Friday, February 28, 2014

"What Are You, Crazy? - Have An Oscar"

A highly respected lighting director for feature film is hired to work on a big-budget “Courtroom Drama” set in 2014.  Before the film starts shooting, he meets with the movie’s director, to receive his instructions.


“I want naturalistic lighting.  On cue, the lights to go on – and the lights to go off.”


“No Oscar.”

The Film Editor meets with the director:


“Linear storytelling.  Nothing fancy.”


“No Oscar.”

A renowned Costume Designer takes her turn with the director:


“Contemporary attire.  Shoes.  Shirts.  Dark suits and ties.”


“No Oscar.”  (You cannot win an Oscar with a tie.)

The cinematographer sits down with the director:


“I want it clean, and I want it simple.”


“No Oscar.”  (“And boy, do I miss Fellini!")

The “Special Effects” Guru comes in for a meeting:


“I don’t even know what you’re doing here.  This is a ‘Courtroom Drama’!”


“No job".  (And consequently, of course, no Oscar.)

My point being:

You can do impeccable work in your area of expertise.  But if there is no demonstrable “flash” in your assignment....

There is no “Acceptance Speech” in your immediate future.

And, may I say, because this is where I’ve been heading with this all along, you can “Ditto” and double that for acting.

In my exhaustive research on this matter – and by “exhaustive” I mean, I did it till I got tired of it – I have discovered that the best – nay, the only – okay, let me quality –  the virtually only way of obtaining any Oscar consideration whatsoever is to nab a role playing a character who is either, sensory deprived, mentally troubled, some form of an addict, or a larger-than-life figure who actually existed.  


The following actors were either nominated or won Oscars for the following performances, all of which fall into the above-mentioned categories:  (NOTE:  If you can think of any other “Slam-Dunk” categories for sure-fire Oscars consideration, feel free to pass them along.)

Sensory Deprived:  (A partial smattering)

Al Pacino – Scent of a Woman ­­– won an Oscar, playing a blind man.

Jane Wyman – Johnny Belinda – won an Oscar, playing a deaf girl.

Patty Duke – The Miracle Worker – won a Oscar playing Helen Keller, who was deaf, dumb and blind.  (I don’t know why the other candidates in her category even bothered to show up.)

MENTALLY TROUBLED:  (To mention only four of what I am sure is a considerably longer list)

Russell Crowe – A Beautiful Mind – garnered an Oscar nomination for playing a crazy mathematician.

Jessica Lange – Frances ­­– nominated for an Oscar for playing a seriously trouble actress.  

Bette Davis – who, I believe, was “nutso” in ­every role she ever played – eleven Oscar nominations, two wins. 

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine – Keep your eyes open.

ADDICTS:  (A selected three, of substantially more)

Ray Milland – The Long Weekend – Oscar winner, for playing an alcoholic.

Lee Marvin – Cat BallouOscar winner, for playing an alcoholic.

Jamie Foxx – RayOscar winner, for playing a rock ’n roller who took a boatload of drugs. 

(Observation:  Addiction may be the most certain path of all to the Oscars podium.)

LARGER-THAN-LIFE FIGURES WHO ACTUALLY EXISTED:  (In on way comprehensive; I do have a life.)

Daniel Day Lewis – LincolnOscar winner, playing arguably, if you don’t ask anyone from the South, our greatest president.

Paul Muni – The Story of Louis PasteurOscar winner, for the man who made cow milk safe to drink.  (Unless you’re allergic.)  (A substantial portion of Paul Muni’s career involved playing Larger-Than-Life Figures Who Actually Existed; Muni also starred as Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez, and as French novelist and Dreyfus defender Emile Zola, the latter earning him yet another Oscar nomination.)

And since we are rapidly losing steam here, let’s pluck down

Jamie Foxx - who, in Ray, does “double-duty”, both as an “Addict” and as a “Larger-Than-Life Figure Who Actually Existed.”  Which category earned him the Oscar, it is impossible to say.

Okay, now, for those of you fuming at home, yes, award-winning dramatic performances require the characters to participate in, let’s say, harrowing or, if you wish, challenging situations, for which, I imagine you would agree, “sensorially impaired”, “addicted”, “losing your mind” and “running a country that is coming apart at the seams” would definitely qualify.

Drama equals extremes. 


But not exclusively true.

Some of our best actors excelled at playing ordinary people.  Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, to name but two, though they are part of a much larger contingent.  (Robert Cummings, Joel McCrea.) 

Both Stewart and Grant enjoyed long and industrious careers.  However, Jimmy only won only one Oscar, Cary Grant, only an honorary Oscar.

Nobody thinks they were bad actors.  The trouble was, they invariably portrayed regular people, who, in films I really like, like North By Northwest (Grant) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (Stewart), got caught up in dramatic situations. 

That’s the other kind of drama – the kind where people “just like us” – not crazy, not addicted, not in the history books, not blind – are faced with extraordinary circumstances when they are unexpectedly drawn into some serious shenanigans.

Grant’s and Stewart’s performances in the above-mentioned movies were wonderful.

But there was not a glimmer of love for them from the “Academy.”

What I am saying is,

There is no award for being “brilliantly ordinary.”

And I am thinking there should be.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Anatomy Of A Joke"

Yesterday, in passing, I referenced a joke delivered by President Obama at an annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which he shot back at New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for hectoring him repeatedly about his inability to successfully push through his agenda.  In the post, I called that joke “spectacular in every respect.” 

Setting aside the joke’s nightclub-caliber delivery by President Obama, my effusive praise goes specifically to the remarkable joke writer behind the scenes who masterfully crafted it for him.

Experiencing that impeccable comedic moment made my eyes twinkle brightly and my smile broaden in hat-tipping admiration.  And, when it comes to President Obama’s prepared remarks, not for the first time.

I recall a similar moment when, during the 2008 presidential campaign, the then candidate Obama humbly announced,

“My name is Barack Hussein Obama.  I got my first name from my father.  I got my middle name from someone who never thought I’d be running for president.”

I may not have the precise wording there, but, in its essence and intention, the joke stands out for being courageous, self-deprecating, and, most importantly, identifiably human. 

For a joke to exist, it must first be imagined.  It must then meticulously constructed.  (Sometimes, that happens spontaneously; sometimes, it doesn’t.)  Finally, it has to be approved, meaning the deliverer of that joke has to think it’s funny, and, albeit dangerous, worth telling. 

What the joke reveals is that the speaker is an transparently self-aware human being, burdened with a problematic middle name, especially if, at this current time in our history, he seeks election to the highest office in the land.  (The joke earns “Extra Credit” for being, not generic, but specifically tailored to the only person who could tell it.) 

By addressing a legitimate “negative” head on, the joke is indisputably bold, bringing its deliverer not only a well-deserved laugh but, through its uncomfortable self-admission, an acknowledging measure of undeniable respect.

And now, there is this joke.  The president’s magnificent “push-back” against Maureen Dowd during the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  The joke goes (exactly, ‘cause I looked it up) like this:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  Michael is here tonight.  Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? 

For me, the joke was breathtaking in its perfection.  The wording is perfect, as is the joke’s length.  (A carelessly worded joke that’s either too long or too short, no matter how funny the idea behind it is – it’s over.) 

I would ask you to pay particular attention to the joke’s construction.  For therein, for me, lies its exquisiteness.

The joke is constructed in an indirect manner.  It appears to be going one way.  Then, it swings around at the last second, nailing its victim solidly from an unexpected direction. 

Here are different, and to me, inferior ways that that same joke could be told: 

Let’s call this the “Louis Black Version”:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (LOOKING DIRECTLY AT THE AUDIENCE)  That an imbecile!

Sarcasm, anyone?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (A PAUSE.  THEN, DIRECTLY ADDRESSING MAUREEN DOWD)  Maureen, you do know that was a movie.

Or how about this approach:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in “The American President.”  (LOOKING UP)  Don’t blame me, Maureen.  Blame the Republicans who have conspired from “Day One” to defeat my agenda at every turn!  (AFTER A BEAT)  I’m sorry, I blanked out for a second.  I thought I was complaining to my wife.  

I kinda like that one.  And may possibly, had I the opportunity, have suggested it myself.  It’s angry, but with a “pull-back.”  But even that alternative does not hold a comedic candle to the actual selection.  It at first singles out Maureen Dowd, then turns, seemingly harmlessly, to address Michael Douglas, and then, in the guise of a conversation with Michael, it whips around, and obliterates Maureen Dowd.

That is a special joke.  A original prototype, I would assert. 

And one well worth stopping this whacky merry-go-round to pay tribute to.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Can I Get An 'Amen' For Moderation?"

I used to like Maureen Dowd, meaning I enjoyed reading her columns, not that I liked her personally.  I do not know her personally.  I just thought she was smart and articulate, which is another way of saying that she thinks and writes not that differently that me. 

Then, Maureen Dowd started calling the president “Barry”, and berating him for being insufficiently aggressive in furthering his agenda, a position many of the president’s disgruntled followers also held, but Maureen Dowd seemed more nasty about it, her burgeoning vindictiveness conjuring “payback” for some White House snubbing, which I do not know is true, it simply appeared that way from her insistently retributory tone.

The president got her back when he held forth at a recent “White House Correspondents' Dinner”:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President.  And I know Michael is here tonight.  Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?

So, “Bam!” and “Bam!” back at’cha!

In this context – and I could actually have started here, but I could not resist including that joke, not ‘cause it shot down Maureen Dowd, but because it’s a spectacular joke in all respects – not long ago, in a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd took a position favoring “snarkiness” – including imaginably her own – not by defending “snarkiness” itself, but by attacking its opposite –  “smarminess” – which, according to her column, refers to being unnecessarily effusive, and – since “nobody can be that nice” – insincerely complimentary. 

Dowd’s column drew attention to an ongoing literary tussle between the prevailing ethos of “snark”, which writer Heidi Julavits deplored as “a reflexive disorder”, and those on the other end of the critical spectrum who believe that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

To exemplify the latter position, Maureen Dowd offered the example of writer and magazine founder Dave Eggers who, in an interview in the Harvard Advocate, confessed that being a critic, as he had once been, “came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy.”  Eggers went on to urge his student audience: 

“Do you dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”

In rebuttal to what she characterized as the “vapid niceness brigade”, Maureen Dowd offered an essay in Gawker (I do not know what that is) by Tom Scocca, taking the position that, given the two alternatives, “snark” is better than “smarm.”

To which I reply,

“Hey, Tom (and Maureen Dowd, by association), those aren’t the only alternatives.”

(And, by the way, they have nothing to do with how passionately you feel, or how under attack your beliefs, at the moment, are.  “Snark” and “smarm” are simply the condiments of self-expression.  They are not about “what” – meaning what you believe; they are only about “how”, meaning how you communicate what you believe. 

To me – though apparently less so to others – the “how” matters.  A lot.  It is not only about, as Maureen Dowd argues in her final paragraph, the “actual privilege to take a side {in an important quarrel}.”  It is also about the way you do it.  It seems to me that, in her column, Maureen Dowd mistakenly mixed those two important issues together.)

A column delineating the argument of “Which is the better extreme?” excludes, without consideration, the array of defensible positions between the two poles.  I am entirely aware – and painfully so, since it contributed mightily to the ending of my career – that “Extremes sell!” – and that columns about extremes attract attention – and sometimes even “counter-column” responses – but, to me, it feels creepy, scary, uncomfortable and sad that, in a conversation about criticism, the argument is restricted to two far-flung – and highly questionable – alternatives.

The question for me is not, “Is ‘snark’ superior to ‘smarm’, or vice versa”? 

The question is:

“Have we, while conscientiously standing up for what we believe, abandoned the possibility of anything else?”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"A (Chronic) Victim Of Circumstance"

It appears that if you remain alive to get old enough, certain incidents, even highly unusual ones, cycle around for a reprise appearance.  What happened to me recently – which I could easily have done without – brought to mind the original occurrence – which I could also have done without, only more so.  Which I shall explain in due course.

Those of the appropriate age may recall the words “schlemiel” and “schlemazel” from the "Opening Titles" sequence for Laverne and Shirley, the two words followed by “Hassenfeffer Incorporated”, and then running. 

Though I am no expert in the Yiddish language, I am aware of these words, and of their traditional definitions.  A schlemiel is a hard-luck person who is continually spilling soup on himself.  A schlemazel is a hard-luck person other people are continually spilling soup on.

In the context of the following “Recurring Anecdote of Misfortune”, I believe I quality as a legitimate candidate for the “Shlemazel Hall of Fame.”

Recently, we arranged to have dinner at a restaurant with a couple who are new to the area.  It was like a preliminary “play date” for people in their sixties. 

They were both extremely companionable.  The woman was in Dr. M’s racket, and her husband was a neurologist, from whom I immediately solicited medical advice.  (His response to my complaint was the second favorite advice I can get from a doctor, which is “Leave it alone.”  My favorite is, “I can make that go away, for very little cost and it won’t hurt a bit.”  I have never received that type of medical advice, but I remain eternally hopeful of the possibility.)  

Near the end of the meal, as the dishes were being cleared prior to dessert, the waitperson accidentally knocked over the wine glass in front of me, shattering the glass on the floor, after first spilling its contents onto the tablecloth and my to-that-juncture pristine and stylish khaki pants.

There followed the standard flurry of apologies and the obligatory “It’s all right, it’s nothing” from the schlemazel.  Then a suitably chagrined restaurant manager arrived, echoing the apology, and offering to pay for the drycleaning if I brought in the receipt for the rehabilitation of my khakis.

The manager’s offer led me to pause.  For two reasons.  One, my khaki pants were “Machine Washable.”  And two, the following:

Years ago, on my birthday, Dr. M and I decided to dine at the acclaimed Palm Restaurant, an upscale eatery, notable for their steaks.  (No matter what the cost, I have never had a great-tasting steak in Los Angeles.  My dissatisfaction, it has been suggested, has something to do with the California-served beef being corn-fed rather than grass-fed, as the Eastern cattle are.  

My explanation is somewhat different.  I believe that the cows that are transported West were lied to and told they were going to be in the movies.  What you are tasting is the disappointment with how things actually turned out.  For whatever reason, I have never been delighted with California steak.)

We are enjoying our meal at The Palm.  It is a festive occasion.  It’s my birthday.  And to commemorate the milestone, I am wearing a spanking new camelhair sports jacket.  I do not recall exactly what Dr. M was wearing, but suffice it to say, we were a fine-looking couple.

At that point, as I was enjoying my reflection in an imaginary mirror, a waiter passing by missed a step, spilling a full plate of green beans all over my camelhair sports jacket.

I would call it déjà vu, because of the wine-spilling, but this incident came first, making it, technically, a deja pre-vu.  This similar unfortunateness was followed by the same repercussions – a series of profuse apologizes, followed by the manager’s offering to pay the bill for the drycleaning. 

Even though The Palm is a five-mile or so drive from Santa Monica, and the charge for drycleaning a sports jacket is hardly crippling, I decided to take them up on their offer.  (I would call it a “generous” offer, but a “generous” offer would be “Dinner is on us!”)  I surrendered the sports jacket to the local Dry Clean Express, and a few days later when I picked it up, I pocketed the bill, and I drove back to The Palm for my promised reimbursement.

I park the car, and I head into The Palm, thoughtfully arriving when the restaurant was not busy, and they would not have to inconvenience their customers to attend to me.  The restaurant was, in fact, empty.  The only person there was a Mediterraneanly complexioned gentleman standing idly behind the “Arrival Desk.”

I walk up to him, and I present my drycleaning bill, explaining the bean-spilling incident and the subsequent offer of reimbursement.  The man listened passively to my story, and then replied,

“Get the fuck out of here.”

Regular readers are aware that I am not confrontational by nature.  In this case, backing away seemed heightenedly appropriate, as the man’s breadth of suit jacket indicated a seriously pumped up upper body, or an “Enforcer” “packing heat.”

I judiciously retreated from The Palm, and I never went back.  I also like to repeat the words The Palm as frequently as I can, so as to encourage others to satisfy their steak-eating requirements at a more congenial locale.

So, years later, here I am again, only this time, it’s not steak, it’s wine, and it’s not my sports jacket, it’s my pants.  After a moment’s consideration, I thank the current debacle’s manager for his offer, and I politely turn it down.

I know myself.  I am aware of my over-compensating for previous embarrassments.  I could see myself returning to that restaurant, waving the drycleaning bill menacingly under the nose of a quivering employee, and, with veins of anger pulsating in my forehead, growling,

“Gimme the money, or I’ll mess you up good!

That would be wrong.  Nobody deserves to be spoken to that way.  Even the idiot at The Palm. 

Besides, it’s not necessary.

That man has to live with himself. 

That’s punishment enough.