Re-make Believe

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A significant part of pop culture has always come from remake and reinvention. Ask Madonna about Marilyn and Lady Gaga about Madonna. Or question The remaining Beatles about Little Richard. How about Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola on Akira Kurosawa?   Perhaps Brian DePalma vis-a-vis Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino re Sergio Leone.

We all have our influences (and not all of them are good). One can’t help but be affected, consciously or not, by what has come before. In fact, even when you’re not appropriating, copying or paying homage it is likely the purely original idea you came up with has been done in some related form by someone else you don’t know about who is not you. As I’ve learned in therapy and in life, we human beings are individually unalike and yet collectively more similar than any of us suspect – or even want to admit. No wonder someone long ago – and probably long ago before that – said there is nothing new under the sun.

... and sometimes that's OK!

… and sometimes that’s OK!

And yet…

…It has come to my attention this week that we are drowning in… how can I say it… an unreality of make believe. This is not about remakes of endless superhero movies; the faux presidential daily vomits of The Republican Apprentice; or even the film version of one of the world’s most profitable gaming apps of all time – The Angry Birds Movie – debuting at THE #1 position at the box office this weekend. Nor is it about it achieving a B plus Cinemascore – which puts it far above the average college or high school graduate these days.

Instead, it is about a chipping away of the real. It concerns us not being able to separate the world of make believe and pretend with what really was or is – even when the truth is right before our eyes.

NBC’s The Voice – one of my favorite TV shows and one of America’s top 10 faves (Note: Clearly, I’m not the only one who fantasizes being a diva) – had a special event planned for its Tuesday finale show. And this would be a long planned duet between one of its star judges, Christina Aguilera and…WHITNEY HOUSTON. No really. They were going to duet – as in together sing – a melody of two of Ms. Houston’s most famous songs. At least that’s EXACTLY the way it was being billed.

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007... so even THIS isn't an original idea!

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007… so even THIS isn’t an original idea!

Yes, Ms. Houston did die more than four years and no, NBC has not made a deal with some 12 year-old prodigy who has figured out how to raise a living version of our most lauded dead. Well, not exactly. What did happen is that a 35 year old Greek billionaire and his ironically titled company, Hologram USA created a an image of Whitney Houston singing her signature I Have Nothing song and it was to alternate with Christina Aguilera singing I’m Every Woman. Unfortunately – or perhaps luckily – the duet was given the kibosh at the last moment by the Houston estate, which noted that with artists of the caliber of Ms. Houston it must be perfect and apparently it – was not. Of course, what it really IS – that’s anyone’s guess.

You'll have to save all your love for something else.

You’ll have to save all your love for something else.

Since writers are sticklers for a certain precision of words and/or language, may we be precise here? The planned performance was not an event television live duet between a living songstress and a deceased one. That is impossible. Instead it was an engineered medley between a flesh and blood person and an image/recording of a dead one.

A living thing cannot be real simply because we wish it to be so.

In the same way a lie cannot be true merely because we have chosen to think otherwise.

Gospel of Constanza

Gospel of Constanza

This is particularly important to remember in the 2016 election year – or for that matter any other year.

Engineering the past is a tried and true position every writer takes whenever they sit down to the page and come up with any story that is even vaguely personal. As artists, we tell a story and often that involves rewriting what is to a version of what you would want it to be or fantasize it was or could be. But it is sold as such – a fiction – an invention – it is not oddly positioned as some sort of 21st century – reality.

HBO debuted a very fine movie this weekend about the uneasy alliance between Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King’s fraught collaboration to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s entitled All The Way. While it is a bit odd for us baby boomers to watch Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston pretending to be the drawling Texas president we remember as children it was also just as strange to view The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie saying made-up words in the cadence of a civil rights leader whose dulcet tones we can still recall in our mind’s eye all those years ago.

