Buy the Beach House

Watching the cultural phenomenon called “The Hunger Games” yesterday convinced me even more to take the advice a good friend of many years gave me this past weekend — “buy the beach house.”

Do not jump to the conclusion that this means I have the money to purchase that fantasy pied-a-terre on the shores of nearby Malibu or even one on the opposite coast of Rockaway, NY that I inhabited many decades ago as a boy when they were merely called bungalows.  I don’t.  Writers enjoy metaphors and some physical manifestation of intellectual advice rather than coming straight out and telling you what to do.  Part of it is our training and the other part is an innate cowardice that allows us to be far bossier through language on the page or images than we could ever be in real life.  Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer excepted, of course, though each were indeed wimpy in their own ways when you think about it.

As for my friend, her beach house advice was a way to communicate to me something strongly in language she knew I’d understand.  (We’ve known each other since high school, a time when we briefly dated – uh yeah, that’s how long ago it was), and have seen each other through many things.  And unlike most writers, she’s pretty direct.  See, she beat cancer in her twenties and – now decades later – it’s returned again.  Don’t stress – it’s not a Lifetime movie.  The prognosis is very promising but the second time dealing with the Big C is not only sobering but has a way of clearing away the stink and laser focusing on what is faster than you can say “Hunger Games” is the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Consequently, her “buy the beach house” orders to me still hang in the air because after 40 years, well, we don’t bullshit each other.

To the best of my knowledge, here’s what “buy the beach house” really means and,  yes I will also get to how and why understanding the place of “The Hunger Games” in the entertainment world today is essential to anyone who is interested in becoming a part of the entertainment industry today.

Movies, television, theatre, publishing, and advertising have for decades “new aged” the message “buy the beach house”  into our psyches.  “No day but today,” “Jump,” No guts, No glory,” “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today,” “If not now, when,” “Have faith and shuffle the cards,” “I Am Spartacus” and so on and so forth are just a few examples.


But in 2012 we need to go farther than what the construct of art will allow.  What does “buy the beach house” really mean?  It means, not only (Just) do it but do it in the real world.  It means it’s okay to dream and dream big, but in order to achieve those dreams it means you have to make sure fantasies don’t overtake your reality and in simply wishing something to be true you don’t convince yourself it is.  It means hard work, sweat, dedication and luck are all recipes for success but not necessarily antidotes to failure and all of them combined don’t necessarily guarantee you’ll avoid or achieve either one them as such.  It means, ultimately, that the road to happiness is buying whatever your version of the beach house is at the moment and, in doing so,  do the work and sign the contracts and do the work some more with your eyes wide open – understanding what you’re getting and staying determined to what you see as your eventual “dwelling” as you’re doing it in order to make it come true. It means that if you do all that and your beach house still falls apart, (which it is likely to because hey, we all know that global warming in 2012 has made living on the coast of any land mass perilous (ask Malibu’s Ali McGraw and some friends of mine in Mississippi), you will endure the disappointment and not allow your spirit to be broken, thereby enabling yourself to go on to your next dream – your next beach house.  Because god knows, there isn’t  only one.

Still has a great view!

Further translation?  You need to persevere and pursue your dream with all your might but you need to do it in a reality – not the distorted version of “Hunger Games” reality so popular with just about everyone but me right now (Okay, yes, more on that soon).

I saw a fine example of that perseverance at a panel I moderated some days ago with three directors, all former students of the college at which I teach.  All three of the panelists are working film and TV directors in their thirties and forties and all three had a clear path of working extremely long hours at not always desirable jobs while not abandoning their vision of their ultimate beach house.  Each also used whatever discouragement they had as fuel and each were able to speak up for themselves and their dreams, wants and desires when no one else could or wanted to (or even believed any of what they wanted might possibly become a reality).  Still, they stayed in touch with what they wanted and worked at it no matter what job they had or what state of mind they were in.

Eventually, two of them collaborated on a film that cost them $1100 (and was made on a camera they returned within the 30-day trial period) that went on to be very well-received and gross $5,000,000 worldwide.  Needless to say, this opened all kinds of career paths. Another panelist told tales of working many unrequired all-nighters at an assistant’s job that only allowed advancement when doubting superiors admired the work this person completed when no one else was around.  Oh, did I mention this person is now director-producer-editor of one of the most prestigious half hour comedies on television and that it was not until the last three years that this person even became a director?  And did I mention that the filmmaking team each started in lowly jobs, then became writers (not a lowly job despite what some people think), on air talent, producers and, finally, each directors of their own films?  Well, they did.

An even better view

These three people did not happen to land where they did by accident and they are not unique (although they are not average.)   But part of the reason they are among  the top of their class is that they imagined their own version of a beach house and kept trying to buy it – never giving up and never getting completely discouraged by the many turns of events that clearly indicated they had as much chance of achieving their dreams as purchasing actual west coast seaside property on a PA’s salary.  Their dreams became a reality because, in essence, they lived in reality but continued to dream.

