To Die For

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Twenty years ago there was a movie called To Die For in which Nicole Kidman starred as an aspiring TV anchor who hires three teenagers (one of them played by a young Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her loving husband when he kindly asks her to take time off from her job as a weather girl.   It became a cult hit that most people remember fondly but I never cared for it. The twists and turns always struck me as too absurd, even for a black comedy, but then again I’m the guy who thought Gone Girl was ridiculous from the outset and became only more so as it droned on and on and, even as we speak, on some more somewhere else.

Seriously... get gone, girl!

Seriously… get gone, girl!

Still, I couldn’t help but think about To Die For (Note: I refuse to consider Gone Girl for even one more second) in light of our latest terrorist attacks last week in Paris where 12 people were gunned down at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As best as we can figure this was because Charlie published a series of cartoons that depicted said killers’ historical religious leader in offensive and disrespectful ways. Three of the killers are now dead after murdering eight more citizens and the fourth – the girlfriend of one of the deceased – is the subject of an international man, er woman, hunt and, given that, her time on earth seems limited.

Imminent death clearly didn’t bother the above mentioned quartet – they are believed to have gone to special camps that give you training in this sort of thing with the full expectation that they would eventually die in a blaze of glory but for a higher cause. Hmm, I thought, and then asked myself – what would you DIE FOR???

... and what would you leave behind?

… and what would you leave behind?

As it turns out, not much. Oh, certainly if someone were holding up a gun to the Significant Other, a family member or friend I adored, or perhaps even some passing stranger who looked innocent enough, I’d likely step in during the heat of the moment to thwart the bad guy. I do that weekly against the criminals who cut me off on the road or try to take my parking space, so clearly that’s not too big of a leap to make. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Terrorist acts are planned in the name of an idea and the people involved clearly know they will likely die. So again I ask myself – what would you DIE FOR, Chair?

I'm thinking....

I’m thinking….

As it turns out – uh, nothing. No, really. Not anything. Nada. Blank comes to mind. I’m a pretty principled guy but the idea of putting myself in mortal danger for a belief instead of a loved one is not going to happen. Clearly, I would not have made a good soldier – for this and so many other reasons. And before you go there, I’m going to just say upfront don’t throw Hitler and World War II into the conversation. That was basically about stopping a madman taking over the world.

Politicians and religious zealots of all sorts like to cloak violence in terms of ideas and goals and extreme needs and defenses. But the instigators of most wars can’t cite direct dire need on their doorsteps as the real reason to be killed or to kill. They, meaning many of us, can argue a good case in the name of violent death and destruction but as a former high school debate team member who had a pretty good score card I can assure you that just because you win an argument on your presentation of “facts” does that mean you’re correct. See exhibit “A” below, if you still don’t believe.

Misty water colored memories

Misty water colored memories…

Religious beliefs and the distortion thereof is a sticky subject for public and even private consumption. I never quite understood why. Perhaps this is because I am not religious even though I consider myself Jewish. How can this be? Well, not everything is logical but the best I can figure is that it has something to do with my love of chicken, arguing, guilt, Barbra Streisand, and deli food. And even though I have claimed in my life that I would kill over any one of them, I confess now to meaning it in only the most metaphorical of ways – even at the times when I proclaimed that any one of them were my Gods.

So you can see why I don’t get the outrage over the desecration of a religious leader or even patriotic symbols like, dare I say it, the American flag. Really? Yes. These are ideas, things. Paint a swastika on my door and I’ll be outraged and offended. Continually make AIDS jokes as Eddie Murphy did for a time back in the eighties and I will do my best to never see one of your movies again. But murder and death – really? Are you kidding?

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It is easy to chalk up those committing acts of terror as insane, demented and otherwise crazy. Most certainly, there are those that fit into those categories. But just as certainly there are any number of other perpetrators and silent supporters of these acts who have reasoned out their positions in rational ways that make a certain kind of intellectual sense. A healthy percentage of these have been used through history to start wars (Note: The Crusades, anyone?) and other international conflicts (Second Note: How about most of the conflicts in the Middle East?). Others have been used to strong-arm those weaker and unarmed into doing what we want them to do on a smaller scale. (Third Note: See the movie Selma).

But it’s A LOT easier to believe in non-violence – or perhaps in all of your minds, cowardice – when you do not believe in Heaven, Hell or Reincarnation. While it would be appealing to spend my life up above eating pizza and listening to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler records with my S.O., who would clearly also want to sandwich in episodes of Saturday Night Live and Big Bang Theory – but hey, who said there is no compromise in heaven – I just don’t think this is realistic. So here I sit, cynic that I am, wondering: you’re going to risk your life over a cartoon, or some land, or for a natural resource, or for revenge? Really? This of course does not account for the various leaders and zealots who claim to be believers (Note: Not BELIEBERS) but send people to do all of the dirty work for them. Meaning former Vice-president Dick Cheney never served a single day in the military and in fact received not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE military deferments. Yes, it’s a whole other set of mass destruction when it is not your personal body that is a primary weapon of said mass destruction.

It's not a game of risk

It’s not a game of risk

None of this is to mean that there is not a principle in this world worth fighting for. But dying for and killing for unless you under direct threat – especially when you believe this is the ONE and ONLY stop? I’m not sure. And before you call me an immoral coward consider this – if no one in the world believed in Heaven, Hell, Reincarnation or any sort of After-Life at all, how many terrorists attacks, real wars or random acts of violence do you really believe we’d have? Would there be less or more than are already occurring on any given day? Imagine a world where we’d be forced to truly believe this was THE LAST STOP.

Then ask yourself, if they were taking volunteers, what would you, DIE FOR? But only before asking yourself, what do you want to – LIVE FOR?

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Be Gone Girl

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Gone Girl, the hit classy movie du jour this month – was silly, overwrought, overdone and, in the end, laughable. That is – for me. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it. Even in the film noir world it seeks to evoke and despite being under the hand of David Fincher, one of the best American directors working today, it presents two people so utterly “written” – and therefore so totally preposterous – that it’s difficult to take anything they do for an almost endless two and a half hours seriously. This includes their relationship, their marriage, their lies, their truths and certainly their acting. Oh, and also, not any murders they may or may not have been involved in. That’s right, you will find no spoilers here – that is with the exception of the movie itself.

No, I DID NOT READ THE BOOK! And stop asking me!!! I know you loved it and you think I would too, especially if I had picked the book up before the movie. (Note: Which yeah, I know, would have had the added benefit of me ALSO having liked the movie a lot more– at least you think that’s the case). (Note #2 – But it isn’t!). And finally, yes, of course I know this is a matter of opinion and I’m clearly in the minority. Do not feel the need to refer me to Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has received a 91% positive rating by audiences and an 89% thumbs up from movie critics across the country. A best picture Oscar didn’t get me to change my mind about the annoyingly retro sensibility of Forest Gump, the dulling Driving Miss Daisy or, dare I say it, the blood curdling, off tune caterwauling of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. In fact, I still have to plug up my ears every time I hear one of my favorite show tunes, All That Jazz, anywhere to this day for fear it will somehow be her voice wafting into the room to haunt me once again as she begins to mangle each and every one of those lovely notes. (Note: Right, yes, I realize she won the Oscar for that one, too. Blah, blah, blah).

Dear Catherine...

Dear Catherine…

You might say, in these situations, I have chosen not to adapt and get with the program. Or perhaps – I was unable to. We all do this in some ways and in various situations thought not necessarily out of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about mere conviction – a state of mind that is truly anything but “mere.” Though occasionally it is also about::

  1. stubbornness,
  2. an inability to change (not to be confused with stubbornness), or
  3. a process of reasoning that presupposes one knows best in pretty much most situations and that the rest of the world is full of your excrement of choice.

It’s unclear why certain situations cause a particular individual to be inadaptable and therefor unable or adamantly against modifying an option and/or action in a given situation. For example, I was truly surprised by the reaction of my students to Gone Girl (why do I keep confusing it with Affleck’s directorial debut – Gone Baby Gone – an infinitely better and, to my mind, terrific film in a similar though not totally analogous genre?) – that’s how sure I was in my analysis. But as it turns out, they loved it. Well, most of them. They found it to be engrossing, superbly acted and right on in its portrayal of a marriage gone bad. Painful as the latter is, I suppose it does give me yet another reason to keep my 27 year old perfectly happy non-married relationship intact despite all the outside pressure to make it legal now that we can. So at least there is that.

Still, what particularly intrigued me about their clearly misguided reaction to the film weren’t their actual opinions but their willingness to agree with me on all the points I raised about it and yet — not change their minds! Was I losing my touch? Or generationally, are they just not as stubborn and/or intractable as we were on every issue in the universe?

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Well, I prefer to think it’s generational since I certainly would never pressure, out-argue or outwardly shame anyone into agreeing with me on any one point. At least, not consciously – well, okay, gleefully. Instead, they seem to me a more adaptable group and/or generation, which in the end might be a more admirable quality for the times they have been born into.

We baby boomers – though I’m on the tail end of it – expected so much and were not satisfied with NOT getting it. So we chose to innovate or push the envelope in other ways to get what we wanted. Or stamp our feet and whine when that didn’t work.

toon369I don’t think this generation wants any less but it feels like they’ve come to expect less. It’s not that they won’t work hard it’s that they haven’t decided they’re entitled and have to have something. They have adapted themselves to expect less – be it from movies, the economy or the government – because less has been given. I’m not sure if they have the right idea but it might not necessarily be the wrong one if they keep working just has voraciously for what they desire. In the end, it might just only be yet another way to look at the world – a canny strategy given the state of things that we have left for them.

This principle is illustrated tenfold in Adaptation – a 2002 film dreamed up by one of the few truly original voices left in the screenwriting trade – Charlie Kaufman. This is a movie I’ve had students watch and read in classes almost since it came out in order to study Mr. Kaufman’s spare writing style and daringness on the page and it’s been almost universally adored by aspiring writers I’ve taught over the last decade. Sadly, this was not the case last week. There was something about the sheer oddness of the work that left this group cold. Not that that they didn’t admire the unmitigated gall of what he did. He got some points for that. They just didn’t believe it made sense under the rules of movies they had grown up watching.

My reaction... or my students'?

My reaction… or my students’?

As the inside story goes, the real Mr. Kaufman wanted to adapt a non-fiction book about flowers called The Orchid Thief, written by famed New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, into a major feature film following the out-of-nowhere success some years earlier of his original, post-modern, hilariously affecting meta-screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Stumped beyond reason and with a deadline looming, the real Mr. Kaufman had the desperate idea to write himself into the film as the main character struggling to adapt an inadaptable book and imagined its author, Ms. Orlean, as an unattainable, ice princess intellectual snob from the Big Apple who falls in love with the subject of her novel and becomes, well – lets just say you have to see the film in order to know that. In any event, the desperate fictional version of Mr. Kaufman, helped along by his doppelganger screenwriter brother Donald –a twin who only aspires to write big commercial movies – finally takes some action to discover the truth behind not only The Orchid Thief but the seemingly unattainable Ms. Orlean -and in the end discovers both the unsavory but thrilling truth about her life as well as his own.

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The genius of the real Mr. Kaufman’s efforts here is that in his story adaptation (and thus the movie, Adaptation) became not compromise but innovation. It was only after hitting his head countless times against the proverbial writer wall that he found the most bizarre solution imaginable, taking a ridiculous stab at doing something outlandish that had just the slightest chance of emerging as – great. Forget about how one feels about the film itself – imagine yourself being paid a hefty amount of money by Columbia Pictures to adapt a book about flowers and handing in a screenplay where you are the main character and your subject takes a back seat to your neurosis in wrestling said subject? Not to mention co-authoring your WGA registered script with another person – your brother – who is also fictionalized in the film and, as it turns out, does not exist in real life. The best part of all this for me was when Mr. Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and at the Oscar competition ceremony, the fake name of Donald Kaufman, along with the real Charlie Kaufman, was read by actress Marcia Gay Harden from the stage of the Kodak Theatre to millions of viewers worldwide. Now that’s adaptation on all levels – and in the best, most insurgent way.

This is not the case with Gone, Girl – a not particularly innovative film that by most accounts is a very faithful adaptation of a best-selling novel that purports to tell the tale of modern day marriage by employing the filmic conventions of suspense and neo-noir while ultimately cloaking it all in a sort of 2014 media world of 24/7 meta reality. For those looking for a take on the latter, I would suggest a film done almost 20 years prior – Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) – which has its flaws but at the very least took a fresh and much more unusual approach to the subject. Or better yet, a brilliantly funny cable movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter in an unforgettable, Emmy Award-winning performance. Yes, it’s a matter of taste. I know that. But to not call it as you see it when the whole world seems to be proclaiming it an entirely different way, would be to betray everything I believe in. After all, if nothing else I am still a baby boomer. On the tail end, that is.

Yes... I agree... something IS missing

Yes… I agree… something IS missing

For the record, one’s view of any movie or work of art is certainly nothing more or less than a matter of opinion. Clearly, there is no real right or wrong. But when one aspires to merely adapt rather than innovate – or more dangerously sees them as the same thing – we run the risk of losing the rarity of something truly fantastic. Standing on my crumbling soapbox of flower power I proclaim to the world that Gone Girl is not even close to being the latter. And note – this is nothing personal to the filmmakers.   I’m sure one-on-one I would likely enjoy the company of the entire cast and crew, even if they would each prefer to take me to the woodshed – or simply tune me out. But I’m used to that. After all, I have been in a relationship for 27 years where the latter simply becomes an occasional fact of life – on both sides. And unlike what’s presented in Gone Girl it doesn’t mean marital destruction – it actually ensures relationship survival.

If you’re single or perhaps simply despise marriage metaphors, let me put it another way with a brief excerpt from one of the wisest films that I know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A heated exchange between transvestite/resident mad scientist, Dr. Frank –N –Furter and his surly, crazy-haired maid, Magenta, finally and inevitably concludes this way:

Magenta: I ask for nothing, Master.

Frank: And you shall receive it…..IN ABUNDANCE!!

Interestingly enough, those lines came from an adapted screenplay.