Time to Pass the Torch

It strikes me as the height of irony that the Olympics are all about competing to be your best yet NBC’s coverage of the event is a monopoly that has allowed it to be its worst.

I thought this on Friday night as I sat watching the opening ceremonies “live” from London, a full half day after they happened –- which as it turned out was as quickly as any human being in Los Angeles (except those who work at NBC) could get them.

This would have been bad enough had the opening ceremony not gone on to include duds like:

  1. The real Queen of England and the real actor playing James Bond exchanging pleasantries in Buckingham Palace, followed by their (presumed?) stunt doubles jumping out of a helicopter into Olympic stadium.
  2. A floorshow featuring an odd pastiche of agrarian, industrialized and social media-ized Great Britain over the course of several centuries, interspersed with very brief verbal recitations by Kenneth Branagh and J.K. Rowling while hundreds of extras danced in period costumes to the point of distraction.
  3. And a finale of Paul McCartney singing a slightly off tune “Hey Jude” (why that of all his songs?) that made one wonder WWJLD (What would John Lennon Do?).  In answer to the latter I say something welcomingly naughty, but one can only IMAGINE on that score.

What is happening here??

Call me crazy ( or even “maybe” since its Olympic-related) but all this activity made me rethink if being a little desperate and hungry is a good thing (as opposed to starvation and “The Hunger Games”), and if perhaps a few rounds of good old, level-playing field, REAL competition in the world might not just be the better answer for at least some of the things that ail us.

These thoughts surprise me since I’m not much into sports and certainly don’t think unfettered, free-market capitalism is the answer to anything but 21st century greed.  Still, you have to wonder when a corporation like NBC is able to shell out $4.38 billion (yes, that’s a B!) in order to hold you captive to its whims, ratings or otherwise.  One could argue that for billions of dollars a corporation (who the US Supreme Court recently ruled is indeed human) has earned/bought the prerogative to do exactly as it pleases and, legally, one could argue that one is right.  Except – if you toss out legalities and use common sense – is it???  And is it wise for us?

The Olympics are about excellence, humanity (the non-corporate kind) and grit.  Yeah, there’s money and sponsorship and opportunity thrown into the mix but, when it comes down to it, you can’t prevent a superior athlete from a war-torn country from decimating another from a large, rich industrialized nation and thus prove his or her superiority for all the world to see.  In other words, at the end of the day it’s not about how much money you have but how good you are at what you do.

This is not the case for cash rich NBC or for the rest of us who choose to watch the show and, as fans, expect to at the very least see the real version of a live event we elected to watch.

Despite Twitter, You Tube, Facebook and other streaming technology, NBC has figured out a way to block almost all immediacy of every match up and thus render its billion-dollar coverage pretty lackluster for world-wise consumers.  Yes, there is online streaming of each event but only if you are in front of your computer at the precise moment NBC’s cameras happen to be there in London time.  Otherwise, for the competitions geared to primetime (meaning all the ones you really want to watch), you have to wait 9-12 hours in order to raise NBC’s prime time ratings.

In need of a serious lift…

True, you can watch it some 9-12 hours later on your tv/tablet in high resolution and technically feel as if you’re there, both out front and backstage.  But that’s only technically – meaning high def, clear as glass pixel images.  What you might consider the best parts of the event STILL get cut or filtered by correspondents who you’d rather see serve as the actual bullseye in Olympic archery than pose as experts asking the questions you might never ask if given the opportunity to have been there live yourself half a day before.

For example, in its infinite wisdom, NBC chose to excise what was arguably one of the most emotionally moving segments of the opening ceremony – a haunting tribute to victims of the 2005 (7/7) terrorist bombings in London which occurred just a day after the city was chosen to broadcast this Olympics.  Instead, NBC decided American audiences couldn’t relate to worldwide terrorism and chose to run an interview by its new resident haircut Ryan Seacrest (who Deadline Hollywood’s Nikke Finke recently dubbed the “Viscount of Vapidity”) with uber Olympian Michael Phelps that could have won Olympic gold itself were they giving out medals in television blandness.

Am I sounding bitter and petty?  Then don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself.

The memorial tribute you missed

click for full video

vs.

click for full video

The Viscount of Vapidity barely distracting Michael Phelps on TODAY

(because all copies of the infamous Olympics interview has been removed from the Web)

Seacrest is an apt target of derision not because he’s uber successful and wealthy but because he is so clearly devoid of anything related to what the Olympics is really about – namely excellence and grit.  He is everything the Olympics isn’t.  As was NBC’s decision to use this interview instead of staying with one of the few planned emotional moments that director Danny Boyle (who also had little competition) created for the London ceremonies.   It makes one wonder whether the Olympic Gods actually decided to curse Phelps to fourth place and thus deny him a medal of any kind in his first race in London in retaliation.

