Must (Not) See TV

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There is too much TV. There, I’ve said it. So do not chastise me because I stopped watching The Leftovers after three episodes and Masters of Sex after two even though I liked them both. Also, DO NOT get on my back because I haven’t yet sampled Orange is the New Black (it’s on my list) or that I can’t deal with Kevin Spacey talking to the camera with a phony accent in House of Cards enough to get past the beginning of season one. As for Scandal, for me it’s beyond ridiculous but not in a good way in much the same way that The Good Wife is a solid, well done broadcast network TV series that has never grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go.

Ugh... yes that too.

Ugh… yes that too.

I freely admit to all of these offenses.

Still, isn’t it enough I have watched every single episode of Mad Men and Girls – two shows that never ever disappoint me even on their worst nights? Or that I long to know what will happen next to the cast of PBS’ Downton Abbey exactly as much as I’m jonseing for season four of American Horror Story to begin next month? Or even season three of Orphan Black to start in January? How about that I never miss an episode of the broadcast network series Revenge, or NBC’s The Voice? Doesn’t that give me some mainstream television street cred?

penny-needs-help-for-her-computer-addiction-on-the-big-bang-theory

Okay, fine – then let’s close with the following – Here are the television comedies I enjoy very much almost every time I tune in: Archer, Parks and Rec, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Louie, Please Like Me and, perennially and forever – I Love Lucy. Though I can stand to miss episodes or seasons here and there because after all, one does need to eat, sleep and have some fun in well, some OTHER way at least…occasionally. Doesn’t one?

I have spent at least a million minutes of my life watching television and for half of that time there were only three broadcast networks and 0.00 cable series to choose from. And I suspect most of you under 30 would have similar stats, give or take a few thousand minutes, especially if you counted TV content you’ve viewed via your computer, touch-Pad, phone or any other mobile device/screen I’ve left out. Oh yeah, you know you would because given the way we live now even buffering counts.

They should really add a pillow app.

They should really add a pillow app.

More than half a century ago Newton Minow, the former FCC chairman and attorney, famously dubbed TV a vast wasteland in a speech he gave before the National Association of Broadcasters. No doubt he’d now have that to say and more about what it’s done to my mind and yours after all these recent years of abuse. Oh – and before you yell BULL PUCKY to the opinion of this still ticking 88 year old – who to my knowledge has never taken back the verdict he came to in that famous speech – consider the entire statement he made all those many decades ago as he chastised a captive audience of station owners and television insiders alike.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

Hmm, well I haven’t quite tried that. But I will confess to being a part time insomniac and night owl who has watched more than my share of 2 am infomercials. These include Cindy Crawford’s beauty secrets derived from a French doctor synthesizing a rare melon that promises the age-defying skin of a 25 year old to not only you and I and the supermodel but also to Debra Messing and Valerie Bertinelli, two of the celebrity subjects who appear beside CC in this very engaging hard/soft sell. Wasteland? Not at all. I prefer the old adage waste not, want not – as does my age-defying epidermis. Especially when the alternative is to suffer the endless workouts offered at that time of night under the tutelage of Sean T’s Insanity or Tony Horton and P90X.   I mean, talk about a no brainer!

Aside from never aging, she even managed to clone herself

Aside from never aging, she even managed to clone herself

As for television, I try to do my work and it beckons. Daytime, nighttime, afternoon time – it beckons. MSNBC, reality, cable, network, computer, smart phone, tablet – it’s there. It’s difficult to get off the juice, as it always is with any sort of addiction, yet isn’t it wise to try? There are books to read, work to do, people to engage with, movies to see, friends and family members to……..text? Pictures to post on..…….Instagram? And pet videos to…….. ___________? Not to mention, museums, plays and planetariums. Or beaches, hills and mountains to climb. Literally, if you so choose any of the latter.

Well, that's one way to repurpose your old console

Well, that’s one way to repurpose your old console

Speaking of which, this week I was packing up the home of a dear friend who died recently and was going through old photos and various other memorabilia. These items showed this person through the ages and reference various movies through many decades that this person worked on. These movies were all famous and like many people in the business my friend has keepsakes from them – a baseball hat here, a plaque there, a jacket somewhere else. Decades and decades of work you would all likely recognize in an instant.

The fact that this friend had an impressive career in and around some of the more iconic moments in film history was in that moment both impressive and moving to me because it not only referenced visual and intellectual memories of the individual I knew but touched on several iconic moments from the past that would no doubt move people who did not ever know my friend since they serve as enduring pop culture touchstones to many millions of others of us throughout the world.

Movies used to do that more than any other form of entertainment and certainly there are still some films these days that reach iconic status. But one could make a case that the viewing habits ushered in by new technology and our unremitting demand for more, more, more has now placed television at the forefront if for no other reason than sheer numbers. Has anything Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino directed in the last 10 years tapped into the cultural hot button the way Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Office or even South Park has? I doubt it. Even niche television like Broad City outreaches a niche indie film darling like Obvious Child these days.

There is no "shut your phone off" warning before Scandal.

There is no “shut your phone off” warning before Scandal.

For better or worse TV, no matter how you watch it, is at the peak of our culture despite how high or low of a medium one chooses to see it as.   Certainly it has replaced movies as the more consistently discussed mode of entertainment – which replaced theatre before it, which took over from books and radio for a while, which in turn took over from plays. Which has nothing to do with sports except for the analogy of how football began to dominate over baseball decades ago, at least in the U.S. Though who knows for exactly how long as we watch the popularity and billion dollar corporate sponsorship of the NFL begin to collapse the more its culture of covering up the heinous domestic and child abuse allegations against some of its most popular ($$$) players are exposed to the harsh light of day.

That said, one wonders if there is something about all of us which is really to blame here since logic dictates that the most popular entertainment we choose at any particular moment in history is merely and certainly reflective of who and what we really are as a people. Wow, that’s a scary thought. Or, more pointedly, a mind-numbing one. Which sort of brings us full circle.

The eternal question

The eternal question

When this sort of thing comes up, I instead prefer to consider something, well anything else that I’m looking forward to doing the rest of the week. This includes watching anything and everything that I can on television because, let’s face it it’s easier than thinking about any of those questions above for one more second.

Here are a few of those program choices in no particular order and not all of which will even debut this week. I include all of them as possible diversionary material only because it’s gotten to the point where even anticipating and/or dreaming about what’s on television has become more desirable than experiencing or even pondering some of life’s most stickiest issues.

