Forward Backward Thinking

The many fans of writer extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin’s TV fantasy of the presidency, The West Wing, were able to luxuriate in nostalgia this week.

Simpler times

In support of Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, a non-partisan (Note: Ahem) organization that seeks to encourage voting in groups that too often sit out elections (e.g. young people, communities of color), HBO Max presented a staged reading, with the original cast, of Sorkin’s favorite WW episode — season 3’s Hartfield’s Landing.

This is where senior White House staff obsess about what the first reported presidential primary vote will be in a fictional 48-person New Hampshire town.  After all, the results will dominate the news all day and, if it goes well for the POTUS, it will set a positive tone for all the hoped for favorable press their boss will receive.

LOL remember when there was no news?

And, as we all now know, there is nothing more urgent than setting an upbeat tone in order to win the White House.  Right?

Well, history turns on a dime and what seemed urgent in 2002 and then became just plain silly in light of 2016 could easily, once again, become necessary in 2020.  Right?

Right Jon, right???

Sure!  As I explained to my students this week online via Zoom, because there’s been a deadly pandemic going on for the last eight months and we couldn’t possibly all be in the same room or breathe the same air, history swings like a pendulum – from left to right and back again.

To which one of them blurted out:

So,  when IS it going to swing back?

Yikes, good question #teachablemoment?

I, of course, immediately blurted back that they had to go out to the streets and, while safely socially distanced, swing it back the way they wanted.  Until I realized this was not only likely impossible but sounded like a Grade C imitation of the response Sorkin himself would give. 

Nor do I even believe it in the darker days of 2020.  Which, I confess, is most all of them.

Still, when you live in a purported democracy that’s about all you have, isn’t it?   It’s really just in how inspiring a way you can express it. 

Like a bad haircut, maybe it just needs time.

Well, Mr. Sorkin’s once again done an excellent job on that score as both writer and director in his latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Note…. the segue).

Dropping on Netflix just one day after the gauzy West Wing redux, his new Netflix offering (Note:  Because, well, our pandemic politics has shuttered most movie theatres and shoved this planned major theatrical release from Paramount right into your home stream) is anything but delicate.

Instead, it’s a theatrically cynical look back into history when the U.S. government was intent on using politics and every piece of the legal system, whether illegally or not, to punish and jail those who dare to take their protests onto the streets.

Look back? Who’s gonna tell him?

Side Note:  It seems particularly fitting it dropped after a week of Senate hearings aimed at putting arch Conservative (and self-possessed handmaid) Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the US Supreme Court.  When asked this week by a Republican senator to name the five freedoms the Bill or Rights guarantees for all Americans, Ms. Barrett could only think of four – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

The one freedom that stumped her?

The right to petition the government for redress of grievances, OR, freedom to protest.

And there was laundry talk!

Fittingly enough, the clairvoyant Mr. Sorkin’s new legal drama takes us back in time to the late sixties, when this very issue was very, very VERY publicly spotlighted.  This was a time when the federal government, newly controlled by the uber conservative and freedom of protest loathing Richard Nixon, decided to charge a group of young and somewhat renowned and popular anti- Vietnam War protestors for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots at the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Your next Netflix watch

Take the antics of this cross-section of long and short-haired, hippie and preppy, respectful and comically stoned and disrespectful young people – and mix it with a real-life first amendment-hating and often blatantly racist judge tasked with carrying out those charges by newly installed and diabolically fascist federally empowered Nixon flunkies and, well, you can see where hilarity and mass national conflicts could ensue.

And where the comparable present-day hyperbole might begin.

It’s not a particularly pretty story to look back on, even with the much hoped for and very pithily delivered Sorkin bon mots.  But even if you don’t love Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movies or his borderline irredeemable prankster antics, you couldn’t experience anyone better portraying the late Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, who famously feasted on yanking the chain of the establishment and even of his co-defendant Tom Hayden, the more straight-laced founder of Students for a Democratic Society so well evoked by Eddie Redmayne.

Also big hair moment

Ditto for so many others, including Frank Langella’s racist persecutor/Judge Hoffman, whose shared last name with Abbie is an ongoing joke, as well as a brief but memorable appearance by Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clarke, the much more liberal former attorney general from the previous Johnson administration.

It is the shifting of the pendulum of justice between left and right, liberal and conservative, and everything in between that gives the story of this Trial of the Chicago 7 its present day resonance.  At least for those of us hoping that this Election Day is about to once again cause a major shift back to what we used to think of as American sanity.

This. This. This. This. #VOTE

Yet at the same time it’s also this very issue that makes this movie inescapably scary.  As one watches the absolute conviction a single judge, backed by a new presidential administration, has towards enforcing racist and regressive views, and notes how willing both are to twist or even ignore the very laws it’s charged with enforcing in order to permanently silence those who oppose them, one can’t help but wonder — how many times CAN the pendulum shift back and forth before it all together cracks apart?

Sorkin’s courtroom antics and filmmaking dexterity do a great job of zeroing in on the core issues at stake and give us a happy ending from five decades ago that ensures American democracy will continue.

But this week’s US Supreme Court hearing, the one that will very likely (and somewhat dubiously) enshrine perhaps the most conservative judge in American history onto OUR Supreme Court, combined with the challenge for the umpteenth time of once again shifting the American presidency away from, well, fascism (Note: Fascism being the kind word), is a very steep, real life, hill to climb. 

Holding on tight to that last shred of hope

Especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Where our ability, and even right to vote as we can, is being challenged at every turn.

Sorkin has written and imagined the way forward for us by going back in time.  But we now have to figure how to carry it out.

Another pat answer from me that borders on the cliché. 

Still, life’s never been quite as efficient, or satisfying, as any one Sorkin movie or TV series, much as we all (Note:  Well, the majority of us), would like to continue to pretend it to be.

Bob Marley – “Get Up Stand Up”

The Truth About Charlie

Do we need to worry about him?, said my husband two-thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. 

It’s not that there is anything specific in Kaufman’s surreal descent into some kind of madness that you’re not totally sure about that is worrisome.  In fact, he has covered these themes before in, well, most of his films.

See above

But seldom has he ever got so mired in his clever muddle that you actually begin to question his wellness as an artist.   Or just his wellness.

An original and bold thinker/writer/director, much of Kaufman’s work has always grappled with the internal craziness adrift in contemporary life.

In fact, his voice has often been a welcome respite for those of us who have grown so overtired at the escapism, gauzy coddling or sheer nihilism offered by most American movies these days.

Nothing says “impending doom” like a house that is constantly on fire #synecdoche

Yet for decades, it has been apparent that in all of his major works – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Anomalisa – Kaufman has ultimately been firmly and indisputably in control of the narrative.

The issue with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an often confounding marvel of fascinating film scenes, shots and sequences, is that Kaufman has gone so deep into the rabbit hole of self-reflection and insanity that he literally loses his perspective and takes us down along with him.

It’s like somehow you got a bum tour guide to an unearthly land but only realize it when you’re 3250 miles from the nearest phone, cell tower or landmark of anything resembling civilization.

One might say “a whole mood”

One could argue that after pushing the narrative screenwriting boundaries just about as far as they could go this is the logical and appropriate spot for Kaufman to be in.

Certainly we’ve all been having a mass nervous breakdown the last few years, questioning anyone and everything while wondering if any of it ever even existed the way we thought it did.

And you thought we weren’t going to be political.

Well, yes and no, at least not outwardly.

Because when my husband turned to me on the couch and wondered aloud whether we should be worried about Charlie I was truly at a loss about what to say.  It definitely wasn’t a firm ‘no,’ nor was it a confident ‘yes.’

This feels like the right response

Rather it was a maybe/I don’t know how I feel or how to answer this question.  Or, more simply, the same answer I’ve seemingly been giving everyone the last three and a half years.

The difference is, of course, Kaufman’s new story is nothing as simple as the survival of a two and a half century old democracy.  Instead, it’s essentially about a couple complexly yet forthrightly played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons (Note:  One feels that casting two actors named Jessie/Jesse is another post modern Kaufman strategy to f-ck with our minds) driving back and forth in a car on a road trip during a snowstorm, with a middle section where they visit the male Jesse’s parents.

It’s not too far of a leap to state that it’s Kaufman’s belief that we’re all caught in our own perennial snowstorms, living life on a perilous road where an accident, or series of them, could happen at any moment.

A running theme in Kaufman’s work

All this, of course, takes place against an endless inner dialogue of our own insecurities and of our own making, played out through the words of the female Jessie, which we are loath to share with anyone lest they judge IT as crazy.

To end the monologue would mean to have to engage with a distasteful world that we know in our heart of hearts is indeed loony tunes, or at the very least unfair.  So we (and she) continue with an inner dialogue that is sure to drive us (and anyone who would happened to listen – nee, the audience) totally and 100% certifiably insane.

What are you trying to say Chairy? #IsMyMonologueTooLong

This is the ultimate conundrum this latest iteration of Kaufman presents to us.  That is, amid references to everything from John Cassavettes, A Woman Under the Influence and Pauline Kael, to soft serve ice cream, the musical Oklahoma!, life in high school and the English poet William Wordsworth.

Granted, it’s not for everyone, nor, like any of his other films, does it seem he intends it to be.  That is what makes Kaufman the single most original and iconoclastic and recognizable screenwriting voice in the industry today.

It’s not that he doesn’t want us to see his movies, as evidenced by his availability for all kinds of media interviews.  It’s that as a creative artist he is uniquely on his own road, letting his feelings and thoughts hang out in a very particularly way that first and foremost appeals to him.  In short, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things Kaufman more than ever before doesn’t appear concerned what WE think or even whether WE can easily follow what he’s offering.

Would you even take a peek into his mind?

He’s simply serving up his inner mind and demons as they are in a three-act dramatic structure of his own design.  And, like the dinner with the parents set piece of this new work, it’s for us to decide whether we want to devour it whole and get drunk on the menu or turn our nose up at what’s being offered and starve because we fear our stomachs will be upset, or our sensory responses will get forever messed up, by the conflicting smells emanating from the table if we sit there too long and indulge.

Not unlike the feelings you get when you open a newspaper (Note: Either physically or virtually) or turn into cable news these days.  Do you stay or do you go?  And if you do stay, for how long and how deeply and to what effect or end?

For example… will I watch this?

In this meta way Kaufman seems to be on to something as the sole writer-director this time out.  As is often the case with his artistry, it’s not so much about the plot but the existential questions being raised about life at this period of time as filtered through a particular world view – HIS world view.

That’s an area very few known filmmakers and/or artists are interested in or able to challenge us with right now and, as one great writer from the previous century so aptly put it, attention must be paid.    

I cannot NOT look! #help

Or, well, at least it should be.

(Note: Okay, that writer was Arthur Miller re Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And yeah, even using that type of theatrical metaphor is insidiously Kaufmanesque.  One more piece of evidence of what will happen if YOU try too hard to attach your own significance to anything having to do with a creation of his).

So let’s not ponder anything more of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  It will ruin the delightful torture of going a little deeper into your psyche than usual to figure out what the hell is truly going on in the latest story you are unwittingly being dragged into.

And if that’s not an exercise worth sitting through in the FALL of 2020 then, well, I don’t know what is.

Patrick Vaill – “Lonely Room” (from Oklahoma Broadway 2019)