Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Denial (The Movie, Not My Psychological M.O.)"

I caught up with the 2016 Netflix-dispatched presentation of Denial last night, which I watched with step-son-in-law Tim.  Well, not exactly.  We began watching it together, but two-and-three-quarter year-old Jack demanded his Dad’s bedtime ministrations, leading to Tim’s frequent and extended departures.  More accurately, I watched Denial with Jack’s father alone.

Tim and I had wanted to see Denial in the theater, but, seemingly, while the ushers were sweeping up the popcorn, the movie abruptly came and went.  (I think it only possibly played for the ushers.)  I had seen a preview for Denial earlier so I knew it actually existed.  It just did not exist – at least theatrically – for long.

As a kid, I would measure my box office success-adjudging acumen against that of my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Manny, an erstwhile studio executive who steadfastly believed that the biggest movie hits invariably involved “F ‘n F” pictures, which stood for “fightin’ and… (decorously clearing his throat)… foolin’ around.”

With every movie I brought up, including my all-time favorite, The Court Jester, which I was certain was a blockbuster, Uncle Manny would take an extended drag from his ubiquitous plastic-tipped cigar, expel an enveloping cloud of smoke and sonorously pronounce,

“Never made a dime.”

Raising serious apprehensions about my coveted show biz aspirations.

My enthusiasm for Denial reinforces those apprehensions.   Cursory research reveals that the ten million dollar-budgeted Denial amassed just north of four million dollars in ticket sales.  (I should really revisit those coveted show biz aspirations.  Wait, it’s over?  Well then, never mind.)

What can I tell you?  Bucking moviegoer reaction – or in this case movie non-goer reaction – I raise a contrarial “Thumbs Up” for the sadly under-patronized Denial. 

Why wouldn’t I like it?  It’s a courtroom drama – a certified bull’s eye for confirmed Law & Order enthusiasts like myself.  It is intelligently written (by playwright and screenwriter Sir David Hare.)  It is tastefully executed, performed to understated perfection by English actors – the one exception being the lead (also English) actor Rachel Weisz whose performance is larger because she plays an American.

Plus, Denial is untroubled by violence.  Gratuitous or otherwise.

No wonder it failed at the box office. 

No fightin’.  No foolin’ around.
Based on historian Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “Holocaust on Trial:  My Day In Court with a Holocaust Denier”, Denial chronicles the month-long, London-situated trial of an American writer sued by a man who claims the Holocaust is a hoax for “Defamation of Character.”

Like the guy actually has any.  And that’s the last time I’ll take sides.  As if there are always two sides.  Which is the central concern of this movie.  (Not to mention our current predicament.)

Here’s what Denial has working against it, beyond being a courtroom drama with no demonstrable action.  (Although the lead character does occasionally go out for a run.)

Following British – but not American – judicial precepts in these matters, the defendant does not maintain the “presumption of innocence” but must instead prove that her accuser is guilty, placing the “Good Guy” on trial while the “Bad Guy” demands “justice.” 

Making Denial’s narrative disorientingly topsy-turvy.  (Topsy-Turvy being another movie I enjoy.)

Additionally, Deborah Lipstadt’s attorneys decide that, to maximize their chances of winning, neither she nor any Holocaust survivors will be called to testify during the trial.  Resulting, for the movie, in no emotional high points, no histrionical fireworks.  See: (by way of comparison) Judgment at Nuremberg.

What we get instead is an impassioned battle of arguments, strategic interplay and an outpouring of words.  At one point, the defense attorney indignantly raises his voice and speaks somewhat harshly to the plaintiff, but that’s about it.  His disparaging approach to his disreputable adversary is to not look him directly in the eye.

How far from “F ‘n F” pictures can you get?

Oh yeah, and the trial is argued in front of a judge, meaning no tension-heightening surveying of the jurors’ faces, wondering which way each is going to decide.  The trial’s determination is instead in the hands of one stoic adjudicator, described by defendant Lipstadt as being “a character out of Masterpiece Theater.”

Denial depicts a non-fiction occurrence so they were stuck with the actual events.  (Of course, not all movies care about that.  In My Darling Clementine, “Doc” Holliday’s gunned down at the OK Corral.  He wasn’t.  He, in fact, coughed up a lung outside of Denver.)

Smartly executed.  Consummately acted.  Sticking to the story despite its hyper-dramatical deficiencies.


