Master Class

The reality of these last few pandemic years and their political, economic and overall societal impact has been soul crushing.  Up is down, and down seems to have no real bottom.

So what do you do when things turn sour?

I don’t know about you but I turn to art. 

More specifically – music, movies, television, books, painting, architecture and pretty much anything else that can existentially lighten the load.

I know I can’t be the only person who would watch this to relax

It’s not that any of the above will solve the problems of the day, or my day. 

It’s that it makes me feel human and allows the rest to be more tolerable. 

It reminds me of what is pure, reflective, accurate, assured or even appropriately messy.

It tells me I am not alone in my misery, crisis or ennui and that someone, somewhere has not only asked the same questions and felt the same things but has, in some way, made some sense of it.

Bottom line: It gives me hope.

Enter Beyonce #Renaissance

So it pleased me to no end this week to find hope in the work and attitudes of three masters who somehow made me appreciate and feel better about, well, everything–

Joni Mitchell, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

And what’s particularly interesting to me is that I only once again came upon their artistry because of the miracle of technology that enables all of us to experience them, their work and their words, new and old, in ways we never have before.

I love you, Internet

Joni Mitchell re-emerged last week at the Newport Folk Festival where she gave her first concert since a near fatal brain aneurysm seven years ago, which went viral.

Many million of views later she emerged at 78 years old as not only an enduring musical sage and heroic role model, but as living proof that there is no limit to what creative efforts can mean to both an audience and a creator.

Queen

We can hear the exact same words in the same song sung by the very same person and, depending on where we, they and the world all are, be provided with entirely new, exciting and reinvigorating energy to conquer our particular worlds all over again.

What her fans have always known is that Joni Mitchell is a brilliant, poetic truth teller that doesn’t hold back, doesn’t try to please and definitely doesn’t suffer fools.

But what we, and likely she, didn’t quite expect after all this time is that her determination to keep going and redefine herself in a new space and body would touch so many so quickly and provide at least a momentary lifeline out of our own darkness.

Try not to after watching Joni! #impossible

It’s not merely because of her persistent dedication to teach herself to sing and play guitar again by incessantly watching old YouTube clips of her performing that the media and we once again sat up and took notice of Ms. Mitchell so en masse.

It is rather that in doing so, Joni Mitchell managed to create something entirely new.

We’re all Wynonna in this moment

I mean, it’s one thing for a 23-year-old singer-songwriter to write and perform classic songs like Both Sides Now and The Circle Game and, through her lilting soprano and folk/hippie garb casually reflect on the cyclical nature of life and the elusive vagaries of love. 

But it’s quite another to hear someone who briefly touched death (Note: As she recently explained), frailly sit down on an overstuffed chair center stage (Note: Because it’s too difficult to stand for very long) and in now basso tones, adorned in flowing gray robes while wearing dark sunglasses shielding her often closed eyes, more than a half century later persist in admitting to us that:

You can’t return you can only look

Behind from where you came

And go round and round in the Circle Game.

Or once again confess to us:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all.

When you’re searching for answers somehow it’s infinitely reassuring to know that there are none.  It’s only the forward motion of the search for them, and each other, that we can embrace and, if we’re lucky, celebrate.

Thank you

The Last Movie Stars is a six-part documentary on the lives and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, directed by the actor Ethan Hawke,  now streaming on HBO Max.

It’s a largely pandemic-made, almost logic-defying work that does a deep dive into two long married, multi-faceted American acting legends who were born to non-show business families in the south (Ms. Woodward) and Midwest (Mr. Newman). 

But unlike their peers, they went to NYC and were accepted to study at the Actors Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, along with the likes of other then unknowns such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.  And, within a decade, became two of the biggest movie stars and/or persistently best actors (Note: depending on the decade and one’s POV) on the planet.

Royalty

Cleverly employing hundreds of thousands of pages of transcripts of many years of secret taped interviews the couple did privately with their longtime friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern (Note: Rachel, Rachel, Sybil, Rebel Without A Cause), we are given insights into their work and times by both the couple themselves and dozens of contemporaries, family members and collaborators in talking head interviews.

The recorded comments, which Newman one day burned after deciding to abandon the project in the 1990s, are sometimes voiced by the likes of George Clooney, Laura Linney, Sam Rockwell, Vincent D’Onofrio and Zoe Kazan, interspersed with actual public interviews with the couple by the media through the years.

These two

There are a few too many Zoom clips of Mr. Hawke interjecting his thoughts and comments on his subjects, along with those from the actor friends he enlisted, that get in the way. 

But mostly this is six hours of a pretty unvarnished and compelling portrait of Paul and Joanne, their many dozens of films and the historical times through which they managed to live though and alternately triumph, fail and once again triumph in.

