Sorkin Says

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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.

Woodward and Chair-stein

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The following is a piece in defense of thoughtful journalism and the people who practice it. You know who you are even though we may not. This is in spite of the fact that, given today’s technology, we have all rightfully or wrongfully been baptized de facto citizen journalists or amateur reporters.

It makes no difference to me which moniker you choose because each can be either somewhat effective or dangerously ineffective depending on the circumstances. But mostly I am writing this in honor of my unapologetic love for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – a show that is about to end its run but still dares to romanticize the high-reaching values of a somewhat liberal cable news station akin to (but not exactly like) MSNBC in much the same way The West Wing was a wonderfully polemic love letter to the executive branch of government.

Sometimes I forget he wasn't the President

Sometimes I forget he wasn’t the President

It is quite popular to lump the talking heads of cable news – or any sort of contemporary journalism for that matter – all together and to dismiss its veracity or even relevance to anything real in the world. But in truth Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are as different as…well…Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Watch and measure how each covered the nationwide protests we’ve seen this week due to the recent refusal of law enforcement and the grand jury system to in any way prosecute the various police officers responsible for shooting and killing three very different Black males – two of whom were under 18 years of age – under similarly controversial circumstances in three very different cities in Missouri, Ohio and New York, and judge for yourself.

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

The latter is the job of every citizen choosing to vote or complain about the state of the world to friends, neighbors or enemies – to weigh the information and then make a determination. That is why who gives you the facts, how they give you the facts, and if indeed they are giving you facts at all matters. Correction: really matters.

After watching Jake Gyllenhaal coyote his way through his current breakout role as a brilliantly immoral freelance television news photographer prowling the dark, accident-ridden streets of contemporary Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, I couldn’t help but recall my own quaint, early days as an aspiring journalist. Bear with me and forget this was several decades before Rachel Maddow was even born. I know I have, that is if I ever previously admitted it at all until just now.

How far is too far?

How far is too far?

No, unlike Jake or his character, I certainly didn’t lose 30 pounds, slick back my then full head of hair or scour the Internet for leads and information in order to educate and advance myself in my field. For one thing, there was NO INTERNET and I had already lost 30 pounds in high school because I was too cowardly, vain and hypochondriacal to face a life where I was for one more second what anyone else would consider to be fat, chunky or even slightly overweight. Certainly I am not particularly proud of this fact but fact it is nevertheless.

As for my education, here’s another fact. It actually began in a corny old cocoon called SCHOOL. That started with writing for the high school newspaper, segued into becoming arts editor of my college radio station and then continued on to graduate school — Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, to be exact.

Those hallowed grounds

Those hallowed grounds

This was the post-Watergate age of the late seventies when journalism was seen as the noblest of professions and most everyone else aside from Mother Teresa and a few doctors who worked gratis in clinics was viewed as morally, and woefully, lagging behind. Not only that, Medill was then, and still is now, one of the best j schools in the country. Again, no bragging but fact – though one that I am particularly proud of. And full disclosure: I still feel fortunate to have even gotten in.

Self five!

Self five!

I bring this up because my intensive one year at Medill – which had me not only in the classroom but working as a reporter in both suburban and urban Chicago as well as on the streets of Washington, DC and the surrounding areas of Virginia – taught me a lot about truth, morality, honesty and integrity. You might think you know the truth and what you’re dealing with, as John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled yet somewhat naive Jake Gittes in Chinatown, but as a reporter you also have an obligation to consider you might really not have the truth and not know what you’re dealing with, as Noah Cross so ominously, and rightfully warned. Yet unlike Jake in Chinatown, it didn’t have to cost me (Spoiler Alert!) the life of a lover. I was allowed to make those kinds of mistakes as a younger student since under no circumstances would I ever be trusted to cover life or death stories alone.

Plus I could never pull off this look

Plus I could never pull off this look

I realize that in itself sounds almost quaint these days, especially since I was always much more interested in the entertainment industry while it was my j school friends and colleagues who wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Still, as it turned out this background came in quite handy and in ways I could have never imagined. My first journalism job was for Variety and Daily Variety and in a matter of just a few years I became one of their lead reporters. Serious hard news reporting on the film, TV and music industries was just on the verge of becoming popular beyond the entertainment pages and I found myself quickly thrown into a world where I had to have clandestine early morning breakfast meetings at the homes of seven-to-eight figure salaried board chairmen, CEOs and presidents of major American entertainment corporations in pursuit of the news. Lying came as easy for them as weight reduction was for me in high school and telling the truth as difficult as I found gym class. Perhaps they were afraid of the same things I was back then – not being accepted, keeping up appearances, not fitting in with the cool kids – but I didn’t know it. And had I not been trained to cross check my facts, no matter how powerful or reliable the source, or not fool myself into ever thinking I was even a smidgen as important as the very wealthy and powerful people I was covering, I would have been eaten alive right there and then by each and every one of them.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

I certainly would never, ever have been able to start the country’s first weekly column on the national film box-office grosses of just released films. You know – the ones you now read online almost everyday and hear each Monday on practically every entertainment “news” show across the country? Well, it wasn’t Watergate but it was still about getting to the honest truth, which on this subject was quite rare. We’d get these press releases with inflated figures on the opening money levels of movies that would be published almost verbatim without anyone knowing what the hell they meant in comparison to anything else. I told my resistant editor at the time:

“I don’t know what the heck (not hell, I wouldn’t dare) these figures mean and neither does anyone else. We have to at least try to report this accurately so studios can stop lying so easily about how good or badly theirs and everyone else’s films are doing.”

Finally, he saw the light and we began something that, admittedly, has gotten out of control. But it’s helped get beyond the hype in a more realistic dollars and cents way that was previously non-existent – not only for the general public but for everyone else other than the most inside movie studio executives to see.

Unless you're reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

Unless you’re reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

That is what training in controlled circumstances will do prior to you going into the field. It’s not the only way to be trained – there is something to be said for being thrown straight into the fire – but the latter often comes with the ultimate journalistic cost of printing untruths, half-truths and out and out lies that hurt people and society. Or, to put it another way, in many other professions you’d be guilty of malpractice.

Certainly, training and the right experience don’t guarantee 100% accuracy but they will also likely prevent any number of our current journalistic fatalities (Note: see lies and untruths above – of your choice). If you consider that to be a bunch of bull, then think of it like this. It is certainly possible that a person who is merely an aficionado of teeth could perform a successful emergency extraction of your infected molar – or a medical neophyte might be able amputate your gangrened arm with merely a broken spear in the Amazonian jungle – but would you choose either in the long run if a more trained and/or experienced option were available?

Meaning yes – everyone can write and observe. But not everyone can report.

At the risk of sounding older than Woodward and Bernstein (Note: And those under 25, please, please don’t continue to say Who? OR Who cares?) – times and standards have changed but truth remains pretty much the same.

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman… with the haircuts you all want.

It’s great that we all can raise up our smart phones and record reality, or type our truths on social media, or on such ridiculous forums as….dare I say it…a blog.   But these are all only recording and commenting on partial truths or shaded truths or the lies or partial lies we might be unwittingly interpreting as truth. The best journalists in the world (who are not necessarily the most popular) understand the difference. The average person – and viewer – does not. It is the job of the journalists to put things in a way that the most people can understand. To unfurl the facts and truisms and falsehoods as objectively as possible – then offer the information in a context or at least order that will allow the public to comprehend the whole story and ultimately judge what, if anything, to do about it.

It is an essential and difficult and, in the end, honorable profession when done right – which that doesn’t happen often enough.

And that IS a fact.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Summer

Take a bite?

Take a bite?

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

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

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

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

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

LUST: SEX AND THE SINGLE MILEY

sigh.

sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

Just don't say his name 3 times!

Just don’t say his name 3 times!

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

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

GREED: MIDDLE EAST WARS, SYRIA – NOT Syriana

syria-political-map

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

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

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

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

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

GLUTTONY: DOWNTON ABBEY & YOU

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

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

Hellllloooo Gary!

Hellllloooo Gary!

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

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

SLOTH: LAZINESS AND THE MOVIES

Do you smell that?

Do you smell that?

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

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

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

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

PRIDE: STRANGEST NEW FALL TV SEASON ENTRY

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

OK that’s it.. I’m done.

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

ENVY: ME AND QUEEN JANE

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

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

WRATH:  IT’S HOT!!!

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

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

Or maybe… we’re here:

Sleepless in The Newsroom

American classic.

I’m more upset about Nora Ephron’s death than I thought I’d be.   Though several friends of mine had worked with her and still another knew her well, we had only one brief phone conversation 8 years ago about box office grosses.  Since I had started the weekly column on the subject at Variety in the eighties, a mutual friend told her I’d be the perfect person to speak to when she wondered what the opening weekend would be on another friend’s new film.  She was funny, smart and extremely quick, so much so that when I threw out an outrageously high number of what I thought the film would do opening day, she assumed I meant the number was for the entire weekend and still pooh-poohed it as being too high. Never mind that MY number turned out to be right.  Through the sheer verve of her smarts, personality and perhaps reputation, I suddenly found myself going along with her.  I mean, she was right about so many things.  I didn’t want to look as dumb as she implied my prediction was.  I sense this happened a lot.

I regret not speaking my mind and proving her wrong because I also suspect, from what I know from others, that she would have called me up with a new found respect and we might have become friends, acquaintances or perhaps just shared a few recipes.  Which is a cool fantasy for me since as a young writer Ephron was one of the top 10 people I actually read and admired.

Required Reading

Yeah, not Shakespeare or Proust, I’m sorry to say. It was her pieces in Esquire and The New York Post and The New Yorker, many of which were in Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble, her collections of new journalism that I devoured.  Ephron wrote in a funny, sarcastic way that influenced me and that I find I often reference (borrow from?)  as I write my blog.  No – she wasn’t JD Salinger or William Styron or even Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams – some of my other favorites.  In fact, not even close.

But nor should she have been.  What she learned early on was the secret to being a good writer – being yourself.  Or well, at least a cleaned up, more articulate and fun version of yourself.  The idealized version that you wouldn’t be in phone conversations where you find yourself easily intimidated by people more famous or successful than you. Truth is, if my Nora encounter were in one of my screenplays or blogs, or even in one of Nora’s, the story wouldn’t end there. There would be a follow up conversation where I could correct the past and be, if not right, then at least righted.  In someone’s eyes.  Which is what makes a satisfying story in many circles.

There is certainly a case to be made for lost opportunities too.  Though that is not the world Nora trafficked in.  Not by a long shot.  Her best movies as writer-director — like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia”–  both have happy endings, believable in the worlds she creates for them onscreen despite whether you choose to believe them or not.  They’re fantasy – or to put it another way – “pushed reality.”   And if you want to dismiss it as pap and claptrap you can.  But, uh, take a few months or a year or two and try to do it well – or as well as she did when she was at her best – and then get back to me.  I suspect when and if you do, it might be with some newfound respect.

An affair to remember…

It’s not so easy to render the convincingly happy ending, especially in only slightly exaggerated looks at contemporary life.   Costume dramas let you hide behind lots of pomp and grandeur.  Fantasy and action stories allow you to use cool weapons and mythical heroes.  In romantic comedy life – or The Village of RomCom – it’s just words, actions and the occasional musical montage – the latter being something that is almost an automatic negative for any movie since the cynical turn of the new century.  Especially when it’s being played out to a sort of heavy-handed musical soundtrack of our lives, it’s not hip, cool or even commercially pleasing anymore to be too emotional, cheerful or nasty.  Or worse, too sentimental about your world or anything you do or try to achieve in it.

Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin and his new HBO show “The Newsroom.”  This excellent new series gives us a behind-the-scenes look at an imaginary cable news station and has received a plethora of mixed to negative reviews for, in essence, being imaginary.  As if the fictional dramatization of anything does not exist in some pushed version of the reality of what it is.  Aaron Sorkin, like Nora Ephron before him, particularly specializes in this.

Sit back and relax already!

And Aaron Sorkin, not unlike Nora Ephron, is being skewered for it.  His characters are a little too idealistic or exist slightly out of the parameters of a real life newsroom, say some critics (Did they watch “The West Wing?”).  Others find them too verbose, preachy or sanctimonious (You mean like some of the actual media critics whose task it is to now review themselves the characters they complain about?).  And a third group doesn’t like the show’s mix of comedy and drama, as if THAT isn’t the tone of real life in almost every household/newsroom across the country.

The NY Times review is as good as any to speak for the entire Fourth estate. In her critique, TV critic Alessandra Stanley was particularly annoyed at the lead female character’s pronouncement when speaking in defense of good journalism rather than the bad kind we’re used to.   “Wrong information can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at rigorous debate,” said “Newsroom”’s fictional female executive producer, a statement Stanley noted was something akin to a “high school commencement address.”   Well, her critique might be true if one ignored the last decade of life in the United States, the entire history of the war in Iraq and the current world and political climate we all live in right now.

‘Nuff said.

I realize this might seem a bit partisan and the NY Times is free to take me to task on it.  But unfortunately, we do live in a partisan world where much of the public is misinformed on many issues.  Depending on your views, this might have something to do with the corporate ownership of television stations; the passivity of the electorate; or the fact that most Americans are struggling a bit too much and spend more time living out the events of the news than indulging in the luxury of sitting back and arguing/analyzing the nuances of such.  Still, no matter what sides of the many sided fence any of us fall on, certainly these are issues worthy of something other than the rating of a valedictory speech at an American high school.  Which, by the way, is not always as simplistic as the NY Times would have one believe. Check out this high school graduation speech by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow when she spoke as the smartest kid in her high school graduation class:

So — for enabling me to embed the Maddow video – but mostly for using its wit, intelligence and courage to wear its heart on its sleeve, the Charimeter gives “The Newsroom” it’s highest rating:

Oh – and lest you think I’m one of those crazed Sorkinites who think A.S. can do no wrong – know that although I am a bit of a cable news addict, I was not a rabid  “West Wing” fan.  It was well written but I enjoyed Sorkin’s “American President” much more.  Just as I am certainly not a proponent of all things Nora.  I could take or leave “When Harry Met Sally” (and I haven’t even mentioned “Mixed Nuts” and “Michael!”) yet found “Sleepless in Seattle” to be a thoroughly charming film and “Julie and Julia” to be exactly who I wanted Julia Child to really be.

But the fact is, these are no more a depiction of real life than that of the vampires on “True Blood.”  All are more what you would want real life to be in idealized worlds where the right lovers who seemed destined to be together inevitably get together; celebrities are as funny and warm in the flesh as their onscreen personas; and vampires live openly (and sometimes even lovingly) among humans in small town America.

Or, in the case of “The Newsroom,” where the people who work in news speak with awe, gravitas, and even a bit of pretentious nobility – really believing they can make a difference with the mere task of telling the rest of their fellow humans the truth about what’s going on inside the world we all travel in.

On a random day, where the big news stories are the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ marriage and who will replace Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today”  (that’s the same Ann Curry who’s been criticized for being an overly sincere reporter rather than enough of a plucky, cynical TV personality), striving for something closer to our ideals doesn’t seem so wrong-headed to me.  It simply seems necessary.