Size Matters

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It’s one of those small, personal films…..

The audience is VERY limited…..

People in major metropolitan areas will be go for it, but…I mean…

Why would anyone want to see this?…

BO-RING!!!…………

BRILLIANT!!!

There seems to be two types of movies nowadays – the BIG and the SMALL.

The BIG ones are entertaining and appeal to many people. Even when they’re dramatic they have lots of ACTION and are not full of MANY LEVELS of meaning. They’re LOUD and they’re fun. They can also be funny, with recognizable characters that you’d like to hang out with or hate. When they work they’re like great fast food or stylish mass-market clothing lines. You indulge in them because they deliver on what they promise.

Of course, this description is a little ridiculous. But that’s fine because we’re not talking about the BIG here. They get enough attention as it is.

That leaves – The SMALL. And the PERSONAL.

This variety is just that: intimate, multi-layered and often not very obvious. They are not fun in a ha-ha sort of way and many times they are just plain upsetting or confusing. Their pace is A LOT SLOWER (more, ahem, leisurely) and in too many moments you care to admit they can make you wonder why you would choose to spend what precious little spare time you have watching another person’s therapy session. Still, they give you something that you can’t get most anywhere else – an intimate, almost forbidden look into the psyche of someone else. At their best they can be moving, thought-provoking and, as a side benefit, can make you feel personally less crazy about your own mind and life.

Join the club!

Join the club!

Certainly, this description is biased and overly general. But no less false or true than the one used to describe BIG.   If it also seems a bit snobby, like I’m preferring this to the former, then so be it. Remember, we’re talking about what the general public considers SMALL. It needs all the help that it can get.

This being a lazy weekend where I’ve been under the weather after finishing up months of work on two different jobs, I was up for the small in the last few days.

You’d think it would be the opposite, right? Well, you wouldn’t be alone. My parents never understood why I preferred to write heart-breaking poetry at the age of 12 instead of playing baseball outside. Or why I worried so much about the destruction of the world, my own death and other existential questions of life.

What can I say, some of us were just born this way.

So to satisfy all of these urges– and yes, to RELAX ME – I popped in three different DVDs from my holiday pile courtesy of the usually ungenerous film studios. They are all what are considered SMALL movies. And they ALL had their moments – which you can take any way you want.

Other than being tossed by the general SHOW BIZ public into the dreaded SMALL and PERSONAL category, they have absolutely nothing else in common. Which is why they’re worth examining individually before they entirely disappear from the motion picture zeitgeist – and perhaps seeing if what I (or THEY) say about small is true.

BY THE SEA 

Directed, written and starring Angelina Jolie-Pitt

brad-and-angie-by-the-sea

It’s difficult to imagine ANYTHING starring Mr. and Mrs. Brad Pitt as small or personal, right? After all, is anything they do either of those things for very long? Certainly, it’s never SMALL. Except this film.

No – it’s nowhere near as BAD as you might have read it is. Nor is not a two-hour plus perfume commercial, the ultimate vanity project or the thinly veiled semi-autobiographical tale of Ms. Jolie-Pitt’s deceased mother.

By The Sea is actually a strangely watchable and often infuriatingly flawed tale of a an early 1970s it couple in marital crisis done in the style of a late 1960s French film where shots linger, meanings are implied and the scenery, clothes and sunsets are all breathtakingly beautiful. All done to the tune of what seems like a mash-up of the ambient theme music of every film ever directed by Jean Renoir, Roger Vadim and Claude Chabrol, not to mention a few others.

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

If you’re looking for faults you’ll find them. It’s thoroughly dumb-founding why Ms. Jolie-Pitt spends the majority of her screen time miserably unhappy and girding towards a breakdown. And when the truth is finally revealed (Note: yes, hang in there, she finally will let you know) it has nowhere near the impact it might have had it been doled out to us in even semi-coherent bits and pieces all along. True, this is screenwriting 101 but, I mean, are you going to be the one to give the Pitts notes when they’ve signed on to star in a new movie they want you to make?

This being the case, let’s focus on the positives. This is a filmmaker-movie star that understands exactly who she is and what the public thinks of her. So what she chooses to do here is indulge us with it – meaning her – until we can’t see straight and then subvert our expectations of who we think she is. Or, well, who her character is. Not that there’s a difference. Or, is there?

Oh Angie... you clever girl.

Oh Angie… you clever girl.

See, that’s the point. Ms. Jolie-Pitt plays an impossibly beautiful, glamorous former-dancer from New York married to Mr. Pitt, an impossibly handsome famous novelist of the time. They live in New York but are vacationing in a gem of a small hotel on the water in the south of France where they drive a spiffy sports car and seem to have unlimited clothes, style and funds to stay as long as they choose. They are so breathtakingly watchable and enviable that you hate them – then hate them for being as miserable as they both are. Until you also can’t help but be intrigued by one question: how can this possibly be??????

