The Next Generation

I spent the last two weeks reading 30 original screenplays and television pilots from graduating college seniors and here’s what I know –

It is a dark, dystopian world out there where pretty much NO ONE tells you the truth.

Of course, I already knew that but I’m almost three times their age.   I mean, when I got out of school in the seventies I knew the world could be a crappy place but what I was equally sure about was that there was also hope.

At least there was hope for better fashion #whoamIkidding #imkillingit

This was because I was as sure as shit that my friends and I were going to be able to change things.  At least a little.  I knew this as sure I knew I was going to live alone and lonely in a huge Malibu beach house, clutching my Oscar as I fell asleep.  That is if I didn’t die in my twenties of some horrible disease, a fact I was 100% convinced was a 50-50 possibility.

Well, of course I was wrong.  Here I am almost more than middle-aged in a relationship of 32 years with nary an Oscar in sight, living way, way across town in a house in the Hollywood Hills.

Yeah, I’m cool

Like many dreams, mine were fairly off but not totally unrealized.  Personal life aside, I did make it to L.A. and the movie business and worked in several categories where one could conceivably get nominated for an Oscar.

Right.  I know.  A grown up with a dream.

This, of course, is the point.  It’s not that my many wonderful students don’t have dreams.  It’s that judging from the past few weeks the majority of them don’t believe their best fantasies can take hold and flourish.

pretty much!

And, I mean, who can blame them?  Sometimes I turn on the news and can’t believe what I’m hearing and seeing.  When I read the newspaper it’s even worse.  And I came of age in the Nixon-Watergate era and spent the last years of my pre-teens watching Robert F. Kennedy get shot live on TV.  And this was several months after that same station almost got to cover the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. live instead of merely its bloody aftermath.

Those extreme acts, combined with a seemingly endless war in Vietnam and the Ohio National Guard murdering four innocent students who happened to be walking by anti-war protestors at Kent State University, made it seem like there was nothing the elders of the American status quo wouldn’t do to hold onto their power.

The general message to the young was:

We will literally kill you in a war or at school if you get too uppity and, if you don’t believe us, just give it a tryYou could easily find yourself in jail, overseas with a gun or in a morgue for doing nothing more than disagreeing with us if you’re not careful. 

Then or now? Does it matter? #Amen

We didn’t realize it at the time but in truth the country did have a modicum of sanity left.  As young people we innately understood we lived in an environment where freedom of speech was the norm, our federal elected representatives had just put the de-segregation of society into law and journalists were almost universally lauded by most, if not all, as the sacred last bastion of truth-tellers.

It was a world that had suddenly and almost completely gone totally off the rails but somehow we knew it was salvageable.  We had gone to the moon, you could still burn the American flag in the street and not get arrested and, if all else failed, the pleasures of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll would get you through until you entered what could only be described as the blissful golden Age of Aquarius.

Plus.. we had Cher

I so want that for the young people that I teach who are going out into the world today and it angers me each day that they have come of age into an alternate reality of stupidity, division and denial.

No one middle-aged can imagine what it’s like to grow up in a time where you could easily and routinely be shot up in your school.  In the sixties and seventies we had fire drills, not re-enactments of how to act or where to hide when a random gunman might happen to enter the building and aim a military style assault rifle to your head or the head of your friend, or younger brother or sister.

This is their reality. #sadtruths

As much as most of my contemporaries might have loathed Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and later, Ronald Reagan, none of us grew up hearing the president of the United States making allowances for white supremacists.  Or calling the American press the enemy of the people and degrading the indisputable facts they report as fake news.

Or, more importantly, respond this way when asked in front of the White House if the U.S. is about to go to war in the Middle East:

I hope not.

ARE YOU FREAKIN KIDDING ME?!?!

Say what you will about any of those men (Note: And I’ve said plenty) when they spoke it was with a definitive thought, not with the vague possibility that at any moment something absolutely horrible can and probably will happen so we’d gosh darn better be on guard for….well, anything.  And by anything he truly means ANYTHING.  Just ask him, as the press often does, if you don’t believe it.

Dystopian?  Dark?  Sadly, I fear these young people have it exactly right and I couldn’t be more pissed off about it.   We all should be.

The Who – “My Generation”

Chaos & Clarity: How I Learned to Survive Waiting for the Mueller Report

America 2019 — You can feel the chaos.   Step outside your door and engage people and eventually it’s difficult not to sense a series of conflicting feelings depending on where you are and whom you are hanging with.

Sure, to some extent it has always been this way.  But if I had to pinpoint one byproduct of the Trump presidency that would register across the board it is that we are in a transition period where nothing is exactly as it used to be.

A poem for our times

From the perch where I sit in the bluest of blue states, I think of it as everything being a little off.    Yet red state America supporters that view things as finally back on the right track are more than likely thrown by the level of anger and moral outrage from folks like me.

