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

I don't know about this...

I don’t know about this…

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 could probably work on my tablescapes...

I could probably work on my tablescapes…

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.

Time Magazine


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

Sparkle motion

Sparkle motion

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 think I'll need that drink

I think I’ll need that drink

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.

Shameless Jon Hamm photo? I'll drink to that!

Shameless Jon Hamm photo? I’ll drink to that!

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.


One bad apple spoils the whole barrel

Does one bad apple spoil the lot?

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.  

.. or every Lewis Black emotion possible

.. or every Lewis Black emotion possible

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).

How I should have reacted (probably)

How I should have reacted (probably)

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.

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.27.25 AM

You can run…

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:

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.19.56 AM

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at 8.20.31 AM

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.