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.


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.

Culture Vulture

Each week pop culture seems to offer an irresistible topic of conversation.  Perhaps it’s the online, multi-tasking, Facebook and Twitter-heavy world we live in, but more and more it’s easy to feel that there is not just one topic but six or seven or twelve to choose from — many of which are not so much amusing, but, well, alternately awful, trivial or downright distasteful, and only occasionally uplifting.  And unfortunately, quite reflective of the world we currently live in.

In honor of this predicament, this week and this week only (unless I decide to do it next time cause that’s how this stuff rolls in 2012…uh, don’t worry, I won’t) we present a mash up of the nonsense for the week ending March 23rd  .  At least as it looks from the seat of a chair, which can be cushy or hard, depending on what’s happening and to whom (who?).

Television encores: “Mad Men” returns and “Smash” is renewed.

Hello gorgeous

Does one counter the other?  I’m not so sure. The NY Times on Friday gave what we consider an unfair review of the first “Mad Men” of the new season – noting that because it has spawned so many 60s nostalgia themed spin-offs, there is no irony left when filmmakers show “an adult smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding a baby in the other.” Like many reviewers and non-fans, this critic misses the point.  No great film or TV show is ever really about the time period.  That is just the window dressing.  It is always how interested you are in the characters and what they, and they alone, uniquely do in said time period.  The challenge of TV is keeping the people and situations interesting through season after season – a whole other story in itself.  Oh, and in actuality it is that very FAMILIARITY with characters and their world/era that make people want to watch and commit to a television series.   You can wear out your welcome if you don’t come up with engaging twists and turns and new and bizarre crises but you want to also feel you can depend on – something.  Therefore, the verdict is out for me if that is the case with the new season of “Mad Men” because

  •  a. I have not yet seen the first episode of the best-written show on television. (It is – deal with it)
  • b. Past seasons have all managed to work their magic in strange and even more surprising and unusual ways than the one before (“Past as prologue” – as the NY Times writer so wisely pointed out in her review) and
  • c.    Cultural critics love to diss critical darlings after a certain point in time because it’s just more fun to write diss than bliss  (as I can attest from my past, present and obviously future life as a vociferous cultural vulture).

Bottom line: Don’t assume that because something is familiar it’s growing tiresome.  If that were the case there would be no happy long-term relationships.  Which there are.  Again, you’re gonna have to trust me on that one.

Oh, right  -– I forgot about “Smash.”  Uh, it was renewed for a second season.

They're multiplying

Yes.  It was.

Despite the fact that It

  • a.  Loses a lot of its audience from the number one show in the U.S., “The Voice.”
  • b.  It’s expensive to make and
  • c.  It’s a string of soapy clichéd clichés.

But NBC needs a hit and the show’s idea was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the King of All Entertainment, who also serves as executive producer.  Enuf said.  Because still, I don’t want to criticize a show where you get to hear Bernadette Peters do a song from “Gypsy” or any number of real Broadway performers do their thing on national TV.  No gay man in his right mind would do that because you would run the risk of getting barred from what is said to be the upcoming movie version of “Gyspy,” starring Barbra Stresiand currently being written by “Downton Abbey”’s Julian Fellows.  Yes, I’m fickle.

Interent killed the newspaper star:  Variety is for sale.

This might not seem like a big deal to you but it is to me because – well, being a Variety reporter was my first real journalism job out of college.  Once known as the “Bible of Show Business,”  Variety  has seen its audience erode due to 24/7 news and competition from the snarkiest entertainment blogs known to man and has been officially and publicly put on the market by its parent company of the last few decades, Reed Business.  Variety was founded just past the turn of the century by the Silverman family, who owned the paper when I worked there (some years past the turn of the century).  Like most mom and pop businesses, they eventually gave into the corporate giants chasing them, and said corporate giants eventually found or find themselves in the familiar position of shedding their once valuable asset due to the “changing times.”  Bob Dylan once wrote in the 60s, “the times they are a changing.’” This was seen as both a good and bad thing.  But I’m just not sure which is the case here.

Hooded Racism: Trayvon Martin

A 17-year-old Black youth named Trayvon Martin was apparently gunned down in central Florida this week by a man on Neighborhood Watch who was suspicious of the young dark-skinned man in a hoodie and on the phone with his girlfriend who, it turned out, was armed with nothing more than a pack of Skittles and some iced tea.  There is a 911 phone recording where the Neighborhood Watch guy clearly calls the deceased a racial epithet.  There is also a strict Florida law that allows those feeling in danger and in the presence of a potential criminal to stand their ground and defend themselves.  Among all of this, aspiring Republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum campaigned at a shooting range the next day and when the former senator cocked his gun and began gunning down a paper target of a man, a random woman from the crowd yelled “pretend it’s Obama.”  At best, these are indeed very confusing times, as Dylan implied.   At worst, well – you can fill in the blank.

Sugar Rush or Toothache? Food Network’s Sweet Genius

“Sweet Genius,”  a TV show where four dessert makers endure three grueling tests of their chocolate, baking and candy-making skill under the critical eye of host Ron Ben Israel – a dessert mogul who looks like Dr. Evil, talks like a Bond villain, and presides over the festivities in a set that resembles the underground lair of Willy Wonka’s evil twin — returned to the air after a too long absence.  Yes, I watch this crap because it’s fun.  But not as much fun as it was last season.  The show was a surprising limited hit over six episodes and the network has had time to think about it and in its full season two decided to make its host less demanding, less dictatorial and the show much less weird (e.g. they eliminated the odd computer voice that ominously analyzed the water and salt content of each food on a conveyor belt).  In other words, they’ve done what most film and TV production company’s like to do – round out the edges to appeal to the greatest number of people, therefore losing the very reason people loved the “asset” to begin with.  By the way, my TV writing student Alyssa makes much better cupcakes for class each week than any dessert I’ve seen on the show this year and she covers the cost of her own ingredients.  Just sayin’.

My Tribute to the Hunger Games

Girl's got range

The biggest thing in the movies this weekend is “The Hunger Games” and I assigned it to all the film writing students to see because you can’t ignore a cultural phenomenon if you want to be in the biz. I told them they need to go in with an open mind and open heart because no one sets out to make a bad movie.  However, and this is just between you and me – the film looks deadly dull and hopelessly overproduced with elements and themes from about five different movies I saw in the 1970s when I was in college.   This is not the attitude I want to pass on and I can only hope that I will be pleasantly surprised at the theatre when my (somewhat) open mind is fully expanded to a higher state of love and acceptance.  But I seriously doubt it.

One Final Note from Ms. Houston

Whitney Houston had cocaine in her system at her time of death, and it was revealed in an autopsy that the cause of death was drowning (in her bathtub).  Ms. Houston  also had marijuana, alcohol, Xanax and a muscle relaxer in her system. Still, most of us secretly believe that fame, fortune and a little bit of exceptional superhuman talent at something are the holy grail answers to pretty much all of our problems and most likely everything else.

Hottest Inmate: Clooney swoons even in jail

George Clooney got arrested for demonstrating about atrocities in the Sudan.  He paid a fine and is out on the street once again as he continues humanitarian work while earning gazllions of dollars making pretty much any movie he wants.  Fame, fortune and talent are not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps can mix well – depending on how the mixing is done and by whom.  I’m being serious here.

Flour Power: Kim K’s unfortunate encounter

cleanup on aisle 3

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian was flour bombed.  (I’m now joking but this is true).  Definition of Flour bombed?  This means you’re walking the red carpet wearing a dark-colored designer outfit and someone dumps a bag of white flour on your head and your ultra chic suit.  If you have dark hair, this is even more spectacular because of the color contrast, as it was here.  Said Kim “bomber” was arrested but Kim isn’t pressing charges.  Do not take this as a defense of Kim’s legitimacy or evidence that I consider her a talent of any kind.  Or want to analyze her fame or fortune quotient, which are obviously quite higher than mine.

A Flashy Girl from Flushing

I drive down the famed Sunset Strip on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood and keep seeing a larger than life Billboard of Fran Drescher with the ad line, “The Mouth is back,” and the title of her second season TV Land  comedy – “Happily Divorced,” about a woman who was married to her high school sweetheart for years only to recently find out he was gay.  But they’re divorced and they’re still close friends.  Yes, this is based on Fran’s real life and Fran and I, we share a lot.  She’s from Flushing, Queens as I am.  She’s Jewish, as I am.  Her ex-husband is gay, as am I.  We’re also roughly the same age and I found her hilarious on “The Nanny,” as I’m sure she found herself too.  Then, why, oh why, couldn’t I laugh even once at her new show???  Also, I wonder — does this mean my shtick is tiring for people who have been in my life for decades and are much like me?  Am I boring everyone around me, physically and virtually, even my readers?  How do you know when you’re dull, boring and beside the point?  I worry about this and vow to do better not only with my talents but with limited fame and fortune.  But for now, well, can I just have a cupcake?