Ying/Yang: Katniss and Llewyn

Two hep "Cats"

Two hep “Cats”

In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.

So, how was all of this?  Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy.  In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:

Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs.  In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in.  On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business.  This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.

In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember.  Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality.  They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality.  Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you.  The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into.  (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).

As for the films:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGames_Catching-Fire-catching-fire-movie-33836550-1280-673

Vogue.

Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever.  It also helps that she is immensely talented.  If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with.  It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe.  Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.

If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on.  Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.

Oh, she knows it!

Oh, she knows it!

 Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out.  But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.

One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG.  I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:

a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and

b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.

ancient artifacts

ancient artifacts

When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America.  I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries?  Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment.  Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug.  So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.

Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.

But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game.  Oh no – here we go again.  Yup, that’s right.  Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had.  How much of this can we watch?  Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight?  That should give you a pretty good idea.  There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience.  Only money.  And…sequels.  Two more at the very least. (Note:  Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).

As for the premiere itself:

Bad News:

  1. At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
  2. You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
  3. Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.

Good News:

Werk girl

Werk girl

  1. The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
  2. The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
  3. You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis.  This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film.  Why couldn’t I pronounce it?  Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it?  Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?

The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.

Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met.  He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy.  In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing.  He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.

This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts.  That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.

Well, what is normal anyway?  Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking.  In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred.  Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.

This would be years before Betty's trip to the Village

This would be years before Betty’s trip to the Village

One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry.  They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees.  They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me.   They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time.  That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.

Frick and Frack?

Frick and Frack?

It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).

Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?

Um, well.  We don’t do icons.  (Long silence).

Um, well, okay.

Q:  Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?

Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all.  Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually?  Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.

Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?

Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake?

Perhaps it was the interviewer.  The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared.  I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you?  This person did not.

On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it.  It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen.  It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there.   And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win.  You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.

Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough.  Or maybe it’s not.  I mean, what do awards mean anyway?  Okay, let’s not go there.

Well, they certainly don't hurt.

Well, they certainly don’t hurt.

What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it.  Hmm, not sure that happened.  Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do.  Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview.  Certainly, it was among the most memorable.

In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success.  One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed.  Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these.  The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.

About the film:

Good News:

  1. Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here.  He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film.   It’s worth seeing for him alone.
  2. The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner.  Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences.  LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
  3. The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
  4. The running time is 105 minutes.  Few films should be over two hours.  Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.

Bad News:

  1. There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
  2. Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
  3. Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
NEXT STOP:  Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle… Stay tuned.

Taking Inventory

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A dear friend of mine periodically jokes:

You can’t have everything – where would you put it?

Think about it.

This applies not only in the case of material things but for more ephemeral items like love, success, health, revenge or recognition.  There is only so much emotional space one has to file the good, bad and indifferent.  Somewhere along the line you reach a breaking point where the uploading capacity of human beings will cause one or more of those items to take a back seat to the others if you receive too much of each.

This is a real thing.

This is a real thing.

I was waiting to have lunch recently at a well-known L.A. watering spot (that used to be hipster talk for an “in” place to eat and hang out) where I found myself staring face-to-face with a person who, coming towards me, I had had dinner with some years ago.  This person and I have many mutual friends and through the years have become very acquainted with each other.  However, since we last met this person has clearly transformed himself or herself  (I’m not saying which gender) with both an Oscar and a new body that shows off she/he’s very newly worked out torso.  Also transformed seems to have been this person’s mind, memory and manners because there was not a hint of recognition as she/he dramatically removed she/he’s sunglasses and stared knowingly yet blankly at me, again face-to-face, before blithely walking on.

Hmm, perhaps she/he was distracted by his/her own image reflected back in my non-sunglasses, which I somehow must have mistook for a stare into my eyes.  Um, well, I doubt it.  In point of fact, this person seems clearly to have OD’d on an item called the I’m better than you are attitude while things that they used to possess such as memory, intellect and, well, general…courtesy (?) seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Lol

Lol

If it weren’t so cliché Hollywood it would be laughable.  But as I and anyone else who has spent decades in the entertainment industry will tell you this is not an isolated incident and, in truth, happens more frequently than one thinks.  However what also quite frequently happens – given the cyclical nature of life and the industry is some decades later this very person, no longer at the top of their game, will spot you at a party and, sweet as pie, approach you as if it’s old home week and no time has passed at all as they sheepishly, and perhaps sincerely, actually inquire into your life.

