Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Secret is Not Caring

 I have a high tolerance for disorder.  My desk says so; my car screams it.  I consider it Zen-like – something to be admired.  But then I got a dose of my own medicine.
My wife, we’ll call her “Jen,” is the kind of person who likes laundry to be put away.  You know the type – always with the folding and the finding a proper place for clothes. 
I do not share her obsession.  I’m okay with clean clothes sitting in a laundry basket at the foot of the bed.  I’ll find what I need.  And if what you need is a laundry basket, just dump the clean laundry on the bed.  Have I napped on, or under, clean laundry?  You better believe it.  And if the clothes are straight from the dryer and nice and toasty?  I’m getting drowsy just thinking about it.
But my rationale for not putting away my laundry is two….fold. 
First, in some ways it’s very practical.  It saves me time.  I have two dressers – nine drawers.  I have an armoire with two shelves and lots of hanging space.  I also share another large closet with that wife I mentioned.  The shirt I’m looking for could be anywhere!  To open and sift through all those drawers and potential hiding places for my long-sleeved Legoland t-shirt (a favorite) would take literally minutes.  But the laundry basket is like a wide-mouthed drawer – open at the top, and with holes in the sides.  I can peer down into its maw, or circle it and find the shirt in seconds.  Seconds!  Consider that I get dressed every single day – that time will really add up.
Second – and this is key – I know that if I don’t put my clothes away, at some point, “Jen” will have had enough, or she’ll need the basket, and she’ll do it for me.  More time saved.
This symbiotic relationship has served us well for the past 17 years of marriage, but apparently all good things must come to an end. 
As our family has grown, so too has the sheer volume of laundry we generate.  Out of necessity, we’ve acquired an absurd number of laundry baskets.  And this means she doesn’t need mine anymore. 
We have at least six in use in the house.  And right now four of them have my clean laundry in them.  They sit lined up between the closet and one of the dressers, mostly out of the way, clothes folded (by her) within. 
It would seem “Jen” has developed her own high tolerance for this particular brand of disorder.
Actually, one day she was struggling to put away my laundry.  She had a basket-and-a-half of clean clothes to go and absolutely no drawer space left.  She threw in the freshly-laundered towel.  She told me I’d have to go through my clothes and donate or toss that which I don’t wear anymore, and until that was done, she was done worrying about it.
I told her I understood and supported her decision.  Later that weekend I was walking through Target and saw t-shirts had been reduced to $3.  I bought five.  (They’re fully in the rotation in laundry baskets “Bravo” and “Charlie” – I saw them this morning.)
My unwillingness to put away my laundry is not hostile.  I simply believe my time is better spent on other pursuits.  Pursuits that are more fun, easier, or offer an immediate reward.  And no, a laundry basket-free room is not particularly rewarding.  At least not to me. 
It’s why this essay languished in my mind for weeks, then in fragments in my notebook, and finally as bits and pieces on my computer.  I thought it would be fun to write about laziness, but when I started looking for a theme it turned to hard work.  Like finding a place for my cherished teal “Cape Cod” shirt I bought in the summer of 2001.  I wanted to finish the essay, but other essays were more fun or easier to write.  Likewise, I wanted to find a spot for the t-shirt, but I might wear it tomorrow, so I’ll just leave it on top of the laundry basket.
So, like everyone, I am constantly navigating this delicate balancing act between that which I must do and that which I would like to do.
Must do?  Reclaim the basement from the clutter caused by recent reorganization.  Like to do?  Reclaim the high score in Temple Run that was recently snatched from me by one of the children.  Must do?  Take my car in for service.  Like to do?  Take my car to the mall and go to the movies.  Like I said, a balancing act.
The balance works in our house because as hard as I’m tugging on the “fun, instant gratification” side, my wife is there pulling on the “responsible” side.  But recently it all got turned on its head.
Our cat, I’ll call her “Mao,” has a tendency to work herself into a frenzy when she’s hungry.  She attacks her food, wolfing it down like a New York City straphanger devouring a Papaya King hot dog as the 2 train approaches.  The result, in both cases, can be a little indigestion.  In the case of the cat, this can lead to her throwing up a little dry food from time to time. 
It’s dry food, so it’s not a big deal – one can scoop it up with a dry paper towel.  We’ve all taken turns doing this – even the kids.  But recently the cat threw up a little dry food exactly in the middle of the top step leading to our basement. 
Since it was in the dead center, there was little risk of stepping in it, thereby negating the house rule, “you step it in, you clean it up.”  Also, the step is carpeted with what, now that we think about it, we would call “Cat Vomit” colored carpeting. 
Nobody saw it for quite awhile.  I finally did, but didn’t have a paper towel in my hand.  Since it was so well camouflaged I decided to un-notice it, quite confident that “Jen” would soon see it.  She didn’t. 
I side-stepped the puke for the better part of a week.  Then it became two.  I decided she wasn’t going to see it, the cat wasn’t going to eat it, and the kids weren’t going to step in it, so I’d just clean it up.  But at the moment I reached this magnanimous decision, there were no paper towels on the roll.  And the responsible moment passed.  I had new “like to dos,” and The Steps Puke was pushed down the list.
Look, I’m not particularly proud, but a third week went by and it dried out even more.  I was sure “Jen” would see it any day now.
Ironically, we had all cleaned up other bits of puke in other locations in this time, but The Steps Puke remained unmolested.  One full month after I first noticed it, I decided I had had enough.  There were paper towels in the dispenser, I was full of coffee, and ready to take on the world.  It was a perfect storm.  I stepped into the living room and said, “Fine, you win.  I’ll clean up the vomit on the stairs.” 
“Jen” looked up at me – she had been sitting there folding laundry – and said, “Oh, yeah, thanks.  I figured it was disintegrating and would eventually just disappear.”
I was speechless.  As laundry baskets stacking up wouldn’t get to me, apparently out-of-the way cat vomit wouldn’t get to her. 
She’s gone native.  And I don’t care for it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some clothes to sort through, the donation truck is coming on Tuesday.