Thanks Zeus!

Certainly this is life in the real world when everything, including all of us, are on the chopping block for a price.  But what the top 1% of the “job creators” need to know is that the changing platforms in world media will not allow them to gorge themselves with a diet of indulgent choices forever.  At some point, there is an Arab spring for everything – a “tipping point” where audiences turn off and, as they used to say in the sixties, “turn on” in ways their elders never imagined.  Ask the music industry.  Check in with the production heads at film studios.  Survey some of the smarter, more prescient business people in the world who make their money by inventing things and recognizing trends or potential needs.  You might want to even call some of the leading climate scientists who were being laughed at 10 or 20 years ago if the recent rash of heat waves across the country haven’t knocked out your phone service.

All of this is what makes the world a still somewhat pleasant, amusing and consistently wondrous place to live in.  There is indeed something called evolution, despite the very vocal minority of worldwide religious fundamentalists who to this day spend a lot of their capital (both financial and intellectual) trying to deny it.  Evolution is defined as “the development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  What that means is that try as one group might to make choices for you that you don’t want, eventually that one group will overreach and the world will change enough and evolve to something more complex that will accommodate the majority.

Oh I could puke.

There is no timetable on this, as much as one wishes there were.  But it will happen as sure as Seacrest will manage to annoy me sometime in the very near future (try today).  Because what it will come down to is a world that runs, and has always run on good old level-playing field, real competition – whether it be women’s volleyball, horse dressage or corporate indulgence (some might even go so far as to call it censorship) in any particular industry in any particular year.

Competition ain’t so bad!

The wisest among us, both individual humans and the corporate kind, will take the lead of the most practiced Olympic athlete at their peak performance and prepare for the race that will inevitably come.  The competition is long but ultimately there can only be one real winner.  Despite what we’re being sold.  Or told.   And both history, as well as evolution, have a way of making things right – or at least giving the least likely among us more of a fighting chance that we will run with.

For Jessica

The likelihood of surviving a mass shooting in one country and then being gunned down less than a month later in an unrelated mass shooting in another country is the kind of overwrought dramatic coincidence most writers tend to avoid.  Except when it happens in real life.

Lots of people have been telling the story of 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, one of 12 fatalities in this weekend’s shooting spree at a Colorado theatre during the midnight premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  And looking at the facts, it is certainly understandable.

A weird feeling told Jessica to leave the food court of a Toronto shopping mall last month and she followed it.   Three minutes later she stood in terror as gunshots went off, screams were heard and people were instantly killed and injured.  Jessica instinctively knew that when a strong inner voice or instinct speaks to you, it’s usually a good idea to take it seriously and at very least listen even when there appears to be no apparent logic involved.

Jessica wrote about these odd feelings and more in her blog a few days after the Canadian tragedy — certainly something I can identify with.   If she was anything like the rest of us bloggers, and I have every reason to believe she was from both her active blog and twitter posts, I can surmise it was her way to deal with the confusion, pain and probably some huge amount of gratitude at having survived a potential tragedy when others were not so lucky.  Perhaps there was even some unconscious guilt involved.  She was a young person with a journalism internship in her dream career as a sports reporter.  She was even sometimes getting to cover her dream sport – hockey.  And up until that moment she was on a cool trip to Toronto, by all reports visiting her boyfriend, a minor league hockey player.  Life was, as they say, good.

But little did Jessica know that only several weeks later and back home in her own country she would be dead in yet another public shooting spree of which she would have had no warning or even feeling.  But that is exactly what happened to her early Saturday morning in the small town of Aurora (not far from Columbine – the site of one of the most famous US gun sprees until now) while watching a Batman movie. During an onscreen gunfight, life unfortunately imitated art, and pretty quickly bullets were flying at that screen and on through into the adjoining screen where Jessica was shot dead in even eerier circumstances than what she had endured in Canada.  A lone gunman dressed head to toe in black, with a ticket to see the movie, entered the theatre, then exited and re-entered but this time with a gas canister, an automatic rifle, two hand guns and enough ammunition to take down 12 people in cold blood (including a six-year old girl) and injure another 58 more.  It is a scene that not even the most hackneyed of us could conceive of – the kind of scenario that would get stifled snickers in a beginner writer’s workshop and could easily (and most assuredly) get one silently fired from a professional writer’s room.

