Notes from the Revolution

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750,000 strong in L.A.

500,000 in Washington, DC

250,000 in Chicago

150,000 in Boston

120,000 in Seattle (!)

100,000 in Saint Paul (!)

100,000 in Denver (!)

And 400,000 plus in Manhattan

Not to mention 10,000 strong in my beloved Ithaca, NY #ithacaisgorges

Not to mention 10,000 strong in my beloved Ithaca, NY #ithacaisgorges

Welcome to a street protest sampling on Day 2 in Trump America. To say nothing of the demonstrations in 37 cities worldwide, including London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo and many others (including ANTARTICA… yes, really).

Welcome to the Women’s March all over the world.

Welcome to the PEOPLE’S ANTIDOTE to the much touted right wing nativist – or shall we just say it – white nationalist – movement.

Welcome to the ANTI – REVOLUTION. The REAL REVOLUTION

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The real story was in the crowd. Aged from two to early 80s in Los Angeles, my home turf. Well, at least I thought it was the oldest were in their early 80s. Given L.A. standards of “beauty,” that man could have been in his 180’s and those two gray haired older ladies, who had clearly marched in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s might have been even older. At least chronologically. We preserve ourselves well out here. Or, well, at least we can make it look that way. Welcome to the deepest blue state in America.   But don’t be jealous. Instead, come join us.

Greetings from LA LA LAND

Greetings from LA LA LAND

The ingenuity of the signs and the phrases they came up with other than “Dump Trump’ really got me. Very clever.

People of Quality, Don’t Fear Equality.

Love Women, Don’t Grab Them.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-Damental Rights

A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.

If You Thought SHE was Nasty, Get a Load of Us.

And my ABSOLUTE favorite:

THE. BEST.

THE. BEST.

People were EVERYWHERE.

You couldn’t march much of anywhere but that wasn’t the point. The point was to show Congress and perhaps the world what we believed. That THIS is the movement. That we won’t take it lying down. Who knew that so many in the world were already with us?

That poor Telemundo reporter and her camera person. It was gridlock. She was in full hair and makeup. But not sweating. No one was sweating. It was a beautiful L.A. day – in the high fifties, brisk, sun shining. People’s faces were not gleeful so much as they were welcoming.

The Metro stations were jammed. Luckily I parked at a friend’s house about a half hour walk away. I met friends who drove in from several hours away. And then friends of their friends from various spots all over southern California. As their friends to the north were demonstrating in San Francisco, while mine were doing the same in Oakland.

The Chair (2nd from right) and his crew #strongertogether

The Chair (2nd from right) and his crew #strongertogether

It wasn’t just women. At least a third to a half were men. The march was about women’s rights – reproductive and otherwise. But it was also about immigration. And health care. About LGBTQ rights. About racism and the rights of black and brown and yellow people. Mostly, it was about equality. Women brought their 8 year old daughters. Men clasped their 6 year old boys by the hand, pointing and leading them through a sea of humanity and teaching them, or perhaps the better word is instructing them, on how to behave as kids, and, in turn, as adults.

Sing it, sister

Sing it, sister

There will be NO TOLERANCE for a curtailment of hard fought freedom.

There will be NO PEACE if the person who is now occupying the White House who lost the popular vote by almost THREE MILLION – begins to roll back women’s reproductive rights, or begins mass deportation of immigrants, or tries to normalize discrimination against the LGBT community through exercise or non-exercise of a white nationalist agenda.

What we were demonstrating is that ALL of these rights are essentially the same. If you scapegoat ONE of us, you scapegoat ALL of us. We Americans will not put up with a strategy of turning us all against each other. Even if a plurality of the White House’s current occupant’s voters are fine with allowing it.

WE, THE MAJORITY, will continue to speak out. To Resist. To Demonstrate. Every day for the next four years, if necessary.

The new occupant will not bring America to its knees.

We, the people, will monitor the new occupant and, if necessary, cut his agenda off at its symbolic knees. And then, if still necessary, EVICT him.

This will happen if he refuses to listen to the majority because THE NEW REALITY is that HE WORKS FOR US.

And he knows better than anyone does that when employees do not listen to reason from their boss – the boss, at the end of the day, can only answer them with two words:

YOU’RE FIRED.

#Demonstrate. #Resist. #Act. #Donate.

A Little Less Conversation…

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I don’t like guns and I particularly dislike violence. Not in fictional movies or in real life. Death, murder and variations thereof scare me. So when there are mass murders in the U.S. every few months, usually at a school, I immediately wonder – what is the price of making it just a bit more difficult to buy an assault weapon or even a handgun.

There are many who disagree and I get it. It’s nothing for me to give up a bit of gun rights because I want nothing to do with them. Still, that doesn’t mean my viewpoint is wrong. For instance, I’d be happy to pay more taxes in exchange for universal health care. I already have health care so one could argue, using that line of reasoning, why should I volunteer to pay for it for someone else? Especially when it hasn’t been proven that it will absolutely reduce costs or save lives. Well, because it’s the right thing to do. And it has been proven theoretically.

#MileyTruth

#MileyTruth

In the case of guns, no theoretical proof is necessary to argue that at the very least 1 or maybe even 2 lives will be saved if we institute some sort of more stringent rules. It is self-evident the way one can assume a peach left out in the sun on a sweltering day will eventually rot. Well, I don’t know about you but 1 or 2 lives spared from a barrage of bullets are more than enough for me. Just as saving one or two more people from death due to some terrible disease because they can now afford to go to a doctor is enough for me to fork over just a little bit more to Uncle Sam.

This brings up an interesting question – how much time do I want to spend with those who have opposing points of view? I don’t mean in public discourse, at a party or among members of my extended family. Rather I wonder – what is the deal breaker for including people in our close-knit circles? Or even your extended perimeter?   I mean, as the victims of the latest shooter in Oregon might now say to us – “your time is limited. Make the most of it. “

So I ask again – how many hours, days, weeks or years do you want to expend on those whose viewpoints go against the core of what you believe?

Reality

Reality

And now bear with me – I’m getting to Pope Francis. Yes, I just can’t let it go.

He seems like a nice fellow and certainly SAYS all the right things. But as a very wise psychotherapist told me years ago – if you want to understand who someone is or what they want, look at what they do. Consider their actions.

This bromide has also served me well as a dramatic writer. The core of someone’s character is not what they SAY. People say all sorts of things. It’s easy – you just open your mouth, or write it down, and words come out. But doing takes a bit more effort. It’s harder to take an action – especially when you get past middle age, which my almost 87 year old father tells me all the time. So when a 78 year old man like Pope Francis takes certain actions I, in turn, take it very seriously.

Like.

Like.

It’s all well and good for this man to not openly condemn gays and lesbians on his recent U.S. trip but what he actively DID last week in the nation’s capitol was have a SECRET meeting with a Christian woman who broke the law by refusing to do her $80,000 a year job as county clerk and issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. This got the LGBT community up in arms because many assumed his recent words about us – who am I to judge – meant something. Well, they do. But his actions meant more.

Still sting, Frankie.

Still stings, Frankie.

In a p.r. counter punch to the backlash from his meeting with Clerk Davis was the Vatican announcing two days later that Pope Francis also met with a former student of his from many years ago who is gay – AND his partner of 19 years – on the same trip. Is this the equivalent? Um, well, not really. The equivalent would be him calling in, say, Dan Savage and his husband and child. Or perhaps talking with Edie Windsor, whose case in the US Supreme Court broadened the definition of marriage to include the LGBT community.

This is all to say that the Vatican’s some of my best friends are defense to counter the fallout from the SECRET Clerk Davis meeting where he told her to stay strong and gifted her with rosary beads – is really an offense towards the people who it seemed were finally being, if not officially befriended, at least not discounted and devalued.

Here’s a rule of thumb to consider: A marginalized person will most likely find it difficult to get beyond your “actions” by mere words of love and caring. So when Pope Francis declares publically that gay marriage is “the work of the Devil” and the Church gives money towards or campaigns for laws preventing the legalization of LGBT couples adopting children or tying the knot, well – that tells us A LOT more than mere words. It shows us who its leader and his organization really are beneath the words.

