Royalty

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I was dating someone in the music industry in 1981 and one night they excitedly put a cassette in a tape player that contained a song by an artist I’d never heard of. For those who don’t know or can’t remember what cassettes are, think of it this way:

  • Records
  • Reel-to-reel tape
  • Eight track tape
  • Cassette
  • CD
  • Downloadable content
  • Virtual Reality
  • Extinction
But probably this first

But probably this first

Anyway, that’s not the point and it only makes me, and perhaps some of you, feel right on the precipice. What is pertinent is that I thought my industry pseudo boyfriend, who worked for a company associated with Warner Bros., would lose his mind as he cued up the tape and gushed that the about-to-be-heard song was by this kid from Minnesota who did everything. He played every instrument; wrote, produced and mixed all of his own songs; performed them with abandon; had a gay androgynous look complete with makeup; and, most importantly, was quite short and sexy. Of course, me being massively insecure, in my early twenties and only 5’7” I immediately forgot the artist and appropriated the last two adjectives into a personal compliment – one that positively ensured my future with the Industry Guy.

This, of course, is something only someone in his or her twenties can or should be allowed to do – seeing the world totally in terms of yourself and appropriating free-floating compliments as your own. That is because it blinds you to the greatness of what’s right in front of you. In this case, it wasn’t the boyfriend (Ahem – that didn’t end well).  It was the artist….formerly known as Prince…who when he unexpectedly died on Thursday of this week was once again simply known as…

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His song was a nice little Prince ditty called Controversy and while I liked it I can’t honestly say I was overly impressed. Though after the 12th time it was played – yeah, this industry guy was nothing if not insistent about me sharing his opinion of things – I started to get it. And knew, at least this one time, he was right.

There was something about the beat, the repetitiveness of words – some of which I couldn’t even understand, the sometime squeaky yet tuneful multi-octave voice that sounded like nothing I’d ever really heard before. Eventually I couldn’t get the song or this kid/guy/artist/whatever Prince out of my head. And that was before I had actually read and studied the words:

I just can’t believe all the things people say/Controversy/

Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?/Controversy

Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?

Controversy/Controversy/Controversy

I can’t understand human curiosity/Controversy

Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be?/Controversy

Do you get high, does your daddy cry?

Controversy/Controversy/Controversy

Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?

Some people want to die so they can be free

I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?

Yeah, oh yeah

Controversy/Controversy/Controversy/Controversy/Controversy/Controversy.

Just... mesmerizing

Just… mesmerizing

There are more verses but this sort of says it. He wasn’t quite drawing on the sexual fluidity of David Bowie, who came right before him, and he bore little resemblance to Michael Jackson – the other young Black, somewhat androgynous artist we had all grown up with. At that time, and probably at any time, there was never anything sexy about MJ no matter how often he grabbed his crotch and gyrated in later years. But Prince? He was kind of…dangerous? The embodiment of the performer you’d see if you snuck into the fantasy club your parents would never let you attend.

What made Prince special were so many things musical. As a writer he not only churned out hits for himself but handed off songs he had written to countless other performers that became their signatures – Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U and Manic Monday for The Bangles are just two examples. His live shows were massively colorful, even edgy theatre pieces with costumes that evoked a sort of schizoid mix of Liberace, Little Richard and James Brown. But even when he stripped things down, literally – they didn’t take a back seat to what he was singing or he and his bands were playing.

The many faces of Prince

The many faces of Prince

When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy, 1999, Kiss, Purple Rain.   I could go on and on for years and years – duets, solo records, thousands of hours of unreleased material he notoriously stocked that we may or may not hear one day. But again, you get the picture.

I guess what I want to say is what he did he did it. As himself.   Yet somehow maintained an enigma. Some people that knew him didn’t know him and others that did knew him well. But by all accounts, no one entirely knew him. As you can’t really know anyone. What a dichotomy in an age when we know too much about everybody – even those we don’t know.