But as most of us in the arts know, the events and scenarios in real life don’t always make sense and one of the benefits of this profession is you get to spend your days trying to measure and rearrange the unlikely moments of existence in order to do so.  Which is why many of us write or do anything else in the arts to begin with – as if through sheer will we can make some kind of logic out of a random, and often surreally, cruel reality.   The limiting factor is – the moments and scenes in real life often do not happen in linear, three act structure and are frequently far from logical.  While we try to “evoke” truth, it happens each day around us in a way that often defies visual or written description.

We are all connected.

Still, and despite the odds, the best of us soldier forward.  What are we providing?  Sometimes no more than a diversion from the indiscernible.  Other times some sort of safe passage back into understanding for our self and others about our communal existence.  Though both are equally valid, I suspect the latter is what Jessica was doing several days after her experience at the Eaton Shopping Mall Food Court in Toronto.

Jessica’s blog post has an eerie quality in light of the new tragedy in Colorado.  But read without that hindsight, it feels like nothing special – only the sincere, honest musings that could have come from any of us who were enduring a personal tragedy or trauma.  Which is what makes what she wrote so much more powerful than she could have ever realized:

“This empty, almost sickening feeling won’t go away.  I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Centre in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm’s way.  It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting.

I was reminded that…we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end.  When or where we will breathe our last breath.  I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing…I know I truly understand how blessed I am for every second I am given…Every hug from a family member.  Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude.  Every second of every day is a gift…”

                                                                                                                              – Jessica Ghawi

Jessica was able to bring herself to the page and in simple language make us feel what she felt in some way.  In short, she did what all writers try to do – through words and thoughts transport us into a moment, a situation or a state of mind and in doing so even give us some small perspective on life.  What she wrote resonates for many reasons, but mostly because it is a reminder of how we are more alike than different, how our vulnerabilities actually unite us and can possibly make us less scared in a world where events and circumstances seem to consistently drive us so idly apart.  And sometimes the more ordinary and plainspoken the language used comes across, and the less exceptional the actual words themselves are, the more effective the evocation.  Who among us hasn’t gotten a bad feeling whether it be walking on the street or going out with the wrong person?   Or even taking or not taking a job or buying an item that in either case could have ended up, if not in tragedy, in a mini-disaster like co-dependent enslavement or the final purchase towards our personal bankruptcy?  Or, in less dramatic fashion, maybe only even miserableness or mounting debt.

Those are feelings to listen to and not to think “oh come on, I must be crazy.”

We’ll remember what Jessica wrote and perhaps know on some level that we aren’t crazy in our thinking. Usually, I know, I often jump to the crazy.  Jessica’s words will cause you (and me) to consider in the future that obvious reason is not always the barometer to employ in order to take action even though we’re too often taught it should be, and that unexplainable feelings are not simply a silly notion to be ignored. Certainly, this won’t matter to everyone and perhaps all the rest of us will forget about it in a week or a month.  But at least Jessica did try to tell us something.  And she even took the time to write it down.

Jessica did.

To my mind, that is one of the main purposes of being creative. Not to only get things off your chest, but to – in some very, very small way – inform humanity.  To tell people: you are not alone.  To admit: “Hey, I felt that way too – you’re not crazy.  Or at least – if you are crazy – you’re as crazy as the rest of us – so don’t worry about it.”  It’s both small and large at the same time.  Which is what all good work is.

At the time of her death, Jessica was an intern working in her chosen field.  I work with students like that everyday and I know they sometimes wonder if whatever mundane task they might be doing in life is making any difference for themselves or anyone else.  I myself sometimes wonder these very same thoughts when I think about what I do today in the work I do with them or even in the writing work I do for myself and for others.

following her passion

What I have begun to realize, and what this recent tragedy in Colorado tells me, is that in some small way it always does matter but that the limitations of our human existence doesn’t allow us to always clearly see what good or purpose (even the smallest amount) our work or routine will have in the scheme of things.   In Jessica’s case, she had no way of knowing that one particular piece of writing would also resonate with a tragic irony worldwide of how life turns on a dime.  The legacy of that in itself takes her life to a plane she never could have imagined.  Simply because she chose to, in a consistent fashion, work at her art and commit her thoughts to the page.  Its impact will have unknowable ramifications not only for her memory but also for all of our futures in ways we do not yet know and, perhaps, will never know.  Which is, in the end, what any single one of our lives is all about.

Feed your head

I can remember attending the 1964 NY World’s Fair as an infant a child and marveling at General Electric’s Carousel of Progress (yes, there were even corporate sponsor tie-ins back then).  The revolving display featured different sets of automated mannequins (think the end of “Stepford Wives”) using and promoting the gadgets of past, present and – most spectacularly the future – as they sang “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.”

