My entertainment choices lean towards the haunting, dramatic, unusual and silly. Not necessarily in that order and certainly more than one of those at a time.
But mostly, it’s the heartfelt, or at least the felt.
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t necessarily mean melodrama, bathos or twee. It’s simply to say I hate facile, bullsh-t storytelling. A movie or TV series or book that glides gently on the surface but never quite gets into it.
As many producers, studio executives and dinner party conversations have noted in my presence over the years:
Chair, it’s called ENTERTAINMENT. Why does everything have to MEAN something? Can’t you just drop a shoulder strap and enjoy yourself?
Well yeah, sure. I like to enjoy myself…most of the time. But the way I do this is to indulge in something creative that speaks in some crazy or earthbound way to something of human existence.
The great Mike Nichols once said when speaking about directing actors in scenes from plays and movies that his approach was to ask the question (and I’m paraphrasing here): what are these two people doing, really? What would really happen here?
That’s a great lesson not only for directors and actors but writers. What’s the truth? Even if this world we’re playing in is crazy, what is true here? And how best can I show it?
By every measure we are living through strange times. But this week a streaming series and a novel, both off-center, odd, original and yeah, just plain out there and weird, fully caught my attention. And it wasn’t because they tried to be different. It was that they dared to be true.
The first is the Apple series, Mr. Corman, created, co-written, directed and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The second is a debut novel, Several People Are Typing, written by Calvin Kasulke.
(Note: Full disclosure – Cal is a former student of mine from more than a decade ago. But this has nothing to do with me praising his book. Nor, I suspect, did his participation in my writing class all those years ago have much to do with him writing this book. As for JG-L, I’m merely a fan boy… um… man).
Mr. Corman and Two People both seem to exist in our world and yet, as they play out, dare to become a pushed reality existence of their individual creators’ daring and bizarre invention. Things happen that aren’t supposed to, or at least seem to defy what we consider to be real, yet there is not a false or phony moment in either of them.
Their lead characters have struggles in recognizably human ways, even when they and their events and actions literally become surreal. Nothing is melodramatic or touchy-feely, even though what we’re watching is dramatic and touching, not to mention – yeah, I’ll say it – entertaining.
Mr. Corman centers on a 35-year-old teacher of third-graders in the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley who may or may not be seeing things; may or may not be having a nervous breakdown, losing his mind or becoming mentally ill; and is yet all the time behaving rationally and humanly given the parameters of what life has been like for all of us the last 18 months.
We watch Josh Corman, a former musician turned educator, with his friends, his family (Note: A wonderfully subdued Debra Winger plays his Jewish mother), his students and his ex and/or potential girlfriends in a ten-episode first season where each episode dares to go down a road we never see coming in a way we never quite imagined.
There’s the episode that is partly animated, another that becomes a musical and several where the covid-19 pandemic changes everything and everyone (Note: The series actually had to shut down shooting in L.A. during episode three due to covid-19 and then relocate months later to complete filming in New Zealand). There is also one that takes place primarily in the past and a stand-alone where we watch as this young yet middle-aged guy spends an evening with his estranged father, a man who likes to do things like open credit cards under his son’s name or call up and pretend he’s having a heart attack just to get his son’s attention. Then there’s the one where Josh goes to a party attended by a bunch of social media wannabes and witnesses…well, just watch it.
Of course, none of this does justice to the twists and turns and sadness and humor the series touches on. It can’t because the entire enterprise builds, one carefully crafted episode at a time, off the unfolding existential question of whether our main character has truly lost it or is simply the only sane one in our clearly insane world 2021 reality.
In searching for the truth it actually tells the truth, and often quite brilliantly.
Several People Are Typing takes an equally compelling but yet quite different approach. Its hero, Gerald, a writer at a NYC p.r. agency, has been working with a group of people who communicate virtually on the popular business communication platform called slack.
For those unfamiliar, as I once was, think of it as inter-office gchat that is supposedly a lot more secure, with all kinds of sub breakout rooms for “sort of” private chatter (Note: Because NOTHING IS PRIVATE anymore, right?).
In any event, when the novel starts Gerald is calling out for help because, guess what, his consciousness has somehow been uploaded on to slack. Yes, Gerald is now simply gerald, a virtual/written version of himself disembodied from his human self.
Oh, did I mention the entire book is written in slack prose? Well, it is. Think of the most basic text thread you’ve shared from anywhere between 2-10 different people at various times, all published in consecutive or intersecting order, with the same type of phraseology, and peppered with a series of pertinent yet vaguely annoying gifs, photos and abbreviations and you get the picture.
This is oh, so trendy and too much of a trick, right? No, not even slightly. That would be the superficial, untruthful way to execute this story and, well, there’s none of that here. It’s about people, virtual and otherwise, finding their meaningful identities and not merely slacking through life.
It’s about how we spend our time and what our time means to us. And whether a picture really is worth a thousand words, especially when someone decides to listen to you. And to actually, well, hear you.
But mostly, it’s really, really clever and really, really weird. And pretty gosh darned funny.
See, you can be a lot of things, including entertaining, when you have a point to make that’s more than just trying to be entertaining. Because what’s truly entertaining is a personal take on what is human. And what’s truly human is always a lot more than mere entertainment.