Friday, February 03, 2012

My, how big your brain is!

I’ve been trying to come to terms with e-books for some time now, and I simply can’t do it.  I won’t!

It’s not that I fear technology – I embrace it, I really do.  I have an iPad.  I speak text.  I stream Netflix movies…wirelessly!  What?  Yesss.  I have technology street cred, my friend! 
I have two problems with e-books.  First, and I don’t think I’m overstating this here, e-readers and e-books are harbingers of the apocalypse.  Like the Real Slim Shady, they have been sent here to destroy us.
E-books are pulling the rug out from under the traditional publishing world by giving everyone the ability to publish their book.  But just because one can do something, does not mean one should.
This new technology has put great power in the hands of ordinary people, but as Cliff Robertson told Tobey Maguire, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” 
Sadly, ordinary people are reckless, egocentric maniacs.  No offense.
There was a time – a good, sensible time – when a person told you he had self-published his novel and you smiled politely, mumbled something encouraging, and then hoped like hell you could get away before he took you out to his car to sell you one of the thirty copies he had in the trunk.
Are there well-written self-published novels out there somewhere?  Probably.  Am I willing to sift through stacks of garbage to find them?  No.  (If you are, and you find a gem and tell me about it, will I believe you?  Um, no.  Sorry.)
Originally, self-published books went through a vanity press, which told you that at the very least the author had $500.  Now, with e-books, it doesn’t even take that.  You can write your screed for free on a computer at your local library, and for a fraction of what a vanity press run costs, convert your work to an electronic format and get it up on Amazon or and start harassing people to download it.
You’ve completely bypassed The Establishment! 
Well, how nice for you. 
But what about us?  We now have to read the thing.  And, yes, we understand your mom said you’re a great writer; and we get that your boyfriend loved your manuscript.  We also understand that all your coworkers told you how funny you are; we even understand how impressed you are with yourself.  But that doesn’t mean what you wrote is worth our time.
I’m a big believer in the gate keeping responsibilities of The Establishment.  And I say this as an outsider looking in, hoping someday to be on the inside, pouring boiling oil on people who are then as I am now. 
Those gate keepers provide an invaluable quality control mechanism.
Do the gate keepers keep out good work unintentionally or because of a scarcity of resources?  Most definitely.  Are traditional publishing houses limited in the number of titles they can release in any given year, regardless of merit?  Absolutely.  Do the traditional publishing houses release garbage some times?  Of course they do.
It’s not that I believe all books published traditionally are of superior quality to self-published books.  What I do believe is that there is a far greater percentage of self-indulgent, unedited, rambling trash amongst self-published books – and e-books make it easier than ever. 
Hence the coming fall of western civilization.
But even worse, e-readers don’t let people realize how very smart you are. 
Look, if I’m going to read a 500+ page Jonathan Franzen book it’s only partly because I think he’s a great writer.  I’m also reading it because I want you to see me reading it!  I want you to think, “wow, look at that guy reading David McCullough.  He must have an enormous brain!”
With the Kindle, the Nook, or any of the other e-readers out there, I could be sitting in the coffee shop reading Dostoyevsky.  But I could just as easily be reading a book by Snooki.
This point was driven home to me twice recently.
In December I was reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” a very esoteric travelogue by essayist and novelist Paul Theroux.  I was so close to finishing (and at this point I was anxious to be done with the damn thing) I started carrying the book with me, sneaking in pages here and there as I limped to the end. 
After a particularly grueling day at the TV studio where I freelance, two coworkers and I decided to unwind with some beer in the snooty bar in the snootier power restaurant above the studio.  The regular clientele are lobbyists, Congressmen, and the occasional high-priced call girl; we were, to say the least, underdressed and out of place.
But we were thirsty and undeterred.  I plopped down into the booth, set Theroux down next to me, and got ready to pay $14 for a Stella Artois. 
The hostess looked at us and scrunched up her nose; customers stole sideways glances at us, and I began to think we might be on the road sooner than I thought.  Eventually, one of the bartenders decided our $14 was just as good as anyone else’s, so she begrudgingly came over to take our order. 
She spoke to my colleagues first, reciting the draught beers (starting with domestics – we had that look about us) and made a wine recommendation with as few words as possible.  Then she looked at me, and her eyes wandered to the book by my side.
She practically gasped, leaned in closer to see that her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her, and asked me incredulously, “Are you reading that?” 
“I am,” I said.
We chatted very briefly about the book and Theroux, and just like that, we were elevated from riff raff who had wandered in, to some elite class of intellectuals.  We got our drinks quickly, and we even received a free round.  All because I had a pretentious book by my side, on display!  If I had been reading it on my Kindle, she never would have known.  We might still be waiting for those drinks.
A few weeks later I was walking around with the late Christopher Hitchens’ most recent book, “Arguably Essays.”  The bright yellow book, from which Hitchens’ mug dolefully and disapprovingly looks out at us is 816 pages and weighs in at almost three pounds.  How smart I must be to be able to carry this book around!
I was stopped by none other than my Temple’s Senior Rabbi – not just any Rabbi, mind you.  The senior Rabbi!  She touched my arm, stopping me as I walked by and said, “Wow, some light reading, eh, Michael?”
You’re darn tootin’, Rabbi!  You’re darn tootin’!
Let me sum up my arguments against e-books: 1) self-indulgent self-published authors lead to end of days, and 2) on a Kindle nobody knows how smart you are.  I think that about says it all. 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I just bought a book “The New York Times” called “one of the most extraordinary books of the year,” and I need to go read it somewhere in public.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ode to Homage

