Tuff Love

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Do I matter?  Have I mattered – really mattered?  Meaning, have I, or anything I’ve done, made any difference in the world? 

It’s easy to view true achievement in terms of grand accomplishments when you measure it by today’s world standards.  You know what I mean – people like Nelson Mandela, Oprah (no last name needed), Steven Spielberg, JK Rowling, Sting, Barack Obama, Kobe Bryant, Mario Batali and Brangelina.  Or perhaps even Paris Hilton and the entire Kardashian/Kanye family, if that is what appeals to you.  Our culture elevates celebrity, reasoning those who have gained lots money and notoriety for actions in their chosen fields have made their mark on the world and those of us who don’t have those things have not — or else we too would have been so richly rewarded.

This, however, misses the point of both achievement and existence. Entirely.

Nevertheless, it is the entire point of Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Circumstances conspire to trap Life’s plain spoken hero George Bailey in his two-bit town with a two-bit life and, in desperation, George decides to jump off the local bridge to commit what will surely turn out to be a two-bit suicide.  But this being a movie in 1946 and not 2013 where a superhero would surely have intervened, George is rescued before he can drown by an “angel” in training seeking his “wings.”  This angel, a sort of befuddled, non-descript older guy who is clearly not, nor ever has been, a Mandela, or even a Kanye, determines the only way to prove to George that his life has made any difference at all is to literally show him what his world would look like if he hadn’t existed.

The face of desperation

The face of desperation

Although it was dubbed “Capra-corn” in its day, there is a reason this movie has survived for nearly 70 years and is shown on television every Christmas Eve like clockwork.   It enables us to see ultimately that all the crappy little lives we might believe we’re living in our darkest hours are in their best moments really as expansive and meaningful as some of the greatest thinkers, artists and saintly people – those humans we today call CELEBRITIES – of our generation.  And perhaps even more so.

OKAY, that’s a nice thought, but a total movie contrivance – and just an excuse for you, Chair, to justify your own measly little life – you might say.    Fine – then let’s leave my life out of the equation.  Let’s look at a moment this week in the life of a plain spoken 53 year old bookkeeper in Decatur, Georgia named Antoinette Tuff – who through a 20 minute conversation with one very sad and troubled young man managed to alter the lives of not only hundreds of others in the elementary school where she worked, but perhaps millions of people who listened to, read about and observed what she did when she single-handedly talked a mentally disturbed individual out of the mass slaughter of children and adults who worked at the school.    And who also, through her off-the-cuff actions, countered the decades old argument of the National Rifle Association that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.

Bravery personified

Bravery personified

Uh, not so much.  Understanding and love were Ms. Tuff’s weapons (Capra-corny as that might seem) and they proved far more effective than the many rounds of bullets a young man named Michael Brandon Hill held and ultimately chose NOT to use when Ms. Tuff was done relating and listening to him.

Listen and learn:

Just as George Bailey saw that the comfortable homes he helped regular customers like him obtain, through the generosity of the two-bit Savings and Loan Bank, turn into a shanty town of crumbling, repossessed shacks had he not existed (not to mention his happy friends and family becoming lonely alcoholics, general ne’er-do-wells and antisocial, isolated depressives), Antoinette Tuff’s real life story shows us the fictional life lesson given to George Bailey in a 70 year old film is no mere fluke.  Simply sharing yourself with others when you are forced to do so by seemingly supernatural or at least unnatural circumstances, can save more people than you ever intended.  And in ways you can never know since, unlike George, we have no way to tell what would or would not have happened had we not done so.

It's OK to believe to in happy endings!

It’s OK to believe to in happy endings!

By merely telling young Mr. Hill that everyone goes through bad times, by confessing to him she herself was so distraught she tried to kill herself last year when her husband of 33 years left her (and her disabled son), and by taking the chance to assure a mentally ill man that he didn’t have to die despite having already firing some shots, and that she loved him and would stand by him and help him give himself up, Antoinette Tuff saved the lives of hundreds and the pain of thousands with merely the simplest of actions.  She also managed to show basic compassion and understanding to a potential killer in society by knowing in her soul that he was not merely just a mentally sick person who society had turned its back on and left to rot.   One act of kindness to one seriously deranged mind – one moment of understanding – can prevent carnage of unimaginable (or perhaps even imaginable, which is too bad) proportions.  It’s a scene so trite that it probably wouldn’t make the cut of a 2013 after school special – if such programming even existed in our current evolution of entertainment offerings.

We all just need a lifeline...

We all just need a lifeline…

None of this is to take anything away from Ms. Tuff’s extraordinary presence of mind or, on the other end, the achievements of a Mandela, a Rowling or even a Brangelina.  But contributing to the world comes in all sorts of sizes and iterations and who is to say who or what is more valuable or more meaningful.

It is admittedly difficult to feel at all relevant in a world where one’s worth is often measured by the number of followers on Twitter and Facebook or the size of one’s house, bank account or wardrobe.  Like – really difficult.  But every once in a while someone like Ms. Tuff comes along to show us all of the rest of that stuff is really, when it comes down to it, a whole lot of bullshit.

Hey, I want attention as much as anyone else – why else decide to become a blogging Chair with a bright red logo?  On the other hand, I also periodically return to something I once heard Oprah – our current (and perhaps forever) reigning Queen of Celebrity – say:  More than anything, everybody just wants to be heard.

I am Chairy.. hear me roar!

I am Chairy.. hear me roar!

That means not just me, or you, but everyone.  It’s one of the reasons I became a writer and I love education.  It enables us to share stories.  So often I find students in painful situations (akin to ones that I have been in) where no one was there – rejection of professional work, personal relationships and family dysfunction, all engendering useless emotions of alienation, self-doubt, and even self-hate.

How do you navigate these?  One way is to know you are not alone.  Another way is to learn what people who came before you did and how they survived.

Reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way helped me enormously.  So did an interview I once did as a reporter with director/writer James L. Brooks, who asked me about my writing aspirations and was encouraging.  So did once meeting Oscar-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman at a social occasion early in my career where he urged me, a tortured unknown in my twenties, to be kinder to myself and to not force it.  The words will come when they come.  

Add to that the words a fellow writer told me that Stephen Sondheim once said to a mutual friend – a Tony Award winning actress who was rehearsing one of his new musicals for Broadway –  “If you are not having a good time there is no point in doing this.”

Blue skies are gonna clear up

Gray skies are gonna clear up

The most significant act of compassion you can do is reveal yourself to another person.  Share something other than, well, money.  Share a part of who YOU are.  Share your pain, or love or happiness or encouragement.  My partner of 25 years volunteers with the Trevor Project and every so often a troubled young LGBTQ caller asks him about his life.  It is amazing to hear the reaction through the phone when he answers their question about his relationship status and he shares he has been with someone for 25 years.  A gay guy??  I can’t imagine how hearing that would have changed my life in my teenage years.  Or even early twenties.   And yet here I am a member of that relationship thanks, in large part, to the support I had in many different areas of my life from others.

It’s all interconnected and relevant and, most of all, MEANINGFUL.  Antoinette Tuff proved this to the mentally ill 20-year-old young man in Georgia who had an assault style weapon and 600 rounds of ammunition.  A lot has been made of the fact that Ms. Tuff is African American and the shooter is white.  If the shooter had been black would a white person have been so willing to open up??  Who knows.  And really, who cares.

This misses the point, or at least clouds it.  There is a universal example of humanity that transcends race – a sense of being listened to by someone and not ignored or marginalized.  To truly hear and really see a person is powerful stuff – for both parties.  And it cuts across race, gender, sexual preference and age.  It is, in essence, who we ALL are.

Embrace your inner "corn"

Embrace your inner “corn”

If you believe that our culture, most specifically movies, are a reflection of our current humanity, in an odd way this brings us back to It’s A Wonderful Life and George Bailey. People often ask the question, What is missing from movies today?   Perhaps it’s this – that simple shared experience of humanity told in elegant or perhaps inelegant ways.  Spectacle is important.  But what is more spectacular than being who you are in a simple human way and sharing it with the world?  Perhaps it’s time to review our definition of the spectacular.  It’s often touted that bigger is better.  But Antoinette Tuff makes one wonder whether this is a bill of goods we’ve all just been sold and it isn’t true at all.

I mean, does it really matter whether or not Ben Affleck is the best choice for Batman or even the fact that there is or isn’t a Batman/Superman sequel at all?  Big as that story was this week, it’s a lot, lot smaller than any one of our lives.

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Binge is the new Black 2.0

Brilliant illustration  by Kiersten Essenpreis (youfail.com)

Brilliant illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis (youfail.com)

What’s the last TV show you binged on?

I had 30 responses to this Facebook post within an hour or so.  Which, if nothing else, tells me that gluttony in America is by no means limited to food.

But let’s start at the beginning.  Most of us seem to know exactly what binge TV is, though it’s a relatively new phenomenon.  Nevertheless, definition please:

Binge Viewing

n.  A period of excessive indulgence spent watching previously broadcast episodes of a TV show.  (binge viewer n.)

Of course, one person’s excessive indulgence is another person’s appetizer course, especially given our country’s lack of portion control (Don’t believe me – try ordering a plate of pasta in Italy).  Yet the inverse of this is also true, especially if you’ve ever ordered a spaghetti main course at the Olive Garden (yes, I was once dragged there and actually had a ton of leftover penne on my plate).

All of this makes me think of another great American phenomenon – the TV dinner.  Originally invented as the perfect size plate (tin?) of food a person could graze on through their favorite series, it would certainly need reinvention nowadays in light of binge viewing.  Maybe a — TV trough?  Or at least, well let’s say, a Banquet.

Or just add a pound of butter..

Or just add a pound of butter..

This already leads to an amendment of our brand new definition in light of the recent premiere of Netflix on-demand series like Orange Is The New Black, which by far was the #l binge choice to my informal binge survey. The women’s prison drama, adapted to your screen of choice by Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds, has ALWAYS been completely available – each one hour episode of thirteen – since its debut.  Which means goodbye to excessive indulgence of a previously broadcast series and hello to gluttonous viewing of ANY TV series since shows financed by relatively new content providers like Netflix give us the CHOICE of ordering up and devouring ALL THIRTEEN HOURS of a season at one sitting if that’s what it takes to satisfy our ever-growing cravings.