Oh dear

Oh dear

And – let’s be clear – this goes for Jewish leaders, Muslim leaders and all other religious bigwigs of any kind, shape or form. It just so happens Pope Francis is the Man (well, he is, sort of) of the Moment.

Praying is a personal choice but we don’t live in a magical world. You can’t pray cancer away without medical treatment just as you can’t “pray the gay away.” If you’re religious and believe this is so – knock yourself out. But we have moved on from a time where one’s country dictates one’s religious beliefs or requires that mainstream America or its laws accommodate the idea that praying alone is an acceptable antidote to homosexuality or cancer. There is a separation of church and state in the experiment that was the U.S. We can be religious but we work and live in secular society according to objective laws, medical science and intellectual ideas – in other words, empirical facts.

This goes not only for the Pope but the NRA and other supporters of the gun lobby. Doing NOTHING to modify our gun laws as of late has not decreased the violence. If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Ten people died at a community college in Oregon on Thursday and every Republican running for the 2016 presidency has said variations of continue to do nothing. Jeb Bush noted “stuff happens” and Donald Trump shrugged his shoulders and remarked there are always going to be “crazy people.” Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson were not as colorful but each made it clear that they were against stricter gun laws and believe they would do nothing to curb the bi or tri-monthly mass shootings we’ve grown used to. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes called their combined strategy a “language of futility” and that’s as good a definition as I’ve heard.

Ladies and gentlemen, the GOP strategy.

Ladies and gentlemen, the GOP strategy.

Stating publicly that the death of all of these people – young and old – over the last few years is a tragedy are nice words to hear but do nothing to address the issue if one refuses to take ACTIONS so less tragedies occur in the future. You can say some of your best friends are gun owners or that some of your best friends’ children were victims of gun tragedies but still, it means you are on the side of letting this continue. In essence, it means you’re okay with these and future deaths.

Similarly, if you are against LGBT people legally marrying or adopting children in 2015 it doesn’t matter how many of us you invite into your personal space or hotel suite. You are not truly our friend. You are part of our problem. Love us a little less. Accept us a little more. And do something about it.

Still Crazy After All These Years

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Don’t forget to revisit the Chair’s interview with SNL expert Stephen Tropiano here… and then read on.

Watching the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special was very much like attending a fun family reunion with home movies from the past that you get to revisit once more along with all the cool aunts, uncles and grandparents you haven’t seen in years. A great television show can be like that – spending time with the fantasy clan you once were and will always be a part of – the one that, when you get together, you always want to hang out with just a bit longer.

When it’s a series that is a rarity like SNL – one that is celebrating a four-decade long run and is still somehow going strong, well, just multiply everyone’s feelings – both good and perhaps bad – and you get a sense of what the reaction will probably be from various quarters. In the end it is not unlike the feelings one’s own family engenders.

So happy together

So happy together

I can only say that for me the show was a wonderful mix of past and present served up with a lot of care and class with most of the people who made the show what it was returning one more time. It also occurred to me that one’s enjoyment of the event could perhaps be somewhat commensurate with one’s age. Like viewing a 16mm film with scenes from your parents’ honeymoon or your great Uncle Sol’s bar-mitzvah – a time when you were not even a thought or a twinkle in their eye – it would be entirely possible that some of the moments those of us over 40 thought were great could likely have fallen flat for you.

Though I may find that hard to believe

Though I may find that hard to believe

On the other hand, that might be selling the younger generation short – something Saturday Night Live has never done. Part of the magic of the series is that it reinvents itself with a younger and younger cast that turns almost totally over every five to ten years. In that way, the show and the special did and do have something for everyone. And you can’t say that for many things these days.

Sure, I loved Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon doing the opening musical bit with SNL catchphrases. Pretty funny. But not as funny for me as seeing Steve Martin “hosting” once more and making fun of himself and the general “whiteness” of the show for so many years. Then when Paul Simon and Paul McCartney came out and sang 30 seconds of I’ve just Seen A Face, well…they had me at Paul and Paul.

Except then there were moments like Dan Aykroyd, one of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players (Note: As if!) reprising his famous Bass-O-Matic sketch, complete with blender, dead fish and the flick of a switch. Which was followed by a killer Celebrity Jeopardy! where I got to see Darrell Hammond’s version of a sexist Sean Connery pick the category of Le Tits Now instead of Let It Snow. See, you had to be there…oh, never mind.

If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles or have even resisted coming to the west coast because you hate all of us pinko commies who live here then you probably LOVED The Californians sketch, complete with guest appearances by Bradley Cooper, Taylor Swift and Betty White.   And I won’t even talk about the power trio of Jane Curtin, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler doing the news. Well, I will because Jane Curtin had one of the funniest bits of the night.

Jane: Times have changed since I first sat behind this desk.  For example, I used to be the only pretty Blonde woman reading the fake news. Now there is a whole network devoted to that.

Cue Logo of Fox News with the image of one of its many interchangeable bottle Blondes.

Touche Jane

Touche Jane

This SNL also got me to belly laugh at Adam Sandler for the first time in years when he reprised his Opera Man, and had me giggling like…uh…use your imagination…when Maya Rudolph showed up as Beyonce with a continuous wind machine blowing back her fake flowy tresses. Yes, there was this strange, odd stand alone tribute to Eddie Murphy – as if he were the only huge star to emerge from the show – and a moment when I noticed a few people on social media were down on Paul McCartney’s voice when he soloed on Maybe I’m Amazed. To the latter I say: He’s Paul McCartney. Just deal with it, fool. He’s freakin’ Paul McCartney!!

Remember when you were in the Beatles?

Remember when you were in the Beatles?

I loved Paul Simon closing out the show with Still Crazy After All These Years but who would have ever thought that by far my favorite musical moment of the night would be Miley Cyrus doing a slowed down, twangy version of Simon’s own 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover? Not only was she not born when SNL started she wasn’t even alive when that song first became a hit. And I don’t care much for country music. (Note: Except for Dolly Parton but hey, c’mon). Still, this is also some of what the show has always done best. Introduce or reintroduce young talent to people who either don’t know them or choose to dismiss what they do out-of-hand. Bravo Miley and cheers to SNL for once again getting it right.

He's been fooling us this whole time!

He’s been fooling us this whole time!

It doesn’t matter if you didn’t understand why including Jon Lovitz in the tribute to the dead SNL cast members was funny, wondered why Bill Murray ended the touching tribute to the deceased with a joke about Spain’s General Franco having just died or scratched your head over Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey doing Wayne’s World, still pretending to be goofy Midwest teenagers Garth and Wayne. Scratch the latter. I’ll bet there were very few people who didn’t get the value of Wayne’s World – one of the few SNL sketches and characters to become a successful feature film aside from The Blues Brothers. Yup, some characters do reach across generations and just don’t age.

On that note, I hope to be watching Stefon 40 years from now, cheering for more Cowbell once again, and getting on the bandwagon for some as of yet unwritten comedy gem that will make me laugh even more than Roseanne Rosannadanna did the first time I saw her. That might seem as unlikely to you as the fact that 40 years from now I will be watching, much less understanding anything, especially SNL.

But you underestimate both of us at your own peril.

Ying/Yang: Katniss and Llewyn

Two hep "Cats"

Two hep “Cats”

In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.

So, how was all of this?  Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy.  In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:

Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs.  In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in.  On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business.  This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.

In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember.  Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality.  They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality.  Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you.  The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into.  (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).

As for the films:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Vogue.

Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever.  It also helps that she is immensely talented.  If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with.  It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe.  Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.

If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on.  Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.

Oh, she knows it!

Oh, she knows it!

 Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out.  But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.

One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG.  I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:

a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and

b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.

ancient artifacts

ancient artifacts

When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America.  I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries?  Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment.  Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug.  So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.

Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.

But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game.  Oh no – here we go again.  Yup, that’s right.  Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had.  How much of this can we watch?  Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight?  That should give you a pretty good idea.  There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience.  Only money.  And…sequels.  Two more at the very least. (Note:  Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).

As for the premiere itself:

Bad News:

  1. At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
  2. You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
  3. Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.

Good News:

Werk girl

Werk girl

  1. The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
  2. The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
  3. You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis.  This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film.  Why couldn’t I pronounce it?  Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it?  Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?

The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.

Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met.  He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy.  In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing.  He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.

This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts.  That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.

Well, what is normal anyway?  Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking.  In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred.  Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.

This would be years before Betty's trip to the Village

This would be years before Betty’s trip to the Village

One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry.  They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees.  They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me.   They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time.  That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.

Frick and Frack?

Frick and Frack?

It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).

Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?

Um, well.  We don’t do icons.  (Long silence).

Um, well, okay.

Q:  Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?

Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all.  Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually?  Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.

Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?

Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake?

Perhaps it was the interviewer.  The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared.  I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you?  This person did not.

On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it.  It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen.  It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there.   And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win.  You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.

Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough.  Or maybe it’s not.  I mean, what do awards mean anyway?  Okay, let’s not go there.

Well, they certainly don't hurt.

Well, they certainly don’t hurt.

What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it.  Hmm, not sure that happened.  Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do.  Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview.  Certainly, it was among the most memorable.

In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success.  One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed.  Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these.  The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.

About the film:

Good News:

  1. Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here.  He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film.   It’s worth seeing for him alone.
  2. The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner.  Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences.  LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
  3. The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
  4. The running time is 105 minutes.  Few films should be over two hours.  Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.

Bad News:

  1. There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
  2. Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
  3. Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
NEXT STOP:  Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle… Stay tuned.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Summer

Take a bite?

Take a bite?

Summer is over and it’s time to look at where we are and where we’re headed.

Actually, the summer doesn’t officially end until the start of fall, which is technically the last week of September. But in the US, it always seems to end right after the Labor Day weekend.  And why not?  What better way to signal the end of fun than a holiday that salutes the worker (who presumably have at least been given some kind of summer vacation) and falls on the last long 3-day weekend of the most carefree of our seasons?

Of course, when I was younger and a student, summer’s end coincided with the start of the school term or fall semester.  Which now happens mid-August if you attend or teach college or, even if you’re still in elementary school in some places.  That also used to coincide with the beginning of the fall television season.  But don’t get me started on when that begins because there aren’t really small screen seasons anymore.  Just nights and weekends where you can fit in TV binge viewing.  My personal theory is that binge viewing might be linked to global warming since it seems to be particularly inspired by unseasonably hot or cold weather – an everyday occurrence these days.  Which begs the question of there even being any sort of seasons at all (certainly not in L.A.).

Still, we soldier on.  Because more than anything else Americans cling to some traditions that, by any rational standards, have long and forever outlived their usefulness.

That being the case, this seems like a good moment to take stock of what sins have been committed, and where we are and how we move forward into Fall – as opposed to free-fall – since certainly we here at notes don’t want to outlive whatever usefulness we currently retain in the world.

LUST: SEX AND THE SINGLE MILEY

sigh.

sigh.

Never has so much been made of so little.  That’s actually a quote famously appropriated by the late actor David Niven when a naked guy streaked across the stage at the 1974 Oscar ceremonies.   But it applies here.

Like any parent, we don’t like to see our kids grow up and become sexual.  But when exactly is grown up enough for sexuality to be employed when it’s your own kid?  16, 18, 20, 25…50…or never?   I’m not a parent but if I were I’d have to vote for never.

If you don’t know about (or have never seen) the MTV VMAs, here’s the problem – former tween star and now 20-year-old recording artist Miley Cyrus did a song and dance number of her hit tune “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards last week where she rolled her tongue around like a snake charmer, bumping, grinding and (get your urban dictionary out) twerking across the stage against or dangerously close to the crotch area of tall, hunky and rappy 36-year-old male singer Robin Thicke, who has cultivated the oily persona of a studly, very well-endowed lothario in his hit song “Blurred Lines.” The latter may or may not be true in life, but who am I to say? Entertainment Weekly this week famously called it all a “teddy bear orgy” but, then again, who am I to say or even re-appropriate that phrase?

