Ahead of Your Time

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It’s a sort of a tradition at our house on holiday weekends to at some point excitedly tune the television in to a Twilight Zone marathon.  (Note:  That would be the original black and white series first broadcast from 1959-1964, in case you were wondering, rather than any subsequent remakes or sequels).

What is unusual is not so much that we here are consistently entranced by the inventive storytelling and enduring themes of a classic television show – almost anything artistic that lasts has those qualities and more.  Rather, what stands out is that on any other particular day of the year we would only have to walk several feet over to our shelves of DVDs to watch any one of those episodes on our big screen TV, desktop or laptop computers at any time of the day or night.

These days we all have to be reminded of what’s really good from time to time, don’t we?  Yes, we’re living in a new golden age of television but sifting through it all has become a challenge that most of us simply don’t have the time for.  I don’t know about you, but too often I am willing to settle.  I think – all I want is to be entertained a little, or laugh a little or even be prodded to think a little bit more on a subject I hadn’t considered by what I’m watching.  And have it last in my mind a little bit longer than the time it takes to suck down a single Mentos.

... or really if it involves any home design with these two.

… or really if it involves any home design with these two.

We read and hear constantly about how a continuing explosion of networks and a myriad of new streaming opportunities make this the optimum moment to be what the entertainment biz calls a content creator.  And how privileged this new generation of Millennials (along with everyone else who is older, not dead and still working) are to be among those whose stuff is getting read, seen or generally played with via those or any other venues.  But…well….. here is what the top 1%/chattering class of those bull crappers are really saying:

You young people who are writers, directors, actors and even producers?!  Yeah you! Do you know how LUCKY you are?  There are so many places where all that stuff you make can now be seen.  So don’t complain to us about how difficult it is to get views or how much you’re not getting paid.  This is the LAND of opportunitythe wild west of new media landscapes.  Don’t you all realize how GOSH DARN fortunate YOU ALL ARE to even be a part of this????

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(Note: I might add that the same goes for middle-aged and older creative people.  It’s just that the top 1%/chattering class chooses not to include the rest of us among the content creators because, with some exceptions, they are not quite as interested in the types of content that we are creating).

So – here is both the really ugly and really reassuring truth about all of this:

It is no easier or difficult to be a writer, director, actor, producer or any other type of artist than it ever was.  The same blank canvas still exists and it still takes the same single-minded leap of faith, ingenuity and ever so slight craziness to believe that anything you have to say will prove interesting to anyone else or even be listened to.  That is both the challenge and, when it really works and lasts, the ultimate reward.

Twilight Zones don’t happen without a gigantic leap on everyone’s part  – the hardest and longest being from its creators. Nor does something light and classic on the other side of the spectrum like…well…I Love Lucy.  A 1950s television show about a Manhattan housewife married to a foreign musician we can’t understand, played by a “B” movie star and her real-life, non-actor foreign musician husband who we also can’t understand?  Are you kidding?  Well, this better be the funniest thing we’ve seen in years.

Still America's sweethearts

Still America’s sweethearts

Ah, yes – and lucky for them and for us it was.  In the same way that the unique idea of dealing with the timeless dramatic themes of conformity, prejudice, sexism and totalitarianism in a futuristic and alternate universe has also kept The Twilight Zone alive all this time.

One could go on and on with examples from the artistic discipline of one’s choice.  I simply chose The Twilight Zone and inserted I Love Lucy in the back-up position because they were most easily at hand and on the tube this holiday weekend.  And we’ve already established how much I – and we – enjoy easy.

It is not the wrong time for those of us in the Business of Show, or in any other business, to remind ourselves that the viability of one’s new idea can’t be measured so much against what’s out there but by what’s in there – meaning in your heart and soul and mind. Oh, pooh pooh that idea all you want – or as Bette Midler said several decades ago on her fine comedy album, Mud Will Be Flung Tonight – “hiss and boo your own selves” – it’s true.  Too many of us are not willing to go there nowadays, myself included.  There’s an emotional risk to failure and that is rejection, embarrassment, shame and depression.  There is also a financial risk and that’s loss of home, status or just plain poverty.  And certainly it’s no more fun that it ever was to be poor these days.  Probably less.

Still, the ugliest and tritest truism about art, and its even higher counterpart, innovation, is that nothing great is ever accomplished by dwelling on the what will happen instead of concentrating on the what could be.  That means taking a risk and going with what really moves you or gnaws at you.  No, this does not mean living in an artistic cocoon without taking in reality or the rest of the world.  That’s the kind of thing the top 1%/chattering class and all the other naysayers in your life and brain say to get you off track.

Not your ideal working environment

Not your ideal working environment

Take The Twilight Zone, for example.  At the time of its conception Rod Serling was a long form dramatic writer for live television who had served in the military and was married and had children.  It was the 1950s and he had a family to support and he didn’t have a chance to live in an artistic garrote and WRITE merely for himself.  So what did he do?  He embraced the most popular art form of the day but wrote about subjects he cared most about in just about the most commercial structure imaginable.  What were those subjects?  Oh, simple ideas fit for mainstream consumption in the escapist times of the fifties and early sixties.  (Note: Insert sarcasm here). Ideas that were ANTI-GOVERNMENT, ANTI-WAR, explored SEXISM TOWARDS WOMEN and addressed that popular old subject we’re still all always so willing and anxious to talk about – DEATH.

As I viewed Twilight Zone this weekend I was once again amazed to rediscover the timeless themes Mr. Serling managed to feature that few of us have the nerve to tackle today.  For example, Time Alone At Last in season one dealt with a bookish bank teller who loved to read classic literature but was perpetually ostracized for being strange and behind the times in then contemporary 1950s America.  Season 2’s The Obsolete Man went a step further and centered on the execution of one of the last thinking intellectuals living in a now totalitarian state where only people who are of direct use to the whims of its corporate-run government entity have the value to live.  Coincidentally, the leads in both episodes were played by veteran character actor Burgess Meredith, who gained greater fame the following decades as the original Penguin in the Batman television series and as the grizzled old trainer of Rocky in the first of all 22 of those films.  Hey, as Peter Fonda once told me his father Henry once told him: You go where the work is.

Meredith in Time Enough At  Last

Meredith in Time Enough At Last

Mr. Serling was also probably one of the first male dramatic writers on television to so prominently focus on feminist themes and address the devaluing of women in American society.  Season 2’s Eye of Beholder, first broadcast in 1960, is one of his most classic.  A woman with a bandaged face has endured her 11th and final (per legal limits) plastic surgery to make her face not necessarily beautiful but simply what is considered for the times to be normal – or at least not as ugly as the horrible features she was genetically cursed with.  But when her surgeon finally unmasks her he and everyone else cries out in horror that there has been no change at all while simultaneously we in the audience see for the first time that the woman is not only blonde and beautiful but everyone else in the room – and in society for that matter – are all hideously and literally pig-faced.  Look around at all of the surgically mangled faces of 2014 humans worldwide – especially those of women, who still face more stringent societal standards of beauty than men – and one can’t help but long for a fictional Twilight Zone limit of a mere eleven surgeries when the subject of voluntary facial augmentation comes up.

Are you sure we're not on Santa Monica Blvd?

Are you sure we’re not on Santa Monica Blvd?

Interestingly enough, as the 1960s continued and the feminist movement began to take root, along with The Twilight Zone, the series chose not to play it safe but to go even deeper.  One Serling-produced episode in Season 5, Number 12 Looks Just Like You, focused on a young, futuristic woman with a pleasant face who is refusing to go along with the government mandated surgical transformation all young women and men of 17 must endure. Forsaking their own genetics, each must decide which of several scores of prototypically beautiful yet perfectly vapid faces, bodies and minds they will choose to transform into.

Being like everybody, isn’t it the same as being nobody?, questions the young woman. To which her perfectly transformed doctor can only reply, Hey, what you need is a nice instant cup of Smile.

A nice instant cup of Smile, if such a thing existed, might be what any number of commercial production companies and their vast audiences would prefer nowadays. But that does not mean that it has be what we content creators make for the selling.  In fact, it is really up to the creator – the first line of defense for the integrity of the artistic endeavor, to fess up and take responsibility for the creation much in the way Mr. Serling did in his storytelling for not only that episode but the entire series.

