While the Chair spends his Memorial Day weekend on the Cape (well, first spending all 12 hours of his Friday driving from NY to the Cape, in the dark, dank rain…), wrap yourself in a beach blanket of nostalgia with Stefon’s tips for summer in the city.
My students, usually aged 20-23, are, as a group – smart, motivated and kind of terrific. So I’m sick of the media, as well as others, picking on them. The selfish millennials. The Me, Me, Me Generation. The narcissists who live off their parents as long as they can, don’t want to do hard work, strive for fame rather than creative or intellectual achievement, and are far more concerned with how many friends or followers they have on social media than the people who like or even love them in real life.
As Bill Clinton said about Barack Obama during Mr. Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton: “GIVE. ME. A BREAK. This whole thing is the greatest fairy tale I’ve ever seen…”
Though I don’t have Bubba creds, as a screenwriter, journalist, teacher and human being I can tell you that cleverly made up stories, like both clichés and really good lies, ALWAYS have a grain or two of truth. As does all great fiction. So it’s not wholly untrue that the insults cast about against young people today have zero reality to them. But it also doesn’t mean that, on the whole, they are correct.
Or to put it another way: just because the new mocha and carrot cake cupcakes from that great bakery in your neighborhood taste lousy doesn’t take away from the fact that their classic vanilla and chocolate ones, which far outnumber the former anyway, aren’t still fantastic and wouldn’t win you first place on Cupcake Wars. Given the choice, most people go in for basic flavors (which, for my money, are always better), yet they are never featured upfront as the specials of the day.
And no, I don’t think I’m pushing the metaphor.
I just finished reading 26 screenplays in 12 days, notes and all, from these young people and I can tell you what’s on their minds -–forbidden love, dysfunctional parents and families, escape from their troubled or mundane worlds to a mythical or alternate one in the past or future, society’s vacant value system and lack of responsibility to future generations, and the general existential tragedy of life as seen through a broadly comedic or intensely overdramatic lens or mindset.
Yes – all the things that bothered the Generation Xers, the Baby Boomers and I suspect each new coming-of-age group back through the decades and centuries of time remain intact. Sure, the packaging might be different because we’ve gone from carrier pigeon, to Pony Express, to snail mail, to email, to texting, and to Twitter. But the actual themes, passages and journeys in existence remain constant.
I know how difficult it is to write even a bad script since I have done it many more times than I care to remember. So I can also tell you that while some (or even many) of these young people write their screenplays in between periods of YouTube gazing, web surfing or gchatting, their sentiments are equally sincere, if sometimes over or understated – just as all of my peer group’s are were. Perhaps that’s why they are being over-categorized and subtlety dissed, just like we were – but with an even nastier streak.
Time Magazine hurling insults at The Me Me Me Generation in its recent cover story harkens back to 1967 when the magazine, during in its heyday, voted its annual Man of the Year award to the 25 and Under. The difference is, 45+ years ago Time went out of its way to profile and categorize all types of people in this new generation in various POVs and color shades of the rainbow. Last week, however, the only famous millennial it quoted in its entire cover story was Kim Kardashian.
“They (millennials) like that I share a lot of myself and that I’ve always been honest about the way I live my life.” (“Ha!” – The Chair) “They want relationships with businesses and celebrities. Gen X was kept at arm’s length from businesses and celebrity.”
When I asked 25 of my students several years ago about Kim and their peer group’s fascination for her they simultaneously laughed in my face and groaned. It wasn’t at all what Kim did or didn’t do that made her interesting, they agreed, but “how ridiculous she is” and “how much some people make a fuss about her.” In other words, it was the postmodern version of a Kim Kardashian existence that intrigued them, not the now about-to-be new Mom herself or the vast Kardashian empire ($80 million and climbing) that she, her sisters and her own mother created by not being particularly good at anything but being famous.
There have been individuals of every generation well known for well, not very much. Consider the classic line towards the end of the movie musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of renowned performer stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, when her press agent tries to get her to lighten up in front of the lens of a photographer, who is about to shoot her naked in a bubble bath for a huge spread in Life Magazine: “Smile Gyps, show us your talent!” To which Gypsy throws back her shoulders and shoves out her breasts.*
The difference is, of course, Gypsy Rose Lee was never held up as representative of her entire generation.
This all reminds me of what it was like when I was a reporter for Variety (1977-1983, I was 5 years-old at the time, obviously) and every year they’d put out an anniversary issue where they would ask us to do trend stories. I hated those stories. Because they always involved generalizations about a group of people or professionals or ideas that were conveniently being grouped together so we could reduce them to a catchy sociological phenomenon or cultural stereotype. I think it was the year of the woman at least 3 times during that period and perhaps oh, I don’t know, 15 times since. There has also been the emergence of the gays and gay power or – as it used to be called back in the day – the PINK mafia. In the 60s it was Black power. Before that it was the rise of the immigrants. Now, it’s the rise of illegal immigrants (the least offensive term), or, to put it more kindly – the emergence of The Dreamers.
It’s all sort of the same thing when you get down to it because it’s the story of our country, if not the world. A group emerges onto the scene that somehow seems to threaten the status quo, who in turn fears it will (and perhaps is) beginning to lose its power.
But writing from the other side of the generation gap it’s easy to see this simple fact:
Everything, after a time, makes way for the new, whether that thing likes it or not.
I’m around the new a lot and generally like what they’re about. I talk to them. I even hang with them occasionally. It could be that I like them because I’ve taken the time to know them and not categorize them. I also understand the unvarnished truth – that they’re not here so much to take over but continue with us on the journey – and then steer the ship when, inevitably, we no longer can.
(* The line (and all the lines) from “Gypsy” were written by the very brilliant playwright/screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Lest anyone think movie characters think up what they say themselves)
How much is too much? That is the question many are asking about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But before we get into that, it’s worth considering when you move past the point of saturation and graduate to excess? In show business we call this going over-the-top. In film studies, we simply call it melodrama. Unless, of course, we’re being hip and oh so au courant – then we call it postmodern.
I, for one, don’t apologize for loving excess if it is truly excessive. For instance, one of my favorite TV shows, American Horror Story, reeks and swims in oceans of excess (and this news just adds to it!). However, one of the problems with my least favorite and now finally put out of its misery defunct TV series, Smash, was that it somehow refused to be in on the joke it was perpetuating and yo-yoed on various dramatic diets instead of just indulging as the glutton that it was always meant to be, given it’s body type.
Or – as an ex once years ago commented to me about an older star who refused to embrace where he now was in life…
When you’re dead, lie down.
(Granted, that’s a little harsh but so was the ex, which is part of the reason why I refer to him as such today).
As for excess, we’ve had plenty to choose from lately. Yet as much as I love to indulge it seems like there should be some guidelines, or at least simple common sense do’s and don’ts.
Susan Sontag once wrote in her perhaps most famous essay, Notes On Camp,
“The ultimate camp statement is: it’s good because it’s awful.”
I agree because, I mean, I know enough than to try to say Ms. Sontag is wrong about much of anything. Though I would add an addendum to her observation: Awful is good but some things never make it to that plateau because they are just plain bad. And bad is just bad to the bone.
As in everything, this boils down to personal taste. And one’s lack thereof. Now, some excesses to consider:
Saturday Night Live
Doing a brief parody of accused child kidnapper, rapist, young girl torturer Ariel Castro seated at their mock version of the Benghazi hearings this week – TOO SOON??? You’d think. Yet somehow they had to sneak it into their opening skit Mother’s Day weekend.
You can’t parody a tragedy that just happened, especially when the tragedy would be in itself a parody if it weren’t so horribly sad. It’s not camp. It’s not postmodern. And it certainly isn’t melodramatic. What it is, is just plain wrong.
The Chair’s Mother’s Day
I had 16 family members over and enough food for 32 (because ya never know). My menu: homemade turkey chili for a crowd, hot dogs, sausages (veg and real), rice, guacamole & chips, heirloom tomato salad with lettuce and celery, cheeses, grilled breads, six different kinds of fruit, and homemade chocolate cake. People also brought: large cold shrimps on ice, bruschetta, Lawry’s spare ribs, Lawry’s yorkshire pudding, homemade quiche Loraine, homemade strawberry buttercream cake, two dozen black and white cookies, 24 home made lemon bars, larger containers of chocolate, coffee crunch and crème gelato, and flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Too much? No – we’re simply Jewish.