And that’s the crux of the film and what makes it more often than not watchable. Which is not to say I give it a hearty recommendation. But by the end, you marvel at how skillfully Ms. Jolie Pitt was able to undermine our expectations of just who she and her husband are vs. what they seem to be. And if you want to know if I’m talking about the real couple or the characters they play I have no idea. Which is, again, the entire point, and what makes the movie an unusual experience you don’t get much of anymore on the BIG (or even small) screen.

ROOM

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel)

Every year it seems there’s room for ONE small, personal, INDIE film on the Hollywood must-see A list. Last year it was Whiplash, and deservedly so. This year it’s Room, a movie that is equally deserving.

It’s difficult to predict why one very intimate, low-budget SMALL story will work so well while others falter. The strength of Room is its unrelenting oppressive intimacy and suppressed emotions. Which is not say it’s without its fair share of hysteria. But there’s an astonishing lack of bells and whistles here – whether due to budget, design, style or all three – and it all works pretty seamlessly.

There will be no spoilers except to say Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who play a mother and her five-year old son stuck in a small room – a premise novelist/ screenwriter Donoghue was inspired to create after she read about an even more harrowing real-life story. People often think writers can only tell personal stories they’ve experienced or seen happen to their family and friends. This is shortsighted and denies the very craft of writing itself. If you do your homework and are open to your own emotions you can become part of each character’s story and wind up telling a tale about your own life – at least by extension.

Move over J. Law, Brie's Hollywood's newest It Girl

Move over J. Law, Brie’s Hollywood’s newest It Girl

For whatever reason, that seems to have happened here with Ms. Donoghue, the director and the actors. Ms. Larson is astonishing, as she was in the similar-in scope Short Term 12 several years ago. Her co-star, the now 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay gives one of those child performances that will go down next to Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. You just find yourself wondering – how can this be? How does a kid DO this? And…could I even put two thoughts together when I was his age???

There’s a lot more to Room than any of this but since I managed to see it with little or no information beforehand I’ll do you the same favor here. But you should see it. It shows that you can still aspire to tell any sort of subject matter onscreen and, with enough time and effort, do it every bit as well or better than any one of the BIG guys (or gals, for that matter).

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR

Directed and written by Maya Forbes

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This movie is an admittedly semi-fictionalized account of the writer-director’s own childhood as the young daughter of her bipolar, blue-blood father who tries to be a full-time parent to her and her sister when their African American mother decides to go to grad school in order to be able to earn enough money to support the family.

Its strength is that it embraces mental illness as both a serious medical condition AND entertainingly over-the-top oddity. Too often this type of character becomes merely charmingly strange or sadly pathetic – either whitewashed into a sideshow freak or held up as a sadly melodramatic life-wrecking nut job. Mark Ruffalo’s performance manages to convey equal parts of both and it imbues the film with just the right kind of narrative drive to sustain a fairly episodic story. Just as you think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous, he anchors you back to a believable reality. But when the film veers into Lifetime TV melodrama (Note: That is if Lifetime TV did more films with male leads – but that would then make it a TNT or Nat Geo movie where he’d have to be a crazy cowboy in the Wild West), he comes up with an odd bit or reaction that makes you smile but won’t send your face into snide eye-roll mode.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

One wishes the story offered something a little bit…newer on the subject. Or perhaps that by looking at his predicament through the 2015 lens of what we know about mental illness makes everything about what’s presented seem a bit dated. One can’t help but feel like we’ve seen it before, or read about it or watched too many cable and now even network series on the subject with more than our fair share of QUIRK.

There are also moments in the movie where we can’t help but feel as if we’re watching Ms. Forbes’ comic recreations of a childhood that she has recreated for many others through the years. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that on its own. Almost every artist does it with their stories and experiences in some form or another before offering it up for general digestion (NOTE: Guilty as charged). The trick is for it not to seem as if this is material that has had previous out-of-town runs. You don’t want the sense that the daughters’ embarrassments are too planned or the wife’s exasperations too rehearsed – which is how it too often seemed. But like he does in so many roles, it’s Mr. Ruffalo who seems to know just how to calibrate it all. It’s why he’s the go-to character guy of his age group – a guy who knows how to make the small seem something better than big – REAL.

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Come Back or Go Away!

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 1.33.30 PMSometimes you just want to tell someone or something to go away.  Heels that aren’t high enough (Note: Teenage Chair is still mourning the loss of platform shoes); pork roast dinners (Note #2: It’s not a Jewish thing, just the sight of it makes me rickety); and hair with so much pomade and/or other product that it won’t move in the wind (Note #3 – Okay, perhaps it’s just flowing locks of any kind that I crave).

If you’re in the entertainment biz there is also slightly more serious fare you might want to give the ol’ heave-ho to.   These would include people who get undeserved studio deals because they have no discernable talent other than one to charm and persuade – which if not talent, is at the very least is a great asset to possess in 2014.

Standing around the Writer’s Guild this week discussing the latter subject, one of my peers concluded that these very same people become slaves to their profoundly clueless perception of their severe lack of talent and that this, in turn, gives them the supreme confidence and ability to soldier on and win at the business of show despite what any measurable mathematical calculation of real creative acumen would allow.

For example, this week doyennes of the fashion world became outraged when the sacred cow of magazine covers in their universe – Vogue – graced two people on it who many readers saw as the symbol of everything they don’t want as their style cover couple:

More like.. #enoughalready

More like.. #enoughalready

Granted, this might be a step forward from paper-thin, meal deprived models wearing half of a dress that would only lie right if it were draped on a skeleton in the front of the room of a 10th grade chemistry class.  Still, one can understand Vogue readers collectively rolling their eyes, sighing or yelling ‘Go away’ as they hurl the Kimye issue across the room and accidentally break a window due to the sheer weight of paper from all of the additional ads the duos mere presence undoubtedly caused to be purchased.

Feeling cynically depressed yet?  Well, don’t be.

On the flip side of this, there are just as many times that collectively we are all as likely to shout COMEBACK! (or Come back!) at a talented person or commodity or thing that we love that has been absent from the spotlight for too long or secretly seems to have just disappeared for no reason.  Though writers are clearly on average the most cynically depressing in the creative bunch (Note: You will just have to trust me on this), it is interesting to note that my aforementioned Writers Guild discussion segued into one where myself and my peers also listed many famous and infamous talents who were too long absent and whose new works we longed for or whose past works we still reveled in.  Plus – some of them were even friends, acquaintances AND people YOUNGER than us who were a lot more successful and wealthy.  While that entire group might admittedly evoke some envy, we also concluded that their every achievement cause us to be hopeful, excited and more motivated than ever to delve back into our own work because they show us what is possible in the best-case scenarios as they move us or make us laugh.  They also seem to push the collective consciousness just a teeny bit more into the kind of world we want to live in.  Rather than take a job away from us, they also inspire confidence that, contrary to what my parents and numerous T-Shirts you can buy on Café Press say, Life IS (or can be) Fair – even if it’s only sometimes.

I know this is all certainly true because the best show on television, Mad Men, is once again returning to the airwaves on AMC beginning April 13.

All Aboard!

All Aboard!

Sure, it’s a short seven-episode season 7 in 2014 with the final seven scheduled for the final season 8 to be broadcast sometime in 2015.  But that gives us a full 12-18 months for MM’s creative outcome to percolate in the cultural zeitgeist and raise the collective bar a little more, much in the same way Breaking Bad did the previous two years.  And certainly, we could use that.  I mean, God knows who else besides Kimye Vogue editor Anna Wintour (aka our Miranda Priestly prototype) has planned for future cover models.

Therefore, in the spirit of all this and more, the following are a list of some of the other COME BACKS/COMEBACKS and GO AWAYS we will look forward to, wish for or…sigh…dread might happen or not happen in the foreseeable future.  (Note:  Certainly any one of the occurrences or non-occurrences will add or subtract from our collective cultural zeitgeist only as we each see fit – rendering our national average impossible to figure out.  If for nothing else other than self-preservation, it’s probably safer that way).

1. The Comeback

We cherish you!

We cherish you!

Literally the best industry news all week was that HBO is in serious talks for a 2015 limited series return of the cancelled-too-early comedy, The Comeback, with star Lisa Kudrow, who co-created the show along with producing partner Dan Bucatinsky and director-writer Michael Patrick King almost a decade ago.  The docu-style, meta reality series followed the adventures of Valerie Cherish, a seemingly washed-up sitcom star from the 1980s who gets a shot on TV again playing the small supporting role of the older Aunt Sassy on a new contemporary half hour show where she often finds herself shunted to the side and mistreated in favor of younger and fresher talent.  To make matters worse, poor Valerie has also agreed for cameras to film every moment of her real life as a potential reality television show documenting the process.

Mere words cannot describe the sheer glee we fans of this much-overlooked gem feel now that one of our favorite programs – unfairly cancelled after a mere 13 episodes – has a chance at a comeba….well, you get the idea.   The mess of Valerie Cherish’s life managed to be hilarious, cringe-worthy and uncomfortably, heartbreakingly real almost all at the same time.  I myself sometimes had to turn away from the screen for poor Val, guiltily laughing at the indignities of show business realities she willfully subjected herself to weekly.  Yet, like most of the rest of us, she somehow always got through it all with a pasted-on smile even as invisible tears of sadness and occasional joy ran down her face.  PLEASE COME BACK!!

2. Brackets

Maybe we should bring Nate Silver in.

Maybe we should leave this to Nate Silver.

 What is with this word???  Every year at this time I read the newspaper, watch TV or read/see on the web bracket this or bracket that with an accompanying list of sports teams.  Now even the President is getting into it and we have to listen to all those crazies once again criticizing Barack Obama for spending time on the same type of foolishness that each one of them appears equally into.  Hmmm, next thing you know they’ll be criticizing him for going to the bathroom just like them instead of tending to the biologically defying duties of the Oval Office.  I mean, how dare he???  Plus, I bet Putin doesn’t go to the bathroom.  Clearly.

Which brings us back to the dreaded bracket.  Will someone please write about what the hell they really are and why we should care when gambling is illegal in the U.S.?  Oh wait, really?  Gambling is illegal in most places where the bracket counts?  Yeah, it really is.  Trust me, I know.  Even if I don’t know what the hell the term bracket actually means.

Finally, even if sports had nothing to do with this subject I’d still be annoyed because to me brackets really only evoke images of buying those metal thinga-majigs from Ikea or the hardware store that I nail into the wall and put shelves on, only to have them then fall apart, usually knocking me in the head or on the foot as they do.  Then I have to hire a handyman to fix the whole damn thing and it costs me a lot more money than if the word had never come up in my life.  So either way brackets are almost guaranteed to be a losing proposition. The verdict?  GO AWAY!!

3. Charlie Kaufman

Where are you??

Where are you??

He’s a screenwriter who is my age, been nominated for the Academy Award three times and won once, and has never written any original work I didn’t like and respect.  And I’m not even jealous or envious!  Even his last film, Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed, was quite brilliant in my humble opinion despite its mixed reviews. (Note: I remember literally snorting in contempt as several couples left the movie theatre at the showing I attended – those mental midgets!)

Still, it’s been five years since Mr. Kaufman has had an original screenplay made.  Yes, there have been talks he’s once again going to collaborate with Spike Jonze, who directed his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (Michel Gondry directed his Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and that he himself will write and direct a movie called Frank or Francis that has gone in and out of financing.  But so far – zilch.

My guess is our biggest hope lies with a new Kaufman television pilot for FX, How and Why, to star Michael Cera, John Hawkes and Sally Hawkins.  It tells the story of a man who used to be a TV science guy for kids who gets fired and starts a new show in a small town where Michael Cera is his boss and weird supernatural stuff begins to happen (Note: As if the former weren’t enough).  Yes, they had me at Charlie Kaufman but this idea sounds Great. COME BACK!  NOW!!!

4. The New Male Buzz Cut

If he can't pull it off...

If he can’t pull it off…

STOP IT!!  Just STOP IT right now!!!  Especially if you’re over 35.

I’m sorry, call me crazy (and many do) but this is the butt ugliest haircut for guys in the world.  Pretentious, affected, too coiffed and too contrived.  In short, you’re not too cool for the room when you think you’re too cool for the room.  See, Ryan Gosling is not too cool for the room and he doesn’t have the haircut.  He’s just cool.

Oh yeah, you know the one I mean.  Okay, Macklemore looks cool in it but he’s a rapper and he just won a well-deserved Grammy (Note:  Yeah, I’m on team M and not team Yeezus).  But the parade of male celebs who have gone the super buzz route just because their stylists told them to, only to be followed by every other gay guy at the gym and every straight guy who thinks they can have Adam Levine’s love life if they do this same hairdo along with one or several tattoos, is maddening and just plain dead wrong.

Stay away from Leto!

Stay away from Leto!

If you’ve got good hair revel in it cause it won’t last forever.  I say this not out of bitterness, but out of kind-hearted envy and personal experience.  Plus, you will look back at photos 20 years from now and wonder why you were wearing the post-millennial equivalent of a Nehru suit on your head.   GO AWAY!! 

5. Brussel Sprouts vs. Kale & Quinoa

Hello gorgeous

Hello gorgeous

As a child of the sixties and seventies, I grew up thinking vegetables were these soggy sweet, soupy things from a can that were rancid.  In fact, the words Del Monte and Birdseye still literally make me nauseous to this day.

The re-invention of the fresh vegetable as a thing of beauty across America and the many options for its preparation to the masses was one of the only great things to come out of the 1980s, in my mind.  That is, aside from meeting my life partner.  We can thank many people for this, most notably Alice Waters, one of the leaders of the organic food movement and founder/chef extraordinaire from Chez Panisse. (Note:  No, she had nothing to do with the partner and I meeting, but still…)

In tribute to Ms. Waters then, it is with great joy that I wholly endorse a revival of the much ignored but very, very tasty brussel sprout.  Not sure why but they seem to be everywhere these days as the vegetable of choice in restaurants across the country.  They’re good for you (High fiber/low fat) and very easy to make (roast them with a little olive oil and salt ‘n pepper at 450 degrees for 15-20 mins.) and in my mind beat both kale and quinoa into the ground.  Not to say the latter two are bad – just tiresome.  They’re tolerable, even good sometimes, but they’ve become sort of like watching any movie, TV show, commercial or anything else featuring Ashton Kutcher.

7. Hannah Horvath

hateeveryone1

She is Lena Dunham’s alter ego on Girls and I love both the show and the character.  But like any best friend or love partner for life you occasionally need a break.  This is what’s happening these days with Hannah and us.

It’s hard to watch the twenty-something version of yourself at your worst and most insecure slowly destroy your life and every meaningful relationship you’ve ever had scene by scene with that rare combination of extreme narcissism and neediness.  Luckily, there is only half an hour more for this season and Hannah can go away to regroup while we can recall why we are forever grateful to have our twenties decades behind us.  (Note: For those of you who don’t fall into the latter category, our deepest sympathies).  GO AWAY – but only for a while.

8. The Homosexual

Imagine my surprise to read this week in both the NY Times and The Advocate that the word homosexual has been officially deemed an “offensive term” by GLAAD and will be avoided at all costs by the paper of record.  Apparently, this has something to do with the fact that if you take the term gay marriage and call it homosexual marriage it will sound funny – sort of like the equivalent of referring to an African American person as colored in 2014.

Wasn't this enough this week?

Wasn’t this enough this week?

Well, as a gay/homosexual person I am officially confused.  Not in a sexual or lifestyle way – just in an old-fashioned I’m not sure kind of fashion.  And if I’m left scratching my head, I can only image where you must be.  No wonder my transgender friends are up in arms.  Society can barely keep up with the speed in which we’re coming out so you can imagine what it’s like for the keepers of Webster, Wikipedia and Strunk & White.

Here’s my suggestion.  Let’s just call everyone male or female because…Wait, that won’t work either since some people prefer gender non-specifics.  How about human beings?  Too clinical?  What about Mary?  Butch?  Ahh, forget I brought it up.  And you may continue to call me a homosexual  – as long as you’re not Antonin Scalia or Rush Limbaugh – because even if they called me gay I’d know what they really mean.  COME BACK!

9. Super hero movies and 3-D

NO MORE!

NO MORE!

Until you hear otherwise, we here at notesfromachair don’t want to hear anything more about them.    We don’t care that Man of Steel was one of the 10 top grossing movies worldwide in 2013 or that Ironman 3 was….NUMBER #1!???????  

We. Are. Done.  We didn’t see Gravity with those hideous glasses and we still loved it.  We watched Frozen at home and happily sung along to Idina Menzel, not missing a note while the ice in our glass of Diet Coke clinked back and forth.

Yet that same year we were tortured with what seemed like ten and a half hours of a bad Superman reboot that made us long for Christopher Reeve and a multi-million dollar (though nearly unintelligible) cameo from Marlon Brando as his father.  Not to mention the only 12 minutes we saw of our favorite film actor, Robert Downey, Jr. somehow managing to maintain his dignity as he meandered through Iron Man 3.

One day the movie business pendulum will swing the other away and we will hopefully still be able to see and hear. If not, please let us know how it goes.  Until then, do not tell us anything about Man of Steel: Superman vs. Batman.  Isn’t it enough we’re showing you this dumb fake trailer? GO FAR, FAR, AWAY!

10.  24/7 Airplane Travel Disaster Porn

I am planning my first trip to Italy in May and don’t like flying to begin with. So is it too selfish to ask for a moratorium on sensationalizing human airborne tragedy?  My motives for this are not SOLELY selfish, just mostly.    Sheer terror does that to you.  GO AWAY.

11. THE CLINTONS

And we can't stop.. and we don't stop!

And we can’t stop.. and we don’t stop!

Let’s face it, Hillary is running for President in 2016 and will soon be saturating the airwaves.  Bill was dubbed the Explainer-in-chief for the brilliant, powerhouse speech/argument he made at the 2012 Democratic convention that many feel was key in helping win Barack Obama re-election.  Finally, I saw Chelsea Clinton promoting the Clinton Global Initiative this week on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and she is not going anywhere but up.

There is no use voting on this.  They Clintons never went away and they are never going away.  Therefore it makes it impossible for them to come back or to even have a Comeback.  Sometimes life is like that.  And it not only takes hard work, confidence and determination, but real creative talent.  It’s rare but when it happens all the rest can really do is sit back, watch and enjoy the show.  Let’s face it, these days we’ve earned the right to be truly entertained.

This is the Pitts!

Mommie Dearest.

When Brad Pitt’s mother came out as virulently anti-Obama (that’s Barack HUSSEIN Obama, to use her exact words), anti-choice (“the killing of unborn babies,” as she puts it) and anti-gay marriage, (she cites “Christian conviction concerning homosexuality”) in a letter to Missouri’s Star-Ledger this week, all I could think about was:

  1. What is it like when Brad comes home for the holidays?
  2. What was it like when he came home with Angie for the first time (assuming he has)?
  3. And how can he be so liberal while his mother is so intransigent, nasty and, well, small-town ignorant???

Despite my better instincts, I’m still wondering about the first two. (OH, COME ON, I’M NOT ALONE!).  As for the third, well – I should know better than to categorize people I’ve not met as ignorant and am profusely embarrassed (well, at least slightly) for thinking it, much less writing it publicly.

I mean, for all I know, Jane Pitt has many wonderful qualities (well, at least one we can speak of) and might just be the kindest woman in town if we were to get off the subject of politics.  As for Brad, I know him as well as Jane, so despite the fact that I like a lot of his movies and the things he’s done to build houses in New Orleans as well as his fight for gay marriage ($100,000 to defeat CA’s Prop 8) he could be even more jerky than Mom if we get him on the right subject.

As could all of us.  Which is the point.

How did we get here?

These differences are what the United States is and always has been composed of and, up until recently, was one of the selling points of the country.  That like a big dysfunctional family — mine, yours or the Pitts — you could disagree and still be related.  You could also do or say or be as rude or politically incorrect or culturally diverse or short sighted, or communistic/tree hugging/eco-friendly and radically vegan-istic as you like and, at the end of the day, you had just as much a right to be here and act that way as anyone else.  Perhaps this is even still the case for those of us not overdosing on the red state/blue state thing after two or three decades of growing alienation from each other.

That’s why there are 64 colors in every box.

Was it the rise of the Christian right after the social revolution of the sixties that started it?  Or the wave of the let ‘em eat cake Reagan conservatism followed by a tidal wave of Clintonistic separation of politics and morality?  Or the post 9/11 Bush years of attack, invasion and collapse?   There are theories but we’ll never know for sure.  What we do know is that our chief attraction, and export across the world, depends on this not being quite so.  Because what we’re really best known for is the international production of “a dream.”   An American dream.  But if not fading, it does feel that this particular dream has gone a bit – well, awry.

A dream as American as apple pie.

The entertainment industry particularly depends on this export, this idea of who we are, whether it’s true or not.  Films, television, music, art – America’s chief image is of a country where anything is possible for anyone.  And just when the world begins to think it isn’t, we as a country seem to always do something to save the dream from the jaws of destruction.  Most recently it was electing our first African American president despite the odds against it, especially when you consider the man’s middle name is the same as the Middle East dictator whose country we had just invaded in order to….well, to do something – but that’s not the point.

Anyway, politics aside, if there were ever an American dream scenario played out publicly in the last two decades to counter the cynicism, President Obama’s biography would be it.  Lower middle class, son of divorced parents, raised in Hawaii and Kansas, a community organizer who until recently smoked cigarettes and admits that he even used to smoke marijuana.  Not to mention his like of arugula salads and other designer foods as well his upbringing in…Hawaii?  (yes, it’s a state even though it’s not on the mainland).  I mean, who would’ve thunk it?

Young Obama or Brooklyn Hipster?

As he likes to say — on paper, it doesn’t make sense that he’d become president anywhere else in the world.  And even highly unlikely he’d rise up here.  But there are lots of unlikely things that happen in the USA, and in life, everyday.

This same unlikeliness rings true with some of our biggest celebrities.  Certainly a motherless girl dancer from Michigan with a passable voice and the given name of Madonna was not a shoo-in for a three decade musical megastar who helped reinvent the recording industry with what used to be cutting edge videos and sex books.

Nor was a poor, unabashedly gay kid from the Depression era south with the ordinary name of Thomas Williams likely to be one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, writing under the new, and even more unlikely, first name of Tennessee.  Nor would it seem probable that two very young men who chose to make fun of religion in a short film called “Jesus vs Frosty” would go on to change animation and television AND now the Broadway musical with “South Park” and “The Book for Mormon” but that is exactly what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done.  Not coincidentally, all three (four?) have done so by challenging, some might say attacking, what we consider to be our “traditional American values.”

True, some might cite these performers and their work as symptoms of our obvious moral decay.  I, however, look at it as necessary generational progress.  In fact, essential.

Not to get all post-Fourth of July, but what seems to allow the idea of the American dream to endure is the fact that we have always permitted ourselves to make fun of our sacred cows, ensuring that no one of us is particularly more precious than another on any given day or decade.  In fact, we’ve even reveled in it.  We can be in bad taste, politically incorrect, intolerably small-minded and even on occasion morally offensive to one group.  If we go too far, society will correct itself and eventually pass a law outlawing our action or create another one loosening up standards to accommodate a group shift in behavior.  There are real human costs for this – loss of lives, loss of livelihood, and worse – loss of ones sense of self and one’s humor in battle and in support of our own particular “cause.”

That seems to be what’s happening now in our current age of polarization. But I can only say “seems” because this is the argument everyone in history falls back on at different points in time when society is so “at odds.”  However, and speaking only for me, there does seem to be something about right now that feels different.  Something is off.  Something that’s not quite…well, for lack of a better word — right.

Sad, but true.

When I read Jane Pitt’s letter I initially dismissed it as a statement of someone who believes very differently than I do.  Someone who is at least a generation older who grew up in a different time and can’t or chooses not to understand societal shifts and changes that have occurred since she was young and was, perhaps, more malleable and open-minded.

After thinking about, though, I feel differently.  There is something ugly in it.  Disagreeing with a president is one thing but purposely using his middle name of “Hussein” to somehow paint him as some kind of “other” is viciously unacceptable.  As is calling people who believe in the right to choose “baby killers.”  As is suggesting that one group’s personal religious views against another particular group should be used to deny rights in a country who several centuries ago freed itself from its oppressor partly so all of its people would have the choice to worship, or NOT to worship, exactly as they all would so choose so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else.

Fierce.

We live in a celebrity culture where, as Andy Warhol prophesized many decades ago, everyone will be (or at least can be) famous for about 15 minutes.  This means that although you don’t have to be related to one of the select few celebrity elite to be heard, it certainly adds to your marquee value – whether you like it or not.  Surely, Jane Pitt knew this quite well when she wrote her letter.  She and her views now have their 15 minutes of fame.  Or perhaps more.  She’s now in the uber argument.   Inevitably, there will be others, countless others.  But right here and now it is up to her and us what we choose to do with it.  We can ignore it and proceed as we have been.  We can also use it as yet another moment to pull us further apart.  Or we can engage in some way and employ it to draw us closer together and begin to reshape, just a tiny bit, something we used to call the American dream.

History – as well as “Extra,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “TMZ” and “The Huffington Post” – is watching.   For at least 15 minutes or so.

Klown Kar

Load up the Klown Kars (yes, I know it’s spelled wrong). 2011 is coming to a close and clearly there is not room for every one of the klowns lurking about our public consciousness these days.  So with Klown kars being notoriously small in size, it seems like it’ll take more than a fleet to haul away all of the klowns in the news and on television and the lack of them in the movies right now.  Therefore, we must get ready since it’s very hard to haul away a lack.

You know you must be living in an alternative big top universe when the powers that be at NBC have confirmed they’re negotiating with Ryan Seacrest to take the place of Matt Lauer as the lead host on NBC’s morning news juggernaut – Today.   Can you see him interviewing Ahmadinejad?  Call 1-888- FALSE IDOL 08 to get your own question asked during the interview competition.

The joke's on us, America.

Or when Donald Trump resurfaces like the Sea Monster that he is from 20,000 leagues below the line of taste so he can insert himself once again into presidential politics – this time as a debate host and a potential faux competitor (so he says) if he deems the candidate field unacceptable at some future date.  Then there’s the 9-year-old boy who had the temerity to explain to tongue tied presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann at one of her campaign events that his lesbian Mom was normal and “doesn’t need fixing.”  (Note: he’s not a klown, merely explaining reason to an unsuspecting one).  Plus the release of the most depressing crop of Christmas films I’ve come across in a long time, suffering from a sheer lack of klownishness.  The one ray of sunshine: the trailer to   “Sister Act 2”  “Joyful Noise,” starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah as competing rival choir directors – a movie that is much glossier, entertaining and smarter than anyone now running for president because, well, at least it knows what it is, doesn’t try to be anything more than that and thus is willing to take the risk of letting the chips fall where they may.  But of course, that’s not coming out until Jan. 2012 – perhaps inaugurating the year when all of this klownishness will take a much needed break in action and go on permanent or at least semi permanent hiatus.  Or perhaps, get its own circus.  Heaven (or hell) forbid.

Even if we weren’t enduring the worst economic crisis since…uh…the last one…who could blame us for being a bit depressed? Similarly, who could blame any young person, particularly the ones in their early twenties, for either taking to the streets to protest a gamed financial system or checking out of everything all together when they surf the Internet, Facebook (it gets its own category), et al and see posts of both Rick Perry and Pat Robertson blaming the gays for God’s shunning of and a lack of Christianity in America (because you can’t have both).  Or advice from Newt Grinch-rich, the now front-running Republican presidential candidate (try laughing at that) to young people who come from poor families to work as high school janitors in order to save up money for their education instead of raising taxes a mere few percentage points on the RICH , I mean, job creators of America.

I happen to teach many of these kids of the emerging generation and I can tell you that, on the whole, they are every bit as smart, motivated and confused as any of us ever were.  But they are a bit more scared.  Scared of how they will make their livings.  Scared of the obviousness of global warming and why the world seems to not be getting that it’s not just a blip on the ecological radar when there are devastating tsunamis earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns at the same time it’s 80 degrees in New York City in November.  And rightfully so.  Because one of the scariest sights I remember from my younger days was of a circus when a klown popped up out of nowhere.  These days they’re popping up everywhere. In behavior.  In words.  And, worst of all, in actions.  Smiling all the way to a lucrative book deal; or lecture tour; or, perhaps, elected office.

It’s one thing to have klowns on a public stage for merely entertainment purposes.  Meaning, I suppose it’s fine for Donald Trump to be the PT Barnum host of a reality show like “The Apprentice.”  While it and he are certainly not my first choice for ringmaster, if I close my eyes or squint so I don’t have to look at the wispy wheat that is tortured backwards across his head to pass as split ended follicles of human something, I vaguely get the appeal.

But perhaps Joan Rivers put it more succinctly when she once famously (and tastefully) said of the powers that be who book guests on the “Tonight Show” – “they’d put Hitler on if he had 10 good minutes.” It certainly rings even more true in the circus we call TODAY.

But let’s not get political.  Let’s talk klowns.  Does anyone really want to watch Donald Trump as ringmaster of a public political debate with Newt Gingrich, sorry – Grinch-rich – in the role of Bozo?  (Especially when, if it were a movie, “Moneyball”’s Brad Pitt could be the star?)  Or watch Rick Perry Bozo commercials that accuse Pres. Obama of waging a war on “people of faith” because he is supporting gays serving in the military?  Or see the president act like Shakes the Klown and only seemingly come to real life when re-election is at stake and his public economic back is against the wall?  Uh – about as much as you probably want to watch Ryan Seacrest play Matt Lauer over coffee each morning as you head out the door to face a world in which you will be forced to deal with more real-life Bozos than an archivist at the Barnum & Bailey network. (Q: there isn’t one, yet, is there? A:  No, but perhaps it’s not a bad idea.  We have lots and lots of content now – both past, present and, as it looks in this foreseeable moment, the very foreseeable future).

It used to be you could go to the movies to escape – or at least for an uplifting message.  Having just watched a screener of “The Descendents” yesterday I can tell you George Clooney can act but isn’t much fun this Christmas.  Nor is the thought of spending the holidays with Margaret Thatcher by way of Meryl Streep particularly joyful (or even entertainingly klownish).  You could go see some movies about Hollywood like the tribute to Marilyn Monroe that is “My Week With Marilyn,” or the silent black and white homage to a classy golden era of Hollywood called “The Artist” but I fear that it will only ultimately remind you of how unglamorous and, well, klownish, contemporary life in the 2010’s really are.

I would like something to tell the kids (those humans in their 20s) this holiday season that will support the bromide that working hard and being persistent will cause favorable results in one’s favor.  (“Clarabelle the Klown goes to Washington?” Brad Pitt starring in a remake of “A Thousand Klowns” as a down on his luck father who manages to entertain his kids or, better yet, get them actual jobs?  How about we just give him the Oscar he deserves for “Moneyball” and for being our best sample of public genetic perfection who also manages to actually spend time in New Orleans building houses for the poor?).

Build me up, buttercup.

Of course  – showing it in a movie or lauding a celebrity for a vaguely real (reel?) life is certainly no guarantee of the hope or change we were looking for once upon a time. But when all the ringmasters of the world are offering us are new, old and recycled KLOWN acts it’s very hard not to take matters into your own hands.  And to not feel like the deck is stacked against a good outcome.  An outcome where more than our noses will continue to wind up in the red if we don’t clear the stage.  And make room on the road for the KARS that will KART the KLOWNS away.

In the meantime I’lll take my non-klownish self on the bus to see this on Jan 13th…