Bad Behaviour

There’s an old saying;

People get the government they deserve.

Let’s table that for a moment.

A less troubling but equally important question to ask ourselves during the 2018 holiday season is:

Do we get the movies we deserve?

I mention this because essentially the saying and the question broach the same issue. They ask us to consider whether the situations we now find ourselves in are inextricably linked to and reflective of:

 Who we really are.

Yeah, I’m not ready to look either.

The stock market has just cratered to its lowest December since the Great Depression (Note: The one in 1929).

Our Electoral College POTUS has just announced the US is leaving Syria (against the advice of all our top military brass) to be picked apart by a JUBILANT Russia and China. #YoureWelcomeVlad.

And our government has been arbitrarily shut down this holiday weekend by said EC POTUS, who tweeted the Democrats now own the shutdown! after last week publicly stating  he would be proud to own the shutdown if he didn’t get the money to build his Border Wall Slats Whatever.

I’m with you Charlie Brown

Oh my, it’s confusing.

But not as confusing as to why so many of us will be spending our holidays watching nasty big screen dramedies about such inspiring figures as Dick Cheney (Vice) and England’s Queen Anne (The Favourite).

And yes, this IS much easier to talk about.  And write about.

An Oscar for Rachel Weisz’s eyepatch please #earlypredictions

The latter was a 17th century monarch mired in self-loathing, as well as a toxic lesbian triangle entirely of her own making – and manipulation.

The former was  (in case memory fails) an oil chief who grunted his way into power and self-created a war in Iraq based on “specious” facts.   A man who survives to this day after numerous heart attacks, a pacemaker, and finally someone else’s heart entirely  – all the while reveling in the ominous nickname the majority of the country have for him – Darth Vader.

Pretty much

Well, Merry Christmas to all of you, too!

And — HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

VICE and THE FAVOURITE are certainly not the only movies to see this week but they are among the newest, most touted and certainly most noteworthy.  They’re considered to be prestige pictures and must-see films.

They are also both rotten to their cores – celebrating a kind of ruthless, sociopathic lust to get power and remain in power during which time their “heroes” all wittily revel in the massive carnage they create around them as they crush anyone who dares to question their power.

It’s good to clarify

These films don’t so much take a look at the individuals at their center but serve up their extreme behaviors as a brooding, bloody kind of entertainment spectacle for the masses.  They are in so many ways both Grand Guignol yukfests and serious historical biopics,  each masquerading as the other when it’s most convenient.

When important dramatic questions beg to be answered, better to evaporate into fringe conduct peppered with either hysterical shrieks or guttural grunts.  On the other hand, when an important issue is reduced to egocentric flippancy, what better way is there than to evoke the trappings of the Crown or the White House, amid the deaths of their respective soldiers, in order to drag us back into the urgency of the situation at hand.

Ugh, along with bonus 80s drag #yuck

Just as it might be too soon to laugh at Dick Cheney and his antics in and around Iraq and the Capitol Building it feels faux cheeky to watch three  17th century ruling class lesbians mire around in the mud and curse like sailors for our own amusement.

Yeah, yeah – they said naughty words back then but never to such syncopated snappy effect.  And sure, sure, it was a scream and a half when Cheney shot that guy in the face but what is the point of watching him and his wife get hot for each other in bed while reciting Shakespeare??  God, I’d like to unsee that.

Agh Ew No!

Not to get all Hollywood movie executive – but can’t we at least have SOMEONE to root for or feel sorry for or just plain want to be with for two plus hours?  Even Bale’s Patrick Bateman was more sympathetic than Cheney.  Certainly, he was a lot easier to look at.

Yes, it’s an amazing parlor trick to see a handsome guy like Christian Bale transformed into a bald, bloated bellicose VICE slithering his way to the top with no discernible guilt or crisis of conscience for his misdeeds even as a plethora of facts confront him to the contrary.  It sort of reminds you of….well, turn on the news.

IS IT OVER YET?!

At the same time, watching three ladies so cleverly bitch at each other is a unique screen treat these days, if not quite politically correct.  Though one supposes if you are going to have three  (count ‘em!) lesbian characters engage power in a major motion picture where men are relegated to nothing but sex objects, impotent fools or embattled warriors as mere pawns, you should be given credit for a certain progressiveness – a kind of reversal of gender destinies.

