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” 

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.