Programs like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones all drew multiple votes  – though OITNB outweighed them all at least four times over.  This could in part be due to the fact that the New Big O has only been on the market for a month and is the current IT show.  After all, we are all human and live in the USA which means we exist in a place where the most current, talked about material will always be the thing that is considered the most popular binge of the moment.  This is as sure as the fact that somewhere among us there will always be prom queens and prom kings.  (Note:  It is also reassuring to know that, much like prom royalty, the #1 popular cultural choice will also quickly be replaced by something else more to one’s liking since beauty, like popularity and ratings, never last forever).

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What is far more interesting and encouraging is that aside from those top contenders, 30 television series running the gamut of every genre one could possibly imagine ODing on each got at least one binge recommendation from those who responded to this very unscientific survey of what do you binge on, TV-wise?  They include:

  • Existing cable series: Bates Motel, Breaking Bad, Switched at Birth
  • Existing pay cable:  Nurse Jackie, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire
  • Defunct series: The Wire, Golden Girls, Friday Night Lights, Studio 60, Greek
  • Euro imports: Sherlock, Dr. Who, The Lake, Braquo, The Fall, A Touch of Frost
  • New Media First Runs: Attack on Titan, Arrested Development
  • Network Series: Scandal, Under the Dome, New Girl, Parks & Recreation
  • Reality Series: Kitchen Nightmares, The Biggest Loser

At the very least this tells me that audience taste in the new media age of binge is not as monolithic as market researchers (they usually work for networks and studios) want us to believe nor can it necessarily be categorized by age, ethnic origin or region (Note: I have an eclectic group of both Facebook and IRL friends who, as they used to say in the days prior to market research binging, cover the waterfront).

But what do these ever-growing gluttons really think about all of this stuff, beyond just their choice?  I wanted to know more without the help of a paid market researcher and so should you, especially since my opinion markers are probably a lot closer to your taste than theirs.  So take a look at a handful of five more in-depth and uncensored responses to questions posed by your Chair about the four very different TV shows these individuals recently binged on and why. (Note:  Okay, full disclosure – The Chair is the fourth respondent because, well…there IS always a method to my madness – in this case diversity of choice).   And further note that these respondents range in age from their late 20s to late 60s, live on various ends of the country, and include two males and two females of various sexual proclivities who, needless to say, all have very, very different tastes.

The Questions:

1. What show and why binge on this particular show?

2. How did you watch it? Did you speed through it, or take a little at a time?

3, What is your reaction to this show? Are you hooked? Would you recommend?

4. Did you know spoilers previously? If not, how did you avoid them?

5. Do you prefer binge to regular watching and why?

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ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, Netflix

Respondent #1- Female, 20s, NYorker

1) After all the buzz, I waited about 2 weeks and finally had to get “in the know.”

2) I watched it via Netflix streaming, probably at about 2 episodes a night (sometimes 3!). It took about a week to get through.

3) The great thing about it being available on Netflix is that it lends itself to voracious viewing – meaning, it needs to be seen in a short period of time. The pacing of the show doesn’t lend to a week-to-week viewing, and I’m not sure I would have stayed as invested in the characters if I’d done it that way. I almost imagined that I was in “viewing prison” with Piper (the lead character) – it was time to hunker down and be trapped with the show for a short period of time and then be released.   I would recommend this to someone who is looking for a show to fill the void until the fall season – and who has 13 hours to kill.

4) I had steered clear of all spoilers, despite working in front of a computer all day, and having a lengthy commute which allows me to read every entertainment article imaginable. It’s fascinating to me that bloggers and recappers are incredibly careful and considerate when it comes to respecting the binge-watching viewer. Headlines are kept clean of any spoilers, first paragraphs are even non-specific and filled with warnings regarding content below. Vulture (one of my go-to recap haunts) decided to space out its reviews of Orange to suit a three-episode a week average. Considering the trolls out there, and the loose lips (fingers?) of my Facebook friends, it is a miracle that I was still able to be unsullied by spoilers.

5) It fulfills the need for instant gratification – there is no need to wait to find out what happens next – which I simultaneously love and hate. I love it because I’m impatient and love being able to see full character arcs unfold in a short time. I hate it because I lose the excitement of the week leading up to the episode… the wondering, the guessing, the appointment viewing… the last vestiges of a pre-DVR world. But who am I kidding? DVRs are the greatest invention since the remote control, or Google Maps. I just prefer regular, weekly viewing because then I don’t end up a mole-person, permanently in my PJs, un-showered, unaware of the time of day.  (Chair Note: Is the latter really such a bad thing?)

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BREAKING BAD, AMC, Basic Cable on DVD

Respondent #2 – Female, 40s, Los Angelino

1) My friend kept telling me to watch it, and I had read about how good it was.  I wanted to see for myself — and to see if I liked it as much as Mad Men They’re both great in their own ways.  Impossible to compare.

2) I watched it on Netflix – 54 episodes in just under 2 weeks.  One Saturday I think I watched 6 in one day. Most days I watched between 2-4.  I wanted to make sure I finished before the season premiere aired because I knew that if I didn’t I would have found out what happened.  Social media and the Internet would have spilled the beans.