A different type of resurrection

A different type of resurrection

However, this has always been what film and television is about – an acted rendering of a version of reality. It’s not as if we’re watching current Pres. Barack Obama having a conversation with Dr. King and HBO advertising to the public that it is actually happening. Or that ABC has a Diane Sawyer special booked where she will indeed interview the late Pres. Johnson on what it was like fighting the powers-that-be in the first year of his presidential administration.

It is this next, not so subtle step in blurring the lines with a hologram that is not only a bit creepy but more than a bit dangerous. It’s one thing to attend the Mr. Lincoln exhibit in Disneyland but it is a whole other version of the stars and stripes when the world begins to think that it just spent 15 minutes with the most lauded and perhaps famous member of the centuries old Republican party. At that rate, one day we might not be able to recognize the grand old party or even its next president – or proposed president. Because by that time everything will be its own custom-made Disneyland – and carry as much truth as any image from Hologram USA.

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Big Dreams

There’s a great scene in the first act of “A Star Is Born” where the established star, Norman Maine, advises the young talented unknown, Esther Blodgett, about her career.  She admits her big dream is catching a lucky break, getting discovered by a talent scout and having a number one record but also freely admits, “It won’t happen.”  The veteran, a great fan of her work (among other things), counters, “No it might happen very easily.  Only — the dream isn’t big enough.”

He then goes on to tell her, “A career can turn on somebody saying to you,  ‘You’re better than that.  You’re better than you know.’  Don’t settle for the little dream.  Go on to the big one.” (for more go here)

In Esther’s case, having the number one record was not necessarily the wrong dream (she does go on to get a number one record AND a lot more) – just not the right dream at the right time.  In other words, to quote a wise old adage, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Aside from the fact I’m a sucker for old Judy Garland movies, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately.  Do you get just one?  Is working hard and profusely wanting something enough to push you towards your goal?  What if it is the WRONG time?  Or, perish the thought, the WRONG dream?   But wouldn’t I know what the right and wrong dream was for me – I mean, it’s my dream!!  Well, not necessarily.  I mean, no one is right 100% of the time except, well, the 8 Ball– and even it has its occasional limitations.

Hold on, let me get my glasses.

Taking that into the realm of high-class problems, what if you’ve already achieved your dream and you’ve still got half or two-thirds of your life left, and don’t plan to die early.  Do you just coast and sit on or in your mountains of money (while you’re spending it and it keeps magically replenishing through endless tax cuts for you and your millionaire/billionaire friends)?  Do you continue to try and top yourself in your own field even though you feel like you’ve “done it” and it no longer holds its mystery because you’ve reached your version of the mountain top?  Or maybe you, perish the thought again, start from ground zero and try something else with the hopes you can reconnect with the passion you had for your original dream and expand that and more to even greater effect and affect.

Only we can provide the answer for ourselves.  Maybe for you it’s one or all of those.  Or maybe it’s none of the above.  Dreams are funny that way.  Ultimately, they’re extremely personal.

But for guidance – why not look to the best.

No one spoke of dreams more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King, and being this the 48th anniversary of his historic  “I Have A Dream” speech – a speech delivered at a time when the idea of a Black U.S. president seemed as likely as, well, an openly transgender, ultra-liberal, atheist one might one seem today, (and if anyone under 40 thinks I’m exaggerating, ask anyone OVER 40) – it’s important to be reminded of the ever-enduring necessity and universality of having not only commitment to a dream but a great and unlimited personal imagination.

Inspiration

Dr. King didn’t dwell on what was necessarily rational in the south in the summer of 1963 for Black (then called Negro) Americans, but “dreamed” of what he saw (and hoped) was “possible.”  Does it trivialize the civil rights struggle to use it as a metaphor for the individual dreams each of us may or may not have for ourselves in our creative lives?  Absolutely not.  Dreaming of something that seems impossible is always valid and necessary if you’re human and want to make any kind of impact or difference for whatever reason.  And if you’re going to steal (in Hollywood they call it homage), why not steal from the best?  And – at least I’m publicly giving him credit – unlike what Paramount, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have so far done for James Toback, by not informing him they were going to remake his seminal 1974 screenplay “The Gambler,” prompting him to feel he dreamt a bad dream because he first found out about it last week in Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood news item. (Read it all here).

But I digress.

I’ve written before about dream stomping or dream ignoring or dream ______ (fill in your phrase) being very big these days – particularly in the creative arts.  “You’ll never,” “do you know the odds of,” “You have to be practical,” or the dreaded comment – “you’re such a dreamer.”  As if that’s a bad thing.

I, and all of my happy and/or successful friends (uh, they’re not necessarily the same thing), will testify to you that there is no way to achieve anything for yourself without dreaming it up in some fashion for yourself in today’s world.  Especially in the creative arts.  Oh — Hint:  It’s all made up, anyway!

As for having only ONE dream or MANY dreams or not stopping until you find the RIGHT dream for you, the strategy depends on who you are and how busy you want to be.  I can make the case for employing any of those, or, alternately, all three.  Consider:

  1. A very successful SCREENWRITER friend of mine with more movies made than any of his contemporaries always dreamed of being a screenwriter (some of us think from in utero).
  2. A very successful SCREENWRITER I know was in a punk rock band before he ever thought of writing movies or wrote a word in screenplay form.
  3. A very famous ACTOR friend of mine always wanted to act and never considered anything else.
  4. A very famous ACTOR I once worked on a movie with didn’t start acting until mid-life and spent the first half of his life doing, well, a lot of illegal stuff unrelated to show biz (and often behind bars).
  5. A very famous and successful DIRECTOR friend of mine actually finds it torturous to direct and dreamed of doing lots of other things but became most successful at this.  Now, this person is sort of stuck.
  6. A very talented DIRECTOR friend of mine now writes and produces and doesn’t direct at all (except in the mind) and, I believe, finds it infinitely more satisfying.

Oh, and what’s most interesting to me now is that NONE of these six people today ONLY work on their dream of writing, acting and directing.  One of them always dreamt of being a great parent and spends a great chunk of time with his/her children; another works tirelessly reforming convicts; a third spends enormous amounts of time decorating and remodeling.  All of them are on their third, fifth, eight and twentieth dreams.

There are other individuals I know who never quite “made it” on their original dreams but now are dreaming even bigger and better.  To whit:

  1. A brilliant, aspiring AGENT I know left the business and has become a very successful (and happy) family LAWYER.
  2. A talented, lower level STUDIO EXEC I once knew now writes self-help books (imagine that?).
  3. A former AGENT friend of mine and PRODUCER friend of mine each sell and develop real estate (separately), are very good at it and LOVE it (granted, more when the market is a bit better – another subject.  And perhaps another dream).
  4. Three screen and TV WRITER friends are now full-time therapists, helping other dreamers navigate the tricky waters of ambition, reality and, well, dreams.  A fourth has moved on to producing new and exciting content for the web.  (The latter in some way probably being a new, ingenious and inevitable dream to consider and perhaps approach for more than a few younger (and older?) people reading this blog).

Finally, add to that – at a restaurant this week I ran into two different and EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY successful people in the entertainment business.  I mean, you couldn’t GET more successful and famous (you’d know their names).  One of them has nothing to do with film anymore and uses all the money, cachet and power accrued in said business towards charitable works (i.e. helping others fulfill dreams).  The other still pursues dreams in the business but in a very different way and in very different venues.  This person has gone from being unbelievably difficult and, well, not very nice back in the day (how do I know? I was there), to being a warm, open and generally endearing presence who has clearly found that not being in the red hot spotlight is ultimately a lot more dreamily satisfying than drowning in the poisonous kind of heat that public attention sometimes generate for certain types of individuals.

If this sounds tricky, confusing, confounding and littered with endless detours, U-turns and reinventions, rest assured it is.  But — that’s what really BIG dreams are made of.