Cherishing Valerie

Cherishing Valerie

1. The return of HBO’s The Comeback on Nov. 9. – This show gives me hope for the future since it proves that in even the turbulent, competitive times of 2014 you can reinvent and resurrect yourself after nine years in the doghouse.       That’s the life-affirming meta message of this half hour black comedy starring Lisa Kudrow as supposedly washed up television actress Valerie Cherish. And this is because after being axed by HBO and off the air for nearly a decade both The Comeback and Kudrow’s Valerie have been given an almost unheard of second chance.   Yes, she might be clueless and fame seeking (which of us isn’t?) but somehow her sweet and sour self perseveres as she tries to navigate the minefields of her career and personal life by allowing any and all cameras to film her day and night. If that’s not a metaphor for today, then…you don’t understand metaphors. Or today.

Cosby show in the Obama age?

Cosby show in the Obama age?

2. Black-ish – I’m going out on a limb with this one because I only saw a 10-minute preview and they tend to be misleading.       Still, when network television (ABC) green lights a story about an upper middle-class African American Dad (Anthony Andreson) who panics when his young son decides he wants a bar-mitzvah and then forces the family into more Black appropriate rituals and behavior– I can’t wait to sample it. And this would be the case if it were the other way around and it were a White TV family trying to act less Black (Note: As if THAT would ever happen).

Adding to the allure here is that Laurence Fishburne plays the crotchety Grandpa. Not to mention that when Dad admonishes his mixed-race wife (Tracey Ellis Ross) for not being Black enough, she snaps at him a line like: Really? Then tell that to my hair and my ass! Sure, it could all go horribly wrong but it could also be politically incorrectly right. Given that ABC has scheduled it to directly follow Modern Family it just might have a shot at the latter. (Air Date: Sept. 24).

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

3. American Horror Story – Season 4 – I’m addicted to this show for all the wrong reasons it’s sick, twisted, sometimes illogical, and campier than a room full of Ann Miller impersonators (Note: For those under 30 substitute RuPaul impersonators, or simply RuPaul). It doesn’t matter. The new season in this anthology series is called Freak Show, is set inside a Florida circus of outcasts run by Jessica Lange and features a set of conjoined twins, a bearded lady and a severely large, red-mouthed guy in white face named Twisty the Clown. Need I say more? I don’t think so.

Until Oct. 8, the preview can say it for you. In three different ways (Note: Actually, thirteen if you check YouTube on your own).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKGwySm9nMc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cexbmH3xLuQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shIZH4GnQT0

Of course, there are museums to visit, social issues to protest and scathing words to write and say about a myriad of issues that comes across our screens on any given day. Not to mention if we really want to be proactive and do something different we could contribute to a charitable cause, or any cause, we believe in with an amount that exceeds our monthly bills from Time-Warner, Direct TV, Netflix and god knows what other mega speed Internet connections we’re signed up to that enables us to view all of the former in minimal discomfort. Those are all worthy gestures and would no doubt be personally satisfying. But nowhere near as exciting as the momentary thrills we receive after just a few minutes in front of our very own small screen. And therein lies the problem.   That is, if any of us ever choose to see it as such.

 

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The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

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US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

citizen_cane

Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

tumblr_mea9wqzdbK1rl7213o1_500

(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

To the Moon and Back

TO THE MOON

Never ever trust an accomplished famous person who says in an interview:

Every day is an exciting opportunity to be creative. I have a strong work ethic.  I just don’t get depressed. 

This goes double for any formerly regular individual who is profiled because of something awful that they recently endured.

Each second is precious now.  It can all get taken from you in a moment – in my case it almost did.  So I appreciate friends, family, even the ants on my front stoop.  Everything, all of it, is good.

Oh. Please.  Make it stop.

Some days (or weeks) are just tiring or even awful.  Like the seasons, life runs in cycles.  (Note:  I just realized I sounded like one of those two I quoted above.  Yikes!).  There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re a bit tired, burnt out or even sad.  Yes – there are works of art waiting to be created that you can start right now but chocolate and potato chips and reruns of your favorite bad reality show feel a lot better right now.  Each of them tastes good.  And even if you’re not devouring them, somehow it just feels reassuring to know that they’re there to take a bite of whenever you want.  Which inevitably will lead to a meal, who are we kidding?  But, as we’ve already concluded, it’s okay to down that, or even be down with the idea of it.  No one’s advocating it as a way of life – tempting as that might be at any given moment when you don’t feel like taking on the world.

This week was one of those weeks for me.  No particular reason.  Though I would like to blame it on the government shutdown brought to you by the childish temper tantrums of ultra right wing America.   Yes, I drink a lot of green tea – which is good for your digestion and is supposed to be restorative – but long ago I recognized this simple fact:

Life is not a Tea Party, nor will it, or should it, ever be.

It's OK when things boil over

It’s OK when things boil over

By the way, there is nothing at all wrong with thinking this way – politically or as a life philosophy.  If it’s all good then you’re forced to believe things like cancer and Sarah Palin moose hunting and peas and carrots in a can have to be put on the positive list.  And we all know that’s just plain dumb.  At least as dumb as one of the other two live things listed above (and I don’t mean the moose).

So what to do?  Well, there’s this world out there that most of the entire greater world is obsessed with.  That world is appropriately called: entertainment.  And, call me crazy (which many have and presumably are still yet to do), this week there was a lot to choose from.

I’m all for creativity, psychotherapy, hanging out with friends and overindulging with food or your _________ of choice to a point.  But if you’re one of the gazillions of people out there who still like a good new-fashioned movie, TV show or, well, other diversions, know this: summer is over and a bunch of new stuff is available for any one over 18 needing to escape a little.  (Note:  Those under 18 – I’m not including you here because everything else in the world of entertainment caters to you.  Still, if you want to sneak a peak at any of this stuff, I can’t stop you.   Just like I can’t stop you from posting a photo of your cat doing pushups on Instagram).

In any event, here is a small but select list of what can get you through.

GRAVITY

original

Believe the hype but cut it in half so your expectations won’t be too high.  At a taut 91 minutes, Gravity is one of those movies that you’re sure is going to bore or disappoint you but somehow manages to get under your skin and stay there – in a great way.

There will be no spoilers here but as you can probably tell from the poster, Sandra Bullock plays a woman up in space that…well, that’s all you need to know.  Yes, there are lots of shots of stars, sky and things being weightless.  However, these are all done in service of something quite unusual in this genre of film – a story, and a small one at that.

The innovation here is that small doesn’t have to mean bad in the age of the major studio blockbusters.  Small can be large in terms of excitement, emotion and box-office dollars as this creation from the director Alfonso Cauron and his son, Jonas, who co-wrote the screenplay, proves.

Not interested in space or the space program, you say?  No problem.  Here’s how uninterested I am and have always been in the space program.  When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1968 and all of America was kvelling about one of our guys becoming #1 before the world, do you know what little 12-year-old me was doing? Sitting alone in the playground of my apartment building looking down at the dirt.  Yes, you heard me.  I did this because I felt quite strongly that the U.S. should not be spending millions of dollars in space when funds were being cut in this country for the underprivileged at the same time we were supporting an unjust war in Vietnam.  If the US government didn’t care enough about the innocents we were killing overseas and our fellow human beings we were turning our backs on in our own country, I would under no circumstances support a macho adventure to unknown parts of the universe that seemed to cater to the testosterone driven needs of us having to be first just so we could have universal bragging rights.  So I sat in the playground and pretended I was nowhere.  And each time anyone brought up or asked me about where I was or what I thought of the moon landing I said my piece. (Surprise!).  Obviously, I still am.

I was Lisa Simpson.

Clearly, I was Lisa Simpson.

Though I probably would do it all over again exactly the same way, Gravity made me feel like I was making up for what everyone says I missed.  Finally, I was not only in space but was more in the actual minds of people who bravely go into those unknown frontiers rather than in the company of the relentless patriot drumbeat of the US patriarchy.  The latter is the kind of group that used to like to make fun of me in school that I would do anything to not be around.  It’s probably why I was indifferent to the last big space astronaut space movie of our time, The Right Stuff, and why for me Gravity soared.  (Note: See the wordplay I did there?)

Plus – prediction: Gravity will win best picture and Sandra Bullock will win best actress.  Sorry Cate Blanchet in Blue Jasmine and apologies 12 Years A Slave, the latter of which I have not yet seen.  You just get a feeling about these things.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN

The witching hour is upon us

In its third season, AHS is like the ex-lover you vow never again to let in your house but the one who you always wind up in bed with when you’re lonely.  Yet with AHS it’s become more than a booty call.  It has graduated to something dependable to which a new name should be attributed.  Use your imagination.  Or better yet, don’t even question it.

After a first season where a mysterious man in a rubber suit seduces any number of people around him, and a second season where Jessica Lange got to sing and dance The Name Game along with all of the rest of the inmates in the Asylum, I was unsure how much further or more imaginative they could get.  Have no fear – Kathy Bates has come to the rescue as a Civil War era torturess conjured up from the past by The Supreme.  No, that’s not Diana Ross or Mary Wilson but the most all-powerful of witches in the secret coven of 2013 witches.  These witches don’t have a pointed hats or wars though they do occasionally wear black.  They are like the cast and audience of a Kardashian family reality show.  And their Supreme is none other than, whom else – Ms. Lange herself.

Is this brilliant TV?  No.  Is this great TV? Yes, YES, YES.

It’s grotesque, politically incorrect, nightmarish and shamelessly campy.  And – I wouldn’t miss a minute of it.  Neither should you.

SHORT TERM 12

The real deal

The real deal

This year’s little movie that could.  I’m not sure what it means for a movie to have rottentomatoes positive scores of 99% from movie critics and 94% from movie audiences but it must be something good.   A good rule of thumb is to not put too much stock in these ratings but in this case – well, after watching the film you’ll see how right and rare it is when audiences and movie critics agree.

ST12 tells the story of a young couple who work at a facility for discarded adolescents from the juvenile system who live in housing on a temporary basis and receive counseling and participate in support groups in order to help them through the sad circumstances of their lives.  So why rush out to something so depressing, particularly if you are feeling down, tired or just randomly depressed?  Because there is something rare and affirming about briefly living stories about young people told in a true, honest and non-movie like way on a small canvas by mostly non-stars.  You might recognize Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. from television or film as the young couple but chances are you will be blown away by how many unknown teenage actors there are who can really act when given the material to do so.  For that the credit goes to its neophyte filmmaker, Destin Daniel Cretton – whose next movie will be a major studio film starring Jennifer Lawrence.  See – even the film business can occasionally be fair.

It should be encouraging to those aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Cretton to learn that the low-budget ST12 began life as a short film and then was expanded into feature script that no one really cared about until it won one the Motion Picture Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting.  The Lesson: don’t give up – keep getting better.

HBO’s Valentine Road

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Sometimes when I’m out of sorts it helps me to get infuriated at the injustices in the world – the stories of people I can identify with who’ve had it far, far worse than I.  To some extent this was the case in Short Term 12, but to every extent this is what it’s like to watch the HBO documentary Valentine Road.

In 2008, an eighth grader named Lawrence King was shot and murdered in point blank range by his classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney in front of a bunch of students.  Does it matter than young Mr. King identified as gay and liked to wear women’s clothes while the classmate who killed him was leaning towards White Supremacy, guns and had a troubled family life?  Some of the jury tasked with ruling on the murder clearly thought so even as this film by Marta Cunningham leaves us to decide by as much as possible presenting both sides.

As a gay man of a certain age it outraged me to see how callous and ignorant a group of educated adults in Oxnard, CA – a neighborhood just outside my adopted hometown of Los Angeles – can be on lgbt issues and just how sympathetic and self-identifying they can be towards a young person who uses bullets instead of conversation in order to fight back against unwanted attention from an lgbt youth.  At times, I couldn’t help but flashback to the too common gay panic defense used decades ago by defendants accused of murdering homosexuals.  But then I checked my Filofax (yes, I still use one – get over it!) calendar and realized it’s not 1953 but 2013.  Wow, is there still a lot of work to do.

And on the other side of the spectrum  – when you can’t sleep and need a non-pharmaceutical dose of the drowsy, there is:

Up Late with Alec Baldwin

I'm guessing there's coffee in those mugs because.. snoooooze

I’m guessing there’s coffee in those mugs because.. snoooooze

Granted, I still haven’t gotten over his abusively hideous phone message to his young daughter several years ago even though his daughter has.   Which is not shocking since I’m still complaining about the 1968 moon landing. Still, I along with everyone else loved Mr. Baldwin on 30 Rock.  Plus, as a dangerously obsessive fan of too many MSNBC shows (yeah, Rachel, Alex, Chris M. & Chris H. – you complete me) I figured – let’s give Alec a chance.  Like me, he’s a liberal and unlike me he gets paid truckloads of money to be funny while evoking smart and generally entertaining.   What could be bad?

Everything, that’s what.  Oy vey.

Seated at a banquette on a set made to look like the kind of wood-paneled men’s club in NYC in the sixties that most of you readers would never get invited to, Mr. Baldwin is only missing his cigarettes and scotch.  Which frankly, I wish he would have had because either might have loosened him up and given us the AB we’ve grown to love and sometimes even lovingly hate.  In any case, either of those are AB’s we’re never, ever, ever bored by.

It’s only one episode so perhaps it will improve but right now we’re talkin’ snooze fest.  He spent an hour interviewing one of the more interesting NYC mayor candidates in recent memory, Bill  de Blasio and made him seem as exciting as Ben Stein interviewing himself on an off day.

Bueller

If you’re expecting Jack Donaghy, forget it – Mr. Baldwin now wants to be taken seriously.  He’s striving to be Charlie Rose but we want him to be Madame Rose (Note: that’s a Gypsy reference) taking us on a slightly eccentric tour of the world of politics and entertainment.  He instead seems bent on participating in a wonky policy discussion on raising taxes and funding education, all the while presenting his own ideas on what might work and not work alongside a real insider.  This would be akin to watching Mr. de Blasio trade comedic barbs with Tina Fey or 20 years ago starring on Broadway shirtless, as Mr. Baldwin did, opposite a pre-witchy Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Okay, perhaps not quite that, but certainly a dull, dull, dull attempt at something that does not lend itself to his ample skills.

I might tune in next week when AB interviews Debra Winger but only because, well – how often do you get to see Debra Winger anywhere anymore???

And finally – if all else fails – I, and you, might just tune in to any:

RANDOM NEWS SHOWS 

Given where we are right now, this will never cease to be entertaining.

satan

Timely random items this week included:

  • Ben Carson, an African American man, an ultra right wing speechifier, a retired neurosurgeon, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (you can thank Dubya for that), this week calling Obamacare (nee the Affordable Care Act):  the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery. 

With tidbits like those, you don’t need Gravity to send you to the moon.  Or space travel of any kind to make it feel like you live in a parallel universe.  Sometimes, what’s right in front of you, is all too punny enough.

OMG Stop!

96_frayed

Did you ever have one of those weeks where every big issue in the news and pop culture is annoying?  No, the answer is not every week – even if that is the case.  If you live your life perpetually annoyed then you are not annoyed at all – what you are is a malcontent curmudgeon.  What I’m talking about is a convergence of issues in one weekly cycle of what’s what that has you weighing the possibilities of turning it all off, packing up a slew of books and going underground to become a survivalist.

Since the latter won’t happen to me in this lifetime in that I need to call in experts to hang a picture properly and recently failed twice at reading Proust (it was me, not him), I have made peace with the fact that I will forever dwell in the weekly cycle.  And perhaps you have also.  But that doesn’t mean we have to live here happily during each seven-day period.  In fact, it might just be that weeks like this – particularly SUCKY periods that are so annoyingly dumb and cloyingly stupid – actually make us appreciate all the other wonderfully happy ones.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself right now.

Again, perhaps you are too.  After all, misery loves company.  And remember, it isn’t real misery if it only happens once every few months.  Think of it more as a healthy cycle of intellectual binge and purge.  Or the alternative to living in the woods for a year with several boxes of classic literature and enough food and water to get by.

I've got a spare bedroom!

I’ve got a spare bedroom!

As much as you might think that’s appealing, how much Proust or even Shakespeare can you read in a row while eating prepared vittles from a package or can?  Not much, that’s how much.  Plus, a world where you literally had no one else to complain to could be even worse than this one.

So let’s review those things that had me in a snit… and made me want to scream OMG STOP IT!

1.   ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE COVERS ARE NOT A NATIONAL ISSUE

The twitpic seen round the world

The twitpic seen round the world

One of the top news stories this week is Rolling Stone’s cover photo of Boston Bomber (do we need to say suspect?) Dzhokhar (Jahar, to friends) Tsarnaev – all tousle-haired, doe-eyed and sporting the come-hither look and dark chin scruff of a teenager stoner.  Mr. Tsarnaev is, indeed, all of those things, and also, as the magazine clearly identifies him in very large black type, THE BOMBER.

I have actually read the 11,000 word article that the cover promises is about how a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.  It’s a very good read, a simultaneously awful and fascinating story – which is what good magazine writing is all about.  Does it answer all of the questions its headline promises?  Well, as much as most magazine or even newspaper pieces fully do.  Which is to say mostly, though not exactly.  And, in the world of journalistic reportage, which is always left open to interpretation, that’s sort of the point.

So what’s the problem???  Well, the Mayor of Boston says using this picture is “insensitive” to the people of Boston and still others claim that the story, placement and accompanying image makes Dzhokhar a sort of — rock star?  Never mind Rolling Stone has used images of Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson as cover draws in the height of their notoriousness.

The entire point of the article is that what makes this kid particularly scary is that he has the non-descript visual image of a sort of iconoclastic cool kid.  Hence, the cover image, which has been used on the cover of the New York Times previously, would seem to be the right one.  Would it be more appropriate if Jahar had a long beard, a turban and was wearing white robes?  Well, it’d obviously make many in the US more comfortable.  Among that group are corporate chain stores like CVS, Rite Aid, K-Mart, Stop ‘n Shop and Walgreen’s – all of whom have not only removed the current issue of Rolling Stone from their shelves but have refused to even sell it in its stores.

Here’s what would make me comfortable.  How about K-Mart refusing to sell guns in its stores?  Yes, I know Jahar and his brother didn’t use K-Mart rifles to set their homemade bombs off at the Boston Marathon the way the teenagers in Columbine did.  But at least it’d be one small actual step to curbing future domestic terrorism.  Refusing to sell a magazine, one that chooses to do a timely story that some people might disagree with, is not.

 Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

–      George  Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

Pump the brakes!

Pump the brakes!

2.    KATEWAIT – WHEN A ROYAL BIRTH IS A ROYAL PAIN

Insert terrible "crowning" pun

Insert terrible “crowning” pun

It’s a Boy!  But admittedly, I will never understand the fascination with royalty.   You’re bowing before a person born into privilege who wears a diamond studded crown or fantasizing about having millions of your own subjects who want to touch your garment because of your innate talent or ability to….do what exactly?

Now before you take away my chair (throne?) or refuse to ever let me use the word queen again, let me explain.  I have the utmost respect for the service that the Royal family of England gives back to their country and to the world.  It’s worth admiring.  But why are thousands of reporters from all over everywhere camped out in front of Wills and Kate’s home/castle/car/palace/estate and speculating about a birth, and then a name, that has a 50-50 chance of being either male or female? (Note:  Okay, I suppose they could choose the name “Pat,” but instead went with George Alexander Louis.  How dull.  I mean, my parents even came up with Faith Bari for my sister!).

Yes, this is what it has come to.

Yes, this is what it has come to.

As Holly, my cohort at notesfromachair, pointed out to me several days ago – NBC’s Today sent Natalie Morales to London several weeks ago for KateWait and she had been reduced to knitting on camera waiting for the baby to arrive.  Not only was this not a good strategy for boosting Today’s lagging ratings, it did little to honor the service of the Royal in question. If you’ve ever known a pregnant woman – and all of you have known at least one – do you think her idea of fun is to have gaggles of photographers and supporters surrounding her as she tries to maneuver her enlarged self out of the house and onto the hospital delivery room table?  That was, and is, a royal pain in its truest form.  And it’s not even unusual or salacious – two of the essential elements for news coverage these days.

To repeat: a boy – George Alexander Louis – 8 lbs., 4 oz.  That’s it.  I’m done.  Any further questions…

tumblr_m3egilqtsp1rpp260o1_500

3.    EMMY AWARDS ARE FOR SISSIES*

What do I have to do here to get nominated for a goddamn Emmy?

What do I have to do here to get nominated for a goddamn Emmy?

In the last few years of her life Bette Davis enjoyed posing in full makeup on a couch, next to a pillow that said, Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies.  Being a sort of gay icon she can use the latter word, as can I* (no – most of you cannot).  As for the Emmy nominations announced this week, the term should be used to describe some of the TV Academy’s choices this year in several categories.

There are lots of omissions but let’s cut to the chase – no writing nomination for the best-written show on television, Mad Men.  By eliminating the series that has been nominated every other of the six years it has been on the air (including four wins), the blue ribbon panel of choosers or perhaps other writers who nominate are saying what – that this year Mad Men wasn’t even the fifth best written drama series on TV?  Haha – that would be as funny as you telling me that they’re going to actually let Kim Kardashian’s mother host a new television talk show in 2013, or…..oh – never mind.

Kander & Ebb famously wrote the lyric: …Everybody loves a winner… for the song Maybe This Time from Cabaret but that’s actually not quite the case in the entertainment industry.  It’s actually more: Everybody hates a winner who wins too many times the way Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has.

Trading her switch for an Emmy?

Trading her switch for an Emmy?

Which is to say nothing of the fact that the most Emmy nominated series this year, American Horror Story (17 nods and one of my favorite not so guilty pleasures) is going against the very overpraised and retrofitted Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra in the best miniseries and movie category.  AHS is likely to lose, because as we established in our previous #2, this country and the world can’t resist a queen. (and yeah, I can say that, too).

Emmy night is Sunday, Sept. 22.  Look for all of my Steven Soderbergh DVDs (including Magic Mike) flying out the window in the hills of Los Angeles at the very moment this injustice is announced – that is if you’re interested in some free and only slightly damaged swag.

You said it, John.

You said it, John.

4.    PRES OBAMA IS NOT A RACIST FOR SPEAKING OUT ABOUT RACE, YOU MORON

Trayvon_Obama

The country is in uproar because a mostly White female jury in Florida found an adult male carrying a gun, who stopped and eventually shot and killed a Black teenager armed with nothing but a bag of Skittles and some iced tea, a. not guilty and b. back onto the streets with the eventual return of the gun he used in the killing.  We have a Black (well, half-Black – which, fyi, means he’s also equal part White) president and a country with a really checkered history on racial issues.  What’s He supposed to do – say nothing?  What year is this – 1923? ‘33? ‘53?

All our Black (or half White) president did several days ago was try to explain the reason for the outrage about the verdict among the African American community by noting said verdict needs to be seen in historical context when he said: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

Uh, does anyone doubt this is true or truly thinks that this is a controversial statement?   Then why is he getting pillared for it?  And why is Fox News letting people like Sean Hannity tell millions of viewers that Trayvon Martin was stoned on marijuana the night of the shooting and clearly capable of aggression (not munchies, dude – like, fighting) when that whole theory has been clearly debunked.

Why Barack Obama wants to bear his soul on this issue to the inevitable vitriol of a vast right wing machine/conspiracy is beyond me – and probably the reason this hopeful guy should be President.  It’s just that…well…when exactly did it become wrong for the president of the US to open a conversation on sensitive issues?   And not even a Liberal conversation.  There has not been a real liberal in the White House in at least 50 years – which should make one wonder if perhaps we could do even better.

The night before Pres. Obama made his remarks I had dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel where I spotted an overly made up middle aged woman with dyed blonde hair and too much jewelry sashay out of her milky white Bentley (approximate cost: $200,000) as she handed her key to the valet.  Taped to the inside passenger side window of her vehicle was a large printed white sign with black lettering that read: OBAMA SUCKS.   This, alone, tells you what he’s up against.

make-it-stop-o

SMALL ANNOYANCES ADD UP TO ONE BIG ONE

1. The barrage of incessant news from Comicon is working my last nerve.  Isn’t it enough you’ve taken over the movies? Why, oh why, are Superman and Batman going to be in a new tent pole film (sans Christian Bale) directed by Zack Snyder?  And why do you need to rub it in all our faces, over and over and over again.  Wake me when its 1968 again.  Please?

Whisk me away, Jon

Whisk me away, Jon

2. The Way, Way Back is the kind of movie I should love, love, love.  It’s a coming of age piece about a nerdy but too smart for his own good kid being raised by a divorced, single mother.  And it’s got some of my favorite quirky film actors – Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, etc.  So why, why, why was it turned into an actor fest of predictability with characters that felt written and not real?  I don’t know the answer to these questions any more than I know how the television works or why the earth is round and not flat – though all have been explained to me numerous times.

