Little Girls Blue

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The pop blues singer/icon Janis Joplin died in 1970 at the age of 27. But in the thoughtful, evocative new PBS American Masters documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue filmmaker Amy Berg shows us how in 1962 she dared to challenge the racist and sexual stereotypes in small town America and how dearly an emotional price she paid. Sadly, it’s a price that is still paid in some form by many outspoken women of all ages in today’s world – be it Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, or your Mom, sister or friend whenever they fight for equal pay or dare to call out intractable members of the white male heterosexual power structure in the worlds in which they travel.

Welp, that was easy

Welp, that was easy

But back to Janis, who I refer to by first name since I feel like I knew her – even though I didn’t. That’s what happens when you grow up incessantly listening to someone’s music and somehow believe that in many an odd song they were – and to this day are – somehow speaking directly to you.

Among the most upsetting remembrances from Janis’ many friends and family members was right after she left her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas – a place where as a non-traditional female she was bullied relentlessly all though high school for, among other things, supporting integration in the early 1960s and wearing loafers without socks. This was no small feat in Port Arthur, which sported a very active branch of the Ku Klux Klan, among whose members were the families of the very males she saw daily in high school. (Note: One assumes these males also expected the girls to wear heels, or at the very least some form of foot undergarment with their other shoes).

That Girl

That Girl

Still, it would only get worse when she moved to Austin, Texas – where she discovered she could really sing and became enmeshed in the blossoming local folk music scene. As was her way, Janis immediately stood out from the crowd. She could not only use big words like indignation but she could sing like the very popular Black blues singer Odetta – whose voice she could mimic perfectly according to one of her best friends at the time.

In any event, after gaining a bit of a following in Austin as both a solo singer and member of a local blues band called the Waller Creek Boys, the guys at the nearby universities somehow began to resent her wanton ways. So being that each year their local fraternities had a tradition of nominating various males they didn’t like as the town’s ugliest man and plastering the winner’s picture on the front page of their local paper, The University News, it came to be that on Sept. 5, 1962 nineteen year old Janis Joplin picked up the paper that morning and found a prominent photo of herself for all the town and beyond to read and see with this exact bold-faced banner headline printed above the fold:

JANIS WINS UGLIEST MAN!!

Ain't no way

Ain’t no way

It crushed her, her band mate and friend at the time, Powell St. John recalls, unsuccessfully attempting to hold back his tears some 50 plus years later. Saddest thing I ever saw. To that point, I’d never seen Janis cry. Janis had a tough exterior. But it really got her. Got her bad. I said, ‘Janis, they don’t mean anything to you. They’re not even in your class.’ 

Her younger sister, Laura Joplin explains it another way. 

It became increasingly hard for her to fit into a group of angry, angry men who liked to pick on her…So where does she go? What does she do?

Janis gives us San Fran late 60s realness

Janis gives us San Fran late 60s realness

What she did was go to California. Where in just five years she becomes an international superstar. And in five years more dies of a drug overdose – most likely, surmises the documentary, precipitated by loneliness and a profound lack of self-esteem and hurt she carried around with her during the less than three decades in which she lived.

Thankfully times have changed somewhat. But not fully. And certainly not nearly enough. And in the case of some men – many of who have recently become emboldened by a throwback wave of sexism and racism they disparage as political correctness– not at all.

Sounds about right

Sounds about right

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is being routinely attacked and mocked each day by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump as an unbelievably mean, nasty enabler of her philandering husband Bill Clinton. Mr. Trump routinely covers his ears and mocks the sound level and tone of her voice and several months ago derided her for taking too long to go to the bathroom on a commercial break at one of the televised Democratic debates. Lest one think Mr. Trump is the only straight white guy who disdains Mrs. Clinton’s manner, both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough several months ago separately took Mrs. Clinton to task for being too loud or too shrill.

As opposed to whom – Mr. Trump?

