Peaks and Valleys

Here is what you try not to think about over a long holiday weekend:

  • It was a record 108 degrees in Los Angeles on Saturday but clearly “man-made climate change is not primarily responsible for it,” say any number of those now in power to do something about it in Washington, DC.

Me, right now

  • Massive flooding in Houston occurred some days earlier leaving more than 50 dead and counting, many thousands of others homeless and a cost for full rebuilding over the next decade estimated into the billions (that’s with a “B”).
  • ELECTORAL POTUS has NOW decided to do away with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thus requiring the MASS DEPORTATION of close to ONE MILLION people brought here as immigrant CHILDREN by parents who came to this country illegally.   They key world is children, or even toddlers – meaning many of these kids don’t even speak the native language of the country they will be deported back to over the next year.

I can’t…

Well, I did. For a bit. But finally it grew too much.

So I did what I usually do – escaped into media.

Just kidding… this is me, right now

There was the Twin Peaks two-hour finale on Showtime; a binge of the entire two seasons of the half-hour Netflix comedy-drama Love; and a screening of the much lauded Sundance indie flick with a confused gay, model-looking hunk protagonist called Beach Rats.

There was also food. A lot of it. A bit of frolic. And yeah, some worrying.

But what about the MEDIA????

Netflix’s Love

Talk nerdy to me

Judd Apatow co-created and produces the show but truly it is the brainchild of its male lead Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin, who write many of the episodes. The reason and resonance is clear – it is loosely based on their relationship.

Of course, what writer of comedy-drama doesn’t base their work on past relationships? The correct answer is NO ONE – no matter how much they deny it in protest.  In this case, it is a twist on the archetypal nerdy, awkward but funny-smart guy in glasses and the hip, wild, partying hot girl with an even sicker sense of humor than he has. Will they get together and make it work? Or won’t they?

You may think you’ve seen it before, as I initially did, but you haven’t. One suspects that’s because the entire series is grounded in the realities that Rust and Arfin experienced themselves. No, not literally. It’s not as if what happened in Annie Hall four decades prior onscreen exactly mirrored the Diane Keaton-Woody Allen relationship or even recreated it. But there’s a reason why certain contemporary rom-com stories are great and addictive and usually it’s because they are real – at least thematically.

Realistically — I bet that sandwich was that good.

Love is all of this and more. Give it a chance and don’t roll your eyes at the initial tropes, which I did – only to then get quickly addicted for 22 episodes in less than a week. God, I love a good binge – of so many things.

Beach Rats 

Where to begin…

Beach Rats centers on a working class teenager struggling with his attraction to men – particularly middle aged men he meets online – but it might as well be set in 1957 instead of 2017. Masquerading as real and unflinching it is instead a skewed portrait of working class life that so tilts the deck towards gay panic and hopelessness that one almost expects its characters to be sporting ducktails and cigarettes rolled up in t-shirt sleeves rather than lean muscled bodies, random tattoos and endless thirsts to get high.

Like a modern day Kenickie! #exceptnot

Of course, they do share “smokes” and often speak like something out of an old Nicholas Ray film or a low budget indie Sundance version of Rumble Fish if those movies contained too many lingering shots of fireworks, arcade games and indecipherable male torsos.

It is certainly fine to depict a group of homophobic or homo-indifferent teenagers in contemporary life. What is not fine (nor real) is to so isolate them and every gay man depicted in the film into clichés last seen in films like Frank Sinatra’s The Detective – that movie from 1968 where a self loathing homosexual hits a lover over the head with a candle or ashtray or something heavy and kills him because he can’t bear the idea of not being straight.

Kind of like what I wish I did instead of watching Beach Rats

If we are to believe director-writer Eliza Hittman’s entire narrative we also have to buy it all leads to a ludicrous third act where an out, smart Manhattan boy drives to Brooklyn after meeting the film’s sexy leading teen-man online and does something TWICE no gay man even vaguely close to the character depicted would do. EVER. Let’s leave it at that unless you’re tempted to find out what happens some snowy night by the Brooklyn version of the Village docks circa 1968. But don’t say I didn’t warn you before you get into your time tunnel and then try to throw it at your screen of choice.

Not content to leave it there, the film also paints lonely pathetic lives for all the homosexual males we meet over the age of 40 –desperate creatures prowling online for boys they can have in the bushes or in seedy motels without having shaved, showered, deodorized or, no doubt, even brushed their teeth. Though somehow our sexy leading teen/man always manages to do so for his sex dates with them. But of course he’s young and not totally gay. Yet. Hmm, what or whom to root for?

At this point I would have preferred this old gay stereotype

Sadly, there is a stinking, rotting quality to everything here – perhaps on purpose for “mood” – but ultimately landing with the great weight of phony pretension. Still, the director seems to have gotten away with this pose in the eyes of films festivals and critics galore. Check out the reviews from Sundance or this one from The New Yorker.

As a kid from the boroughs myself, who grew up loving the fireworks, arcade games and bumper cars depicted in Beach Rats, I began to dread each lingering faux magical shot of the milieu as its endless minutes marched into what seemed like many endless hours. Repetitive visual imagery is no substitute for depth of story and character, no matter how many random lights in the sky or ocean waves one’s camera relentlessly aims to capture.

The Beach Rats audience

There is a great movie to be made on exactly this subject but that’s about the only thing most gay people will feel once this film comes to its retro torturous end – other than anger.

And NO, I didn’t like it. No one bit.

Twin Peaks: The Return 

Paging Agent Cooper…

It’s like the person you dated in college or in your twenties who was a glorious irresistible mess and yet you couldn’t get enough of them. Smart, confounding, funny without trying to be so, obtuse and more than a handful of times just downright f-ckg brilliant.

Often you don’t officially break up with this person. Something circumstantial happens or an unexpected situational event occurs that inevitably puts an end to the whole thing. But it’s never totally voluntary on your part no matter how many times your friends, family or even you feel like you were f-ckd over. This is because there truly was something so unique, so individual about the experience that can never be duplicated and you wouldn’t give that up for the world despite how much turmoil it might have put you through.

When’s the honeymoon?

Ironically enough, David Lynch and Mark Frost did put us through the Twin Peaks wringer again 25 years later thanks to Showtime and those of us who stayed are all the better for it. We got some hope for the saga of Laura Palmer, time traveled back to the 1950s, tried to learn some new, never heard before languages and began to realize that a good deal of the key wisdom of the world can be learned via a giant tea kettle, barren potato head tree or discovered in a Tilt-A-Whirl room with comfortable green velvet chairs.

You know I’m not gonna pass up posting a pop culture chair #takeaseat

OK, some of it made no sense at all, but have you checked the news lately? Nothing in this Twin Peaks was literal but, then again, Lynch and co. were bold enough to linger on so many scenes in real time elongated minutes that perhaps everything was. Twin Peaks is the opposite of anything pretentious – it is filmmaking/TV making (Note: Just what is the difference anymore?) with a purpose. And that purpose is to take us to a place we can believe in despite how extreme, absurd or hateful it is. It is and always has been what the books tell us great storytelling is – a seamless dream.

And with that – good night.

Muddy Magnolias – “American Woman (Slowed David Lynch version)

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.