Those in the middle, as well as others more magnanimous who currently seek to unite the country, are likely torn.  They see merit in various places but struggle to herd all of us cats back into any sort of viable formation. The confusion and abnormalities they are forced to bear witness to daily must be confounding.  It’s any wonder they can even function as the rest of us relentlessly snipe at them (and each other) from both sides.

We’ll just call these folks Switzerland

As we await the full result and impact of the Mueller report one coping strategy is to embrace the chaos knowing full well that there has never been a chaos invented that lasts forever.   I mean, thoroughly lean into it.  Revel in it.  Play around in it from different vantage points before taking any definitive action in any one matter related to it.

The nature of chaos is that it is an ever-swirling series of unpredictable, seemingly random events that eventually turn into, well… many physicists believe at one time a group of such occurrences turned into the creation of the universe.

Even if you don’t believe in science you can’t deny that a bunch of stuff can conspire to happen that can create a new set of circumstances you never expected from a source you can’t fully understand.

Not believing in science?!?!? #holdupChair

It’s called faith and it’s prevalent in the unlikeliest corners and disciplines in both blue and red state America.  (Note:  How’s that for extending an olive branch????)

Of course, I didn’t come up with this idea myself.  It’s part of the seminal work of physician, author and prominent New Age figure Deepak Chopra.  He, in turn, synthesized this way of thinking from Buddhist philosophy, science and the meditation communities, and more than thirty years ago began packaging it into a series of books and seminars, as well as a lavish wellness center located in Carlsbad, CA.

Just checking in

Which doesn’t make any of what he speaks of any less true or more false.

I stumbled upon Mr. Chopra once again while flipping my TV channels in frustration and landing on my local PBS station.  Yes, I was THAT annoyed that evening.

In any event, in discussing his long ago bestseller, The Seven Spiritual Laws to Success (Note: Now available in a cool PBS sponsored DVD package!) one moment hit the writer part of me squarely in the jaw.   Chaos is what ultimately enables creativity.  Horrible as it can be to deal with and live through it’s often when our work or lives are in the biggest mess possible that change happens.

I know, I know… I kept thinking to myself this is so much B.S.  Until I recalled how many professional disappointments led me kicking and screaming into something ultimately much much better for me and how many rotten toads I had to kiss in life (Note:  Too many to count and they know who they are…or do they?) until I found someone different I might never have noticed had I not finally put a lifetime moratorium on ALL amphibians.

This is all just reminding me of how much I love Mayor Pete

When things are as crappy and chaotic as you imagine they ever will be (aka sh-tty) it helps to remember just walking through it or realizing that there was a time when you benefitted from a set of circumstances you had nothing at all to do with (aka dumb luck)  Or that a casual action you took or comment you made off the cuff created an opportunity you never anticipated.

We’ll never know whether it was random or a series of your small, nee authentic actions that created the good times.  It might be a combination of both or neither.  But what we do know is that any action causes a reaction.  (Note: Once again, see science).

We also know the opposite is likely true.  The one way to ensure nothing changes in your absolutely miserable life is to do the same miserable thing each day.  And that even if a series of random events do come together to grant you some good fortune with that strategy you will probably be so enervated you’ll be too ill prepared to take full advantage of it.

Otherwise know as, in popular parlance, a lose-lose.

Not gonna work

I once had a shrink years ago that tried to help get me out of my own pit of despair with a variation on this very strategy.  I was not only sad but angry and isolated and correctly sensed no one, and I mean NO ONE, wanted to be around me anymore.

At one point, in defiance and exasperation at the lack of help and support I believe I deserved, I bellowed: What am I supposed to do, just pretend to be happy?

To which he simply replied:

Yes.

ummm.. am I hearing this right??

Well, at first I was even more pissed off.  So I took a minute to think about it in silence.  During which time he told me that sometimes simply the repetition of a behavior can change things.

Even one you don’t mean?????

Yes.

This is not to say pretending to be happy cures unhappiness.   Obviously we all need to examine and accept what we feel and take action in any way that we can to resolve a situation.  But when there is no magic wand to truly SOLVE the issue, what else can one do simply just to get kick started?

But wait!! Fairy Godmother help!!

Well, another acceptable alternative to that way of thinking is to simply stop and acknowledge things are a mess.  Then look around at the mess and just observe – and DON’T think of solutions.  (Note: If you want to pretend you’re happier than you are when you’re doing this you can go ahead, but it’s certainly not a requirement and I, for one, one couldn’t do both).

Instead treat the moment, desperate as it may be, from the sort of impartial stance of an outsider.   Take it all in fully, from ALL sides, and then, when you’re ready, continue on, remembering all that stuff you were thinking when you had NO skin in the game.

This action won’t necessarily give you an answer but can likely also put you in a different place.   If the problems are deeply vexing, as they are these days, you might want to do it daily, or at least 2- 3 times a week, reminding yourself that the rage or intensity you observed yourself feeling are not felt by everyone (or even anyone) as often.  (Note: Even by you, since you’re now spending at least 10-15 minutes simply observing…or pretending to).  What’s their take and why?  Soak it in, let your mind wander and DON’T have an opinion on it.

