Culture Vulture

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

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

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

Hello gorgeous

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

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

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

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

They're multiplying

Yes.  It was.

Despite the fact that It

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

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

Interent killed the newspaper star:  Variety is for sale.

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

Hooded Racism: Trayvon Martin

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

Sugar Rush or Toothache? Food Network’s Sweet Genius

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

My Tribute to the Hunger Games

Girl's got range

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

One Final Note from Ms. Houston

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

Hottest Inmate: Clooney swoons even in jail

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

Flour Power: Kim K’s unfortunate encounter

cleanup on aisle 3

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

A Flashy Girl from Flushing

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

Ya Gotta Have Faith

from the famous "Jesus is my homeboy" brand

When you mention FAITH in election year 2012 you get a lot of responses.   But for me the response is obvious and it is love.  Not because I’m religious.  But because Faith is my sister’s name.  Literally.  And I do love her.  As I am sure you love your own sister. (Note: Those without sisters, use something else you love aside from yourself and you’ll get there).

Of course, if you’re running for president these days the word Faith wouldn’t be talked about in terms of my Faith (though it would improve things because she’s a lovely, talented person).  It might evoke sound bites that include words like, well: Christianity, Satan, maybe Muslim, perhaps The Devil, or, well,  even poor old Whitney Houston.   But these days you would never, ever, ever follow the word Faith with the word Ginsberg (as in the case with my sister’s full name).  I mean, the closest thing to a Ginsberg in the faith-based national American political stage at the moment is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and everyone knows people with her kind of last name, which is shared by both my Faith and, well, my own Non-Chair moniker, have no relevance at all in the DC fishbowl that we elevate to presidential level.  (Hint:  And it’s not because we Ginsbergs are all three liberals.  Think about it).

Bipartisanship: Faith and Clint

When did one’s religion (nee faith)  or lack of it, become of such outwardly vocal, pressing national concern? At least so publicly.  Hell Heck, I think I much preferred when this stuff was talked about in restricted country clubs or at least under your neighbor’s breath behind closed doors like it’s supposed to.   I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d live to see the day when a viable political candidate leading in many of the major party’s polls uttered statements like “Satan has his eyes on America.”  But then again, I could never have imagined Kim Kardashian, Chase Crawford or even Zack Efron just a few short years ago. Yes, I do admittedly like this faith talk very much from The Church Lady, but she’s a fictional “Saturday Night Live” character (isn’t she?).  There is something about seeing a white man in a sweater vest running for president saying it in reality (not a reality show, though it sure seems like one) that gives me the Rickys, uh, willies.  And even though I have learned to respect people’s religious views even when their religious views have very little respect for me (Hint: I can’t be married to the person I’ve lived with for 25 years but we are both very stylish and like theatre, especially musicals), even I have to say the urge to buy out all of Netflix’s copies of Bill Maher’s “Religilous” and send it on a prepaid loop to these new brands of holy roller whackos is only surpassed by my urge to shake them by their lapels, march them into the O’Neill Theatre and force feed them every lyric to the score of “Book of Mormom.”   That is, if I even knew any theatrical types who could get me tickets to the most popular show now playing on Broadway.  Which is in New York City.  The sacred, holy American city that was attacked on 9/11.

Oh God uh, Gosh.

Of course, politics is not the only arena that has grabbed God by the heart and won’t let him (or Her) go.  The entertainment industry is equally, if not more guilty than most.  I’m not talking about defunct shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia,” or “The Sopranos.” (Come on, the latter WAS a religion!).  I’m talking about performers who use religion as part of their spectacle (thank you Grammy, or any upcoming Academy Award acceptors), and religious events that use entertainment as a way to inform and/or infiltrate the public consciousness.

Or you could go a different route and not thank Jesus... a la Ms. Griffin

As a self-admitted junkie whose religion is entertainment, almost any kind of entertainment except, well, “Toddlers and Tiaras” (sorry, I have to drawn the line somewhere), I’m a sucker for spectacle.  That’s why this past Saturday (Feb 16) morning instead of my usual tuning into “Up With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC and bringing my blood to a proper boil as I see which new hell the religious right are wreaking upon the national stage, I instead found myself mesmerized by an entirely different kind of fire and brimstone.  The pop God funeral of singer Whitney Houston – who died several weeks ago at the age of 48.

Whitney was younger than me, and it gives you pause when you start getting older than people who are dying, even when it’s from unnatural causes.   But what I think really got to me and caused me to watch all four funeral hours, none of which seemed particularly fune-real – was the communal celebration of mourning and life and death within a very cool Black church service – the kind I have never witnessed before.  It also didn’t hurt having songs sung by Alicia Keyes and Stevie Wonder, a eulogy by Kevin Costner, and the potential reality show debacle of a Bobby Brown encounter (See, I told you I was an entertainment junkie).  As more than one pastor said that day – the family’s decision to allow Whitney’s funeral to be televised was particularly valuable because it allowed all of America to go to Church.  Hmm, and I thought it was more of a funeral.  Amen, to that.  I think.

Amen, indeed.

Now just because I can be had by some names, a movie star and tacky, cheap voyeurism doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the spirituality of the moment or respect my time in church.  I have appreciation and respect. I also feel more than bad that yet another very talented person died due to what looks like, in part at least, a long period of addiction she was never able to conquer.  In fact, I found the whole thing mesmerizing.  Actually more than mesmerizing — hypnotic.

As a white Jewish kid who went to temple but was never moved, I was surprised at the intensity of belief I witnessed – the sheer power of a kind of “divine logic” that everyone could understand and relate to as religion.  Sure – it wasn’t predominantly realistic or entirely logical or at least reflects the reality of life as I know it, but that was also its beauty and attraction.  And, I suppose for the believers, the benefits.  The congregtion/chuch/attendees really seemed to believe in the preacher’s message as it applied to real life even if they all didn’t walk the walk each day.  Of course, the sermonizers even made accommodations for that.  That God makes NO mistakes – that he calls people when HE decides it is their time no matter how you live your life.  And that no matter what people do HIS love is infinite and bountiful and can always let you back in to love and happiness.  Pretty powerful stuff.  If you can make the leap and believe.  Unfortunately for me – I don’t.  Or didn’t.  Well, not entirely.

Don’t think I don’t want to.  But writing is my religion (not merely entertainment – I sinned lied and the power of art is divine to me – call it a higher power if you want to.  And if I am being totally honest I have to admit I worship at the altar of Meryl Streep, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen (yeah, I know he’s a heathen, that’s part of the fun), Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and a host of others.  Perhaps  my real religion is simply the creative spirit, or the power of it.

So – if I accept everyone else’s, how come they can’t accept the validity of mine?  Why are my beliefs any less than the ones they have come to on their own.  You say what I’m talking about is not a religion?  Who says?  Okay, fine.  Then substitute just about any other religion other than Christianity or Jesus.  Why would that religious belief be any less valid to be a guiding principle of the world?  Why should that religion not be the ultimate faith litmus test for anyone running for the highest office in our land, or to otherwise be known as – The Leader of the Free World.

Because no religion should.  Because faith is personal and should have nothing to do with any of it.   Because the idea behind America is that it’s a place where anyone can come and worship in any way that they choose.  I should know because I literally grew up with Faith. And though I can’t image your Faith could be any better than mine, I certainly can’t get into an argument with you about it.  Cause how can you ever objectively debate about who or what you love?

———————

Oscar Note: The Chair and the Chair’s mate are going to this year’s Oscars.  Here are you NotesfromaChair Oscar Pool Tie-breaker Questions:

1.  Will Meryl Streep’s dress have a collar?

Exhibit A

2. How many Yiddish words will be uttered by Billy Crystal?

3. Which movie clip will they show for Elizabeth Taylor as part of the “In Memoriam?”   Or will there be a separate tribute and, if so, who will introduce it?

4. How many times will Harvey Weinstein be thanked?

5. (Tie breaker) The inevitable Variety headline when The Artist wins best picture will be “Silence is Golden.”  But – can you come up with something better????