Same Old Song?

Turner Classic Movies had Judy Garland Day last week and, being a gay man of a certain age, I couldn’t resist tuning in at one point to this 24-hour Judy film fest.

Don’t judge me.

But of all of the choices available who knew that it would be a 1961 dour melodrama about four German judges being tried before a postwar military tribunal for their collaboration with Hitler and the Third Reich, Judgment at Nuremberg, that would hit me like a ton of bricks.

I can think of at least five other Judy films that would have been more enjoyable. (Note: Okay — A Star Is Born, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter Parade and I Could Go On Singing). Though none that could be more timely.

Realistically, this is how I wish I felt about today’s political climate.

In hindsight I should have predicted it. Like the currently much lauded, breakthrough post apocalyptic Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale (which is about to once again become a multi Emmy winner for its superb second season), you can’t go wrong in 2018 watching a story about a country of people who enable a rabid white nationalist political regime to persecute, maim and/or kill anyone they deem to be a subversive OTHER.

Unless all you want to do is escape and put your _____ in the sand.   In which case, you are not only wrong but veering towards the same sheep-like behavior portrayed by some of your fellow countrymen in that movie, that series and no doubt countless other ____________s about to come out on other platforms that will be, at least thematically, very much like them.

Whether we call it the Nazis, the power brokers of Gilead or simply Trumpism – it’s all the same thing. A regime that wants to demonize anyone outside of a select group of people they don’t judge ‘ideal’ – whether they be Jews, the non-religious or Mexican/Middle Eastern immigrants – in order to rouse a base of loyal voters whose lives they promise to improve and whose country they vow to protect and/or rebuild.

I’m gonna go ahead and add “Crippling Insecurity” to the YES column #tinyhands

This strategy is always advanced with promises to put the people of said country FIRST, declarations that said country is GREAT and proclamations that the rest of the world is NO BETTER morally than they are and usually quite INFERIOR.

Yeah, I don’t like comparing any regime, especially America’s current regime, to the Nazis. But the argument being advanced is not how successful the regime is at achieving their goals or to what ends they will get to go in order to achieve them. Instead, it’s the philosophy and the strategy.

The degree to how far they get to go – well, this is up to their subjects… er….citizenry. In other words – THIS IS UP TO US.

BRB

Again, the comparison seemed a bit reach-y. Until too many lines from Judy’s Nazi film, for which she was nominated as Oscar’s best supporting actress that year along with several other cast members in their own categories, began to ring a bell.

— It started when Marlene Dietrich’s upper crust German woman says of Hitler:

He was in awe of nobility but he hated it.

— Then it continued when Montgomery Clift’s ordinary German man recalled the times he was MOCKED by LEADERS of the power class for speaking in a way that seemed slow even when he demonstrated the ability to understand logic.

I’m with Meryl — this still makes my blood boil

— It continued when Judy’s youngish German woman recalled how her best friend, a 65 year old Jewish man, was laughed at and held up to mockery by the PUBLIC at his trial simply because he was A JEW. The charges were violating the new law outlawing A JEW having sex with A GERMAN ARYAN (Judy), a charge he was found guilty of and put to death for even though, as it turned out, it never happened.

–Then there was Marlene’s defense of herself and the German people over Americans condemning her after the war:

Listen to me, there are things that happenedon BOTH SIDES.

ummmm… WHAT?

— Which all finally led to one of the four judges on trial, eloquently played by Burt Lancaster, exposing the lies he and his fellow Germans told themselves about Hitler and the Third Reich:

We say – what difference does it make – our country is at stake – Hitler (He) will be gone after a while. Things denied to US as a democracy are open to us now…. And then one day we looked around and saw what was going to be a passing phase had become a way of life.

Yes, all of these lines were indeed written – by the great screenwriter Abby Mann – but they were based on actual transcripts and stories he culled from the real Nuremberg trials right after the end of WWII.

.. and with a cast like this to make it come to life.

They were not his thoughts he put into his characters’ mouths so much as a distillation of real sentences and opinions and ideas of the time.

Though perhaps knowing there would be a portion of their audience that still might think they were being too polemic or had gone a bit too far, the filmmakers’ “movie trial” included 5-10 minutes of REAL NEWSREEL FOOTAGE of thousands of actual naked Jewish corpses – as well as others barely alive and starving – to back up their words.

This along with clips and still photos of the real crematoriums, featuring close ups of the popular German oven manufacturer that built them. In addition to historical maps indicating the dozens of specific towns with concentration camps hidden among a significant percentage of German citizenry who either supported Hitler because he was doing some good things or because it was easier to turn a blind eye to the whole ugly mess just because.

It’s difficult to face the truths, or potential truths, of any world, especially our own, but in the end it’s far uglier not to.

or you know, truth becomes relative. #stillcantbelievethishappened

As Spencer Tracy’s presiding American judge lets us know at the end of Judgment at Nuremberg in a way only a presiding American judge played by Spencer Tracy could truly make work:

A country is what it stands for – when it’s the most difficult. We stand for justice, truth and the value of a single human being.

Or to put it in 2018 parlance: There’s a reason why Sen. John McCain, who died on Saturday, chose Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a former Democratic president and a former Republican president, to deliver the eulogies at his Capitol Hill memorial service this week rather than the current sitting President of Trumpism.

 

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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.

The Oscar Race

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There is not much to count on in life anymore but one of the constants is that upon the announcement of the Academy Award nominations there will be a significant group of people outraged by the choices made by the group’s almost 6,000 voting members. This is not to denigrate the passionate emotions those who are outraged display. I myself have still not gotten over the fact that Mia Farrow was not nominated for her star turn in Rosemary’s Baby and that movie was released before I reached adolescence (Note: Yes, it’s true, I had opinions even then). Not to mention, we’re not taking into account the biggest Oscar slight of all – Judy Garland losing the best actress race to Grace Kelly in 1955. I mean, all things being equal could you honestly say that you’d rather watch The Country Girl on a loop until the end of time rather than A Star Is Born??? Please.