Truth be told, this very incident also happened to me last year at a supermarket where another award winner I know (Emmy, not Oscar, but who’s counting), who, aged so, I barely recognized all these decades later, approached me with a big smile and enthusiastically affable manner for a long and generous conversation.  It was lovely and pleasant and a sharp contrast to the last experience I had with this person several decades ago at that VERY SAME L.A. watering hole where they blithely acted as if I was either a leper from another planet or possessed some rare form of show business plague.  Clearly, they now feel either:

a. My disease has been cured

b. They now have the same disease and no longer care, or

c. They have been newly gifted with such items as kindness, humility and the wisdom of age.  Or, perhaps, the ages.

My Dad turned 85 this past week and I took him out to a mini-family dinner.  This was celebratory for many reasons though my father likes to remind me that I should be particularly happy he’s still around and having birthdays since, The longer I live, the better it looks for you.

While on some level I do want to believe his longevity genes will be passed on, that was not the primary reason this dinner turned out to be great.  Throughout his life, my father – a gambler and once a frequent high roller at many famed Vegas hotels where he received countless complimentary luxury suites and free dinners for his family and other guests in exchange for a little of his action – has always been the generous big spender.  This being the case, it has been seldom, if ever, where my sister and I (Note: yes, WE took him out to dinner – yikes – sorry!) or anyone has been able to generously pay for anything in his presence – much less the tab at a hip and fabulosity-ridden au courant restaurant.

This all means that, if you wait long enough, anything can and probably will happen.  Anything at all.  But you don’t want it to happen all at once.  Where, indeed, WOULD you put it?  How could you appreciate it?  Or even, on a practical basis, how would you ever find the time, not to mention energy, to use and enjoy it all?  Cue Erica Kane…

I know for sure that in my younger days it would never have meant as much for my sister or me to take my Dad out to dinner because it would have seemed too tit-for-tat – that in some small way we were trying to imitate the grand gestures on his part that we had grown used to.  (Note:  This wasn’t only limited to Vegas dinners but extravagant birthday presents or memorable childhood items like being the first in our neighborhood with a remote controlled color TV in the mid 1960s – quite a BIG deal!).  But in 2013, with Vegas a shell of the Frank, Dean, Sammy and Ann-Margaret days of yesteryear and all the glitz and glamour of that type of childhood gone, it meant so much to bring a vague contemporary reinvention of it back to him on our dime – if only for just a few hours.

This is not an appreciate life, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, wisdom with age kind of message.  It’s merely a recognition that not everything, and its entourage of best friends, are worth having when you long for them or think they’re a must have.  It takes space, efforts expended, and more than a few bruises, knockouts or even slight bumps along the way to approach the state of mind where you can enjoy that which you are receiving.  It also, quite simply – takes physical TIME to enjoy using what you have.  And often experience in understanding how that item can best be optimally used, much less enjoyed.

The reverse is also true.  Some things are best acquired when one is younger – either physically, mentally or both.  For example, I think the window of opportunity has long elapsed where I can truly appreciate a great comic book superhero film.  Although I was recently quite entertained by the 5 year-old Batkid who had just beat leukemia and, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, got to fight crime throughout a Gotham City-enhanced version of San Francisco.

Three cheers for Bat Kid!

Three cheers for Bat Kid!

Also, given the fact that I could purchase a small home in Detroit for the amount of money I’ve shelled out to various dentists in the last few years, I can never again quite enjoy Skittles, Bazooka Bubble Gum or even Pixie Sticks in quite the same way as I once did.