Box Office Knockout

Which brings us to “The Hunger Games.”  If you like it – fine.  I didn’t.  Though I can certainly admire the work, the craftsmanship and the colossal effort that it takes to make a major studio “tent pole” movie in 2012.  And if you don’t think that takes a lot of effort and creativity and art, then you are over or underestimating what all three mean nowadays (or your POV), and you certainly don’t fully comprehend all of the potential minefields of a commercial system where most people want to use their talents but, at the same time, want to get all their hard work seen by more than a small audience of friends and admirers.   Certainly, NOT caring about this capitalistic stuff is an admirable trait if it’s really you but, then again, that has nothing to do with “The Hunger Games” or what it means for any artist of any kind who wants to work in the commercial system of movies and achieve their own version of a modest but sturdy beach house.

Without reviewing the plot, technical aspects, artistic execution or themes of “The Hunger Games” lets just say that it is basically a film version of a fictional futuristic reality show where each year a select group of young people 12-18 are forced to fight each other to the death.  It provides some slight and very superficial commentary, a few dramatic and emotional scenes that don’t get too messy, and lots of lots of eye candy, film trailer “moments,” and room for tons (or at least two or three) sequels, starting with its slightly open-ended ending.

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the people who love movies, both young and old, and are aspiring members of the next generation of moviemakers, are particularly drawn not to this kind of film but to the films of the sixties and seventies, which were a time of great sociological and societal shifts, not to mention soaring advancements in technical achievements and the way stories are told.  To simplify, there was a decided move away from the old-fashioned Hollywood type film to a more honest, independent type of films that told somewhat more realistic stories.

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

And to be direct – this kind of movie is not “The Hunger Games.”  And it’s not — (fill in the blank with one of your fave contemporary films).  After two or three shifts since the 1960s and 70s, the kind of movies you love or your parents loved that you love probably accounts for, oh, 5-10% of all the commercial narrative films made nowadays (and I’m being kind).

As a member or aspiring member of the film biz in particular, it is very important to know and recognize that and plan accordingly, which is not to be confused with giving up your dream of a celluloid beach house on your own terms.

But while you’re working on your (seemingly elusive) dream you might also want to notice that the storytelling in cable television shows like “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “The Big C,” “Dexter,” “Downton Abbey,” “Breaking Bad,” “Weeds” and many others are now carrying the gauntlet of the film sensibilities of yesteryear that you recall so fondly.  And that there is an online market that is breathing over the shoulder of movies theaters and portable and non-portable televisions everywhere as we adjust to watching entertainment on the “tablet” of our choice rather than in a specific market.

What I’m saying is that in 2012 you probably don’t want to purchase a beach house from the 1970s (if it’s still standing) because of the impossibility of maintenance in today’s environment   Even if that wasn’t the case and you insisted on being frozen in time, at the very least you’d have to admit you probably need to spend more than a little time, and actually more time than you had planned, to modernize the plumbing.

What I’m suggesting, then, is – take a look at the terrain around you – and in order to actualize your own personal beach house dreams, consider, if not significantly modernizing, doing some of the necessary maintenance work.

Culture Vulture

Each week pop culture seems to offer an irresistible topic of conversation.  Perhaps it’s the online, multi-tasking, Facebook and Twitter-heavy world we live in, but more and more it’s easy to feel that there is not just one topic but six or seven or twelve to choose from — many of which are not so much amusing, but, well, alternately awful, trivial or downright distasteful, and only occasionally uplifting.  And unfortunately, quite reflective of the world we currently live in.

In honor of this predicament, this week and this week only (unless I decide to do it next time cause that’s how this stuff rolls in 2012…uh, don’t worry, I won’t) we present a mash up of the nonsense for the week ending March 23rd  .  At least as it looks from the seat of a chair, which can be cushy or hard, depending on what’s happening and to whom (who?).

Television encores: “Mad Men” returns and “Smash” is renewed.

Hello gorgeous

Does one counter the other?  I’m not so sure. The NY Times on Friday gave what we consider an unfair review of the first “Mad Men” of the new season – noting that because it has spawned so many 60s nostalgia themed spin-offs, there is no irony left when filmmakers show “an adult smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding a baby in the other.” Like many reviewers and non-fans, this critic misses the point.  No great film or TV show is ever really about the time period.  That is just the window dressing.  It is always how interested you are in the characters and what they, and they alone, uniquely do in said time period.  The challenge of TV is keeping the people and situations interesting through season after season – a whole other story in itself.  Oh, and in actuality it is that very FAMILIARITY with characters and their world/era that make people want to watch and commit to a television series.   You can wear out your welcome if you don’t come up with engaging twists and turns and new and bizarre crises but you want to also feel you can depend on – something.  Therefore, the verdict is out for me if that is the case with the new season of “Mad Men” because

  •  a. I have not yet seen the first episode of the best-written show on television. (It is – deal with it)
  • b. Past seasons have all managed to work their magic in strange and even more surprising and unusual ways than the one before (“Past as prologue” – as the NY Times writer so wisely pointed out in her review) and
  • c.    Cultural critics love to diss critical darlings after a certain point in time because it’s just more fun to write diss than bliss  (as I can attest from my past, present and obviously future life as a vociferous cultural vulture).

Bottom line: Don’t assume that because something is familiar it’s growing tiresome.  If that were the case there would be no happy long-term relationships.  Which there are.  Again, you’re gonna have to trust me on that one.

Oh, right  -– I forgot about “Smash.”  Uh, it was renewed for a second season.

They're multiplying

Yes.  It was.

Despite the fact that It

  • a.  Loses a lot of its audience from the number one show in the U.S., “The Voice.”
  • b.  It’s expensive to make and
  • c.  It’s a string of soapy clichéd clichés.

But NBC needs a hit and the show’s idea was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the King of All Entertainment, who also serves as executive producer.  Enuf said.  Because still, I don’t want to criticize a show where you get to hear Bernadette Peters do a song from “Gypsy” or any number of real Broadway performers do their thing on national TV.  No gay man in his right mind would do that because you would run the risk of getting barred from what is said to be the upcoming movie version of “Gyspy,” starring Barbra Stresiand currently being written by “Downton Abbey”’s Julian Fellows.  Yes, I’m fickle.

Interent killed the newspaper star:  Variety is for sale.

This might not seem like a big deal to you but it is to me because – well, being a Variety reporter was my first real journalism job out of college.  Once known as the “Bible of Show Business,”  Variety  has seen its audience erode due to 24/7 news and competition from the snarkiest entertainment blogs known to man and has been officially and publicly put on the market by its parent company of the last few decades, Reed Business.  Variety was founded just past the turn of the century by the Silverman family, who owned the paper when I worked there (some years past the turn of the century).  Like most mom and pop businesses, they eventually gave into the corporate giants chasing them, and said corporate giants eventually found or find themselves in the familiar position of shedding their once valuable asset due to the “changing times.”  Bob Dylan once wrote in the 60s, “the times they are a changing.’” This was seen as both a good and bad thing.  But I’m just not sure which is the case here.

Hooded Racism: Trayvon Martin

A 17-year-old Black youth named Trayvon Martin was apparently gunned down in central Florida this week by a man on Neighborhood Watch who was suspicious of the young dark-skinned man in a hoodie and on the phone with his girlfriend who, it turned out, was armed with nothing more than a pack of Skittles and some iced tea.  There is a 911 phone recording where the Neighborhood Watch guy clearly calls the deceased a racial epithet.  There is also a strict Florida law that allows those feeling in danger and in the presence of a potential criminal to stand their ground and defend themselves.  Among all of this, aspiring Republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum campaigned at a shooting range the next day and when the former senator cocked his gun and began gunning down a paper target of a man, a random woman from the crowd yelled “pretend it’s Obama.”  At best, these are indeed very confusing times, as Dylan implied.   At worst, well – you can fill in the blank.

Sugar Rush or Toothache? Food Network’s Sweet Genius

“Sweet Genius,”  a TV show where four dessert makers endure three grueling tests of their chocolate, baking and candy-making skill under the critical eye of host Ron Ben Israel – a dessert mogul who looks like Dr. Evil, talks like a Bond villain, and presides over the festivities in a set that resembles the underground lair of Willy Wonka’s evil twin — returned to the air after a too long absence.  Yes, I watch this crap because it’s fun.  But not as much fun as it was last season.  The show was a surprising limited hit over six episodes and the network has had time to think about it and in its full season two decided to make its host less demanding, less dictatorial and the show much less weird (e.g. they eliminated the odd computer voice that ominously analyzed the water and salt content of each food on a conveyor belt).  In other words, they’ve done what most film and TV production company’s like to do – round out the edges to appeal to the greatest number of people, therefore losing the very reason people loved the “asset” to begin with.  By the way, my TV writing student Alyssa makes much better cupcakes for class each week than any dessert I’ve seen on the show this year and she covers the cost of her own ingredients.  Just sayin’.

My Tribute to the Hunger Games

Girl's got range

The biggest thing in the movies this weekend is “The Hunger Games” and I assigned it to all the film writing students to see because you can’t ignore a cultural phenomenon if you want to be in the biz. I told them they need to go in with an open mind and open heart because no one sets out to make a bad movie.  However, and this is just between you and me – the film looks deadly dull and hopelessly overproduced with elements and themes from about five different movies I saw in the 1970s when I was in college.   This is not the attitude I want to pass on and I can only hope that I will be pleasantly surprised at the theatre when my (somewhat) open mind is fully expanded to a higher state of love and acceptance.  But I seriously doubt it.

One Final Note from Ms. Houston

Whitney Houston had cocaine in her system at her time of death, and it was revealed in an autopsy that the cause of death was drowning (in her bathtub).  Ms. Houston  also had marijuana, alcohol, Xanax and a muscle relaxer in her system. Still, most of us secretly believe that fame, fortune and a little bit of exceptional superhuman talent at something are the holy grail answers to pretty much all of our problems and most likely everything else.

Hottest Inmate: Clooney swoons even in jail

George Clooney got arrested for demonstrating about atrocities in the Sudan.  He paid a fine and is out on the street once again as he continues humanitarian work while earning gazllions of dollars making pretty much any movie he wants.  Fame, fortune and talent are not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps can mix well – depending on how the mixing is done and by whom.  I’m being serious here.

