Who’s Naughty and Nice?

If the bar for presents from Santa Claus is who’s been naughty or nice why shouldn’t we also use it for all the fictional characters in our lives?   These days they seem far more alive than any number of real people we come across daily – especially those we see daily reports about on television.

Yes we, or perhaps only I, have gotten to the point where what’s out there on an hour-to-hour basis is more impossible to fathom than any extreme or even random action taken on any one of our favorite TV shows by any one of our favorite friends um, characters.

The best reason to be antisocial this season

The most overused expression of 2017 – aside from the world is ending – has to be “we live in The Golden Age of Television.” Nevertheless, we do. The choices feel infinite and, instead of what used to be 439 channels and still nothing to watch, we’ve now got so much we want to watch and so little time to do so.

Make of that last sentence what you will. And drink each time you ponder the part about time and little.

Certainly, it’d be a bit alarming to start buying actual gifts for your favorite friends characters. Or would it? I, for one, have a new bar for alarming and it’s neither nice or naughty. It’s scary.

Just call me Kenneth the Page

Which is not the case for the best of my fantasy buddies. They’re not only naughty AND nice, they never fail to disappoint me – especially in the toughest times – which in these days is every day.

THE LIST:

#5 – Hannah Baker (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Jack Pearson (This Is Us), played by Katherine Langford and Milo Ventimiglia

Just give me all the Kleenex now

Well, why NOT start with TWO DEAD PEOPLE? No, these are not spoilers. In the theme of reality IS fantasy these two characters are more alive to their friends and relatives in death than perhaps they ever were when they were actually living.

You can say both are naughty because they seemed to have ultimately caused their own deaths. For Hannah, it was a suicide. For Jack, well – the writers haven’t quite revealed it yet but the drinking and his repressed dark side are both pointing to a demise that was at least, in part, his own doing.

Which makes it all the more memorably heartbreaking to recognize that Jack and Hannah were/are both – so damn nice!

Jack Pearson is the fantasy Dad whose bon mots are timeless life lessons passed on to us, along with endless supplies of sensitivity and an eternally buoyant hairline. Oh, the hairline.

#HAIRENVY

Hannah Baker is girl that got away (literally), the girl who made you laugh, the girl who was the smartest and most infuriating in high school and the girl who you still wonder about decades later and would choose over almost any one else to have just one more final meeting with.

They both remind us that life is fleeting and every so often make us want to contact the estranged parent, friend or person we haven’t yet gotten the nerve to talk to before it’s too late. Which, in itself, is pretty damn nice, indeed.

#4 –  Dougie Jones/Agent Dale Cooper/Evil Doppelganger Cooper (Twin Peaks: The Return), played by Kyle Maclachlan

Hair is becoming a theme here

For those who didn’t tune in to this limited Showtime series to see what happened to Agent Cooper 25 years later, suffice it to say that these three people are indeed all part of one person.   No, you don’t want the explanation. Just accept it.

Dougie Jones walks and talks like a programmed robot (which he indeed may be) but all bets are off when he enables a “homeless” woman in Las Vegas to hit numerous jackpots on the slot machine and bring reams of his own winnings to his long suffering wife and kid – all while unwittingly bringing out the best of two dim-witted Mafia guys with his innate kindness.

Which doesn’t mean he’s incapable of choking a person who gets in his way. Though much of this is left to his Evil Doppelganger who shoots, bites, knives and brutally kicks his way through multiple murders. This version is the irresistible id of evil – someone we all revile because he’s the miniscule evil part of us we would never publicly admit we occasionally have to repress. Not that I just did.

Not me… all the time

As for Agent Cooper, what can you say about a guy who has barely aged a day in a quarter of a century? You admit he’s one of your faves, meet him for pie and coffee and find out his secrets – many of which are still to be revealed.   A 2042 sequel?   We’ll see. On second thought, maybe one of you will.

#3 –  Offred/June Osborne (The Handmaid’s Tale), played by Elisabeth Moss

Peggy Olson sure has changed #jonhammwhereareyou

No one expressed the naughtiness of our current reality and dystopic alternative reality than Offred. It feels reductionist to say the most famous handmaid on any plane was the precursor to the #MeToo movement and impossible to believe that she became the poster child for all of our worst fears about America in the Age of T—P.

Before Offred was an enslaved, raped and tortured handmaid she was the fun-loving, feisty and sweet June Osborne – just a gal making her way in a big city where she worked, fell in love and lived a life. It wouldn’t seem imaginable that her past could serve as prologue to her future but that’s the point – both we and June are often too busy and not observant enough to pick up the signs.

This is where Offred takes over and shows us there are times when naughty is the essential survival skill and nice is a but a mere luxury – some would say relic – of the past. If that seems applicable to the way we live now, well perhaps it is. Or soon will be.

#2 – Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things 2), played by Gaten Matarazzo

CODE RED

Twelve year-old Dustin has a lisp, unruly hair, mad crushes on two teenage girls who will prove unattainable and a look that will forever read best friend rather than star anything.

But Dustin also subverts every stereotype as we watch him not only tame his hair but prove time and time again he is the smartest, funniest and overall most charming in the room – or in town.

don’t forget that Farrah Fawcett hair product #thankssteve

This is not to say he is without his faults. Hiding a slimy and mysteriously growing little creature in your home and allowing it to eat everything you can find, including your (NO SPOILERS HERE but you can imagine) wasn’t the best of ideas. Nor is his unwavering loyalty to the bonds of childhood friendships. Or is it?

The latter is a question we all ask and re-ask ourselves through the decades, which is why every victory this kid has and each mistake he makes feels impossibly awful and improbably life-affirming.

Dustin manages to be a piece of the young us we will always be on the inside.   That he not only brings back those awkward times but makes us simultaneously long for them and embrace him, is the ultimate achievement of both the character AND the young actor who so effortlessly embodies him. And us.

#1 – Miriam (Midge) Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), played by Rachel Bronsnahan

Bring it, Midge!

What we all needed in 2017 and will need in the future is funny and MIDGE IS, most of all, FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny. How ironic is it, then, that she exists in 1958, 1959 and 1960?

Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a relatively new streaming series that many of you have not yet sampled but will surely do so as it gains awards and attracts critical attention, steam and an expanded audience in the near future.   This is because it is indeed FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny.

Midge is an unlikely mainstream star in her time – a young, Jewish housewife/daughter/mother on the upper west side of New York who is much too smart and too witty for her own good, at least in the decade in which she lives, yet just creative enough to make it work for herself in the most unlikely of professionals – stand up comedy. Or so one hopes.

SLAY

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d have been better off being born in another decade or place (and which of us haven’t this year), Midge gives you hope. She’s the ultimate problem solver for herself and everyone else – that is until it all falls apart and she has to rethink everything and everyone she once knew for sure.

She fails, gets lucky, fails again, opens her mouth when anyone in their right mind would hold back, gets lucky once more, stumbles – and through timing and fate keeps talking back – until she begins to finally get heard. Only to lose a little more ground once more after a big gain.

Midge gets shoved onstage, performs drunk and/or stoned, bombs big time and occasionally slays – in a small club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. with sticky seats where the men tell jokes and the women sit there and laugh.   It’s hilarious watching her discover what those close to her have always known but never ever told her – that she’s the best joke teller in the room.   But it’s even better when she begins to discover what pretty much everyone else in the world knows: she too is an artist – though not quite the kind she had thought or even ever hoped for.

That Girl

I have a close female friend in my life I’ve always called a can-do gal to her face and have always made sure she knew it was the highest of compliments. That is because this is a person who, despite everything, always manages to make it happen and always does so with humor. She has fun.   Not only that, when you’re with her you get to have fun. And at least feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Midge is this kind of person. You can’t help but want to hang out with her, hoping that some of that can-do joy will eventually rub off. Not to mention, she’s…well, you know.

That’s why these days she’s my #1. Fictionally, at least.

Fred Astaire – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

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Darlings in Dystopia

The first masterful piece of mass entertainment reflecting the Trump era is here and, strangely enough, it’s based on a novel from 32 years ago. Thanks Hulu, or more correctly, damn you, Hulu – for your new series The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set in a dystopian future where women have no rights and the country has undergone a cultural/religious revolution brought on by terrorism and perhaps limited (!) nuclear war, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously riveting and extremely difficult to watch. Much like an accident. Or Sean Spicer’s daily White House press briefings when not given by Melissa McCarthy.

…and not nearly as delicious/campy/tragic/gorgeous as FX’s Feud #ohmamacita

Of course, to reduce the retelling of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, which she wrote decades ago in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down, as merely an allegory for Trumpism would be selling it short. Not to mention it would be giving the Electoral College POTUS too much credit. (Note: The mere mention of his name is too much credit for me, but that’s another story, and not a particularly funny or readable one. So I will #resist the temptation).

The brilliance of Atwood’s story is that her dystopian world adapts to easily reflect the post-modern apocalyptic realities from any number of time periods in which we currently reside. Though perhaps this series just makes it look that way. More correctly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Imagine a world where women are not in control of their reproductive rights or being gay is seen as “gender treachery” and appropriately punished.   Then revisit Trump’s sound bite at a town hall event with Republican voters in Wisconsin last year where he publicly stated that if abortion becomes illegal women should face “some form of punishment.

Or simply read about the well-documented death and torture of gay men now occurring in numerous “detention centers” in pro-Russia Chechnya.

Unless this is where you’d rather live #keepinitreal

In the Hulu/Atwood world of terrorism, contemporary women, who only hours before were annoyed that their Uber driver was late, now find all their digital imprints frozen and assets seized. It’s for their own safety, say the authorities. Terrorists. Nuclear war. Centralize power and control for PROTECTION.

When mass sterility (due to environmental poisoning) sets in only a few years later it’s not hard to see that the few females that are still somehow able to reproduce become a treasured governmental commodity. I mean, what price is the continuation of the WORLD, right?

Well.. don’t get ahead of yourself Ms. Knowles

The fact that this is a world now dominated primarily by wealthy WHITE men, helped along by a few female counterparts not quite as powerful as they are, is not really questioned. And the fact that it’s not really questioned by the masses is one of the few differences it has from the basic world order in 2017.

Right after the inauguration of Donald Trump 3.2 million people took to the streets in a march for women’s rights. Which in turn became a growing resistance to emerging authoritarian rule that promised to roll back the rights of numerous other minorities – of color, of race, of national origin, of sexual persuasion, you name it – by an authoritarian voted in by a PLURALITY of voters. The idea, to save the country going down the tubes by making it GREAT again, was not sitting particularly well with its masses.

Pretty much sums it up

So given what I saw as one of those 3.2 million masses marching back in January it was not too difficult, and more than a little scary, for me to make the leap this Hulu series asks. Especially since the three black hooded corpses of a priest, a doctor and a gay man hanging on ropes high from the walls of what used to be a former library were really only incidental backdrops. That’s how I often feel now as a gay man in Trump country and Trump logic.   An annoying incidental to the main story.

Which in some ways is a better place to be than enduring the indignities many females are facing in Trump America. Certainly, it’s better than what the lead women in the Hulu show were about to endure. Though even here I hate to sell the latter short.

We’re not in Stars Hollow anymore, Rory.

It’s hard to tell where any of this is going or whether fiction will for sure prove worse than fact. As a wise psychiatrist once told me, you can only operate from “what is.” And what we do know in the real world is that an estimated 13,000 women are now planning to run for office across the country and a group called Emerge America recently held training classes for 25 female Democratic candidates for Congress, state senate, city council, etc. in 18 states.

Their numbers are up 87% since the election, which seems reasonable. So do comments from the female candidates on a recent NBC news report where one admitted needing practice in the best ways to do things like “asking for money” and “connecting with voters.” Those skills don’t always come naturally for those not born into power positions. But what do they say – Necessity is the mother of invention? Actually, it was not they but the Greek philosopher Plato and yes, I had to look it up. (Note: And yes, he was a man, as far as we know. Which doesn’t make it any less true).

well, that too. #wink

As far as the series is concerned, I take some solace in the casting of Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in the key lead role of Offred/June, our birth machine/handmaid heroine. Watching Ms. Moss personify the slow empowerment of the 1960s woman as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson – who goes from mousy, intelligent and intimidated to smart, savvy and, yes, empowered, gave hope to many of us hopeless incidentals. And to any of us who have ever felt, or will feel this way.

How I will always remember you girl #peggyforever

It’s one of the best gifts a truly gifted actor can give us. So in the bleak but all too truly allegorical world of The Handmaid’s Tale we can’t help but feel safe in her hands.

One wishes the same could be said about the leading player, or players, in our 2017 reality.

 

Snob Stories

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 12.17.22 PM

There are few things more annoying to me than an art snob. That endless debate about high and low art where the snobs turn their nose up at specific artistic endeavors – meaning the commercial kind, the childish kind or even the basic kind – in favor of what they perceive to be masterworks that have not gained mainstream acceptance. This group also doubly bridles when others often criticize their masterworks for being slow-moving, esoteric, sad, depressing, overly intellectual, confusing, distancing or, at the end of the day, just plain boring.

This argument cuts equally the other way. For there are also those who are consistently determined to leave what little bits of brains they have remaining at the door and dismiss anything on film, television, the stage or even at a museum that challenges them to spend more than a second or two pondering or, heaven forbid, processing its meaning. The adjectives this group – the anti-snob snobs — apply to their hate list usually begins with pretentious and ends with high-fallutin’.’ Translation: Anything that doesn’t immediately make me laugh or cry is beyond the ability of a reasonable person (Note: ME) to understand and enjoy and therefore is not worth my time. This, too, is snobbery, but of the mainstream kind.

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Of course, neither of these forms of elitisms is to be confused with the most treacherous – the financial and/or critical version. Meaning the amount of money a creative effort makes in relation to the cost or how many experts write complimentarily and eloquently about it is the real bottom line of its value???

Uh, no.

Simply put, just because your latest favorite film has grossed a billion dollars worldwide is not tangible evidence it is great. Money is not necessarily proof of artistic talent. It is evidence of a talent for moneymaking. Similarly, a handful of rave reviews from your fellow intellectuals and/or critics who always agree with you does not prove the new piece of cinema which didn’t get theatrical or even VOD distribution but you so, so enjoyed is better than anything playing at any random multiplex anywhere in the world. Nor does it give you a pass to boast voluntary ignorance or giggle derisively when someone mentions it might be worth your time to check out a really fab new limited TELEVISION series they saw with their kids and spouse at home one Saturday afternoon while lounging on the sofa.

#goaway

#goaway

Full confession: I was a film and television critic for Variety many decades ago and used to fight these battles daily with fellow co-workers, studio executives and other critics – as well as with many in my family and friends. There is a reason why the saying, Everybody has two businesses – their business and show business has stood the test of time. People get very emotional and are very invested with what they find good and bad on the cultural landscape.

This is why comments by Variety’s chief film critic this week proclaiming his total ignorance about contemporary television – as well as an article in Filmmaker magazine that boldly declared TV IS NOT THE NEW FILM (Note: You could almost hear the writer shouting it off the page) really got my goat. Oh, and add to that writer/director Ethan Coen’s response to a question at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where along with his brother Joel he served as grand jury president, about the much-acclaimed TV series version of their hit film Fargo.

It’s not that I don’t like TV. It’s alien to me.  I haven’t watched a television show in decades. 

…..he said proudly.

Oh yes, he was just being honest. The same way Variety’s Justin Chang was truthful when he wrote about the Cinema vs. Television debate in a gee whiz sort of way:

I would have to bone up on years of neglected TV watching before I could hazard a guess — as it stands, it feels like an apples-and-oranges comparison, and one where I don’t have the clearest idea what oranges taste like.

I suppose this was better than what Mike S. Ryan proclaimed in Filmmaker.

As much as I love Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men or Twin Peaks, as great and as groundbreaking as those shows were, they are still not Cinema.

Oh, why is it whenever anyone says or writes the word cinema I want to stick my tongue down their throats and get them to spit up a hairball?

Preach

Preach

The reason this has surfaced is that the upcoming Toronto Film Festival has decided to follow the lead of other film festivals all over the world and feature one of two programs this year devoted to television i.e. the pilot episodes of several new series viewers will be treated to later in the year.

The immediate reaction of critics like Chang is to sniff they were just too busy with CINEMA to watch contemporary television, even the superior kind. It seems like it’s even the inferred response of a prominent film artist like Mr. Coen, who treats the mere mention of the medium as some rare oddity from outer space he, as an earthling and non-scientist, has just not had the time or education to get familiar with.

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Frankly, I’m amazed at these reactions.

Certainly everyone has the right to sample what they choose to or have time for. We’re lucky to live in a world where there are so many possibilities of art to sample with the click of a button. But this is the same reason for any evolving artist and/or critic to try and take a little bit more time to survey the contemporary world if they want to continue to remain interesting, or even relevant.

This past week I stood in front of three different small groups of students in the first classes in the college semester where I will guide them as they formulate and execute any number of screenplays, television pilots and spec episodes of existing series. These are all smart, aware and active young people in their early twenties and it might or might not surprise you to know that the vast majority of them only very sporadically go out to the movies or watch a television series at the precise moment its network or cable outlet decides to first air it. Nor do they particularly care whether they view what they eventually watch on a big screen, laptop, iPad or smart phone. Oh sure, there are the occasional events, or motion pictures that must be seen large or viewed as early as possible. But these are rare. Like – VERY rare.

Like this...

Like this…

And studio executives take note – the two most repeated words I heard in all of our conversations about which movies and TV shows they liked and watched (Note: Yes, they all did BOTH!) were:

HULU and NETFLIX.

Unless one wants to write about or create art rooted or set solely in the past it might be nice for those at the top of their game in either of these fields to take note of some of the above. It does not mean you are betraying Renoir, Tarkovsky or Chantal Akerman. Anymore than it means you are turning your back on The Real Housewives if every now and then you decide to go to your local art house or streaming service and check in to see what Andrew Bujaski or the Dardenne brothers are up to.

As for the high vs. low art issue, I for one refuse to get into a debate over whether The Hangover is better than Breaking Bad, if the first season of True Detective had camerawork and imagery that would indeed rival the latest Terrence Malick film or if Guardians of the Galaxy was more enjoyable than any one episode of Mad Men or even The Sopranos. I mean, who really gives a shi damn???

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Yes, I’d rather watch Breaking Bad on a loop for the next three years than to have to sit through another Hangover even one more time. But I have actually seen the first two (Note: Ok, not all three) Hangover films. Not to mention all of the above choices, even the last few from the brilliant Malick – a director I really have to take a rest from before I become one the very kind of lazy, non-thinkers I’ve warned my students (and all of you) not to become.

See, sometimes it’s not enough to simply be aware of your tendency toward marginalizing, judgment or limited thinking in the art world. You actually need to make an effort to get off the couch or your soapbox, or flop down onto your couch and put on the TV. You’re free not to do that. But if so, please spare us your snob stories.