Notes from Methuselah

A student wrote about an older couple who were returning to their summer home and carrying luggage where one has a heart attack. We were hashing it out in class and I said, “How old.”

“Oh, they’re really old.”

“Ok, but do you mean like, Gloria Stuart in Titanic old?” (Note: The woman who was in her nineties when she was nominated for best supporting actress).

“No, but old…..I’d say, well, I guess they’re in their fifties.”

“THAT OLD!?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“You’re sure?”

“Uh, huh. People have heart attacks in their fifties.”

Long pause.

Crickets. Crickets. #awkward

“I might as well just kill myself now then,” I reply.

Pause. Then some nervous laughs.

“Oh. Well, it just seems like they’re a lot older than the other characters.”

“That’s fair,” I say. “But this couple. Are you sure they could even lift their luggage enough to move it across the room? I mean, they’re that mobile for that age?”

More nervous laughter. Then the rest of the class catches on and starts to laugh.

“And you imply with their body language that they still have sex. Are you sure that’s safe at their age?   Could they even make it into the bedroom, much less do anything?”

Don’t be fresh!

“You’re not going to let this go,” the student countered, finally amused.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m having too much fun,” I say. “And who knows how much time I have left? I better take advantage of it while I still can.”

And….scene.

Thank you. Thank you very much. #noshame

This is a fairly typical scene these days for me and many of my contemporaries. And for my older friends – not to mention my 88 year-old Dad who assures me it will only get worse. Then again, exactly what IS the alternative?

That’s rhetorical. We all know what the alternative is. So it doesn’t bear repeating.

Too much to ask?

Full confession – there was no reason a student in their early twenties should think that a couple in their fifties is anything BUT an older couple. And after my mini-vaudeville routine I admitted as much.   But what I was trying to convey was behavior and sense of clarity. Just labeling someone an older couple isn’t very specific. Unless, well…it is. But I refuse to go there quite yet. Especially at my age.

The movie Get Out positions baby boomers Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as exactly this type of older couple – as well as the symbols of phony, middle aged liberalism. Though even middle aged is relative. As Meryl Streep, playing a fictional Carrie Fisher, stingingly retorts to Shirley MacLaine, playing a fictional version of her then sixtyish mother Debbie Reynolds, after Mom tries to claim middle age for herself in Postcards from the Edge – Really. How many one hundred and twenty year old women do You know?

I thought it was hilarious in the nineties.   But now it’s deeply funny. Tinged with a touch of self-righteous irony on the ungrateful daughter’s part.

Regular On Golden Pond over here #helpme #getoutforreal

I think this was part of the issue for me not being a cheerleader for Get Out. The kind of middle-aged white liberal I am bore no relation to the phony Kumbaya relics I was seeing lambasted on the big screen. Not that I minded the roasting. What I didn’t get was the generalities about a group of people and the seemingly unmotivated behavior based on a stereotype.

Oh. Right. That was the point. Turnabout is fair play. Still, don’t you have to BELIEVE IT in the context of the world you as a filmmaker have created? And if you aren’t specific enough to make us believe it, aren’t you no better than the long generation of movies in the past that have so consistently done it to other minority groups?

Hmm. I’m not sure whether two wrongs don’t make a right or many wrongs make a right for a few new and improved wrongs to at least even out the playing field a little. I’m going to have to think about that one.

This might take a while #brb

The trouble is you get to the point, or the age, when you don’t want to have to think too hard about that one. When I heard 76-year-old Al Pacino was going on the stage locally to play one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams, during his last creative days in a workshop production of a new play, And God Looked Away, I quickly went online and bought my husband and I two tickets at $189 a piece on a Saturday night.

My first thought: I have to see Al Pacino live onstage before he dies and I don’t care if he’s the opposite of gay and southern. It’s called acting, right?

oh, hello.

Well, I thought so. Even though he’s older and far shorter, Pacino managed to thoroughly inhabit a fading, drug-addled Williams. It felt like the essence of a real character.   In much the same way very hunky and very hearththrob-by Hugh Jackman miraculously evoked the very gay and very lithe singer-songwriter Peter Allen on Broadway in The Boy From Oz. Mr. Allen, like Mr. Williams, was one of my faves and is almost as far away from the Wolverine as, well…I am. Though not quite.

