The Crowning Achievement

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The major strength of Netflix’s acclaimed series The Crown is that finally and once and for all an outsider (Note: Me) understands the pros and cons behind the idea of a King or Queen.

That is not to say that one (Note: Me) likes or accepts the idea of a hierarchy of humanity – i.e. a whole country required to bow and curtsy to another citizen wearing a crown – but at least the tradition and the people wearing the hardware are both clear and recognizable as something approaching human.

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

I’m not much for bowing down to idols – true, false or otherwise – but in one brief scene in its season one 10-episode arc, The Crown is succinct on this one heretofore elusive point:

The monarchy represents something Divine that can serve as a sort of model for what mankind can aspire to. (Note: One assumes that includes lowly females).

So despite the fact that the actual monarch, be it female or male, is indeed human, once he/she is anointed with oil by a leading British religious figure, he/she also all at once (and forever) becomes Divine He/She and therefore worthy of genuflection and ring kissing by everyone in It’s orbit.

Or so the thought processes go.

Not to mention, and to its further credit, this fine series also shows that a Queen (The British kind, that is) doesn’t necessarily want or is even qualified to be a Deity and that more than a few in the inner circle have their own worries that this vast spectacle is indeed nothing more than their own high-priced version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  

... which most certainly includes The Crown's Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

… which most certainly includes The Crown’s Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

Moreover, it ultimately and finally posits (and this is the what really brings it all home), that despite all of the doubts and handwringing about it, the vast majority of its SUBJECTS are indeed on some level TRUE BELIEVERS in it all and will actually VOLUNTARILY indulge en masse in the tradition of genuflection to this Chosen Human Deity.

This thus reinforces the point of the monarchy to whatever doubting royals there may be and, judging by the continued fascination with them across the globe, proves an even larger point about societies in general:

The PEOPLE indeed do WANT and NEED a HIGHER IDEAL in which to BELIEVE IN and strive towards.

We Americans, of course, have no such thing as a national royalty and if we did it certainly wouldn’t be in Washington, D.C. – at least at the moment.   Except, of course, for one thing —

THE OSCARS.

Behold... our golden god!

Behold… our golden god!

Yes, I know this is a long way to go for an analogy and moan and groan at HOLLYWOOD all you like – led by PRETEND POTUS DJT (aka The Non-Deity who lost the Popular vote by 2.86 million). But let’s be honest:

The vast majority of the TV watchers here and worldwide WILL tune in to the television coronation of Oscar. And even if they don’t and/or claim not to – see what happens when the BIGGEST MOVIE STAR IN THE WORLD walks into a room, a bar, a party, a restaurant or a hardware store in your neighborhood in your presence.   You will see the closest thing approaching GENUFLECTION you will EVER, EVER WITNESS IN YOUR LIFETIME ON AMERICAN SOIL.

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

(Note: If this hasn’t happened to you yet or you think it never will take my word for it. I have witnessed it in more than several cities big and small across the country over several decades in my lifetime and it is ALWAYS the same unmistakably American version of a mass CURTSY and BOW).

(Note 2: And please don’t write in and say what about The Pope? America is a secular country (so far) and He (It?) doesn’t count).

This is not a defense of the Oscars because that would be a defense of an indefensible DEITY. It is just an effort on the part of a lover of this year’s favorite for best picture, La La Land, to get the movie fans and pop culture lovers and prognosticators worldwide to calm the f-k down and, as the young people say (right?), get out of my grill.

I say believe the hype

I say believe the hype

Those of us who adore this movie for its reinforcement of hope and belief in the creative dream and Hollywood-ized version of love and romance, are not the intellectual equivalent of “Make America Great Again” as one essayist whose name I won’t mention recently pondered. Nor do we have crappy taste in films or suffer from too much white privilege (though which White person among us White people doesn’t?). In fact, we simply were transported by something we’ve never quite seen before on the Big Screen and want to sing its praises and share it with you.

Which brings me to another chief complaint about the movie – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not… Hugh Jackman and Barbra Streisand? Beyonce and Jay-Z?   Adele and Sam Smith? (You sooo don’t want that even though you think you do). Jennifer Hudson and Pharrell?

... or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller. #HermoinegetsWhiplash

… or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller #HermoinegetsWhiplash

Listen up. It’s not always about the notes you can hit and how well you can sing – especially in a movie musical where performance is everything. It’s about telling the story, the emotion, the passion, the joy and the sadness.   And consider that after five decades of concert tours, Bob Dylan still can’t sing a lick. No, honestly. Can he really “sing” – as you crave? Yet he’s captivating. As are many singer-songwriter-actors. Rappers don’t sing the way Sinatra did. Which is fine. Aretha Franklin is still the Queen of Soul and the late Karen Carpenter will always have perfect pitch. That’s a whole other subject and has nothing to do with carrying the story of a movie with your performance in a slightly imperfect yet surreal world.

Which brings us to what looks to be the three-way race for best picture between La La Land, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.

Ready to place your bets?

Ready to place your bets?

They’re all wonderful films in their own way and yeah, perhaps you don’t agree that La La Land has the inside shot at being this year’s DEITY. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the story and its filmic luster for many or change the fact that in the system you are choosing to participate in there can only be one QUEEN. (Note: Ahem).

So instead take a broader cosmic view of the whole process. Think of them each as planets. La La Land is Earth, Hidden Figures is Saturn and Moonlight is Pluto.

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Pluto is the furthest away from mass reality and therefore probably won’t win. Hidden Figures is certainly the most enjoyable to look at and understand from an en masse point of view.   But La La Land is not only surreal and visually interesting – it has managed to capture something else in the minds of many – a kind of magic that feels like home to the majority. It doesn’t mean we’re right and you’re wrong. That we worship The Deity and you are heathens.

NOR, does it mean the reverse.

We’re talking movies and planets – each floating in their own solar systems. I mean, can you compare Uranus with Venus? Or would you be too embarrassed to even try? Well, if you wouldn’t be, you should be.

Crown or not, in the end we’re all the King and Queen of our Own Existence and the stars of our Own Movies.

The point is not to be swayed by someone else’s version of royalty. And to never genuflect

To anyone.

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.