I marveled that the phone of the future could have no cords, much less be push button.   But I stared more wide-eyed than the most Spielbergian of heroes at the idea that these phones would also allow us to look at each other in full view on the screen as we talked.  “What happens if you’re speaking from the bathroom or without clothes,” my very young self thought without ever considering the beneficial possibilities of the latter.  “Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?  I’m not sure I want my privacy invaded like that.”

Yes, that is truly what I wondered.  Aside from the existential angst, you could say I had more than a few issues, even back then.

The idea of such a future felt not only strange but surreal to me.  It wasn’t a world I could imagine because it felt light years from the reality I was then experiencing.  Perhaps Steve Jobs, who was close to my age, imagined talking phones and push button existences back then (Perhaps?  Uh, I think so).  But I’ll bet he also didn’t write tortured poetry about the meanings of life and death or listen to endless hours of show music on his parents’ record player like I did either.  The truth is we all create and live in the worlds of our choosing and the other Steve’s world of computers and touch tones was as surreal to me as the score of the Broadway musical “Mame” (the first musical my parents took me to for my 10th birthday) and my Sylvia Plath-like prose probably would be to him.

A selection of my poetry…. or a stanza from “Lady Lazarus.” You decide.

(And yes, I realize I am making a leap of assumption here about the other Steve’s tastes but just go with the metaphor for now).

The surreal surfaced more than a few times this week as I found myself wading through a series of silly, funny, moronic, infuriating, tragic, annoying and just plain loaded life and death and less-so events.  So much so that it got to the point where I began to confuse the real with the surreal and wondered if anyone else was indeed as confused as I was.

To whit:

1. Does anyone believe Mitt Romney doesn’t know where any of the mega million amounts of money in his blind trust is?

On the other hand —

2. Can even the most fervent Obama supporter believe that when asked this week what the biggest mistake of his first four years as president was that the Big O, off the cuff, came up with, “Uh, I should have communicated my policies better?”

In each case, the answers were certainly unspontaneous if not possibly inauthentic or canned.  In short, they obviously don’t seem real yet are accepted as such and thus enter the sphere of the surreal.

I mean, if you have $250 million presumably you’d be smart enough to also come up with an indirect system to keep track of your money.  The same way any sitting president is intelligent enough to be able to tick off a great many policy decisions he screwed up on aside from the somewhat new agey phrase of “communicating better.”

Now that’s communicating!

But somehow the surreal gets passed off as real and after enough time goes by the former will somehow become the latter and the true answer to the question (even though we all know that answer is really false) becomes something else – thus dropping the public discourse one more milli-notch in reality into surreal-ality.*

Audiences in the entertainment industry often smell this kind of surrealness many miles away too, though it doesn’t always matter. Clearly, “The Amazing Spiderman” was really just an excuse to make more money and “American Idol” continues mainly because, well, in both cases you can’t throw in the towel on a zillion dollar juggernaut.

A good look on ol’ Georgie.

It would be great if someone would admit the obvious and then allow us to enjoy the cheesiness of each event but instead we’re often met with hyperbole about new, wonderful storytelling and original artistic integrity on a level playing field.  It’s tempting to buy into the myth and many of us do and thus, this kind of stuff continues to prosper in both dollars and popularity. (I actually watched the last part of this year’s Idol season, frustrated singer that I am).  But that doesn’t mean what’s being presented is any more in line with the corporate hype of what we’re indulging in.  Like an old lover, once we’re hooked we’ll often settle for crumbs until we wake up or are finally forced to move on when our object of desire takes the initiative and finally leaves us.

Do we instinctively know deep down in our souls when we’re being sold a bull bill of surreal and continue to buy into it or are there levels to the amount of surreal any one of us will accept before we reach maximum trippiness?  And for that matter, can what’s surreal (trippy) for one of us geese actually be what’s totally real for the rest of us ganders?  Hmmm.  I wonder.

The Kardashians (who I can’t help but pick on bi-weekly) are definitely surreal, as are the Duggar family, yet the Osmonds feel terribly real to me.  Maybe it’s because the latter have talents for something other than being famous or having a large uterus and we actually witnessed those talents.   Or, as my smart Significant Other mentioned to me offhandedly when I related this observation:  “The difference is we saw them, The Osmonds, grow up before our eyes, they didn’t just drop out of the sky into our television sets fully formed.”

John Waters, who received the Outfest (LGBT Film Festival) 16th annual Career Achievement Award this week, is as real as you can get – though on the surface his construct might feel surreal.  Yet when you look at a 50-year career of cult, cutting edge, and mainstream filmmaking there is actual evidence Waters was not a false idol but a true a pioneer in the depravity we proudly call our pop culture today.  Love him or hate him, he’s anything but surreal.