Finally – and alas – I fear (and admit) I will never be, or even dream about being, a world-class ballet dancer or even low-rung astronaut – though the former not surprisingly appeals to me far, far, more than the latter.  Those days are long gone.  Which is exactly what Diane Keaton said some years ago when someone suggested she wear a dress cut on the bias.

Don't ever change baby!

Don’t ever change baby!

Still, I find these are all very small prices to pay as I look around all the stuff I do have at this moment and take real inventory.  Let’s start with my closet here – I mean, how many shirts and pairs of pants do I really need – how many can I possibly wear at the same time?

The same goes for awards.  And, most especially, attitudes.

The IT Factor

Paparazzi

Some people just have IT.  And as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously argued re obscenity in 1964, you know IT when you see IT.

We’re not talking about pornography here – we’re talking about seemingly superhuman, universe-given (Note: No God references here) — TALENT.

So when this week I watched a 16-year-old bubbly girl from New Jersey named Jacquie Lee close out Tuesday night’s episode of The Voice singing I Put a Spell On You – a classic blues song by Screaming Jay Hawkins that was recorded timelessly by none other than the brilliant diva Nina Simone – and then reinterpreted campily by Bette Midler in the cult movie Hocus Pocus – I was skeptical.  I mean, ya need some miles on ya to do that song justice.

I mean... where do you go from here?

I mean… where do you go from here?

Uh, well…. not really.

We don’t know much about Jacquie Lee except she’s a seemingly happy high schooler from a nice family who plays soccer and, in her spare time, entertains sick kids in local children’s hospitals in her home state with a traveling keyboard.   Oh, also that she’s smiley and well-liked, though probably not rated among the very top singers on the #1 show on television this season.

Well, that’s all changed.

Here’s what Jacquie showed us this week with a microphone and an absence of auto-tune in less than two and a half minutes.

Question:  How is this possible???

Or perhaps the real question is – How is IT possible?

It is no secret among those who know me well or those who sort of know me but not quite that well, that if I could pick any IT talent in the world to have it would be singing.

It’s not that I can’t sing – I can sort of carry a tune and can do it pretty well if I really concentrate – it’s just that it’s not what I do nor who I am except in my dreams.  Yes, I could take lessons and get better and yeah, I know it’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best that YOU can BE.  Still honestly, there is no way, no how I can ever be the kind of singer that I would long to be.  Which is a great one, a natural one, a soaring one, a brilliant one.  An IT one.  Young Jacquie is an IT one.

It doesn’t matter whether Jacquie is to your taste, my taste or the world’s taste.  All one needs to do is listen to a few notes and one knows – if honesty prevails – that the IT can’t be denied.

This helps.

This helps.

Most artists don’t have the IT and are quite wonderful at what they do.  And not everyone who has the IT can handle it and become the artist they want to, or perhaps are even meant to, be.  It takes a combination of extreme dedication, perseverance, timing, hard work, discipline and yeah…some luck.  Plus, let’s not confuse artistry (and IT) with commercial success and world domination.  Haven’t you ever met anyone who has IT who no one has ever heard of?  Perhaps someone you know well, or even you, (Note; They’re not always one in the same) are that person.

The IT is rare and most humans don’t possess it.  Though we are ALL creative and artistic – I really believe that.  We just need to find what our talents are and nurture them.  We can’t lament not possessing the IT because all of the lamentation in the world won’t give that specific component to us.  However, what we can do is appreciate and admire and applaud for the IT when it appears.  Like a great piece of chocolate cake – and I mean a really, really great one – it is very, very rare.

J. Law knows.

J. Law knows.

There’s a pivotal moment in the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1950) where James Mason, playing movie star Norman Maine, is trying to persuade young Esther Blodgett, played by Ms. Garland, just how great a singing talent she really is.

Says Norman:

If you’ve never seen a bullfight you’d know a great bullfighter the minute he stepped into the ring by the way he stood and the way he moved.  Or a great dancer.  You don’t have to know about ballet.  That little bell rings inside your head, that little jolt of pleasure.  Well that’s what happened to me just now.  You’re a great singer.  You’ve got… that little something extra.

The entertainment industry and, more generally, the world, are littered with any number of artists with the IT whose lives ended tragically short for various reasons.  I don’t need to list them here.  You’ve heard of the famous ones and maybe you’ve personally known or known of some of the anonymous few who were equally brilliant in their own ways.   What is for sure is what it’s like to live day to day with IT is unknowable.  Except that – like anything big and electric – it can’t be easy or exceptionally great all the time.  Because, as we all know, nothing in the world is ever that – nor could it be.  Nor would most of us really ever want it to be.

Like I would  mention my Amy.

Like I would mention my Amy.

I love great artists and I strive in all of my work – artistic and not – to do the absolute best I can.  I also try to teach this to my students.  To go the extra mile because if you don’t do it in what you’re producing you are, bottom line, ultimately only selling out yourself.   And there are already more than enough ways for the latter to happen without you yourself helping it along.

Nothing is the IT at every moment or at every performance or and no one is the IT each time they show up to their tablet or desk or stage of choice.  And no doubt even if a daily diet were available it would wind up boring and take away much of he luster we’re talking about here.  Therefore — in those few times the IT does happen (Note: It’s usually unexpected.  That’s how the IT operates) don’t be foolish and allow yourself not to get caught up in the excitement. Don’t get jealous, be cynical or negate that which is obviously true.  Be fully present in the moment.  Bear witness.  It will not only give you pleasure, it likely will, in some small way, be inspiring – and make you better at what you, and only you specifically, can do.

Minority Reports

feeling_left_out_by_millenniumalchemist-d3279nn

Everyone feels marginalized at one time or another even when they’re not.  You know it when it happens to you – even when you’re generally safe, comfortable and in the majority.  It’s the moment when you perceive you’re not being treated fairly or the time where you helplessly watch as an undeserving person or group achieves a goal that should’ve been bestowed on you or yours.  Or, at the very least shouldn’t have been theirs.

The downside of this is that furor reaches a tipping point – sometimes nationally or even internationally – and sends the planet into chaos.

The upside is it’s responsible for great art.  And sometimes even change.  And, in rare times, both.

The above accounts for the national temper tantrum currently being thrown by White America via the Tea Party (uh yeah, they’re mostly WHITE) and the determination of their national representatives to shut down as much government as possible under the rule of that Kenyan Muslim Communist Marxist or just plain Black President Barack Obama.

But it is also reflected in such boundary pushing current movies as 12 Years a Slave, Blue is The Warmest Color and Dallas Buyers Club.  If it were not for the miscarriages of justice each illustrates on the part of the African-American, gay, female and poor and sick communities, none of these films would exist in their current form.

No one wants to support human suffering in the name of potentially great art – except perhaps a writer or two.  As a member of the general population of the latter group, I must admit I have wondered where I’d be creatively were it not for the traumatic moments in my childhood that I managed to spin into stories of snide yet noble survival that reflected what I perceived to be some of my own unfair misfortune (Note: Is there fair misfortune? Something to think about).

Jury's still out on this one.

Jury’s still out on this one.

Still, that’s an entirely other, too personal subject and strays away from the main point.  In clear-minded moments I choose to believe if given the option I would gladly trade in the art in for a more blissful beginning.  But deep down I’m not so sure if, knowing the eventual good outcome, that kind of trade would even be possible.

No one is safe from perceived oppression even if the facts are that you’re not particularly oppressed.  That’s because human nature being what it is, we will all experience real slights, often based on nothing more than the way we look or what particular group we’ve been marginalized into via race, religion, body size, sex or sexual preference, athletic skill, age, money (too much or too little) or some other incendiary category. (Note: Yes, some slights, though they may be real hurts to you, do pale against the more big-ticket items).

The question is: what do you do to counter, cope or overthrow what’s going on – or what you think is going on?  How do you marshal the forces to get your point across? What creates change, or at least catharsis?  How long does it take?  How do you live with it?  Or better yet – can we ever eliminate it all together and, well….all just get along?

Not likely.   But as we currently say – eventually – it gets better.  No one movie or song or TV show will do it and it will likely not happen in a sinlge year.  And certainly our political systems move at a snail’s pace – even as they’re prodded by art and cultural upheaval.  Often it takes generations and creates change so glacial and imperceptible for the current generation that it becomes difficult for them to really understand the severity of what existed decades before they were even bought into or became part of the world.

Last weekend I watched both 12 Years a Slave and Blue is the Warmest Color back to back – and bully for me because that’s 5 and a half straight hours of dramatic filmmaking, a rarity these days – I became acutely aware of how similar all of our struggles against oppression are.  And yet, how individual and dissimilar certain elements of them are when we’re put into the position of watching them dramatically unfold in no consecutive order other than the timing at the scheduled movie theater and screening.

Serious stuff.

Serious stuff.

12 Years a Slave was my first lesson – and yes, it often felt that way.  There will be no spoilers here other than to state what you already know from the title and the trailer.  An upscale free Black man with a loving wife and family from the North gets snatched off the street in the mid-1800s and sold as a slave to the South in the halcyon days of the Confederacy.  Much of the movie is rightfully grotesque and hideous as we watch this classic case of the worst kind of mistaken (or perhaps engineered) identity play out.  This is not a Gone with the Wind, Amistad or even Django Unchained kind of story.  Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, both of whom are Black, are determined to tell the unvarnished truth of what it meant centuries ago to be a human being who is owned by other humans in much the same way that a farmer owns any animal that he intends to use for work and/or eventual (perhaps even likely) slaughter.

There is rightness to this film, if for no other reason than to make up for the century old legacy of movies that have presented slavery as anything more nuanced than the above.  But there is also a heavy dramatic price to pay for what we’re watching.  Countless repetitious moments of bloody torture.  A mostly one-sided depiction of cruelty by broadly drawn villains from another time.  Rarefied dialogue that often feels written – alternating between speechy or spoken in a period syntax that occasionally comes off as grandly Shakespearean or just a little too plain grand.

ACTING!

ACTING!

And yet – you can’t leave the theater unhappy that this movie was made or that it is getting some attention.  No, this is not liberal guilt.  This simply is.  Why hasn’t a big, solely dramatic movie ever been made that gives us such an unrelenting picture of what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of being a slave?  Has it really taken this long?  And why has it taken this long?  This story, and the book it is based on, has been around for decades.

On the other hand, as someone who likes multi-layered plots and characters I couldn’t help but feel that I was being left behind for some broader political statement that was being made – one that has been earned but one that is, in the final analysis, not very complex.  I don’t want the Southern White guys to get off too easily as simply monsters from another era.  I wanted to see more depth, more layers of perceived oppressions from both sides – strange as that sounds.  What is it an old writing teacher once told me – a hero is only as well written as the villain who is oppressing him.  In this case, there’s not much there there.

In light of the rave reviews and overwhelmingly positive cultural reaction so far to 12 Years A Slave (Note: Cue the news shows, the talk circuit, the awards and the Oprah), as I write this I’m feeling as White Male Privileged as I’ve ever felt.  That is even if, in my mind, I’ve never really felt a part of that fortunate majority as a short, gay, Jew.  Is it because this is not my history that this movie didn’t resonate for me in the way that…uh….Schindler’s List or, well, Parting Glances did? Perhaps.  But as an American this IS my history.  Or is it?  Well, let’s just say it’s part of my history – actually our history.  Whether we’re Americans or not, we are all human.

Feeling Blue?

Feeling Blue?

Blue is the Warmest Color has another issue.  It is a three-hour French film with no plot other than what will happen in a love relationship.  Will the lovers stay together or will they break up?  Usually a movie logline continues and sets the relationship against –-

  1. The backdrop of war
  2. Feuding families
  3. A skating or piano competition
  4. A boxing match.

It is to this film’s credit – and partly due to the fact that it is French because no one makes better and more leisurely films about romance than they do – that Blue offers no such counterpoint.  Oh, well other than the fact that in this case these two lovers are both FEMALE – nee GAY.

The achievement here is that the gay is fairly incidental in this love story.  Perhaps that is why it was so widely lauded as the Grand Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival and is on every critical prognosticator’s list of top films of the year thus far.  Can the fact that there is a film starring two gay characters that doesn’t really seem like it should be a considered a film that primarily examines gay issues be considered, in itself, progressive?  Oddly enough, yes.

A gay mentor of mine from the early eighties who is no longer around once said to me that it is when we treat being gay as an integrated and almost incidental part of our characters in books, movies and on television that we’ll know we’ve made real progress.  In this case I think he was right, as he was on many subjects, though it pains me that partly because of our lack of progress on gay issues at the time of his death he is no longer around to see his pronouncement become a reality.

OK peel me off the floor

OK peel me off the floor

I am again not engaging in spoilers when I tell you that Blue traces the sexual awakening of a high school girl who instantly becomes fascinated with a blue-haired young woman four years older and many more years experienced than she is. But beyond its very initial stages, the story pretty much ignores the LESBIAN issue in favor of what happens when two matched yet mismatched young people fall in love.  It’s leisurely, evocative, erotic and very real.  And it is especially, for this type of film, very long.

In Blue, character doesn’t enrich the plot – character IS the plot.  There is nothing else.  Gay, shmay.  It’s not about that.  Which is part of what I loved about the movie.  And part of why I suspect I could so relate to it and didn’t particularly mind the length.  My romanticized versions of some of my early relationships were reflecting back at me from the screen – all I had to do was change a few body parts.  Okay, I wasn’t a high school girl but I certainly felt like a high school girl, at least archetypically, in the midst of those experiences.  And now, in one of those rare times, I was watching them being played out onscreen– in French, no less!!

On the surface, I didn’t at all wonder why I ultimately preferred Blue over 12.  I’m much more of a love story guy than a historical action guy.  But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was more than that.  Who we are and what we’ve experienced is the window through which we feel and it will significantly determine how we’re moved and why we’re moved.  It is the reason why I keep not going to screenings of Dallas Buyers Club, a movie set in the mid-80s AIDS crisis where there were no effective drugs available and at a time where primarily gay men in the US were getting sick and quickly dying at record speed.

The skinny on Matt

The skinny on Matt

I watched the bodies of too many people I knew involuntarily emaciate the way the film’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey voluntarily did when he went on a 1300 calorie a day diet to lose 49 lbs and become a skeletal version of his onscreen persona.  Never mind that he plays a heterosexual, bigoted White Texan – the image more than works for me.  Actually, too well.  Though I will see the movie and, at least from the trailer, it feels accurate, I’m not rushing out to the theater.  Yes, just as we need to relate our experiences to what we view and who we empathize with, the contrary is also true – some things can, at their very core, hit even much too close to home.  And you just need to gird yourself in order to get in the mood.

That is not to say that a story of Black America can’t move me as much or more as a love story between two contemporary gays, or even a plethora of dying gays and the friends thereof.  Only that, all things being fairly equal (which they never are) I can probably forgive a lot more in a film about the latter two because they more closely resonate to where I’ve been and who, at heart, I perceive I am.

As a wee child in the 1960’s through today, I have always believed, spoken and written that the struggles of each oppressed or marginalized minority were on some basic level the same.  That is the fight for equality and acceptance – the acknowledgement by others that we be considered no different than the person next door despite how we looked or where we came from.

I now see it is somewhat deeper than that.  Until we can recognize that there are some struggles that we can never fully understand, but yet can honor in the same way as our own, we will never quite be free of our divisive pasts.  This is not to proclaim I think about 12 Years a Slave any differently.  Only that I acknowledge that, given who I am, my perceptions about art and a lot of other things, are merely opinions rendered through my own personal lens.  This is equally true for everyone else on the planet – a fact that might be worth remembering next time we bridle at the radical personal, business or political statements of protest that comes from someone on the other side of an issue we might think we clearly see.