Forward Backward Thinking

The many fans of writer extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin’s TV fantasy of the presidency, The West Wing, were able to luxuriate in nostalgia this week.

Simpler times

In support of Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, a non-partisan (Note: Ahem) organization that seeks to encourage voting in groups that too often sit out elections (e.g. young people, communities of color), HBO Max presented a staged reading, with the original cast, of Sorkin’s favorite WW episode — season 3’s Hartfield’s Landing.

This is where senior White House staff obsess about what the first reported presidential primary vote will be in a fictional 48-person New Hampshire town.  After all, the results will dominate the news all day and, if it goes well for the POTUS, it will set a positive tone for all the hoped for favorable press their boss will receive.

LOL remember when there was no news?

And, as we all now know, there is nothing more urgent than setting an upbeat tone in order to win the White House.  Right?

Well, history turns on a dime and what seemed urgent in 2002 and then became just plain silly in light of 2016 could easily, once again, become necessary in 2020.  Right?

Right Jon, right???

Sure!  As I explained to my students this week online via Zoom, because there’s been a deadly pandemic going on for the last eight months and we couldn’t possibly all be in the same room or breathe the same air, history swings like a pendulum – from left to right and back again.

To which one of them blurted out:

So,  when IS it going to swing back?

Yikes, good question #teachablemoment?

I, of course, immediately blurted back that they had to go out to the streets and, while safely socially distanced, swing it back the way they wanted.  Until I realized this was not only likely impossible but sounded like a Grade C imitation of the response Sorkin himself would give. 

Nor do I even believe it in the darker days of 2020.  Which, I confess, is most all of them.

Still, when you live in a purported democracy that’s about all you have, isn’t it?   It’s really just in how inspiring a way you can express it. 

Like a bad haircut, maybe it just needs time.

Well, Mr. Sorkin’s once again done an excellent job on that score as both writer and director in his latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. (Note…. the segue).

Dropping on Netflix just one day after the gauzy West Wing redux, his new Netflix offering (Note:  Because, well, our pandemic politics has shuttered most movie theatres and shoved this planned major theatrical release from Paramount right into your home stream) is anything but delicate.

Instead, it’s a theatrically cynical look back into history when the U.S. government was intent on using politics and every piece of the legal system, whether illegally or not, to punish and jail those who dare to take their protests onto the streets.

Look back? Who’s gonna tell him?

Side Note:  It seems particularly fitting it dropped after a week of Senate hearings aimed at putting arch Conservative (and self-possessed handmaid) Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the US Supreme Court.  When asked this week by a Republican senator to name the five freedoms the Bill or Rights guarantees for all Americans, Ms. Barrett could only think of four – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

The one freedom that stumped her?

The right to petition the government for redress of grievances, OR, freedom to protest.

And there was laundry talk!

Fittingly enough, the clairvoyant Mr. Sorkin’s new legal drama takes us back in time to the late sixties, when this very issue was very, very VERY publicly spotlighted.  This was a time when the federal government, newly controlled by the uber conservative and freedom of protest loathing Richard Nixon, decided to charge a group of young and somewhat renowned and popular anti- Vietnam War protestors for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to incite riots at the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Your next Netflix watch

Take the antics of this cross-section of long and short-haired, hippie and preppy, respectful and comically stoned and disrespectful young people – and mix it with a real-life first amendment-hating and often blatantly racist judge tasked with carrying out those charges by newly installed and diabolically fascist federally empowered Nixon flunkies and, well, you can see where hilarity and mass national conflicts could ensue.

And where the comparable present-day hyperbole might begin.

It’s not a particularly pretty story to look back on, even with the much hoped for and very pithily delivered Sorkin bon mots.  But even if you don’t love Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movies or his borderline irredeemable prankster antics, you couldn’t experience anyone better portraying the late Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, who famously feasted on yanking the chain of the establishment and even of his co-defendant Tom Hayden, the more straight-laced founder of Students for a Democratic Society so well evoked by Eddie Redmayne.

Also big hair moment

Ditto for so many others, including Frank Langella’s racist persecutor/Judge Hoffman, whose shared last name with Abbie is an ongoing joke, as well as a brief but memorable appearance by Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clarke, the much more liberal former attorney general from the previous Johnson administration.