In a steaming retort this week to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (Note: Yes, she’s part Native American) criticisms, Mr. Trump for the umpteenth time publicly smeared her with the snide ethnic slur of Pocahontas, this time in a national news conference right after he secured enough pledged delegates to become the Republican presidential nominee. Imagine snidely referring to the only Black female senator we have EVER had – Carole Moseley Braun in the 1990s – by saying, oh who, Harriet Tubman? Or perhaps stating, Right, I assume you’re talking about Mammy? Or maybe referring to a Jewish female senator like Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein as, who, Queen Esther? How about calling some Latina American politician Eva Peron? Well, he did just call New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez, a Hispanic woman, slow.

Amen, sister

Amen, sister

I loathe writing about Donald Trump. I want to make that very clear. He’s truly a boil on the ass of the United States. An infected, puss-filled scourge of narcissistic infection bent on destroying everything in his path that can’t be used to feed his minuscule ego. Minuscule, as in tiny? Yes.

Only people who are deeply insecure and feel extremely small way down inside feel the need to consistently pump themselves up by hurling massively nasty, racist, sexist, bullying insults at others when challenged. But there’s just something a little different when he goes after strong women who publicly challenge him on the issues of the day. Rosie O’Donnell was a fat, disgusting pig. Fox news commentator Megyn Kelly was described by a euphemism for her menstrual cycle – blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…wherever. Republican challenger Carly Fiorina – no idol of mine – was put down by casually asking us to imagine having to look at that face everyday.

We'll join her #ImwithCHER

We’ll join her #ImwithCHER

Lena Dunham, the multi-hyphenate Emmy award-winning creator, writer, director and star of Girls has undergone similar public indignation. Read the comments on her, as I have, via any reputable online news source. Fat, cow, disgusting pig, only begin to tell the tale. But is that to be expected with online comments? How about the question The Wrap TV critic Tim Molloy asked her two years ago? I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show? And your character is often nude for no reason…” Would they ask this of the more shapely female actresses on, say, Game Of Thrones? 

Lena has her cake and eats it too #yougo

Lena has her cake and eats it too #yougo

As for Ms. Dunham, it was interesting to note on the finale of Girls this season that she chose to have her character backtrack in her career development through the season but emotionally mature in expected ways by its end. When her best friend hooked up more than casually with her ex-boyfriend, who she still probably loves, her character noted she wanted to boil a rabbit in a pot or stab them both in the heart. But instead she acted out inappropriately with those around her, controlled her rage and hurt feelings towards her besties and eventually left them a fruit basket by their door as a peace offering. She figured out a way to move on in her own inimitable way – not through power grabbing or insults but simply through self- actualization.

This is perhaps a 21st century version of what it means to be a woman/human these days and perhaps it’s progress. Now only if some of our more moronic males would follow suit. Mr. Trump can lead them in this direction. But he most certainly won’t.

Which means that in the name of all the females in our lives – not to mention everyone else – we’ll have to do it for him. By increasingly making him and his kind irrelevant.

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Re-make Believe

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A significant part of pop culture has always come from remake and reinvention. Ask Madonna about Marilyn and Lady Gaga about Madonna. Or question The remaining Beatles about Little Richard. How about Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola on Akira Kurosawa?   Perhaps Brian DePalma vis-a-vis Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino re Sergio Leone.

We all have our influences (and not all of them are good). One can’t help but be affected, consciously or not, by what has come before. In fact, even when you’re not appropriating, copying or paying homage it is likely the purely original idea you came up with has been done in some related form by someone else you don’t know about who is not you. As I’ve learned in therapy and in life, we human beings are individually unalike and yet collectively more similar than any of us suspect – or even want to admit. No wonder someone long ago – and probably long ago before that – said there is nothing new under the sun.

... and sometimes that's OK!

… and sometimes that’s OK!

