Writing with an Expiration Date

The FUTURE JEOPARDY! CATEGORY is:  Great subjects for American movies in the 2020s.

Well, you’d think ONE OF THE ANSWERS would be: U.S. electoral politics.

I mean, in just the first half year of this decade the majority of us Americans are continuing to live through new, repeated and seemingly never-ending traumas resulting from the surprise 2016 Russian influenced installation of our first reality star president.

This feels right

True, on paper that might not SEEM like the most crowd-pleasing blockbuster of subjects.  But neither was the chronicle of the now second most traumatic electoral aftermath in the last 50 years, All the President’s Men.

And today that film is an Oscar winning classic that cleaned up at the box office.

This was in great part due to the perseverance at the time of producer-star Robert Redford and the great filmmaking team he assembled.

“Devastating” almost seems quaint

But it is pretty much universally acknowledged it was also because of the brilliant yet cheeky thriller screenplay written by the late William Goldman, which he adapted from the best-selling book by the now iconic Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Well, politics and our times have changed quite a lot in the last half a century.  Yet in many ways we’d still all love a good story about the failings of our government and the American underdogs among us who can rise up and at least attempt to make things right once again.

Especially in the era of Trum….okay, you know who and what I mean.  (Note: Don’t make me write IT). 

AHHHH!

So much material.  So, so SO much material.

It’s the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.   Kind of like the equivalent of receiving 32,358 fruitcakes over the last three Christmases that now somehow need to be purged from our systems.

So, how to proceed and eliminate?

Well, if you’re a moviegoer and an industrious studio head who do YOU think would be the perfect person to guide us through this particular type of morass  and expulsion?

Who could come up with a great story about how and why this could have happened to us and in what way we could possibly make things right again?

Who is it in popular culture that has always massively entertained us, made money for the suits AND provided us invaluable insight into understanding politics on a grand scale without, well, talking down to us???

Well don’t take too long

The ONE person synonymous with smarts and originality, the political satirist of our times with the cross generational super power pull that any doubting studio head could feel comfortable with entrusting to tackle the impossible subject of our 2016 electoral aftermath.

You knew/know him – you LOVE him Certainly, I do.

Yes – it’s The Daily Show’s own incomparable:

JON STEWART!!!!

Our favorite goat farmer, Mr. Jon Stewart

…….You’d think.

But wait!!!!

Before anyone goes and thinks the disappointment over Mr. Stewart’s new Amazon film “Irresistible” is entirely or, really, even partly his fault, let’s be clear.

Doing this kind of movie amid the cosmic shifts we’re currently enduring in our pandemically challenged world is a SHEER thankless and IMPOSSIBLE TASK.

You’d have better luck trying to digest those 32,358 fruitcakes in one sitting.

… and now I think I understand the title

Events have been moving at the speed of light and sound since the first of this year (Note: Though not in a good way) and Mr. Stewart’s new film gets caught up in the sheer cyclone of newsiness (Note: And also not in a good way) as it tries to slice and dice the political process with what amounts to a butter knife.

Granted, that butter knife probably felt like the most efficient version of some top chef’s sharpest meat clever when Mr. Stewart first sat down to tackle this story.

But once you’ve experienced a failed impeachment trial for clear high crimes and misdemeanors and a month of street protests demanding racial justice after we Americans watched a Black Man literally asphyxiated to death murdered by two policeman on video over almost nine minutes – during a global pandemic – well, all bets are off.

This is not to even mention immigrant kids locked up in cages, the shutdown and crashing of our economy and an all-time record 16-20% of Americans unemployed (Note: That’s 26-30 million of us).

and then you wonder.. what’s next?

Yeah, it’s a sh-t show out there and even a movie written and directed by our patron saint of political humor couldn’t possibly conquer it.  No movie could, given the one-two year lag time (and that’s being generous) between conception, filming and release.

So what we’re then left with is the story of a jaded Democratic political consultant to Hillary Clinton (Steve Carrell), barely recovered from 2016, who sees a viral video of a middle-aged farmer/military vet (aka Chris Cooper as The Colonel) defending the rights of immigrants to his local mayor and selected members of his small town.

Seeing a chance to once and for all prove to the country that semi-liberal politics are not solely the prevue of big city cultural elites and that exclusionary, far right thinking is, well, small-minded, Mr. Carrell’s character, the consultant, quickly hatches a scheme to run The Colonel for Mayor in the upcoming local election.

Hardest workin’ man in showbiz #hesineverything

The reasoning is that if he makes a big enough deal about this candidate in Deerlaken, Wisconsin it will become national fodder and show the country that progressive policies simply amount to doing what is right and what is human rather than what is hateful and what is most expedient.

In other words, the only reason small town America didn’t buy what the Dems were selling was that it came in the wrong package.  Had the same points been raised by one of their own, well, 2016 would have NEVER turned out the way that it had.

Oh… was that it?

Sure, there’s more to it than that, including a major twist later in the story (Note: No Spoilers here!).  But all the twists and turns on the planet couldn’t possibly make a smart, light, gauzy but only slightly edgy story like this resonate very deeply given what’s presently at stake electorally for all of us.

This is a representation of small town America where their worst problem is that their local economy is failing.  (Note:  Remember when THAT, and that alone, was a BIG problem?).  It is NOT a world where friends and relatives are dying in overcrowded hospitals, supermarket cashiers deserve hazard pay, law enforcement can kill you at any time, and you rightly worry that the Russians, the Chinese and god knows who else might permanently place an aspiring American dictator into the White House.

This all really does seem like part of a Dr. Evil style plot

This is what’s really on the minds of the majority of Americans in 2020 (Note: Certainly the filmgoers) when they think about who and what they’re voting for in 2020 America.  And not even Jon Stewart could possibly know that would be relevant or on our brains in this presidential election year.

This is not to say his new film Irresistible doesn’t have its charms.  But any of us looking for something truly relevant from now till Nov. 5th should merely turn on the TV to MSNBC, CNN, FOX (lol no) or PBS.  It’s there that they’ll find programming far, far more risky and much, much more perversely entertaining.

Sadly.

Bob Dylan – “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

The World According to Affleck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty... Pretty Much

Pretty… Pretty Much  #WGA

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

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

as pure as this cream three-piece suit

as pure as this cream three-piece suit

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

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

Take a seat grinchy

Don’t get ahead of yourself, Grinchy boy.

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

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

Thinking about storyboarding Live By Night

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

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

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

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