Oh, Mother!

Everyone who makes movies in Hollywood these days is an artist of some kind no matter what anyone thinks. Try working in any department on a film and you will see artistry at work. Sure, it might not be to your taste but it’s there.

Still, most people in the business would privately admit there is a very, very small group of writer-directors whose every movie – consistently and with dogged resolve – are always reaching for a lot more than commercial success or to tell a simple story with skill and creativity.

ahem

These are people who understand the economics and plot elements of the business but also aspire to do go out on a limb and add elements to their work that you not only never saw before but never in your wildest dreams imagined.

They seek to tell a story that will always blow you out of the water, that often can’t help at points to confound, offend and most importantly – despite your reaction –cause you to think about what they’ve presented whether you want to or not. Whether you like it or not.

These filmmakers are our current UBER artists and Darren Aronofsky is one of them.

OK.. maybe he’s not helping himself #scarvesfordays

A lot has been written about his just released Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

  • The fact that it got a record low F Cinemascore
  • The fact that it had a dismal opening at the box office and has rapidly trended downwards
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky’s last film, Noah, was a bit of a mess, wildly expensive and made for Paramount – the same studio that backed Mother!
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky is in career free-fall, has lost it, and will most certainly follow in the footsteps of many of our greatest filmmakers who ___________.

Well, you can fill in the blanks.

No please Chair, go on. #mnightknows

But the problem with all of the above is that they are irrelevant and beside the point.

And most especially, particularly in the case of the latter, are a whole lot of:

HORSESHIT

Yep… that’s what I smell

I saw Mother! at a screening at the WGA Friday night and for the first two thirds of it I often didn’t quite know where I was despite being thoroughly entertained, intrigued and often second-guessing just how crazy the rest of it could get. Eventually the threads of what held together filmmaking this audacious began to unravel and what I was left with, well, I’ll spare you the details.

Good, bad, and certainly not indifferent, I’m, yes, still thinking about quite a few images in Mother! — all in the muddled spaces of Mother logic that remains in my mind. (Note: And yes, make of that what you will.)

Roughly how I felt after I left the screening

This is a film where the less you know about it the better and the more you try to focus on plot and theme the less you seem to know. That is its greatest fault or most potent calling card depending on who you are and what you prefer to see. But one thing is for certain: Mother! never shies away from its aspirations and goes for them full throttle. It is comedy, drama, horror,and epic all sewn into a patchwork of crazy. But will you like it???

Hell if I know. I don’t even know if I did.

Horror you say? No, a different kind of MOTHER! #ohNorman

Anyone who has followed Mr. Aronofsky’s career as I have (Note: Full confession, he is one of my most preferred contemporary American filmmakers – and there aren’t many) shouldn’t be surprised at what they’re seeing here.

There are certain themes that pop up in all his work:

Fame

Artistry

Love and Sex (not necessarily in that order)

Family

Is it, Darren?

Look at his most enduring movies and you’ll see a guy who leaves it all on the screen and let’s the chips fall where they may.

I can recall sitting at a 1998 Academy screening of his film Pi unable to move out of my chair at the end, wondering: what the hell was that, how did he know what I was thinking about but never dared to tell anyone, and how can I immediately get more?

Two years later he made Requiem for A Dream and gave me existential nightmares that every so often creep back into my brain uninvited and, yet, sometimes also give me the impetus to strive for something even more daring in my own work.

Plus.. I’m gonna be on television!

Six years after that he made me love Mickey Rourke as an actor for the very first time, not to mention The Wrestler, while touching on some very personal family issues I didn’t even know I still carried with me.

When Black Swan came out two years later I believed he’d jumped to a whole new level of addressing the age old question of what is the price artistry and, given its box-office success on such a relatively low budget, fully expected to see a whole raft of ballet films of all genres in its wake. (Note: Clearly I was wrong on the latter and is one of the thousands of reasons why I am not a studio executive).

The closest we got was care of Miss Swift #shakeitoff

Sure, in between there were bigger budget, rambling confusions like The Fountain and Noah but in my mind even both of those were not without their moments. Mostly because I knew each of them were stepping stones to the next film and the next one and then the film after that.

This is what it REALLY takes to consistently produce work that is mold-breaking, thought-provoking and ORIGINAL. You have to disappoint, confuse and perhaps even offend your audience with too many misfired moments in order to get to where the most JUICE is.

I realize metaphors are not my strongest suit and I’m not sure why I use them. (Perhaps because one day I know I’ll find one that works?).

Just doing my part…

But one thing I am ABSOLUTELY certain of is that to en masse roast an uber artist like Mr. Aronofsky for what you or your friends or gang of social media cronies find to be his lessest work is to guarantee that you will never, ever get his future bestest work.

In between tweeting about the Orange Buffoon’s latest tirade against Black athletes and football, many have this week seen fit to take to our virtual Town Square and quite metaphorically (and then some) stone Mother! and Mr. Aronofsky to their virtual, spiritual and financial deaths.

Though usually Ms. Lawrence – one of our current America’s Sweethearts –is spared, they manage to go doubly, triply, even sextupley hard on the one principal artist who dared make that misfired, truly disgusting, stillborn thing that sullied her.

I’m pretty sure this is just how Katniss feels about that

Without ever appreciating this fact: that one principal artist is also, in a past or future work, the same uber talented filmmaker who will help make us fall in love with her – and people like her – in the first place.

Yes, I know Mr. Aronofsky doesn’t need my help. But dismissive, over-the-top reaction to films like Mother! really pisses me off.

Cee Lo Green – “Forget You”

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The End of the World As We Know It…

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It was 103 degrees in Los Angeles for several days this past week – a kind of hot, humid and stagnantly breezy heat we softies out on the left coast are unused to. Take a scalding, steamy shower with the door closed and then put your blow dryer on high and walk into it. That’s the best way I can describe it. And if you’re a young guy who can’t relate to blow dryers because you have one of those stupid side buzz cuts, just take my word for it and wear a hat. Please.

How do we make this go away?

How do we make this go away?

I suppose anyone with my receding hairline shouldn’t be criticizing the hip and happening pate of the moment, but someone has to. It’s like you all started shaving your head from the sides on the go with a portable electric razor but then, while walking by Nordstrom’s men’s cosmetics counter, a rack full of product fell off a loose shelf onto your head and all of the remaining hair on the top that you didn’t get to. Forget what the stylists are saying. In 20 years you will look back at these photos with a horror that we men of a certain age (Okay, me) now reserve for snapshots of us in leisure suits and Nik-Nik shirts. Trust me.

Dear God.

Dear God.

If I sound a bit annoyed, well – perhaps I am. It’s tiring to see the Republican Apprentice being cheered by yahoos at pep rallies all over the country as simultaneously one of the most brilliant and experienced women to ever surface in American political life gets pummeled daily in the public town square for using the wrong email. Why so many people have such a hard time believing a 67-year-old couldn’t quite understand the process of wiping her personal server clean (Note: Her “with a cloth?” answer sounded right to me), much less compute ahead of time the ramifications of owning one for convenience is beyond me. I’m not quite her age but at this point I’d buy almost anything for convenience – especially if I had a job where I had to deal with one commercial airliner, much less all of them, as I traveled all over the world on a daily basis. And that’s without even factoring in hair, make-up or jet lag. What a frickin’ nightmare.

Let’s face it, contemporary life has become a nightmare. Summer is winding down, we’ve just passed the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and the Presidential race, still a year away, has surpassed the reality show Paddy Chayefsky warned us about in Network. To make matters, worse, this is happening in 100 plus degree September weather all over the country as newscasters gleefully warn us of mammoth storms and tides and floods and pestilence and maybe even showers of frogs to come.

give-me-strength

Sidebar: My favorite part of the ongoing political fights these days are the tweets and comments pop songwriters are sending out when the likes of The Republican Apprentice or Kentucky’s own new favorite daughter, born-again, gay marriage eschewing country clerk Kim Davis, dare to appropriate their material as theme songs. When Kim flounced out of jail to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” current frontman Frankie Sullivan posted on the band’s Facebook page:

NO! We did not grant Kim Davis any rights to use ‘My Tune – The Eye Of the Tiger.’ I would not grant her the rights to use Charmin!

A cease and desist letter from the group’s lawyer followed.

But even better was what happened after the R.A. (that’s Republican Apprentice, again) decided it would be the height of irony to walk out to one of his frenzied crowds as REM’s “It’s End of the World as We Know It” blared.

Said REM guitarist Mike Mills: Personally, I think the Orange Clown will do anything for attention. I hate giving it to him.

To which REM frontman Michael Stipe added: Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you–you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.

But imagine a world where one’s choice of entertainment has to coincide with your political and social beliefs? Well, frankly, I’d be fine. I could happily give up Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Chuck Norris and Kid Rock. Yes, I’d miss the occasional Meat Loaf (Note: The singer, not the roast) but other than that – really, I’d be good.

You can go too (we'll keep the Chair)

You can go too (we’ll keep the Chair)

As for the other side – well, stop to think about it. How much would THEY miss? How much would you pay NOT to have to go a fundraiser where Ted Nugent plays the main stage and Jessica Simpson does the lounge show? Or even vice-versa?

To my friends on the other side (yes, I do have some) – think about this. You’ve got Vince Vaughn and we have Tom Hanks. Doesn’t that tell you something? Did you even see the second season of True Detective?

Not to mention, we have Cate Blanchett brilliantly playing a lesbian in the upcoming love story Carol, along with Eddie Redmayne portraying Lili Elbe, one of the first transsexuals on record (in the early 1900s) in the soon-to-be-released The Danish Girl to look forward to. Of course, this has to counter our most public transgender woman in contemporary life, Caitlyn Jenner (Note: Though actually, she’s yours), going on Ellen DeGeneres’ show last week and not quite fully committing in favor of gay marriage and the R.A.’s continued national bashing of one our most famous contemporary lesbians, Rosie O’Donnell, in a presidential debate non-sequitur weeks before. Is there a yin and yang to all of that?

#undeniable

#undeniable

Well, one can only hope that Lily Tomlin wins the Oscar for her terrific performance as a deliciously bitter lesbian poet in Grandma to put us one step ahead on that score. And yeah, it can happen – go see the movie. And if you’re still not convinced and have already decided to root for Cate in a film you haven’t yet seen, why don’t you table it for just a few more years and give it to her for portraying Lucille Ball in the upcoming Lucy-Desi biopic Aaron Sorkin is writing. No, I’m not kidding.

I suppose this disproves the idea that it’s all a nightmare, even though sometimes it can seem so. Speaking of which, there are only two movies among the thousands I’ve seen (Note: I use to be a film critic) that have ever given me nightmares.

One was Requiem for A Dream, a harrowing tale of drug addiction based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. and co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Mr. Aronofsky is for my money one of the 10 best American directors working today and if his first film Pi, a thoroughly original visual masterwork of paranoia in black & white, was too esoteric for some he proved with Requiem that by using more recognizable characters from everyday life in a realistic yet still somewhat stylized setting he could disturb us even more.   The image of Jennifer Connelly rolling around in a boxing ring will haunt me till the end of my days – of that I am at least 98% sure of.

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope... Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope… Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

The second was the original The Last House on the Left. It came out in 1972 and was a graphically nasty little movie about two girls who decide to get stoned on the way to a rock concert and are brutally tortured by a gang of escaped convicts, who in turn get brutally tortured by the grieving parents of one of the gals. It was so real and so horrible my group of friends who I dragged to it on the basis of an over-the-top ad my teenage self spied in the newspaper in 1972 wouldn’t talk to me for a week.

Notably, that movie was the first feature directed by the late West Craven, who went on to direct some of the most famous horror franchises of our era, including the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies. Mr. Craven, by all accounts a gentle, intelligent and quite erudite person in real life, died several weeks ago at the age of 76 – which might seem old to some of you but no longer feels ancient to your average baby boomer (even someone on the very low end of boomer status such as myself).

The twisted and delightful legend.

The twisted and delightful legend.

In any event, among Mr. Craven’s many other credits was 1999’s Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep in the real life story of a schoolteacher who struggled to teach the violin to inner city kids in Harlem. Yeah, it was a bit old-fashioned but despite what you might have heard it’s watchable, sincere and sweet. It also goes to show that even those who create the sickest and most diabolically twisted images dialogue and manufactured story lines in the zeitgeist could have the potential for a sweet, sincere and inspiring side.

One wishes Mr. Craven was still around for many reasons – but one of them being to scare straight some of the sickies among us now polluting the public square and monopolizing the airwaves as they jam up the zeitgeist with a newer and more potent brand of their own toxicity. He could explain to them that just because the public is buying the crap that you’re making and selling doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve to something a little bit better that will last longer and that you can be proud of.

Adapting the Recipes

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recipe; plural noun: recipes

     1. 
a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of the ingredients required.

There are recipes for success, failure and everything in between.  Or are there?  I mean, I can give you directions on how to make the perfect bruschetta (Note:  And I will in a bit if you’re patient) but it might not come out exactly to your liking.  Or you could stray from my instructions and produce something much better and more to your liking.  That’s the thing with recipes.  They need to be adapted to the person or situation at hand.

For instance, last week I actually went to my local movie theatre (imagine!) and saw the new film, Noah.  Never mind that it was about a subject as old as the Bible because it quite literally dates back to a story told in that book that long ago.  This Noah promised to be, well, promising.  It’s directed and co-written by one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky (yes, I loved Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream still haunts me,  and The Wrestler spoke to me quite personally about a guy in a neighborhood not totally dissimilar from my own).  The film was also rumored to employ all of the newest technology of the day in the service of updating a classic good vs. evil story that spoke to the issues of today.  And, most importantly, many of the extreme fundamentalist right wing nuts in this country were already up in arms about Noah’s heathen-like approach to religion weeks before it had even come out.  So, to quote an old Jewish philosopher and great aunt of mine, what could be bad???

I'm flooded with puns to make here, but I will resist.

I’m flooded with puns to make here, but I will resist.

Well… Noah could.  Though that’s solely my opinion about what seemed like a pretty good recipe on paper.  Still, the film that I saw featured a mumbling and earnestly crazed Russell Crowe doing Bible speak as if it were Shakespeare; CGI’d Transformer-like boulders with glowing eyes pulverizing tens of thousands of starving humans trying to come aboard a large CGI raft made up to look like an arc; and a dull, meandering narrative that precluded any possible thematic resonance to what I see as our contemporary world.

Yes, that’s merely one man’s (Note: this man’s) opinion.  Which is the point.

There is no real recipe for anything, nor has there even been – merely guidelines, suggestions and ideas.  No matter what you’re cooking up, you have to interpret your thoughts and the ideas of others in order to arrange them in something that makes sense to you at the time.  And even then, there is no guarantee of success, or even failure.  Merely a completion of the task that you hope upon hope will work for you and, perhaps, a few others.  And – if you’re really skilled or lucky – a number quite far beyond that.

The Chair on a stool.

The Chair on a stool.

This past week I was at the Finger Lakes Film Festival (FLEFF) in Ithaca, NY and spoke on a panel entitled Diaries of Dissonance: Filmmaking In And Outside the Mainstream.  It was an eclectic group of filmmakers, fundraisers, marketers, writers and educators speaking about the way new work is created, financed and exhibited in an ever-changing global media and political landscape.  That’s a lot of fancy words for questions like: Do you tailor your material to the big screen, Web, smart phone or iPad? How do you raise money for anything but the most mainstream pabulum?  Or – Why is the US trailing so many other countries in state-supported arts programs and how do we shift our value system back to a more community-based, less corporatist way of thinking?

Looking out into the faces of the many young people in the audience I was forced to reveal the answer that no one wants to hear – especially when they’re young.  And that is — there is no sure-fire recipe for any of that.  Nor does one exist for anything else.  Somehow it’s easier to believe that there is THE ANSWER out there rather than to shift one’s thinking to the truth that only educated trial and error amid real thought will get you to where you want to be rather than strict memorization and adherence to a pre-digested formula and/or set of rules guidebook that will guarantee you victory or your money back.

oP69xVh

That is the excitement and the conundrum of working in the arts or doing anything creative.  In math 2+2=4 and in science the world is round and not flat (Note:  It’s  still safe to say the latter, right???).  Those formulas have been proven and do work 100% of the time.  However, the joy of creativity is that there are a myriad of answers to the telling of any one story and none of them are right or wrong.  They…..just….are.

It is particularly important to remember this when critiquing and counter-critiquing the work of the day.  Apparently, there was a media revolution last week with the airing of the series finale of the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  I know this not only as an obsessive culture vulture but as an observer of many college aged seniors and juniors whose voices angrily raised about three octaves shouting their post mortem horror and disgust at how disappointed they were that the mother was actually (SPOILER ALERT!) dead and their beloved Ted Mosby would probably wind up with Aunt Robin after all.

Sigh.

Sigh.

Yet to me, this seemed to be the right ending – probably because I stopped watching the show years ago right around the time after Ted and Robin broke up and each were moderately successful yet still somehow semi-miserable in their own single lives.  Of course, that could be a recipe all its own – bail years before something is over so you create the ending of your choosing rather than to wait for the real-life one that might displease you.  Ugh, I hope not.

In fact, when I tried to create a premature ending to what seemed like an endless 24-hour commute from Los Angeles to upstate N.Y. this weekend it fell flat miserably.   You know the drill — you get to the airport and your plane is taking off two hours late.  Then you arrive in a big city like NYC and you have a two-three hour layover to make a connection to a smaller city.  But the crew of the commuter plane you’re taking in the next flight has been delayed on its connecting plane and you have to wait another 90 minutes.  Then you’re on the ground in your plane for another hour in airport ground traffic.  Only to finally land in your location several hours late to find the car-rental place you used to reserve your vehicle to take you to your hotel closed at 12:30am and it’s now almost 1:00am.  So you wait in another company’s car rental line, get an alternative vehicle and drive though endless very dark roads in a new car where your lights don’t seem to get bright enough and your GPS suddenly goes in and out on the fritz.

You pray you will get to the hotel you’ve reserved in time and you don’t speed but you do go the speed limit, alternating between shining your bright headlights and keeping them low when appropriate.  After another 45 minutes you can practically see your destination on the horizon when the bright lights of a police car shine on you out of nowhere and pull you over on a highway that is about to end for no apparent reason whatsoever other than to tease you into believing you soon just might be able to rest.   Then, suddenly an extremely short Highway Patrolman with a shaved head, Pharrell Williams-type hat and an accent right out of Deliverance stops his car, leisurely ambles over and barely explains that when he shined his headlights at you back there that you shined yours back.  You quickly realize that clearly he took this as an insult and sign or disrespect when it was just merely a safety measure on your part to make sure that your lights were indeed working properly.

I believe the official name is the "Oh Shit" moment

I believe the official name is the “Oh Shit” moment

Anyway, he then leaves while you’re in mid-sentence in explanation and takes another 10 minutes in his car to write you a $210 ticket for failure to dim (could I make this up?) which you’re actually thankful for because you were sure he was using that time to impound your car and throw you in a rural jail where you would be sentenced to hard labor and never see the light of any highway ever again because you will be murdered in your cell for being gay, or for simply answering someone back in much too sassy a manner (Note: As if there’s a difference).

When you finally do get to the hotel at 3:30 am you notice that the warning at the bottom of the ticket stipulates that, if you attend, your hearing will be held in a criminal court – and that if you plead guilty to this offense you could have your license taken away.  This does not cheer you and will give you nightmares.  Most certainly, it has convinced you that there is, nor ever again will there be, any sure-fire recipe for reliable cross-country air travel.  Ever.  At least not in your lifetime.

Well, perhaps recipes are better left for food items since cooking, especially baking, lends itself a bit more to scientific formulas.  Of course, that might be the case in creating the dish but nothing more.  For instance, an article in the Huffington Post several days ago touted a headline offering The World’s Best Cake but when I clicked on the story I found that it was actually the world’s best cake according to the citizens of Norway and it showed an unappetizing photo of a large yellow rectangle with a heavy cream filled middle, topped with slivered almonds.  This all looked, quite frankly, disgusting.  Forget that personally I’m allergic to nuts but the idea that the world’s best cake could possibly not include — chocolate????  I don’t think so.

Really?

Really?

That being said, the following is the closest I can come to a sure thing.  It is a bruschetta recipe I appropriated from an old Italian cookbook and doctored a bit.  It’s simple and it never fails.

THE CHAIR’S BRUSCHETTA

1. Take three baskets of cherry tomatoes.  Cut then in half.  Put them on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle with kosher salt.

2. Roast them in a preheated oven at 250 degrees for two hours.  Then open the oven, sprinkle them with sugar lightly and continue roasting for another half hour.

3. Take them out of the oven and combine them with one additional basket of raw cherry tomatoes, also cut in half, or even thirds.

4. Pour one-third to one-half of a cup of olive oil (or a bit more) over it.  Then add in  a cup or two or chopped FRESH basil, a bit of salt and pepper.  Then mix and let it sit an hour or so.  Then add a bit more olive oil or salt/pepper to taste.

5. Serve on grilled sourdough, French or other rustic bread.  The best way to do this is brush the bread with olive oil on both sides and grill for 2 minutes on each side.  Take the bread off the heat, rub garlic on one side and cut it in slices.  Then spread a little bit of bruschetta mixture on the garlic side of each piece of bread.

Emma-Stone-Saying-Yum

It is FABULOUS.

Yes, there are no sure-fire recipes in the world but this is the closest to perfection that you will get.  Though in the off-chance you don’t like it you can go watch Noah – or better yet, drive an hour from the airport in upstate NY in the middle of the night, and tell me which of the three was the better experience.  Clearly, there are also no sure-fire wins in life, but I’m more than willing to take the above bet.