Still, one can’t help but feel like it’s all a crock and we’ve simply devolved into a sadly reflective state.  A period in our culture where we need to minimize real life bad behavior by peppering it with enough humor and absurdity to make it go down easier.  A kind of whistling at the gallows.

What more timely message can the movies give us through which to close 2018?

Jill Scott – “Hate On Me”

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American Tussle

simpsons-gifs-bumper-car

I’m a terrible liar – both in person and on the page.  On the surface, this would seem unlikely.  It feels like the very essence of being a writer is possessing the ability to concoct fictional characters who play out stories you make up that don’t ever quite happen exactly the way you write them.  Of course, that is the irony of the writing life.  Unless you are telling the truth about the people and the situations you are making up out of whole cloth you are nowhere. Though the exceptions might be the screenwriter of a tent pole, blockbuster Hollywood movie or an unchecked politician.  Then all bets are off and you become very, very rich or very, very powerful, though seldom both. Still, if you so choose you can arrange a semi-fictionalized alternate version of events that, when told in the order of your own choosing, can sometimes create the greatest fake out of the truth that the real world has ever seen – events that can then be passed off as your truth.

This week we were treated to a movie length press conference – a sort of tent pole of press conferences – of pained New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie copping to some sort of massive, corruption scandal within his administration where his top aides – on their own, he emphasized – exacted some revenge against the usually non Christie-like, Democratic leaning town of Fort Lee, NJ by shutting down some of its major access roads for four days and causing the largest state-wide traffic jam in 12 years.

when it rains, it pours.

when it rains, it pours.

The Governor claims that he only found out the truth about this four month-old event several days ago via email after a workout, which presumes he was dripping sweat and dirty at the time since he also announced that just as knowledge of the situation came across his smart device he was about to jump, naked and spent one would assume, into his morning shower.  Never mind that there are a myriad of images here that I will never be able to get out of my mind because of the governor’s ability to be quite vivid and very specific about some of the events that happened four months after the scandal but to literally draw a blank on all of the other the events that happened during the actual scandal.  Well, maybe that’s too much to expect.  After all, he’s not the screenwriter of a tent pole movie – a person who inherently knows which dramatic points in a narrative to emphasize that will work best for the public – but merely a politician who is “disappointed” and “heartbroken,” to use his very own words.

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What Christie really wanted to say…

Despite being widely known as someone who runs a very tight ship with an iron hand, Gov. Christie proclaimed endlessly at his marathon gabfest that he knew not a single thing about a bogus traffic study and other occurrences that led to the gigantic marathon gridlock that top members of his administration presumably orchestrated as some sort of payback to the Democratic representatives of the town of Fort Lee and, in turn, its residents. This plan involved the closing of two of three local access lanes in the town – a hub for commuters throughout the state – into the George Washington Bridge- also known as the busiest bridge in world and the state’s prime roadway into New York City.  This traffic jam lasted for nearly 100 hours from September 9- 12 and affected tens of thousands of people, including a 91 year-old woman who paramedics were attempting to rush to the hospital through traffic and who eventually died.  It also continued through the 12th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in N.Y. and is, in fact, the worst traffic snarl up in the tri-state area since Sept. 11, 2001.

For those who are not east coast residents or have never traveled on the GW Bridge it should be noted that gigantic is probably an inadequate word for the kind of multi-hour gridlock drivers from all over the town, the state and elsewhere experienced during that time.  As would be employing the words infuriating, upsetting or frustrating to describe one’s reaction at getting caught in a car or any other non-moving vehicle on any one of those days.  To get an idea of just what a random person’s reaction might truthfully be, at least from this writer’s perspective, imagine a fictional character – say New Jersey’s own Tony Soprano – without his henchmen and at his angriest, sans weapon and unable to use his hands for strangulation or his feet for kicking a car into the Hudson River.  Then double it.  Actually, maybe quadruple – no sextuple it.  And I’m being conservative, though certainly never politically.

yeah that sounds right

still not enough, Chairy

There are lots of simple links to understand the nuances of this scandal.  For your viewing pleasure, they include:

