Oscar, the hero

Oscar-statuette-001

The 86th annual Oscar nominations were revealed this week and it might comfort everyone to know that along with them was the announcement that the theme of this year’s show will be — MOVIE HEROES!  Hmm.  And I always thought it was excellence.  Silly me.

Of course, the Oscars have never been solely about excellence and those who are nominated and win awards in their categories are not necessarily THE best in the world at what they do – even though one or two can be.  In that way, they’re a lot like life.  Those who are paid the highest salaries, receive all the adulation and consistently seem to be the most in-demand are on top due to a lot more (and sometimes less) than great work.  So why would it be any different in, of all places, Hollywood?

Aside from skill and talent (Note: In order to be considered outstanding and award-winning by the status quo both are essential to posses in some form, though usually on a sliding scale of merely average to outstanding), there is also luck, timing, fate, ambition, single-minded focus and hard, very hard, and very, very hard labor involved.  Remove any one or more of these and the balance can be tipped for or against you not only on the most iconic awards stage in the world but in any other stage of life you find yourself playing in for all of eternity.

Like this girl... she never sleeps.

You know she never sleeps.

Anyone employed in an office where they’ve done a great job but find themselves now under-employed or denied the promotion they deserve by any objective standard, knows this to be true.    Well, the movie industry is no different than that office except with a lot better clothes, more money and an excess of fantasy-provoking public attention.

This is not to say your boss is an idiot and is being carried by you and the rest of the staff – though he or she can be.  And it also not to proclaim that Oscar nominees and winners are sorely undeserving of that recognition – though that can also be true.  It is simply to say that, as my father declared to me long ago and at the time I steadfastly refused to believe:

Life is not always fair.  And if you compare yourself to others – like award nominees or winners – you are sure to end your day in abject misery.

Note: To be fair, I think Dad simply said you’ll be unhappy. But as a writer, abject misery sounds so much better to me – which should be a lesson within itself.

Of course, knowing all of this intellectually doesn’t in any way prevent any of us, particularly me, from whining, moaning, complaining and being periodically or endlessly obsessed for at least a day about the injustice of the Oscar nominations this week.  As for other things in life – well, aside from Chris Christie – was there anything else really even going on?

Oh, don’t even try to deny it and DO NOT write in arguing with me about our mass reaction to the nominations because there are two reasons I know this is true.

1. Of all the photos I have ever posted on Facebook or have ever been posted about me on Facebook the only one that has EVER received over 500 likes and hits was that snapshot of myself and my partner in tuxedos at the Academy Awards two years ago posed in front of a large 10 foot tall fake Oscar.

The famous shot

The famous shot

This says everything about you and what you like out there and less about me.  Though, can you imagine if I were even nominated or had actually….won that night?  I would’ve long ago reached that 5000 Facebook friend limit and might have to start having my assistant return or not return your texts, emails or, perish the thought, phone calls.  Though I suppose I could simply take to Twitter so u can stay abreast with what I’m doing at random hours of the day or night. @Cher @EllenBarkin @MiaFarrow R U #Listening?

2. The most bizarre memory I have as a young person in Hollywood was being pressed up against 1948 best actress Oscar winner Loretta Young in a tiny elevator backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the early 1980s after covering my first Academy Awards as a reporter.  She had presented best picture, I was done phoning in stories to the desk at Variety, and the two of us plus 25 other very desperate people would have done a lot more to get out of there after four and a half hours in luxury hell.  Rammed against her sequined dress with my eyes almost touching her neck I found myself searching for plastic surgery scars out of sheer nervous boredom.  And, I’m happy to report, could find none.  And yes, I know this story says more about me than it does you but it still feels relevant to what one really remembers about the industry when all is said and done.

Okay – now that we’ve established my and your obsession with these awards, let’s examine (nee – take apart) this year’s just a little bit.

