Minority Reports

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Everyone feels marginalized at one time or another even when they’re not.  You know it when it happens to you – even when you’re generally safe, comfortable and in the majority.  It’s the moment when you perceive you’re not being treated fairly or the time where you helplessly watch as an undeserving person or group achieves a goal that should’ve been bestowed on you or yours.  Or, at the very least shouldn’t have been theirs.

The downside of this is that furor reaches a tipping point – sometimes nationally or even internationally – and sends the planet into chaos.

The upside is it’s responsible for great art.  And sometimes even change.  And, in rare times, both.

The above accounts for the national temper tantrum currently being thrown by White America via the Tea Party (uh yeah, they’re mostly WHITE) and the determination of their national representatives to shut down as much government as possible under the rule of that Kenyan Muslim Communist Marxist or just plain Black President Barack Obama.

But it is also reflected in such boundary pushing current movies as 12 Years a Slave, Blue is The Warmest Color and Dallas Buyers Club.  If it were not for the miscarriages of justice each illustrates on the part of the African-American, gay, female and poor and sick communities, none of these films would exist in their current form.

No one wants to support human suffering in the name of potentially great art – except perhaps a writer or two.  As a member of the general population of the latter group, I must admit I have wondered where I’d be creatively were it not for the traumatic moments in my childhood that I managed to spin into stories of snide yet noble survival that reflected what I perceived to be some of my own unfair misfortune (Note: Is there fair misfortune? Something to think about).

Jury's still out on this one.

Jury’s still out on this one.

Still, that’s an entirely other, too personal subject and strays away from the main point.  In clear-minded moments I choose to believe if given the option I would gladly trade in the art in for a more blissful beginning.  But deep down I’m not so sure if, knowing the eventual good outcome, that kind of trade would even be possible.

No one is safe from perceived oppression even if the facts are that you’re not particularly oppressed.  That’s because human nature being what it is, we will all experience real slights, often based on nothing more than the way we look or what particular group we’ve been marginalized into via race, religion, body size, sex or sexual preference, athletic skill, age, money (too much or too little) or some other incendiary category. (Note: Yes, some slights, though they may be real hurts to you, do pale against the more big-ticket items).

The question is: what do you do to counter, cope or overthrow what’s going on – or what you think is going on?  How do you marshal the forces to get your point across? What creates change, or at least catharsis?  How long does it take?  How do you live with it?  Or better yet – can we ever eliminate it all together and, well….all just get along?

Not likely.   But as we currently say – eventually – it gets better.  No one movie or song or TV show will do it and it will likely not happen in a sinlge year.  And certainly our political systems move at a snail’s pace – even as they’re prodded by art and cultural upheaval.  Often it takes generations and creates change so glacial and imperceptible for the current generation that it becomes difficult for them to really understand the severity of what existed decades before they were even bought into or became part of the world.

Last weekend I watched both 12 Years a Slave and Blue is the Warmest Color back to back – and bully for me because that’s 5 and a half straight hours of dramatic filmmaking, a rarity these days – I became acutely aware of how similar all of our struggles against oppression are.  And yet, how individual and dissimilar certain elements of them are when we’re put into the position of watching them dramatically unfold in no consecutive order other than the timing at the scheduled movie theater and screening.

Serious stuff.

Serious stuff.

12 Years a Slave was my first lesson – and yes, it often felt that way.  There will be no spoilers here other than to state what you already know from the title and the trailer.  An upscale free Black man with a loving wife and family from the North gets snatched off the street in the mid-1800s and sold as a slave to the South in the halcyon days of the Confederacy.  Much of the movie is rightfully grotesque and hideous as we watch this classic case of the worst kind of mistaken (or perhaps engineered) identity play out.  This is not a Gone with the Wind, Amistad or even Django Unchained kind of story.  Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, both of whom are Black, are determined to tell the unvarnished truth of what it meant centuries ago to be a human being who is owned by other humans in much the same way that a farmer owns any animal that he intends to use for work and/or eventual (perhaps even likely) slaughter.

There is rightness to this film, if for no other reason than to make up for the century old legacy of movies that have presented slavery as anything more nuanced than the above.  But there is also a heavy dramatic price to pay for what we’re watching.  Countless repetitious moments of bloody torture.  A mostly one-sided depiction of cruelty by broadly drawn villains from another time.  Rarefied dialogue that often feels written – alternating between speechy or spoken in a period syntax that occasionally comes off as grandly Shakespearean or just a little too plain grand.

ACTING!

ACTING!

And yet – you can’t leave the theater unhappy that this movie was made or that it is getting some attention.  No, this is not liberal guilt.  This simply is.  Why hasn’t a big, solely dramatic movie ever been made that gives us such an unrelenting picture of what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of being a slave?  Has it really taken this long?  And why has it taken this long?  This story, and the book it is based on, has been around for decades.

On the other hand, as someone who likes multi-layered plots and characters I couldn’t help but feel that I was being left behind for some broader political statement that was being made – one that has been earned but one that is, in the final analysis, not very complex.  I don’t want the Southern White guys to get off too easily as simply monsters from another era.  I wanted to see more depth, more layers of perceived oppressions from both sides – strange as that sounds.  What is it an old writing teacher once told me – a hero is only as well written as the villain who is oppressing him.  In this case, there’s not much there there.

In light of the rave reviews and overwhelmingly positive cultural reaction so far to 12 Years A Slave (Note: Cue the news shows, the talk circuit, the awards and the Oprah), as I write this I’m feeling as White Male Privileged as I’ve ever felt.  That is even if, in my mind, I’ve never really felt a part of that fortunate majority as a short, gay, Jew.  Is it because this is not my history that this movie didn’t resonate for me in the way that…uh….Schindler’s List or, well, Parting Glances did? Perhaps.  But as an American this IS my history.  Or is it?  Well, let’s just say it’s part of my history – actually our history.  Whether we’re Americans or not, we are all human.

Feeling Blue?

Feeling Blue?

Blue is the Warmest Color has another issue.  It is a three-hour French film with no plot other than what will happen in a love relationship.  Will the lovers stay together or will they break up?  Usually a movie logline continues and sets the relationship against –-

  1. The backdrop of war
  2. Feuding families
  3. A skating or piano competition
  4. A boxing match.

It is to this film’s credit – and partly due to the fact that it is French because no one makes better and more leisurely films about romance than they do – that Blue offers no such counterpoint.  Oh, well other than the fact that in this case these two lovers are both FEMALE – nee GAY.

The achievement here is that the gay is fairly incidental in this love story.  Perhaps that is why it was so widely lauded as the Grand Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival and is on every critical prognosticator’s list of top films of the year thus far.  Can the fact that there is a film starring two gay characters that doesn’t really seem like it should be a considered a film that primarily examines gay issues be considered, in itself, progressive?  Oddly enough, yes.

A gay mentor of mine from the early eighties who is no longer around once said to me that it is when we treat being gay as an integrated and almost incidental part of our characters in books, movies and on television that we’ll know we’ve made real progress.  In this case I think he was right, as he was on many subjects, though it pains me that partly because of our lack of progress on gay issues at the time of his death he is no longer around to see his pronouncement become a reality.

OK peel me off the floor

OK peel me off the floor

I am again not engaging in spoilers when I tell you that Blue traces the sexual awakening of a high school girl who instantly becomes fascinated with a blue-haired young woman four years older and many more years experienced than she is. But beyond its very initial stages, the story pretty much ignores the LESBIAN issue in favor of what happens when two matched yet mismatched young people fall in love.  It’s leisurely, evocative, erotic and very real.  And it is especially, for this type of film, very long.

In Blue, character doesn’t enrich the plot – character IS the plot.  There is nothing else.  Gay, shmay.  It’s not about that.  Which is part of what I loved about the movie.  And part of why I suspect I could so relate to it and didn’t particularly mind the length.  My romanticized versions of some of my early relationships were reflecting back at me from the screen – all I had to do was change a few body parts.  Okay, I wasn’t a high school girl but I certainly felt like a high school girl, at least archetypically, in the midst of those experiences.  And now, in one of those rare times, I was watching them being played out onscreen– in French, no less!!

On the surface, I didn’t at all wonder why I ultimately preferred Blue over 12.  I’m much more of a love story guy than a historical action guy.  But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was more than that.  Who we are and what we’ve experienced is the window through which we feel and it will significantly determine how we’re moved and why we’re moved.  It is the reason why I keep not going to screenings of Dallas Buyers Club, a movie set in the mid-80s AIDS crisis where there were no effective drugs available and at a time where primarily gay men in the US were getting sick and quickly dying at record speed.

The skinny on Matt

The skinny on Matt

I watched the bodies of too many people I knew involuntarily emaciate the way the film’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey voluntarily did when he went on a 1300 calorie a day diet to lose 49 lbs and become a skeletal version of his onscreen persona.  Never mind that he plays a heterosexual, bigoted White Texan – the image more than works for me.  Actually, too well.  Though I will see the movie and, at least from the trailer, it feels accurate, I’m not rushing out to the theater.  Yes, just as we need to relate our experiences to what we view and who we empathize with, the contrary is also true – some things can, at their very core, hit even much too close to home.  And you just need to gird yourself in order to get in the mood.

That is not to say that a story of Black America can’t move me as much or more as a love story between two contemporary gays, or even a plethora of dying gays and the friends thereof.  Only that, all things being fairly equal (which they never are) I can probably forgive a lot more in a film about the latter two because they more closely resonate to where I’ve been and who, at heart, I perceive I am.

As a wee child in the 1960’s through today, I have always believed, spoken and written that the struggles of each oppressed or marginalized minority were on some basic level the same.  That is the fight for equality and acceptance – the acknowledgement by others that we be considered no different than the person next door despite how we looked or where we came from.

I now see it is somewhat deeper than that.  Until we can recognize that there are some struggles that we can never fully understand, but yet can honor in the same way as our own, we will never quite be free of our divisive pasts.  This is not to proclaim I think about 12 Years a Slave any differently.  Only that I acknowledge that, given who I am, my perceptions about art and a lot of other things, are merely opinions rendered through my own personal lens.  This is equally true for everyone else on the planet – a fact that might be worth remembering next time we bridle at the radical personal, business or political statements of protest that comes from someone on the other side of an issue we might think we clearly see.

The Big Yawn

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You’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead!”  — Aunt Nan.

Broadway legend Patti LuPone played a character based on my Aunt Nan in the 1993 movie I wrote called Family Prayers, so my thinking is this – any advice given by a person who readers, executives and audiences (okay, it was a small audience, but still…) uniformly embraced as a film character should be taken seriously.  And if you knew Nanie (my nickname for her), sort of a cross between a real life Auntie Mame and a white Pearl Bailey (younger people might want to substitute a more grounded, earthy version of Jessica Walter on Arrested Development or in Archer) you’d be scared not to.

Two sassy bitches

Aunt Nan and Lucille Bluth: two sassy bitches

Still, I wouldn’t be her nephew if from time to time I didn’t take a moment to, like her – sit back perched on my sofa, drink in hand, and totally disobey an authority figure (even if it is her) as I utter exactly what I think in the moment.  In this case, it boils down these four words:

I AM SOOOOOOOOOO EXHAUSTED!!!!

Stop complaining, you say.  It’s not like you’re working down in the coal mines or, to use a more contemporary reference, are in danger of being subjected to another season of Smash.  To this I answer (as Nanie would) – go to hell or, to use a more contemporary analogy, go bury yourself in a sea of Justin Bieber tweets.  Someone has to speak the truth and I’m the ingrate to do it.  At least today.  Tomorrow might bring out a nicer, more constructive me – the kind some of you (but not all) have grown used to.  But that’s only if I get a good four nights of sleep and I am able to time travel to my favorite moments in 1968 and 1973 and 1984 with all the knowledge and empowerment I have right now and take care of a few people and things as I wave a magic wand and wipe out laser disks, 8 tracks and any trace of Michael Bay movies for all of eternity.  So don’t dress.

This current wave of vitriol-spewing sloth was brought on by too much work, too little exercise, too many personal and professional mini-crises to handle in the last few months and a profound lack of sleep that we all suffer from time to time.  In other words, everyday life.   It might also have to do with the anticipation of the next weeks, which are renowned to be a trying time for college professors worldwide as they settle down to read tens of thousands of papers, screenplays and other written material, attempting to  constructively critique and objectively rate (translation – give a grade to) work that is totally subjective and un-rateable in less time than it takes to turn out a very bad episode of the worst and most offensive reality show on television.  Fill in your title of choice on this one – mine is Keeping up with the Kardashians.  Sorry (not really) Kim.

In an effort to be fair to both students and readers given these circumstances, I thought it was only good form to get some of this out of my system.  After all, experts tell us the best way to revitalize is to unload your burdens either through physical activity or mental excavation as you relax and unwind via one or several of the many millions of methods available.   Though I know the former is better in the long run I much prefer the latter – especially when I can subject others to it and get it out of my house of cards and into  yours uh – theirs.  And since we know misery loves company, perhaps some of this will help re-invigorate a few of you to add to the list — or simply re-appropriate stuff from mine and allow me some additional extra relief.

(Cautionary Note: Obviously I’m too tired to care what happens once these thoughts leave what’s left of my brain, so — beware.)

REASONS FOR CONTEMPORARY EXHAUSTION IN THIS ONE PARTICULAR WEEK IN 2013 AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT:

ZACH BRAFF KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN BACKLASH

That's over 2 million, haters.

That’s over 2 million, haters.

Zach Braff has raised more than $2 million in three days to finance an independent movie ten years after he was nominated for an Oscar for writing and directing the film Garden State.  Question: Why does this bother ANYONE?  How does this take away money from poor filmmakers?  Don’t you know that studios don’t even want to make movies with live action people anymore, much less small quirky stories that have no sequel or Happy Meal/App potential?  Garden State was a cool film.  I wish I had done it and want to see more like it.  So – wait for it – I gave him money.  As I regularly do to projects from former students and other poor people.  If you’re spending time hating on ZB, you’re not working at your own stuff.  Get. Over. Yourself.  Meanwhile I’ll see you (not!) at the rough-cut screening I’m invited to next year.  Wearing my free T-shirt.  And carrying my autographed copy of the script.  So there.

RYAN MURPHY PONTIFICATING FROM THE MOUNT

You know how we feel, Ryan.

You know how we feel, Ryan.

I admire Ryan Murphy and love that he’s a creative force in the industry.  American Horror Story is one of my favorite shows on TV.  Glee helped so many kids with self-esteem issues and was a lot of fun (well, at least during the first two seasons).  But if I read one more article telling me Ryan has been known to tell his writing staffs things like “I’m obsessed with the color orange right now.  Figure out a way we can do a tribute to orange”; hear one more anecdote about him and his husband and their perfect son who was born through a surrogate; or click on one more video where Ryan is showing off the overpriced personal artifacts he had flown from all over the world into his heavy handedly-designed sprawling L.A. house, I’m going to pull what little hair is remaining in my scalp out and will be as bald as he is. (And I don’t have the budget for his cool hats).  Ryan – you’re wonderful. Please, please, please – for the love of God (or whoever you believe Her to be) – STOP.  Less is the new….More.

AMANDA BYNES-BASHERS

Yeesh. Turn the cameras off.

Yeesh. Turn the cameras off.

There is nothing funny or even newsworthy about young, formerly hot actresses roaming the city streets as they tweet inappropriate words and thoughts about their private body parts and looking confused after they shave off half of their hair.  I don’t know this young woman.  I wasn’t ever a fan or a foe.  And I have a pretty sick sense of humor and a fairly devout passion against censorship.  But contrary to what some comedians claim, some jokes about some people are just not right in that moment.  Lindsay Lohan being trailed across the world by the paparazzi day in and day out as she slowly implodes and explodes is no more entertaining than the photos of the late, great crack-addicted sad story Amy Winehouse wandering the streets of London or falling down onstage as she warbled off key with barely a vestige of her unique, once-in-a-lifetime voice.  Last week I saw the brilliant British actress Tracie Bennett sing and act the part of Judy Garland at the end of her life onstage in The End of the Rainbow.  It was amazing work and captured a woman who was funny, sad and, even at her drug-addled end, still able to pull together her amazing talent.  Many of these young women today are not as fortunate.  And it’s far from amusing.

VEGAN-ESE

I think you know what this looks like to me..

I think you know what this looks like to me..

I love my vegan friends, eat no red meat myself and very much enjoy salads and vegetables.  But tempeh and tofu are not chicken and burgers.  They are perfectly acceptable proteins on their own if one so chooses.  So why, why, why are they constantly being referred to as such in vegan restaurants and by food writers and the mass media?  Also, full confession:  I willingly eat a little cheese.  It’s not the end of the world.  As Ava Gardner says in an attempt to calm Howard Hughes at the height of his OCD in Martin Scorcese’s very underrated The Aviator – “Nothing’s clean, Howard.  But we do our best, right?”

BRANDING

Pick your own cattle prod!

Pick your own cattle prod!

Can’t anything just be what it is anymore?  Why does it have to be a part of or spawn countless subsets?  Granted, we are all a bit of something else – our parents, our families, mankind, people who survived George W. Bush.  But do we have to constantly be reminded of it?  I remember watching the original Bonanza as a kid in the 1960s (look it up) and it often featured cattle and fire branding.  Does everyone need to have a prime Grade A logo of a commodity burnt into their unique flesh, or in this day and age tattooed, onto their arm, behinds or latest piece of work in order to be deemed worthy?  As a gay, Jewish, intellectual, brown-haired (sort of), writer, teacher, one who lives in a domestic partnership, and someone who is part of the group that is on the very end cusp of the baby boomer generation, and even larger and more notable group, I say — NOT!

 

WORST ALLERGY SEASON EVER

My best chance of survival this spring..

My best chance of survival this spring..

You don’t want to know how many pills, inhalers and shots I do daily and monthly in order to maintain my current state of precarious health.  I don’t need to constantly be reminded about how bad the air is in comparison to what it was 25 years ago or warned that the next month, year or decade will be even worse.  Logic, headaches, a cloudy state of mind, sight and my mood tell me this.  And if you write in and tell me it’s because I am not vegan I will personally brand you a non-Belieber and let you know my worst allergy of all is to nuts – a staple of the majority of vegan foods.  Incidentally, this was discovered when, as a 3-year-old, my parents tried to shut me up in the back seat of a car with a can of Planters mixed nuts and instead had to rush me to the hospital.  It didn’t work for them then.  It won’t work for you now.

SPEAKING OF BELIEBERS…

In lieu of a pic of Beiber, here's Jon Hamm walking his dog.

In lieu of a pic of Beiber, here’s Jon Hamm walking his dog.

Stop saying Justin Bieber looks like a lesbian.  Lesbians are much cooler and hipper.  He’s an adolescent with a gabillion dollars who can sing and dance well in a very mainstream, non-threatening sort of way.  He didn’t have much schooling (you sooo don’t want to tell me about the school of life) — of course he doesn’t understand the ramifications of publicly asking in writing via the guest book at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam whether Anne Frank would have been a Belieber?  What is wearying is how much more time was spent on that rather than on the contents of Anne’s diary during this or any other month of the year and/or decade.

DUBYA REDUX

On display at the Bush Library... where to start?

Maybe I should have posted another Jon Hamm pic?

By any objective intellectual or polling standard, George W. Bush was THE worst American president in modern times and perhaps of all times.  I can’t blame him for wanting to open a library and reinvent his legacy but I can blame the media and his paid consultants and friends for playing fast and loose with the facts during his time in office.   To wit: 1.  The attacks of 9/11 spearheaded by the master terrorist he was warned about over and over again in writing — Osama Bin Laden. 2. The worst crash of the American economy since the great Depression. 3. Record deficits from record inherited financial surpluses left to him by impeached president Bill (@PrezBillyJeff for those in the Colbert Nation) Clinton. 3. The debacle of Hurricane Katrina. 4. Trumped up evidence to finance the costliest and perhaps most pre-determined war in American history – The Iraq War.

Fact:  It’s all a matter of public record.  Creating an interactive presidential videogame at the Bush 43 library doesn’t change anything, especially since it doesn’t include all of the top secret, classified information any American president is privy to at the time they make their decisions, to play with.

Lesson:  When your game is rigged, you can’t ever look really bad – that is, unless people refuse to play the game you’re offering.  Reality:  Despite the touted polls, most of us are not playing and Bush was not and never will be a really good play-ah.

 

SHORT TAKES:

SNACKS1

  • Matt Lauer and Ann Curry have broken up.  Everyone: Let. It. Go.
  •  A change in your routine – any change at all – can be exhausting at first but WILL provide a spark of life and a tad of energy after a few seconds.
  •  James Franco is in too many places at once.  I simply get weary thinking of him.
  •  Writing anything in a journal for 15 minutes first thing in the morning can do wonders for your mood the rest of the day (This advice is appropriated from Julia Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artists’ Way).
  •  Any students or people who use the word its instead of it’s (it’s = it is) or there instead of their (there = over there) should be forced to watch a full season of Keeping Up with theKardashians, culminating with Kim’s wedding.  On a loop.  For a year. (Or perhaps they already have and this is the reason for their misusage).
  • Exercise of any kind (use your imagination) makes you less tired in the long run.  The question is, how do you make yourself do it. (Branding? Cattle prod?)
  •  High art fans who think highly of themselves:  Stop pretending you’ve never seen a sitcom, soap opera or reality show.  Ever.  And get a TV if you don’t have one.  You can join the world and still be brilliant.  (You might even feel less exhausted). 
  •  Low art fans who think highly of themselves: Turn off the TV, go to a museum, watch a film that is not in English, and read a book that is not part of a brand, preferably one in paper and not on a screen.  It feels different.  And it just might be energizing.
  • Everyone Else:  Try. Something. (Or Someone). New. 

As for me, I’m planning to do at least one of these things and report back next week.

Hopefully, I’ll be up to it.

After my nap.

Those Were the Days?

Photo courtesy of Dear Photograph

Photo courtesy of Dear Photograph

Nostalgia:  a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.

The man credited for thinking up the word nostalgia was a 17th century Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer who, in his dissertation at med school, used it as a way to describe the type of anxieties he saw displayed in Swiss mercenaries longing to return home from foreign countries, as well as in students and domestics living and studying abroad and missing their native lands.

I am not sure what Dr. Hofer would think of the constant loop of nostalgia that has engulfed pop culture in the last century or if he would even recognize it as such. The new Robert Redford film The Company We Keep, the Emmy winning Mad Men as well as whole networks like TV Land and Nick@Nite, the ranting social speak of the religious right in favor of  “the way it’s always been” traditional marriage, and the evocation of our Colonial constitutional right to “bear arms” (aka muskets) as a counterargument to enacting any legislation at all to prevent the sale of contemporary military style assault weapons – every one of them seem to suggest that the ideals and realities of decades past were… what?…Rosier?  Moral?  Or just plain fun?

I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s only that we long to return to a time that we believe existed a certain way but in all likelihood and any given human memory (or at least mine these days… and after all it, IS white guys over 50 who do tend to write history), never really ever existed that way at all.

However, what I am positive about is the medical condition of nostalgia could be considered at this point in time a worldwide pandemic from which there is little chance of recovery.  The old begets the new, which grows old and then begets a “new” new, which is really not a recycle of anything new at all – just a reinvention, or post modern de-mythical re-representation of what’s come before it.  Using this definition everything contemporary is nostalgic in some form and we are all very, very, very sick with Dr. Hofer’s disease – a disease to which there is, and has never been, any known cure.

Well, I guess there are worse medical diagnoses to receive and both the world and we have received them – global warming, AIDS, cancer, you name it.  And that everything old is or isn’t new again is certainly not news or even very interesting or original.

However, what is fascinating about it to me is just what we are all remembering and how much of it, if anything, has any degree of accuracy to the real past or, more importantly, to what our present lives are now.  I mean, if the very facts we recall are actually wrong, doesn’t that negate what meaning they have for the current day?

Before your brain starts to break, let’s move on to some pop culture – as we all often do – to illuminate our thoughts.

the-company-you-keep-poster-600x887

This week I took a gang of 15 college students to the glamorous Arclight Theatres in Hollywood to see The Company We Keep, a film directed by and starring Robert Redford that is about his character’s possible involvement in the radical sixties political group The Weathermen.  We took the trip because nearly half of these students are writing movies set in the 1960s, which in itself is certainly proof that the nostalgia bug is alive and well and living in 2013.

Well, I certainly enjoyed reliving the political speechifying and long lost world of American left wing radicals played by right correctly aged actors like Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot, among others.  Heck, they were portraying the kind of larger than life older siblings, uncles and cousins I wish I had as a child in the sixties.  As for my students, who before the screening told me their fascination with the period probably had a lot to do with “missing out on all the excitement” – let’s just say they were not quite as taken by this trip down memory lane.  All they felt was “lectured to” about “the good old days” and all they saw was “a depressing group of older people” who “missed what they used to be” and had for the most part lived “pretty sad lives.”

My students upon seeing the "real Sixites"

My students upon seeing the “real Sixites”

My knee jerk answer to this group of early 20ish critics is that all they got to represent them in the film was Shia LeBouf playing an obstinate reporter (is there any other kind?) in a pair of hipster glasses (to repeat: are there any other kind?) and a few unknown actors to whom they couldn’t relate.  But my more thoughtful response is what they actually got was a bit more dramatic reality of the period and the people who made it.  In other words, a somewhat melancholy recognition that huge social change comes in long, drawn out decades and that what seems exciting about any one particular 10-year period are really only small high points amid months and years of ordinary life.  This reality, however, is not what we want to or choose to make of the sixties – especially in mass entertainment.

The above is what makes television’s Mad Men and its success on all levels even more impressive.  But I won’t go on and on once again about the show I consider the best on television.  I will only state that its use of the sixties as a backdrop to social change heaped on a group of fairly non-extraordinary people in New York is accurate and enticing because it doesn’t get hung up in the gauzy glow of an era but instead traffics in everyday looks and behavior amid those moments.   This became even clearer to me last season with the debut of my namesake – a neurotic Jewish writer from the boroughs of New York named Ginsberg (guilty!).   Ben Feldman, the actor (and, FYI, Ithaca College grad) who plays him, not only looked a bit like this young Ginsberg, but even talked and behaved like the older brother I never had in the sixties.  In fact, they so got it right that it didn’t make me feel nostalgic at all, only mortified that I could have ever thought it was fitting to act and dress the way he did.  And if you don’t believe me (and I KNOW I will regret it), picture THIS:

Brothers?

Brothers?

(Note: My photo was from 1972 but I lived in Queens and we were a few years behind the times then).

The television reruns on Nick@Nite certainly give us an exacting view of pop culture at the time and are accurate nostalgia items only if one remembers that I Love Lucy, Dragnet, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Friends, Happy Days and Leave It To Beaver were never true representations of anything but entertainment.  The TV Land network seems to recognize this by merely putting aging (does that mean anyone over 50?) stars like Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Fran Drescher in old-fashioned type situation comedies that don’t pretend to evoke anything but kitschy pop culture.  Perhaps that is reason alone for both its limited success and general lack of critique – it knows what it is and understands it would be misguided to be anything more than that.

This kind of reminiscence is fine for television and movies but when it begins to literally bleed over into politics and social change it becomes more like the disease Dr. Hofer described, still in search of a cure.  Take gun control.  Interpreting our Constitutional right to bear arms as a guarantee every American can own military style weapons our forefathers never could have imagined seems as realistic as applying the separate twin bed sleeping arrangements of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy to any young, typical show business couple of today.  That’s how marital bliss was first portrayed on television, right?  So doesn’t it follow that the same rules be carried over?

Or — maybe that’s an argument better suited to the traditional marriage conundrum.  Things worked so much better in the 50s and 60s when Ward and June Cleaver presided in the suburbs over their two precocious young boys and when the Happy Days’ Cunningham family gave away Joanie in marriage to Chachi.  Well, they worked as long as one dared not be (or marry) any other shade but white, or of any other socio-economic status than middle class, or of any other particular sexual orientation than 100% heterosexual.  I mean, can you imagine if Chachi would have actually wanted to marry Fonzie and adopt children a la Cam and Mitchell in Modern Family?  Or what if Joanie were really in love with Laverne?  Or Shirley?  Would we as a society even be exiting today?  Especially since everyone knows marriage is primarily there as means for a loving couple to procreate.

Though I would have loved to see their offspring..

Though I would have loved to see their offspring..

As unjust as you might think this comparison might be, remember that it was only last month that Rick Santorum, the runner up for the 2012 Republican nomination for US president, in 2012, blamed the shift in favor of marriage equality to include gays and lesbians squarely on the shoulders of television – and in particular one show only — Will and Grace.

Of course, Will, or is it Grace, does live a life closest to mine, so I could be a bit biased.  Certainly, my twisted life does not belong on the tube, influencing the younger generation away from the tried and true traditions of nostalgia.  No – those rantings of mine should stay only in the classroom (Oops!).

A walk down memory lane

A walk down memory lane

Maybe Woody Allen said it best (as he often does) in Midnight in Paris.  In choosing to direct and write an entire film that is a tribute to looking back, he simultaneously sees the past in the beautiful purple hues of glamorous 1920s Paris streets and in the timeless romantic disappointments even that past cannot mask. This speech, delivered not by his hero but by a clear-thinking intellectual in the present (who better than to deliver bad news) pretty much sums up the negative.

Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.

But even Woody himself decides at the end of two hours to leave his nostalgia loving main character with a chance of a happy ending.  Of course, that’s only after he traveled back in time, learned a few lessons, and then came to a new, slightly improved understanding in light of what he had so painfully experienced.  Perhaps  that’s the most — and the best — we can hope for when we’re so determined to idealize the past.

LOLz

One of the most memorable numbers from the classic 1952 film “Singing in the Rain” is a little ditty called “Make ‘Em Laugh.” On the set of a not-so-good movie, the best friend pianist (Donald O’Connor) of its depressed male star (Gene Kelly) tries to cheer him up by doing a series of pratfalls, funny faces, odd dance steps and various other musical twists and turns while dispensing reassuring adages and advice guaranteed to lift his buddy, and pretty much everyone else, out of the doldrums.  Of course it works, and by the end of that film everyone (well, mostly) lives happily ever after, as most popular movie characters in the 1950s did.

In some ways, times have not moved forward all that much.  These days humor is constantly being used to change people’s thinking, or at the very least help them escape and/or make them feel better.

We live in an iron ironic age when everything is fair game and, unlike years ago, is easily accessible.  Google any outrageous or filthy word, phrase or comment and you’ll find some sick or hilarious joke somewhere.  (I know this to be true because I just did this for a birthday message to someone only a matter of days ago).  Research any big issue and you’ll find someone somewhere has done a parody of it in film, television, the web or in your own back yard.

On the flip side, today’s popular humor is often unintentional, whether in real life or on the pop culture scene.  What one person says seriously sometimes becomes a national joke.  On the other hand, what another person off-handedly cracks jokingly can resonate to great affect worldwide.  And – on yet another flip side – it can also land with as much deftness as a lead balloon and be met with everything from deadly silence to international outrage.  In short, we don’t live in a Warner Bros. musical anymore (if we ever did) even if our humor sometimes feels right out of the 1950s.

I prefer Andrew Rannells pre-New Normal

I couldn’t help reflecting on all of this and more in the last two weeks, especially since seeing the L.A. production of our South Park boys’ Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “Book of Mormon” – a musical that is about as far away from “Singin in the Rain” as you can get but no less entertaining.  Granted, I have a sick sense of humor – but any show that sends up religious hypocrisy by featuring a fever dream where Adolph Hitler and Jeffrey Dammer have sex with misguided Mormon missionaries as live dancing Starbucks coffee mugs look on, is doing something right in my book.   And before you dismiss me as being the twisted, sick, immoral far-left liberal that I admittedly am, just note that this show also won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this past year and is touring all around the U.S. (and eventually the world) with a record zero protests at its door.  That’s a far cry from when I was a kid and the sight of some live naked draft-dodge talking hippies onstage in the musical “Hair” caused a national freak out.

With a presidential election looming in less than two weeks, religious and political humor is in full swing at the moment.  In this season alone we’ve been treated to the meme of The Eastwood Chair –Clint Eastwood’s embarrassing or perhaps hilarious, depending on what side of the aisle you’re on, attempt to lampoon an inactive Pres. Obama at the Republican convention; Pres. Obama’s self-admitted long onstage “nap” at his first debate with Mitt Romney (also spawning alternating doses of hysteria and hilarity dependent on your left or right leaning); Mitt Romney’s trumpeting “Binders Full of Women” from his Massachusetts past in their second encounter (which, you gotta admit, is sort of funny all around); the “Horses and Bayonets” Pres. Obama joked were Mr. Romney’s weapons of reference for a ready 2012 military during the third debate: and various other uber-meme-y catch phrases like #Romensia,” “#legitimate rape?,”#Obamaloney,” #YouDidntBuildThat, #The47%” and #BigBird.

Meta meta meta.

A small group of humorless talking heads, mouths and pens can regularly be seen or heard self-righteously bloviating on television, radio or in print, stamping their feet and bellyaching about the political correctness of any one or more of these phrases. But to all of them I say this – plainly and quite simply: BITE ME.

I’d much rather have a lot of word-play, offensive though it might be to some group of us all than have the political violence of 1968, when disagreement over race, politics and social mores spawned a lot more than hurt feelings, hate speak and, (heaven forbid!) an attempt to re-secularize American society away from the doctrinaire fundamentalist views of a particular national religious doctrine.  (I mean, most of the wars of the world – historically and, in fact, currently – are fought over the latter alone, if you think about it).

And yes, because this is my blog, I’m particularly singling out those who Tina Fey so aptly named several days ago in a speech on reproductive rights — all you self-proclaimed ultra religious “gray-faced men with the $2 haircuts” who want to lecture women on what rape means.

Ms. Fey’s jokes about these older men who see a child conceived through the violent crime of rape as a “gift from God” for women would not exist without the middle-aged male politician who made this unintentional sickly humorous remark, much in the same way that Ms. Fey’s brilliant impression of Sarah Palin wouldn’t exist without the former Alaska governor turned reality TV star. In fact, speaking of Ms. Palin and humor, the mother of single Mom abstinence crusader Bristol often likes to use her own unique brand of 2012 yuk-yuks in her incessant Facebook posts.  Her last noteworthy attempt, categorizing our bi-racial president’s policies in Libya as “shuckin’ and jivin’,” an old Jim Crow term widely used to categorize a certain type of shuffling, irresponsible Black man, was seen as downright hilarious to her many loyal supporters.   I find this, Ms. Palin and almost any remark she makes to be particularly offensive for various reasons but remember – I also found the religious fever dream in “Book of Mormon” hilarious, which would no doubt in turn be deemed humorless and probably equally offensive to at least some of the Romney clan (I’m not naming names) if I could muster enough tickets (or even one!) or get them a group rate for a family theatre party.  Plus, we haven’t even gotten to what the reaction would be from Donny and Marie Osmond, who in a weird and hilarious twist of fate are actually scheduled to follow “Book of Mormon” into the Pantages Theatre with their new live Christmas show.  Talk about equal opportunity offending!

Remember to wear your magic underwear!

The contract that is America, as opposed to the 1990s era Contract For America that Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress unsuccessfully tried to push during the Clinton administration, calls for inclusion of all opinions: humorous, deadly serious, and everywhere in between as long as no laws are being broken.  This is as true for jokes by and about the Tea Party as it is for all the down home humor you get at, say, a meeting of the Green Party.  It’s as true for Bill Maher as it is for….well, I can’t think of a right wing equivalent off the top of my head but let’s say that unintentional huckster by the name of… Glenn Beck?

We now interrupt talking about Glenn Beck with Jon Hamm in a bathing suit.             YOU’RE WELCOME.

It also goes for all things apolitical.  I mean, the one movie in November my students are insisting we all watch together is Lifetime’s “Liz and Dick,” starring Lindsay Lohan.  (I am choosing to take this not as a personal failing of mine but to own it as my own little successful attempt to show them there is no differentiation between “high” and “low” art).  Sure, they all are dying to see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and are anticipating “Life of Pi,” “The Impossible” and “Cloud Atlas.”  But for unbridled sick humor – well, they’re under 30 and Lindsay is their gal.  Yes, it’s a new world.    But in some ways, it hasn’t changed it all.  (Does anyone aside from myself and a few gay friends remember “Valley of theDolls?”)

Ladies in Red

All this is to say that I, for one, am looking forward to the humor in the 2012 election results – no matter how they turn out.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely partisan and will want to slit my wrists if every important candidate of my choice doesn’t win – which means ALL OF THEM.  But I will resist because there is good chance that if most or even one or two of my main picks win – especially Pres. Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tim Kaine (PA) and Alan Grayson (FLA) – or in the unlikely chance that they all win and the Dems take back both the Senate AND the House, thereby giving Nancy Pelosi back the Congressional gavel – I will also have lived to see Ann Coulter’s head explode on national television… live and over and over again in blood-curdlingly graphic, murderous sound bites.

Oh relax, I’m just joking!

Sort of.