It is the shifting of the pendulum of justice between left and right, liberal and conservative, and everything in between that gives the story of this Trial of the Chicago 7 its present day resonance.  At least for those of us hoping that this Election Day is about to once again cause a major shift back to what we used to think of as American sanity.

This. This. This. This. #VOTE

Yet at the same time it’s also this very issue that makes this movie inescapably scary.  As one watches the absolute conviction a single judge, backed by a new presidential administration, has towards enforcing racist and regressive views, and notes how willing both are to twist or even ignore the very laws it’s charged with enforcing in order to permanently silence those who oppose them, one can’t help but wonder — how many times CAN the pendulum shift back and forth before it all together cracks apart?

Sorkin’s courtroom antics and filmmaking dexterity do a great job of zeroing in on the core issues at stake and give us a happy ending from five decades ago that ensures American democracy will continue.

But this week’s US Supreme Court hearing, the one that will very likely (and somewhat dubiously) enshrine perhaps the most conservative judge in American history onto OUR Supreme Court, combined with the challenge for the umpteenth time of once again shifting the American presidency away from, well, fascism (Note: Fascism being the kind word), is a very steep, real life, hill to climb. 

Holding on tight to that last shred of hope

Especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Where our ability, and even right to vote as we can, is being challenged at every turn.

Sorkin has written and imagined the way forward for us by going back in time.  But we now have to figure how to carry it out.

Another pat answer from me that borders on the cliché. 

Still, life’s never been quite as efficient, or satisfying, as any one Sorkin movie or TV series, much as we all (Note:  Well, the majority of us), would like to continue to pretend it to be.

Bob Marley – “Get Up Stand Up”

My Taste in Quarantine

There is no accounting for taste.  Especially my own.  These days.

After many decades alternately employed as a critic, journalist, screenwriter, college professor and generally professional opinionist on way too much, I know what I like and don’t like.  It’s not that I’m not occasionally surprised or appalled by where my tastes take me but, for the most part, it’s unsurprising.

Until now.

In this world of social distancing self-quarantine there is no accounting for taste. Especially my own.

We are living in a judgement free zone

During these endless hours/days/weeks at home I find myself falling into endless rabbit holes of entertainment, diversion and amusement even though I have all the time on my hands to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do that can be done solo inside the solitude of one’s own home.

Which is, let’s face it, quite a lot in our 21st century.

The problem is, I don’t want to do much except gawk at everything I can’t experience up close and personal.  In other words – LIVE. 

That is the only explanation I can come up with for the majority of my entertainment hours this week.

Which, as I’ve said, is pretty much the majority of my hours in every single day.

That, and that alone, is why I spent six of them (in one 24-hour period) on Netflix’s reality/docuseries Tiger King.  Sure, I realize it was TV’s  #1 RATED most popular show last week AND the #1 featured choice in Netflix logarithms (Note:  Whatever they are).  But I HATE sh-t like that.

WHY am I watching this?

No, really.

The last time I remember watching TV’s number one show was a Miss America Beauty pageant as a wee lad in the 1960s.  I thought the gowns were cool and I was dying to gawk at some poor bubble-haired young woman from the south or Midwest almost burn herself to a crisp as she threw three fire-lit batons high into the air.

These were they type of diversions I needed back then as a young gay boy trying to not acknowledge reality.

And yet, here I am again, right back where I was, watching a 21st century version for that same type of escape.

Me, working on my wave

But this time in the form of a different spectacle.  That of a gay, polygamous, self proclaimed redneck who cuddles with numerous 400 lb. tigers, has a padlock piercing on his penis and is frenemies with multiple felons that enable him to control an exotic roadside animal sanctuary where he may or may not be plotting the murder of others and may or may not be engaging in all kinds of meth-fueled sex parties with any number of hunky younger lovers.

That’s the amount of distraction required from MY 21st century reality.  And clearly most of YOURS.

Yet I’m not sure how I account going from that to the best screenplay winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of A Lady on Fire. 

Guilt, perhaps?

Maybe not.  It feels like a much more natural fit for me to watch a very artsy and very French film about two young women in the late 1700s fall in love/lust very, very VERY slowly in a stripped down rustic Nancy Meyer-ish type home by the sea.  One’s a painter secretly hired to do a portrait of the other, a young woman of means promised into marriage by a domineering mother.  And each has a secret that dare not speak its name.

Plus Fire! (just in case you needed that confirmed)

It was really good, I liked it and yet….I dozed off three different times and had to rewind to find my place back into the story because hey, subtitles and lingering looks.  In these times, they’re not as compelling on the faces of people who could actually reach out and touch each other.  In the same room.  Without masks!

So, I mean, watch it or don’t watch but know it’s incredibly well done and under any more normal circumstances I would NEVER have fallen asleep.  I swear.

I SAID NO JUDGEMENT!

Of course, it could have been anxiety that made me that tired.  So as I made my way into the bedroom, knowing my husband was going to be working late downstairs, I was determined that this one night I could finally get my much-needed, fitful, say, at least 6 or 7or 22  hours of sleep.

Whereupon (Note:  A word I must have heard in the French film) I rest my head on my pillow and suddenly become WIDE AWAKE.  Like, not even tired slightly.

So what does one do with that these days?  Check one’s email and look at the link some well-intentioned friend sends you on some well-intentioned diversion to take away your psychic pain of the moment (aka what you saw on the NEWS that day).

Not a good idea.

I just can’t quit you MSNBC

Because after watching that YouTube offering you stumble onto something else and then something further and wind up watching:

A 1973 two-part FIRST EVER television interview with Katharine Hepburn.  You want to talk about three hours of blissful bliss without commercials.  I was up until 3:30 in the morning learning these essential facts:

– Kate thinks that you CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING, meaning, career, love AND your own family. 

– Kate thinks the reason she was a success is that she had great parents who were always attentive and ALWAYS encouraged her in everything she wanted to do (Note: F-k her).

– Kate knows the other reasons she was a success was that she was incredibly hard-working, didn’t drink or do drugs, and, most of all, didn’t indulge in self-pity (Note #2 – Double f-k her).

– Kate said that in addition to talent, the reason people become movie stars is that they have a distinct voice, the camera somehow loves how they photograph and that they are incredibly….LUCKY. (Note:  Really?????) 

Click here to watch the whole glorious interview

Though in the case of a legend like Garbo it was the added element of mystery, she noted.  No matter how much time you spent with her and no matter how well you liked her (and Kate copped to both) you NEVER REALLY KNEW HER.  NO ONE DID.

See, I don’t know what to do with that.

And probably already knew it at 1:00 a.m., anyway.

Which is why, when I look over the last three self-isolating weeks and am being totally honest – I have to admit – that despite all of the above and much, much more –when you total it all up –  I have still spent the majority of my mindless entertainment time – on my usual time suck….

You know you love it!!

There are hours of home makeover shows but this week I was all about Love It Or List It and Nate and Jeremiah Save My House.  Rather than being romantic, reality show bizarre or biographically uninstructional, these two series are most particularly, and hopelessly, predictable.

Come for the design, stay for Hilary’s coordinating accessories #necklaceandearringsfordays

A mess of a house is presented to a duo of two experts (Note: Cause a duo is always two) and in the end, they always always, ALWAYS  have the same inevitable outcome.

The homes are so colorful, so functional and so vastly all that and more you can’t help but be blindsided.  And, unlike the type of blindsiding we’ve grown used to, in a hopelessly great way.

Sure, no matter how great my house might be it won’t ever be that bright, perfect or airy.  However, these days it doesn’t matter because NO ONE AT ALL who wants to LIVE will get to redo their house from the ground up because NO ONE AT ALL can be a ONE-PERSON BAND OF reconstruction in self-isolation.

And somehow I find that reassuring.

As reassuring as I find Nate and Jeremiah’s coordinating outfits #howcutearethey #somuchBEIGE

Not to mention, even if you could do everything YOURSELF, where would you get the materials?  Someone (and certainly more than one) would have to deliver it ALL to you and then YOU would have to Lysol or Clorox wipe them ALL down.   Every.  Last.  One.

Even with all the time in the world, none of us has time for that.

2011 Tony Awards Performance (with Sutton Foster) – “Anything Goes”