Friday, March 27, 2015

"Blaming The Storyteller"


In all the years I watched movies and TV shows, there has always been a “Bad Guy”, somebody the “Good Guy” could vanquish and then ride off into the sunset, sometimes without even a “Thank you.”  Merely a post factoly curious “Who was that ‘Masked Man?’” 

There were always the Indians.  Terrible.  (Only later revealed to have had some legitimate grievances of their own.)  You wrote westerns, you had a built-in adversary. 

Easy-peasy.

On a less colorfully war-whooping level, there were the railroad executives, the bankers and the businessmen.  Terrible.  Inevitably sporting dead-giveaway mustaches.  When the Indians were starving quietly on their reservations, these capitalistic corruptees filled the gap as the targets of audience hostility. 

But never concurrently.  I do not recall any western where I heard,

“Woe is us!  We’ve got trouble with Indians and the bankers!”

Like my friend who married four women consecutively, evil adversaries ravaged the countryside one adversary at a time.

But there was no time when there was nobody.

The movies appeared to be lucky.  Filling the “Villain Contingent”, materializing one after the other with nary an overlap, there was, without intermission, somebody out there trying to destroy us. 

When the “Indian Trouble” died down, it was, briefly, the Spanish (in the Spanish-American War) and shortly thereafter, the “Huns.”  Then it was the anarchists (whoever they were.)  And when the “anarchist peril” died down – here come the Nazis.  (And the Imperial Japanese, but those were two branches of one totalitarian tree.)  We vanquished the "Axis Powers", and before movies could worry, “Who are we going to hate now?”, in march the Communists.  And the storytellers heave an appreciative sigh of relief.

The Communists fall apart?  No problem.  Say hello to the terrorists.  It’s like they’re at home cataloguing their record collection and the call comes, “You’re up!”  If the Communists had stuck around, the terrorists would be sitting there 1like Prince Charles waiting for the Queen to die.

The identity of the “Them” may have changed over the years, but what never changes, it would seem, is there is always a “Them.”  (There was even a movie called Them (1954), where the “Them” were giant irradiated ants.  (A generic stand-in for "foreigners.")

In all of my rapidly expanding years, I do not recall a moment when we have not experienced a “Them.”  Making me wonder if we don’t inherently require these adversaries.  We must.  Judging by their continual appearance, we seem incapable of living without them.

“Adversarialism is inevitable”, the conventional argument asserts.  “So stay ready at all times.”

The question today is,

What if adversarialism isn't inevitable but we have been conditioned to believe it is  and believing that has turned "adversarialism is inevitable" into a “self-fulfilling prophesy”?  

Such speculations did not originate with me.  Some really smart people have been writing about this.

I recently slogged through a book entitled The Undivided Past, by David Cannadine.  (I’ll tell you what an ordeal it was getting through it.  At the three quarters point, Cannadine himself writes, “If you have persevered through this book to this juncture…”  Even the writer knew it was unbearable.)

Cannadine’s important, albeit boringly articulated, message was that an assiduous study of history reveals that, contrary to conventional assumption, the classifications of identity that fuel brutal ”Us Versus Them” adversarialism were never as monolithic as they’ve been portrayed to be by earlier historians, who are nothing if not their respective eras’ “Storytellers of Record.”

According the Cannadine, the traditional cohorts of personal identification – be they patriotic, religious, racial, class-based, gender related, or whatever – were, upon further examination, more internally fractured than historically depicted rather than being unilaterally united against “The Other.” 

There were some historical periods when these oppositional groupings actually got along.

Of course, we would never know that from the stories we’ve been fed.  And that's where the hammer's coming down.

It is time for the storytellers to own up to their responsibilities, for contributing – in my view substantially – to making this troubled world the internecine nightmare that it is by sticking exclusively to telling one kind of story.

The kind with the savagery in it.  (Taking the “lazy route”, ‘cause it's an easier sell.)

I challenge storytellers everywhere to tax their imaginations, belatedly “balancing the books” with stirring counter-narratives where there is nobody to hate.  (Somebody recently asked me, “Can you tell an interesting story without conflict?”  We don’t think we can, so we have convinced ourselves it is not possible.  And by the way, your story can have conflict.  It just needs a conciliatory center.  Rather than “We win!”  Or in the case of the Alamo, “We lost.”  Followed shortly thereafter by “We win!”)
 
Movies tell us having an enemy is the natural way of things.  In real life – at least according to one writer – that is not necessarily the case.  What we need now are some memorable stories to back up that under-publicized perspective.

Hit the computers, boys and girls.

You have a long way to catch up.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Talking To Griffin, But You Can All Listen In"


I got a comment recently from Griffin.  The name is unfamiliar to me amongst my commenters, so if you’re new, welcome, Griffin, nice to hear from you.  And also – because with me after a compliment there is the inevitable “pull-back” – where have you been?

Consider this a follow-up to a post published on 3/9 entitled, “The Word That Effectively Ended My Career”, wherein I thought I was writing about lacking “edge” but I discovered in the course of writing the post that my career may actually have been curtailed due to – as hard as it is to believe – excessive optimism.  I was generically not dark enough.  Or, contrarily, I was too dark but unwilling to go there for my creative inspiration.

Asking a writer who lacks “edge” to define “edge” is like asking a blind man to describe the Acropolis.  Or something.  I am not exactly certain what “edge” looks like.  I just knew – and more importantly, my potential employers knew – that I didn’t have any.  

Also, Griffin, when you survey – as you do in your comment – the network television schedule looking for “edge”, being that network television is a commercially fueled enterprise where they are reluctant to offend anyone, you will at best find only “edge-lite.”  You want “edge” – basic cable.  You want more “edge” – Premium cable.  (You want “gross-out” – Howard Stern.)


Network “edge”, such as it is, is primarily located in the sexual arena – “Warning:  Adult language and situations.”  Virtually nothing on network TV reflects political, religious, gender, racial, nationalist or cultural “edge” – all are identity protected.  “Adult language and situations” unquestionably still offends some viewers, but a lot less of them than if you went after a religion or or did (even pretend) injury to an animal.

In England, it’s different.  Monty Python attacked everyone.  Nor did it spare the non-human.  Some beast was always flying through the air, or getting detonated.  In America, we are scrupulously careful around the sensibilities of the viewership.  Here’s an example of a kerfuffle I was involved in.  Tell me what you think about it.

I came up with this joke once for now Senator Al Franken’s short-lived sitcom Lateline.  Al’s character, “Al Freundlich” was talking excitedly about his wife’s spearheading an upcoming fundraiser:

“It’s for a new ‘Burn Unit’ at the Pediatric Jewish Hospital.  It’s for kids.  And you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just burnt.”

That was, maybe, my best “edge” joke ever, and NBC refused to allow us to use it because it offended…actually, I’m not sure who it offended.
Concerning sexual “edge”, to some degree because they are trying to attract a younger audience, the networks are gradually moving the “acceptability line.”  In other arenas – you will have to look elsewhere for the pushing of the comedic envelope.  By which I mean, not the networks.  And by the way, the networks’ efforts at sexual “edge”? – They are primarily for twelve year-olds. 

Griffin goes on in his comment to ask,

“What would you do to make one of your shows edgy?  I enjoyed Major Dad, for the most part, so how could it have become edgy and remain a family comedy?”

I believe I already answered the first question.  My natural sensibilities did not run in that direction – my point being, you can’t write it if you can’t imagine it.  As I had mentioned in the earlier post, I watched a colleague who was not inherently “edgy” try to force-feed “edginess” into his latest sitcom project, and it was excruciatingly embarrassing. 

You gotta stick to your “thing”, even if it carries you into retirement.  Not because of integrity – or not just because of integrity – but because “faking it” does not work; you will inevitably be exposed as an imposter.  And also get shown up by writers for whom “edginess” is their natural patois. 

And by the way, like the gunfighters?  Today’s “Emperors of ‘Edge’” should not get too comfortable because there is always somebody out there who’s younger… I mean, “edgier”… I mean, “edgier” because they’re younger, being less inhibited, and more generically “ahead of the curve.”    

Second question:  Or at least its implication.

Can a “family show” be edgy?

The short answer:  No. 

(Unless it is an animated show, or a show like Married With Children, which was basically a cartoon show with actual actors.  Animated “edginess” appears to be more acceptable – at least at Fox (The Simpsons, Family Guy), which was a latecomer to the network sweepstakes and was scrambling for an identity.  The other thing is, you will never have an animated sitcom star barging into the show runner’s office complaining, “My animated bar buddies think I’m an idiot.  Could you cut back on the ‘edginess’?”, so there is no trouble from the “talent” either.)

Why can’t family shows be “edgy”?  Because, the way Americans revere parenting – which they voluntarily turned into a verb – and the way they protect their children from danger – physical, psychological and entirely imaginary – where would that potential “edge” possibly derive from?

I recall a recent short-lived series entitled Up All Night, starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett produced by the company owned by Lorne “I Built My Reputation On ‘Edgy’” Michaels that could not find anything acceptable in a family show context to be “edgy” about.  I mean, you would never hear – even in dark and frustrated jest and in no way intended to be taken literally – “If that baby does not stop crying, I am going to put a pillow over its face!”

Although what parent… up all night, and exhausted beyond belief… has not experienced the flickering image…?

That would have been “edgy”, but you cannot say that.  I didn’t feel great using it as an example. 

Conceptually, an American family show can be nothing except “soft.”  Why so?  Because Americans are “soft on the family.”  I recall watching the Modern Family pilot, wondering whether the patriarch (the lead actor from Married With Children) would remain antagonistic to the gay couple.  By the final fadeout, the character had melted like a Hershey bar in the Kalahari Desert.

In family shows, the “money” is – and always has been – on minor difficulties that work out in the end.  We may not always get along, but we love our families and would not imagine tinkering with their brakes.

You know, I may have more “edginess” in me than I thought. 

Although it is possible it is the wrong kind.

Thanks, Griffin.

Drop by anytime.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"A Weighty Discovery"


One of the main reasons I visit this fitness that spa we go to in Mexico is to reboot my eating regimen.  (See how I used “reboot” there, like I actually know what I’m talking about?  I’m like the guy who hides his inability to speak French by speaking English with a French accent.  “Ah, yays, ze ‘reboot.’”)

Along with super-healthy food offerings, the fitness spa also enforces strict portion control, provides nutritional between-meal snacking (“zucchini smoothies”) and, as a personal, much appreciated bonus, it awards me with a “Frequent Visitor’s” upgrade to more sumptuous accommodations located further from the dining hall so I can burn extra calories hiking the considerably longer distance on my way to my meals.  The less luxurious rooms are, like, two minutes away!  Oh well.  They ought to visit more often.  

All this is enormously remedial.  Being home a lot, enjoying unfettered kitchen privileges, I must admit to numerous “snack intervals” in my regular routine.  I finish a draft of a blog post – I celebrate with a handful of crackers.  I take a break after my piano practice, I scarf down the leftovers from my lunchtime burrito.  Then I eat more crackers, because crackers are addictive; you cannot just eat twenty of them. And when I run out of crackers, I pour dry breakfast cereal into my hand and I…

Do you see how that goes?

At the fitness spa, Spartanizing their food regimen even further, for me, it is “three meals and out.”  That’s what I’m there for.  No bread, no snacks whatsoever, no extra portions – and I am soon back on my dietary track. 

It is the fitness spa’s discipline that makes that all possible.

Or so I believed.  (Students of writing, label this “the turn.”)

I have been back for about three-and-a-half weeks.  And with a minimum of exceptions, I have hewn assiduously to the fitness spa routine – regulated portion-size, “three meals and out.”

And then…

It began with – surrendering thirty-two years of resistance – our desire to install air conditioning in our upstairs bedroom, which in the past had heated up on those rare few days when the stultifying Santa Ana winds blew in off the desert.  Recently, however, the climatological conditions seem to have noticeably altered.  Now, though we are four blocks from the ocean and its cooling offshore breezes, the occasions when our bedroom becomes chokingly oppressive have gotten continually longer.  As a result…

We ordered air conditioning.   

The AC unit and ancillary tubing are installed.  The bedroom wall cries when they cut a substantial hole in it.  (Though that could have been me.)  The next day, the electrical guy arrives to hook up the machinery.

In the process, the electrician blows out our bedroom cable TV box, along with my bedside CD clock radio that I only recently learned to program.

Hearing his report, I nod with “stuff happens” understanding.

Then I head to the kitchen for a handful of cashews.

I call up the cable company to order a replacement for the now decimated cable box.  I am told that the “Service Visit” is free, but there will be an additional charge for the replacement cable box.  I say “Fine” and I finalize the appointment.

I then head down to the kitchen and I eat a muffin.  (I am purportedly “gluten free.”  The muffin is not.  Who cares?  It has vanished in four bites.)

Next, our building contractor/handy man shows up.

“Did you notice your garage door isn’t properly aligned?”

Two weeks ago, while my car was being serviced, I had hit our garage door with the “loaner car.”  I had immediately gotten the door repaired, but was too embarrassed to double-check on the work.

I call the garage door repair company, making an appointment for a “re-do.”

I return to the kitchen and eat an individual-sized pot pie. 

Cold.

Then the contractor tells me he has discovered some rotten wood in the outdoor siding.

I check it out, order it repaired, and race back to the kitchen for…

Anything!

That’s when I realize that my real problem, the one the fitness spa most importantly protects me from, is not my egregious eating habits…

It’s life.

For the week I stay there, the fitness spa totally insulates me from decision, difficulty, aggravation and strife.

And now…

I’m back.

Today, four repair people are arriving – the electrician, the garage door repairman, our building contractor and a guy from the cable company.

Excuse me.

(FOLLOWED BY FOOTSTEPS RACING DOWNSTAIRS TO THE KITCHEN.)

(REVERBERATING FROM THE DISTANCE)  “I wish I could live at the fitness spa!”