Lest we forget 1951's blasphemy

Lest we forget 1951’s blasphemy

So you see where I’m going with this.

This year the principal outrage is about the movie Selma receiving only two Academy Award nominations – one for best picture and the other for best song. So powerful were the passions stirred that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending almost instantly. Among my favorites was:

#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a person of color.

Oh snap!

Oh snap!

Bravo! (or Brava!) to whoever thought of that one.

As a lifelong Oscar watcher, former entertainment reporter, person who has been going to Academy screenings for 30 years, and screenwriter who admittedly would LOVE to at some point get nominated for one of those things as I’m simultaneously made fun of by 50 million people from their beds and/or living rooms, let me just say this:

None of this is fair. And it is NOT a conspiracy of exclusion. The day that the creative types and non-creative types who make up the membership of the Academy could truly agree on what is a good movie is the day when Oscar watching will cease to be an attraction. Or even vaguely interesting. Which, in laymen’s terms means — IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

Here’s the deal. Minorities ARE underrepresented in movies. But if you take the entire list of films in distribution in each year, so are — intelligence, depth, humanity, and individuality.

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

There are a MINORITY number of films in release these days with many of the above qualities and most of those are the ones being considered for Oscar statuettes. That’s a small number compared to the amount of movies each year that can qualify for consideration by the Academy but a large number when taken as a group unto themselves. So given that most categories are limited to five nominees means that when it comes down to it there is A LOT of competition for those top slots.

What happens then is that it becomes a matter of taste. Well, all you have to do is go into the recently revamped bland, near empty, high-tech nightmare that accounts for the new lobby of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and you can see that its ingenuity in that area is – to be kind – sorely lacking. While it does deserve credit for keeping the traditional cushy red velvet seats in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – still the best sound and best place in town overall to see a movie – the design of the new lobby itself tells you all you need to know about the organization’s taste level at this moment – or really, any moment. And that is – well, go down the list of nominations and judge for yourself. The one thing that is for certain is that you can find quite a bit not to like.

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

It’s difficult to defend the Academy’s record for the employment and recognition of non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual people on the whole. On the same token, it’s equally difficult to find much consistency in many of their choices. For instance, if the 21st century of Academy voters were truly white-centric why did they award Oscars to 12 Years A Slave last year for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress, among the film’s nine nominations? If they are so white, traditional and such an insular club, how is it that they failed to even NOMINATE the unofficial KING of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg, for best director on The Color Purple in 1986 yet saw fit to vote the movie a whopping 11 nominations back then?

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Don’t try to answer because none of it makes any sense and it’s about as fair as who wins the lottery or is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Though it is a lot more fun to watch than either. Especially when the right people lose and the wrong people win. Admittedly those are sad facts but undoubtedly true ones.

I took myself to see Selma a few days ago before I weighed in on any of this. I liked the film, which gained power as it went on – not unlike the march for voting rights did in Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay did a fine job and David Oyelowo so powerfully evoked the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King in such a uniquely human fashion that there were occasional moments that felt like discarded behind-the-scenes documentary footage rather than beats of a large scale, mainstream Hollywood-type movie.

And to think he's British!

And to think he’s British!

Yes, it would have been just to finally have an African American woman nominated for best director. In fact, it’s beyond ridiculous that it hasn’t yet happened. But when going over the list of nominees, who clearly doesn’t belong and should absolutely be eliminated?

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Not going to happen. Those two are the frontrunners of arguably the most unusual and complicated films made this year. So that leaves three more slots.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten D. Tydlum, The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

One thing's for sure: they all need a haircut.

One thing’s for sure: they all need a haircut.

Well, I for one always feel left in the lurch with Wes Anderson movies (Note: Students don’t hate me and yes, it’s probably a bit generational). Yet given the complicated visual execution here and the fact that the Academy has a new and growing group of younger voters who have finally brought the average age down to somewhere around 60, you can see why it’s hard to argue a case against this. It’s a film that feels hip and quirky and there almost always seems to be one slot for that.

The Imitation Game is, like Selma, somewhat of a film about injustice but unlike the march for civil rights it centers on the life of a little known previously unsung GAY man who pioneered the use of computers which significantly contributed to the Allies winning WWII (Note: Never underestimate WWII stories in Academy circles).

OK... maybe not all of the time.  #sorryangie

OK… maybe not all of the time. #sorryangie

It’s also strangely about humanity and civil rights but also manages to make the puzzles surrounding the computers that baffle most Academy voters in daily life seem decipherable. All told that’s a triple relevance factor overall and it’s hard to compete with that.

That leaves Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher, a rather unsavory, artsily-disturbing look at a murder. It has a lot of sparse, directorial flourishes and features a beloved comic actor who has not been recognized previously by the Academy in a stomach churning, disturbing star turn. One can’t imagine it’s the White choice or even the commercial choice. The oddness of it feels like the choice of the director’s branch – a group composed primarily of men who probably related to its themes of maleness.

And yet THIS is the Academy president

And yet THIS is the Academy president

The latter could alone validate the reasons of the outraged and the fact that certainly more female-driven stories need to be made, hopefully by more female directors. Meanwhile, the one female to actually win best director, Kathryn Bigelow, did so seven years ago for The Hurt Locker – a war film with maleness written all over it, despite its female director. 12 Years A Slave had an even more violent underpinning and also got recognized in spite of, or perhaps because of, its quite violent subject matter. Hmmm.

This all does not address the best director omission this year of perennial Oscar alpha male favorite Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh’s unique take on Stephen Hawking, or why Whiplash could get a best picture, screenplay and supporting actor nod while Damien Chazelle was completely left out of the aforementioned category. Did that movie direct itself?

Ageism?

Ageism?

Best actor is an even more impossible competition. Do you by pass by Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Imitation Game? Those three were locks. That leaves two major movie star, star turns. Both Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell left behind all traces of their charismatic and jovial selves in American Sniper and Foxcatcher and if nothing else the acting branch are suckers for that. I would wager at least a box of Red Vines and a small Diet Coke that Mr. Oyelowo came in sixth for a performance that was so good it managed to blend into the movie rather than stand above it. That is a credit to him as an actor, regardless of race. It is just not always the best strategy to net an Oscar nomination in a super competitive year. One only needs to look at the Oscar nominated best actor performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave last year to see the difference. Which begs the question of why Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler was overlooked this year for totally transforming into…well, see it. My guess is he was #7 even though he clearly delivered one of the three best acting jobs of any sex or race in 2014.

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Of course, this and all other Oscar analyses and prognostications are sheer guesswork.   Yes, we all need a lot more work on inclusion and equal opportunity. But like most of us, Oscar is primarily an equal opportunity offender. Which is to say there is no coherent reason for why they are doing the offending in the first place.  This makes it quite different from the events in Selma and near impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that film received a paucity of nominations.   Or why some of the others you and I didn’t care for received a plethora of them.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t be watching, waiting and ready to comment when they give out those little suckers for the 87th time next month – along with most of the rest of you.

Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

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Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.

Labor of Love

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There’s something so damn ingratiating and infectious about people who love the work that they do and excel at it.

For instance, did you ever go to a restaurant where the waiter treats you like a guest at their home and through sheer force of will and great food manages to make you feel happier than you have all day? How about a classroom where the teacher is so animated you are suddenly fascinated by a subject that you previously would have walked twelve long miles to avoid? Sometimes it’s even a film, TV show or performer putting you under such a spell that you actually forget to check your email, texts or any other form of social media messages for more than two whole hours.

Well, I’m here to tell you singer-songwriter Jason Mraz is exactly that infectious, excellent and just so damned ingratiating whenever he’s performing onstage.

The Chair's attempt at concert photography (call is the Blue period)

The Chair’s attempt at concert photography (call it the Blue period)

Don’t think I’m going all corny on you in either the messaging or the Mraz-ing. Yeah, even Mr. Mraz knows the cynical wrap about him always being Mr. Hippie Positivity and one of the first things he does in his shows is confess that he has more than his share of dark, depressing thoughts daily. But his work, as he sees it, is to take exactly what he’s feeling and make it into something artistic that maybe he, and in turn you and I, can feel good about.

Now, if that’s not a Labor Day weekend message, what is?

I had originally planned to write about the challenges of being part of a minority group this weekend, touching on the uprising of the Black community in Ferguson, MO over the police shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old boy. This would then be tied into the negative blowback Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara received from so many women (and the men who love them) across America for her willingness to flaunt her shimmying body on a 360-degree revolving platform at the Emmy awards. Which would lead into the chastisement I got from certain quarters for supporting her “subversion” of the Latina stereotype in a blog post here last week. This would all then culminate in how whether your minority is Black, Latin or gay like me (Note: I was even going to try to get the Middle East, Israel, Iraq and Isis in there) – the prejudice and marginalization are all various iterations of the same exact issue that, until recognized, will prevent us all from ever truly moving forward as a race, a culture or a planet.

Wow... that's a lot.

Wow… that’s a lot.

I’ll bet now you’re happy that 1. all we’re doing is talking about Jason Mraz and 2. I happened to see him at a two-hour plus concert in Hollywood this weekend.

Except, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Mr. Mraz is one of the few of us lucky enough to have figured out how to merge his job with his passion. It may be difficult to think of him as a worker on Labor Day because he is so wealthy, famous and talented at the relatively young age of 37. Not only is he not in the 47% along with most of the rest of us, he’s in the very elite subset of the upper, upper 1%. The .001% Or the .00001%? I haven’t seen his bank account but two Grammy awards, a 5 and a half acre organic avocado farm near San Diego, a joint ownership in the hugely successful Gratitude Cafe restaurants, one of the most enduring hit singles to ever stay on Billboard’s top 100 chart (76 weeks) and a never-ending concert tour schedule of venues all over the world indicate he’s doing more than okay. Not to mention, his goal to be #RetiredAt40 and spend most of the rest of his time farming – or at least slowing down from the star musician’s life he has carved out for himself over the last decade.

Farmlife with Mr. Mraz

Farmlife with Mr. Mraz

And yet – at essence he’s really just a worker. The fact that he’s treated as something more than that lies at our doorstep– not his. #ThinkAboutIt.

As a writer and a performer on the concert stage whose work has also been seen on television and in the movies, Mr. Mraz is at the very least a member of several or more show business labor unions. But even if he weren’t there is no denying he is an American worker and laborer – that is to say someone who contributes goods and/or services to society and whose efforts should be celebrated. Especially when it’s done exceedingly well.

So, how does one rise to the level of elite worker, which is not the same as asking – how do I become rich and famous? The latter is a byproduct of the profession one chooses to work at, one’s talents and a lot of timing and luck. (Note: And don’t let anyone else tell you any differently).

Well, since he’s obviously on my mind, let’s use Mr. Mraz as an example and have his actions tell us.

ATTITUDE

Well... which one is it?

Well… which one is it?

You’d think hard work would be the number one value here but the ability to work hard really begins with your attitude. One of the lessons students get from me when they arrive in L.A. for a semester to do internships in the entertainment industry is that the people you work with will innately know whether you enjoy working there or not. This does not mean that every working moment of your day is a joy or a pleasure or even easy. What it does mean is that somewhere inside you want to dig in and get the job done or you wouldn’t be there in the first place. And whether you’re tired or in a bad mood, once you get going a certain pride in doing what you like takes over and you get caught up in the moment of putting time into a job to the best of your abilities in the given moments you have chosen to put in that day.

Mr. Mraz has mastered this. There’s a joy in his eyes when he performs. When he screws up the lyrics or a technical element of his show doesn’t work, he laughs it off or makes fun of himself. He’s planned out his program but he’s willing to improvise and engage his fellow musicians and his audience even if it means extending the length of his show. Instead of phoning in his performance or duplicating his recordings in front of you, there’s an easiness that assures you that you are in good hands and are about to see something unique because he never does any one song in exactly the same way. In other words, he doesn’t make you feel like he’s doing you a big, fat favor by being there because he wants to be there.

There are only a handful of performers out of the many that I’ve seen live that have the ability to do this. Bruce Springsteen is one. Perhaps surprisingly, the Grateful Dead were another. Bette Midler in her early days was a third. They make you feel as if there is nowhere they’d rather be than doing their work for you when they’re doing that thing they do so well. There’s a spring in their step. And it’s infectious.

WORK ETHIC

Noted writer and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best seller, Outliers, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert in your field. Since there are about 8,765 hours in a year and most people put in approximately 2,080 hours at a full time job, this means it takes in the neighborhood of 5-10 years to become any kind of expert in your field.   Other researches have expressed these thoughts though none of them guarantee that expertise will equal financial success or worldwide recognition.

How many hours are you up to?

How many hours have you put in?

It may not be surprising then that for every album released, Mr. Mraz has an estimated 70 leftover songs. This certainly wouldn’t come as a shocker to any writer or observer of pop culture or even dedicated worker of any kind. In fact, Bruce Springsteen himself, flaunting a thick dog-eared songwriting notebook on 60 Minutes some years ago, expressed similar thoughts. The problem is that an expert worker who does what they do well is revealing their final product to you in its most polished form. And when it’s that clear and well done it’s hard to believe it could’ve taken so many other discarded efforts to get to that place.

In Mr. Mraz’s case, this is quite reassuring to me since his seemingly infinite abilities at unforced rhyming and clever world play appear so natural that one assumes they had to be tossed off in numerous fits of immediate, savant-like inspiration. #HeMustBeLackingInOtherAreas.

A LIFE

After all, you gotta share the guacamole with someone!

After all, you gotta share the guacamole with someone!

I once had the false notion that to be that good at what you do took a single-mindedness that precluded anything else in the universe. Meaning that if you were an artist you locked yourself up in a dank room where someone put a tray of gruel outside your door (or you simply found some in a filthy refrigerator) and you were let out only to eat and shower for half an hour spurts each day before being shoved back in and locked up again. A personal life? Travelling? Leisure time connection with family and friends? Are you kidding? Oh no, there’s plenty of time for that later. Maybe. Once all this important stuff is done and I have the chance.

Great workers know this is completely wrong. They might be dedicated and they likely work long hours. But most have some engagement with the world or they could never rise to the levels that they do. In order to be a master inventor or executor of any craft you have to engage with the task and the world it inhabits. And since nothing in the universe exists in a vacuum this means – yeah, you have to participate and get out from behind the locked door.

I don’t know Mr. Mraz and certainly don’t expect any kind of kickback from his manager. Nor do I think every single song or task he takes on is perfection. What I have noticed though is that he has a life. He shows video from his tour to Antarctica, his farm in Bonsall (near San Diego – and it’s not “glamorous”) and frequently appears at benefits for underprivileged youths and the environment. He’s an avid vegan and yoga enthusiast but admits to loving weed and formerly adoring Mimosas and cigarettes. Plus, he’s had lots of girlfriends and more than a few long-term relationships (Note: I had to throw this in because, well…I had to).

Hiss and boo the sixties hippie mentality all you want. But they were THE SIXTIES for a reason.

GENEROSITY

Two is better than one

Two is better than one

No, we did not cover this under the previous Life section. At this weekend’s concert Mr. Mraz spent a huge chunk of his time promoting and sharing the stage with a group of four talented female musicians called Raining Jane, who co-wrote all of the songs on his just released current CD, Yes. I highly recommend the CD. It’s clever, smart and uplifting. It will make you happy, especially in moments when you don’t want to be. You will not want to give in to it but if you keep listening you will. Really good work does this. It wins you over.

Here are some of the song titles: Love Someone, Back to the Earth and Shine. Tell me you don’t want to loathe what you perceive to be sugary and saccharine in our quite ironic world. And…how is that working for you?

I might have had similar feelings, though perhaps not quite as strong, before I took a listen and then attended the show. Not surprisingly JM and Raining Jane took seven years to finish the CD, many of whose songs are performed live on the current 35-city tour. The results of the time and care taken to put it all together show and they just might surprise you.

Of course, that’s what great work and workers do. Every time.

Once again, Mr. Mraz and company are not paying me for what I’m saying. Nor should any of you feel obligated to.

It’s all part of the job I do here.

12 Chairs

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There were only two good things about spending seven tortuous days on jury duty last week.

  1. My fellow jurors – a perky group of twelve very smart people aged somewhere between 24 and, well, 60something, whose combined skin colors would have qualified us for a very snappy We Are the World video decades ago or, at the very least, a 1990s Benetton ad
  2. The fact that we awarded a 37 year-old working class guy with four kids  $600,000 in damages to be paid by his insurance company because three years ago they refused to pay the lousy $5000 they contractually owed him for the medical bills he accrued from an accident he didn’t even cause.

Yes, I know the company will appeal and that Carlos (not his real name, though he is Hispanic – a salient fact to be addressed later on) won’t get anywhere near that amount of money since…

a. The company will appeal

b. He will have to pay taxes on whatever money he does get, and

c. He will have to give a percentage of the money to his attorney.

Still, whatever is left will be a huge sum to Carlos – a man guilty of nothing more than getting hit by a fellow truck driver while he was driving his kids home from school and paying his premiums on time to this same insurance company every month for the last 13 years.  He is also a man who, up until Obamacare passed, could not afford health insurance but did make sure he paid extra for special medical coverage on his auto policy that insured some payment of medical bills to himself and the passengers in his car in case of an unforeseen accident.

