Be Bold

... and daring.

Spice things up

I was talking to a very smart person the other day about getting noticed (okay, “making it”) in the entertainment industry.  Now let’s be clear – getting noticed is not the same thing as being successful and exceptionally talented.  And not getting noticed is certainly not the same as being unsuccessful and unexceptionally talented.  Everyone still with me?

American entertainment culture defines success among its artists with commercial allure and its rewards – how much money you make, how willing the powers-that-be are to pay you even more money or how many different ways everyone else is trying to seduce you towards them.   Since every endeavor has its real world measure I used to buy into this totally.  I mean, you need some sort of objective scale – why not how much you sell or even how well reviewed you are?  Or perhaps it’s even about how well aware certain audiences are of your talent?  The cliché saying of the cream always rises to the top  (meaning if you’re talented enough you will eventually break through, especially if you’re persistent and dedicated to the extreme) is generally accepted by the gatekeepers of most industries as the rule of thumb.  This is most particularly the case by entertainment industry standards and most certainly became the case, over the years, by yours truly.

The problem with this way of thinking is – well – it’s just a load of crap.  A street load full.  Actually, a whole city full.

quite literally, a load of crap

quite literally, a load of crap

A certain degree of talent is necessary but not necessarily immense talent.  Dedication helps a lot but if you’re a workhorse it doesn’t mean people more successful than you will all be working harder.  And, if you’re very talented and working very hard and still unsuccessful by the above definitions – it might not be so much about you but the time period of popular tastes that you were born into and how societal trends have coincided with what you do (unless you are crooner Michael Buble, of course). And how willing or able you are to capitalize on these trends.  Or how possible or impossible it is to even do the latter given your particular talent.

Here’s an example.  There are many wonderful writers of straight on drama nowadays who don’t work in films because those movies are way less popular in 2013.  Just as there are lots of middle-aged men who wrote comic books who never would have worked at the top levels of Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s or 70s but who nowadays are being paid a king’s ransom for telling stories that appeal primarily to the young boys (and some girls) that they once were, along with their parents and grandparents (who they now are).  Note:  A few of these even older guys (and they were primarily male) have actually lived long enough to see their financial fortunes shift in the movie business in a HUGE way.  Yes, I’m talking to you Stan Lee.

He's laughing because later he's going to swim a lap in his pool of money.

He’s laughing because later he’s going to swim a lap in his pool of money.

This is the way of the world of the “biz” and the world each of us in the “biz” has voluntarily chosen to live in.  But to believe it doesn’t exist is as foolish as believing that one shouldn’t try at all because talent, hard work, dedication and extreme perseverance doesn’t matter either.  It all matters.  A lot.  It’s just getting to the right combination of it for oneself – a combination to which there is no knowable formula known to humanity as it now stands.

Word.

Word.

That is why the only path to take is to be who you are as an artist and to do it in the boldest, most courageous way possible for you.  Don’t apologize for the work you do to anyone, most of all to yourself.  Yes, yourself.  Meaning – never, ever, ever hold back because you’re afraid you’re making you or your characters look bad  – or positioning the piece or yourself in a way that you think ensures people won’t like you or them.  Or that, heaven forbid, you will offend them.  Where you WANT to be is in the nervous area.  The part of you that is too exposed. The line at which people won’t like you.  The moment that you (or your creations) would like to take back.  Some writer – and I wish to God I could remember who but let’s just say it’s Aaron Sorkin because he’s the current fallback position for screen/TV writing guru – recently said in an interview that everything one writes or creates should have something in it that its creator is embarrassed they’ve revealed.  I think that’s true.  But what about whole pieces of work that could be judged embarrassing, or misfires, or dated, or just plain wrong-headed?  Am I saying that you should be unabashedly committed to those and risk it all on something that is likely to lose?

Um…..exactly.  Because let’s take a look at three very controversial and popular films and TV shows of the moment – Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and “American Horror Story: Asylum” – and you’ll see that’s exactly what all three have done.

Wearing shades is the new "playing ugly" in Oscar bait.

Wearing shades is the new “playing ugly” in Oscar bait.

