The World According to Affleck

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-10-21-33-am

I never take A FILM BY credit. Film is a collaborative medium. And I’ve gotten enough attention.

Ben Affleck said this last line without irony, his head looking slightly away from the packed audience at the Writers Guild Theatre who had come to see his latest movie, Live By Night.   After which this group of about 400 writers and their friends broke into a spontaneous round of applause.

It’s hard to overemphasize just how difficult it is to get a bunch of writers anywhere, but especially in Hollywood and at a screening at the WGA, to spontaneously applaud for anything these days. Except perhaps the public stoning of Donald J. Trump in downtown Beverly Hills, and preferably in the window of Neiman-Marcus, if we are making wish lists or I am making personal orders.

... that and of course, for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace

… that and of course, for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace

Still, there we all were praising a guy who had just made a film we all saw that he had not only starred in but directed, co-produced…and this is the real kicker for this crowd…actually served as sole screenwriter. I mean seriously, how much more devaluing do we have to all endure and whom the “f” does he think he is???

Well, as it turns out, Hollywood writers are not as bitter of a group as you might imagine, which is not to say we’re un-bitter; and as a whole we don’t begrudge certain people the mega power to further their careers once they’ve succeeded far beyond most, which is not to say we’re thrilled for them daily. What writers, and most people in the world respect, is honesty, hard work and a brutal sense of recognition that no one, most especially those at the top, could ever begin to do it all alone.

Now, whether Ben is like that one-on-one, I have no idea. Truth be told, I have been fooled by star actors – and a couple of times one-on-one – a handful of times before. After all acting, nee pretending, is what they do really well and get paid to do really well. But in this case, I just don’t think so. Nor did a room full of my peers, more than a few of whom are far more cynical than I, if you can believe that’s possible. Which I assure you, it is.

Pretty... Pretty Much

Pretty… Pretty Much  #WGA

Live By Night is a sort of The Godfather meets Bonnie and Clyde meets a Hollywood gangster movie from the 30s or 40s starring Edward G. Robinson. It’s based on a book by Dennis Lehane and has many charms, most especially a convincing sense of period and the kind of attention to story and character detail one used to see in studio movies of the 1970s but seldom, if ever, sees anymore. None of this is to say it’s a perfect film – even Affleck himself notes that is a short list in his mind that starts with Citizen Kane, as predictable as he admits it sounds. And leans to movies like Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather II and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game.

Still, what is most impressive about Night is how prescient it is in reflecting our current social and political climate through the lens of what is essentially a genre movie about gangsters in the 1920s and 30s. Once you get past the requisite vintage machine gun/shoot ‘em up vintage car chases and character arc set ups, the guts of the film is really about immigration and racism – and America’s ongoing blame game towards people who don’t fit what they (i.e. the majority of Americans) imagine to be its most preferable and vintage paradigm – white, churchgoing, God-fearing and, Lord knows, beyond reproach pure – by all outward appearances, that is.

as pure as this cream three-piece suit

as pure as this cream three-piece suit

It doesn’t matter how you win or what you do behind closed doors if you fit this ideal. In fact, you can don a white robe and burn crosses – as some do – or you can have indiscriminate sex, lie and cheat your way into political position, and double/triple deal with the powers-that-be to maintain your status. Just don’t make the mistake of being Black or Brown-shaded. Or Italian or Irish – which is White but not American. Or gay, which is unspeakable. Or Jewish, which goes without saying.

No doubt, Mr. Affleck will be receiving a lot of credit once the film opens in NY and L.A. on Christmas Day and then across the country in January for his foresight into what looks to be the WHITEST Christmas contemporary America has seen in decades, climate change notwithstanding. But as he readily admits, nothing could be further from the truth.

Take a seat grinchy

Don’t get ahead of yourself, Grinchy boy.

After winning the Best Picture Oscar for Warner Bros.’ Argo, he pretty much had his pick to do anything he wanted with anyone he wanted (Note: Take that in any and every context you like). But at a time when we were at the height of Barack Obama’s presidency, he decided to choose a period novel about immigrants because “America is a place of immigrants and…a patchwork of immigrant goals.” And it was a subject that constantly and consistently intrigued him (Note: And you wonder why we liberal elite applauded).

Of course, it was exactly that theme that troubled others about the commerciality of the project. Do we do a period movie about themes that we have pretty much dealt with over the decades? Eh. Well, Ben did just win the Oscar, he’s starring, he’s made some good films. Oh, and wait – he’s agreed to be Batman!!! Okay, I made up that last conversation and have no idea whether it was a quid pro quo for him to do Warner Bros’ Batman v Superman in exchange for the green light on this one.   Still, even if there wasn’t — there is an implied mutual reciprocity in the business of show. You do one for me in my corner and I’ll give you one for you in your corner.

Thinking about storyboarding Live By Night

Tortured soul… or thinking about storyboarding Live By Night? #letsbereal

Come to think of it, that’s no so different than the way it is in the real world (which show biz, isn’t) and in the upper echelons of our old, and certainly new government (which many of us kind of wish wasn’t real but sadly, most certainly is).

Yes, everyone’s been saying how timely this all is now but not at the time we were doing it. We didn’t know…I didn’t vote for Trump but I do know a few people in my life who did and I’m trying to understand them. – B.A.

That makes Ben a much better man than I am at the moment. I’m not saying I won’t eventually get there but I’m not even close to it yet. For what I believe at the moment is that I really do understand a lot of Trump voters – the anger, the eagerness to blame those “different” for your loss of money, power and perceived “station” in the world. I can’t help but comprehend and I currently hesitate to deny that ugliness because as a gay Jew who went to an integrated school in a big American integrated city with kids who were Black, Brown and yellow-skinned, and multi-ethnic white in origin, I’ve seen and experienced it all countless times before – and at a very young age.   What’s so shocking and insidious to me is that it so fervently continues now – and that it will be a Hollywood gangster movie set in the 1920s and 30s that is the first widely released film in 2017 to address it in any kind of mass commercial artistic way.

Freak out!

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.28.51 AM

I don’t know about you but when I read on the front page of the New York Times that …the Islamic state is seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear material or radioactive material at vulnerable facilities in Belgium and elsewhere it raises the moderate yet consistent level of anxiety I walk around with each day to high.

But, being a master of denial, I quickly remembered that my beloved Times was also the paper that once employed Judith Miller, who once acted as a shill for former Vice President Dick Darth Vader Cheney and printed all kinds of misleading stories about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities under President George W. Bush – stories that in turn created a groundswell of political and public support for probably the worst foreign policy blunder in modern American history – the Dubya-led march into Iraq – which in turn led us into the current massive destabilization of the Middle East.

Stefan only speaks the truth

Stefon only speaks the truth

Yes, I know this is what the terrorists want – for me/us to be terrorized. And it would sort of be working on me had I not lived much of my early life in terror and, in turn, become a master of denial. This, of course, led to decades of therapy that allowed me to understand there is no point worrying about stuff I can’t control – like my own personal demise and the end of the world. But at least I know how to block it out and put it in perspective. For me that means – oh hell, may as well enjoy what little time we have left while we can, because clearly we’re all doomed.

On an existential basis this is not all surprising. I mean, aren’t we all doomed anyway? Not to bring down the room with homilies like – no one gets out of here alive but…uh…guess what…you don’t. And this whole afterlife thing really needs to take a rest. Because if there is an afterlife then doesn’t that mean all of these terrorists are celebrating with a dozen virgins somewhere you and I can’t see? Since who is to say whose after-life is it, anyway?

#deepthoughts

#deepthoughts

This being the case I refuse to become preoccupied or outraged anymore about potential nuclear wars. Yes there are exceptions that will get me – like the 31 dead several days ago in Belgium and any time the proliferation of gun-toting Americans decide to shoot up a movie theatre or classroom full of people. Not to mention the next time any white law officer shoots a non-White young (or old) person. Or vice-versa for that matter. Still, that seems to happen only every month – well, let’s say every few weeks to play it safe. I can certainly handle that amount of sadness in monthly or weekly increments if it stays at that level because I’ve learned to portion it out.

