A Rainbow of Emotions

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In a moment where the nation reels in our own yin and yang versions of pain and pleasure – from the continued assassination of innocent Black people by White racists or the passage of marriage equality by the Supreme Court that ensures LGBT people can now legally tie the knot in all 50 states – it seems reductive to compare life to a Pixar movie. Yet it feels like no karmic coincidence that Disney has just released Inside Out – one of its most thoughtfully psychological animated films ever – not to mention one that in particular deals with how our upbeat innermost emotions must always co-exist with the ever present darker feelings not so way down deep in our soul.

Of course, none of us have the vivacious voice of Amy Poehler to personify our Joy (Note: Perhaps not even Amy herself) nor do we have the gleeful rantings of Lewis Black to substitute for our own virulent misdirected Anger at the world. Or even the pathetically depressing tones of Phyllis Smith, a former assistant casting director who we know as the frumpy, humdrum, monotone-voiced Phyllis on The Office, to so brilliantly express our own inner Sadness.

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

Lest we forget Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear

What we do have is real life – which is never as entertaining as the best or even very good Pixar movie. But it can be if we think about it just a little more than we indulge in our own pity or happiness parties (depending on our moods) without a thought to the karmic realities that comprise what we like to refer to as the rest of the/our worlds.

Full confession – I’m more guilty than most of not following the strategies I’m putting forth here for Living Your Best Life (Note: Trademark Oprah).

Say what now?

Say what now?

Not to be a giant buzz kill but on the day SCOTUS ruled on marriage equality most of what I thought about were gay friends who contributed to the struggle but didn’t live to see this day. This was due, in no small part, to the double whammy of the ruling coinciding with the nationally televised funeral for Clementa Pinckney, the senior pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston who was one of the nine assassinated last week by a 21 year-old White supremacist after the latter had spent the previous hour in a Bible study class praying with them in their own aforementioned house of worship.

Pres. Obama eulogized Pastor Pinckney, also a state senator representing Charleston, and led the mourners in his own very compelling acapella version of “Amazing Grace” – certainly a first in POTUS history. Previously he and others have talked about the idea of reaching a state of grace and spreading that out into the world to others. Presumably this includes the forgiveness of those who have done a person wrong and nowhere were those teachings more apparent than from the mouths of the next of kin of the recently slain who only days before faced the accused murderer of their loved ones. Without exception they all forgave him to his face, or at least chose not to dwell in the bile he had elicited by looking backwards at the loss of all their relative or forward to all the blessings that would never be in the future.

This idea of grace, the ongoing struggle, the bright future – no matter what has happened to you and where it lands on the fairness scale – it’s a wonderful and noble thought, one that is an undeniably positive and useful goal. But full confession: It works for me only some of the time, and even then barely. Part of my personal fight is also fueled by anger and the quest for fairness – the idea that one is not roused to action until one – okay, me – is more personally impacted by the issue at hand.

This was a reason to think about all of the dead of the LGBT community, most especially the thousands from the AIDS epidemic, when marriage equality was announced. For, and this is my own personal belief, the movement would not have gained the steam that it had if not, in great part, due to the AIDS epidemic. Certainly, it wasn’t the only motor but just as certainly it clearly sped things up.

What would Vito think of today?

What would Vito think of today?

To be clear: we would all trade marriage equality in a nanosecond if we could wipe away the Plague and bring back those that fell – meaning died – in its wake. Clearly, we can’t. But what we also can’t do is to deny that the fact that this awful pandemic forced gay people to make themselves publicly known, many times against our own will or perhaps choice, and this inadvertently contributed greatly to forcing people to know us – the real us – rather than the sanitized version groups usually choose to present (or not present) to society at large. And that – along with a lot of grass roots work – is primarily what accelerated change and led us to where we are today.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – or Aunt Ruth as I like to call her – said as much in an interview last week – and I immediately surmised, in a moment of total self-indulgence, that these thoughts must ‘run in the family.’ Though I (and perhaps she) have been thinking this for years it’s hardly an original idea. I heard the filmmaker/novelist Clive Barker say pretty much the same thing about gay rights five or 10 years ago on Bill Maher’s Real Time (or perhaps it was Politically Incorrect – who can remember which fabulous liberal spewfest it was) – and clearly he is no relative of mine. The hair, the body, the horror – not a Ginsberg in his gene pool, let’s be honest.