The bigger issue is this: we Americans are pretty hung up about sex, aren’t we?  Yes, I’m purposely including myself in that because while I was watching the Miley/Thicke spectacle (which I then re-watched several times) I groaned, called it gross, and was generally turned off – wondering why Hannah Montana felt compelled to become a fifth rate version of a Sunset Blvd. stripper on national television and why a guy who is height-advantaged, considered hot and, okay, some sort of talented (and is married to the very talented and very hot actress Paula Patton) felt the need to carouse onstage in front of an international audience with a girl young enough to be his…stepdaughter?

As if that wasn’t threatening enough to me and Middle America, he was wearing dark shades and dressed like a high class (if there is such a thing) pimp in a tighter version of the black and white vertical striped pants I wore to one of my own high school dances in the seventies in order to make me look taller.

Just don't say his name 3 times!

Just don’t say his name 3 times!

Certainly that has nothing to do with his involvement with Miley, as a very successful female writer friend of mine argued.  She’s (Miley) of age, she was (or still is?) engaged to be married and isn’t a Disney star any longer.  Why the international headlines?  Why can’t women own who they are?  Why are sexy girls given the scarlet letter when sexy guys are given the term of…well….stud, or even young buck?  In other words, what’s Miley to do?

She has a point, I suppose.  But had the dance moves been a little better, the routine a little more clever, or the 36 year-old guy a little bit more of…well, something…it all might have been sort of funny.  It wasn’t.  Nor was it the end of the world.  At the very least it’s the beginning of a new one for Ms. Cyrus.  Stay tuned to wherever it’s headed.  Which, odds are, has to be up.

GREED: MIDDLE EAST WARS, SYRIA – NOT Syriana

syria-political-map

Unfortunately, we have a tendency in the summer to see events through the lens of a popcorn movie, preferably a sequel.  In our minds, this reduces even political atrocities like the current mass nerve-gassing of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria by a power-hungry dictator to the Oscar-winning George Clooney movie Syriana, which didn’t even take place in Syria and, in fact, wasn’t even released in the summer.

Sadly, the realities revealed in the real Syria these past few weeks seem to be signaling the involvement of the United States in yet another awful geo-political struggle in the Middle East.  This is seen as unavoidable in some form by both sides of the political spectrum and surely signals the end of a carefree summer.

It is doubtful, however, whether even the best civics teacher could explain the pros and cons of this extremely complicated situation in ways in which those of us just emerging from the summer of ’13 (that’s 2013) could reliably understand.  Try as they might on network news, or on CNN, MSNBC and FOX (let’s list them all together and be fair and balanced here), it’s still not happening for those of us not in the know of these things.  Which really means – all of us.

The best I’ve come across is an article in this weekend’s Washington Post.  It breaks down the pros and cons of US involvement in Syria and gives a basic understanding of the political situation there in general.  Think of it as – Syria For Dummies.

(Note:  This title in no way meant to diminish the tragic circumstances.  It’s simply the strategy of good teaching: to make something digestible, first reduce to its simplest form and then begin to add layers).

GLUTTONY: DOWNTON ABBEY & YOU

Someone close to me likened the hit PBS series Downton Abbey to crack in its purest form.   As a faithful follower, I know this is so.  However, as a life long culture vulture, I’m not quite sure why the lives of the aristocrats living in a countryside British castle at the turn of the 20th century along with the servants who love and, well, serve them has such a hold on its worldwide audience.  Perhaps because it’s so different than the world in which we live in today.  Though the writing, acting, directing and castle itself could have something to do with it.

In any event, the fourth season starts being broadcast in England sometime this month and is set in the roaring twenties.  It will also introduce race into the equation with its first Black cast member, a singer in the traditional of jazz great Cab Calloway played by acclaimed British actor Gary Carr.  I suspect this is not just novelty casting but will be used as a way to continue to tell the story of the vast cultural shifts of the times as the upstairs-downstairs way of living slowly begins to unravel.

Hellllloooo Gary!

Hellllloooo Gary!

It should be noted that my students have a particularly hard time with the social mores shown in period pieces even though they are historically accurate.  For instance, I’ve given up even mentioning either the book or movie version of Gone With The Wind in class since the Mammy character and the sashaying young black maid seems to take them out of a story quicker than the foot and a half sized cell phone you see in early 1980s American films.   Yes, I know – those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  You try telling them that.

Finally, DA does not officially premiere in the US until January 2014.  That’s a shame.  Given how connected the world is via social media and the rest of the web, it’s very difficult to wait four months without spoilers to begin a series that is, admittedly, a street drug.  Of course, you can get someone you know in London to send you DVDs that come out midway to late in the fall season.  Or you can do it another….no, I am NOT advocating that!  Am I?  Well, as Will Ferrell once joked on SNL, ‘Maybe I am and…maybe I am…”  (Note to law enforcement:  That’s a joke).

SLOTH: LAZINESS AND THE MOVIES

Do you smell that?

Do you smell that?

Someone has to say it – 2013 has generally been a crap year for movies.  Sorry, it has.  There were a few of good films.  But nothing great or particularly unusual.  I’m leaving out Fruitvale Station because people I trust really like it and I haven’t seen it yet.  Though I very much enjoyed The Spectacular Now and Cate Blachett was wonderful in Blue Jasmine even if the film as a whole somehow disappoints (uh yes, that’s just my opinion).

Still, there’s hope.  What I’m hearing through sources is that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are great being weightless in GravityInside Llewyn Davis is a very cool movie from the very cool Coen Brothers and two actors who were different kinds of movie stars in the seventies will be up for Oscars in two other films.  They are Robert Redford in a practically one-man tour de force in JC Chandor’s All Is Lost and Bruce Dern (yes, he’s Laura’s Dad) as the difficult father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. 

I want to see all of these and many others I haven’t heard anything about.  But just as much I want to see Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of what happened when the writer of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, came to Hollywood and is finally convinced by Walt Disney to allow him to film her story.  Emma Thompson plays the writer and Tom Hanks plays Walt.  But that’s not why I care.  See, Mary Poppins was my favorite film as a child and I played the record endlessly on my little “victrola” (that’s what they called record players, sonny), at the turn of the century.

Do not write in and tell me you’re disappointed in me for wanting this film.  Or  — that I will be disappointed.  I know both already.

PRIDE: STRANGEST NEW FALL TV SEASON ENTRY

OK that's it.. I'm done.

OK that’s it.. I’m done.

I’m not going to belabor this.  Something called the DIY Network (it stands for Do It Yourself) is doing a reality show called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.  In it, the king of nineties White Rap immerses himself in the Amish community to learn how they do construction work.  This will be an offshoot of the network’s current home renovation series, The Vanilla Ice Project.  And why not?  When I want to hear about how I break into the 2013 rap scene I’m going to call The Property Brothers.

ENVY: ME AND QUEEN JANE

Anyone who thinks 75 year-old actors have lost their looks, timing, talent and general star appeal need only watch Jane Fonda in the final scene of last week’s episode 7 of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  In just under four minutes, Ms. Fonda gives a master class in creativity and craft.  Alternately dramatic, funny, coquettish and powerful, she plays each moment to the hilt without ever going over the top or calling attention to herself beyond the requirements of the scene.  That’s rare in television acting and even more rare in the movies these days.  Newsroom star Jeff Daniels put it best in a recent interview:  She comes in prepared and you just watch 2,000 Oscars and 1,000 nominations work.

PS – Ms. Fonda has given immense credit to Aaron Sorkin’s writing for her bravura appearances. But as any writer knows, tour de force scenes such as these can go horribly wrong, especially when you don’t have exactly the right person acting them.  See, cause it’s all made up.  Stay tuned.

WRATH:  IT’S HOT!!!

This summer, which has not yet ended, is best summed up by Krissy Chula’s YouTube video rant of several days ago.  Yes, it’s a little raw.  But so was Richard Pryor.  I’m not saying she’s a star.  Yet.  But the video has gone viral and will soon be nearing 1,000,000 views.

The humor, the rage, the weather – it all speaks to where we are now – maybe at this very moment.

Or maybe… we’re here: