The ARTsy Annette

As America bloodily disengages from a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the COVID pandemic still rages across the U.S. thanks to the very willingly misinformed unvaccinated (Note: despite this country ironically having THE MOST ACCESS of any country in the world to these very much in demand life-saving vaccines), it seems a bit quaint to speak about things like art.

Or is it?

Art you say?

Of course, art these days isn’t limited to Picassos, Monets or anything else hanging prominently in a museum.  It’s more a blanket term that covers movies, TV, theatre, music and even sports.

It might even include chefs, scientists and TikTok influencers.

C’mon, this is art
(“Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures” – Massimo Bottura)

In short, art is anything that can take us out of ourselves and our troubled world and open our minds up to a different mood or alternate way of thinking or seeing.

In that way then, and most especially in trying times like these, all this art talk begins to seem not so much quaint but essential.

Certainly not as essential as an 80-90% vaccination rate but right up there nonetheless.  If art can open up minds to some new momentary way of perceiving or participating in the world then heck yeah, we need it now more than ever.

In fact –


Because I’m all out of ideas for reaching the unreachable.

Yet how many times have we heard and/or read phrases like, oh, she’s a true artist or his artistic vision is limitless before we roll our eyes, disengage or want to and/or actually do scream?

Well, if you’ve spent your life listening in on conversations or reading and writing reviews the way I have, (Note: Or even trying to be creative the way most of us have, whether we know it or not), chances are the answer is too many times or, more likely, daily.  

As both a writer and a writing teacher I’m well aware of the pretention of the mere mention of the word ART and of all of the would-be artists who engage in it.

Whatever are you talking about?

Yet I’m equally aware of its power for both the art-makers and their audiences.  When it’s firing on all cylinders, at its best, it’s an unstoppable force for universal good. (Note:  Google the global impact of a once in a generation theatre piece of art like Hamilton).

Still, at its most screamingly, omni-presently ARTISTIC it does make you never want to go to another museum, watch another film or TV show, or even try to indulge in something as au-currant as TikTok ever, ever, ever again.

This weekend I spent 2 hours and 20 minutes watching a film called Annette starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.  Let me state upfront that it’s a somewhat interesting though not thoroughly realized movie that has its moments even as it so often woefully and painfully disappoints.

We’re gonna talk about the puppet right… wait.. no?

Annette caused a ruckus at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with any number of walkouts and boos the night it opened the film festival (Note: Exacerbated by the fest’s best director win for Leos Carax).

Yet to its credit, Amazon, one of the biggest corporations on the planet, saw fit to acquire the rights to it back in 2017, ensuring it a huge audience of subscribers with FREE ACCESS to this big risky artistic project.

That was a bold move four years ago but even more so now, in summer 2021, a time where we’ve all been aching for some diversion, or reeducation or just simple relief from the plain, glum depressiveness of our very, very mundanely unpredictable world.

Remember that there is an entire twitter community that goes after Ted Lasso, so, no one wins

Sadly, as a film, Annette is a master class in something I’d like to call artsiness gone bad.  That is to say it so revels in its difference that ultimately that is all that emerges.  It’s weirdness, it’s strangeness and its sheer differentness becomes its calling card – and its downfall.

Its ambition to out art the artsy works as a kind of creative COVID that virally swallows the whole effort whole, devouring every bit of the essential, energizing life force it might have provided us in trying times like these.

If only the filmmakers had simply told their story and not gotten so artily up our asses in every which way Annette could have really said something about whatever it was trying to say. 

Chair goes in!

Which is one of the issues of art that too stringently aspires to the groundbreaking and mind-blowing.  It forgets about the details and intricacies and nuances of the story it’s telling because it is forever trying to top itself in upending our expectations and challenging the status quo with, well…not very much.  Or, at the very least, not enough.  Or, more likely, too much.

Its star, Adam Driver, plays not so much a character but an idea.  A comic who isn’t funny, an archetypal bad boy because he dresses in black, rides a motorcycle and broods.  He lumbers and blusters his way through the world but also, quelle surprise, has a soft side.

And let’s not even start on the hair

It’s the same way with the woman he loves except she’s his complete opposite. That leaves its other star, Marion Cotillard, the task of projecting the isolated, sensitive, sweet-as-syrup voiced uber soprano.  A beloved public figure that plays a tragic heroine in seriously off the-wall operatic performance pieces that have somehow gained mass worldwide acceptance. 

Are they headed for tragedy?  Well, what do you think?  (Note:  Of course, you know what you think without having even seen it).

But even if your response was, well of course I know it’s a tragedy – it’s an opera for god sakes – but it will be interesting to understand the reasons behind all this BEHAVIOR, well, we never do.

Instead, we get events unfolding randomly with no real recognizable humanity or particular point of view.  More of a potluck smorgasbord with varied references to the demons of celebrity, the #MeToo toxic masculinity of it all, tropes of romantic codependence and addictive sex, and all the ultimate dissatisfactions to be found in marriage and parenting that one can literally shake a camera at.

… wait I think I can fit one more thing

And it’s all done in the guise of an opera, or rather opera-light, meaning most of the communication is sung by actors who don’t have particularly great voices even though they manage to get by. 

Real opera can get away with archetypal storytelling because we get swept up in the drama of the voices.  Movie rock operas like Ken Russell’s Tommy are visual delights that do the same.  And hybrid or real-life musicals like Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land spend a lot of time on design, story, character and annoying little things like motivation, back story and logic within their magical realism.

They might seem a little pretentious to many viewers but at the end of the day they have the weight and subtext to back it up.

They might at times alienate us and disengage from us, and annoy us, but we get what the stakes are and who the people are.  Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) starring Bjork, another Cannes premiere of a different type of unbridled artsiness that went on to win the top Palme d’Or prize, went out on countless limbs but still managed to give us women, men and show-within-a-show imaginings that always felt living and breathing and fully alive even as it reveled in the artificial.

So… not this puppet? Right, gotcha

The best of these art films immerse, challenge and even alternately annoy some in the audience as they push boundaries.  But they also try to engage us in stories that go deep into the psyche of their characters even as they exhaustively bend the rules of the worlds in which they choose to exist.

Meaning: they embrace the conceit of artiness without being engulfed by it and thus becoming its victim.

After watching Annette I read almost two dozen reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes (Note: Because what else do I have to do?) and almost half came to the exact same conclusion.  Annette is a film that can’t entirely be recommended but, as all of these top critics wrote in different ways, they were ultimately glad it was made because, well, at least it was something different.

Ehhh… I don’t know about that

The latter is a misleading, partial truth at best and ultimately just plain lazy, which is pretty much the worst you can be as a writer.  One can be glad something is different but if one is going to be different and be praised for it (Note: Or do the praising), it comes with the obligation to go deeper and to attempt to be better.  Not to simply frolic in a trough of tropes, technical acumen and irresistible actorly flourishes, set to one’s own original music. 

and again, Adam Driver’s hair

And to not bank on the lucky chance that something, or really anything coherent happens to come out.  Or depend on the de rigueur praise of desperate critics looking for an escape from what must as this point seem to them to be an inescapable cookie cutter world of commercialized art.

By taking either the uninspired or unexamined way out, artists of every kind relinquish the personal responsibility one takes on when trying to do something big and different, especially when you have huge movie stars, because it makes it that much harder for everyone else following you and rooting for your success.

Plus, you know… puppets.

It’s a special willful ignorance of responsibility, the kind you have to everyone else trying to survive in a creative arena that is difficult enough these days because it exists in an outside world that is nearly impossible to navigate.

In short, it’s the artistic equivalent of choosing to go unvaccinated just because you can.

“We Love Each Other So Much” – Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard

Chair vs. Chair

As schools begin their fall semesters and students return to classes, the journey of education continues.

Though truly, each day is an education if you keep your eyes peeled and look and listen to what’s going on around you.  That is most especially true these days.

The hills are alive with… EDUCATION!

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since we’ve had our college juniors and seniors in person at our satellite campus in Los Angeles due to the safety guidelines of this pandemic.  That means it’s been that long since I’ve stood live and in person in a classroom.

Like most teachers, professors or whatever you choose to call us in these divided times (Note: Indoctrinators? Lib-tards? Coddlers?) I was prepared for anything.  And yet I was unprepared for anything of what I found.

I imagined students the way they’d seemed all these months on Zoom.  Engaged yet tentative; attentive yet distracted; trying to make the best of a truly effed situation, much like me, but not always doing a good job of it.

Results are varied

Of course, we all feel this way from time to time, especially in college, and even without a pandemic. 

Yet what I found instead was an overwhelmingly enthusiastic group of fully masked and fully vaccinated young people.  They were not only excited to be here but couldn’t wait to get to work.

Their dispositions didn’t change even after they heard myself and my cohorts speak.  Nor did it shift even a bit after they went on to take the mandatory COVID test we had arranged for them in the next room.



What is going on here?

The masks weren’t a thing, the tests weren’t a thing and from what I could tell the prerequisite of a vaccination requirement for entry into our program was definitely not anything but a plus.

Even us professors droning on was nothing at all.

And who says today’s college students aren’t as smart as they used to be?

As far as I can see they’re way ahead of most of the rest of the country.


I’ll take it

This weekend I binge-watched the new six-episode Netflix half-hour comedy-drama The Chair.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  I should sue them.  And don’t think I didn’t consider it.

It centers on a college professor that is smart, harried, neurotic and snide, played by Sandra Oh, who carries the title of Chair.

Truly, it’s my life portrayed by an actor I might have even personally chosen to play me if Hollywood were truly embracing the concept of colorblind casting.


Of course, as you might have guessed, the details of Ms. Oh’s character, Ji-Yoon, are not exactly me.  She’s the newly appointed head of the English department at an unnamed lower-level Ivy League university.  She’s a single mother, teaches poetry and literature in cozy wood rooms and has a raft of older white colleagues too often gunning for her and defying her authority.

I, on the other hand, am a long married gay guy who is childless that works at a liberal arts college, teaches TV and film writing and advises students about the entertainment industry in modern offices and classrooms with windows that don’t open. 

Me, midday in my office

In addition, mine is an endowed Chair appointment with no power to boss around anyone except my students (Note: Not that it stops me).

Nevertheless, as straight as she is and as screwed up as her romantic life can get, Ji-Yoon and I share a lot.  We love knowledge, we enjoy challenging anyone who will listen and we don’t quite know the answers to as many questions as we think.  In fact, we often find we know much less.

The Chair gets this exactly right and, given its higher education setting, those characteristics are exactly right.  Despite what the outside world might think, the academic world is one that both dispenses and questions knowledge daily in a way that causes teachers to always feel a bit off-balanced inside, despite what they show the world.

It’s also an arena that breeds self-doubt since basically all you’re doing part of everyday is engaging in the give and take of ideas verbally and consistently being challenged by people younger than you.  What’s even more crazy-making is that on any given day almost any one of them might be smarter than you.

Horrifying as it may be

Certainly, they are more current.  Which, if you’re listening, forces you to, well…consider you are not God or whoever you imagine Her to be.  Nor are you as young and freethinking as you think.

That last part is undeniable.  Daily.

It’s in the latter, its portrait of the typical college student body, where The Chair goes a bit astray.  Sure, it rightly has sub-plots of political correctness and ageism in the classroom. But it presents its students en masse through the cynical eyes of more adult writers.

It’s a vacuum of rigid correctness and self-righteousness that older people like to slap on the back of every young-ish person who questions their authority.  A media picture of insolent youngins who stomp and holler if everything’s not perfectly tailored to them in the classroom in the way they would like.

Ugh this term is the worst, but yes, this idea

It’s not the young people I met this week, none of whom bristled at a mandatory mask or vaccine or COVID test – or even of the many requirements they were being asked to fulfill this semester.

Certainly, these kids are not beyond bristling and not listening to everything we require of them or tell them.  But at this point they are also on the whole not exhibiting the obstinate and pointless acting out behavior that many TV series continue to show them representing and that critics of #MeToo, critical race theory and social media saddle onto their backs. 

They have much, much bigger issues to fry in the world we are leaving them than getting caught up in all that bogus small stuff, as entertaining as it might be to us oldsters.

Big OK Boomer feeling here

And they are already smart enough to know much of what’s truly important even if we choose not to take time out to see them as they really are – imperfect and flawed – as we once were.  

But just a bit younger and smarter than we ever were because, well, they have to be.

Elvis Costello – “My Brilliant Mistake”

…. And just in case you want more Chair-on-TV content, check out our first ever mini pod — a slightly shorter podcast episode on one topic only. This week we tackle the season finale of Mike White’s water cooler HBO black comedy (drama? comedy-drama? oh who knows!) The White Lotus. Check it out here: