Bottoms is Tops

Greetings from southern California, where this weekend space in hospital ICU’s have reached ZERO percent. 

That means if you get really sick with Covid-19 there’s no guarantee you’ll get the care you need.  In fact, it’s likely you won’t.

It kind of makes you think, right? 

It also kind of makes you philosophical, kind of makes you want to do something, anything to escape and generally, definitely makes you want to pull the covers over your head and enter a pretend world that you can control.

Ok BYE!

But as the old saying goes, wherever you are, there you are.

Nevertheless we try and sometimes it works, for a bit.  But ultimately reality intrudes.  The best we can hope for is that whatever the escape we choose brings us momentary relief or, at best, a new perspective.

My escape of choice these days is entertainment, specifically lying prone on my couch and watching a movie, TV or streaming series, documentary, or whatever, on my big ass TV in order to drown out the noise in my brain. 

:: Gets heating pad ::

I suspect I’m no different than the many millions of us fortunate enough to have this option right now during a 9-month+ global pandemic. 

Yes, I am aware of my privilege, which doesn’t make me any less privileged.  But entering other people’s lives and worlds in order to escape mine at least gives me some perspective. 

This is what great creative work provides – entertainment, education and illumination. 

Some good comes of this I promise

Not only are you not alone but you might, just might, not know everything or do everything right.  And the good news about that is, unlike the characters or actors in a set story, you have the option to make a course correction before it’s too late.

I couldn’t help but consider these and many other existential choices Friday night, and every night since, watching the first rate on every level, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix.

It’s a film rendering of the late August Wilson’s 1982 play, one of a cycle of plays that deal with African American stories in modern historical time periods via finely etched characters seldom rendered so humanly and consistently well-flawed before.

Bottom’s is the Chair’s Top pick

Each time a white person, or at least this white person, watches an August Wilson story, it somehow manages to show you something recognizable AND something you hadn’t taken the time to notice before.  The latter is particularly true for those of us who’ve lived oblivious to the depths of other people’s cultural experiences, which is pretty much all of us.

Ostensibly, the Netflix film centers around the real life blues powerhouse singer Ma Rainey and a turbulent afternoon recording session in1920s Chicago.  The formidable Ma battles for control of her destiny with the white powers-that-be trying to dictate the terms of the session, and tangles with the members of the all Black and male band backing her.

In particular, Ma has a distaste for her brilliant young trumpeter, Levee, who exemplifies everything she disdains.  This would not only be a jazzier and what would grow to be more massively popular version of her blues but also a certain kind of charming, smiley, swaggering maleness that she very justifiably distrusts.

The awards are coming…

Powerful as all of the many stories we learn about under this dramatic construction may be (and there are an impressive amount of them), the film is also a tour de force reminder of everything and everyone we’ve pretty much ignored up to this point in our everyday lives.

The people who hang out on the street with a musical instrument in tow, the young guy who stutters, the polite older guy who goes with the flow, even the flirty young woman who doesn’t seem adept at doing much of anything but flirting.  Those are just a few examples but there are lots more.

These days we almost expect prestige dramatic films to address issues like racism, sexism and homophobia (all of which fester in Ma Rainey).  What we don’t expect nearly enough is the power in everything and everyone we’ve overlooked. 

What we do expect is another amazing performance by Viola Davis

How could we possibly think about their hopes, dreams and disappointments when we’re too busy wallowing in our own, quarantined on our couches, praying we don’t end up needing the services of a hospital ER, or worse yet, IC unit. 

We especially don’t want to think about what it’s like for those who have far less privilege than we do, not to mention those decades back in history and/or of a less privileged race or class.

And if you doubt that, just know that in the last months of 2020 we’ve had a record almost ONE HUNDRED holiday movies, 70% of which have aired in the last four weeks on either Hallmark and Lifetime, with nary a mention of any of the above.

… and let’s be honest – it’s a mostly WHITE christmas #bahhumbug

Not that there is anything wrong with that or them. 

In fact, there is every reason in these times for us to reach for peak, exceptional moments and characters played by actors who allow us to relax and feel like we’re in good hands for a couple of hours.

But this can also most particularly apply to any star actors who play any type of characters, and in the case of Ma Rainey you get two of the kind you don’t usually see in the above-mentioned 2020-type holiday movies.

Not that the likes of Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman would never deign to be in a holiday movie, even the Hallmark-Lifetime kind.  In fact, I’d bet that back in the day there could be a fun holiday story either of them might be lured into. 

… and c’mon, it’s fun!

However, that’s not what’s going on with the work they’re doing here. 

To say that each of them totally evaporates into Ma and Levee, subverting whatever star personas we associate with them, is too easy an analysis, true though it might be.

It’s more that each of them employs the script, direction and members of the technical team in a way that enables them to conjure up the actual sweat, smells and souls of who they are for our enjoyment. 

Watching these two onscreen it’s hard not to feel like they’re more alive, on film and in one-dimensional images, than we could ever be, prone on our sofas in what now amounts to real life.

The struggle is real

They make us want to be more alert, more alive, more responsive in real time to all of the real, and yeah, relatively privileged life around us by comparison, even during a pandemic.

Much has been made of the sad irony of Chadwick Boseman’s death earlier this year at the age of 43 and the incongruity of seeing him so unbelievably vital in the sequences of Ma Rainey.

But that sells short an actor with his abilities.

T’challa forever

For it’s partly in watching his character so energetically strive to get what he wants that makes whatever success and failures he has appear, well, irrelevant in the end.

Like all great stars, and like all great individuals, he reminds us it’s not about where we end up or are at any given moment but all the steps we’ve taken and have yet to take to get where we think we want to go.

That might not be a new feeling or original analysis but it’s enough to make you want to stand up and do something, anything, other than just watching, in dread, as 2020 draws to its inevitable close.

Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman – “Deep Moaning Blues”

Time Traveling with TCM

As the 2020 presidential election looms like a giant sword swinging over our collective heads, it’s difficult to know what to do.

Turn off and there’s the guilt, or eventual guilt, over whistling past the graveyard of American democracy.

Turn on and there’s the endless anger and non-stop memes (or worse) that pits US against THEM and saps whatever energy is left for I.

I’m with you Steph

What that leaves each of us with right now is individual choice, a sure sign that American democracy is not dead…yet.

That was reassuring for half the weekend because I, for one, scheduled a relaxing few days at home lying around, reading and catching up on the 75% of programming saved on the DVR that needs to be erased…at some point.

But then I turned on Turner Classic Movies

That seemed like a good idea because this month TCM is featuring 31 Days of Oscar.  What this means is that until March 2 every film scheduled on the network is a nominee or winner of Hollywood’s top prize.

Also featured: Ben Mankiewicz and his lush, thick hair #notjealous #veryjealous

For those of us worn out from the politics of it all popping up on the news, in social media and as a part of even the most generalized pop culture memes everywhere, that provides a virtual luxury vacation of escape.

You can ostensibly tune in at any time and be pretty sure you’ll have an all expenses paid trip of at least two hours into an alternate story reality much more preferable and a lot less toxic than the one we all currently reside in.

Ok Rhett… let’s say sometimes  just AS toxic

And I’m not just writing this because my dear friend, Pola Changnon, a fellow movie lover, was recently and very deservedly named general manager of the whole damned network several weeks ago.

Though partly I am.

Damn right!

At our celebratory dinner I couldn’t help but gush a little to her at how, in these trying times, it was such a relief to tune in TCM and, suddenly, get lured into a non-2020 narrative where there is no Twitter and usually not much in the way of anything Orange employed onscreen.

Even though any number of the films on TCM might be available to rent and/or purchase, somehow, when you think of doing that, you instantly say to yourself, I don’t have time to watch this!

But when they suddenly appear on Channel 256 (in LA of course) on your TV or screen of choice and you get hooked, hey, no one can blame you!

Margo’s got the right idea

To do so would be like getting down on someone for eating a slice of that already half eaten chocolate cake left out on the counter or helping yourself to a single drink at an open bar at anyone’s yearly holiday party and being met with a nasty stare by the “Church Lady.”

You’re entitled.  We’re all entitled.

But here’s the thing about escape.  Wherever you are, there you are.

At least that’s how it felt to me watching the classic, Oscar nominated movie, The Third Man on TCM this past Saturday afternoon.

* not directed by Welles

Foolishly thinking a 1949 film noir with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles that I somehow had managed not to have ever seen all the way through could free me from the T***P era what I discovered was… um… NOanything but.

Based on a Graham Greene novella The Third Man is brilliantly photographed and edited, has a great twist and turn story, terrific acting and innovative directing, AND an unforgettable score.

It is also a perfect evocation of the moral dilemma we all face in the, okay let’s say it now, Trump Era.

AH!! DON’T SAY IT!!

Rather than transport us away into post World War II Vienna (Note: Though it literally does) it more effectively brings us right back to the question of 21st century individual choice.

That is to say, how to confront moral decay and, yeah, pure evil when we see it.

– The Third Man doesn’t have children in cages as a result of the whims of a powerful man but instead shows us kids locked in a hospital, dying of (Note: Okay, no spoilers here) because of the actions of a brilliantly clever (Note: Evil?) genius with no moral compass.

– The Third Man isn’t about an election and the loss of the rule of law but instead is about one writer/investigator challenged to make a defining moral choice in a sea of contradictory and sometimes but not ultimately confusing facts.

Figuring out the light from dark (bonus cool lighting)

 – The Third Man doesn’t have raging arguments between longtime neighbors and family members about right vs. wrong but it does ask us to consider whether our most loyal bestie from childhood can be good and evil at the same time and calmly consider how every one of OUR actions – past, present and future — has and will affect not just ourselves but the rest of the world as we know it.

Not bad for a half century plus old black and white feature where everyone but the American writer played by Joseph Cotten speaks with an accent, the Twitter-sphere didn’t exist and no mention at all is made of democracy, elections or the rise of the socialist left and/or the dictatorial repressive right.

But it does have Ferris Wheels!

A great classic movie is a little like a vintage piece of clothing you hold on to over the years.   As norms change you know that in a pinch it will perfectly fit some occasion, event of even era you are suddenly faced with.

It’s comforting, it’s clarifying but at the same time it also makes you think, sometimes of all sorts of things you might want to forget.

Or should remember.

That’s saying a lot for the days we’ve been living through and have yet to go through.

Anton Karas – Theme from The Third Man