Harrison Ford is 70

“Age is a harsh mistress.”  I said this last year to a student at our annual holiday party when he spied a picture of me and my significant other taken 25 years ago.  A picture I don’t ever give a second thought to, I realized, until a young person happens to spy it and a look of disguised shock and awe came onto his face.  Shock that, I like to think, is because I was and still am so devastatingly attractive (“he was even better looking back then!”) but that probably has more to do with how someone so close to their age could’ve gotten so much, well, older-looking.  And awe, I suppose, at the fact that I am still alive and retain any sort of the youthful vigor or even mobility when I am in their presence.

I still have enough memory to know that I did indeed feel exactly that same way in my early twenties.  And that it is, indeed, okay.  What is not okay – by any measure – is that the movie business – which is almost 100 years old itself – feels exactly the same way.

It’s not news that anyone over 25, or to be kind, perhaps 35, is considered by most of the powers-that-be at movie studios as somewhere between dead or not worth pursuing.  But as myself and many other writer/director/producers/editors/designers and, yes, actors in the biz have been saying for years – it is not only rude and inconsiderate to think that way since the industry and many of the people who run it are older than that, but it’s an extremely poor business model.

You can bemoan this as a creative person.  You can shout it angrily as a movie fan who suddenly finds there is nothing exciting to go to as a lover of big screen entertainment.  But, much like any other changes in the world, none of that does any good until it’s proven on the balance sheet and by the risk of someone else that this way of thinking is, indeed – just plain wrong.

The N.Y. Times wrote quite a perceptive story this week about a movie featuring primarily sixty and seventy somethings that we like to call “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  A film that is now inching up to a worldwide box-office gross of – wait for it – close to $90 million dollars — on a production and marketing budget of a fraction of that cost.

Certified mariGOLD

I saw the film several weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.  In fact, it’s surprisingly good for a movie about a bunch of British seniors who separately decide to retire to India.  Is it the best movie I’ve seen in 10 years?  Well, no, but it doesn’t have to be because that only happens once a decade.  Instead, it’s simply fun, heartfelt, touching, very profitable, well made and got an 83% positive audience response on the AMERICAN film website rottentomatoes.com.

Perhaps even more importantly, it didn’t cost $200 plus million to make and another $100 plus million to market.   And it doesn’t star Taylor Kitsch (sorry Taylor?).  In short —  it’s no “John Carter.”

In the sequel, let’s lose the chestplate

Here’s the way it works and why it shouldn’t work that way.  Hollywood movie studios want to make films that will not only make money but will become cottage industries.  Meaning, known quantities based on books or comic books or board games for teenagers  that can have sequels.  Or that can sell toys, soundtracks, dolls and fast-food tie-ins, among other things.  And perhaps can spawn TV series, cartoons, Broadway shows or, at the very least, an endless stream of theatrical re-releases to new generations or to unsuspecting moviegoers who studio heads believe will crave any kind of faux-repackaged DVD extra they can buy at their local Costco.   (Note: For those poor schnooks who don’t have Costco in their neighborhood, substitute your best local discount store – though I doubt it could possibly compete with the Big C).

Anyway, in the unending quest of franchise-mania (did I make up a new word?), these same studios are willing to risk large chunks of the farm in any effort to prove to their corporate bosses (who often see the movies as glam but not their primary bread and butter) that they are indeed worthy of keeping their jobs.  But because the mode of delivery is changing and we now can get entertainment literally everywhere (not to be gross, but isn’t it only a matter of time until the iPod video player toilet?), the movie business, like its compatriots in the recording industry, are panicked.

It exists.

Some sample movie studio dialogue:

“WTF is happening?  How are these kids continuing to download these movies illegally?” (Uh, yeah, in my unscientific survey I can testify that the majority of them do and will continue to do so no matter how much we preach about intellectual property, cause it’s a new world).

“Do they really want to watch a movie on a tiny phone?  Should we have a phone/mobile device division? Let’s get some interns to work on it  – we don’t have to pay them, they’ll do it for free – and maybe they’ll come up with something??  Hell, maybe they can make the films themselves and we can charge, what – $1 a pop – okay, maybe two if it’s full length. Great – so now – who’s got the nerve to run it upstairs to — Nabisco?” (Well, not Nabisco but substitute some nameless corporate entity – you know what I mean).

“Oh, and don’t forget to tell them ‘no, we’re not gonna pay these kids to make the films’… well, okay – we can create a new guild minimum for phone films but it’ll be negligible – but no profits!  You know what – don’t even mention paying them for now unless they ask!…”

(Yes, this is a fictional conversation.  Or is it?  I’ll never tell).

A much less stressful – and perhaps simpler and more inventive strategy – for said studio people might be this: to look at what one is selling and see who wants to buy it.  That is who else except the usual suspects being catered to.  As the NY Times so wisely points out, and what myself and, again, many of my friends have been saying for years – “baby boomers have literally carried on a life long love affair with the movies.”  And there is a good reason.  Those of us in or around that generation were raised in the golden age of films of the 1960s and 1970s.  A time when the creative output included – I mean, do I have to list them?  Go to oscars.org and look up Academy Award nominations.  Or type in any film festival of your choice and see what was competing at the time.  Then go watch “John Carter” or even more adult type films that won the top awards this year like “The Artist” and “Iron Lady “ and compare them to, oh – “The Godfather,” “Cabaret,” “Mean Streets,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Parallax View” “The Bicycle Thief,” “The 400 Blows” and “Raging Bull” and see if you don’t see what I mean.

Show some respect

Interesting enough, “Marigold” managed to make money (fun alliteration?) not by being a throwback to those films but by unapologetically telling a story about older, though not ancient BRITISH people.  Yeah, they’re not even American but they are acclaimed actors and some Oscar winners who can act too – Dames like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, among others – actors who are actually in their 70s – a generation beyond the boomers.

The Downton Bump?

Why is anyone going to see this film full of well – practically dead people? Is 70 the new 50 or 60?  Maybe.  But mainly they’re going because, uh, it’s good.  And  because there’s nothing else to see for anyone above a certain sensibility and age even though they have lots of money and are more than willing to spend it.

See – here is a list of movie stars today who are 70 and above —

Jack Nicholson; Warren Beatty; Al Pacino; Dustin Hoffman; Robert Redford; Barbra Streisand; Jane Fonda; Gene Hackman (he’s 80!) and Woody Allen.   And Harrison Ford turns 70 in – July.  (Don’t believe me – look it up)

Oh Indy…

Now — here is a list of American movies stars 62 and above –

Meryl Streep – still one of the most bankable female movie stars now out there. Just sayin’.  Robert DeNiro; Diane Keaton; Helen Mirren; Michael Douglas; Sylvester Stallone; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Goldie Hawn; and Sigourney Weaver.

Does anyone out there really think that the only way young audiences will go to see them in the movies is if they play foil, father, mother or grandmother to Taylor Kitsch, Shia LeBouf or Kristin Stewart?  I mean, give me a break.  I don’t want to even see them in those roles.   And neither do my 20-year-old students.  They want to see them in films that are — good.  As do the many masses of potential ticket buyers who are not young anymore.  (Note to moguls:  Some of the young people I know voluntarily went to “Marigold” not at my prodding and reported back to me that “they liked it, they really liked it” – a phrase that was admittedly coined by Oscar winner Sally Field, who also belongs on that list).

The Picture of Dorian Gray

If many more of these actors other than Magic Meryl got to star in their own movies (and, perish the thought, some of these movies were sometimes written and/or directed by people close to their age group) could they lose any more money than “John Carter?”  No way because we know that no studio would spend as much as they did on that debacle.  Or on some others this summer that I don’t need to mention but you know who you are. That’s not what we’re asking.  We only want some more choices, some different choices, some more vaguely intelligible choices that could possibly bear box-office fruit (and they don’t even have to reek of heaviosity) before our variety of films is no bigger than the images you can conjure on your local mobile toilet device.

P.S.: “Marigold” opened wide to 1233 theatres this weekend and will gross more than $10 million nationally this week, putting its box office gross over $100 million worldwide.  And it’s still playing.

Just sayin’.


There is something both great and awful, yet at the same time scary, offensive and exhilarating —  about listening.  How many activities can engender such a range of responses and emotions?  Not many unless you count the reaction to the renewal of NBC’s “Whitney” or thoughts on the new Adam Sandler trailer “That’s My Boy” and feedback concerning the voice Mr. Sandler is using to play Dad to the movie’s title character.  But who wants to get into all that now, anyway, even in the safe space confines of a user-friendly (one hopes) Internet blog.

The death of singer supreme Donna Summer this week got me thinking about listening, as opposed to my usual rants about being heard. At one time not so long ago, Ms. Summer’s sultry yet powerful voice played on many more radios than Rush Limbaugh’s ever did but, unlike Limbaugh, her voice was a clarion call to an emerging culture of people who were tired of the way things were and wanted the society to, if not change, at least be broadened enough to include something a little bit more colorful and different.  That was, until, disco sort of imploded upon itself (sort of like what’s happening to Limbaugh at the moment), and created a backlash that sent Ms. Summer’s music underground until decades later when it was sort of okay to listen to her again in a nostalgic, albeit kitschy way.

Dancing Queen

Though I was no Disco baby, I never did lose my taste for a Summer record like “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park” or even “On The Radio” – all of which I listened to as a young person who, at least on the inside, felt different enough to hear what she had committed to vinyl (uh, yeah, vinyl) over and over again.  I think this was due, in part, because it made me think and, more importantly, feel things I had never felt, or dared to feel before.   For those not getting this last statement – use your imagination.  For those still not getting it – phone a friend (girl OR boy).  Or better yet – listen yourself to her very first hit international hit in the confines of your own study, crib or own safe space.

Music is one way to listen – or not to – but these days, of course, there are a lot more, partly because there are many more outlets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there is more worthy stuff to hear.  The challenge is – choosing what to listen to.  Now I’m not one of those armchair liberals who only listen and look (the latter often a requirement of listening in the 2012 age) to those who agree with me – that would be boring.  But that doesn’t mean that my version of listening requires me to watch what passes for news on Fox Broadcasting (I have Jon Stewart to siphon that off) or expose my diminishing hearing to anything within the smell zone that the cigar-chomping Limbaugh chooses to Rush at me.  There are variations of the ilk I will watch or read – pundits or even bigots that make my blood boil at a little lower temperature (Peggy Noonan the former, or Tony Perkins of something called the Family Research Council, being the latter).  This is just in the off chance I can learn something or be forearmed in the very off chance that they might, at some point, or even now, be listening to me.  (A long shot, I know, but, like Bill Clinton, I try in my mind’s eye to still live in a little town called Hope).

Best cheeseburgers in town.

I honed my listening skills as a young reporter, a field where you are pretty much forced to listen to everything in an effort to synthesize and tell the “real story” of an event to people who are depending on you for the truth.  Well, at least that’s the way I learned it back in journalism school.  Unfortunately, times have changed.  Back then most writing and reportage was not about advancing an agenda but actually attempting to get all sides and then tell the most truthful version of it that you could in your own, inimitable fashion.  This does and did not mean that many stories – both news and features – didn’t have a point of view.  Of course they did.  Since complete objectivity is a human impossibility it is a given that the retelling of anything will be synthesized in some way given that mere mortals are telling it.  But as any decent filmmaker knows, POV doesn’t change the actual story elements – it merely shifts focus and moves the audience in a direction.  It is then up to the audience to do what they will with the information given to them.

Or not given.

That’s a trick too.  When no one is listening or reading or watching hard enough, merely arranging the same facts a certain way can cause people to interpret the story exactly the way you want them to.  But that’s pretty much only in the case of people who are not really listening or at least are not practiced listeners. Which, these days, means pretty much everybody.

Everyone. Everywhere.

If we, as storytellers (professional or just plain folks like us), don’t listen we won’t have enough information to tell the story the way it is because we won’t be able to recognize that there are indeed missing details.  And our version will become someone else’s faulty version – someone who is depending on us for the truth – and then they will retell it to yet another who creates still another version with a lack of proper information or facts that we provided them in the first place.   One need only look at the political situation in the Middle East or the “true love” choices on “The Bachelor” to get confirmation of that.

Certainly, we all listen differently and most of us are too busy looking for either work or validation or love or money (sometimes all four) to be focused on getting to the bottom of anything.  That is, unless the real story will provide us with one of the four  (see “The Bachelor” or “Bachelorette”).   In some ways, this was always the case.  We humans usually don’t listen hard enough unless we can get something out of it.  Or, to put it another way: “what’s in it for me?”

Stlll, the baseline was – how do I put this – a bit higher.  There was a time when television news was required by law to present both sides.  But that was abolished under Pres. Reagan’s FCC in 1987.

There was also a time when there was no:

– free porn on a small screen in your home whenever you wanted it

– 1,438,928 cable TV stations vying for your attention

– opportunity to listen to as much of Donna Summer, Adam Sandler, or anyone else you wanted without charge if you clicked the right set of keys on a laptop computer anywhere in the world.

Can you do better?

Chair Translation — we’ve gotta raise the bar – just a tad, or even a hair.  Or two.  Even if it’s calmly trying to discuss and investigate whether the news story your friend posted on Facebook is little more than someone else’s faulty retelling of someone else’s rant.  Or asking your friend, lover or family member to calmly tell you what they are saying and then stepping back and spending more than five minutes deciding for yourself how much you want to believe or whether you want to take at least another five or even ten minutes to do some investigating on your own.   Which might then lead you to talk to someone else about this very situation.  A situation (and NOT the “Jersey Shore” kind) this person might very well be interested in or have pertinent information about, but found that said story in the form you are advancing had never crossed their path.  And that, in turn, can do or change all kinds of things.  Or if not, forge the discovery of yet another “something else”.  Something that might not have been heard before if someone wasn’t listening to you (or vice versa) in the very first place.

All of this can be done to the tune of the Donna Summer record of your choice if you so desire.  Or perhaps, simply, in silence.  I suggest the latter but certainly understand the former, depending on your mood.