Not a Ginsberg (but he's welcome anytime)

Not a Ginsberg (but he’s welcome anytime)

Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t clear that brother Clive (who has been out and proud for years), Aunt Ruth, myself and perhaps many of you don’t share something. And that is the recognition that the world is very much about the good and the bad each informing the other – the yin and the yang. That just as it seems one’s world is going to end, and perhaps in some ways it does, it is simultaneously the birth of something else.

caglecartoon

‘nough said

One supposes this is just our mutual human condition – one of many aspects of humanness we have in common, though so often we don’t want that to be the case. Still, it’s important to remember when the next big civil rights issue arises – that civil rights of all kinds for all people are intertwined. Charleston, Stonewall, Israel, Iraq, and ad infinitum back and forth through time. How often one writes about this (or performs it or films it) and how even more frequently the message is ignored, the world goes on and we continue with our days as if it’s all new to us or, even worse, in that particular case it doesn’t really apply. Bitchy, twitchy, witchy, kitschy and all else in between.

It’s important to recall our collective history and our mass behavior when one is feeling down – or perhaps even too hopeful. Not in so much a fatalistic, sad way but an inevitably accepting, understanding and eventually life-affirming way. Dark and light, light and dark, dark and light – neither of them lasts – certainly not forever – nor would you probably want either of them to on their own. If you really think about it. The folks at Pixar obviously thought about it for the six years it took to bring Inside Out to the screen and simplified it so even a CHAIR could make sense of it and use it to understand the current events of the day.

Go figure.

All About SNL: Live from LA

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The pop culture event of the moment is NBC’s Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special. It’s hard to believe more than three generations have grown up watching what is essentially a sketch comedy/variety show that has not deviated much in its format since it began in 1975. But that is part of what makes SNL unique. It is the longest running comedy show on television and the three and a half hour live tribute live celebration (Note: Though, as usual, it is tape delayed for the west coast – poor us) will be (Ed. note – And was!)  a marathon featuring many of its rotating cast of regulars through the years as well as many of its most famous – and infamous – sketches, hosts and musical acts.

I have actually managed to wrangle an interview with Dr. Stephen Tropiano, author of Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About America’s Longest Running Comedy. Don’t ask me how. But it seemed there was no better way to write about pop culture this week than to speak with a person who would be so willing to correct and comment on my every comment, mistake and opinion when writing about this show. The following are some of the uncensored excerpts of our conversation:

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Chair: The first time we met, on a Saturday night 27 years ago, we wound up watching SNL hosted by Sean Penn. This was when he was still married to Madonna and they were making jokes about him punching out paparazzi. Do you think a lot of people tie the show to specific personal memories or is it just a handful of crazies like us?

Stephen Tropiano: I think people think about the show in two ways. First in terms of where they were in their life – in college, out of college, their first job in their twenties and so on, and secondly in terms of the cast. For me, I was in eighth grade at the very beginning and…

C: Eigth grade? Okay, stop right there. And your parents let you watch it?

ST: My parents let us watch anything we wanted. And at that time, I’m not sure they knew much about it anyway. I watched it with my two older brothers and I remember laughing at John Belushi and Gilda Radner – and I remember Chevy Chase falling down. That was funny. And imitating Gerald Ford even though he didn’t look like him.

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

C: I was in college when it first started and I remember at that time we all thought of it as a younger person’s show – our show. Even though the people in it were a little older than me it felt like a place where you could see your contemporaries. It’s changed a little over the years but do you think there’s something to that, especially for young people, and maybe that’s why they get hooked on it and stay with it because they relate to a lot of the cast members?

ST: I think it depends on the era because sometimes there were younger cast members on the show like Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy, who was one of the youngest cast members, even a little younger than Pete Davidson is now. But then there were also casts where people were in their thirties and forties, and more established like Billy Crystal and Martin Short and Michael McKean in the 80s.   But in most ways it always was and is a contemporary show. I mean that certainly has always been the challenge – how do you appeal to both audiences.   Both a younger audience and to as many other people as possible.

C: One way is to hook a younger audience and keep them as they get older. I guess I fit in that paradigm given that I went to a dress rehearsal of the show at the end of the first season when Lily Tomlin hosted and Chevy Chase pretended to be the Jaws shark delivering a Candy-gram.

Before Katy Perry's Left Shark there was.... LANDSHARK

Before Katy Perry’s Left Shark there was…. LANDSHARK

ST: Wow, you are old.

