This is US

[ABSOLUTELY NO SPOILERS AHEAD… PROMISE]

The best part of Jordan Peele’s Us is how the filmmaker continues to subvert audience expectations by simply being himself and showing the world as he sees it.

In this case it is watching a family of color as our principal protagonists, nee heroes, as they fight the inevitable monster and carnage that threatens to engulf them.

Not creepy or anything #runsaway

More importantly, it is the relegation of the white couple to the traditional role of the best friends who you know will appear and reappear at will when some comic relief or convenient plot device is needed.

In this way Us is a totally original mainstream reinvention of the horror genre that is very much in the tradition of Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out.  Our view of the upscale suburban nuclear family to which very bad things will happen is no longer beige but color-corrected.

Yes, Ru!

The fact that this is about all that has changed from the usual is both the film’s strong point and its weakness.  Many contemporary horror films already have a patina of social commentary and Us is no different.

It spoils nothing about Us to say that in initially taking us back to 1986’s Hands Across America campaign, where a multicultural human chain was created in cities across the United States to raise money for charities that helped people in poverty, we are being set up for the inevitable “but has the world really changed” question by the end of the film.

The attempt to make this well-to-do Black family just as human as any white family in any horror film – that is to say a bit too two-dimensional and self-satisfied – succeeds as well as it ever has.  The characters are just as clueless, oblivious and bereft of individuality as any white family in a similar social class or big screen genre entertainment.

but still not as horrifying as this #isit2020yet

It’s sort of the way I initially felt watching gay culture become mainstreamed in the eighties and nineties and beyond with the advent of Will & Grace, Ellen, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Marriage Equality.

Well, I guess we really have arrived, I recalled thinking.  Now we can be just as average as everyone else.  Hallelujah!

Never mind I was also simultaneously seeing myself like Dustin Hoffman/Katharine Ross at the end of 1967’s The Graduate – two people who get EXACTLY what they wish only to be left wondering, Well, uh, okay.  You mean now this is my…reality?  

Uh oh

Of course there ARE many more benefits to being able to finally get married or serve openly in the military than there are to being front and center in a horror film (Note:  And as soon as I can think of one I’ll let you know….Oh, KIDDING!!!).  But if movies are indeed one of the most enduring and mainstream social chronicles of who we really are, it’s hard not to hope for just a little bit more.

After all, George Romero’s seminal Night of Living Dead gave us a Black hero as far back as 1968 and became the social commentary scale against which all horror films got measured.  I can recall finally seeing it as a teen some years later on television and being blown away at its message (Note: Don’t hate me, it was the seventies) and audacity.  So is it too much to ask for a little more than that of the genre some fifty plus years later?

Enough with the scary Nuns.. really #dobetter2019

In fairness, Romero has stated publicly that the reason that his lead actor in Night was Black mostly had to do with the fact that the actor, Duane Jones, was simply the person who gave the best audition.  Nevertheless, with a budget of $114,000 and an international gross upwards of $30 million it’s hard to imagine the director-writer didn’t know he was on to something.

This is what happens sometimes in moviemaking, happy accidents of instinct where the choices one makes pay off creatively and financially far better than anyone could imagine.  One could argue the same is possible and true today, but not as likely as when your budget is $20 million plus a helluva lot more than that in marketing.  Not to mention all of the release dates you have to meet (which includes both film festival and distributor/exhibitor bookings) AND the sophomore jinx trifecta of a best screenplay Oscar win, critical plaudits and box-office breaking success in an auteur driven film, your first, in the horror genre.

No Pressure for Mr. Peele

Sure there are countless worse problems in the real world than the success of Get Out but few if any of them are effectively addressed in the onscreen story of Us.  Instead what we get is a lot of talk about the Freudian concept of our shadow selves and the consequences of such when these darkest impulses are either indulged or ignored.

It’s an interesting discussion for an abnormal psychology class but not quite the stuff that drives a good or even great horror flick.

What does give Us its engine is a bravura performance by Lupita Nyong’o, one part troubled but relentless Mother Hen and the other part vacuum cleaner-voiced scissor sister with an internal moral compass known only to herself.

We don’t deserve you, Lupita

It kind of reminds you of a 2019 version of Rosemary’s Baby where Mia Farrow is given the chance to portray both herself AND the Devil.  (Note: And, um, NO, Lupita does NOT play the Devil in Us.  There are NO SPOILERS HERE for the umpteenth time!).

Much as I adored Rosemary’s Baby I was sort of hoping for more in Mr. Peele’s second time out.  But perhaps this is being unfair to him.  After all, Rosemary’s Baby was based on a best-selling book of cutting social satire by novelist Ira Levin that was expertly plotted and insanely insightful.  A story that dealt with another upwardly mobile couple/mother Hen in a foreboding time period in America that similarly used the horror genre to address dark privilege, the righteous anger of those who have been discounted by it and the chains that will forever tether the two together.

Hmmm, sounds awfully timely to me.  And perhaps this time the film and novel from which it springs could literally be political?  Though maybe that’s way too obvious.

Luniz – “I Got 5 On It” (from the soundtrack of Us)

Advertisements

The Valedictorian

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 12.49.52 PM

The visual imagery director Mike Nichols brought to The Graduate was so strongly persuasive that for several days after I saw it he had the clearly gay, not yet out, early adolescent me convinced that I could actually be straight. The stocking leg of sleekly sexy Mrs. Robinson beckoning the scared and too internally worried young boy/man – it all worked and made me wonder, “Hmmmm, perhaps there’s a…chance?”

meeeeeowwwww

meeeeeowwwww

I’m not sure whether this was a good or bad thing. But I do know for certain it was as effective as it was unlikely. And any resentment I might have had towards Mr. Nichols for prompting that momentary confusion is forgiven not due to the fact that he died this past week but because it all worked out so gloriously for both of us in the end.

Mr. Nichols died at the age of 83 and accolades have sprung up, as they do, all over the globe for someone who has had such a prodigious career and was, incidentally, also married to one of the most famous newswomen in the world.   It’s also what will inevitably happen when one of a dozen proud earners of the EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – passes away. A merely talented person can get fortunate and as a fluke be awarded any one of these in their field in an off year. But all four – and in this case awarded multiple times – it seems like the overused title of “genius” is for once earned.

Make room on the mantle!

Make room on the mantle!

I have many friends who have met, hung out and worked with Mr. Nichols over the years. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to do any of the three. But I feel as if I have because their stories are endless. They alternate between his brilliance as a director, the extreme smarts he brought to everything he touched in work and in life and an unrelenting and often quite scabrous wit. Not to mention his sophistication, occasional superiority, playfulness, penchant for secrets, kindness, generosity and yes – sheer, unadulterated genius.

Ugh, not that word again. Well, as my little sister used to say when that early adolescent me also begged her to let me play with her jacks on the kitchen floor – tough.

To be a recognized genius in show business is no easy feat – mostly because the arts are in the end so utterly subjective.   Still, in Mr. Nichols’ case any rational person measuring “genius” by any rational standard could be overwhelmed by his canon in just film alone. Very few directors make one or two memorable movies in their lives, much less five, six, seven or eight over almost half a century. That might not seem as impressive as I hoped to make it sound – that is until I start listing the films.

How many directors among us, or those aspiring to do anything meaningful in the movies, are capable of making their debut with something on the caliber of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Think you can? I invite you to Netflix it or rent it or even borrow my copy and then get back to me.

That pretty much sums it  up

That pretty much sums it up

If after watching one of the best movie adaptations of one of the best plays ever written with one of the biggest movie star couples that ever lived, then watch his follow-up film – a little throwaway classic we like to call The Graduate. These two releases in two consecutive years? Are you kidding? Not only will the latter live on as a seminal work in the history of movies, it also happens to be one of the few films that captured the tumultuous themes the 1960s and manages to stay relevant today. Don’t believe me on that either? Sit in on one of my college screenwriting classes, or the film classes of any of my colleagues at pretty much any university across the country and do an informal survey of this younger generation’s view of The Graduate – something I have done on and off for more than a decade.   Not a negative word about a movie that was shot nearly five decades ago (Note: Rare in itself) – a time not long after most of their parents were born.

Where do you even begin?

Where do you even begin?

Then there were other classics like Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge (Note: One of the truest and funniest movies about show business that I’ve ever seen) and Primary Colors. Not to mention the brilliant and seemingly inadaptable epic play Angels in America as a multi-part HBO movie. Which begs the question of Silkwood and Heartburn – about as different as two films can get but both equally affecting and chilling in very different ways. There’s no time to get into those or any others of the above or we’ll be here all night. Better to spend your time watching or re-watching any of them instead of spending one more second reading any more of what I or anybody else chooses to write about them.

We could stop there but we haven’t gotten to the theatre. I’ll try to make this brief but what do you say about an eight time Tony Award winner who directed so many of Neil Simon’s most seminal and successful early Broadway comedies – including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite – only to produce the megahit musical Annie a decade later, follow it up by directing the even meggier hit musical Spamalot thirty years after that, only to follow that by winning a Tony Award less than a decade later for directing the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a much-acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s classic American play Death of a Salesman?

And he looked so freakin' cool doing it

Right at home

Had enough yet? It might surprise young people to know that Mr. Nichols began his career as a performer. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator over the years – Elaine May – he was one half of one of the most successful comic duos of the 1950s and 60s – Nichols and May. They played clubs around the world, guested all over television and sold millions of records – earning him his first “G” in the EGOT – the Grammy award.

The dynamic duo

The dynamic duo

For those who believe to be a brilliant director or artist of any kind means that one must create a very specific and very individual style that permeates their entire output, it is particularly interesting to note that as a filmmaker, man of the theatre, and performer Mike Nichols had no such signature or even strategy. Of all the many thoughtful quotes I’ve read and heard from him since his death the one that stayed with me is probably the simplest. When asked about how he directs scenes in comedy vs. drama he noted that all he really tries to do is figure out “what’s really going on” between the people. That search for “the truth” among human beings could be why he so easily cuts across so many genres and styles. On the other hand, it could just be that he was smarter and more perceptive than the rest of us.

Of course, EGOTS – or in layman terms: little statuettes voted to you by your peers – don’t account for or even prove genius beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it’s one of the only measures we have for the immeasurable. But if you still don’t buy that reflect on what Mr. Nichols has left behind in the aftermath of his death. No, I’m not talking about the massive tributes throughout the world from all of the top people across the board in the entertainment industry. Consider the work.

Oh.. and he was besties with Meryl Streep.

Oh.. and plus he was besties with Meryl Streep.

One final note: Mike Nichols was an immigrant.   He was born in Berlin with the name Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky and arrived in the U.S when he was seven years old with his family in order to escape the Nazi regime. He recalled that at the time he could only speak two phrases in English. One was: I do not speak English and the other was: Please don’t kiss me.

Clearly he was a dreamer to have achieved as much as he did.  So perhaps it stands to reason we give a few others the chance to follow in his footsteps and at least attempt to begin to fill the void. I think he’d approve. Though certainly he would say it more elegantly and with a dash more humor. Which sort of proves my point.

Buy the Beach House

Watching the cultural phenomenon called “The Hunger Games” yesterday convinced me even more to take the advice a good friend of many years gave me this past weekend — “buy the beach house.”

Do not jump to the conclusion that this means I have the money to purchase that fantasy pied-a-terre on the shores of nearby Malibu or even one on the opposite coast of Rockaway, NY that I inhabited many decades ago as a boy when they were merely called bungalows.  I don’t.  Writers enjoy metaphors and some physical manifestation of intellectual advice rather than coming straight out and telling you what to do.  Part of it is our training and the other part is an innate cowardice that allows us to be far bossier through language on the page or images than we could ever be in real life.  Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer excepted, of course, though each were indeed wimpy in their own ways when you think about it.

As for my friend, her beach house advice was a way to communicate to me something strongly in language she knew I’d understand.  (We’ve known each other since high school, a time when we briefly dated – uh yeah, that’s how long ago it was), and have seen each other through many things.  And unlike most writers, she’s pretty direct.  See, she beat cancer in her twenties and – now decades later – it’s returned again.  Don’t stress – it’s not a Lifetime movie.  The prognosis is very promising but the second time dealing with the Big C is not only sobering but has a way of clearing away the stink and laser focusing on what is faster than you can say “Hunger Games” is the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Consequently, her “buy the beach house” orders to me still hang in the air because after 40 years, well, we don’t bullshit each other.

To the best of my knowledge, here’s what “buy the beach house” really means and,  yes I will also get to how and why understanding the place of “The Hunger Games” in the entertainment world today is essential to anyone who is interested in becoming a part of the entertainment industry today.

Movies, television, theatre, publishing, and advertising have for decades “new aged” the message “buy the beach house”  into our psyches.  “No day but today,” “Jump,” No guts, No glory,” “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today,” “If not now, when,” “Have faith and shuffle the cards,” “I Am Spartacus” and so on and so forth are just a few examples.

Preach!

But in 2012 we need to go farther than what the construct of art will allow.  What does “buy the beach house” really mean?  It means, not only (Just) do it but do it in the real world.  It means it’s okay to dream and dream big, but in order to achieve those dreams it means you have to make sure fantasies don’t overtake your reality and in simply wishing something to be true you don’t convince yourself it is.  It means hard work, sweat, dedication and luck are all recipes for success but not necessarily antidotes to failure and all of them combined don’t necessarily guarantee you’ll avoid or achieve either one them as such.  It means, ultimately, that the road to happiness is buying whatever your version of the beach house is at the moment and, in doing so,  do the work and sign the contracts and do the work some more with your eyes wide open – understanding what you’re getting and staying determined to what you see as your eventual “dwelling” as you’re doing it in order to make it come true. It means that if you do all that and your beach house still falls apart, (which it is likely to because hey, we all know that global warming in 2012 has made living on the coast of any land mass perilous (ask Malibu’s Ali McGraw and some friends of mine in Mississippi), you will endure the disappointment and not allow your spirit to be broken, thereby enabling yourself to go on to your next dream – your next beach house.  Because god knows, there isn’t  only one.

Still has a great view!

Further translation?  You need to persevere and pursue your dream with all your might but you need to do it in a reality – not the distorted version of “Hunger Games” reality so popular with just about everyone but me right now (Okay, yes, more on that soon).

I saw a fine example of that perseverance at a panel I moderated some days ago with three directors, all former students of the college at which I teach.  All three of the panelists are working film and TV directors in their thirties and forties and all three had a clear path of working extremely long hours at not always desirable jobs while not abandoning their vision of their ultimate beach house.  Each also used whatever discouragement they had as fuel and each were able to speak up for themselves and their dreams, wants and desires when no one else could or wanted to (or even believed any of what they wanted might possibly become a reality).  Still, they stayed in touch with what they wanted and worked at it no matter what job they had or what state of mind they were in.

Eventually, two of them collaborated on a film that cost them $1100 (and was made on a camera they returned within the 30-day trial period) that went on to be very well-received and gross $5,000,000 worldwide.  Needless to say, this opened all kinds of career paths. Another panelist told tales of working many unrequired all-nighters at an assistant’s job that only allowed advancement when doubting superiors admired the work this person completed when no one else was around.  Oh, did I mention this person is now director-producer-editor of one of the most prestigious half hour comedies on television and that it was not until the last three years that this person even became a director?  And did I mention that the filmmaking team each started in lowly jobs, then became writers (not a lowly job despite what some people think), on air talent, producers and, finally, each directors of their own films?  Well, they did.

An even better view

These three people did not happen to land where they did by accident and they are not unique (although they are not average.)   But part of the reason they are among  the top of their class is that they imagined their own version of a beach house and kept trying to buy it – never giving up and never getting completely discouraged by the many turns of events that clearly indicated they had as much chance of achieving their dreams as purchasing actual west coast seaside property on a PA’s salary.  Their dreams became a reality because, in essence, they lived in reality but continued to dream.

Box Office Knockout

Which brings us to “The Hunger Games.”  If you like it – fine.  I didn’t.  Though I can certainly admire the work, the craftsmanship and the colossal effort that it takes to make a major studio “tent pole” movie in 2012.  And if you don’t think that takes a lot of effort and creativity and art, then you are over or underestimating what all three mean nowadays (or your POV), and you certainly don’t fully comprehend all of the potential minefields of a commercial system where most people want to use their talents but, at the same time, want to get all their hard work seen by more than a small audience of friends and admirers.   Certainly, NOT caring about this capitalistic stuff is an admirable trait if it’s really you but, then again, that has nothing to do with “The Hunger Games” or what it means for any artist of any kind who wants to work in the commercial system of movies and achieve their own version of a modest but sturdy beach house.

Without reviewing the plot, technical aspects, artistic execution or themes of “The Hunger Games” lets just say that it is basically a film version of a fictional futuristic reality show where each year a select group of young people 12-18 are forced to fight each other to the death.  It provides some slight and very superficial commentary, a few dramatic and emotional scenes that don’t get too messy, and lots of lots of eye candy, film trailer “moments,” and room for tons (or at least two or three) sequels, starting with its slightly open-ended ending.

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the people who love movies, both young and old, and are aspiring members of the next generation of moviemakers, are particularly drawn not to this kind of film but to the films of the sixties and seventies, which were a time of great sociological and societal shifts, not to mention soaring advancements in technical achievements and the way stories are told.  To simplify, there was a decided move away from the old-fashioned Hollywood type film to a more honest, independent type of films that told somewhat more realistic stories.

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

And to be direct – this kind of movie is not “The Hunger Games.”  And it’s not — (fill in the blank with one of your fave contemporary films).  After two or three shifts since the 1960s and 70s, the kind of movies you love or your parents loved that you love probably accounts for, oh, 5-10% of all the commercial narrative films made nowadays (and I’m being kind).

As a member or aspiring member of the film biz in particular, it is very important to know and recognize that and plan accordingly, which is not to be confused with giving up your dream of a celluloid beach house on your own terms.

But while you’re working on your (seemingly elusive) dream you might also want to notice that the storytelling in cable television shows like “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “The Big C,” “Dexter,” “Downton Abbey,” “Breaking Bad,” “Weeds” and many others are now carrying the gauntlet of the film sensibilities of yesteryear that you recall so fondly.  And that there is an online market that is breathing over the shoulder of movies theaters and portable and non-portable televisions everywhere as we adjust to watching entertainment on the “tablet” of our choice rather than in a specific market.

What I’m saying is that in 2012 you probably don’t want to purchase a beach house from the 1970s (if it’s still standing) because of the impossibility of maintenance in today’s environment   Even if that wasn’t the case and you insisted on being frozen in time, at the very least you’d have to admit you probably need to spend more than a little time, and actually more time than you had planned, to modernize the plumbing.

What I’m suggesting, then, is – take a look at the terrain around you – and in order to actualize your own personal beach house dreams, consider, if not significantly modernizing, doing some of the necessary maintenance work.