Monday, January 26, 2015

"Speaking About Having It Both Ways..."

Which I did not too long ago about “movies based on actual events”…

This, however, is a different form of “having it both ways”, one providing a distinct, and often surprising, strategic advantage. 

Wanna hear about it?  Great!

Let me see now.  Should I start with the more recent example, injecting contemporary currency into the undertaking and then work backwards?  Or should I start where the phenomenon originally came to my attention and proceed forward?
Flip a coin?  Okay.  I’ll be right back.  I need to find a coin.


Okay.  I flipped the coin, and its determination is that I work forward.  In the interim, however, I have decided to do the opposite.  I am sorry I wasted your time.  I just could not allow a flipped quarter to determine my writing strategy.

Okay, so here we go.

The surprising commercial success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – which broke box-office records during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Weekend – a film whose title alone should have repelled the female contingent of the audience but did not, catching even its financial backers off guard –

“These are the moments in your business where you don’t see these things coming; they are certainly few and far between.” – Dan Fellman, Warner Bros, head of domestic distribution – 

exemplifies how a “Killing Machine” movie with an injection of moral ambiguity can appeal to the entire range of the moviegoing spectrum.

American Sniper caught heat for having it both ways – depicting the violent sniper activity on the one hand, while showing the personal damage the sniper’s actions inflicts on himself and his family on the other.
Although offending the purists on both sides – 
“Glamorizing violence is always unacceptable.” 
“Violence in the service of country need never be apologized for.” 
the majority of the audience departed the theater believing that the movie represented and supported their own personal (in reality, entirely disparate) beliefs. 
Which is a neat trick.  And an assured moneymaker.
This phenomenon may be a product more of artistic ambivalence than of commercial calculation.  Responding to the criticism, Eastwood admitted, “I’ve been on the left and on the right in my lifetime.  Now I don’t know where I am.”
The approach may not be deliberate.  But it unquestionably works.
The first time I saw the “having it both ways” arrangement succeed was with the TV megahit, All in the Family (1971-79).
Adapted from the successful British situation comedy Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family comedically debated the “hot button” – from racism to Women’s Lib – issues of the day, spearheaded on the Right, by Archie Bunker and on the Left, by his live-in liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivik. 
(The arguments were ostensibly balanced, but there may be a glimpse into the creators’ bias when they insert the word “bunk” into the name of one of the adversaries.)
As with American Sniper, All in the Family delivers an ideological “Rorschach Test”, each segment of the audience believing the series to be in sync with their personal perspective.  The show’s co-creator Norman Lear is committed liberal.  But if his personal “Mission Plan” was persuasion and conversion, these intentions were entirely overlooked by a substantial (arguably, the majority) portion of the audience, as exemplified by my grandfather, whose undiminished enthusiasm for what Lear would call the “mistaken perspective” was transparent in his referring to the long-running series as “Archie.”
“Did you see ‘Archie’ last night?  That guy knows what he’s talking about!”
A single program, showcasing opposing beliefs.  Everyone watches, and All in the Family, successful in every imaginable manner, has it both ways.   
Bonus Tidbit:
Historical Counterpart:  (overheard on some NPR broadcast).
When the delegates left the Constitutional Convention, though many retained opposing views on significant issues, due to the cleverness of the Framers, they departed confidently believing they had gotten what they had wanted and that they could therefore recommend the constitution to their constituents. 
“We got ‘States Rights.’”
“They just think they do.”
The constitution was ratified, and we became a country.  Which would never have happened if that hallowed document’s careful wording had not deliberately had it both ways.
So it is not always a bad thing.
Unless you think we should not have become a country. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Thinking About Selma"

The movie based on the historic civil rights demonstration, not Selma Eisen, one of my mother’s closest friends, who was also Rick Moranis’s aunt.  Just to be clear about that.

You have probably heard the saying, “You cannot have things both ways.”  Well, in the movie business, it appears that you can.  Which is arguably appropriate, since movies are a place where dreams come true and who of us hasn’t dreamed of having things both ways?

“I ate six sundaes and I didn’t throw up.”

“In your dreams.”

“I know.  But still.”

I have not seen the movie Selma, and have no plans for doing so.  I shall have to content myself with recollections of the original, searing news footage of police dogs attacking defenseless demonstrators.  (I know that wasn’t Selma, it was Birmingham, but it was enough.  I remember sitting in Toronto, watching people skittering around in the face of powerful water hoses and wondering,  “What the heck is going on?”  That experience is memorably sufficient.)

Stipulated Going In:  The movies have never been mistaken for actual life.

Arthur (1981)

“You get the girl and the enormous inheritance.  I know we told you you wouldn’t, but this is a movie, so you get both.”

Paraphrasing a song lyric from Cinderella:

“A film is a wish your heart makes.”

As with movie scenarios, so with the movie business itself.

