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”

Oh, Mother!

Everyone who makes movies in Hollywood these days is an artist of some kind no matter what anyone thinks. Try working in any department on a film and you will see artistry at work. Sure, it might not be to your taste but it’s there.

Still, most people in the business would privately admit there is a very, very small group of writer-directors whose every movie – consistently and with dogged resolve – are always reaching for a lot more than commercial success or to tell a simple story with skill and creativity.

ahem

These are people who understand the economics and plot elements of the business but also aspire to do go out on a limb and add elements to their work that you not only never saw before but never in your wildest dreams imagined.

They seek to tell a story that will always blow you out of the water, that often can’t help at points to confound, offend and most importantly – despite your reaction –cause you to think about what they’ve presented whether you want to or not. Whether you like it or not.

These filmmakers are our current UBER artists and Darren Aronofsky is one of them.

OK.. maybe he’s not helping himself #scarvesfordays

A lot has been written about his just released Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

  • The fact that it got a record low F Cinemascore
  • The fact that it had a dismal opening at the box office and has rapidly trended downwards
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky’s last film, Noah, was a bit of a mess, wildly expensive and made for Paramount – the same studio that backed Mother!
  • The fact that Mr. Aronofsky is in career free-fall, has lost it, and will most certainly follow in the footsteps of many of our greatest filmmakers who ___________.

Well, you can fill in the blanks.

No please Chair, go on. #mnightknows

But the problem with all of the above is that they are irrelevant and beside the point.

And most especially, particularly in the case of the latter, are a whole lot of:

HORSESHIT

Yep… that’s what I smell

I saw Mother! at a screening at the WGA Friday night and for the first two thirds of it I often didn’t quite know where I was despite being thoroughly entertained, intrigued and often second-guessing just how crazy the rest of it could get. Eventually the threads of what held together filmmaking this audacious began to unravel and what I was left with, well, I’ll spare you the details.

Good, bad, and certainly not indifferent, I’m, yes, still thinking about quite a few images in Mother! — all in the muddled spaces of Mother logic that remains in my mind. (Note: And yes, make of that what you will.)

Roughly how I felt after I left the screening

This is a film where the less you know about it the better and the more you try to focus on plot and theme the less you seem to know. That is its greatest fault or most potent calling card depending on who you are and what you prefer to see. But one thing is for certain: Mother! never shies away from its aspirations and goes for them full throttle. It is comedy, drama, horror,and epic all sewn into a patchwork of crazy. But will you like it???

Hell if I know. I don’t even know if I did.

Horror you say? No, a different kind of MOTHER! #ohNorman

Anyone who has followed Mr. Aronofsky’s career as I have (Note: Full confession, he is one of my most preferred contemporary American filmmakers – and there aren’t many) shouldn’t be surprised at what they’re seeing here.

There are certain themes that pop up in all his work:

Fame

Artistry

Love and Sex (not necessarily in that order)

Family

Is it, Darren?

Look at his most enduring movies and you’ll see a guy who leaves it all on the screen and let’s the chips fall where they may.

I can recall sitting at a 1998 Academy screening of his film Pi unable to move out of my chair at the end, wondering: what the hell was that, how did he know what I was thinking about but never dared to tell anyone, and how can I immediately get more?

Two years later he made Requiem for A Dream and gave me existential nightmares that every so often creep back into my brain uninvited and, yet, sometimes also give me the impetus to strive for something even more daring in my own work.

Plus.. I’m gonna be on television!

Six years after that he made me love Mickey Rourke as an actor for the very first time, not to mention The Wrestler, while touching on some very personal family issues I didn’t even know I still carried with me.

When Black Swan came out two years later I believed he’d jumped to a whole new level of addressing the age old question of what is the price artistry and, given its box-office success on such a relatively low budget, fully expected to see a whole raft of ballet films of all genres in its wake. (Note: Clearly I was wrong on the latter and is one of the thousands of reasons why I am not a studio executive).

The closest we got was care of Miss Swift #shakeitoff

Sure, in between there were bigger budget, rambling confusions like The Fountain and Noah but in my mind even both of those were not without their moments. Mostly because I knew each of them were stepping stones to the next film and the next one and then the film after that.

This is what it REALLY takes to consistently produce work that is mold-breaking, thought-provoking and ORIGINAL. You have to disappoint, confuse and perhaps even offend your audience with too many misfired moments in order to get to where the most JUICE is.

I realize metaphors are not my strongest suit and I’m not sure why I use them. (Perhaps because one day I know I’ll find one that works?).

Just doing my part…

But one thing I am ABSOLUTELY certain of is that to en masse roast an uber artist like Mr. Aronofsky for what you or your friends or gang of social media cronies find to be his lessest work is to guarantee that you will never, ever get his future bestest work.

In between tweeting about the Orange Buffoon’s latest tirade against Black athletes and football, many have this week seen fit to take to our virtual Town Square and quite metaphorically (and then some) stone Mother! and Mr. Aronofsky to their virtual, spiritual and financial deaths.

Though usually Ms. Lawrence – one of our current America’s Sweethearts –is spared, they manage to go doubly, triply, even sextupley hard on the one principal artist who dared make that misfired, truly disgusting, stillborn thing that sullied her.

I’m pretty sure this is just how Katniss feels about that

Without ever appreciating this fact: that one principal artist is also, in a past or future work, the same uber talented filmmaker who will help make us fall in love with her – and people like her – in the first place.

Yes, I know Mr. Aronofsky doesn’t need my help. But dismissive, over-the-top reaction to films like Mother! really pisses me off.

Cee Lo Green – “Forget You”