Yet mostly what our L.A. Times critic couldn’t resist sneering about in Mr. Pacino’s case was that:

“The privilege of seeing Pacino portray the aging American playwright in a Demerol haze while pawing shirtless male hustlers as reviewers crucify him for his latest flop doesn’t come cheap.”

SHADE

Hell, that sounds good to me, gay liberal that I am. In fact, I’d pay even more to see that performance again if they fix the play a bit more. At least they were on to recognizable human behavior rather than an overworked or too witty social commentary that bears little resemblance to my reality. Or, well, a reality.

Which I suppose is relative, depending on who you are and what interests you. The hope is that what we’re actually living is reality, and what’s created in our individual fictional worlds based on that reality, is actually worthy of our attentions at all.

Though one supposes it beats the alternative.

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Sorkin Says

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.58.19 AM

There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.

This is the Pitts!

Mommie Dearest.

When Brad Pitt’s mother came out as virulently anti-Obama (that’s Barack HUSSEIN Obama, to use her exact words), anti-choice (“the killing of unborn babies,” as she puts it) and anti-gay marriage, (she cites “Christian conviction concerning homosexuality”) in a letter to Missouri’s Star-Ledger this week, all I could think about was:

  1. What is it like when Brad comes home for the holidays?
  2. What was it like when he came home with Angie for the first time (assuming he has)?
  3. And how can he be so liberal while his mother is so intransigent, nasty and, well, small-town ignorant???

Despite my better instincts, I’m still wondering about the first two. (OH, COME ON, I’M NOT ALONE!).  As for the third, well – I should know better than to categorize people I’ve not met as ignorant and am profusely embarrassed (well, at least slightly) for thinking it, much less writing it publicly.

I mean, for all I know, Jane Pitt has many wonderful qualities (well, at least one we can speak of) and might just be the kindest woman in town if we were to get off the subject of politics.  As for Brad, I know him as well as Jane, so despite the fact that I like a lot of his movies and the things he’s done to build houses in New Orleans as well as his fight for gay marriage ($100,000 to defeat CA’s Prop 8) he could be even more jerky than Mom if we get him on the right subject.

As could all of us.  Which is the point.

How did we get here?

These differences are what the United States is and always has been composed of and, up until recently, was one of the selling points of the country.  That like a big dysfunctional family — mine, yours or the Pitts — you could disagree and still be related.  You could also do or say or be as rude or politically incorrect or culturally diverse or short sighted, or communistic/tree hugging/eco-friendly and radically vegan-istic as you like and, at the end of the day, you had just as much a right to be here and act that way as anyone else.  Perhaps this is even still the case for those of us not overdosing on the red state/blue state thing after two or three decades of growing alienation from each other.

That’s why there are 64 colors in every box.

Was it the rise of the Christian right after the social revolution of the sixties that started it?  Or the wave of the let ‘em eat cake Reagan conservatism followed by a tidal wave of Clintonistic separation of politics and morality?  Or the post 9/11 Bush years of attack, invasion and collapse?   There are theories but we’ll never know for sure.  What we do know is that our chief attraction, and export across the world, depends on this not being quite so.  Because what we’re really best known for is the international production of “a dream.”   An American dream.  But if not fading, it does feel that this particular dream has gone a bit – well, awry.

A dream as American as apple pie.

The entertainment industry particularly depends on this export, this idea of who we are, whether it’s true or not.  Films, television, music, art – America’s chief image is of a country where anything is possible for anyone.  And just when the world begins to think it isn’t, we as a country seem to always do something to save the dream from the jaws of destruction.  Most recently it was electing our first African American president despite the odds against it, especially when you consider the man’s middle name is the same as the Middle East dictator whose country we had just invaded in order to….well, to do something – but that’s not the point.

Anyway, politics aside, if there were ever an American dream scenario played out publicly in the last two decades to counter the cynicism, President Obama’s biography would be it.  Lower middle class, son of divorced parents, raised in Hawaii and Kansas, a community organizer who until recently smoked cigarettes and admits that he even used to smoke marijuana.  Not to mention his like of arugula salads and other designer foods as well his upbringing in…Hawaii?  (yes, it’s a state even though it’s not on the mainland).  I mean, who would’ve thunk it?

Young Obama or Brooklyn Hipster?

As he likes to say — on paper, it doesn’t make sense that he’d become president anywhere else in the world.  And even highly unlikely he’d rise up here.  But there are lots of unlikely things that happen in the USA, and in life, everyday.

This same unlikeliness rings true with some of our biggest celebrities.  Certainly a motherless girl dancer from Michigan with a passable voice and the given name of Madonna was not a shoo-in for a three decade musical megastar who helped reinvent the recording industry with what used to be cutting edge videos and sex books.

Nor was a poor, unabashedly gay kid from the Depression era south with the ordinary name of Thomas Williams likely to be one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, writing under the new, and even more unlikely, first name of Tennessee.  Nor would it seem probable that two very young men who chose to make fun of religion in a short film called “Jesus vs Frosty” would go on to change animation and television AND now the Broadway musical with “South Park” and “The Book for Mormon” but that is exactly what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done.  Not coincidentally, all three (four?) have done so by challenging, some might say attacking, what we consider to be our “traditional American values.”

True, some might cite these performers and their work as symptoms of our obvious moral decay.  I, however, look at it as necessary generational progress.  In fact, essential.

Not to get all post-Fourth of July, but what seems to allow the idea of the American dream to endure is the fact that we have always permitted ourselves to make fun of our sacred cows, ensuring that no one of us is particularly more precious than another on any given day or decade.  In fact, we’ve even reveled in it.  We can be in bad taste, politically incorrect, intolerably small-minded and even on occasion morally offensive to one group.  If we go too far, society will correct itself and eventually pass a law outlawing our action or create another one loosening up standards to accommodate a group shift in behavior.  There are real human costs for this – loss of lives, loss of livelihood, and worse – loss of ones sense of self and one’s humor in battle and in support of our own particular “cause.”

That seems to be what’s happening now in our current age of polarization. But I can only say “seems” because this is the argument everyone in history falls back on at different points in time when society is so “at odds.”  However, and speaking only for me, there does seem to be something about right now that feels different.  Something is off.  Something that’s not quite…well, for lack of a better word — right.

Sad, but true.

When I read Jane Pitt’s letter I initially dismissed it as a statement of someone who believes very differently than I do.  Someone who is at least a generation older who grew up in a different time and can’t or chooses not to understand societal shifts and changes that have occurred since she was young and was, perhaps, more malleable and open-minded.

After thinking about, though, I feel differently.  There is something ugly in it.  Disagreeing with a president is one thing but purposely using his middle name of “Hussein” to somehow paint him as some kind of “other” is viciously unacceptable.  As is calling people who believe in the right to choose “baby killers.”  As is suggesting that one group’s personal religious views against another particular group should be used to deny rights in a country who several centuries ago freed itself from its oppressor partly so all of its people would have the choice to worship, or NOT to worship, exactly as they all would so choose so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else.

Fierce.

We live in a celebrity culture where, as Andy Warhol prophesized many decades ago, everyone will be (or at least can be) famous for about 15 minutes.  This means that although you don’t have to be related to one of the select few celebrity elite to be heard, it certainly adds to your marquee value – whether you like it or not.  Surely, Jane Pitt knew this quite well when she wrote her letter.  She and her views now have their 15 minutes of fame.  Or perhaps more.  She’s now in the uber argument.   Inevitably, there will be others, countless others.  But right here and now it is up to her and us what we choose to do with it.  We can ignore it and proceed as we have been.  We can also use it as yet another moment to pull us further apart.  Or we can engage in some way and employ it to draw us closer together and begin to reshape, just a tiny bit, something we used to call the American dream.

History – as well as “Extra,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “TMZ” and “The Huffington Post” – is watching.   For at least 15 minutes or so.