The Contest

... and we're off!

Competition is as American as reality TV.  And like reality TV, as opposed to reality, which we’re all trying to avoid as much as possible these days, it’s everywhere.

The Oscar nominations were announced this week and I can remember as a boy, before there was buffering and such a thing as an internet feed, a time when there was a shiny, unexpected anticipation as to what great slight and/or inclusion might transpire in those categories of five.  Now we have:

  • Up to 10 best pictures nominees (nine this year despite know-it-all media hounds swearing it’d be only six, or seven at most)
  • Handicapping on all four major networks and most cable stations as opposed to just Vegas bookies, bitter industry people and know-it-all relatives
  • And general awards weariness because the Oscars are the last in a gaggle of trophy races run by SAG, the producers, the writers, the Hollywood Foreign Press, every major city where there is a film critic and every ethnic group that reproduces a human being.
Of course,  the Razzies (those statuettes for the worst films of the year) haven’t yet been announced so there is still something to look forward to – especially when there is the potential that an actress with the sense of humor of Halle Berry will show up and accept the award live for her bad performance as she did in 2004 for “Catwoman.”  (Note:  I actually didn’t think she was that bad in the movie.  I mean, have you seen Keira Knightley in “A Dangerous Method” this year?)
  • "I'd like to thank my new kitchen. I did this for you!"

But I digress.

The Oscars are probably our international baseline of competition.  Or is it sports?  No – the Oscars because I’m not much of a sports fan and therefore don’t want to write about it.  Okay, fine – Tebow, Manning, Brady, blah, blah, blah, football –- now can we go on?

As I was saying – Oscars are the baseline – and even include sports because I actually thought one of the best films this year was “Moneyball” – the sports movie for non-sports fans.  And it received six Oscar nominations, two of which were for Brad Pitt, one of our true cultural prom kings/class presidents/and all around Mr. Popularity Renaissance Guys of the day.  Plus he’s “married” to our beautiful but sort of dangerously naughty senior class vamptress and all around perpetual queen of our never-ending fantasy prom, Angelina Jolie.

Voted "Best at existing" 40 years and running

Yes, as they say and I’ve said – the entertainment business is high school with money.  But I digress.  Again.

Anyway, with the Oscars as the baseline, then it shouldn’t be surprising that pretty much all competitions have become entertainment and vice -versa.

Tune in one of the 32,123 Republican debates, Okay, take the fun one on CNN in South Carolina.

Last week, you were treated to very expensive logos that popped off the screen with the words GINGRICH, ON THE RISE (what a scary thought, literally), ROMNEY, THE FRONTRUNNER (well, that was a week ago), PAUL, THE INSURGENT (Uh, okay); and SANTORUM, RENEWED MOMENTUM (the least catchy but somehow that seems fitting too).  This was all behind sound effects usually reserved for an ESPN boxing match.  You sort of half expected them to emerge in brightly colored satin boxing trunks while praying (even if you are an atheist) , please, if there is any taste left in the world, that they don’t.  Or perhaps like a line up of thoroughbred race horses,  with hooves, a bridle and a number on their backs – and praying (atheist or not), if there is any justice in the world, that they actually will.  Sadly, that didn’t happen either.

It’s all a hybrid of hype, but what is being hyped?  By all accounts – both politics and the Oscars are having a mundane year.  Is that all it is — the overall mundaness of the movies and the candidates?   Or do we simply not really care about any one competition when everything feels like it’s a contest?

The contests of today try to remind us of the public spectacle of the Roman times in the Coliseum when warriors would fight to the death.  As for the competitors of today – when you think about it – do any of them really lose?  The political candidates become lobbyists, consultants, book writers with huge advances or continue in government with upper middle class pensions and life long health benefits.  As for Oscar nominees – their price goes way up and so do the deals, meetings and offers.

In the end, as is often the case in times like these, there seem to be no real losers.  Except us.  The (or their) audience.  But of course, we’re not onstage.  We’re just paying, in more ways than one, and hoping to experience something through all of this that amounts to a real win.

Getting Dirty

Watching the sheer number of “A” list celebrities appearing on this year’s Golden Globe Awards could give you a crick in the neck.  Or, if you thought about it, could be a pain in the neck.  But for totally different reasons.

First, the crick:  It became a bit dizzying keeping track as celebrities rushed, walked, ambled and stumbled their way across the stage of the Beverly Hilton Hotel this past Sunday.  Johnny Depp, Brad and Angie, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Meryl (Streep) and Glenn (Close), both present and competing for awards just like they did in the eighties, Martin Scorsese and Seth Rogen (no, there isn’t a reason to pair them except that I thought it would be fun and the one and only time you ever see them mentioned together), Madonna (who is no longer part of a pair but is now a director), Jane Fonda and Aaron Sorkin (the latter two, who will be working together on his upcoming HBO series “The Newsroom,” where she plays a sort of female Ted Turner) and so on and so forth.

