Ups and Downs

There is a popular new Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why that chronicles the life and reasons a teenager committed suicide via the 13 detailed cassette tapes she left behind.

This sounds depressing as hell – if indeed hell is depressing. My feeling is hell is no better or worse than any of the most awful things we decide we are enduring right now or tell ourselves in any of our most down moments.   So given how dramatic and/or ingenious we all can be when we get into one of our “moods” or down cycles, how much more imaginative can hell really be?

It’s all about perspective

Don’t write in with comments like I never thought it could get worse than Dubya and then we got Trump. Or, I thought it was bad when ‘Crash’ won over ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and then the producers of ‘Moonlight’ barely even got to pick up their best picture Oscar, blah, blah, blah…  

Those are not searing personal affronts, even though they appear to be.

And that’s the point. Not everything is personal or as awful as we can make it. In fact, almost nothing is. Things happen, we respond or don’t respond in kind, and then time marches on. No, the Chair is not getting Zen. The Chair has simply grown more comfortable with time, as all chairs do, and is trying to not waste any more precious little of it left feeling too rickety about just how hellish anything can inevitably get on a given day.

Harshing my mellow, Chairy

We’re living in unusually rocky times, says just about every other armchair psychiatrist and would be philosopher in 2017 with half a brain. That includes yours truly. Certainly, it no longer take an Oracle or a president or even a comfy piece of furniture like myself to realize that nuclear war can happen at any moment, you or I or any one of us can get hit with a car, lose a job, contract a fatal disease and instantly die, and experience all of the above desperate and alone.

If we so choose.

I used to hate when people said this last line to me in my teens. Or twenties. Or thirties. Or even…sigh…forties.

I even hate that I’m stating it now as I’m writing it.

Still, it doesn’t make it any less true.

Yes, it will and can always get worse. Just like it inevitably can and will always get better. These are not bromides. Just facts. Look at your life’s ups and downs or simply travel in an elevator for a while. Okay, dumb analogy. Or was it? I’m not so sure anymore.

… and why not stop at every floor?

Those of us who suffer from mood swings, depression, or simply dwell in the belief that we can actually make a living in the arts, are perhaps especially susceptible to this. More and more there seem to be no rules for success and failure. Certainly, it is less and less anything even relating to a straight line.

You’re too young and don’t have any or enough experience, rightly complain my students and recent grads who are attempting to get their first or second jobs. You’re too old and have too much experience at the wrong things, note colleagues, friends and relatives who fear they’ve been at it too long. And you’re just lucky you were adopted into a family that made you a Chair, says my inner voice to me almost every other day.

Yes, all of this is invariably true.

Luck and timing has way too much weight determining any of this. Ask Hillary Clinton after she’s had a glass of two of wine or beer. She’ll give you an earful now that she’s out of the woods. For the time being.

You know our girl can throw one back #cheersHills

 

But at the same time where any of us are is not solely an accident of birth or luck or timing or even hard work. It is a combination of all of those factors and more – especially when you add in the X factor.

No, the X factor is not the old adage that the cream rises to the top or talent wins out every time or you always get back what you give. That’s ridiculous. Life can be too cruel to some, too generous to others and too random generally for it to be all that.

A wise psychiatrist told me a long, long, LONG time ago that the only thing you can control in a given situation is your ACTIONS. Yeah, I hated hearing this almost as much as I loathe repeating it.   Because I know at any moment I too can hit a down cycle and it would be the next to last thing I’d want to hear – the last thing being – um, too late, you’re dead. Which of course, I wouldn’t hear anyway so perhaps it’s the last thing.

#Priorities

Meaning – there is only one solution to the inevitable existential awfulness of a current situation. And that is to take some small action, and then another, and then even a side step with the hope that your mind will drift somewhere else and you’ll forget just how awful you feel. Or – you might actually create a moment or two that might prompt something else that will create a new and slightly less depressing or perhaps more exciting opportunity for you. At something. Which in turn will then forge something else.

I’ve found this works in romance, at work and even – heaven forbid, at the gym. Right. We’re all jumpin’ to get on that treadmill after a year away. But I’ll bet most of us would if the heart surgeon told you that if you didn’t you’d drop dead in a month.

or channel your inner Lebowski #whiteRussianplease

Don’t mean to be THAT harsh. Or perhaps I do. Certainly, that’s the only thing that’s ever worked with me. Fear of death. But I’m Jewish, from New York, vain and gay. Oh, and I live in L.A. Where none of us believe we’re going to get old or die. Because we don’t look it.

Which is a start towards something positive if you think about it. But not too hard.

I’ll See You in…

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.38.25 PM

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – or so says an 11th century proverb. But does that mean there is no value at all to erring on the side of positivism and kindness? Hell, if I know.

What I think, as a former movie critic and perennial critique-er of all things pop… well, let’s just say ALL things – is that we all carp way too much and should or could be a hell of a lot nicer. Still, what fun is that???

GURLLLLL please!

GURLLLLL please!

Competitions, contests and best of trophies date back to ancient times when Roman warriors really did fight to the death – and for what? The thrill of the crowd? The spectacle of macho-ness? Under order of their Emperor? Well, perhaps it was all three. At the very least they must have gotten a cool trophy and some cash prizes. Or so one hopes.

Actually, as it turns out Roman Gladiators who were victorious did receive money for each win. As well as something called a laurel crown. And guess what, they also got saluted in public!

You know... Laurel crowns... those things hipster brides wear on Pinterest

You know… Laurel crowns… those things hipster brides wear on Pinterest

Of course, the top award, which was not given all the time, was a wooden sword. This meant a permanent pass discharging them from the obligation of fighting. Yes, that’s right. Back then competition was required. You couldn’t actually sit it out if you thought awards or the powers that be in your industry were dumb, stupid or both.

Question: Is that any different than today?

You did realize we were speaking about the Oscars, right? Because you might have thought we meant the presidential race, which no one seems to be sitting out – at least on the Republican side.

C'mon Chair... the wound is still raw!

Even the Chair forgot about me

Well, let’s leave politics alone for the moment and stick with show biz since the Oscars are little more than a week away and the results far less costly for the rest of us.

Of course, the Oscars are only the largest and most regal example of entertainment award-giving and therefore the easiest example. In actuality, this applies for everything from the Razzies to the Golden Globes, back to the Saturns, down to each and every DGA, WGA, SAG, CSA citation and on through a variety of earned or faux career/life honors that seems to occur at this time of year at each “A,” “B” or “C” list film festival across the country.

If you think awards are not a marketing tool then you either had the same childhood as I did — where you spent too much time staring at a screen and dreaming of holding one of those shiny objects in your hand, or at least wearing some sort of crown or tiara in front of the mirror – or you work for one of these organizations. This is not to say that any of these honors are absolutely unearned. Only that it’s no coincidence that they occur in clumps and often around either the release time or Oscar window for each recipient’s individual star bid that same year.

Are the Oscars nothing more than a contemporary version of a laurel crown? Sort of, yes. Not to mention, they do carry a cash prize. Ask any agent in town and they will tell you a nominee or winner’s asking price and in-demand quotient often doubles, triples or more in the immediate aftermath. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the awards, nominees, recipients or entire process deserves our unyielding criticism. In some ways, it’s just the opposite.

Or in some cases, they still get paid less. #PreachJLaw

Or in some cases, they still get paid less. #PreachJLaw

In gearing up for the annual notesfromachair Oscar predictions next week I began going over the list of nominated movies and reflecting on several other films I’ve seen in the past week. I’ve found fault with a lot of them but in all honestly – are any of them just, well…AWFUL?

I’ve snidely noted that Todd Haynes’ Carol was like watching paint dry over the same scene in a two-hour loop. I’ve also told people The Revenant had story holes and believability issues so big they could rival any speech or even small statement given by The Republican Apprentice (aka our likely 2016 Republican presidential nominee).

No comment

No comment

Today I wondered: Chair, who are you to judge? And why? You of all people know how unlikely it is to even be in a position to make either of those types of films – not to mention how rare to have them emerge with a few memorable scenes that elevate them to high profile status.

Then I began to ponder: Am I just getting soft in the fast-advancing global warming age?

Well, perhaps it’s a little bit of both.

I still stand by my recent comments to anyone who would listen about the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, when I referred to them as the most withholding filmmakers of all time. This was for a narratively flawed movie that was so intent at denying any audience satisfaction or slight emotion that they couldn’t even give Channing Tatum a big finish to an otherwise fantastic MGM-styled musical dance number.

Not to mention that hair... #why

Not to mention that hair… #ohgawd

However, a far more intelligent friend of mine recently pointed out that maybe that IS their point – a critique of melodrama and emotionalism in American movies. Sure, it’s not my thing but, well, perhaps it’s yours. Or…someone’s? (Note: Okay, yes, that’s the best I can do right now).

Then this week I watched a really solid satisfying film written by another friend of mine about the rescued Chilean miners called The 33. It had been pulled so quickly from local theatres this fall that I missed it yet viewing it now I couldn’t help but wonder – why not more love at the time of its release? It’s action-packed, emotional and well told. Certainly more than anything Michael Bay’s done of late. Or ever.

hehe

hehe

Oops, there I go again. See how insidious this all is?

I guess the bottom line is you can be harsh and bitchy all you want but that doesn’t mean you’re 100% correct. You might actually only be 75% right. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to sit through Transformers 4 again anytime soon. But I will consider the possibility that Mr. Bay could indeed one day make a movie that I might not hate. Sort of. Which would be a huge leap of faith for me.

Ditto goes for this year’s Oscar contenders. Let’s all go on record that all eight films nominated for best picture aren’t garbage. In fact, all have elements that make them good enough to be there. Except…..   Yeah, even that one, I can see on the list.

I'll leave you to your imagination....

I’ll leave you to your imagination….

Though don’t take that to imply that I support the Republican Apprentice to be on any list except one of insanity. Actually, I take that back. I have been insane myself and know a few insane people I like very much – and I don’t care to insult them. True, I might be softening but that doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on all of my core values.

 

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Sympathy for the Devil

Homer-Simpson

My response when people tell me I’m going to hell:

Oh good, cause that’s where all my friends will be!

It’s kind of a tart, easy answer that ensures I won’t win any new buds in certain circles, but those are not circles I want to be in anyway so these kinds of answers work for me.  Plus, as a lifelong provocateur with a big mouth, especially when I’m pushed, I actually love annoying those who in my mind are a little too self-righteous and judgmental about the rest of us.  Hmm, I guess that means anyone like me – except on the other side.

This all got me thinking about Lena Dunham and Girls, James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful and Don Draper/Jon Hamm (because they are now the same person) in Mad Men, as well as Hannibal Lecter, Dexter and pretty much any role Al Pacino has ever played.

What is it about devils and devilish behavior?   And what puts them and the way they act in that category?  Why are there some devils we love to love?  And other Lucifers we fear and hate?  And still other Beast Masters we are kind of intrigued by and want to spend time with yet publicly want to deny, or at least distance ourselves from until the doors are closed and we can luxuriate in all of their nastily seductive, id-like, primally deceptive dirtiness?

Woah, excuse me while I don’t wash up.  Ever.

The Divine Ms. Dunham

The Divine Ms. Dunham

I happen to love Lena Dunham – everything about her – which is why I don’t really want to meet her and be friends with her.  Decades of experience tell me I will be severely disappointed because she can never live up to the hype.  NO human could.  Which is why I suppose I’m looking forward to Hell.

In any event, this is because Lena Dunham is NOT Hannah Horvath, the oft-vilified lead character on Girls just as three decades ago Murphy Brown, from the self-titled TV series, was not a real person anyone could feel threatened by despite then Vice President Dan Quayle’s hysterical reaction to her.

However, this did not stop the zeitgeist from attacking and defending Murphy Brown, dubbed by Mr. Quayle et al as a scandalous role model of single motherhood for young women and the future of the American family in the 1980s, just as me writing and ranting about my love for Lena/Hannah likely won’t now quash the outcry against her.  Outcries such as the LA Times’ TV critic Mary McNamara who recently wrote that Hannah was a “lovely but irritating wild child running around the playground shouting vagina at everyone and peeing in the sandbox.”  Okay – I suppose she’s entitled.  But when she suggested that “someone needed to put that kids’ clothes back on and show her where the bathroom is,” I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to make the short drive down to her office (hopefully in the middle of the newsroom) and take a dump on her desk in support of my current favorite TV heroine.

That's it Hannah, ignore the haters!

That’s it Hannah, ignore the haters!

The latter is not only because I am a bit Satanic but because I love that Dunham is representing being a writer in your twenties with seemingly unedited indulgence (Um, yes, she’s edited – Judd Appatow is one of her producer’s for God’s sake!).  And THIS is because I am here to tell you that for most writers and many others in their 20s (and obviously sometimes beyond) it’s about always thinking you’re right and usually not caring enough if you’re not to stop your behavior.  That’s the brilliance of the show and why it and Dunham’s Hannah is so cringingly uncomfortable when she plays ping pong topless with her flab bouncing; leaves nasty messages for friends not listening for the millionth time to one of her problems; and tries to manipulate everyone around her for a free ride with money or attention so she can create something brilliant that the world must have and see for its own survival.

I mean, I certainly feel and have felt that way.  Who hasn’t?

Okay, well then let’s just say I have felt (sometimes feel?) that way and don’t find any of those traits particularly objectionable, unsympathetic or devilish for what now should be obvious reasons.  Though perhaps, you do.  The devil, as they say, is always in the details.

Still, the dramatic strategy used for Hannah is be all out in all of your flaws and don’t worry about being sympathetic if you can also be honest and entertaining.

Well, then – what about the charm of other blasphemes? Like:

A look behind the curtain

A look behind the curtain

James Franco’s version of the title character in Oz, the Great and Powerful

Here’s a two-bit circus magician whose goal through his movie is to become rich and powerful and famous while bedding as many unsuspecting women along the way as possible.  These are lofty goals to some but obnoxious ambitions to many others.  Yet members of both groups have pushed the movie to over $300,000,000 at the worldwide box office in just a few weeks.

Oz was helped by being a prequel to an iconic movie seen by more people in the world than any other.  But it also has a fairly unsympathetic lead who gets by mostly on counter charm and the goodness of others who want to believe and will inevitably be disappointed by him — until they’re not and in turn lead him to forever change for the better.

Dramatic strategy: We’ll root for the Devil in all his sin because he’s fun and underneath it not so bad.  And since he’s a famous character, we know he will come around in the end.

Still, this will not convince everyone.  As one of my students said to me, “Franco seemed stoned through the whole movie, do you think he was?  And why do I want to watch that, anyway? “

I had no answer for either.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

Don Draper/Jon Hamm on Mad Men

He’s an ad man who manipulates the public for profit, stole the identity of the dead soldier next to him, is a serial adulterer (until perhaps recently – though we don’t know for sure), a chain smoker and a disrespectful lout if someone gets in his way.  He is also always the best-looking and best dressed guy in the room, a brilliant ad man, a loyal friend, and the guy every guy wants to be and every woman wants to have – partially because he is rumored to be the best lay in New York City in the sixties, which is really saying something.

Dramatic strategy:  Incredible looking devils who will maybe move a mountain for a lost puppy, if they decide they’re worth it, can do anything else they want as long as they give us a wink and a nod.  You know it’s true.  I know it’s true.  Why fight it?  In real life or on television.

Donuts anyone?

Donuts anyone?

Dexter on Dexter

If Dexter were writing this (and perhaps he is) he would offer no justification for being a serial killer who has gotten away with countless murders while sacrificing the lives of his wife, girlfriends and friends plus the sanity of his police detective sister.  Everything about him is beastly, especially his choice to maintain a double life as a caring father to his young son and expose him to all kinds of potential bloodiness.

Having watched every episode of Dexter, I sort of feel like one of those women who fall in love with a guy who has been sentenced to consecutive murder sentences and will spend his next five lifetimes behind bars.  This is because somehow I know he has been either misunderstood, judged harshly for a momentary indiscretion or is really a moral guy who has been forced to take unorthodox action for the greater good because, damn it, somebody had to.  And besides – if you knew him like I did – you’d get it and know that he is not unlike any of us.  And, in the end, may be better.

Dramatic strategy:  The dark passenger devil inside us has to breathe at some point and it’s better to root for a fictional killer than spend the rest of our lives in prison, on the lam or in a box underground before our time.  Plus we ALL want to murder someone at some point in our lives. Which makes it universally interesting to see how it will play out.

Who's hungry?

Who’s hungry?

Hannibal Lecter

He’s the Devil among Devils – a killer so brilliant and crafty that he subverts all expectations among his ilk.  This is probably because he also manages to be the Court Jester of Devils if the Joker were the kind of sophisticated dinner companion one would have at a $50,000 a plate charity dinner. This is also probably why he’s starred in at least three huge films, many more bestselling novels, is the subject of a new NBC show, and has become an irrevocable part of American folklore.

Dramatic Strategy:  As Joan Rivers once famously said, “If Hitler had five good minutes, they’d put him on The Tonight Show.”  Can we talk?  Well, he most certainly can – but in a really, really funny way.  Plus, he knows how to eat.  You.  Me.  And any one of us.  And we all love danger.

Finally, there’s…

In the flesh?

In the flesh?

 Al Pacino in Everything

He began as Michael Corleone in The Godfather but between recent portrayals of Roy Cohn, Jack Kevorkian and now Phil Spector, he may indeed be The Devil himself.  And if you have any doubt, note Pacino actually did play The Devil (or himself) in The Devil’s Advocate, though his character was named John Milton, which seemed to imply something about Paradise Lost though I was never quite sure what. Side Note: I much prefer Robert DeNiro’s take on Lucifer in Angel Heart because his character was named Lou Cypher (get it??).

Dramatic Strategy:  No one does loveable old coot as The Beast like Al.  Still, there will be an update after tonight’s showing on HBO of Phil Spector despite the fact that writer-director David Mamet calls it a fable; Phil Spector’s wife says its inaccurate; and everyone knows that on both counts the Devil is anything but.

There are numerous other sympathetic Satans but I think we’ve covered the basics here.  So – one final thought:

Anything about this list jump out at you?  Anything at all?

(Silence).

Anyone?  Anyone?

(More silence).

tumblr_miu9i6OX4X1s4tfa9o1_500

The correct answer:  All the above Devils we truly love are men and there is not a woman among them.  And forget Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, we don’t love her.  Not really.  Nor did we love Charlize Theron in Monster.  Or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.  Even Meryl’s ghastly Miranda Priestley doesn’t win our sympathies. They were campy, cultish heroines.  But loving and reveling in their nastiness?  Uh, uh. 

However, I DO love Lena/Hannah for what she dares to do that I couldn’t.  And though I do not see her as The Devil but I am willing to accept some of the public outcry and admit that others perhaps rightfully do.  What I can’t understand is – why can’t she be accepted among The Devils we love to love — like all the other men who came before her — rather than be treated as The Young Woman that we love to hate???