Straight Talk

Rule of thumb:  If something that’s said publicly bothers you for more than a day, and worse, is inaccurate, you have an obligation to do something about it.

If you disagree at the very least you have to write a letter, tell someone else, or run for office.  If it’s untrue and the person telling it to you is mistaken or, as my Mom used to say – a liar – you have to do even more.  And not be afraid to do it because in the long run you always win when you express what’s true.

So –  here’s what director Adam Shankman said last weekend publicly in a Q&A session at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences when discussing his new film “Rock of Ages” – a musical set in 1987 Los Angeles.

Oh god.

“The year the movie takes place – 1987 – was a great time, a different time  – so free, really.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  Really.”


Here’s what you have to know because facts and statistics don’t lie:


  • 41,027 persons are dead from AIDS.
  • 71,176 persons are diagnosed with AIDS in the US.
  • Randy Shilts’ investigative journalism book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, is published chronicling the 1980–1985 discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, government indifference, and political infighting in the United States to what was initially perceived as a gay disease.
  • AZT (zidovudine), the first antiretroviral drug, became available to treat HIV.
  • Williamson, West Virginia closed its public swimming pool following an incident involving a local resident with HIV/AIDS. The Oprah Winfrey Show broadcasts a town hall meeting during which local residents express their fears about AIDS and homosexuality.
  • In August, 1987 the Rae family, including HIV+ hemophiliacs (Ricky Rae and his two brothers) living in Florida, are barred from their church and school. After they successfully sue to enroll the kids back in school, their house is burned to the ground.
  • The first known AIDS death at the time was in 1981 but actually occurred in the mid-seventies.
  • An Early Frost, TV’s first prime time AIDS film, was broadcast November 11, 1985 (two years earlier) on NBC.
  • In April and October of 1987 President Reagan finally uses the word “AIDS” in public. He sided with his Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives who said the Government should not provide sex education information.

Artwork from 87.

Good times?  Oh yeah.  Especially for someone like Mr. Shankman who is openly gay and in 1987, was turning 23, and already a professional dancer/choreographer having attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School of the Arts.   If I take Mr. Shankman at his word, this last statement (“good times”) is not at all sarcastic.  If I report to you what I think is the real truth – that he is either forgetful, exaggerating to sell his movie, or was indeed somehow personally and callously unaffected by a tragic, international pandemic affecting a lot of people who looked a lot like him (which I can’t imagine is the case but, then again no one can be the best judge of character 100% of time), then his statements are even more egregious.  Because he should know better.

The ignorant and the callous piss me off.  Am I being too personally sensitive?  I don’t think so.  Because pick a tragedy, any tragedy, any tragedy at all,  and substitute an appropriately analogous amount of facts (if you could indeed come up with them) and the result would be the same.  Worse yet – no matter how you try to slice, dice, parse or analyze what was said in defense of that dangling quote, it just gets worse and worse. But let’s try anyway…

Argument #1 — This was an unintentional public misstatement made for no other reason than to sell a movie set 25 years ago.  All our memories fade at some point and years tend to jumble. 

Uh, well – he also said a similar thing in the L.A. Times about that time period and broadened it to include the entire decade of the eighties.  To quote: “It was endless sex with endless partners with no threat of AIDS, seemingly.”

What was it that former Bush president once said?  Ah yes, here it is:

“Fool me once — shame on you.  Fool me (twice?) – you can’t get fooled again.”

What am I looking at here?

Argument #2 – This is just a film director who wants audiences to remember 1987 that way because he’s trying to sell a movie set in an imagined 1987.  So rather than mistake or misstatement here is a huckster making a callous calculation no one can call him on because he can always answer back:   “Come on, we’re talking about a movie that is pure entertainment, a fantasy — and anyone who takes what’s said literally is too PC and has no sense of irony or humor.”

Problem is in 2012 we’re all too hype weary and too savvy as a society. Annoying people with nothing better to do than call you on inaccuracies (those people used to be called journalists) then come forward and confront you publicly with what your literal words were.  Hype can, in essence, quickly become backlash (ask The Octomom).  To put it more plainly — We might expect to be lied to but when it’s found out and it’s credible we really, really, really don’t like it (or your product) or even you for trying to pull one over one us.  (To put it still more plainly: BUSTED!!).

ARGUMENT #3 – He really doesn’t know he’s “talkin’ smack” and believes what he’s saying is true.  People in show business tend to live in bubbles.  He concentrated on his art – dancer; choreographer; and budding director – and perhaps was not affected the way you were.   

Right.  You mean like the story that used to make the rounds for years about show business legend Ann Miller.  Reacting many years later to news of the death of John F. Kennedy she was purported to have said:  “He died?  What do I know, I was touring in “Sugar Babies.”

Oh, Ann.

Yes, of course that story is a fake.  As is argument #3.  People who are super successful in show business are especially aware of what’s going on culturally.  The ability to take your talents and apply it in a timely fashion to the world around you, whatever that happens to be at the moment, can often be the very talent that pushes you into major success.  Think of it as learned serendipity.

But —  as counterintuitive as it might be to a successful career in show business and even though our present reality might be a quite bitter pill to swallow — it seems to me there is still a human obligation to tell the truth, especially as any kind of artist.  To twist facts in your work for the sake of a good story is one thing — but to take that story and pass it off as some kind of reality when the cameras are off and you’re in the presence of real life with history and facts and people who can actually breathe – that’s another.   It just means that some things that fly in the face of logic can’t be debated.  For instance, you can no longer claim the president wasn’t born in the U.S. when a state (yes, Hawaii is one of the 50) produces a birth certificate in hard ink that says he was.  In the same way two plus two equals four no matter how much you want us to believe under the rules in your own personal idealized new world it is, indeed, five.  Yes, I suppose it could even be seven if you redefine terms and definitions and laws.  But by those standards, I can also proclaim a rhinoceros is a cat and a dog is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, or perhaps one-legged owl.  I mean, anything is possible in a society where only 1% of us make the rules and the other 99% are required to play by them.

Of course, some lies are bigger and more offensive than others, especially when they deal with sensitive issues of the past.  For example, if I were a Jewish man of a certain age from eastern Europe and not a Jewish man of the age I am now living in Los Angeles with grandparents who lived and died in eastern Europe, I could never recall the carefree, lovely casual days in Germany and Poland in 1942 – where things were so much simpler and different than they are in the complicated times we must endure in Germany now.

(Note:  For those of another religion, ethnicity, or even, um, sexual persuasion, substitute another time and place in history and you might get the idea.)

Bottom line:

You don’t get to just throw untruths out there and rewrite history, even in the smallest way, and call it perception, opinion or even hype.  It’s misconception at best, and a blatant total calculated lie, at worst.  And it should not go on the public record unchallenged. Young people especially should not be afraid to speak or shout out when something bothers them in the public discourse, or is, frankly, untrue or something they vehemently disagree with.  Yes, a few people might go running or you might bruise a couple of egos right now, perhaps some of them belonging to peers or elders who could possibly be of help in the short term.  But in the long run the majority of many others will offer you respect and probably many more unforeseen opportunities than you could ever imagine because you had the courage to speak and stick up for what you know in your heart of hearts is true.  Most importantly, you’ll respect yourself for setting the record straight on something that matters to you.  This, in itself, is never a bad thing.

Eating Oreos in a Mallomar World

Your pick

This all started when I went to see “The Avengers” a few days ago (yes, I was late to the party).  Staring back at me in the climactic Third Act moment when the Hulk is wrecking N.Y. (and no, at this point it’s not a spoiler) were these words on what was supposed to be a big city storefront but looked about as phony as Donald Trump’s hair:

“We Are Insurance. We Are Farmers” 

Now at first I chalked it up to “well, that’s the way it is in our commercial world” and that there could perhaps be that insurance store, or even ad slogan on another building right there as the Hulk was wreaking havoc in Manhattan.  But when the phrase got it’s big lingering close-up a second time I realized I was now in the world of specific payment positioning and suddenly it wasn’t about the Hulk at all but the mammoth strength and power of a corporate interest whose product its producers hoped I might at one point have actually bought.  I use the past tense here because though it’s been 25 years plus with Farmers for me, the company’s blatant obnoxiousness in interrupting a movie I wasn’t particularly loving, created the opposite effect.  It caused me to begin to consider if I even wanted to continue with them.  Perhaps I could instead switch to that adorable Gecko called Geico.  Or maybe phone or text Flo, the cool Progressive Insurance Lady.  Not only are they both snide and funny like me, but I’ll bet they’d also have enough taste to not insert themselves in the middle of the third act of a mindless action film I didn’t want to see in the first place but somehow found myself pressured into vaguely enjoying.  That’s a strategy I’d like to at least reward with, well – something.

I feel ya, Hulk.

Of course, it didn’t stop there.   The next morning I’m pumping gas, still considering cancelling with Farmers, and happen to see Ted is coming. (That’s a movie billboard, not a vagrant named Ted).  Then I look down on the ground next to the gas pump and see a very large, very red “Seattle’s Best Coffee Inside” poster right under my feet — like it’s reading my mind, knowing I’m thinking about advertising.  And yes, since I knew you wouldn’t believe me – I took this picture.

You sure do.

That afternoon I subsequently talk with a student and see a Disney character is on her T-Shirt.  I turn on the radio in my car on the way home and it’s selling me an all-natural bug repellant.  And once home, on my beloved cable TV channel, they’re assuming I have erectile dysfunction or bladder leakage and need either powerful herbal supplements or a sleek, comfortable adult diaper that is called something else but let’s face it, they are diapers.  Plus, to make matters worse, I can’t even figure out if I’d rather be impotent or incontinent.  Pick your poison (or mine).  My gambling Dad actually would put these odds at “pick ‘em’ – which means the outcome could go either way, though in this case both choices are equally heinous.

Certainly ads have been around a long time.  Advertising Age lists the first newspaper ad in 1704, though it is eminently possible the Coliseum in Rome had one or two emperors seeking lion sponsors.  But if Mitt Romney is right and “corporations are people, my friend” then in today’s world we all have many, many more friends than even the ones on our Facebook page, and many of them even more faux than in our virtual existence.

a peculiar delight

Speaking of friends and advertising, did you know you can see, in syndication reruns, many of the NBC “Friends” eating Oreos they never ate at the time their episode originally aired simply because Nabisco or some other parent company inserted the box and/or cookies into their filmic hands in 2012?  And that this is not limited to “Friends” and NBC but includes pretty much all of your fave characters in any episode of any other show you choose to watch?  I mean, what if they’re more a part of the Mallomars/Ding Dong kind of crowd?  Or at the very least, people who crave Lorna Doones?  The possibilities are endless for any advertiser who has the time and money to buy them the snack of their choice.

Elvis v. L-VIS

This was news to me but has been going on since 1999 when a new technology called L–V.I.S. (pronounced Elvis – as in, well, you know who) was launched.   Yes, a computer program named for the King of Rock and Roll that does all this and more, begging the question: did they have to get approval from the REAL Elvis, or the Elvis Presley estate, to name themselves this?  Whatever the answer is, you at least have to give this company credit for being so out there with who it is that it’s very name comes from a show business legend many years after he even existed, especially without his full endorsement of them in the first place.

Unless… can you endorse from the grave?

But this technology does allow David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) to eat Oreos at a table on a random syndicated episode of “Friends” when he never specifically did so in the original scene, nor, for all we know, did his creators ever intend him do so (certainly not at that moment). It can also magically display a new ad for a 2011 movie, like say “Bad Teacher,” in a “How I Met Your Mother” episode originally shot 5 years earlier in 2006 for the show’s second season.  (And no, the HIMYM plot in that episode didn’t have a time travel theme).

Bad move?

To be clear, a widely used computer program literally drops the ad of a corporation’s choice into any rerun TV episode or feature film past and present whether its creators want it to or not.  And speaking for writers and producers and directors and actors who take their storytelling personally, let’s put it another way – you’re the parent of a six-year old (as many artists consider their offspring) and the school or day care center you’ve entrusted their care to is allowed to force feed them Oreos or Snickers or perhaps even have them use a series of really bad diapers or insect repellents not only without your consent but even without your knowledge.

As sports fans know, this is not only limited to film.  There is a practice where a computer program can continually and magically create stadium billboards of its choice at any number of live baseball games you watch on TV that friends (the real ones) who might actually be at the game don’t see because those billboard ads don’t actually exist in their real live world.  No — those ads are only reserved for those of us who choose not to or can’t afford to or attend the game live but instead find ourselves watching it on the TV or tablet of our choice.  So rather than paying for a real stadium billboard ad that goes to just thousands, a company can computer generate a virtual ad that will, in turn, reach many millions – even when all the time the millions watching are assuming they’re viewing exactly what they’d be seeing if they were live at the game.


For some of us, none of this is real news. Studios now have whole departments for this purpose with names like “product integration” as opposed to what it used to be called when I worked in movie marketing – product placement.  Consider the clever corporate wordsmith—ness of the new term, which, if nothing else, proves we all have no chance to survive unscathed.  Placement, you see, implies a sort of fake insertion meant to look real yet is still inauthentic and usually implies undesirable.  Whereas the word integration harkens back to “equality” – a time in the sixties when we as a society decided to come down on the side of “fairness” and make civil rights for all the priority.  Well – what’s more preferable to you – choiceless fake insertion or being in/on the right side of history in fairness and equality?  As a corporate American company trying to tempt you into buying my product, I’ll always fly the patriotic flag of freedom and choose product integration so at least I can appear to be fair.  Especially where involuntary insertion (nee placement) is the other option, right?  Because as far as insertion goes, it is commonly accepted that a human being should always at least be asked.

These ad/marketing tricks.  No wonder “Mad Men” is so popular.  Matt Weiner must spend months every season creating a subliminal popularity formula within every 12 (or is it 13?) episodes.

Even Peggy can’t get excited for Heinz beans

Now don’t get me wrong — overall there’s nothing wrong with using real life products creatively.  Ask any screenwriter in particular and he or she will tell you that most of us do that.  Humphrey Bogart had to watch as not just any gin but a specific bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin was thrown off the boat in 1951’s “The African Queen,” while Joan Crawford got to take some belts from a real bottle of Jack Daniels (at least that’s the label on the outside, though one can surmise otherwise) when she appeared in “Mildred Pierce” six years prior.  Not to mention the Reese’s Pieces famously consumed in “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” because M & M’s, the original candy of choice, famously turned down Steven Spielberg’s original offer of insertion. (Uh, Epic fail, as the kids say, Mars, Inc,).  And even the then-hipper-than-hip AOL (uh, yes they were in the pre-Internet age) theme became the chief corporate tie-in of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”

The former bane of my existence

Yes – we indeed do live in a label-ridden world and to not include characters eating, drinking, watching or listening to something recognizable is to deny them real world existence.  Even I knew this in the late eighties when, as a young writer, I was foolish enough to use the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” in a script to thematically evoke both character and time period, never realizing that one of the cardinal rules for spec script writing is to NEVER use a Beatles or Stones song (which are preemptively expensive to license) and expect it to be used if your movie actually gets made.

Actually, I did sort of know the rule but used it anyway because, well, it sounded perfect and was absolutely right and what were the chances we’d ever face the licensing hurdle in real life?  I mean, who would ever dream I’d actually win the writing lottery that one time and the damned thing would really and truly get bought and filmed in my lifetime?

It was back then that I quickly learned, as Hollywood corporations now know, that there are indeed thousands of choices for actual products, songs and contemporary references that can be inserted (ahem, integrated), changed or used to make the same exact point.  Sometimes even better than the ones you intended.

Well, at least that’s what my producers told me.  Though when I think about it – I still believe only that one particular Stones song would have perfect.  In fact, to this day I wonder if that was the reason why my movie was not the award-winning coming of age drama I intended, I’m sure of it.

Okay, not really.  But maybe a little.  Partly.

When I’m not dwelling in the past, though, here’s what I really and truly think.  On a recent trip to The Hulk’s Manhattan, walking down Times Square and its billboards and licensed rights, I can see myself as I look around.  And soon, very soon, I find myself longing for the 1970’s porn palaces of my youth that I now find far, far less offensive than anything in New York bearing the word Trump (or some other reasonable facsimile).  Feeling this way, then I wonder – have we made progress or should progress be called by some other name?  Then I wonder even further – what would Elvis, not L–V.I.S., have to say?

And then I finally ask myself one last question — Am I the only one who even cares?