The Ginsy-berg Address

We’ve all been lamenting the death of moviegoing and the dearth of good movies for some time now.

US

(with a whine)

There’s nothing great to seeeeee, the people sitting next to me make too much noooooise, I’d rather stay home and watch tv on MY giant screen, It cost too much moneeeeee, There’s nothing great to seeeee,  I hate people and I don’t like to go ouuut,  There are — no — good — movie stars anymore,  How come movie studios are only about making money and not fiiiilms?  I hate all the screaming babies and all the annoying parents who haaaave them, plus, There’s nothing great to seeeeeee…

Full disclosure:  I’ve been one of the chief whiners and complainers among us.  Perhaps this is because I remember the sheer excitement I’d have at least once a year around holiday time in anticipation of that great New York Jewish tradition of seeing the newest, biggest, boldest and brassiest new film Hollywood had to offer on Christmas Day.  But more likely it’s because I’m now old, tired and jaded and don’t want to leave my upstairs TV room because (cue whining) …There’s nothing great to….

Well, you get the idea.

This is why I’m happy to report that in Los Angeles this past week something new and yet strangely familiar happened.  What is it?  Well, I had one of those perfect moviegoing experiences from my youth not on Christmas day but on the day after Thanksgiving.  The kind of day I only previously remembered in the warm glow of a nostalgia that probably never really existed but that nevertheless seems to be a time that we all spend a good part of our later lives trying to recreate or get back to even for just a moment (see playwrights like Thornton Wilder (Our Town), filmmakers like Francis Coppola (Peggy Sue Got Married) and novelists like Truman Capote (A Christmas Memory).

More clearly?  What I’m talking about is what I felt at the 1:45pm Friday showing of Lincoln – directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day Lewis – at the Arclight movie theatres in Hollywood.

I am not a paid spokesman for Arclight – I swear.

My 2012 day-after-Thanksgiving was the perfect day of moviegoing that I remember from my youth, warm glowing nostalgia and all, and it happened in an entirely different city, in an entirely different century and with a film made by a new group of people (who in my youth couldn’t yet vote)  about another group of other people (born 150 years or more before they were born) who were fighting for the rights of still yet another group of people (slaves) to be free enough to even think about things like the right to vote.

Why was this experience so perfect?  Well, it wasn’t any one element but the sum of all of the very many moveigoing elements combined.  A total that seldom happens anymore but could happen a lot more often than it does if a little more attention and responsibility were assumed by all of us in taking our time at the movie theatre back to one of excitement rather than sheer obligation and/or dread.

Some thoughts:

1. The Company.  Okay, I’ll take responsibility for this one – this time I went to the movies with good friends/family who I actually wanted to be with and whom I knew wanted to be with me.  These were also people who wanted to see the movie we were going to attend.    We were all looking forward to viewing something together well made and thought provoking and that had good acting.  They key here is not necessarily our taste but the idea that we were all united in what we wanted to see and open to enjoying or not enjoying it depending on what we got.

2. Reserved seating and admission price discount plan at a local theatre.  Now granted – there was something very cool I remember about the communal experience of waiting on line with fellow movie fans in order to get tickets and slither into the best seats in the house to the newest and hottest film.  But given where we are today with people congestion, inflated expectations and the convenience of online purchase of pretty much everything except kidneys (stop googling I already checked),  it feels reasonable to expect that you can not only buy your ticket online, but choose where to sit, print out your ticket at home and then simply show up at your individual theatre’s door.  This not only guarantees the bypassing and inconvenience of several lines but allows you more time to wait on lines at the concession stand, for parking validation and, in some cases, even the bathroom.

Do you agree?

3.  A lazy day.  Movies and TV are a bit of a passive medium.  That means they are best enjoyed on days where you don’t feel like doing very much other than taking something in, rather than exerting the energy of talking back.  The day-after-Thanksgiving is one of those days.  On that note, I do wish others would remember this on non-holiday weekends and either stay home or get it up a little better for people who spent at least a year or two of their lives making something they hope you’ll enjoy.

Goodbye Mr. Fathead

4. The seating and the actual theatre.  This is to be filed under “problems of the privileged in over-developed countries” but high on my personal checklist of why people don’t want to venture out more to movie theatres is the actual environment you find once you’re inside.  The Arclight in Hollywood (my local theatre) is about a dollar or two more expensive than most (a dollar of which is discounted if you take advantage of its free membership plan) but as long as you’re leaving your house to go somewhere you might as well do it in a place that respects you and your business.  In the movie theatre world this means something called “raked seating” for people like myself (5’7” and under) where increasingly sloped rows guarantee you will never, ever again watch Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie co-starring with the fatheaded guy or big-haired gal seated in front of you that you’ve spent your entire adult life trying to avoid in every other human circumstance known to man (and then some).  Side note: I’m also waiting for a personal perfume filter filled with fresh air I can infuse from the side arm of my seat and blow in my (and their) face(s) as well as a possible ejector button for loud, annoying and insistent talkers.

