In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court famously overturned a lower court decision in Ohio that deemed the 1958 Louis Malle film Les Amants (The Lovers) pornographic and therefore unfit to be shown in a Cleveland movie house. The theatre manager at the time had been fined $2500 (which I’m hoping was returned because with minimal investment it would probably mean at least $250,000 to his heirs today) for enabling the very lucky patrons of the Heights Arts Theatre to see this movie which, incidentally, starred Jeanne Moreau and had already received a special jury prize from the Venice Film Festival, among other accolades.
However, what makes that tidbit of entertainment history noteworthy isn’t the fact that one group of American judges half a century ago found a French film to be too dirty for public consumption while another group thought it to be – well –entertaining – but the words used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain why Les Amants wasn’t hard-core pornography.
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” wrote Justice Stewart. “…But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
We’ve come a long, or perhaps even short way in 50 years, but the fact remains: Creative work has always been impossible to rate and categorize on any objective scale because by its very nature it is subjective and therefore defies grade-ability I find this particularly infuriating as a teacher in the arts since I am often required to measure the success of a particular piece of work – a fact that is really an opinion, which means that it is essentially unknowable as a fact.
Plus — what is success anyway? Selling it for a lot of money? Great reviews from the outside world? Jealousy from your peers masquerading as audible gasps of awe? Or perhaps just simply an “A” from me?
It depends on how hard-core your tastes, you, and your rating system is.
But after decades as a critic, writer and teacher -and once I get past the required basic skills of whatever art I’m rating, judging and debating – all of the very best work I experience share one thing — magic.
Ahhh, moan and groan all you want and call me Ishmael. You all know what I mean. Maybe you call it something else but it’s that feeling you get when…(ahhhh, where are you Stefon?)…. Okay, I know it when I see it.
For those who don’t – definition, please:
Magic – 1. The use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.
a. the ART of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.
When people criticize some piece of entertainment that they see or read as being phony I always laugh to myself (and sometimes even out loud or to their faces) because:
Of course, it’s phony! That’s what makes it art – and entertainment. It’s made up! The trick is – to make it not SEEM phony.
The entertainment industry has often been accused of being chock full of charlatans. This is another amusing observation since who else would specialize in the art of phoniness that doesn’t seem false and the practice of making things up that more often than not appear to be real, if not con men or women? I do wish I had known this in my twenties and thirties since it would have made my early years in the business a helluva lot easier. But nevertheless I finally do get it now and I am passing it on to those of you who don’t know or haven’t admitted it yet and want to save decades of therapy bills.
Or, to put it another way:
You need to be a master magician in order to be a great artist or great entertainer. A purveyor of the phony executed in the sincerest way possible.
How do you recognize magic and the master magicians responsible for it? The answer is easy – you know it when you. …(yes, I’m going there again)………….see it.
Some phoniness is skill and some of it is simply inherent talent so it’s easy to get confused. For example, I just returned from New York where I saw Nathan Lane and Bette Midler each prove how a handful of artists are simply born that way and why it’s foolish for the rest of us to try and catch up or even figure them out.
It’s not that there is not a great deal of skill in Mr. Lane’s evocation of a closeted gay actor in 1930’s NY vaudeville in The Nance or Ms. Midler’s portrayal of Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers in the one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last. Certainly, each understands the craft of stage acting and the ins and outs of what you have to do as a performer to interpret a text and create/evoke a character. But you simply can’t teach, learn or acquire what either of them does live eight shows a week, month after month. That kind of talent – the ability to turn from comedy to drama and back again on a dime while eliciting audience tears, guffaws and something even more of a rarity these days – intense silence – simply by playing pretend right before our eyes is simply – a gift. I’m the biggest showbiz groupie there is and have been watching each of them do this onstage in countless shows over the last 30 years and I can tell you only this – try as you might you will NEVER figure either of them out. Nor, do you want to.
For the rest of us mere mortals, there is still hope because even the duo of Midler & Lane have stumbled in mediums other than the live stage (Isn’t She Great, anyone?)
So, simplistic though it may be, think of this as a starter kit that will set you on the road to being your own creative magician. Because anyone who has been in the game and achieved some measure of success in more than just a few minutes can tell you that absent any kind of real talent at all, there are still several basics tricks of the trade that can move you up a notch or two on the playing board. (And believe me, it is a game).
1. Deliver or exceed on the premise:
Now You See Me is a film now out in theatres that is all about magic – literally. The premise: A group of magicians perform a major series of heists masquerading as magic tricks against corporate America while eluding elite law enforcement officials. The requirement: Really, really cool slreight of hand/mind you can’t figure out, snappy dialogue, adrenalin-filled twists and turns, and one or two major plot surprises. So who cares that the third act is not as great as the first one and a half or that 75% of the major critics in the country panned it? Certainly not me and the rest of the audience, that’s who. $50 million plus in 12 days and 75% positive crowd reviews on Rotten Tomatoes tells us the filmmakers knew exactly the kind of movie they were making and gave it to us — in spades. And to push the metaphor even more uncomfortably, that’s not a card trick, just good playing
2. Don’t bore me:
Nikki Finke was just another smart, prickly journalist covering the entertainment industry who more than seven years ago decided to start her own website, www.deadline.com by combining great reporting skills with an over-the-top, take no prisoners style that suffocated traditional journalism (and occasionally its standards of objectivity). But she was never, ever, ever – not even once – boring. Today, Ms. Finke has pretty much single-handedly redefined daily coverage of show business, made millions selling her site to a larger conglomerate (Penske Media) and in the process might have poison penned herself out of the pinnacle position at the top of the very mountain she built.
Still, as Ms. Finke herself very well might respond – So what?!!! Or – If you weren’t such a lousy reporter you’d know the real story. Or – I don’t have the time to waste on the many moments of stupidity you managed to create in your just one paragraph of text.
Though she sometimes crosses the line into petty personal vendetta, Nikki’s reportage almost consistently scoops her competitors and is seldom wrong. There’s an innate creativity to what she does that, as a former entertainment reporter, I can testify is extremely difficult to achieve in the field. She’s mean, she’s an original and she doesn’t make you yawn – which seems to be the right combination for success these days whether you want to admit it or not. Her philosophy is probably best summed up by the instructions she gives readers who choose to post in her ever-popular comments section:
…Don’t go off topic, don’t impersonate anyone, don’t get your facts wrong, and don’t bore me.
3. Be original:
It’s hard to imagine that Susan Sontag, social critic, thinker and novelist who has often been hailed as one of the great intellectuals this country has ever produced, grew up in the 1940s in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks, to be exact) writing, while still in her teens, lines like these:
Childhood: a terrible waste of time.
All of us would be misguided to try and be Sontag. But what she herself recognized early on was that she needed to pursue what she wanted to the nth degree and ignore those who wished she would stay quiet, or at least enjoy life a little bit more. For her this meant devouring piles and piles of classical literature at any early age – from Balzac to Dostoyevsky to Pushkin; having affairs with both women and men in the sexually repressive 1950s and beyond; and recognizing all along that she, as well as everyone else, is nothing more than a creation of their own desires and actions.
As the famous writing teacher Brenda Ueland once wrote, Everyone is original and has something to say. But few of us stay in touch with the idea that it is feverishly acting out our very originality that will bring us happiness and allow us to succeed (though perhaps not in the way we were taught – which is another type of original thinking in itself).
Check out the new theatre piece in NY I regrettably didn’t get to catch based on Ms. Sontag’s journals, called Sontag Reborn. Or, better yet, read some of Sontag’s essays or books and tell me you still think magic is limited to pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing your girlfriend or boyfriend in half. Besides, the latter’s been done to death anyway, both literally and figuratively.
4. Be Bold:
I write those two words at least once a month here. That’s because I remind myself of this almost daily. It’s great to be original, interesting and to deliver on a promising premise. But unless you have the courage to put yourself fully out there as you create, sell and then recreate and sell some more, you probably won’t get where you want to be.
There’s a revival of a musical in NY at the moment called Pippin. In it, the great comic actress Andrea Martin, who got her start on the classic Canadian TV series SCTV (for younger people – she was the Kristin Wiig of her time), has one extended show-stopping number called No Time At All where she gives her grandson uplifting advice about life and on the vagaries of growing old. Now, knowing the song and hearing that Ms. Martin was going to be playing the grandmother I thought – Okay, so Andrea Martin makes me laugh, even if she is a little young for the part, but she’ll still be fun. Then I went on to The Google and discovered Ms. Martin is actually 66 years old, the exact age the part was written for. And she’s doing this role on Broadway, swinging from a trapeze (Spoiler Alert: Live. Really.)
I think of my Mom, who sadly died at that age, and then I think of what the age of 66 evokes and sounds like to most of us and I wonder (sometimes even out loud when no one is in the room) – am I really being bold? And why aren’t I?
And then I consider – just how much bolder can I get? What’s in my way? What’s stopping me?
And then, when I get the nerve – I look in the mirror (Cause I’m vain). With the lights on (Usually to find my glasses). In the morning (Well, my version of it, which is often not before 8) Right when I wake up. (Okay, sometimes 9).
It’s not always a pretty sight but this image does start my day out with one very bold action (You’re just gonna have to trust me on this one).
…With that out of the way, the other 23 and a half hours usually gets relatively easier.