Writers are often asked, “where do you get your ideas?”  It’s a difficult question – my new stock answer is going to be, “Luxembourg.”

Part of the reason the question is so difficult to answer is that it’s actually the wrong question.  The correct question is more like, “what inspired you to write that?”  Now that’s a good question – one we can all answer.

Everything we’ve ever written: a column, short story, novel, poem, song, screenplay, joke, or anything in between, came from some specific place, and we usually can pinpoint its origin.

The young adult novel I’ve been working on for the better part of five years was inspired by a meal my oldest daughter and I had at one of the theme restaurants in the Disney Wilderness Lodge Resort.  The screenplay my writing partner and I used as our senior thesis at NYU, “…and if you take cranberries” was a satiric send-up of all the pretentious art students surrounding us at the time.  (Note: “Cranberries” never really went anywhere, though several of the inspiring personalities have become quite successful in their fields.  Cynic’s karma at work.)

I’ve been inspired by people, conversations, pictures, buildings, news stories, and often, other works of fiction. 

This last one is a bit tricky.  It’s a fine series of lines between “inspiration,” “homage,” and “plagiarism.”  Where does one stop and the next begin?

I’ve been working on a screenplay idea for a few months called “Small Packages.”  It’s about a female detective who finds herself protecting a young girl from a shadowy government agency.  Sound familiar?  Well, there was a 1998 film called “Mercury Rising,” with Bruce Willis as an outcast FBI agent protecting a young autistic boy from a shadowy government agent played by Alec Baldwin.

I definitely drew inspiration from the film, but I wanted to deal with some other issues.  Mainly, I wanted to write a hero who was deeply flawed and perhaps unable to be redeemed.  And I wanted to make the hero a woman. 

So you see, this is quite different.  My hero, Detective Kate McCallister, is nothing like Willis’ Special Agent Art Jeffries.  She’s deeply flawed and has trouble with interpersonal relationships.  She’s more like Holly Hunter’s Detective Grace Hanadarko from “Saving Grace.”  Oh.

Ah, but I’ve made other changes.  For example, my kid isn’t an autistic math whiz who breaks codes like the “Mercury Rising” boy, or Keifer Sutherland’s son in the new show “Touch.” No, the reason the government wants to get their hands on this girl is that she has some kind of telekinetic power they want to understand and control. 
What’s that?  2009’s “Push” had a similar theme?  Ah.

Well, that’s okay, I’ve got my premise, I’ve got my characters, I’ll just be careful to tell my story in a unique way.  I know, I’ll take a break to clear my head and think this through.  (That’s code for “going to the movies,” by the way.)

Shh, the previews are starting.

Oh, look, this one is about teenagers who have some kind of telekinetic powers and are hunted by a shadowy government agency.  Sigh.

Okay, put that one behind me.  Another preview is starting.  This one’s about a young girl…being protected by a outsider cop…as she’s pursued by lots of bad guys in New York City.  Double sigh.

