We’re all uncomfortable

If you refuse to watch art from people you in some way disapprove of, only Tom Hanks and Julie Andrews are left.   

-– The Chair

Make me watch Forrest Gump or The Ladykillers again and I’d probably punch you in the face.

Not to mention, Hawaii and the 1980 remake of Little Miss Marker would be a very tough slog.  (Note: Sorry, Jules).

And truly, if you’re going to watch some classic films why not simply go to the acknowledged mainstream top of the list choices.  Perhaps Chinatown or even… ROSEMARY’S BABY?????????

What’d’ya say Mrs. Mulwray?

Uh, oh.  Both films were directed by Roman Polanski and Mr. Polanski is best known these days by a new generation of filmgoers as the man who had sex with an underage girl and fled the U.S. before he could be properly punished for it.

Rightly or wrongly – and it’s not either one – this issue came up recently in a writing class when we were analyzing story elements of a classic sequence in Rosemary’s Baby where the lead character is raped by….

Well, who did it is not important for the subject of this discussion.  The pertinent part was the past deeds of this director and how much his personal actions influence what a viewer now sees or can’t see in the piece of art being offered to us.

This film still kind of says it all #ugh #uncomfortable

My knee jerk reaction is that we must separate the art from the artist and realize that times change, truth reveals itself in increments and people who live in glass houses, which means ALL of us, shouldn’t throw stones.

On the other hand, to NOT acknowledge that the personal is not only political but pertinent and influential, is to ignore the extreme cultural moments we are living through these days. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody but I’m not so sure I want to support ANYTHING director Bryan Singer does/did again.

As a gay guy, I’ve heard about his penchant for younger men for years and the fabled parties where they gathered with him (Note: Or were gathered up for him).  On the other hand, I was never there and certainly never saw him doing anything inappropriate with a 15 or 17 year old boy elsewhere so who was I to judge?  What is my responsibility?  And does it mean he shouldn’t direct Millennium Films’ upcoming big budget remake of Red Sonja?

I’m with Randy #10yearoldmemes #stillapplies

The Sundance Film Festival this week previewed the upcoming 4-hour HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, which chronicles in painstaking detail Michael Jackson’s sexual relationships with pre and early adolescent young boys when he was in his thirties.

British filmmaker Dan Reed is a respected documentarian and by all accounts the personal testimony of Jackson’s victims, their families, and the similarity and specificity of details make it as devastating to watch as the current Lifetime series Surviving R. Kelly, which centers on that singer/songwriter/producer’s longtime sexual abuse of numerous underage women.

I have not felt comfortable with Mr. Jackson’s music for DECADES given that we were close in age as I watched him parade to endless premieres and show biz photo ops in the eighties and nineties in the company of  9, 11, 13 and 15 year olds boys, sometimes two or three at a time and occasionally strangely holding hands with the odd one as he spoke of playful sleepovers at his dreamy playground of a ranch.

This picture REALLY makes me uncomfortable

I remember thinking to myself, what would someone my age conceivably EVER be doing with those boys overnight and, if it wasn’t overtly sexual, could it EVER conceivably be appropriate, even with their parents’ approval?  What I concluded then and now was that it could not and, hence, I never was able to listen to or watch Mr. Jackson in the same way ever again.

I have no proof and I’m not faulting anyone who jams out to Billie Jean or who will forever see him as the King of Pop.  But there was and is something so questionable in my mind about Mr. Jackson’s personal life that sucks the goodness and fun and joy out of anything I could possibly see or hear him do.  Even the famed Motown anniversary moonwalk – the younger, gentler version of what he left behind – leaves me at best sad for all concerned when viewed in the context of the entirety of his life.

This brings me no joy #notaseasyas123

One teaching colleague of mine recently shared the difficulty of talking to college students about Miramax/Harvey Weinstein when recounting the history of the Hollywood independent film movement.  It’s not that you don’t do it, but how do get them to appreciate what that studio accomplished without the stench?   And how do you write a book about the history of television in the last century and not give The Cosby Show its due?  That’s a topic someone else very close to me (Note: VERY) is dealing with at the moment.

Can we just talk about Denise Huxtable and noone else?

To say nothing of Louis CK  and his recent jokes about the students of Parkland or Woody Allen movies in general.   How do I look at Annie Hall these days?

As a baby boomer I can only speak to Annie Hall, one of my favorite films of all time, and confess that it will forever make me laugh because I am able to block out all reality and focus in on the joy it brought me throughout my life.  Yes, I am that strong or that weak where these feelings overwhelm everything else past and present and take me back to a time when it at least FELT like we were all a lot more innocent and unsullied by the realities of a hopelessly stained contemporary world.

Of course, that is/was a fantasy in itself but at the very least it got me through my twenties and thirties.  Though when you shove Manhattan in my face now  and I’m forced to watch Woody with Mariel Hemingway’s 17 year-old character, (Note: As happened several months ago on cable TV) it’s cringe worthy.  Meaning denial only works in certain cases and, in this case,  I suddenly froze up and couldn’t help but turn away.

Can I hold on to this?

So yeah, in this light I totally get some of my students’ aversion to Rosemary’s Baby and Mr. Polanski.   How many of us Jews interested in movies have ever had a tough time with academic articles fetishizing the filmmaking talent of Adolph Hitler’s favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl?  (Note: Whose Triumph of the Will is coincidentally used as a bittersweet punch line in said Annie Hall)

Perhaps the answer is a film festival featuring Triumph of the Will, Rosemary’s Baby Annie Hall and maybe…oh…Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night?   We can also add in Kevin Spacey ‘s Oscar winning performance in American Beauty and two of Singer’s X-Men movies for good measure.

The audience at this film festival

But how many of us would go?   Not as many as would watch any one of the six in the privacy of our own homes and keep it a secret.

Michael Jackson – “Bad” 

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Woodward and Chair-stein

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.42.05 PM

The following is a piece in defense of thoughtful journalism and the people who practice it. You know who you are even though we may not. This is in spite of the fact that, given today’s technology, we have all rightfully or wrongfully been baptized de facto citizen journalists or amateur reporters.

It makes no difference to me which moniker you choose because each can be either somewhat effective or dangerously ineffective depending on the circumstances. But mostly I am writing this in honor of my unapologetic love for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – a show that is about to end its run but still dares to romanticize the high-reaching values of a somewhat liberal cable news station akin to (but not exactly like) MSNBC in much the same way The West Wing was a wonderfully polemic love letter to the executive branch of government.

Sometimes I forget he wasn't the President

Sometimes I forget he wasn’t the President

It is quite popular to lump the talking heads of cable news – or any sort of contemporary journalism for that matter – all together and to dismiss its veracity or even relevance to anything real in the world. But in truth Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are as different as…well…Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Watch and measure how each covered the nationwide protests we’ve seen this week due to the recent refusal of law enforcement and the grand jury system to in any way prosecute the various police officers responsible for shooting and killing three very different Black males – two of whom were under 18 years of age – under similarly controversial circumstances in three very different cities in Missouri, Ohio and New York, and judge for yourself.

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

The latter is the job of every citizen choosing to vote or complain about the state of the world to friends, neighbors or enemies – to weigh the information and then make a determination. That is why who gives you the facts, how they give you the facts, and if indeed they are giving you facts at all matters. Correction: really matters.

After watching Jake Gyllenhaal coyote his way through his current breakout role as a brilliantly immoral freelance television news photographer prowling the dark, accident-ridden streets of contemporary Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, I couldn’t help but recall my own quaint, early days as an aspiring journalist. Bear with me and forget this was several decades before Rachel Maddow was even born. I know I have, that is if I ever previously admitted it at all until just now.

How far is too far?

How far is too far?

No, unlike Jake or his character, I certainly didn’t lose 30 pounds, slick back my then full head of hair or scour the Internet for leads and information in order to educate and advance myself in my field. For one thing, there was NO INTERNET and I had already lost 30 pounds in high school because I was too cowardly, vain and hypochondriacal to face a life where I was for one more second what anyone else would consider to be fat, chunky or even slightly overweight. Certainly I am not particularly proud of this fact but fact it is nevertheless.

As for my education, here’s another fact. It actually began in a corny old cocoon called SCHOOL. That started with writing for the high school newspaper, segued into becoming arts editor of my college radio station and then continued on to graduate school — Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, to be exact.

Those hallowed grounds

Those hallowed grounds

This was the post-Watergate age of the late seventies when journalism was seen as the noblest of professions and most everyone else aside from Mother Teresa and a few doctors who worked gratis in clinics was viewed as morally, and woefully, lagging behind. Not only that, Medill was then, and still is now, one of the best j schools in the country. Again, no bragging but fact – though one that I am particularly proud of. And full disclosure: I still feel fortunate to have even gotten in.

Self five!

Self five!

I bring this up because my intensive one year at Medill – which had me not only in the classroom but working as a reporter in both suburban and urban Chicago as well as on the streets of Washington, DC and the surrounding areas of Virginia – taught me a lot about truth, morality, honesty and integrity. You might think you know the truth and what you’re dealing with, as John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled yet somewhat naive Jake Gittes in Chinatown, but as a reporter you also have an obligation to consider you might really not have the truth and not know what you’re dealing with, as Noah Cross so ominously, and rightfully warned. Yet unlike Jake in Chinatown, it didn’t have to cost me (Spoiler Alert!) the life of a lover. I was allowed to make those kinds of mistakes as a younger student since under no circumstances would I ever be trusted to cover life or death stories alone.

Plus I could never pull off this look

Plus I could never pull off this look

I realize that in itself sounds almost quaint these days, especially since I was always much more interested in the entertainment industry while it was my j school friends and colleagues who wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Still, as it turned out this background came in quite handy and in ways I could have never imagined. My first journalism job was for Variety and Daily Variety and in a matter of just a few years I became one of their lead reporters. Serious hard news reporting on the film, TV and music industries was just on the verge of becoming popular beyond the entertainment pages and I found myself quickly thrown into a world where I had to have clandestine early morning breakfast meetings at the homes of seven-to-eight figure salaried board chairmen, CEOs and presidents of major American entertainment corporations in pursuit of the news. Lying came as easy for them as weight reduction was for me in high school and telling the truth as difficult as I found gym class. Perhaps they were afraid of the same things I was back then – not being accepted, keeping up appearances, not fitting in with the cool kids – but I didn’t know it. And had I not been trained to cross check my facts, no matter how powerful or reliable the source, or not fool myself into ever thinking I was even a smidgen as important as the very wealthy and powerful people I was covering, I would have been eaten alive right there and then by each and every one of them.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

I certainly would never, ever have been able to start the country’s first weekly column on the national film box-office grosses of just released films. You know – the ones you now read online almost everyday and hear each Monday on practically every entertainment “news” show across the country? Well, it wasn’t Watergate but it was still about getting to the honest truth, which on this subject was quite rare. We’d get these press releases with inflated figures on the opening money levels of movies that would be published almost verbatim without anyone knowing what the hell they meant in comparison to anything else. I told my resistant editor at the time:

“I don’t know what the heck (not hell, I wouldn’t dare) these figures mean and neither does anyone else. We have to at least try to report this accurately so studios can stop lying so easily about how good or badly theirs and everyone else’s films are doing.”

Finally, he saw the light and we began something that, admittedly, has gotten out of control. But it’s helped get beyond the hype in a more realistic dollars and cents way that was previously non-existent – not only for the general public but for everyone else other than the most inside movie studio executives to see.

Unless you're reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

Unless you’re reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

That is what training in controlled circumstances will do prior to you going into the field. It’s not the only way to be trained – there is something to be said for being thrown straight into the fire – but the latter often comes with the ultimate journalistic cost of printing untruths, half-truths and out and out lies that hurt people and society. Or, to put it another way, in many other professions you’d be guilty of malpractice.

Certainly, training and the right experience don’t guarantee 100% accuracy but they will also likely prevent any number of our current journalistic fatalities (Note: see lies and untruths above – of your choice). If you consider that to be a bunch of bull, then think of it like this. It is certainly possible that a person who is merely an aficionado of teeth could perform a successful emergency extraction of your infected molar – or a medical neophyte might be able amputate your gangrened arm with merely a broken spear in the Amazonian jungle – but would you choose either in the long run if a more trained and/or experienced option were available?

Meaning yes – everyone can write and observe. But not everyone can report.

At the risk of sounding older than Woodward and Bernstein (Note: And those under 25, please, please don’t continue to say Who? OR Who cares?) – times and standards have changed but truth remains pretty much the same.

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman… with the haircuts you all want.

It’s great that we all can raise up our smart phones and record reality, or type our truths on social media, or on such ridiculous forums as….dare I say it…a blog.   But these are all only recording and commenting on partial truths or shaded truths or the lies or partial lies we might be unwittingly interpreting as truth. The best journalists in the world (who are not necessarily the most popular) understand the difference. The average person – and viewer – does not. It is the job of the journalists to put things in a way that the most people can understand. To unfurl the facts and truisms and falsehoods as objectively as possible – then offer the information in a context or at least order that will allow the public to comprehend the whole story and ultimately judge what, if anything, to do about it.

It is an essential and difficult and, in the end, honorable profession when done right – which that doesn’t happen often enough.

And that IS a fact.

Pass/Fail

Dogs.Tug.Of.War

Life is a continuous process of give and take.  Take and give.  A process in which you make mistakes, lots of them, in addition to the many things that you get right.  In fact, one of the ways you can measure if you’re living a life really worth living – meaning doing it well  – is by the amount of mistakes you make.  Chances are if the total number that month or year is zero, you are doing the very thing you have been trying so hard not to do – failing.  Perhaps I’ve been teaching college students too long and that’s the reason I think in terms of pass/fail.  But I don’t think so.

Human beings are not computer programs whose excellence can be programmed.  We are a species who do the lion’s share of our learning the good old fashioned way – through practice and trial and error.   I don’t know about you but when I practice anything – my writing, my cooking, my teaching or my making non-neurotic choices even though the neurotic, crazy choice is far more appealing – I screw up.  I find the more I practice the less I screw up, which if anything is a reason for us all to incessantly practice at anything we care about.   We don’t usually because we are either tired or know that if things are going so well we don’t want to rock the boat since it’s only a matter of time before we – that’s right, you guessed it – screw up.

Sometimes things just don't come out exactly as you had hoped....

Sometimes things just don’t come out exactly as you had hoped….

A lot of times we plateau in what we do well and in an effort not to make a mistake we don’t force ourselves to do enough new stuff.   This, too, is a mistake because nothing stays the same ever – even if you stop and decide it’s going to.  At some point something will change in the equation so why not be the one to take the initiative and shake it up a bit to keep things interesting or perhaps even improve?  It’s because we have this idea that if we hold on to the same tried and true method of doing some task or interest or job the result will always be the same.  Hmmm, it might for a while – as long as we can do it – which won’t be forever.  But it will also ensure we get a bit lazy, or complacent or fail (there’s that word again) to open a door we might have enjoyed going down or benefited from immensely just because we didn’t want to…. Well, you know.

Though, I'm not sure I will ever crave a Vegan Burger

Though, I’m not sure I will ever crave a Vegan Burger

I find this complacency/fear in me sometimes when I teach the same classes, do my gym routine (when I go), or cook the same six meals for dinner several times a month (the rest of the time I eat out or order in).  For example, let’s take teaching – where I keep requiring students to watch the same five movies every semester to illustrate various screenwriting principles.  In the latter, it’s not that these examples don’t work – in fact they do work quite well.  Juno, Adaptation, Harold and Maude, Chinatown, North by Northwest – they’re all excellent films that young people can learn a lot from and, more importantly, I never get tired of teaching or talking about with them.   It’s that, well – I am already quite certain how well how well they work.  Perhaps there is something that could work even better (and make me better)?  Of course, there is.  There is always something that can work better.  But you have to search for it.  That’s why I also have students every other week go out to a newly released movie (at a movie theatre) that we can analyze – so as new screenwriters they can be exposed to all types of films – even if it’s in a genre they or I don’t like.

This week for instance, I insisted on Identity Thief – not because I was dying to see it but because I knew it had a quintessential Hollywood formula you could summarize in a one sheet (industry parlance for, uh, poster) and it is important to see at least one of those a semester if one plans to work in the real world movie business and know how either a. you make one of those or b. what you’re up against.

Definitely the sucker for paying full price...

Definitely the sucker for paying full price admission to this…

So what if it’s #1 at the box-office and as god-awful a movie as you can almost imagine  (well, certainly according to Salon).  And who cares if I will never get back those two hours and my artsy colleagues condemn me for it.  (Note: I actually enjoy the fact of the latter.  Remind me sometime to tell you the full story of how my very positive review of 9 to 5 in the eighties caused one of my fellow Variety film critics to fling his reporter’s notebooks halfway across the newsroom in unmitigated rage).  But at least in the case of Identity Thief it was an attempt on my part (if not the filmmakers’) to do something different.

Okay — I will admit that given the sheer nonsensically incoherent script choices made in Identity Thief I might have made the wrong choice here.  Okay, let me be more blunt – I might have (might have?!) screwed up.  This choice didn’t work at all as a film so perhaps it might have been better to have students watch a much more blatantly commercial film of that type that I knew did work brilliantly (e.g. Forty Year Old Virgin).  There’s only one problem — this is not the 2005 Virgin world of Hollywood.  It’s a different 2013 world a student needs to make their identity in.  So part of their education should be in knowing what to do and not to do.  To which this film illustrates the ultimate challenge.  Universally panned by the critics, probably the future winner of any number of Razzies and yet….it is the #1 film at the box-office this weekend with $36,500,000 taken in domestically in 3 days.  Screw up/Failure or Cleverness/Success?  Ponder that for a while and then consider your final answer to the question, rather than the film itself (which I don’t want anyone to run out and see), as your teachable moment.

Or listen to the philosophy of Homer

Or listen to the philosophy of Homer

Mistakes came up a bunch of times at a recent WGA panel of Oscar and guild nominated screenwriters I took my students to attend.  It always does when writers talk among themselves – as well as other similar themes such as failing, honesty, creativity and discipline.  I suspect this is the case when you gather a group of any creative types – actors, directors, designers or visual artists.  Or maybe even plumbers or insurance salesman or accountants.  Who is to say that there are not these fears (or creativity) among them?  The medical plan that should never have been recommended; the copper pipe system that was not needed or too good to be true; the balance sheet that someone concocted to save their own asses instead of their clients.  Obviously – there is a theme here.

But I can’t speak to those nor would you probably want to read about them since we all know that for some reason, show business is EVERYONE’S second, if not first business.  What I can speak to is a few moments at the panel this week:

  1. Writer’s Guild president Chris Keyser noting that like many professions, writing is a solitary one but that “we write alone – together.”  That we are listening to nominated screenwriters on a panel who no doubt at one time listened to or read about Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine) and Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), who in turn also learned from Robert Towne (Chinatown) or Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), who each probably heard or watched work by Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and Joseph Mankeiwicz (All About Eve), who took advice from  Carl Foreman (High Noon) and Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity).  Look up any of these esteemed writers and you’ll also find they all share something else — ALL have written at least one really bad movie, not to mention some of the other scripts you don’t know about.  In other words, all have screwed up – big time.
  2. Screenwriters Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty) and John Gatins (Flight) correcting moderator-screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) on his assumption that all writers search for absolute truth in their films.  Both agreed that absolute truth does not truly exist and even if it did, would be deadly dull if played out in real time.  Instead, what both require of themselves is honesty and authenticity amid many days, months and years of frustrating roadblocks and missteps along the way.
  3. Stephen Chbosky, novelist and screenwriter/director of Perks of Being A Wallflower, who freely admitted to a 200 page first draft screenplay, much of which had to be junked because of all of the unnecessary subplots he had included – a method of working he recommended to nobody else but one that he sheepishly admitted finally did work for him.
  4.  Roman Coppola, who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with director Wes Anderson, speaking to an audience question about the best piece of writing advice he had ever gotten. I f you closed your eyes and just listened, Mr. Coppola sounded exactly like the vocal incarnation of his father, master writer-director Francis Coppola, so it was particularly jarring to hear him pass on these words of wisdom from Coppola, Sr. (a symbolic writing father to many) which RC said were ones from centuries ago taken from novelist Alexander Dumas: “First act – clear.  Third Act – short.  Interest – everywhere.”

So inspired was I by these words that I went home and looked it up to find out more.  But instead what I found was that Roman, or perhaps his father, was mistaken and these words were apparently the advice of not Dumas but another esteemed, centuries old novelist – Honore de Balzac.

But who really cares (except maybe Balzac and he’s dead)?  Because despite the mistake of whomever – Francis or Roman or perhaps me in telling the story – the message was no less truthful or worthy.  This is important to remember not only in the subject of writing but also in an attempt to say or do anything meaningful.  Mistakes will be made but it’s what is really being said that counts – whether it’s from a director’s chair on a stage in Beverly Hills, in your house or apartment in a private conversation, or, most importantly, even only in your own mind – to yourself.