Pia "That Girl?" Zadora, 1981

An impressive turnout for any awards show, much less one that is probably best known for honoring Pia Zadora (who?) as its 1981 Star of the Year for her memorable performance in “Butterfly,” a film which had not yet been released at the time the award was given but would become memorable, yet not for exactly the reasons that kind of award would indicate.

Evidenced here:

As the story goes, Pia’s multimillionaire (the 1981 version of a 2012 billionaire) husband at the time, Meshulam Riklis, wooed the Hollywood Foreign Press with free trips to his Riveria Hotel in Las Vegas and other perks and parties and that the award to his much younger wife was payback time.  Hey, whatever works, is fair game.  I mean, that’s show biz, right?

Well, exactly.  The biz fosters people doing all sorts of odd things. A studio chief once told me that the esteemed and classy screenwriter Eleanor Perry  desperately wanted a writing assignment in the seventies after she divorced her filmmaker husband Frank Perry and actually begged (his words) him to give her the assignment to write what would eventually become another Zadora vehicle, the adaptation of the campy pump novel, “Lonely Lady,” about a young pretty female writer’s rise through the dregs of Hollywood to screenwriting stardom. But unlike the heroine in the book, Ms. Perry never did get the assignment.  Knowing Ms. Perry’s intellect and dedication to meaningful characterizations, said studio chief vehemently refused the respected writer’s plea for the job, telling her, “Oh, Eleanor, you know that I can’t.  You’ll want to put all of that integrity into it.”  To which Ms. Perry, replied:  “No, there will be absolutely no integrity, I promise!”

The point being, to quote someone’s grandmother, “If you want to play with pigs, you have to roll around in the mud.”

It's exfoliating!

Not that everyone in Hollywood is a pig.  Far from it.  I would say that the majority of people are smart, fairly okay, and, actually, pretty cool.  But all of us, from time to time, do roll around in the mud with the rest of the livestock, as most living things must do.  Our mud is often prettier looking than pig slop, but mud it is, nevertheless.

Crude?  Snide?  Bitter? Cynical?  Sadly dismaying?  Not really.  Just truthful.  (And here’s where the neck pain comes in).  All of the aforementioned talent are at the top of their game – they can pretty much name their price and their property – and yet, they are choosing to appear live and in person and on television to pick up an award given by a very, very small organization of entertainment reviewers, many of whom work only part-time for their publications and who, as any of us who have worked in entertainment publicity know, can easily be persuaded to nominate a star from any decently reviewed high profile movie that comes out that year.  In other words, all is not kosher in Denmark.

Of course, this doesn’t make the stars that participate in this shell game any less talented.  In fact, it might make them more so.  Because aside from their creativity, they have recognized and mastered the art of both show and biz.  Show being the creative art – the acting, writing, producing, singing dancing, etc.  Biz being the, well, job creator part – or self creation, as it goes out here.  If at some point you’re not willing to “dig in” – which could likely involve some mud rolling, or persuade lots of people to get dirty with or for you – you will likely not be in the game.  (And this is where the pain the neck continues).  For stars, digging in means not only a smart agent, but “acting” nice to people if they won’t warrant it, and these days, doing publicity and marketing for your movies and  ass  hand kissing for your movies in the unlikeliest of places.  No one sits it out anymore.  Even Harrison Ford shows up at the Globes.  Woody Allen does press tours.  In fact, it’s hard to even think of a star under 30 that doesn’t do some sort of media because, well, given the competitive marketplace and our 24/7 global existence, that is just not an option these days.  And press doesn’t mean the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.  It means strange awards banquets, Access Hollywood, ill-gotten lobbied for or even bought spots at film festivals in and out of competition, maybe even an over the top chat show in England or Australia where you have to get dunked in water or have confetti thrown in your face. Or an American low-budget cable access show… in pajamas.

Ralph Fiennes and Holly Hunter in pajamas? Click the picture, and then explain this to me.

As for Ricky Gervais, (uh, yes, him too) he’s not the above-it-all Globes master of ceremonies you thought he was.  How could he be?   For the last three years he has sort of lent a patina of hipness to the proceedings, turning the corniness of the event on its ear and actually giving the attendees a sense of being “in on the joke” because, well, if Gervais is doing it, it’s not really mud-rolling and self-promotion, it’s sort of court jesterish.  And it means young, hip people are watching.  And it’ll be sort of fun because liquor is served and audiences are hoping more than one person will be tipsy and say something unrehearsed in the sound byte, pre-planned, post-digested world we live in.

"I can't explain the tux either"

Nice try.  Sort of.  And not all wrong.  Except for the fact that Ricky’s by no means above it all.  How could he be when he’s the main fixture of the program?  Because if indeed Ricky Gervais thinks the awards are a joke and has as much disdain for the validity of the Hollywood Foreign Press and the system of its award giving as we think, WHY IS HE HOSTING?  It can’t be the money unless he’s a spendaholic (and that tuxedo would suggest he isn’t).  Perhaps he’s having a very long post-modern moment where you embrace that which you find distasteful in an attempt at the kind of ultimate irony comics like Andy Kaufman were famous for.  Well, that would account for doing it for one year.  But for three in a row?  Not a chance.  Once is irony.  Twice is habit.  Three times – definitely mud rolling.  He’s mixing it up.  Staying relevant.  Plying his craft.  A famous actor once told me about choosing a role:  “It’s not that hard.  You look at what’s offered and take the best one.”  Best, of course, doesn’t always mean quality.  Sometimes it’s the best paying.  Sometimes it’s the best exposure.  Or the best strategy at the time for your career.  Or the best part, meaning a smaller but juicer role in a smaller or bigger vehicle.  (Think Jack Nicholson in the first “Batman” and add $10 million dollars).

Anyone who has had a career or wants a career must know that if you are or are to be among the lucky 1% that get to work in your chosen field, every day is not a romp in the hay.  Some days, more than one might think, involve a toss in the dirt, a poke in the knickers, a roll in the mud.  And you must be willing to get dirty.  Sully yourself.  Play with the little people.  Or get lots of help doing it.  Even if you are creating your own job.

It’s a badge of honor.  It keeps you human.  What’s inhuman is pretending that you’re not doing it.  That somehow, you’re above or beyond it all (Hi Ricky).  That’s worse than mud rolling.  It’s lying.  And it sets a bad example for everyone coming after you, nipping at your heels.  Because it means you’ve gone from mere pig to full swine.

Hidden Costs

“Everybody has to pay the piper,”  “You don’t get something for nothing” and “No one gets off scott free.”  These are only three of the annoying sayings that get invoked over and over again by my family and have become the punch line to many of the sad, sick Larry David moments of karmic payback that seem to dog our existence.  They also serve to insure that none of us will ever get too complacent if any good fortune comes our way because it will inevitably cost us more than we will possibly know.

I used to think this was just a neurotic Jewish thing – Woody Allen’s version of “the horrible and the miserable” from “Annie Hall” where he tells his girlfriend Annie we should be happy we’re “miserable” because we could be in that small class of people who have “horrible” lives due to some handicap, awful crime, or genocidal atrocity. Yes, this was before political correctness vis-à-vis the physically and emotionally challenged and anti-depressants but, anyway, you get the point.  We (my family, I mean) are all inevitably doomed.

This all came to bear this week when my partner and I became what I always feared – people who buy washer-dryers and get excited about it and then get screwed by the system we should have been watching out for.  My feeling is that it probably served me right for getting gleeful about appliances in the first place.  How did this happen?  When did I become my Mother? Grandmother?  Aunt?  God knows, my Dad didn’t care about this stuff – in fact, when he and my mother got divorced he used to buy cheap socks and throw them out so he didn’t have to do laundry.  Sorry, Dad.  It’s true.

As for my partner, myself and our washing machine (no, that’s not a new French film), our non-musical sheer glee at this sleek new toy was quickly replaced with anger, disgust and then murderous rage once we began the purchase of those gleaming new fangled “bargains” and soon found out that those three of the most annoying sayings in the world that have gotten invoked by members of my family for decades (two of which I think I actually started. Oops.  © Rick Perry) are actually true.

Yes, I am here to report that the washer-dryer was expensive but on a major sale yet after the two year service agreement, delivery charge, gas hookup, tax and cart away fee for the other appliance from 1972, the sale price was actually 33% more than advertised and definitely above the sticker price were the whole thing not on sale at all.

Hidden costs or a sign of the times? Be more mechanical and hook up your own damn machine and, while we’re at it, cart it away, Mr. Lazy Bones, you say?  Uh, I’d wait if I were you.   Fifteen minutes after the delivery man left, the machine gushed water all over the laundry room, ruined the flooring, rendered the back door impossible to open because the wood floor swelled and, insult to hidden cost, the company two weeks later that sold us this lemon has not made good on its promise to compensate for losses despite me spending the equivalent of two 12-15 hour days harassing them in a way that I’m sure you, kind readers, could imagine only I, the Chair, could do.

An isolated instance?  This happens to everyone? Grow the eff up?  Gosh, I hope not.  But maybe. Perhaps as Charles Barkley noted last week on “Saturday Night Live” is this is simply a WPP?

Click here to watch the sketch


Actually, I think it’s a national (international?) trend.

Sunday night we go to see “Hugo” at a cool theatre in Hollywood where they charge $1 extra for movie tickets because it’s a flagship theatre.  I’m not a 3-D fanatic but I get the fascination and, after all, it’s Scorsese and it’ll be worth it to see it under optimum conditions.   And it’s a Sunday night. And it’s been playing for a while, so no line.  We go up to the box-office.  Cool.  I’m excited.  That’ll be — $39.50?  Huh?  No, how can that be?  For two tickets?  Well, it’s a 3-D show.  But….how much….Well, we charge $3.50 a ticket for the 3-D glasses.  Huh?  That’s our policy.

The industry's torture device

FINE.  We see the film.  I hate those freakin’ glasses.  It’s like having a small television resting on your nose, especially when you’re already wearing your own eyeglasses.  And the movie – it’s beautiful to look at, imaginative but maybe my inner child was asleep during the first hour due to the extra $3.50 apiece because, well…okay, subject of another discussion.  Still, it’ Scorsese, right?  Until we leave the movie theatre and there’s a big basket and an usher with a sign that tells us you need to RETURN the 3-D glasses you just paid $3.50 apiece for.  So — the extra $7 was a rental fee?

Tick Tock

I now hate Scorsese and precocious French children even if they are orphans.  But of course, that will inevitably cost me, too.  Perhaps in new, politically correct French readers or maybe in ways the universe has not yet decided but is currently planning in its quest to level the playing field and make us all pay the inevitable piper.  (It’s those European socialist ideas, courtesy of  Mitt  Obama, I tell ya!) Bottom line…it won’t be pretty.

All this talk got me thinking about other hidden costs.  Actually, the hidden costs of  everything.  Because truly, everything costs something even if it’s free.  You can’t ever get back the two hours (three if you count traveling time) you lose when you go to a bad movie.  Or all the money and lost time you’ve spent on counseling if you’re still in a bad relationship and dead-end job and do nothing about it.  And you might have more valuably spent your time reading Proust’s “Remembrance Of Things Past,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or even watching the entire series of “The Wire”  (the show that everyone claims to be the best written show on television and which I haven’t yet sat through – though I have had an astrology reading) than spending 4, 6 or even 8 years of college if you can’t get a job in you field and are saddled with student loan or personal debt you’ll never pay back.

Except –

  1. What if the movie was great, even life-changing?  Then those 2-3 hours might be among the best of your life.
  2. What if those counseling sessions were the only thing that has gotten you to make major changes in your world that have given your life unexpected meaning, joy and balance?
  3. Perhaps those 4, 6 or even 8 years of college taught you to think in a way you would have never dreamed possible and spurred you on to not only a job in your field but a creative vocation in life that has given you the kind of creative (and even financial) gratification that only a handful of people ever manage to get a fraction of after endless decade upon decade of existence?

I bring this up because the first 3 negative results and the last 3 positive results have all happened to me in my very short life so far.

Hidden costs?  Always.  Look out for them.  Beware of the charlatans.  And – watch your back  (Especially at a Sears sale).  But there’s another saying my family lives by, even though we don’t joke about it – “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  Take a risk.  Try it.  Jump in.  There’s a ying and yang to the world.  No one gets off scott free.  (I certainly don’t – and continue not to).  But if you play it right, the piper can very much be worth paying.  Even at, perish the thought, far above the full retail price.

The Sounds of Silence

Everything is political.

It’s sort of cool and hip these days to be cynical.  To bury your head in the sand from your perch of snideness in the Kingdom of Superior and sort of turn off or hurl occasional pithy comments at institutions or movements or even people you don’t like.   Contrary to popular belief, this does not take you out of the battle, but actually puts you right in the middle of it.

Angry, distant, emotional, removed or snide – they are all discourse, they are all opinions on an issue.  Even silence is, in itself, weighing in.  If you think that’s not true, watch some of the most powerful actors in the world kill you (in a good way) with their silent stares.  Look at Viola Davis at work in “The Help” (or even in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”).  It’s not about what she says to her white overlords but what she chooses not to say that lets you know what she is thinking.  Observe Robert DeNiro as he cleverly listens to the idiots that are thinking of crossing him in “Casino” (or almost any other movie he’s done).  It’s not usually about his dialogue but the way he silently reacts to what those dummies are doing.  His non-verbal cues are always flawless because they are predictably unpredictable and as such he’s always telling us something — usually that they’re in trouble and will soon be disposed of by him or his men.

