Here’s how much I loved Don Rickles. When I was 14 years old instead of hanging out with the other teens at the playground of our apartment building in Tarzana I sat in my Dad’s air conditioned blue Dodge listening to his “Hello Dummy” eight track tape over and over again. Until my Dad lectured me about car batteries. How much ya weigh, Tiny? You’re an Arab and I’m a Jew…And to all my Mexican friends… Well, you get the picture.
Joan Baez. I did a book report on her autobiography “Daybreak” in the 11th grade when I was 15 (yes, an overachiever) and I was so effusive I remember my teacher wrote in the margins, “is this love?” But I considered that a victory rather than an insult or personal intrusion. Perhaps I convinced him of her worthiness and to pay more attention to someone who worked through song and protest to change the then Nixonian political events of the day. Then again, maybe he was just making a kind observation.
And then there’s Broadcast News, a perfectly prescient film of love and news, not necessarily in that order, which spoke to me via the sometimes too large chip that used to sit on my shoulder (Note: Used to?) when confronted with what I perceived to be idiocy and immorality in the workplace or in my personal life.
I’ve quoted it before but, since it’s been a theme of my life, why not again:
There is a wonderful absolutism in art and to looking back. Everything seems funnier, smarter and more lovingly beautiful than it ever could have been. Though it can also mean exactly the opposite. It depends on your mood and point of view at the time. The one thing that seems clear – we can’t be objective.
Still, our outlook and actions are really all we have. Aside from chocolate ice cream, pizza and the occasional well-marinated chicken breast or Portobello mushroom if we’re being careful and/or vegan. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to look back and appreciate them as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we can ever recapture that precise moment of joy again in our present day or depress ourselves into believing some perhaps even better experiences don’t await us in the not too distant future.
No, this is not a new age, new version of a Hallmark card. The truth is, one does never know what’s waiting around the bend. One day it’s an orange tinged Hellion and the next it could be…anything, or anyone, else. Consider U.S. presidential politics in November 2008 at the end of the Bush era. Or the great Nixon-Kennedy debates. Time in this country (and probably elsewhere) is an inevitable and necessary period of change and torch passing – sometimes for the better and in other moments regressive – depending on where you’re sitting or whom and what one is remembering.
All that being said, the passing of 90 year-old Don Rickles really did throw me for a loop this week. The Sultan of Insults, The Merchant of Venom, Mr. Warmth – whatever you want to call him, he represented a breath of fresh honesty to me in a period of my youth where it felt like no one in the older generation was ever telling the truth. Rickles was who you especially needed in the sixties and seventies when no one trusted anyone over 30 (and with good reason) because he was A LOT over 30 and looked a lot older and was forcing us to laugh at the hypocrisy of it all with the kind of scorching benevolence only a master insult comic could get away with. But boy was it ever effective for those many moments he held the stage.
As for Broadcast News, it’s always been a favorite film of mine but never more so than lately, where it feels like there is no longer anything but a news business masterfully dictating to the various niche audiences now comprising the U.S. on what to not only feel but believe. Facts are subjective and up can be down, if you edit it precisely enough. And that was exactly what filmmaker James L. Brooks chronicled and warned us about a full 30 years ago in the vein of what was essentially a romantic comedy centering on a smart, uncompromising female heroine who managed to be just strong enough to choose herself over either of the two eager guys desperately vying for her ultimate attentions.
There was a major effort to nail a new kind of heroine, Mr. Brooks said on a panel at the Turner Classic Movies Festival this past week of the uncompromising Holly Hunter/Jane Craig character prior to a screening of the film.
But though he saw the film essentially as a romantic comedy, co-star Albert Brooks noted that part of the power of the film is that it takes place at a time when news stories still gained traction on content.
At the time of Broadcast News there was no Drudge Report. It was not an issue of trying to shock people…And now look at what people are shocked at – nothing.
Nevertheless, it became obvious as the pre-talk continued that what makes both Brookses (no relation) the artists that they continue to be is their ability to extrapolate pessimism into a perhaps more palatable truth of where we are or could soon be.
I actually think Trump’s saving journalism. There’s been a resurgence of our two most important newspapers (the New York Times and Washington Post) doing some of their best work in years. So I’m strangely optimistic, said James L.
The news used to need individuals like Walter Cronkite for the story to matter. Now the individual doesn’t matter as much. Fifty people retweet and repost something now it can change minds. The story matters, said Albert B.
Of course, what the STORY is or is actually portrayed as is up to us. It requires, actually demands activity. Participation. And a certain type of…dare we say it…
Activism–the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
This is where Joan Baez comes in.
It is encouraging to realize that at 76 years old anything is possible – particularly artistic productivity, not giving up and the determination to fight against what one sees as injustice in the hope of a better future.
But rather than doing this by lecturing and looking back at the bad, good old days that most either won’t remember or, more likely, will individually recall quite differently, real leaders in their field instead choose to dwell in the present, using the experiences of their past as a kind of secret fuel.
Certainly Joan Baez, a singer who was an early trailblazer in helping end the Vietnam War, the assault on migrant farm workers and countless other causes, knows that one song alone won’t change public perceptions of policies. But what she is also wise enough to realize at this point is that it is a start towards something, anything to build a new momentum. That is what social change IS about at its essence. A dwelling in the present. An attempt by one individual to speak out and do all they can, hoping they then reach others, who will in turn join and take on the mantle.
Then soon it becomes a group effort, and a movement, and then a massive wave towards a change we all can believe in. As ineffective as it can be to merely look back, it is equally self-defeating to dismiss this power in taking one small step towards something as some sort of Pollyanna-like view of our futures that can never happen.
In the spirit of which – we will now end with the latest protest song (Copyright 2017) written by Joan Baez and sung in that timelessly haunting soprano voice. It might not be quite as high as it once was (which of us is) but it pierces right into what is at the center of what ails many. No – it’s not a solution. Just merely a start.