A. HEROES IS THE THEME? – I’d fully expect to see Batman walking hand in hand with Atticus Finch were Gregory Peck still alive and either Christian Bale, George Clooney or Michael Keaton were still willing to put on the suit outside of a studio soundstage.  (No, Ben Affleck doesn’t count – he’s not Batman – yet).   Since no portion of that can realistically happen, why oh why do we need a…. THEME?  This isn’t an amusement park or….. wait…. okay, it is a bit of an amusement park – point well taken.  Still, the show’s producers explained that “We wanted to unify the show with an entertaining and emotional theme.”  How odd to publicly admit that movies themselves have ceased to do this for audiences as a whole.  And how much do I want my personal movie hero, Mary Poppins, to make an appearance this year even though the film about her origins, Saving Mr. Banks, was totally ignored by the Oscars.

Don't drag me into this, Chairy.

Don’t drag me into this, Chairy.

B. HYPER REALITY – We seem more and more to live in either a virtual world or a fake version of reality so why shouldn’t the most popular movies of this year be reflective of that.  Consider all of the hyper texts of four of the films that will battle it out for best picture of 2013 – American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and Wolf Of Wall Street.  They are adrenalin-fueled versions of the highest of the high and the lowest of the low moments in human existence.  They leave no room at all for anything small or basic or simple.  Clearly, that’s out of fashion.  And don’t tell me that there are five other movies competing– Philomena, Her, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips – that are smaller and more basic.  They have NO chance of winning and have none of the urgent buzz of the moment.  Mostly because they dare not to be as flashy.

Ahem... cough.. cough... Remember me?

Ahem… cough.. cough… Remember me?

C. NINE BEST PICTURES BUT FIVE BEST DIRECTORS? – Clearly, those four other nominated movies either directed themselves or don’t deserve to be singled out as the best.  OK, Let’s just admit it – it’s the latter.   When the Motion Picture Academy decided several years ago to broaden the amount of nominees in the best picture category from 5 to a possible 10 (depending on the number of votes each nominee gets) it felt a bit forced.  By whom I’m not sure but it certainly seems clear that the more movies that can slap an Oscar nominated Best Picture tag on its advertising the more chance it has to make money.  Not to mention the greater potential of better ratings for the broadcast of the Academy Awards since then there is a likelihood that with more nominees there will be more blockbuster films in contention that more members of the massive worldwide audience will watch.  This in turn translates into higher ad rates charged for the show and more money for everyone all around.  And you thought this was just about hero worship.

D.  FRUITVALE STATION and SHORT TERM 12These are two of my top ten movies this year.  Hell, they are two of the ten best movies this year by any measure (Note: if you disagree, you are just plain wrong).  Yet between both of them they have 0.0 Oscar nominations.  Now let’s see – what do they have in common?  Well, they are both very simple stories, unadorned by irony, over-the-top moments of stylized frenzy and technical effects or cutting edge cinematography and special effects.  What movie world are Academy members living in?  Has it really only been several years since Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious were nominated in multiple categories?  When did more become…MORE.

E. OSCAR ISAAC – I was at the Motion Picture Academy screening of the Coen Bros. Inside Llewyn Davis last month and I could immediately tell from the confused and somewhat tepid reaction among the majority of the audience of people who I was even younger than – that the film’s Oscar chances were nill.

Well there's a performance we won't see on TV now..

Well there’s a performance we won’t see on TV now..

However, what I felt sure of was that the tour de force performance of Mr. Isaac as the title character – a brilliantly talented folksinger in 1961 Greenwich Village who offstage was consistently his own worst enemy –would be given Oscar love.  Isn’t it enough to command the screen in almost every scene, do all of your own singing quite brilliantly, and be charismatic enough to make even the most esoteric moments of a very unusual movie work in your first starring role?  As Amy Winehouse once sang: No, no, no.

F. BEST PERFORMER? – MSNBC pundit Krystal Ball (yes, that’s her real name) asked a guest on The Cycle on the day of the nominations if there wasn’t something a bit retro about the fact that the Academy Awards have separate categories for male and female actors.  Think about it – there is not a category for best female designer, editor, writer, producer or director?  Why are we still separating the sexes this way and what does it say about the rest of us that we don’t even question it?

I have to reluctantly admit that this has never occurred to me because, well, it’s just the way we do it – right?  Uh, well, that logic would then mean a marriage should be solely between a man and a woman and you KNOW that I don’t fall down on that side of the argument.