Well, maybe I can tweak my story.  Maybe the cop and the girl will survive a plane crash and be running from a pack of wolves – curse you, Liam Neeson.  Okay, what if they’re out on a ledge and…oh, never mind.

At least you know what inspired this column.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Room for One More Messrs. Statler and Waldorf?

A friend of mine, we'll call him, "Henry," often accuses me of being a hater because I am frequently unenthusiastic about the movies we tend to see together. I generally shrug off his criticism – I mean, is he going to go to the mattresses for "Real Steel?" I didn't think so.

But lately I've been on a tear where Hollywood just can't seem to please me. "Hugo?" Violently hated it. "The Artist?" Meh. "The Iron Lady?" Not so much. "The Adventures of Tin Tin?" Zzzzzzzzz. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?" More like, The Girl with the Major Plot Holes.

Then the Academy Award nominations came out, and guess what? Every single film I mentioned here, (yes, even, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Rocky) is nominated for something, if not multiple awards. Could "Henry" be right? Could I be a hater? Have I become a grumpy old man who longs for the good old days?
I decided to conduct a self exam. I figured a good place to start would be to look at the films I saw in 2011 and see what I thought.

Of the 500 or so films major studios released in 2011 I saw 44. I'd call 15 of them "Good." I'd recommend them, watch some of them again. I'd consider 18 of them to be "Okay." And just over the line from "Okay," live 10 films I'd call "Dumb." And one movie sent me into a homicidal rage, (you know who you are, you English boy living inside the walls of a Paris train station.)

So for me, Hollywood is batting .340 at least. Depending on my mood, an Okay could climb to Good – a movie like "Contagion," or "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." But it cuts both ways – an Okay could easily slip to Dumb if I look a little closer. So watch your step "X-Men: First Class," or "Captain America: The First Avenger."

In fact, thinking about it, I just downgraded Captain America to Dumb.

But let's focus on the positive. If just a third of the movies I'm so-so on can become Good – which seems reasonable – that makes Hollywood's average for me this year 48%. That's not too shabby – a decent return on my time, and a favorable score any politician would kill for.

But there's a dark side too. Of the 10 films I didn't like, and the one film that I hated with the burning white hot passion of a thousand suns, three of them have been nominated for Academy Awards (including the most nominated film this year).


What was it about these films that I disliked so much, while others fawned over them?

No doubt overhyping had something to do with it. I try not to let them get my expectations up too high, but sometimes there's nothing you can do – a mediocre film that is the darling of critics and festival crowds very often becomes a victim of its own success. (Hello, "The Artist.")

But upon closer examination of the films I thought were real dogs, or just hugely disappointing to me this year: "Hugo," "Young Adult," "Tattoo," "The Iron Lady," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and a few others, it was about storytelling.

I usually found them to be weak stories badly told, and filled with poor story choices. I don't do spoilers – even for films I didn't enjoy – so I'll write in generalities.

"Tattoo's" characters are thoroughly developed, but 2/3 of the way through, depart so far from what is reasonable for those characters that it is as if the author and screenwriter are introducing two new characters. (To be fair to the filmmakers – this is one of two major problems in the book itself. The film is quite true to the book.)

"The Iron Lady" had a great subject – a powerful, groundbreaking, history-altering woman. Unfortunately, the filmmakers clearly hold Thatcher in contempt and as such, give us a glancing blow of what has no doubt been a fascinating life, and instead focus on mocking an old woman who may be showing signs of Alzheimer's.

"Young Adult" was a brave attempt – a film with a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. But a few weeks into production, it appears they ran out of film so they just ended it.

We weren't so lucky with "Hugo." They had all the film they needed to destroy this great book. I've written about it before, so I don't need to beat this dead horse, suffice to say, the director made choices that I find…inconceivable.

And "Rise?" Well, I didn't go expecting a Best Picture type of film, but in the classic Apes films, it's this story – how it all happened – that is the richest material to mine, and it's my personal favorite. The 2011 version just fell flat with weak characters, confusing motivations, and apes that can reproduce faster than the Duggar family. Such a waste.

As a writer who struggles everyday with storytelling – with making characters real and logical, giving them unique voices, depth, and souls; with trying to find where the story begins and where it ends, and how we get there – it is this sloppy storytelling that I find so disappointing. I don't think it's too much to ask for a story that holds up. And my goodness, with the amount of money riding on these films, why wouldn't you take the time to use a coherent script?

But there was plenty of good storytelling this year too. "Source Code," "Winter in Wartime," "Hanna," "Midnight in Paris," "The Debt," "Friends with Benefits," "Crazy Stupid Love," "Drive," and "Fright Night" were some highlights for me. There were others, of course, but these stood out as triple threats: clever, well-written, and well-acted. They were worth my time, and if you missed them, seek them out. (Thank goodness there's an Oscar nominee in here. At least I'm not 100% perverse.)

In the end, I don't consider myself a hater. I consider myself someone who knows a good story when he hears one, but just as well, can spot a stinker too. I'm more than willing to give up two of my hours and 10 of my dollars, but, Hollywood, you better bring your A game. I'd hate to think you brought me anything less.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Extremely Apologetic and Unbelievably Genuine

Two high-profile apologies caught my attention this weekend that I thought I’d write about today.  The first was Mark Wahlberg’s apology for saying in an interview that if he and his family had been aboard one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 – as he was scheduled to be – things would have happened differently.  The second was also 9/11-related when Warner Brothers apologized for running trailers for their new movie, “Unbelievably Loud and Incredibly Close,” near the site of the attacks.  (The trailer includes images of Sandra Bullock watching the Twin Towers burn.)

I believe both apologies were unnecessary and I planned on beginning with a snarky comment about how it had been “X” days since we’ve had a good public apology and that we were simply due.  I did a quick internet search for “issued an apology” and was surprised to find that zero days had elapsed since the last apology.

We’re up to our necks in apologies – more than 1,700 news stories about apologies in the past month.  We’re either too thin-skinned for our own good, or we put too many microphones in front of too many dolts.

Here were some of the Apology Highlights for the month of January, (you can follow the links to read more about each story, but do come back here to see if I can tie it all up in a bow at the end):