C: No comment.

ST: But I’m also old now and I still watch the show too.   I think another way they attract younger viewers is with the musical guest. Now because I’m old there are musical guests that I’ve never heard of but what they’re hoping is that people will be tuning in for them, young people particularly.

C: I couldn’t imagine my parents or people in their fifties or sixties watching the musical acts or comedy we were watching back then.

ST: Well, at the beginning it WAS a show for baby boomers. The idea was definitely appealing to that specific demographic of people and I think with the musical guests, this was before MTV and there were a lot of musical acts they had on that you just didn’t see on television very much.   There were more mainstream people like Paul Simon but also performers like Gil Scot-Heron, Loudon Wainwright III and Esther Phillips. Even Janis Ian, though she had a hit record, you didn’t necessarily see someone like her on TV.

Iggy is that you?

Iggy is that you?

C: That’s true. She was the Iggy Azalea of her day if you took away Janis’ songwriting ability and sensitivity and added, well, I’m not sure. Care to chime in?

ST: You’re on your own there.

C: There ARE so many outlets to see everyone now so it’s not quite the same. Even with comedy and political satire. Stuff like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in some ways did supplant SNL among younger audiences. Though not entirely.

ST: A part of it has to do with viewing habits. Those are daily shows broadcast every day (Note: That’s why they’re daily shows) and they peaked when DVRs came into popularity. Also, they’re attached to a network like Comedy Central – it was branded to that generation. SNL is considered to be an older generation in terms of branding because it’s on NBC. But still, it has younger audience appeal. Comedy Central is more something they tune into automatically when they come home. They also tend to think of Jon Stewart as a voice of their generation.

C: Even though he’s in his early fifties.

ST: It’s more about the idea that he is on Comedy Central. Which is their channel. Plus, he’s been doing the show for a lot of years. He was in his thirties when he started.

Just a wee lad then

Just a wee lad then

C: Why do you think SNL has been able to stay on the air for 40 years? I can’t think of anything else other than maybe Meet the Press…

ST: And some soap operas. Well, it’s the longest running comedy on television but when you say that you can’t think of it as being like a sitcom. In this way, what the show was always able to do was kind of reinvent itself – become an updated version of itself – and it usually did that because of the talent and because of the writers. Also, just the format of the sketch-variety show kind of lends itself to it. It would not have worked if all the people who were the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players stayed on the show. It just couldn’t.

C: Which is not to say the ratings were always high or that every season worked.

ST: Yeah, they had trouble throughout most of the 1980s. It wasn’t until Lorne Michaels came back that it started to become more popular again. But when he first came back they were struggling and they put in very young cast members like Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall and it didn’t really work. They tried Billy Crystal and the others earlier and went with experience and it improved but he was only really on for a year. Probably because it was far too much work for him.

Mr. Marvelous

Mr. Marvelous

C: And for very little money. Why continue on the show when it opens up so many other opportunities for you? That is certainly the case now when so many cast members leave and become movie stars.

ST: Though not everyone does. It really depends.

C: Yes, it’s tricky and unpredictable. You had people like Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and then Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. Followed by Will Ferrell and now, in some sense, Kristen Wiig.

ST: And Jane Curtin became a big television star as well as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Also recently, they have also starred in movies. But then there were a whole tier of people who might not have become major movie stars – like David Spade and Chris Farley, or Joe Piscopo and Dana Carvey – who did star in some films. Billy Crystal was a movie star. Christopher Guest went on to direct all of his movies. And let’s not leave out Senator Al Franken.

From one desk to another

From one desk to another

C: A political star. I still can’t get over that. Though I’m not unhappy about it.

ST: He will be relieved.

C: I hope so. I can be dangerously scathing. Which brings me to how people enjoy loving or hating SNL. It really seems to be all over the place depending on who you speak to, though mostly I think the reaction is pretty positive, not to mention nostalgic since most of us tend to remember the sketches and characters and performers we did like so fondly.

ST: Well, everybody loves to say, ‘oh, the show was so much better back in the day,’ but back in the early years people were a little bit more forgiving because it was a newer show. Also, there were always a lot of things that didn’t work, often on every show, I saw that doing research for the book. You tend to block those out, though. But the sketches that do work – those are the ones that live on and that’s kind of what we remember the most. And there are a lot of those.

C: Are some eras just funnier than others?

ST: I think the show tends to ramp up around election years and depending on who is president. Sarah Palin was like the Golden Goose in terms of comedy when she was running for election and Tina Fey’s impersonation…

Tina-Fey-as-Sarah-Palin-are-we-not-doing-the-talent-portion-GIF-from-Saturday-Night-Live-SNL

C: You never felt she had to change much of the real Pailn dialogue.

ST: She didn’t! The sketch where Amy Poehler played Katie Couric interviewing her is almost verbatim! But I mean, the Bill and Hillary Clinton years – Bill Clinton was a great person to impersonate. And Will Ferrell doing Bush lends itself to comedy. It also depends on what’s going on in the world. Barack Obama can be parodied but he’s not like Bill Clinton who is bigger than life.

C: What is one of your favorite political sketches?

ST: Well, I like the one where you have Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush having tea at the White House when the Reagans are leaving…

Click here for the full video

Click here for the full video

C: And Nancy Reagan’s is grasping on to the furniture for dear life in an attempt not to leave and you see security dragging her out. It felt so real! But I have to admit I found it hard to laugh at some of the Dubya sketches with Will Ferrell saying strategery. Even though it was really funny it was hard to laugh because of how true and sad the whole thing was.

ST: You’re really bringing down the room.

C: You’re right. Clearly, if I were a sketch I’d be cut. One of my absolute favorite sketches, I have to admit was the first Debbie Downer where Rachel Dratch starts breaking up in close-up. I still makes me scream.

ST: Part of the reason that one was so memorable is that there really isn’t a sketch where everyone is breaking up. In that one, everybody is losing it. I think six or seven people.

C: What are some of the memorable ones for you?

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

ST: Well, probably the best and most famous was the Chevy Chase-Richard Pryor sketch that was about racism. It was written by Richard Pryor’s writer Paul Mooney because they felt that Pryor’s humor was not going to represented on the show.

C: That is one of mine too. It’s less funny than wonderfully true and real satire. I also LOVE Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child cutting her finger while preparing a chicken and bleeding to death onscreen.

ST: If we’re going to go there I have to mention The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament where people competing get shot by her while skiing down the slope.

C: I remember they had to apologize for that one. And for those who don’t know about it, they can look it up.

ST: I also loved The Sweeney Sisters.

C: Oh My God, Clang, clang, clang went the Trolley. Now you have me thinking of Delicious Dish and Shweaty Balls. Not to mention Maya Rudolph doing Donatella Versace – GET OUT!!!!!!!! Your favorite all time performer – the most unfair question?

ST: Hmmm, I guess it would be Gilda Radner.

The Queen

The Queen

C: No fair, she was mine!

ST: The characters she did – Roseanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella, as well as the Judy Miller Show. They were just very real. And we should also say she had people like Alan Zweibel and Marilyn Suzanne Miller writing specifically for her – that’s why she got so many characters on.

C: I loved Lisa Loopner – the nerdy girl – and her best friend Todd, who Bill Murray played. Especially when he gave her “noogies” and she couldn’t stop giggling. I think I probably related.

Toddddddddddd

Toddddddddddd

ST: Probably?

C: You were supposed to say – ‘oh no, I can’t imagine how you would relate!’

ST: That was not one of the lines I was given.

C: Best host? I know this one is also unfair.

ST: Hmmm. I would say Steve Martin. His type of comedy seems to best fit the show because it tends to be in smaller bits.

... and the King

… and the King

C: Or when he did stuff like the King Tut song, which actually became a hit on the radio. It was sort of like the precursor to viral videos like Lazy Sunday. For me the best host in recent years is probably Justin Timberlake.

ST: He’s sort of the perfect person because aside from being musical we had no idea that he was truly funny. It was unexpected and he was game for anything. Lorne Michaels has said some of his favorite hosts were sports guys because they’re fearless. They’re used to giving their all and don’t care how they look. I mean, who thought Peyton Manning would be funny?

C: Or Charles Barkley. Favorite character? Mine is Stefon. I can’t help it.

ST: Part of the reason Stefon was so good– aside from how great Bill Hader was doing him – was that it was extremely well-written. The amount of items and dialogue John Mulaney, who wrote the sketches, would come up with allowed Bill Hader to not only be great but break up because they’d add one or two things to the list when he’d be doing the show live that he didn’t know about.

Stefon-Final

C: There’s something about people breaking character in the right way that never fails. So who are some of your faves, other than Stefon?

ST: I’d have to say – The Sweeney Sisters and Roseanne Rosannadanna. I also thought in terms of characters, Mike Meyers did some of the most incredible work.

C: Rather than discuss them perhaps we should end with them. Since apparently his Dr. Evil is partly based on Lorne Michaels – who started SNL to begin with.

"Allegedly"

“Allegedly”

ST: Mike Meyers has said that isn’t true. That just vocally it only sounds like him because they are both Canadian. But it is his favorite character.

C: Well, I’ve learned something new. You are a fountain of information.

ST: Are you being snide?

C: Me? Certainly not. I am not an SNL character. Yet.

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.

Rules of the Game

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About three and a half years ago I came up with a silly exercise for my students, who each semester must attend a series of panels on different aspects of the entertainment industry.   Rather than me explain it to you, I scoured my old gmail account to find this task, which will undoubtedly affirm the belief of some that majoring in communications at a private college is a total waste of time. The fact that those people are absolutely wrong and that this exercise is absolute proof that I am indeed preparing them for the world they are about to enter into, will be discussed in a moment. For right now here is the task at hand that you are free to make fun of in your minds five ways to Sunday:

ANGRY BIRDS: THE MOVIE

March 28, 2011

As you all know, Pendleton Productions has purchased the rights to “Angry Birds” and has set up “Angry Birds: The Movie” as our first animated/live action tent pole film with Pixar Studios. It will, of course, be directed by Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”). 

We have cast Angelina Jolie, Paul Rudd, Andrew Garfield, Willow Smith and Kim Kardashian as our birds. Our pigs will be played by Zack Galifinakis, Hugh Jackman and Jack Black. 

In the time remaining, we’d like you to develop a detailed marketing plan to launch our film. Actually, it’s more than a film. It’s an event. Or will be if we decide to hire you because that will be your responsibility.

The marketing plan should reach across all media and be as creative and out-of-the-box as possible while still staying within the realm of reality. Whose reality? That’s up to you. But it should include publicity and promotion plans for the launch, advertising ideas, tie-ins, merchandising, product placement and any other means of creating public attention (but not backlash). It should also take into account platforms in film, television, music, new media and all social media. Because we want to reach, well – EVERYONE!!

You’ve got about 20 minutes to meet and then no more than 5-10 minutes to impress us with a presentation. So, no pressure.

Oh — our blue ribbon panel will vote and award prizes for the winning team.

Good luck and… don’t get shot down.

Okay, perhaps not my finest work. But it was prescient. A year after this assignment it was announced that there would indeed be a movie version of that best selling app/videogame/four quadrant mega-tent pole thingie.   And given that at last count the thingie was at 2 billion downloads across all platforms (and still counting) it was unsurprising that just several days ago Sony Pictures announced it was indeed moving forward with a planned Summer 2016 release of AB on the big screen with a cast that includes SNL veterans Jason Sudekis, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Kate McKinnon, not to mention Frozen’s Josh Gad, Key and Peele and Peter Dinklage.

Sounds a little bit different than this "birds" movie

Sounds a little bit different than this “birds” movie

Logic and everyday belly-aching about the lack of imagination among film industry bigwigs tells us that no matter how bad any of us might think this film will turn out, it is also likely to turn out somewhere between a tidy and massive profit. Certainly, it is unlikely to lose money given the longevity this kind of asset assures its makers. Or is it and does it?

The fact is Rovio Entertainment – the Finnish animation company that first created the AB global franchise back in 2003 with a mere app – became rich beyond its wildest dreams from the app and is partners with Sony on the big screen version. But Rovio also had an additional announcement to make almost simultaneously with all this film casting hoopla last week. And that was that there would be a 16% cutback of its workforce, which in laymen’s terms means up to 130 Rovio employees – many of whom were there since the company’s inception – are getting the ax.

huh?

huh?

But how can this be after 2 billion plus downloads, 10 million Hasbro toys sold, an on-demand television show, and theme park attractions across the world, including even one at….NASA? (Look it up, naysayer)

Well, apparently Rovio’s 2013 net profits dropped 50% and this summer it was thus forced to replace its co-founder and chief executive of 10 years. In this way, it is actually telling us it will likely fit very well into the model of any other company in the entertainment industry. For the streets of Hollywood – both live and virtual – are littered with top of the heap successes that either no longer exist or are sputtering along in severely downsized versions.

I am old enough to remember that once upon a time there was a decade called the eighties and an independent film company named Vestron that won the lottery many times over with a worldwide film sensation asset that kept on giving: Dirty Dancing. But after a few years of spending with the big boys (literally) and never again achieving that kind of success, Vestron eventually folded. Remember New Line Cinema – the only studio in town that would roll the dice with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, not to mention the makers of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise? Well, eventually even those assets would still not allow them to compete with the changing landscape of media platforms and they were absorbed by Time Warner and downsized into a sleeker form until eventually winding up as a pint-sized entity of the corporate conglomerate where it is now barely an afterthought.

Flying too close to the sun?

Flying too close to the sun?

Which brings us back to my students.

Many of them are aspiring writers, directors and producers. There are others who hope to work in more specifically technical fields such as editing, cinematography and sound. In addition, I have a healthy number who are majoring in various forms of journalism, marketing, advertising and public relations. All of them are social media savvy and many are game savvy, or at least game literate. They may not be Angry Birds players – clearly not enough of us are for Rovio – but they have played or will (eventually) be playing some newer, hipper version of it on their phone, tablet or screen of choice not yet invented.

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This being the case, there is another game I would like them to be skilled enough to play well in: the game of reality.   It didn’t take any genius on my part to predict the Angry Birds reality but it did take a bit of chutzpah to force them to think long and hard, regardless of their career aspirations, of how the commercial world of entertainment functions and what they are up against. No longer can a writer just be a storyteller or a cinematographer spend his/her time ignoring everything else but how precisely light flows into the frame of a scene.   In order to navigate the waters and be in a position to exercise your craft within the “system” most seem determined to enter, one needs to understand a world where we are all so ridiculously connected to both the ridiculousness of minutiae and the seriousness of global destruction, human rights violations and refighting the social revolution of the 1960s. Meaning that it should be a mystery to no one how a game application where nasty little furry birds slingshot themselves into innocent farm animals in the hopes that they will obliterate them into nothingness could net its creator many multi-millions/perhaps billions of dollars. Nothing about it should.

Since this is the world we have allowed them to inherit – this Angry Birds world – my thought three and a half years ago was to prepare them in a game of my own rather than to sit around and watch as the slingshot passed them by. Don’t get me wrong – I have higher aspirations for them than the virtual destruction of pigs via feathers. But wouldn’t it be great if they could accept the ridiculous Angry Bird reality of where we seemed headed, use their creativity to smartly work within that world and then leverage it into other employment with something newer, better and certainly more creative of their own once they amassed the access to do so?

After all, the next generation is being born this way

After all, the next generation is being born this way

Well, I thought so. But as it turned out, they were not the clueless, intellectual snobs I assumed many of them would be and that I certainly was at their age. They jumped into the assignment at the time, coming up with some of the best, most creative and certainly wisest marketing strategies I had ever heard. This includes any and all ideas I witnessed during the tortured eight or so years I spent working at three different studios in film marketing before become a more tortured – though in a good way – screenwriter, teacher and blogger.

... and before I became the great Chair-dini

… and before I became the great Chair-dini

This is a generation that, if nothing else, appreciates irony. I loved the AB live celebrity dunk in Times Square. The simultaneous worldwide Angry Bird game, the virtual billboards in cities across the world that would keep score via international teams, the personal appearances of movie stars in bird costumes that would litter the airwaves and magazine pages, and even the animal rights charities that – through some twisted reasoning I can’t remember but recalled liking at the time – would become involved in some huge charity event benefit culminating at the film premiere.

Taking a cue from China's Angry Bird's theme park

Taking a cue from China’s Angry Bird’s theme park

Sure, some of them balked at having to spend half an hour of their day thinking about film marketing – especially since on the whole this is a generation who doesn’t care much to sell something they don’t believe in.   But they all immediately understood the value of doing so. The truth is they’re a lot smarter and two steps ahead of the game that most of the rest of us are because they know games, have fun with games and will, no doubt, be changing the game while the rest of us are still complaining about the very existence of the game that we somehow, through ignorance, omission or sheer laziness, helped make a reality.

Here’s hoping that once they get the power they don’t turn their backs so some other younger, more vibrant member of some future animal species can knock them off their perch.   Though surely by that time there will be an app for that which works better than any new, lame exercise I could have come up with.

Until it doesn’t.