Straight Talk

Rule of thumb:  If something that’s said publicly bothers you for more than a day, and worse, is inaccurate, you have an obligation to do something about it.

If you disagree at the very least you have to write a letter, tell someone else, or run for office.  If it’s untrue and the person telling it to you is mistaken or, as my Mom used to say – a liar – you have to do even more.  And not be afraid to do it because in the long run you always win when you express what’s true.

So –  here’s what director Adam Shankman said last weekend publicly in a Q&A session at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences when discussing his new film “Rock of Ages” – a musical set in 1987 Los Angeles.

Oh god.

“The year the movie takes place – 1987 – was a great time, a different time  – so free, really.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  Really.”

Really?

Here’s what you have to know because facts and statistics don’t lie:

1987

  • 41,027 persons are dead from AIDS.
  • 71,176 persons are diagnosed with AIDS in the US.
  • Randy Shilts’ investigative journalism book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, is published chronicling the 1980–1985 discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, government indifference, and political infighting in the United States to what was initially perceived as a gay disease.
  • AZT (zidovudine), the first antiretroviral drug, became available to treat HIV.
  • Williamson, West Virginia closed its public swimming pool following an incident involving a local resident with HIV/AIDS. The Oprah Winfrey Show broadcasts a town hall meeting during which local residents express their fears about AIDS and homosexuality.
  • In August, 1987 the Rae family, including HIV+ hemophiliacs (Ricky Rae and his two brothers) living in Florida, are barred from their church and school. After they successfully sue to enroll the kids back in school, their house is burned to the ground.
  • The first known AIDS death at the time was in 1981 but actually occurred in the mid-seventies.
  • An Early Frost, TV’s first prime time AIDS film, was broadcast November 11, 1985 (two years earlier) on NBC.
  • In April and October of 1987 President Reagan finally uses the word “AIDS” in public. He sided with his Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives who said the Government should not provide sex education information.

Artwork from 87.

Good times?  Oh yeah.  Especially for someone like Mr. Shankman who is openly gay and in 1987, was turning 23, and already a professional dancer/choreographer having attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School of the Arts.   If I take Mr. Shankman at his word, this last statement (“good times”) is not at all sarcastic.  If I report to you what I think is the real truth – that he is either forgetful, exaggerating to sell his movie, or was indeed somehow personally and callously unaffected by a tragic, international pandemic affecting a lot of people who looked a lot like him (which I can’t imagine is the case but, then again no one can be the best judge of character 100% of time), then his statements are even more egregious.  Because he should know better.

The ignorant and the callous piss me off.  Am I being too personally sensitive?  I don’t think so.  Because pick a tragedy, any tragedy, any tragedy at all,  and substitute an appropriately analogous amount of facts (if you could indeed come up with them) and the result would be the same.  Worse yet – no matter how you try to slice, dice, parse or analyze what was said in defense of that dangling quote, it just gets worse and worse. But let’s try anyway…

Argument #1 — This was an unintentional public misstatement made for no other reason than to sell a movie set 25 years ago.  All our memories fade at some point and years tend to jumble. 

Uh, well – he also said a similar thing in the L.A. Times about that time period and broadened it to include the entire decade of the eighties.  To quote: “It was endless sex with endless partners with no threat of AIDS, seemingly.”

What was it that former Bush president once said?  Ah yes, here it is:

“Fool me once — shame on you.  Fool me (twice?) – you can’t get fooled again.”

What am I looking at here?

Argument #2 – This is just a film director who wants audiences to remember 1987 that way because he’s trying to sell a movie set in an imagined 1987.  So rather than mistake or misstatement here is a huckster making a callous calculation no one can call him on because he can always answer back:   “Come on, we’re talking about a movie that is pure entertainment, a fantasy — and anyone who takes what’s said literally is too PC and has no sense of irony or humor.”

Problem is in 2012 we’re all too hype weary and too savvy as a society. Annoying people with nothing better to do than call you on inaccuracies (those people used to be called journalists) then come forward and confront you publicly with what your literal words were.  Hype can, in essence, quickly become backlash (ask The Octomom).  To put it more plainly — We might expect to be lied to but when it’s found out and it’s credible we really, really, really don’t like it (or your product) or even you for trying to pull one over one us.  (To put it still more plainly: BUSTED!!).

ARGUMENT #3 – He really doesn’t know he’s “talkin’ smack” and believes what he’s saying is true.  People in show business tend to live in bubbles.  He concentrated on his art – dancer; choreographer; and budding director – and perhaps was not affected the way you were.   

Right.  You mean like the story that used to make the rounds for years about show business legend Ann Miller.  Reacting many years later to news of the death of John F. Kennedy she was purported to have said:  “He died?  What do I know, I was touring in “Sugar Babies.”

Oh, Ann.

Yes, of course that story is a fake.  As is argument #3.  People who are super successful in show business are especially aware of what’s going on culturally.  The ability to take your talents and apply it in a timely fashion to the world around you, whatever that happens to be at the moment, can often be the very talent that pushes you into major success.  Think of it as learned serendipity.

But —  as counterintuitive as it might be to a successful career in show business and even though our present reality might be a quite bitter pill to swallow — it seems to me there is still a human obligation to tell the truth, especially as any kind of artist.  To twist facts in your work for the sake of a good story is one thing — but to take that story and pass it off as some kind of reality when the cameras are off and you’re in the presence of real life with history and facts and people who can actually breathe – that’s another.   It just means that some things that fly in the face of logic can’t be debated.  For instance, you can no longer claim the president wasn’t born in the U.S. when a state (yes, Hawaii is one of the 50) produces a birth certificate in hard ink that says he was.  In the same way two plus two equals four no matter how much you want us to believe under the rules in your own personal idealized new world it is, indeed, five.  Yes, I suppose it could even be seven if you redefine terms and definitions and laws.  But by those standards, I can also proclaim a rhinoceros is a cat and a dog is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, or perhaps one-legged owl.  I mean, anything is possible in a society where only 1% of us make the rules and the other 99% are required to play by them.

Of course, some lies are bigger and more offensive than others, especially when they deal with sensitive issues of the past.  For example, if I were a Jewish man of a certain age from eastern Europe and not a Jewish man of the age I am now living in Los Angeles with grandparents who lived and died in eastern Europe, I could never recall the carefree, lovely casual days in Germany and Poland in 1942 – where things were so much simpler and different than they are in the complicated times we must endure in Germany now.

(Note:  For those of another religion, ethnicity, or even, um, sexual persuasion, substitute another time and place in history and you might get the idea.)

Bottom line:

You don’t get to just throw untruths out there and rewrite history, even in the smallest way, and call it perception, opinion or even hype.  It’s misconception at best, and a blatant total calculated lie, at worst.  And it should not go on the public record unchallenged. Young people especially should not be afraid to speak or shout out when something bothers them in the public discourse, or is, frankly, untrue or something they vehemently disagree with.  Yes, a few people might go running or you might bruise a couple of egos right now, perhaps some of them belonging to peers or elders who could possibly be of help in the short term.  But in the long run the majority of many others will offer you respect and probably many more unforeseen opportunities than you could ever imagine because you had the courage to speak and stick up for what you know in your heart of hearts is true.  Most importantly, you’ll respect yourself for setting the record straight on something that matters to you.  This, in itself, is never a bad thing.

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Blue Period

Holidays come in blues – as well as reds and greens.  Meaning there are many ways and many shades to ring in the season and the New Year.  No – I’m not speaking about blues meaning the Jewish celebration of Hanukah and reds and greens being the Christian holiday of Christmas. The latter has somehow been modified, modernized and appropriated by societies at large – including this Jew – though I do have a special out if called on that because I live with an Italian Catholic.

Actually, the blues I’m addressing are the kind that Miles Davis played with his horn; the type that Billie Holliday and all the great jazz singers crooned about; and the genre that even disco songs like “I Will Survive” spoke about.

Just what are the blues?  Definition please:

Blues:

  1. A state of depression or melancholy.  Often used with The.
  2. A style of music that evolved from southern African-American secular songs and is usually distinguished by a strong 4/4 rhythm, flatted thirds and sevenths, a 12-bar structure, and lyrics in a three-line stanza in which the second line repeats the first.  Or has B.B. King has said: “The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation.”

