Summer is over and it’s time to look at where we are and where we’re headed.
Actually, the summer doesn’t officially end until the start of fall, which is technically the last week of September. But in the US, it always seems to end right after the Labor Day weekend. And why not? What better way to signal the end of fun than a holiday that salutes the worker (who presumably have at least been given some kind of summer vacation) and falls on the last long 3-day weekend of the most carefree of our seasons?
Of course, when I was younger and a student, summer’s end coincided with the start of the school term or fall semester. Which now happens mid-August if you attend or teach college or, even if you’re still in elementary school in some places. That also used to coincide with the beginning of the fall television season. But don’t get me started on when that begins because there aren’t really small screen seasons anymore. Just nights and weekends where you can fit in TV binge viewing. My personal theory is that binge viewing might be linked to global warming since it seems to be particularly inspired by unseasonably hot or cold weather – an everyday occurrence these days. Which begs the question of there even being any sort of seasons at all (certainly not in L.A.).
Still, we soldier on. Because more than anything else Americans cling to some traditions that, by any rational standards, have long and forever outlived their usefulness.
That being the case, this seems like a good moment to take stock of what sins have been committed, and where we are and how we move forward into Fall – as opposed to free-fall – since certainly we here at notes don’t want to outlive whatever usefulness we currently retain in the world.
LUST: SEX AND THE SINGLE MILEY
Never has so much been made of so little. That’s actually a quote famously appropriated by the late actor David Niven when a naked guy streaked across the stage at the 1974 Oscar ceremonies. But it applies here.
Like any parent, we don’t like to see our kids grow up and become sexual. But when exactly is grown up enough for sexuality to be employed when it’s your own kid? 16, 18, 20, 25…50…or never? I’m not a parent but if I were I’d have to vote for never.
If you don’t know about (or have never seen) the MTV VMAs, here’s the problem – former tween star and now 20-year-old recording artist Miley Cyrus did a song and dance number of her hit tune “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards last week where she rolled her tongue around like a snake charmer, bumping, grinding and (get your urban dictionary out) twerking across the stage against or dangerously close to the crotch area of tall, hunky and rappy 36-year-old male singer Robin Thicke, who has cultivated the oily persona of a studly, very well-endowed lothario in his hit song “Blurred Lines.” The latter may or may not be true in life, but who am I to say? Entertainment Weekly this week famously called it all a “teddy bear orgy” but, then again, who am I to say or even re-appropriate that phrase?
The bigger issue is this: we Americans are pretty hung up about sex, aren’t we? Yes, I’m purposely including myself in that because while I was watching the Miley/Thicke spectacle (which I then re-watched several times) I groaned, called it gross, and was generally turned off – wondering why Hannah Montana felt compelled to become a fifth rate version of a Sunset Blvd. stripper on national television and why a guy who is height-advantaged, considered hot and, okay, some sort of talented (and is married to the very talented and very hot actress Paula Patton) felt the need to carouse onstage in front of an international audience with a girl young enough to be his…stepdaughter?
As if that wasn’t threatening enough to me and Middle America, he was wearing dark shades and dressed like a high class (if there is such a thing) pimp in a tighter version of the black and white vertical striped pants I wore to one of my own high school dances in the seventies in order to make me look taller.
Certainly that has nothing to do with his involvement with Miley, as a very successful female writer friend of mine argued. She’s (Miley) of age, she was (or still is?) engaged to be married and isn’t a Disney star any longer. Why the international headlines? Why can’t women own who they are? Why are sexy girls given the scarlet letter when sexy guys are given the term of…well….stud, or even young buck? In other words, what’s Miley to do?
She has a point, I suppose. But had the dance moves been a little better, the routine a little more clever, or the 36 year-old guy a little bit more of…well, something…it all might have been sort of funny. It wasn’t. Nor was it the end of the world. At the very least it’s the beginning of a new one for Ms. Cyrus. Stay tuned to wherever it’s headed. Which, odds are, has to be up.
GREED: MIDDLE EAST WARS, SYRIA – NOT Syriana
Unfortunately, we have a tendency in the summer to see events through the lens of a popcorn movie, preferably a sequel. In our minds, this reduces even political atrocities like the current mass nerve-gassing of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria by a power-hungry dictator to the Oscar-winning George Clooney movie Syriana, which didn’t even take place in Syria and, in fact, wasn’t even released in the summer.
Sadly, the realities revealed in the real Syria these past few weeks seem to be signaling the involvement of the United States in yet another awful geo-political struggle in the Middle East. This is seen as unavoidable in some form by both sides of the political spectrum and surely signals the end of a carefree summer.
It is doubtful, however, whether even the best civics teacher could explain the pros and cons of this extremely complicated situation in ways in which those of us just emerging from the summer of ’13 (that’s 2013) could reliably understand. Try as they might on network news, or on CNN, MSNBC and FOX (let’s list them all together and be fair and balanced here), it’s still not happening for those of us not in the know of these things. Which really means – all of us.
The best I’ve come across is an article in this weekend’s Washington Post. It breaks down the pros and cons of US involvement in Syria and gives a basic understanding of the political situation there in general. Think of it as – Syria For Dummies.
(Note: This title in no way meant to diminish the tragic circumstances. It’s simply the strategy of good teaching: to make something digestible, first reduce to its simplest form and then begin to add layers).
GLUTTONY: DOWNTON ABBEY & YOU
Someone close to me likened the hit PBS series Downton Abbey to crack in its purest form. As a faithful follower, I know this is so. However, as a life long culture vulture, I’m not quite sure why the lives of the aristocrats living in a countryside British castle at the turn of the 20th century along with the servants who love and, well, serve them has such a hold on its worldwide audience. Perhaps because it’s so different than the world in which we live in today. Though the writing, acting, directing and castle itself could have something to do with it.
In any event, the fourth season starts being broadcast in England sometime this month and is set in the roaring twenties. It will also introduce race into the equation with its first Black cast member, a singer in the traditional of jazz great Cab Calloway played by acclaimed British actor Gary Carr. I suspect this is not just novelty casting but will be used as a way to continue to tell the story of the vast cultural shifts of the times as the upstairs-downstairs way of living slowly begins to unravel.
It should be noted that my students have a particularly hard time with the social mores shown in period pieces even though they are historically accurate. For instance, I’ve given up even mentioning either the book or movie version of Gone With The Wind in class since the Mammy character and the sashaying young black maid seems to take them out of a story quicker than the foot and a half sized cell phone you see in early 1980s American films. Yes, I know – those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. You try telling them that.
Finally, DA does not officially premiere in the US until January 2014. That’s a shame. Given how connected the world is via social media and the rest of the web, it’s very difficult to wait four months without spoilers to begin a series that is, admittedly, a street drug. Of course, you can get someone you know in London to send you DVDs that come out midway to late in the fall season. Or you can do it another….no, I am NOT advocating that! Am I? Well, as Will Ferrell once joked on SNL, ‘Maybe I am and…maybe I am…” (Note to law enforcement: That’s a joke).
SLOTH: LAZINESS AND THE MOVIES
Someone has to say it – 2013 has generally been a crap year for movies. Sorry, it has. There were a few of good films. But nothing great or particularly unusual. I’m leaving out Fruitvale Station because people I trust really like it and I haven’t seen it yet. Though I very much enjoyed The Spectacular Now and Cate Blachett was wonderful in Blue Jasmine even if the film as a whole somehow disappoints (uh yes, that’s just my opinion).
Still, there’s hope. What I’m hearing through sources is that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are great being weightless in Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis is a very cool movie from the very cool Coen Brothers and two actors who were different kinds of movie stars in the seventies will be up for Oscars in two other films. They are Robert Redford in a practically one-man tour de force in JC Chandor’s All Is Lost and Bruce Dern (yes, he’s Laura’s Dad) as the difficult father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
I want to see all of these and many others I haven’t heard anything about. But just as much I want to see Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of what happened when the writer of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, came to Hollywood and is finally convinced by Walt Disney to allow him to film her story. Emma Thompson plays the writer and Tom Hanks plays Walt. But that’s not why I care. See, Mary Poppins was my favorite film as a child and I played the record endlessly on my little “victrola” (that’s what they called record players, sonny), at the turn of the century.
Do not write in and tell me you’re disappointed in me for wanting this film. Or — that I will be disappointed. I know both already.
PRIDE: STRANGEST NEW FALL TV SEASON ENTRY
I’m not going to belabor this. Something called the DIY Network (it stands for Do It Yourself) is doing a reality show called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish. In it, the king of nineties White Rap immerses himself in the Amish community to learn how they do construction work. This will be an offshoot of the network’s current home renovation series, The Vanilla Ice Project. And why not? When I want to hear about how I break into the 2013 rap scene I’m going to call The Property Brothers.
