The Art of Art

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As the year closes, many of us serial commenters feel compelled to do a 10 Best (or Worst) list. They both have their charms, depending on your mood. Certainly the latter is more fun to write even if it cuts into all the good karma you’ve accrued in the world thus far.

Still, at this point in my life and on this particular year I’m feeling a bit more benevolent and quite a bit more appreciative. For what?   Well, a lot of things. (Note: I will not be listing them all, don’t worry). But certainly being alive is one.

There are lots of bullets one dodges as time marches on and at no time does this become more crystal clear than when you look in the mirror or view the lives of others around you. The former is a particularly sobering fact. No matter how fabulous you look it eventually becomes apparent to even the least introspective person in the universe at odd moments that you will not withstand the test of time. And even more sobering is the undeniable reality that this can all change faster than the actual announced winner of Miss Universe 2015 if the karmic gods deem it so.

The mere fact that you are still living, breathing and thriving – even in all your imagined or real misery? Well, that also puts you ahead of a large group of others on the planet once you average it all out and divide it by the appropriate number. Watch the news or realistically consider each and every one of your friends and acquaintances, if you don’t believe me. You can even throw in a few of the sworn enemies you are perpetually jealous of – though not The Republican Apprentice. He deserves neither your jealousy nor even one moment of your consideration – for anything.

Your damn right Chairy!

Your damn right Chairy!

This being the case, I wanted to close 2015 by saying thanks and honoring one very large group. And that is all of the artists out there. The great ones, the good ones, the average ones, the not so good ones and… well, as I’ve said, I’m not doing a worst list but if I were and you were – well, you can even count in those too.

It’s the artists that have kept me – all of us – going up to this point in time and I suspect they will continue to do so for the rest of my (our) future(s).

Films, television, music, books, newspapers, paintings, home furnishings – in your hands or virtually – there are actual real people out there who do all of that. At some point it’s all a blank. Until someone sits down or stands up somewhere and has the courage, or anger, or bravado to say to us – here, this is what I think. Take it or leave it. Whether you like it or not.

Be bold

Preach

It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s a really difficult feat to do well. It may even be a necessary thing to do for many of us, you or them who do it – a way of survival, a type of selfish coping that has its own side benefits – but that doesn’t make it any more simple or less hard. It takes time, energy, determination, study and at the end of the day, a fair amount of bravery – especially if you’re planning to be honest and thus risk the wrath and mass condemnation of others. Remember, at the point of origin the screen is empty. Like –- there is nothing there. At. All. Try staring into the night sky and take away the stars and all traces of weather –- then pour black paint on it –- and you might have some approximation. Or do it in the daytime and make it all white. Depending on your mood/s.

This holiday week I was watching Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (co-creator of the brilliant, massively successful American Idiot album and Broadway musical) on a rerun from earlier this year of the 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies. He was accepting his honor after being inducted into this rare group and recounting his love affair with music. The Beatles, Elvis – even Kool and the Gang as a kid– he heard them all and a lot more growing up thanks to his siblings and extended family. And he loved it all and it soon became apparent to him that this was his world. That would be music – not creating one of the premiere breakthrough crossover punk bands and album/cds in history – that would come later.

Just a couple of (legendary) punks

Just a couple of (legendary) punks

And – he worked at it from the time he met one of his bandmates in the fifth grade. Yeah, he did the drugs, engaged in all the requisite, cliché misbehaviors (including many stints in rehab and numerous other episodes of self-indulgence) and has had more than his share of hits and misses. But after he played his 15 minute set with his group one had to marvel at just how edgily perfect they remain more than 25 years later. How do they/does he do it? Aside from the obvious talent, the answer lied in the rest of his speech. As he looked out in the audience at a sea of still alive musical icons and got almost teary-eyed as he gave a shout out to Patti Smith for her seminal LP Horses that he listened to as a kid. Right after his drummer, Trey Cool (yeah, that’s his name), met the gaze of Ringo Starr and thanked him profusely for being one of his true inspirations.

And so it goes, for all of us. Whether we’re inducted into the rock ‘n roll Hall of Fame or not. Whether we’re even any good or not.   We get there on the shoulders and backs and through the minds of others.

