The Way We Are

When you love someone, from Roosevelt to me, you go deaf, dumb and blind.

That’s a line from one of the great Hollywood love stories – the 1973 Barbra Streisand-Robert Redford film, The Way We Were.

It is said by the very blonde, flawed and handsome Hollywood screenwriter Hubbell Gardner to his much more passionate and intelligent wife, the unabashedly ethnic Katie Morofsky, as a roundabout admission that he’s cheated on her.

The reveal of his sexual antics was bad enough after years of her unwavering belief in him. But what made it worse was what it represented – the latest of a long string of lies that undeniably proved the person she knew all these years was not a person at all. He was merely a mirage she created for herself.

A mirage… with insanely good hair

The real guy, in fact, was someone much harsher and uglier – someone indifferent to all sorts of immorality in not only others but in himself. Someone she did not really know at all.

In light of that —

Here’s a partial list of recently exposed, accused and extreme sexual predators in the entertainment industry with multiple victims and/or accusers:

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Jeremy Piven, Ed Westwick, Steven Seagal, Louis C.K. and producer-writer Gary Goddard. 

Yes, I’ve limited the group to the most RECENT and the most FAMOUS. Certainly, there are more. A lot more. And a lot more to come.

I need a drink… or 12

Here’s a similar list in politics:

Electoral College POTUS Donald J. Trump, Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore, Fox’s recently deposed Bill O’Reilly and Fox’s recently deceased leader Roger Ailes, journalist and former MSNBC commentator Mark (Game Change) Halperin, famed New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and former NY Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Note: I’ve also left out former POTUS George H.W. Bush from the list because he’s 93, wheelchair bound and his accusers have so far limited his violations to recent ass-grabbing and sexual innuendo from his wheelchair.

Uh, yeah, this IS where we ARE at the moment.

#SAD

The Way We Were screenwriter Arthur Laurents was writing about Hollywood and the glittery protective wall that shields many of its most lauded inhabitants all those many years ago. This was long before I got here. As did people who came before him like F. Scott Fitzgerald. And so on and as far back as the industry existed.

Yet here I sit, a writer with nowhere near their credits, about to say what they and others described, a lot more directly.

Be careful about whom you admire and be careful before you agree to meet them. If they are in the handful of the top three or five you most admire they can’t help but disappoint you – and sometimes most grandly. Because what any of us admire in a public figure in any field is not about WHO they are but what they’ve ACHIEVED in their individual fields.

Many of us, including myself at times, like to say one’s achievements are a part of them – like kindness, a great sense of humor or looks. Sadly, that’s a lie.

Talent, a mastery of a subject and glaringly high-level success, is a marker of work not personality traits. Most certainly, they are not markers of a great person, a bad person or even, in the end, a mere average person. They are outward achievements that vault an individual into the public eye and provide those old-fashioned values like fame and fortune.

But they say little to NOTHING about who that INDIVIDUAL really is at his or her core – or whether they are even a guy or gal you’d choose to hang out with, much less call a friend, role model or even object of adoration.

What they only are is produce – from that person.

Living in the ruins

Certainly, this is confusing and downright un-American. Not to mention, it’s disheartening as far as popular culture is concerned. This is why I don’t tell my students about the evening I spent in the eighties with one of THE greatest and most famous artists of the 20th century. Or a work experience I had years later with one of THE great music stars of the last five decades. Or the several months in which I was paired with that renowned and supposedly sensitive writer-director-producer some time after that on some other project that will go unmentioned.

Disasters, all of them, and not because I wasn’t trying. Yet each was horribly disappointing (if not horrifying) in their own way and to this day I still can’t understand how three so brilliantly talented individuals whose work I admired that much could be so downright……ugh…well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.

Remember this formula! #keepexpectationslow

Which then left me with a small but personal dilemma I suspect many of us are going through at the moment with the above names and those I left out. How do we look at their work now? Do we boycott them for political and/or personal reasons? What is the line for boycott – accusations, convictions, suspicion, personal opinion or just a general mass zeitgeist feeling?

Well this was a bad idea from the start…

If you eschew one of them do you eschew them all?

How long do they have to be in the doghouse? For life? Maybe so. Especially for the most egregious.

But is there any room for reparations among the lesser crimes? Or can any of these crimes even be lesser? And how much do apologies really mean?

Certain apologies are enough to get you that Iron Man money

Also – Do we get special dispensation for the ONE artist whose work has helped us through hard times or served as a creative guide for our entire professional lives??? Why not? Or…why???

This is easy for me given the present list of all of the newest offenders mentioned above. I can easily live without their work. And for that matter, I still don’t understand why Hollywood has forgiven the sexual abuse and anti-Semitic rantings of Mel Gibson not that many years ago — so much so that they cast him in the current Paramount mainstream comedy Daddy’s Home 2??? Though perhaps that’s punishment in itself.

What she said. #flopflopflop

On the other hand, I still watch Woody Allen movies and have gone to see numerous films Roman Polanski has directed. One of these guys has been accused by his daughter of childhood sexual abuse and the other fled this country in the 1970s for giving drugs and alcohol to a 13 year old and having sex with her.

So yeah, there’s all of that for me to NOT be proud of. In fact, the complicity feels even worse when I write it and read it over. Though I fear if I only watched the work of people in the industry who I knew and morally approved of, it’d either be a very short list or I’d keel over in boredom. Maybe both.

I swear if there is a Tom Hanks scandal I will scream #teamRita

This is not to say there are not all kinds of cool, moral, wonderful and faaaabulously talented artists I’ve both met personally and have yet to meet that are at the top of their games creatively and who never cease to bore you – or me. And plenty enough of the opposite to bypass.

It’s only to admit that we now live in an age where the behavior of artists will be inexorably linked to their art – which will in turn determine how, where and by how many people it will be consumed.

Well, that should be interesting. Or not.

Soft Cell – “Tainted Love”

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Watching the Gross

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 9.39.34 AM

I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.

Future Perfect

fortuneteller-animation-dre

If there were a sheet of paper you could take a peek at that would tell you the future, what would you do?  Oh, of course you’d take a peek.  You couldn’t help yourself.  Don’t say you wouldn’t.  You would.

The future is on the minds of college students at this time of year – the end of a semester – especially those about to graduate.  Smart or lazy (which is the opposite of smart), mellow or tightly wound, they often wonder one basic question – WHAT. WILL. BECOME. OF. ME??????

Of course, this is a question many of us all ask ourselves periodically – as if a single answer exists or one answer would ever be adequate.  We don’t know what the years will bring and, aside from being scary, that’s the great thing about it.  Literally anything can and will happen – and often hanging on the slightest moment.  Which is what makes the future something not to dread but to embrace.  Especially since there is no way to forestall getting some horrible disease or being hit dead by a drunk driver if you happen to be walking or even standing in the wrong place at the right time.  Yes, I went there.

Since life is a big question mark in general, one’s career and creative existence should certainly follow suit.  Yet many of us, myself included, often don’t see it this way.  We act as though there should be some guarantees – or that we are at least owed or entitled to them.   Something along the lines of Apple Care in case things go terribly wrong.

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

And then some things are beyond Apple Care

Students are terrified to take the wrong step, accept the wrong opportunity, write about the wrong thing – not make the wisest choice that will get them the farthest.  I suffered from this myself until I grew weary of worrying and, well, just got too mature (old?) to spend as much time worrying anymore.  I mean, at some point, if you’re very lucky, you get to the place where the amount of time ahead of you is less than the amount of time behind you – and you realize – there is no point in beating myself or anyone else up about the small stuff.  There is only time to embrace the future and the unknowns – both good and bad – that it holds.

And yet – who doesn’t worry?  These students, me, you, our friends?  One dear diehard movie fan friend of mine truly worries if The Wolf on Wall Street will live up to the hype, and even fears backlash against the already award-winning American Hustle. Personally, I just don’t want to be disappointed by Saving Mr. Banks even though I know it can’t live up to the expectations of this lifelong Mary Poppins fan (yes, I did sit with my Dad at the movies in the Bronx as a little boy, riveted to the screen as I watched MP in wonderment, and then went home and played the record over and over again in my room as I sang along to every song – get over it!!!).

I'm counting on you Tommy!

I’m counting on you Tommy!

I’m also concerned for Jon Hamm not ever winning an Emmy award for being Mad Men’s Don Draper (and not even being nominated for a Golden Globe this past week).  Truly.  Not in the same fashion I fear a loved one of mine could get a cancer recurrence or that I myself will have to one day go through the tooth extraction I managed to dodge last week when only a mere root canal and crown were in order.  Of course, there are even far deeper levels of concern.  We are only beginning to scratch my surface here.  No use continuing on into a downward dog from which I can’t guarantee we will ever emerge – especially in L.A.

Still – and to look on the bright side – I (and hopefully you) don’t worry anymore that Pres. Obama will be shot or that either Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin will assume any real leadership role in our country’s foreseeable future.  Those ships have sailed.   Though do not take this to mean I am not also sure that the world has gone crazy and that one day I will be only one of the handful of sane people engaged in pubic discourse left standing…and that, quite quickly, I will become overrun.  Long ago I realized there is a difference between worrying about the future and simply accepting a certain fatalism in life.

I attempted to explain a toned down version of all of this recently to one angst-ridden student in my office. This young person is non-white and couldn’t help but fear racial discrimination in the future from the Hollywood establishment based on some dealings they had observed in various workplaces over the past four months.   I listened. Nothing exactly solid had happened but enough had occurred not to be discounted.  To boil it all down, this student’s question eventually became this:  How does one avoid being treated as “the other” when, in some people’s minds, one is, and will always be, the other?  Or, to put it another way – An Outsider?

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Not just a kitschy SJP 80s sitcom

Hmmm.  Excellent question.  And certainly one for the ages.  Especially our ages.

I tried to take the adult line and explain that progress in these areas happen at a snail’s pace but, eventually, does occur for the better.   And that you can’t worry about stuff that can happen, only deal with things as they do happen.

For instance, I argued, as a young gay man I couldn’t even conceive of a future with gay marriage.  I mean, there wasn’t even a word for what is occurring now in the not so distant era I grew up in.  Also, the fact that I, a teacher, could even be open with a student about my life in this way these days was certainly progress.  But then I remembered and shared what happened more than 25 years ago on a movie I worked on in the late eighties.  And, as we know, movie stories are so much more resonant to people than any real life experience or observation.

I was employed as a publicist on a film that was produced by a very large company headed by a very-well known producer in Hollywood  – someone who is still quite well known and who very publicly campaigned for and supported the then very conservative U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan.  The production coordinator of this movie, a Mercedes-driving middle-aged woman who came to work each day wearing very expensive jewelry and an extremely superior attitude – saw me in the office one Monday with a tan and personage that, I can only assume, was reeking of homosexuality.  Because looking at my tan and somehow knowing that the Annual Gay Pride Parade had been held outside the day before in the very hot West Hollywood sun, I caught this woman snidely winking at her friend and then nodding in my direction, as she bellowed from her desk across the room, sweet as pie but in a somewhat accusatory manner to me and my overly suntanned face:

“SO…STEVE….where were YOU this weekend.  I’ll bet it was at some sort of (another wink wink to her friend) ….PARADE?????”

Say what now?

Say what now?

Trust me, I am no Martin Luther Queen.  But this was the eighties, I had just received news that a dear friend of mine in NY had AIDS and my face was on fire because, as you may or may not know, I have a very, very pale Jewish complexion that does not do well in the harsh daylight and my skin was beginning to blister. In short, this was no time for Diamond Lil to fuck with me.

Uh, yes, I was at the parade this weekend, I bellowed back.  Is there a problem with that? Or, more specifically– do you have a problem with that?

I was steely outside but inside was shaking with fear and rage.  What was I thinking?  As much as I found this woman and everything and everyone in this office at the moment sickening and disgusting, I needed this job. But then — suddenly, the office got very quiet.  The friend she winked at turned away.  Copy machines stopped. Overweight teamsters, some of whom I found out later had borne the wrath of Diamond L’il herself, stood stationary.  I spied from the side a quite young gay intern who, I was quite sure, had just turned pink.

No, DL said in a clipped tone, I just don’t see why THEY  (or was it THOSE PEOPLE) need to be treated special.  They’re not anything special.  Why do they (or did she mean ME?) get a parade??

I will spare you Gay 101 from 1987. And my telling her I was one of Them (like she didn’t know).  Needless to say, the farthest I got with her was some continued grumbling that they still don’t deserve to be treated special and be a spectacle.   Along with some very nasty glares.   At which point she averted her eyes away from me – then and forever more.

Move along, lady

Move along, lady

Some days went by and, as I suspected, I was reported for insubordination to all of my bosses and she attempted to get me fired.  But my direct female superior had a gay best friend and mentor ten years older than me who at the time was actually dying of AIDS – so that didn’t get her very far.  Though I did get a thank you from the gay intern who said he admired how I handled Diamond L’il  (not her real name).  Plus the bonus reward of a smile from almost everyone I greeted in the production office for the rest of the shoot of one of the dumbest 1980s studio movies ever made.

These types of altercations still do occur today in some places but it is highly unlikely anyone will ever encounter them again in the production office of a major studio film. Nor the remarks I once heard in the later eighties in the offices at another major studio.  This time from a development executive with a Mexican last name who informed me in front of his staff at a meeting that the Mexican families living in the poor neighborhood I wrote about in a spec script he liked were just plain stupid people who didn’t have the brains to get organized in the way I had written about even though the events in my script were based on real individuals in an actual Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Yes, one could argue a few ignoramuses continue to think this way but they are quite rare and, most certainly, they would not feel safe to act out in this fashion in today’s Hollywood.   Which, one supposes, is some progress in itself.  In any event, certainly both stories were enough to make my student smile just a bit and then proceed out of my office and into the world with the notion that the future can hold all kinds of unforeseen changes for the better and shifts in opportunities one could not have imagined.

How the student left my office... I imagine.

How the student left my office… I imagine.

Speaking of the future, I’m reminded of one last story of a wonderful young woman I met some years after Diamond L’il – someone who is now a quite famous producer on her own but at the time was a junior executive at a major company who set up a meeting with me through my agent because she was a fan of my writing work.  (Note: It was a good meeting though it was more of a general meeting – the kind I later realized that you go on with either new material in mind or a carefully honed pitch rather than with the agenda of getting your ego stroked by people who like your work and who you perceive will then automatically give you a job).

In any event, this woman and I had a great talk – actually a fantastic talk about a script of mine she really liked – and about movies, her company’s films, and the state of the biz in the nineties.  She shared honestly about her company and the Oscar winning producer/director she worked for while I asked her questions about several movies they had produced that I admired.  One film, in particular, was my style and something akin to what I’d like to write.  At this point this woman turned to me and told me something I never did quite forget.

I’m going to be honest with you and say something that you probably don’t want to hear,” she said.

Okay, I replied, go ahead – I can take it.  Honestly.

It’s just that – the film you mentioned, and the kind of script it was – the kind of scripts that you want to do – nobody cares about that kind of writing anymore.

Oh, you mean those small, sensitive, coming of age, love/friendship stories, I thought.  But I said nothing and sat there in stunned silence.

I don’t mean to say I don’t admire and appreciate them, she continued. I’m just being brutally honest about where the business is going.  Where the studios are.  And if you tell anybody I said this, I’d probably deny it publicly. I just wanted to tell you.

Sort of tongue-tied I looked at her and lied – Well, I really appreciate your honesty.

Don't mind the clothespins!

Don’t mind the clothespins!

I couldn’t tell you what happened at any point after she said that because for all intents and purposes the meeting was over.  I blanketly rejected in my mind what she was saying about the future.  Surely, studios and everyone else will always find a place for sensitive, well-written scripts, I reasoned.  She’s just been burned – or is getting burnt out.  I know that doesn’t apply to me and the kind of work that I want to do.

Well, who knew I was in a meeting with an Oracle who would turn out to be so right – though not entirely correct.  She left out the future world of cable television, independent movies and the emergence of the Internet and social media.  Still, she saw the writing on the wall and I didn’t want (refused?) to believe her future.  I feared it and tried to deny it, rather than embrace and accept it.

I didn’t share this last story with my student because I didn’t remember it until the student had left.  And there is no use scaring someone so young with a brutalized version of the truth when merely an evenhanded version of its entirety will more than adequately do.

But that evenhanded version it’s always worth knowing, considering and recognizing.   Regardless of age, point of view or position in life.

Cloudy with a Chance of Hope

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” scientist extraordinaire Sir Isaac Newton theorized more than 400 years ago.  This was heady stuff at the time — the idea that there are LOGICAL consequences for every bit of the naughty or nice behavior you put out into the universe, rather than retribution or praise from God, Santa Claus or Donald Trump’s money, depending on what time period you live in and who or what you see as your Higher Power.

Newton wouldn’t seem to have a lot in common with Mr. Trump and his 2012 ilk, though there is a movie that oddly sees something of a connection.  That movie is called “Cloud Atlas” and no one was more surprised than I was at the spell this perfectly imperfect film has cast and still continues to hold over me.

You really got a hold on me…

Let’s face it, you don’t go to studio movies these days expecting to be forced into considering the existential issues of life unless it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson or stars a superhero in mechanical armor, spandex or some rare combination of both.  It is also worth noting that in the case of the latter, this discussion will take place only in the broadest of good vs. evil terms, sort of like a political fight on either Fox News or MSNBC.  It is equally worth noting that in the case of PTA (one of my faves), this will only persist if he continues in profit, Oscar wins or some combination of both as time progresses.  (Unfortunate Translation: You better enjoy movies like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” while you can, because it doesn’t look good).

Using that logic, it is quite unlikely “Cloud Atlas,” with its mixed reviews, mediocre box office returns and general lukewarm reception among the Hollywood elite, will emerge as the kind of “asset” (au currant studio chief jargon for movies) film studios will lust after in the near future.  But that doesn’t matter.  Because as sure as I’m typing this, that’s how positive I am there are other writers, directors and actors (those people known as the above-the-line talent – or engine – for new work) who will be inspired or moved enough by Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s attempt to tackle a seemingly unfilmmable novel of depth and profundity and, in turn, seek to do something with equal meaning and depth that they personally connect with.  In other words, Newton’s theory holds not only in science but also for artistry.  Said even more plainly — just as studio chiefs might be repelled at $24 million in US box office grosses for an unusual film that cost $100 million and probably an equal amount to advertise, the creative forces behind movies (well, at least one, two or three of them) will be moved and attracted in the exact opposite direction for the exact opposite reasons of their bosses – those of intellectual substance rather than money.

Everything is connected.

I don’t love much about the movie business these days but I especially do love this.  If nothing else, that’s what “Cloud Atlas” and the perceived highly unlikely (in some quarters) re-election of Pres. Obama (because I am a die hard liberal who wants to bask in getting almost everything I wanted on election night), did for me this week.  See, for most humans, much of life’s bottom line profit is not about what’s measurable on a balance sheet.  It’s about intangibles like fulfilling inspiration to do good stuff, bettering one’s life or others’ lives through telling your own story in some form, or moving people to take action, any kind of action, on their own.  That is why Pres. Obama won the election and why cutting public funding for PBS – or refocusing our educational system on multiple choice test scores while chopping its creative classes – will never net the result we truly want, no matter how black and white positive it looks on a logic board.  Gravity and medical science can be proven in fairly absolute terms by thinkers such as Newton and those who followed him, and guide us in the quantifiable correct direction in medicine and science.  But what moves (or will move) the human spirit in the area of creative action and that which will produce a truly satisfiable result is an incalculable combination of events – sort of like the show business version of predicating a hit recording, TV ratings bonanza or the latest international box office hit.  Despite all the tried and true formulas or computer programs that promise you such, there is always, as even Simon Cowell has figured out, that human X Factor. (Note:  You have no idea how it pains me to give Cowell any credit at all – but – there it is)

In any event, back to “Cloud Atlas.”  Here’s the big money quote from the movie and novel – which out of context might seem like a greeting card from the 1970s – which is probably why I like it to begin with:

“…Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future…”

I can remember writing a letter to Newsweek in the early 1990s rebuking its cynical attitude towards what it termed leftover “hippie thinking” of the sixties.  My position has always been that it was how much the youth of that time believed in the healing power of peace and love that made that group a big part of the reality that helped force the US government to end the Vietnam War and to begin to face some of the great social issues of that time (e.g. gender equality and gay rights).  Like a book whose ending is yet to be written, or a screenplay that is years away from being finished, no one knew for sure what the ending of those protests or way of thinking would be.  But the feeling that something had to be done to create the preferred ending you wanted – that kind of blind faith and, yes, hope – is what caused people to act.  This is not unlike the mass turnout of 18-25 year olds for Pres. Obama (a group that as a college professor I know quite well) who are still at the point in their lives where they believe that change is possible despite all seeming evidence to the contrary.

Courting the youth vote.

If one can reduce the 6-8 different interweaving stories in “Cloud Atlas” to a single theme this is what they’d amount to.  Each character is faced with a moral dilemma over which they are challenged and each has to decide whether they are courageous enough to step up to the plate despite all evidence to the contrary that there is much of a chance to succeed.  Because it’s a movie that takes place over the course of numerous centuries, and because most commercial movies today have beginnings, middles and ends, we get to see how dependent upon each other these actions are over time to not only the survival of every character (and over whether they’ll have a happy life) but to the survival of mankind.   There is no such crystal ball that I know of for any one of us forced into making moral decisions at our given moments in time – whether we’re a writer, singer or actor deciding on what project we want to direct our creative energies to, or whether we’re Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or some hippie chick or dude.  The only thing we do have is the gnawing belief that when push comes to shove something must be done – a belief that moves us to what, on the surface, might seem to be the silliest fruitless or most unwise action imaginable until it turns out well.   Certainly this same action can just as likely be a self-destructive or defeating one, at least in your lifetime.  Yet also at the same time this very action can lead to yet another reaction or additional action by someone else that will produce an entirely different and favorable result in the future for another person or group or, to be lofty, entire race of people we have yet to or never will meet.

The film “Cloud Atlas” is certainly reflective of all of the above.  Tom Hanks is distractingly miscast as some of its villains and perhaps even a bit on the nose as its hero.  And certainly the movie’s 172 minute length can be a lot to take.  Also noteworthy is the relentless shifting narrative in the first 40 minutes to the point of distraction, not to mention the obviousness of some of the stories and their lack of depth.

Ice-T Tom Hanks loves Coco.

But some movies, just as some lives, are greatly flawed yet ultimately a whole lot greater than the sum of their parts.  I would argue this is the case in particular here.  It is not the message inherent in any one of the C.A. stories but how the stories ultimately work together and build to create a much more powerful overarching testament to empowerment.  And a side note to aspiring moviemakers – this is done through not only what it’s saying but by the very act and execution of its technical construction.

In my mind it is not an accident that one of the directors of this film and its major creative force – Lana Wachowski – is a woman with a personal story unlike any most of us will encounter.  Lana, up until a few years ago, was known simply as a famous director and writer who, along with her brother, was merely responsible for one of the biggest movie franchises of the last thirty years – the “Matrix” films.  But Lana was also seen as a non descript looking middle aged man known as Larry –a secretly transgender person who by all accounts psychically suffered until she had the wherewithal and means to take change of her circumstance of birth and proceed with self-acceptance and whatever gender reassignment procedures she chose.  These procedures have scientifically evolved to the point where there is a way to measure their chances of medical success but certainly not to the point where there is as empirically reliable of a way to measure their chance of psychological success given the limits across the board for any absolute measure of human happiness and contentment.  Yet, like the theme of her film, which she admits became a bit of a metaphor for her life, Ms. Wachowski decided to make the leap anyway because she knew in her heart of hearts it was the right thing and perhaps only thing she could do.

This belief is in part what prompted her to spend so many years “obsessed” with bringing “Cloud Atlas” to the screen and in using her “Matrix” clout in order to do it.  Certainly, she had a big stage to take her leap of faith.  But the size of the stage has nothing to do with the size of the personal leap or the eventual effect it will have on the rest of the world.  As the movie posits, there is no way to ever know that unless one has a crystal ball.  There is just a belief in oneself.  And the universe.  And the fact that Newton’s theory will tip towards the forces of good instead of evil.  This means acknowledging even though evil or the undesired outcome will always exist; it is equally true that the opposite can very well, and perhaps even likely, happen.

That’s why a 2012 message of 1960s hope and change will never go out of style. This, above all, I find reassuring.