The Art of Art

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

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

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

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

Your damn right Chairy!

Your damn right Chairy!

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

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

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

Be bold

Preach

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

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

Just a couple of (legendary) punks

Just a couple of (legendary) punks

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

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

No matter how big you get, fangirling is forever

No matter how big you get, fangirling is forever

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

Berkeley keeps us hypnotized

Berkeley keeps us hypnotized

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

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

Andy knew what was up

Andy knew what was up

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

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

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

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

The Republican Apprentice notwithstanding. Always.

Happy 2016.

Swinging from the Chandelier with the Pope

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When I was a young teenager I was 25-30 pounds overweight. It wasn’t a happy time in my life though I’m not sure if that’s why I was overeating. Maybe it was just adolescence. Or maybe I liked food. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all of the above.

I mention this because this week I watched a young man on NBC’s The Voice who was quite overweight who reminded me of an even heavier version of my heavy self when I was his age. Except he had one thing that I NEVER had – he could sing.

Wow – could he sing. If you imagine a cross between Adam Lambert, Mariah Carey with maybe even a little Mary J. Blige thrown in by way of Stevie Wonder, you get the picture. In fact, he himself joked that he often gets mistaken for a woman on the phone and at drive-thrus. He also admitted that his appearance and manner was clearly not what others are normally used to and that it took him a while to realize these were his special qualities, that he was born this way and that God didn’t mistakes.

Fight on, little monster

Fight on, little monster

In any event, this young man – whose name is Jordan Smith – was vociferously praised for his mind-bending talent by four experts. And he received a standing ovation from the audience. Not to mention, he was told repeatedly by the judges that he was not only inspiring but an important contestant for the world to see AND for the world to understand that talent and original voices – be it singing or original points of view – are what come from inside. How one looks on the outside has less than nothing to do with what is being expressed. (Note: This is, of course, a talent show and granted, has little to do with the music INDUSTRY, which is a whole other kettle of worms. Yes, worms).

Anyway, I found myself wishing two things after spending some time thinking about Jordan. One is that I grew up in a time when people would have said those things to his 1970s doppelganger (Note: Okay, Me when I was praised for my specific talents). And second, though infinitely more important, is that in 2015 I lived in a country where the political rhetoric being bandied about by THE most popular news network in the country (that would be Fox) and by many of the candidates in one of our two major political parties, reflected that kind of inclusion and understanding. Sadly, it does not. It’s exclusion of the worst kind – to gay people, to climate change believers and to Muslims – just to name a few of who at the moment seem to be the top 3. And those are just the groups that instantly come to mind.

This is not a diatribe against Evangelicals, Republican conservatives or even The Republican Apprentice, who I believe is neither of the above but simply an egomaniacal boor. Rather it is a recognition and reaffirmation of what exactly is going on in acceptable, seemingly intelligent public discourse these days.

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Inclusion is seen as political correctness, political correctness is seen as coddling, and coddling is in turn seen as destroying the fabric of American society by overprotecting children (or even adults) at too young an age from the bullying they will unavoidably receive in the real world. As if we need to provide more of that in our language and conservations because the world isn’t already cruel enough.

Speaking of which… Pope Francis was in the United States for the first time this week – have you heard? Yes, I thought so. Well, these days you have to admire a religious leader – any religious leader – who spends much of his public speaking time emphasizing the brotherhood of man (which presumably includes women), reaching out to each other with love, and taking care of the poor and any of those less fortunate. Not to mention any person of the cloth at all who is humble enough to ask us to pray for him and inclusive enough to include this request to non-believers – who he merely asks to send good wishes and thoughts. The implication that he is not all-knowing and merely just another regular guy who needs all the help he can get in doing his job sounds unlike any religious leader I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, either in synagogue, in books or even on the pages of the NY Times – which is where I get most of my religious leader info anyway.

#PopeonTwitter

#PopeonTwitter

On the other hand, if you are different the way I am, it’s sometimes a bit challenging to watch the absolute furor in which this particular Pope is greeted (24/7 news coverage, crowds in the tens of thousands, gesticulating, fainting and near hysteria) and not consider several thoughts. Among them is that he has publicly advocated against gay marriage, gay adoption and transgender rights. It is also difficult to ignore that he is the leader of an international religious institution – which make no mistake about it is a very wealthy, disciplined and doctrinaire organization – that believes any number of behaviors that fall within any of many mainstream activities among significant minorities (or even majorities) in everyday life are sins deserving of varying degrees of punishment – or illegalization.   If I were female I might bring up a woman’s right to choose, women being priests, divorce and any host of other subjects. And what about atheists? Do they have no moral standing on any grounds whatsoever? The list could go on and on.

Touche, CoCo

Touche, CoCo

Love is, well, lovely – and so are good thoughts. But when you are in a sub-group all the love in the world will not alone get you on an even playing field with others who have the majority amount of money, power or, let’s just say it, moral high ground. Religious leaders, especially the most popular ones, by definition own the moral high ground and are fronts for extremely large institutions that more often than not are responsible for maintaining the status quo, including the discriminatory parts of it. To do it in a nicer way is, well, nice – but none of us should be fooled – underneath the welcoming rhetoric it is merely a nicer variation of what we already have.

Or is it? Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge climate change in several of his speeches and appeared to be speaking almost directly to the flock led by The Republican Apprentice when he praised and reminded the U.S. that one of our greatest strengths is that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants. Perhaps gay marriage is next? On second thought (or even your 17th one) do not count on it.

Well.. this is a good start, but let's not get too excited.

Well.. this is a good start, but let’s not get too excited.

This is not to say that there is always agreement within the subset of your special interest group. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a conservative from Ohio, resigned from his position Friday after 35 years in Congress, in large part because he was tired of fighting the shut down the government at all costs demands of the Tea Party ultra-right wingers of his group. And there is a pop culture fight going on within the gay community at the moment about the movie Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day) new film about the 1969 uprising that is often cited as the birth of the fight for LGBT rights.

Because Mr. Emmerich chose to invent a young, white handsome male protagonist as the main character audience surrogate for his film, a very local group of critics are convinced that he sold out history by marginalizing the significant contributions of gay people of color, not to mention that of drag queens and transgender individuals. Never mind that all of these different types of people play significant roles in the film – none of them are THE star. On the other hand, each protestor at the time WAS the star of their own story of those riots and no one knows for sure who threw the first brick. Just as today we are all the STARS of our own lives, whether we know it or not, or choose to exercise it or not. It’s always a question of one’s POV and how one decides to frame their narrative. This is not only the mission of a very mainstream filmmaker like Mr. Emmerich, but the same challenge faced by the Speaker of the House – or by a Pope.

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Which brings us back to young Jordan Smith. He will certainly have his haters, as well as lovers, as he goes through life. On the latter score lots of significant progress has been made since that time in the late seventies when I was his age. But let us be very clear, this progress was made not due to the benevolent language of any religious leaders or by any acts of Congress. Those are merely by-products of a hard fought fight led by a group of surly INSURGENTS. Decades of ACTIVISTS who died and/or risked their lives for a simple idea – equality. Among these activists were also lots of regular people who simply chose to live their everyday lives unapologetically and out in the open.

We all advocate for our causes and it’s nice to be loved. But it’s better to be accepted and included on an equal pay scale and rights scale. Not doing that for any one of our sub-groups – that’s the only real sin, in my mind. The original and ongoing one.