ENVY: ME AND QUEEN JANE
Anyone who thinks 75 year-old actors have lost their looks, timing, talent and general star appeal need only watch Jane Fonda in the final scene of last week’s episode 7 of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In just under four minutes, Ms. Fonda gives a master class in creativity and craft. Alternately dramatic, funny, coquettish and powerful, she plays each moment to the hilt without ever going over the top or calling attention to herself beyond the requirements of the scene. That’s rare in television acting and even more rare in the movies these days. Newsroom star Jeff Daniels put it best in a recent interview: She comes in prepared and you just watch 2,000 Oscars and 1,000 nominations work.
PS – Ms. Fonda has given immense credit to Aaron Sorkin’s writing for her bravura appearances. But as any writer knows, tour de force scenes such as these can go horribly wrong, especially when you don’t have exactly the right person acting them. See, cause it’s all made up. Stay tuned.
WRATH: IT’S HOT!!!
This summer, which has not yet ended, is best summed up by Krissy Chula’s YouTube video rant of several days ago. Yes, it’s a little raw. But so was Richard Pryor. I’m not saying she’s a star. Yet. But the video has gone viral and will soon be nearing 1,000,000 views.
The humor, the rage, the weather – it all speaks to where we are now – maybe at this very moment.
Or maybe… we’re here:
Summer over? It’s ONE HUNDRED DEGREES out this week! Summer ain’t over in LA till the first week of October!
As for your actual content:
With Miley Cyrus, as with every “controversial” sexual performance or controversial joke, it only seems to truly be all over headlines when it’s simply BAD. The issue here isn’t that Miley Cyrus was sexual. The issue is that she performed TERRIBLY, and that her attempts to be sexual, or charismatic in any way, failed. She was smacking the asses of giant teddy bears, and was wearing something that had every straight male in the audience looking away in terror. Had she actually been sexy, or a decent performer, people would be praising her for “Sexually liberating women” or whatnot. After all, was she doing anything more sexual than Rihanna has? NOPE. But hey, it’s ok, because Rihanna is actually hot. She has stage presence, and better music (not that she writes any of it). It was the Awfulness that had people so intrigued, but in our PC age, that gets misconstrued with moral outrage. Just say it was a crappy performance by a talentless hack and be done with it. Nothing actually controversial here, and nothing worthy of media attention.
Similarly, people only make a huge deal of non PC jokes when the jokes are not funny. Case in point, there was a music video on youtube for a semi popular band, and the song was called “Asian Girls.” It was a tongue in cheek absurd song that was intentionally racist, pointing out stereotypes left and right, and the internet flipped. The band posted a new description on their video, explaining that it’s intentionally absurd. But eventually, they took the video off the net entirely. Why? Because, well, the band isn’t that funny. The joke fell flat, and people then said it was offensive. But when South Park makes the same joke, week in week out, about the City Wok guy, or any number of other ethnicities, it’s always ok. Why? They’re funnier and wittier about it. Them being self aware about their obvious racism, and that being the joke, is ok…this time.
Similarly, I haven’t seen the rage yet about all the Indian jokes flying at Aziz Ansari the other night on the Comedy Central roast of James Franco, nor about the sexist jokes flying at Sara Silverman. But hey, I guess since people laughed, it’s ok.
As for the movie scene, it has indeed sucked. I haven’t gone to the theater for a single blockbuster film this year. And what I’ve watched of them on home rental has not been worth the dollar fifty Red Box fee. I was however extremely impressed by Spectacular Now, which touched me on a very personal level, but also had some of the most emotionally honest writing and directing I’ve witnessed in a while (which is weird seeing as its the same screenwriters of 500 Days of Summer, which I absolutely despised). This is the year I’ve decided to (for the most part) abandon the blockbuster, and stop seeing the big movies simply because it’s expected of me, focus on the better indie movies that will truly inspire me, focus on the hundreds of great movies from the past I have yet to see, and focus on my own work as well. Hopefully everyone else will follow suit, demand better quality, and one day the blockbuster will be worth while again when studios realize that the market wants better stories.
That said, I guess Gravity is somewhat of a blockbuster, perhaps (hopefully, fingers crossed) a model for what great blockbusters (and scifi) should be, and I will be viewing it opening night because I absolutely love Cuaron as a director, have immense respect for David Heyman as a producer, and the footage we viewed at Comic Con was breathtaking.
So happy you liked Spectacular Now – I thought it was wonderful. Very honest. There are a few haters but I totally disagree. Sometimes I wonder if because the general quality of movies has gotten low in the last decade – or lawyer – if whether audiences have much lower standards for what a good movie should be than in the past and lots of stuff gets praised just because it’s not godawful.
As for Miley and potentially offensive jokes – I also feel it’s all about the messenger and their intention. That’s part of the equation.