Shameless plug for the best movie popcorn in NYC.

5. Great refreshments Yes, you can smuggle in your own can of soda or bar of candy or pot brownie at any local movie theatre.  But let’s face it, there is something about good movie theatre popcorn.  It is expensive at my local movie theatre but, well, no more so than most others.  But it’s also good.  Very good.  And most other movie theatre popcorn isn’t any longer.  I think this has something to do with quality control and consumer care.  Also at my movie theatre –- a pleasant employee announcing before EVERY show at EVERY performance at EVERY screen that the movie chain is responsible for sound and picture quality and that it urges you to seek them out if you are even the slightest bit dissatisfied.  Competing movie palaces take note:  this is your future and you have now seen how you will survive.  Be nice(r).

6.  Cool trailers.  Theatre chains don’t have much control in this area so hopefully someone will pass this thought on to a movie studio.  There are other ways to get audiences into movies other than to finance loud, ugly and mindless films.  I’m not talking high brow – how about just odd or sexy or different and even slightly intense.  You can even throw in a bit of humor if you want to.  Watching two and a half minutes of Bill Murray playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in the upcoming Hyde Park on Hudson certainly qualifies as odd but also raises the bar to clever and, dare I say it, amusingly smart.  Watching Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Sean Penn shoot at each other in Gangster Squad while Emma Stone plays the requisite “gal pal” certainly doesn’t venture into new territory but looked stylish, titillating and fun.  We’re not talking Fellini or even Almodovar, here.  Just something bigger or unusual no one else has seen that we won’t find flipping through on our five different and indiscernible cable TV remote controls.

7. Superior sight, sound and not seen enough friends.  Another surprise on my recent perfect moviegoing day: The screen is huge, you feel like you’re in the movie rather than watching it and there are no distracting lights from either end of the theatre walls or on any hand held digital devices within striking distance.  In fact, the technology and space is being used so optimally that I can even spot two friends some rows down that I haven’t seen in a while who also decided this might be a good day to get out of the house and take advantage of what the movie business has wisely decided to offer here.  Oh, and did I mention the actual seats are wide enough to fit my dog and me if animals were allowed in movie theatres?  I didn’t think so (and as much as I’d like to, I promise not to smuggle my own dog in.  Still, it’s nice to know she’d fit).

OK maybe not quite this in the movie

8. The crowd.  We live in the age of isolation.  Conversely, one could also philosophize we exist in a time of great choice – where more than ever we can decide when and when not to engage with the outside world.  I’m not a sociologist but I’ll bet that if we were to measure the growth of social anxiety and agoraphobia-related neuroses from the beginning of the new millennium to 20 years from now, we would discover a spike in the charts equal to the one for 20th Century-Fox’s annual box-office from the years right before and right after the first Star Wars movie was released (that’s 1977, or 35 years ago, if you were wondering).   The fact is, most humans do not want to venture out into unfriendly or even inconveniently annoying territory without a chance for some higher returns.  That sort of adrenalin rush of excitement, anticipation and participation was once regularly found in abundance at our local movie houses but is pretty scarce right now.  Yet, waiting for the new Steven Spielberg film at the Arclight this past holiday weekend, you could momentarily feel it again.  It wasn’t a movie industry crowd with its “daggers drawn,” or a day care halfway house full of people looking for something to drag their offspring to because they were bored.  It wasn’t even a dark place to make out with romantic background noise (though I wouldn’t be adverse to using movies for this kind of thing occasionally).  What did exist was a palpable kind of “gee whiz” anticipation of something amorphous, something smart, something potentially entertaining and even perhaps something a little, though I hesitate to say it, special, because – guess what – you can’t get it in exactly that form at home in your own apartment, house or even personalized cave.

9. The movie.  This is not meant to be a review of Lincoln but rather an observation of why as a movie lover and/or potential filmmaker and/or crew member it is important to get your butt out of the house and venture “among those beautiful people out there in the dark” (Norma Desmond’s words via Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond in Sunset Boulevard, not mine).  Like it, love it or lukewarm it (I can’t imagine there will be very many haters), Lincoln is what we nowadays call a “movie movie.”  This means that it exemplifies everything about big film (or is it digitized?) entertainment.  The story of our 16th president’s quest to abolish slavery (set only 150 plus years ago) is one of grandeur and depth and big emotions and big beliefs that needs to be seen on the big screen.  It is successfully directed by one of the most famous filmmakers in the world (Steven Spielberg) in a way only this kind of filmmaker can do.  It is written by one of the most honored writers of our time (Tony Kushner) with a particular depth of accessible political thought and emotional drama (and even a bit of comedy) that is particularly difficult to do as a screenwriter nowadays.  It is performed by a stellar cast led by an actor in the title role (Daniel Day Lewis) who is able to transform himself so totally into its title character that it feels more like an odd kind of human resurrection or cloning from the past rather than merely an impressive performance in the present that we still don’t get enough of these days.  Lincoln also harnesses notions and ideas and expresses them visually through all the top notch technological capabilities mainstream studio filmmaking has to offer and presents them in a sly package just enticing enough to satisfy pretty much anyone of any age who even once ever enjoyed getting out of the house and going to a film in the first place.  And it does this without too much dumbing down of its subject matter or reliance on the star power of an over-the-top box-office draw to “ensure” its result.  What it instead uses are many obvious, and not so obvious, parallels to the social, political and economic realities of life in the 21st century despite the fact that the film itself is set almost two entire American centuries ago.

Let me be clear — Lincoln does not have the multi-layered dramatic grittiness of the best of our independent films or the thrill ride giddiness of some of our highest priced studio blockbusters.  It is not that kind of movie.  What kind of movie is it?  It is the best of the old-fashioned kind – the kind that moves us out of our cynicism or complacency or just plain every day lives and compels us to go back into the movie theatres for something communal that we can’t get in front of our own personal tablet of choice.

It’s a big part of the future of real movie movies.  That is, if movie movies, or even just plain old movies (meaning those you go out to the theatre to see) are to have any future at all.

Go see it.  And a few others this holiday season.

A Comfy Old Chair

Sunday, Nov. 18th, 2012   Today is my birthday and it just so happens to  fall on the day of the 99th weekly blog post of Notes From A Chair.  Perfect symmetry would dictate that my birthday land on a nice round number like my 100th post and I could bask in the serendipity of it all.  It might even prompt some clever musings from me about inevitability and numerology — or perhaps their absence and meaninglessness in the world.  Depending on the year of my life and my age I have gone both ways.  On any given subject, that is.

However, if I had not skipped one week of blogging in 2011 this would indeed actually be my 100th consecutive post in as many weeks (rather than merely 99 out of 100) and I would’ve gotten some small amount of the absolute perfect symmetry in life I’ve so long desired – at least among the things I’ve written.  There is both irony and real birthday meaning in this fact.  Because the one thing I know for sure (not to pull an Oprah here) and have finally learned on this day of all days is that no such perfect symmetry truly exists in fact or fiction.  And, even if it did, I’m not sure it’s what I would desire.

After living more than half a century and then some (oh, don’t look so surprised), I finally do realize what I (and you) could have greatly benefited from decades earlier – that 99 out of 100 is a hell of an average and that no one EVER achieves 100% at anything 100% of the time.

At any given point in my first half-century I would take the odd number 99 as being absolute proof that my one weak moment of blog writing “laziness” was throwing off all chance I had of being part of that rare, finite group of exceptional people that I aspired to be.  I would have also concluded that if I had indeed worked “just a little harder,” perfection would have been achieved and I would’ve gotten — uh — admittance to a secretly successful and magically elite group?  Revenge on all the people who ever doubted me?  A free blender?  Or, let’s go crazy, all of the above?   Hmmm, if not all of those, at the very least I certainly would have at one time gotten depressed that once again I somehow missed grabbing the brass ring on life’s ever spinning merry-go-ride of solid gold achievement scale and was ever destined to come in an admirable but certainly not exceptional second place.

However, I am now on the other side of a half-century and living here I see that doing 99 out of 100 consecutive weeks of pretty good and sometimes exceptional essay writing as proof that, in this area, I have a better batting average than my childhood baseball hero Mickey Mantle (oh, again, don’t look so surprised!) and, actually, an even better one than then all-time Yankee home run king Babe Ruth (Yeah, I thought he was cool too, so get over it).  I attribute my healthy reaction on this side of the age hump to one of the great perks of knowledge you get in living to this age.  And that is – with a lot of experience, failures, successes and intensive psychotherapy you can actually get to the point in your life where you can beam at the work you’re capable of and be excited about what the future holds and how it will all turn out.  And that not only applies to professional work but in other areas of existence as well.  As John Lennon once said: “Imagine.”

This is not to say that wisdom, talent or good batting averages are limited to the middle or old aged.  That was clear to me this week when I caught up with the movie that one too many people urged me to see this year called “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Fierce.

The idea that an 8-year-old actress can pull off the lead role in a dramatic independent film so honestly and without striking one false note reminded me that talent doesn’t discriminate on the basis of years and that one of the perks of the talented who are very young is being fearless enough to jump into the trickiest of situations with absolute natural assurance and grace.  Even for those without the practically super human talent of “Beasts’” young heroine Quvenzhane Walli, the thought of failure often never even enters the mind.  You’re too young and unspoiled to have a concept of what failure is and are sometimes lifted up by that to unimaginable heights.

On the other end of the age spectrum there are different but no less impressive benefits to be had.  This week I attended a concert at Disney Hall by Broadway legend and consummate nightclub singer Barbara Cook.  Backed by the LA Philharmonic, the 85-year-old Ms. Cook mostly sat in a chair center stage (“I wish I can stand but I need back surgery so there it is,” she lamented) and sang an eclectic group of songs so impressively and with such deep and effortless understanding for 90 minutes straight that her talent felt every bit as superhuman as an actress almost eighty (that’s 8-0) years her junior.  It’s not as if Ms. Cook hasn’t known failure, defeat or whatever you want to call it.  It’s just that she’s reached the point in life where it’s not even on her radar.  This was never more apparent than when she sang a brilliant a cappella version of “House of the Rising Sun” – a tune we all best know from the classic rock record done by “The Animals” in 1964 that’s been played endlessly in movies, on the radio and in cover versions by about 100 different artists.

Yeah, that’s the one.  You recognize the electric guitar.  And the last person you’d think you want to hear do that song (which is about a New Orleans whorehouse) is an 85-year-old woman who is best known to audiences as the original Marion the Librarian in the classic Broadway musical, “The Music Man.”  But that’s exactly what made Ms. Cook’s no holds barred version of it uniquely great.

How to be a Legend 101

I could go on and on about all of the other age-related stories during this and any other week.  Like the broo-ha-hah 27-year-old NBC political news reporter Luke Russert caused when he asked 72-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi whether her decision to not retire next year presents a roadblock to “younger leadership and hurts the (Democratic) party in the long term.”  Or all the lamenting about the 18-25 youth vote going overwhelmingly to Barack Obama merely because he’s guaranteed them free “gifts” like a college education without inflated student loan interest rates.  Or people griping that over-50 Madonna is too much of an old hag to be a singing and dancing rock star.   Or that 25-year-old Lady Gaga is a fat, poser for appropriating Madge’s music.  Or sheer horror at the breakup of 18-year-old Justin Bieber and 20-year-old Selena Gomez (Question:  Do the majority of you really want to marry the person you dated prior to being 21?).  Or the strange bliss at the fact that “Twilight” teen Bella hooked up with a vampire many centuries older for all eternity prior to HER 21st birthday.

I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  Instead, I’m going to do something else.   I’m going to close with:

Some Things I Have Learned At My Age:

Practice and you will get better.  Age can physically and mentally increase and decrease expertise.  For instance, you will probably not be as good a ballet dancer at 50 as you were at 25 no matter how much you train.  But if you practice incessantly from the age of 18 you will be much better when you are 25, 26 or 27 until you reach your physical and mental and/or emotional peak.

Keep rockin’

You can only change your own behavior.  For the Love of God (or whoever) do not stay in or enter a relationship thinking you can change someone.  You never will.  And if you could, chances are you won’t want each other when you do.  You can, however, change some people’s minds on issues or at least get them to understand the other side and soften their own thinking.  If you read even one contemporary American history book you will know I am right on this.

Humor is not overrated in any circumstance.  But if everyone is laughing and you’re not it doesn’t mean you’re humorless.  To put it another way, the fact that I never liked mashed potatoes or Desperate Housewives doesn’t mean there was or is anything wrong with my taste.

Colors that look good on you can change with ageAnd wardrobe absolutely should.  Meaning, unless you’re a guy on a farm stop wearing overalls after your 25th birthday.  And if you’ve female and under 25, you don’t need as much makeup and hair product as you (or they) think you do.   This might change decades later for both sexes but I doubt it.

You parents’ job is to worry about you This makes them impossible sometimes (or even all the time) no matter what age you are.  Your parents are also just like the rest of us — greatly flawed and sometimes even flawlessly great people.  So the sooner you accept that and also that in some fundamental ways you are inclined to be exactly like them – the happier you’ll be.   This doesn’t mean you will inevitably become them.  Only that you are uncontrollably predisposed to do a lot of their “stuff.”  Sort of like a dog who finds it difficult to refuse a second helping of — anything.

Luck + timing + expertise + talent = Financial Success.  If anyone knew what percentage of each, they’d be rich.

Luck + timing + expertise + talent ≠ Happiness.  That is something else entirely.

Pizza is the perfect food.  This is non-negotiable.

That’s Amore

Listen to your body but don’t be a slave to it.  It is no different than the withholding person you had a crush on in high school.  If you pay it too much mind it will consume you.  But if you don’t pay attention to it at all, you have no shot at all scoring the way you really want to.

Staying relevant to everyone is impossible.  But staying relevant to yourself is a requirement.  No joke there.

Some people know you better than you think and some people who think they know you don’t know you at all.  It’s really, really tricky.  And depends what period of life you’re in and with whom. (who?)

Start saving a little bit of money each month in your twenties that you will never ever touch (except in dire illness) because you’ll either live longer than you think or shorter than you hoped.  If you do get old, consider this essential karmic payment for ensuring happy longevity.  Or if you don’t happen to make it very far, think of it as largesse to a loved one or to a worthy charitable cause that might remember you were here with a plaque on their wall.

This advice is approved by Suze.

No animal is innately mean.  But in my experience that is only 98% true of humans.

Like the way you look. Take the moment you looked the best in every decade of your life and you will probably most prefer your 20s or 30s despite how displeased you might be with your physical appearance at the time.  You will not accept this as truth until you get a lot older.  Which does not mean you will not be happy with the way you look then and won’t greatly prefer your older life to your younger one.

No one stays at the peak of his or her professional talents forever.  This is true either because you need a break to live your personal life or the world will decide it needs a break from you and your talent.

There are some things you will never ever get the appeal of.  For me, it’s Ronald Reagan, Katherine Heigl, skydiving, suburbia, sweet pickles, Members Only jackets, our worldwide obsession with the British Royal Family and the color lime green.  So don’t even try.

Every birthday is to be celebrated.  Because the alternative sucks.  Or as my 84-year-old father has often told me, (his birthday was 3 days before mine) when I ask him how he is:  “I woke up today.  So I’m great.”

Cloudy with a Chance of Hope

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” scientist extraordinaire Sir Isaac Newton theorized more than 400 years ago.  This was heady stuff at the time — the idea that there are LOGICAL consequences for every bit of the naughty or nice behavior you put out into the universe, rather than retribution or praise from God, Santa Claus or Donald Trump’s money, depending on what time period you live in and who or what you see as your Higher Power.

Newton wouldn’t seem to have a lot in common with Mr. Trump and his 2012 ilk, though there is a movie that oddly sees something of a connection.  That movie is called “Cloud Atlas” and no one was more surprised than I was at the spell this perfectly imperfect film has cast and still continues to hold over me.

You really got a hold on me…

Let’s face it, you don’t go to studio movies these days expecting to be forced into considering the existential issues of life unless it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson or stars a superhero in mechanical armor, spandex or some rare combination of both.  It is also worth noting that in the case of the latter, this discussion will take place only in the broadest of good vs. evil terms, sort of like a political fight on either Fox News or MSNBC.  It is equally worth noting that in the case of PTA (one of my faves), this will only persist if he continues in profit, Oscar wins or some combination of both as time progresses.  (Unfortunate Translation: You better enjoy movies like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” while you can, because it doesn’t look good).

Using that logic, it is quite unlikely “Cloud Atlas,” with its mixed reviews, mediocre box office returns and general lukewarm reception among the Hollywood elite, will emerge as the kind of “asset” (au currant studio chief jargon for movies) film studios will lust after in the near future.  But that doesn’t matter.  Because as sure as I’m typing this, that’s how positive I am there are other writers, directors and actors (those people known as the above-the-line talent – or engine – for new work) who will be inspired or moved enough by Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s attempt to tackle a seemingly unfilmmable novel of depth and profundity and, in turn, seek to do something with equal meaning and depth that they personally connect with.  In other words, Newton’s theory holds not only in science but also for artistry.  Said even more plainly — just as studio chiefs might be repelled at $24 million in US box office grosses for an unusual film that cost $100 million and probably an equal amount to advertise, the creative forces behind movies (well, at least one, two or three of them) will be moved and attracted in the exact opposite direction for the exact opposite reasons of their bosses – those of intellectual substance rather than money.

Everything is connected.

I don’t love much about the movie business these days but I especially do love this.  If nothing else, that’s what “Cloud Atlas” and the perceived highly unlikely (in some quarters) re-election of Pres. Obama (because I am a die hard liberal who wants to bask in getting almost everything I wanted on election night), did for me this week.  See, for most humans, much of life’s bottom line profit is not about what’s measurable on a balance sheet.  It’s about intangibles like fulfilling inspiration to do good stuff, bettering one’s life or others’ lives through telling your own story in some form, or moving people to take action, any kind of action, on their own.  That is why Pres. Obama won the election and why cutting public funding for PBS – or refocusing our educational system on multiple choice test scores while chopping its creative classes – will never net the result we truly want, no matter how black and white positive it looks on a logic board.  Gravity and medical science can be proven in fairly absolute terms by thinkers such as Newton and those who followed him, and guide us in the quantifiable correct direction in medicine and science.  But what moves (or will move) the human spirit in the area of creative action and that which will produce a truly satisfiable result is an incalculable combination of events – sort of like the show business version of predicating a hit recording, TV ratings bonanza or the latest international box office hit.  Despite all the tried and true formulas or computer programs that promise you such, there is always, as even Simon Cowell has figured out, that human X Factor. (Note:  You have no idea how it pains me to give Cowell any credit at all – but – there it is)

In any event, back to “Cloud Atlas.”  Here’s the big money quote from the movie and novel – which out of context might seem like a greeting card from the 1970s – which is probably why I like it to begin with:

“…Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future…”

I can remember writing a letter to Newsweek in the early 1990s rebuking its cynical attitude towards what it termed leftover “hippie thinking” of the sixties.  My position has always been that it was how much the youth of that time believed in the healing power of peace and love that made that group a big part of the reality that helped force the US government to end the Vietnam War and to begin to face some of the great social issues of that time (e.g. gender equality and gay rights).  Like a book whose ending is yet to be written, or a screenplay that is years away from being finished, no one knew for sure what the ending of those protests or way of thinking would be.  But the feeling that something had to be done to create the preferred ending you wanted – that kind of blind faith and, yes, hope – is what caused people to act.  This is not unlike the mass turnout of 18-25 year olds for Pres. Obama (a group that as a college professor I know quite well) who are still at the point in their lives where they believe that change is possible despite all seeming evidence to the contrary.

Courting the youth vote.

If one can reduce the 6-8 different interweaving stories in “Cloud Atlas” to a single theme this is what they’d amount to.  Each character is faced with a moral dilemma over which they are challenged and each has to decide whether they are courageous enough to step up to the plate despite all evidence to the contrary that there is much of a chance to succeed.  Because it’s a movie that takes place over the course of numerous centuries, and because most commercial movies today have beginnings, middles and ends, we get to see how dependent upon each other these actions are over time to not only the survival of every character (and over whether they’ll have a happy life) but to the survival of mankind.   There is no such crystal ball that I know of for any one of us forced into making moral decisions at our given moments in time – whether we’re a writer, singer or actor deciding on what project we want to direct our creative energies to, or whether we’re Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or some hippie chick or dude.  The only thing we do have is the gnawing belief that when push comes to shove something must be done – a belief that moves us to what, on the surface, might seem to be the silliest fruitless or most unwise action imaginable until it turns out well.   Certainly this same action can just as likely be a self-destructive or defeating one, at least in your lifetime.  Yet also at the same time this very action can lead to yet another reaction or additional action by someone else that will produce an entirely different and favorable result in the future for another person or group or, to be lofty, entire race of people we have yet to or never will meet.

The film “Cloud Atlas” is certainly reflective of all of the above.  Tom Hanks is distractingly miscast as some of its villains and perhaps even a bit on the nose as its hero.  And certainly the movie’s 172 minute length can be a lot to take.  Also noteworthy is the relentless shifting narrative in the first 40 minutes to the point of distraction, not to mention the obviousness of some of the stories and their lack of depth.

Ice-T Tom Hanks loves Coco.

But some movies, just as some lives, are greatly flawed yet ultimately a whole lot greater than the sum of their parts.  I would argue this is the case in particular here.  It is not the message inherent in any one of the C.A. stories but how the stories ultimately work together and build to create a much more powerful overarching testament to empowerment.  And a side note to aspiring moviemakers – this is done through not only what it’s saying but by the very act and execution of its technical construction.

In my mind it is not an accident that one of the directors of this film and its major creative force – Lana Wachowski – is a woman with a personal story unlike any most of us will encounter.  Lana, up until a few years ago, was known simply as a famous director and writer who, along with her brother, was merely responsible for one of the biggest movie franchises of the last thirty years – the “Matrix” films.  But Lana was also seen as a non descript looking middle aged man known as Larry –a secretly transgender person who by all accounts psychically suffered until she had the wherewithal and means to take change of her circumstance of birth and proceed with self-acceptance and whatever gender reassignment procedures she chose.  These procedures have scientifically evolved to the point where there is a way to measure their chances of medical success but certainly not to the point where there is as empirically reliable of a way to measure their chance of psychological success given the limits across the board for any absolute measure of human happiness and contentment.  Yet, like the theme of her film, which she admits became a bit of a metaphor for her life, Ms. Wachowski decided to make the leap anyway because she knew in her heart of hearts it was the right thing and perhaps only thing she could do.

This belief is in part what prompted her to spend so many years “obsessed” with bringing “Cloud Atlas” to the screen and in using her “Matrix” clout in order to do it.  Certainly, she had a big stage to take her leap of faith.  But the size of the stage has nothing to do with the size of the personal leap or the eventual effect it will have on the rest of the world.  As the movie posits, there is no way to ever know that unless one has a crystal ball.  There is just a belief in oneself.  And the universe.  And the fact that Newton’s theory will tip towards the forces of good instead of evil.  This means acknowledging even though evil or the undesired outcome will always exist; it is equally true that the opposite can very well, and perhaps even likely, happen.

That’s why a 2012 message of 1960s hope and change will never go out of style. This, above all, I find reassuring.

The Passion of the Chair

Watching the hour-long NBC fundraising concert special for Hurricane Sandy survivors, one saw A LOT of talent on passionate display.  And not so coincidentally, this talent all hailed from the affected areas.

Christina Aguilera: Staten Island Girl

Bruce Springsteen: Jersey Boy

Billy Joel: Long Island Boy

Steve Tyler: Yonkers, NY Boy

Mary J. Blige: Bronx Girl

Sting: Okay, he’s the exception but since Sting is not his real name we’re not going to deal with him right now.

It can be enough to be extremely talented. But if you want to deliver 200% on your potential you also have to figure out what aspects of your talents in your passionate sweet spot you can use to take you to, as Stevie Wonder once sang, your Higher (Highest?) Ground.  As a writer, what are the stories you lived or saw others close to you live that you have to tell?  As a visual artist, what moves you the most and what do you urgently even require to express to us visually?  What kinds of people and situations hit home for you as an actor that you are compelled at all costs, especially embarrassment, to embody?  Most people have one area where they are best or at least most emotionally connected.  And yes, it is possible to be very good and financially successful at stuff you don’t love or care about. But you will never reach the heights in that field the way you will by using a skill in an area that truly unleashes your inner passion.

Meet Jack Passion. Yes, that is his real name. I bet you can all guess what he is passionate about.

Most actors are not equally adept at comedy or drama. But for the few that are there is still a universal depth of character in all of their performances that accounts for their stand out work, rather than timing, lucky breaks or a facility in a particular genre.  For example, Sean Penn is a rare actor who can do both.  In comedy, no one can forget his iconic Malibu stoner Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but I would argue this is partly because he grew up in Malibu among stoners who attended schools like Ridgemont High and admittedly carried that memory deep inside.  Mr. Penn won his second best actor Oscar for playing political crusader Harvey Milk but it would also be logical he was particularly able to rise to one of his greatest roles in part because Mr. Penn has been a real-life political crusader for 20 plus years (no I’m NOT saying he’s in Harvey Milk’s category, please…) and can innately understand how that feels.

Righteous, Dude.

In particular, real-life politicians also fit this bill.  Bill Clinton is never better than when he is charming crowds of people with the Southern charm he grew up on.  Barack Obama is also inspiring to large crowds but usually emits a coolness that seems to imply he does not suffer fools gladly, or, at least, does not feel their pain in the same Clintonesque fashion.  On the other hand, Pres. Obama seems to have a very strong personal moral compass, instilled in him by his Kansas born and bred mother and grandparents that Mr. Clinton doesn’t always have, that seems to engender likeability and respect (well, mostly on the latter).  He and his staff also know how to marshal forces in a conspicuously effective way partly because of the traits that enabled Mr. Obama to be the outstanding community organizer in Chicago he once was and, as some would argue, continues to be, only now on a national and international stage.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who tried to take apart the President as Mitt Romney’s keynote surrogate at the Republican convention, has a talent to be a plain talking everyman, albeit one who is brash and pushy.  Some people dismiss this as simply an ability to bully people into his beliefs rather than based in talent or personality.  Perhaps it is a talent to use one’s personality to a bigger goal.  Clearly, we all might have these hidden talents that we reserve for actions with family and friends but using it outside our inner circle in work and in public life allows us to transfer these traits into other arenas and enables us to develop them as one of our truest talents. If we don’t choose to work at them and go public, these traits are still ability but not one we might put to maximum talent effect.

Proof that we can work together

Yet if all this is true, why was Gov. Christie’s speech as a scripted attack dog roundly panned at the Republican convention when his impromptu brashness at press conferences – most recently this week’s performance praising Pres. Obama for his quick Hurricane Sandy disaster response in New Jersey – consistently seem to get him praise?  I would argue that’s because Mr. Christie’s brash abilities are put to their best use when he finds a cause that hits home, in this case literally.  When his beloved New Jersey found itself devastated this week by a hurricane, mostly out of love of his birthplace and partly out of self-preservation as governor, he dropped his negative attack dog mode and with the best of his passion and talent reached across the aisle and gave everything but a tacit endorsement of the man (Pres. Obama) he tried to take apart to millions of television watching voters just several months earlier.  Mr. Christie’s talent for impromptu passionate speaking – okay, perhaps bullying plain logic –worked in an entirely different and arguably much better way to greater effect when he found a cause that hit closest (again, literally) to where he lives rather than in the philosophical, issue-oriented faux world of politics.  More simply put, recovering his state from natural disaster could have provided something perhaps equally valuable — a tipping point for national bipartisanship in a hopelessly polarized political landscape across the country.

Watching people rise to the height of their talents and potentials in a certain area can be dizzying, thrilling, emotional, sweet, lovely, fun or just plain nice.  I’ve had any number of careers and have been good at all of them.  But some took much better advantage of my talents than others.  I find that teaching makes the most of many of them.  When all I did was write for a living I got lonely.  When I worked as a reporter I found myself not being creative enough by solely sticking to the facts.  I enjoyed the money I made doing publicity but disliked being a salesperson who had to often push “items” (nee movies) I didn’t personally believe in.  While I could marshal my talents in discourse, writing and general geniality to do well but as a sales person, something always felt off for me even when I was successful at it – as if I was in the wrong place at the right time.

Creative people are faced with this all of the time in the commercial marketplace.  I teach my students to work on what they care about but to also understand the outside world and take steps “to be able to eat” in choosing at least some of the work they do.  The latter can be either inside their discipline or in taking “day jobs” outside of it to pay the rent if the former isn’t comfortable. Clearly, no creative person feels equally passionate about each creative job they’re paid for.  But part of the task in doing your work well is to find a glimmer of passion in that particular task that will enable your talent to shine through and bring your work on that particular task to the best of your professional levels at the time.

Even icons in the entertainment business have to deal with the issue of passion.  Here’s a pop quiz:

Who is the only recording artist to have five #1 singles on the Billboard  charts – one each decade – in the1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughts?

No — It’s not Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joe, Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra.

It’s….Cher.

Cher-fro

Yes, Cher.  But as much as she’s achieved over the last 50 years, one could argue that Cher’s creative life has probably not been best displayed or utilized in the public arena in the last decade.  She seldom makes films and when she does (“Burlesque”) they’re more campy rather than memorable.  Her records are few and far between; her stage shows are fun but sort of walk-throughs down memory lane.  And yes, at this point of course she’s entitled to have taken some time off from talent, passion or whatever.  However, she hasn’t.  Not really.  What’s publicly moved Cher lately to her greatest effect is being the politically active mother to Chaz Bono  – perhaps one of the most famous members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.  In the last few years, Cher has taken to Twitter, gaining respect and fame as a plain-talking mother hen spokesperson for the cause.  She has over a million Twitter followers and advocates tirelessly not only for LGBT rights but also on women’s issues – often getting into trouble for tweets like this:

Friends who’ve known me for years might be surprised at my Cher shout-out since they all also know I worked with her in the mid-eighties and, let’s just say, didn’t have particularly favorable anecdotes from the experience.  This was solidified a few years later when I found myself with her and a friend in a post movie screening social situation and the subject of life as a gay person came up in conversation.  While I tried to argue one could be gay and have just as happy and fulfilling a life as anyone else, Ms. Bono Cher argued that I only thought this because I was young and that as gay people got older their lives would be quite lonely because their world was particularly youth-oriented, they couldn’t marry and that the vast gay majority would, inevitably, age and die sad and alone.  And no – I am not embellishing what she said.  Not.  At.  All.

Which is why her transformation to what she most clearly and publicly believes today is all the more impressive and worth noting.  The world has changed in so many ways.  This is part natural evolution and part due to many individuals, especially creative people and their personal passions to fuel whatever they deeply believe in through whatever work they’re doing.  That work is at its best when it comes from a particular and usually awfully private place from way, way back or from a more recent but no less personal place that one finds themselves newly invigorated by.  That’s why it’s important to stay engaged in the world – you never know how a change in thought will move you, or others, to a cause – artistic and/or political – that you once believed, or have yet to believe in.  Or how it can move it into whatever spotlight (either large or small because it doesn’t matter – all spotlights inevitably lead into each other) that you will eventually cast.