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.”

Really?

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

1987

  • 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.

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2 thoughts on “Straight Talk

  1. As has been said recently, we are now living in a Post Truth World. It would seem that “THE TRUTH” no longer seems to matter as long as it’s convincing, sort of, or based on who said it (Rush Limbaugh???) It’s what the COP is built on. Say it enough and they/we will believe anything. History proves that fact. The NEW advertising? The NEW marketing? The NEW politics? The NEW reality? As Howard Rheingold says in his brilliant new book, “Net Smart”, “people who make even the most modest contributions such as, correcting a spelling error on Wikipedia or tagging a photo, think of themselves differently from those people who only passively consume the cultural material broadcast by others.” He also admonishes us to believe very little on first read rather suggesting we scratch even the glossiest surface for truth or, what feels truthful to us. Adam Shankman is a talented, charming (on “So You Think You Can Dance”) and can express real emotion on occasion. That he has less than no awareness of the near wasteland of “The Eighties” is not surprising just, very disappointing. I trust he will be informed. I will do my part if you will?

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