Flour Power: Kim K’s unfortunate encounter

cleanup on aisle 3

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian was flour bombed.  (I’m now joking but this is true).  Definition of Flour bombed?  This means you’re walking the red carpet wearing a dark-colored designer outfit and someone dumps a bag of white flour on your head and your ultra chic suit.  If you have dark hair, this is even more spectacular because of the color contrast, as it was here.  Said Kim “bomber” was arrested but Kim isn’t pressing charges.  Do not take this as a defense of Kim’s legitimacy or evidence that I consider her a talent of any kind.  Or want to analyze her fame or fortune quotient, which are obviously quite higher than mine.

A Flashy Girl from Flushing

I drive down the famed Sunset Strip on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood and keep seeing a larger than life Billboard of Fran Drescher with the ad line, “The Mouth is back,” and the title of her second season TV Land  comedy – “Happily Divorced,” about a woman who was married to her high school sweetheart for years only to recently find out he was gay.  But they’re divorced and they’re still close friends.  Yes, this is based on Fran’s real life and Fran and I, we share a lot.  She’s from Flushing, Queens as I am.  She’s Jewish, as I am.  Her ex-husband is gay, as am I.  We’re also roughly the same age and I found her hilarious on “The Nanny,” as I’m sure she found herself too.  Then, why, oh why, couldn’t I laugh even once at her new show???  Also, I wonder — does this mean my shtick is tiring for people who have been in my life for decades and are much like me?  Am I boring everyone around me, physically and virtually, even my readers?  How do you know when you’re dull, boring and beside the point?  I worry about this and vow to do better not only with my talents but with limited fame and fortune.  But for now, well, can I just have a cupcake?

Fighting off the Dark Side

How I spent this week

This week at an event at the Writer’s Guild a very successful writer sat on a panel and, when the subject of “Brokeback Mountain” came up, he attributed a good part of the film’s crossover success with not so much the quality of the film but the fact that the straight audiences were more comfortable with a gay romance ending in tragedy – the implication being this was not something he wanted to see onscreen.

“Oh, really,” I thought, resisting the urge to reach for a large sock with manure I keep hidden for occasions like these. Then I sort of answered back from my seat that his comment was “ridiculous” when a friend nearby piped in he agreed with said panelist.  Feeling as if I were now surrounded by pod people in my own community and realizing I was not on the panel and therefore couldn’t get on my soapbox the way I would among friends, family or in my own classroom (or blog), I quieted down and let the panelists fight it out.

How you can take a film as fine as “Brokeback Mountain” and complain about it, especially if you’re a gay writer and are among gay writers as he was, is beyond me but hey – it’s a free country so far – knock yourself out.

American Splendor

The point is not whether you can or you should but that it’s a matter of opinion, of taste – of what you want to see.  He’s entitled to not want to see one of the finest gay films ever made, just as I’m entitled not to want to see silly, stupid but award-nominated foolish films about gay people like “I love You, Phillip Morris” or dumb ones like “Eating Out with Naked Boys Who Cant Put More than Two Sentences Together” (Note: I’ve combined several titles).  Taste comes in all shapes and sizes, which is the good and the bad news.  If you have good taste like mine there are likely people who will share it.  If you have bad taste like that panelist and the friend who agreed with him, well, you have an even better chance people will share it.  I can say that since both fit much better into the commercial universe than I do.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

a recent photo of myself

For me, being a writing teacher and mentor is a bit like taking on the persona of Jiminy Cricket if he had the benefit of humanity and the Internet.  Meaning – I try to be a bit of a ubiquitous conscience to my students and their work, urging them on in the direction that they (not I) truly want to go in while understanding both their issues and the real world writers must operate in.  Oh sure, there’s structure, drama, storytelling and all that.  But at some point most young writers “get it” and really just need someone to keep them on the path they’ve chosen for that particular story.  At the point they are, it’s highly likely they can become derailed at one cross comment from any would-be panelist or one discouraging word from someone like myself who is in a position of authority and perhaps secretly enjoys abusing their power (which I don’t – I reserve that only for the blog).

What is seldom in question (for them) is what story to tell.  That’s pretty easy.  Most writers have an idea of what they want to say or they wouldn’t be writers to begin with.  This is not to be confused with the notion that most writers have the courage to sit down and actually write the idea that they want to write.  That is something else entirely and part of the reason that I do what I do.

I want to be the Jiminy Cricket for all the potential “Brokeback Mountain” writers out there.  To urge people to tell the story they really want to tell – be it tragic, politically incorrect, totally “uncommercial” by Hollywood standards or, on the flipside, hopelessly commercial and potentially very sale-able.

Where a lot of writers and artists in general go wrong is looking for the secret formula, the magic answer of how to fit in via subject matter, execution of craft or style of dedication.  It took me decades to learn that it really doesn’t matter if you write in the morning, evening, afternoon or all day, just as long as you do it.  It is irrelevant whether your idea is “big and commercial” or “small and indie,” just as long as you have one and are actually working on honing it.  And the road taken by five others of your friends and colleagues could very well say nothing about the path that you want to or even should be taking unless they inspire you or at least challenge you to do better.

Script Potion #9

What counts the most – the utmost – is choosing your subject AND your path and how you will walk it down your own road.  I can’t imagine Ang Lee, Focus Features, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal imagined the tragic end of the “Brokeback” screenplay they were about to make would make it universally palatable and cause it to gain worldwide boxoffice attention and reviews any more than I can imagine that decades ago fiction writer E. Annie Prouix decided to write the short story it would be based on because she only felt comfortable with a gay story of tragic proportions.  (In actuality, it came out of some real life guys she observed or heard about at the time). The story and the film came out of passion, and an idea and a resonant character as all really good films do.  The critiques and sociological observations and/or rejections of it come out of the kind of analysis that can only be done on a panel of those of us in the entertainment industry.

Writers, or artists of any kind for that matter, need only take note of what moves them.  And know that it could be more than likely that what moves you might not move anyone else.  But, more likely than not, if it does move you, the chances exponentially increase that your telling of this story will move or entertain others.  Because you’ll be bringing that much more of yourself and your passion to it.  That’s the way this art stuff works.

Yes, you need to have craft.  And certainly, you want an audience.  And without a doubt, there are small tricks of the trade you can employ to attract audiences, readers and/or fans.  But what is paramount, even universal (to name two studios), is what you’re bringing personally to the subject matter – not what you think or anticipate or fear or hope other people will bring to it.  To be blunt, who gives a shit what anyone else thinks???  I mean, if you start there you become merely a people pleaser, and not even a particularly good one because it’s been my experience that when asked most people don’t really even know what they want.

Once when I was getting notes from a producer and felt very confused a more experienced writer friend of mine took pity on me and heard my endless story of details and notes and contradictions on this particular project.  Finally, after a lot of venting on my part, she looked at me and said, “don’t you realize that if you even do two of the notes they’ve given you they’ll be thrilled?  You have to understand that if you were to take all of their notes and do them, they would hate what you came up with.  Part of your job is to take what they’re telling you, the moment or moments that are not there for them right now, and give it to them in the form that makes sense to you.”

The pen definitely is mightier

This writer is sooooo smart.  And so real.  And guess what?  She was passing on words of wisdom to me that she had gotten from a writer from the generation before her.  And that guy was not only super smart, but he had an Oscar.  Actually, he has two.  Not that Oscars are the arbiters of anything but, well, it does give one some kind of cultural gravitas, as I can personally testify to since my mere attendance at the ceremonies this year got me a lot more attention and/or readers about it than I probably deserve.  But that’s contemporary life in a nutshell, the subject of still yet another upcoming blog, I suppose.

In any event, I am now officially passing this advice on to anyone listening to people on the news, or others in authority and/or peers on an industry panel with whom they disagree.  Feel free to disagree but don’t assume the other person is necessarily right about what they’re saying if in your heart of hearts you vehemently disagree with them.  It is your right (and actually, obligation) as an artist to fully disagree in the execution of your art to perhaps prove them wrong.

That’s what I plan to do with Gay Writer Panelist who claims  “I Don’t Happen to Like or Relate to Stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain” cause they’re, well, so retro.”  Oh really?  Well, wait until you see the next idea I’m working on.  I can’t wait to piss you off some more.  Because at the very least I know, at the same time, I’ll be more than pleasing myself.  And that’s the only real hope I have of reaching beyond your grasp and to others who feel, or have yet to feel, exactly as I do.  And, as an artist, that reach, and the achievement of it, is no small thing.

In fact, it’s another reason why we do what we do.


Fevered Thoughts

No, not this kind of Saturday Night Fever

I knew I was in trouble Saturday night when my fever spiked to 102.7, which are also the call numbers to a local radio station I used to listen to years ago.  If you had asked me if that station and I could ever cross paths again I would have quickly answered “never.  I now have taste” What is the lesson here?   Never say never because as soon as you do, you’re opening the door to the inevitable.

I’ve been sicker than sick all week.  I won’t bore you with the details because they’re not pretty.  But – as I’m writing this from bed in small spurts, since that’s all my energy level will allow – I am definitely on the mend.

Notes from the sick bed

I found myself wondering… how could I go out to a delicious dinner with friends Friday night and get so sick 12 hours later?  How did that happen?  Did I kiss (or even eat) a toad? (No).  Did I say something snider than usual for which I am getting karmic payback?  (no more than usual).  Did I somehow become a member of the cast of “Contagion 2” without my agent letting me know? (uh, no, there will be no sequel).

Then this was….suddenly? out of nowhere?  You betcha.  Ugh…it was HER.  Okay fine, it wasn’t.  But still (cheap plug), how can you NOT watch Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin this weekend in the HBO movie “Game Change?”

American Horror Story

The correct answer to all this, as Donald Rumsfeld famously understated when asked about the awful stuff that he was accused of causing in the Iraq War, is “shit happens.”  Indeed.

What follows is a diary of delirium that you too could experience if you have to do battle with the notorious virus I hearby dub the 102.7.  Hopefully, it will provide some comfort for you in your time of insanity.


An unnamed virus, a severely unconservative sinus infection and myself are fighting for dominance in an ever-shrinking space called my body.  The doctor describes to me what this is about.  I can’t tell you what he says because his dialogue is reverberating like God if he lived in L.A., worked at Cedars Sinai Hospital and was a Jewish allergist/immunologist,/ENT guy, three very unlikely scenarios.

I suddenly think about Alanis Morissette when she was playing God in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” and want to pray to her to get better.  In fact, I think I will if I ever get home and can figure out just what cool thing would convince her I’m ready to turn over a new leaf and stop listening to Adele for five minutes.  Maybe promising to stop listening to Adele for five minutes would do it, I think.

I’m told I have to eat something before taking all this medicine. You might as well have just told me I have to join the Tea Party, that’s how dizzy, nauseous and awful I feel.

I actually woke up and saw a mannequin, an escaped mental patient and Dr. Evil on TV accepting wins in the Republican primaries.  And that a Black man was president!  I must be sicker than I thought.

One stomach flu away from my ideal weight?  No, this has taken me way under my ideal weight and only a few pizzas are going to bring it back, when and if I can ever stand the sight or one again.  (My bony naked self is scaring the children, if there were any)

I haven’t had a regular coke in 15 years but I felt so queasy the only thing I could think of was a childhood memory of the coke syrup from the drug store my mother gave me by spoon to settle my stomach.  Guess what?  It still does the trick.  I live on small sips of flat and unflat coke and tiny bits of crackers for 2 days and will never scoff at full test again. Could it be after all this, Twinkies are really good for you?

looking good about now...

MSNBC has the same 12-15 people commenting on the same 12-15 stories ALL day.  Sometimes the hosts of shows actually turn up on other shows as the interviewees.  It’s kind of like having the gay couple from “Modern Family” talking about Prop 8 to the “too busy with their own lives” characters on an episode of “Happy Endings” and then watching them all chat about it once again on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Somehow my doctor managed to give me the same cough medicine I used to gag from when I was 8 years old.  Either that or all prescription cough medicine tastes this way.  I involuntarily find myself shuddering each time I have to choke it down, much like Lucy did from a dosage of Vitametavegamin.  Unfortunately, the alcohol content in my medicine is zero.  Bring back the 1950s.

I had a lot of my own creative work I was going to accomplish next week – the week I had off from school and everything else.  Now it will be filled reading the creative work of others – despite the fact I preach that one can always find time to do their own creative work.  I am no longer listening to a word I have to say.

Kelly Clarkson is advising contestants on “The Voice” and Mary J. Blige is giving pointers to singers on “American Idol.”  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

It’s amazing how much dogs need to go out when you’re around.  Who walks them when they’re home alone during the day?

I went to bed last night at 12:38 and woke up only to see the clock at the exact same time.  Assuming time has stood still or I have a broken clock.  Until the Chair’s spouse calls to inform that it is no longer nighttime but the middle of the afternoon.  I am now Bobbie Templeton from “Carnal Knowledge.” (Look it up).

Beauty sleep can actually make you more tired and less beautiful uh, handsome.

The phone woke me up from one of my many “naps” and I actually hung up on the volunteer asking for money to support human rights.  My only excuse is I don’t feel human any longer.

I wonder why I haven’t heard from some of the people in my life and then realize I haven’t answered phone calls or emails all week.  Still, I don’t think that’s any excuse for them not to be suffering like this.

I walked upstairs to turn up the heat and collect my favorite snuggle blanket for watching TV despite the fact that it is 75 degrees outside.  By the time I get back to my bed I am dizzy and tired.  Maybe I’m not getting enough sleep?

I have a burst of energy at 10pm and check emails, drink some soda and play a few rounds of “Words with Friends.”  Even on my deathbed, I am still winning.  That is really all that matters.

I could totally take Alec

It’s 2 am and I can’t sleep.  How can that be??

I manage to wake up at 12:38 again and manage to once again feel like I was hit by a truck.  This is what I get for bragging about “Words with Friends.”  It takes me 15 minutes to gather and take all the pills, do the rinses and the inhalers.   Am I 85 or simply middle-aged?  Am I a Man or a very very old Muppet?

Once the meds kick in I’m feeling better and decide I might need to get back to doing some of the exercising I used to do daily before I contracted the virus from hell.  I start to attempt a single push up and immediately realize Muppets can’t exercise because they don’t have legs.   Thanks, Kermit.

I should read one of the many books I say I’m dying to read but nothing comes to mind so I begin the only thing that makes me happy.  Channel surfing and condemning everything I see.  I am doing EVERYTHING I tell my students not to do. “F.”

I am starting to feel better today and am grateful modern medical science exists and I didn’t have to rely on leeches.  I am giving myself one more day for insults and channel surfing so don’t get in my way.

I might extend the insult deadline to Saturday night so I can enjoy (one last plug) Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.”  I will have washed my TV snuggie by then, will be in full command of my faculties and will report back.   Wink.

Oscar Redux

Behind the scenes with the Chair

Nothing I’ve done in my life since my bar-mitzvah has ever evoked in people such excitement, admiration and curiosity as my recent trip to the Oscars last week.  I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about the ceremony itself (or perhaps more about who I hang out with).  But I’m not lying when I tell you that since that evening I’ve been inundated with pleas to tell almost everyone I know or people I barely know who know I went “what it was like.”  When I ask them exactly what they want to know the usual response is a blank stare and then the same question: Well, what were they like???? (Hint:  I added the “well”).

It took me a while but I get it.  The Oscars are iconic, symbolic and larger than you and I (me?).    They’re celebrity times googol (as oppose to the Google, which is a celebrity within itself and one day might arrive at iconic Oscar status). They’re really not about movies, or what is best, or what is being left out, or what falls short, or even about whether Billy Crystal was too old to host (Hint #2:  It’s not about age.  How much would you love to see Jack Nicholson as emcee – and he’s a lot older than Billy).

The truth is – the Oscars are about —  Well, they’re about magic.  They’re about an idea.  They’re about some weird sort of childhood fantasy come to life.  Forget that on some level they’re really about money, marketing, popularity, taste (or lack of it), fashion, movies and an extreme version of your high school prom whether or not you attended or whether or not you claim you cared about attending.  Like those who say they have no interest in ever attending an Oscar ceremony, you prom naysayers are lying.

We all want to be asked to the party and see what all the fuss is about.  Or perhaps being asked makes us feel special, which is a dangerous way to think about your value if you’re a person who works in the industry or a teenager looking for a date.  As the Dali Lama or your local self-help book or your inner voice will tell you, you are already special – and yes, I did say that and most days (because I’m only human) I actually do believe it.   And not because I’ve been trained to do so from years of therapy (maybe partially) but because it’s the only way to survive in the entertainment industry and in life.

Anyway, in my case I didn’t get officially asked by the Academy, so don’t fret, I’m still sort of on the outside like most everyone else.  I was invited by friends.  It’s not quite the same as being courted by Oscar himself to attend the ball (and who knows if that would be better, he asks hundreds of people but only chooses a select few to go home with him, when it comes down to it), but it’ll do for now.  Yes, it’s fun.  And yes, it is odd.  And when the subject comes up, it’s guaranteed to be a conversation starter in some circles or perhaps get you a bit more attention or perhaps even a date in others.

For that, and for many other reasons, I thought I’d pull back the curtain a beat more than last week’s tweets would allow and give you an inside look.   In no particular order, here they are:


1. ACTORS ARE HUMAN — Anyone who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie wasn’t in on the joke when she stuck her leg out of her Versace gown at the Oscars and struck a pose either doesn’t know anything about actors, movies or Hollywood in general.  I mean, you don’t really believe that someone who has achieved superstardom and stayed there for any length of time has done it by accident, do you?  Or solely on talent   Or by being totally clueless?   There is now a twitter feed, website and countless photo shopped images of Angie’s leg on fictional and non-fictional characters.  My favorite is the one of the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” – or as she is affectionately known to those of us over 40 – Dame Maggie (also an Oscar winner, by the way).

There are no words...

Now, I’m not saying Angie knew her wide stance would evoke such reaction, but it’s not as if she didn’t know it would evoke some reaction.  And here’s something you might not know.  When adapted screenplay winner Jim Rash (“The Descendents”) imitated the Angieleg pose upon accepting his award, the real Angie and her leg were laughing quite visibly.  Unfortunately, it was off-camera and no one saw.  But now you know.   She was in on the joke.

2. EVERYONE LOOKS GOOD IN A TUXEDO, BUT… – How else to account for a record 300 plus likes of a picture of me and my significant other in tuxedos on Facebook.   Perhaps it was the OSCAR in the background???  (Though I do think we cleaned up quite nicely.  Still, I’m not fooling myself).

The Chair and the Good Doctor

3. THINK BEFORE YOU DISH – The first celebrity I saw when I got there was Michelle Williams.  Yes, she got good reviews for her gown but as good as she looked on the TV carpet, she was 1000% more stunning in person.  As was every actress there, even the misses.  They’re wearing expensive stuff and are styled and coiffed beyond belief.  And – if you were a movie star and had all those people working on you – you would look THAT good.  Okay, maybe not with bare leg, but no one is twisting your arm (or leg) on that.

4. THE DRAPES MATCH THE CARPET – The Hollywood Highland Complex, which houses Oscar’s home in the Kodak Theatre, is an expensive shopping mall with hundreds of storefronts, in case you don’t know.  But after you walk on hundreds of yards of red velvet carpet, you glide up stairs and escalators only to be surrounded by more walls of beautiful red carpet all around you.  I didn’t realize until half an hour later, “oh, there used to be stores there.”  Actually, there still are.  They’re behind all the red velvet wall hangings that cover Banana Republic, et al.   This is how movies can convince you you’re vacationing in Maui with the perfect golden tan (or golden person) in the best shape of your life when you’re really sweltering in Spanx or a man girdle on a Valley back lot.  Next to an extra.

5.  NO AUTOGRAPHS, PLEASE – Tons of waiters give you free champagne in the various lobbies before the ceremony.  You see famous people but you don’t ask for pictures or autographs because you pretend you’re one of them tonight.  And you ignore the loudspeaker voice that tells you to take your seat because you know it’s a TV taping and these things never start early.  Besides, everyone knows when the Oscars really start, please.  Note:  Most of the nominees enter from an orchestra stage entrance moments before the show so you are more likely to run into celebs like Virginia Madsen and Nate Berkus where you are.  But I did spot writer-director Alexander Payne, who was happily talking with lots of friends and co-workers and being very welcoming and relaxed.  That’s how you want to do it.  Of course, it probably helped that he already won once. (And he has now officially won a second time, which will exponentially help at all future Oscar ceremonies at which he is in attendance).

6.  EAT BEFOREHAND!!!  It’s a long show.  At least three hours.  And you arrive an hour or two before.  One power bar in your tuxedo pants pocket or special purse won’t cut it.  And don’t count on the hors d’oeuvre beforehand.  They are literally the size of a mini-pea.  (For the record: the free popcorn didn’t arrive in my mezzanine seat until the last half hour of the show and was the best popcorn I EVER had.   The people in the two balconies were either fed after me or fainted.  Needless to say, the orchestra-seated nominees were all well fed.  Well, I guess this is their night).

all that remains...

7. OSCAR NEEDS TO COMBINE THE OLD AND NEW.  Calling:  Jack Nicholson; Robert DeNiro; Al Pacino; Diane Keaton; Warren Beatty; Shirley MacLaine; Annette Bening; Barbra Stresiand (well, she was there for a moment in a filmed interview); Pedro Almodovar; someone who has worked with Woody Allen because he’s not coming a second time; Goldie Hawn; Denzel Washington; Samuel L. Jackson.

Then how about dangling a few more carrots at some not young but not old stars like Will Smith; Julia Roberts (okay, they’re middle-aged); Johnny Depp; and Jennifer Aniston.  Do I care what Edward Norton thinks about the moviegoing experience in a taped TV interview?  If you want to include Ed, then how about a great film clip of him in  “American History X” or his Oscar turn in “Primal Fear?”

8. OSCARS NEED TO INCLUDE MOVIES – Not people talking about movies; not comedians doing bits that are non sequiturs; not lines about how rich and out of touch those who live in Beverly Hills are with the way most people live (I can attest they still do go to the bathroom because I saw more than a few in there) or futuristically strange acrobats swinging over you without a net.  Movie moments???  Not unless you get Meryl on a high wire, which I have no doubt she could (and probably will) master at some later date.

9. TOO MANY FAMOUS NEWCASTERS – Every freakazoid entertainment show host or correspondent you have ever seen anywhere on every channel is in attendance.  You don’t know all of their names but recognize their faces or their dimples or their fake boobs, or hair transplants or Botox or Restalyne injections.  They, too, are looking their best.  Or some version of what they perceive as the latter.  No, I didn’t see Sasha Baron Cohen dump the ashes on Ryan Seacrest.  I can’t be everywhere!!!

10.  PIZZA WON’T BE YOUR GO-TO FOOD IF YOU EAT IT EVERY NIGHT – Perhaps the Oscars are not as exciting on TV anymore because the stars are accessible and everywhere.  Elizabeth Taylor never used to give interviews.  And by the way, she was THE last movie star.  Which reminds me, couldn’t they give her a separate moment alone after two best actress Oscars, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a lifetime of moviedom memories for all of us through all of eternity?  Closing out the somber “In Memoriam” segment didn’t seem to quite fit the good time gal who donated an oil painting of herself to the place where, in her later years, she most liked to hang out in – the West Hollywood gay bar, The Abbey.

The patron saint of the Abbey

11.  OSCAR GOLD — The statuettes are still the coolest looking of them all up close. They’re pretty.  They’re shiny.  Oh, and side note — It used to be that winners had to bring their Oscar to the Academy where they were sent off to be engraved with your name (well, not YOUR name, the winner’s name) and returned a month later.  Now, right after the ceremony, the actual winner (that means you, Jean) have to go to a table at the Governor’s Ball, where a small plaque is soldered on to your statue by an expert technician and you are quickly sent on your way.    (PS – The statues are heavier than you think.  I’ve held them several times.  Though not that night, alas).

12. THE AUDIENCE IS ON ITS OWN – Billy doesn’t talk to you during commercial breaks.  But there is a man who periodically brings out the largest broom/Swiffer you’ve ever seen across the stage to make sure it stays shiny.  And some of the best action is off-camera between the presenters.  J-Lo and Cameron giggling and pointing; Emma Stone reassuring Ben Stiller that she wasn’t seriously insulting him (why not??); and standing O’s for Octavia and Meryl (but you should’ve seen those, along with Angie and her leg laughing).

13.  ALL DOGS GO TO OSCAR — You can’t go wrong with a movie that has a dog, especially a Jack Russell terrier.  Check out “The Artist” and “The Beginners” and tell me who really deserved Oscar in those films.  And yes, I have a Jack Russell Terrier.  Her name is Rosie.  And she is not going to have a career in the movies.  I don’t want her to turn out like Lindsay Lohan’s dog.

The Artist's REAL star

14.  FANCY MEETING YOU HERE – One of my favorite moments was when a very attractive young woman in a pretty pink gown and a cool diamond stud in her nose called my name.  I stopped and finally realized it was one of my former students from not too long ago – a working director who was at the ceremony with a friend.  I fully expect her to be in the front orchestra one day, getting her popcorn first and being seated moments before the show.  Yes, it can happen to you.  And any of us.   But only if you get to work.  Right now.  Don’t worry about what you’ll say or what they’ll say about you much later.  People like to talk.  And — as far as what you’ll wear to this most iconic of events where you’ll be watched by, like, oh, a billion people – don’t worry, it’s gonna be free.  And most of all — it’s gonna be faaabulous.

Future Oscar winner, Rachael

Til Oscar’s next glitzy night…