The King of Camp

Side Note:  I can personally testify to this.  Years ago I was late to a script meeting on the Disney lot (a lot I would always somehow get lost in because I couldn’t quite get past street names like Mickey Mouse Lane).  Finally wandering into its maze-like animation building, desperately in search of the development executive to which I would be pitching a script idea that both she and I knew would probably never get sold but both choosing to indulge in the surreal idea that it could, I run smack into a very tall thin man with an attaché case one might have actually seen in the 1964 World’s Fair.  I look up and am greeted with a pencil thin moustache smile of the real John Waters – yes, the same man who made a film where a drag queen ate dog poop called “Pink Flamingos” – a film that I found myself waiting in line for in a midnight show one lonely evening in Queens, NY.  The fact I was now seeing him with his briefcase at the Walt Disney Studios (the same one famous for offering endless entertainment pleasure for “kids of all ages” for as long as I could remember), felt like the most surreal of moments to me but was actually as real as the harsh light of global warming is in summer 2012.  Equally real but surreal to me to this day is the fact that the best I could do was mumble, “I’m sorry” to him as I fled to a meeting that was destined to matter only in the world of surreality.

Meanwhile, why does “Dancing with the Stars” feel more surreal than the already surreal “American Idol” while “The Voice” somehow feels much more real than both, even though the latter could hardly be considered real?  Once again, I bow to the Significant Other, who explains:

Dancing is soooo fabricated in that people famous for something else are competing to do another thing that they clearly will have no real expertise in at all after a few months…

While Idol, despite its name, masquerades week to week as a singing/performance competition that really is most interested in a mainstream “star” (a mythical construct if there ever was one),

While The Voice is ultimately focused on what comes down to the vocal instrument/sound of the very person (nee voice) they are actually advertising for.

These definitions feel right, even though the explanation and my willingness to cede center stage to my S.I. is, trust me, truly surreal.

Ronald Reagan felt absolutely surreal, even when he wasn’t.   (But perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part).  Yet as surreal as Rick Santorum might appear to me or any of my beloved blog readers, I’ve concluded he’s anything but and is actually, truly and scarily real.  Though Sarah Palin is still clearly a mixture of all of the above.

Pres. Obama feels sort of real, though his emergence has an air of surreality, even now.  And as for Bill Clinton – well, he certainly was as surreal as it could get with any number of true reality moments in between.  However, in the end, none of it even mattered so great was/is his power.  The latter happens from time to time with special people or circumstances but these are rare exceptions.

Vito.

Watching the opening night film at Outfest this week called “Vito” – an HBO documentary on Vito Russo, the gay activist/author of the seminal book about gays in the movies called “The Celluloid Closet” — I saw a 40 year history of the LGBT community that I lived through that felt both real and surreal, though intellectually I knew it did not have one moment of unreality in it. Living through the AIDS death plague of the eighties was surreal, as was the AIDS related passing of Russo, a sweet guy who I met a few times.  Or at least I wanted it to be at that time because it somehow made real life less threatening.  Which might explain a few things about why we will still go see “Spiderman” or watch “Idol” or vote for any politician who allows us to get away from reality and make us feel comfortable enough.

The antidote?  Well, Jefferson Airplane probably said it best with its seminal album, “Surrealistic Pillow” – a record I discovered a mere several years after the 1964 New York World’s Fair in the tiny bedroom of a friend in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles when I was 14.  As we sat back, I stared at the swirly pink album cover, which featured odd shapes and images of a group of cool hippie musicians led by a lone female singer with the cooler than coolest name of Grace Slick.  The more they played and the more she sang, a sort of High Priestess of Reality or Unreality, depending on your point of view, I pondered about the pros and cons of a true life of surreal.

What could be cooler?

To this day, I can still hear the closing stanza to “White Rabbit,” their drug fueled fusion of “Alice in Wonderland” and late sixties social zeitgeist, pulsing through my veins as Ms. Slick gave me my first real piece of advice in how to deal with the ever-changing world.

 When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the white knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s “Off with her head!”

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head.

If you ignore the obvious drug references and take what they were singing to heart, the advice to “feed your head” still holds up today.  And just might be the antidote to our surreal world almost a half century since she first sang it.

* Know that all references to the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie cable series of the aughts, “The Surreal Life,” was left out because the very notion of spending any intellectual time analyzing that is too surreal for even the Chair to endure.

This is the Pitts!

Mommie Dearest.

