Buh-Bye 2016

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There is a Yiddish/English expression called kenahora, which when loosely translated means putting a curse or the evil eye on something.   Of course, in usage it generally means the opposite – that is warding off fate from even glancing in your direction in a negative way.

How would this happen with mere words? Well, we Jews don’t like to tempt fate so our thought is that it usually occurs if we were to brag about even the tiniest of good fortune.

For example, at the holiday dinner table your mother says:

You know, I haven’t gotten sick all year. How great is that!

At which point her mother, your grandmother, quickly interrupts and shouts, Kenahora! And then goes one step further and throws salt over her shoulder.

giphy

The latter is a second more drastic step in warding off evil though in truth it actually means blinding the Devil, who we Jews don’t even believe in. So no, that makes no sense but well, historically, once again, better safe than sorry.

Why bring this up? Well, because I was going to open this piece with this declarative statement:

Could 2016 have been any worse????

And then quickly decided against it. With only less than a week left and given my heritage and what’s already happened in 2016 there is no point in taking what clearly is the very real risk of destroying us all. And yes, OF COURSE my mere words have every power to do so. Every religion teaches us that – doesn’t it???

So instead of pushing our luck and asking for any more trouble, kenahora, let’s look back to the year that is almost at its end (Note: No editorializing there) and try to focus on the best and worst of what each of us, in our own special way, have lived through and probably wrought. It’s a limited list, but so probably is our time left here. If you look at it objectively. Kenahora.

MOST SURPRISING POP CULTURE MOMENT OF THE YEAR:

Death

Not a great year for celebrities

Not a great year for celebrities

Let’s get this out of the way first. I mean, George Michael died on CHRISTMAS DAY, 2016 (and then Carrie Fisher dies two days later????). Counting back in no particular order we’ve also lost David Bowie, Edward Albee, Muhammed Ali, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Patty Duke, Phyllis Diller and even Zsa Zsa friggin’ Gabor who held on till 99! To say nothing of PBS’s Gwen Ifill, CBS’s Morley Safer, PGA’s Arnold Palmer, NASA’s John Glenn and Everyone’s Doris Roberts. There will also be no more future Alan Rickman performances, Pat Conroy books, Leon Russell songs or Phyllis Schlaffly lectures (thank the Devil). Not to mention, we no longer have the flesh and blood Elie Wiesel to turn to as a historical touchstone at a time when we may need him most.

Am I forgetting anyone? #shade

Am I forgetting anyone?

It also felt 2016 marked the death of logic, of science, of civility and most of all – TRUTH. Though unlike human beings, those last things can once again get reborn. And if you believe human beings can too, please re-read that last things list one more time and reconsider.

MOVIE/TV SHOW/PLAY I CAN’T BELIEVE I SAT THROUGH:

Tie: Nocturnal Animals & Jackie (in no particular order)

Ugh. Not again.

Ugh. Not again.

Both of these movies have absolutely no reason for being other than the egos of the filmmakers. Of course, that would apply to the majority of movies so perhaps it’s not a valid criticism. So let’s put it this way.

Nocturnal Animals has not a real emotion in its seemingly endless two plus hours and is an homage artifice – of human behavior, of reality and of depth. No one is saying that a designer can’t write and direct great films, just like I’ve never heard anyone claim that there is not some writer somewhere that couldn’t conceive and manufacture his or her own fabulous designer suit or even clothing line on demand. It’s just that it takes a great deal of skill and has not ever happened. Though we spring ever hopeful for 2017 and beyond – it’s doubtful.

Maybe stick to making JT look this dapper? #stayinyourlane

Maybe stick to making JT look this dapper? #stayinyourlane

As for Jackie, it’s the first pornographic film I’ve ever seen with nary a sex scene. Rather, it’s a leering, unjust, seedy little dance on the grave of one of the few American icons left who deserves better. Telling a no-holds barred story on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis will make a fine film one day but this isn’t it. Unless you call watching her roam around the 1963 White House to the tune of Richard Burton singing Camelot as she tries on formal gowns, smokes cigarettes and drinks, some sort of new, cutting edge, cinema verite drama. Natalie Portman is terrific playing a construct of someone who looks and sounds a lot like the former First Lady as skewed fictional doppelganger trapped in the filmed pretention of a cinematic fun house mirror.

 

BEST INSURGENT

Keith Olbermann – GQ Videos The Resistance

Help me, KO, you're my only hope. #forreal

Help me, KO, you’re my only hope. #forreal

Once upon a time there was a sports commentator who became the host of a political show on a fledgling cable network called MSNBC and proved he was not only as smart and incisive as his contemporary counterparts but a lot bolder, uncensored, outrageous and articulate. This all happened during the George W. Bush presidency where he is often credited with being the first and longtime sole credible anti-Dubya voice of American outrage.

Keith eventually left politics and returned to sports casting but once the Pres. Elect who lost the popular vote by 2.85 million surfaced this year as the unleashed GOP candidate for the White House he listened to all my tweets to him and eventually stepped forward once more in a series of brilliantly researched, unvarnished and truth-telling 6-11 minute weekly ongoing video segments. Quite simply, he’s the best around at distilling the past, present and potential future horrors of our Birther-in-Chief and vows to continue to do so until such time as someone else steps up to heed the call. That doesn’t seem likely any time soon. Nor even possible at this point. Here’s a sample:

Click here to watch #RESIST

Click here to watch #RESIST

BEST COMEDIAN OF THE MOMENT

Wanda Sykes

It Girl

It Girl

It’s not only because she’s an out black lesbian married to a white woman in LA. raising kids in a house where one day she woke up and realized she is still and ever will be – “a Black woman who waits on White people.” Though moments like that certainly help.

It’s because she is another one of those people who can’ t help but be a truth teller and will do it at all costs. Like several months ago during a benefit standup performance in Boston where she told the crowd – This is not the first time we’ve elected a racist, sexist, homophobic president. He’s just the first confirmed one.

And when a small but loud group in the crowd booed she had the backbone to tell them to fk off and presented a bunch of examples to prove her point. At which time, they…Well, watch for yourself. Comedy, like tragedy, happens in the moment. It’s just that the take and the tone is different, depending on your audience.

BEST COOKBOOK

Small Victories by Julia Turshen

#DROOL

#DROOL

This cookbook was on the NY Times bestseller list for months this year but I would never have known about it had my friend Howard not got it for me as a birthday present. What makes it great? It’s the simplicity and depth of flavors all done in a homey, readable and self-effacing style.

Julia Turshen spent years as a personal chef and co-authored any number of well-known cookbooks with others. But in this solo effort she shows us the possibilities and accidents to be found either in our cupboards or with a perfunctory shopping list and the numerous choices and variations those foods and flavors hold. You often think – this sounds so simple and easy, how can that be? Well, it can – try the Turkey Ricotta Meatballs and Tomato Sauce.   Or you resist and say to yourself, that’ll be the day I spend any time roasting radishes, much less serving them to guests (Note: You should, with her Kalamata olive dressing Pg. 114).

Did i mention DROOOL?

Did i mention DROOOL?

No, I don’t know her and I don’t get commission. But I do know what’s good.

PERSON WE COULD SEE LESS OF IN 2017 (aka TOO MUCH OF THEM IN 2016)

Kellyanne Conway

Maybe I should have just put in a pic of Jon Hamm?

Maybe I should have just put in a pic of Jon Hamm?

She is the first woman to both manage a major candidate presidential campaign and emerge with a president-Elect. Winning – well, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

There is something about the Cheshire Cat grin, the constant verbal use of the word “Hashtag,” followed by her 49 year old self’s snide, self-satisfied, whiny delivery of the phrase He’s Your President Too, that makes me know she’d be the only one to cast as Lucy Van Pelt in a D.C. revival of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.

But I love Peanuts too much to seriously suggest that. Just know that it is likely we will see less of her in the New Year. She’s poised to be working behind the scenes of what now looks to be key advisor to her Oval Office elect guy – a role similar to the one Valerie Jarrett played to President Obama.

God (or whatever you believe Him or Her to Be) Help Us.

MOST REVISITED SHOW (Netflix, Cable, or DVD)

The Twilight Zone

... but I'll take good care of my glasses #trumpamerica

… but I’ll take good care of my glasses #trumpamerica

See above, as well as #1 above. Need I say more? There’s something about it that, well, explains everything. And that’s soothing.

BEST VIRAL VIDEO OF THE YEAR

Chewbacca Mom

She just gives me hope for humanity. Such joy, such humanity, such…hysteria!!! For the longest time I wasn’t sure what it was. The joy of laughter? The ridiculousness of the mask? The iconography of Star Wars, suburbia, motherhood and mayhem?

That is for much bigger brains than me to decide, analyze and then write about in media journals. Here’s what I know – it was the top viral video of the year and was viewed more than 8 million times.

Stay with it.

And don’t pretend you did not laugh once.

And if you didn’t…you’re lying.

BEST GAY THING OF THE YEAR

Moonlight

YES

YES

Three time periods in the course of the life of a young, gay Black man. That’s the logline. But as any artist will tell you, a logline says little about the work it describes.

The majority of critics are calling it the movie of the year and certainly that’s debatable – as any choice would be. What’s inarguable is that it breaks new ground and is something we’ve never seen before – a chronicle of the type of young life in a segment of society that has never been seen onscreen and will be much needed in the 2017 and beyond days to come.

HEALING POP CULTURE MOMENT OF THE YEAR

What was it that Alan Alda’s character posited in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors –

Comedy is tragedy plus time

Well, screw that. And not only because this quote is also separately on record from both Steve Allen and Carol Burnett in printed interviews decades before.

Sometimes – well, actually rarely – do comedy and tragedy come together in one perfect moment to equally express the SADNESS AND HILARITY of what we’ve just endured. This solar eclipse-like occurrence is called true IRONY and when it happens it is truly lightning in a bottle on the pop cultural landscape.

