Ying/Yang: Katniss and Llewyn

Two hep "Cats"

Two hep “Cats”

In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.

So, how was all of this?  Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy.  In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:

Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs.  In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in.  On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business.  This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.

In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember.  Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality.  They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality.  Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you.  The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into.  (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).

As for the films:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGames_Catching-Fire-catching-fire-movie-33836550-1280-673

Vogue.

Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever.  It also helps that she is immensely talented.  If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with.  It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe.  Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.

If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on.  Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.

Oh, she knows it!

Oh, she knows it!

 Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out.  But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.

One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG.  I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:

a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and

b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.

ancient artifacts

ancient artifacts

When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America.  I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries?  Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment.  Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug.  So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.

Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.

But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game.  Oh no – here we go again.  Yup, that’s right.  Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had.  How much of this can we watch?  Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight?  That should give you a pretty good idea.  There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience.  Only money.  And…sequels.  Two more at the very least. (Note:  Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).

As for the premiere itself:

Bad News:

  1. At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
  2. You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
  3. Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.

Good News:

Werk girl

Werk girl

  1. The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
  2. The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
  3. You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis.  This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film.  Why couldn’t I pronounce it?  Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it?  Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?

The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.

Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met.  He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy.  In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing.  He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.

This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts.  That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.

Well, what is normal anyway?  Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking.  In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred.  Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.

This would be years before Betty's trip to the Village

This would be years before Betty’s trip to the Village

One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry.  They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees.  They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me.   They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time.  That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.

Frick and Frack?

Frick and Frack?

It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).

Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?

Um, well.  We don’t do icons.  (Long silence).

Um, well, okay.

Q:  Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?

Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all.  Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually?  Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.

Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?

Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake?

Perhaps it was the interviewer.  The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared.  I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you?  This person did not.

On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it.  It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen.  It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there.   And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win.  You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.

Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough.  Or maybe it’s not.  I mean, what do awards mean anyway?  Okay, let’s not go there.

Well, they certainly don't hurt.

Well, they certainly don’t hurt.

What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it.  Hmm, not sure that happened.  Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do.  Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview.  Certainly, it was among the most memorable.

In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success.  One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed.  Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these.  The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.

About the film:

Good News:

  1. Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here.  He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film.   It’s worth seeing for him alone.
  2. The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner.  Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences.  LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
  3. The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
  4. The running time is 105 minutes.  Few films should be over two hours.  Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.

Bad News:

  1. There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
  2. Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
  3. Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
NEXT STOP:  Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle… Stay tuned.

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Rubbernecking

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Target Practice

We Americans love to gawk.  Okay, maybe it’s not a totally American thing since the term paparazzi became popular as a result of Fellini’s legendary La Dolce Vita (the perpetually annoying photographer in the film was named Paparazzo).  Still, in my limited travels around the world it feels as if me and my fellow countrymen (and women) are always among the first to arrive – either by ourselves or with some sort of filming device – to either a celebrity sighting or crime scene, especially when those two events happen simultaneously.

Granted, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be observant.  But – what exactly are we observing?

That all came to the forefront this week when Valerie Harper, the 74-year-old actress who was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and is best known to us baby boomers as Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was announced as one of the contestants on this season’s edition of Dancing With The Stars.

Let’s be clear.  Anyone who has terminal brain cancer gets to do anything they want, including spending their final year(s?) of life rehearsing ballroom dancing four and a half hours a day in order to perform a 3 minute weekly dance routine before a live television audience of 17 million people.

Plus – full disclosure.  I LOVED Rhoda!  She was sassy, spoke with an accent from the NYC boroughs, endured an overbearing mother who made her life crazy AND had trouble keeping a guy.  With the exception of the head scarves and a few lady bits, I found watching her in my twenties was often the equivalent of looking into a one-way mirror.

I could have rocked that look

I could have rocked that look

So I’m not quite sure why her appearance on DWTS strikes me as a bit exploitive and over-the-line. Could it be my own fear of death?  Perhaps.  I mean, I know it is there and have witnessed it more times than I care to remember.  Still, I don’t like the idea of it staring me in the face weekly.  Though I did love Laura Linney on The Big C, a Showtime series about cancer where anyone, anytime could die each week because, well, it’s cable.

No – I don’t think it’s that.

Maybe it’s my general concern for Ms. Harper as a fan who has enjoyed her work for decades.  Aside from her time as Rhoda, she ‘s done lots of other interesting things over the years, including a recent brilliant onstage performance as the iconic actress Tallulah Bankhead in the stage play Looped.

Yes, she started as a dancer on Broadway, her cancer is near remission, and she announced that she wanted to attempt this enormous feat of athleticism to be a role model so others won’t fear life in their final days. Hmm, maybe I’m turning into Rhoda’s overprotective mother?  Or even worse, my OWN MOTHER???

Sorry – I REFUSE to admit that’s it.  Or to even think about it one second longer.

Here’s what I do think it’s about.  It’s the idea of being compelled to watch DWTS at all, which I now most definitely will do, at least on DVR – and probably a lot more than sometimes.  This makes me nothing less than a typical member of the flash mob out there that we call society.  All too human, all too base, all too bloodthirsty.  But to see what exactly?  Valerie Harper die live on television?  Or at least pass out from exhaustion, only to get up again and barely make it through the number amid gasps and awe?  Or to see her emerge victorious as many weeks as possible, proving you can cheat death when you have a terminal disease?

And all for this hideous, tacky thing?

And all for this hideous, tacky thing?

If we’re all hooked up to a lie detector, which would we all MOST want to watch?  Which would be the most…ENTERTAINING?  (Note:  You cannot choose none of the above.  And…you must tell the truth).

It did not escape me that a survey by Fandango this week of the most anticipated of all the fall movies – a time that is (or used to be) considered THE time to launch the classy or at least more serious Oscar contenders – the #1 choice was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  This is important to note because it is the sequel to a film that is literally about watching people die in a live (or in this case dead) televised competition.   Well, one supposes that could really be next.  Or perhaps it has already begun to arrive but we have not yet realized it.

En fuego

En fuego

I might be stretching the metaphor.  But barely. Humanity has a history of such things, from Gladiators fighting to the death in the Coliseum to boxing matches where every so often someone gets knocked out cold.   The difference is that hundreds of years ago the very function of gladiators was to do battle until someone literally collapses and dies.  These days we sort of just like putting people into impossible situations to see if or how long they can survive and how well they do it.  Yes, they can die or be irrevocably injured for our own enjoyment.  But it’s their choice.  Certainly, that’s a lot more civilized.  Isn’t it?

Civilized? Well, all except Wipeout.

Civilized? Well, all except Wipeout.

It’s interesting to read or watch the news each day and see what passes for current events.  Sure there are real wars but we usually black out the actual killings on television in favor of showing our politicians deciding whether or not to fund either more bloodbaths or more social programs.  Still, we get to see George Zimmerman, the man acquitted in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, being arrested for the second time in several months for a speeding ticket or photos of Zimmerman’s wife filing for divorce because he spends so little time at home and has become too selfish.   You can’t blame him.  I suppose I’d be a little full of myself also if I got that much attention.  Speaking of attention, did you just hear that his defense attorney Mark O’Mara has been signed by CNN to be a legal analyst? That’s something else we can look forward to when we inevitably tire of this season’s DWTS.  God Bless America.

It’s not as if the US media and entertainment industries (yes, technically they are different) always know what we want, or are even thinking.  If this were so Neil Patrick Harris wouldn’t have happily announced several days ago that he would not be doing a musical opening number when he hosts the Emmys later this month.  Sure, the Oscars get Seth MacFarlane singing and dancing but television DOESN’T get Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing.  Just what are they thinking there?  Obviously, not much.

You're breaking my heart, Doogie!

You’re breaking my heart, Doogie!

Then there is the massive advertising campaign for Ron Howard’s new film, Rush.  It’s gotten glowing advance reviews and very nice film festival reaction.  And Mr. Howard’s teaming on a somewhat commercially risky subject matter written by acclaimed British writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) also deserves kudos.  But Rush is based on the 1970s true life story of two competing race drivers – a sport where fatal and near fatal fiery crashes and the charred beyond recognition human remains they left behind were a way of life.  You’d think they could give us a little more of the actual blood sport in the trailer, knowing as they do our taste for carnage.   Right now there are mostly the supremely enviable blonde tresses (not to mention other things) of the supremely enviable Chris Hemsworth as he charms the machinery off of every human and non-human being in his sight lines.  Well, I suppose audiences can forgive a little lack of carnage for that.   I know that I can.

Oh.. is this movie about car racing?

Oh.. is this movie about car racing?

What is difficult to accept is that one easy way to get attention these days is to always do morea lot more – and preferably in as dangerous or titillating a way as possible.  Perhaps this was always the case.  In fact, when you chart the rise from Playboy, to Penthouse, to Deep Throat, to Hustler, to online porn, to Showtime’s annual and highly-rated multiple broadcasts of the AVN Awards (the Oscars of the Adult Entertainment Industry, which I stumbled across one day and reacted to like a bad car accident on the highway – I couldn’t look away) we can prove it not only was but that today it is even more so.

Of course, none of this means I will cancel my subscription to The New Yorker.  Or that any museums will be closed down.  But one can’t help but wonder if, as the years go on, those touchstones of culture won’t be viewed much like we now look at the language of Latin or the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare – intellectually impressive, perhaps even brilliant artifacts of another time and generation but nowhere near as exciting to us as the potential slaughters or killings occurring right before our eyes in any one of the Coliseum-like arenas of  entertainment that we’re choosing to put right in front of us.

Hmm, on second thought, maybe the times haven’t changed all that much at all.

Buy the Beach House

Watching the cultural phenomenon called “The Hunger Games” yesterday convinced me even more to take the advice a good friend of many years gave me this past weekend — “buy the beach house.”

Do not jump to the conclusion that this means I have the money to purchase that fantasy pied-a-terre on the shores of nearby Malibu or even one on the opposite coast of Rockaway, NY that I inhabited many decades ago as a boy when they were merely called bungalows.  I don’t.  Writers enjoy metaphors and some physical manifestation of intellectual advice rather than coming straight out and telling you what to do.  Part of it is our training and the other part is an innate cowardice that allows us to be far bossier through language on the page or images than we could ever be in real life.  Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer excepted, of course, though each were indeed wimpy in their own ways when you think about it.

As for my friend, her beach house advice was a way to communicate to me something strongly in language she knew I’d understand.  (We’ve known each other since high school, a time when we briefly dated – uh yeah, that’s how long ago it was), and have seen each other through many things.  And unlike most writers, she’s pretty direct.  See, she beat cancer in her twenties and – now decades later – it’s returned again.  Don’t stress – it’s not a Lifetime movie.  The prognosis is very promising but the second time dealing with the Big C is not only sobering but has a way of clearing away the stink and laser focusing on what is faster than you can say “Hunger Games” is the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Consequently, her “buy the beach house” orders to me still hang in the air because after 40 years, well, we don’t bullshit each other.

To the best of my knowledge, here’s what “buy the beach house” really means and,  yes I will also get to how and why understanding the place of “The Hunger Games” in the entertainment world today is essential to anyone who is interested in becoming a part of the entertainment industry today.

Movies, television, theatre, publishing, and advertising have for decades “new aged” the message “buy the beach house”  into our psyches.  “No day but today,” “Jump,” No guts, No glory,” “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today,” “If not now, when,” “Have faith and shuffle the cards,” “I Am Spartacus” and so on and so forth are just a few examples.

Preach!

But in 2012 we need to go farther than what the construct of art will allow.  What does “buy the beach house” really mean?  It means, not only (Just) do it but do it in the real world.  It means it’s okay to dream and dream big, but in order to achieve those dreams it means you have to make sure fantasies don’t overtake your reality and in simply wishing something to be true you don’t convince yourself it is.  It means hard work, sweat, dedication and luck are all recipes for success but not necessarily antidotes to failure and all of them combined don’t necessarily guarantee you’ll avoid or achieve either one them as such.  It means, ultimately, that the road to happiness is buying whatever your version of the beach house is at the moment and, in doing so,  do the work and sign the contracts and do the work some more with your eyes wide open – understanding what you’re getting and staying determined to what you see as your eventual “dwelling” as you’re doing it in order to make it come true. It means that if you do all that and your beach house still falls apart, (which it is likely to because hey, we all know that global warming in 2012 has made living on the coast of any land mass perilous (ask Malibu’s Ali McGraw and some friends of mine in Mississippi), you will endure the disappointment and not allow your spirit to be broken, thereby enabling yourself to go on to your next dream – your next beach house.  Because god knows, there isn’t  only one.

Still has a great view!

Further translation?  You need to persevere and pursue your dream with all your might but you need to do it in a reality – not the distorted version of “Hunger Games” reality so popular with just about everyone but me right now (Okay, yes, more on that soon).

I saw a fine example of that perseverance at a panel I moderated some days ago with three directors, all former students of the college at which I teach.  All three of the panelists are working film and TV directors in their thirties and forties and all three had a clear path of working extremely long hours at not always desirable jobs while not abandoning their vision of their ultimate beach house.  Each also used whatever discouragement they had as fuel and each were able to speak up for themselves and their dreams, wants and desires when no one else could or wanted to (or even believed any of what they wanted might possibly become a reality).  Still, they stayed in touch with what they wanted and worked at it no matter what job they had or what state of mind they were in.

Eventually, two of them collaborated on a film that cost them $1100 (and was made on a camera they returned within the 30-day trial period) that went on to be very well-received and gross $5,000,000 worldwide.  Needless to say, this opened all kinds of career paths. Another panelist told tales of working many unrequired all-nighters at an assistant’s job that only allowed advancement when doubting superiors admired the work this person completed when no one else was around.  Oh, did I mention this person is now director-producer-editor of one of the most prestigious half hour comedies on television and that it was not until the last three years that this person even became a director?  And did I mention that the filmmaking team each started in lowly jobs, then became writers (not a lowly job despite what some people think), on air talent, producers and, finally, each directors of their own films?  Well, they did.

An even better view

These three people did not happen to land where they did by accident and they are not unique (although they are not average.)   But part of the reason they are among  the top of their class is that they imagined their own version of a beach house and kept trying to buy it – never giving up and never getting completely discouraged by the many turns of events that clearly indicated they had as much chance of achieving their dreams as purchasing actual west coast seaside property on a PA’s salary.  Their dreams became a reality because, in essence, they lived in reality but continued to dream.

Box Office Knockout

Which brings us to “The Hunger Games.”  If you like it – fine.  I didn’t.  Though I can certainly admire the work, the craftsmanship and the colossal effort that it takes to make a major studio “tent pole” movie in 2012.  And if you don’t think that takes a lot of effort and creativity and art, then you are over or underestimating what all three mean nowadays (or your POV), and you certainly don’t fully comprehend all of the potential minefields of a commercial system where most people want to use their talents but, at the same time, want to get all their hard work seen by more than a small audience of friends and admirers.   Certainly, NOT caring about this capitalistic stuff is an admirable trait if it’s really you but, then again, that has nothing to do with “The Hunger Games” or what it means for any artist of any kind who wants to work in the commercial system of movies and achieve their own version of a modest but sturdy beach house.

Without reviewing the plot, technical aspects, artistic execution or themes of “The Hunger Games” lets just say that it is basically a film version of a fictional futuristic reality show where each year a select group of young people 12-18 are forced to fight each other to the death.  It provides some slight and very superficial commentary, a few dramatic and emotional scenes that don’t get too messy, and lots of lots of eye candy, film trailer “moments,” and room for tons (or at least two or three) sequels, starting with its slightly open-ended ending.

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the people who love movies, both young and old, and are aspiring members of the next generation of moviemakers, are particularly drawn not to this kind of film but to the films of the sixties and seventies, which were a time of great sociological and societal shifts, not to mention soaring advancements in technical achievements and the way stories are told.  To simplify, there was a decided move away from the old-fashioned Hollywood type film to a more honest, independent type of films that told somewhat more realistic stories.

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

And to be direct – this kind of movie is not “The Hunger Games.”  And it’s not — (fill in the blank with one of your fave contemporary films).  After two or three shifts since the 1960s and 70s, the kind of movies you love or your parents loved that you love probably accounts for, oh, 5-10% of all the commercial narrative films made nowadays (and I’m being kind).

As a member or aspiring member of the film biz in particular, it is very important to know and recognize that and plan accordingly, which is not to be confused with giving up your dream of a celluloid beach house on your own terms.

But while you’re working on your (seemingly elusive) dream you might also want to notice that the storytelling in cable television shows like “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “The Big C,” “Dexter,” “Downton Abbey,” “Breaking Bad,” “Weeds” and many others are now carrying the gauntlet of the film sensibilities of yesteryear that you recall so fondly.  And that there is an online market that is breathing over the shoulder of movies theaters and portable and non-portable televisions everywhere as we adjust to watching entertainment on the “tablet” of our choice rather than in a specific market.

What I’m saying is that in 2012 you probably don’t want to purchase a beach house from the 1970s (if it’s still standing) because of the impossibility of maintenance in today’s environment   Even if that wasn’t the case and you insisted on being frozen in time, at the very least you’d have to admit you probably need to spend more than a little time, and actually more time than you had planned, to modernize the plumbing.

What I’m suggesting, then, is – take a look at the terrain around you – and in order to actualize your own personal beach house dreams, consider, if not significantly modernizing, doing some of the necessary maintenance work.

Culture Vulture

Each week pop culture seems to offer an irresistible topic of conversation.  Perhaps it’s the online, multi-tasking, Facebook and Twitter-heavy world we live in, but more and more it’s easy to feel that there is not just one topic but six or seven or twelve to choose from — many of which are not so much amusing, but, well, alternately awful, trivial or downright distasteful, and only occasionally uplifting.  And unfortunately, quite reflective of the world we currently live in.

In honor of this predicament, this week and this week only (unless I decide to do it next time cause that’s how this stuff rolls in 2012…uh, don’t worry, I won’t) we present a mash up of the nonsense for the week ending March 23rd  .  At least as it looks from the seat of a chair, which can be cushy or hard, depending on what’s happening and to whom (who?).

Television encores: “Mad Men” returns and “Smash” is renewed.

Hello gorgeous

Does one counter the other?  I’m not so sure. The NY Times on Friday gave what we consider an unfair review of the first “Mad Men” of the new season – noting that because it has spawned so many 60s nostalgia themed spin-offs, there is no irony left when filmmakers show “an adult smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding a baby in the other.” Like many reviewers and non-fans, this critic misses the point.  No great film or TV show is ever really about the time period.  That is just the window dressing.  It is always how interested you are in the characters and what they, and they alone, uniquely do in said time period.  The challenge of TV is keeping the people and situations interesting through season after season – a whole other story in itself.  Oh, and in actuality it is that very FAMILIARITY with characters and their world/era that make people want to watch and commit to a television series.   You can wear out your welcome if you don’t come up with engaging twists and turns and new and bizarre crises but you want to also feel you can depend on – something.  Therefore, the verdict is out for me if that is the case with the new season of “Mad Men” because

  •  a. I have not yet seen the first episode of the best-written show on television. (It is – deal with it)
  • b. Past seasons have all managed to work their magic in strange and even more surprising and unusual ways than the one before (“Past as prologue” – as the NY Times writer so wisely pointed out in her review) and
  • c.    Cultural critics love to diss critical darlings after a certain point in time because it’s just more fun to write diss than bliss  (as I can attest from my past, present and obviously future life as a vociferous cultural vulture).

Bottom line: Don’t assume that because something is familiar it’s growing tiresome.  If that were the case there would be no happy long-term relationships.  Which there are.  Again, you’re gonna have to trust me on that one.

Oh, right  -– I forgot about “Smash.”  Uh, it was renewed for a second season.

They're multiplying

Yes.  It was.

Despite the fact that It

  • a.  Loses a lot of its audience from the number one show in the U.S., “The Voice.”
  • b.  It’s expensive to make and
  • c.  It’s a string of soapy clichéd clichés.

But NBC needs a hit and the show’s idea was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the King of All Entertainment, who also serves as executive producer.  Enuf said.  Because still, I don’t want to criticize a show where you get to hear Bernadette Peters do a song from “Gypsy” or any number of real Broadway performers do their thing on national TV.  No gay man in his right mind would do that because you would run the risk of getting barred from what is said to be the upcoming movie version of “Gyspy,” starring Barbra Stresiand currently being written by “Downton Abbey”’s Julian Fellows.  Yes, I’m fickle.

Interent killed the newspaper star:  Variety is for sale.

This might not seem like a big deal to you but it is to me because – well, being a Variety reporter was my first real journalism job out of college.  Once known as the “Bible of Show Business,”  Variety  has seen its audience erode due to 24/7 news and competition from the snarkiest entertainment blogs known to man and has been officially and publicly put on the market by its parent company of the last few decades, Reed Business.  Variety was founded just past the turn of the century by the Silverman family, who owned the paper when I worked there (some years past the turn of the century).  Like most mom and pop businesses, they eventually gave into the corporate giants chasing them, and said corporate giants eventually found or find themselves in the familiar position of shedding their once valuable asset due to the “changing times.”  Bob Dylan once wrote in the 60s, “the times they are a changing.’” This was seen as both a good and bad thing.  But I’m just not sure which is the case here.

Hooded Racism: Trayvon Martin

A 17-year-old Black youth named Trayvon Martin was apparently gunned down in central Florida this week by a man on Neighborhood Watch who was suspicious of the young dark-skinned man in a hoodie and on the phone with his girlfriend who, it turned out, was armed with nothing more than a pack of Skittles and some iced tea.  There is a 911 phone recording where the Neighborhood Watch guy clearly calls the deceased a racial epithet.  There is also a strict Florida law that allows those feeling in danger and in the presence of a potential criminal to stand their ground and defend themselves.  Among all of this, aspiring Republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum campaigned at a shooting range the next day and when the former senator cocked his gun and began gunning down a paper target of a man, a random woman from the crowd yelled “pretend it’s Obama.”  At best, these are indeed very confusing times, as Dylan implied.   At worst, well – you can fill in the blank.

Sugar Rush or Toothache? Food Network’s Sweet Genius

“Sweet Genius,”  a TV show where four dessert makers endure three grueling tests of their chocolate, baking and candy-making skill under the critical eye of host Ron Ben Israel – a dessert mogul who looks like Dr. Evil, talks like a Bond villain, and presides over the festivities in a set that resembles the underground lair of Willy Wonka’s evil twin — returned to the air after a too long absence.  Yes, I watch this crap because it’s fun.  But not as much fun as it was last season.  The show was a surprising limited hit over six episodes and the network has had time to think about it and in its full season two decided to make its host less demanding, less dictatorial and the show much less weird (e.g. they eliminated the odd computer voice that ominously analyzed the water and salt content of each food on a conveyor belt).  In other words, they’ve done what most film and TV production company’s like to do – round out the edges to appeal to the greatest number of people, therefore losing the very reason people loved the “asset” to begin with.  By the way, my TV writing student Alyssa makes much better cupcakes for class each week than any dessert I’ve seen on the show this year and she covers the cost of her own ingredients.  Just sayin’.

My Tribute to the Hunger Games

Girl's got range

The biggest thing in the movies this weekend is “The Hunger Games” and I assigned it to all the film writing students to see because you can’t ignore a cultural phenomenon if you want to be in the biz. I told them they need to go in with an open mind and open heart because no one sets out to make a bad movie.  However, and this is just between you and me – the film looks deadly dull and hopelessly overproduced with elements and themes from about five different movies I saw in the 1970s when I was in college.   This is not the attitude I want to pass on and I can only hope that I will be pleasantly surprised at the theatre when my (somewhat) open mind is fully expanded to a higher state of love and acceptance.  But I seriously doubt it.

One Final Note from Ms. Houston

Whitney Houston had cocaine in her system at her time of death, and it was revealed in an autopsy that the cause of death was drowning (in her bathtub).  Ms. Houston  also had marijuana, alcohol, Xanax and a muscle relaxer in her system. Still, most of us secretly believe that fame, fortune and a little bit of exceptional superhuman talent at something are the holy grail answers to pretty much all of our problems and most likely everything else.

Hottest Inmate: Clooney swoons even in jail

George Clooney got arrested for demonstrating about atrocities in the Sudan.  He paid a fine and is out on the street once again as he continues humanitarian work while earning gazllions of dollars making pretty much any movie he wants.  Fame, fortune and talent are not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps can mix well – depending on how the mixing is done and by whom.  I’m being serious here.

Flour Power: Kim K’s unfortunate encounter

cleanup on aisle 3

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian was flour bombed.  (I’m now joking but this is true).  Definition of Flour bombed?  This means you’re walking the red carpet wearing a dark-colored designer outfit and someone dumps a bag of white flour on your head and your ultra chic suit.  If you have dark hair, this is even more spectacular because of the color contrast, as it was here.  Said Kim “bomber” was arrested but Kim isn’t pressing charges.  Do not take this as a defense of Kim’s legitimacy or evidence that I consider her a talent of any kind.  Or want to analyze her fame or fortune quotient, which are obviously quite higher than mine.

A Flashy Girl from Flushing

I drive down the famed Sunset Strip on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood and keep seeing a larger than life Billboard of Fran Drescher with the ad line, “The Mouth is back,” and the title of her second season TV Land  comedy – “Happily Divorced,” about a woman who was married to her high school sweetheart for years only to recently find out he was gay.  But they’re divorced and they’re still close friends.  Yes, this is based on Fran’s real life and Fran and I, we share a lot.  She’s from Flushing, Queens as I am.  She’s Jewish, as I am.  Her ex-husband is gay, as am I.  We’re also roughly the same age and I found her hilarious on “The Nanny,” as I’m sure she found herself too.  Then, why, oh why, couldn’t I laugh even once at her new show???  Also, I wonder — does this mean my shtick is tiring for people who have been in my life for decades and are much like me?  Am I boring everyone around me, physically and virtually, even my readers?  How do you know when you’re dull, boring and beside the point?  I worry about this and vow to do better not only with my talents but with limited fame and fortune.  But for now, well, can I just have a cupcake?