But the correct answer is more that that.  Ideally the correct answer is:  I know them when YOU have them.  (Because who really wants the blues, right?)

Common wisdom used to be that artistic and creative people had a particular penchant towards the blues.  We’re more sensitive, more troubled, feel things more deeply.  I bought into that for a while – okay, most of my life -until I opened my eyes a bit more into how everyone handles “this condition” in their own way.

Choices:

  1. Stoicism
  2. Humor
  3. Drugs & Alcohol (or any combination thereof)
  4. Feeling it
  5. Other ways I don’t understand (e.g. pretending it doesn’t exist; taking it out on others; becoming a nasty, mean bitter person in the moment or for a whole lifetime)

Artists do have one edge – to use it as a fuel for our work. If you can lift yourself off the couch – or bed – or even floor.  Also known as “making lemons into lemonade,” so to speak.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that two of the biggest CDs of the last few years (in both sales AND artistic achievement) are Adele’s “21” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” – both written in hibernation by their young singers after particularly devastating breakups.  As was Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” from the “Jagged Little Pill“ CD a decade before.  And back through time.  (Choose song or other cultural touchstone based on your age and contemporary media platform of choice).

Turning blues into gold

But — it is also interesting to note:  Stephen Gaghan wrote “Traffic” from the personal experience of his own drug addiction and James Frey made up a bestseller (or two?) based on the same, except he exaggerated his own real life for dramatic effect (Uh, as most artists do.  And as ALL writers also do) and passed it off as real.  And don’t forget James Baldwin’s great and seminal non-fiction work of being Black in America, “Notes of a Native Son,” that does not paint a very pretty picture of said condition, or that Alice Walker, blinded in one eye as a girl by a BB gun accident and dealing with early depression, eventually went on to write something you might now know as, well,  “The Color Purple.”

This month’s crop of holiday movies (yes – even “New Year’s Eve” included) mostly come out of some sort of adversity/conflict, which I (or anyone with a brain) would say since drama (and comedy) is all about conflict.  Particularly this year – look at  “War Horse,” “The Descendants,” even “My Week With Marilyn” to some extent.  The Blues is sadness and often conflict – outer and inner.  But that is simply only one emotion in the course of a day and can easily turn, often by WORKING through it  Literally.

Note: Woody Allen uniformly does this by working all the time – adhering to the adage “a busy mind is a healthy mind” – lest he ever have time to think his own dark thoughts that are right around the corner

From “Annie Hall”

Young Alvy (Woody) at 9:  The universe is expanding.

Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?

Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.

Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?!!

Click for the full clip

I relate to this.  For years I was haunted by the ending of the original “Planet of the Apes” because my young self wisely reasoned if it’s thousands of years later and the planet is just apes that means…none of us will be here????  Boy, what a scary thought that was (and sometimes continues to be) for pre-teenage Steven Ginsberg.  However, it did provide what I always thought was one of the best moments my young alter ego had in my 1993 “loosely autobiographical” movie, “Family Prayers.”

I am not saying you have to have the blues to create.  Certainly not.  (I mean, Julianne Hough can’t be unhappy these days and look at the brilliance of her and the film of the new “Footloose” AND the upcoming trailer for “Rock of Ages!”

But if you do find yourself in that position (the Blues, not Julianne Hough-soon-to-be-Seacrest) during this holiday season there is stuff you can do.

  1. Start a project – any project – but one you can complete.  Not one that will be (is) half finished. (advice:  there is some joy in any kind of completion).
  2. Admire a piece of art by someone who had it worse than you and use the fantasy to fuel your imagination into something better or different while everyone is charging up their credit cards in reality.
  3. Eat cheese, as Liz Lemon says on “30 Rock.” (Note: Substitute food and/or vice of your choice, but be careful).

Perhaps a slice of blue cheese? (too easy, couldn't resist)

Bottom line – use the blues to your advantage – don’t let them use you.  I’m tempted to say even celebrate them.  That doesn’t mean be happy about having them.  But just recognizing they’re there and hanging them out to dry in the light of day  (or night, if you’re anything like me) can turn them not necessarily into a nice large cup of lemonade, but something of a holiday surprise.  The kind of gift that those of us who like to create (that’s really all of us) long for, but can only truly give ourselves.