Having not seen Selma, I am unqualified to evaluate its artistic merit.  I am focusing today on its reception; specifically, the accusation of the film’s “having things both ways.”  I realize this is hardly an original perspective, but if I waited to be original… I don’t even have an original way of finishing this sentence.   Having said that…

How does the movie Selma have things both ways?

“Tis story is based on historical events.  But we readily admit that we changed stuff.”

That’s having things both ways.

“Based on historical events.” – “Check it out.  This really happened.”

“But we changed stuff.”  – “So do not expect it to be accurate.”

The question is,

Is that dichotomy acceptable, because it’s a movie?

The kerfuffle is ignited.  Heavyweights are solicited to weigh in.

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.” – Aristotle.

Big man, Aristotle.  And he’s saying it’s okay.  More than okay.  It’s actually better. 

“The truth is dramatically fascinating enough.  Why twist it? – Maureen Dowd, columnist, New York Times.

Maureen Dowd understands what the deal is.  She just wants the filmmakers to leave the history alone.

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” – Ava DuVernay, director, Selma.

Replied in response to accusations that LBJ was portrayed as being more adversarial in the proceedings than he historically was.  Inviting the next question, “What movie was she interested in making?”

Defending her creative selections, Ms. DuVernay shot back:

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film.  I am not a historian.  I am not a documentarian.”   

A point thoughtfully examined by Ms. Dowd, who had seen and loved Selma


“And that’s a shame… Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”


“I think people who are as shocked as Capt. Louis Renault was to discover that there was gambling in ‘Casablanca’ when they find errors in films are missing the point…    Because of the intrinsic nature of the medium, film inevitably glamorizes and mythologizes.” – Kenneth Turan, film critic, Los Angeles Times.

Meaning, “It’s the movies.  We dramatize.”  And, “It’s the movies.  We distort simply by projecting things onto a really big screen.”

My wish is that moviemakers, respectful of the responsibility of their undertaking, would place the highest priority on getting the real life events they have chosen to depict as historically accurate as possible.  (Understanding that even historians often differ in their interpretations.)  But I understand the artistic obstacles working against that objective.  (Just in this story, with an eye towards “presentation”, I have moved quotes around and have deleted the “extraneous” parts.  Though the speakers’ intentions, I believe, remain intact.)

The thing is – and this, to some degree, makes this excursion a classic exercise in “Ho hum”:

The situation comes up again and again. 

And nothing ever changes.

Lincoln.  (“They had Congressmen voting against the amendment who historically voted in favor of it!”)   Zero Dark Thirty.  (“Torture helped in locating Bin Laden.”  “No, it didn’t!”)  The Imitation Game.  (“Alan Turing was a lot nicer!”)  The Theory of Everything.  (“They screwed up the science, for heavens sakes!”) 

A familiar three-step process:

They make a movie “based on actual events.”

There is a furor concerning its historical accuracy.

It is defended as a creative undertaking.

End of story.

Till it happens again.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"A Missed Connection"

Comedians talk about bombing in front of an audience, comedians possessing such inflated egos that, to them, failing to elicit laughter from an audience is equivalent to the detonation of an entire city. 

That’s why they’re comedians.  They are out of their minds.

Today’s story concerns a recent “bombing” by yours truly, not before an assembled gathering but in front of a telephonic “Audience of One.”  Which, to me, felt exactly the same way, proving that I’m out of my mind.  And also too terrified to bomb in the traditional manner, preferring instead to fail miserably one person at a time.  

Which, by the way, I usually don’t.  I have often bantered successfully with sympatico service representatives and wait-people.  And during our recent visit to Turkey, as I mentioned, I would, on occasion, smiling goofily, position myself beside a person whose loved one was about to take their picture, my “Mr. Bean”-inflected gambit meeting with chuckling approval from tourists of all nations.  Make no mistake.  My mirth-eliciting batting average is remarkably impressive.  (I am a professional, after all.)  But I am hardly batting a thousand.  

As shall immediately be proven.

I am calling a lawyer to ask him a question.  His specialty is “Estate Planning.” 

Inheritance laws are confusing in this country.  Dead moneymakers – or, more accurately, the surviving heirs of dead moneymakers – are required to pay a designated percentage of the estate as an “Inheritance Tax.”  However, an “Estate Planner” can devise strategies allowing you to legally pay less.  In some cases – though not in mine – nothing.

This strikes me as being simultaneously a schizophrenic Inheritance Tax policy and a “Make Work” activity for Estate Planners.

Oh, and by the way, Canada, the most compassionate country in the Western Hemisphere, does not have an “Estate Tax.”  We have one, but if you pay an attorney, you can get around it.” 

Canadian Taxpayer:  “We may be greedy.  But at least we’re honest about it.”

Anyway, I have a question for the attorney, so I call the guy’s office.  The woman who answers – I can instantly sense it in her “no nonsense” intonation –  

“Good morning.  Hoffman, somebody and somebody else.” 

is all business.  An immediate challenge to comedians. 

One I shall ignominiously fail.

I begin.

“Paul Hoffman, please.”

“I’m sorry.  He’s in a meeting.”

“Can I leave a message?”

“I can transfer you to ‘Voice Mail.”

“Will it be his ‘Voice Mail?’”


she responds, with not a hint of conspiratorial playfulness.  “Beware, Earlo!”  But I foolishly forge ahead.

“Could I leave the message with you?  I feel happier talking to a person.”

No reaction.  (Even though there is an unmistakable twinkle in my voice.)

I can take your message.”

“Great.  It’s Earl Pomerantz – E-A-R-L…and ‘Pomerantz’, spelled the usual way.”

An unforgivable “reach.”  But by now, I am experiencing “flop sweat.”

 “Mr. Pomerantz, I will give him the message that your called.”

“I know you will.”

A decidedly hostile “No reaction.”  In response to my unnecessarily aggressive “I know you will.”

And that was it.  An abbreviated post for an abbreviated conversation. 

And you know what?

The attorney never called me back.

I don’t think she gave him the message.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"The Superior Version"

This one’s easy.  ‘Cause I am telling another guy’s story.  Because it’s a good one.  Also because it exemplifies how, although a certain joke can be eminently serviceable, the comedically “gifted” can often provide an even better version of it.  And the icing on the cake, or the cherry on top of the sundae – pick the cliché of your choice – is that the story in question is true.  Or at least the person who related it said it was.

The originator of this story is a (now departed) veteran comedy writer named Jack Douglas, who told it during one of his numerous appearances on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, Jack Paar predating Johnny Carson who predated Jay Leno who predated Jimmy Fallon as the Tonight Show’s full-time ringmaster.  I actually saw Douglas tell this story.  Which makes me (no news to regular readers) quite ohhhhhld.

Though highly respected by the cogniscenti – he wrote for some of the biggest comedians of the day, including Bob Hope and Red Skelton – he also wrote a series of memoirs, including one I read and greatly enjoyed entitled My Brother Is An Only Child – the inevitably dark and droll Jack Douglas was not inordinately famous. 

Nevertheless, unlike today, where guests only appear on talk shows to plug their latest endeavor, many of the early invitees to the Tonight Show appeared simply because they were interesting. 

"Is that true, Uncle Earl?"

Hard to believe, but it is.

"Wow!  That would make talk shows worth watching!"

Tell me about it.

The story Douglas related took place during the late 1950’s, at a time when the compact and economical German Volkswagen “Beetle” – or “Bug” as some called it – was emerging as a challenger to Detroit’s gargantuan gas guzzlers.

The situation involves a “Practical Joke”, a genre of laugh-inducement I am generally less than enamored of because I identify too empathically with its targeted victim.  That’s just the goodhearted kind of sweet potato I am.  I cannot help myself. 

As the story goes, Jack Douglas had this next-door neighbor who had recently purchased a compact Volkswagen “Beetle”, and from then on, all he would ever talk about, to the distress of anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot, was the remarkable upgrade in his gas mileage. 

People are getting the standard 15 to 18 miles per gallon; this guy’s getting close to thirty.  He could barely remember the last time he filled up at a gas station.  It was incredible.  The car was virtually driving on air!

According to Mr. Douglas –and sympathizers identifying with his having to put with this compact car-owning blowhard, the audience’s laughter suggesting there was many of them – this Bozo was asking for it.

Now, what would be the appropriate practical joke in this situation?

The standard version would be to sneak over to the “Beetle” owner’s house at night and siphon gasoline out of his gas tank, perplexing the man with his suddenly reduced gas mileage and, more importantly, shutting the guy up.

Douglas, however, as they say in the comedy fraternity, went diabolically “the other way.”

Every night for a week, as he told it, a posse of co-conspirators would sneak over to the “Bug” owner’s house, carrying a five-gallon can… and add gas to his gas tank.  Now, instead of boasting about getting close to thirty miles to the gallon, he was crowing that he was miraculously getting ninety!

A week later, the conspirators stopped pouring gas into his tank, confounding the “Beetle’s” owner when his gas mileage “plummeted” to thirty.

Do you see what he did there?

Instead of merely eliminating the source of the “Bug” owner’s excitement (by siphoning gas out), Douglas induced him into making ridiculous proclamations about his new car getting ninety miles to the gallon, and then humiliated him even further with the confession that his car’s mileage had subsequently fallen by two-thirds. 

A person with reliable comedic instincts can easily skewer an annoying idiot with a retributive subterfuge.

A person with superior comedic instincts can knock it right out of the park.

Which, by the way, is what always distinguishes mediocre comedy from the “Top-‘O-The-Line.”

It’s the “reliable” versus the “sublime.”