No matter how big you get, fangirling is forever

No matter how big you get, fangirling is forever

Last night I re-watched That’s Entertainment – a brilliant 1974 movie that is essentially a clip collection of classic MGM musicals introduced by classic movie stars of the time including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and, as a surrogate for her mother Judy Garland – Liza Minnelli. It’s an era that will never return again: movies from the 1930s – early 1960s – a timeless American era that will forever define a certain kind of cinema that will certainly live on hundreds of centuries after all of our worried looks into the mirror or at the news on television are long gone. I love musicals and I suppose they’re not for everyone – except those movies, on some level, truly are. Even if it’s not your thing, how do you not admire and remain fascinated by Astaire dancing, Eleanor Powell tapping, Judy Garland singing? Or the optics of Busby Berkeley directing?

Berkeley keeps us hypnotized

Berkeley keeps us hypnotized

What you learn watching That’s Entertainment are the endless hours, days, weeks and months these artists labored at their craft. (Note: Needless to say, this was mostly a time before strict union rules – or overly enforced ones either for stars or mere contract players). The repetition, the trial and error, the dedication and yes, sheer push, drive and obsession of the studios and artists to do beyond their best created the kinds of big screen results that will endure long beyond what I’m writing and you’re reading here – or from anyone, anywhere else today.

I fear we’re losing a bit of that these days. It’s not that we all don’t work hard but that kind of intense single-mindedness – shutting out the rest of the world to be immersed in your craft – is it all even possible anymore? How do you shut it all out? The stimulation? The endless bombardment of information? Can you? Will it ever be the case again? I somehow feel as if I doubt it. Perhaps the answer is to simply include it and come up with something else. Or a newer form altogether. Perhaps that is happening already. In fact, I’m sure it already has. Even as we write or speak.

Andy knew what was up

Andy knew what was up

So yeah, Spotlight, Trumbo and Room were terrific for me – and I have high hopes for Hateful Eight and the new Star Wars. I love that Homeland regained its footing and thrilled me with one of the best villains on TV this season while this 22 year old overweight nerdy kid named Jordan Smith on The Voice made my mouth drop wide open when he reinvented Freddie Mercury’s Somebody to Love and bounced Adele off the #1 spot on ITunes. Plus, we haven’t even gotten to Adele. Hello.

Oh and don't forget to buy the world a coke!

Oh and don’t forget to buy the world a coke!

Yes, all of them did truly inspire . But there’s a much bigger group out there that includes many of us – as fellow creators, listeners, fans or passersby. We might disagree about the best and the worst but getting to experience all of it – even the misfires we dish – it is what ultimately unites – rather than divides us.

The Republican Apprentice notwithstanding. Always.

Happy 2016.

Define Hero

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There are many heroes in the world but there is a certain kind of hero that feels indigenous to the U.S. because of the opportunities that exist here if you have good timing, the right kind of talent and a little luck.

Many have said of late that the United States is on the decline – the inevitable downslide of any #1 World Superpower. Like the Roman Empire and countless others before us, there will be a point at which the influence of the U.S. will not be the primary one in the world. I’m not perceptive and certainly not expert enough to know if we are at or approaching that moment. What I am sure of, though, is that despite this country’s many challenges it still possesses a majority market share of the world’s attention and enough economic rags to riches possibilities that, if managed correctly, can create a certain type of successful individual with just the right blend of superpowers that we deem hero-ic.

No.. No... not you

No.. No… not you

Certainly, the latter applies to the rescue workers of 9/11, the everyday individuals who hold families together, the people who spend their entire lives teaching in a small elementary or high school for what in the corporate arena would be considered a pittance, or the many military men and women who have sacrificed their lives protecting the Homeland.

Those are all a given.

But let’s discuss a different kind of “hero” – the kind of people we often claim as our own American Heroes – meaning they are nothing more and nothing less that a real American success story.

Okay, perhaps HERO is not the right word to use before, after or during the July 4th holiday. One can hear the complaints now – There’s nothing heroic about making lots of money, even if it’s from your talents!! Or — clearly you don’t know any of our men and women in uniform, and we KNOW you haven’t spent any time in a Veteran’s hospital, homeless shelter or cancer ward, because then you’d know our TRUE AMERICAN HEROES.

Oh, please

Oh, please

No one is taking anything away from them. But let’s be honest about what we value day to day and who we lavish our attention on – i.e. the people that we look up to.

Hero: a man (or woman) of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.

The people we most admire in 2015 culture are those with abilities and qualities. Courage is good and nobility is to be lauded, at least on paper. But ability and quality – give us more of those.

Oprah Winfrey

Kim Kardashian

Beyonce

Steve Jobs

Barack Obama

Rod Serling

Jerry Seinfeld

Warren Buffet

Jon Stewart

Hillary Clinton

Now we’re talkin’. And no, I’m not putting Donald Trump on the list. And yes, I have put Kim on. It’s 2015, yo.

Don't worry, we haven't forgotten you too, Miss Tay Tay

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten you too, Miss Tay Tay

When we’re honest across-the-board and through the current generations about those in the culture we consider our American heroes – that’s a cross-section of who really comes to mind. (Note: Of course this is subjective – it’s MY list of what you’re thinking – but try to make a convincing case that on some level I’m NOT right. You can’t).

Show biz, politics, pop culture. And you can’t really be born wealthy to make the list. We like people who came from nothing and made something out of themselves. As if something were at all definable. And sorry those to the manner born. You can be lauded and rich and successful but you’ll never really be who we Americans consider to be a hero. Hence NO TRUMP. As for Franklin D. Roosevelt – he’s long gone (NOTE: Clearly!) and was our absolute exception in that category.

We don’t need to go over the above names one by one. Look them up on Wikipedia, consider the last generation or two, read and/or watch the media and think about the people this country has been known for as of late. There is no REAL Indiana Jones. He was a fictional American hero. Truly.

I want to add another name to the list you may or not know – Nina Simone. Some of you might be saying – huh? Or whom? Well, watch the current and riveting documentary now steaming on Netflix entitled, What Happened, Miss Simone? And then get back to me.

Stream me now

Stream me now

Quick background: Nina Simone was a brilliant American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist. She had several hit songs in the fifties and sixties, recorded more than 40 albums before dying 12 years ago in France and is generally considered by many in the music biz one of the greatest singer/musicians who ever lived.

Check out her famous recordings of I Put A Spell On You, I Loves You, Porgy, Little Girl Blue, Mississippi, Goddamn and Young, Gifted and Black and you’ll see why.

But what the documentary allows one to learn, or re-learn with a greater impact, is that Miss Simone was born Eunice Waymon in a poor North Carolina rural town in 1928, was a musical prodigy who played piano at 3, and studied relentlessly to be the first Black female classical pianist in the world.

Meaning, she had the talent but was born into the wrong time. So after a prestigious music school rejected her due not to her lack of talent but because of the color of her skin, in the 1950s she began playing piano at small clubs to support her family where she was told in order to make money she had to sing. Which she did – and in a way unlike anyone had ever heard before.

Many young people today are unfamiliar with her work in large part due to her role as a Black activist at the time. She marched with, performed for and befriended the gamut of civil rights warriors – everyone from Malcom X to Martin Luther King to Stokely Carmichael. Disgusted with racism and white America, she eventually chose to leave her country of origin and settle in Africa (Liberia to be exact) and then on to Holland, Amsterdam and eventually Southern France.

The talent was heroic, the activism was more than heroic and the trips and resettlements abroad were necessary – though it makes her no less an American hero for speaking up, singing out and being counted.

She has the requisite personal problems in a show business/pop culture bio – domestic abuse, financial ruin and mental illness. But what this film also clearly shows is a snapshot of someone who could have easily been one of the names on that above list had she been lucky enough to have been born 20 or 30 more years later.

Preach

Preach

Or not. The truth is – we will never know. Perhaps it was really the times that made her what she was (Note: Or any of us) and without that turbulence the right sparks might not have ignited. If so, that makes her journey even more heroic in my mind.

I am currently writing a movie about a man you have probably never heard of – another American hero but, by my earlier definition, someone who would not be on the above list. That is because he wasn’t famous, but instead chose to take on corruption in small town America as the editor of several local newspapers and wound up paying a huge financial and personal price for it. He is one of many American heroes but he’s the unsung kind – the opposite of who we’re really talking about in our heart of hearts when we publicly hold up the ideal of the most outstanding among us.

That is not my prejudice or judgment and it is not good or bad or anything in between. It just is. That’s who we are.   And well, why tamper with perfection, right?

Especially in, on or around our Independence Day weekend.