If you’re screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, why do another Middle East War movie like Zero Dark Thirty when you’ve already hit the jackpot with similarly-themed Oscar winner The Hurt Locker?  And why do a story for Hollywood about the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, the most notorious modern villain in the world, without an ending where the bad guy dies?  Uh, bin Laden is dead, you say?  Well, not the whole time Boal and Bigelow conceived the movie, not when the script was finished, and not when the film was fully financed and ready to go into production.  In fact, it was announced Bin Laden was killed early in May 2011, just as ZDT was about to begin filming.  Which meant (listen up all writers and aspiring screenwriters) the film had to be substantially rewritten in order to accommodate an unanticipated real life ending.

As if this wasn’t enough, why risk government or studio censorship of a pet film project you’re on due to national security?  (Are you nuts?)  I mean, even if you get the story right, you could easily be sued for libel, get professionally discredited (and certainly IRS audited) or at the very worst, slowly water down your piece at various points before its release in order to ensure that it does finally even get a release.

All of these issues invariably came up for the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, they were also called on the carpet by a group of U.S. Senators (thanks John McCain and Dianne Feinstein, among others) who claim ZDT’s depiction of CIA torture was false and perhaps irresponsible storytelling.  This was then followed by an announcement that the filmmakers’ CIA sources, which they have so far refused to specifically disclose, were themselves being investigated.

Now – step back and think clearly – you are the writer or the director and you love this project.  Will you expend whatever time, clout, money, talent and/or security you have at that point in time, before all this has happened, to something that will likely cause this much of a heap of trouble?

There is only one correct answer.  Yes.

Unhinged is more like it...

Unhinged is more like it…

Django Unchained is no less complicated, albeit in a different way.  We can pick apart Quentin Tarantino and his movies all we like, bellyache about how he has enough clout to get anything made that he wants, and argue that his movies are so outrageous and over-the-top that there is nothing he can’t do on film that won’t be expected and, in fact, accepted by his dedicated legion of loyal fans.

Hmmm, not sure I agree. There is a saturation point for just about everything and everyone and each filmmaker’s next film is potentially his or her greatest failure (have you seen Spielberg’s Hook, Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot or Billy Wilder’s Buddy, Buddy lately?).  Not to mention – how many white artists among us feel comfortable writing or being associated in any way shape or form with the “N” world in a film about African Americans (even though its set in the Civil War era) or want to risk our prized position at the top of the commercial heap by making a movie where it’s spoken more than 200 times?

Correct answer:  Quentin Tarantino and very, very, very few of the rest of us.  Which is what makes him Quentin Tarantino – the guy whose new movie fellow filmmaker Spike Lee has claimed is “disrespectful” to his (Spike’s) “ancestors” though Mr. Lee has no plans to even see it and judge for himself.  Well, okay then.

Dear... Lord....

Dear… Lord….

Television usually does not do bold and questionable taste very well but sometimes even the boob tube hits the piercing center of the tiniest of bulls eyes.  I was not going to belabor my love for FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” yet another week here for fear of boring my readers except for the fact that NOT belaboring it would contradict everything I’ve just written this week.  So – risking it all – let me tell you once again that this sick, twisted, hilariously dramatic, sometimes offensive, often times derivative and always nonsensically yet incredibly entertaining series never holds back.  And never more so than this past week.

In an episode entitled “The Name Game,” Jessica Lange’s deposed nun and former nightclub singer Sister Jude – the nastiest mistress of the nuttiest loony bin in the early 1960s, has now been stripped of her powers, become an unwilling patient committed to the asylum she used to rule with a collection of nasty wooden canes of all sizes, and has now just been given quadruple the amount of electro shock therapy she was scheduled for due to the hubris of her truly evil replacement – a younger nun possessed by none other than – yes you guessed it again – SATAN!!

Could it be....

Could it be….

After somehow emerging alive from all of the electricity, Judy (no longer Sister Jude) drags her beleaguered self back into the hospital’s recreation room where Lana, a fellow patient Judy at one point herself tortured, is shocked (no pun intended) at how Judy looks and what’s been done to her.  Fearful Judy is gone forever (or has turned into a cousin of another iconic Jessica Lange character, Frances Farmer), Lana approaches her former nemesis and simply asks:  “Do you know your name?

