It’s Brutal Out There

What is that key 18-24 year-old demographic thinking about?  

Well, I’ll tell you.  Mostly they’re thinking they don’t want to be in 2021.  And, well, who can blame them? 

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

To mask, or not to mask?

These should not be the questions. 

And why are those questions even up for debate?

Have I been quiet lately?

Once we lived in a world where science ruled; where political leaders understood they needed to agree to disagree in order to govern; and where actual news footage of hundreds of rioters storming the Capitol building, destroying property and killing cops was at the very least seen as a…well…riot .

Yet today’s 2021 has become one big mass of illogical conclusions.  A literal Alice In Wonderland where up IS down and down IS up.

That is if we could even agree on the definitions of DOWN and UP.

Nope. Na-ah. I’m going back to bed.

No wonder our young people want nothing to do with it, or us.

Every spring I teach a class for college writing majors called Thesis Writing For Screen Media.  In it, graduating seniors develop and write either an original screenplay or TV series pilot and first season episode guide.

It’s not an exact science but what I have come to see annually after reading their work over the years is a cross-section of what’s going through the minds of those with far less experience but far more guile and energy than myself and those of my peers.

Not at all what I look like while grading these scripts

What I get is a brief but fleeting glance of what they see as…the future.  And given their age and the fact that they will soon be taking over the reigns of this, ahem, Wonderland, their perceptions are far more relevant than mine.  Or, likely, yours.

Some years the stories are mostly pure escapist and other times they veer towards the deadly depressing in a way you can only pull off when you’re in college.  One year there were far too many scripts centered around technology (Note: At least for my tastes, which means more than three) and in another a decade back I wanted to shoot myself in the head when I had four or five (though it felt like ten) leaning heavily towards relentless versions of Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter sword and sorcery.

My notes. #igiveup

Of course, mixed into these are always, always, ALWAYS takes on love, injustice and outrageous coming of age, buddy, love stories in the contemporary world. 

Not much like that this year.

Of the twelve scripts I read, only ONE took place in 2021.  That means ELEVEN of them were set in the past, the future or, in one case, in an alternate animated universe that has never existed but you sure wish could exist.  Particularly in these days.

OK but not THIS alternate reality

I’ve got stories in the roaring twenties and depression era New York City.  I’ve got one that takes place in 18th century West Asia, two others set in the intolerant post Civil War west of the 1800s, and another in a literal ghost town not of this earth.

There is one that takes place far in the future on various planets, a second set in ancient Greek mythology (Note: Gods and all) and a third set only five years ago in a pre-pandemic restaurant.

I can’t wait to erase this from my memory

The sole story that takes place in our contemporary world is about three people, two of whom are on the spectrum, and all of whom pretty much live in their own worlds and mostly try to ignore ours.

It doesn’t take an analyst to understand what these writers are doing, and if you guessed taking the easy way out you would be incorrect.

We can intellectualize all we like – we baby boomers and we Gen Xers – but it seems clear that the reality we’ve rendered for the next generation has become pretty much incomprehensible to understand, that is with any real insight, without stepping out of our time period.

Gen Z edition

You can’t make sense of the illogical.  You can’t write about a world where there are no basic truths or rules the vast majority can agree upon.  If you want to answer real questions of faith or humanity you have to go back at least five years or more (Note: Preferably more) or move ahead some indeterminate amount of time (Note: Preferably A LOT more than five years).

Normally I tell young writers who are stumped or shy or reticent, if you merely look around your house or your neighborhood you will discover far more stories than you could possibly tell in a lifetime, much less a semester.

Me when I see that there is a screenwriting professor in the script

Choose what you can’t get off your mind, what fascinates you and go ALL IN.  Use all of YOUR creativity, YOUR craft and YOUR mind to recount to us one of those and you have the best chance of hooking us.  Not to mention, you’ll be amazed at how writing about what you care about in the here and now makes us exponentially care about it, too.

I gave that same min-speech this year but the result was like nothing in the past.

It’s not like there weren’t thematic personal truths to the stories they were telling.  We still got the love stories, the tales of deep hurt (Note: Sometimes even peppered with wry comedy) and the rite of passage journeys.  There were also those of war, of survival and even of government corruption that included people of all races, colors and sexual persuasions.

But in none of them, not a one, was there a literal evocation of 2021 as we know it.

Yep, this… entirely.

In reflection, this was a wise decision.

How can these young people, or any of us, write about something with any meaning that we can’t, at present, even begin to understand?

Olivia Rodrigo – “brutal”

Notes from Methuselah

A student wrote about an older couple who were returning to their summer home and carrying luggage where one has a heart attack. We were hashing it out in class and I said, “How old.”

“Oh, they’re really old.”

“Ok, but do you mean like, Gloria Stuart in Titanic old?” (Note: The woman who was in her nineties when she was nominated for best supporting actress).

“No, but old…..I’d say, well, I guess they’re in their fifties.”

“THAT OLD!?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“You’re sure?”

“Uh, huh. People have heart attacks in their fifties.”

Long pause.

Crickets. Crickets. #awkward

“I might as well just kill myself now then,” I reply.

Pause. Then some nervous laughs.

“Oh. Well, it just seems like they’re a lot older than the other characters.”

“That’s fair,” I say. “But this couple. Are you sure they could even lift their luggage enough to move it across the room? I mean, they’re that mobile for that age?”

More nervous laughter. Then the rest of the class catches on and starts to laugh.

“And you imply with their body language that they still have sex. Are you sure that’s safe at their age?   Could they even make it into the bedroom, much less do anything?”

Don’t be fresh!

“You’re not going to let this go,” the student countered, finally amused.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m having too much fun,” I say. “And who knows how much time I have left? I better take advantage of it while I still can.”

And….scene.

Thank you. Thank you very much. #noshame

This is a fairly typical scene these days for me and many of my contemporaries. And for my older friends – not to mention my 88 year-old Dad who assures me it will only get worse. Then again, exactly what IS the alternative?

That’s rhetorical. We all know what the alternative is. So it doesn’t bear repeating.

Too much to ask?

Full confession – there was no reason a student in their early twenties should think that a couple in their fifties is anything BUT an older couple. And after my mini-vaudeville routine I admitted as much.   But what I was trying to convey was behavior and sense of clarity. Just labeling someone an older couple isn’t very specific. Unless, well…it is. But I refuse to go there quite yet. Especially at my age.

The movie Get Out positions baby boomers Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as exactly this type of older couple – as well as the symbols of phony, middle aged liberalism. Though even middle aged is relative. As Meryl Streep, playing a fictional Carrie Fisher, stingingly retorts to Shirley MacLaine, playing a fictional version of her then sixtyish mother Debbie Reynolds, after Mom tries to claim middle age for herself in Postcards from the Edge – Really. How many one hundred and twenty year old women do You know?

I thought it was hilarious in the nineties.   But now it’s deeply funny. Tinged with a touch of self-righteous irony on the ungrateful daughter’s part.

Regular On Golden Pond over here #helpme #getoutforreal

I think this was part of the issue for me not being a cheerleader for Get Out. The kind of middle-aged white liberal I am bore no relation to the phony Kumbaya relics I was seeing lambasted on the big screen. Not that I minded the roasting. What I didn’t get was the generalities about a group of people and the seemingly unmotivated behavior based on a stereotype.

Oh. Right. That was the point. Turnabout is fair play. Still, don’t you have to BELIEVE IT in the context of the world you as a filmmaker have created? And if you aren’t specific enough to make us believe it, aren’t you no better than the long generation of movies in the past that have so consistently done it to other minority groups?

Hmm. I’m not sure whether two wrongs don’t make a right or many wrongs make a right for a few new and improved wrongs to at least even out the playing field a little. I’m going to have to think about that one.

This might take a while #brb

The trouble is you get to the point, or the age, when you don’t want to have to think too hard about that one. When I heard 76-year-old Al Pacino was going on the stage locally to play one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams, during his last creative days in a workshop production of a new play, And God Looked Away, I quickly went online and bought my husband and I two tickets at $189 a piece on a Saturday night.

My first thought: I have to see Al Pacino live onstage before he dies and I don’t care if he’s the opposite of gay and southern. It’s called acting, right?

oh, hello.

Well, I thought so. Even though he’s older and far shorter, Pacino managed to thoroughly inhabit a fading, drug-addled Williams. It felt like the essence of a real character.   In much the same way very hunky and very hearththrob-by Hugh Jackman miraculously evoked the very gay and very lithe singer-songwriter Peter Allen on Broadway in The Boy From Oz. Mr. Allen, like Mr. Williams, was one of my faves and is almost as far away from the Wolverine as, well…I am. Though not quite.

Yet mostly what our L.A. Times critic couldn’t resist sneering about in Mr. Pacino’s case was that:

“The privilege of seeing Pacino portray the aging American playwright in a Demerol haze while pawing shirtless male hustlers as reviewers crucify him for his latest flop doesn’t come cheap.”

SHADE

Hell, that sounds good to me, gay liberal that I am. In fact, I’d pay even more to see that performance again if they fix the play a bit more. At least they were on to recognizable human behavior rather than an overworked or too witty social commentary that bears little resemblance to my reality. Or, well, a reality.

Which I suppose is relative, depending on who you are and what interests you. The hope is that what we’re actually living is reality, and what’s created in our individual fictional worlds based on that reality, is actually worthy of our attentions at all.

Though one supposes it beats the alternative.