Watching the world and the movies through their lives gives us a crystal clear picture of the phony repressive 1950s, the social revolution of the 1960s, the permissiveness and optimism in the 1970s, the corporate avarice and indulgence that the 1980s wrought, and how the 1990s and beyond allowed the world and so many in it, including them, to reinvent for the better and, sometimes, for the worse.

I’m not sure a bad picture of these two exists

The Newmans were not perfect; in fact, far from it.  But their unabashed devotion to themselves, their craft and then, others, is a consistently real and unexpectedly inspiring thread.

When they meet as Broadway understudies in the 1950s, the twenty something Newman was already married with three young children.  Nevertheless, their romance continues hot and heavy for five years before he divorces his wife and starts a new life with three more children.

Woodward was universally felt to be the far better actor, particularly by Newman, winning an Oscar for Three Faces of Eve (1957) by the time she was twenty-seven. But Newman goes on to be the movie STAR and in the sixties and seventies, as Woodward has the kids and raises their blended family, he remains emotionally aloof, drinks heavily and remains what his surviving children and then peers refer to as a “functional” alcoholic for many decades.

The Family Man?

Newman gets mostly all the attention as Woodward receives glowing reviews as a great mom who held the family together from all five or their six remaining children, as well as high accolades from the outside world for her then sporadic work in movies and in television. Nevertheless, she freely admits publicly more than once that if she had it to do over she probably wouldn’t have had children to begin with because of all of the costs to her career.

First world problems, to be sure, but that and all the sticky family dynamics of cheating, drug abuse, early death, anger, rage and yet still unyielding, illogical devotion to either a cause or each other will sound vaguely familiar to any one of us who has tried, and failed, to consistently be at peace or have it all.

While Newman is best known for classic films like The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict and his Oscar turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, one of his greatest achievements turned out to be the hundreds of millions of dollars he raised for charity through the manufacture of salad dressing, cookies and pretzels without ever taking a dime.  Among those charities funded through his Newman Foundation is a still operating camp for seriously and/or terminally ill children, The Hole In The Wall Gang.

Still the best microwavable popcorn!

Woodward worked for those and other charities like Alzheimer’s disease.  This led to her starring role and Emmy win for Do You Remember Love, a TV movie about a college professor stricken with it in middle age.  The illness had struck her late mother and in the last decade has also taken over the life of Ms. Woodward, now 92.

While it’s admittedly transporting and at best escapist to revisit and re-experience the movies, TV shows and music of some of our icons, it’s even better to be reminded that imperfection is and has always been the definition of every human life. 

Spending the week with Joni, Paul and Joanne was not so much a look back at the past but a reminder to embrace the future and not get stuck in the circles of lows and highs, and highs and lows and highs that come seemingly from out of nowhere.

Better to enjoy them, try to do better and not give a crap about judgments made about any of them, most especially our own.

Joni Mitchell – “Both Sides Now”

Rear view

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 10.17.23 PM

I’ve been told one or twice over the years, certainly never more than two times in a 12-month period as far as I can recall, that I have a nice butt.  This is not something I advertise or, really, am particularly proud of.  I don’t do anything to maintain it, I never think about it because, quite frankly, I can’t see it, and certainly it hasn’t really gotten me much that I know of except a few compliments now and again.  The latter has always puzzled me since I would think of all the wonderful things family, friends and the general public could flatter me about this would not be one of them.

Then again, I’m not complaining because as an ex of mine used to jokingly say – though I realized after two years of his bull that this was not really a joke – I accept all free-floating compliments.

How to take a compliment

How to take a compliment

No, this is not a piece about the world’s obsession with Kim Kardashian’s butt.  Though certainly the provocative pictures of her very shiny and – since there’s no other way to say it I will – very large and very toned posterior that was designed to “Break the Internet suggest that if it were I could probably increase my readership at least twenty thousand fold.  Nevertheless, I am still choosing not to go there.  This should not be surprising since I have also opted for so many decades to not do much of anything about the sporadic compliments I have gotten about my own behind.

At the end of the day all this really proves is not only do I know little about generating (m)ass appeal but that I am probably just about the worst person alive to market my own ass(ets).

OK OK we get it...

OK OK we get it…

Still, as a writer and college professor I am a pretty good provocateur and poser of questions.  And while once again I will state this still is not a piece about KK – though she certainly has managed to dominate the proceedings so far, huh? – I can’t help but wonder out loud in print:

  • Why something or someone gets attention in our world?  OR
  • If it’s ever possible to know other than by trial and error and personal taste just what the best subjects, persons and events are to either work on, research or let your eye or mind generally wander to?  AND
  • Once these things get stuck in your craw, which ones will you, not to mention the entire world, choose to indulge in briefly, sporadically, intermittently or endlessly? OH, AND — ONE LAST QUESTION
  • Given the disposable nature of subject matter in our ever-evolving age of information, do any of these decisions or choices even matter?

This all came to mind this week because we people on Earth for the first time in, well, EVER managed to land a spacecraft on a comet.  Not the cleanser but a real live celestial object made of ice, dust and gas located 317 MILLION MILES AWAY.  This alone might not seem exciting to non-science geeks except when we’re told that the constant stream of 24/7 photos from the surface of that non-cleanser just might answer the age-old questions of: how the World began, how Earth was first formed and if humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe.

While NASA/the US is usually in the lead on these types of things it is interesting to note that the achievement of the Rosetta Spacecraft was due to 10 years of perseverance by the European Space Agency.  Not to mention those cheers and congrats of victory took place in Germany and were not in large part due to what we here in the US consider to be our greatest asset – American exceptionalism.

Oh, who cares about that and who says we’re not exceptional – we can still lay claim to Kardashian’s gluteus maximus!  And who says we’re not into science the way we once were when we’re clearly leading in um… anatomy.

You had to know this picture was coming

You had to know this picture was coming

You might dismiss me as Mr. Sarcasmo.  So many of my family and friends have over the years while still sporadically applauding me about my own tushy.  But the facts speak for themselves.  KK’s photo spread (no pun intended) on both the cover and inside the pages of a little known publication called Paper Magazine, is now close to getting 20,000,000 views.  Have there been 20 million views of the comet’s surface or the space probe Rosetta?  Well, perhaps.  But are you willing to take that bet???  No, I didn’t think so.  (Note: And for those who are willing, which of those images were you most excited to see first?  Be honest).

Nope. I won't accept it!

Nope. I won’t accept it!

Well, of course there is a time for science and a time for bottom feeding, right?  Intellectual advancement for mankind does not depend on a majority of us viewing space photos – just on a select few understanding what they mean, interpreting them and advancing knowledge that will cause others to make discoveries for the betterment of mankind.  Other discoveries made by NASA over the years are responsible for the science behind the MRI imaging tests that will likely prolong your life, the artificial limbs that allow those with disabilities to move about like never before, and the clear Invisalign braces that two years ago finally freed me from a lifetime of crooked teeth.  And most of us don’t know how the heck any of them work or why.  Or even care to understand them.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then why care about Rosetta’s photos since clearly there are others around more well-versed than ourselves to do the dirty work?  Meanwhile we get to fantasize endlessly about oiled up derriere photos of… many people – as we simultaneously benefit as a people from the scientific findings of others.

Does this help us focus?

Does this help us focus?

Well, because in the US – as well as many other places in the world – we live in a free society where everyone gets to vote (okay, mostly everyone) and decide how much money goes to science in order to explore.  We also all collectively decide by our voting of what is popular and trending just what the priorities of the world should be and how our time, money and attention will and should be allocated in the future.  Some ancient societies were built by peasants and ruled by royalty who chose to construct up and out.  Other civilizations were and are about survival and the worship of a God, Deity or Figurehead of choice with more of a focus on piety that can get you into the Afterlife rather than what benefits you in your present life.   Some have even chosen to simply revel in the decadence of the day, pleasure seeking and partying their lives away with the most desirable among them – or at least available to them – as long as possible.

Several weeks ago there was an election in the U.S. with the lowest voter turnout in 72 years – meaning only 36% of eligible voters showed up at the polls.   The age group with the lowest turnout figures was those 18-29 years old, accounting for only 21% of all total voters.  When that is broken down to simply Democratic voters, the number drops down to 13%.

Good Grief

Good Grief

This will cause a shift away from issues heavily favored by young people – such as the preservation of the environment.  The new Republican controlled Senate is touting a heavy shift towards oil drilling with a promised passage of the Keystone Pipeline.  In simple terms, that means digging deeper into the Earth than ever before up into Canada in order to excavate as much oil as is inhumanely possible.  It will also mean that the Senator who will be put in charge of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will be James Inhofe (R- Oklahoma), one of the leading climate change deniers in the country who authored the 2012 book:  The Greatest Hoax:  How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

No, I don’t think the majority of young people were spending their time mooning at the backside of KK instead of voting.  Her audience extends far beyond that, and in the case of those photos it could indeed skew a bit older and much more male.  They are also not to blame for our shift away from science to social media.  That’s Mark Zuckerberg’s fault and since he already turned 30 years old in May he’s clearly not so young anymore.

... but I still wear a hoodie everyday

… but I still wear a hoodie everyday

There instead seems to be a mass exit away from…. what shall we call it…. reality and a growing emphasis to a more short-term, pleasure driven, hedonistic – or at least egoistic culture that has ironically been fueled in part by our recent technological advancements.  These toys allow us to watch the trending showdown between the surface of a heavenly body many millions of miles away and Kim Kardashian’s buttocks.  We enjoy each together, alone and apart from the scrutiny of anyone else.

And we enjoy it at our own peril.