Good for me.

Bad for its investors. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


He started in television, contributing to the most prestigious comedies of the day.

So did I.

He wore horn-rimmed glasses.

So, back then, did I.

He was Jewish.

Have you seen my “Birthday” picture?  Moving on...

He was born to write.

So apparently was I.

He was fiercely competitive with his, also a writer, older brother.

So was I.

He was chronically claustrophobic.

So am I.

He almost never reads fiction.

Neither, almost, do either.

He believes you can learn nothing from “genius”, seeing the construction more easily in the bad and the so-so.

I’ve said exactly the same thing.

He cringes visibly when someone tells him a joke, and can barely remember a joke himself.

So do I, and neither can I.

He takes great pride in his punctuality.

So do I.

He was a comparative latecomer to the sexual arena.

(“Do I have to admit this?”  It’s on the list.”  “O-kay.”)

So was I. 

Who was “he”?

Neil Simon.  (As I discovered in his book Memoirs.)

Neil Simon and Earl Pomerantz, though imaginably among writers of comedy not exclusively Earl Pomerantz, are considerably alike.  The unrelated-to-writing similarities, such as punctuality and claustrophobia, were, for me, startlingly “Him too?” 

And yet…

Switching subject matter… apparently but not really…

There are these prototypes in Major League Baseball, players who set the style – the pitching style, the batting style, the fielding style.  You see a young ballplayer, going through his preparatory paces and their recognizable approach suggests, “Man, that guy’s another…”, a revered giant of the game immediately popping to mind.

I shall, as an example, focus on one such prototype – the slick–fielding Venezuelan shortstop.  (Who were not always Venezuelan but the initiating handful of them were.)

It began in my recollection with Hall of Famer, slick-fielding Venezuelan shortstop Luis Aparacio, proceeding seamlessly to slick-fielding Venezuelan shortstop Davey Concepcion.  Aparicio won an impressive nine Gold Gloves, honoring the “Best Shortstop” of that particular season.  Concepcion himself garnered a not-to-be-sneezed-at four Gold Gloves.   Each of them had their own identifiable approach.

Later, it was Ozzie Guillen and Omar Vizquel who successfully embodied the slick-fielding-Venezuelan-shortstop prototype.  It seemed like there was always somebody, someone those who followed blatantly emulated, worshipfully looked up to and unembarrassingly aspired to become.

I experienced this phenomenon first-hand as the part owner of a minor league baseball team in South Bend, Indiana.  I saw the “A”-ball candidates for the majors, copying the signature moves of their perennial heroes.  And they looked pretty good doing it.  You could tell who they were imitating. 

None of them got out of the minor leagues. 

They were – at their level – respectable duplicates of their sparkling predecessors.  But, one way or another, they were never the entire package.  Stuff was definitely present.  But there was also, noticeably, stuff that was not.

Neil Simon abandoned television for the Broadway stage and subsequent feature films.

I remained in television. 

Neil Simon handled the crushing pressure of immediate rewrites.

I spent numerous “Rewrite Nights”, hugging myself and rocking inconsolably back and forth.

As he got older, Neil Simon risked all, jettisoning crowd-pleasing comedy for deeper and darker dramatic exploration.

Even here, with virtually nothing at stake, my continued M.O. remains, “Pleasing and amusing.”

The list of contrasting evaluations is, mercifully, truncated.  (“Allow me some residual dignity.”  “You go it.”)  But you can see what I’m driving at.  I am proud of my accomplishments.  Proud, bordering on "Was that really me?"  But I lacked some essential ingredients, which took a toll on my hierarchical positioning.

There are similarities. 

And there are differences.

The similarities get you into the game.

The differences decide who is the prototype and who is the replica.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Job I Am Somewhat Sorry I Turned Down"

If something remains in your consciousness for forty-plus years it is reasonable to believe that it somehow matters to you.

Don’t you think?

Okay.  So there’s this.

I imagine every writer who rose to the level of “We want him (or her)” has a story of a job they were offered that they for some reason turned down.  Which, if not entirely regretted, survived insinuatingly in their “The Road Not Taken” file. 

I had a fantasy conversation with Neil Simon whose Memoirs I am currently enjoying and whom I once met at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara but never mentioned this issue.  On that occasion, I imaginatorially said to him,

“There is one joke you wrote that I have been laughing at for thirty years.  Not all the time… but intermittently, and still.”

That’s how I feel about this incident.  I do not incessantly dwell on it.  Nor, on the other hand, has it flown my memoratorial coop.  (Okay, that’s the last one of those made-up words with “ial” at the end of them.  I have exceeded my quota.  By possibly two.) 

It is not like I am habitually pummeling myself for letting this particular employment opportunity get away.  I had persuasive reasons for doing so, lightening my load of self-recrimination and guilt.   One of them was a doozy.  But more on that later.

Knowing my background, you might possibly think the job I passed on and then wondered if I should have was Saturday Night Live, which I had been invited to participate in at its inception, incentivized by the “carrot” of being potentially its Head Writer.

When I inform strangers of this abandoned opportunity, I invariably get an unspoken “Awww” response, similar, I imagine, to the one that is accorded the “Fifth Beatle”, replaced at the moment of celebratory “lift-off” by Ringo Starr. 

Truth be told, that is not the job I am referring to.

Briefly, (because I have discussed this before) why did I say “No, thank you” to SNL?

Nine months before the SNL job offer, I had moved lock, stock and Mazda from Toronto to Los Angeles.  I was not at all ready to move again (To New York, where Saturday Night Live would be produced.) 

Ensconced comfortably in Hollywood, I had found a reliable doctor and a dentist and an accountant and a hair cutter, and I did not look forward to initiating the search process all over again in Manhattan.  And then if the show failed, going back to Los Angeles and asking all those people to take me back.  How would they respond to that?

(LIKE AGGRIEVED SPOUSES)  “Do you think you can just come and go as you please?”

L.A. had the weather that suited my clothes.  L.A. was “laid back”, a descriptive never applicable to Manhattan, at least since the Indians sold it.  New York was also too close to Toronto, where I had baggage.  Not luggage.  Baggage.

In an uncharacteristic flash of determination and grit, I maneuvered my way into the Mary Tyler Moore Company, simultaneously liberating myself from “broad-stroke” sketch writing – as opposed to meticulous, character-driven storytelling – and a history of exclusive employment in Lorne Michaels operations. 

When, during SNL’s pre-production shakedown, Lorne called to urge me repeatedly to join him, my unemotional though arguably disloyal answer was, “I’m working.”

In the end, weighing the reputation and solidity of MTM employment against an uncertain late-night variety show experiment in New York, I elected to remain steadfastly where I was.  (Subsequent stories of creativity-coaxing drug-taking and scriptorial “all-nighters” – Okay, three, but that’s it! – reinforced my decision as being an unquestionable “Good call”)

So it was not rejecting SNL that I have residual qualms about.

It was this.

During my second season servicing the half-dozen or so sitcoms MTM had on the air, I was approached by veteran comedy writer Jack Burns – of comedy-team icon Burns and Schreiber fame – with a tempting and tantalizing proposition.

“Would you like to go to London for six months and write The Muppets Show?”

Yeah, I know.

“It’s time to play the music
It’s time to light the lights…”

Man, was that enticing.  Living in London a second time and this time with money?  Imagine the difference.  “The London Experience”… with heat!  (Rather than the agonizing forty-five minutes of warmth rationed over a three-and-a-half day period until the new cylinder of Calor Gas was delivered.  And now… If I were a rich man, yeidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel dum!)   

And it was the Muppets!

That’s the one.  That’s the “job-not-taken” I still think about.  But, for better or worse…

I said “No.”

Opting for the continued job security at MTM.  And because I preferred sunshine to soot.  And because I knew I could adequately write MTM sitcoms but who knew for sure if I could write The Muppets?

Plus… wait for it…

I had met a woman. 

And it looked a lot like it was going someplace.

Game, set and match.  (And, as it turned out, a marriage.)

Despite his persistent entreaties, I informed Jack Burns that, though his offer was appealing – and extremely flattering – I was going to stay put.  And he flew off to London without me.  And, instead, with somebody else.  Enjoying my heat.  And my advantageously exchanged-rated per diems.

And that’s it.  You know how lucky I was in my career?  I have not even talked about jobs I wanted but didn’t get, because there weren’t any.  The closest to that was this single opportunity that I, appreciatively, turned down.

Labeling my reaction to it “regret” would be an exaggerating overstatement.

I just wonder about it sometimes, that’s all.