1. The Washington Post’s infographic

2. 10 things you need to know about Bridge-gate

3. Will Bridgegate end it all?

4. EMS delays 

Suffice it to say that the Governor’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly was fired as was his chief spokesperson Michael Drewniak.  David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority, turned over some of his emails to lawmakers as part of a legislative inquiry but pleaded the 5th amendment several days ago to all questions about the incident.  However, his attorney later suggested that if a deal for Mr. Wildstein’s immunity could be brokered, there might be quite a bit of new and very specific information his client could impart that would shed new light on the issues.  Can’t imagine what those would be but given what we have seen in political corruption scandal films involving politicians in New York and New Jersey it could be worthy of at least a David O. Russell production.  Unless the director feels he already covered that territory this year in American Hustle.

At least he already has the fat suit

At least he already has the fat suit

Though in truth, you could even use some of the real life Christie administration dialogue here.  For instance, on the morning right before the lanes were closed and the snarl up started, here’s the real life e-mail exchange between Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein.

Ms. Kelly (Laura Linney?) at 7:35 am:  Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.

Mr. Wildstein (Mark Ruffalo?) at 7:36 am:  Got it.    

CUT TO:

EXT. GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE – FORT LEE ENTRANCE – DAY

A battlefield of automobiles lined up at various angles all honking, screaming and cursing at each other amid closed lanes, Port Authority cones and traffic officials blocking off escape routes via exaggerated hand signals.  It’s 100% massive gridlock at its worst…or best.

Like most good scenes the dialogue is terse and dramatically leads us into a series of memorable images in order to make its main point.

As for Gov. Christie, despite what is being called an initially masterful performance in front of the cameras that degenerated into a too obvious plea to show his “pain” and prove he is a regular guy of the people who is “not a bully” and can still get “hurt” and “humiliated” (again, his words), the verdict is still out.  Clearly if this were a traditionally structured tent pole film made in Hollywood we are now at the end of the second act – the classic low point for a lead movie character.  That is the worst possible moment (unless we’re not quite there and there’s more to come) on his journey that would lead us into Act Three.

Did someone say impeachment?

Did someone say impeachment?

The latter would then entail the moment from which our hero must rise up against all odds, learn a lesson based on everything he has endured up to that point, and go on to defeat the enemy (perhaps even more them one, or perhaps merely no one but himself). Any and all of those points open many possible dramatic doors in Act Three of a story to which there are lots of possible, if not probable, endings.

Act 3?

Act 3?

  1. Christie could be found out to be lying and forced to resign; step away voluntarily for the good of the state in a brokered deal before word gets out; or stubbornly stay put and be impeached.  This is better known “pulling a Nixon” and thus will probably be avoided at any cost
  2. Christie could whether the storm of the scandal somewhat unscathed and serve out the rest of his term “under the radar.” This could then include doing some good work for which he will never really be credited even though he deserves to be, thus making him into an ironic, sort of flawed hero and would be considered an indie-type ending that maybe filmmakers only as iconoclastic as the Coen Brothers could sell to a studio.  That is assuming those guys would even be attracted to this story in first place – which is a distinct possibility since one of the actors they’ve worked with most frequently, John Goodman, would be perfect casting for the embattled governor.
  3. Christie emerges victorious from the scandals though we never know his true guilt or innocence until a book is written decades later.  In the meantime, he solves some significant unemployment or money problems in New Jersey and once again becomes the people’s hero.  He then runs for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, defeats Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election and…well, you get it and I can’t write anymore.  This is obviously the ending both the governor and the film studios and/or television networks would prefer.  A very human, though clearly less than saintly everyman who emerges victorious against all odds and leads his hometown and his country to national glory because, deep down in his heart, he is a really, really good guy who cares.
Jon  Hamm says: Only time will tell

Jon Hamm says: Only time will tell

Which ending do you believe?  And which one do you think we’ll get?  And which one do you think is true?  Write in and let us know.

In the meantime, one last fact:  The Democratic leaning town of Fort Lee actually voted in clear majority for Republican Gov. Christie in the November election, which occurred two months after the GW Bridge incident and a month before the scandal broke.  This means there was never any need for retribution against the town to begin with because the majority of its people WERE on the side of the Christie administration and the governor himself after all.  But the key word there is WERE. 

Stay tuned.

The Jewish Guido

Mazel!

Mazel!

If the guys I went to school with were movie characters they would be Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street and Irving Rosenfeld of American Hustle.  Two smart, charismatic and fast-talking Jewish guys from Queens, NY with morally questionable values, especially where money is concerned.  A stereotype, you say?  Uh, not when you consider how many Jewish male lead characters there have ever been in big major studio movies aside from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  And besides — what major film studio heroes aren’t a bit, um…iconic.  In fact, those of us who are or could have been them prefer the word iconic.  Especially if it means – we’re the LEAD!

The truth is – you gotta start somewhere.

Martin Scorsese has spent half of his career immortalizing similar types of New York Italian guys in the movies but they are usually in the more tough talking form of Manhattan street thugs in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas – men who were certainly charismatic and street-wise but, on the whole, a lot tougher and muscular.  Plus, they could at least duck into Church for confession when things got dicey rather than eat themselves up from the inside out over anxiety.

Those kind of leading men tend to bleed into the aforementioned characters in our current crop of awards contenders.  Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wife-beater clad muscle head in Don Jon; Bradley Cooper’s co-lead detective Richie DiMaso in American Hustle; or even anti-hero Pat Solitano in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook.  Not to mention all the leads in The Godfather and Moonstruck.

There's gotta be an award out there for these curlers...

There’s gotta be an award out there for these curlers…

Which means if you put all the current Italian and Semitic boys from the boroughs together – which often happens in real life, not to mention in my own personal one – they comprise what I think of as a new ethnic stereotype I and my many childhood compadres from Queens have long awaited to be included on in film: The Jewish Guido.

(Note: See I can say that because I am one of them…well, sort of).

Who are we?  We are everything and more of what the major Hollywood studios think of as colorful and morally questionable.  No, we are not a Woody Allen character or Roberto Benigni from Life Is Beautiful.

Nope, not this Guido

Nope, not this Guido

We are a much more down and dirty, messy type of working/middle class person – a little crass, not afraid to speak our minds and, to put it bluntly: pretty good in bed – which is why we’re often a romantic lead who gets the girl at some point even if we can’t keep her.  You might not want to have us at a fancy dinner party or as your permanent spouse (Note: the latter is still in flux and debatable) but you most certainly want to include us if you aspire to learn how to rise up in the ranks of life or enjoy some unbridled, down and dirty fun.  In short, we have dreams and we’re not afraid to go for them in quite unorthodox and entertaining ways – even if there are overwhelming odds of failure or the likelihood that we will not have the best decorating sense once we achieve those dreams and have the cash to acquire whatever nouveau riche items you or we may crave.  Our reasoning:  if we don’t take that chance we’ll be stuck in Queens forever and, as we all know, with the right amount of money we can hire all the Waspy female decorators we want with taste and eventually charm them into at least having an affair with us after they’re done hanging the drapes.

Okay, so I may have exaggerated just a little bit.  But so are our personas.

This all started several weeks ago when I found myself thoroughly enjoying both    WoWS and AH while many of my friends insisted they reeked of disappointment, misguided storytelling and just plain unsympathetic, despicable characters.  Really?  I hadn’t noticed.  Isn’t this sort of the scrappy, exaggerated way Waspy movie characters behave, albeit with less money and more curse words?  No, claimed my Jewish guy friends from upstate New York, southern California and the Midwest.  They’re just awful people in uninvolving movies.   And those Waspy characters you are referring to are usually the villains, not the hero.

Did someone say Wasp?

Did someone say Wasp?

Well, okay.  Still, there is something to be said for seeing a version of you onscreen, even if it is a slightly unpleasant one.  If there is enough humanity and humor in the characterization you can get away with a lot of political incorrectness.  Enough elements of truth can counterbalance harsh generalities about the neighborhood or plot holes that you can drive a Miata through.  In addition, if you give these guys a little bit more of the macho power you craved when you were younger, or even last week, the fantasy is complete.  At least for some of us.

I can’t say I’m particularly proud of two Jewish guys from Queens being portrayed as people who swindled others out of money in order to lift themselves out of the doldrums of their own lower/middle class existences (Note: though if I had a choice I’d take the fictionalized Rosenfeld in American Hustle, who mostly stole from rich bad guys and didn’t kill people or cause them to kill themselves).  But now that Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss are no longer leading men and only act sporadically, not to mention the total lack of movie roles for Steve Guttenberg in the last 20 years, you can’t blame me for binging a little on these types of recent and very public inroads. (Note: Yes there is still Jessie Eisenberg, born in Queens and raised in New Jersey – but c’mon, there is just nothing boroughs about him or any of his characters).

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

My notesfromachair co-hort Holly Van Buren suggested to me that the emergence of the Jewish Guido might have something to do with our current economic climate and the fantasy of the everyday working class man with the accent becoming victorious.  Not a bad thought.  It’s the boroughs way and certainly is a fine counterpoint to the seemingly omnipotent top 1%.  I mean, it takes a little bit of the crude and in your face in order to cut through all of that upper crust steeliness, right?

Plus, both Wolf and Hustle are period pieces from the seventies and eighties.  Clearly, enough time has passed where rather than championing a Gordon Gekko kind of financial wizard we can indulge in a more in-your-face punk upstart who beats the elite at their own game by any means necessary using the logic gleaned from a tougher life lived.

Still, there seems an even bigger factor – time.  American society may have grown more polarized these days but certainly its people have overall become far less homogenized.  There is ethnicity everywhere – so much so that is unusual for a day to go by on Fox News or right wing radio where the previously dominant White Male patriarchy, particularly in the south and Midwest, don’t wax nostalgic about the good old days and whine about losing their grip on power and the social and moral traditions (Note: one questions what they consider those were) that once made our Great Country great. This and the fact that same country, which less than two centuries ago legally enslaved all of its African American citizens in more than half of its states, has for the last six years had its first African American president presiding over everyone.

Yep.. and still the President.

Yep.. and still the President.

Those factors of time and ethnicity might also be responsible for the emergence of two other crossover major studio films about the African American community this year – 12 Years A Slave and Lee Daniel’s The Butler.  It is certainly no coincidence that as directors and other artists emerge in a position of power – like Steve McQueen and Mr. Daniels – the more chances there are of movies that reflect the history and/or experiences of their particular ethnic groups.  (Note:  Not that they can’t do anything else – both men have worked on “white” films).  It is also no accident that both of these directors have also earned money and acclaim in their recent past that have enabled them to do larger and more mainstream films with African American characters in the leads.  This is just the way it goes as long you can produce massive income with your often larger than life product.  Decades before Spike Lee had a certain degree of power among the major studios until his movies began underperforming at the box-office and the cache he was given by the powers-that-be to make his type of movies began to shrink. (Note: Mr. Lee also came of age at a time where there were far less non-white leads in films than there are today, making his road somewhat tougher).

Interestingly enough, all four aforementioned major films this year – Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler – are also historical pieces that take place far and very much farther into the past.   There could simply be a certain drama to looking at events from a backwards lens.  Though surely it also provides a special kind of safety that gives the Hollywood community and its studio system a specific type of perfect cover.

the current state of Hollywood

the current state of Hollywood

Which all begs the question – why with all of the many, many male Jewish writers and directors working in the movie industry over the decades – not to mention that the studios themselves were founded by a large group of New York Jewish salesmen – have there statistically been such a lack of Jewish male characters as major studio leads on the big screen. I mean, if the African-American model holds, shouldn’t it follow that….?

Well, I have no provable idea.  But even in accounting for time and some evolution of thought, it is still worth noting that American Hustle’s David O. Russell is half-Jewish while Wolf of Wall Street’s Scorsese is very famously Italian.  So, at least in terms of the Jewish Guido, well — you do the math.

Or, to put my take on the whole thing another way, here is what Woody Allen’s quintessentially non-Guido/very Jewish character of Alvy Singer said when he first met his very ethnic-looking first wife Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) in the 1977 classic, Annie Hall:

Woody-Allen-and-Carol-Kane-620x310

Alvy: You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings…and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper…stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself

Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

Alvy:  Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.