In an effort to not seem as irrelevant as it has indeed become, Time’s current cover features a young woman lounging with her Smartphone in hand and the headline:
THE ME ME ME GENERATION. Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.
Wow. Just…wow. Tabloid anyone?
Of course, there is the rejoinder underneath all that type that the editors obviously think is their get out of jail free card: Why they’ll save us all.
This sort of reminds me of the old journalism joke that went around one of the first newsrooms I worked at. A reporter decides to get revenge on a powerful person he doesn’t like and asks the person: I hear you beat your wife, care to comment? The person, let’s call him Joe Smith, replies: “I never did such a thing. That’s not true!” The reporter takes notes, goes back and writes a story which reads: “Joe Smith denied beating his wife today amid accusations that he did indeed…”
Point being, you don’t get to plant an unflattering provocative photo with two thirds of an insult inserted underneath it, knowing full well that you are doing so, and then claim a mantle of respectability by adding a line at the bottom that perhaps disclaims everything you just said and did. It’s sort of like the school bully who slams into you into the locker in junior high and then sheepishly says, “Oh, sorry, did that hurt? I didn’t mean it.”
No matter. The Millenials will be laughing, texting, blogging (though not exclusively) and running the world long after Time Magazine’s print edition is gone. Which, checking my own Smartphone, could be any minute.
Behind the Candleabra
Billed by some as the story of the tempestuous 6 year relationship between Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson – played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively. But as you watch, a question arises, among oh so many things in this HBO Film – WHY????????????????
Yes, I saw it. It is VERY accurate to the times, especially that 1977-1983 gay old time in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. How do I know? Because — I was there.
However, of all the involving, multi-layered, fascinating stories of that period, especially in the entertainment world and elsewhere, one can’t help with finally coming up with yet one more question — WHY????????????????
I suppose part of it is the excess of the sequins, the feathers, the bejeweled pianos and an inside seat to, yes…what’s the behind all those candlebras on Lee’s pianos.
But let’s face it – the big curiosity is:
Do Michael and Matt really….do IT?
The Answer: Yes, more than you want to see. (And more than you want to know).
I actually saw the real Liberace (onstage, not in person) and he was not only a hoot but a helluva piano player. And faaabulously excessive. But only part of his life was filmed here – the very last part – and it appears to be for all the wrong reasons. It’s old lechy, gay guy as oddity. A perverse uh…love story? Well, sort of. Except the real, most interesting story was the man’s entire life and how he got that way. Not just the creepy, lechy part Mr. Douglas and Mr. Damon (both quite good in their roles, especially Mr. Damon) will publicly blitz across cable television in two weeks for all the world to see with the help of A-list director Steven Soderbergh and A-list screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.
Watching their candleabra burn is sort of like being invited to a dinner party at Wolfgang Puck’s house and choosing only to eat the dessert. Tasty but lots of empty calories because you didn’t indulge in the whole meal when you know you should have.
And speaking of whole meals – there is The Great Gatsby of film excess, Baz Luhrmann and his new 3-D film. But for this I am this week only handing you over to my editor and partner in crime on notesfromachair – Holly Van Buren. Holly will from time to time be weighing in on all things pop culture because a. she is half my age and way, way hipper than I am. b. She saw it this weekend and I didn’t and c. there will be some new and exciting additions to notesfromachair in the coming months, most notably a monthly feature I like to call:
HOLLY’S CORNER (take it away, Holly —)
Many thanks to the chair for letting me take a seat this week (certainly not the last of my terrible puns, be warned). Never was there a more appropriate topic to discuss Baz Luhrmann’s most recent flick than that of excess. I, for one, agree with the Chair on the idea that excess is only good when it’s above and beyond anything you would expect… and I can’t argue that Luhrmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously-read-in-high-school novel didn’t heed that call (and then add some), but like the characters ponder in the story itself re: Gatsby’s lavish, over the top affairs, “what’s it all for”?
I decided to see the film in 3D because, frankly, I was curious. Typically I opt to see 3D films in standard 2D, partly because I wear glasses and having to wear multiple pairs of glasses at once makes me feel like a Kentucky Derby jockey, but also because I find that it completely takes me out of the story. Too much is focused on the effects, and little on the affect (trademark pending on that gem). I thought I’d give it a try on old Gatsby because at its very core it is indeed a tale of excess and I was hoping (praying) that the symbolism would quite literally jump out at me. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Instead, I found myself watching The Great Green Screen, a tale of 1920s New York City by way of Narnia. So separated from their surroundings, the characters might as well have been on Pandora, romping around with James Cameron’s Na’vi tribe. And yes, you could argue that the version of the 1920s created in the film is pure fantasy (complete with arguably one of the best (and anachronistic) hip hop/pop soundtracks I’ve heard in years), thus making my Avatar correlation totally legit. But lest we forget the key difference here: NYC IS A REAL PLACE! A real, breathing, heavily photographed and documented metropolis. Give me the glimmer, the glamour and the art deco to the hilt, but don’t give me some cheap green screen facsimile that injects absolutely zero atmosphere or emotional connection to the characters. If Baz wanted my head spinning after one of Gatsby’s great parties, a job well done – but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. If I was in the mood for a visual hangover, I’d much rather watch Don Draper drink his new turtleneck-clad business partner under the table.
Excess and indulgence might seem like equal partners, but unfortunately, this film may have overdosed on both, leaving me with the same feeling as when I eat an entire sleeve of Mallomars – queasy and full of regret. Perhaps what they say is true, the novel is simply unfilmable… but let’s revisit that when the next version comes out in 2034.
Two college freshman who belong to a Jewish fraternity at a liberal school in upstate New York awoke one morning this past week to find a Nazi swastika and the accompanying words Heil Hitler dripping down their front door in bloody red-colored paint. This jarred me for many reasons (e.g. I’m Jewish, liberal and intensely hate hate-speech, though the latter could be considered hypocritical), the least obvious of which is that it happened on the home campus of the school I, the afore-mentioned Jewish liberal, work for.
As the parent of a recently murdered child in Connecticut just told the world in the halls of Congress, we live in an it can’t happen to me era until it does happen – directly to you. Now granted, the Hitler/swastika incident is nothing akin to the heroic parents of the massacred first graders in Sandy Hook, CT who valiantly lobbied Capitol Hill to no avail for sensible gun control last month, mere weeks after viewing the bloodied dismembered corpses of their young elementary school-aged offspring at the hands of a gun-toting crazy person. But like any threat of violence from an evil outside force – actual, virtual or anywhere in between – it does give one pause.
Plus, it provokes thoughts like:
Huh?…OH MY GOD! Seriously? NO!! You’re kidding, right? In this day and age? I’d like to get my hands on the mo-fo who… etc, etc.
Not to mention tears, more violence, other expressions of grief, other unprintable arrays of threats and expletives, or any random combination of some, none or all of the above. In truth, any one of these and more are proper and expected responses, depending on the level of event or – on you.
Still, one wonders, what IS the proper response – or at least the most useful one? The rejoinder that will create the conversation that will cause this not to happen again? And if no such answer/response exists (as we know it doesn’t), then what should one do? Moreover, what will we all do when this kind of thing or some mutation of it, comes a-knocking at our back, front or side doors?
I find talking and full disclosure helps because you can’t fully deal with something while you’re simultaneously attempting to hide it. I learned this as a young Jewish boy being taught in Hebrew school about the Nazi persecution of the once too silent members of my tribe; as an intimidated (and miserable) New York teenager living in Tarzana, CA whose teachers and school mates ALL made fun of my urban (nee Jewish) NY accent; and as a devastatingly angry gay man in my thirties living in West Hollywood (of all places) whose neighbor across the street once shouted at me while I walked my sheepdog past his house: “Get out of here! I’ll bet you have AIDS and your dog probably does too!” (Note: Needless to say, the latter incident did not end well for either of us).
As for my school’s response to the anti Semitic “hate crime” – which we’ve been told technically can’t yet be called a hate crime at all because that definition is complicated – its first instinct was to privately investigate what occurred without letting on what happened to the entire school population. Safety alerts are the usual procedure after the average case of vandalization, though certainly this case was anything but average. In any event, that didn’t matter because word quickly leaked out through our campus newspaper. The Ithacan, which often makes me proud I have a master’s degree in journalism. When it quickly published a front page news story showing the doorway painted in Nazi-speak this, in turn, even more quickly provoked a massive and quite vocal school-wide outcry.
The good news of our story is we’ve been told the perpetrator has been caught, the case is under review, and the two young Jewish men who were targeted now say they both feel safe and supported after this incident. The bad news is that this is a moment I guarantee neither will ever forget, just as I have never forgotten events like these that have happened to myself and people I know, and just as most anyone else who is a target from any sort of outside force of aggression or hate will never soon forget their own unfortunate taunts and traumas.
The real news is that this latest incident of intolerance – small compared to 9/11 and nationwide mass murders but quite large when pitted against those individuals who are not a member of an oft -persecuted minority group or have never themselves or through friends or family been the victims of a heinous crime – are here to stay.
These events have no simple cause and effects. They arise from a cumulative climate – a complicated set of issues that fester, bubble over and eventually explodes. This happens in people and among groups in societies when issues are ignored or not dealt with directly and it can eventually cause the destruction of said individuals and groups as well as everything around them.
These kinds of crimes against each other also often occur when a particular group of people (or a single person) is targeted out of ignorance or fear (or both) and are usually done in the name of a dogma, a movement, a religion or a country. Whether it’s a nation or a movement, or a particular way of thinking is immaterial. Absolutist thinking – or as we like to call it nowadays – fundamentalism – is the culprit. It doesn’t matter if we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Atheist. When one refuses to hear the other side people wake up to find blood on their walls – or their children murdered. Or, on a lesser scale, they are yelled at when they’re walking their dogs on the streets of Los Angeles.
Jason Collins, who just became the first gay NBA active player to come out of the closet, was spotlighted all over the news last week. This is natural for any public firsts in our society, but particularly in the case of a person who deviates from what is considered the norm in the macho world or sports.
Yet here is what Ben Shapiro, 33, well-known author of five books, editor of the conservative website breitbart.com, Harvard law school graduate, and Orthodox Jewish man (I guess that means we’re distantly related in the old country), found the need to tweet minutes after Mr. Collins announcement:
Are his tweets threatening? No. Hate speak? Well, I suppose not. But willfully ignorant? Most definitely. In 2011, the FBI reported that more than 20% of all hate crimes in the US were against gays and lesbians. That’s a 10% increase from the decade prior. Studies also indicate LGBT teens are bullied almost 3 times more than their straight counterparts and that LGBT kids are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. These figures, and the fact that Mr. Collins is thus far THE ONLY openly gay man who is an active player in one of the big 4 professional sports in the US, seems to empirically prove that his willingness to stand up and be honest about this part of his life is, given the circumstances, in some small or perhaps much larger measure, heroic.
Yet Benny (after all, we are relatives of some kind if you go back far enough) adamantly disagrees AND has taken to social media to deliver a few good blows to the Collins kisser while also inciting some free-floating anger. Not on the level of the Swastika, or with a gun – but with his intellect and his cleverness. It’s a free country, it’s not a crime, but this kind of petty snideness for no other reason other than provocation and ill will and purposeful misunderstanding as a means to adhere to some sort of intractable dogma (or worse yet, self-promotion), is a good part of where the rest of all this stuff starts.
Listen, different as we might seem on the surface, Benny and I do have a few things in common, as do the members of every family, whether we want to admit it or not. We’re both Jewish, we both graduated high school at 16, and at 33 we both have/had dark hair and an overly aggressive, opinionated attitude that can cut people to the quick using words. They’re not as powerful as a gun but when there is no other weapon around that is legal and you know how to use them – trust me, they’ll do. Quite well, in fact.
Until Ben/Benny and the rest of us grow up, really listen and give each other some breathing room, nothing will change. It’ll all continue with us acting out a kind of violence against each other. Some small, some in-between and some large. This will then perpetrate a cycle of small and large cumulative injuries that, when ignored and multiplied over years, and then decades, will continue to keep us in the vicious cycle of indignations, traumas, and violence we are all a part of today. That is, until some of us, or many more of us, decide to break it.
At the start, small steps work best.