Back to the Future?

There’s a lot of talk about the past these days and it’s reflected in our art, in our politics and all through our everyday lives.

For instance, at the movies I found great solace in reliving Elton John’s life in Rocketman.  This was not only because I got to hear all those great songs performed by the pop star’s virtual movie doppelganger, Taron Egerton, who even captured the way Elton magically played the piano with his feet back when I first saw him perform live at Carnegie Hall in 1972.

He really knew how to put on a show

Instead, what made Rocketman soar for me was how it captured the sad isolation young movie Elton feels when, after his breakthrough performance at L.A.’s Troubadour, he wanders aimlessly at the celebrity after party he should be the star of unable to be his true self.

You don’t have to be gay (or a pop star) to understand what it’s like to not fit in anywhere deep down inside and to know for certain that you are likely the only one who feels this way.

By reliving those feelings and owning them, en masse, it helps us all to feel less alone in the present and to enjoy how far we’ve come in what, in the scheme of things, is a relatively short time.

Baby steps are OK #respectmyjourney

This same form of nostalgia operates in current political movements spearheaded by sizzlingly resonant catchphrases like Make America Great Again. 

More nimbly than a film and certainly more simplistic than ANY streaming show, that clarion call to the past asks the public to go back in time and remember that decade and those years when, overall, things really were GREAT compared to what they are NOW.

There might be some disagreement as to where and when but all the slogan asks of us is to agree that the PRESENT is relatively CRAPPY and that it DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY ANYMORE.

You sure about that Chairy?

You want to go back to the economic boom of the eighties, the pre 9/11 days of the 90s, the gauzy nostalgia of the 50s when everyone wasn’t so sensitive and America just was what it was, united under ONE flag?  It IS possible.  There IS hope.  Follow this logo and those promoting it and WE will take you there.

Just as the ascendance of a Make America Great Again candidate to the Oval Office in 2016 is a call to the past so, in its way, is the indisputable rise of former Vice-President Joe Biden to the very top of the Democratic field of POTUS contenders for 2020.

And here is the Joe Biden of the past… can you even?

In his very first announcement message (Note: Way back in…April) he asked us to recall what America IS, by reminding us of what it WAS.  He did this by citing the very words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

and holding them in sharp contrast to our MAGA president insisting there were very good people on BOTH SIDES when neo-Nazis marched openly in Charlottesville against local residents who supported the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue.

The fact that Jefferson, author of the very manifesto that created the principles on which our country was founded on, lived most of his life right outside Charlottesville was a more than apt metaphor to make the same point of how America’s once GREAT status has gone astray and whom we need to now follow in order to get it back.

This is the only modern Jefferson reference I can get behind #forreal

Biden’s words can’t be emblazoned on a MAGA-like hat but the fiery images of Tiki-torches and swastikas that were employed in present day Charlottesville quickly lit up his candidacy like no other in the 2020 field.  It was a clarion call to reclaim a different part of our pasts and has helped keep the Biden candidacy in a first place runaway lead since its inception almost two months ago.

There is, of course, no going back for any one of us.  We can’t literally enter a time machine and even if we could, memory is select and the exact past is not, to put it mildly, exactly what we are remembering.

This does not interest me. #AmericaSoWhite

As the filmmaking style of Rocketman so effectively demonstrates, our memories are mere impressionistic representations from years gone by intermingled with perceptions and images from other years, decades and time zones in between.  They are an imaginative evocation of our history but not literal.  They are what we recall happened but not entirely accurate.  Yet neither are they fictional.

We can’t literally believe that a young Elton John sang “Daniel and “Crocodile Rock” decades before they were written just as we may never ignore that our Founding Fathers once owned slaves and literally trafficked and tortured other human beings out of their homeland in order to build a new one for themselves.

You tell em, Liz!

Still, this doesn’t disprove the overall message and/or intent of either.

We get to choose which, if any, of their themes resonate for us, and our futures, and to act on them accordingly.  Yet we need to not get too caught up in their golden-hued memories or isolated mistakes.  Instead, perhaps the best strategy (Note: Or strategery, if one is so inclined) is to use the biggest of their lessons and themes as a new clarion call to an even better future.

Unless, that is, we’re not done just merely remembering quite yet.

Elton John – “Crocodile Rock”

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The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.