Yet there are any number of news and pop culture events I refuse to get upset or even annoyed about anymore.   I’m actually rather enjoying the food fight The Republican Apprentice and Grandpa Munster are having over whose wife is prettier, smarter or more worth staying monogamous with. Frankly, I’d cheat on both of them, though not with either of their husbands – nor any of the other deposed competitors for GOP presidential choice. I might, however, consider one of the deposed competitors on the Democratic side who has dropped out. Not that I’m naming any O’Names.

Uh... Abssssolutely

Uh… Abssssolutely

I also don’t give a rat’s ass that the just-released Superman v. Batman is by all accounts a leading contender for next year’s Razzie awards; Ben Affleck’s sad sack expression when being unfairly ambushed by a journalist on a press junket who asked him how it felt to have the movie so poorly reviewed; or the fact that the movie has just grossed more than $400,000,000 at the box-office worldwide in its opening weekend. Yeah, you heard it right.

Certainly this, more than anything else, makes a case for the proposed company The Screening Room filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams have been touting the last few weeks.

This new venture/platform/vehicle would provide us all – for the mere price of about $50 – the opportunity to legally beam in any movie to our large home screen mechanism of choice on the exact day it opens at movie theatres.   Industryites are objecting all over the spectrum but really – I’m not upset in the least. Nor should anyone else be in the industry. The only chance they have of more people going out to theatres to see much of their sort of corporate swill is if it’s offered in the comfort of one’s own home where one can freeze it for bathroom breaks or group hate watch it amid chugs of wine or puffs of their prescriptioned pharmaceutical of choice.

OK, maybe I'd miss these little fellas

OK, maybe I’d miss these little fellas

Certainly, the above applies at least to me. I’ll pay $50 to have friends over so I can luxuriate on Mr. Cavill’s shirtless image with my eyes while downing a glass of Chianti. Or perhaps that’s vice-versa in the case of the latter two phrases. Well, whatever works. As for Mr. Affleck, he’d be old news at that point. Literally.

Yes, the world is cruel and old age is not for sissies, as Bette Davis once said. Do you know there are theatres where I can now get in as a senior citizen? That’s cruel but I’m also enjoying the irony of continuing to pay full price. I think of it as my middle finger at the patriarchy still in charge and a revolt against the yet one more category it’s attempting to throw me into against my will.

Senior discount realness

Senior discount realness

People will, of course, always try to throw you into categories you don’t see yourself a part of or, by any objective (or non-objective) measure are clearly not a part of. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton but still consider myself a liberal. I like but am not voting for Bernie Sanders yet fellow Democrats consider me a privileged white male sellout. My GOP friends consider me misguided. Others in the GOP think I’m… Oh, I’m lovin’ all the nasty adjectives the latter throws at me. I’m like #Drumpf – every time you challenge me my contributions to her, like his Wall, get the equivalent of five feet higher.

I am unsure how long my newfound light-heartedness will last but I’m betting given the current news cycles of the last few months, not to mention the world at large, it won’t be ending any time too soon. There are too many clowns and clown cars to laugh at these days. As the great and prescient George Carlin once so cleverly said:

God Bless America

God Bless America

Be Gone Girl

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 9.07.52 AM

Gone Girl, the hit classy movie du jour this month – was silly, overwrought, overdone and, in the end, laughable. That is – for me. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it. Even in the film noir world it seeks to evoke and despite being under the hand of David Fincher, one of the best American directors working today, it presents two people so utterly “written” – and therefore so totally preposterous – that it’s difficult to take anything they do for an almost endless two and a half hours seriously. This includes their relationship, their marriage, their lies, their truths and certainly their acting. Oh, and also, not any murders they may or may not have been involved in. That’s right, you will find no spoilers here – that is with the exception of the movie itself.

No, I DID NOT READ THE BOOK! And stop asking me!!! I know you loved it and you think I would too, especially if I had picked the book up before the movie. (Note: Which yeah, I know, would have had the added benefit of me ALSO having liked the movie a lot more– at least you think that’s the case). (Note #2 – But it isn’t!). And finally, yes, of course I know this is a matter of opinion and I’m clearly in the minority. Do not feel the need to refer me to Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has received a 91% positive rating by audiences and an 89% thumbs up from movie critics across the country. A best picture Oscar didn’t get me to change my mind about the annoyingly retro sensibility of Forest Gump, the dulling Driving Miss Daisy or, dare I say it, the blood curdling, off tune caterwauling of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. In fact, I still have to plug up my ears every time I hear one of my favorite show tunes, All That Jazz, anywhere to this day for fear it will somehow be her voice wafting into the room to haunt me once again as she begins to mangle each and every one of those lovely notes. (Note: Right, yes, I realize she won the Oscar for that one, too. Blah, blah, blah).

Dear Catherine...

Dear Catherine…

You might say, in these situations, I have chosen not to adapt and get with the program. Or perhaps – I was unable to. We all do this in some ways and in various situations thought not necessarily out of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about mere conviction – a state of mind that is truly anything but “mere.” Though occasionally it is also about::

  1. stubbornness,
  2. an inability to change (not to be confused with stubbornness), or
  3. a process of reasoning that presupposes one knows best in pretty much most situations and that the rest of the world is full of your excrement of choice.

It’s unclear why certain situations cause a particular individual to be inadaptable and therefor unable or adamantly against modifying an option and/or action in a given situation. For example, I was truly surprised by the reaction of my students to Gone Girl (why do I keep confusing it with Affleck’s directorial debut – Gone Baby Gone – an infinitely better and, to my mind, terrific film in a similar though not totally analogous genre?) – that’s how sure I was in my analysis. But as it turns out, they loved it. Well, most of them. They found it to be engrossing, superbly acted and right on in its portrayal of a marriage gone bad. Painful as the latter is, I suppose it does give me yet another reason to keep my 27 year old perfectly happy non-married relationship intact despite all the outside pressure to make it legal now that we can. So at least there is that.

Still, what particularly intrigued me about their clearly misguided reaction to the film weren’t their actual opinions but their willingness to agree with me on all the points I raised about it and yet — not change their minds! Was I losing my touch? Or generationally, are they just not as stubborn and/or intractable as we were on every issue in the universe?

5f954e52b47fe0d1b9178990b178e2cad9c2c0b99255fa127affd74c8abb7761

Well, I prefer to think it’s generational since I certainly would never pressure, out-argue or outwardly shame anyone into agreeing with me on any one point. At least, not consciously – well, okay, gleefully. Instead, they seem to me a more adaptable group and/or generation, which in the end might be a more admirable quality for the times they have been born into.

We baby boomers – though I’m on the tail end of it – expected so much and were not satisfied with NOT getting it. So we chose to innovate or push the envelope in other ways to get what we wanted. Or stamp our feet and whine when that didn’t work.

toon369I don’t think this generation wants any less but it feels like they’ve come to expect less. It’s not that they won’t work hard it’s that they haven’t decided they’re entitled and have to have something. They have adapted themselves to expect less – be it from movies, the economy or the government – because less has been given. I’m not sure if they have the right idea but it might not necessarily be the wrong one if they keep working just has voraciously for what they desire. In the end, it might just only be yet another way to look at the world – a canny strategy given the state of things that we have left for them.

This principle is illustrated tenfold in Adaptation – a 2002 film dreamed up by one of the few truly original voices left in the screenwriting trade – Charlie Kaufman. This is a movie I’ve had students watch and read in classes almost since it came out in order to study Mr. Kaufman’s spare writing style and daringness on the page and it’s been almost universally adored by aspiring writers I’ve taught over the last decade. Sadly, this was not the case last week. There was something about the sheer oddness of the work that left this group cold. Not that that they didn’t admire the unmitigated gall of what he did. He got some points for that. They just didn’t believe it made sense under the rules of movies they had grown up watching.

My reaction... or my students'?

My reaction… or my students’?

As the inside story goes, the real Mr. Kaufman wanted to adapt a non-fiction book about flowers called The Orchid Thief, written by famed New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, into a major feature film following the out-of-nowhere success some years earlier of his original, post-modern, hilariously affecting meta-screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Stumped beyond reason and with a deadline looming, the real Mr. Kaufman had the desperate idea to write himself into the film as the main character struggling to adapt an inadaptable book and imagined its author, Ms. Orlean, as an unattainable, ice princess intellectual snob from the Big Apple who falls in love with the subject of her novel and becomes, well – lets just say you have to see the film in order to know that. In any event, the desperate fictional version of Mr. Kaufman, helped along by his doppelganger screenwriter brother Donald –a twin who only aspires to write big commercial movies – finally takes some action to discover the truth behind not only The Orchid Thief but the seemingly unattainable Ms. Orlean -and in the end discovers both the unsavory but thrilling truth about her life as well as his own.

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The genius of the real Mr. Kaufman’s efforts here is that in his story adaptation (and thus the movie, Adaptation) became not compromise but innovation. It was only after hitting his head countless times against the proverbial writer wall that he found the most bizarre solution imaginable, taking a ridiculous stab at doing something outlandish that had just the slightest chance of emerging as – great. Forget about how one feels about the film itself – imagine yourself being paid a hefty amount of money by Columbia Pictures to adapt a book about flowers and handing in a screenplay where you are the main character and your subject takes a back seat to your neurosis in wrestling said subject? Not to mention co-authoring your WGA registered script with another person – your brother – who is also fictionalized in the film and, as it turns out, does not exist in real life. The best part of all this for me was when Mr. Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and at the Oscar competition ceremony, the fake name of Donald Kaufman, along with the real Charlie Kaufman, was read by actress Marcia Gay Harden from the stage of the Kodak Theatre to millions of viewers worldwide. Now that’s adaptation on all levels – and in the best, most insurgent way.

This is not the case with Gone, Girl – a not particularly innovative film that by most accounts is a very faithful adaptation of a best-selling novel that purports to tell the tale of modern day marriage by employing the filmic conventions of suspense and neo-noir while ultimately cloaking it all in a sort of 2014 media world of 24/7 meta reality. For those looking for a take on the latter, I would suggest a film done almost 20 years prior – Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) – which has its flaws but at the very least took a fresh and much more unusual approach to the subject. Or better yet, a brilliantly funny cable movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter in an unforgettable, Emmy Award-winning performance. Yes, it’s a matter of taste. I know that. But to not call it as you see it when the whole world seems to be proclaiming it an entirely different way, would be to betray everything I believe in. After all, if nothing else I am still a baby boomer. On the tail end, that is.

Yes... I agree... something IS missing

Yes… I agree… something IS missing

For the record, one’s view of any movie or work of art is certainly nothing more or less than a matter of opinion. Clearly, there is no real right or wrong. But when one aspires to merely adapt rather than innovate – or more dangerously sees them as the same thing – we run the risk of losing the rarity of something truly fantastic. Standing on my crumbling soapbox of flower power I proclaim to the world that Gone Girl is not even close to being the latter. And note – this is nothing personal to the filmmakers.   I’m sure one-on-one I would likely enjoy the company of the entire cast and crew, even if they would each prefer to take me to the woodshed – or simply tune me out. But I’m used to that. After all, I have been in a relationship for 27 years where the latter simply becomes an occasional fact of life – on both sides. And unlike what’s presented in Gone Girl it doesn’t mean marital destruction – it actually ensures relationship survival.

If you’re single or perhaps simply despise marriage metaphors, let me put it another way with a brief excerpt from one of the wisest films that I know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A heated exchange between transvestite/resident mad scientist, Dr. Frank –N –Furter and his surly, crazy-haired maid, Magenta, finally and inevitably concludes this way:

Magenta: I ask for nothing, Master.

Frank: And you shall receive it…..IN ABUNDANCE!!

Interestingly enough, those lines came from an adapted screenplay.