Re-make Believe

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A significant part of pop culture has always come from remake and reinvention. Ask Madonna about Marilyn and Lady Gaga about Madonna. Or question The remaining Beatles about Little Richard. How about Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola on Akira Kurosawa?   Perhaps Brian DePalma vis-a-vis Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino re Sergio Leone.

We all have our influences (and not all of them are good). One can’t help but be affected, consciously or not, by what has come before. In fact, even when you’re not appropriating, copying or paying homage it is likely the purely original idea you came up with has been done in some related form by someone else you don’t know about who is not you. As I’ve learned in therapy and in life, we human beings are individually unalike and yet collectively more similar than any of us suspect – or even want to admit. No wonder someone long ago – and probably long ago before that – said there is nothing new under the sun.

... and sometimes that's OK!

… and sometimes that’s OK!

And yet…

…It has come to my attention this week that we are drowning in… how can I say it… an unreality of make believe. This is not about remakes of endless superhero movies; the faux presidential daily vomits of The Republican Apprentice; or even the film version of one of the world’s most profitable gaming apps of all time – The Angry Birds Movie – debuting at THE #1 position at the box office this weekend. Nor is it about it achieving a B plus Cinemascore – which puts it far above the average college or high school graduate these days.

Instead, it is about a chipping away of the real. It concerns us not being able to separate the world of make believe and pretend with what really was or is – even when the truth is right before our eyes.

NBC’s The Voice – one of my favorite TV shows and one of America’s top 10 faves (Note: Clearly, I’m not the only one who fantasizes being a diva) – had a special event planned for its Tuesday finale show. And this would be a long planned duet between one of its star judges, Christina Aguilera and…WHITNEY HOUSTON. No really. They were going to duet – as in together sing – a melody of two of Ms. Houston’s most famous songs. At least that’s EXACTLY the way it was being billed.

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007... so even THIS isn't an original idea!

American Idol featured Celine Dion with Elvis in 2007… so even THIS isn’t an original idea!

Yes, Ms. Houston did die more than four years and no, NBC has not made a deal with some 12 year-old prodigy who has figured out how to raise a living version of our most lauded dead. Well, not exactly. What did happen is that a 35 year old Greek billionaire and his ironically titled company, Hologram USA created a an image of Whitney Houston singing her signature I Have Nothing song and it was to alternate with Christina Aguilera singing I’m Every Woman. Unfortunately – or perhaps luckily – the duet was given the kibosh at the last moment by the Houston estate, which noted that with artists of the caliber of Ms. Houston it must be perfect and apparently it – was not. Of course, what it really IS – that’s anyone’s guess.

You'll have to save all your love for something else.

You’ll have to save all your love for something else.

Since writers are sticklers for a certain precision of words and/or language, may we be precise here? The planned performance was not an event television live duet between a living songstress and a deceased one. That is impossible. Instead it was an engineered medley between a flesh and blood person and an image/recording of a dead one.

A living thing cannot be real simply because we wish it to be so.

In the same way a lie cannot be true merely because we have chosen to think otherwise.

Gospel of Constanza

Gospel of Constanza

This is particularly important to remember in the 2016 election year – or for that matter any other year.

Engineering the past is a tried and true position every writer takes whenever they sit down to the page and come up with any story that is even vaguely personal. As artists, we tell a story and often that involves rewriting what is to a version of what you would want it to be or fantasize it was or could be. But it is sold as such – a fiction – an invention – it is not oddly positioned as some sort of 21st century – reality.

HBO debuted a very fine movie this weekend about the uneasy alliance between Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King’s fraught collaboration to pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s entitled All The Way. While it is a bit odd for us baby boomers to watch Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston pretending to be the drawling Texas president we remember as children it was also just as strange to view The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie saying made-up words in the cadence of a civil rights leader whose dulcet tones we can still recall in our mind’s eye all those years ago.

A different type of resurrection

A different type of resurrection

However, this has always been what film and television is about – an acted rendering of a version of reality. It’s not as if we’re watching current Pres. Barack Obama having a conversation with Dr. King and HBO advertising to the public that it is actually happening. Or that ABC has a Diane Sawyer special booked where she will indeed interview the late Pres. Johnson on what it was like fighting the powers-that-be in the first year of his presidential administration.

It is this next, not so subtle step in blurring the lines with a hologram that is not only a bit creepy but more than a bit dangerous. It’s one thing to attend the Mr. Lincoln exhibit in Disneyland but it is a whole other version of the stars and stripes when the world begins to think that it just spent 15 minutes with the most lauded and perhaps famous member of the centuries old Republican party. At that rate, one day we might not be able to recognize the grand old party or even its next president – or proposed president. Because by that time everything will be its own custom-made Disneyland – and carry as much truth as any image from Hologram USA.

Swinging from the Chandelier with the Pope

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When I was a young teenager I was 25-30 pounds overweight. It wasn’t a happy time in my life though I’m not sure if that’s why I was overeating. Maybe it was just adolescence. Or maybe I liked food. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all of the above.

I mention this because this week I watched a young man on NBC’s The Voice who was quite overweight who reminded me of an even heavier version of my heavy self when I was his age. Except he had one thing that I NEVER had – he could sing.

Wow – could he sing. If you imagine a cross between Adam Lambert, Mariah Carey with maybe even a little Mary J. Blige thrown in by way of Stevie Wonder, you get the picture. In fact, he himself joked that he often gets mistaken for a woman on the phone and at drive-thrus. He also admitted that his appearance and manner was clearly not what others are normally used to and that it took him a while to realize these were his special qualities, that he was born this way and that God didn’t mistakes.

Fight on, little monster

Fight on, little monster

In any event, this young man – whose name is Jordan Smith – was vociferously praised for his mind-bending talent by four experts. And he received a standing ovation from the audience. Not to mention, he was told repeatedly by the judges that he was not only inspiring but an important contestant for the world to see AND for the world to understand that talent and original voices – be it singing or original points of view – are what come from inside. How one looks on the outside has less than nothing to do with what is being expressed. (Note: This is, of course, a talent show and granted, has little to do with the music INDUSTRY, which is a whole other kettle of worms. Yes, worms).

Anyway, I found myself wishing two things after spending some time thinking about Jordan. One is that I grew up in a time when people would have said those things to his 1970s doppelganger (Note: Okay, Me when I was praised for my specific talents). And second, though infinitely more important, is that in 2015 I lived in a country where the political rhetoric being bandied about by THE most popular news network in the country (that would be Fox) and by many of the candidates in one of our two major political parties, reflected that kind of inclusion and understanding. Sadly, it does not. It’s exclusion of the worst kind – to gay people, to climate change believers and to Muslims – just to name a few of who at the moment seem to be the top 3. And those are just the groups that instantly come to mind.

This is not a diatribe against Evangelicals, Republican conservatives or even The Republican Apprentice, who I believe is neither of the above but simply an egomaniacal boor. Rather it is a recognition and reaffirmation of what exactly is going on in acceptable, seemingly intelligent public discourse these days.

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Inclusion is seen as political correctness, political correctness is seen as coddling, and coddling is in turn seen as destroying the fabric of American society by overprotecting children (or even adults) at too young an age from the bullying they will unavoidably receive in the real world. As if we need to provide more of that in our language and conservations because the world isn’t already cruel enough.

Speaking of which… Pope Francis was in the United States for the first time this week – have you heard? Yes, I thought so. Well, these days you have to admire a religious leader – any religious leader – who spends much of his public speaking time emphasizing the brotherhood of man (which presumably includes women), reaching out to each other with love, and taking care of the poor and any of those less fortunate. Not to mention any person of the cloth at all who is humble enough to ask us to pray for him and inclusive enough to include this request to non-believers – who he merely asks to send good wishes and thoughts. The implication that he is not all-knowing and merely just another regular guy who needs all the help he can get in doing his job sounds unlike any religious leader I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, either in synagogue, in books or even on the pages of the NY Times – which is where I get most of my religious leader info anyway.

#PopeonTwitter

#PopeonTwitter

On the other hand, if you are different the way I am, it’s sometimes a bit challenging to watch the absolute furor in which this particular Pope is greeted (24/7 news coverage, crowds in the tens of thousands, gesticulating, fainting and near hysteria) and not consider several thoughts. Among them is that he has publicly advocated against gay marriage, gay adoption and transgender rights. It is also difficult to ignore that he is the leader of an international religious institution – which make no mistake about it is a very wealthy, disciplined and doctrinaire organization – that believes any number of behaviors that fall within any of many mainstream activities among significant minorities (or even majorities) in everyday life are sins deserving of varying degrees of punishment – or illegalization.   If I were female I might bring up a woman’s right to choose, women being priests, divorce and any host of other subjects. And what about atheists? Do they have no moral standing on any grounds whatsoever? The list could go on and on.

Touche, CoCo

Touche, CoCo

Love is, well, lovely – and so are good thoughts. But when you are in a sub-group all the love in the world will not alone get you on an even playing field with others who have the majority amount of money, power or, let’s just say it, moral high ground. Religious leaders, especially the most popular ones, by definition own the moral high ground and are fronts for extremely large institutions that more often than not are responsible for maintaining the status quo, including the discriminatory parts of it. To do it in a nicer way is, well, nice – but none of us should be fooled – underneath the welcoming rhetoric it is merely a nicer variation of what we already have.

Or is it? Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge climate change in several of his speeches and appeared to be speaking almost directly to the flock led by The Republican Apprentice when he praised and reminded the U.S. that one of our greatest strengths is that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants. Perhaps gay marriage is next? On second thought (or even your 17th one) do not count on it.

Well.. this is a good start, but let's not get too excited.

Well.. this is a good start, but let’s not get too excited.

This is not to say that there is always agreement within the subset of your special interest group. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a conservative from Ohio, resigned from his position Friday after 35 years in Congress, in large part because he was tired of fighting the shut down the government at all costs demands of the Tea Party ultra-right wingers of his group. And there is a pop culture fight going on within the gay community at the moment about the movie Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day) new film about the 1969 uprising that is often cited as the birth of the fight for LGBT rights.

Because Mr. Emmerich chose to invent a young, white handsome male protagonist as the main character audience surrogate for his film, a very local group of critics are convinced that he sold out history by marginalizing the significant contributions of gay people of color, not to mention that of drag queens and transgender individuals. Never mind that all of these different types of people play significant roles in the film – none of them are THE star. On the other hand, each protestor at the time WAS the star of their own story of those riots and no one knows for sure who threw the first brick. Just as today we are all the STARS of our own lives, whether we know it or not, or choose to exercise it or not. It’s always a question of one’s POV and how one decides to frame their narrative. This is not only the mission of a very mainstream filmmaker like Mr. Emmerich, but the same challenge faced by the Speaker of the House – or by a Pope.

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Well at least Emmerich acknowledges it!

Which brings us back to young Jordan Smith. He will certainly have his haters, as well as lovers, as he goes through life. On the latter score lots of significant progress has been made since that time in the late seventies when I was his age. But let us be very clear, this progress was made not due to the benevolent language of any religious leaders or by any acts of Congress. Those are merely by-products of a hard fought fight led by a group of surly INSURGENTS. Decades of ACTIVISTS who died and/or risked their lives for a simple idea – equality. Among these activists were also lots of regular people who simply chose to live their everyday lives unapologetically and out in the open.

We all advocate for our causes and it’s nice to be loved. But it’s better to be accepted and included on an equal pay scale and rights scale. Not doing that for any one of our sub-groups – that’s the only real sin, in my mind. The original and ongoing one.