I have spent a lifetime cleverly avoiding serving on a jury and for good reason.  It’s a tedious process mired in technicalities and legalese that interrupts your life and seems to seldom result in a verdict that sticks or that couldn’t have been decided just as well by someone else with more time on their hands than you. Plus, let’s face it – I’m a bit selfish.  Who wants to trudge an hour downtown every day and sit in a room full of people you don’t know when you could be…working at your job? Surfing the web?  Talking to your friends?  Eating? Venting?  Or perhaps even having ________?

Perhaps I should have tried the Liz Lemon method?

Perhaps I should have tried the Liz Lemon method?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to rush out a year from now and try to sign up again.  And honestly, I can’t even promise that I won’t try to postpone or get out of it some other way in the future if I do get that dreaded summons in the mail.  But I will forever realize from now on that in some tiny way our justice system does still occasionally work and will perhaps be persuaded to stand up for it a little bit more in the future.  That might not seem like a big deal to you but given the current wave of nationwide cynicism and weariness, particularly my own, about whether our system of government still works at all – or even a little – it is something well worth noting – and feeling.

Maybe my opinion is turning around

Maybe my opinion is turning around

I will not bore you with the minutiae of this case, mostly because I don’t think even a newly minted flag waver such as myself could live through it a second time without wanting to stab hot pokers into the sides of my head (and yours). But I do want to provide a few salient points of what a case could look like in the event you get called and think nothing you do will matter.  However, first some words about …

My Fellow Jurors: TWELVE NOT ANGRY MEN

Postcard from the Edge

Postcard from the Edge

There were actually eight women and four men, none of who were angry though one of us – that would be me – could probably be referred to as crabby.  And not only were we not pissed off but we were all smart, which goes against everything I’d ever heard about jury service.  Those urban legends go something like this:  They’ll never choose you once they know you went to college, they hate people who have strong opinions, they stay away from anyone with professional jobs and, most certainly, anyone having to do with show business – and, finally – they’ll never, EVER take a mouthy gay Jew from New York like you. (Note: The latter refers solely to moi, and is patently, and particularly, untrue).

Luckily, I never let it get that far

Luckily, I never let it get that far

Of course, none of the above is true.  Our group was comprised of two marketing executives, a high school principal, two college professors, a tech executive, an ad/media buyer, several social workers, a television producer and a student of criminology, among others.  And in thinking about it afterwards I also realized we were about as racially diverse as any ad promoting the justice system could hope for:  White, African American, Indian, Hispanic, Asian and probably one or two I left out. We didn’t get into religion but, well, this is wise not only for jury service but at any public gathering or, well, anything at all.

LISTENERS AND NOTE TAKERS

This was an especially complicated civil case involving endless health insurance claims, fraud and tedious power point presentations.  Quite often I felt as if I were back in high school chemistry class or lost in a loop of Ben Stein outtakes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but with a body double miming his own lines instead of the ones written by John Hughes.  Yet whenever my mind would wander I’d look around and see everyone else taking copious notes on the steno pads the court provided, trying to follow every word that I’d almost given up on.  They also maintained the required poker faces throughout while I often grimaced and rolled my eyes at some of the witnesses or arguments I deemed idiotic as if I were Lucy Ricardo being told she couldn’t afford to buy the new dress she wanted or didn’t have enough talent to be in show business.

Me... almost the whole time

Me… almost the whole time

CLEVER FUNSTERS

I like to think of myself as a resourceful, fun guy and maybe I am sometimes.  Still, this group more than kept up and, often, surpassed me.  I was particularly in awe that they all figured out days before I did that you could enter through the doorway on Grand Ave. and be three blocks closer to the parking garage as well as only one floor away from our courtroom instead of entering on Hill St., as I did, where you had to walk up and down numerous hilly (hee hee) streets in the hot afternoon and morning as well as travel up six additional stories in order to get to our designated location.

The Chair was a temporary cast member

The Chair was a temporary cast member

Not to mention, they all had much better initial excuses to get out of serving than I did.  My fave was the guy who cited reading Thomas Piketty’s current NY Times bestseller,  Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a reason for his bias against the corporate greed of the insurance industry.  A clever plea for elimination on a case where a behemoth corporation was being sued by the little guy but it didn’t work.  No excuses did.  All the lawyers seemed concerned with was that a juror would agree to “try and be fair.”  How do you adamantly refuse under oath to try to be fair without the fear of being cited for contempt of court?  #Youcant.

And finally, and most importantly, towards the end of what was becoming an endless trial of infinite facts, a bunch of these same compatriots came onboard with me when for diversion, during our breaks, I started a game called “redress the attorney.”  It came to my attention that the cheap dark beige and green suits some of the not bad-looking lawyers were wearing did nothing for them and I began to suggest copious color palettes that might help the matter.

Just call me Juror Gunn

Just call me Juror Gunn

Rather than this seeming like a “gay thing” a whole group of these said compatriots volunteered to play along and in the course of a few days we were able to re-outfit the entire courtroom in bold blues, maroons, grays and blacks.  In fact, we actually pondered whether to tell the attorneys what we came up with at the end of the trial and where to shop, particularly after we found out their individual fees were – $400 per hour. #BloomingdalesMensDept or #AtLeastTheory.

THE CASE

bringing the hammer down

bringing the hammer down

It’s not as much fun to write about this though it probably is more important.  The reason is that most of us do not have a chance if an insurance company decides for whatever reason not to pay your claim.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Few of us want to spend three years suing and giving depositions but THEY (nee the insurance guys and gals) are happy to.
  2. Very few of us keep records of every piece of paper and phone conversation we’ve ever had with one of THEIR representatives but THEY keep EVERYTHING. (Note: I am now an expert witness to that fact and have the residual brain freeze to prove it).
  3. No one, except perhaps Siri, remembers every name, date and location of every medical test and treatment they’ve ever been given and, certainly neither she nor even your own medical professional can properly justify each treatment you’ve ever received or are entitled to be reimbursed by under the terms of the fine print of THEIR contract.  But you’d better believe THEY can and most certainly WILL.

Which brings us back to the case.  In a nutshell, here’s what happened to Carlos.

One early afternoon three years ago he had picked up his kids, all under 12 at the time, from a bunch of different schools and was driving home in the slow lane of the freeway, minding his own business, when a very large truck hit the driver’s side of his car twice and caused him to two times bounce off against the rails of the roadway.  Luckily, only the car was hurt initially.

Predictably, Carlos just wanted to go back to work and ignore whatever pains he began having several days later but then, when his oldest daughter began experiencing some discomfort he was told by a buddy to contact an attorney he successfully used and sue the other driver.  Carlos was inclined to do this because his own insurance company had lied to him and told him he was not entitled to be reimbursed by them for any doctor bills resulting from the accident even though he indeed was. (Note:  They later claimed this was merely their own “clerical” mistake that went on for several months).

How it all started

How it all started

In any event, his 12 year-old daughter received treatment and his insurance company (THEY)  finally paid her bills, albeit at a reduced rate.  But Carlos, whose doctor-ordered MRI revealed he had a disc bulge, was refused payment for his claims by his insurance company (aka THEM).  What followed were months and then years of:

– Accusations that Carlos’ attorney was trying to hide settlement money he received from a successful lawsuit suit with the other driver (Note: Legally his insurance company (aka THEY) still MUST PAY for his medical bills regardless of money received from elsewhere).

– Charges that Carlos went to a dubious medical clinic because one of its many co-owners had previously been accused, but never convicted, of medical fraud, and…

– Implications, then later assertions, that Carlos’ reputable Century City attorney was really a scammer whose entire career consisted of going after insurance carriers and their shady dealings and, hence, could not be trusted to ever reveal the entire truth to said company (aka THEM) about anything.

Of course, none of this admittedly had anything to do with Carlos personally and he was at no time accused by his insurer (THEM) of lying.  However, because his insurance reps (THEY again) were suspicious of the lawyer and medical facility he happened on to, Carlos, his four children and his wife (who was not in the car at the time of the accident but signed forms as the guardian of his children) were put on a permanent watch list in the state of California of people who have been investigated for insurance fraud – a list from which none of their names can EVER be removed.

Seriously?

Seriously?

Never mind that all of his children were years away from driving.  For the rest of their lives, as well as the lives of their parents, all of these names will bounce back whenever any of them applies for insurance of any kind and they will in turn be put in a special pile of high risk insurers where, well….it’s not so cheap or easy to get covered.  Not for now and not in the unforeseeable future.  It’s sort of like that awful boss who always remembers that one mistake you didn’t make that cost him money or the kid who keeps bringing up the time you peed in your pants during elementary school even though it was really just water that squirted on you when you were trying to take a drink from a faulty fountain on a particularly hot day.

I’m sure I left stuff out but that’s it in a nutshell.  No, I didn’t mention the female thirtysomething insurance special investigator who used to work at a gym prior to her six-month training course as an S.I.. for THEM and her penchant for wandering unannounced into medical facilities with her camera expecting to take pictures and interview doctors and technicians about their professional practices while she taped everything they said.  Nor did I speak about the expert THEY put on the witness stand who said that THEIR investigation of Carlos’ claim was one of the best he’d seen in two decades of work despite the fact that said company (THEY again) readily admitted that for two full months after he filed his claim Carlos was consistently told by THEM he was NOT entitled to the medical coverage he had indeed paid for.

Okay, so– what do you do about a case like this?  I mean, I certainly don’t spend as much time on my own medical forms though God knows I (and you) clearly should.

Well, you consider all the points made, look at your notes and try to boil it down to who filed the case and why.  For me, it was much like working on a complicated screenplay or story of any kind where, at the end of the day, it’s really all about your main character and what he or she wants.

Renaming the Jury Room the Writers' Room

Renaming the Jury Room the Writers’ Room

When you throw out all the superfluous, brain-breaking information it was all about Carlos (our main character) and whether he deserved to have his medical bills paid under the terms of what he had inarguably purchased. And when boiled down to that the verdict became crystal clear.  Not only for me but for 11 of the 12 jurors.   This is known as a clear decision in a civil trial such as this where you only need a two-thirds majority on one side to render a verdict.

(Note:  Our lone holdout never faulted Carlos but didn’t believe his lawyer had proven enough of his case according to the law, a subjective conclusion but certainly understandable considering the law is not too specific on how much proof is enough).

So we rule in favor of Carlos and agree he gets his medical bills and attorney fees paid for by THEM.  The question remaining is – what amount, if any, are we willing to reward him on the third part of the suit – unspecified damages for mental distress.  Well, at this point my instinct is to give a large cash reward to each and every juror who has had to listen to three years of the tedious hell of millions of insurance claims but clearly that is not an option.  So — how do you put a dollar value on distress without becoming what my grandmother used to say, a schnorrer (Yiddish for a sponger or beggar for money). Well, luckily, the day was over and we’d have the night to think about it before deciding the next morning because by then all of us in the deliberation room were totally farshtunken (Yiddish for rotting)

My parting gift to all of the jurors

My parting gift to all of the jurors

That evening, after venting endlessly to myself since legally I was still forbidden to discuss the case with anyone, including the Significant Other, I thought a lot about Carlos, his four children and his wife and I couldn’t help but wonder: if he and his family had gone to one of the more upscale L.A. doctors I have access to – the ones who went to the fancier schools and have offices in better zip codes where they cater to patients like me who can afford to pay as they go and then fight for reimbursement on another day –would they have been treated the way that they were?  Then I began to wonder even further: if he had my name rather than one of Hispanic origin (or even the title of Chair) would even that have made the difference?

Well, we’ll never know, will we?  But I certainly have feelings about it.  As do you.  Still, a legal case is not about feelings, it’s about facts.  Then suddenly –  it hit me.

What is the price of being put on a lifelong fraud list when you never committed fraud and never even came close to doing so?  What is the cost to Carlos and his wife, both in their thirties, and moreover, what is the lifelong cost to their four children – all minors who right now don’t have their own insurance policies but will have this accusation dogging them for their rest of their lives?

I concoct my own financial rewards formula that night and consider if I’ve lost my mind when I total the dollar amount.  I then share my reasoning with my fellow jurors the following day (with a mea culpa that though I might now be crazy, even crazy people like me can be committed to what they think is right and that I came up with the only alternative I could, short of revolution, that seemed truly fair).

so-sane-i-just-blew-your-mind

To my great surprise, not only did every color of the rainbow in our little Benetton ad agree but the amount of what they believed were distress damages to Carlos and his family began to increase – greatly – meaning, by A LOT – the more we discuss.

Eventually we decide to throw out the highest figure ($6,000,000!) and the lowest ($100,000) and each of us begin to compromise in either direction. Hence the $600,000 number.  Maybe it sounded like a lot when I started writing this but now, somehow, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

In any event, we get back into court and the judge announces the verdict.   Carlos’ attorney, who is today thankfully finally wearing the black suit instead of the beige one (Note: Did he hear me?) jumps back in shock when he hears the damages figure.  The attorney forthe insurance company (aka THEM) – that, fyi, had record profits in excess of $1.3 billion last year – as well as its rep, are floored.   As for Carlos, one of my fellow jurors told me she later saw him quietly sitting outside the courtroom, trying to hide several tears forming around the corners of his eyes.

Yeah, sometimes this is how justice works.  I’m going to try to and remember that, not to mention the shortcut you can take to get into the courthouse.  Though I won’t need the latter for at least a year, and hopefully never.  If I play my cards right.  Which I don’t do nearly enough.

 

Stereotype Sundae

BIGGAY4

When I read that something called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop will open in downtown L.A. this spring I was surprised on four counts.

  1. That we’ve come so far that someone has decided to be ridiculous enough to think they could open up a business called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and make any money.
  1.  That someone had determined this name wouldn’t offend a significant group of people, perhaps some of them even homosexuals.
  1. That there were already TWO existing and hugely popular Big Gay Ice Cream Shops in New York (the first one opened two and a half years ago), which were spawned by its mobile forerunner, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, and that they were all created by not one but TWO…Big Gay Men.

AND

  1.  That I – a smaller but probably just as big of heart gay man – didn’t know about any of this and initially thought it was all just one big dumb, and questionably borderline, gag.

So much for my hipness factor.

Well, by comparison, I'm still pretty hip.

OK  – I guess I could be worse…

This all raises a much broader question – what is a stereotype these days and do you marginalize yourself or the particular group of people you belong to by embracing, portraying and perhaps even BEING (or condemning?) the stereotype?

Stereotype:

1. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.

2. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.

Are the two owners of The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop stereotypically gay?  Well, in some ways not at all.  They are very successful, independent entrepreneurs who started a business from ground zero simply by selling ice cream out of a food truck and in just a few years they have three stores in the two biggest cities in the U.S. and are making lots and lots of money.   Clearly, that is a rarity these days.

Yet in some ways they are totally stereotypical – two middle aged homosexuals with a self-professed campy dream who are snide and funny and have a penchant for the eighties TV show The Golden Girls.  Not only that, but GG star Bea Arthur is their store mascot (along with a unicorn) and one of their offerings is indeed named The Bea Arthur – an ice cream cone with vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche and crushed ‘nilla wafers. 

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Inside The Big Gay

Not to mention this side note: Each frozen delight they serve is spotlighted on their website by an array of customers holding up or eating a particular item.  From a sociological standpoint I was particularly intrigued by the two prepubescent boys holding up two cups of ice cream called The Gobbler (pumpkin butter and maple syrup or apple butter and bourbon butterscotch, pie pieces and whipped cream).

Uh…two young boys holding up creamy products advertising menu items from The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop?  If this were the Bible Belt (or even Orange County) there would at best be lawsuits and neighborhood outcries and at worst…well, I don’t want to go there.

Perhaps it’s evidence of how far we’ve come that people’s minds do not “go to that place” of stereotype anymore – meaning somehow connecting anything gay –centric or owned by gay men with the abuse or indoctrination of young boys.  (Perhaps?!) When I was growing up – not all that long ago – this would NEVER EVER EVER have been possible.  And I am still ambulatory, have my eyesight (sort of), and am able to roller skate.

Still got it!

Still got it!

How much diversity do you see within your life, the lives of those within your minority group or how you’re represented in the media and how much is enough?  (Note: Everybody at some point feels as if they are in some kind of minority, even if they’re in the majority). If you’re gay do you proudly proclaim you love Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler in your off hours as a hairdresser, but only at times when you’re not redecorating your apartment or cruising for men clad in leather chaps? Or what about the flip side of the problem, posed by a young African American comedian I saw some decades ago (but whose name I can’t recall, darn it!).  He claimed to have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever (and he didn’t) yet had to embarrassingly prove it to disbelieving people who insisted he demonstrate because a rhythmless Black man didn’t seem humanly possible to them.

One supposes stereotypes do cut both ways – some traits you’d prefer to have (or do have), others you are a bit embarrassed to have (but why?) and still others are a perceived exaggeration of traits attributed to ALL people of your tribe you don’t want anything to do with.

This issue becomes a little more difficult for writers and other artists when representing those minority groups and problematic for audiences who are the spectators.  Just what is your obligation to your crew (or to other peoples’ crews?) Do you have to go out of your way to find a gay guy that doesn’t like Judy (NOTE: I do love her and for some reason most of us do call her Judy) or not show gay men continuously searching for sex?  After all, aren’t most guys – gay AND straight – continually searching for sex, at least in the back of their minds?

The premiere of HBO’s new half hour show about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, presents exactly this challenge.  Starring the very amiable and charming Jonathan Groff, the show seems to consist mostly of a subset of a subset of gay men – urban guys who are mostly dark haired, with varying degrees of facial beards (except for Mr. Groff’s nubile young guy) who mostly look for sex.  It is only in-between that they do a variety or artistic jobs or work as waiters.  Stereotypical?  Well, most certainly.  But all of it or just in certain parts?  And are the characters really stereotypes or just merely post-modern representations of people who, as a given, are a lot more than just that (Sex in the City, anyone?). Well, I for one am not quite sure yet.

4 Non Blondes

4 Non Blondes

By the end of the episode, I – a gay man who has lived some sort of existence in various shades of stereotype – felt as if I had absolutely nothing in common with these guys – nor did I ever.  For one thing, they were much freer than I ever was sexually when I was younger and for another, their friendships and relationships felt so flighty and superficial that I probably would have ran away from them rather than to want to touch them or even gravitate anywhere near them.  (Note:  Or perhaps bitch about their superficiality behind their backs, which makes me another form of gay stereotype, sorry to say).

Of course, as a television show this is both entertainment and a fantasy.  Do we bridle that the rich and powerful Grayson family on Revenge distort patriarchal relationships or that Nurse Jackie is an all-too ridiculous take on people who work in hospitals?  Probably not.  But mostly because there have been hundreds of hospital centered shows with other images (St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, even General Hospital) and thousands of rich, screwed up, primarily heterosexually oriented families on nighttime time soaps (Dynasty, Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives – gay sensibility though they all were – and do not make me get into the latter).

But how many television series almost solely about gay men have there really been?   (Hint:  You can count them on less than one hand).    That puts an unjust burden on the creators of Looking and it’s an unfair one for a dramatist whose only real job is to tell a story the way it happened or happens in his or her mind.  Dallas Buyers Club, the current historical drama about a straight man with AIDS in the 1980s, was criticized for its narrow focus on its homophobic lead character – a straight guy with AIDS who subverts the status quo and sells unapproved drugs that prolong his life and the lives of others (mostly gay men) – because it leaves out all the simultaneous other proactive steps hundreds of gay groups across the country took at the time in getting their own illegal drugs and protesting the government in other ways that prolonged their own lives.

how-to-survive-a-plage-poster-article

the other Ron Woodroofs

Yet the sad truth is that a narrow focus is sometimes needed in order to maximize dramatic impact in narrative work.  And if you reject that notion entirely consider this question:  What IS that writer to do – not write roles in stories that will likely win its two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the male acting Oscars this year?  (Uh, not a chance of that).  Just what is the obligation to history, realism and representation when you want to create a satisfying and dramatic story, or live a satisfying, if not at times dramatic, life.

Members of most minority groups would probably answer it this way — don’t give YOURSELF majority status in our overall story when you were really a minority. Don’t leave our real stories out, don’t represent us as one or two stereotypes and DO NOT act as if you’re doing us a favor by merely showing us onscreen at all or say that we’re classically “oversensitive” for complaining at all.  Does that mean we don’t make films like Philadelphia, Gentleman’s Agreement or Schindler’s List anymore?  Okay, now my head is really spinning – all dizzying gay man clichés be damned.

In the case of Looking its creators and lead actor are openly gay and are working for HBO –a network that pretty much allows talent to do almost anything they please.  So one can assume they are telling this story from a personal  POV (which is all any writer can really do) and letting the chips fall where they may.  Yet is that enough or do they (or you, or I?) need to think about being more inclusive, less stereotypical, and overall more universal when writing about ourselves and the rest of our group/crew/tribe or….? It’s the tricky challenge of all this.

I teach my students the more specific you are about a character the more universal you will be.  But if all your characters are of a rarefied subset group of still another group subset and not varied enough – well, their behavior might be real or true to life for you but could easily bore the hell out of everyone else.  I mean, no one’s real life is consistently THAT interesting over the long periods of time that a television series represents.  Not even Oprah’s – trust me, it isn’t.  You only think it is because of the wide variety of people we’ve gotten to see her talking to.

Well, I didn't say not luxurious

Well, I didn’t say her life wasn’t more luxurious

I learned this the hard way many years ago as a young reporter and then-movie publicist attending one too many red carpet events.   I don’t even know when I finally knew I’d had it but perhaps it was when I was a guest at the premiere of A Few Good Men – one of the most lavish affairs I ever remember attending.  It was at the ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel, there was a full orchestra, great food and Tom and Nicole were right next to me and everyone else, holding hands and walking from table to table along with all of the other stars and most of Hollywood.  At one time this would be dazzling, exciting, unplugged and unleashed fun and decadence.  Yet after so many of these it felt like being the plus one at the wedding of your much richer and more desirable cousin in whose shadow you had always stood in at a time when you were finally ready to be the movie star of your own life.  It looked good and on the surface it would tell a great story but when you really thought about the people and everything that was going on, there was not much there there.

In short, it bore no relation to your truth.  Though this might be different for those who were a part of the film, or fans who very much enjoyed what these people had made and were just happy to be invited to whatever party was being thrown.    Maybe part of the mission in life is to create your own party  – a thought that might sound stereotypical but in reality an action that you can make original and appealing to a lot more people than yourself if you work it the right way.

** Special Chair Note: This week we will begin listing each blog by subject matter with a corresponding and stylish post-it note on the left hand side of the page.  They will then be archived by that category for easier future access.  For your convenience, our beloved Holly Van Buren – editor, photo chooser, and caption writer extraordinaire, has gone back and archived every blog (yes, that’s all 165!) under one of six categories.  Just click on the subject links at the top of the page you are interested in and you will be able to read your favorite posts from the past (Thanks Holly!).  Also, remember to click on the title of each week’s post at the top of the page (e.g. Stereotype Sundae) – in order to access that week’s song!