Vancouver police have apologized for mistakenly arresting (and roughing up) a man in his front yard.  The police were chasing a different man who was seen running from a nearby bank.  Apparently the cops couldn’t catch him, what with all the running, so they decided to literally tackle the easier target – some guy standing still.  While officers were repeatedly lowering the innocent man’s face to the ground, a fleet-footed member of the force did manage to catch up with the Bank Runner.  Interestingly enough, he was released because simply running is apparently not a crime.  He hadn’t robbed the bank, rather he was just late for something.
An Argentine daily newspaper, Pagina/12, apologized for a cartoon depicting Hitler running a concentration camp dance party at which he confided in the DJ that when the Jews relax and dance, the soap he makes from their corpses is better.  Yah.
Katy Perry’s father, an evangelical minister, apologized for some unoriginal anti-Semitic remarks he made that seemed to be geared towards bringing Mel Gibson into his flock.
And in case you think only anti-Semites say things worthy of apology, the editor, owner, and publisher of a paper called “The Atlanta Jewish Times” issued an apology for writing in an editorial that he thinks Israel should assassinate President Obama to preserve Israel’s future.  Also perhaps he should look into whether or not doctors can now reverse full frontal lobotomies.
Fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has apologized twice this month.  First for racist actions they did not take, and then a second time for those actions.  Uh-huh.  At issue are allegations that the D&G store in Hong Kong allows Chinese and other tourists to take pictures in front of the store, but does not allow native Hong Kongers to do so.  What I loved about both these apologies is that they convey the sentiments of a certain Cee-Lo Green song. 
From the first apology: “…our company has not taken part in any action aimed at offending the Hong Kong public.”  And from the second: “We understand that the events which unfolded in front of [our store] have offended the citizens of Hong Kong, and for this we are truly sorry and we apologise.”  Well done.
CBS Sports apologized for announcing that Joe Paterno had died.  That’s one of those cases where they meant to SAVE DRAFT but instead hit PUBLISH.  (I hate when that happens – and now look, between first draft of this column and publication, he has actually passed away.)
A Cardinal in Chicago apologized for comparing gays and lesbians to the Ku Klux Klan.  This too seems like a reasonable apology, though after reading his original statement, the first non-apology, and then the actual apology, I’m not 100% certain he was making that comparison.  I think he just might be really bad at making analogies.
“Pizza” chain Papa John’s apologized for a customer receiving a receipt that identified her with a racial slur.  The individual franchise offered a silly and weak apology, then HQ stepped in and did it right with an unequivocal apology and instructions to fire the employee responsible.  Good for them.  And good for them also sticking to their guns and not apologizing for the pizza itself.
There were other apologies that, like these listed above, were called for.  But what I really wanted to write about was the unnecessary apologies.  I put the Wahlberg and Warner Brothers apologies in that category.  They are apologies motivated by fear of offending, or regret at having offended people who generally have too much time on their thin-skinned hands.
The Warner Brothers apology and promise to pull the ads from public spaces close to the New York site of the 9/11 attacks was either part of a well-thought out publicity effort or much ado about nothing.
I suspect the film, like the book upon which it is based, deals with the tragedy and loss around 9/11 in a meaningful and respectful way.  I say “suspect” because I haven’t read the book and doubt I’ll see the movie.  Why?  I don’t feel the need to relive the tragedies; however, I also don’t begrudge others their right to do just that.  Tragedies just aren’t really my thing, not if I can help it.  And if it involves the premature death of a parent with young children, or children themselves, yeah, I’ll take a pass on that.
If the Warner Brothers trailers were for the film adaptation of “9/11 The Musical: Let’s Roll…and Rock” I could see that being upsetting – not just to people who lived through the attacks first hand, but for most.  But they weren’t.  They were somber, serious trailers for a somber, serious film. 
Pulling the trailers from locations in lower Manhattan is silly.  If the images upset people, they’ll upset them everywhere.  Should the marketing department track the location and movement of everyone impacted by 9/11 to ensure they don’t run the ads near these people?  In a way, the implication is insulting to the rest of us: people who live and work in lower Manhattan feel real pain, the rest of us are pikers.
The studio overreacted.  Or they played it perfectly, earning some extra ink by using traumatized victims to help build buzz for the film.  I hope that wasn’t the plan.
Mark Wahlberg, a proud family man with a history of real life violence, (as a youth, he was banned from the South Boston Boys & Girls Club he used to attend and now financially supports), said, “If I was on that [9/11] plane with my kids, it wouldn't have went down like it did -- there would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, 'OK, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry.'"
He was saying that if the lives of his children were being threatened, he would be compelled to act, putting his fists where his mouth is.  Now the blood all over First Class may well have ended up being his, and nothing would have changed from a historical perspective, but why can’t he express those thoughts? 
His apology, which, by the way, was actually top notch and classy, gives us a clue.  He said, “To suggest I would have done anything differently than the passengers on that plane was irresponsible. To speculate about such a situation is ridiculous to begin with…I deeply apologize to the families of the victims that my answer came off as insensitive, it was certainly not my intention."
The apology implies that some were offended because they thought Wahlberg was saying he is braver and loves his children more than the passengers on the plane.  Really?  Do they genuinely think Wahlberg thinks this?  I mean, really and truly.   I don’t.  And guess what, it doesn’t matter if he does.  He’s just a person, entitled to an opinion.  An opinion I don’t think he was expressing, and even if he was, it says more about him than about the 9/11 victims.
And guess what?  I’ve had similar thoughts, (without the First Class bit).  And I’ll bet we’re not alone. 
We’ll never know for sure everything that happened on the planes that were flown into the Twin Towers; for all we know, some passengers, like those on United 93, did rise up against the hijackers and were killed for their efforts to get back to their families.
I simply don’t believe it’s disrespectful to try to imagine how you would have reacted if you had been placed in that terrible situation.  Asking yourself “what would I do?” is what makes us human.  And I think it’s a question every American asked after the 9/11 attacks.  It doesn’t lessen the memory of those who died, if anything, our reflecting on the horror they faced keeps their memory and courage alive.
Wahlberg did not need to apologize for what he said.  His involvement in “The Happening,” however, is another matter.
The reality is, I think there’s too much apologizing going on.  Public figures and companies are often quick to apologize for things that will hurt their image or sales, and they usually don’t really mean them.  Not one contrite word.
For example, Mel Gibson’s apologies, (like those of Katy Perry’s father) are completely hollow.  They are not sorry for what they said.  They are sorry we heard them.  And they absolutely still hold those beliefs, and they always will.  They can, as Susan Ross (Heidi Swedberg) from “Seinfeld” said, “stuff those ‘sorrys’ in a sack.”
This endless succession of publicly expedient apologies that the politically correct and easily-outraged demand, and the accompanying hand-wringing, tersely-worded, and legally-non committal statements, and in some cases the shedding of gallons of crocodile tears, devalue the genuine apologies.  Apologies like Mr. Wahlberg’s.
Before we demand apologies and threaten boycotts we should ask ourselves two key questions.  First, does this situation truly merit a public flogging and apology or am I just a little grumpy today?  And second, will the apology matter or will I not believe it?  If the answers are “no,” we should probably just put the incident behind us and get on with our lives.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is It Me, Or Is Everyone A Little Too Easy to Please?

The best reviewed film of 2011 is "The Artist," a French movie about Hollywood during the turnover from silent films to talkies. The film itself is mostly silent, (more on what that means in a moment). The film has been wowing audiences at film festivals and picking up awards all over the globe. It was nominated for, but did not win, the Palm d'Or at Cannes, but it did just win three Golden Globes, including Best Film, Musical or Comedy. Critics, (97% fawning according to Rotten Tomatoes) are using words like "joyful," "mesmerizing," and "stunning." I'd use words like "fun," "interesting," and "adequate."

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film. Not as much as when it was called "Singing in the Rain," but I did enjoy it.

The star, Frenchman Jean Dujardin, is even more handsome and charming than the stars upon whom he is based; he's Douglas Fairbanks, Maurice Chevalier, Gene Kelly, and Rudolph Valentino all rolled into one, and he carries the film. I think it's his magnetic smile, hugely expressive face, and intoxicating performance that has so fooled audiences into thinking they're seeing a complete film.

Dujardin deserves his Golden Globe and the other awards he's been winning, and he'll deserve his Oscar nomination that is going to be forthcoming. He might even deserve to win. And I suspect he will.

But while Dujardin's performance is electric, the rest of the film is somewhat incomplete.

I have to be careful here – I already loathed another film that people have been falling all over themselves this season calling it an instant classic. I also can't use the Emperor's New Clothes analogy – I used it on Scorsese's "Hugo." Actually, that kind of criticism is too harsh here. "Hugo" made me violently angry, "The Artist" just disappointed me – a victim of its own critical success – being overhyped the way it has been.

The fact that the film is almost completely silent is an almost completely clever homage to the films of the day. What does everyone mean "mostly silent?" Well, there are two brief sequences in the film where we do hear sound, and director Michel Hazanavicius has chosen them well. (Sorry, I don't do spoilers, even in films I'm not crazy about. You'll have to take my word for it that the sequences work and are fun.)

Gosh that's a great idea – making a silent movie about making silent movies but using a little bit of sound. Where have I seen that before? Oh right, Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie." While several reviewers have mentioned "Singing in the Rain," nobody has given a nod to Brooks' brilliant effort.

One of the things reviewers seem to like most about the film is that it is an homage to silent films, and being silent is a part of that. Well, here's the problem. Most silent films don't hold up today. The characters are one-dimensional, the stories are so simple you could write out the plot on just a few title cards, and the dramatic tension is usually limited to a woman being tied to railway tracks. The films are, in a word, hokey.

I mean no disrespect to the films of the day. They were experimental and ground-breaking; they paved the way for all the great films that have come since, and the films yet to be. We couldn't have the medium today without the work they did then, but that doesn't mean what they did then, works today.

It's kind of like how medicine has evolved over the years. We couldn't have the miracle of blood transfusions today had it not been for the leechings of yesteryear. But if your doctor told you he wanted to drain some of your bad blood to cure you, would you think his treatment was a charming homage to 17th Century doctors, or would you call the authorities?

If anything, "The Artist" is too true to the films of the late 20s that it is about. The characters are extremely one-dimensional and they go on a journey only of time. Their character arcs are not arcs at all, but rather flat lines. As a result, the film is a little boring, and it drags in the middle as a result. And that is the problem I had with the film. No character growth – for better or for worse. And that's not a best picture, not in my book.

I'm not saying you shouldn't see, "The Artist." I enjoyed it, and it is a cleverly crafted and well-acted film. All I'm saying is, everyone needs to calm down with the hoopla about this being The. Best. Film. About Films. Of All Time. As "Singing in the Rain's" Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) would say, "It ain't."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When Fear Mongering for the Greater Good Isn't Good

Political discourse, by its very nature, can be a nasty business. And it's this last word that makes the difference: business. With so much money riding on each election, politics has become big business. And it's zero sum game: your loss is my victory. As such, there's very little room for an honest debate of ideas – there's too much at stake. If more people believe your idea than believe mine, I'm out of work. So discourse has continued its descent into the abyss and manipulation carries the day as they smugly mine the depths of intellectual dishonesty.

When I worked in Congress in the mid-90s as a press secretary I remember being apoplectic at some manipulative stunts President Clinton and his team pulled. The issue was the unsustainable growth of Social Security and Medicare (déjà vu anyone?). Republicans in Congress hammered out what they thought was a deal with the White House. They'd slow the annual growth of the programs from X% to .9X% (or some such fraction of the original). Then President Clinton went on national television and a hand-wringing tour of AARP hot-spots talking about standing up to the "draconian cuts in Social Security and Medicare" the Republicans were proposing.

Of course it was utter nonsense – the programs were not being cut, they just weren't going to grow as quickly as they had been. Since the future spending hadn't yet happened there was nothing to cut, draconically or otherwise. Then-Speaker Gingrich and other leaders didn't believe the President's manipulation of the facts would successfully scare senior citizens. They were, as Gingrich would say, "exactly and fundamentally wrong." The remarkably skilled President made us all eat a big sandwich of something that didn't taste very good. (I believe to this day Gingrich still has that taste in his mouth – part of the reason he comes across so angry.)

But that was 15 years ago. That kind of mere massaging of the facts would be welcome today. Just ask President Obama how he feels about Republican scare tactics that his health care reform included death panels to oversee the murder of senior citizens.

Both instances, and hundreds more between them are shameful manipulations. I mean "manipulation" in the true etymological sense. From manipulate – "control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously" (from the Oxford English Dictionary, emphasis added).

But is it unscrupulous to manipulate an argument for the common good? Forget about politics for a moment here – show me a politician who doesn't believe his or her entire career is "for the common good" and I'll show you somebody not actually in politics.

No, I mean would it be okay to manipulate a young person to, for example, prevent him from taking up smoking? Would it even be manipulation if you told him smoking damaged his lungs and could lead to his premature death. Those statements are completely accurate. It can't be unscrupulous to tell the truth, can it?

I vividly recall the terribly animated 1973 ABC After School Special "The Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical, Mystery Trip," starring Timer of "Time for Timer" fame. Timer, that Singing and Dancing yellow blob, booger, or piece of pollen, or whatever he was, shrunk two kids down to his microscopic size and took them on a journey through the body of their sleeping (passed out?) Uncle Carl. Carl drank and smoked and didn't exercise, and was generally unhealthy. Timer wanted the kids to see what Carl was doing to his body from the inside in the hopes that they would not follow down Carl's path, and maybe even convince Carl to change his ways before it was too late.

Like most ABC After School specials of the day, I was all over it. But when Timer brought the kids into Carl's lungs it was all over for me. You see, not only did Uncle Carl smoke, but my father smoked too.

Timer hammered the kids on the dangers of smoking and made it seem like Carl might not even survive the special. The smoking destroyed his lungs, thinned his blood, and was sending Carl to an early grave via the one-two punch of a heart attack and lung cancer. I was quite certain my father would be next.

I cried – no sobbed is a better description. And I remember imploring my father to stop smoking. My friend Dave and I even went so far as to steal our fathers' cigarettes. (To say they didn't care for that tactic would be like saying America dropped a few bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

I recall lying in bed at night for weeks after the special aired, unable to sleep and certain that every noise I heard from the other room was my father keeling over. I watched him like a hawk, sure that every cough was going to be his last, and that every time he paused while talking, he was having a heart attack.

I badgered him until he finally couldn't take it anymore and promised to quit smoking, which he did. For awhile.

The filmmakers knew just what they were doing. They preyed on my universal child's fear of losing a parent to turn me into what they hoped would be an effective lobbyist on their behalf. Even then my father knew smoking was bad for him. But he didn't quit/cut down until his teary-eyed son begged him to. So the special – the manipulation – worked. My fear was mongered, and the common good was had.

Flash forward to this past week when I would get my comeuppance.

After a particularly stressful and screamy evening, my twelve-year-old daughter was unable to sleep and we thought we heard her crying in her bed. I went to investigate and she was. Why? Well, the earlier screaming between her sister and mother and me, and the stress of her approaching Bat Mitzvah didn't help any, but what she was really upset about was that in school that day they had done a unit on alcohol and drugs.

Through sobs she explained to me that the teachers said even a little alcohol could kill a person and she was very worried about…me.

So here I was in my father's shoes from 39 years ago. He had sat at the foot of my bed trying to calm me down as I cried at him to stop smoking, and here I was at the foot of my daughter's bed trying to calm her down as she cried at me to stop drinking. Irony, you really know how to stick it to a guy.

Talk about a double-edged sword. Her thinking alcohol could kill her could be a good thing. But to the extent it got in the way of my drinking, well that might be a problem.

But what was I to do? Dash off an email to the teacher telling him to ease up on the anti-drinking rhetoric? May as well copy Child Protective Services so they could schedule the home visit.

So I walked a fine, logical line, explaining to her that if the teacher was talking about alcohol poisoning, the small amount of alcohol I drink, compared to my, ahem, body mass, couldn't do it. It might be dangerous to her and her friends, but I would be okay. We talked about not drinking and driving too, and all of it made sense to her and she calmed down.

Then I told her if she wanted to, she could take what was left of my bourbon in the other room and pour it down the drain. I figured she'd wipe her eyes and say it was okay.

Nope. The little minx cheerfully dumped it right into the sink. It took all I had in me to suppress a yelp, but I knew it would have been a red flag to her and we would be back to square one.

Eventually she fell asleep and I didn't pour myself another drink. (We were out of Sterno.)

(Just kidding, we had Sterno.)

But the incident did get me thinking. I had clearly been manipulated back in '73, as she was being manipulated now. But did the manipulation reach the same levels? Smoking in moderation isn't okay – it will still kill you. Drinking in moderation won't kill you, and may even have positive health benefits, we're told.

Is this blurring of the truthy line indicative of our decaying social discourse? Do teetotalers believe they can mislead kids because the end justifies the means? It's not wrong to want kids not to consume alcohol, but is scaring them with misinformation the right way to go about it?

When I explained to my died-in-the-wool Democrat grandparents in 1995 that the President was playing fast and loose with the facts on Medicare it made them angry. (Not angry enough to vote Republican, but they were a little disappointed in their President.)

So what happens when my daughter and her friends find out they can drink a beer and survive? That her gym teacher was maybe cutting some truth corners the way politicians do? I fear cynicism, already rising with each generation, could grow a little more with her generation.

And if their cynicism increases, it's going to take even more outrageous statements to get their attention. Which means the politicos will need to supe up their excavators and get digging as they hunt for rock bottom.

I'll keep an eye on the health syllabus at school, and in the meantime I think I'll try to ease back into my drinking in front of my daughter. I'll tell her I'm going to slow the rate of growth of my drinking. That should do the trick.