Saying everything with a stare

So for those of you who think that by not participating in politics or sitting silently by while you stew about the Iowa straw poll; the Republican primary race in general; Barak Obama’s socialist liberal bent or perhaps the fact that he’s not liberal enough — and never say anything about it – I beg to differ.  Your indifference is saying more than you know.  Your look of high and mightiness; your determination to NOT pay attention; even your purposeful lack of knowledge of the issues that might affect your life – they all say something loud and clear to everyone about you and how you engage in the world.

Take your choice or we will.  Because those are all things people are thinking based on what you’re doing just by not doing anything.  Imagine what they (we) would think or the reactions you could evoke or the changes you could make in the world if you actively did SOMETHING??

If you’re an artist the same is true about your work.  You think you’re writing a light, frothy romantic comedy and not revealing something of how you feel about love and relationships?  Uh, I don’t think so.  You didn’t choose to write “Friends With Benefits” only to make a buck.  The thought of “friends with benefits” has crossed your mind or you wouldn’t have gone there in the first place.    Don’t believe for a second that “Pretty Woman” didn’t have something to do with the fascination with working girls or the men who love(d) them.  Even if what you’re doing is the new Katherine Heigl movie “One For The Money” – (make her stop!!!) that too says something – though it might not be something worth talking about here.

The point is that you are taking a stand every time you pick up a pen; choose to pitch something a certain way; photograph an assignment the way that you do; or miss a deadline on work people are waiting for.  It says a lot about you even when you don’t want it to so you may as well be bold and take a position fully and own your views and actions.   As a writing teacher, I see this all the time with students who phone it in on some of their scripts yet they can’t help show occasional glimmers in their work (aside from their bad work habits) of who they are.  Oh, the sadness of wasted potential, I think.  They’re funny, hurting inside, sad, and really smart.  That is really what they’re saying but are determined not to.  I can get beneath the façade of snideness by reading the work of a student pretty easily and so could you (it just takes practice) despite even the weakest script imaginable.  You’d know they hate authority; are a softie at heart; want to be in love; are acidly angry about injustice or the hand they’ve been dealt; are angry at their mothers and fathers or have an unrealistically favorable view of their families; are in or about to be in a dysfunctional relationship or, perhaps are truly nice gals and guys you worry are one day going to get hurt.

Yes, all this you learn by the smallest things they (or anyone, really) write on the page – even in a spec script of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “iCarly” or “Justified.”  Even in a one page short film.  Certainly in anything feature length.

If that’s the case (and I say it is so therefore it must be), why are people so hesitant to commit to something publicly?  (Leaving out big issues like the 99%). Why this veil of snideness?  A well-known playwright told me some years ago it’s because “we live in the age of irony.”  I agreed at the time.  But now I think that’s too easy.  Here’s what I think it is – fear.

Fear of being bad.  Fear of being judged.  And these days fear of – well – retribution from….(fill in the blank).  “I want to hang on to my very small piece of the world because what I say might cause it to be taken away and then where will I be?  Even more fucked than I was before.  Perish the thought!!!”

The real truth is nothing is original AND everything is political.  And that neither fact takes away from the message of what you’re saying.  It only makes it stronger.   Because though the message is the same and we’ve heard it all before, nothing has quite been said the way you will say it.  If you think that’s not true consider why people are forever writing love stories.  Not like we haven’t covered that territory over the last google years, huh?  And that even though Woody Allen, love story maker extraordinaire, claims to do NOTHING autobiographical we watch “Annie Hall” and “Husbands and Wives” and, well – we know a lot better.

As for being political – Cahiers du Cinema posited in the sixties that every film, no matter how slight, is political in that it chooses to see the world in a certain way.  Then, in the seventies, feminists advanced the idea that the personal is political.  That whether you like it or not, gender roles and how you choose to fulfill or not fulfill them traditionally was, indeed, a political act – despite whether you chose it to be or not.

It’s been more than 40 years since then and we now have 24/7 news, the Internet, the Freedom of Information Act and the National Defense Authorization Act.  Are you going to sit there and tell me that not everything you’re doing is making some sort of political statement?  Or at least, on some level, seems that way?  I think not.  The question is – what are your actions (or inactions) saying about you?  And are they what you want, or even choose, to say??