. Cain said he would be happy to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence but then added he’d only do so if he finds it necessary.  Hmmm.  Is it necessary?  I guess I’ll leave it up to you.  Oops, I misunderstood.  I guess the decision is really up to him – whether it be his first or third person doppleganger – (Herman or Herman 3.0)

Everyone has the key to that lock

The bottom line from all of this WORD/PLAY is a lesson that keeps popping up again and again ever since Al Gore invented the Internet and Ted Tuner started 24-hour Cable News.  NOTHING. IS. PRIVATE. ANYMORE.  (Not even your parts).  You can’t speak publicly, online, or even act slightly oddly privately with another living being or recording device of any kind present and not expect it to rear its ugly head and attack you with octopus tentacles that will grab you and put you behind the public 8 ball.  Adult males seem to have a particularly difficult time with this concept.  As if they’re operating from some 20th century paradigm of privilege and have not yet caught up with the fact that the rest of the world is OCCUPYING their zone, too.  Yeah,  AS IF!

We know how this mystery ends...

It’s been difficult for the Chair (that’s me in the third person) to understand all the hysteria about Facebook privacy settings because the Chair has been able to perceive that it wouldn’t take much for any one of its students who are unable to drink in many states (but able to go off to war) to certainly invade not only its privacy but its, well…everything.  Fine.  They can have it all.  Because The Chair will thus live its public and private life in an honest, truthful and respectful way and let all the proverbial chips fall where they might.  As for me in the first person, my Dad is and always has been a gambler (literally!) and gave me this advice long ago.  He didn’t go to college, never produced a megahit movie and doesn’t live in Allan Carr’s old house (check the Ratner real estate records).  He also certainly won’t be running for president or running a Washington, DC lobbying firm (that’s what the Restaurant Association was, guys) or even be founding his own pizza company (he hates cheese) any time soon either.  But as far as life lessons go, he was always right on the money, as gamblers tend to be.  And — as I and my third person Chair can assure you — that’s not just word play.









More updates as they become available!

Shakespeare meets Kim Kardashian

Are you writing your life story or letting someone else write it for you? What happens when what you want to do runs counter to every logical action you should be taking – at least according to those around you?  Do you follow your inner voice; ignore it’s/your profound urges; or forge a compromise somewhere in between?

That question came to mind after watching the movie “Anonymous” this weekend.

For the 99% of you who haven’t yet seen this movie and will no doubt EVER see it –

“Anonymous” asks the burning 2011 question – did Shakespeare really write all of his own plays and sonnets or was it someone else?   Perhaps accounting for its grosses, the very 2011 answer to this question is:


Uh, okay.  Point taken.  But still —

Here’s the thing —   It’s not really about whether you think this movie, or any movie, TV show, play or web site, is good or bad or indifferent.  It’s really, “can this make me laugh, cry or, perish the thought, think?”  “Anonymous” has made a lot of purists of the literary theatrical world angry about issues that matter to them.   They don’t fancy that some uppity TV writer (screenwriter John Orloff, best known for “Band of Brothers”) is telling the world that a nobleman named the Earl of Oxford wrote all those plays instead of an uneducated former actor (Shakespeare) who also did odd working class jobs before he could support himself with his art.  They think the issue of this movie is whether Shakespeare did indeed write all of that stuff.

I don't even know who you are anymore!

Quite simply – they’re wrong.  As wrong as the rest of us who don’t really want to see films anymore about subjects that, on the surface, don’t lead with our obvious interests.   (Me included – though I did see “Real Steal” and had a fun time!).   What the movie/story of “Anonymous” IS really asking us is this: What happens when you don’t following your heart and are stuck living a life that is dictated by other people?  What the movie “Anonymous” poses is that the REAL Shakespeare was really this educated guy named the Earl of Oxford who was not SUPPOSED to be a writer but live in a respectable way because of what his FAMILY and PEERS expected him to be.  But all the Earl feels passionate about is his WRITING (They called it being a “poet” in those days).  But instead of facing them (family and friends) head on, this RICH KID tried to have it both ways (never a good idea) and be extra crafty.  So he wrote and wrote and wrote anonymously and when he was ready and older (and way less happy) with a huge output of work, he hired a younger guy (Shakespeare) to pass himself off as the public author of all the Earl’s writings so the Earl could continue his anonymous life as a nobleman with the satisfaction that what he wanted to say to the world (and there were a lot of “screw you’s in his plays”) would finally get out there and he could still be “RESPECTABLE” (or be hidden).

Recipe for disaster?  Well, uh, yeah.  As we really know in 2011, you can’t have your cake and eat it too (calling Herman Cain?  Maybe even the Kardashians) because any time you try to live a little bit of a lie or do things for the wrong reasons it just gets worse and worse for you until you end up with, well, living and dying on the twisted end of fame – hounded by the very forces you once were convinced were your “lovers” or even friends.

Number 9 looks just like you

Spoiler: It doesn’t end well for the Earl of Oxford.  So the real 2011 question is – what do we learn from his story?   No – the answer is not don’t make a serious costume drama in 2011 and expect today’s Kardashian-bent moviegoers to attend, even though I’d be hard pressed to mark that answer wrong on a multiple choice test.  Nor is it – I don’t want to be a writer or anything in the arts so I don’t care.  It is – I’m going to have to take my shot; make my mistakes; because in the end at least I’ll know they’re mine.  That alone has to be better than succeeding on someone else’s terms (ask the Earl of Oxford or, well, even Kim Kardashian at this point, who seems to not be quite laughing all the way to divorce court).

Most human beings that I know, myself included, don’t dedicate their life to full service (Gandhi and Mother Teresa were exceptions.  Or – were they?).  So it’s hard to follow the advice of people like Tom Brokaw who this week said that you measure your life by contributions to your government and community, not the amount of toys you can buy; or Steve Jobs, whose sister Mona Simpson eulogized him as a guy who worked every single day of life (including weekends).  This is especially so since they got to play with all the toys they ever wanted.  Brokaw, through his network TV work, had hundreds of acres of farm land in his home state and quite fancy and expensive NY digs, and hobnobbed with every famous person in the world for decades.  Jobs, lauded as one of the great inventors of modern times, still indulged himself with 100s of the same shirts he loved from a single store or flying in the best marble in the world from a particular region in Italy in order to build Apple headquarters exactly the way he wanted.  Yes, one man’s toy is another man’s discarded Kardashian – but still – what’s important to remember is they both got their toys doing what they loved to do.  Just as Shakespeare – or whoever he was – found his only true happiness (and wealth – personal and/or literal – who knows why some hit the money jackpot and get both) from doing HIS writing.   As he wisely once said — the PLAY‘s, the thing.  No matter who he (or they?) really was.  The words still hold true today.