3)  I love the show.  I am completely hooked and would definitely recommend.  I was reluctant at first because I wasn’t interested in the world where it was set.  But once I started watching I was captivated by the storytelling choices, and the acting, and the visual style choices.  I had recently heard that they were supposed to shoot the show in Riverside County, California but Albuquerque was offering a huge production discount so that’s why it was shot there.  The location really suited the show and I’ve heard numerous people say that Albuquerque became a character also.  It really did, I couldn’t picture it being shot anywhere else.  It’s wide open and claustrophobic at the same time.  Also, the editing is stellar.  Two of the episodes are nominated for Emmys this year.  I’m probably voting for the season finale.  (Chair Note:  The latter fact makes this person that very desired elite binger).

4) I knew the basic premise of the show but did not know any spoilers.  I could tell from the image of Bryan Cranston on the poster that the character undergoes some type of transformation.  He starts out with hair in season one and he ends up with a shaved head and a goatee, kind of the badass look.  I also made sure I didn’t read any of the articles on the Internet.  When I started watching people were already talking about it in anticipation of the season premiere because it was off for a year and everyone was really excited for its return. I really made an effort to stay away.

5)   I love binge watching – it makes me the boss of the TV I like being able to decide when and how many I want to watch.  It’s feels similar to reading a great book, wondering what’s going to happen next.  I just turn on the TV and find out. The disappointing thing is when you’re done you have to wait and watch the rest with everyone else.  After this season’s premiere, for a moment I felt like I could just go to Netflix and watch the next episode, but sadly NO 😦  Also, I’ve heard that some creatives don’t like people binge-watching.  They feel that people are not allowing enough time to reflect on the stories being told.  I disagree. (Chair Note: This person IS a creative so that’s at least one industry vote for the binge).

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DOWNTON ABBEY, PBS by way of ITV, DVD

Respondent #3 – Male, 60s, Floridian

1) My friends kept at me about it but I am resistant to the period because to me it’s feels very much like “teacup movie time.”  But when my brother, who is a really straight guy who lives in Idaho and builds kitchens, started talking about it to me, and told me I’d love it, I finally said, Okay, I gotta watch it.

2) My neighbor gave me the first two seasons on DVD and I watched it in a week and a half.  Then a month later someone loaned me season three and I watched it in less than a week.

3)  I’m totally hooked.  It’s great storytelling and great characters.  You get emotionally caught up in all their stories and want to know what’ll happen next.  It’s so well written, sympathetic and well developed.  Plus, Dan Stevens is dreamy. (Chair Note: Uh-oh)

4)  Somebody slipped and mentioned a spoiler to me when I was in the middle of season two.  Then I read something about a contract with one of the actors in season three so that sadly made me aware of the possibility of losing another character. I was late to the game so the article made me aware.   But it didn’t hurt the show.  I suppose it might have been more of a shocker if I didn’t know but that didn’t matter.

5)  I do like binge viewing.  Watching Downton Abbey week to week – I would’ve been really frustrated.  That’s particularly the case with Breaking Bad, which I also binge viewed a few months ago.  I’m used to watching these shows sometimes till 3 in the morning, sometimes 3 or 4 episodes a night.  You’re consumed with it and it becomes much more impactful. It’s not so much the show even but the process of watching it and being engulfed in that world.  Now you have to wait a week and you lose momentum, the all-consuming effect.  You can enjoy it for that hour but then you go on with your life.

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COLD CASE, CBS via Syndication

Respondent #4 – Male, 50s, Los Angeleno

1) I accidentally stumbled on it one night when I couldn’t sleep and immediately got hooked.  I don’t generally like one-hour network drama these days and refused to sample this show when it aired.  Wrong!  More than half of every show flashes back in time to another decade where an unsolved crime was committed and is then played out in key bits and pieces dramatically.  It also uses the real songs of the period, making it one of the most expensive network shows on television because of the music rights to famous songs from artists as varied as Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Donna Summer, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones.  Those songs alone takes you right back into the period.  Plus, the way they match the period character with another actor who plays the same person 20 or 30 years later is impeccable.  Some of the best casting I’ve ever seen on television.

2) I watched almost three of eight seasons of 22 episodes each in about three weeks.  The issue is due to the music rights of such famous songs, the show is not available on DVD.  The only way to get it is on reruns on the CBS cable channel ION-TV.  Though I suppose there are other ways one could get fined for.  Still, it’s sort of an adventure this way – you never know what you’re going to get.  And there’s something about watching all these shows that are not readily available that, well, I kind of like.

3) I love it.  Sometimes it’s so disturbing, depending on the crime, yet it’s also sort of soothing because most of the shows enable people to resolve a terrible issue that happened in their past and get closure.  That resolution is almost always emotionally resonant and doesn’t always happen in real life – which is part of why we watch dramas anyway.  After watching so many of the shows, you can see the structure.  And yet, it also surprises me.  I’d particularly recommend it to friends who are stubborn like me about network procedural series and who love music.  There are almost no television dramas, or even films, where famous music plays such an integral part of the storytelling.  It puts you in the space and informs the action in a way no amount of great dialogue ever could.

4) I knew NOTHING about this show.  Absolutely nothing.  Except that it didn’t interest me.  Which proves that sometimes I literally do know nothing.

5) I like both but do love binge watching when I get to discover something I didn’t know about or resisted.  That is not to say that I want to binge watch everything.  I couldn’t imagine binge watching Mad Men because I got hooked immediately.  The same with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Dexter.  That said, there is plenty to binge on.  Oh – and added bonus.  Cold Case was created and written by Meredith Stiehm, one of the principal writers on the brilliant Homeland in its first two seasons. Another of its writers and eventual show runners was Veena Sud, who has gone on to create AMC’s The Killing.  This allows you to understand how creative people grow into their careers and to experience the great works of their pasts.

So what have we learned here?  That there is a huge gamut of public taste buds waiting to be tapped into if done in the right way.   It just can’t all be done in the same way and, given our changing patterns of consumption, it won’t be anymore.  Certainly producers understand this.  You might think it’s cheapie programming on Netflix but you’re wrong – the low end cost estimates of shows like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black is  $3.8 – $4 million per episode.  And there’s a reason why so much money is being spent.  With so many options of ways to view and so many platforms to do it on, content providers see avenues opening up to make substantial overall gains on their investments.

Keep the drip flowing

Keep the drip flowing

Here’s the deal.  They need lots and lots of content – both new and old.  Not only what is the next new thing but what will be the next new “old thing.”  What will last /endure beyond first run – which is more and more not much of a run – certainly not even a sprint and, in fact, something even longer than a marathon.

For a large and growing segment of today’s audience it’s not AS important to watch one episode (or even season) of a show when it debuts than it is to discover something that’s already been checked out by your friends and loved ones and given the seal of approval so you don’t have to waste time deciding.  That’s the new model being established by binge viewing.  This greatly differs from the network model, which wants to sell overpriced ads for first run appointment television, charging companies and audiences as much as they can for goods delivered with as little creative challenges or off-centeredness as possible to the widest possible audience. (Note:  This model also causes them to complain endlessly at Emmy awards time when they’re often shut out in favor of more inventive cable programming).

What both cable and on-demand providers and have now discovered, thanks in part to technology, is that you can forever make money on superior (or even just plain quirky) creative choices that don’t necessarily take the easy way out and tell great and far more sophisticated stories.  How much money?  Well, this remains to be seen.  But judging from Netflix’s investments coupled with initial and growing audience response – quite a lot.   In particular, this change should cause creative unions to take note and readjust their financial demands because certainly none of these newer companies will fully share their true profits from these alternative revenue steams unless their hands are absolutely forced.  The creative guilds, especially the writers, lost a fortune by not pushing back harder on the studios for a share of DVD revenue when it was the hottest thing going and the studios cleaned up.  That is until there were newer and quicker ways to watch older or just seen shows.  The same thing will undoubtedly happen with the burgeoning on demand /web based viewing – binge or not –  if  there is soon not some strong re-accounting adhered to.

A glimpse into our future

A glimpse into our future?

Meanwhile, we mere viewers can bask in the many great choices now available on a growing home, tablet, or computer-screened menu.  For decades television was seen as the poor stepchild of movies but these days it seems like the roles have been reversed.  Respondent #3 notes that if he were an Emmy voter he’d find it impossible to choose the winner of best drama series between such nominees as Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey.  Almost as difficult as he found it to choose the winner of the best picture Oscar in 1976, the first time he was a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy.   Among the nominees that year were Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Rocky.  Nowadays, he struggles to even have that many films worthy of nomination.  But has no trouble finding many more choices than that to binge on from the small screen.

Addendum:  This blog inspired me to binge view all six episodes of a new half-hour Australian show called Please Like Me.  It’s sort of a gay version of Girls and it is faaaabulous.  And — it can now be seen here

Addendum 2: 2.0? A previous version of this blog ended up in many spam folders… I blame network television execs!

An Experiment

mad_scientist

As a teenager I remember standing on line in the cold for two hours to see The Exorcist in Manhattan during its first week of release.  It was a thrilling, scary and overall fantastically fun experience.  I met a group of slightly older, cool people I got to hang out with, the movie was that rare combination of smart AND frightening, and I drank wine from a bottle someone had bought at the liquor store down the street so we could all stay warm.  All of this then added to the major buzz that I already had for being so in the know.

Never mind that news reports of several members of the nationwide audience suffering heart attacks at the sight of Linda Blair’s 360-degree head revolve turned out to be false. I felt like the hippest person on my block in Flushing, Queens for the next day (or was it month?) because, let’s face it – after that evening I was.

Clearly, times have changed.

Do we all really enjoy going to movie theatres anymore?  Or better question – do we really all still enjoy movies, at least the way we used to?  Well, the answer to that is, I guess it depends.

Clearly, we don’t enjoy waiting in/on line.  Okay, maybe the latter is just me getting older but I’m not entirely convinced.  This is partly because of how popular it’s become to buy your tickets in advance and print out a reserved seating bar code you can just scan at the door, and partly because of the new subset of people who actually make a modest to decent living being paid to wait in line for all sorts of things by those wealthy or clever enough to avoid any form of human interaction they deem to be unnecessary.

See: The Cronut black market

See: The Cronut black market

Of course, both movies and movie theatres are far different today than they were in the early 1970s – a time period that is now looked on as a bit of a cinematic golden age.  And even if we ARE excited at the anticipation of going out to see a new film, forty years ago we didn’t have the option of watching it at home via a decent size screen of our own on exactly the same day the rest of those poor suckas or cooler than cool Manhatttanites (take your pick) were braving,  well – the cold.  Not to mention their fellow man.

All of this being the case, I decided to try a little experiment this weekend.

  1. Take two films I was looking forward to seeing that were BOTH opening theatrically on Friday (Yes, I know upfront neither one will come close to The Exorcist)
  2. Watch one at a movie theatre where I buy a ticket, wait in line at the entrance and the snack stand, and view it with strangers sitting next to me in the dark.
  3. Watch the other at home upstairs on my own 52-inch screen (yes, size DOES matter), sprawled across my big red couch and munching an array of my own snacks as loudly as I please.
  4. And try to determine which experience is more enjoyable.

THE FILMS:

AT THE MOVIE THEATRE

Elysium – Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster, Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp.

Elysium – Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster, Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp.

Pre-movie assessment: A big action movie with smarts and a story by the filmmaker who did the superb District 9.  It promises to be what we now commonly call a real movie movie, employing all the bells and whistles of today’s technology.  Also, both of its stars lean towards playing real characters involved in at least a semblance of a story.  It demands leaving your crib.

AT HOME

Lovelace – Starring Amanda Seyfried & Peter Sarsgaard.  Directed by Jeffrey Friedman & Rob Epstein.  Written by Andy Bellin.

Lovelace – Starring Amanda Seyfried & Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Jeffrey Friedman & Rob Epstein. Written by Andy Bellin.

Pre-movie assessment: A small character film directed by two guys who made the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (among others), but this time about another aspect of that changing time in the seventies they both lived through and understand.  A period movie about the star of the most famous porn film ever made that is set in my youth and co-stars Sharon Stone as the uptight mother of a porn queen who grew up in not too far away Yonkers, NYI am soooo on my red couch for this one.

Here’s what happened:

Elysium at the Movies

I’d like to report that theatrical filmgoing is alive and well and not going anywhere but I can’t.  Not that this was an awful experience and not that the movie, itself was awful.  But they weren’t particularly special either.

Elysium is one of those films that should be great but isn’t.  It’s better than average, which is far preferable to being bad.  Technically it delivers well, the acting is all around very good, and for an original screenplay the story is fairly original.   It has some depth as it explores a particularly dystopic future world of the have and have-nots, plus, in the tradition of the best of sci-fi films, it attempts to be politically relevant (its issue is immigration) even though it doesn’t entirely succeed.  Okay, points for trying and bigger points for not bowing to the ridiculous and laughable in order to shoot off a few more special effects (are you listening Man of Steel?).

Looking at you Mr. Cavill

Looking at you Mr. Cavill

So why am I not at least a little excited?  Because that’s not enough to pry people out of their pods these days.  Sorry, it just isn’t.  District 9 was a bizarre alien story done documentary style that came out of nowhere and seemed to be accidentally relevant – a discovery.  Elysium screams big movie, teases us with a story, and then never delivers with enough clever twists and turns/depth of character or – and I hate that I’m saying this – particularly spectacular special effects.  Not to mention, Man of Steel has grossed more than a third of a billion (that’s with a “B”) dollars worldwide being mediocre.  In order to dissuade studios from giving us more than movie theatre mediocrity, bigger original movies have to exceed the bar of just sort of good.

As for the movie theatre experience itself, here’s what I got.  No line to buy a seat and only one couple ahead of me on a line inside to scan my credit card and print out my reserved seat.  The theatre lobby was huge – huge enough for groups of people to talk amongst themselves and to no one else they didn’t know.

Not too shabby.

Not too shabby.

The theatre itself was fairly clean, though not spotless.   It was mostly full but not sold out, probably due to the fact that Elysium was also playing on two of its other 12 screens just a handful of yards away.  Excitement in the air?  Not really, especially after watching eight trailers (yes, 8!).  The biggest in-theatre audience reaction trailer– Jackass presents Bad Grandpa. (Note:  I didn’t laugh once).  Only film even mildly interesting-looking to me:  George Clooney’s Monuments Men, though I can’t say it’s a must-see.

My seat was comfortable, no one near me was on their cell phone or felt the need to talk to their neighbor and raked seating plus a polite crowd guaranteed I had a full view of the show.  The sound was excellent, the screen was big and my popcorn was stale.  Was it worth venturing out of the house?  Eh.  I don’t regret it but I wouldn’t run to do it again if I can’t get even a contact high of crowd excitement on opening night.

Final Verdict:  I wasn’t expecting anything close to The Exorcist yet it wasn’t even close to the fun level I was expecting.

Final Grade: B or B minus – depending on how generous I’m feeling at the moment.

Lovelace At Home

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Perhaps Boogie Nights has forever set the bar too high for films about players in the porn industry or maybe fiction is, indeed, stranger and more interesting than the truth.  Whatever the case, the creation and travails of Linda Lovelace as a sort of lens into the changing social mores of the seventies is a ripe idea that never quite…blossoms?  Explodes?  The metaphors are endless.  Still, it’s another case of okay to good but not great.

Amanda Seyfried is convincing, Peter Sarsgaard as her awful husband is sleazy enough to make you want to take three showers (and you can, because you’re at home), while James Franco (the original choice for the part of the husband) has thankfully been bumped down to a brief bit playing Hugh Heffner that doesn’t do much.  Sharon Stone in a sexless black wig as the somewhat sexless bleak mother of the decade’s biggest star of sex is believable – which I suppose is some sort of achievement since Sharon Stone was a bit of a legitimate sex goddess herself two decades later.  But is what we’re believing all that interesting?  Not particularly, or perhaps not particularly enough.

The filmmakers capture the time period perfectly; the movie’s well made on a fairly low budget and it’s never boring.  But neither is it ever exhilarating or exciting or frightening enough.  You get the feeling you’re watching a cable movie not because you’re viewing it at home on television but due to the fact that its style, substance and/or storytelling doesn’t grab you in the way a theatrical feature about porn – say Boogie Nights  – needs to.  Lovelace is amply watchable but it never compels you – most certainly it isn’t compelling enough to view outside the comfort of your own home on the big screen.  Which is a shame.

* Not my living room, but can't beat a movie night with Bette.

* Not my living room, but how could I not post a movie night with Bette?

I had some frozen yogurt early on, paused the TV to go to the bathroom once, and then concluded towards the end of the film with some green tea and a power bar.  The sound and picture at home very good – not as great as the movie theatre and not as big (hey, we’re talkin’ porn here!) but still very good.  Especially for a film that is not big on visual effects but merely big on visuals.

Note:  It’s about as easy as it can be to watch a film VOD (video on demand).  I mean, seriously – you type in your choice of film on the search function of pay movies, it comes up, you push the button and, for $7.99 you get it for two days.  How much would it cost in a movie theatre?  Double that price, plus add for refreshments, parking and combat pay if you’ve got noisy neighbors.

VOD oh yeah!

VOD oh yeah!

Final Verdict:  For a movie about sex, I got more thrills, albeit of a different kind, from The Exorcist than from Lovelace.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that somehow I expected more.  Though it was sort of fun to relive the seedy seventies and, the more that I think about it, the more I want to say that Sarsgaard plays a superb scuzzbucket, if you can stand it.

Final Grade:  B or B minus, depending on how generous I’m feeling at the moment.  Yes, that’s the same grade as the previous film and no, that’s not a typo.

Conclusion:

It’s not that the screens that are getting smaller and more private, it’s the films that are getting more undemanding, less exciting and to a whole new level of oddly generic.  A lot is made about the circumference of your tablet or the quality, sight and sound of you and your venue.  Yet it’s not about that at all.  The only thing this experiment has taught me is what I’ve always known.  In the end it’s all about what you’re watching – not how you’re watching it.  In deference to Marshall McLuhan – the medium is not the message – the message still is.   At least to me and a few select others who remember a time when that wasn’t the case and long for a time when it will be again.  But perhaps we’re dinosaurs.

The Big O

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…Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.

– Brenda Ueland, 1938, If You Want to Write

You can choose to be original or you can choose to take the easy road and be derivative.  If this sounds like a value judgment – it is.  Like many entertainment fans, I’ve grown weary of creative laziness, especially in the movie business.  I’m even tired of reading about it.  Certainly, I’m tired of writing about it.  So for at least a single moment I hesitated before deciding it’s a subject that once again needs addressing since the subject is, by definition, not even vaguely original.

But last weekend I went to see a wonderfully original new film called The Spectacular Now at one of the scheduled weekend screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Normally these Sunday night screenings are fairly crowded yet, sadly, this one was less than half-filled.  Which is too bad.  Because after attending about 10 of these free movie nights this summer, which often feature the top creative people from the film in a short talk back afterwards to the top creative professionals in Hollywood (well, they must be the top- they’re the ones who vote for the Oscars, gosh darn it!), this one was by far the best.

Truly Spectacular

Truly Spectacular

The reason this film was so much better than anything else you will see this summer is because it is one of the few movies made by people for no other reason than passion for a script and a story.  The money wasn’t particularly great, there is no chance for a franchise, a television spinoff, or even a videogame, AND the process of getting this project off the ground took five years – much of it spent with its creators seeing little hope of ever making it to that prestigious Sunday night film series.

Still, they persevered.  It sort of gives you hope.  And if it doesn’t, it should.

Nothing about the subject matter of this film is new.  It’s a coming-of-age story about what happens when the funny, fast-talking charmer in high school wakes up after a drunk night on the lawn of the fresh-faced, smart, high school good girl who would be wrongly mistaken as unhip by TMZ.  Their relationship is not an offshoot of what happens post detention in a Breakfast Club type world but it could be seen that way from the trailer.  It is also not a rip-off of a great character arc on beloved television shows like Friday Night Lights or Dawson’s Creek but no doubt some people will be determined to view it that regard.

This is a movie that instead unfolds solely on its own terms and in its own unique way.   The script was adapted by the writers of 500 Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, from a novel written by Tim Tharp that was nominated for the National Book Award.  It is worth noting that 500 Days was an original script and the first movie produced by these writers, and the novel was the first breakout hit for the novelist, who teaches college and lives in Oklahoma.  Neither of them are, as they say, veterans capable of snapping their fingers and getting magic reviews and attention for their work.

In fact, the script languished for three years despite getting excellent buzz from Hollywood. It was only when the wonderful young actress from The Descendants, Shailene Woodley, who plays the female lead, read it and asked her representatives why she couldn’t make THAT kind of film after the former picture came out, that anyone became interested again.  Several directors were also attached during that time and fell out leaving it essentially rudderless.  That is until its tireless producer decided to approach a young director who had just done a similarly themed smaller film that had gained some positive response from other people in the creative community but was by no means any kind of financial hit.  Like everyone else before him, he read it and loved the story, though he was initially hesitant to do so when someone at his production company pitched him the story as a one-liner.  Luckily, he was not yet a jaded enough director who thought he knew better than the people who worked with him and read the script anyway.  And was immediately convinced. As was the producer after they met over beers and the director presented a 50-page book of how he proposed to shoot this film. (Take Note: The producer is Tom McNulty and the director is James Ponsoldt).

Team Perserverance: From left, Ms. Woodley, actor Miles Teller, screenwriter MIchael H. Weber, Director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Scott Neustadter, producer Tom McNulty and producer Michelle Krumm.

Team Perserverance: From left, Ms. Woodley, actor Miles Teller, screenwriter MIchael H. Weber, Director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Scott Neustadter, producer Tom McNulty and producer Michelle Krumm.

The Spectacular Now is not likely to go down as one of the top 10 great movies in the annals of film history but it’s a damn good one.    It’s human and it connects to its audience in a deceptively simple way that is only achievable by people who are trying to connect for real.  Unfortunately, that used to be more the norm in the industry than it is today.

Too often we all do creative work for the wrong reasons and once you’ve been in the business for a while you see how it happens.  You need to make a living, you want to keep working, you’re building a brand, you want something (anything) to take your mind off of your lousy life, you’re accepting the best of what’s out there, you need a new kitchen, you’re bored or you simply want to feed your family.  All are perfectly valid reasons but all together they don’t come close to the real reason most people get into the business – to express themselves in their own original way.

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Every week the entertainment industry serves up a slew of both derivative and original offerings.  Yes – EVERY week.  They are not often the most promoted TV programs, or films, or live presentations, or online entertainment.  But they are there.  This even includes announcements of new projects or talent, and even promotions in the executive suites.  If you look closely you can take your pick.  There is quite a lot of good or bad, depending on whatever floats your boat.

This week had a host of choices.  There was NBC’s big bold announcement that is was embarking on a huge four hour television remake of the classic film Rosemary’s Baby – one of the only films I’ve managed to show to almost every screenwriting class I’ve ever taught that gets 99% positive reaction.  What is the motivation to remake a classic film that takes place in NY in the sixties and is, for the most part, really about the 60s, and reset it in…Paris?  Is it about originality?  Trying to build on something that could now be original because they didn’t get it right the first time?  I don’t think so.  I SO don’t think so.

A force of nature

Joke all you want about Sharknado, but the filmmakers are not laughing.  The ratings numbers of this recent camp classic have grown from 1.4 to 1.9 million viewers and who knows what the third showing will be next week – or the grosses for the midnight screenings that are now set at movie theaters across the country.  See, original doesn’t have to be high art.  There’s nothing wrong with giving people a good time when you decide that’s what you’re doing and put your talent into doing it the best way you can.  The writer of Sharknado, a man with the distinctive name of Thunder Levin, knew he wanted to make an over the top sci-fi film and did it.  It doesn’t matter that’s it’s known for being campy and silly if that was its original intention all along.  What isn’t admirable is just throwing something together with not an original thought in your head and hoping against hope of getting by while you’re boring us and making money in the process.

A class act

A class act

This week the Motion Picture Academy announced it had hired its first African American president – a terrific woman named Cheryl Boone Isaacs.  She’s a marketing executive who started in the business in the late seventies and I had the pleasure of working with her a bit early in my career.  She was smart, talented and classy  – which is more than you can say for most Hollywood executives who’ve had a career as long as she has.  She also had a terrific brother who was one of the first male African American executives in Hollywood.  His name was Ashley Boone and he was the head of marketing at Twentieth Century and responsible for marketing Star Wars.  He later went on to market Chariots of Fire to a surprising best picture Academy award.  He was also, like his sister, smart, talented and classy.  And, like his sister, an original because unlike a lot of his cohorts he always went about his work in a respectful yet smartly dedicated manner.  You’d be surprised how rare that is still and how original it seemed when he did it back in the late 70s and early 80s.

When you go down an original road you have the ability to not be riding the derivative wave of an established trend for whatever scraps you can keep as they fall off.  You have the potential to be a trend setter – helping to create something that people want to follow.  That thing can be a product, an art form, or you or perhaps some combination of all three.  Which is probably why you wanted to do it in the first place – if at one time you ever liked what you were doing.

Too often it’s too easy to go with the flow and not go with your gut. I’ve done it.  We all have.  Suggestion to not keep doing it: Go see The Spectacular Now and think about why a small movie that shouldn’t work at all seems to work on almost every level.  It might then be wise for all of us to consider not how we can imitate it but what are the simple stories of our own that we want to bring to light in the world.  That’s a thought not only for writers but everyone.   If you don’t believe me read Brenda Ueland’s seminal book about Art, Independence and Spirit mentioned above.  She offered many of the same thoughts and more almost 80 years ago.  But it’s still worth reading because in addition to that it’s all done in her own original way.