So.. not this? Got it.

This exercise is not dissimilar from what many of us writers do when we’re stuck as to what a character would truly do or say.  We stop, look at it from various vantage points, and just sit there – angry and perplexed when no solution comes to mind.  No satisfying one, anyway.

But ask a handful of professionals what then eventually does happen.  Somehow, somewhere a thought, a strategy or even a potentially outlandish answer comes – and usually when you’re driving or in the shower.

Waterproof shower notepads.. actually exist #problemsolved

Refusing to rage about a problem or obsess about it 24/7 doesn’t mean you don’t care or are not seeking a remedy.  It only means you have learned to embrace the process (aka chaos) and know that out of insanity, an idea and an action and a change will come.  It may not be perfect but what could be worse than the mess you – and we – are in now?

Okay, don’t answer that.   Just know that will change, too.  And then change back again.

Damn.

Mumford & Sons – “I Will Wait”

We’re all uncomfortable

If you refuse to watch art from people you in some way disapprove of, only Tom Hanks and Julie Andrews are left.   

-– The Chair

Make me watch Forrest Gump or The Ladykillers again and I’d probably punch you in the face.

Not to mention, Hawaii and the 1980 remake of Little Miss Marker would be a very tough slog.  (Note: Sorry, Jules).

And truly, if you’re going to watch some classic films why not simply go to the acknowledged mainstream top of the list choices.  Perhaps Chinatown or even… ROSEMARY’S BABY?????????

What’d’ya say Mrs. Mulwray?

Uh, oh.  Both films were directed by Roman Polanski and Mr. Polanski is best known these days by a new generation of filmgoers as the man who had sex with an underage girl and fled the U.S. before he could be properly punished for it.

Rightly or wrongly – and it’s not either one – this issue came up recently in a writing class when we were analyzing story elements of a classic sequence in Rosemary’s Baby where the lead character is raped by….

Well, who did it is not important for the subject of this discussion.  The pertinent part was the past deeds of this director and how much his personal actions influence what a viewer now sees or can’t see in the piece of art being offered to us.

This film still kind of says it all #ugh #uncomfortable

My knee jerk reaction is that we must separate the art from the artist and realize that times change, truth reveals itself in increments and people who live in glass houses, which means ALL of us, shouldn’t throw stones.

On the other hand, to NOT acknowledge that the personal is not only political but pertinent and influential, is to ignore the extreme cultural moments we are living through these days. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody but I’m not so sure I want to support ANYTHING director Bryan Singer does/did again.

As a gay guy, I’ve heard about his penchant for younger men for years and the fabled parties where they gathered with him (Note: Or were gathered up for him).  On the other hand, I was never there and certainly never saw him doing anything inappropriate with a 15 or 17 year old boy elsewhere so who was I to judge?  What is my responsibility?  And does it mean he shouldn’t direct Millennium Films’ upcoming big budget remake of Red Sonja?

I’m with Randy #10yearoldmemes #stillapplies

The Sundance Film Festival this week previewed the upcoming 4-hour HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, which chronicles in painstaking detail Michael Jackson’s sexual relationships with pre and early adolescent young boys when he was in his thirties.

British filmmaker Dan Reed is a respected documentarian and by all accounts the personal testimony of Jackson’s victims, their families, and the similarity and specificity of details make it as devastating to watch as the current Lifetime series Surviving R. Kelly, which centers on that singer/songwriter/producer’s longtime sexual abuse of numerous underage women.

I have not felt comfortable with Mr. Jackson’s music for DECADES given that we were close in age as I watched him parade to endless premieres and show biz photo ops in the eighties and nineties in the company of  9, 11, 13 and 15 year olds boys, sometimes two or three at a time and occasionally strangely holding hands with the odd one as he spoke of playful sleepovers at his dreamy playground of a ranch.

This picture REALLY makes me uncomfortable

I remember thinking to myself, what would someone my age conceivably EVER be doing with those boys overnight and, if it wasn’t overtly sexual, could it EVER conceivably be appropriate, even with their parents’ approval?  What I concluded then and now was that it could not and, hence, I never was able to listen to or watch Mr. Jackson in the same way ever again.

I have no proof and I’m not faulting anyone who jams out to Billie Jean or who will forever see him as the King of Pop.  But there was and is something so questionable in my mind about Mr. Jackson’s personal life that sucks the goodness and fun and joy out of anything I could possibly see or hear him do.  Even the famed Motown anniversary moonwalk – the younger, gentler version of what he left behind – leaves me at best sad for all concerned when viewed in the context of the entirety of his life.

This brings me no joy #notaseasyas123

One teaching colleague of mine recently shared the difficulty of talking to college students about Miramax/Harvey Weinstein when recounting the history of the Hollywood independent film movement.  It’s not that you don’t do it, but how do get them to appreciate what that studio accomplished without the stench?   And how do you write a book about the history of television in the last century and not give The Cosby Show its due?  That’s a topic someone else very close to me (Note: VERY) is dealing with at the moment.

Can we just talk about Denise Huxtable and noone else?

To say nothing of Louis CK  and his recent jokes about the students of Parkland or Woody Allen movies in general.   How do I look at Annie Hall these days?

As a baby boomer I can only speak to Annie Hall, one of my favorite films of all time, and confess that it will forever make me laugh because I am able to block out all reality and focus in on the joy it brought me throughout my life.  Yes, I am that strong or that weak where these feelings overwhelm everything else past and present and take me back to a time when it at least FELT like we were all a lot more innocent and unsullied by the realities of a hopelessly stained contemporary world.

Of course, that is/was a fantasy in itself but at the very least it got me through my twenties and thirties.  Though when you shove Manhattan in my face now  and I’m forced to watch Woody with Mariel Hemingway’s 17 year-old character, (Note: As happened several months ago on cable TV) it’s cringe worthy.  Meaning denial only works in certain cases and, in this case,  I suddenly froze up and couldn’t help but turn away.

Can I hold on to this?

So yeah, in this light I totally get some of my students’ aversion to Rosemary’s Baby and Mr. Polanski.   How many of us Jews interested in movies have ever had a tough time with academic articles fetishizing the filmmaking talent of Adolph Hitler’s favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl?  (Note: Whose Triumph of the Will is coincidentally used as a bittersweet punch line in said Annie Hall)

Perhaps the answer is a film festival featuring Triumph of the Will, Rosemary’s Baby Annie Hall and maybe…oh…Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night?   We can also add in Kevin Spacey ‘s Oscar winning performance in American Beauty and two of Singer’s X-Men movies for good measure.

The audience at this film festival

But how many of us would go?   Not as many as would watch any one of the six in the privacy of our own homes and keep it a secret.

Michael Jackson – “Bad” 

Plot Holes

I don’t take things at face value.  Never have.  One could say that makes me a cynic.   But I’d say a realist.    So let’s split the difference and settle on a little bit of both.

Hell of a time to be living in for us cynical realists.

There is nothing wrong with watching what’s going on in Washington, D.C. these days and feeling like a skeptic who is positive some dry ice machine hidden just beyond our collective eye-lines is creating that incessant shroud of dense black fog we all continually find ourselves trapped in.

MUELLER WHERE ARE YOU

The FBI is investigating the president, OUR U.S PRESIDENT for being a Russian spy, a willing Russian stooge, or a blackmailed stooge being made to spy on HIS OWN COUNTRY by…..RUSSIA???

Why, it’s like some bad John LeCarre novel that you always felt you should read but decided not to when you saw how thick it was and considered that much time might be better spent at least attempting to read Proust.  Or your latest bank statement.

Just one of the many seemingly absurd Hollywood movies that seem more relevant now #KevinCostnerwasHOT #wow

Of course, there is nothing wrong with escape.  Us cynical realists do it all the time.  I, for one, am a sucker for cheap thrills in mindless entertainment.  But cheap doesn’t mean vague and unexplained and even mindless needs to feel reasonable.  Or, well, follow-able within the unreality that is being created.

Beware — minor spoilers lay ahead.

So will someone tell me: WHAT THE HELL WAS EVERYONE LOOKING AWAY FROM IN Bird Box????  And why??  Why??  Why?????  Why did it make so many of them suicidal and yet others of them spiritually reborn or evil or just clever?  Why Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich??? Why do you need a new kitchen or house or small plane that badly?????

And while we’re on this subject, or genre:  If John Krasinski’s character cared so much about his family you’d think he’d have removed that foot long nail sticking out of the floor in A Quiet Place the first 500 times he saw it.  Or at least after it almost pulverized his beloved wife the first time.  Why???  Why????  Why doesn’t this bother anybody else?????

uh yeah Jim, that’s what we want to know!

But that all begs the question of how an earnest film like Boy Erased, a movie all about a gay teenager’s coming of age, can show us an early scene of him being raped and then NEVER address it again in a story that deals primarily with sexual identity and psychological well-being?  Why???  Why???  Why is it okay to just IGNORE the ELEPHANT YOU PLACED IN THE GOSH DARNED NARRATIVE ROOM?????? WHY??????????????

No wonder I often spend my days feeling like Rosemary Woodhouse AFTER she’s pieced together the truth on her living room floor with Scrabble tiles while everyone else tells her that the truth really doesn’t matter at all and to simply stay in her room, turn up the air conditioning and be quiet.

How many points for COLLUSION?

Yes, there are a few spoilers here but does it seriously even matter anymore if we’ve forgiven everything else?  Or at least you have?

As a writer, I don’t believe you can write (nee create) an important character and not understand their childhood, their family or their love life.  And, if they’re really important, I even need to know their favorite food, color and sexual proclivities.

Call me crazy, but you can’t really get a person unless you understand whether or not they were raised by wolves (Note: Literally and/or figuratively), what they like to eat and who they choose to… well, you know… or if they simply choose NOT to with anyone.

Let’s get personal

No judgments here.  Ask my writing students.  In fact, I get a perverse pleasure out of watching morally questionable behavior unfold as long as it’s earned.   But that’s just a start.  If you’ve made this stuff up by the numbers, or use it lazily to create ridiculous choices and/or inactions, it’s no better.  Either a lack of data and/or vigor means at the end of the day we (Note: Okay, I) won’t be able to feel it.  All you will be giving me is incomplete or hackneyed information neatly arranged into a bunch of consecutive index cards or visual PowerPoint presentations.

This, more than anything else, is my problem with most Robert Zemeckis films.  Not that anyone asked. #ForrestGump goes #BacktotheFuture3X.  And #WelcometoMarwen.

Janelle, you are way too cool for Welcome to Marwen #JUSTICEforJANELLE

This could all account for why I’ve been grossly riveted to cable news and the horrific events of our current Electoral College POTUS these last few days.

Childhood: Raised in my hometown of Queens. Beat the crap out of other kids his age and younger in his youth.  Expelled from high school and sent to military school.  Used Dad’s $$$ to get him out of the REAL military and into IVY league higher education, during which time he was known to have never picked up a book.

What? I’m tired!

Family:  Raised in my hometown of Queens (Note: Still) by extremely rich parents  who marketed in racism, corruption and various other dirty deeds in order to build and keep their massive empire afloat.

Love Life:  Married three times, during which there were countless affairs, various incidents of rage, violence and at least one case of alleged rape with his first wife.  More incidences of sexual harassment and inappropriate manhandling of women in airplanes, parties, movie premieres and television sets than anyone can count.  Or would want to.

Is it working?

Favorite Food: Well-done steak, french fries, ice cream, anything McDonalds and an estimated one DOZEN cans of Diet Cokes per day.

Favorite Color:  Gold. (Duh).

Sexual Proclivities:  I can’t even….   Stormy Daniels knows all.  Though let’s give equal credence to the mysterious #PeeTape once it surfaces.  Which it inevitably will.

If you say Pee Pee Tape three times, Stephen Colbert appears.

The consistent, salient details of DJT has, if nothing else, made me BELIEVE his most unlikely of stories.   That is because if you simply pay attention nothing is shrouded in fog.  The data continues to unfold in a consistent pattern and with the rigor of the best Shakespearean tragedies.  That is where, in the final act, the main character meets his inevitable demise because of every action he took in each scene of his play.

It doesn’t take much to see it’s all very Aristotle’s Poetics.

Both storytellers and audiences should take note for future reference.

The All-American Rejects – “Dirty Little Secret”

Serling, Lear & Goldman

 

No, this is not a law firm.  As far as I know.

These are the names of three show business icons better known as Rod Serling, Norman Lear and William Goldman.

It’s not a good idea to trot out words like icon or legend too often.   You sound like a syndicated talk show host whose sole purpose in life is to overpraise someone more famous in the hopes that it’ll do you some good.

Think Mike Pence whenever he’s in the presence of the Electoral College POTUS.  (Note: And how could you not?)

Let’s hope that’s all he is #Mueller?

Still, there are some cases where the word icon feels exactly right, especially if we are to believe the dictionary definition:

Icon: A representative symbol of something.  Synonym,  idol, paragon, hero. 

Certainly Mr. Serling, Mr. Lear and Mr. Goldman are all of the above and more to most everyone in the writing trade, the entertainment industry and by extension, through the reach of their life’s work, the world.

Hyperbole?  I think not.

Thank you Stefon

In the last several days I was reminded of the gargantuan achievements of these three writers, all born within 10 years of each other, for completely different reasons.

William Goldman, who died this week at the age of 87, was for years the most respected and highest paid screenwriter in the business.  Consider the movies from over 40 years, beginning with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then on to All The President’s Men, Marathon Man and The Stepford Wives and then back around to The Princess Bride, Chaplin and Misery and you might begin to get some idea.  If not, you can throw in tons of uncredited rewrites on things like A Few Good Men and Good Will Hunting and perhaps it will get clearer.

The Real Deal

It was William Goldman who introduced the infamous phrase follow the money into the lexicon of political writing via his Oscar-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men.  Peruse his other scripts and you will no doubt find many others.

Just ask Wallace Shawn  #asyouwish

Though none of them will even come close to his three-word perfect summation of the movie business:  Nobody knows anything.

For those not directly involved in the industry, here’s a full sentence of his  elaborating on that thought:  Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.

That and a lot more were written by Mr. Goldman in his 1983 seminal book on navigating Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade.  But more than anything else, those three perfect words – NOBODY. KNOWS. ANYTHING. gave hope, courage and permission to a generation of people starting out in the business, myself included, to soldier on and persevere.

Cheers to you Mr. Goldman

His screenwriting work was brilliant, and he wrote a bunch of fine novels (on some holiday vacation read his first, Boys and Girls Together).  But his ability to so bluntly tell the truth about what he experienced and observed extended far beyond fiction or the movies.  He gave so many of us who had our noses pressed up against the glass the belief that the people we thought we had to impress didn’t have all the answers – we did.  All we had to do was to tell the truth through our work and we had as good of a shot at making it as he did.

Rod Serling and Norman Lear might not seem a natural combination at first mention but when you give it some thought it’s exactly right.  They were born within two years of each other in the 1920s and though Mr. Lear, now 96 and still active, has lived twice as long (Note: Mr. Serling died prematurely at the age of 50,) each writer changed the face of television by being fearless in their own very specific ways.

.. and both have a signature look

By his early thirties, Rod Serling was already an accomplished playwright and Emmy award-winning writer devoted to telling meaningful stories that touched on social issues.  Still, he was known in the biz as a bit of an upstart who had grown weary of battling corporate sponsors and executives too timid to support the kind of tales he wanted to tell.

That was when he got the idea to write in the more commercially appealing science fiction genre, grounding his characters in a way so relatable it would enable him the ability to tackle such timely themes as war, racism, class, politics and censorship.

Like you’d ever forget these faces

One can hardly imagine when The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959 that even he could foresee the enduring legacy of that groundbreaking anthology series.  Not only does it still run all over the world more than half a century later, it has been reinvented as a feature film, in numerous television spin-offs and remakes, as well as homaged in the music world.

Most recently, Jordon Peele was announced as the host of a new CBS reboot of The Twilight Zone set to air in 2019.

But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that those three wordsTHE. TWILIGHT. ZONE. – are now embedded as a permanent part of language and pop culture as we know it (Note/Nee: Being an American these days is like living  in The Twilight Zone) that will forever be associated with its writer and onscreen narrator.

It was in that spirit this past week that Ithaca College presented Norman Lear with its annual Rod Serling Award for advancing social justice through popular media.   (Note: Serling taught at the college in the 1970s and his archives are housed there).  As a professor and Chair (Note: Ahem) at the school’s L.A. program, I got to be part of that evening and had a front row seat to Mr. Lear’s sharp as ever comic timing and humility as he got up to the podium at L.A.’s Paley Center to accept.

The man himself, pictured here with Ithaca College’s Park School Dean Diane Gayeski, and One Day at Time colleague Mike Royce

Anyone who has watched television comedy in the last fifty years has likely seen one of Mr. Lear’s shows and the majority of we baby boomers came of age on them.

To watch a first-run episode of All in the Family in the actual era it came of age was to see for the first time in half-hour prime time TV an unvarnished version of ourselves and our extended families in all of our inglorious prejudices, ignorances and, ultimately, humanity.  No one had ever used THOSE WORDS before on the Big Three networks despite the fact that they used them and we heard them every day of our lives.  Heck, no one had ever even heard a toilet flush on TV before the series did it in 1971!

Archie is not that impressed

Mr. Lear also gave us the first upwardly mobile Black family (The Jeffersons), the first TV comedy episode to ever deal with abortion (Maude) and the first divorced prime time mom of the era (One Day At A Time).  (Note: The latter also recently rebooted on Netflix). The fact is if we don’t see an immediate connection between the subjects tackled by the fictional law partners, Serling and Lear, it is merely due to our own shortcomings, not theirs

Among the unplanned comic gems during Mr. Lear’s acceptance speech at the Paley was the moment when his iPhone began to audibly ring.  He stopped mid-speech, instantly reached into his pocket and saw it was a family member, began a conversation with her, and, without missing a beat, put it on speakerphone so the rest of us NOT at the podium could hear.  Most actors, not to mention us non-96 year old pros and non-pros, couldn’t rehearse this and get it right (especially the speaker part) never much less be funny in our ad-libs to a faceless voice.

More skillful, however, was what came next. After he said of his TV work: I didn’t do it alone  he went on to reassure his many admirers that he really is only a person who gets up in the morning, eats, goes to the bathroom and then goes to sleep at night – just like they do.

Don’t mind me.. getting emotional over here

Then suddenly he, and then the room, fell dead silent as he contemplated this for a few VERY long moments.   As we all got concerned something was wrong, he finally looked down, then right back out at us, and said:

You know, everything in life led me to this moment.  Isn’t that something?

At which point he let some more time go by, evoking more silence once again, until he reiterated:  And to this one.

Then once more again, echoing:

And that one.  Everything you have done before has brought YOU right here…..Think about it.

One couldn’t help but wonder if what he was really telling us was that taking in the moment, really feeling it, and then sharing those feelings with others, was not only the key to his art but the secret to life.

Of course whether that’s true or not is in the eye of the beholder. Since, let’s face it, nobody knows anything.

“Those Were The Days” –  Theme from All in the Family

 

 

 

 

Not a Happy Camper

I never thought I’d be inspired by a quote from a military guy.  I’m the least military that you can be.  Order me to do something and I’ll do the opposite.

This goes as far back as I can remember.   When my parents ordered me to go to the sleepaway camp they were about to register me for when I was 11 years old, I looked at them steely-eyed for a good long 10 seconds.  Then I told them I’d run away and come home every single day I was there no matter how many times they brought me back.  If they didn’t let me in, I’d find friends or relatives to stay with.  If they wouldn’t have me, I’d sleep on the streets.  And I would have had they not relented.

Does it look like I’m screwing around mom??

This was not merely because I was defiant.  In actuality, I was a bit of a wuss considering I came of age in the sixties and seventies.  I was scared to take drugs, never cut school or lied to my Mom AND didn’t figure out sex until I was out of my teenage years (Note: And, ahem, even beyond).

What I did have were good instincts.  This has helped me through my entire life when facing big decisions.  And when you’re 11 years old there is no bigger decision than sleepaway camp.

It’s all very dramatic

I knew that as an uncoordinated, sports-hating, mouthy, stubborn, sassy pants who was secretly attracted to boys but didn’t yet have a word for it, I would never survive what I even then considered the camps.  They might be right for some kids but for me – no way.  It wasn’t even on the table.  I knew the difference between right and wrong deep down in my soul and this was definitely WRONG.

Here’s what Gen. Marty Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeted out several days ago:

The art of decision-making. When making big decisions, block out the background noise, take stock in what you know, check your instincts, and then decide. It’s important to remember that just because something is loud and repetitious doesn’t mean it’s right… …more than any other feedback, in a world of intense scrutiny and super-charged emotion, how we make important choices tells us who we are and what we hold most important.

This deserves the Meryl seal of approval

This might seem a strange way to get everyone to VOTE but I don’t think so.  You are at the precipice faced by many 11 year olds.  Sleepaway camp or NO sleep away camp.

Of course I realize that not every kid is fortunate or unfortunate enough to have the option.  I also get that local charities raise money just so these kids can get away for a month or two in the summer and enjoy themselves.

Or be tortured.

I imagine my letters from camp would have been exactly like this (from the brilliant Lin Manuel Miranda)

The point is that in a perfect world, the one where EVERY KID has AN OPTION, there will be a significant number, likely more than you think, that would vote to reject the camps and instead choose the steamy city streets.

The world is composed of camp kids and CAMP(Y) kids, if you get the drift, and each one is entitled to some say in creating a life that reflects their reality.

When we’re 11 years old, we don’t always get this choice.  But once we turn 18, we ALWAYS get a VOTE.

ALWAYS.

That is, unless we CHOOSE not to.

Sure, we live in a messy, turbulent world, particularly at the moment, where the choices available are not always the best.

This is real. #tuneout #tunein

You can have what’s in the box or what’s behind the curtain and they both feel like booby prizes, especially since once you accept one you also have to pay taxes on it. #NoDeal.

But, well, you don’t really think I wanted to stay home with my mother when I was 11 years old in the heat of NYC, do you?  Still, it was way, way, wayyyyy better than being stuck up in the woods having to play baseball everyday.  Or sleep in a barracks without being able to listen to my beloved movie soundtrack of Mary Poppins.

Oh Chairy, you flatter me so

Not to mention, that summer I learned how to roller skate (Note: With a metal key), and made friends with a brother and sister who had just that summer moved into my neighborhood.

I even learned that contrary to the custom in my family, you don’t always call your adult friends’ mothers by their first names.  In fact, I will never forget the expression on the face of that brother and sister’s Mom when I casually addressed her as Pat and she turned to ME steely-eyed and said, Call me, MRS. Marshall.

I’ll just show myself out #SorryMrsMarshall

To this day I am very careful when addressing those older than myself to always err on the side of formality.   At least, at first.    And you’d be surprised how much it’s helped.  Whenever I dated anyone, their parents ALWAYS loved me.

No one is saying that there are not moments to abstain from action or refrain from even voicing your opinion.  But this is not one of them.

Some moments in your life it is best simply sit back and follow the lead of those older and more experienced than yourself.

self awareness is also key

Then there are other times, the ones where you are REQUIRED to speak up for own self-preservation.

Or risk being sent to a CAMP that is wrong for you.  One that goes against EVERYTHING you innately are.

Colonel Bogey March

The Truth is in the Lies

Sometimes truth is, well, too truthful.

Stuff happens in real life that you wouldn’t dare make up. On the other hand, there are a number of stories that ring hopelessly false.

It is the job of a writer to be able to navigate events, turn them into stories and convince you that the false is indeed true, the truth is actually quite false and that, in the end, it really doesn’t matter because every yarn we spin (not to mention everything we ever tell you in real life, but that’s another story) will contain elements of both.

click clack lie lie

And really, what difference does it make as long as you were entertained, i.e., laughed, escaped, brought to tears, learned something or just distracted from the inevitability of those looming Swords of Damocles hanging over your head that you do your best to never have to think about.

We Americans have showered the world with our ability to produce mass entertainment to worldwide audiences for decades.   We’ve had a knack for creating unreal reality in a way so specific, personal and sometimes quite silly or tragic that most of the planet couldn’t resist and even aspire to create the kind of yarns that we were selling.

One could argue that we’re still doing it now with the much too true as to be false, bizarre shit show of what is passing for our government. But let’s #Resist sidetracking down that rabbit hole of crazy just this once.

America 2018

Except to say this –

When people stop trying to decipher fact from fiction they have become patsies to adept storytellers. Like a well-trained hypnotist, we can seduce you into believing ANYTHING, and if we’re good enough and experienced enough, you could easily wake up fleeced of your valuables.

Quicker than a game of 3 card Monte on the streets of Manhattan. #LetTheTouristBeware.

If you don’t believe this is true – that a plurality of the U.S. are perhaps getting fleeced of their money, their values and more than likely their democracy by a flim-flam demagogue – then you are discounting the power of stories and even the moderately talented storytellers.

This passes for logic

Meaning – this is not about kids in cages, the right to choice or life, more cash or factory jobs per family. It is also not about the gaying, browning or Sodom and Gommorah-izing of our culture felt by a plurality of left-behinds or gimme mores.

In fact, it is about the plurality of those people, and perhaps more, falling for the outrageous and often non-specific solutions to those issues by a charlatan/storyteller. (Note: We storytellers are ALL charlatans of a sort).   Ask any decent writer or weaver of tall tales when they’ve had an extra glass of wine, or at 3am post coitus, and they will freely admit that all they do is take some combination of truths – that is to say people they’ve met or incidents they’ve witnessed or heard about – add a few of their own secret spices – and voila – you are in the palm of their hands. Or worse.

Live in your truth.. and lies

It is not their muse, their magic or their superhuman ability to problem solve for a generation of audiences.

It is, instead, a SKILL that is practiced. A TALENT that is honed through experience and failure. All in the package of a person/storyteller that is so dogged and determined to be THE PERSON to manipulate you into their world – to CONVINCE you of something you NEVER thought of – and often for their own benefit – that you will actually PAY them for the pleasure of being lied to.

Yes, lied to. Meaning manipulated into a world with a specific point of view of THEIR world as it applies to you.

can’t really argue with that math

There is, of course, nothing wrong with indulging in this kind of sorcery either by yourself or, if the stories are commercially mainstream enough, with your entire extended family.

But it is absolutely LETHAL to voluntarily line up in real life and swallow the entire magic show. No lady gets sawed in half and really lives.

No glitter-costumed young woman doesn’t bleed to death when she’s pinned against a dartboard and someone hurls knives at her head.

And if you think you can eat fire or be shot out of a cannon using just any blade or your enemy’s artillery fire of choice, know you will not live long enough to ever see Paul Rudd age OR know the results of the Mueller investigation. (Note: Whichever comes first – your pick – but I know which one my money is on).

These pictures span over 20 years.. so I mean, I think you know the answer #paulruddisimmortal

If you still doubt any of the above, take this dare. This week go to Netflix and watch:

Nanette – A 70 minute show by monologist/storyteller Hannah Gadsby that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and yet, oddly familiar.

Or to Amazon and view:

A Very English Scandal A 3-hour miniseries starring Hugh Grant and directed by Stephen Frears, about sex, attempted murder and backroom politics.

must stream TV

Both of them are superior works of art done by master storytellers who will recount for you a series of absolutely true events, some of which might seem strange but all of which will likely feel both real AND familiar.

Then it will be up to you – when they’re over and your mind is clear – to put your hand on a bible or swear to a judge on the record in a court of law what exactly IS true, IS false or exists in some seductive faux nether region in between.

Nervous yet? Don’t be. It’s just a voluntary mind game offered by your friendly (Note: Sometimes) neighborhood blogger.

What should instead be more scary is when this kind of challenge is posed to us by news stations and/or elected government officials who masterfully and daily lure and tempt us with manipulated truisms masquerading as stone cold facts.

Oh there’s a lot of interest

The type of stories they offer are not mere entertainment but an especially complicated mix of false, true and in-between hybrids specifically designed to persuade us all to make REAL LIFE choices that will change not only our lives but tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of others all around the world. And not necessarily for the better.

And they are nowhere near as amusing or thoughtful as either Nanette or A Very English Scandal.  Not even close.

Of course none of that matters if enough of us buy what they’re selling. An especially troubling thought when one considers the most popular form of American entertainment has always been escapist.

Annie Lennox – “I Put a Spell on You”