There’s talent and then there’s egotism. Of course, there is a double edge to talent. Not everyone is brilliant at everything. No one could ever accuse him of being a great film director (Graffiti Bridge). Nevertheless, he won an Oscar. Some wouldn’t call him a great business person for signing a contract that he later felt enslaved him to WB Records and cause him to forgo his real name for a number of years when he asked people to refer to him as a symbol – and then simply The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. But that too he did with originality – whether we liked it or not.

Truly only he could get away with this

Truly only he could get away with this

Not every one of us is Prince. No one in fact. But we do all have the ability to chart our own path, listen to our own voice and forge our own journeys artistically and otherwise. At 5’2” he was the tallest guy in the room and there is always something sexy about that. Not the height – but the stature.

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Coffee Break

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Is there a perfect cup of coffee? And how much would you put up with to get it? For that matter, is there a perfect anything? Certainly I’m not – perfect, that is.   Are you or is anything you do? If you say yes it’s likely that you’re not. Actually, it’s definite. That’s because we all have our own standards for perfect. And for me – stating that you are is an instant disqualifier.

This all comes to mind because my students have less than a month to finish their screenplays and many are freaking out. They’re awful, their ideas don’t work, they have no talent, have wasted their lives thus far pursuing their dreams and have little good to look forward to. In other words, they sound exactly like most Americans in our continual quest for the gold… something or other.

But back to coffee and perfection. Though I’m not sure why. These days I drink mostly tea. Don’t make fun – it’s freshly brewed, green and they say it’s life-extending. Who’s they? You know – them – over there… the people who know about such things.

Whatever.. Kermit understands

Whatever.. Kermit understands

Still, every now and again I do crave a good cup of coffee. It doesn’t have to be perfect but, full confession, since it’s not part of my daily grind (Note: That was an unintentional pun I only became aware of as I wrote this), I like for it to not taste like mud that’s accumulated at the bottom of a pot on an overheated burner.

This craving led me to the Blue Bottle Coffee emporium around noon time one day this week in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a planned trip. I had the craving, was driving by in the smog on my way to get an allergy shot from my neighborhood allergist I’ve been to a zillion times and thought – heck, there’s even a parking spot out front. Why don’t I just go on in?

It is important to note that just as perfection is rare and even rarely perfect, so is driving around Los Angeles and casually stopping your car in front of any place new in your neighborhood you hadn’t planned on stopping at that you’ve never heard of. We Angelinos know what’s in our localities backwards and forwards if only because we’re constantly frustrated with the amount of traffic we must fight daily as we drive every which by, towards and through them.

Oh and then there's this...

Oh and then there’s this…

The following is not a review of the Blue Bottle, per se. The place is light and airy and a bit overpriced – a modern yet soft-hued colorful, clean sort of open concept space you’d see at the end of an HGTV home makeover show. Vaguely unaffordable but certainly not out of the question if you economize and push yourself a little. After all, what price perfection, right?

Wrong.

See, the problem with Blue Bottle and places like it is not how it looks but who’s there and what it’s selling. I’m going to generalize now so bear with me –- at even just before noon it’s a room full of upscale baby boomers, yuppies, generation X & Yers standing or sitting around with a few marginally millennial individuals scattered around at coffee tables with laptops. It’s not crowded like a Starbucks at all – in fact there’s tons of space. Space where you can listen to various conversations about real estate; the police busting a party the night before; someone’s latest trip to Scandinavia; and how much another one’s company is really going to pay for, well… something or other.

I suppose this would all be fine if the coffee were quick or any good. After all, the allergist closes in 25 minutes so I don’t have all day but since I’m about 4 minutes away and another 5 minutes up the elevator that should be plenty of time.

8 pack abs for sure

8 pack abs for sure

Uh, well, maybe not. The very tall, leggy brunette haired woman in the expensive top and faux jeans in front of me ordered a soy, double, almond, mocha whatever and it turns out this is a drip, drip, drip place where literally a pretty-aproned younger millennial stands at another counter slowly pouring a bit of water into just roasted beans, watches it drip, and then pours just a little more. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. No wonder they hate us. Justifiably.

After which point the stylish woman, who is probably a good two decades younger than me even though in my mind we’re contemporaries, decides that after a sip of her, err, drink, she has to have another one almost exactly the same but with one key change (no mocha? I can’t recall) for someone else. This gums up my works a bit and I fear I won’t make it to my shot. And begin cursing her under my breath, and then myself for cursing her, as I begin jonesing for my liquid black gold. Which is, you guessed it, merely a plain cup of coffee. No, nothing else. It’s now been 10 minutes and counting.

About to unleash my inner Veruca

About to unleash my inner Veruca

When the unfortunate, semi-smiling millennial finally hands me over my small cup of perfect I find it a bit bitter, even after the dab of half and half. Certainly, this is because I don’t drink all that much of the stuff, anymore, right? Actually, no – I had a cup I rather enjoyed last week at a hotel on a business trip. This one just doesn’t measure up. Despite the fact that after starting in Oakland some years ago there are now Blue Bottles in New York, Tokyo and San Francisco.

Perfection? I don’t think so.

Why spend all this time semi-trashing a perfectly decent establishment? Well, first of all this isn’t trashing. I could show you trashing. Trashing would be the cup of coffee I barely got six months ago with a dear friend at a hideously pretentious place on La Brea Ave. in Hollywood called Graffiti Coffee. These mother f-rs were rude, high-tech, and snickered at me for not understanding their roasting terminology lingo when all I wanted was a plain iced coffee. By the time I got it I wanted to throw it at the sign that I hadn’t noticed when I came in – the one that says they don’t allow anyone under 18 on the premises. This is not because they serve alcohol but because they don’t want people bringing their kids inside.

But what if the shoe was on the other foot? #noHamsters

But what if the shoe was on the other foot? #noHamsters

Okay, normally this might be a selling point for me but, well – as a gay Jewish liberal I have to ask – is that even legal? Plus, aren’t kids in school during the day? After leaving this place I go on Yelp and find scads of one-star reviews for Graffiti Coffee. Some like the brews but almost everyone agrees these are some of the most nasty, pretentious people who have ever held a cup of java, much less made some. What I want to know is – how do they stay in business given they occupy prime real estate? All I can remember is the always empty Chinese restaurant my Dad and stepmom used to take us to when we visited during the summer that they ominously joked trafficked in the white slave trade. (Note: This was not considered racist in the 70s, so please don’t stereotype my family the way we did an entire group of people. And certainly don’t bring use Seinfeld’s notorious 90s Soup Nazi as an example).

Now before you think I’m picking on Graffiti let me very briefly mention a third place I stopped into several months before that – Sqirl. No, that’s not a typo – it’s a café on the Hollywood/Silverlake border named after a member of the rodent family. Only misspelled. Which somehow seems to make it palatable and more appealing.

Well, how do you not go into a place called Sqirl to get a cup of coffee on an L.A. fall day even though it’s 80 degrees outside and they don’t have air-conditioning. After all, you’re thirsty, you’re only here to look inside a discount antique store for a marked down lamp and, best sign of all, you and your buddy pass by and see Sqirl is indeed packed and a bit kooky.   This must be the perfect find only the locals know about.

So cool it doesn't even need a sign

So cool it doesn’t even need a sign

Well, the iced tea is okay but my friend tells me the coffee is nothing special after 15 minutes of sweating it out waiting for the two drinks. I take a sip and agree. Unfortunately, this was after I spent $18 on two jars of cute little Sqirl jam that I knew would be the perfect gift for my jam-loving, hard-working of late, husband. Um, not so. I brought it home, he tasted it and had that nice face on he gets when he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings when I proclaim I brought home a find. The strawberry was runny, the apricot flavor was weak and even the jars didn’t look as good in the daylight of our air-conditioning. The people working there were nice but I couldn’t help wondering why everyone was sitting in sweltering heat in the middle of the afternoon eating hot breakfast food and swatting flies away.

We Americans… We’ll do almost anything for a treat, won’t we? Or what we perceive to be one. I have the answer, though. Make your coffee at home with help from an online expert (Note: just google the prefect cup of coffee). And smile to yourself with the knowledge that as bad as you might think your coffee or your work is it’s a hell of a lot better than much of what’s out there that passes for perfection. It’s just that the world has not yet discovered you or your own special brew.

Movie Logic

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There are simple logistics of the movie business one must recognize if one is to venture creatively into the Hollywood film community.

The two #1 movies of the last month – Superman vs. Batman and Zootopia – have so far together grossed $1.5 BILLION worldwide at the theatrical box-office. To be more USA centric – for certainly part of our responsibilities as US citizens is to make all things American at least SEEM great again – this includes almost $300 million apiece for each film in tickets sold here (Note: And in Canada but isn’t that a mere technicality and certainly beside the point?).

Not if it means I get to post a picture of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau

Not if it means I get to post a picture of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau

I have not seen the much-maligned S vs. B because at this point in life (and having been a movie critic in one of my many past lives) I get the appeal and deserve credit for time already served. As for the big Z, I have attended at the desperate urging of my students and found it to be a perfectly lovely experience that was smart, funny and has something to say worth listening to. Certainly not in the vein of Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave or, well, Sophie’s Choice, but hey, Viva La Difference!, right?

Two movies I have seen in the last two weeks fall into different categories and fates and their titles are Midnight Special and The Fundamentals of Caring. Never heard of them? Well, how can that be?

Midnight Special has also been in theatres for almost a month and its writer-director Jeff Nichols was responsible for the very well reviewed indie film of several years ago – Mud – starring recent Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey. As for Fundamentals – okay, it hasn’t been released yet. But if you’re at all a movie fan you might have heard it was one of the big success stories of this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Netflix picked it up for a near record $7 million. Not to mention, its directed by longtime David Letterman producer Rob Burnett and stars one of our not that currently numerous comedy movie stars, Paul Rudd.

Ahem... the AGELESS Paul Rudd #howdoeshedoit

Ahem… the AGELESS Paul Rudd #howdoeshedoit

How I felt about the latter two films (Note: They each have their charms) is less important than the fact that they will generate a slight fraction of the revenue of the first two I mentioned and probably equally that much in buzz and recognition by general audiences. That, in fact, is not a failure on the part of either of the two films. More simply, it is reality.

Midnight Special works on a narratively unusual storyline that even the NY Times movie critic managed to circumvent in his recent review. But since this certainly isn’t the Times, here’s how I’d put it –

It’s a film about a father and son on the run pursued by both the government and members of a cult they are escaping from, each of whom want something very special from them. Beliefs of the supernatural, of religious cultism, and of governmental overreach and villainy come into play but what’s really at play is how much you love your own family and how much and what you’d do to save them.

Catch Michael Shannon in Midnight Special before his next staring role as Elvis (really)

Catch Michael Shannon in Midnight Special before his next staring role as Elvis (really)

That sounds kind of timely, right? Well, Warner Bros. must have thought so since it’s their film. Which they’ve slowly rolled out to release in…493 theatres (Note: Z and S vs B have each been in 4000 plus screens) – where it’s grossed just $1.4 million nationally.

As for The Fundamentals of Caring, it’s based on a best-selling novel and is the kind of comedy-drama they used to make when I was young (it was the seventies and the movie business was having one of its small handful of GOLDEN ages). This merely means Hollywood, and in turn the world, were making the kind of content (Note: Ugh, there’s that word again) that we would all be nostalgically longing for decades, and likely centuries, later.

Its plot? I’ll let IMDB speak to that one:

A man suffering an incredible amount of loss enrolls in a class about care giving that changes his perspective on life.

Though, well, that kind of doesn’t do it. In reality, it’s a funny comic road movie – sort of My Left Foot meets Harry and Tonto meets Summer of ’42 – that doesn’t drown in bathos and gives its young teenage hero a chance to flirt with and at the very least kiss (Note: Uh, no spoilers here!) one of the current it girls of every teenage boys’ dreams – Selena Gomez.

Sundance darling (eat your heart out, Beebs)

Sundance darling (eat your heart out, Beebs)

I managed to see it as the opening night film of the Atlanta Film Festival where its director proudly announced Netflix would indeed be giving it a real and true THEATRICAL release later this year before it can be streamed for the entire world to see.

But, well, uh – isn’t that a given? Not really. Actually, not at all.

I purposely have resisted giving my own review of the above two character-drama movies because these are the kind of films I would have written at one time and, actually, still might or could write. So not only am I a snob here but, well – I want you to LIKE them because I want more of them to get made and fear any slight negative thing I might say about them (Note: Not that there are any!) might be some part of some additional nail in their commercial coffins.

Still, this much I know to be true –

You can’t expect to be considered a Hollywood play-uh if you create these properties in the same way Zack Snyder (S vs. B) or Disney (Zootopia) are. Ever. Not even close. The 2016 world doesn’t work that way no matter how much you know and love Francois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovsky or, well, even Pedro Almodovar.

We agree Paul... it sucks

We agree Paul… it sucks

Again, no value judgment and fortunately there will always be a future Almodovar or Truffaut or Tarkovsky. Not to mention, Alan Pakula (Sophie’s Choice) or Tom McCarthy (Spotlight). But theatrically they will be even scarcer than they already are. And you might find them working on many of the current and developing smaller screens creating content – (Note: Oh, how I LOATHE that word – it sounds like materials you find in a corporate travel brochure) – to be consumed, well, everywhere.

Of course, none of this is news but it is worth remembering and pounding into one’s brain if one is to at all have any at all realistic sense of where things stand and what the future holds. To be educated and forewarned is to be forearmed and smarter navigating the reality of yours and our futures. We need the makers of films like Fundamentals, Midnight, Spotlight, Mud and, yes, even Sophie’s Choice – not to mention Zootopia and your superhero of choice – if we ever are to make America truly great again.

Yes, I’m talking about diversity, choices – the true land of freedom and opportunity – at least as far as entertainment and culture is concerned. That would be a society where any idea, indeed anything one chooses – might just become a reality – for any one of us.

Off the Grid

 

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Certainly going to an academic conference in Atlanta and spending a lot of time with some dear friends you haven’t spent a lot of time with in years while you’re there is not going off the grid. Especially if your guilty pleasure is HGTV Land – a place where you see others buying Tiny Houses (Note: That’s 150 sq. feet) in the middle of nowhere or a family of six voluntarily uprooting their lives to live in a South American jungle in what looks like a ramshackle hut with no indoor plumbing.

I mean, where’s the cable? Not to mention, how about reception? Because I need to call…oh wait I cancelled that. Still, I was supposed to finish…Right, I was told that can wait another few weeks or more. In fact, that’s why I’m here.

Here is not necessarily Atlanta – a city I had never been to before this past week and rather enjoyed. Here is also not hanging out for several days at a Hilton with a room full of academics who were far more hyper analytical about films and television than me (Note: Yes, it’s possible and more about that in a moment). Here is actually just being there, or more directly – anywhere but where you and I, let’s call it WE, usually are.

that's trippy, mannnn

that’s trippy, mannnn

Full confession – I don’t much like travelling or even roughing it. I enjoy my pad, my things, my friends, and my routine. This doesn’t mean I don’t crave going out and seeing places or spending time in a new city with people I don’t know. It is simply to say – even before you had to take your shoes off in an airport and wait on 60-90 minute lines carrying all kinds of stuff you probably don’t need/want people to see that will nevertheless be scanned (along with yourself) by state of the art technology – the idea of interrupting my flow of work for a journey felt….frivolous, difficult and even a bit scary. Especially if it meant hassling with planes, trains and automobiles as well as all of the other people who love them and use them.

Liz Lemon for President

Liz Lemon for President

This, sadly, sounds very American and slightly privileged and, frankly, I’m not particularly proud of it. On the other hand, neither am I ashamed of it. Because I suspect more than a few others feel the same way. I’m not talking about the dream vacation somewhere exotic. Certainly any of us would crave this if we could afford it. Rather this is all about short trips – making an effort to break up the day, the week or the month with an adventure. Stepping out of your comfort zone to do something, anything you might not ordinarily do.   Even if it’s just for part of a day. Or perhaps even…a group of days?

It’s a mind clearer. An eye opener. It likely won’t be a revelation – I mean, the very nature of revelations is that they’re rare. But it could very likely lead you on the road to one.

An adventure needn’t be exotic. Despite my normal state of malaise, every week or so even I manage to walk our pooch down a new street in a different direction and discover something I hadn’t seen before. Would I do this without the pooch? Certainly, not! But dog walking for a dog owner, like academic conferences for a college professor, are necessities of life. So once they get you out of the house, it’s a bit easier to break up the routine and encounter something new.

Me, every night

Me, every night

I can’t tell you exactly what a unique discovery will do for you but through experience I’ve found that at the very least it gets you out of yourself. (Note: And for some of us, that can only be a good thing). It also gives you bizarre snippets of knowledge.

For instance, did you know that groups of straight men are really into group-watching Frozen? An academic I know presented a whole paper on it where he shared this video you might or might not have seen. (Note: Thanks Sean!)

And, being in Atlanta, of course there was a panel on Gone with the Wind. Were you aware that if you check out the archive at the University of Texas at Austin you will find three types of letters written to its producer David O. Selznick during the three-year period between when the film was first announced and produced? The first set of letters suggested possible movie stars who would be good in the lead role; the second were suggestions from white people of African Americans they knew that would be good for playing the roles of the…gulp…slaves (Note: Often these were the real-life domestics of the white people themselves and even included a request from Eleanor Roosevelt, who got her own childhood maid an audition for Mammy which said maid nervously flubbed). The third group: well, this was from another large gaggle of white people who themselves wanted to play the roles of the…SLAVES.…in the film…because, well….they specialized performing in…BLACKFACE. Really.   Yes.

Yikes

Yikes

To realize the latter stack of those letters were written during the lifetimes of millions of senior citizens still on earth is to prove just how much, or perhaps how little, the world has changed, depending on your perspective since then. Consider that the next time you speak to or even see someone over 85. Or try to describe or even write someone in that age group. Makes you consider what the world would make of what’s going on in Election Year 2016 a mere 85 years from now, doesn’t it? Well, whatever it is, can’t all be good.

Am I exaggerating to state that you don’t know what slight change of perspective or even creative urge a small amount of knowledge will spark? I don’t think so.   And even if it’s nil it could at the very least come in handy the next time you are forced to make some idle chatter when you’re at a place you did not choose to be. Who among us doesn’t crave some additional thoughts for that?

Though this is a viable second option

Though this is a viable second option

And wait, here’s another one – do you know most people in Atlanta don’t speak in southern accents? Okay, how provincial does one have to be to even think that, he said embarrassingly. Fine, then here’s one other final thought – did you know there is also a new major urban renewal project in the city, that came into being from a student’s graduate thesis, which has created many miles of revitalized winding swaths of road with people, condos, stores, bike paths and actual human interaction in a previously slightly undesirable area of city located on the former Beeline train tracks of Krog Street – that is somewhat similar to the High Line revitalization in New York City – that…. Uh, well…you can see it for yourself.

Groovy

Groovy

Heck, the entire Atlanta trip was worth it if only because it allowed me to realize that the future will not include society letting the rest of our major cities crumble. Living in nightmarishly traffic-ridden, infrastructure crumbling Los Angeles, it’s easy to think that. But if that isn’t happenin’ in Atlanta or New York, it for sure ain’t happenin’ here. For one thing, we Angelenos are much too vain…

As is anyone who writes a blog or refuses to deviate from their own little routines. Which, admittedly, most of us are. But if you’re gonna be self-involved it helps to occasionally involve yourself with something and someone else. Not only does it break up the monotony of and preoccupation with you, it has a side benefit for the rest of the world – you (meaning we) — just might learn something.   And pass it on.