And yet…

…It has come to my attention this week that we are drowning in… how can I say it… an unreality of make believe. This is not about remakes of endless superhero movies; the faux presidential daily vomits of The Republican Apprentice; or even the film version of one of the world’s most profitable gaming apps of all time – The Angry Birds Movie – debuting at THE #1 position at the box office this weekend. Nor is it about it achieving a B plus Cinemascore – which puts it far above the average college or high school graduate these days.

Instead, it is about a chipping away of the real. It concerns us not being able to separate the world of make believe and pretend with what really was or is – even when the truth is right before our eyes.

NBC’s The Voice – one of my favorite TV shows and one of America’s top 10 faves (Note: Clearly, I’m not the only one who fantasizes being a diva) – had a special event planned for its Tuesday finale show. And this would be a long planned duet between one of its star judges, Christina Aguilera and…WHITNEY HOUSTON. No really. They were going to duet – as in together sing – a melody of two of Ms. Houston’s most famous songs. At least that’s EXACTLY the way it was being billed.

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007... so even THIS isn't an original idea!

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007… so even THIS isn’t an original idea!

Yes, Ms. Houston did die more than four years and no, NBC has not made a deal with some 12 year-old prodigy who has figured out how to raise a living version of our most lauded dead. Well, not exactly. What did happen is that a 35 year old Greek billionaire and his ironically titled company, Hologram USA created a an image of Whitney Houston singing her signature I Have Nothing song and it was to alternate with Christina Aguilera singing I’m Every Woman. Unfortunately – or perhaps luckily – the duet was given the kibosh at the last moment by the Houston estate, which noted that with artists of the caliber of Ms. Houston it must be perfect and apparently it – was not. Of course, what it really IS – that’s anyone’s guess.

You'll have to save all your love for something else.

You’ll have to save all your love for something else.

Since writers are sticklers for a certain precision of words and/or language, may we be precise here? The planned performance was not an event television live duet between a living songstress and a deceased one. That is impossible. Instead it was an engineered medley between a flesh and blood person and an image/recording of a dead one.

A living thing cannot be real simply because we wish it to be so.

In the same way a lie cannot be true merely because we have chosen to think otherwise.

Gospel of Constanza

Gospel of Constanza

This is particularly important to remember in the 2016 election year – or for that matter any other year.

Engineering the past is a tried and true position every writer takes whenever they sit down to the page and come up with any story that is even vaguely personal. As artists, we tell a story and often that involves rewriting what is to a version of what you would want it to be or fantasize it was or could be. But it is sold as such – a fiction – an invention – it is not oddly positioned as some sort of 21st century – reality.

HBO debuted a very fine movie this weekend about the uneasy alliance between Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King’s fraught collaboration to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s entitled All The Way. While it is a bit odd for us baby boomers to watch Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston pretending to be the drawling Texas president we remember as children it was also just as strange to view The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie saying made-up words in the cadence of a civil rights leader whose dulcet tones we can still recall in our mind’s eye all those years ago.

A different type of resurrection

A different type of resurrection

However, this has always been what film and television is about – an acted rendering of a version of reality. It’s not as if we’re watching current Pres. Barack Obama having a conversation with Dr. King and HBO advertising to the public that it is actually happening. Or that ABC has a Diane Sawyer special booked where she will indeed interview the late Pres. Johnson on what it was like fighting the powers-that-be in the first year of his presidential administration.

It is this next, not so subtle step in blurring the lines with a hologram that is not only a bit creepy but more than a bit dangerous. It’s one thing to attend the Mr. Lincoln exhibit in Disneyland but it is a whole other version of the stars and stripes when the world begins to think that it just spent 15 minutes with the most lauded and perhaps famous member of the centuries old Republican party. At that rate, one day we might not be able to recognize the grand old party or even its next president – or proposed president. Because by that time everything will be its own custom-made Disneyland – and carry as much truth as any image from Hologram USA.

Me Too

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Ever have that moment when you realize you have about 20 tabs open in your internet browser? And you can’t quite remember why they are all open – I mean, you can’t be paying attention to all of them… can you? Well that’s the Chair this week. And instead of 20 tabs open, let’s make it 100.

100-tabs

That being said, the Chair is taking time to give his undivided attention to the scripts of his many, many students — giving detailed notes on all of their original screenplays and tv pilots (haven’t quite figured out that automatic download to the brain, but more on that later).

But fear not, the Chair will be back next week where he will have a lot to say — just not about script notes, because well, he’ll be spent on that score. In the meantime, pump up the volume and listen to this new jam from Meghan Trainor — a pop diva in the making (or perhaps already made?) — who made headlines this week for standing up to body-shaming photoshoppers who dared to mess around with her waistline in this upbeat, self-confident anthem (irony much?).

Till next week….

The Odds

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Confusion is both underrated and overrated. I, for one, like clarity. I want to know what I’m up against, the potential minefields in my path and all possible modes of action to be employed in order to avoid total disaster.   Pessimist? I like to think of myself a prepare–a-tist.

For instance, when I was a reporter I was always as thoroughly prepared as possible prior to interviewing a subject. Cover an obscenity trial in my twenties? Sure, no problem. Let me look up some past cases AND see if anyone knows information about the presiding judge. This took more effort than you can imagine in the late 1970s – those halcyon days prior to the Google. You actually had to go to the library, makes calls and – perish the thought – talk to people IN PERSON.

The horror!!

The horror!!

In the 21st century it’s a lot easier to be forearmed but the problem is there’s so much information that it becomes overwhelming and occasionally counterproductive. I mean, how is it when you discover a stray sore or a relative gets sick you manage to find thousands of horrific anecdotes on the web (Note: and certainly Web MD) that exactly diagnosis you or your relative’s now clearly terminal symptoms? Can a pimple be a tumor? Most certainly! But you can also get hit by a car while crossing the street. Or die crossing the street because those piano movers on the 5th floor above you who had fried food for lunch forgot to wash their hands prior to the transport, thus causing their baby Grand in that moment to slide through their fingers and hit you square in the head. Now you’re more dead than Road Runner because life is not a cartoon – only your death.

Okay, clearly I’m also not an optimist. I will concede that.

I'm pretty much always the B

I’m pretty much always the B

But let’s make this bigger than myself. There are many world life circumstances where too much clarity can also be a bad thing. Do we all really want know the ins and outs of the financial system and every potential at-risk territory in the Middle East, not to mention terror threat? Even as I write this and you read it our collective brains are exploding. Perhaps that’s reason enough for the rise of the Orange Clown. (Note: #Drumpf #Trump #Harrumph). Well, there has to be some reason and that one’s as good – or as bad – as any, right?My 87-year old-Dad underwent an angioplasty procedure this weekend. His answer when I ask him how things are the last few years is always – “Great! I got up today!” An inveterate gambler, he measures everything by the odds and bases those odds not only on stuff he’s read (though rarely on the web) but seen, experienced, heard about or overheard. In other words, in his own way he too researches. So when the doctor beforehand told him there was only approximately a 1% chance of anything going wrong with his upcoming procedure his immediate response was “I like those odds!” and he decided to take them and go through with it.

Injecting a little humor along the way

Injecting a little humor along the way

And hopefully it proved correct. His heart was substantially blocked, as it turned out, and is now unblocked – and the procedure was minimal. Though he’s still a bit loopy from the meds and that’s a bit scary – especially after I went on the web to look at worst case scenario possibilities, which included loopiness that might not go away all that soon. Which is sort of how this train of thought here today got started. Because his current confusion made me wonder – was I not clear enough before this all started about what all his possible outcomes were if we went ahead with the “procedure?” (Note: What a ridiculous word – as if it’s a courtroom, or worse yet, Congress). What were the alternate choices he or I might have taken? Well, doing nothing about his heart would have likely been fatal. Still – the present isn’t totally ideal either. Though even in his current confusion he knows who we all are and they tell us the meds (and their after effects) will soon wear off.

Certainly, that’s not good enough for me – pessimist and glass half empty person that I am.

And yet – I was encouraged by one small development this afternoon – less than 24 hours since the – um – fateful “procedure.”

On with the show

On with the show

We’re in his room watching Turner Class Movies – his favorite – and what better movie to be on than the original The Hustler starring Paul Newman as aspiring pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as legendary pool shark Minnesota Fats – battling each other to their financial and psychological deaths. Not only was it about gambling but my Dad used to shoot pool as a teenager and then later, all through his life. How clearly perfect!

Or was it?

We’re watching the movie and he seems to be into it. We talk about the cast and he nods, acknowledges how young Mr. Newman was after we bring up his mind. And yet, something feels off, confused. Which is then verified by him saying – that’s Jake LaMotta.

Well, my heart sank.

No Dad, Jake LaMotta is from another sports movie, Raging Bull. And he was played by Robert DeNiro. But let’s look it up and see who else is in this movie.

See, I’m thinking if I can get him talking, it – or some of it – will all come back.

Except then I go on IMDB and come up with the cast list, Yeah, Newman, Gleason, Piper Laurie as the girl. Then there are character actors Vincent Gardenia and Michael Constantine, followed by – what’s this?? JAKE LaMOTTA?

He acted??? And in THIS movie?

So I look it up and I see clearer than the most clear L.A. day:

Bartender…..Jake LaMotta.

Lo and behold!

Lo and behold!

Dad, did you mean Jake LaMotta was the bartender? Uh yeah.

Which leads me to believe confusion is relative and clarity is merely a concept we tell ourselves in an effort to be prepared for the things we should be.

It also reluctantly taught me yet again – for the 20th time – every so often father DOES know best. Especially when I came back later in the day and he was a bit more normal.   Not only did he remember everything about the movie The Hustler, what hospital he was in and the “procedure” he had received the previous evening – he had no memory of the first conversation I had with him just hours ago when he was still loopy on the meds about Jake LaMotta and The Hustler.

Just like him to not remember something we clearly spoke about that worried me.

No confusion there.  That much I’m clear about.

Embarrassment of Riches

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I’ve met a few billionaires over the years. Let’s say five or under. And in case you were wondering – no, Oprah was not one of them. Though we were in the same room two of three times. Which I don’t count so much as meeting but being in the presence of her royal greatness. Yeah, I miss her and long for those simpler times when a Black woman from a poor background could try to enable the world to strive for their better selves. Rather than the present when it seems we have exactly the opposite.

Oh how I miss her

Oh how I miss her

Anyway, I only considered one of the billionaires I’ve met to be a truly happy person whose values were similar to mine and who, if push came to shove, I might even consider for U.S. president. This person’s moral compass was such that he judged people not by how much money they were making or had by accident of birth – or what possible connection or DEAL they could bring into HIS WORLD – but rather by their broader views on life. In other words, this person often hung out with and sought the company of poor people – meaning YOU AND I.

Don’t get me wrong.  YOU AND I does not necessarily mean those on the poverty level but individuals who make between $50,000-$250,000 per year. As well as others who make a little more (let’s say up to $1,000,000) and even a few who make much more (up to perhaps even $5,000,000).

By my calculations... that would the 99%

By my calculations… that would the 99%

Heck, there might have been a few here and there on the other end who made even less than the $50,000 cut-off – individuals whom he actually knew fairly well or were friends with those mentioned above and attended the many and varied social functions held at this person’s home. Some of these gatherings were casual, some were to raise money but quite often there were individuals of all shapes, sizes, ages (yeah, even children among the adults, can you imagine?) as well as incomes.

Certainly there was a respectable amount of multimillionaires and above but to watch this man walk around the room and actually listen to others as they shared their views of the world and he, in turn, revealed his with equal enthusiasm – was a genuine sight to see. He didn’t have handlers. There was sincerity in his body language and dialogue. When he engaged he looked into the eyes of the person he was engaged with rather than trying to clandestinely glance to or service what he perceived to be the more advantageous prey at his party.

Yes, he was the billionaire unicorn

Yes, he was the billionaire unicorn

I know all of the above to be so because some weeks after one of his parties about a decade and a half ago, this person accepted a dinner invitation to my humble abode. Incomes for writers fluctuate greatly and let’s say it was absolutely one of my leaner years. But show up for the very small gathering he did – engaged, joyous and happy to be there. I kept thinking — this person has given away more money than I will make in 10 lifetimes – and that’s being very generous to me. Why is he sitting in this funky bottom floor duplex apartment with worn, thin wood floors in desperate need of sanding when he could be luxuriating in several of his own luxurious homes? Or be chowing down in a five star hotel or restaurant with other power brokers or wheelers and dealers? Or better yet, charter his own private jet and fly him or his party of choice to Rome, Paris, Athens or, say, even… Palm Beach, Florida?

... in a home that probably looks something like this

… in a home that probably looks something like this

The simple answer is that this person wanted to be at my house. And not because he was slumming – or even running for office. The money was nice but it didn’t define him. He had his own foundation, still worked at his chosen profession, and continued to make and give away millions of dollars. But the money, the wealth and the privilege were not his brand. His personhood was who he was. And the corporations he owned was not this person. He was.

This man forever changed my perception of the uber-wealthy and shook up my views of just how one begins to navigate success and failure, poverty and riches.  It’s all in the game of how you perceive yourself and engage in the world. Is one lesser than, better than or, at the end of the day, on equal footing with others despite society’s too numerous to count measures and scales?

I can't really fault that logic

I can’t really fault that logic

To put it more simply — can you be a leader without being superior. Is there a way to win at what you do without inciting the hatred of your supporters for the other side and inciting them to moral and physical violence? If business really is a cutthroat and cruel arena where any actions can be forgiven because it’s not personal, how could it be that this particular person rose to the top of his, and then some, without doing any of it?

Well, perhaps he just got lucky. Or is an anomaly. Or secretly did just that and covered it up? No. He was just a guy with a lot of ideas and an inner belief in the world and in himself. In that order. Rather than vice-versa. He didn’t think so much about of making him or his company #1. He instead created a product and systems that facilitated connection – rather than alienation.

I'm starting to feel like this person might own a lot of hooded sweatshirts

I’m starting to feel like this person might own a lot of hooded sweatshirts… but no. #keepguessing

In the hours I spent with this person all that time ago he spoke a lot about wanting to continue to take what he had and use it to restore the environment to its natural state so it could be enjoyed by as many people as possible despite their means

This person loved the land and owned a lot of it – and I mean more PRIMO acreage in the most desire spots in both our urban and rural landscapes than you can imagine; and made sure that upon his death the state and federal government will take over such lands and keep and preserve them in perpetuity to their natural green habitats. The final part of the DEAL is that these lands will be open to the public to peruse and enjoy.

Channeling my inner Maria Von Trapp

Channeling my inner Maria Von Trapp

In other words, this land will not be developed into steel and concrete versions of mini-adult Disneylands that many of this man’s many, many friends could afford or would even choose to frequent. His desire is not to bring us back to a past where these lands can be GREAT AGAIN. Nor did he think it necessary to rip these lands apart at the seams in order to preserve them and bring back their greatness.

His thought was – and still is – to enable a place where we can all – everyone one of us despite our backgrounds – gather as many people together to share the land –and the infinite possibilities it evokes – as he could.

Well great, now I miss Mad Men even more

Well great, now I miss Mad Men even more

Funny enough, that’s the way he built the empire that made him rich. Not the other way around.

Final note: This person is listed as one of the top charity givers in the United States in the last 15 years with contributions in the many tens of MILLIONS of dollars. No other billionaire running for president at the moment is even in the ballpark.

Not even CLOSE.

Making America great again.  Indeed.