Preach, Rod.

Preach, Rod.

On that note, this might be a good time to mention that the genesis of The Twilight Zone actually came from the extreme censorship Mr. Serling had to endure at the hands of the networks and sponsors who chose to cut and then severely edit much of the work he had done before it.  The final blow came on a drama he wrote that was broadcast in 1956 called Noon on Doomsday. Inspired by the real-life case of Emmett Till – a young Black man of 14 whose eyes were gouged out as he was brutally beaten and then shot to death for merely speaking to a White woman in Mississippi one year prior – Mr. Serling persevered as first the setting of his story was taken out of the South – and then his young Black male lead was changed to a Jewish pawnbroker – until the final, watered down product focused merely on the actions of a generic foreigner in an unknown town.

But had Mr. Serling thrown up his hands in disgust and walked away right then and there, or just simply thrown up, we would never have The Twilight Zone.  It was only when he decided to beat the marketplace at its own game and partnered with another producer who liked his idea of using a science fiction setting to tackle all of the timely yet difficult subjects he aspired to write about (in other words – owning the idea of that foreigner in that unknown town but making him anything but generic) that any television network or sponsor would come onboard.  Which is not to say they did so without continued rancor or distress at just how timely and topical Mr. Serling would choose to be.

We should all be wary of countering the lesson of The Twilight Zone with comments like – oh, but times have changed, it’s not so easy to do that stuff these days, or even thoughts like, well, for every Serling there are hundreds of those who don’t make it and, quite clearly aren’t geniuses, but could do decent work, what about them?  To say this is to miss the point entirely.  No great or even good idea happens on the first try and most geniuses are merely just hard-working people relentlessly going about their jobs with dogged determination in a self-created world where giving up is not an option.  People like Serling have no idea if and when they will ever be successful – or if their new idea will ever be accepted.  They just keep going.  And that is the recurring theme of creation whether it’s digitized, computerized or merely presented  – for your approval –  in black & white.

 

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Listen

There is something both great and awful, yet at the same time scary, offensive and exhilarating —  about listening.  How many activities can engender such a range of responses and emotions?  Not many unless you count the reaction to the renewal of NBC’s “Whitney” or thoughts on the new Adam Sandler trailer “That’s My Boy” and feedback concerning the voice Mr. Sandler is using to play Dad to the movie’s title character.  But who wants to get into all that now, anyway, even in the safe space confines of a user-friendly (one hopes) Internet blog.

The death of singer supreme Donna Summer this week got me thinking about listening, as opposed to my usual rants about being heard. At one time not so long ago, Ms. Summer’s sultry yet powerful voice played on many more radios than Rush Limbaugh’s ever did but, unlike Limbaugh, her voice was a clarion call to an emerging culture of people who were tired of the way things were and wanted the society to, if not change, at least be broadened enough to include something a little bit more colorful and different.  That was, until, disco sort of imploded upon itself (sort of like what’s happening to Limbaugh at the moment), and created a backlash that sent Ms. Summer’s music underground until decades later when it was sort of okay to listen to her again in a nostalgic, albeit kitschy way.

Dancing Queen

Though I was no Disco baby, I never did lose my taste for a Summer record like “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park” or even “On The Radio” – all of which I listened to as a young person who, at least on the inside, felt different enough to hear what she had committed to vinyl (uh, yeah, vinyl) over and over again.  I think this was due, in part, because it made me think and, more importantly, feel things I had never felt, or dared to feel before.   For those not getting this last statement – use your imagination.  For those still not getting it – phone a friend (girl OR boy).  Or better yet – listen yourself to her very first hit international hit in the confines of your own study, crib or own safe space.

Music is one way to listen – or not to – but these days, of course, there are a lot more, partly because there are many more outlets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there is more worthy stuff to hear.  The challenge is – choosing what to listen to.  Now I’m not one of those armchair liberals who only listen and look (the latter often a requirement of listening in the 2012 age) to those who agree with me – that would be boring.  But that doesn’t mean that my version of listening requires me to watch what passes for news on Fox Broadcasting (I have Jon Stewart to siphon that off) or expose my diminishing hearing to anything within the smell zone that the cigar-chomping Limbaugh chooses to Rush at me.  There are variations of the ilk I will watch or read – pundits or even bigots that make my blood boil at a little lower temperature (Peggy Noonan the former, or Tony Perkins of something called the Family Research Council, being the latter).  This is just in the off chance I can learn something or be forearmed in the very off chance that they might, at some point, or even now, be listening to me.  (A long shot, I know, but, like Bill Clinton, I try in my mind’s eye to still live in a little town called Hope).

Best cheeseburgers in town.

I honed my listening skills as a young reporter, a field where you are pretty much forced to listen to everything in an effort to synthesize and tell the “real story” of an event to people who are depending on you for the truth.  Well, at least that’s the way I learned it back in journalism school.  Unfortunately, times have changed.  Back then most writing and reportage was not about advancing an agenda but actually attempting to get all sides and then tell the most truthful version of it that you could in your own, inimitable fashion.  This does and did not mean that many stories – both news and features – didn’t have a point of view.  Of course they did.  Since complete objectivity is a human impossibility it is a given that the retelling of anything will be synthesized in some way given that mere mortals are telling it.  But as any decent filmmaker knows, POV doesn’t change the actual story elements – it merely shifts focus and moves the audience in a direction.  It is then up to the audience to do what they will with the information given to them.

Or not given.

That’s a trick too.  When no one is listening or reading or watching hard enough, merely arranging the same facts a certain way can cause people to interpret the story exactly the way you want them to.  But that’s pretty much only in the case of people who are not really listening or at least are not practiced listeners. Which, these days, means pretty much everybody.

Everyone. Everywhere.

If we, as storytellers (professional or just plain folks like us), don’t listen we won’t have enough information to tell the story the way it is because we won’t be able to recognize that there are indeed missing details.  And our version will become someone else’s faulty version – someone who is depending on us for the truth – and then they will retell it to yet another who creates still another version with a lack of proper information or facts that we provided them in the first place.   One need only look at the political situation in the Middle East or the “true love” choices on “The Bachelor” to get confirmation of that.

Certainly, we all listen differently and most of us are too busy looking for either work or validation or love or money (sometimes all four) to be focused on getting to the bottom of anything.  That is, unless the real story will provide us with one of the four  (see “The Bachelor” or “Bachelorette”).   In some ways, this was always the case.  We humans usually don’t listen hard enough unless we can get something out of it.  Or, to put it another way: “what’s in it for me?”

Stlll, the baseline was – how do I put this – a bit higher.  There was a time when television news was required by law to present both sides.  But that was abolished under Pres. Reagan’s FCC in 1987.

There was also a time when there was no:

– free porn on a small screen in your home whenever you wanted it

– 1,438,928 cable TV stations vying for your attention

– opportunity to listen to as much of Donna Summer, Adam Sandler, or anyone else you wanted without charge if you clicked the right set of keys on a laptop computer anywhere in the world.

Can you do better?

Chair Translation — we’ve gotta raise the bar – just a tad, or even a hair.  Or two.  Even if it’s calmly trying to discuss and investigate whether the news story your friend posted on Facebook is little more than someone else’s faulty retelling of someone else’s rant.  Or asking your friend, lover or family member to calmly tell you what they are saying and then stepping back and spending more than five minutes deciding for yourself how much you want to believe or whether you want to take at least another five or even ten minutes to do some investigating on your own.   Which might then lead you to talk to someone else about this very situation.  A situation (and NOT the “Jersey Shore” kind) this person might very well be interested in or have pertinent information about, but found that said story in the form you are advancing had never crossed their path.  And that, in turn, can do or change all kinds of things.  Or if not, forge the discovery of yet another “something else”.  Something that might not have been heard before if someone wasn’t listening to you (or vice versa) in the very first place.

All of this can be done to the tune of the Donna Summer record of your choice if you so desire.  Or perhaps, simply, in silence.  I suggest the latter but certainly understand the former, depending on your mood.