A rerun discovery

A rerun discovery

3. Cold Case is a television series that ran from 2003-2010 that I thought I was too superior to watch until several weeks ago when I was looking for yet another reason to procrastinate on some writing. It was created by Meredith Stiehm (she wrote for Homeland and now does The Bridge) and each week tackles a decades (sometimes many decades) old unsolved murder – alternating seamlessly between period flashbacks of then and now in genuinely compelling fashion.  Well, guess what?  This was a pretty freakin’ great network television series.  If you haven’t seen it, catch up with it in reruns on your DVR because it’s not available on DVD due to its music budget – the largest ever for a TV series.  The producers were smart enough to realize that even with good, taut writing and acting, nothing can bring back memories of the decades past than actual recordings from Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, the Police, Journey, and Cyndi Lauper, just to name a few.  Maybe one day the movies will start to do this again, or better yet, try to discover someone or something exciting, original or even new.  At this point, I’d even settle for a group of the studios to STOP and simply take a long hard look at what they’re doing now – and how it bodes for their – and our – futures.    Like the president…

I can dream, can’t it?

Be Bold

... and daring.

Spice things up

I was talking to a very smart person the other day about getting noticed (okay, “making it”) in the entertainment industry.  Now let’s be clear – getting noticed is not the same thing as being successful and exceptionally talented.  And not getting noticed is certainly not the same as being unsuccessful and unexceptionally talented.  Everyone still with me?

American entertainment culture defines success among its artists with commercial allure and its rewards – how much money you make, how willing the powers-that-be are to pay you even more money or how many different ways everyone else is trying to seduce you towards them.   Since every endeavor has its real world measure I used to buy into this totally.  I mean, you need some sort of objective scale – why not how much you sell or even how well reviewed you are?  Or perhaps it’s even about how well aware certain audiences are of your talent?  The cliché saying of the cream always rises to the top  (meaning if you’re talented enough you will eventually break through, especially if you’re persistent and dedicated to the extreme) is generally accepted by the gatekeepers of most industries as the rule of thumb.  This is most particularly the case by entertainment industry standards and most certainly became the case, over the years, by yours truly.

The problem with this way of thinking is – well – it’s just a load of crap.  A street load full.  Actually, a whole city full.

quite literally, a load of crap

quite literally, a load of crap

A certain degree of talent is necessary but not necessarily immense talent.  Dedication helps a lot but if you’re a workhorse it doesn’t mean people more successful than you will all be working harder.  And, if you’re very talented and working very hard and still unsuccessful by the above definitions – it might not be so much about you but the time period of popular tastes that you were born into and how societal trends have coincided with what you do (unless you are crooner Michael Buble, of course). And how willing or able you are to capitalize on these trends.  Or how possible or impossible it is to even do the latter given your particular talent.

Here’s an example.  There are many wonderful writers of straight on drama nowadays who don’t work in films because those movies are way less popular in 2013.  Just as there are lots of middle-aged men who wrote comic books who never would have worked at the top levels of Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s or 70s but who nowadays are being paid a king’s ransom for telling stories that appeal primarily to the young boys (and some girls) that they once were, along with their parents and grandparents (who they now are).  Note:  A few of these even older guys (and they were primarily male) have actually lived long enough to see their financial fortunes shift in the movie business in a HUGE way.  Yes, I’m talking to you Stan Lee.

He's laughing because later he's going to swim a lap in his pool of money.

He’s laughing because later he’s going to swim a lap in his pool of money.

This is the way of the world of the “biz” and the world each of us in the “biz” has voluntarily chosen to live in.  But to believe it doesn’t exist is as foolish as believing that one shouldn’t try at all because talent, hard work, dedication and extreme perseverance doesn’t matter either.  It all matters.  A lot.  It’s just getting to the right combination of it for oneself – a combination to which there is no knowable formula known to humanity as it now stands.

Word.

Word.

That is why the only path to take is to be who you are as an artist and to do it in the boldest, most courageous way possible for you.  Don’t apologize for the work you do to anyone, most of all to yourself.  Yes, yourself.  Meaning – never, ever, ever hold back because you’re afraid you’re making you or your characters look bad  – or positioning the piece or yourself in a way that you think ensures people won’t like you or them.  Or that, heaven forbid, you will offend them.  Where you WANT to be is in the nervous area.  The part of you that is too exposed. The line at which people won’t like you.  The moment that you (or your creations) would like to take back.  Some writer – and I wish to God I could remember who but let’s just say it’s Aaron Sorkin because he’s the current fallback position for screen/TV writing guru – recently said in an interview that everything one writes or creates should have something in it that its creator is embarrassed they’ve revealed.  I think that’s true.  But what about whole pieces of work that could be judged embarrassing, or misfires, or dated, or just plain wrong-headed?  Am I saying that you should be unabashedly committed to those and risk it all on something that is likely to lose?

Um…..exactly.  Because let’s take a look at three very controversial and popular films and TV shows of the moment – Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and “American Horror Story: Asylum” – and you’ll see that’s exactly what all three have done.

Wearing shades is the new "playing ugly" in Oscar bait.

Wearing shades is the new “playing ugly” in Oscar bait.

If you’re screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, why do another Middle East War movie like Zero Dark Thirty when you’ve already hit the jackpot with similarly-themed Oscar winner The Hurt Locker?  And why do a story for Hollywood about the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, the most notorious modern villain in the world, without an ending where the bad guy dies?  Uh, bin Laden is dead, you say?  Well, not the whole time Boal and Bigelow conceived the movie, not when the script was finished, and not when the film was fully financed and ready to go into production.  In fact, it was announced Bin Laden was killed early in May 2011, just as ZDT was about to begin filming.  Which meant (listen up all writers and aspiring screenwriters) the film had to be substantially rewritten in order to accommodate an unanticipated real life ending.

As if this wasn’t enough, why risk government or studio censorship of a pet film project you’re on due to national security?  (Are you nuts?)  I mean, even if you get the story right, you could easily be sued for libel, get professionally discredited (and certainly IRS audited) or at the very worst, slowly water down your piece at various points before its release in order to ensure that it does finally even get a release.

All of these issues invariably came up for the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, they were also called on the carpet by a group of U.S. Senators (thanks John McCain and Dianne Feinstein, among others) who claim ZDT’s depiction of CIA torture was false and perhaps irresponsible storytelling.  This was then followed by an announcement that the filmmakers’ CIA sources, which they have so far refused to specifically disclose, were themselves being investigated.

Now – step back and think clearly – you are the writer or the director and you love this project.  Will you expend whatever time, clout, money, talent and/or security you have at that point in time, before all this has happened, to something that will likely cause this much of a heap of trouble?

There is only one correct answer.  Yes.

Unhinged is more like it...

Unhinged is more like it…

Django Unchained is no less complicated, albeit in a different way.  We can pick apart Quentin Tarantino and his movies all we like, bellyache about how he has enough clout to get anything made that he wants, and argue that his movies are so outrageous and over-the-top that there is nothing he can’t do on film that won’t be expected and, in fact, accepted by his dedicated legion of loyal fans.

Hmmm, not sure I agree. There is a saturation point for just about everything and everyone and each filmmaker’s next film is potentially his or her greatest failure (have you seen Spielberg’s Hook, Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot or Billy Wilder’s Buddy, Buddy lately?).  Not to mention – how many white artists among us feel comfortable writing or being associated in any way shape or form with the “N” world in a film about African Americans (even though its set in the Civil War era) or want to risk our prized position at the top of the commercial heap by making a movie where it’s spoken more than 200 times?

Correct answer:  Quentin Tarantino and very, very, very few of the rest of us.  Which is what makes him Quentin Tarantino – the guy whose new movie fellow filmmaker Spike Lee has claimed is “disrespectful” to his (Spike’s) “ancestors” though Mr. Lee has no plans to even see it and judge for himself.  Well, okay then.

Dear... Lord....

Dear… Lord….

Television usually does not do bold and questionable taste very well but sometimes even the boob tube hits the piercing center of the tiniest of bulls eyes.  I was not going to belabor my love for FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” yet another week here for fear of boring my readers except for the fact that NOT belaboring it would contradict everything I’ve just written this week.  So – risking it all – let me tell you once again that this sick, twisted, hilariously dramatic, sometimes offensive, often times derivative and always nonsensically yet incredibly entertaining series never holds back.  And never more so than this past week.

In an episode entitled “The Name Game,” Jessica Lange’s deposed nun and former nightclub singer Sister Jude – the nastiest mistress of the nuttiest loony bin in the early 1960s, has now been stripped of her powers, become an unwilling patient committed to the asylum she used to rule with a collection of nasty wooden canes of all sizes, and has now just been given quadruple the amount of electro shock therapy she was scheduled for due to the hubris of her truly evil replacement – a younger nun possessed by none other than – yes you guessed it again – SATAN!!

Could it be....

Could it be….

After somehow emerging alive from all of the electricity, Judy (no longer Sister Jude) drags her beleaguered self back into the hospital’s recreation room where Lana, a fellow patient Judy at one point herself tortured, is shocked (no pun intended) at how Judy looks and what’s been done to her.  Fearful Judy is gone forever (or has turned into a cousin of another iconic Jessica Lange character, Frances Farmer), Lana approaches her former nemesis and simply asks:  “Do you know your name?

To which Ms. Lange’s Judy replies – or in actuality, sings – with her own version of the 1960s cult hit: “The Name Game” – well, a 2 minute 14 second remake of it with singing and dancing crazy people doing Hullaballoo type choreography.   Sound out there?  Crazy?  Ridiculous?  Campy?  Sick?  Twisted?  “Disrespectful?  “Sad?”  You bet it does.  And its exactly why the song has gone viral and “American Horror Story: Asylum” is the current cult TV hit of the new TV season and this week’s undisputed champion of “must see.”

Think about it.  Real hard.  But – watch this first.

The 1st Annual Rockers!

1430_photo_1_174946

Year-end lists are usually divided into THE BEST and THE WORST.  But here at notesfromachair we’re trying to think of it a little differently – if for no other reason than to stand out from the million other news sources, columnists, cable TV talking heads and bloggers vying for your attention.   That is why we’ve created the first annual ROCKERS – dedicated to anything that has significantly rocked our world in 2012.

For those whose worlds have ever been rocked – which means everyone – this can be either a fantastic or horrible occurrence.  As a Jewish kid I didn’t grow up believing in Santa Claus but my entire existence felt not only rocked but severely threatened when I realized there was no way I could admittedly make Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In stay on TV forever.  At the same time, my very meager and small world was also rocked the first time I saw Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on TV and realized there were people in the world that I truly did want to hang out with (Note:  Little did I know that a lifetime of hanging out with these kind of show biz types would rock my world in many and too numerous to specifically choose from good and bad fashions).

But getting back to this century — here is a list of our 2012 Rockers.  Not to be mistaken for a Hall of Fame, because these are only good for a single year – not a lifetime.

BEST (nee ROCKIN’) ACTING PERFORMANCE, EXPECTED (but not disappointing):

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Haters gonna hate

Haters gonna hate

Hate all you want but why should Mr. Day-Lewis   Mr. Lewis  …uh Daniel be penalized because we’ve come to expect him to always be (and are tired of him always being) transcendently brilliant?  He literally seemed to pull off a resurrection of a human being who has been dead for more than 150 years from his very first scene as Abraham Lincoln and kept it up for all 3000 hours of the film. Truth of fact, I’m actually a big fan of the movie and didn’t mind the length, especially since almost every other BIG film in the last two months of the year seems to have lasted at least 3000 hours.   Plus there’s the degree of difficulty — try to tell, or more importantly act, the story of an icon and make it seem intelligent, human, funny, real AND come off as a parable for a certain kind of political animal of our times.  You won’t be able to.  DDL can.  When are he and Meryl Streep going to co-star? (staring my 2013 wishlist NOW)

ROCKIN’ ACTING PERFORMANCE, UNEXPECTED (but in a good way):

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Anything but trashy...

Anything but trashy…

Yeah, I’m partial to Coop (uh, that’s what his friends call him and he calls himself – yes, I happen to know someone who knows him – so there).  But given his acting oeuvre, nothing prepares you for the raw, non-movie star type of performance he gives as a bipolar (among other things) guy who is just struggling to live a decent life. Ironically, it’s Coop’s very lack of movie star-ness that has once and for all changed his career and made him into a real movie star – the kind that is famous, good-looking AND can act really, really well.

MOST OVERRATED (nee ROCKIN’ IN A BAD WAY) MOVIE (in every way):

Amour

Oh I wish I could go back to bed...

Snooooooooze.

Listen, I love French films.  And I love depressing films, especially ones about death and dying.  And I love films that have simple or almost no plots.  But Amour depicts an old couple with some financial means in 2012 and what they decide to go through when one becomes terminally ill in a way that NO couple in an industrialized nation in 2012 needs to endure given what is available in 21st century medicine – even when one decides to die at home.  In its attempt to be relentless, writer-director Michael Haneke creates something that is unrelentingly manipulative to suit his needs as a dramatist.  The idea that so many critics have bought into it is baffling and leads me to think that they either do not have enough experience in this area or have a lot of prickly, self-centered old people in their lives who are intent on doing things the most physically, self-flagellatingly painful way possible.  (Fortunately, I do not).  Oh, did I mention the two old people in this movie – even when they were healthy– are the kind of pretentious snobs you don’t really want to spend two and a half minutes with much less two and a half hours?  Yes, it’s very well acted and technically very well made.  But do yourself a favor and spend time with some real live old folks (preferably two in your own family) instead.

ROCKIN’ TELEVISION SERIES, ENDURING:

Mad Men

... or shameless excuse to post a pic of Jon Hamm

… or shameless excuse to post a pic of Jon Hamm

The water cooler show torch has been passed to Homeland and we can’t argue with that.  But there is not a television program on the air that is as consistently smart, well-written, chance talking and socially/politically relevant as Matthew Weiner’s creation.  It never takes the easy way out, stays grounded in reality and uses the 1960s as the lens through which we can see our lives and our history.  And if you think that’s not difficult to do, try writing something in that time period and see how many clichés you will inevitably come up with in even a single scene.

ROCKIN’ TELEVISION SERIES, FOREIGN:

Downton Abbey

Season 3 CANNOT come fast enough!

Season 3 CANNOT come fast enough!

Mainstream American elite culture likes things mostly elitely American.  So how is it that creator/writer Julian Fellowes manages to make the privileged and serving class of post turn of the 20th century England like “television crack,” according to one of my dearest friends?  If I knew, I’d do it myself.  It is in part Maggie Smith playing a bon mot-throwing old rich lady called the Dowager Countess, who is not unlike what we imagine the real Maggie Smith to be were she born approximately 150 years ago to a family of starchy patricians.  But it’s a lot more than that.  Fellowes is now rumored to be writing the new film version of Gypsy for Barbra Streisand.  Well, both are period pieces, after all.

ROCKIN’ TELEVISION SERIES, REALITY:

The Voice

TV's BEST chairs

TV’s BEST chairs

It’s not because a few former students work on this or due to the fact that I wish to God (or whoever you conceive Her to be) that I could be a professional singer.  It’s because this reality competition for vocalists doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age, looks, ethnicity, sexual preference or even past deviant behavior.  It’s all about what you sound like – a sort of faux even playing field that never exists in real life but that you get to experience for a few hours a week as long as the season lasts.  Yes, the grand prizewinner is finally voted on by the viewers, which invariably does create a final commercial-type popularity contest in the last few weeks, but those are the least interesting part of the show.  The real story is what comes before and how the judges – from very diverse parts of the music world – both perform and share their own hard knocks with people who have already had or soon will have more than their own share of the same.

ROCKIN’ CABLE NEWS SHOW, PROBABLY UNSEEN BY YOU:

NOW with Alex Wagner

DVR me NOW!

DVR me NOW!

It’s on MSNBC at 9am west coast time and noon east coast time.  Those interested in this type of stuff inevitably already watch Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Chris Matthews, et al.  But who you probably don’t tune in to is this smart, extremely funny woman who categorized the many faces of Mitt Romney as “the paradox of the mittens” and used to be editor-in-chief of a hip music and culture magazine called The Fader.  Over the course of an hour, she presides over a panel of cleverly perceptive political experts, covers breaking news, and throws in more witty pop culture references than a Saturday Night Live sketch.  It doesn’t matter that she’s 34, female and of Burmese-German-Irish descent but it’s just one more thing that makes her and her show different than most everyone else on cable TV.

ROCKIN’ LIMITED TELEVISION SERIES, QUESTIONABLE TASTE:

American Horror Story: Asylum

My Bad Habit

My Bad Habit

I think the reason I’m so in love with this show is just how sick, derivative and yet unique it almost always seems to be.  Its second season in a mental hospital is a pastiche of every cliché you’ve seen in every crazed, looney tune horror film imaginable.  Its cast, led by the ghoulishly still sexy Jessica Lange, is shameless and the writing doesn’t always bother to follow what we consider to be the tenets of logic.  Still – any show that cross-cuts between a mad Nazi doctor, aliens and a crazy killer named Bloody Face who likes to skin people for sport – and does it all under the watchful eye of nutty nun who use to be a cabaret torch singer, is okay in my book.  Plus, the recreation room at the asylum consistently plays that 1960s hit record, “Dominique” performed by Soeur Sourire, better known as The Singing Nun.

ROCKIN’ DIVAS PUT TO THE WORST USE:

Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler in The Guilt Trip and Parental Guidance.

Cmon Jerry, help these ladies out.

Jewish hall of fame gala?

Okay, I’ve only seen The Guilt Trip and the trailer for Parental Guidance.  But as a gay guy I can tell you – these ladies deserve better!!!  And it’s not primarily their fault.  They want to do films.  But – what are the films being made that they should be doing?  There aren’t any.  And yes, Barbra’s still fun onscreen and Bette, well, I’ll take your word for it that she is too.  But….really??

ROCKIN’ NEW TV CHARACTER, RECURRING:

The Girl You Wish You Wouldn’t Have Started A Conversation With At A Party, Saturday Night Live

Cecily "Very" Strong

Cecily “Very” Strong

SNL new cast member Cecily Strong is irresistibly annoying as that gal….you know the one, trust me.  We mentioned her last week so we won’t drive it into the ground.  But consider how long it’s been since you remembered any new SNL character since Stefon?  Why does it work?  Because like all good comedy creations, she is barely exaggerated.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/girl-you-wish-you-hadnt-started-a-conversation-with-at-a-party/1422717/

ROCKIN’ WEB MOMENT, VIRAL

No, it wasn’t the cat trick, or the pop singer from another country, or the Olympic athletes doing Call Me Maybe for the millionth time.  It was, quite simply:

The 47 PERCENT TAPE

Mitt Romney’s comments in a closed door fundraiser to major donors in Florida about how 47% of the electorate feel they are entitled to government handouts such as health care, food and housing and are people he can never convince to take personal responsibility and care for their lives got him — in true Shakespearean fashion — only 47% of the electorate to Barack Obama’s 51%.  It also caused him to lose the election by 4 million votes.  However, the award really should go not to the tape itself but to the Florida bartender who secretly recorded it – and, in another irony, to James Carter IV, grandson of perennial Republican punching bag Jimmy Carter.  Carter IV unearthed the tape on the web and brought it to the attention of David Corn at Mother Jones magazine.

Free speech, when it works, rocks.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!