Open a vein

“Writing is easy, you just open a vein.”

I always thought 20th century wit Dorothy Parker said that until I googled the phrase and came up with a selection of at least four other viable sources – all of whom were men. Though I still believe she might have said it, in all of that knowledgeable, computerized and obviously reliable information offered to us by The  Oracle  Google, there was never a mention of Mrs. Parker.

By the way, the Mrs. salutation was what DP’s writer “friends” at the Algonquin Round Table in NY famously called her, so it’s not retro, politically incorrect or even slightly lacerating of me to now refer to her this way.  As for her “friends” – who were some of the great minds of the 20th century and yes, all male — well, I’m sure they got as good as they gave.  Because as we all know, being friends with a biting wit can quite dangerous, especially when that person blogs  writes weekly with any frequency.  Or even at all.

But the “opening the vein” part is what’s interesting to me and got me thinking about how often I or any of us do this anymore in 2012 — or if it’s even advisable.  Certainly, if you’re a writer or any kind of artist – or just really even a human being – it is.  I mean, who are we at our cores if we’re not honest with the world and ourselves?  No – the correct answer is not “most of the entire human population.”  Or if it is, it shouldn’t be.

It stands to reason that being honest and open about who you are and urging others to be the same, shouldn’t even be a subject needing discussion.  It should just be a given — a fact.  Like the fact that I wouldn’t go skydiving for $10 million dollars or that movie studios would rather make a bad, financially successful tent pole movie rather than an Oscar-winning good one.  (Think of those last two statements as not only being open and honest but my gift of knowledge to you).   But it feels as if it happens all too seldom nowadays, which raises the bigger question – what the heck is everybody saying? Which then also raises the even bigger question of – how do you even know when someone IS being open and honest?

I'm looking at you, Transformers 2.

I try to teach openness and honesty to my film and TV students because not only does it get you to some version of what the world can perceive as universal truth but because one of my limitations as a person/writer/artist is that I don’t know how to do it any other way.  And as I discovered this week, that is a good thing because I passed it on to at least one of my former students, who this week passed it on to one of my present ones.

As I do more than a few times a semester I moderated a panel some days ago of “formers” who work in the industry for “presents” about to graduate and get launched into the industry.  The panel then forged some exchanges of emails and contacts among both sets of groups, resulting in, among other things, one of the “presents” being shown around the soundstage of a television show where one of my very talented “formers” now works.

This, in itself, makes me smile because it’s only through these kind of connections that any one of us can navigate a business as tricky as the one we call “show.”  But what made me happier is the advice the “former” gave the “present” about being a writer when the “present” one felt inferior.  “The most important thing to remember when you write anything is honesty,” said the former.  “If you can remember that, it’s not that hard.”

Listen to Jiminy.

Now, I have to admit the “former” was an honest scribe before ever meeting me and will continue to be forever because, well, some people just are.  But I do like to think that somewhere along the way it was encouraging to find that at least one other fellow writer/person/human being felt exactly the same way.

And that is the point.

In this age of non-reality/reality, 24/7 product placement/marketing, and political campaign rhetoric that feels like a loop of one big load of crazy, it’s more than reassuring to know that there others that feel exactly like you – especially when what “you” are (or are feeling inside) feels out of date, old-fashioned and not within the lightning speed space of our not soft but very hard-wired world.  I don’t know about you but the irony of my early life is that I always felt like “the cheese that stood alone” until one day Iooked around me and realized that I was really just a part of one big dairy farm but was operating in a way in which I was making certain that all of the other cheeses couldn’t see the real me and all my glorious cheezy–ness.  Obviously, that is not a problem any longer for me – being cheezy that is.

We're all in this together...

Working with younger people – the ones that Pres. Obama is now trying to ensure can not only afford to go to college but can live decent lives while they pay back the small to massive student loans many have been forced to take – I can assure you that one of their deep down primary issues and concerns is: how do I be the real open and honest me and still manage to be happy or even survive in the real world?  They don’t want to be vulnerable, but they are.  They don’t want to be nasty, but find that sometimes they have to be (and then it gets easier).  They mostly want to have money but are still idealistic enough to not desire it with the price being the total selling out of their souls.

One way to ease their minds – if any of us care to or care about the future of the world – is to do so by example.  No, this does not mean you can’t cheat a little bit on your taxes or make up an excuse to get out of a boring dinner with a friend or relative.  What it does mean is taking a little moment or two out of your day to lead by example.  Some people do this by being good parents. Others do it in everyday conversation.  Some people do this through their “art,” whatever that might be, and the practical application of creativity that they hope they can share with the world and the world will someday see.  Still others do it by using it as a credo from which to live their lives by and at regular intervals taking time out to speak to those coming up and share with them the best ways in which to navigate the world.

The best part of this is not how noble it is of you to take time out of your day to do something other than complain or even how nice it is that you might have saved some neurotic 21 year old a few more additional years of therapy (though that certainly is admirable).  The best part is what it will do for you.

All four of the “formers” I hosted this past week separately wrote to me or pulled me aside and told me how wonderful it was to be able to come and give back to younger version of themselves who were now in their old shoes.  Some of these “formers” were nervous about talking and sharing and some were afraid of being open and honest and being “themselves.”  Others were busy and weren’t sure if they would have the time, or perhaps knew enough to even come.  Still others were reticent that once they were there they could contribute nothing valuable enough to say.  But the honest truth is all left with smiles on their faces – smiles waaay bigger than the “currents” they were speaking to because most of the “currents” have not yet been out in the world long enough to appreciate how little honesty and openness there is in everyday life.  Just as the recent “formers” didn’t know prior to the panel how easy and, more importantly, how gratifying it would be to give a little of their real selves out.

Much easier, in fact, than opening a vein.

Not Dead Yet

still got a lot left to burn...

“When you’re dead, lie down,” said an old flame of mine about the performance of an older movie star of the sixties in a film several decades later.  I didn’t think the performance was good but neither was it particularly awful.  However, I did sort of chuckle (or perhaps belly laughed) at the comment because not only was it snide and amusing but it came from the lips of a person who at the time I thought could do no wrong.

Well, now that I’m decades older and much closer in age to the movie star (who it turns out wasn’t that old) – and now that the old flame has flickered out of my life and chronologically is what many of us consider old, or at the very least much OLDER than the sixties movie star (and certainly a lot less rich and famous) – I have to admit that on the subject of “lying down” both of us wiseacres were WRONG – DEAD WRONG.

There is really never a time to stop doing what you love to do simply because your hot streak is over and others think you have overstayed your welcome.  Just as it is never a great idea for the powers-that-be to blanketly ignore people who have mastered their craft solely on the basis of their age (be it young or old) for what is perceived to be the next LIVE thing.

A case in point is Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson, who turns 86 next month.  Mr. Pierson won his Academy Award for a movie starring Al Pacino that you might know, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). In addition, he was also nominated two other times for “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Cool Hand Luke”(1967).  More recently, Mr. Pierson directed the acclaimed HBO TV movies “Citizen Cohn” (1995), “A Soldier’s Girl” (2001) and “Conspiracy” (2003), served as president of the Writers Guild of America from 1981-1983 and as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 2001-2005.  On a personal note, I can also tell you Mr. Pierson is an extremely smart and gracious man who extends himself to young writers but can also gloriously cut his cowardly peers down to the quick as I once witnessed at a very contentious open Writers Guild meeting in the nineties when he publicly challenged his fellow scribes to “grow a pair” (my words, his were a little more colorful) and stand up to the studios because “no one else will and, damn it, that’s what writers have always done” (again, cleaning it up for blog audiences).

Mr. Pierson tells it how it is.

This past week Mr. Pierson had another career triumph for his writing of the fifth episode of the current season of AMC’s “Mad Men” – a disturbing, gutsy, self-possessed hour entitled, “Signal 30.”  Though all of the episodes this season shine for various reasons, this particular one, penned by an 86 year old, has upped the game and officially made the 2012 version of “Mad Men” the BEST WRITTEN SHOW ON TELEVISION.

for Frank's a jolly good fellow!

Without getting too far into the plot elements for non-watchers, suffice it to say any hour-long episode of TV set in 1966 that dares to feature and pull off all of the following:

  • a real live fist fight between two of a company’s wimpiest executives
  • a thirtysomething married man lusting after a young girl in a driver’s ed class only to loser her to a teenage hunk literally named “Handsome”
  • a news report on the real life murderer of young women in Texas that scares the bejeesus out of most of the girls in NYC
  • a bunch of British soccer players winning the World Cup as watched by a group of bar cheering British expatriates
  • an Upper East Side brothel owner deciding on whether to buy a television set to liven up her place
  • And an account guy who moonlights as a science fiction writer of gem-like short stories about a working man who is a mere cog in the machine of the universe

Well, that’s is okay by me.

a real knockout

Actually, it’s more than okay.  It’s pretty terrific.  And not only because of what that episode says about American culture right before the social revolution of the late 1960s but for what it shows us about American culture five decades later.  More than the obvious fact/fiction of the past, the present day workings of the actual television show “Mad Men” prove to us that rather than being dead or basically put out to pasture, it actually is possible to be relevant as an artist in commercial Hollywood once you get past the age of ________ on a non comic-book, non-sequel, non-high concept, non-sitcom piece of material that isn’t based on the life and times of your children, or even grandchildren.

Matt Weiner, “Mad Men’s” creator and show runner, is responsible for Mr. Pierson’s hire and part of the brilliance of his work on the show is that he boldly takes chances not only on the creative direction of each season but on who he chooses to hire.  Given conventional TV wisdom, there is no reason in the world for Mr. Weiner to employ Mr. Pierson except that Mr. Weiner is smart enough to know

a. Mr. Pierson started his writing career in advertising near the time “Mad Men’s” world is set.

b. Mr. Pierson grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., which is pretty close to the area where many of the series characters reside, and

c. Mr. Weiner is secure enough in his writing talent and stewardship of his show to not be threatened by the talent and reputation of an old war horse like Mr. Pierson (who, by the way, famously stood up to the then uberpowerful Barbra Streisand and her producer-boyfriend Jon Peters as the writer-director of their 1976 version of “A Star Is Born”)

Oh yes, there is also

d. Mr. Weiner always has the prerogative to rewrite any writer on his show.

the order says it all..

Of course, so do any other show runners on any other show and you don’t often see them digging in and doing much out of the ordinary. In full disclosure, Mr. Weiner did rewrite Mr. Pierson a bit (as he does with almost everyone on the program) and shares writing credit (as he also does with almost everyone).  But in Mr. Pierson’s case it was not more than 40% of the script (and probably less) since Mr. Pierson’s name is listed first before Mr. Weiner as the writer of that particular episode.  How do I know the percentages?  Mr. Weiner publicly announced it in more than one interview.

I’m not saying Matt Weiner deserves yet another award for hiring Mr. Pierson (who was also a consulting producer on “The Good Wife” sans writing credit in 2010), or for not rewriting him entirely.  But he does deserve high praise for keeping a terrific television show afloat by trying to do something different from the norm both onscreen and off.

It would be nice and perhaps even smart if others took note and followed his lead.