Where We Are

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I can’t take much more of this. And neither can you.

Pick a card. Any card.

Oh, you know what I mean.

I’m tired of unarmed Black people, mostly male, dying at the hands of white police officers.

Hold it. I have nothing against police officers. Or white people – working class or otherwise. But whether a dark-skinned guy is holding a book, an Epi-pen, or even carrying a firearm that he is clearly NOT pointing in your face, you don’t shoot to kill.   Forget nuance and details and circumstance. It’s pretty simple. A last resort. Whether it’s a cop or you shooting because you’re being disobeyed or wholly confused – or only pseudo threatened. Not convinced? Okay, pretend it’s NOT you but someone else, anyone else, and they’re aiming a gun at your little brother or your older father. Or grandfather. Or MOTHER. Cause that’s next. Then answer. So…right?

Let's get real here people

Let’s get real here people

I can’t deal with any more mentally ill young people going into a nightclub, movie theatre, school or, in the latest case, a mall in Seattle, and shooting it up.

Five dead and another troubled white boy in his twenties in custody. Sound familiar? The truth is no one would get shot if we didn’t have guns. Stop! No, ain’t gonna take your guns away. I’m just sayin’. You can’t shoot someone if the machines to shoot with are illegal. Can’t happen.

Wouldn’t reducing the number of guns out there even slightly lessen the number of deaths? Forget if you like to shoot elk or simply want to reenact the Revolutionary War with your friends…or the practicality of passing legislation. Maybe we prevent one death, just one – your kid.   Or you? Could it be worth it? Or would you rather just have everyone carry and live as if you were on the set of Braveheart but with 2006 Mel Gibson. Too soon? Then how about Gunsmoke or The Wild, Wild West? (Note: TV or film remake). Or Falling Down with 1971 Clint Eastwood playing the Michael Douglas part as Dirty Harry. Better?

Where should we start?

Where should we start?

I’ve had it with arguing about which ethnic or religious group subset is responsible for said terrorist bombing du jour.

I don’t effin’ care. Really. A terrorist is not a member of any sane religious and/or ethnic group that I’ve ever run across. Their sub-set is terrorist, plain and simple. I’m a New Yorker and I hate that some soulless ass thought a lethal pressure cooker in Manhattan was a good idea several weeks ago. But blaming it on his skin color or spirituality…Wait!

That’s like blaming the gays for Roy Cohn. Or the Christians for Ann Coulter.  Or putting me, Tom Cruise, Dave Franco and Usher in the same pot because we’re all 5’7.” I’m nothing like any of them, though certainly we’d fit into some of each other’s clothes (Note: Hi Ush…). You know what I mean?

Uh, Tommy WISHES he was 5'7" #lifts

Uh, Tommy WISHES he was 5’7″ #lifts

Still, if you want to know the truth, where this is all coming from, here’s what it’s really about.

I just can’t take any more of the Trump.

Yet as a good citizen who has had issues with my country over the decades but has come to see that I love it nevertheless, I am afraid to fully turn him/it off for fear of waking up in more of an alternate orange reality than I am already in.

#IMWITHHER

#IMWITHHER

You know how they say there’s a tipping point for everything? That final push that breaks the camel’s back or yours – the thing puts anyone or anything over the edge of sanity or maximum density?

Well, I finally hit it. And over such a little thing, too – at least by comparison.

The NY Times, CNN and others report that Gennifer Flowers, the former mistress of Bill Clinton – he’s the former president who is the spouse of current Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton – has been invited to Monday’s presidential debate. By Republican nominee Donald Trump.

umm... WHAT?

umm… WHAT?

Okay, FINE! If you want to split hairs it’s technically only slightly murky – the way every single statement, tweet and Trumpism is. Which means – it’s the norm. In response to fellow billionaire Marc Cuban being seated in the front row at the debates, Trump tweeted, that if that happens perhaps I will seat Gennifer Flowers right next to him. Talk about false equivalencies!

For those too young to recall or wise enough to forget, Ms. Flowers many, MANY decades ago had an affair with Bill Clinton and Republican operatives in the early nineties tried to blow up his presidential campaign by bringing her to the forefront when such things as marital history and monogamy mattered in presidential politics. It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard about Ms. Flowers but every now and again she reappears on the national or international scene when people get desperate enough about the Clintons and throw up their hands when they’re out of ammunition.

The only place this woman belongs is on some third-rate reality show #CelebrityApprentice

The only place this woman belongs is on some third-rate reality show #CelebrityApprentice

The idea that this Orange Clown, this spray-tanned-backed-by-Russian-oligarchs buffoon, this counterfeit trust fund baby, is sick enough and so utterly weak of character and self-confidence that he actually thinks inviting the woman whom his opponent’s HUSBAND had an affair with decades ago to sit in the front row during a PRESIDENTIAL debate against said opponent, is a way to distract her and win, speaks to a kind of base immorality we have not seen before. His knee-jerk childishness and temper tantrums and clear terror at the prospect of only being able to talking about ISSUES is mind-boggling, not to mention a bit scary. As for Ms. Flowers, she has told the NY Times that she will attend the debates – though whether she will indeed be #Drumpf’s guest and/or sit in the front row is still in question.

#DRAMA

#DRAMA

Nevertheless, whether or not Ms. Flowers will or has attended the debates by the time you read this is not what’s relevant. To be considered more seriously is where we are and how silly and sad this has all become. Donald Trump has the temperament of an immature child and commands the room only because the adults in charge, meaning all of us, let him.   However, his just desserts are that in this presidential race he faces one of the few adults in the political world – a strong woman (nee Mom) who won’t let a bilious little boy get away with lying and mouthing off just because he’s angry and bored and tired of all of the many expensive toys he’s been given.

So, really, he could spit into her face or turn into Regan from The Exorcist and it won’t matter. Come Nov. 8th, he’ll be grounded and his fake presidential seal will be taken away for life.

AMEN #ThatsAllFolks

AMEN #ThatsAllFolks

As terrorism, gun control and the racist American demons this child has unleashed, let’s hope she can be half as successful in conquering them.

Finally, if you’re voting for Trump

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Sorkin Says

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There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.

Gay is the Old Black

Emmy bait.

Emmy bait.

One wonders if Michael Douglas would play the part of the homophobic father of Jonathan Allen, the 20 year-old from Tennessee who, after being thrown out of the house by his parents two years ago for being gay, wowed the judges on America’s Got Talent this past week.  Or, better yet, if Steven Soderbergh would even choose to direct a movie about it.  Or if Jerry Weintraub would ever decide to produce it.  The way all three did with the continuously lauded and now award-winning HBO film about Liberace’s later years and prurient love life, Behind the Candelabra.

My guess:  probably not.  Most movie stars of Mr. Douglas’ generation dislike playing roles they deem too unsympathetic.  And don’t use the example of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.  That film was made in and about the 1980s – a time when the general population actually agreed that “greed was good” and that ole Gordy was not so much a villain but a slightly tainted ideal many aspired to.

Of course, the majority of critics, audiences, and the cast and crew have not deemed the cable TV portrait of uber-gay Liberace unsympathetic either.  That would require that the real-life tale of the entertainer and his former lover Scott Thorson had been truly told.   The one about a 16-year old boy who was lured into the Las Vegas home of a fifty something mega-millionaire star with promises of wealth and family.  The one where the star repeatedly had sex with the boy for several years before he turned 18 (as well as any number of years after) with full knowledge said star was breaking the law. The same one where, when the older man got bored with the boy and the boy started taking too many drugs, as many young boys do, found a replacement and tossed him onto the street as he had so many others before him that were of age, with a little bit of money and a couple of fur coats – all the while publicly denying to his dying day that they ever had that kind of relationship or that said entertainer was even gay.

Eyeroll

Eyeroll

I’ve resisted writing anything but a few paragraphs about Behind the Candelabra up to this point because it seemed like the kind of film that would get some recognition for the circus stunt of Michael Douglas in sequins and a blonde-tressed Matt Damon screwing him from behind, and then disappear.

Such is not the case.  The cable film just won best drama and best actor from the Broadcast Critics Association.  It played to large and enthusiastic crowds at the Cannes Film Festival.  And mostly straight audiences (and some gay) seem to have embraced it as bold and groundbreaking.  Even those few writers who have dared to write critical pieces about the movie are often skewered, lacerated and told to get over themselves in the comments sections (even in respected places like Salon).   Also, Behind the Candelabra is likely to get nominated and win a slew of Emmy Awards, and go down in the books as “the courageous film all of the studios passed on with that director and that cast (can you believe it!) because they were too afraid of the gay subject matter.”  The latter is the meme that Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Weintraub have been tirelessly and successfully peddling during the last six months.

Which is why, at this point, I’m weighing in.

Frankly – this film disgusts me.  Not as much as the lies about the war in Iraq, gay bullying or the right wing trying to take away a woman’s rights to choose.  That’s a different level of disgust – maybe more like infuriation.   But disgust – yeah, that about covers this.

I’ve thought a lot about other words to use to describe my feelings – queasy, nauseated, annoyed or even…jealous?  But finally, after much consternation, I decided that the perfect world is, indeed….

dis·gust  A feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.

It is worth noting it’s not the people attached to this film that signal disgust to me – I respect them all (professionally that is, I don’t know them personally).  It’s the film itself and everything it tells us about where the industry is today vis-à-vis movies about gay people – or about most minorities – that makes me want to run to the toilet and be sick.

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

Someone tell that to the Emmys!

This is also not to say that the life of Liberace might not make an interesting movie.  That story – the one about how a young Midwestern piano prodigy invented (and for years carried off) the flamboyantly effeminate (some would say homosexual) persona of a character named Liberace and became the world’s greatest entertainer while still managing to convince his mostly gay intolerant world of fans he was anything but homosexual, would indeed be fascinating and almost certainly would not have caused me to write any of this.  And, even if it wasn’t particularly good, I doubt it would actually have made me feel disgusted.

Of course,  we will never know for sure since that tale was far from the one HBO and this prestigious group of A-list film professionals chose to tell in 2013 – a time when gay marriage is not only favored by the majority of people in the US (and an overwhelming majority under 25) but where its difficult to read any daily print or online news source where a major story about something homosexual is not featured on the front page.  I mean, even me – a middle aged guy who was “born that way”- sometimes gets gay fatigue.

geyyyyy

Still, true change in the movies, and the world, is not solely about the amount of ink you get or the measure of RAM you occupy on someone’s computer or website.  True change not only moves at a glacial pace but is often a one step forward, two steps back deal.  And this is where Behind the Candelabra comes in.  And me.  And my disgust.  The kind that I’m feeling right now as I compose this.

Writers are told all the time that their movies need a reason to be made. So are producers, directors, actors and studio executives.  But since writers are, by definition, the inventors of the first tangible version of a project, perhaps it is best to start with us.  As a writer one asks oneself:  What is the reason for this story?  Why make it?  What compels it to be told?  What would interest an audience?  Why will anyone care?  Why do I care?

I feel you Neil.

I feel you Neil.

I teach my writing students to ask these questions early on because I don’t want them to waste their time working on anything they are not fully invested in.  Even if it is the silliest, most exploitative story in the world, the author must find a way to imbue some kind of personal feelings of – well, something – into it.  Because if it doesn’t mean much to us, how can we expect it to mean anything to you?

I’ve watched Behind the Candelabra twice and have been looking for meaning, or even relevance, to today’s audiences.   Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • The story of a May-December relationship told from a gay perspective could be fair diversion, one supposes.  But that would seem only fair (and not exploitative) if we had a bunch of films about other, less prurient (and more successful) same sex relationships to compare it to – which we don’t.
  • The emotional journey of a relationship can sometimes be enough to override a lack of story.  In essence, the ride you get having a front row seat to the ups and downs of human interaction between two people over a period of time can substitute for a paucity of plot points.  There are some emotions here – for instance, shock and sadness that an older person could actually convince a younger person to have extensive plastic surgery to remake their face to that of their “mentor.”  But certainly not ever sadness or shock that this relationship will end badly – or interest in how it does – which knocks out most of the tension throughout the film and causes the last hour (and more) to be deadly dull.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-knudge heard 'round the world.

    A sharp contrast to this knee-nudge heard ’round the world.

  • Maybe it’s the spectacle??  Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.  The sequins, the clothes, the excess of a hidden lifestyle and time period in show business that no longer exists is lots of fun.  And those gays – who better than them to do this up in style!  (Though note: there is not a single gay person in the principal above-the-line talent or crew).
  • Another attraction could be the over-the-top characters themselves, who are at the very least entertaining in a very broad, stereotypical manner compared to what else was going on in the world at that time.  The homosexuals have always done this well since time began and it makes audiences quite comfortable to view them this way, thank you very much.   And certainly, why make any movie that is not at least fun!!??
  • Juicy parts for actors who can be cast against type.  The old Hollywood joke: Every time a straight man puts on a dress they give him an Oscar?  Well, not anymore.  (Note: Even James Franco’s Marilyn Monroe drag as Oscar host fell flat a few years ago).  So, you have to find new ways for them to do it.  How about a happy recipient of anal sex who dies tragically that can’t be X-rated?  It’s Oscar/Emmy bait for Michael Douglas.  (He even gets to have AIDS, but we can downplay that ‘cause the real life Liberace did!). Plus, what about an enjoyment of Speedos, suntans and Las Vegas?  It’s the flip side of Ocean’s 11 for Matt Damon and he’ll jump at that!   What actor wouldn’t want to play younger than they are, get fat and then skinny and then fat and skinny again as they age, become addicted to drugs and then recover?  No one, that’s who.
Yeah, I'm exhausted too.

Yeah, I’m exhausted too.

But please, please, please, please – do not tell me this movie is groundbreaking or even something different.  And if you’re a high-powered A-lister, don’t keep spreading your tales of woe about how the heads of movie studios are ruining the business by not taking chances on this kind of film.   They might be ruining the business by not taking chances but NOT taking a chance on this film was exactly the right choice.  It has no relevance to 2013.  It had relevance in 1983, and in 1993 – at the height of the AIDS epidemic – when it might have meant something other than an easy way to make some money, get some attention and garner a few awards for “courage.”

The people who made it should know better.  And might benefit from watching Jonathan Allen tell another all too familiar, yet far more commercially relevant and compelling story for today.  This story was  indeed shown last week not on the big screen or on cable television but on, of all things,  network reality TV  – America’s Got Talent, to be exact.

It is indeed the golden age of television.  In some circles, at least.