Yes, this is leftover from the star system and the old days where men were men (who sometimes acted like boys) and women were women (who seldom felt comfortable trying to acting as powerfully as the guys did).  Plus, the more star categories the more stars you get to turn out and the more general attention you get.

Well then – why not increase the categories but do it by film genre (eg, comedy, drama, sci-fi, blockbusters).  Oh fine, I can see you all rolling your eyes from here.  But ask yourself – why?

G. AMERICAN HUSTLE HAIR (NON) RAISER – I’m a fan of American Hustle and am happy that it led the field, along with Gravity, with 10 Oscar nominations.  However, it clearly should have stood alone with 11 nods because the one category it wasn’t nominated in was the one in which it was a sure contender – BEST HAIR!!!!!

Fine, maybe this is because the category is technically titled makeup and hairstyling.  But then how do you account for the two other nominees aside from the obvious Dallas Buyers Club?  Those would be two films we like to call:  Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger.

DO NOT tell me Bradley Cooper’s curlers, Christian Bale’s comb over and Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence’s use of hair spray alone don’t put AH at the top of this list.  Do NOT even go there because I will cut you…and where it counts.

Is there award out there for hardest working double-sided tape?

Is there award out there for hardest working double-sided tape?

H. GO FLY A KITE – This is the last time I will write it – Saving Mr. Banks is old-fashioned, corny and reduced me to tears all through the third act.  When a movie does that all subjective judgment gets shoved aside and I have to honestly report – I loved the film.  And, I guarantee you, I am not the only one in the entertainment industry, or among Oscar voters, who feels that way.

Don't worry Emma, you're still fab.

Don’t worry Emma, you’re still fab.

But here’s the issue – it’s not au currant or even publicly acceptable to just simply use emotion as the barometer for whether a movie is among those judged the best of the year.  I’m not sure why this is the case but it has been for more years than I can remember.

At the end of the day, I feel an obligation not to dismiss movies that are on the surface uncool but still manage to profoundly affect me for those two hours (more or less) I’m sitting in the theatre or at home.  I learned this decades ago as a film critic when in my heart of hearts I couldn’t give bad reviews to movies like Arthur Penn’s 1981 Four Friends – a film roundly criticized at the time for being old-fashioned and maudlin by most reviewers but one that I knew had affected me in profound ways despite its flaws.

Not so guilty pleasure

Not so guilty pleasure

In fact, when I close my eyes and think of the 1960s and 70s I can still hear Georgia on my Mind, the recurring theme song in that movie in honor of one of its lead character Georgia – the bohemian gal three high school age guys thought they were in love with.

I have no idea if Four Friends would affect you this way.  But what I do know is that it received 0.0 Oscar nominations, did not make much money at the box-office and has been largely forgotten.  But not by me.  Thirty-three years later it is one of the few films from that time that I have an immediate and profound emotional reaction to every time I see it.   That makes it a winner by any standard – Oscar nomination or not.  And clearly there are a lot more films in that category we might all want to remember as talk about the awards reach their inevitable frenzied pitch during the next few weeks

Write in and tell me yours.

The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

same-sex-marriage-decision_645x400

US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

citizen_cane

Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

tumblr_mea9wqzdbK1rl7213o1_500

(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

Future Perfect

fortuneteller-animation-dre

If there were a sheet of paper you could take a peek at that would tell you the future, what would you do?  Oh, of course you’d take a peek.  You couldn’t help yourself.  Don’t say you wouldn’t.  You would.

The future is on the minds of college students at this time of year – the end of a semester – especially those about to graduate.  Smart or lazy (which is the opposite of smart), mellow or tightly wound, they often wonder one basic question – WHAT. WILL. BECOME. OF. ME??????

Of course, this is a question many of us all ask ourselves periodically – as if a single answer exists or one answer would ever be adequate.  We don’t know what the years will bring and, aside from being scary, that’s the great thing about it.  Literally anything can and will happen – and often hanging on the slightest moment.  Which is what makes the future something not to dread but to embrace.  Especially since there is no way to forestall getting some horrible disease or being hit dead by a drunk driver if you happen to be walking or even standing in the wrong place at the right time.  Yes, I went there.

Since life is a big question mark in general, one’s career and creative existence should certainly follow suit.  Yet many of us, myself included, often don’t see it this way.  We act as though there should be some guarantees – or that we are at least owed or entitled to them.   Something along the lines of Apple Care in case things go terribly wrong.

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

Students are terrified to take the wrong step, accept the wrong opportunity, write about the wrong thing – not make the wisest choice that will get them the farthest.  I suffered from this myself until I grew weary of worrying and, well, just got too mature (old?) to spend as much time worrying anymore.  I mean, at some point, if you’re very lucky, you get to the place where the amount of time ahead of you is less than the amount of time behind you – and you realize – there is no point in beating myself or anyone else up about the small stuff.  There is only time to embrace the future and the unknowns – both good and bad – that it holds.

And yet – who doesn’t worry?  These students, me, you, our friends?  One dear diehard movie fan friend of mine truly worries if The Wolf on Wall Street will live up to the hype, and even fears backlash against the already award-winning American Hustle. Personally, I just don’t want to be disappointed by Saving Mr. Banks even though I know it can’t live up to the expectations of this lifelong Mary Poppins fan (yes, I did sit with my Dad at the movies in the Bronx as a little boy, riveted to the screen as I watched MP in wonderment, and then went home and played the record over and over again in my room as I sang along to every song – get over it!!!).

I'm counting on you Tommy!

I’m counting on you Tommy!

I’m also concerned for Jon Hamm not ever winning an Emmy award for being Mad Men’s Don Draper (and not even being nominated for a Golden Globe this past week).  Truly.  Not in the same fashion I fear a loved one of mine could get a cancer recurrence or that I myself will have to one day go through the tooth extraction I managed to dodge last week when only a mere root canal and crown were in order.  Of course, there are even far deeper levels of concern.  We are only beginning to scratch my surface here.  No use continuing on into a downward dog from which I can’t guarantee we will ever emerge – especially in L.A.

Still – and to look on the bright side – I (and hopefully you) don’t worry anymore that Pres. Obama will be shot or that either Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin will assume any real leadership role in our country’s foreseeable future.  Those ships have sailed.   Though do not take this to mean I am not also sure that the world has gone crazy and that one day I will be only one of the handful of sane people engaged in pubic discourse left standing…and that, quite quickly, I will become overrun.  Long ago I realized there is a difference between worrying about the future and simply accepting a certain fatalism in life.

I attempted to explain a toned down version of all of this recently to one angst-ridden student in my office. This young person is non-white and couldn’t help but fear racial discrimination in the future from the Hollywood establishment based on some dealings they had observed in various workplaces over the past four months.   I listened. Nothing exactly solid had happened but enough had occurred not to be discounted.  To boil it all down, this student’s question eventually became this:  How does one avoid being treated as “the other” when, in some people’s minds, one is, and will always be, the other?  Or, to put it another way – An Outsider?

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Hmmm.  Excellent question.  And certainly one for the ages.  Especially our ages.

I tried to take the adult line and explain that progress in these areas happen at a snail’s pace but, eventually, does occur for the better.   And that you can’t worry about stuff that can happen, only deal with things as they do happen.

For instance, I argued, as a young gay man I couldn’t even conceive of a future with gay marriage.  I mean, there wasn’t even a word for what is occurring now in the not so distant era I grew up in.  Also, the fact that I, a teacher, could even be open with a student about my life in this way these days was certainly progress.  But then I remembered and shared what happened more than 25 years ago on a movie I worked on in the late eighties.  And, as we know, movie stories are so much more resonant to people than any real life experience or observation.

I was employed as a publicist on a film that was produced by a very large company headed by a very-well known producer in Hollywood  – someone who is still quite well known and who very publicly campaigned for and supported the then very conservative U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan.  The production coordinator of this movie, a Mercedes-driving middle-aged woman who came to work each day wearing very expensive jewelry and an extremely superior attitude – saw me in the office one Monday with a tan and personage that, I can only assume, was reeking of homosexuality.  Because looking at my tan and somehow knowing that the Annual Gay Pride Parade had been held outside the day before in the very hot West Hollywood sun, I caught this woman snidely winking at her friend and then nodding in my direction, as she bellowed from her desk across the room, sweet as pie but in a somewhat accusatory manner to me and my overly suntanned face:

“SO…STEVE….where were YOU this weekend.  I’ll bet it was at some sort of (another wink wink to her friend) ….PARADE?????”

Say what now?

Say what now?

Trust me, I am no Martin Luther Queen.  But this was the eighties, I had just received news that a dear friend of mine in NY had AIDS and my face was on fire because, as you may or may not know, I have a very, very pale Jewish complexion that does not do well in the harsh daylight and my skin was beginning to blister. In short, this was no time for Diamond Lil to fuck with me.

Uh, yes, I was at the parade this weekend, I bellowed back.  Is there a problem with that? Or, more specifically– do you have a problem with that?

I was steely outside but inside was shaking with fear and rage.  What was I thinking?  As much as I found this woman and everything and everyone in this office at the moment sickening and disgusting, I needed this job. But then — suddenly, the office got very quiet.  The friend she winked at turned away.  Copy machines stopped. Overweight teamsters, some of whom I found out later had borne the wrath of Diamond L’il herself, stood stationary.  I spied from the side a quite young gay intern who, I was quite sure, had just turned pink.

No, DL said in a clipped tone, I just don’t see why THEY  (or was it THOSE PEOPLE) need to be treated special.  They’re not anything special.  Why do they (or did she mean ME?) get a parade??

I will spare you Gay 101 from 1987. And my telling her I was one of Them (like she didn’t know).  Needless to say, the farthest I got with her was some continued grumbling that they still don’t deserve to be treated special and be a spectacle.   Along with some very nasty glares.   At which point she averted her eyes away from me – then and forever more.

Move along, lady

Move along, lady

Some days went by and, as I suspected, I was reported for insubordination to all of my bosses and she attempted to get me fired.  But my direct female superior had a gay best friend and mentor ten years older than me who at the time was actually dying of AIDS – so that didn’t get her very far.  Though I did get a thank you from the gay intern who said he admired how I handled Diamond L’il  (not her real name).  Plus the bonus reward of a smile from almost everyone I greeted in the production office for the rest of the shoot of one of the dumbest 1980s studio movies ever made.

These types of altercations still do occur today in some places but it is highly unlikely anyone will ever encounter them again in the production office of a major studio film. Nor the remarks I once heard in the later eighties in the offices at another major studio.  This time from a development executive with a Mexican last name who informed me in front of his staff at a meeting that the Mexican families living in the poor neighborhood I wrote about in a spec script he liked were just plain stupid people who didn’t have the brains to get organized in the way I had written about even though the events in my script were based on real individuals in an actual Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Yes, one could argue a few ignoramuses continue to think this way but they are quite rare and, most certainly, they would not feel safe to act out in this fashion in today’s Hollywood.   Which, one supposes, is some progress in itself.  In any event, certainly both stories were enough to make my student smile just a bit and then proceed out of my office and into the world with the notion that the future can hold all kinds of unforeseen changes for the better and shifts in opportunities one could not have imagined.

How the student left my office... I imagine.

How the student left my office… I imagine.

Speaking of the future, I’m reminded of one last story of a wonderful young woman I met some years after Diamond L’il – someone who is now a quite famous producer on her own but at the time was a junior executive at a major company who set up a meeting with me through my agent because she was a fan of my writing work.  (Note: It was a good meeting though it was more of a general meeting – the kind I later realized that you go on with either new material in mind or a carefully honed pitch rather than with the agenda of getting your ego stroked by people who like your work and who you perceive will then automatically give you a job).

In any event, this woman and I had a great talk – actually a fantastic talk about a script of mine she really liked – and about movies, her company’s films, and the state of the biz in the nineties.  She shared honestly about her company and the Oscar winning producer/director she worked for while I asked her questions about several movies they had produced that I admired.  One film, in particular, was my style and something akin to what I’d like to write.  At this point this woman turned to me and told me something I never did quite forget.

I’m going to be honest with you and say something that you probably don’t want to hear,” she said.

Okay, I replied, go ahead – I can take it.  Honestly.

It’s just that – the film you mentioned, and the kind of script it was – the kind of scripts that you want to do – nobody cares about that kind of writing anymore.

Oh, you mean those small, sensitive, coming of age, love/friendship stories, I thought.  But I said nothing and sat there in stunned silence.

I don’t mean to say I don’t admire and appreciate them, she continued. I’m just being brutally honest about where the business is going.  Where the studios are.  And if you tell anybody I said this, I’d probably deny it publicly. I just wanted to tell you.

Sort of tongue-tied I looked at her and lied – Well, I really appreciate your honesty.

Don't mind the clothespins!

Don’t mind the clothespins!

I couldn’t tell you what happened at any point after she said that because for all intents and purposes the meeting was over.  I blanketly rejected in my mind what she was saying about the future.  Surely, studios and everyone else will always find a place for sensitive, well-written scripts, I reasoned.  She’s just been burned – or is getting burnt out.  I know that doesn’t apply to me and the kind of work that I want to do.

Well, who knew I was in a meeting with an Oracle who would turn out to be so right – though not entirely correct.  She left out the future world of cable television, independent movies and the emergence of the Internet and social media.  Still, she saw the writing on the wall and I didn’t want (refused?) to believe her future.  I feared it and tried to deny it, rather than embrace and accept it.

I didn’t share this last story with my student because I didn’t remember it until the student had left.  And there is no use scaring someone so young with a brutalized version of the truth when merely an evenhanded version of its entirety will more than adequately do.

But that evenhanded version it’s always worth knowing, considering and recognizing.   Regardless of age, point of view or position in life.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Summer

Take a bite?

Take a bite?

Summer is over and it’s time to look at where we are and where we’re headed.

Actually, the summer doesn’t officially end until the start of fall, which is technically the last week of September. But in the US, it always seems to end right after the Labor Day weekend.  And why not?  What better way to signal the end of fun than a holiday that salutes the worker (who presumably have at least been given some kind of summer vacation) and falls on the last long 3-day weekend of the most carefree of our seasons?

Of course, when I was younger and a student, summer’s end coincided with the start of the school term or fall semester.  Which now happens mid-August if you attend or teach college or, even if you’re still in elementary school in some places.  That also used to coincide with the beginning of the fall television season.  But don’t get me started on when that begins because there aren’t really small screen seasons anymore.  Just nights and weekends where you can fit in TV binge viewing.  My personal theory is that binge viewing might be linked to global warming since it seems to be particularly inspired by unseasonably hot or cold weather – an everyday occurrence these days.  Which begs the question of there even being any sort of seasons at all (certainly not in L.A.).

Still, we soldier on.  Because more than anything else Americans cling to some traditions that, by any rational standards, have long and forever outlived their usefulness.

That being the case, this seems like a good moment to take stock of what sins have been committed, and where we are and how we move forward into Fall – as opposed to free-fall – since certainly we here at notes don’t want to outlive whatever usefulness we currently retain in the world.

LUST: SEX AND THE SINGLE MILEY

sigh.

sigh.

Never has so much been made of so little.  That’s actually a quote famously appropriated by the late actor David Niven when a naked guy streaked across the stage at the 1974 Oscar ceremonies.   But it applies here.

Like any parent, we don’t like to see our kids grow up and become sexual.  But when exactly is grown up enough for sexuality to be employed when it’s your own kid?  16, 18, 20, 25…50…or never?   I’m not a parent but if I were I’d have to vote for never.

If you don’t know about (or have never seen) the MTV VMAs, here’s the problem – former tween star and now 20-year-old recording artist Miley Cyrus did a song and dance number of her hit tune “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards last week where she rolled her tongue around like a snake charmer, bumping, grinding and (get your urban dictionary out) twerking across the stage against or dangerously close to the crotch area of tall, hunky and rappy 36-year-old male singer Robin Thicke, who has cultivated the oily persona of a studly, very well-endowed lothario in his hit song “Blurred Lines.” The latter may or may not be true in life, but who am I to say? Entertainment Weekly this week famously called it all a “teddy bear orgy” but, then again, who am I to say or even re-appropriate that phrase?

The bigger issue is this: we Americans are pretty hung up about sex, aren’t we?  Yes, I’m purposely including myself in that because while I was watching the Miley/Thicke spectacle (which I then re-watched several times) I groaned, called it gross, and was generally turned off – wondering why Hannah Montana felt compelled to become a fifth rate version of a Sunset Blvd. stripper on national television and why a guy who is height-advantaged, considered hot and, okay, some sort of talented (and is married to the very talented and very hot actress Paula Patton) felt the need to carouse onstage in front of an international audience with a girl young enough to be his…stepdaughter?

As if that wasn’t threatening enough to me and Middle America, he was wearing dark shades and dressed like a high class (if there is such a thing) pimp in a tighter version of the black and white vertical striped pants I wore to one of my own high school dances in the seventies in order to make me look taller.

Just don't say his name 3 times!

Just don’t say his name 3 times!

Certainly that has nothing to do with his involvement with Miley, as a very successful female writer friend of mine argued.  She’s (Miley) of age, she was (or still is?) engaged to be married and isn’t a Disney star any longer.  Why the international headlines?  Why can’t women own who they are?  Why are sexy girls given the scarlet letter when sexy guys are given the term of…well….stud, or even young buck?  In other words, what’s Miley to do?

She has a point, I suppose.  But had the dance moves been a little better, the routine a little more clever, or the 36 year-old guy a little bit more of…well, something…it all might have been sort of funny.  It wasn’t.  Nor was it the end of the world.  At the very least it’s the beginning of a new one for Ms. Cyrus.  Stay tuned to wherever it’s headed.  Which, odds are, has to be up.

GREED: MIDDLE EAST WARS, SYRIA – NOT Syriana

syria-political-map

Unfortunately, we have a tendency in the summer to see events through the lens of a popcorn movie, preferably a sequel.  In our minds, this reduces even political atrocities like the current mass nerve-gassing of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria by a power-hungry dictator to the Oscar-winning George Clooney movie Syriana, which didn’t even take place in Syria and, in fact, wasn’t even released in the summer.

Sadly, the realities revealed in the real Syria these past few weeks seem to be signaling the involvement of the United States in yet another awful geo-political struggle in the Middle East.  This is seen as unavoidable in some form by both sides of the political spectrum and surely signals the end of a carefree summer.

It is doubtful, however, whether even the best civics teacher could explain the pros and cons of this extremely complicated situation in ways in which those of us just emerging from the summer of ’13 (that’s 2013) could reliably understand.  Try as they might on network news, or on CNN, MSNBC and FOX (let’s list them all together and be fair and balanced here), it’s still not happening for those of us not in the know of these things.  Which really means – all of us.

The best I’ve come across is an article in this weekend’s Washington Post.  It breaks down the pros and cons of US involvement in Syria and gives a basic understanding of the political situation there in general.  Think of it as – Syria For Dummies.

(Note:  This title in no way meant to diminish the tragic circumstances.  It’s simply the strategy of good teaching: to make something digestible, first reduce to its simplest form and then begin to add layers).

GLUTTONY: DOWNTON ABBEY & YOU

Someone close to me likened the hit PBS series Downton Abbey to crack in its purest form.   As a faithful follower, I know this is so.  However, as a life long culture vulture, I’m not quite sure why the lives of the aristocrats living in a countryside British castle at the turn of the 20th century along with the servants who love and, well, serve them has such a hold on its worldwide audience.  Perhaps because it’s so different than the world in which we live in today.  Though the writing, acting, directing and castle itself could have something to do with it.

In any event, the fourth season starts being broadcast in England sometime this month and is set in the roaring twenties.  It will also introduce race into the equation with its first Black cast member, a singer in the traditional of jazz great Cab Calloway played by acclaimed British actor Gary Carr.  I suspect this is not just novelty casting but will be used as a way to continue to tell the story of the vast cultural shifts of the times as the upstairs-downstairs way of living slowly begins to unravel.

Hellllloooo Gary!

Hellllloooo Gary!

It should be noted that my students have a particularly hard time with the social mores shown in period pieces even though they are historically accurate.  For instance, I’ve given up even mentioning either the book or movie version of Gone With The Wind in class since the Mammy character and the sashaying young black maid seems to take them out of a story quicker than the foot and a half sized cell phone you see in early 1980s American films.   Yes, I know – those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  You try telling them that.

Finally, DA does not officially premiere in the US until January 2014.  That’s a shame.  Given how connected the world is via social media and the rest of the web, it’s very difficult to wait four months without spoilers to begin a series that is, admittedly, a street drug.  Of course, you can get someone you know in London to send you DVDs that come out midway to late in the fall season.  Or you can do it another….no, I am NOT advocating that!  Am I?  Well, as Will Ferrell once joked on SNL, ‘Maybe I am and…maybe I am…”  (Note to law enforcement:  That’s a joke).

SLOTH: LAZINESS AND THE MOVIES

Do you smell that?

Do you smell that?

Someone has to say it – 2013 has generally been a crap year for movies.  Sorry, it has.  There were a few of good films.  But nothing great or particularly unusual.  I’m leaving out Fruitvale Station because people I trust really like it and I haven’t seen it yet.  Though I very much enjoyed The Spectacular Now and Cate Blachett was wonderful in Blue Jasmine even if the film as a whole somehow disappoints (uh yes, that’s just my opinion).

Still, there’s hope.  What I’m hearing through sources is that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are great being weightless in GravityInside Llewyn Davis is a very cool movie from the very cool Coen Brothers and two actors who were different kinds of movie stars in the seventies will be up for Oscars in two other films.  They are Robert Redford in a practically one-man tour de force in JC Chandor’s All Is Lost and Bruce Dern (yes, he’s Laura’s Dad) as the difficult father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. 

I want to see all of these and many others I haven’t heard anything about.  But just as much I want to see Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of what happened when the writer of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, came to Hollywood and is finally convinced by Walt Disney to allow him to film her story.  Emma Thompson plays the writer and Tom Hanks plays Walt.  But that’s not why I care.  See, Mary Poppins was my favorite film as a child and I played the record endlessly on my little “victrola” (that’s what they called record players, sonny), at the turn of the century.

Do not write in and tell me you’re disappointed in me for wanting this film.  Or  — that I will be disappointed.  I know both already.

PRIDE: STRANGEST NEW FALL TV SEASON ENTRY

OK that's it.. I'm done.

OK that’s it.. I’m done.

I’m not going to belabor this.  Something called the DIY Network (it stands for Do It Yourself) is doing a reality show called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.  In it, the king of nineties White Rap immerses himself in the Amish community to learn how they do construction work.  This will be an offshoot of the network’s current home renovation series, The Vanilla Ice Project.  And why not?  When I want to hear about how I break into the 2013 rap scene I’m going to call The Property Brothers.

ENVY: ME AND QUEEN JANE

Anyone who thinks 75 year-old actors have lost their looks, timing, talent and general star appeal need only watch Jane Fonda in the final scene of last week’s episode 7 of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  In just under four minutes, Ms. Fonda gives a master class in creativity and craft.  Alternately dramatic, funny, coquettish and powerful, she plays each moment to the hilt without ever going over the top or calling attention to herself beyond the requirements of the scene.  That’s rare in television acting and even more rare in the movies these days.  Newsroom star Jeff Daniels put it best in a recent interview:  She comes in prepared and you just watch 2,000 Oscars and 1,000 nominations work.

PS – Ms. Fonda has given immense credit to Aaron Sorkin’s writing for her bravura appearances. But as any writer knows, tour de force scenes such as these can go horribly wrong, especially when you don’t have exactly the right person acting them.  See, cause it’s all made up.  Stay tuned.

WRATH:  IT’S HOT!!!

This summer, which has not yet ended, is best summed up by Krissy Chula’s YouTube video rant of several days ago.  Yes, it’s a little raw.  But so was Richard Pryor.  I’m not saying she’s a star.  Yet.  But the video has gone viral and will soon be nearing 1,000,000 views.

The humor, the rage, the weather – it all speaks to where we are now – maybe at this very moment.

Or maybe… we’re here: