Choose Life

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the death of a former student this week.  She was 28 years-old, super creative, smart and hard working.  More importantly she was one of those people who was just a bright light in rooms where too often we’re surrounded by dim bulbs.

This is not to exalt my student into a deity.  It was just that her essence seemed to radiate outwards and make people feel good.  This was confirmed to me in the last few weeks where dozens and dozens of people posted similar testimonies online.

Some people really do seem this big and full of life… she was one of them

My student was not ill nor was she the victim of a crime.  Her death was apparently an accident, and, as a young white woman, it was unsurprisingly not at the hands of law enforcement.

This observation is not meant to be snide or timely. It’s more to put it into a 2020 shorthand that can be most easily understood given the reality of what we’re all living through right now.

Loss is loss but death is death and life, such as it is, is life.

Yes, you may write that down.

Roger that, Chairy

Loss hurts, loss makes you angry, loss can overtake your every waking hour and loss can take a lifetime to heal, if it ever fully does.  Of course, the truth is it never quite does, nor do you really want it to.  The loss, whether you like it or not, becomes a permanent part of the ever-evolving imprint of you.

What you choose to do with the loss is your own business and your own decision.  But if it’s true loss there will be a scar, visible to others or not.  To expect this not to be is to pretend your face in middle age and old age will look exactly the same as it did when you were 28 years old.

That statement alone brings up all kinds of images to me of my lovely former student whose face will now never change.  But it is also a reminder of the luxury of aging and the opportunities it can afford if you make it past 28 years old.  Most of us spend so much time wishing or trying to believably look frozen in our late twenties as time rolls on that we forget the true cost of what it is to actually do so.

This brings us to life and death.

It might not sound cheery but, trust me, it is.

Coexisting

Anyone who has managed to navigate deep loss and come out the other side, no easy feat, can tell you that there is no real choice in the matter despite how he/she might have been leaning in any given moment.

However crappy life and the current events that accompany it may seem, it still beats the alternative of trading places with that person whose time was cut so drastically short and for whom a tiny part of you will always mourn.

Watching tens of thousands of people line up in the streets of most American cities and towns demanding racial justice and shouting that Black Lives Matter these past two weeks is both powerful and enraging.  But the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans (Note:  Now about 67% of us) say they support both the cause and the demonstrators is encouraging.

Powerful art right in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater

Still, even more discouraging is the irrefutable truth that an endless daisy chain of non-white families will continue to sacrifice a loved one to systemic racism and law enforcement right before our eyes, live on our screens, unless we get over ourselves and what passes for our lives at this particular touch point in time.

Despite two weeks of nationwide demonstrations the latest public sacrifice happened Saturday morning in Atlanta to 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, an African American male, father, sibling and child.

Yet again

Mr. Brooks was asleep in his car at a Wendy’s parking lot when police approached, woke him up and spoke to him for a while before putting him under immediate arrest for no pressing crime.

A scuffle ensued and they pulled out their taser gun to shoot but Mr. Brooks grabbed the taser away, turned and ran in the opposite direction on foot, only to be shot dead in the back at point blank range.

They never got to the almost nine-minute knee on the neck public police execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis several weeks ago that ignited the current ongoing national uproar. Instead Mr. Brooks’ very public death mirrors the more commonplace executions of youngish people of color by law enforcement that the American people have been out in the streets demonstrating against in the name of George Floyd to begin with.

How many more faces will we need to add to this? (New Yorker cover by Kadir Nelson)

This latest iteration of “disruptors” standing directly on the Atlanta interstate blockading traffic as buildings crumble in fiery protest across the city are what pass for the principal signs of life in that area.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city and country reels in a sea of loss, none more so than the family, friends and children this latest “incident” leaves behind.

In this current scenario, of course Mr. Brooks is cast against his will as death, his being the latest in a very specific epidemic that merely serves to remind us of all the many iterations that came before it.  Not to mention the many other memories of loss and death that surface for those of us living through this modern day dystopia unrelated to him or his family.

A sign for our time

One could argue, of course, that to choose this kind of life on the streets of America is to not choose life at all but rather one long infinity of prolonged pain leading into our masse eventual death.

Yet as the body counts rise and the mourning pain deepens it might help to remember that the one cool constant thing about life is you can still change your mind.  Meaning that you always have the choice to do it a different way until death comes knocking, or rather, barreling through your door.

Unlike Mr. Floyd, Mr. Brooks and the many other ageless faces of those who’ve touched our lives whose choices were taken away long before their time.

George Harrison – “What is Life”

Complicit

Academy Award-nominated actress and nerd boy icon Uma Thurman this weekend revealed a series of horrific sexual and psychological abuses she endured while working with Harvey Weinstein in the eighties and nineties.  She also related a particularly graphic account of the life-threatening stunt and requisite physical abuse she endured under the unsympathetic and sometimes abusively watchful eye of director Quentin Tarantino when they were making Kill Bill Vols I & II for Weinstein’s Miramax Films in the early 2000s.

Seriously messing with her?