To which Ms. Lange’s Judy replies – or in actuality, sings – with her own version of the 1960s cult hit: “The Name Game” – well, a 2 minute 14 second remake of it with singing and dancing crazy people doing Hullaballoo type choreography.   Sound out there?  Crazy?  Ridiculous?  Campy?  Sick?  Twisted?  “Disrespectful?  “Sad?”  You bet it does.  And its exactly why the song has gone viral and “American Horror Story: Asylum” is the current cult TV hit of the new TV season and this week’s undisputed champion of “must see.”

Think about it.  Real hard.  But – watch this first.

Ya Gotta Have Faith

from the famous "Jesus is my homeboy" brand

When you mention FAITH in election year 2012 you get a lot of responses.   But for me the response is obvious and it is love.  Not because I’m religious.  But because Faith is my sister’s name.  Literally.  And I do love her.  As I am sure you love your own sister. (Note: Those without sisters, use something else you love aside from yourself and you’ll get there).

Of course, if you’re running for president these days the word Faith wouldn’t be talked about in terms of my Faith (though it would improve things because she’s a lovely, talented person).  It might evoke sound bites that include words like, well: Christianity, Satan, maybe Muslim, perhaps The Devil, or, well,  even poor old Whitney Houston.   But these days you would never, ever, ever follow the word Faith with the word Ginsberg (as in the case with my sister’s full name).  I mean, the closest thing to a Ginsberg in the faith-based national American political stage at the moment is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and everyone knows people with her kind of last name, which is shared by both my Faith and, well, my own Non-Chair moniker, have no relevance at all in the DC fishbowl that we elevate to presidential level.  (Hint:  And it’s not because we Ginsbergs are all three liberals.  Think about it).

Bipartisanship: Faith and Clint

When did one’s religion (nee faith)  or lack of it, become of such outwardly vocal, pressing national concern? At least so publicly.  Hell Heck, I think I much preferred when this stuff was talked about in restricted country clubs or at least under your neighbor’s breath behind closed doors like it’s supposed to.   I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d live to see the day when a viable political candidate leading in many of the major party’s polls uttered statements like “Satan has his eyes on America.”  But then again, I could never have imagined Kim Kardashian, Chase Crawford or even Zack Efron just a few short years ago. Yes, I do admittedly like this faith talk very much from The Church Lady, but she’s a fictional “Saturday Night Live” character (isn’t she?).  There is something about seeing a white man in a sweater vest running for president saying it in reality (not a reality show, though it sure seems like one) that gives me the Rickys, uh, willies.  And even though I have learned to respect people’s religious views even when their religious views have very little respect for me (Hint: I can’t be married to the person I’ve lived with for 25 years but we are both very stylish and like theatre, especially musicals), even I have to say the urge to buy out all of Netflix’s copies of Bill Maher’s “Religilous” and send it on a prepaid loop to these new brands of holy roller whackos is only surpassed by my urge to shake them by their lapels, march them into the O’Neill Theatre and force feed them every lyric to the score of “Book of Mormom.”   That is, if I even knew any theatrical types who could get me tickets to the most popular show now playing on Broadway.  Which is in New York City.  The sacred, holy American city that was attacked on 9/11.

Oh God uh, Gosh.

Of course, politics is not the only arena that has grabbed God by the heart and won’t let him (or Her) go.  The entertainment industry is equally, if not more guilty than most.  I’m not talking about defunct shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia,” or “The Sopranos.” (Come on, the latter WAS a religion!).  I’m talking about performers who use religion as part of their spectacle (thank you Grammy, or any upcoming Academy Award acceptors), and religious events that use entertainment as a way to inform and/or infiltrate the public consciousness.

Or you could go a different route and not thank Jesus... a la Ms. Griffin

As a self-admitted junkie whose religion is entertainment, almost any kind of entertainment except, well, “Toddlers and Tiaras” (sorry, I have to drawn the line somewhere), I’m a sucker for spectacle.  That’s why this past Saturday (Feb 16) morning instead of my usual tuning into “Up With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC and bringing my blood to a proper boil as I see which new hell the religious right are wreaking upon the national stage, I instead found myself mesmerized by an entirely different kind of fire and brimstone.  The pop God funeral of singer Whitney Houston – who died several weeks ago at the age of 48.

Whitney was younger than me, and it gives you pause when you start getting older than people who are dying, even when it’s from unnatural causes.   But what I think really got to me and caused me to watch all four funeral hours, none of which seemed particularly fune-real – was the communal celebration of mourning and life and death within a very cool Black church service – the kind I have never witnessed before.  It also didn’t hurt having songs sung by Alicia Keyes and Stevie Wonder, a eulogy by Kevin Costner, and the potential reality show debacle of a Bobby Brown encounter (See, I told you I was an entertainment junkie).  As more than one pastor said that day – the family’s decision to allow Whitney’s funeral to be televised was particularly valuable because it allowed all of America to go to Church.  Hmm, and I thought it was more of a funeral.  Amen, to that.  I think.

Amen, indeed.

Now just because I can be had by some names, a movie star and tacky, cheap voyeurism doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the spirituality of the moment or respect my time in church.  I have appreciation and respect. I also feel more than bad that yet another very talented person died due to what looks like, in part at least, a long period of addiction she was never able to conquer.  In fact, I found the whole thing mesmerizing.  Actually more than mesmerizing — hypnotic.

As a white Jewish kid who went to temple but was never moved, I was surprised at the intensity of belief I witnessed – the sheer power of a kind of “divine logic” that everyone could understand and relate to as religion.  Sure – it wasn’t predominantly realistic or entirely logical or at least reflects the reality of life as I know it, but that was also its beauty and attraction.  And, I suppose for the believers, the benefits.  The congregtion/chuch/attendees really seemed to believe in the preacher’s message as it applied to real life even if they all didn’t walk the walk each day.  Of course, the sermonizers even made accommodations for that.  That God makes NO mistakes – that he calls people when HE decides it is their time no matter how you live your life.  And that no matter what people do HIS love is infinite and bountiful and can always let you back in to love and happiness.  Pretty powerful stuff.  If you can make the leap and believe.  Unfortunately for me – I don’t.  Or didn’t.  Well, not entirely.

Don’t think I don’t want to.  But writing is my religion (not merely entertainment – I sinned lied and the power of art is divine to me – call it a higher power if you want to.  And if I am being totally honest I have to admit I worship at the altar of Meryl Streep, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen (yeah, I know he’s a heathen, that’s part of the fun), Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and a host of others.  Perhaps  my real religion is simply the creative spirit, or the power of it.

So – if I accept everyone else’s, how come they can’t accept the validity of mine?  Why are my beliefs any less than the ones they have come to on their own.  You say what I’m talking about is not a religion?  Who says?  Okay, fine.  Then substitute just about any other religion other than Christianity or Jesus.  Why would that religious belief be any less valid to be a guiding principle of the world?  Why should that religion not be the ultimate faith litmus test for anyone running for the highest office in our land, or to otherwise be known as – The Leader of the Free World.

Because no religion should.  Because faith is personal and should have nothing to do with any of it.   Because the idea behind America is that it’s a place where anyone can come and worship in any way that they choose.  I should know because I literally grew up with Faith. And though I can’t image your Faith could be any better than mine, I certainly can’t get into an argument with you about it.  Cause how can you ever objectively debate about who or what you love?

———————

Oscar Note: The Chair and the Chair’s mate are going to this year’s Oscars.  Here are you NotesfromaChair Oscar Pool Tie-breaker Questions:

1.  Will Meryl Streep’s dress have a collar?

Exhibit A

2. How many Yiddish words will be uttered by Billy Crystal?

3. Which movie clip will they show for Elizabeth Taylor as part of the “In Memoriam?”   Or will there be a separate tribute and, if so, who will introduce it?

4. How many times will Harvey Weinstein be thanked?

5. (Tie breaker) The inevitable Variety headline when The Artist wins best picture will be “Silence is Golden.”  But – can you come up with something better????