When Brad Pitt’s mother came out as virulently anti-Obama (that’s Barack HUSSEIN Obama, to use her exact words), anti-choice (“the killing of unborn babies,” as she puts it) and anti-gay marriage, (she cites “Christian conviction concerning homosexuality”) in a letter to Missouri’s Star-Ledger this week, all I could think about was:

  1. What is it like when Brad comes home for the holidays?
  2. What was it like when he came home with Angie for the first time (assuming he has)?
  3. And how can he be so liberal while his mother is so intransigent, nasty and, well, small-town ignorant???

Despite my better instincts, I’m still wondering about the first two. (OH, COME ON, I’M NOT ALONE!).  As for the third, well – I should know better than to categorize people I’ve not met as ignorant and am profusely embarrassed (well, at least slightly) for thinking it, much less writing it publicly.

I mean, for all I know, Jane Pitt has many wonderful qualities (well, at least one we can speak of) and might just be the kindest woman in town if we were to get off the subject of politics.  As for Brad, I know him as well as Jane, so despite the fact that I like a lot of his movies and the things he’s done to build houses in New Orleans as well as his fight for gay marriage ($100,000 to defeat CA’s Prop 8) he could be even more jerky than Mom if we get him on the right subject.

As could all of us.  Which is the point.

How did we get here?

These differences are what the United States is and always has been composed of and, up until recently, was one of the selling points of the country.  That like a big dysfunctional family — mine, yours or the Pitts — you could disagree and still be related.  You could also do or say or be as rude or politically incorrect or culturally diverse or short sighted, or communistic/tree hugging/eco-friendly and radically vegan-istic as you like and, at the end of the day, you had just as much a right to be here and act that way as anyone else.  Perhaps this is even still the case for those of us not overdosing on the red state/blue state thing after two or three decades of growing alienation from each other.

That’s why there are 64 colors in every box.

Was it the rise of the Christian right after the social revolution of the sixties that started it?  Or the wave of the let ‘em eat cake Reagan conservatism followed by a tidal wave of Clintonistic separation of politics and morality?  Or the post 9/11 Bush years of attack, invasion and collapse?   There are theories but we’ll never know for sure.  What we do know is that our chief attraction, and export across the world, depends on this not being quite so.  Because what we’re really best known for is the international production of “a dream.”   An American dream.  But if not fading, it does feel that this particular dream has gone a bit – well, awry.

A dream as American as apple pie.

The entertainment industry particularly depends on this export, this idea of who we are, whether it’s true or not.  Films, television, music, art – America’s chief image is of a country where anything is possible for anyone.  And just when the world begins to think it isn’t, we as a country seem to always do something to save the dream from the jaws of destruction.  Most recently it was electing our first African American president despite the odds against it, especially when you consider the man’s middle name is the same as the Middle East dictator whose country we had just invaded in order to….well, to do something – but that’s not the point.

Anyway, politics aside, if there were ever an American dream scenario played out publicly in the last two decades to counter the cynicism, President Obama’s biography would be it.  Lower middle class, son of divorced parents, raised in Hawaii and Kansas, a community organizer who until recently smoked cigarettes and admits that he even used to smoke marijuana.  Not to mention his like of arugula salads and other designer foods as well his upbringing in…Hawaii?  (yes, it’s a state even though it’s not on the mainland).  I mean, who would’ve thunk it?

Young Obama or Brooklyn Hipster?

As he likes to say — on paper, it doesn’t make sense that he’d become president anywhere else in the world.  And even highly unlikely he’d rise up here.  But there are lots of unlikely things that happen in the USA, and in life, everyday.

This same unlikeliness rings true with some of our biggest celebrities.  Certainly a motherless girl dancer from Michigan with a passable voice and the given name of Madonna was not a shoo-in for a three decade musical megastar who helped reinvent the recording industry with what used to be cutting edge videos and sex books.

Nor was a poor, unabashedly gay kid from the Depression era south with the ordinary name of Thomas Williams likely to be one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, writing under the new, and even more unlikely, first name of Tennessee.  Nor would it seem probable that two very young men who chose to make fun of religion in a short film called “Jesus vs Frosty” would go on to change animation and television AND now the Broadway musical with “South Park” and “The Book for Mormon” but that is exactly what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done.  Not coincidentally, all three (four?) have done so by challenging, some might say attacking, what we consider to be our “traditional American values.”

True, some might cite these performers and their work as symptoms of our obvious moral decay.  I, however, look at it as necessary generational progress.  In fact, essential.

Not to get all post-Fourth of July, but what seems to allow the idea of the American dream to endure is the fact that we have always permitted ourselves to make fun of our sacred cows, ensuring that no one of us is particularly more precious than another on any given day or decade.  In fact, we’ve even reveled in it.  We can be in bad taste, politically incorrect, intolerably small-minded and even on occasion morally offensive to one group.  If we go too far, society will correct itself and eventually pass a law outlawing our action or create another one loosening up standards to accommodate a group shift in behavior.  There are real human costs for this – loss of lives, loss of livelihood, and worse – loss of ones sense of self and one’s humor in battle and in support of our own particular “cause.”

That seems to be what’s happening now in our current age of polarization. But I can only say “seems” because this is the argument everyone in history falls back on at different points in time when society is so “at odds.”  However, and speaking only for me, there does seem to be something about right now that feels different.  Something is off.  Something that’s not quite…well, for lack of a better word — right.

Sad, but true.

When I read Jane Pitt’s letter I initially dismissed it as a statement of someone who believes very differently than I do.  Someone who is at least a generation older who grew up in a different time and can’t or chooses not to understand societal shifts and changes that have occurred since she was young and was, perhaps, more malleable and open-minded.

After thinking about, though, I feel differently.  There is something ugly in it.  Disagreeing with a president is one thing but purposely using his middle name of “Hussein” to somehow paint him as some kind of “other” is viciously unacceptable.  As is calling people who believe in the right to choose “baby killers.”  As is suggesting that one group’s personal religious views against another particular group should be used to deny rights in a country who several centuries ago freed itself from its oppressor partly so all of its people would have the choice to worship, or NOT to worship, exactly as they all would so choose so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else.

Fierce.

We live in a celebrity culture where, as Andy Warhol prophesized many decades ago, everyone will be (or at least can be) famous for about 15 minutes.  This means that although you don’t have to be related to one of the select few celebrity elite to be heard, it certainly adds to your marquee value – whether you like it or not.  Surely, Jane Pitt knew this quite well when she wrote her letter.  She and her views now have their 15 minutes of fame.  Or perhaps more.  She’s now in the uber argument.   Inevitably, there will be others, countless others.  But right here and now it is up to her and us what we choose to do with it.  We can ignore it and proceed as we have been.  We can also use it as yet another moment to pull us further apart.  Or we can engage in some way and employ it to draw us closer together and begin to reshape, just a tiny bit, something we used to call the American dream.

History – as well as “Extra,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “TMZ” and “The Huffington Post” – is watching.   For at least 15 minutes or so.

Sleepless in The Newsroom

American classic.

I’m more upset about Nora Ephron’s death than I thought I’d be.   Though several friends of mine had worked with her and still another knew her well, we had only one brief phone conversation 8 years ago about box office grosses.  Since I had started the weekly column on the subject at Variety in the eighties, a mutual friend told her I’d be the perfect person to speak to when she wondered what the opening weekend would be on another friend’s new film.  She was funny, smart and extremely quick, so much so that when I threw out an outrageously high number of what I thought the film would do opening day, she assumed I meant the number was for the entire weekend and still pooh-poohed it as being too high. Never mind that MY number turned out to be right.  Through the sheer verve of her smarts, personality and perhaps reputation, I suddenly found myself going along with her.  I mean, she was right about so many things.  I didn’t want to look as dumb as she implied my prediction was.  I sense this happened a lot.

I regret not speaking my mind and proving her wrong because I also suspect, from what I know from others, that she would have called me up with a new found respect and we might have become friends, acquaintances or perhaps just shared a few recipes.  Which is a cool fantasy for me since as a young writer Ephron was one of the top 10 people I actually read and admired.

Required Reading

Yeah, not Shakespeare or Proust, I’m sorry to say. It was her pieces in Esquire and The New York Post and The New Yorker, many of which were in Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble, her collections of new journalism that I devoured.  Ephron wrote in a funny, sarcastic way that influenced me and that I find I often reference (borrow from?)  as I write my blog.  No – she wasn’t JD Salinger or William Styron or even Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams – some of my other favorites.  In fact, not even close.

But nor should she have been.  What she learned early on was the secret to being a good writer – being yourself.  Or well, at least a cleaned up, more articulate and fun version of yourself.  The idealized version that you wouldn’t be in phone conversations where you find yourself easily intimidated by people more famous or successful than you. Truth is, if my Nora encounter were in one of my screenplays or blogs, or even in one of Nora’s, the story wouldn’t end there. There would be a follow up conversation where I could correct the past and be, if not right, then at least righted.  In someone’s eyes.  Which is what makes a satisfying story in many circles.

There is certainly a case to be made for lost opportunities too.  Though that is not the world Nora trafficked in.  Not by a long shot.  Her best movies as writer-director — like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia”–  both have happy endings, believable in the worlds she creates for them onscreen despite whether you choose to believe them or not.  They’re fantasy – or to put it another way – “pushed reality.”   And if you want to dismiss it as pap and claptrap you can.  But, uh, take a few months or a year or two and try to do it well – or as well as she did when she was at her best – and then get back to me.  I suspect when and if you do, it might be with some newfound respect.

An affair to remember…

It’s not so easy to render the convincingly happy ending, especially in only slightly exaggerated looks at contemporary life.   Costume dramas let you hide behind lots of pomp and grandeur.  Fantasy and action stories allow you to use cool weapons and mythical heroes.  In romantic comedy life – or The Village of RomCom – it’s just words, actions and the occasional musical montage – the latter being something that is almost an automatic negative for any movie since the cynical turn of the new century.  Especially when it’s being played out to a sort of heavy-handed musical soundtrack of our lives, it’s not hip, cool or even commercially pleasing anymore to be too emotional, cheerful or nasty.  Or worse, too sentimental about your world or anything you do or try to achieve in it.

Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin and his new HBO show “The Newsroom.”  This excellent new series gives us a behind-the-scenes look at an imaginary cable news station and has received a plethora of mixed to negative reviews for, in essence, being imaginary.  As if the fictional dramatization of anything does not exist in some pushed version of the reality of what it is.  Aaron Sorkin, like Nora Ephron before him, particularly specializes in this.

Sit back and relax already!

And Aaron Sorkin, not unlike Nora Ephron, is being skewered for it.  His characters are a little too idealistic or exist slightly out of the parameters of a real life newsroom, say some critics (Did they watch “The West Wing?”).  Others find them too verbose, preachy or sanctimonious (You mean like some of the actual media critics whose task it is to now review themselves the characters they complain about?).  And a third group doesn’t like the show’s mix of comedy and drama, as if THAT isn’t the tone of real life in almost every household/newsroom across the country.

The NY Times review is as good as any to speak for the entire Fourth estate. In her critique, TV critic Alessandra Stanley was particularly annoyed at the lead female character’s pronouncement when speaking in defense of good journalism rather than the bad kind we’re used to.   “Wrong information can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at rigorous debate,” said “Newsroom”’s fictional female executive producer, a statement Stanley noted was something akin to a “high school commencement address.”   Well, her critique might be true if one ignored the last decade of life in the United States, the entire history of the war in Iraq and the current world and political climate we all live in right now.

‘Nuff said.

I realize this might seem a bit partisan and the NY Times is free to take me to task on it.  But unfortunately, we do live in a partisan world where much of the public is misinformed on many issues.  Depending on your views, this might have something to do with the corporate ownership of television stations; the passivity of the electorate; or the fact that most Americans are struggling a bit too much and spend more time living out the events of the news than indulging in the luxury of sitting back and arguing/analyzing the nuances of such.  Still, no matter what sides of the many sided fence any of us fall on, certainly these are issues worthy of something other than the rating of a valedictory speech at an American high school.  Which, by the way, is not always as simplistic as the NY Times would have one believe. Check out this high school graduation speech by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow when she spoke as the smartest kid in her high school graduation class:

So — for enabling me to embed the Maddow video – but mostly for using its wit, intelligence and courage to wear its heart on its sleeve, the Charimeter gives “The Newsroom” it’s highest rating:

Oh – and lest you think I’m one of those crazed Sorkinites who think A.S. can do no wrong – know that although I am a bit of a cable news addict, I was not a rabid  “West Wing” fan.  It was well written but I enjoyed Sorkin’s “American President” much more.  Just as I am certainly not a proponent of all things Nora.  I could take or leave “When Harry Met Sally” (and I haven’t even mentioned “Mixed Nuts” and “Michael!”) yet found “Sleepless in Seattle” to be a thoroughly charming film and “Julie and Julia” to be exactly who I wanted Julia Child to really be.

But the fact is, these are no more a depiction of real life than that of the vampires on “True Blood.”  All are more what you would want real life to be in idealized worlds where the right lovers who seemed destined to be together inevitably get together; celebrities are as funny and warm in the flesh as their onscreen personas; and vampires live openly (and sometimes even lovingly) among humans in small town America.

Or, in the case of “The Newsroom,” where the people who work in news speak with awe, gravitas, and even a bit of pretentious nobility – really believing they can make a difference with the mere task of telling the rest of their fellow humans the truth about what’s going on inside the world we all travel in.

On a random day, where the big news stories are the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ marriage and who will replace Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today”  (that’s the same Ann Curry who’s been criticized for being an overly sincere reporter rather than enough of a plucky, cynical TV personality), striving for something closer to our ideals doesn’t seem so wrong-headed to me.  It simply seems necessary.