This is what Kate McKinnon and SNL wrought several days after the shocking results of #Election2016. Almost THREE MILLION more in the country were equally devastated that Hillary Clinton would not become president and that an uncertified lunatic would. And a significant number of those SNL watchers were still upset at the recent passing of genius balladeer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose seminal Hallelujah has for decades emerged as the bittersweet parable of loss.

But it was not only KM at the piano singing that tuneful dirge with a tear and glint in her eye that brought it home. It was the one line message she delivered when the song was over when, clad in the iconic HRC white pantsuit and perfectly coiffed twelve shades of blonde helmets of hair, she turned to the camera and said:

I’m not giving up and neither should you. Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night (Live).

Amen to both statements.

And #HAPPY2017.

Requiem for a Dream

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Jon Hamm was in my dream last night.

No, no, it wasn’t like that.

Unfortunately.

We were actually sitting around a table with a gay character actor named Tim Bagley I had just seen on TV and I was explaining the blog to Jon. I think Tim was chiming in with great support – as all good character actors do in my dreams – telling Jon about how much he liked one of my blog posts. I was a little scared and embarrassed until suddenly Jon smiled, seemed to get excited and all was well with the world. Because suddenly he was getting up, seemingly pumped, heading to a nearby laptop to check ME out when….

I woke up.

NOOOOOOOO!

NOOOOOOOO!

Opening my eyes I wasn’t so much sad as I was disappointed –- that I wasted a Jon Hamm dream on this stupid blog, that I barely got up the nerve to speak to him and, worst of all, that I’d never ever get to find out what happened. Sure, I could go back to sleep and try to dream the dream again, but that never works out well, does it? When a specific fantasy doesn’t come true it takes a bit more work and finessing to make it happen. Which I suppose might be something to look forward to. But bottom line – I’ll never get THAT moment back again, will I?

Try again next time

Try again next time

I know this is a metaphor for how Hillary & other non-Trump supporters feel about the election and our future President-Elect-Who-Lost-The-Popular-Vote-By-More-Than-2 Million-People-And-Still-Counting. Frustrated, disappointed, powerless and scared we’ll never get the moment back again.   Scared, of course, about so many other things too, but particularly nervous that we blew our ONE shot.

We will not be re-running or reanalyzing the presidential election here because…do we need to one more time? We now have Jill Stein recounts, our personal attempts at activism and four years of arguments, discussions and commiserations with friends, relatives and enemies from which to do that. And I, for one, look forward to being called a “bigot” against working class people by many more people on Facebook because it gives ME an excuse to remind them they supported an openly racist sociopath with a very bad temper to control the nuclear codes for the next 48 months or more.   Amid gloating that if the world blows up, it won’t be on my watch or conscience. Sure, I may die – but I’ll die with a clear head.

Well if I'm being honest

Well if I’m being honest

But back to dreams, fantasies and realities.

It seems that the only way to live fully is to have dreams, even if they get altered or go unfulfilled. It gives us something to strive for and to try to create. It leads us down unforeseen paths we surely never would have gone down. Heck, it gets me out of my bed and away from watching reruns of HGTV’s Fixer Upper – a show I continue to watch even though I’m aware hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines are staunch religious conservatives who contributed money to Ben Carson – a guy who thinks you can be turned gay in prison.

LA LA LA LA LA NOT LISTENING

LA LA LA LA LA NOT LISTENING

But really, who cares about all of that when you can repurpose all those swell broken down milk cans and pieces of shiplap into soothing rooms of trendy, colorful antiques and sit at quartz countertops munching on an endless batch of freshly baked homemade cookies from a woodsy worn farm basket? I, like all the rest of you, do have my price.

Give me tiny topiaries or give me death #resistanceisfutile

Give me tiny topiaries or give me death #resistanceisfutile

Which is why it’s particularly important to keep reimagining yourself and your place in the world and not get caught up in a single static fantasy that is likely not to come true in the way that you imagined it. Never in your wildest dreams did you think the election would… Right. Well, I never ever dreamed that Tom Ford would become a writer-director of movies. And what’s worse – that he would be given money to make a film so goddawfully ridiculous and unreal as Nocturnal Animals and manage to torture the usually brilliant actors Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal and all of us with the recreation of TWO PAINFUL HOURS with not a single true moment contained within. Jeeez, there should be awards for that. Oh wait, there are.

When bad things happen to good people #Razzies. #ManyRazzies. #ManyManyManyRazzies

When bad things happen to good people #Razzies #ManyRazzies #ManyManyManyRazzies

But movies and TV do cut both ways. Besides managing to give you ridiculously unfulfilling dreams, they can spur you on to fantasize bigger – or more BIGLY – than you could have ever imagined. That’s what I did this week when on Turner Classic Movies I happened to flip channels and come in almost at the beginning of The Godfather and Godfather II – now renamed The Godfather Saga (NOTE: Who knew?). Not only are these perfect movies, or as close to perfect as the movies can get for me, they are inspiring lessons in filmic storytelling done in our lifetimes. They don’t hold back with the truth yet they spoon feed it out to us with just enough gloss, blood and archetypal fantasy behavior that we can escape and appreciate every awful moment we’ve ever experienced in our own families and cling to them in selfish glee. That, in itself, gave me a new appreciation of the environment I managed to be born into and a renewed love for each and every relative of mine (17!) who had come to my house and sat at my Thanksgiving tables (Note: Nothing Orange was served).

The only tolerable fat cat terrorizing NYC on Thanksgiving

The only tolerable fat cat terrorizing NYC on Thanksgiving

Still, this wasn’t enough to totally cheer me up once everyone had left and I unwisely decided to check social media again. That is when I began to finally binge watch a TV series a former student of mine had been begging me to check out for months and months. It’s an FX show called You’re The Worst and centers on two toxic, self-destructive people who fall in love and attempt a relationship. Boy, is that a GREAT description. And just what the doctor ordered, since I also have had a bad cold and sinus thing going, in addition to becoming a magnet for right wing Jewish hate speech.

This couple (the ones on You’re The Worst) is so absolutely toxic and uncensored that they managed to verbalize every awful, disgusting, insulting retort to every person even I never had the nerve to voice back to in that manner. All I had to do is imagine them in a conversation with every individual Trump voter I had encountered personally or virtually in the last year (or minute) and I immediately felt better – because they were also profoundly and undisputedly FUNNY. And yes, a little sad but – aren’t we all right about now? Well, most of us – I’m taking a chance here and don’t mean to leave out Red State America but at this point I have to be real about who my current audience is. As does the Democratic Party.

Living uncensored like Jimmy and Gretchen #dreamcometrue?

Living uncensored like Jimmy and Gretchen #dreamcometrue?

This is not in any way to advocate dreaming or even fantasizing nasty as a consistent diet to life because the series doesn’t either. Rather, it tries to show us what REALLY IS unvarnished, and in a humorously dramatic way. This is unlike what our current Mr. Ford does in his new, nationally released, murderous perfume ad in feature length. It is also to some extent what our current Orange President-Elect is doing. No one can accuse it him of not being dramatic and funny to a lot of his subjects audience.   But the REALITY he has wrought is one that I and many millions more of the majority voters in the country who did not vote for him, prefer was not real.

Which is why we will keep using the dreams generated by our art – the ones that already exist and inspire us, the ones we create out of whole cloth, and the ones suggested in all of our current and future Jon Hamm dreams (Note: Oh God, please let it be so) – to defeat him – SOUNDLY and ROUNDLY – and reset the course of our lives.  And, in turn, our world.

Well…hopefully.

Camera Ready

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When I was younger I thought I’d be an in front of the camera guy. But as it’s turned out I’ve spent most of my life as a behind the desk fellow who is occasionally a behind or beside the camera consultant. However every so often, meaning not all that much, I am ready, willing and able in front of the camera and, if shot just the right way and caught at the correct moment, can be quite effective at the task at hand.

The latter will certainly not make me the gay male Oprah – one of my few printable fantasies of the last ten years – but, well, at least it’s a start. To what I’m not sure. But something tells me that with the way the media, information and general business and social interaction are going, it would behoove each of us to learn how to be in front of the lens in order to make our case, sell our story, or simply just be the best and most appealingly real (Note: Or even calculatingly unreal) version of us.

... because this creep could be around the corner

… because this creep could be around the corner

I was recently interviewed by the local news for a piece on noisy neighborhoods. More specifically, to speak about the nightmare house above us being illegally rented to huge party givers and events for upwards of $5000-$7500 per night on varying weekends and weeknights – and for usually more than half the month – by our lying scum of a neighbor who has ignored my previously very polite and in-person pleas to cease and desist.

Of course, I didn’t call him a lying scum of a neighbor on camera. I let the evidence speak for itself. Not that I had any control over what would be in the final piece or how it would be cut together. All the more reason to stick to the basic facts of what happened and let truth and reality do most of my talking.

Can you tell I'm saying torture? (click here to see the full video)

Can you tell I’m saying torture? (click here to see the full video)

I think I did fine but certainly could’ve done better. Maybe torture was not the best adjective to categorize this situation given we’re living in an age of waterboarding and beheadings, as my sister so ably pointed out. (Note: And what ARE family members for anyway if not to remind you of this kind of stuff). Actually, I did instinctually realize that after I said it but frankly, I couldn’t think of any other word to get the point across. It feels “tortuous” in my limited world. You try to sleep when Snoop is rapping outside your back door electronically amplified many times over until he reverberates throughout the rest of the house past locked windows, doors, bedrooms and even ramped up allergy air filter machines at 3 and 4 in the morning.

Just call me Mr. Wilson.

Just call me Mr. Wilson.

Of course – I didn’t refer specifically to rap music on camera. That wasn’t the point and I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue race (or musical taste) has anything to do with this. It doesn’t. But I’ve seen enough as a reporter, publicist, screenwriter and general media commenter and gadfly to know that one too specific slip of my tongue might’ve taken over the story in an entirely different direction. Yes, the music that was playing was mostly rap and because it involved loud speaking and a persistent beat it was particularly annoying. But I had to consider – would it have been any less upsetting if they were blasting Better Midler, Lady Gaga or the score from Les Mis? Well, maybe at first but that would quickly fade. I can recall being at a local diner too late one night when I was in high school where the broken jukebox played Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for two hours straight. We were stoned and hysterical laughing for most of it but eventually I did want to strangle someone – or at least knock over the revolving standee of cheesecake and baked goods right through the window and into someone’s – anyone’s – face. And we weren’t trying to sleep at 3 or 4 in the morning.

a different kind of torture device

a different kind of torture device

The sheer level of incompetency displayed by others (and even sometimes myself) when placed before the camera is continually shocking – okay, well then let’s just say surprising. (Note: See sis, I’m listening). And to be clear, I’m not talking about home movies or videos here. I’m referring to planned interviews, speeches – political, business or recreational – presentations, and general work or play versions of ourselves we project out into the world when we are knowingly being recorded or in a place where we will likely be. Not to mention, a lot of this behavior comes from professionals presumably being paid to know a lot better.

Here’s one very minor example that turned into a major story this week amid the debate over the blue/back vs. white/gold dress and Congress almost defunding the Department of Homeland Security:

In her post-Oscar comments on Red Carpet looks, E! personality and Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic, decided to publicly take the petite, bi-racial18 year-old Disney Channel actress/singer (and beloved Dancing with the Stars runner-up) Zendaya Coleman to task for her too ample….wait for it….DREADLOCKS!   Sitting stiff-as-a-board upright in the studio – flawlessly coiffed in designer duds and shot in the best TV lighting a basic cable channel like E! can buy, Ms. Rancic carefully considered the image of this young girl smiling in her designer white Grecian dress and carpet-ready new hair before sniffing:

She has such a tiny frame this hair overwhelms her. Like, I feel like she smells like patchouli oil…. and weed!

I'm more wondering why Zendaya was at the Oscars... but oh well

Dress aside.. was anyone else wondering why she was at the Oscars?

It would not have been relevant for me to even mention Zendaya being bi-racial had Ms. Rancic’s comments not played into some unfortunate stereotype a certain segment of the population has about…people who sport dreadlocks? The type of non-white persons we usually see wearing them? Something else? Hmmm.

Well, whatever it was caused a real crap storm. Ms. Rancic and the show quickly issued more apologies than George W. Bush ever did about the war in Iraq, Fashion Police co-host Kelly Osbourne quit over the remarks and unnamed sources have accused Ms. Rancic of trying to channel perpetually politically incorrect yet hilarious former co-host, the late Joan Rivers, in a desperate attempt to be funny.

... and this is an actual Joan Rivers joke from Fashion Police

… and this is an actual Joan Rivers joke from Fashion Police

The latter could be getting to the heart of the matter. Which of us has not made some sort of offensive flub that unintentionally revealed our own prejudices or how ill-suited we were to public joke-telling? However, what made this flub particularly noteworthy was not only the willingness of the co-host to state it to everyone in the world but the fact that it was scripted. That’s right, Ms. Rancic apparently did not think of that line on her own but had it written specifically for her by one of the show’s…writers?

It’s true – someone sits in a room and actually gets paid for making up those kind of comments, jokes and/or mere witticisms… which sort of makes what was said a bit worse. Presumably, a professional joke scribe, director, crew member or network somebody might know better. Except when they don’t. Meaning, if one is going to traffic in borderline racist, sexist, and homophobic insults in order to get a few laughs and drive up the ratings – or one’s own pubic status – one has to take the hot hair heat that rises and inevitably blows back from employing that kind of strategy.

Ya hear that G?

Ya hear that G?

I remember working in marketing on a movie with the brilliantly talented actress Anne Bancroft, who had some really funny and interesting stories about her experiences over the years in show business that she shared in various press interviews. I mean, they were really good and they revealed small bits of herself again and again and again. But after a period of time I began to realize – wait a second, I already know this about her. Did I read it, did I dream it or was it…oh, right, it was essentially the same story. Savvy actress that she was, Ms. Bancroft learned early on the best strategy when faced with speaking about very personal experiences about you and your craft publicly. Give a few to them and keep the rest for yourself. Just update, alternate, embellish and recycle some of the best stuff a bit through the years and no one will ever notice. Except those whose job it is to go through the torture of countless interviews with you and most certainly they’d never tell. Oops.

It's ok if Tay-Tay says it, right?

It’s ok if Tay-Tay says it, right?

Of course, this isn’t a good strategy for the majority since most of us don’t have those kind of acting chops. Not to mention, she could also be very spontaneous and say hilarious and telling comments on the record at the right moment. But being a smart movie star she was also quite well aware of exactly how she came across and why. Always. It’s not about lying but owning who you are.

As one really high priced shrink once pointed out to me: There’s nothing wrong with thinking anything. But there’s also nothing wrong with taking a few minutes to think about whether you want or need to say it out loud.

Yes, it was expensive advice but worth every penny. I pass it on to you for free.

 

Woodward and Chair-stein

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The following is a piece in defense of thoughtful journalism and the people who practice it. You know who you are even though we may not. This is in spite of the fact that, given today’s technology, we have all rightfully or wrongfully been baptized de facto citizen journalists or amateur reporters.

It makes no difference to me which moniker you choose because each can be either somewhat effective or dangerously ineffective depending on the circumstances. But mostly I am writing this in honor of my unapologetic love for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – a show that is about to end its run but still dares to romanticize the high-reaching values of a somewhat liberal cable news station akin to (but not exactly like) MSNBC in much the same way The West Wing was a wonderfully polemic love letter to the executive branch of government.

Sometimes I forget he wasn't the President

Sometimes I forget he wasn’t the President

It is quite popular to lump the talking heads of cable news – or any sort of contemporary journalism for that matter – all together and to dismiss its veracity or even relevance to anything real in the world. But in truth Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are as different as…well…Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Watch and measure how each covered the nationwide protests we’ve seen this week due to the recent refusal of law enforcement and the grand jury system to in any way prosecute the various police officers responsible for shooting and killing three very different Black males – two of whom were under 18 years of age – under similarly controversial circumstances in three very different cities in Missouri, Ohio and New York, and judge for yourself.

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

The latter is the job of every citizen choosing to vote or complain about the state of the world to friends, neighbors or enemies – to weigh the information and then make a determination. That is why who gives you the facts, how they give you the facts, and if indeed they are giving you facts at all matters. Correction: really matters.

After watching Jake Gyllenhaal coyote his way through his current breakout role as a brilliantly immoral freelance television news photographer prowling the dark, accident-ridden streets of contemporary Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, I couldn’t help but recall my own quaint, early days as an aspiring journalist. Bear with me and forget this was several decades before Rachel Maddow was even born. I know I have, that is if I ever previously admitted it at all until just now.

How far is too far?

How far is too far?

No, unlike Jake or his character, I certainly didn’t lose 30 pounds, slick back my then full head of hair or scour the Internet for leads and information in order to educate and advance myself in my field. For one thing, there was NO INTERNET and I had already lost 30 pounds in high school because I was too cowardly, vain and hypochondriacal to face a life where I was for one more second what anyone else would consider to be fat, chunky or even slightly overweight. Certainly I am not particularly proud of this fact but fact it is nevertheless.

As for my education, here’s another fact. It actually began in a corny old cocoon called SCHOOL. That started with writing for the high school newspaper, segued into becoming arts editor of my college radio station and then continued on to graduate school — Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, to be exact.

Those hallowed grounds

Those hallowed grounds

This was the post-Watergate age of the late seventies when journalism was seen as the noblest of professions and most everyone else aside from Mother Teresa and a few doctors who worked gratis in clinics was viewed as morally, and woefully, lagging behind. Not only that, Medill was then, and still is now, one of the best j schools in the country. Again, no bragging but fact – though one that I am particularly proud of. And full disclosure: I still feel fortunate to have even gotten in.

Self five!

Self five!

I bring this up because my intensive one year at Medill – which had me not only in the classroom but working as a reporter in both suburban and urban Chicago as well as on the streets of Washington, DC and the surrounding areas of Virginia – taught me a lot about truth, morality, honesty and integrity. You might think you know the truth and what you’re dealing with, as John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled yet somewhat naive Jake Gittes in Chinatown, but as a reporter you also have an obligation to consider you might really not have the truth and not know what you’re dealing with, as Noah Cross so ominously, and rightfully warned. Yet unlike Jake in Chinatown, it didn’t have to cost me (Spoiler Alert!) the life of a lover. I was allowed to make those kinds of mistakes as a younger student since under no circumstances would I ever be trusted to cover life or death stories alone.

Plus I could never pull off this look

Plus I could never pull off this look

I realize that in itself sounds almost quaint these days, especially since I was always much more interested in the entertainment industry while it was my j school friends and colleagues who wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Still, as it turned out this background came in quite handy and in ways I could have never imagined. My first journalism job was for Variety and Daily Variety and in a matter of just a few years I became one of their lead reporters. Serious hard news reporting on the film, TV and music industries was just on the verge of becoming popular beyond the entertainment pages and I found myself quickly thrown into a world where I had to have clandestine early morning breakfast meetings at the homes of seven-to-eight figure salaried board chairmen, CEOs and presidents of major American entertainment corporations in pursuit of the news. Lying came as easy for them as weight reduction was for me in high school and telling the truth as difficult as I found gym class. Perhaps they were afraid of the same things I was back then – not being accepted, keeping up appearances, not fitting in with the cool kids – but I didn’t know it. And had I not been trained to cross check my facts, no matter how powerful or reliable the source, or not fool myself into ever thinking I was even a smidgen as important as the very wealthy and powerful people I was covering, I would have been eaten alive right there and then by each and every one of them.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

I certainly would never, ever have been able to start the country’s first weekly column on the national film box-office grosses of just released films. You know – the ones you now read online almost everyday and hear each Monday on practically every entertainment “news” show across the country? Well, it wasn’t Watergate but it was still about getting to the honest truth, which on this subject was quite rare. We’d get these press releases with inflated figures on the opening money levels of movies that would be published almost verbatim without anyone knowing what the hell they meant in comparison to anything else. I told my resistant editor at the time:

“I don’t know what the heck (not hell, I wouldn’t dare) these figures mean and neither does anyone else. We have to at least try to report this accurately so studios can stop lying so easily about how good or badly theirs and everyone else’s films are doing.”

Finally, he saw the light and we began something that, admittedly, has gotten out of control. But it’s helped get beyond the hype in a more realistic dollars and cents way that was previously non-existent – not only for the general public but for everyone else other than the most inside movie studio executives to see.

Unless you're reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

Unless you’re reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

That is what training in controlled circumstances will do prior to you going into the field. It’s not the only way to be trained – there is something to be said for being thrown straight into the fire – but the latter often comes with the ultimate journalistic cost of printing untruths, half-truths and out and out lies that hurt people and society. Or, to put it another way, in many other professions you’d be guilty of malpractice.

Certainly, training and the right experience don’t guarantee 100% accuracy but they will also likely prevent any number of our current journalistic fatalities (Note: see lies and untruths above – of your choice). If you consider that to be a bunch of bull, then think of it like this. It is certainly possible that a person who is merely an aficionado of teeth could perform a successful emergency extraction of your infected molar – or a medical neophyte might be able amputate your gangrened arm with merely a broken spear in the Amazonian jungle – but would you choose either in the long run if a more trained and/or experienced option were available?

Meaning yes – everyone can write and observe. But not everyone can report.

At the risk of sounding older than Woodward and Bernstein (Note: And those under 25, please, please don’t continue to say Who? OR Who cares?) – times and standards have changed but truth remains pretty much the same.

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman… with the haircuts you all want.

It’s great that we all can raise up our smart phones and record reality, or type our truths on social media, or on such ridiculous forums as….dare I say it…a blog.   But these are all only recording and commenting on partial truths or shaded truths or the lies or partial lies we might be unwittingly interpreting as truth. The best journalists in the world (who are not necessarily the most popular) understand the difference. The average person – and viewer – does not. It is the job of the journalists to put things in a way that the most people can understand. To unfurl the facts and truisms and falsehoods as objectively as possible – then offer the information in a context or at least order that will allow the public to comprehend the whole story and ultimately judge what, if anything, to do about it.

It is an essential and difficult and, in the end, honorable profession when done right – which that doesn’t happen often enough.

And that IS a fact.

Fighting off the Dark Side

How I spent this week

This week at an event at the Writer’s Guild a very successful writer sat on a panel and, when the subject of “Brokeback Mountain” came up, he attributed a good part of the film’s crossover success with not so much the quality of the film but the fact that the straight audiences were more comfortable with a gay romance ending in tragedy – the implication being this was not something he wanted to see onscreen.

“Oh, really,” I thought, resisting the urge to reach for a large sock with manure I keep hidden for occasions like these. Then I sort of answered back from my seat that his comment was “ridiculous” when a friend nearby piped in he agreed with said panelist.  Feeling as if I were now surrounded by pod people in my own community and realizing I was not on the panel and therefore couldn’t get on my soapbox the way I would among friends, family or in my own classroom (or blog), I quieted down and let the panelists fight it out.

How you can take a film as fine as “Brokeback Mountain” and complain about it, especially if you’re a gay writer and are among gay writers as he was, is beyond me but hey – it’s a free country so far – knock yourself out.

American Splendor

The point is not whether you can or you should but that it’s a matter of opinion, of taste – of what you want to see.  He’s entitled to not want to see one of the finest gay films ever made, just as I’m entitled not to want to see silly, stupid but award-nominated foolish films about gay people like “I love You, Phillip Morris” or dumb ones like “Eating Out with Naked Boys Who Cant Put More than Two Sentences Together” (Note: I’ve combined several titles).  Taste comes in all shapes and sizes, which is the good and the bad news.  If you have good taste like mine there are likely people who will share it.  If you have bad taste like that panelist and the friend who agreed with him, well, you have an even better chance people will share it.  I can say that since both fit much better into the commercial universe than I do.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

a recent photo of myself

For me, being a writing teacher and mentor is a bit like taking on the persona of Jiminy Cricket if he had the benefit of humanity and the Internet.  Meaning – I try to be a bit of a ubiquitous conscience to my students and their work, urging them on in the direction that they (not I) truly want to go in while understanding both their issues and the real world writers must operate in.  Oh sure, there’s structure, drama, storytelling and all that.  But at some point most young writers “get it” and really just need someone to keep them on the path they’ve chosen for that particular story.  At the point they are, it’s highly likely they can become derailed at one cross comment from any would-be panelist or one discouraging word from someone like myself who is in a position of authority and perhaps secretly enjoys abusing their power (which I don’t – I reserve that only for the blog).

What is seldom in question (for them) is what story to tell.  That’s pretty easy.  Most writers have an idea of what they want to say or they wouldn’t be writers to begin with.  This is not to be confused with the notion that most writers have the courage to sit down and actually write the idea that they want to write.  That is something else entirely and part of the reason that I do what I do.

I want to be the Jiminy Cricket for all the potential “Brokeback Mountain” writers out there.  To urge people to tell the story they really want to tell – be it tragic, politically incorrect, totally “uncommercial” by Hollywood standards or, on the flipside, hopelessly commercial and potentially very sale-able.

Where a lot of writers and artists in general go wrong is looking for the secret formula, the magic answer of how to fit in via subject matter, execution of craft or style of dedication.  It took me decades to learn that it really doesn’t matter if you write in the morning, evening, afternoon or all day, just as long as you do it.  It is irrelevant whether your idea is “big and commercial” or “small and indie,” just as long as you have one and are actually working on honing it.  And the road taken by five others of your friends and colleagues could very well say nothing about the path that you want to or even should be taking unless they inspire you or at least challenge you to do better.

Script Potion #9

What counts the most – the utmost – is choosing your subject AND your path and how you will walk it down your own road.  I can’t imagine Ang Lee, Focus Features, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal imagined the tragic end of the “Brokeback” screenplay they were about to make would make it universally palatable and cause it to gain worldwide boxoffice attention and reviews any more than I can imagine that decades ago fiction writer E. Annie Prouix decided to write the short story it would be based on because she only felt comfortable with a gay story of tragic proportions.  (In actuality, it came out of some real life guys she observed or heard about at the time). The story and the film came out of passion, and an idea and a resonant character as all really good films do.  The critiques and sociological observations and/or rejections of it come out of the kind of analysis that can only be done on a panel of those of us in the entertainment industry.

Writers, or artists of any kind for that matter, need only take note of what moves them.  And know that it could be more than likely that what moves you might not move anyone else.  But, more likely than not, if it does move you, the chances exponentially increase that your telling of this story will move or entertain others.  Because you’ll be bringing that much more of yourself and your passion to it.  That’s the way this art stuff works.

Yes, you need to have craft.  And certainly, you want an audience.  And without a doubt, there are small tricks of the trade you can employ to attract audiences, readers and/or fans.  But what is paramount, even universal (to name two studios), is what you’re bringing personally to the subject matter – not what you think or anticipate or fear or hope other people will bring to it.  To be blunt, who gives a shit what anyone else thinks???  I mean, if you start there you become merely a people pleaser, and not even a particularly good one because it’s been my experience that when asked most people don’t really even know what they want.

Once when I was getting notes from a producer and felt very confused a more experienced writer friend of mine took pity on me and heard my endless story of details and notes and contradictions on this particular project.  Finally, after a lot of venting on my part, she looked at me and said, “don’t you realize that if you even do two of the notes they’ve given you they’ll be thrilled?  You have to understand that if you were to take all of their notes and do them, they would hate what you came up with.  Part of your job is to take what they’re telling you, the moment or moments that are not there for them right now, and give it to them in the form that makes sense to you.”

The pen definitely is mightier

This writer is sooooo smart.  And so real.  And guess what?  She was passing on words of wisdom to me that she had gotten from a writer from the generation before her.  And that guy was not only super smart, but he had an Oscar.  Actually, he has two.  Not that Oscars are the arbiters of anything but, well, it does give one some kind of cultural gravitas, as I can personally testify to since my mere attendance at the ceremonies this year got me a lot more attention and/or readers about it than I probably deserve.  But that’s contemporary life in a nutshell, the subject of still yet another upcoming blog, I suppose.

In any event, I am now officially passing this advice on to anyone listening to people on the news, or others in authority and/or peers on an industry panel with whom they disagree.  Feel free to disagree but don’t assume the other person is necessarily right about what they’re saying if in your heart of hearts you vehemently disagree with them.  It is your right (and actually, obligation) as an artist to fully disagree in the execution of your art to perhaps prove them wrong.

That’s what I plan to do with Gay Writer Panelist who claims  “I Don’t Happen to Like or Relate to Stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain” cause they’re, well, so retro.”  Oh really?  Well, wait until you see the next idea I’m working on.  I can’t wait to piss you off some more.  Because at the very least I know, at the same time, I’ll be more than pleasing myself.  And that’s the only real hope I have of reaching beyond your grasp and to others who feel, or have yet to feel, exactly as I do.  And, as an artist, that reach, and the achievement of it, is no small thing.

In fact, it’s another reason why we do what we do.

From GreginHollywood.com: