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”

Sorkin Says

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.58.19 AM

There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.