It’s sickening to read Ms. Thurman’s account of being forced to pretty much risk her life for an unnecessary dumb stunt of driving a souped-up Karman Ghia in Bill that to this day causes her severe and chronic neck and knee pain.

And downright felonious, not to mention, gag-inducing, enduring an eye-witness retell of “Harvey” luring an unknowing younger Thurman through the inner bowels of his lair where, in his secret steam room, he exposed his bathrobe and himself to her as she sweated profusely – in black leather shirt, pants and boots – frozen and momentarily silent before him in both disbelief and panic.

My thoughts exactly Nene

Weinstein has admitted some but not all of the exchanges but vehemently denies all fashion of physical abuse. In fact, in a statement he and his lawyers chalk it up to phrases like misread signals and awkward pass(es) – all part of some ongoing flirtation gone terribly wrong between them – though only from her point of view.

It’s enough to make you want to get sick once again – and again and again – until you can’t bear it any longer because now you’re remembering similar and eerily familiar accounts from Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Asia Argento, Rose McGowan, among many others.

Yeah, and those are only the ones we know about.

There are moments I feel at a severe disadvantage speaking and/or writing about this as a gay man.

Is there something I just don’t get about the male/female sexual power dynamic? What in the world would possess any man to act this way – or in any fashion even resembling this way?

… if only there were more men of quality

Yeah, yeah. It’s then I have to remind myself – it’s not about sex, it’s about power. There is a wide continuum of assaults and not all are ____________, not every is in the same ___________________, though each are certainly _______________ and inex______________.

(Note: And yes, I know it happens male on male but for now let’s try to keep our focus here).

This is so inadequate and just plain wrong. As am I and most of us on this entire issue. And to my mind, the piece of social commentary that captured it best was this sketch from a recent episode of Saturday Night Live:

That said, there is a pattern of behavior in the human world, particularly when it has to do with business and a particular brand of sexual and/or power dynamics in that marketplace. I can speak most authoritatively about the entertainment business and I find these examples are usually most effective since:

  1. It’s where I’ve spent most, if not all, of my professional life, and
  2. No one ever gets tired of listening and/or reading about any vaguely salacious and/or immoral tale about the business of show.

That given, here’s a partial list of what would be considered only minor offenses I’ve witnessed firsthand on a handful of movie sets of the years.   In light of Ms. Thurman’s, et al, revelations they may seem petty, but let’s take a shot:

oh it’s gonna be a bumpy ride

— An Oscar winning director leaning into the large breasts of his lead actress, often leering directly at them, only inches away in a strange kind of power struggle, all during shooting.

— A prestige producer and another Oscar nominated director remarking how much they’d both like to ram (nee f-ck) their sometimes difficult female star with their – well, let’s assume we all understand what the with their means (Note: Their hand motions and giggles made it crystal clear to me) in order to put her in her place.

— A very young 24 year old heroin-addicted movie star shooting an entire film for three months with his manager, agents and the film’s producers in full knowledge of his drug use but allowing it because the movie couldn’t be done without him.

— A 10 year-old rising actor turning to me one day on the set of a Disney movie with sad eyes and pleading, I just wanna play. I don’t want to do this. Please?

seriously heartbreaking

What does exactly one DO – especially if one is not in any sort of power position and its in the eighties and nineties?

Well, what I did was try to be of comfort, or at least more understanding, of the people (nee victims) involved. That would be the female stars, the little kid and the drug addict.

I also tried to directly or subtly plead their case to some of the powers-that-be in a way that I thought could do the most good.

In the case of the buxom lead actress, when I tried to apologize to her about the way she’d been treated, to which she replied, Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve dealt with this before.

Probably how she wanted to react to my naiveté. #girlplease

In the case of the difficult female star: I decided – Okay, no more complaining about her attitude to anyone else. In addition to some other uncomfortable moments where I go out of my way to be extra understanding directly to her – which in turn led to a sort of détente between us on the set and her being a bit less chilly towards me.

In the case of the young substance abuser: Keeping my requests of him to a minimum, try whenever possible to focus him when he was fuzzy-eyed and one time patiently and slowly helping him with the simple task of… signing his name.

In the case of the little boy: Pleading his case to a bunch of head nods and nervous silences from the producers. Then a roll of the eyes from his guardian. As well as a lot of curse words from fellow crew members about either what a cruel place Hollywood was or how it was really hard to feel sorry for a spoiled child making more money than their entire family because of a cute smile and floppy hair.

These people really were the worst.

Needless to say, what I did wasn’t barely enough. And what I barely saw was barely enough of the very small tip of a ginormously overpowering iceberg of abuse, resentment, power and betrayal that just now has only begun to melt

Which only brings to my mind only this new hashtag: #WeAreAllComplicit

Though if you ever doubt it, peruse some of the reader’s comments after Ms. Thurman’s story in Deadline Hollywood, the NY Times or other outlets. Then sit with them for a while and think back on some of your own experiences in whatever industry you are or were ever were in and ask yourself – just what should this new hashtag be?

Moulin Rouge – “The Show Must Go On”