A Tribe Called…

A 2010 gray Dodge Challenger registered to and driven by a 20 year-old Ohio white man at a white supremacist/Neo Nazi rally on Saturday barreled into a crowd and mowed down more than 20 people, killing at least one.

Those white supremacists and Neo-Nazis demonstrated the night before in front of a black church in Charlottesville, Virginia – yelling out the phrases “blood and soil.” This was a Nazi chant – about purity of blood and an ownership of land in the country one was born into.

Torch bearing white supremacists. This is 2017.

The problem is America is a nation of immigrants and no one other than Native Americans were born here. This country is not by birth or ownership inherently white. It is, as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stated on Saturday afternoon, an ever-evolving “mosaic.”

A few hours after the violence on Saturday, Electoral College POTUS Trump said it was time to heal and that for a long time there has been “hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides.”

Say whaaaaaat? #twilightzone #TrumpAmerica

Well, actually, not in this case.

These demonstrators, with helmets, sticks, bats and loaded rifles, weren’t doing civil disobedience. They were doing intimidation. And at least one or more did domestic terrorism by getting into a car and using it as a lethal weapon.

All of this because the local city council voted to take down a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee – the Civil War military man who led the Confederacy fight to, among other things, preserve slavery.   Yup, more than 150 years after the defeat of the South and General Lee, a group of American representatives decided that it was finally time to take away the very public honorarium to a man warring in order to preserve the rights of wealthy white landowners to own and beat (and if they wanted to, kill) brown African humans at will.

Bet they are real proud of themselves #toolittle #toolate

What is this world coming to?

Let’s stop pretending that Trump’s qualifiers like on many sides aren’t in the same family as his racist dog whistles of bad hombres and people who come here who don’t speak English and that all of them aren’t a strategy to anything more than this:

A re-whitening of America through government mandated exclusion based on race.

Let’s also refrain from the make believe that his proposed mandate to ban transgender people from the military is anything more than homophobic hate support to mollify those who believe LGBT people don’t have the same rights to their country that they do.

And while we’re at it, let’s additionally not naively believe that because Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism – or a few Black people in his cabinet – that he won’t specifically malign and attack Blacks, Jews or any other race or religion as a whole if a particular member of that group publicly speaks out against him or disobeys a particular type of behavior (nee proposed edict) he wants normalized.

The garden is blooming

To qualify or allow for racism and hate is to lie down with it. To whit – the night before the guy in Charlottesville used the car to plow into the crowd – several hundred other white supremacists and neo-Nazis also assembled on a nearby University of Virginia quadrangle, shouting:

You will not replace us, Jew will not replace us.

When your chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is a man who ran a vast media platform admittedly for the alt right – an invented polite word for white supremacists and Neo-Nazis – and your deputy assistant in the White House is Sebastian Gorka – a man who openly wears a medal from a Nazi-linked Hungarian group to your inauguration – there’s not much left to be said. This is because you’ve already said it by NOT SAYING anything about whom you’re associating yourself with and what you’re enabling.

This reference never gets old.

Tribalism is not pretty but to some extent we’re all guilty of it. Meaning – we are all a part of something even if we don’t want to be or forever, to the nth degree, choose to be. This starts with family and continues or discontinues up or down depending on your point of view.

This week I found myself binge-watching all three seasons of Amazon’s acclaimed series Transparent. Yeah, you’d think I’d have seen it already and been a big fan.

I mean, I’m a gay Jewish guy from a family with more than its share of scandals and the fictional Pfeffermans in Transparent are a scandal-ridden Jewish family with not only a transgender patriarch but two lesbian sisters (well, maybe bi but one leaning far towards lesbian).

the real “modern family”

Still – full confession – after watching the pilot when it first appeared three years ago – there was something about this family that I SO DID NOT want to be a part of. I mean, they were too selfish, too neurotic and way too privileged for my taste. I mean, I grew up middle to lower-middle class and knew exactly who these people were despite the gay and the Jewish parts of them. They were the very people that, all through my life, annoyed the hell out of me. And looked down on me. I mean, I couldn’t..can’t…bear people like them.

Well, suffice it to say I was WRONG.

Because to some extent, yeah — they are me – or parts of me – no matter how much I may have wanted to run away from it.

Pretty much.

There is something about their cultural Jewishness – even with them being from affluent Pacific Palisades and me from middlebrow Flushing, Queens – that was undeniable in the bagels and shmeers and overwrought over-intellectualizing.   My family may have been far less outrageous sexually (well, that I know of) but we made up for it with other outrages of taboo behavior that I will save for another time.

As for neurosis, privilege and sheer self-involvement, they slowly became only a mere artistic exaggeration of behavior I had always known, too often exhibited and too often chose to forget, the more I watched. This was my reality, no matter how much I didn’t ever want it to be. And I sort of loved them for it, and in spite of it.

Now I’m not saying Trump or anyone in his White House should take a hard look at Saturday’s alt right (ahem) Neo Nazi demonstration of death and embrace that part of them the way I’ve done with the Pfeffermans. First of all, that analogy wouldn’t be fair to the Pfeffermans, even though I’m sure at least one of them would think nothing of pushing the same metaphor, and even worse, on you about me if they were real and I was fictional.

ahem…. Ali

What I am proclaiming is that each and every one of us – from every possible family and ethnic group there is – every last one of us – do that work for each and every last one of them. Make the analogy, claim the metaphor and push daily the very truth we see before our eyes in the White House and its association with the alt right/white supremacist/Neo-Nazi groupthink.

Trump rose to power and is now the president of American racism and Neo-Nazi/white supremacist behavior. So it behooves us all – every last one of us – who do not want this to continue to be our familial reality – to speak out against IT. Every day. Maybe even more than once a day. Before we no longer have the chance to safely do so.

Cher – “Half Breed”

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All of Them Witches!

We’re going to talk about evil.

Happy long Holiday weekend and beyond, everyone!!

Well, I see evil all around me a lot these days. No, I’m not ONLY speaking of ELECTORAL POTUS, though God knows he and Jared and Mike and Steve would make a nifty quadrangle of Marvel super villains.

That sounds precious!

Anyone want to do the casting?

Or shall we just make it the next drinking game to get us through all of this. Chug if you like Jimmy Fallon for Jared more than Ryan Gosling!!!

You can’t escape evil, even if you try. Correction – especially if you try. It seems that cardinal rule of opposites attracting is particularly potent in the heroes and villains game.   Cain vs. Abel? Luke vs. Darth Vader? U.S. vs. DJT? Too soon? Or not soon enough?

Melania vs. Tiny Hands #GURLYES

I made an executive decision this week to simply embrace evil. To bring it on. I mean, if I am going to be inundated with news like:

  • Jared has talked secretly to the Russians as far back as a year ago (during the campaign!) and is a person of interest in 2, 3, or 4 (?) federal government investigations.
  • Electoral Potus has taken to shoving the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way in order to get front and center in a photo op (Note: What exactly DID his parents do to him? Or not do?)

ahem

  • Montana voters electing another enraged white man to Congress less than 24 hours AFTER he body slammed/choked a nerdy journalist who merely asked him about health care – and then had his staff lie about it and blame the journalist – only to be refuted by an EYEWITNESS Fox News reporter – at which point he was charged with misdemeanor assault –

Then ––

Well, you can see how I’d like to be prepared.

K See ya later everybody! #theendisnear

See for me, it’s never been the existence of evil that has particularly scared me. I knew from an early age there was awfulness in the world. How? Well, that’s the subject of another discussion and of years of psychotherapy. Suffice it to say, we all learn at our own pace. Even Electoral Potus voters. Hopefully.

So in keeping to this theme, I decided to look around me and see what was playing on TV and at the movies this week that could help immerse me in that world. Okay, full confession: I didn’t look around. I actually watched the two shows that were THE most popular among my friends this week – things they wouldn’t STOP talking about. And wouldn’t you know it – EVIL – that’s what I found. PURE. EVIL. And who says popular art does not reflect the times we live in?

Don’t you forget about meeeeee

Well, a significant part of middle America don’t believe it because they’re constantly criticizing – or worse, not even sampling – shows like these. Which would mean…. Hmmm, let’s not go there. Yet.

Netflix’s The Keepers is a seven-hour, seven-part documentary series that is about pure evil. The 1970 unsolved brutal murder of a Sister Cathy – by all accounts a nun of pure goodness – the abuse of scores of young women in a Baltimore neighborhood Catholic School where she taught that she likely knew about, and the once again attempts by a very powerful Catholic archdioceses to stall investigations into obvious connections between the murders (oh, yes, there was a second) and the abuse, and shift around priests to different parishes in an attempt to do so.

Oh… so not that kind of show?

Sound familiar? Well, This story makes Spotlight look tame, partly because the crimes are still unsolved and justice has not been handed down. Life is not an episode of Law and Order, which should tell you something about why that series (Note: Juggernaut? Holy Scrolls?) has endured all these decades and will be around far longer than you or I. We humans like to watch EVIL brought to justice (Nee ORDER) as often as possible since it too often doesn’t happen in real life.

As if I had to tell you that.

The second was the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as a 10-episode limited Showtime series. Yes, Lynch directed every episode and if the two-hour premiere is any indication, it is as confoundedly EVIL and CONFUSING and RIVETING as anything he’s ever done.

RIP Log Lady

No one does evil as the just below the surface underbelly of good as well as Mr. Lynch. The best of his work – the original Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive – defy description and plot analyses. Let’s just say Kyle McLaughlin returns as dual FBI Agents Dale Cooper – one whose body is literally inhabited by EVIL Bob as it blithely pops off victim after victim – and the other who is stuck in a series of zig zag floored rooms with a talking arm/tree and various dead people speaking to him in slurred, 16 rpm speech as if they were sort of alive. Which, well, they still just might be. Though I doubt it.

Confused yet?

Lynch’s evil is riveting to watch precisely because it’s so strange – with images and ideas you’ve never quite seen before – if you can imagine it – which you can’t – that it becomes frighteningly haunting. Or to put it another way, it challenges you to wonder if the lamp in your room won’t one day soon come alive and kill you or if the spouse you’ve lived with all your life, or even in the past year or two, doesn’t indeed have a secret number of hours where you’re not watching where he/she carves up innocent suburban ladies in modest middle American cut rate American apartment complexes with names like Alpine Village (Note: I was forced to live in one of those in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley for almost a year when I was 14 – hence my use of that real name. Look it up. It was in Tarzana).

Yes, I do feel as if watching these two shows prepared me for another week of news in what has become the Other America. I would also add it also prepared me for the next episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale series – which this week revealed to us more of just how Trump America wound up being transformed into the religious conservative right wing hell of Gilead – a place where women and gays are hung alive in the town square unless they bear children, submit to the males who control them or/and turn straight.

Again, I view these shows to be prepared.

My daily mantra

I finally wrapped up the week by watching the Oscar winning Hungarian film, Son of Saul – a Holocaust themed movie I’ve always wanted to see but managed to avoid for the last two years because I was warned it was difficult to sit through. And this was by multiple friends who already knew my taste for what we’ll now generously call the darkness.

Though it was different this time. I saw it as preparation for a possible future. How else could I, a patriotic gay Jewish American liberal, view a movie that chronicles a day and a half in the life of a gay Jewish guy in Auschwitz who works in the concentration camp crematorium scooping up dead bodies and scrubbing the “shower” floors following each hellish murdering aftermath.

Cheery Saturday Night plans chairy!

(Note: It is worth noting that though it is a fictional composite, Son of Saul is actually based on diaries of Auschwitz survivors entitled, The Scrolls of Auschwitz).

Okay, of course, I’m exaggerating me preparing for the future just a little in my desire to watch it. I guess all that evil I exposed myself to before it this week just reassured me I’d finally be able to tolerate it. And I did.

It’s amazing what one can tolerate once our senses get inured to this kind of stuff.

Evil Ways – Santana

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.